Category Archives: News

First come, first served?

Having a problem buying wine? Walk into a wine retailer, supermarket or other liquor store and you’ll be faced with shelves of bottles, boxes and cans, so, where’s the problem? Remember the alcohol ban in 2020 and consequent unsold millions of litres; surely there can’t be a shortage.

Of those various containers lining the shelves above, there is no general shortage but when it comes to limited production wines and, especially those from a single vineyard, the situation can be very different.

Chasing popular wines is nothing new. Remember when Thelema released their sauvignon blanc on 1st July (I think it was) every year; a month or six weeks later it was all sold. Knowing the release date of course kept everyone on their toes; fewer producers have as regular a release date these days, Kanonkop Paul Sauer being an exception (1st July) with much the same result as Thelema.

Since the law was changed to allow for single vineyard wines, they have become trendy and more have come onto the market; by their nature the wines are limited, originating as they do from that one block only. Given the vagaries of nature, from drought and heat at one end of the scale to untimely rain and rot at the other, yields can vary widely in quantity and quality. Limited production is often the cautious approach taken by winemakers branching out on their own and untested in the market, if for no reason other than lack of finance. Have your maiden vintage highly rated and widely spoken about and that limited production is likely soon snapped up.

While we’re not yet in the same situation as many high-profile Californian wineries, where there’s a waiting list to get onto the mailing list and a few, precious bottles often at astronomic prices, we are already experiencing a system of allocation. Allocation can be a tricky business, no one wants to alienate customers but how to keep everyone happy? Different approaches are taken as to who receives what/how much of their wine. As the scramble for high quality, limited wines grows, the issue is going to become more pertinent.

My instinct is to honour loyalty first; those who’ve followed a winery and bought their wine regularly from the start deserve to reap the benefits of their constancy. The same with retailers who themselves receive allocations; honour customers who give you their custom beyond these scarce gems. In a less than generous vintage that can mean receiving fewer bottles than usual, a solution I don’t think anyone should complain about (that happened with Duncan Savage’s fabulous Girl Next Door Syrah last year). Rather retain loyal customers than spread the wine further afield with no guarantee of a follow up sale the next year.

Ryan Mostert’s latest release is long-awaited Terracura Trinity Syrah 2017

My personal allocation experiences recently include the long-awaited release of Ryan Mostert’s Terracura Trinity Syrah 2017, a wine I first encountered and loved at Tim Atkin’s top rated wines on his 2019 South Africa Report. With just 360 bottles produced of this single vineyard wine, equitable distribution was going to be difficult to say the least. The offer that came through this week was for a case of 12 bottles, six each of the regular Syrah 2017 (a very smart wine itself) and six Trinity. Normally, these days I buy a maximum of three bottles, (mainly as there are so many great wines I’d like to buy!) but I wasn’t going to miss out on Trinity. Luckily I found someone to share the case with me.

Sam Lambson’s Stars in the Dark 2020 & Experimental Semillon ex Elgin

Thanks to being on his mailing list, I was also offered and bought the latest vintage of Sam Lambson’s Stars in the Dark Syrah, which hit the headlines when Neal Martin, highly-respected taster, waxed lyrical about the 2019. Sam’s production is tiny, so I guess the new 2020 won’t be available long. I don’t know whether joining this mailing list requires anything more than signing up; my point is, it records an interest and, once wines have been purchased should help when the fan queue grows.

Sadie Family Wines Mev Kirsten one of Ouwingerds range

The (Eben) Sadie’s approach has been refined over the years, as demand for the wines, especially Ouwingerds range, has increased. These are all single vineyard wines, many dryland old vines growing in isolated places with low rainfall; the recent drought even forced Eben to drop all the grapes from ‘T Voetpad in order to save the vines. Skurfberg yielded 30% of its usual Chenin crop in 2019. Sharing the wines fairly has to be a nightmare and that’s just among importers and those, including retailers, on the closed mailing list. Covid prevented the usual pre-sales tasting last year, it was left to getting in one’s order pronto on the designated morning at 8am sharp (no earlier).  This method was not without stress in the Sadie office, so this year, what one purchased last year became your allocation for this year. There are a small group who buy a case of each wine every year, but I’m sure there are others like me who buy one or two cases based on which wines have particular appeal each vintage. I’ve yet to hear reaction to this revision from others whose buying approach has been like mine.

While first come, first served is possible for many and many good wines, keen wine lovers are going to have to listen closely to the grapevine and act quickly to secure the growing number of fabulous, tiny quantity gems.

#Rieslingrising

We were entering uncharted territory; who can remember a comprehensive tasting of South African riesling – ever? Our goal was nothing less than Rieslings from every local producer (eventually for the sake of keeping the event to two days, Noble Late Harvests were left for lunch only)

Can riesling be so under-appreciated when we tracked down 36 current producers some making more than one?  A few others dabbled with the variety in the past.

Why Riesling? Daryl Balfour started the ball rolling when, sometime in spring 2020, he commented how Jessica Saurwein’s Chi Riesling excited him about South African rieslings’ development. When he’s not photographing wildlife, Daryl pursues his other passion, wine; no surprise his thoughts didn’t lie idle. As a fellow riesling enthusiast and based in the Cape rather than Nelspruit, my role was clearly practical.

Post-tasting discussion. Clockwise from Koen Roose standing, Penny Setti, Francois Haasbroek, me, Daryl Balfour, Wesley du Plessis, Ken Forrester, Norma Ratcliffe

Riesling has never received the respect it deserves here. Whenever it was introduced to these shores, and there’s as much debate over that as with many other varieties, by the 1940s Johann Graue was producing rieslings at Nederburg (see Phillida Brooke Simons’ Nederburg The First Two Hundred Years). Until 2010, riesling was obliged to take either Rhine or Weisser as a qualifier to differentiate it from Cape Riesling or, more correctly, Crouchen.

The 2000s began South Africa’s modern golden age; the youngsters, carrying no baggage of the past, were busy creating wines according to their own styles and standards. Serious producers of riesling wanted that rightful name returned. Paul Cluver and Gary Jordan of the eponymous wineries as well as Lowell Jooste, then owner of Klein Constantia, lobbied the authorities for change with support from other riesling fans. Their lobbying paid off: from 2010 vintage, riesling has been allowed; Cape riesling has had to take its proper name, crouchen.

This acknowledgement of riesling stimulated renewed interest in quality; quantity will always remain niche. Riesling currently covers 126 hectares, just .14% of our 92 000 ha under vine; a tiny area that is widely, if thinly, spread over the winelands from Outeniqua to Breedekloof. Its heartland lies in Elgin, a seemingly natural home for the 26.5 ha, as we discovered at #rieslingrising, the event that culminated in Daryl’s musing on Jessica’s Chi Riesling.

Thanks to Ken Forrester, 18 riesling enthusiasts assembled at 96 Winery Road on 21st and 22nd May (most attended both days) to taste and discuss riesling in South Africa.

Some rieslings on #rieslingrising tasting

For context but not comparison, four international rieslings introduced the event (the full list with flights from both days is included at the end); the Trimbach and J J Prum especially underlined ageability as an important quality factor. Tension and tautness, like the tightest wire on the piano, are part of ageability; think low pH, high acid and balanced residual sugar. ‘Don’t taste analysis’, I requested before the tasting; often a wine technically off-dry tastes drier thanks to that core tension.

Spioenkop’s Koen Roose told the audience among his requirements for quality riesling are a cold environment, allowing slow development in small bunches with more expression grown on vines where vigour is restrained. ‘Also important is harvesting around 18 to 21 Balling with a low pH, mine comes in around 2.9 pH’ added Jessica Saurwein. Ripeness and spontaneous fermentation were mentioned as important for true riesling character. ‘Pick ripe and do nothing,’ is Leon Coetzee of The Fledge & Co’s advice.

Where wines didn’t hit that tightrope tension, the acid appears looser, the wines less integrated, especially noticeable in lower acid wines.

The intention of #RieslingRising was an exploration not a judgemental event nor a competition. There were marked differences between what were considered excellent rieslings, those that should age with benefit (‘One should expect at least 15 years,’ is restaurateur, Harald Bresselschmidt’s view) and others of sound riesling character but of a more commercial style. Lime, spice and, in some, a little terpene are most often noted flavours.

If there was doubt about Harald’s 15 year ageability span, even in some of the highly-regarded examples, there was one wine that amazed all who tasted it with lunch. Ruiterbosch Mountain Cuvée Rhine Riesling 1992 came from vineyards planted above Mossel Bay by Danie and his son, Carel Nel of Boplaas. Sadly, weather and logistics resulted in them being pulled up after a few years, but this riesling was testament to both site and winemaking

Other than Elgin, only Stellenbosch and Darling mustered enough rieslings for a dedicated flight, two in Stellenbosch’s case. Long-time and well-regarded producers, Thelema, Jordan and Hartenberg (especially 2013) proved their consistency and the validity of their specific terroirs; due to demand for The Real McCoy, Jordan does incorporate a little fruit from both Elgin and Hemel en Aarde. Darling was more difficult to pin down; different fruit expressions and good drinking is probably the best summary.

Most regions outside of Elgin and Stellenbosch have just one producer; there can be little conclusion as to riesling’s future there. That said, there was appreciation for Herold from Outeniqua and La Vierge from Hemel en Aarde Ridge.

Quality is but one aspect of a riesling renaissance, marketing is vital. The good news is that, thanks to this event, the Riesling Association is being revived. Francois Haasbroek suggested riesling needs regional championing, as happens in Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia. Elgin should stand up here.  

What riesling doesn’t need is the same approach as chenin blanc and some of the artificial prices asked. As Ken Forrester reminded us, for every seven bottles of sauvignon blanc, one bottle of chenin is sold. People don’t ask for riesling automatically in restaurants, Harald noted, but they do enjoy it when part of a tasting menu. One of riesling’s assets, whether dry or with some residual sugar, is its compatibility with many foods, as proved by Ken’s Riesling-inspired three-course menu after the tasting.

If enjoyment and discussion were criteria for success, then #rieslingrising succeeded. Let’s hope the momentum continues.

Rieslings for tasting and lunch

Day One Flight One – INTERNATIONAL

  1. Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2018 Australia TA 6.4 RS 0,9 g/l
  2. Framingham Classic Riesling 2018 Marlborough New Zealand TA 7.1 NO RS listed
  3. Trimbach Riesling Reserve 2017 Alsace France Dry
  4. Joh. Jos. Prüm Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlese 2015

Flight Two – ELGIN

  1. Minimalist ExperiMENTAL 2019 WO Elgin TA 7.58 RS 1.86 g/l
  2. Francois Haasbroek Riesling 2016 WO Elgin TA 7.6 RS 1.5 g/l
  3. Lothian Vineyards Riesling 2018 Limited Release WO Elgin

TA 7 RS 2.00 g/l

  • Spioenkop Riesling 2011 WO Elgin TA 8 RS 4.9 g/l

Flight Three – STELLENBOSCH

  1. Van Wyk Family Vineyards Riesling NV WO Stellenbosch TA 6.3 RS 1.00 g/l
  2. Neethlingshof Estate Ode to Nature Riesling 2018 WO Stellenbosch

TA 5.2 RS 3.3 g/l

  • Hartenberg Estate Riesling 2013 WO Stellenbosch TA 5.9 3.5 g/l
  • Hartenberg Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.1 RS 6.2 g/l

Flight Four – ELGIN

  1. Catherine Marshall Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 6.4 g/l
  2. Saurwein Chi Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7 RS 7.8 g/l
  3. Vrede en Lust Early Mist Riesling 2017 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 9.4 g/l
  4. BLANKbottle Hinterhofkabuff 2012 WO Elgin TA 5.88 RS 13.97 g/l

Flight Five – COOLER REGIONS

  1. La Vierge Last Temptation Riesling 2016 WO Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge

TA 6.5 RS 2.5 g/l

  • Klein Constantia Estate Rhine Riesling 2009 WO Constantia

TA 7 RS 4.1 g/l

  • Klein Constantia Estate Riesling 2016 WO Constantia TA 6.1 RS 6.3 g/l
  • Nitida Riesling 2020 WO Durbanville TA 7.3 RS 9.3 g/l

Day Two Flight One – ELGIN

  1. Oak Valley Stone & Steel Riesling 2019 WO Elgin TA 6.7 RS 4.1 g/l
  2. The Fledge & Co Riesling 2018 WO Elgin TA 6.8 RS  4.7 g/l
  3. Meinert The German Job Riesling 2016 WO Elgin TA 7.2 RS 4.9 g/l
  4. Sutherland Riesling 2019 WO Elgin TA 6.7 RS 5.2 g/l

Flight Two – DARLING

  1. Illimis 2017 Riesling WO Darling TA 6.6 RS 1.5 g/l
  2. Cape Collective Riesling 2018 WO Darling TA 6.8 RS 4.5 g/l
  3. Groote Post Riesling 2019 WO Darling TA 7.2 RS 9.7 g/l
  4. Fairview Darling Riesling 2020 WO Darling TA 5.5 RS 11.2 g/l

Flight Three – STELLENBOSCH

  1. Remhoogte Free To Be Weisser Riesling 2019 WO Stellenbosch

TA 5.5 RS 5.2 g/l

  • Jordan The Real McCoy Riesling 2019 WO Western Cape TA 7 RS 7.7 g/l
  • Thelema Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.9 RS 7.3 g/l
  • Thelema Rhine Riesling 2009 WO Stellenbosch TA 6.6 RS 10.7 g/l

Flight Four – OTHER REGIONS

  1. Herold Weisser Riesling 2019 WO Outeniqua TA 7.9 RS 2.4 g/l
  2. De Wetshof Estate Riesling 2013 WO Robertson TA 7.3 RS 9 g/l
  3. De Wetshof Estate Rhine Riesling 2007 WO Robertson TA 5.7 RS 17.2 g/l
  4. Bergsig Estate Weisser Riesling 2020 WO Breedekloof TA 6.4 RS 7.3 g/l

Flight Five – SWEETER STYLES

  1. Paul Cluver Riesling 2020 WO Elgin TA 7.4 RS 16.44 g/l
  2. Woolworths Paul Cluver Ferricrete Riesling 2018 WO Elgin

                                                                                                  TA 7.9 RS 19.6 g/l

  • Paul Cluver Riesling Close Encounter 2016 WO Elgin TA 9.3 RS 37.9 g/l
  • Hartenberg Occasional Riesling 2017 WO Stellenbosch TA 7.64 RS 20 g/l

Family matters

The recent 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Stellenbosch Wine Route was a reminder of the importance of family wineries. The three involved in this South African pioneering tourism venture were all owned and run by families: Simonsig and Delheim still are, whilst Spier is owned by the Eindhoven family but they are less present than Neil Joubert, then owner and third founding member of the Wine Route. A visit to a family-run winery is a personal affair, especially when one meets and is welcomed by family members, young children too and the obligatory dogs and other animals; such a visit triggers an unforgettable memory and desire to buy the wine in future.

Several wineries have enjoyed ownership by the same family over generations: the van Veldens of Overgaauw are now 4th generation, while the de Waals of Uiterwyk go back nine generations. Then there are descendants from the early Huguenots to arrive here, who are still involved with wine: Bruwer, de Villiers, du Preez, du Toit and Viljoen are all familiar names associated with South African wine.

While some children are absorbed into the family farm, offspring of others branch out, spreading the good family name across the winelands. This is very much the case with the Finlaysons. The first Finlayson on the family tree to make a name for wine, was Dr Maurice Finlayson & his wife, Eleanor, who bought Hartenberg in 1948. Perhaps too long ago for many to remember, but surely his winemaker sons, Walter and Peter are familiar to today’s wine lovers.

I met Peter when he was at Boschendal, which must’ve been in the early 1970s, as he joined Tim Hamilton-Russell when the latter founded Hamilton-Russell Vineyards in 1975. Walter and his wife, Jill, came onto my radar a few years later, when he became winemaker at Blaauwklippen, owned by friends Graham & Trish Boonzaaier. Those late 1970s and early 1980s cabernets were the stuff dreams were made of and would stand with today’s best Stellenbosch cabernets. Walter and I went on to found the Blaauwklippen Blending Competition in 1984. The following year, Walter and a Johannesburg partner founded Glen Carlou; the Finlaysons moved there in 1989 with 1988 the first bottling.

Those who had enjoyed Walter’s wines at Blaauwklippen, followed him to Glen Carlou, which soon became a must-visit cellar. Some ten years’ later, Walter had been joined by and was handing over to the next generation of Finlaysons, son David, who went onto establish his own winery Edgebaston. Meanwhile, at Glen Carlou, a new partner had joined Walter in ownership, Donald Hess of Hess Collection Winery in California. Further down the line, Walter retired, David left to concentrate on his own winery, handing over winemaking to his assistant, Arco Laarman. Hess sold to a local consortium, Arco left to start his own range – and so the personality of the family, the Finlaysons in this case, was lost.

I admit my interest in the farm had dwindled but recently, I was very happy to receive latest vintages of the two single vineyard wines to try: Quartz Stone Chardonnay 2020 and Gravel Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon 2018.

The chardonnay is brilliant; if my increasing enjoyment over five days is any indication as to its potential, it’s worth maturing for five years at least (Selling for R340 ex-cellar, one would hope buyers aren’t in too much of a hurry). The welcome trend to freshness is evident in the tightly-woven corset of steely acidity but even this fails to obscure the plump, tropical citrus flavours and creamy lees with a subtle bush of toasty oak.  

Gravel Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 does seem to be a victim of the difficult vintage. There is some promising fruit, sound cabernet dark soft berries and tangy blackcurrants but they are pushed aside by alcohol and an intimidating acidity (The R440 price tag is also a little scary). My usual method of trying the wine over several days brought it no closer to harmony, though the flavours did increase to some degree. I’d suggest caution in lengthy ageing.

It took the kindness of Glen Carlou and winemaker, Johnnie Calitz to remind me of two of the farm’s top wines, ones I used to be familiar with under the Finlayson ownership.

What this reminds me is of the importance of wineries having a human face, a link between the winery and its customers, a link which imbues the winery with personality and thus more of a trigger for wine lovers to return and build a long-term relationship.

Family-owned wineries especially, if not exclusively, are in a position to create this important and valuable human face.

Stellenbosch memories

At the end of 1985, as I contemplated the deep plunge from salaried employee to the variable income of a freelancer, my intention was to take whatever work came my way.

For once, I was in a ‘right place, right time’ scenario; writing commissions flowed in – there were few independent writers then. But I didn’t want to get tied down without exploring all possible options, variety was most definitely the spice of life.

An offer from Stellenbosch Wine Route (just the one back then) to run their Vineyard Trail walk celebrating the Route’s 15th anniversary, was just the sort of variety I was after.

The Vineyard trail was a lengthy if stunningly beautiful walk from Papegaaiberg (remember when it was covered in pine trees?) along the Bottelary Hills to Kuils River, taking in many vistas and vineyards along its 24 kms. I remember walking the whole route with a group led by Etienne le Riche; the Stellenbosch Wine Route event promised a more leisurely, less exhausting 10 kms, ending at Stevie Smit’s stone hut at the top of Bottelary Kop.

A walk, however dazzling the scenery, is still a walk and some need motivation; another attraction was needed.

As a child, my father used to compile a treasure hunt for my birthday, observed in summer, rather than its actual winter celebration. Dad was brilliant at dreaming up cryptic clues (rhymes or the like) which kept us youngsters running around trying to find the hiding place of a clue from the one we’d just discovered. A great barbeque was our reward.

A treasure hunt was my suggested fun component to the walk, one readily agreed to by those in charge. Now, I had to organise it and the clues; what had I let myself in for? The incentive to get to the end, as with my birthday parties, was, in this case, a braai; further encouragement for walkers came from various Wine Route members stationed along the way, offering their wines and other refreshments. The map shows each winery’s spot en route.

Dreaming up clues required walking those 10kms, looking for suitable landmarks. We ended up with 20, starting with ‘How long does it take for a good winemaker to rot away?’ The walk started behind Oude Libertas near the graveyard; not difficult to make the link and find the drum with the next clue. And so on. Some were in Afrikaans. My favourite (and a phrase I often use) ‘Moenie ‘n draadsitter wees nie’, obviously next to a fence that needed negotiating! With each clue, walkers had to answer a question about members of the Wine Route with the incentive of a case of wine as prize.

Armed with Passport (proof of payment – R11 pp! – and identity), Stellenbosch Wine Route sun hat and brochure, as well as all-important plasters, around 100 enthusiastic participants gathered at Oude Libertas Centre at 8am on Saturday, 5th April 1986, where Spatz Sperling fired the starting gun. As far as I remember it was a glorious autumn day.

Vineyard Trail map with Wine Route members tasting stations

Some found it difficult to get their heads around the clues and how they worked, but that and blisters didn’t spoil the fantastic gees with everyone making it to Stevie’s stone hut, lunch and generous quantities of delicious Stellenbosch wine.

It involved a lot of hard work and planning but was one of the most enjoyable events, allowing wine lovers to see Stellenbosch from a different perspective while enjoying its wines.

Stellenbosch Wine Routes today is too big for anything similar but there must be other fun ways of showing off Stellenbosch from a different perspective. Creative souls out there?

As much as I enjoyed being involved with the Vineyard Trail Treasure Hunt, which did generate plenty of media coverage, I decided it had to be either PR or writing, both couldn’t gel. Writing won.

Cape Vintners Classification

Possibly the Cape Vintners Classification requirement that would be the easiest for the consumer to understand is that relating to the wines’ consistency. To qualify for the CVC seal, five vintages of a wine have to reflect uniformity of variety or style, if a blend, terroir and quality as assessed by a panel, including independent judges.

Twenty two of these accredited wines (11 pairs of a young and older wine), from 11 producer members were presented to guests including media, retailers and WOSA, at Kanonkop last week.

To a certain extent, all fulfilled that goal, some with more conviction than others. Anthonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope Van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc 2017 and 2019 provided a positive start, showing natural freshness, vitality, a bit of grip and subtle yet concentrated flavours, as reflected in many Skurfberg chenins.

Lourensford Viognier was less successful, possibly because of some differing vinification methods. I didn’t have a chance to try the Cap Classique served as a welcome drink.

Of the chardonnays, the pair that gave me most pleasure were the De Wetshof Bateleur 2018 and 2009, which clearly reflect the same site – showing bright lemon and chalky textured – they also benefit from vine age, the vineyard,  planted in 1987, was one of the earliest. A less heavy hand with oak, especially in the younger wine, enhances their distinction. If I didn’t care so much for the Almenkerk, nor DeMorgenzon, both presented 2014 and 2018, the wines maintained the seal’s objective.

Tasting is subjective and I know Diemersdal pinotage wasn’t popular with everyone, yet the 2017 and 2019 were of a family, one in riper, juicier mode with fragrant raspberry flavours and telling yet well-formed tannins.

It was difficult to say whether Groot Constantia Gouveneurs Reserve Red 2006 and 2017 follow the required pattern, as the former had the typical tomato-leaf notes of stressed, virused vines. By 2017, new cleaner vine material was producing the purer, riper fruit one might expect..

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1995 and 2017; need more be said. Well, yes, the ’95 does. I’ve had two bottles recently, one corked and the replacement, not entirely clean. This third was, thankfully, perfect, as was 2017, my first taste of this vintage. It’s a glorious wine, beautifully balanced, precise, fragrant fruit, seamlessly enjoyable now but with a great future.

Morgenster Estate 2003 has also matured excellently with lead pencils bouquet, cabernet-led structure, well-fleshed tannins and properly dry. The younger 2018, which includes petit verdot with dab, merlot and cab franc, seems fleshier, less austere and bigger but also the framework for ageing.

Vergelegen GVB 2001, this bottle at least, has reached the end of its life, noticeably drying out; 2015 more than makes up for it with gorgeous cedary scents, fresh and silky blackberry flesh and polished tannin support.

The final pairing was the most interesting, simply because of the odd bed-fellows. Waterford The Jem mixes Bordeaux varieties (mainly cabernet) with Rhône (Shiraz, mourvèdre) with Italy (sangiovese, barbera). Percentages don’t differ that much in 2005 and 2015; but the former seems more cabernet-oriented, 2015 with more spice, suppleness and Rhône-like. Most attractive and intriguing.

Back to the meeting and its main purpose: an update from CVC Chairman, Johann Krige on recent developments in this body, which has slumbered for some eight years since its premature launch.

So what is meant by ‘member’, ‘regulations’ and ‘seal’?

CVC seal which may be applied to accredited wines

There are currently 15 members; In addition the above farms, Delaire Graff, Lanzerac, Simonsig and Wildekrans are also part of the group. Criteria for becoming a member include grapes have to come from a vineyard owned by the producer or under a long-term agreement (it used to require the property to be registered to produce Estate wine but that was dropped.) The origin is important in order for the wine to reflect a sense of terroir, the distinction and consistency required to qualify for the seal, which confirms success in the five-year tasting.

I asked Johann Krige how many wines have failed this tasting; without having exact figures, he reckons about 40%, which does suggest a credible level of rigour.

Farming in an environmental sustainable way, and ethical treatment of all involved, whether on the home farm or outside vineyard are required; so IPW and WIETA accreditation are necessary.

Harking back to the old Estate system, parts of which the CVC has carried over, the farm has to have a cellar and a tasting room whose ‘facilities exceed global expectations’, however those are defined.

If the goal of raising South Africa’s image for wines of distinction and priced accordingly, that is admirable and as it should be, but if the concept remains complicated to those who attended the briefing, then it must mean little to nothing to the average consumer. One only has to think of the Old Vine Project and Chenin Blanc Association, how both have been understood and enthusiastically taken up by consumers, to realise that the ‘keep it straight and simple’ message regularly conveyed meets with success.

This is what the CVC is going to need to do to make any impact; they now have a new, younger group of Board members, including Joris Almenkerk, Thys Louw and Johann de Wet. They need to bring dynamism and clarity to marketing the CVC if it’s not to slumber on. For now, I retain some doubts.

Ten-year-old tasting

Innovative, intriguing and in vogue. South Africa has grown an enviable reputation for white blends. On one side are the innovative, Chenin-based with a kaleidoscope of other varieties; on the other, the classic Bordeaux style of sauvignon blanc and semillon.

A bit of history before coming to last week’s tasting of a small selection of highly-regarded 2011s from South Africa and Bordeaux.

Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends, a strong category in Bordeaux and South Africa

Charles Back was ahead of his time when he produced the first of these classic blends in 1987 under the Charles Gerard label. It was short-lived, partly because the semillon vineyard was uprooted, making way for new semillon material.

All fell quiet on the category until 2001. That year, Steenberg made a prototype blend, before hibernating the idea until 2007 and the maiden Magna Carta. There was no hibernating after André van Rensburg’s maiden Vergelegen White 2001, a 78/22 sauvignon blanc/semillon blend; he subsequently raised semillon to lead partner. The blend in our 2011 was 50/50 with the sauvignon specified as from Schaapenberg.

The first Cape Point Vineyards wine labelled Isliedh was a 2004 barrel-fermented, straight sauvignon blanc; the blend followed in 2005 (85 sauvignon/15 semillon) and received immediate recognition with a 5* Platter rating and White Blend Trophy on Trophy Wine Show.

Tokara White, as it was first known, also launched in 2004 with a straight barrelled sauvignon, adding 21% semillon in 2006.

Under Gottfried Mocke, Chamonix joined the party a little later, in 2011 with the maiden Reserve White, 60/40 sauvignon/semillon. Recognition was immediate with a Platter 5* rating.

There is good history and track record in these five blends, which, I’d argue, established the category’s reputation for both quality and ageability. Pitching them against top Bordeaux blancs, Domaine de Chevalier and Chateau de Fieuzal was a good test of how they shape up against quality international counterparts.

James Pietersen CEO of Wine Cellar and Winemag’s editor, Christian Eedes joined me for this blind assessment. Double blind in the case of Tokara and Isliedh, which I decanted into other bottles, due to the former’s screw cap and the latter’s distinctive bottle shape. We all agreed the South African wines showed very well, except for Magna Carta which was oxidised, though Christian found features he liked.

Is there any sense of place? De Fieuzal stood out as being French but the local wines were harder to pinpoint, apart from Tokara, which, like the rest of the range, has an intense purity. It was by far the fruitiest wine with clear blackcurrant leaf, naartjie definition and freshness.

In the early days, the blends were much fruitier; as the category and the serious wines have developed, texture has become a defining feature, something helped by the blend percentages becoming more settled. Generally, either 70/30 or 60/40 with sauvignon leading. This combination can give the wines great longevity; although all in the line up showed interesting evolution, with semillon’s waxy richness braced by sauvignon, most have good life ahead. They make versatile and great food partners, especially with age.

If white blends are generally strong, the sauvignon-semillon category at this level is excellent and the wines may be bought and aged with confidence. Sadly, they are under-appreciated and under-bought. Ideally, they are restaurant wines, where a sommelier can recommend complementary dishes.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable tasting of quality wines; a pity about the Steenberg, which may have been a single bottle rather than general fail.

I left James and Christian to score but we all ranked the wines. The results as follows:

  1. De Fieuzal
  2. Cape Point Isliedh
  3. Vergelegen GVB
  4. Domaine de Chevalier
  5. Cape Chamonix Reserve
  6. Tokara Director’s Reserve
  7. Steenberg Magna Carta

Tokara

Tokara. For some, that name may mean little to nothing; those who enjoy wine may recognise it as a wine farm, while the serious wine enthusiasts should be able to place it on a map, reel off some of the top wines, the name of the winemaker and when they last visited the farm.

A visit for most is contained to the tasting room, restaurant or separate deli/bistro. It’s a confident and brave producer who invites one member of the media to spend several hours touring the farm, tasting from barrel and some of the new and current vintages. I hope there was more confidence than bravery in the Tokara’s team invitation to me to experience this behind-the-scenes tour. I certainly went believing my opinions to date would suffer little negative change, but it’s always as well to keep an open mind.

Tokara’s first bottling was in 2001, released under the Zondernaam (No name) label, the first Tokara wines appearing in 2005, a much-anticipated event and not one to be hurried; planning is central to progress. The team’s belief has always been ‘get things right before they come under the public gaze’, rather than correct them afterwards.

The vineyards, originally planted across the late 1990s, have enjoyed the practised, professional care of Aiden Morton since 2000. Importance is usually attached to a long-term winemaker but a long-term viticulturist is even more important; any winemaker worth his or her salt, will be able to make smart wine out of quality fruit. Tokara was one of the early producers to make use of infrared aerial imagery to monitor vigour in the various blocks, a useful tool in precision viticulture.

Wine quality was set from the start; balance and structure are properly observed, even with alcohol levels on the high side. If the fruit was a little too pure in a New Worldly sort of way in the early days, there is now greater depth and character. Cementing their reputation is an enviable ability to age well.

Angus Taylor’s Dionysus with me to give perspective

Being offered a glass of bubbly is no bad way to start the day; Tokara might not specialise in MCC, but the Brut 2013, from Elgin chardonnay and seven years on lees is no ‘have to have side hustle’, rather has great finesse. The 20-hectare Elgin farm, Highlands, produces eye-wateringly good sauvignon too, viz the flinty, well-fleshed 2019.

Winemaker, Stuart Botha was already excited about 2021 whites when the grapes were still hanging, ‘fantastic analysis’ he enthused as we and GM, Karl Lambour, taste sauvignon and semillon destined from the consistent Director’s Reserve White, from barrel. Block selection, fruit profile, yeast strain isolated for texture – the plan is assembled from experience and with an end result in mind.

Tasting Telos 2020 with Stuart Botha & Marketing Manager, Suzanne van Dyk

Never is that more clear than when we squeeze down a row of stacked Taransaud barrels. ‘Telos 2020’, Stuart informs me of the handsome, lustrous liquid he releases from a thief into my glass. When launched three years ago, the maiden Telos 2015 caused much excitement among the chattering classes for its R4000 price tag. I was sceptical, as I am of all these high-priced newcomers; I did have to taste it at least twice before I appreciated what a serious, ageworthy wine it is. But what is one vintage of a limited quantity? Hardly something to make a lasting statement. Telos, I now learn, is being made every year. From an 18-year-old vineyard, it’s ‘Just four of the best barrels of cabernet in the cellar: 1186 bottles, 1000 for sale, 100 for the vinoteque and 86 for promotions,’ Karl Lambour gives the precise breakdown of a wine I believe will genuinely achieve icon status.

Can’t afford, don’t want to pay R4000 for a bottle of cabernet? The pleasure of proper cabernet (fine grape tannins and all) can be had for R125 in the Premium Cabernet 2017, a wine of quality, 120 000 bottles quantity and incredible value.

In between lies the Reserve Cabernet, introduced in 2013 and the prototype for Telos; current 2018 is richer, layered and with a potential that warrants R350.

Now to explore the lay of the land, except the famous views over Stellenbosch and False Bay to the Peninsula from the Simonsberg were not forthcoming thanks to thick smoke blown over from a large fire above Franschhoek. I have to take Karl’s word there are 64 ha of vineyard and 20 ha of olive trees somewhere around us. The drive down the berg led to a most curious project.

Smoke from the Franschhoek fire obscuring the Simonsberg & the sun

GT and Anne-Marie Ferreira, owners of Tokara, live on the farm; what I had now been brought to see is nursery where mosses are being nurtured for Anne-Marie’s Japanese garden, inspired when she and GT visited that country in 2019. The old tennis court is being transformed into the garden, as detailed in its planning as only a Japanese garden can be. It is scheduled to be finished by September, which says much for the work ethic put into it.

GT and Anna-Marie Ferreira’s ex-tennis court under transformation into a Japanese garden

There are fabulous plants and trees all around, the Ferreira’s are planting many more of the indigenous kind on the farm; there are amazing works of art too. Most striking is the Angus Taylor Dionysus a 4.2m high, 6.2m wide sculpture in granite. The scariest, to me, Marieke Prinsloo-Rowe’s clay oxen, more for where they are placed than in themselves.

A first visit to the Deli for lunch concluded a day of discovery regarding the scope and diversity of the farm and reconfirmation that pro-active viticulture, a sensitive winemaker and an overall plan will lead to an enviable reputation.

Marieke Prinsloo-Rowe’s clay oxen

Partnerships

Marriage is a partnership of give and take; in a successful marriage, the give and take are shared, compatible harmony achieved by neither party taking nor giving all.  The same applies in white and red blends.

If any partnership illustrates a perfect give and take scenario, it’s sauvignon blanc and semillon. A tasting across multiple vintages demonstrates the partnership in action, as just such a line-up of Constantia Glen Two proved.

First made in 2011, the wine has been more-or-less a 70%/30% sauvignon/semillon split, apart from that first one where semillon made up 40%.  To date, the semillon – clone GD1 for the geeks – has come from one block; three years ago, another was planted but has yet to be incorporated in the blend.

Constantia Glen Two 2011 – 2019

Where changes have been made is in fermentation vessels, which as we know today have an important effect on texture. In 2017 clay amphora was used for 5% of the blend. As at many other wineries, new oak has been toned down; it now hovers between 20% and 25%, French Acacia and Austrian oak the wood of choice. I’m happy to say it does make a very happy ménage à trois with the wine.

How does the give and take work in practice?

We tasted from oldest to youngest, often the easiest way for the palate to adjust, the older wines better settled and harmonised, the youngsters – especially with sauvignon – usually edgy and provocative.

Semillon fans, 2011 is right in your court. It is certainly on the take end of the spectrum, providing waves of heavy silk breadth before sauvignon gives a brightness to the tail, as it should. For Hunter Valley Semillon fans, the toasty, leesy notes reminded me of these Aussie wonders rather than what one might expect from 40% new oak.

If the older wines have an anticipated maturity, the colours have remained brilliant and youthful, as I hope the two photos illustrate. This is cool climate Constantia, where analyses for this style of wine are the stuff of which dreams are made (low pH levels, 3.1-3.3, intensifying acids hovering around 6.3-6.9 g/l) without any sense of imbalance, even taking into account a totally dry finish and later harvest than most other areas, which causes many chewed nails. Constantia Glen winemaker, Justin van Wyk will be starting his 2021 harvest in earnest only this coming Monday, 1st March. Across the winelands, harvest seems to be 10 days to two weeks later than usual.

Constantia Glen Two 2011 – 2014 (l – r)

One might expect Semillon to remain on the take for close to half of the 11 wines, as that is how the pair work; sauvignon leading in youth and providing freshness as semillon blossoms with age. Then comes 2012, lighter and fresher than its older sibling, sauvignon still holding sway with its tropical, peach and herb tang but not completely blunting its partner which adds valuable base notes. Ah well, there are always exceptions.

A happy partnership doesn’t rule out vintage difference, thank goodness; 2013 is a marriage of like minds totally in synch; harmony, richness and tension all in an elegant wrapping. A great example for anyone wondering what the style is all about. The younger 2016 isn’t far off; it’s full of life, expressive of both varieties with a lick of spicy oak egging on sauvignon’s herby tang.

2014, a lesser vintage which seems flat, best drink up, and 2015, which suffered from premature oxidation led to the youngest four and sauvignon’s turn to flaunt its youthful strength.

Sauvignon remains the punters’ favourite; 2018 and the newly-released 2019, as young as they are should appeal to them. As a semillon fan, I’d have patience, as I can find it in the depths of the older wine; both promise happy maturity.

Constantia Glen Two 2015 – 2019 (l – r)

This leaves 2017, my favourite: focus on texture – silky waves coating the mouth yet never heavy – the flavours savoury with an earthy note from semillon’s natural ferment, delivered with restraint. This is a love-affair worthy of Anthony and Cleopatra, with a happy ending many years down the line. The vintage plays an important role, as it does with so many others from this classic year.

For the quality and consistency – despite a few quibbles and the pre-mox problem with 2015 – these are all well-made. The R290 price tag is not unreasonable. Such an enjoyable, informative few hours of a wine which is the farm’s slowest seller. A sad story of such a happy marriage.

A happier ending. View of Constantiaberg across Constantia Glen’s vineyards

Saxenburg revisited

It’s a sad truth that the sheer proliferation of wineries today means one rarely gets to visit those that were regulars in years gone by.

When Vincent Buhrer, who with his sister, Fiona, now run Saxenburg, asked on my visit last week, when I was last on the farm, I could only answer ‘eons ago’. It was certainly long before these siblings took over around 2018 and when their parents, Adrian and Birgit Buhrer, still lived there – they still own the farm.

One thing I had never done on any of those long-ago visits was drive around the farm; Vincent’s offer was eagerly accepted. A brief orientation of the vineyards on a 2-dimensional map and we’re bumping along the multi-dimensional pot-holed tracks in his basic 4-wheel vehicle. Heading up the hill, we pass vineyards, blocks soon to be re-planted and, significantly, generous patches of fynbos. Diversity, sustainability and regenerative farming are an important focus for the young Buhrers. Vincent confidently reels off soils and the vineyard lay-out with changes to be made. He also hastens to assure that changes are incremental, ‘Fiona and I respect what our parents have done; we’re not a second generation coming in to do everything differently.’

Vincent Burher with Helderberg in background, Jordan vines other side of the fence
View over Cape Flats with False Bay to left

He comes to the farm wearing this confidence after starting and running a constructions company and, with a partner, setting up the successful Port2Port.

Pause at the top of the hill to appreciate the many vistas: Table Mountain and Table Bay to the west, the less-attractive spread of the populated Cape Flats passes by in front with False Bay shimmering in the south-east. Heading round the hill, the familiar memorable view of Stellenbosch Kloof, with Jordan the other side of the fence, and DeMorgenzon, lies before us.

Sailing down the hill by a less roller-coaster route, we head to the cellar and a tasting of Dirk van Zyl’s first vintage. Dirk, I knew from his time at DeMorgenzon, but now learned of his informative stage at Kleine Zalze; two valuable, quality learning experiences.

Vincent had told me that after long-time winemaker, Nico van der Merwe left, his assistant since 2005, Edwin Grace took over. His amicable departure in 2019 drew a raft of applications to take his place; a usual scenario in this ‘buyer’s’ market. It took only one short meeting with Dirk for Vincent to know he’d found the right person to take Saxenburg forward.

With 2020 his maiden vintage, there were only a few wines ready to taste. Of all the white wines I remember from earlier Saxenburg vintages, a joyous tropical-fruited, zesty sauvignon blanc stands out. Those features remain at the core but with added interest, compelling the drinker to look deeper than just for fruit. Some skin contact introduces a pleasing tactile sensation, as does time on lees. We can expect to see further skin contact on whites, ‘something I experienced a lot at Kleine Zalze,’ Dirk remarks. For a wine of such quality and interest, R120 is excellent value.

Socially-distanced Dirk van Zyl (l) and Vincent Buhrer

Sauvignon blanc often gets a raw deal, but the tide is now turning more rapidly thanks to winemakers’ rejuvenated interest in innovative techniques and a wider variety of vinification vessels.

There is also the traditional sauvignon/semillon blend under the Saxenburg Private Collection label. This pair are like ying and yang; sauvignon’s natural vivacity contrasted by its partner’s silky swirl, ageing in older oak here fuses the two. Cool-climate lemon grass and tangerine fragrance, some fresh honey flavours finishing crisp and clean, there’s much to enjoy now, with future potential recognised in this partnership. R185 ex-cellar is another offering super value.

There are only 526 bottles of Dirk’s third white, Winemaker’s Blend; it combines all four varieties grown on the farm, led by chenin blanc, for which Dirk has notable affection, especially since his stint at DeMorgenzon. Tanks, older oak and natural fermentation were in the vinification mix.

These three wines show a new face of Saxenburg: a face that’s lighter, brighter with greater dimension in both flavour and structure.

Dirk blended though didn’t vinify the Private Collection Chardonnay 2019; here too the idea is to lighten, brighten but also increase complexity. Less new oak (just 15%), larger format and light toasting of the staves and, as in other above wines, lees enrichment create a chardonnay with ripe nectarine, creamy richness energised by a riveting acid backbone.

Reds currently selling range from 2019 back to 2015 but I had a sneak peak at a new 2020 project. The variety probably most associated with Saxenburg is shiraz, or syrah as it is now to be known with more of a nod to Rhône than Australia; ‘not something that’ll be popular with all our long-time customers,’ Vincent Buhrer admits.  Already American oak on the Flagship SSS Syrah 2015 has given way to French oak only. Syrah might be Saxenburg for many but, strangely, the farm’s cabernet has enjoyed many important awards.

The team took great delight in showing me syrah from one vineyard with grapes from upper sandy and lower clay and cooler sections, both vinified in exactly the same way with two completely different results. To make a point, a further batch from the lower part was vinified in another way; the result, yet again different from either of the others. As Vincent had explained that new syrah vineyards are to be established on cooler, lower sites, which will provide yet another profile, the variety has an exciting future in store.

The work-in-progress project also features syrah.  But that is a story for later this year.

I can guarantee my next visit to Saxenburg will not involve eons!

Black voices

Many voices have been raised over the alcohol bans imposed since lockdown March 2020; some favour the total ban on sales, to free up space in hospitals for Covid patients, space that would otherwise be filled by trauma cases caused by alcohol abuse. Others, fearing an ongoing loss of jobs in all sectors of the tourism industry, believe a partial ban would better serve both all the carers and the economy.

These issues, as well as that of more vineyards being uprooted and replaced with more profitable crops, have been well canvassed. One that has received less attention is how the ban affects transformation, a vital component for a sustainable wine industry. I have heard few black voices being asked for their opinions. So many have battled the odds to get where they are today, what does the future hold for them?

Three highly-qualified and successful people in the wine industry kindly offered their thoughts.

Ntsiki Biyela

Ntsiki Biyela, a graduate of Stellenbosch University, founded her own wine company, Aslina Wines in 2017, is on the Board of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, an organisation training young people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds; she has also been nominated as Winemaker of the Year by the US Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Mandla Patson Mathonsi

Mandla Patson Mathonsi, currently Gauteng Regional Sales Manager for Spier Wine Farm, was Eat Out and Mercedes Benz Sommelier of the Year in 2014, Wine Director at DW11-13 Restaurant in Johannesburg and Sales Representative for Reciprocal Wine Company. He has completed Cape Wine Academy Certificate in wine, WSET 1 and 2, Michael Fridjhon’s Wine Judging Academy 2016 and, after three years as an Associate Judge, since 2019 has been a Judge on the Trophy wine Show.

Tongai Joseph Dhafana

Tongai Joseph Dhafana is the long-serving Sommelier at top Cape restaurant, La Colombe, where he is responsible for beverage listing, sales, food and wine pairing. He is a winemaker with his own label Mosi wines, judge and he captained the Zimbabwe team at the World Blind Tasting Championships in 2017. All this after fleeing Zimbabwe with his wife in 2009, long before discovering wine.

All three have suffered to some degree with the ban.  Ntsiki tells me 85% of her production is exported but she is now intent on growing the local market. This is now a longer-term goal, due to the ban.

Working for a large wine farm such as Spier, Mandla reels off multiple drawbacks of the ban: 30% of the business depends on wine tasting, on and off consumption are disrupted and new projects planned long before the ban are on hold. Worse are salary reductions, budget cuts, job losses, while ‘we still have to pay tax, school fees, rent and groceries.’

What of those who have a family to look after? Jo Dhafana admits ‘I have bills to pay, people to look after but if I’m not working, then no salary for me, as I was put on ‘no work no pay’ basis; that was the case between April and September last year and now again. This affects my family back home (Zimbabwe); my son, mom, siblings and my in-laws as I am the bread winner. I survived on my savings and the kindness of my understanding landlord.’

It’s a Catch-22 situation; all three understand why space was needed for Covid patients but believe there could have been a more nuanced approach. ‘Look,’ says Mandla, ‘people still have access to alcohol via the black market, then some are drinking harmful, homebrewed concoctions, which may affect their health.’ Jo argues that not all people who drink abuse alcohol and, anyway, there are regulations in place to curb such irresponsibility. Indeed, if only they were properly policed, I’d add! Ntsiki considers the total ban was justified during the festive season, especially New Year’s Eve, ‘But now people are back at work, I think the full ban is not required.’ Her suggestion is for alcohol to be sold on some days and within specific hours but to keep the curfew in place.

Jo, naturally, wishes for restaurants to be allowed to sell alcohol with all the Covid protocols. The current curfew, which means closing at 8 or 8.30, hardly makes it worthwhile for restaurants to open in the evening, with non-alcoholic drinks only on top of that. ‘The curfew should start at 11pm’, his idea would at least see people like him able to work.

I support Mandla who requests on-line buying and delivery be allowed (this was also mooted by Tesselaarsdal’s Berene Sauls who spoke to my colleague, Bubbles Hyland last week), but Mandla adds the amount of alcohol purchased should be limited. His last, and what should be everyone’s most important point, is to educate about responsible drinking and get rid of the cheap, rot-gut alcohol.

Ntsiki, Jo and Mandla have, through their own determination and hard work, raised themselves from completely non-wine backgrounds to be successful in their own fields. They and others like them are looked up to by other black newcomers to the industry; ‘If they can do so well, so can we,’. Probably more than anything else, these three lead by example in promoting transformation, but will the alcohol ban kill all that? Is there any incentive to enter an industry with an uncertain future?

The trio have different viewpoints here.

‘What is learned from the ban will positively help transformation as, once lifted, we will make sure there’s education about responsible drinking.’

‘So much good is being done for transformation and helping the communities by many wine farms; the ban is having a significant negative impact on this.’

The ban is affecting every business negatively, the wine industry and those industries that depend on it for operating.  Small businesses don’t have a buffer or cushion to fall on when the business is not doing well, so they will suffer even more or die. I can’t see this as a positive for transformation.’

Transformation in the wine industry is vital if the sector is not only to thrive but survive; the ban is having a detrimental effect financially across the board; it would be a gloomy picture if others, inspired to follow in the successful footsteps of Ntsiki, Jo and Mandla, were now to see no future in wine.