Category Archives: News

Comparisons

For the past few years, early January has offered two occasions on which South African wines feature alongside their international counterparts. Both are partnerships between Michelin-star chef, Roger Jones of The Harrow in the UK and The Vineyard Hotel, headed by GM Roy Davies with his Food & Beverage team.

What is dubbed the Trinations dinner features pairs of wines (one South African, one foreign – to date, Australian, New Zealand and The World) served blind with complementary dishes (six or seven) prepared by Jones, guests themselves voting for their preferred wine. The event’s (and mostly South Africa’s!) success has seen Jones repeating it at his own restaurant and in New Zealand. Last year, California joined the party, the dinner being held at The Vineyard near Newbury, a hotel which boasts one of the most comprehensive lists of Californian wines. If the Californians thought they would walk it, they were sadly wrong; South Africa comprehensively trounced them. Equally sadly, South Africans weren’t given the chance of discovering what they thought of Californian wines; a change of mind saw California as a group pulling from this year’s Cape Town leg at the last minute (just one producer represented). Shame on you, California: a fun evening with top-class dishes, just six or seven wines and a small group of a hundred or so guests – is losing really going to dent your reputation? Methinks it’s just your ego that’s dented. But wouldn’t losing be less damaging than pulling out – late too, leaving a Rest of the World hurriedly taking your place.

There were some intriguing pairings and comparisons in that RoW line up; stylistically, the most marked contrast lay between the white blends. Biblia Chora Ovilos 2016 blends traditional Greek variety, assyrtiko with semillon. Offering bright fruit purity and a rich silkiness, it’s a wine easy to enjoy. A little assyrtiko has been introduced here in the hope it’ll perform well and counteract climate change; it’ll be one to watch. The Greek wine proved the guests’ favourite by a difference of just 10 votes, a narrower margin than I guessed, against Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier 2016; this semillon gris/semillon blanc partnership is skin-fermented, the focus being on structure and texture rather than fruit. For most South African palates it’s still a strange and not necessarily enjoyable style, even with food, an indispensable partner.

Challenge of white blends: Greece left, SA right

Sizzling freshness and generous fruit were also what I imagined would see the local Paul Cluver Close Encounter 2016 Riesling easily home over the less demonstrative (for now) Schaal Sommerberg Grand Cru 2016 from Alsace. I was correct but not about the ‘easily’; a mere 8 votes separating the two wines. Schaal is well-known for his South African wines; his Alsace Grand Crus are equally thoughtfully interpreted, though need time to blossom.
If I remain a little confused by the narrowness of these two wins (South African did go on to win overall 4 – 2), what remains a constant is South Africans’ love of fruit.

Mitolo Angela Shiraz from Australia got my vote, of course!

Elgin is a largely untapped source of really good riesling, whether bone dry, fruitily thrilling or sweetly spiced with botrytis. If the variety is unlikely to ever become a major player in Elgin, at least it adds a counterpoint to chardonnay in the region.

Méthode Cap Classique is also an important vehicle for chardonnay; many of our best MCCs are dominated by or made exclusively from chardonnay, as the international line up of bubblies at that other occasion illustrated. Silverthorn Green Man, Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2013, Villiera Brut Nature Chardonnay, Colmant Blanc de Blancs and Charles Fox Blanc de Blancs 2013 all have a freshness and tension providing a greater sense of driness, at whatever stage of development each has reached. Blended with pinot but no dosage, the Graham Beck Brut Zero 2012 shows a little more roundness but is also satisfyingly dry.
Does pinot get too ripe and when dosage is added, make some of the blends and many Rosés overly sweet and simplistic?

The most sought-after wines of the tasting, unsurprisingly, were the Prestige Cuvées, where Steenberg Lady R 2012 (a deserved Platter 5*), Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2012 and Charles Fox Cipher RM 2012 (what a classy wine! Such a delightful surprise after the disappointing, for me, maiden 2011) held their own against Arras 2005 (Australia), Janz 2005 (New Zealand) and one of the best English sparkling wines I’ve yet tried, Dermot Sugrue’s Dr Brendan O’Regan, which should be pretty smart for its £150 price tag! After the past two years of tasting English bubblies on this event and not being that impressed, the small contingent this year (Blanc de Blancs from Hattingley 2011 and Gusbourne 2013 – available at Wine Cellar) provided a more positive perspective. Krug 1996 was a rich, different and incomparable bubble game, just delicious!

South African MCCs can and do compare with traditionally made bubblies from the rest of the world, but our image fails through lack of consistency, something specialists such as Graham Beck, Silverthorn, Le Lude et al are busy remedying.

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Looking forward

While my esteemed colleagues have produced lists of their favourite wines from 2017, I decided to express a few thoughts about what I look forward to in 2018. In any event, my list would repeat much of theirs.

Looking forward can be merely reflecting on what might or might not happen in the future; it can also suggest a sense of excited anticipation of the future. Let’s see how much of each follows.

Foremost in the minds of most people is the drought, more widespread than just Cape Town and the winelands, though some areas do have water and recently, I’ve seen vineyards in great condition. But I’ve also seen photos of dryland bush vines really struggling; those in the Swartland and up the West Coast are among the worst hit. Harvest 2018 looks to be small and mixed.

Struggling vines but what about the soil in which they grow? For anyone who has wider interest than what’s in the bottle, I’d enthusiastically suggest a regular read of Jaco Engelbrecht’s blog, Visual Viticulture; it’s informative yet accessible in style with great photos and videos – he’s very into drones!

In his latest post, he writes about soil health (mulching is a big thing in my garden this summer) followed by planting varieties that can better handle our dry summers and extreme heat. I hope such plantings will expand the varietal mix.

It’s clear chenin blanc’s turf is becoming increasingly competitive; good to very good chenins are the norm these days; pricing too is competitive, so to make a mark, the wine has to be distinctive (which doesn’t mean loud or showy) and be backed by a story. R240 is an ambitious price for a first chenin, especially when you’re known for reds, shiraz in particular. It’s also not irrelevant Wade Metzer spent two years in Switzerland before returning for the 2016 vintage, so somewhat out of mind among local consumers. His Metzer Family Wines Chenin Blanc is from old bush vines (planted in 1964), and barrel-fermented – all very à la mode. It’s zippily fresh with varietal interest that’ll benefit from the calming of age – but is it sufficiently distinctive? Does it have enough of a story? at R240 ex-cellar, it has a lot of competition.

Chenin has reached a level, both locally and internationally, few could have imagined some 18-20 years ago; is there a satiation point? Hopefully not, but part of wine’s attraction lies in its variety as well as varietal variety.

Grenache blanc, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, riesling, semillon and albarino (alright, just one on the market so far, but a hit for the Newton Johnsons) are showing potential in the right sites/hands, they too should be pursued; as should be much-abused sauvignon blanc, definitely more than a one-trick pony.

Add to the mix, skin-contact white and gris wines, on the increase and improving (inter alia Testalonga, Intellego and Craven Wines). As ideal food wines, I see an opportunity for more, especially with South Africa Sommeliers Association doing great work training sommeliers and wine waiters, who’ll be able to explain these very different wines to diners. They look to be a trend in the UK according to Fiona Beckett’s Guardian article report on a boom in natural wines on wine lists.

Red wines? Mastering the slimmer, fresher style weighing in at 12%-ish alcohol, which used to be the norm, while achieving ripeness remains a work in progress; a good number of winelovers still prefer the bigger, showier and sweeter (oak generally has been toned down) wines, but even these when balanced can be distinctive and deliver deliciousness. Both Tim and I thought along these lines about Bloemcool Tinto Fino Tempranillo 2014 (a bit of tautology, both are the same grape, depending which region of Spain you’re in); it’s big, 14.5% alc, but with an appealing natural freshness found in best Spanish versions. Just 470 bottles, matured in two very well assimilated new French oak barrels, were made, accounting in part for the price – R450.

Bloemcool Fact Sheet is printed on handmade paper impregnated with cauliflower (Bloemcool) seeds; plant it & see them grow!

Made by Stephanie Wiid, winemaker at Fairview, Bloemcool label was introduced for experimental wines; the name refers to Bloemkoolfontein, the original name of Fairview and dating from late 1600s. Is it worth the price? It’s expensive in terms of older Spanish wines available, but if this example is the sort of quality and point of difference we can achieve here, it should encourage more plantings. Over the border in Portugal, tempranillo becomes tinta roriz, so is usually known by this name in our fortified Port styles and dry red blends based on Port varieties, the latter another improving style.

Price and populism. With a smaller harvest, doubtless increased taxes and wages, wine prices are going to come under pressure. Few can afford to drink R100+ wines every evening, but why should more affordable wines not have character, structure and be proper wine like their more expensive counterparts (well, some of them)? (I refrain from saying cheap, believing the farmer for his/her grapes and the worker for his/her labours should be fairly paid.) For example, Côtes du Rhône provide a delicious, value alternative because Côte Rôtie, Hermitage or Cornas are too expensive for every day.

Wine Cellar’s list reveals the sort of affordable, properly made wines there should be more of: Adi Badenhorst’s Secateurs Red R95, Joostenberg Family Red Blend R90, Leeuwenkuil Shiraz R52 and Reyneke Organic Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 R75. Populism in wine does as little for winelovers as it appears to for electorates.

South African wine has been on an incredible roll in 2017; I’m looking forward to no letting off the pace in 2018.

Old or young?

One of the most discussed subjects in the South African wine world this year has been around old vines, the recently established Old Vine Project providing major impetus. While there are a handful of vineyards over 100 years old, membership qualification is just 35, i.e. vines planted in 1983 can join the club next year. (Amazing to think that was when I became professionally involved with wine!).

There’s a buzz too around the wines made from these old vines; a tasting in London earlier this year generated an enormous amount of positive publicity for South African wine. Although the best old vine wines reveal an easy grace in their concentration, it doesn’t mean to say all old vines produce great wine; the OVP team themselves suggest much of the 2000-plus hectares over 35 probably can’t.

From old vines and the wines made from them to old wines; vintages generally from the 1950s to 1980s continue to cause ripples of excitement and, when properly stored, can command decent prices on the secondary market. Well-vetted older wines are now available not only on select tastings but to the general public via Wine Cellar; maybe there are other retailers too. Again, they’re mainly from the 1980s onwards, fewer dating back to 1960s and 1970s.

The natural progression leads to old wineries, though the term old is relative. There are many well-known wine farms which have been in existence and producing wine longer than Jordan and Waterford – Delheim, Groot Constantia and Simonsig come to mind – but these two, celebrating their 25th vintage and 20th founding anniversary, represent the early starters in what was to soon become a boom, with roughly 50 to 60 newcomers entering the market every year. Each has packed so much into their 25 and 20 respective years, they do seem to have been around much longer.

Gary & Kathy Jordan celebrating 25 vintages of Jordan wines

Jordan was purchased by Ted and Sheelagh Jordan in 1982, selling grapes to other wineries until son, Gary with his wife, Kathy returned from a study/work stay in California, to produce the maiden vintage under the Jordan label in 1993.

Jordan as it was when purchased by Ted & Sheelagh Jordan

Accompanied by old photos of the farm, themselves and some of their long-time employees (thankfully, they decided against any of media and friends who’ve attended the annual harvest days!), the Jordans led the 25 year celebration with an informative and insightful presentation of what has been packed into those years.

Confidence in their ability to succeed and remaining true to the Jordan style have seen the winery, wines and sales increase. This doesn’t mean they’ve not moved with the times; for instance, all the wines now have names, not just plucked out of the air, but relating to some event on the farm – Long Fuse Cabernet – or person associated with South African wine – Inspector Péringuey Chenin Blanc. New challenges have also been embraced with enthusiasm and success, among them: High Timber, co-owned with charismatic Bloemfontein lass, Neleen Strauss; Nine Yards Travel, celebrating the whole of Africa and, most recently the purchase of Mousehall in Sussex, where the Jordans will produce English fizz and gin. Social upliftment is as important as new challenges; the dop system (payment in wine) was stopped as soon as they moved on the farm. All those workers moved out; many of the current staff have been on Jordan for most of if not all the 25 years.

Courtyard with familiar fountain on Waterford labels

Waterford, the 120 hectare hillside farm on the Helderberg, was founded by the Ord family with partner and Cellarmaster, Kevin Arnold, leading off with 1998 vintage. Six years to make the winery profitable was the requirement which initiated the Kevin Arnold Shiraz, then from bought in grapes, now part of the Waterford portfolio; this is joined by entry level Pecan Stream range, the Library Collection, a range of once-off experimental wines and headed by the sextet of Waterford Estate wines grown and made on the farm; cabernet sauvignon and the red blend, The Jem, the flagships. The cabernet has always been my favourite of the varietal wines, classic in its savouriness and understatement. All are now under the confident guidance of winemaker, Mark le Roux, who joined Waterford as Assistant Winemaker in 2009.

Waterford winemaker, Mark le Roux in grenache vineyard

The Jem is an interesting project, its goal an important one for South African wine. This red blend was designed to reflect the nature of the Helderberg; beyond the usual cabernets sauvignon and franc, petit verdot and merlot, shiraz, barbera, grenache, malbec, mourvèdre, sangiovese and tempranillo were planted. It took seven years of experiments to arrive at the maiden, 2004, released with a price tag of around R600. The price has now risen to R1100 but importantly, so has quantity while maintaining quality; there are 16 000 bottles of the Platter 5* 2012. Further increases will take it to 25 000 bottles with as many as 75 000 bottles possible. This steady growth on all counts from a producer with a track record is what will drive a broader and better image for South Africa.

Waterford has also been instrumental in driving the importance of wine tourism, the Cellar Door Experience in particular. For their excellence in this offering, they’ve received several awards.

The Jem, Waterford’s flagship red blend

In terms of the number of new producers on the South African scene over the past 20 to 25 years, Jordan and Waterford might seem like the old hands. In fact, they are still pretty young, but through their well-thought through planning and aim for quality in all they do, both have achieved an amazing amount in those relatively short years.

Vines are the same, requiring quality vine material, careful planning and attention to enable 35 year olds seem but at the start of their journey.

 

We’ve come a long way but there’s still a helluva long way to go.

Excellence at Gabriëlskloof

Top winemakers have many attributes, some learned, others intuitive. Being a member of a family with an enviable winemaking heritage is no hindrance either, though first choice of study was philosophy rather than wine for Peter-Allan Finlayson (son of Peter/Bouchard Finlayson, nephew of Walter founder of Glen Carlou and responsible for those wonderful early Blaauwklippen cabernets, and cousin of David/Edgebaston, Carolyn/Creation).

Peter Allan Finlayson – Tim James also taking a photo.

It also struck me, after last week’s long overdue visit to Gabriëlskloof to taste his own Crystallum wines as well as Gabriëlskloof flagship Landscape range, a top winemaker can produce quality beyond any particular comfort zone. (It is actually now three weeks, thanks to Telkom taking just over two weeks to repair and re-connect my landline and ADSL; apologies. Now everything’s up and running again, expect more blog activity!)

 

 

For the past ten years, Finlayson has been associated almost exclusively with chardonnay and pinot noir, the two varieties variously explored in his seven-wine Crystallum range. A few early vintages included sauvignon blanc, probably a cash-flow necessity but it was soon discontinued.

The move to expand his repertoire arrived mid-2014, when Finlayson added Gabriëlskloof winemaker to his portfolio; this property, just outside Bot River, is owned by his father-in-law, Bernhard Heyns with a handful of shareholders (including Finlayson and his wife, Nicolene).

On my first visit, many before Finlayson took over, I was sufficiently impressed by Magdalena, a sauvignon/semillon blend, named for Heyns teetotal sister (!), to purchase a few bottles. Finlayson’s 2016, showed at another level, a seamless integration of fresh and silky textures in its home-grown sauvignon with Franschhoek semillon melded in larger and older oak; the yellow citrus and honey flavours so subtle yet convincing.

Like his father, Finlayson gives the impression of being permanently laid-back; it’s a different matter when it comes to his wines, where he shows absolute focus and intent. Sensitivity to the fruit and its origins is further evident in Elodie, a Swartland chenin blanc, naturally fermented also in older oak. Both whites went through the acid softening malolactic process, inducing breadth but retaining a good drive of freshness and persuasive individuality.

Gabriëlskloof 2015 Landscape Syrahs on Sandstone & on Shale respectively

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by Finlayson’s first two syrahs, both homegrown 2015s, one from Sandstone, the other, Shale (they are so labelled); the former dark flavoured and denser, the latter all bright red fruit, spice with lovely, fine-grained tannin. So often winemakers with an understanding of pinot transmit it so well to syrah. And these are just the start:  2016s and 17s tasted from barrel promise even better.

We had, of course, enjoyed a few Crystallum Cuvée Cinema pinots to start: 2013 through to the new, Whole Bunch 2016, that’s 100% whole bunch as opposed to smaller percentages in 2015 and a separate bottling of 2016. Spending six weeks on the skins in a single topped 500L barrel, Whole Bunch is an energetic succulent youngster, worth waiting until it grows up. In the meantime, the black cherry perfumed 2014 charms with its elegance and freshness.

Marelise Niemann, creator of pure, restrained Momento wines

Both Marelise Niemann and John Seccombe (Momento Wines and Thorne & Daughters respectively), who make their wines in the Gabriëlskloof cellar, add to the general luster. Unfortunately, John was ill, but what a pleasure to get up to date with Niemann’s wines, styled with finesse and fruit purity, but never overtly fruity. From the regular Chenin Blanc-Verdelho, Grenache and Tinta Barocca, fruit for the last ex Beaumont, where she worked prior to going on her own; curious to think this lively, dry wine with its fruit cake fragrance is also majorly responsible for Beaumont’s Starboard, Platter’s Fortified Dessert Wine of the Year!

Niemann also introduced us to her new skin contact grenache gris from the Paardeberg. Given her wines’ general restraint, this was an intriguing move; would it be in a very different style? Not at all; the pinky/beige tinge and tannin squeeze on the 2017 barrel sample derive from three days pre-ferment on skins rather than fermentation. It falls in line with her other Momento wines, and should make an equally compatible partner with food.

Niemann  is also responsible for the new Anysbos wines, a neighbouring farm belonging to Heyns’ brother. He, apparently, prefers wines with a little more flourish; I’m sure Niemann will move out of her comfort zone with as much competence and success as Finlayson.

Gabriëlskloof is a rising star and should soon be as sought-after and appreciated as the other wines being created in this Overberg cellar.

Gabriëlskloof is also well-known for its olive oil. This 2 litre container is filled with a delicious, peppery style.

Working together (Part two)

Where to from here? There are reasons a-plenty why the years ahead should afford wine grape growers anxiety, the unprecedented drought just one.

A glance at the latest figures for Western and Northern Cape vineyards planted vs those uprooted, illustrates a level of disenchantment and lack of sustainability: since 2013, the annual shortfall has been around 1600 hectares.

Without giving precise figures, information from the Du Toitskloof team suggests their growers have a stable area under vine, with small pockets of citrus, kiwi fruit and mushrooms among other alternative crops grown. (Citrus is now a popular replacement for vines in the Robertson area.) Given Breedekloof’s aquifers, enough for irrigation even in the current drought, and the fertile soils, no general change to wine growing is foreseen. What is changing is the approach to viticulture; more suitable varieties being introduced; technology allowing for root depth manipulation and innovative canopy management all with the goal of producing higher yields of better quality and sustainability.

Quality and sustainability need to be complemented by better marketing. Over the past few years, a consortium of Breedekloof producers, both privately owned and producer cellars, have held a competition for chenin blanc, the most-planted variety in the area. The event appears to be well-organised and is beginning to attract some much-needed awareness of the area. The Du Toitskloof team not only see it as helping to generate more focus on quality but lifting the perception of the entire Breedekloof region as a brand. Their view is it could eventually lead to a collective Breedekloof brand, but it would need a collective mindset and collaboration.

The well-known Cape Agulhas lighthouse label on Lands End wines, now part of Du Toitskloof Winery stable.

It’s all a far cry from being nursed by the KWV. Some co-operatives have adapted better than others and even more adaptability is going to be required in future. What is going to be the situation in 2027; will there be even fewer wine growers, producer cellars and private ones too? Looking into their crystal ball, the team reckons sustainability will require more joint ventures establishing brands across price and quality points; even so, the market will largely dictate, as it does now but such brands would make it a far less confusing place. No change is envisaged for those sustainably established properties such as Kanonkop, Meerlust et al, which will continue to play an important role in supporting the positive image of Brand South Africa.

Du Toitskloof is already one of the leaders in establishing a collective brand different in several ways from their own. The Land’s End brand, with its well-known lighthouse label, was purchased in 2016. Fruit for both the sauvignon blanc and syrah will continue to be sourced from around the cool-climate, southern coastal area of Cape Agulhas and vinified at the Du Toitskloof cellar. (Rooiberg Winery is another, having purchased The Game Reserve conservancy range from Graham Beck Wines around the same time.)

Perhaps this is the future for many of the old co-ops, but come 2027, even if there are fewer wine growers, (as I suspect there will be), fewer producer and even private cellars due to closure or amalgamation, it will surely be the fittest, most market-savvy that survive, I expect to see Du Toitskloof among them.

Working together (part 1)

A while back, in one of his weekly articles for Decanter, Andrew Jefford wrote about a co-operative in the Languedoc. Remarking on the movement as a whole, he noted that it is not just ‘commercial entities with a social dimension, but collections of individual entrepreneurs who have agreed to pool resources and efface individuality for the common good.’

Although South Africa’s co-operatives were substantially structured along the lines of the French model, a major point of difference prior to the country’s re-admission to the international market in 1994 was they had a regulatory overlord. The KWV set minimum prices for both distilling and ‘good wine’ as well as implementing the quota system. Nothing incentivised quality, nor marketing and, if there was overproduction (aka a ‘surplus’), the KWV would mop it up, albeit at lower prices. Wine was sold via the KWV (both player and regulator!) to wholesalers, where it landed on retailers shelves under their own brands. A small quantity was bottled for their members’ consumption, some available from the cellar door, but selling on the open market was frowned on; that would offer competition to the hand that fed them.

The advent of democracy and opening up of international markets brought a rude awakening to the co-operatives; their KWV lifeline was cut, quality (including better-selling varieties) rather than quantity was demanded and there was competition to be faced, both locally and internationally.

Statistics tell how the co-operative scene changed. According to the KWV issued SA Wine Industry Statistics booklet dated 1996, there were 4634 wine producers (ie grape farmers), 71 co-operative cellars and 78 estate wineries, 105 private cellars and 93 889ha of wine grapes. By 2016, SAWIS (SA Wine Industry Information & Systems) statistics listed 3145 primary grape producers, 48 producer cellars (the old co-operatives), 493 private wine cellars and 27 producing wholesalers with 95 775 ha under wine grape varieties.

Figures cannot tell the whole story; it’s as much about the producer cellars’ ability to adapt to change in circumstances: some disappeared, some combined with others, some have carried on solo under their original name, though now as a company, the growers being co-owners or shareholders.

Interested to learn a little about how an ex-co-op has gone about change, I contacted the team at Du Toitskloof, a winery noted for its positive and dynamic approach to the changing conditions and market place. I’m grateful to Chairman, Johan de Wet, GM, Marius Louw and Bernard Kotze (not a man for titles, but best described as Brand Manager), who combined to answer my questions.

 

Spectacular view from Du Toitskloof Winery towards the Hex River mountains

One of Du Toitskloof’s major advantages is its location, the cellar complex being visible from the new N1 on the Worcester side of the Huguenot tunnel (apart from its own spectacular views); combine that with the name of the winery being the same as the brand gives consumers good reason to remember the name. The cellar is also recognised for consistency and value, further encouraging loyal fans. Visitors are greeted in a cheerfully decorated tasting area; a Melissa’s food shop is another attraction as are the summer picnics available. Rather than a workaday co-operative, the team believes winelovers’ impression is rather one of a large winery.

In fact, Du Toitskloof is of average size in terms of volume among local co-operatives; the annual production from the 22 members is around 15000 tons (or 12 million litres). Even then, the approach is on a smaller scale, similar to that of an estate. For example, site specific blocks are identified, appropriately managed and retained for the Select Vineyard range; regular awards have followed, a source of pride for everyone associated with the winery.

Pride was an issue raised in Jefford’s article; the director of the Languedoc co-operative was convinced of the value of co-operation but also noticed no one was proud of being in a co-operative; members didn’t want the word appearing on the labels.

In the old days, local co-ops had not much more to be proud of than big silver trophies on the Young Wine Shows, before the wine was swallowed up by wholesalers; now, pride and incentive for better quality comes from seeing their own brands on local and international wine shelves. Brand credibility also requires consistency; this is where working together pays dividends.

Sauvignon Blanc – one of the most popular wines in Du Toitskloof’s range.

For instance, a Du Toitskloof grower receives a premium for grapes considered good enough to be packaged rather than sold in bulk – around 60% of production is sold in bulk, mainly due to British and European wholesalers’ demand for quality Fairtrade wine. The goal is to sell more packaged wine, but the team admit markets dictate to a large extent on this issue.

From the cellar side, a high-tech make over has ensured the grapes receive optimum treatment to allow for quality wine. A high-tech cellar still requires a skillful and understanding cellarmaster; this Du Toitskloof have in Shawn Thomson, whose long tenure at the winery – he’s been there since 1999, taking over as Cellarmaster in 2011 – brings its own benefits. More recently, he’s had the opportunity to test his skills on grapes grown way beyond the winery’s Breedekloof borders; but that and some discussion of the future are for Part two.

Platter 2018

However rigorous and fairly set up a blind tasting may be, it is impossible to discount an element of luck (or lack of it) in the results.

Be that as it may, Bruwer Raats has put in a spectacular performance in Platter’s South African Wine Guide 2018, launched this evening at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town. His successes are thoroughly deserved: a quintet of five star wines and Winery of the Year under his own label; two in association with his cousin, Gavin Bruwer Slabbert under B Vintners Vine Exploration Co and last, but certainly not least, the iconic MR de Compostella, the result of a 13 year partnership with Mzo Mvemve. That’s an incredible eight five star wines Raats has a hand in. If there was a little luck, individual bottles of wine having their own say in matters, there’s definitely also a lot of understanding and skill from Raats. Bravo Bruwer and your partners too.

Platter 2018 – it’s red!

In any other year, Richard Kershaw MW (Richard Kershaw Wines) or Eben Sadie (whose Sadie Family Wines has already been a Winery of the Year), with four five star wines each, would have battled it out for top honours; they are also worthy awardees.

What the lack of a tie did avoid, yet again, was a decision from Platter editor, Philip van Zyl, about selection of Winery of the Year. I wrote last year; ‘But the format has always been the winery with the most number of five star wines, luckily there’s never been a tie … But the time has come to change this format.’ Despite several ideas put forward to both van Zyl and publisher, JP Rossouw, sadly lack of decision-making ruled and, although this year has provided a new and clear winner, rumbles of dissatisfaction continue from wineries with fewer wines in their range. Any producer who submits to Platter should have the chance of being awarded this honour. And to make it quite clear, I respect those, for whatever reason, who choose not to submit; it’s an entirely voluntary and free process, as sad as it is not to see a wider range of South Africa’s most exciting wines missing from Platter pages.

As for all those starry wines, chenin blanc again beat all-comers for most five stars; 17, a repeat of last year’s total. With that dominance – chardonnay was chenin’s closest white rival with nine – you could be forgiven for thinking the White Wine of the Year is most likely to emerge from those 17, but they were trounced by Chris Williams’ The Foundry Grenache Blanc 2015, one of a tiny handful of varietal grenaches, though adding character to and gaining popularity in white blends. Williams’ success not only gives grenache blanc a further boost but less mainstream varieties as well.

Less mainstream, but not niche; that descriptor I’d tag onto Craig Sheard’s Elemental Bob Grenache Blanc 2016, which includes some verdelho but, more importantly received skin contact, slotting it under the Alternative category. That five star award is another positive first for Platter.

A less positive move in my opinion, is to print scores out of 100 on the five star (95-100) and highly commended (94) seals. Firstly, it diminishes the five star rating (is it even relevant now?), always regarded as the ultimate rating in Platter, let alone the Wines of the Year, but it’s also confusing to have a score; most won’t understand how it’s arrived at and what about the lower star ratings. As a taster and someone who takes a lot of trouble in trying to convey the style and quality of each wine in (a very limited number of) words, I’m beginning to wonder whether actual notes are obsolete. I’ll watch reaction to this new move with interest but to my mind it’s ill thought-through, wasn’t conveyed to the tasters at any stage, and certainly doesn’t get my approval.

Less grumpily, I note there’s generally a good mix of varieties and styles across the five star board from MCC (I’m particularly happy to see three up there – it seems such a difficult style to find consensus) to Port styles. Sad not to see Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir there though; this breaks the wine’s record, consecutive eight year run of five stars since the maiden vintage.

My own input and that of two colleagues on the five star tasting was to determine which of 74 shirazes and 16 semillons deserved that valued rating: general positives in shiraz are less new oak and less extraction, allowing the wines a more natural, supple flow. On the downside, acid additions are often clumsy. Really pleasing is that the nine wines we selected come from both warm and cool climates, something they well express. We set an equally high bar for the semillons, a variety that tends to be unyielding in youth, a difficulty we did encounter; this didn’t stop us from giving enthusiastic nods to three (with a few more years on them, it could have been more) but all 16 showed distinctive style and great personality. It was a taxing yet fun two days.

One of the major lessons I learn from this annual tasting is generalising about a vintage is dangerous; most agree 2015 is excellent, producing ageworthy wines but there will always be exceptions. This edition’s Red Wine of the Year, Nederburg’s II Centuries Cabernet is a 2014 – there are others too from this talked-down red wine year – is a timely reminder that it often pays to follow individual producers rather than a vintage per se.

There are vintages, styles and producers a-plenty to choose from in this, the most numerous to date of five stars in Platter; 111 from just under 1000 in the blind tasting and around 7000 tasted sighted for the guide in total.

Congratulations to all.

WINERY OF THE YEAR

Raats Family Wines

RED WINE OF THE YEAR

Nederburg II Centuries Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

WHITE WINE OF THE YEAR

The Foundry Grenache Blanc 2015

DESSERT WINE OF THE YEAR

Klein Constania Vin de Constance 2013

FORTIFIED WINE OF THE YEAR

Beaumont Family Wines Starboard Dessert Wine NV

 

FIVE STAR WINES

 AA BADENHORST FAMILY WINES White 2015

 ALHEIT VINEYADS La Colline 2016

ALVIS DRIFT PRIVATE CELLAR Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc 2015

B VINTNERS

Harlem to Hope 2016

Liberte Pinotage 2016

BARTINNEY PRIVATE CELLAR Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

BEAUMONT FAMILY WINES

Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2016

Starboard NV

BELLINGHAM The Bernard Series Small Barrel SMV 2014

BOEKENHOUTSKLOOF WINERY Syrah 2015

BOTANICA WINES Mary Delaney Collection Chenin Blanc 2016

BOUCHARD FINLAYSON Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2015

CAPE CHAMONIX WINE FARM Troika 2015

CAPE POINT VINEYARDS Isliedh 2016

CAPE WINE COMPANY Erasmus Family 2015

CARINUS FAMLY VINEYARDS Rooidraai 2016

CEDERBERG PRIVATE CELLAR

Ghost Corner Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Shiraz 2015

COLMANT CAP CLASSIQUE & CHAMPAGNE Brut Chardonnay NV

CONSTANTIA GLEN Sauvignon Blanc 2017

CONSTANTIA UITSIG Semillon 2015

CREATION WINES The Art of Pinot Noir 2016

DASCHBOSCH Hanepoot 2015

DAVID & NADIA

Skaliekop Chenin Blanc 2016

Höe-Steen Chenin Blanc 2016

DE TRAFFORD  Blueprint Syrah 2015

DELAIRE GRAFF ESTATE

Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015

White Reserve 2015

Cape Vintage 2015

DEMORGENZON Chardonnay Reserve 2016

DONKIESBAAI Hooiwijn 2016

EAGLES’ NEST Shiraz 2014

EDGEBASTON David Finlayson ‘GS’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

EIKENDAL Charisma 2015

ELEMENTAL BOB Grenache Blanc 2016

FLAGSTONE WINERY Writer’s Block Pinotage 2015

GROOT CONSTANTIA ESTATE

Grand Constance 2015

Gouveneurs Reserve White 2015

HARTENBERG ESTATE Gravel Hill Shiraz 2013

HERMANUSPIETERSFONTEIN WYNKELDER Kat met die Houtbeen 2015

HIGHLANDS ROAD ESTATE Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2015

JC WICKENS WINES Swerver Red 2016

JORDAN WINE ESTATE

Insepector Péringuey Chenin Blanc 2016

Chardonnay Barrel-fermented 2016

JULIEN SCHAAL Confluence Chardonnay 2016

KAAPZICHT ESTATE The 1947 Chenin Blanc 2016

KANONKOP ESTATE Paul Sauer 2014

KLEIN CONSTANTIA ESTATE Vin de Constance 2013

KLEINE ZALZE WINES Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard Selection 2015

LANZERAC WINE ESTATE Pioner Pinotage 2015

LE SUEUR WINES Paradoks 2016

LINGEN Lingen 2014

LONGRIDGE WINE ESTATE Epliktika 2015

MILES MOSSOP WINES Kika 2016

MORESON Cabernet Franc 2015

MOUNT ABORA Koggelbos 2015

MULLINEUX & LEEU

Essence Straw Wine 2012

Straw Wine 2016

MURATIE WINE ESTATE Ansela van die Caab 2013

MVEMVE RAATS MR de Compostella 2015

NEDERBURG WINES

Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 II Centuries

Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot Private Bin 109 2014

NEIL ELLIS WINES Bottelary Hills Pinotage 2015

NICO VAN DER MERWE WINES Syrah 2015

OAK VALLEY ESTATE

Fountain of Youth Sauvignon Blanc 2017

Pinot Noir 2016

OLIFANTSBERG FAMILY VINEYARDS Blanc 2016

ORANGE RIVER CELLARS White Muscadel 2016

PASERENE Chardonnay 2015

PAUL CLUVER ESTATE WINES Close Encounter Riesling 2016

PERDEBERG WINES

Courageous Barrel-Fermented Chenin Blanc 2016

Longevity Natural Sweet Chenin Blanc 2015

PONGRACZ Desiderius 2009

RAATS FAMILY WINES

Original Chenin Blanc 2016

Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2016

Eden High Density Chenin Blanc 2015

Cabernet Franc 2015

Eden High Density Cabernet Franc 2015

REMHOOGTE WINE ESTATE Syrah 2015

REVERIE Chenin Blanc 2016

RICHARD KERSHAW WINES

Elgin Chardonnay 2016

Lake District Bokkeveld Shales CY95 Chardonnay 2016

Elgin Pinot Noir 2016

Elgin Syrah 2015

RIDGEBACK Signature C 2015

RUST EN VREDE ESTATE

1694 Classification 2014

Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

RUSTENBERG WINES Peter Barlow 2012

SADIE FAMILY WINES

Palladius 2016

Skurfberg 2016

‘T Voetpad 2016

Pofadder 2016

SAVAGE WINES White 2016

SHANNON VINEYARDS

Semillon 2016

Mount Bullet Merlot 2014

SPIER CWG Auction Reserve Frans K Smith 2013

STARK CONDE WINES Three Pines Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

STEENBERG VINEYARDS Lady R MCC 2012

STELLENRUST 52 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2016

THE FOUNDRY Grenache Blanc 2015

THE STELLENBOSCH RESERVE

Ou Hoofgebou Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Vanderstel 2015

THE WINERY OF GOOD HOPE Radford Dale Black Rock 2015

THISTLE AND WEED Duwweltjie 2016

TOKARA Noble Late Harvest 2016

TRIZANNE SIGNATURE WINES Syrah 2016

UVA MIRA MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS The Mira Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

VAN LOVEREN FAMILY VINEYARDS Christina van Loveren Sauvignon Blanc 2017

WARWICK ESTATE The White Lady Chardonnay 2016

WATERFORD ESTATE The Jem 2012

ZORGVLIET WINES Richelle 2015

 

The gentle kiss of semillon

Sit me down with someone who is enthusiastic about semillon and I’m happy. Sit me down with someone who’s even more enthusiastic about Hunter Valley semillon and I’m even happier. I think Bizoe Wines’ Rikus Neethling was surprised to find a fellow Hunter enthusiast here but when we got together over lunch, it allowed him to elaborate on his latest project, knowing his audience (me) understood what he was talking about and is familiar with the wines.

Rikus Neethling with his range of Bizoe wines

Before we got around to that discussion, Neethling poured his Henriëtta (named for his mother; the whole family is recognised in the range), a semillon-sauvignon blend, unlike most which see sauvignon the dominant variety.

As the style should, the older the wine, the more the semillon with its silky, textured feel, shines, sauvignon driving freshness in the background. It does have the ring of the more beeswaxy, earthy tones of old Franschhoek fruit, source of both varieties; the semillon from 21 year old vines on DP Burger’s property, Glenwood.

Henriëtta 2016 remains friskily fresh with just a wave of silky semillon peeping through at the end. Rather than oak, Neethling vinified half of the semillon in Flextank, an egg-shaped tank made of polyethelyne which allows for 20 mg per year of oxygen ingress; in other words, the effect of oak without any oak. The grape’s waxy breadth is more developed in the savoury 2015, probably encouraged by being oak fermented, though good vitality should allow for much more complexity of flavour and texture with age. It’s certainly the most harmonious of the trio, 2010 recognisably of a style, with supple breadth but short on the necessary freshness. Probably best to drink up soon. That said, the three vintages illustrated with interest the sort of progression and development one would anticipate.

We’ll have to wait and see how things or rather the wine evolves under Neethling’s new project, which is to produce a semillon ‘like those in the Hunter Valley’. What Neethling means is an early-picked, so lowish-alcohol (+-10%), unoaked white that turns from a youngster braced by fine, natural acid and a splash of citrus (a little like a youthful riesling, by which name the variety used to be known in the Hunter) into an altogether more amazing toasty character as it ages, fooling many into thinking it had a spell in wood.

Neethling was inspired by a recent visit to the region, where he had the opportunity to taste older vintages from Tyrrells, one of the leading semillon producers in the area. The current 2012 release of Tyrrells flagship Vat 1, one of the Hunter’s most admired semillons, sells for Aus$85 (just over R900!); amazingly, it is one of 11 semillons, either varietal or blended in the range.

Opened April 2017, this 32-year old Tyrrells semillon was still going strong.

Hunter Valley semillon is one of those strange wines, hugely popular with media (myself included) and a small number of consumers, but not understood by the wineloving public as a whole.

So, it’s going to be interesting to see how Neethling’s new wine, with fruit sourced from Darling bush vines as well as Glenwood, is received. If his attempt to create a South African version of Hunter Valley semillon raised one eyebrow, the other shot up when Neethling told me of his aim to release just 20% of each vintage each year, so the last tranche of 2018 will be five years old when it’s eventually released in 2023.

We are living in the age of innovation and bravado among South African winemakers and more open-minded wine drinkers. Rikus Neethling and his Bizoe wines (a new, still-tight chardonnay, Flextank, naturally-fermented, old oak-matured; an almost-too-easy Breedekloof shiraz and a Noble Late from, surprise, semillon complete the range) aren’t as high-profile as many other producers, this new project could make them more of a household name.

I, for one, shall follow the new project with interest and really hope it produces yet another talking point South African wine.

Celebrating 20 years of Stellenbosch cabernet

There must be many winemakers whose personalities are reflected in those of their wines; one who immediately springs to mind for me is Etienne le Riche. In the many years I’ve known Etienne, I’ve always seen him as having a quiet yet firm personality. This is also reflected in his wines, the cabernets especially, first at Rustenberg and, since 1997 under his own label.

Etienne & Christo le Riche

Throughout his winemaking career, Le Riche has stood by his three-pillar vision of quality, elegance and consistency; elegance, he explains is a wine with velvety softness and succulence more than extraction and high alcohols; consistency maintains quality while staying with modern trends, rather than producing wines of a sameness every year. The question of who decides on quality – the consumer, media or winemaker – was a pillar le Riche left hanging, but surely consistency itself is an important element.

Consistency of style was an issue his son, Christo le Riche picked up on at the family’s recent 20 year celebration. He took over the winemaking reins in 2010 and shares a similar philosophy as his father. It’s a year Le Riche jnr. describes as a tipping point, when the search started for their own piece of land. The following year, they purchased Raithby, a property on the lower slopes of the Helderberg but without any cabernet; fruit continues to be sourced from growers in Jonkershoek and Firgrove, with Simonsberg now added to the mix.

If Raithby doesn’t have cabernet vineyards, it does now have a cellar; a cellar specifically designed not to change the Le Riche style. ‘The open top fermenters have precisely the same dimensions as in our previous winery,’ Le Riche jnr. specified, ‘We also use our old 1940 press; it doesn’t break!’ The one change is more space, with sufficient concrete tanks to keep each batch separate.

Etienne & Yvonne testing the wines before the tasting.

The first crop processed through the new winery was in 2014, the vintage of the first red poured. Actually, we were welcomed with a glass of Le Riche Chardonnay 2016, a wine made every second vintage since 2006, but popularity has seen it a regular member of the range since 2014. It too keeps house-style restraint with just enough freshness, citrus, creaminess and oak (a portion only); a satisfying partner ‘to go with fish braais’, daughter, Yvonne explains why it was first made.

Richesse 2014, is cabernet-based with other Bordeaux varieties and 12% cinsaut, all older-oak matured. Cinsaut is famously associated with Le Riche senior and his Rustenberg Dry Reds; it is now also a favourite of his children, Yvonne researching the variety for her Cape Wine Master dissertation. It brings an appropriate touch of lightness to this juicy, fresh yet well-structured blend, providing harmonious pleasure now.

Like all the Le Riche wines, there is no impression of sweetness in the tail, let alone residual sugar; ‘A no, no,’ insists Le Riche senior, one of the reasons the reds often enjoy the elegance they do. High alcohol levels they do battle with, which was ‘more acceptable during Robert Parker’s heyday’, acknowledges Le Riche snr., but since the trend has swung back to more moderate levels, and partly through improved viticulture (though the bulk of the cabernet comes from the same vineyards as it did in 1997), there is an ongoing effort to rein back.

Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; on right, 2014 with refurbished label .

While trying to keep alcohol levels under control, there’s a gentle approach in the cellar, which paid dividends particularly in a difficult year like 2014. What enjoyment there’s to be found in both the regular cabernet and the Reserve from that year. A natural freshness highlighting the fruit and rounded firmness in the former; engaging plush cabernet aromas with fruit-laden tannins in the latter. Stellenbosch does come under fire for its cabernets but certainly shouldn’t for these.

The regular cabernet 2005 provided another positive surprise. A hot, dry year that, when I held a tasting of some ten-year-old wines, didn’t generally inspire; we had anticipated much better. Now, 12 years on, Le Riche Cabernet still has freshness to lift its rich fruit.

Making up the mini-vertical were 2009 cabernet, webbed in tannin, so needing time; Reserves from 1999 (a Platter 5* as the standard, which le Riche then up-graded, not wanting the Reserve to appear the lesser wine, if you understand; a move disapproved of by many), with interesting maturity but ready and 2007 as well as the CWG Auction Reserve 2011. The last two, CWG in particular (due to a now unusual showing of new oak and lack of harmony, but also from a less than memorable red wine vintage) the only disappointments. I’m happy to say the 2014 CWG Auction Reserve is on a par with the 2014s tasted.

I think Le Riche father and son well summed up this family partnership at the end of the tasting. In relation to blending, but applicable to their whole winemaking approach, Etienne offered; ‘We have discussions, not arguments’, while Christo noted sagely; ‘A lot has changed over the past 20 years, but nothing is new.’ I guess the Le Riche family will be saying the same in 2037!

A new lease of life

When virtually all wine purchased is opened and consumed within 24 hours, the concept of maturing bottles for years, let alone having them re-corked after decades, must seem a weird idea. But there are some of us with private cellars who do indeed keep wines for years; there are also wineries, though not enough, who keep a library of their wines. These may be used in tastings, on auction or even to sell to private customers.

In all cases, wine needs proper storage to ensure a healthy maturity. One requirement is sufficient humidity, around 70%-plus, to keep the cork’s elasticity and provide a near perfect seal.

Having written that, corks have changed a lot over the years. At the old wine tasting held prior to the Trophy Wine Show, there are always bottles where the cork is no more than a crumbly mess, but the wine itself often in fine shape, even though it perhaps wasn’t intended to reach such an age intact! Both white and red wines often exceed the respective minimum of 15 and 25 years of age set for this exercise.

Venerable red wines opened at the Old Wine tasting. It is wines like these that are part of Amorim’s re-corking project.

Today, wine producers who use natural cork and cork producers themselves are far more conscious of using the right cork for the purpose. Even so, natural cork doesn’t last for ever. ‘It will lose some of its natural elastic memory over the decades,’ confirms Joaquim Sá, MD of Amorim Cork South Africa; ‘it won’t give as tight a seal and could lead to the wine’s slow evaporation.’

This was an introduction to a conversation I had with Sá about a re-corking project Amorim have begun recently in South Africa. Presently, this service is not generally available but contained to assisting a few wineries, including the famous Tabernacle at Distell, restore their wine libraries. It is a service that requires skill and time.

Internationally, re-corking is nothing new: Penfolds is well-known for travelling the world with its re-corking clinic. Both Port and Bordeaux producers re-cork after around 20 or 30 years, although Sá admits it’s on the decline because of the risk of counterfeiting.

Corks – new & old, removed from bottles of Klein Constantia stored on the farm.

The project grew legs – or new corks – as do many things these days, via social media, after Sá posted a photograph on Facebook of re-corking at Port producer, Grahams. His visit there to study the process, of which he knew little, was inspired by Danie de Wet, who asked Sá to re-cork an 19th century bottle of Constantia (Vin de Constance today’s version).
After his Facebook post, messages showing interest soon arrived from winemaker/sommelier/general man-of-wine, Jean-Vincent Ridon and Dalene Steyn, Business Manager of Nederburg Auction and involved with the Tabernacle, where the old wines of former Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery are stored (and famous, I believe, for great tastings!).

Ridon was a natural to be involved, having extensive experience in re-corking and re-conditioning wines in France and South Africa. Re-conditioning?

Sá says all the wines opened and tasted at the Tabernacle have been in good condition, if with a slight drop in ullage after 50-or-so years in the bottle. One of the opened bottles of a particular wine is selected to top up others of the same wine; these are then given a light dose of sulphur and closed with new ‘NDTECH, TCA free guaranteed corks,’ Sá notes. Since many of the old bottles have necks unable to accommodate the long corks we’re used to today, these are shorter.

Removing the old cork (sometimes in an unstable condition), cleaning bottle necks to remove particles accumulated over decades, topping, sulphuring and re-corking can take up to 20 minutes per bottle. Care also has to be taken not to expose the wine to oxygen. Skill is indeed a prime necessity!

Jean Vincent Ridon recorking Oude Libertas Cinsaut 1971 Photo courtesy of Amorim & Danie Nel Photography

Throughout the re-corking process, the winemaker has to be present and, after tasting the wine, give a final decision on whether it is worth a new cork. I guess the same would be true of the owner of the wine, if this project were ever to be made available to the general public.

Counterfeiting became a focus with Rudy Kurniawan, the wine connoisseur and collector, who consigned to auction top-name Burgundies and Bordeaux which turned out to be fake. It remains a sensitive issue worldwide.

Amorim is ensuring there can be no doubts about authenticity of the wines which are part of their re-corking project. ‘Each cork will be printed with a unique code validating the re-corking, including place and date,’ advises Sá, adding; ‘this information will be visible as a short capsule will be placed over the top of the bottle.’ A hologram sticker with a unique alpha-numeric code for tracking purposes will also be attached to each bottle. Once Amorim’s tracking system is set up on their website, entering this code will authenticate the re-corking process.

Of course, there’s a cost involved; one that will be variable, depending on the condition of the wine, but will include the new cork, capsule, sticker and labour.

This service would seem a must for any winery or restaurant with a vinoteque storing older wines, as strange as such idea might seem to the individual whose yesterday’s wine purchase now sits empty on the kitchen counter.

Meantime, I’m going to have a look through my old wines …..