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Ten years on

Age. As with people, so with wine; age treats some better than others. Some don’t improve or become more interesting with age, they just get older; some aren’t meant to age but be enjoyed in the bloom of youth. Yet, I’m sure most winelovers would agree drinking a properly mature (as opposed to aged) wine is an experience not to be missed.

In recent years, South African pre-1980 red wines have been poured, often to great acclaim from locals and international luminaries alike. White wines of a slightly younger age have also impressed. These tastings have led to debate as to how the more modern red wines, both riper and more heavily oaked, would age. There’s a deal of scepticism that they’ll have similar legs to those pre-1980s

Ten years might seem a short time as compared with those golden oldies, but it does give some indication as to where they’re headed, especially in an excellent vintage, which is how many winemakers reflect on 2009.

Summer 2009 was ushered in after a very cold, wet winter and mild spring, the traditional heatwave arriving in February, much later than usual. This allowed for slower ripening of a healthy crop with excellent analyses. So no downsides? Fires, probably the worst since 2000, wreaked havoc from Somerset West to Paarl with others in Tulbagh, the Cederberg and Table Mountain. Not only were vineyards burnt or so badly affected by heat that they needed replanting, there was also the issue of smoke-affected fruit. On Vergelegen, where around 5 hectares of vineyard was affected by heat, vines were marked where there were traces of ash or smoky smells in the canopies; berries were sampled, trial fermentations and finings carried out; all to no avail. ‘Nothing helped and in the end we had to dump about 20% of our total harvest,’ André van Rensburg’s despair can surely only be matched by his delight at the tremendous quality of unaffected fruit. One of these wines will feature in future articles. On the smoke issue, Wineland’s Elona Hesseling wrote a thought-provoking article here.

Beyond wine, weather and wild fires in 2009, the Proteas became the first South African team to win a test series in Australia and the Springboks beat the All Blacks three times in a year. Less propitious; Jacob Zuma became President, arms deal charges against him were dropped and Schabir Shaik was released from prison on medical parole – he’s currently still defying the prognosis ‘terminal illness’.

Enough context. What of the ten-year-old wines? Where better to start than with a chenin from Ken Forrester. ‘The FMC 2009 was our tenth vintage’, recalls this cheninophile, ‘and one of my favourites; in fact I just wish I’d bottled the whole lot in magnums; Stellenbosch was blessed with fantastic quality.’

The FMC old bush vine vineyard

FMC or Forrester Meinert Chenin (there are other names used for those initials!) is the leader of Ken Forrester Wines chenin pack, the fruit mainly from a single vineyard planted in 1974 and fermented in all-new, 400 litre oak barrels (though one would be hard pressed to say so).

I’m delighted to record the 750ml bottle still has a lot of steam in it (probably helped by a screwcap closure, which Ken first used on some 2005 FMC). The subtleties of natural ferment, complexity of a brush of botrytis – now developing some truffly decadence – and the still evident sweetness from the usual few grams of residual sugar, all are there, as is the flash of freshness to balance the wine’s rich texture. A natural with spicy dishes would be my recommendation.

 

 

Alright, so the wine’s aged well over the past 10 years, what about positive changes in the industry? ‘The rise of ‘new’ regions like Elgin, Hemel en Aarde and the Swartland; an entirely new generation of winemakers, many the sons and daughters of my colleagues, who have hit the ground running with new winemaking styles, great labels, stories and a huge opportunity to play a role in wine tourism,’ Ken reels off and also acknowledges how foreign investment has given the benefit of access to global distribution.

One doesn’t get far by looking back; what simply has to change between now and 2029? ‘Our single biggest challenge is viticulture and the need to educate labour and vineyard management. At the other end of the chain, we need to stop apologising for being South African, establish price points for fine wine and grow the market.’ And the future for chenin? ‘By far the most chenin consumed isn’t the award-winning wines, but those unoaked, fresh and fruity wines, the silent champions of chenin, which continues to be the backbone of the industry.

Cheers to chenin (and to Ken)!

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More or less

There is no doubt, South African wine has enjoyed a remarkable 2018, with much positive publicity.

A note of annoyance, for me at any rate, arising from many of those positive reviews, has been the frequent qualification; ‘South African wines offer great value’. We need more of the ’great’, less of the ‘value’; can’t the wines be simply ‘great’?

On that score, while year on year export volume figures for the period December 2017 to November 2018 has declined, value has risen just over 9% (SAWIS).

There can be no resting on laurels as 2019 is on the doorstep. What I would hope to see more of are quieter wines, wines that whisper rather than brag and bluster but at the same time display distinction and ageworthy structure. This request ties in with the trend for earlier picking and the resulting greater natural freshness. This is still a work in progress; for some, the wines are becoming too light. Craig and Carla Hawkins’ Testalonga range has, for me, come of age in respect of lightness with freshness and depth of flavour.

Sijnn’s new (l) & old (r) label

Is it easier to craft wines of distinction when your vines and cellar are located in a remote area, away from the heart of the winelands? It’s tempting to imagine this is the case, especially when the journey takes one down a long, rough dirt road. Imagination is hardly required for the Sijnn wines; it’s amazing to remember David and Rita Trafford almost accidentally found and purchase this piece of land in Malgas some 19 years ago. Although at one stage there were some varietal wines, the range is now mainly made up of blends, with chenin-based Sijnn White and shiraz-based Sijnn red setting the tone of this fynbos-strewn, stony area. Both are wines with calm authority, everything in balance with the rest, delivered with a lightness of touch yet depth of flavour.

Tim James and I recently tasted the 2017 white (R280), where chenin’s partners viognier and roussanne combine in a rich yet elegant, fresh wine. Two vintages of the red – 2015 (R350) and 2011 (R250) nicely illustrate both ageing potential, development as well as overall thumbprint of the vineyards. An intermingling of wild herbs and fragrant wild flowers in the younger wine, (the first made by Carla Haasbroek which also inaugurated the new cellar on the farm) evolves into dried herbs, spice and small, thick-skinned woodland berries in 2011. Both include touriga nacional, trincadeira, mourvèdre and cabernet as well as syrah, Perfect demonstration of wholly satisfying wines that whisper. New labels featuring the stony soils and the winery reflect a coming of age of the vines and what the Traffords term ‘the end of the beginning’. Pricing is equitable with quality, which I don’t see doing anything but improving.

Other wines of similar individuality, employing several of the same varieties and increasing quality are the Blanc (R200) and Silhouette (R242) from Olifantsberg, with its dramatic vineyards on the slopes of Brandwacht mountain between Worcester and Ceres. There is more of a sense of sunny climes in them than in the Sijnn range but they are equally honest and true to their growing environment. More wines of this style and calibre, please.

What’s also pleasing about Sijnn and Olifantsberg is their use of regular bottles; there’s no extravagance in shape or weight. I prefer to be impressed by the wine in the bottle rather than by the bottle (the label is another matter). It’s irritating to see producers continue to use these ultra-heavy bottles, which deposit a large carbon footprint.

Heavy bottles and a little heavy-handed with extraction were detractions for both Tim and I with the new Welgegund Cinsault 2017 (R340) and Grenache Noir 2017 (R340). From a vineyard planted in 1974, the cinsault carries the Old Vine Project Heritage Seal; the intensity of old vines is evident in the wine’s rich texture and concentrated flavours and rather tough, over-extracted tannins – it’s unlike many of the lighter style cinsauts, so will need ageing to discover whether these will harmonise. Somewhat angular tannins, plus a sweet note, didn’t attract us to the Grenache; again, time may bring a semblance of harmony. So, not just for this Welgegund pair, but fewer heavy bottles and less over-extraction, please.

Chenin blanc. Is any year nowadays not the year of chenin blanc? Still new ones join the growing army, and terribly good so many of them are. Wade Metzer hit the ground running with his Montane Chenin Blanc 2017 (R300). From bush vines planted on the foothills of the Helderberg in 1964, Metzer took a stand-back approach, leaving the grapes to express themselves as much as possible. Flavour rather than fruit, ripe fleshy feel with enlivening pebbly vibrancy and a finishing, pithy grip (from a little skin contact) produces a chenin worthy of both its Platter 5* award and Tim Atkin’s 95 rating. Metzer’s Maritime Chenin Blanc 2017 (R250), from a 1981 vineyard close to False Bay, captures more immediately recognisable chenin fruit in a brisk, light-of-touch style.

For new chenins to make a mark in 2019, more distinction than ever is needed.

If we’re awash with chenins, a few new varieties are making a welcome appearance. Watch out for Springfield’s first albarino 2018 to be launched in February. Sharing a love of seafood with the Newton Johnsons, who were the first to launch an albarino, the Bruwers developed a vineyard with some NJ cuttings. A pre-release taste of this tangy, flavoursome dry white shows promise and should benefit from a bit more time to settle. Definitely more new varieties needed, planted in suitable spots, with climate change and especially water in mind.

Leading on from that, a more environmentally-friendly attitude is needed throughout the wine chain. Fewer heavy bottles, as mentioned above, packaged in less polystyrene – rather, no polystyrene. Packaging is part of IPW (Integrated Production of Wine) but I believe more stringent adherence than ever is required.

At the customer end of the spectrum, more restaurant wine lists need older vintages; without the space to age young wines, wineries should keep back a library of vintages to sell to these restaurants. The delights of a mature wine are something every winelover should experience at least once, preferably many times.

My New Year’s resolution is to write many more frequently next year; I have a few ideas bubbling, so watch this space. Happy and fruitful 2019 to all.

Sauvignon blanc – populist variety?

Sauvignon blanc has delighted local consumers with its pungent fruit and vibrant freshness since it broke the variety’s previous somewhat neutral image in the early 1980s; Le Bonheur 1983 Blanc Fumé (but unwooded), followed by the renowned Klein Constantia 1986 Sauvignon Blanc were but two that led the charge. A charge that, apart from a blip of over-enthusiastic plantings of this climate-sensitive variety in unsuitable spots, continues to this day. Demand is always for the youngest and freshest sauvignon on the market (that’s typical of all whites, there’s no culture of ageing). Those youthful grassy, asparagus or tropical, figgy tones and zippy, refreshing acidity are easy to understand and readily recognisable by the average consumer.

One of Sancerre’s greatest producers of ageworthy Sauvignon Blanc

Youthful sauvignon’s popularity ensures a quick turn around from vine, through cellar and into the market place, a process that generates some much needed cash flow for producers without requiring too much selling effort. One can understand reluctance to drop such a cash cow from the range, even when the variety isn’t a producer’s major focus.

Given such demand and good returns, what could sauvignon blanc producers possibly have to be unhappy about?

A few things, which I’ll come to but I was prompted to consider sauvignon’s position in the local wine heirarchy by the chasm between it and chenin in the Platter Five star awards.

There were raised eyebrows when just two sauvignons, Steenberg’s Black Swan 2017 (unwooded) and Bartho Eksteen’s wooded Houtskool 2017, received that ultimate rating and chenin blanc received 18 – that’s eighteen; 16 more than sauvignon and the most achieved by any variety or style.

If that’s an extreme example, sauvignon hardly rolls in awards on other shows: a single sauvignon Trophy and no other golds on the Trophy Wine Show and just three Double Golds on Veritas (Michelangelo Awards’ layout is too time-consuming to count). Are judges prejudiced against sauvignon?

Given nearly all these awards went to 2017s, does this suggest producers are being too greedy and shooting themselves in the foot by releasing too young? Or are they thinking more of the consumer after those youthful, uncomplicated wines, than awards?

Keen to get some answers, I turned to someone who knows a thing or two (or eight, if my count is correct) about sauvignon; Thys Louw, cellarmaster at the Durbanville family farm, Diemersdal, who is also on the committee of the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group.

There is obviously a level of frustration, especially with the Platter results; ‘It’s wrong, sauvignon isn’t bad,’ Louw is perplexed. He mentions sauvignon is, per bottle, the highest-priced export white wine and still outsells chenin, ‘even some who talk up chenin sell more sauvignon’.

Diemersdal MM Louw 2017 & Winter Ferment 2018 – two of Thys Louw’s top end sauvignons

Timing of shows probably affects sauvignon more than other varieties, especially as the majority of entries are from the current vintage. That still doesn’t explain why the generally more serious wines, a year older, fail to claim high medals. Louw times bottling so he can enter both Veritas and FNB Top Ten; all, bar MM Louw and Wild Horseshoe 2017, are 2018s and listed in Platter as bottled wines. Louw kindly gave me a bottle of both MM Louw 2017 and Winter Ferment 2018 to try; these are serious, complex wines which will benefit from the further ageing they deserve and when the former could well perform better than its Gold Veritas award.

If sauvignon producers are unhappy about the paucity of awards, one also gets the feeling they’re irked by chenin’s ‘darling’ status and the generous international promotion it receives, especially given the far greater volume and value of sauvignon exported (see table below). Louw informed me sauvignon received none of the specific focus afforded other varieties at Cape Wine, something which doesn’t align with international sales.

But if brand sauvignon needs improving, which I think is the crux of the matter, then it’s up to the producers and SBIG to drive this. The Chenin Blanc Association is very visible and active, driven by the indefatigble Ina Smith and Ken Forrester. Who knows what the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group does, apart from the FNB Top Ten, nor the people involved (well, now I know Thys Louw is). This is not a criticism applicable to SBIG only as few other Interest Groups do much or anything to promote the wine or style they represent.

In SBIGs case, this could easily be seen as producers resting on their laurels of successful sales, especially at the youthful, uncomplicated end; a short-sighted view. If politics are involved in how SBIG operates (in some form or other, I fear they do in every group) they need to be put aside in the interests of this variety with its important financial implications. Involve the media, involve consumers; show them sauvignon’s diversity and ageability, whether unoaked or oaked; differentiate the everyday from special, individual sauvignons through later releases; tell them your story; involve sauvignon’s personalities; create more awareness and a positive image.

There’s room for fresh, fruity and uncomplicated sauvignon as a populist style, but don’t expect respect at the top end without giving it the promotion it desperately requires. There’s a world of competition out there.

SAUVIGNON BLANC FACTS AND FIGURES
with thanks to SAWIS
Area under vine and percentage of total area
1983 – 1091.30 ha – 1.17%
2017 – 9276.67 ha – 9.81%

PACKAGED WINE SOLD IN 750 ml (JAN 2017 – DEC 2017 )

MONTH    CHENIN BLANC    CHARDONNAY    SAUVIGNON BLANC
201701      265608                       314981                  1053656
201702      344601                      408984                   1203547
201703      329553                      355537                   1198775
201704      291760                      334316                     881042
201705     308697                       302158                     949960
201706     261907                       297386                     911591
201707     330916                      299268                      927364
201708     337938                      332395                    1111049
201709     326085                      363338                    1100922
201710     480474                      444907                    1391762
201711     535104                      538577                    1495537
201712     538684                      493408                    1598477
TOTAL    4351326                   4485254                  13823679

No Luddite

As we gathered to enjoy a 10-year vertical of Niels Verburg’s Luddite Shiraz, I innocently asked for their Twitter handle. Verburg looked puzzled, mumbled and confirmed he doesn’t do technology. Of course not, he’s a Luddite! Though I subsequently discovered Luddite Wines  are on Twitter, their profile describes their Luddism as follows: ‘Luddism reflects our belief in winemaking. We choose to practice our craft conscientiously. Technology & mechanization will never be a substitute for passion.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neither will they be substitutes for consistency, a most admirable attribute in winemaking, but something that comes with many demands on the winemaker. In his introduction, Niels Verburg gave a few clues as to what consistency requires. Wide experience of wines from around the globe; a clear idea of desired style; a rigorous approach to quality while paying attention to reflect both place and vintage.

He has indeed travelled, made and tasted wine far and wide since leaving Elsenburg in the early 1990s, before returning to South Africa in 1995. The following year he took up the winemaking reins at Beaumont, where he helped plant the first shiraz ‘between Sir Lowry’s Pass and Cape Agulhas.’

His belief in shiraz (‘My cellar is full of Northern Rhône’) and Bot River, saw him, wife Penny and family establish their own vineyards – shiraz, obviously, but also grenache, mourvèdre, cabernet and chenin)- not far from Beaumont. Bought-in shiraz made up the first few vintages, while home-grown fruit gradually came on stream until 2009, the first year Luddite Shiraz was all home-grown and made in the Verburg’s brand new cellar.

Niels Verburg – big man making big wines

That vintages 2005 – 2008 included differing fruit sources and cellars proved no deterrent to Verburg’s constant winemaking approach. Picking dates, determined by flavour; ‘sometimes very ripe’; no added acid, usually around 7 g/l at harvesting and 5.5 g/l in the wine and since 2009, spontaneous fermentation only which he believes imparts a greater sense of place.

Where adjustments are made is with regard to vintage; warmer years will see more punch downs, longer time on skins and a little more new oak; in cooler years, fewer punch downs and a back-off on oak, although the two-year regime in oak remains.

This shouldn’t suggest Luddite Shiraz is made in one batch; there are around seven or eight different portions offering blending choices: clonal, different parts of the vineyard, new/2nd/3rd and 4th year 225 litre barrels. Verburg’s rule for deciding on the final blend is to take a bottle home and finish it one sitting; if he’s satisfied once the last drop is drained that the wine has good drinkability now but also ageing potential – that’s it – bottling follows with a further two-year wait before release.

If this appears an inordinately measured and disciplined approach, it more than pays rich dividends.

There is no denying these are big, dark, brooding wines, but unlike many which exhaust after half a glass, these have energy, layers of flavour and, most positively for me, are delightfully dry. This dryness, Verburg explains, comes down to ‘paying attention to the yeast cell, it has to be comfortable to complete its task’. Whatever, the dry finish aids digestibility, the fine, polished tannins encourage drinkability but as the 2005 illustrates, the wines have staying power. Most are characterised by black spice rather than red berries, though cooler vintages such as 2007 and 2009 do exhibit more elegant floral aromatics.

Only one, 2008 (generally a difficult vintage) was less convincing; a little disjointed with a suggestion of oak not evident in any of the others and alcohol sweetness. The latest, 2014 (R560 ex Wine Cellar), launched at this vertical, deservedly has been awarded Platter 5* rating in the 2019 guide, the fifteenth time Luddite Shiraz had been nominated and the first success – breathe a sigh of relief, Niels! Expressive aromatic breadth, silky texture, supportive structure, concentrated flavour and seamless integrated tannins combine in this balanced wine that meets all Verburg’s demands.

There’s frequent discussion among wine writers about negative reviews. Some feel there are too many good wines to waste space on criticising poor ones, but if the reviewer only ever comments positively, it brings his or her credibility into question. The reader also needs to know any conflict of interest the reviewer might have.

My view is that if I’ve got to know a wine over several vintages, such as Luddite Shiraz after this vertical, and the winemaker’s intentions, then I feel well-placed to better criticize individual vintages. Hence my comments on 2008. Otherwise, with everyday drinking wines that should offer no more than pleasure, I’m more likely to reflect on value than quality.

There’s no doubt about the quality of Luddite Shiraz and I don’t anticipate any change in the consistency either.

Platter 2019

Another year, another edition of Platter’s Wine Guide launched this evening; 2019 recording the 39th for those keeping count.

Of special significance is the 21 years Philip van Zyl has occupied the editor’s seat.  For the first three years – 1999 to 2001 – Erica Platter is also acknowledged as Consulting Editor, an arrangement which allowed for a smooth handover as she and John sold and left the guide. There was always going to be concern about who could take over from Erica;  with perfect timing, Phil and Cathy van Zyl relocated to the Cape from Johannesburg, Phil seamlessly stepping into Erica’s shoes. With her organisational skills, Cathy has always provided strong and invaluable support, keeping tabs on tasks completed, those still to be done and chivying us tasters to meet deadlines and our other tasks.

Philip van Zyl, Platter’s editor since 1999 edition

Working with Phil throughout those 21 years, apart from being a technical whiz kid, I’ve found he’s meticulous in his attention to detail – nothing gets past him; woe betide any taster who forgets to insert a vintage or inserts the wrong one (or any other piece of vital information). He also has a commendable sense of fairness; try being too hard on a wine and a gentle query will pop into your inbox (often sent at some unearthly hour of the night!); ‘Perhaps you should get a second opinion on this.’  A blind tasting by one or more of the other tasters usually results in a defendable rating. After a personal visit at the beginning of the year to ascertain each taster’s participation in the next guide, Phil is rarely spotted; he’s happiest behind his computer, where he deals with the current 13 tasters, admin and technical people with unbelievable calmness. It takes a special sort of person to do this so successfully, let alone for 21 years.  How lucky we and the guide are to have such a talented and dedicated editor.

This year’s five star haul contains many regulars; it’s good to see Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017 back for a 9th time after strangely missing out last year; Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2017, Sadie Family Wines Skurfberg 2017  and Stellenrust 53 Chenin Blanc 2017 take away three consecutive five stars. Chenin Blanc yet again claims the greatest number of five stars; 18, one more than last year but inexplicably not including any of the Alheit wonderfully expressive 2017 individuals. As the lucky taster of Chris and Suzaan’s range, I was bowled over by all their wines but the five chenins in particular. I’m bemused none sufficiently impressed the panel but it doesn’t detract from their excellence. The same applies to Richard Kershaw MW who makes a fistful of clonal chardonnays and syrahs, both intelligently- and finely crafted; unfortunately, they too failed to sway the respective panels.

Just a reminder that each producer’s wines are initially tasted sighted and over a day or so, if necessary,  by the person responsible for the entry. The five-star tasting is blind, the tasters see only the glass of wine in front of them. This sort of result happens every year, which is why, whilst celebrating the five star awardees, the excellent wines that don’t make it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Some believe the five-star tasting should also be sighted, but every effort is made to keep it as fair as possible. One attempt has been to give the panel the home-taster’s score to double check against their own deliberations, this bearing in mind the home taster has longer to assess the wine.

There were also many fewer wines in the five-star line up this year thanks to a new selection method. Every wine now receives a score out of 100, as well as a star rating. All wines scored by the home taster between 90 and 92 are rated 4.5* but do not go into the five-star tasting; that’s reserved for wines rated 93 and above.

This method not only resulted in fewer wines in the five-star line up, but fewer five stars: 90 versus 111 last year. As a more manageable affair for both organisers and tasters, it still didn’t deny wines worthy of 4.5* their rating.

Those wines in the five-star tasting which didn’t make the grade are rated either 93 or, if the panel considered them Highly Recommended, 94. As usual, 95 was the magic score for five stars, but with the idea of awarding best wines per category (rather than Wines of the Year), the panels were asked to single out their best wine in each category with a higher score; hence a very few wines are rated 96 or even 97.

The advantage of this would give wineries with fewer wines in their range the chance of a significant Platter honour. This has been adopted this year and those wines are indicated with a * in the list below. There is also a Top Performing Winery of the Year, an Editor’s Award and Newcomer Winery of the Year. I have absolutely no quarrel with any of the recipients – Mullineux, Newton Johnson Vineyards and Erika Obermeyer respectively – all are thoroughly deserving of such accolades. But it’s also an improvement to see the honours spread wider.

That said, for many, Platter has lost relevance (‘too many four stars’ is still a frequent complaint). Platter isn’t and will never be perfect (wine is only perfect in the mind of the drinker at a moment in time), but it is a guide, way beyond stars and scores and deserves recognition for that.

Meantime, the question foremost of mind is: what colour is Platter’s 2019!

Chameleon colour – apparently changes depending on the light!

TOP PERFORMING WINERY OF THE YEAR

Mullineux

EDITOR’S AWARD

Newton Johnson Vineyards

NEWCOMER WINERY OF THE YEAR

Erika Obermeyer

FIVE STAR WINES

METHODE CAP CLASSIQUE

Colmant Cap Classique Absolu Zero Dosage NV

Villiera Wines Monro Brut 2012*

Woolworths Vintage Reserve Brut 2012

SAUVIGNON BLANC UNWOODED

Steenberg Vineyards The Black Swan 2017*

SAUVIGNON BLANC WOODED

Bartho Eksteen Houtskool 2017*

CHENIN BLANC

Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2017

Botanica Chenin Blanc 2017

Cederberg Five Generations Chenin Blanc 2016

City on a Hill Chenin Blanc 2017

David & Nadia Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc 2017

David & Nadia Chenin Blanc 2017

David & Nadia Skaliekop Chenin Blanc 2017

DeMorgenzon The Divas Chenin Blanc 2017*

DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc Reserve 2017

Metzer Family Wines Montane Chenin Blanc 2017

Rall Ava Chenin Blanc 2017

Sadie Family Wines Old Vine Series Skurfberg 2017

Savage Wines Never Been Asked to Dance 2017

Spier Organic Chenin Blanc 2016

Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2015

Spioenkop Wines Sarah Raal 2017

Stellenrust 53 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2017

Thistle & Weed Duwweltjie 2017

CHARDONNAY

Haskell Anvil Chardonnay 2017

Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2016*

Oak Valley Groenlandberg Chardonnay 2017

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2016

Warwick Estate The White Lady 2017

SEMILLON

Alheit La Colline 2017

Benguela Cover Lagoon Wine Catalina Semillon 2017

Rickety Bridge Road to Santiago 2016*

WHITE BLENDS

B Vintners Vine Exploration Co Harlem to Hope 2017

Lourens Family Wines Lindi Carien 2017

Mullineux Old Vines White 2017

Rall Wines White 2017

Sadie Famiy Wines Palladius 2016

Savage Wines White 2017

Stark-Condé Wines The Field Blend 2017

Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse 2017*

BORDEAUX-STYLE WHITE BLENDS

Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2017

Shannon Vineyards Capall Bán 2015

Vergelegen GVB 2015*

Warwick Estate Professor Black 2017

PINOT NOIR

Crystallum Cuvée Cinema 2017*

Newton Johnson Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017

PINOTAGE

Beeslaar Wines Pinotage 2016

Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage 2016

Kanonkop Black Label 2016*

SHIRAZ

Dorrance Wines Syrah Cuvée Ameena 2016

Hartenberg CWG Auction Reserve 2015

Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah 2015*

Luddite Shiraz 2014

Mullineux Schist Syrah 2016

Mullineux Iron Syrah 2016

Porseleinberg Shiraz 2016

Rall Ava Syrah 2017

Rhebokskloof Wine Estate Black Marble Hill Syrah 2015

Rust en Vrede Single Vineyard Syrah 2015

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Erika Obermeyer Wines Erika O Cabernet sauvignon 2015

Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015*

Reyneke Wines Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Stellenbosch Reserve Ou Hoofgebou Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Warwick Estate The Blue Lady 2015

MERLOT

Oldenburg Vineyards 2015

Shannon Vineyards The Shannon Black 2013*

Thelema Mountain Vineyards Reserve 2015

CABERNET FRANC

Raats Family Wines Cabernet Franc 2016

Raats Family Wines Dolomite Cabernet Franc 2016*

Van Loggerenberg Breton 2017

BORDEAUX BLENDS (RED)

Allée Bleue L’amour Toujours 2014

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015

Muratie Wine Estate Ansela van de Caab 2015

Plaisir de Merle Signature Blend 2012*

Ridgeback Signature C 2016

RED BLENDS

Beyerskloof Faith 2014 (Red blend with Pinotage)*

Boekenhoutskloof Chocolate Block 2017 (Shiraz-led Red blend )

Erika Obermeyer Erika O Syrah Grenache Noir – Cinsaut 2016 (Shiraz-led Red blend)

Saronsberg Full Circle 2016 (Shiraz-led Red blend)

Ernie Els Proprietor’s Blend 2016 (Other red blend)*

Rust en Vrede Wine Estate Estate blend (Other red blend)

Waterford Estate The Jem 2014 (Other red blend)

OTHER REDS

Elemental Bob Graveyard Tinta Barocca 2017*

Sadie Family Wines Soldaat 2017 (Grenache Noir)

Thelema Mountain Vineyards Sutherland Petit Verdot 2015

DESSERT UNFORTIFIED

Klein Constantia Estate Vin de Constance 2014*

Mullineux Straw Wine 2017 (Vin de Paille)*

Paul Cluver Estate Wines Riesling Noble Late Harvest 2017*

PORT STYLE WINES

De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve 2016

Overgaauw Wine Estate Cape Vintage 1998*

Colourful whites


Amber, Orange, Skin-macerated, Skin Contact,  even Alternative White; there are as many descriptions for white wines which have spent time on their skins, as there are colours in the wine themselves. Add a range of varieties, blends and degrees of tannin and the winelover has to pick an uncertain path through the maze to find a wine suited to his or her taste.

Three shades of orange, one of pink from pinot gris, usually white!

It will come as some reassurance that Cathy van Zyl MW, Christian Eedes, Tim James and I found the overall quality of the 29 skin-macerated white wines we recently tasted, is good. Those 29 represented 19 producers and, at the time I thought pretty well covered what is available; just two days later I discovered the Joostenberg, so will allow I may have missed more.

The one that got away. Joostenberg Kaalgat Steen 2016

Go back just ten years when interest for these wines among South African winemakers was just starting. Craig Hawkins, then at Lammershoek, (now at Testalonga, his and his wife, Carla’s own winery) was the first to experiment, his interest piqued after tasting the skin-macerated wines of an Italian producer. This inspired him to search for more, eventually coming across those from the heartland of the style in Fruili/Italy, Slovenia and Georgia (Simon Woolf’s Amber Revolution traces the history of these wines; I reviewed it here). Hawkins’ first attempt was a chenin blanc left for five weeks on the skins, but he acknowledges one has to ‘ .. determine the level of extraction which gives the most pleasure in the bottle.’

Pleasure is what we all seek in a bottle of wine; skin-macerated white wines are no different. If there were a few in the lineup which failed on the pleasure rating, it was, as Tim noted, from having too much dry tannin lending an unwelcome austerity, a feature intensified by the generally low alcohols (four came close to 14%; Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon, Richard Hilton The Ancient, Bosman Fides and Dragonridge Cygnus;  11%-13% was the norm). In notes he sent me, Craig concurs; ‘a lot of skin contact whites for me are too extracted now, which takes away too much of the fruit and purity of the vineyard and soil.’ While these wines are anything but fruity in the sense we think of traditional young white wines with their primary aromas, the successful ones have fruit to balance the tannins and freshness. Because of the lack of primary fruit, the aromatics in wines such as El Bandito Sweet Cheeks from Muscat d’Alexandrie, Richard Hilton’s The Ancient Viognier and Maanschijn Muscat de Frontignan Grenache Gris blend appear more concentrated and exotic. Something borne out by Craig, who loves the increased muscat aroma in his Sweet Cheeks from maceration. Christian noted the most successful examples are those offering such new aromatics and flavours without losing all varietal character. That said, chenin blanc once again shows its versatility with Jurgen Gouws’ Intellego Elementis 2016, Jasper Wickens Chenin Blanc 2017 and Johan (Stompie) Meyer’s Mother Rock Liquid SkinCheninBlanc 2017 getting general nods of approval.

It was no surprise when the subject turned to whether these wines reflect  terroir or their character is determined by winemaking. For Cathy, the latter seemed to dominate in some but in his notes, Craig claims the increased spectrum of flavours originate in the vineyard, so intensify the expression of terroir but agrees over-extraction can dim a sense of place.

At this early stage of skin-macerated whites, the curiosity factor is likely more of a drawcard than any particular thoughts of terroir, or of ageing, which we can’t imagine would be of measureable benefit.

A change of mindset with regard to the purpose of these wines would be helpful. White wines are often consumed as an aperitif, reds (with their tannins) reserved for the meal. But is there any reason why tannined whites shouldn’t make just as suitable partners with dinner? More to the point, both Jasper Wickens and John Seccombe (Thorne & Daughters) confirm how popular their wines are in Japan, where the umami factor make the wines and food  complementary partners. The Japs are such hipsters, they enjoy Jasper’s unfiltered chenin in its shook-up cloudy state! (He exports all these wines to Japan, where 600 bottles sold in two weeks!) ‘The Japanese work on a simple rule,’ Craig confirms; ‘either you like it or you don’t. You don’t find many huge, woody, alcoholic wines there, it just doesn’t suit their food.’

My own, more Western dish of roast chicken went particularly well with Jurgen’s Elementis, while Richard Hilton’s The Ancient with its intense flavour and structure is a good match for lightly spiced dishes and pork. Untried but I suspect the Mostert/Suddons Smiley Spesiale (chenin) with its nutty character find a match in mature hard cheese.

The biggest drawback currently for these wines is two-pronged. On the one hand, as is so often expressed by the producers, the Wine & Spirit Board is inconsistent when it comes to certification.

Craig Hawkins was instrumental in helping the Board draw up guidelines for Skin-macerated whites and Alternative White (and Red) Wines, classes which were introduced in 2015. The only difference between the two is that the skin-macerated whites have to remain on the skins for a minimum of four days. Full malo-lactic fermentation and a maximum S02 of 40ppm help avoid dodgy wine or one killed with sulphur. Even now, this hasn’t eliminated the problem of wines being failed, some on numerous occasions, which, apart from anything else, is costly for these small volume producers.

Craig: ‘For a few years it (certification) was quite simple, but what we’ve found is the wine producers remain constant but the Wine & Spirit Board and SAWIS tasters/panel are changing. For them it’s just a job to tick a box with what they believe is correct because that’s what the mandate says. Today, the people involved are completely different from those seven years ago, the result being we’re still having the same issues within the same categories we came up with because the education of the panels has not improved.’

That’s one side; the other lies with the producers. The list below shows very few indicate on the label, (where the wine is labelled), whether the wine is skin-macerated or Alternative White. If the wines are to be better understood and accepted, the relevant category should be declared on the label.

It was gratifying that the idea of this tasting was enthusiastically received by all the producers approached and I thank them all for participating. We found it an interesting experience, each of us finding pleasurable wines – even if we wouldn’t necessarily want to drink them every evening.

Perhaps an idea to see developments in these colourful whites in two or three years.

PARTIAL SKIN-MACERATED VARIETAL WINES

Rousseau Grace Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2018 CONTROL NO SKIN CONTACT

Craven Wines Clairette Blanche 2017

JH Meyer Mother Rock Force Celeste Semillon 2017

Skinny Legs Semillon 2016

PARTIAL SKIN-MACERATED BLENDS

Blackwater Blanc 2017 chenin palomino clairette (unlabelled & as yet uncertified)

Avondale Cyclus 2014  roussanne viognier chenin semillon chardonnay

Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon 2015 chenin pinotage chardonnay

Elemental Bob My Cosmic Hand White chenin semillon viognier roussanne verdelho

FULLY SKIN-MACERATED VARIETAL WINES

Springfontein Skins Agleam Daredevils’ Drums 2017 sauvignon blanc Skins macerated white

Dragonridge Cygnus 2015 chenin blanc

Dragonridge Aldebaran 2017 chenin blanc Alternative white

Intellego Elementis 2016 chenin blanc Skin contact

Jasper Wickens Chenin Blanc 2017 Natural skin-fermented

JH Meyer Mother Rock Liquid Skin Chenin Blanc 2017 Alternative white

Smiley Spesiale 2017 chenin blanc

Testalonga El Bandito Skin 2017 chenin blanc 10 days skin maceration

Baby Bandito Stay Brave 2017 chenin blanc Macerated for 11 days

Môrelig Skin Macerated Chenin Blanc 2018

Elemental Bob Retro Chenin Blanc 2016

Maanschijn Spin Cycle 2017 verdelho

Bosman Fides Grenache Blanc 2017 Skin macerated

Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier 2017 semillon gris Skin fermented

Jasper Wickens RooiGroen Semillon 2017

Raised by Wolves Rooi Groen Semillon 2016

Fram Grenache Gris 2017

Maanschijn Easy Tiger 2017 grenache gris

Richard Hilton The Ancient Viognier 2017 Skin macerated

Craven Pinot Gris 2017

El Bandito Sweet Cheeks 2017 Muscat d’Alexandrie 11 days skin contact

FULLY SKIN-MACERATED BLENDS

Maanschijn Muscat de Frontignan Grenache Gris 2018

Chardonnay controversial

A few months ago there were confused, even angry mumbles from South African chardonnay producers when not one local example made the cut to be included on an international line up of New World chardonnays vs Burgundy.

The genesis of this blind tasting was a remark passed by Keith Prothero, one-time partner in the Mullineux wines, great supporter of South African wines and generally knowledgeable oenophile, that most people would not be able to tell the difference between New and Old World chardonnay.

Several tastings to decide the final line up did include South African wines, pre-selected by Greg Sherwood MW, after a raft of suggestions from local winelovers and across the stylistic spectrum; even so, none made it through.

I was as mystified as anyone by this omission. South African chardonnays have been on a roll; holding their own on international competitions, accruing many Platter five stars and are generally agreed to be in a good space.

My mystification was joined by disappointment when, a short while later, a blind tasting of local chardonnays left me and my fellow tasters shaking our heads in disbelief at the struggle we had to find top wines. A handful of quality individuals did come through, but it was the general ordinariness that shook us. There are still oak problems, though less so than in the past. More troubling seems to be over-enthusiastic working of lees – rolled, stirred or even shaken (well, maybe not the last), which leaves the wines ‘muddy’ and devoid of precision. Chardonnay is recognised as a grape for winemakers’ moulding but it should still display a sense of place.This is a pretty ruthless overall assessment of a line up which likely contained many enjoyable wines. But then Greg and Keith were ruthless over the international chardonnays that were included.

Chardonnay is very much a focus at present; last week Tim James and I tasted three very different examples. Radio adverts can be annoyingly memorable; the one for Vriesenhof Unwooded Chardonnay 2017 falls into that category through its vulgarity and being totally out of character with this producer. The same agency could have had a hand in the back label which assures: ‘This is a wine style that highlights the playfulness of the varietal ..’, whatever playful chardonnay might be. The claims that it’s light and refreshing and bursting with fruit are more credible. Otherwise, there’s nothing terribly complex or interesting and a pricey R100 for what it offers.

There’s reason to take note when Tim Atkin scores a wine 92/100 (careful scrutiny of the sticker reveals a 2016 Report rating); it’s also a Sommeliers Selection for 2018. Take note too of the latter’s description on their gong, ‘Voluptuous and Rich’, as it accurately describes the Whalehaven Conservation Coast Chardonnay 2014. The back label enjoys some colourful imaginings: the mid-palate expressive of ‘croissant and baguette’, which somehow ‘evolves into a residing (sic) and persistent minerality ..’ Pretty much a meal in a bottle at a meal’s price of R360.

The idea behind releasing the wine with two years’ extra age is so that ‘connoisseurs and sommeliers can purchase wines where optimal bottle aging has contributed extra flavour development.’ In this case, advancing on the chewy, rich texture and toffee-like flavours, is oxidation. Neither Tim nor I give it much chance of further longevity. Are there still fans of this style? It does seem a world away from the real cool climate, terroir-driven wines as its Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley source is described.

Thelema’s Sutherland Chardonnay Reserve 2016 (R300) offers better value and authenticity in its Elgin origin. It has the area’s purity and acute freshness but is also nicely anchored by lees-generated weight; absolutely no muddiness of texture here. A further two or three years should show better integration and complexity.

A more important focus on Chardonnay falls under this year’s Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award. The five finalists are Arco Laarman of Laarman Family Wines, Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon, Murray Barlow of Rustenberg, Ronel Wiid of Bartinney and Clayton Reabow of Môreson; as credible a list as one would hope for.

Tomorrow sees the results of the Prescient Chardonnay Report, a competition run by Winemag with judges Christian Eedes, Roland Peens and James Pietersen. Will any of the DC finalists feature among the top scores? What will be the overall opinion of the wines entered? I have a feeling there’ll be surprises and controversy.

There’ll probably be the same reaction when the Platter five star wines are announced on 5th November.

Chardonnay offers a style for every taste, even if apparently not yet of a quality to stand up against the world’s best.

Amber Revolution

For publication of a book on wine to be fully crowdfunded, you must know the subject is of unusual interest. Nearly 400 people, myself included, find the subject of Orange, Amber or Skin-macerated whites and their history, of sufficient interest that our contributions have enabled Simon Woolf to produce this fascinating history and resurgence of the Amber Revolution.

Woolf’s ‘light-bulb’ moment with orange wine occurred in 2011, deep in the limestone cellar of Sandi Skerk in the little-known northern Italian Carso region (technically part of Friuli, but Woolf says is culturally quite separate to the rest of the region). He describes the wine Skerk hands him as ‘a luminous amber liquid, seemingly tinged with an electric pink afterglow. The aromas hit first – they’re as bright and vital as the surrounding are as dark and mysterious. A tiny sip is enough to release the life force within. Intense yet refreshing sensations crowd into the mouth with such force and complexity that the brain can scarcely process them in any meaningful fashion.’

So memorable was this occasion, Woolf determined to write about it and this ancient wine style. But searches through his wine library and the internet turned up little information. ‘There was categorically no book,’ he concludes.

His research led to awareness of Joško Gravner and Stanko Radikon in Oslavia but also to Georgia, where the ancient tradition of making wine in buried amphorae, known as qvevris, was still practised. Over the following three years, Woolf visited Georgia, Gravner and Radikon. Coincidentally, there was also renewed interest in orange wine, which had  become fashionable. Surely the time was right for a comprehensive book on the history – ancient and modern – of orange wine.

Amber Revolution with its truly revolutionary fist shake!
304 pages, full colour, hardback

‘My fate was sealed,’ Woolf acknowledges. Giving up his IT job proved easier than finding a publisher; ‘None were persuadable,’ but no matter, a year ago Amber Revolution was crowdfunded on Kickstarter by orange winelovers worldwide.

Woolf first tracks the political history of Friuli, Slovenia and Georgia, ‘ .. geographically volatile parts of the world’ for their 20th century populations. Apart from loss of identity, their history was buried. No wonder the story of orange wine was sketchy to say the least.

Chapters on each of these regions, their grape varieties, winemaking both ancient and new-wave and the making of qvevris are covered; evocative photographs of the winemakers (who look very much people of the soil; their cellars are likewise humble – no fancy modern constructions here!) and their winemaking traditions (the photographic sequence of  Joško Gravner punching down ribolla gialla grapes in qvevris is particularly illustrative) complement Woolf’s flowing story.

As with anything out of the ordinary in a modern wine world, where a few classic French varieties hold sway, orange wines from little known varieties and regions have been a strange anomaly. Thanks to their red-wine like texture, including tannins, they are much better appreciated with food.  Chapter 9, I am kurious oranj tracks some of America’s top sommeliers’ early experiences with and efforts to get orange wines onto wine lists and into customers’ glasses. Needless to say, it required much effort.

Many have still not come to terms with orange wine which is seen as being allied to the natural wine scene, as the Haters gonna hate chapter spells out. Hugh Johnson famously dismissed orange wines as ‘.. a sideshow and a waste of time’. A tasting with Woolf revealed Johnson didn’t have a clear idea of what orange wine is, rather had conflated it with natural wine. That he left with a better appreciation of skin-fermented whites shows there are many misconceptions and much education needed.

The final section concentrates on Woolf’s recommended producers worldwide, including contact details and some opinions. Craig Hawkins of Testalonga; Intellego’s Jurgen Gouws, who caught Hawkins’ enthusiasm when working with him at Lammershoek and Mick and Jeanine Craven of Craven Wines, who transformed clairette blanche from its Cinderella status via skin contact, represent South Africa.

When Woolf comes to update Amber Revolution, I dare say he’ll have a much larger choice of South African producers to consider. Two that come to mind are Richard Hilton with his new truly orange, The Ancient Viognier and the ever-innovative Charles Back, who has  experimented with skin-fermented grenache blanc (and noir), still lying in small French oak barrels. New qvevris are en route.  With winemakers’ technical expertise increasing, the wines are improving and getting more interesting. It is to be hoped the Wine and Spirit Board keeps pace with this movement.

When I decided to be part of crowdfunding Amber Revolution, beyond my enthusiasm for these wines, I had no idea how the book would turn out. I’m delighted I’ve helped in a small way in its realisation. Woolf’s writing is a pleasure to read, informative but also with personal touches. Throughout the chapters there are separate inserts on such issues as Challenges and faults in orange wines; Serving and food matching, The art of making qvevri and much more.

‘There was categorically no book,’ Woolf concluded seven years ago. Today thanks to him, there is. Whatever your opinions on orange wine, Amber Revolution will surely fill in many gaps in winelovers’ knowledge; it also does justice to the pioneering regions of Friuli, Slovenia and Georgia.

Amber Revolution may be ordered from Simon Woolf’s website http://www.themorningclaret.com/shop/ for 35 Euros.

Beyond flavour

It strikes me as strange that we describe food in terms of flavour and texture yet in wine it’s entirely lop-sided, aromas and flavours capturing the majority of any description (‘adjectival confetti’ as Andrew Jefford so aptly describes them in Decanter). Often these are relevant only to the reviewer’s immediate audience. I associate hawthorn flowers with young, unoaked chardonnay, especially Chablis, but unless you’ve walked along an English hedgerow in spring, this will have little resonance for South Africans.

Texture and structure are the building blocks of wine, more important in many ways than simple flavour. They also make the wine more multi-dimensional and interesting, And I’m not thinking of red wines only. An increasing number of winemakers are experimenting with skin-fermented whites, whether as part of a blend, or full-on with post-fermentation maceration.  White grapes also have tannins and anthocyanins, so both structure and colour can be obtained from fermenting on the skins.  Craig Hawkins was one of the first to experiment with this method, nearly ten years’ ago now, when he was at Lammershoek. His first efforts now seem rather crude compared with what he and others are producing today.

Skin-fermented whites can often come across more vinous than fruity, as is the case with Francois Haasbroek’s Blackwater Blanc. The base is barrel-fermented chenin plus skin-fermented then barrel-aged clairette blanche and palomino, which give off a pale orange glow and suggestion of grip. Its dry, savoury nature suggest it’s better suited with food than as an aperitif.

Richard Hilton’s The Ancient Viognier adopts the full-on approach. Fermentation in open 500 litre foudres with two or three daily punch downs, followed by closing the lid and leaving the macerating wine for a month before pressing and a further few months in barrel. The result is truly orange in colour, the texture silky, full of ripe fruit all encased in freshening tannins. It’s brilliant with spicy dishes but also delicious solo.

 

 

 

In the above wines oak, only old, is nothing more than a container where the wine can evolve. These days, there’s interest to be found beyond oak and even skin contact: cement eggs, clay amphorae and terracotta pots also impart their own individual texture to whites, a resonating soundwave intensity is how I think of it.

Then we come to the sheer concentration of the grapes themselves which provide texture. This is very much the case in the Mullineux’s Old Vine White blend; old oak barrels are merely fermentation vessels, the concentration of old vine Swartland fruit provide layers of both flavour and texture with freshness lifting them into 3-D. At the recent ten-year vertical, it was interesting to discover how the wines changed not only with time but also with the addition of varieties other than the usual trio of chenin, clairette and viognier. Semillon gris joined the trio in 2014, grenache blanc a year later. These wines are still young; the mysteries of maturity as yet remain unknown but the oldest, 2008 resembles an old Rioja, deliciously oxidative and savoury, 2010 fresher, more elegant and creamy ‘more Burgundian’ opines Chris Mullineux;  all have what it takes to mature, 2017 probably best to date.

If freshness (not to be confused with acid) in whites is rather taken for granted,  freshness in reds needs more attention. This too would reveal the textural layers they also have, but so often are missing when the fruit is harvested overripe, some residual sugar is left after fermentation and acid has been clumsily added; the result is a monolith. The holy grail used to be physiological ripeness, nowadays many are chasing freshness, a goal which often provides greater flavour purity.

Newton Johnson Windansea vineyard

I have to agree with colleagues who criticise some of the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction selections for their high alcohol, sweet reds. Showy but ultimately shallow, lacking in freshness and, as a result, definition. It amazes me that wines like these can be selected alongside the likes of Newton Johnson Windansea Pinot Noir 2017 and 2016, Gottfried Mocke’s Pinot Noir 2017 (from Kaaimansgat), Jordan Sophia 2015 and Boschkloof Epilogue Syrah 2016. Apart from freshness, all these speak of the variety each is made from both in purity of flavour and texture: the pinots with supple flow, Gottfried’s with cool climate heady intensity; Sophia ripe, long-lived cab tannins, fleshed with merlot (there’s cab franc and petit verdot too), the oak flavours complementing the wine (too often not the case) and the Boschkloof Epilogue vibrant, spicy, supple but not lacking muscle nor fine grip and just enough oak.

These are wines that give pleasure to the bottom of the bottle.

There is much in wine beyond flavour.

Symbiotic relationships

There must be many reasons why South African wine has  found its sense of place, individuality and ever-improving quality; one, rarely discussed, but which deserves a closer look, is that of winemakers fulfilling this role with a producer but also making wines under their own label.

It’s nothing new; Beyers Truter was possibly the first in 1989, when he started Beyerskloof while still winemaker at Kanonkop. The forward-thinking Krige brothers, owners of Kanonkop, encouraged and supported Truter; he, in turn, mentored Abrie Beeslaar, who took over from him and now, in turn, has his own label, Beeslaar Wines; a pinotage, of course.

Another visionary, Fairview’s Charles Back, has done the same for both his winemakers, Anthony de Jager, who had Homtini Shiraz and more recently, Stephanie Wiid, a partner in Thistle and Weed.

Today, the number of similar relationships is growing. Three winemakers who work with other winemakers and have their own labels, relate their wine background, relationship with the winemaker they work with and their views on a relationship I see as symbiotic.

Jasper Wickens, winemaker with Adi Badenhorst, started his Swerver range in 2012 (since  his marriage, in partnership with his wife, Franziska). ‘I come from a family of wine lovers, grew up on Zevenwacht and, at 17, started working in the tasting room and continued working in the cellar whilst studying a BSc with Viticulture & Oenology at Stellenbosch,’ he recounts. ‘Before leaving for a harvest in Napa, I met Adi Badenhorst, who was regarded as ‘a complete cowboy character’ and whose suggestions were completely the opposite from what I’d been taught.  It was really challenging and I kind of idolized him as a rebel winemaker.’

On his return from Napa, Wickens requested to work the 2009 harvest with Badenhorst, a learning experience he describes as offering; ‘New ideas,  experiments, different terroir and grapes; it was such an enjoyable challenge and exciting atmosphere.’ Spells with Eben Sadie in Spain and Tom Lubbe in France added experience and knowledge, but Wickens always returned to work for Badenhorst: ‘He had his feet on the ground, but was always trying something new and growing.’

Wickens doesn’t hesitate to credit Badenhorst with encouraging him to develop his own wines: ‘“Make real quantities,’ he told me, ‘don’t play around with one barrel of this or that.” ‘  He also inspired me to develop my own ideas and make wines that I like. Aside from wine,  one can learn a lot of life skills from Adi.’

Photo courtesy of Jamie Goode

Jacques de Klerk, now a partner in The Winery of Good Hope with Alex Dale and others, and the man behind Reverie Chenin Blanc, found wine after dropping out of a law degree at Stellenbosch University; first via working at a big co-op, followed by a trip to Europe to discover real wine culture and enrolling at Elsenburg on his return. He met Alex Dale through Adam Mason when both he and Mason were at Klein Constantia. The Winery of Good Hope was looking for a winemaker and the rest is history.

Several factors attracted de Klerk to work with Dale:  seeking out special vineyards to produce terroir-driven, site specific wines; the opportunity to work with internationally-experienced people like him and Edouard Labeye and, not least, the chance to drink stunning international wines from their budding import business. The experience of exposure to so many regions, varieties and styles proved an inspiration and enabled de Klerk to form his own ideas for something uniquely South African; thanks to The Winery’s Black Rock Swartland blend, he found the ideal area to source fruit.

It was a project supported by Dale from the start; ‘In fact he suggested it to me over a bottle or two,’ de Klerk acknowledges . ‘He convinced the other Winery shareholders that it would be mutually beneficial.’ The early years of Reverie Chenin Blanc taught de Klerk a lot; ‘I had to prove that my ideas worked.’ The Winery’s Radford Dale range has benefitted from incorporation of many of those ideas and techniques de Klerk trialed. In turn, Radford Dale’s established brand lends credibility to his Reverie.

Photo courtesy of Winemag

Franco Lourens is the newest Young Gun on the block; his recently-launched Lourens Family Wines range includes two chenins described by his ‘boss’, Chris Alheit as; ‘a brilliant example of the effect of origin on wine – both extremely good and yet completely different.’ Not a bad endorsement from one at the top of his game.

Paarl born and raised, Lourens recalls the inspiration to learn the art of winemaking started as he cycled past vineyards to school and saw tractors pulling loads of grapes through town, their sticky juice spilling over the road. Studies at CPUT in Wellington and Elsenburg were followed by a spell at Schalk Burger & Sons and harvests at Tokara, Jordan, Vasse Felix in Margaret River and Ramey Wines in California; back home, he worked as assistant winemaker to David Finlayson at Edgebaston before joining the Alheits in 2016.

It took an evening’s chat at a Wine Cellar ‘Butch and Fin Show’ for Alheit to approach Lourens and ask if he’d be interested to help, as the workload was getting too much. With this came the offer to help Lourens build and grow his own business. He happily declares, ‘Chris and Suzaan are my number one supporters; without them there would be no Lourens Family Wines.’

‘We have the same winemaking philosophy; it gives me the opportunity to work with some of the best old South African vineyards, which I’m passionate about but more than that Chris and Suzaan are the kindest and most generous people I know.’ It seems the perfect match. The couple have inspired Lourens in many ways, ‘To make wines true to myself, as naturally as possible and not to follow trends,’ Lourens discloses.

It’s obvious this arrangement in these three cases works to the benefit of both parties but is this something that could work more generally?

All three believe it can be beneficial with provisos. Making your own wines can help others you work with see things from a different angle, give new ideas.  It also reflects well on the mentor winemaker if his charge is making waves and is successful. But they warn, it depends on the relationship and unique situation of winemaker and employer; both parties need to be honest from day one and have a clear plan for the future and remember the day job is a first priority.

Swerver, Reverie and the new Lourens Family Wines  are right up there in quality – the former two have scored Platter 5* ratings; Lourens are submitting for the first time this year, so watch this space – and Badenhorst, The Winery of Good Hope and Alheit are regarded among the country’s best producers, also with several Platter 5* to their names.

More important, the reputation and combined success of both parties in the market place is testament to an encouraging inclusive attitude, directed at promoting South African wine rather than competing with one’s neighbour. Indeed, a symbiotic relationship.