All posts by outofthepress

Platter – my early years

What a remarkable year 2020 is turning out to be and it’s not quite yet half way through. To most of this planet’s population, Covid-19, economies and how we humans treat each other are matters of great concern.

On a more personal and happier note, I celebrate two landmarks this year; the first, my arrival in South Africa 50 years ago; the second, embarking on my 35th year as a contributor to the Platter Wine Guide. Imagine, I’m the longest serving person involved with the guide in any capacity! So much has changed since I first worked with John and Erica on the 1987 edition; it’s always been a labour, an endeavour but never boring and always a source of pride on publication.

How did I come to be involved? I’d met the Platters shortly after the first edition and subsequently got to know them better when I ran the Cape Wine Centre, part of Drop Inn. When I decided to leave at the end of 1985, it was with the wild idea of freelancing. I’d made numerous contacts in the industry during the two years I was at the Cape Wine Centre but had no idea what that would lead to, if anything.

Hardly had 1986 got underway, than I received a call from John and Erica, asking whether I’d like to join them working on the guide, as it was becoming too big a task. What an opportunity, what a task!

First, I needed to buy a desktop computer, as I’d been working on my Dad’s old manual typewriter. Then the guide needed to be loaded onto the computer, as to date it had been updated by cut and paste. I think I did much of the uploading but what I remember more clearly is assigning each producer a letter, the first of their name, plus the numerical position within that letter. All fine and good until there were new entries which threw out any semblance of numerical order on those floppies.

I was responsible for tasting, writing up and chasing up the majority of the Co-ops as well some Estates. Remember in 1986 it was still the dark ages; no internet, no emails, cell phones, WhatsApp, just old-style Telkom landlines. Producers in those days, Co-ops particularly, were much less switched on (sales of their bulk wine to the wholesalers was much more important than the tiny amount they bottled, mainly for their Directors); I spent a lot of time on the telephone. The wines were delivered to Delaire, the Platters’ home with Erica bringing through piles of boxes every week; these were as overwhelming then as they are today.

Technically, things were easier the following year with proper coding for the star ratings that Creda Press could read and, which to my relief, meant very few changes to the disks were necessary. By now the Platters had moved to Clos de Ciel.

Does anyone remember XYWrite? By 1988 this is the software John wanted to use, so the guide could be set on floppies and updated from there. I can’t remember whether that happened, but I do know I was responsible for all the Co-ops (there were around 70 in those days), collecting the data, tasting, writing up, including short introductions. The ticks, squiggles and FWT (Forms, Wine, Tasted) (see photo) were my shorthand method of keeping track of progress.

1987 my first year with John Platter’s South African Wine Guide. NB my primitive annotations.

It seems remarkable now but around 1992/1993, tastings were held with the winemaker on the farm, something John had always done but was new for me and my now co-taster, Helen Frith. As time-consuming as these tastings were, we managed within the tight tasting schedule. I do remember being rather sorry when these visits stopped, partly a result of there being just too many producers. Today, it would be impossible.

Automation is taken for granted today but even 20 years ago the maps required manual input,  a task I helped with being familiar with so many of the wineries. There’s nothing more frustrating than a destination misplaced on a map and that did happen.

Awarding five stars was, of course, John’s prerogative; once I’d graduated beyond the Co-ops, as good as some of their wines were, there was more likelihood of finding one of these earth-shattering wines. Even the few that struck me as worthies were, I recall, deemed by the boss to be ‘not quite there yet’!

The shifting of gears began in 1997, when the Platters sold the guide, which became a wholly owned subsidiary of Creda Press, the guide’s regular printer. Erica still wielded her editor’s stick, John his fearless taste buds, but by now he had a handful of tasters apart from myself.

Platter 1999 announced Andrew McDowall (of Creda) as publisher, Erica Consulting Editor and, drum roll, Philip van Zyl as the new Editor.

The times they certainly were a-changing. More of that once year 35 is over.

Buying blind

Wine sales in South Africa are booming. A very strange statement given alcohol sales are banned under Level 4 of the Disaster Management Act. Yet it’s true; consumers are buying and paying for an extraordinary amount of wine online – with delivery to be made once the ban is lifted, anticipated at Level 3. Imagine the task force of delivery vans then!

What led me to find out more about these unprecedented wine sales was my own purchases, both for wines I haven’t yet tasted. Chris and Suzaan Alheit’s Wine Dark Sea is a totally new wine, red but apart from that I can’t remember anything else. It was offered to long-time buyers, who obviously snapped it up, as the Alheit’s soon sent out the ‘Sold Out’ notice. As I enjoyed their cinsaut under the now-discontinued Flotsam & Jetsam label, I had no hesitation in buying six bottles of WDS, described, if I remember correctly, as ready for drinking.

Subsequently, I’ve purchased a few bottles of Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Breton (cabernet franc) and Graft (syrah), both 2019. These needed no second thoughts; I’ve bought earlier vintages and know Lukas isn’t about to make a wild swing in style; any differences will be due to vintage.

How gratifying it is to know there are an increasing number of producers whose style shows sufficient maturity that it makes tasting before buying unnecessary.

Van Loggerenberg, as well as Mick and Janine Craven Craven’s Wines and Bernhard Bredell’s Scions of Sinai range all fall under David & Jeanette Clarke’s Ex Animo Company portfolio. Prior to lockdown, David Clarke had delivered samples of the latest vintages to Winemag’s Christian Eedes, who has since tasted and reviewed them on that website. This has no doubt encouraged sales, which are now available directly from the Clarkes. It’s worth noticing their portfolio is packed with top and sexy, New Wave producers, many of whose wines are on allocation.

In the normal run of things, Ex Animo’s business is mainly with the on-trade, restaurants with appeal to the international tourist trade in particular, but the huge downturn of business even two weeks before lockdown required some quick thinking. It’s none too certain when restaurants will re-open and whether some will if only the number of people permitted at any one time would be economically viable. Although there’s been a great response to the new, direct sales they haven’t entirely made up for the restaurant loss. The good news is that once lockdown is lifted and every business that is able is back trading, the local market will receive much of Ex Animo’s attention and direct sales will continue.

I’d earlier picked up Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens’ enthusiastic comments on the excellent trade they were doing, so sought his thoughts on the situation.

He does confirm online sales are up 250% since lockdown and a record month in April; add those the further record orders that Peens anticipates after the alcohol ban is lifted and ‘It all means deliveries post lockdown are going to be enormous!’ I guess that applies to everyone who’s been selling online; judging by the number of emails and social media posts, that is widespread, usually with discounts offered. Peens admits there are areas where Wine Cellar’s revenue is down, as the business isn’t 100% online.

In addition to record sales, Peens says they’ve gained a large number of new customers; many of these are buying six or 12 bottles of different, moderately priced wines. Traditionally, Wine Cellar’s customers buy high-end wine for long-term cellaring; in the past this would have included a good number of imports but due to the Rand’s crash, South African wines offer increasingly good value. Customers have been quick to pick up on this; big numbers such as Boschkloof Epilogue have sold out more quickly than usual.

Peens reckons one consequence of the lockdown is that customers spend longer logged in with more time to read, buy wine and bid on auctions. He noted that the last Strauss & Co auction, featuring local and Bordeaux blends, attracted excellent prices, something he also puts down to a refined model of said auction.

Of necessity, e-commerce has become hugely popular, something that I’m sure will endure post Covid-19. Having had a taste of buying online, consumers will have greater confidence in making future online purchases.

Now it’s up to wineries, retailers and others with direct sales to make their websites consumer-friendly, attractive and, above all, up-to-date if they wish to extend the benefits they’re currently enjoying.

Lockdown learning

It might seem strange in this age of lockdown that I find myself busier than ever. Blame it on the ever-growing number of online webinars, usually via Zoom and covering wine from a multitude of angles. As one friend admitted, it’s now possible to watch these discussions all day and evening.

My introduction to webinars was on the Real Business of Wine, an initiative run by Robert Joseph with Polly Hammond. Since then, the Circle of Wine Writers, Elsenburg Agricultural College, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust via the International Wine Education Centre, Old Vine Project and several individual wineries have joined the party, with varying degrees of know-how.

Joseph, currently editor at large of Meininger’s, Wine Business International, and Hammond, founder and MD of marketing company 5forests, launched their first webinar as Prowein was supposed to be underway, VinItaly was just about to be postponed, then cancelled, and the world of wine was being turned upside down thanks to Covid-19. That first topic focused on how the disease was affecting wine in countries from China, to Portugal, Germany, France and Italy with experts in each country relating their stories.

Real Business of Wine logo

Since then, a range of topical aspects on wine have been discussed with participation of professionals from around the world sharing their expertise. All are free and run for around an hour from 7pm-8pm CAT. Joseph and Hammond couldn’t have imagined how successful these webinars would become: in the first seven weeks, one thousand subscribers signed up.

South Africa and its unique situation of no alcohol sales or transport of alcohol to ports for export, received welcome support one evening. Participants from across the industry gave no-holds-barred views, extending the usual hour by a further 30 minutes.

One topic I found particularly relevant was The Future of Virtual Tastings, a method I believe will endure post-Covid, as will online wine launches.

The professional presenters of online tastings were Amelia Singer, Amber LeBeau, Josh Dunning and Soma Jennings. LeBeau made an apposite opening remark, rightly claiming a virtual tasting with just the winemaker talking about the wine is the most boring thing, adding the audience has to have the wine to experience for themselves. Josh Dunning also stressed that to encourage those just getting interested in wine, tell the story behind the wine, rather than describe the wine itself. Soma Jennings of Princess and the Pinot (princessandthepinot.com) completed the pro guest list.

This and the other Real Business of Wine videos can be viewed here.

This was a lively session with much information and many ideas, to which I was invited to add one I’d suggested in the Chat section. Little mention of interaction with their audience was made by the pros. Surely the presenter should encourage intereaction with the audience, in other words engage with them, seek their opinions as well, rather than talk to them, I wondered. Or as @smithbarryc expressed it on Twitter ‘Immersive experiences not tutored tastings.’ Then again, the host should be empathetic and competent. There’s much to learn to achieve the purpose of the tastings, on which Amber commented so many don’t have a clue why they’re doing it!

Not every endeavour has the immediate success Real Business of Wine enjoys. A recent request on Twitter from a US author was for ideas on Californian wine in 2030; ‘Will there be a new and amazing phenom?’ My response: ‘Major changes take time to be fully realized; maybe any which will be evident in 2030 .. could be embryonic now.’

At the time I was thinking of the Old Vine Project, which has grown organically since the seed was sown in Rosa Kruger’s mind in the early 2000s. Just how far it has evolved was made clear on the recent webinar led by Jonathan Steyn, Convenor Hospitality Leadership Course at UCT School of Business. He was joined by Kruger, winemakers Eben Sadie, Andrea Mullineux, Kevin Arnold, Rudiger Gretschel as well as WOSA’s Siobhan Thompson, Michael Fridjhon and the outspoken brand builder, Raymond van Niekerk. (Apologies if I’ve left out anyone.)

OVP Certified Heritage Vineyard with planting date

Basically, this was a consolidation session of what the OVP has achieved since it began, plus pointers for what the team and OVP members need to do to further build in future. Many valuable points were made, few basically new, though all helping to clarify future goals.

Some which resonated with me began with Eben Sadie urging for the growth of a culture of farming old vineyards, a specific and expensive requirement. Michael Fridjhon reminded that we need to plant for old vines and observe the virus protocols to ensure the vines get there. The OVP membership should be opened up to those whose slightly younger vines show the quality potential once they reach official OVP age of 35 years. Rosa Kruger revealed cuttings from some of the quality old vines have been grafted and ready to be planted. Will they show similar characteristics as the parent vine? That’s the $64 000 question; is it the genetics, the terroir or the root system that gives the wine that specific character, apart from the age of the vine? Kruger admits, ‘we simply do not know.’

It wasn’t mentioned, but I believe it will help get consumers to better understand and appreciate old vines and the wine they make through visiting any readily accessible old vineyards (something I promote anyway, rather than cellar tours). This wouldn’t be sufficient to encourage consumers to buy the OV wines at a premium price. Brand guru, Raymond van Niekerk, spelt out the necessity of winemakers understanding their audience, communicating with them accordingly but all information would be to no avail if they, the winemakers, don’t entice consumers to be inspired to want the wines.

Onwards and upwards OVP!

Ethical wine

Enforced lockdown, even when there is the possibility of shopping for ‘essentials’, allows plenty of time for reflection. It is also an opportunity to find what’s happening in the world of wine via the latest popular app, Zoom. Ironically, this medium was used for the first time to announce the winners of the Born Digital Wine Awards. Among the seven categories, one titled Best Editorial/Opinion Wine Writing was won by Decanter’s well-known Bordeaux correspondent, Jane Anson, who considered ‘Why we need Ethical Fine Wine’.

‘Isn’t it about time that we start defining ‘fine wine’ by how seriously the producer is about taking care of the land and the people who work on it?’ An apposite opening sentence in these times. One of the few benefits the Corona virus has given us is cleaner air. Since people worldwide are obliged to stay at home, there has been positive evidence of less manmade pollution over cities in China and India, probably others as well. What will happen once life returns to whatever becomes the new normal? It would be unrealistic to think pollution won’t return, but after the experience of cleaner air, being able to see the Himalayas from Pakistan for the first time for instance, there will surely be a greater appreciation of what the planet could and should be if we took more care of it.

Many of the issues Anson mentions in her article also pertain to South Africa. The environment is addressed via: Integrated Production of Wine, the Wine & Spirit Board Integrity and Sustainability seal, and the original Wine and Biodiversity initiative with the World Wildlife Fund. For social sustainability look to Pebbles Project, Wine & Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA), in addition, many farmers have established joint ventures with their workers to give them part ownership.

As one might expect, there’s a buy-in to these to a greater or lesser extent; could this change for the better in the new normal, post-Covid-19? Will there be a new, collective conscience, a general positive change in attitude both environmentally and socially? We don’t charge the outrageous prices of Bordeaux, but our own top-level fine wine still commands a premium which deserves scrutiny.

I sought the views of Johan Reyneke of Reyneke Wines and Brian and Marion Smith of Elgin Ridge; both properties are farmed biodynamically and Reyneke and the Smiths take a serious view of environmental sustainability and social responsibility.

Johan added his own take to Anson’s opening sentence: ‘nil magnum nisi bonum’, ‘no greatness without goodness’, the Reyneke motto taken from the Booker Man winner, Life of Pi, neatly summarises their philosophy.

It is one matter to have the team behind you but the consumer, the main driver of change, also has to buy in. As one of the first farms to adopt biodynamics, Johan spoke to many groups about the ethics of the system; he was often met with indifference, even some hostility; even those who showed enthusiasm often left it behind at the farm gate. It was only when more attention was paid to environmental and social issues and discussions about climate change grew more frequent, the demand for ethical wine increased. ‘We still have a drove of people beating a path to our door,’ admits a delighted Reyneke. As I pointed out, quality is an overriding factor in repeat sales. Good actions require good wines for overall success, a view with which he was quick to agree.

Noting the increased acceptance of an ethical approach was an opportunity for some to jump on the bandwagon; not all claims made were true. Many pay lip-service to the bodies they’ve signed up to. ‘It seems to me a producer only has to use a bit of compost or get some cattle and suddenly they are ‘Organic and Biodynamic’, says a frustrated Marion Smith. She and Johan Reyneke agree that ethical and chemical free farming have been used as a marketing tool. ‘It’s only with Organic and Biodynamic certification can the claims be truly transparent.’

Reyneke believes there has to be a third-party endorsement, though expense would be an issue for many. An ethical approach needs to be taken from the heart rather than just following a trend.

The Smiths also view expense as a concern. ‘I am hoping this crisis will allow everyone to slow down, become more aware and seek knowledge on the food and wine they consume,’ urges Marion Smith. ‘Although seeking more ethical and chemical-free products comes at a price that not all can afford.’ She does suggest instead of imported chemicals, more jobs could be created by using manual labour for weed control. This could be a feel-good extra for consumers.

Anson’s view that income or profit made on a wine selling at a premium price should be used to improve the workers living conditions, is shared by Smith but challenged by the relatively low prices of South African wine. This is the motive behind Brian Smith and Niels Verburg’s project the. Cabernet Franc.

Smith reflects how wonderful it would be if Anson’s comment ‘The simple truth is that there has to be more to luxury today than wines that taste wonderful’, meant wonderful wine, verifiably ethically produced and genuinely sustainable, rather than just marketing hype.

It’s a wish worth reflecting on.

Restoring heritage

Should there be a correlation between a wine’s price and ageability? A rhetorical question. If I pay R50 for a bottle of wine, I harbour no thoughts of it developing into something much better after two or three years; it’s likely as good as it’s ever going to be when I buy it. My expectations are very different when the price rises over R200. That’s a bit of an arbitrary figure, as every producer has their own pricing structure but as the three figures climb, so do my expectations that the wine will age with interest.

Correlation between price and ageability of the latest Leeu Passant releases isn’t in doubt. This partnership between Chris and Andrea Mullineux with Analjit Singh, who is also a partner in the separate business Mullineux Wines, realises the results of the search the Mullineux’s and consultant viticulturist, Rosa Kruger had been making for remarkable old vineyards. Vineyards that are healthy, with future potential and which, with proper treatment, would allow them to express their own identity in the wine.

The range has increased to five with the current releases: Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2018, Wellington Cinsault 2017, Franschhoek Cinsault 2018, Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 and Dry Red Wine 2017 (launched last year, but shown again at this year’s launch; 2018 is being held back for another year).

The launch was no ordinary event. Due to South Africa being in lockdown owing Covid-19, it was transferred to a Zoom live video event with international agents as well as local wine writers participating. I was one of a lucky few who had received the wines prior to lockdown, so could taste as the Mullineux’s talked about the vineyards and the wines. There was time for questions afterwards. Their competent presentation and technology playing ball ensured the event was a success. I’ll be interested to see how this method takes off post-Covid-19.

Leeu Passant Chardonnay, from a single Helderberg high-lying vineyard planted in 1994, at the cooler False Bay end, has already established its credentials, being awarded Platter five stars for 2016, when it was also the top scoring chardonnay, and 2017. No doubt 2018 (R595) has the potential to follow in its predecessors’ footsteps with its trademark bracing steely freshness and underlying clean lees richness. A little new oak (30%) flavour remains but should bind with and much longer for greater interest.

Stellenbosch also provides fruit for the new varietal cabernet. It comes from cooler sites on the Helderberg, Polkadraai Hills and a 39-year-old bush vine, dry-farmed block in Firgrove. Classic Stellenbosch cabernet in style, it’s really dry, the fine grape tannins enhancing freshness and anchoring layers of ripe flavours. Oak has been beneficially used (a team rather than solo player). Priced at the same level as Mullineux Syrah (R380), it’s at the more affordable end of the range.

Wellington old vines Basson cinsault 2019
Wellington old vines Basson cinsault 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The core members of this vineyard heritage range and which speak of much more than quality, are the Wellington Old Vines Basson Cinsault 2017, Franschhoek Old Vines Lötter Cinsault 2018 and the Dry Red Wine 2017 (released last year; 2018 is being held back for a further year). These vineyards have been cared for by the team since 2014. Both cinsaults bear the Old Vine Project Certified Heritage Vineyards sticker with planting date on the back label. Wellington vineyard in 1900, Franschhoek in 1932. Both contribute to the Dry Red but this is the first time they’ve been bottled individually.

Franschhoek old vines Lötter cinsault 2017

 

Franschhoek old vines Lötter cinsault 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photos, taken three years ago, when I visited these vineyards with the Mullineux’s and Rosa Kruger, show what they looked like then. Now, after much tender loving care, (which takes time and money, hence the R595 price tag), they look even healthier and give better yields (second photos). In the first vintage, Wellington managed just 400 kgs; in 2017 that rose to two tons (or around six tons per hectare). The Franschhoek cinsault vineyard bears an eclectic mix of 5-10% other varieties, cinsaut gris and blanc, semillon and gris, palomino, chenin. But it’s the soils that are responsible for the wines’ very different profiles: clay-rich in Franschhoek, a sandy river bed in Wellington.

The Franschhoek wine doesn’t immediately endear itself; it’s tight and introverted. Who knew cinsault could provide such tannin? On the other hand, the Wellington cinsault is out to please (though not short of life-enhancing grip), with a perfume and flavours that have a sense of Eastern exoticism. Preference is personal but there’s no fear one will fade sooner than the other. I drank all the wines over a week, just a cork closed them, none disappointed in staying power or interest.

On paper, the Dry Red Wine marries the cabernet, both cinsaults and a little Helderberg cabernet franc; but the whole is so much greater than the parts, its personality reflecting the classic Cape red blends of thirty to forty years ago, although they didn’t cost even the-then equivalent of R1030! Firmly built for ageing, there’s also a restrained gentleness in the flavours, which so reminded me of those traditional blends.

Leeu Passant (roaming lion) has found amazing vineyards, some of heritage age; the wines bear witness to their worth. May the team continue to roam through the Cape’s old vineyards, finding more treasures like these.

Andrea & Chris Mullineux with Rosa Kruger in Wellington old vines Basson cinsault vineyard 2017

Reflections

The speed with which new wineries have opened over the past twenty years has been breathtaking. Hardly has one become conscious of a new name, let alone tasted the wines, than the next steps into the fray.

In a rush of enthusiasm, I’ve been digging into my archives to remind myself – and now you – of the journey from there to here of well-known wineries that in some ways have been pushed aside by the onrush of newcomers.

My Vergelegen archives are thankfully detailed, especially from 1987, when Anglo American purchased the property. Their communication with the media from the building of the new cellar, restoration of the buildings, planting of new vineyards was detailed and a great resource for the future, like now. Today, Twitter and Facebook are channels of choice; many evocative photos and videos remind of the farm’s beauty, wildlife and wines.

Vergelegen cellar under construction

But I jump ahead of myself. We think of Vergelegen as a wine farm, in fact vines account for a tiny portion of its sprawling 3000 hectares. After their purchase, Anglo undertook studies of all possible crops that could grow and be financially viable. The outcome of these deliberations saw just 100 ha of vines, with orchards, pastures and some other formal developments, but by far the majority of those 3000 ha has been left unfarmed. On one media visit, each of us planted an indigenous tree; I can’t remember where, nor have I seen it again. I really hope it has thrived.

One of the Cape Mountain Leopards captured on Vergelegen’s camera

In 2004 the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative was introduced to the media on the farm; Vergelegen was the first BWI Champion. Initially, there was confusion about what it would achieve as the spread of vineyards caused the loss of biodiversity. Over the years, Vergelegen addressed with a vengeance the issue of alien vegetation; streams again began to run with clear mountain water, indigenous fynbos regenerated and birdlife and fauna, notably the Cape Leopard, increased. Alongside, the vineyards flourished. It was a positive demonstration of BWI at work.

Patrick Dillon architect

The cellar had to fit in with this majestic environment; the site was a matter of great discussion. Three sites were selected, with the one on Rondekop eventually chosen. What one can see above ground of the finished cellar is impressive and has presence but also blends in with its surroundings.

Via a local architect, the Vergelegen team, including their first winemaker, Martin Meinert, were put in touch with Paris-based Architectes Associés. Chateau Lafite’s barrel cellar, reconstruction of Chateau Pichon Longueville and the winery design for renowned chef Michel Guérard were just some of the firm’s notable credentials. They soon received their first commission outside France; to design Vergelegen’s cellar.

 

 

I love the beautiful calligraphy on the invitations.

Tuesday 30th April 1991, was one of those windless, 30C-degree days which regularly happen just prior to winter setting in. I was among a group of media assembled at the homestead to meet Patrick Dillon, a Partner in Architectes Associés, here to talk about the design of the new winery, with a site visit slated later that morning. I see from my notes what impressed me most was that Dillon could pronounce Vergelegen (I still struggle!). An American, born in Panama, educated in the US and Paris based, he said coming to Vergelegen was like coming to another country because of its size and scenery. There was no brief for the cellar design, but Dillon knew it had to be an interesting place, the architecture projected into the landscape. The octagonal shape reflects the historic garden near the Homestead; the pathway leading to the cellar is also lined with plants.

 

Baron de Rothschild & President de Klerk planting a tree at cellar opening.

The winery was opened by Baron Eric de Rothschild on Tuesday, 31st March 1992, when, cruelly, the heavens opened – so different from that site visit nearly a year earlier. Guests in their finery were driven in relays up to the cellar, where muddy puddles were dodged before climbing down stairs to the barrel cellar for dinner. I don’t remember how then President de Klerk and Baron de Rothschild managed to undertake the tree-planting ceremony without getting soaked, but here’s the proof.

 

 

 

 

As for the wines, I’m sure many remember Vin de Florence (R6.27/750ml), named after a previous owner, Lady Florence Phillips but probably fewer (myself included) Les Enfants 1992 vintage, also made from bought in fruit. The following year, cab and merlot from three and four-year-old home vineyards plus bought in pinot noir became Mill Race Red (remember that?) (R7.86/750ml) and Vergelegen’s first red wine. By 1994, the blend which included cab franc, was all home grown. That vintage also produced the first varietal red wine from Vergelegen’s vineyards; I still have that bottle of Merlot 1994, a kind gift at a function I don’t remember.

Andre van Rensburg winemaker since 1998

Martin Meinert left at the end of 1997, making way for André van Rensburg to complete the 1998 harvest, since when he has taken the wines to ever new heights. What André deserves to be best-known for is ensuring virus-free vineyards. Many had to be re-planted; today, any vine showing signs of virus is tagged and removed. The whites, headed by Schapenberg Sauvignon Blanc, which André introduced in ’98, GVB sauvignon-semillon blend 2001 (one I buy every year), have always been terrific; from 2014, when Michel Rolland came on board as a consultant, the reds, particularly Bordeaux varieties which are the farm’s forte, have reached another level. The 2015’s from that excellent vintage should generate huge excitement.

It’s a very special privilege to have seen the farm, buildings, gardens and wines grow into what they are today.

Conversations with wine

Mindful that at a time of forced solitary living, one should show solidarity with, not only friends, fellow countrymen and women, but people worldwide, I’ve been delving into the cellar for bottles from countries hit badly by the Corona virus.

It’s clear I’m not the only one; social media is awash with comments about and photos of special bottles offering solace and some bravado. Suddenly, we’re realizing that it’s better to enjoy what we have whilst we’re still able to, instead of keeping them for that indeterminate special occasion.

The added attraction of my international wine tour is that I have visited each area, so can picture the scenery as I sip each wine. So far travels have taken me to Barbaresco, Rioja, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the Rheingau.

I hadn’t held out too much hope before pulling the cork on Abbona Vigna Faset Barbaresco 1997, only later I learnt it was described as ‘a year in which it was hard to produce grapes of less than very high quality.’ Even at 23 years old, the wine improved over the three nights it took me to finish the bottle (that’s an average drinking pace these days). Nebbiolo is resilient; it feels resilient, especially when young with its intricate web of energetic tannins. They were still supporting the mature truffle savouriness. Autumn and truffles are synonymous with Piedmont, but Nebbiolo (nebbia = fog) likely refers to a thick bloom that covers the berries rather than the fogs which do hang low at that time of year.

Another vintage, 2004, but also, top 5/5-rated in Rioja; ‘high alcohol and concentrated colour and aromas ideal for ageing’, fitted to a tee my Tondonia Reserva. This tempranillo-based wine tastes riper than the declared 13% alc with a little less freshness than I associate with red Riojas. Tondonia’s base of Haro is forever linked to a remarkable lamb meal we had there, not least through having to wait until 9pm when everyone has woken from the daily mid-afternoon siesta, finished work and – presumably – feels famished. Then, lamb and Rioja are worth the wait, as they say.

I’ve introduced Le Vieux Donjon to many knowledgeable, well-travelled wine-loving friends, familiar with many Chateauneuf properties; ‘that’s a new one on me’, ‘gosh, it’s good’, and other remarks in that vein are invariably voiced. It hasn’t been a secret everywhere; it became a favourite of Robert Parker and therefore the Americans in the early 2000s.

Unlike many other producers, just one red (and one white) wine is made, a typical blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre with a splash of cinsaut. It is wonderfully descriptive of such a blend and the appellation, in a quiet yet convincing manner; a comforting, soul-food wine that doesn’t need long ageing but can age with benefit. My 2000, described as a beautiful vintage, proved that.

Chateauneuf isn’t the prettiest area in the Southern Rhone (try Gigondas for picturesque); if the mistral wind is blowing, it can be positively miserable, but it’s an ill wind … the vines remain healthy.

Riesling is ingrained in my tastebuds, I can’t imagine life without readily available bottles in the cellar. German Riesling is first choice, though Aussie versions from Clare and Eden Valleys also thrill. My lasting memory of our first night in Germany at a hotel in Hattenheim on the Rhine, is of new-season white asparagus and a bottle of Karl Joh Molitor Hattenheimer Riesling Qualitatswein Feinherb 1996 (I had to check in the diary for that!), it’s slight sweetness and fruit was a perfect match for the asparagus.

Ten years on, 2006 produced a mixed bag, some classic, others dilute depending on when the grapes were harvested, but current advice is to drink soon. The Leitz is definitely at the classic end and was awarded a Decanter gold in 2007. It made a delicious aperitif, full of fleshy, juicy peach, possibly a hint of botrytis marshaled by necessary acid. I’m not in a hurry to drink the remaining bottles.

There had to be a home-grown special bottle. Kanonkop has been an annual winelands’ stop since the farm’s first bottling in 1973; when the Krige brothers started selling Wine Futures (en primeur), we bought both Cabernet and Paul Sauer. My 1991 Paul Sauer was the last bottle of 12 from one of those purchases. I know we bought 12, as I have the original application form with cost – R320 for ALL 12; six bottles of Cabernet, R145. Sigh! Bottle #12 of Paul Sauer 1991 was captivating, true to its origin, and full of life and sweet fruit, sustained long beyond that back-label drifting optimum drinking line.

 

Such a journey through winelands visited and wines a reflection of them.

A sound reason not to wait for times of Corona virus to open special bottles and stir happy memories.

Loyalty

Remember when wine buying decisions were so easy? In the 1970s and ‘80s there were relatively few private, independent wineries where one could taste and buy. Purchases of two cases (12 bottle cases in those days) of the same wine was our norm, except for Groot Constantia, where, because of the red wine shortage, customers, who queued in orderly fashion on a Wednesday morning, were allowed one case only. A limit which ensured the wines were for special occasions only. For us, that meant a bottle each year with the Christmas meal. Some are still tucked away in the cellar, offering even more of a special treat when opened. For everyday drinking, Perdeberg Chenin Blanc and Paarl Vallei Rouge were among the wines which satisfied our needs.

I was thinking about loyalty buying recently, when my annual purchase of Newton Johnson Pinot Noir arrived. I’ve bought this wine since the maiden 2008, never more than six bottles, just three this year with three of their Albariño – and there’s the problem, a problem rampant across the winelands. So many great and interesting wines from a limitless succession of producers sees this loyalty issue become a headache.

The issues aren’t complicated. There are only so many wines one can and can afford to buy but people who love wine, including myself, like to explore and perhaps follow new trends. Something has to give.

Very rarely has that involved wines I no longer like, a sad frustration. There are other individual wines I buy annually apart from the N-J’s pinot, and many other producers where I pick and choose from their range.

Doubting I’m alone with this dilemma of an embarrassment of riches, I checked with friends who are serious, regular wine buyers.

It transpires Johan Smuts, Tim James, partners Maggie Mostert and Hennie Coetzee, as well as Leeds UK-based Lisa Harlow, a huge South African wine fan, are a pretty loyal group in regard to the producers and even specific wines they purchase annually. If many of the New Wave producers feature strongly among all lists, long-established names, such as Kanonkop, Bouchard Finlayson, Springfield, Iona and De Trafford are also mentioned; I’d add Vergelegen. Length of loyalty often depends on how long the producer has been around, as well as how long these enthusiasts have been buying wine (it strikes me they are all younger, some much younger than me!), so their constancy stretches anything from two to 15 years.

I hadn’t stipulated South African wines only and, being the involved winelovers we are, all do buy foreign wines with varying degrees of loyalty to particular producers.
Surely, with such a spread of producers and an even greater number of wines (a rough guess would be anything from 15 to 37), even the most ardent and wealthy of wine lovers would have to limit purchases. Six or, more usually three bottles are the norm with the odd case or odder two cases, of 12. Increased competition and the wish to explore accounts for a decrease in purchases.

The question of how one decides what to buy in the first place, beyond quality, which is a given, is now more complicated. As I suggested early on, there was so little choice compared with today. Factors offered by the others include visiting the winery, word of mouth from trustworthy friends, stylistic appeal, value for money, the Swartland hipster movement, icon brands, investment and age worthiness, not yet proven in many of the more recent South African producers.

Having taken that first dip into a new producer or wine, what persuades one to become a loyal customer? Apart from continuity of quality, it can be as simple as liking the wine, supporting the smaller guys, monitoring maturation – I find it fascinating how Newton-Johnson’s pinot has developed from vintage to vintage as the vines age, as well as how more recent vintages are ageing better than earlier ones. On the other hand, two of my other annual buys, Vergelegen GVB (sauvignon-semillon) and Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc from more mature vines, become more interesting with age.

Loyalty remains only so long as …… When quality drops, cost: quality ratio makes the wines too pricey, especially when there are many other equally good ones around; a bad experience at the winery, tastes change, one forgets about the producer’s existence – all fair reasons to stop buying.

Do producers have any excuse to be forgotten in this social media age? Far too few manage it to their best advantage but people still like the personal interaction with winemakers and those beyond the grape curtain believe winemakers could show themselves more often. At the coal face in the tasting room, there’s always room for improvement; staff need to remember they are the face of the brand. A personal memory-jogger was the set release date. Come 1st September, there used to be a rush to Thelema where the latest vintage of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet went on sale and it wasn’t long before the sold-out signs went up. The only winery I can think of where this continuity remains is Kanonkop, where Paul Sauer is available from 1st July.

As winelovers, the wine world is our oyster; loyalty obviously means something to me and my fellow enthusiasts, but winemakers shouldn’t take it for granted and need to think broadly and with imagination beyond quality to retain our custom.

Safe, sad, superb

An anomaly of the South African wine landscape is that, generally, consumers believe our top-tier red wines are far more ageworthy than the whites; so, while the former are deemed better at ten years, the latter are considered to lose interest after four or five.

 

Yet again, Winemag’s 10-year-old Report for 2020 has proved the lie. In a year described by Editor, Christian Eedes, as: ‘a testing vintage due to the constant fluctuations in weather conditions throughout – a cool, wet spring caused uneven budding in many regions while summer months were exceptionally dry and windy, the heat wave at the beginning of March 2010 which lasted longer than a week going down in the annals’, it wasn’t surprising entries were down on those in the heralded 2009 of last year.

 

One might have thought with 53 red wine entries, 13 whites, (as well as three Noble Late Harvests and five fortifieds), that reds would dominate the top of the rankings; not a bit of it. Seven whites scored 90 or more, a much better hit rate than 17 reds. The full results and tasting report can be downloaded here.

But are either white or red wines really standing the 10-year test? This year, like last, the top scoring wine  is a fortified, Morné Vrey’s Delaire Graff Cape Vintage.  For this achievement, he won the coveted bottle of GS 1966 Cabernet Sauvignon, kindly donated by Amorim. Are fortified wines the best we can do; are our whites and reds just not up to scratch? Given vintage conditions, it puzzles me less that 2010 delivered a fortified winner than 2009.

 

 

The winelands have seen many, very important changes in the last ten years, but before touching on a few of those, how do the top-scoring wines stand up to scrutiny?
Winning producers (at least those not hard at work on vintage 2020) and guests were given the opportunity to taste and drink a selection at the lunch, held at Viande, Pete Goffe Wood’s newish restaurant in the Grande Roche.

(L-R) Amorim’s Joaquim Sa, Morné Vrey & Winemag Editor, Christian Eedes

As someone who doesn’t score, I grouped them according to the following levels of enjoyment: safe (drinkable but without all the benefits 10 years should bring), sad (past best – as one might hope, there were none) and superb (wines with developed complexity). Sadly, there were none in the last grouping either; to compensate, I added the qualification ‘appealing’ to ‘safe’. The few deserving of this latter accolade, are: Tokara Director’s Reserve White (sauvignon/semillon blend), Iona Sauvignon Blanc, Nederburg Private Bin Eminence and Delaire Graff Cape Vintage. I would drink all these with pleasure, if without being rendered speechless with wonder.

White Bordeaux-style blends are among my favourite, sauvignon and Semillon are each other’s ying and yang, having the ability to grow with interest and ten years is certainly achieveable. I was much more surprised by Iona Sauvignon Blanc; not only is it still so fresh and elegant (it’s from Elgin, remember!) but there’s no hint of green peas or beans, which often over take older sauvignons. I look forward to the promised 20 year vertical later this year.

Eminence remains full of live and ripe flavours; Morné’s Cape Vintage is in the drier style I prefer, not too heavy and with clean, warming spirit. We really do this style well but no one should think it’s easy compared with others, therefore achieving higher scores more readily.

Pete Goffe Wood’s menu with top scoring wines served

When the lowest alcohol among the top reds (all cabernet or cabernet blends) is 14.7%, two consequences are givens. The wines will be bruisers and half a glass will be more than enough. Balance being more important than actual alcohol tipped the scales for me in favour of Ernie Els Signature Red (cabernet, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec, a medley which has some truth in the taste), as opposed to Christo le Riche’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which has a noticeable afterglow.

Apart from tiring levels of alcohol, these 2010 reds (and I’m sure many others) are four-square, blockish wines that could have been consumed around three years ago; I doubt they’ve changed that much in that time.

We are moving on from this big, brutish style. I chatted to Aidan Morton, viticulturist at Tokara since 2000, and Christo le Riche about changes they’ve made in the past ten years. It all centres on viticulture; getting rid of virused vines, undertaking multispectral imagery which helps determine when certain parts of the vineyard are ripe; matching this up with vintage conditions creates a great resource for future vintages. Le Riche cabernet now includes some different vineyards from those in 2010, which Christo believes provide better balance, but he’s also picking earlier – another trend across the winelands to capture freshness with ripeness.

Whatever the results, whether or not the wines warrant ten years,  and whoever enters – or doesn’t – in Winemag’s 10-year-old Report, they offer an informative general insight into a particular vintage, as well as a reminder how far we’ve come since then.

Sweet endings

Sweet wine is a strange category. Many of the wines are universally admired but what relationship do we have with them? Do we interrogate a sweet wine in the same way as we would a chardonnay or cabernet and, if not, why not? Surely they have the potential to develop in the same way as other wines? Vertical tastings of that chardonnay and cabernet would undoubtedly be well attended but how many vertical events are held for sweet wines. They are few and far between, as are tastings of sweet wines generally; perhaps that’s why so little is written about them.

I was going to say that there’s not even a competition devoted to sweet and/or fortified wines, but then Winemag announced its tasting programme for 2020, which include a Report for the pair.

This lack of attention is undeserved; many producers have pioneered new styles or local styles of classics with fascinating background stories.

How many know the origins of Vin de Constance, the modern-day recreation of the famed 18th and 19th century Constantia? It began when previous owner of Klein Constantia, Duggie Jooste, purchased the farm in 1980. One evening, Duggie was standing overlooking the vineyards with the late Professor Orffer, renowned authority on wine varieties, when the Professor revealed Constantia, the one great wine made in the southern hemisphere, came from vineyards now part of Klein Constantia. Thus, the dream was born to re-create that luscious, sweet wine.

Of the several varieties used in the original wine, Muscat de Frontignan was chosen, matching as closely as possible the clone (possibly from original stock from van der Stel’s time). The vines, planted in 1982, yielded the maiden Vin de Constance in 1986, along with other maiden vintage wines of restored Klein Constantia. Like Constantia, Vin de Constance is an unfortified, natural sweet wine, more oxidative in style in the early years. Today, in a dedicated cellar, each picking is vinified separately, blending taking up to six months before ageing for around three-and-a-half years in a mix of new and used oak. Today, Vin de Constance has greater freshness and definition, one entirely worthy of the elevated position it holds worldwide.

Muscat de Frontignan is also known as muscadel, under which label are found South Africa’s traditional fortified wines, many from the Breede River Valley. Unfermented grape juice is fortified with neutral grape spirit and usually unoaked, they are immensely sweet and often fiery when young but can develop more interest with age; Nuy Wine Cellar has a wonderful history of picking up Museum Class trophies with their old Muscadels.
A whole new level is reached when muscadel is aged in oak; few are, thanks to little consumer enthusiasm for muscadels generally. A situation not helped by less than active promotion by Muscadel South Africa, whose quoted mission is ‘to establish and promote the image of Muscat de Frontignan’.

It’s left to individuals, like Thelema, to raise its image. Thelema Gargantua Muscadel 2000 should change more than a few minds. Fascinated by Nederburg’s sweet Muscat de Frontignan, Gyles Webb planted his vineyard in 1986; it’s still going strong, producing what Gyles calls his ‘swimming pool’ wine, a fresh, light white. In 2000, the team tried something different; the grapes were left to raisin, fermented on the skins for 24 hours, pressed and fortified with neutral grape spirit before being left to slumber in an old French oak barrel for 19 years (yes, 19!). This transformed the wine into a luscious, creamy mouthful reminiscent of toffee, molasses and nuts, its huge 324 grams of residual sugar invigorated by an arresting acid. Packaging and price – R1400 for 500ml – projects an image of something very special, which indeed the wine is. If any muscadel can capture consumers’ imagination, Thelema’s should.

One can’t talk about sweet wines without mentioning chenin blanc. Nederburg’s Edelkeur pioneered Noble Late Harvest, prior to which, such residual sugar levels weren’t permitted; it was also a driver for the Nederburg Auction.

De Trafford’s Straw Wine label designed by Rita Trafford

David Trafford was another pioneer employing chenin to make the first local Straw wine or Vin de Paille – bunches air-dried which concentrates the juice. The first 25 litre glass jar made in 1995, lead to a 225 litre barrel the following year; by 1997 regulations had been changed and the wine was certified. Earlier regulations allowed for wine to be made only from ‘fresh’ grapes, no older than three days, (a period which allowed for the Co-ops to harvest on a Friday and deliver to the cellar on a Monday). David had come across awed mention of Vin de Paille whilst researching syrah in the Rhône. His interest led him to experiment with chenin blanc, which he knew from the Loire made exceptional sweet wine while holding its acidity. Trials with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay proved chenin’s strength. Just over 20 years later, around 30 producers make a Straw wine or Vin de Paille.

Chenin blanc air-drying for de Trafford’s Straw Wine

Among those producers are Chris and Andrea Mullineux, who, as far as I know, have come up with an original. In 2015, they blended some of their straw wine from every year, starting with their first 2008 through to 2014; this fractional blending echoes Sherry’s solera system. As each vintage is unique, so is the final blend. With just 11% alcohol, a soaring 260 grams residual sugar, the wine struck me as ‘exhilarating and incredibly fresh considering the older wine included’. The original bottling (in 375ml) of Olerasay (a play on solera) has long sold out, but recent hints from the Mullineux cellar suggests another tranche could soon be on its way.

There are many others which demonstrate South Africa’s amazing versatility with wines that go beyond sweetness. They all deserve more attention.