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 …..

Wine stories

To be seen as more than an alcoholic beverage, even the world’s most acknowledged wines (let alone the more commercial offerings) need the right packaging, personalities, price and stories behind them to bring them to life and entice winelovers to buy.

Individual varieties have their own selling points; for instance, sauvignon blanc has to be of the vintage to capture winelovers’ interest; there is still the belief that anything bearing last year’s digits, or older, can’t be any good. Right now, there must even be anticipation for 2018! But it was with a 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from Welmoed’s Heritage Selection that Tim James and I began a small lineup of newish releases.

Welmoed has long been regarded as the good value range of Stellenbosch Vineyards; the sauvignon (R48) and Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (R50) both ex-cellar seem to uphold that view. If we didn’t much care for the labels (the packaging is described as new), the wines are tasty and uncomplicated. Lively, tropical flavours with a hint of sweetness (and residue of fermentation) but refreshingly medium bodied, could describe many sauvignons, as it does Welmoed. But the price is probably sufficiently attractive to secure a sale. I guess a R50 cab from Stellenbosch is also sufficiently tempting to dig into the back pocket. If it doesn’t have layers of flavours (at that price?), the clean, fresh cassis, blackberry fruit paints a clear varietal picture as do the firm yet unobtrusive tannins; 13% alcohol and a rounded, dry finish add to its overall easy readiness.

Moving up the scale, there’s South African history behind La Motte’s Pierneef collection and a tribute to this South African artist’s work at the cellar until the end of the year; but one is introduced to Jacob Hendrik Pierneef via one of his works on the label of La Motte Pierneef Syrah-Viognier 2015. As with the artist, the wine has an enviable record of high quality – as indeed does the whole range crafted by Cellarmaster, Edmund Terblanche; a range best described as characterful yet unshowy in a classic style.

In the syrah-viognier blend, only the viognier is from Franschhoek; cooler areas, Walker Bay and Elim supply syrah and a natural freshness. Often viognier’s aromatics stand out in a ungainly manner when blended into syrah; not in this wine, where its 6% component is seamlessly incorporated. Terblanche is careful to harvest and co-ferment some viognier grapes with each picking of syrah; no doubt one reason for the complementary partnership.

This is worthy of the great vintage it comes from and R250 cellar door price; but a word of warning. So much is expected from 2015, yet I’ve found many wines don’t immediately set off the anticipated fireworks; they really do need time to unfold. It was on day four only that this wine showed its top paces – aromatics and flavours of fynbos, lilies and heady spice layered within a supple yet structured feel and elegant 13.5% alcohol. Patience with this excellent and delicious wine, will be well rewarded!

If the thought of keeping a wine for seven or eight years holds little attraction, then Jeremy Walker’s Grangehurst 350 Pinotage 2009 provides more calmness of age. In fact, Grangehurst is the go-to winery for a classic-style range released later than most.

It so happens in 2009, the pinotage grapes ripened that bit earlier than usual, being harvested on 2nd and 3rd February. Aware that 2nd February 2009 commemorated 350 years since Jan van Riebeek recorded wine first being made in the Cape, Walker and the Grangehurst team decided to keep separate the grapes harvested on that day for a special celebration bottling. It was a happy coincidence that South Africa’s homebred variety should be the one involved, although Walker does remark; ‘As per the Grangehurst tradition, a small quantity of Cabernet Sauvignon was blended with the Pinotage …’

It’s a style of pinotage most familiar with the grape will recognise immediately: sweet fruit, now plus some meaty evolution, and a net of fine tannin behind a pleasing silkiness. Nothing overdone, as is Grangehurst house style, but it does have an edginess that Tim describes as rustic. For this reason, it’s better partnered with a casserole type dish, one with a bit of spice. For a nearly-nine year old wine with an unusual story behind it, R380 ex cellar is reasonable.

Grangehurst wines are less known than they deserve to be, especially because they are released once the clamour of youth has given way to something calmer and more interesting; yet another selling point that lifts them out of being mere alcoholic beverages.

New blood

Roger Federer, recently turned 36, appears to be the eternal Peter Pan; Rafael Nadal, now 31, isn’t too far behind him. Neither has managed to remain injury free, but by rights neither should be playing tennis at the level they are after all these years. If their bodies have held together (just), their fans remain as enthusiastic as ever. As exciting as are the ‘Next-gen’, including Dominic Thiem (23) and Alexander Zverev (20), the decibel level has yet to reach the same intensity as it does for the older duo when they walk on court.

What has this got to do with wine? The power of reinventing yourself after years of being in the public eye, acknowledged as something special.

If any event has been in the public eye for years, 43 to be precise this year, it’s the Nederburg Auction. After getting stuck in the doldrums, it has had to re-invent itself several times: from one auctioneer to two; from a local panel of selectors to one including a palate of MWs, local and international; from a two-day event to one in 2017 (deliberate, or fewer entries?); from Auction of the finest Cape Wines (1976 catalogue) to Pursuit of Perfection (2017 catalogue). First auctioneer, Patrick Grubb MW, set up a bursary initiative to help those from disadvantaged communities in the wine industry; current auctioneers, Anthony Barne MW and David Elswood are involved with a bursary initiative to help promising viticulturists. These and many other changes have been effected by the auction team to maintain the event’s quality and prestige.

One move that pleased me particularly was to hold a walk around pre-auction tasting rather than a more formal, conducted tasting. Coming, as it does, during Platter season, my walk-around is far from comprehensive. Two things struck me this year: how few whites compared with reds are on offer and the recent vintage of some wines – even as young as 2015. Business Manager, Dalene Steyn, assured me that, once selected for the auction, producers commit to not selling any more of the wine on the open market; that’s one thing, but I’d be very surprised if some of these youngsters aren’t still on retailers’ shelves.

Since we’re told in the catalogue that the auction: ‘Has a special focus on promoting older South African wines,’ I find these younger wines detract from its specialness. Our white wines are now proving their ageability; why not make it a minimum of five years for white wines to be on the auction? Those meeting that criteria which impressed me were De Morgenzon Chenin 2005 from magnum, Zonnebloem Chenin Blanc 2011, as well as two blends: Nederburg Ingenuity 2008 and Vondeling Babiana 2011. As a vintage, 2011 whites are generally maturing particularly well.
Lanzerac Cabernet 1970 and Chateau Libertas 1967 satiated my satisfaction for old South African reds; both in fine shape and likely to command the sort of price our wines should be attracting, the younger ones too.

For me, the core issue does not lie with the auction wines nor primarily, top-end Nederburg wines themselves – after all, they have earned the farm Platter Winery of the Year twice – but who and what is Nederburg? Who is the face of Nederburg? Yes, the brand has a good name, but is it viewed as an exciting brand, always causing a buzz among winelovers? I’d suggest not, and that, for me, has a rub off on the auction. Think back to Gunter Brozel’s days; Nederburg’s image then was more positive and focused.

From Nederburg a quick segue to pinotage. The wine itself has come a long, long way from the days of, was it ‘rusty nails’ some MW dubbed it? There are diverse styles from Koen Roose’s elegant, pinot-like Spioenkop 1900 to the classic Kanonkop to Daniel de Waal’s richer, but finely-honed Thomas se Dolland: each has its place and will mature as well as some of the golden oldies international visitors still gasp in wonder about. Yet there remains an image problem, one I’d suggest comes back to the power of re-inventing itself via the personalities behind it. Of course, there are some great enthusiasts on the Pinotage Association and, on a one to one level, I’m sure do a great job. But it needs new blood, new ideas. Compare with for just one sense of why this is necessary.

Meantime, Federer is out of the US Open (sob!); Nadal is still in but whatever happens in this or future tournaments, both will remain huge favourites with the crowds.

The difficulties of less

The main difficulty, of course, is the distinct lack of posts on this site over the past few weeks. With the daily load of Platter tastings and write ups now finished (next week’s two-and-a-half day marathon five star tasting is another matter) I can now attempt a bit of a catch up.

The original topic of the title centres on the growing trends for both less (and sometimes, no) oak and lower alcohols, something I’ve noticed often enough to be a trend over the past month or so.

Larger oak barrels are returning to cellars alongside smaller formats, which made an appearance only in the late 1970s.

Thank goodness, new oak is on the decline, not because in itself it’s bad, but rather through inappropriate use; either the wine unable to handle it, or the oak and its toasting clashing with the wine. I suspect much of the decline has to do with cost but also producers are paying more attention to expressing site. If older, less-flavour intrusive oak is more common, so are barrels of varying sizes: 300 litre, 500 and even oval 1000 litre foudres; all are finding space alongside or instead of the previously ubiquitous 225 litre barrique.



Cement eggs in Eben Sadie’s cellar

The cement egg is becoming another familiar sight in cellars across the country. It seems to work especially well with white wines, giving them extra texture, while skin contact adds structure without the necessity of oak.

This is all adding to a diversity in South African wines, whites especially, which are receiving growing and continued international praise.

Picking earlier is an obvious way of achieving lower alcohol and greater natural freshness, but viticulture has to be carefully tuned as does vinification so the wine has substance and flavour. Whole bunch fermentation and lees-aging are among methods increasingly being used. There are already interesting, worthwhile results; no doubt more will follow.

For winelovers, this change in style needs some getting used to. Accustomed to an overwhelming, initial impact from the flavour of new oak and high alcohol, it would be easy to find these new, more subtle, elegant wines, generally lacking let alone what they were used to. A bit of reflection will show it’s the length of the wine’s memory rather than the initial impression that matters.

My recent tastings also made it clear that it’s difficult to generalise about quality in 2016; it was a hot, drought year, the less good wines – more whites at this stage – lack concentration and freshness. Sometimes, site plays an even more important role than producer. For instance, in Eben Sadie’s 2016 Ouwingerds range, Mrs Kirsten (chenin from Stellenbosch ) is one of the most expressive and structured, whereas Kokkerboom (semillon from Olifantsrivier) doesn’t quite reach its usual seamless self. These are differences, rather than basic quality issues. Pofadder (cinsaut) from the Kasteelberg is unusually and incredibly tight and tannic whereas Soldaat (grenache) from Piekernierskloof, is more aromatically restrained and fleshier than usual. But it’s these vintage differences that make wine interesting and always worthy of drinking when you’re in the thoughtful hands of Eben Sadie.

If anything is difficult for 2016, it’s coming after 2015, though Chris and Andrea Mullineux’s 2016 Granite and Quartz chenins are both expressive of soil and vintage, even though Quartz is off one vineyard, Granite two. Is it just me, or are there others who find single vineyard wines (which may cover up to 6ha and different soils) can be disappointing in their lack of distinction, whereas the Mullineux’s soil range are expressive and individual; none more so than the 2015 syrahs: Granite is grand, sophisticated with dark-fruited aromatic breadth, firm backbone, vibrant yet gentle tannins and beguiling silkiness; there’s a richness but no heaviness on the Schist, a crushed velvet texture and endless savoury, smoked meat flavours. Iron is again quite different, having a riper, more red fruit, blood profile but also having the freshest, grippiest feel of the trio.

I have no doubt each can and will mature with interest and complexity, if one has a sufficiently deep pocket to buy even a bottle of each (+-R985 ex-Wine Cellar).

On that, pricy note about what are surely among the cream of the 2015 red wine crop, await further thoughts, this time I hope without the difficulty of further lengthy delays.

An extraordinary 610 g/l sugar, 14 g/l acid, just 5% alcohol & 5 years’ fermentation!

Reaping rewards

Earlier this year I wrote about the importance of the time a winemaker has worked in the same cellar, especially at wineries that aren’t family owned.

Miles Mossop, winemaker at Tokara, in familiar pose with awards as top producer at Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show 2017

I thought again about this topic when the news broke first that Miles Mossop would be leaving Tokara, where he’s taken the wines from strength to strength since the maiden vintage; he started there in January 2000. Worthy of note too is that his fellow winemaker, Dumisani Mathonsi has added to the cellar’s collective service, joining Mossop in January 2004; that will be 32 years between them when Mossop leaves after next year’s harvest. Add a further 17.5 years for viticulturist, Aiden Morton, who came on board in November 2000, and any thoughts of coincidence that the wines have shown such consistency and performed so well can safely be put to one side.

Stuart Botha, currently winemaker at Eagles’ Nest, soon to move to Tokara

But what of Mossop’s successor, Stuart Botha, who himself has been at Eagles’ Nest since 2007? Botha joined Steve Roche, who was also viticulturist, in the cellar, both guided by the sensitive hand of Martin Meinert, who still consults. It’s good to note too that Kobus Jordaan, as familiar with the Constantia valley as any, will chalk up his 10th anniversary as viticulturist in 2018. Again, longevity of service reaps its own awards and sales!

Anyone lucky enough to have driven around Eagles’ Nest with Botha will be aware of the very different altitudes, aspects and other physical attributes of the vineyards are; they will also have benefited  from his deep understanding of each block, a knowledge that comes only with many vintages. It’s always a relief the drive is accompanied by his informative detail; the steep, rocky tracks are not for those who suffer vertigo, as spectacular as the views are!

My most recent visit there, a couple of months’ ago, was with Dreyfus-Ashby’s Richard Kelley MW (an untiring promoter of South African wine, who, of course worked here for several years) and Jo Locke MW of The Wine Society where South Africa is part of her portfolio. After the farm tour, we tasted through the range, one or two vintages of each wine and three of the shiraz, including the then just-released 2014; a tricky year. Botha recalled his difficult decision to pick considerably earlier than he would have liked due to imminent rain but he felt waiting until after the rain would have been leaving it too late. His decision, and those made in the cellar, have been vindicated with a wine that’s already made the Shiraz Association Top 12, a regular in that event. Whereas the 2012 reflects this big vintage, full of richness and concentration, 2014 enjoys more gentle succulence in its spice and fynbos flavours. Freshness and tannins are perfect in both. That afternoon, 2013 was still a bit closed.

I have followed Eagles Nest since their first 2005 vintage, as their Platter taster in the early years; to much laughter, we recall my ‘promising’ 3.5* for the first shiraz, followed by 5* for 2006 and they haven’t looked back since.

My immediate reaction to the news that Botha was leaving Eagles’ Nest was one of surprise, on reflection and with Botha confirming he couldn’t think of another winery he’d want to go to than Tokara, I saw it as another wonderful opportunity for him.

If Mossop’s shoes will be big ones to fill at Tokara (the latest achievement: top producer on 2017 Trophy Wine Show), so will Botha’s at Eagles’ Nest (as I write, they have yet to be filled).

Pieter ‘Bubbles’ Ferreira, cellarmaster at Graham Beck for 27 years, tasting (what else!) sparkling wines.

These moves did get me thinking about how many winemakers, not family-members on family-owned wineries (nor the former co-operatives), have been at the same winery for ten years or more. A thought I aired on social media with some surprising results. Surely the king is Pieter Ferreira, 27 years at Graham Beck but the others that came to light (not in any particular order of anything!): Matthew Copeland/Vondeling, Rianie Strydom/Haskell, Louis Strydom/Ernie Els, Corlea Fourie/Bosman, Rudi Schultz/Thelema, Carl Schultz/Hartenberg, Gunter Schultz/Tamboerskloof, Chris Williams/Meerlust, Andre van Rensburg/Vergelegen, DP Burger/Glenwood, Susan Erasmus/Vrede en Lust, Pierre Wahl/Rijks, Frans Smit and Anton Swarts/Spier, Yvonne Lester and Schalk-Willem Joubert/Rupert & Rothschild, Edmund Terblanche/La Motte, Dewaldt Heyns/Saronsberg, Sean Skibbe/South Hill, Abrie Beeslaar/Kanonkop, Herman Kirschbaum & Brad Paton/Buitenverwachting, Boela Gerber/Groot Constantia, JC Bekker & Lizelle Gerber/Boschendal, Sjaak Nelson/Jordan, Martin Moore/Durbanville Hills, Charles Hopkins/De Grendel, Neil Groenewald/Bellingham, Debbie Thompson/Simonsig, Nico van der Merwe/Saxenburg, Francois van Zyl/Laibach, Wynand Grobler/Rickety Bridge.

That’s 36 and there may well be more. I haven’t checked on viticulturists but it would be interesting to know how many on these and other farms, have ten and more years of service.

Add the family-owned wineries not included here and surely we have even a small clue as to why South African wines are doing so well and being spoken of with much more respect recently. Long may it continue!

Winelands of contradictions

Oh my goodness, what a world of contradictions is South African wine. The tasting earlier this week of old vintages from Klein Constantia wasn’t the first event to bring such a thought to mind, but when the oldest wine in the lineup is a 1987 Rhine Riesling (as it was then named) and still going strong, the reminder of those contradictions digs deeper into the conscious.

Some of the old Klein Constantia white wines showing evolution of labels over the years.

The Old Vine tasting in London this week only served to highlight the issue. By far the majority of favourites are white wines. Which South African wines receive the most frequent praise? Our white wines. Of course, there are some excellent reds too, but there’s always more grumbling in the corner about them: too much alcohol, too sweet, too oaky. Yet, my impression is that having a red in the range is de rigeur; a white-wine only list lacks a certain gravitas (unless you are Chris and Suzaan Alheit, though even they have a red wine under the Flotsam and Jetsam label. Have I missed anyone?).

Yet, frankly, judging by the older red wines Klein Constantia winemaker, Matt Day kindly selected I’d hedge my bets the farm wouldn’t suffer from lack of sales or image from going the white-wine route only. That’s leaving aside Vin de Constance which is a brand in its own right.

The three reds poured were Marlbrook 1990, a 60% cab, 30% merlot, 10% cab franc blend; the other two straight cabernets from 1997 and 2000. The blend elicited some extreme opinions; I was in the naysayer’s camp, finding that tomato leaf, sweet and sour sensation of fruit that’s not properly ripe. Other colleagues present were much more enthusiastic, comparing its elegance to that of a Bordeaux classed growth. The two cabernets were riper, but over-enthusiastic acid and tough tannins respectively diminished potential pleasure.

Success with reds, in the Bordeaux mould especially, in Constantia has depended in part on length of sunlight in the vineyards, something Klein Constantia cabernet often didn’t receive sufficient of. Enough of my red moan; I’d much rather rave about the whites.

Klein Constantia made its name in 1986 for a young-vine sauvignon blanc, which astounded everyone by winning the ultimate trophy on the Young Wine Show. Bottles opened down the years have only proved its pedigree. It wasn’t the maiden vintage; I see we tasted a 1985 (with 10.2% alc!) at the first official tasting; a 1983 Rhine Riesling was also presented.

Some of the corks from Klein Constantia’s old wine tasting proved a battle to remove.

There was no 1986 sauvignon this week, but 1995 and 2002 held their heads high; from their bright lemon-green colour alone, one would never guess their age; blackcurrant leaf purity still rang true, while a toasty-leesy character indicated development. The younger wine, including a little semillon, was the more complex, vindicating sauvignon’s often-doubted ageing abilities.

Perdeblokke Sauvignon Blanc 2007 was a horse of a different nature; less about fruit, more about structure, viscosity and a pebbly tension. In recent years, excitement increased with the discovery of marked differences between the blocks of sauvignon, leading to eight versions in the current range; not so surprising given the vineyards extend over a range of altitudes on this mountainside property.

For years, riesling (or Rhine Riesling as it was then labelled) was a slow seller, meaning the current vintage could be three or four years’ old; this and the unrealistically low price, were bonuses for those of us who love the variety. Just what winelovers were missing out on was fabulously illustrated by the 1987 with its drop of botrytis complexity and zest; a still delicious 30 year old riesling. Strangely, its lower acid and higher sugar (16 g/l vs 14.7 g/l) than the 1996, was better assimilated. Today the wine is made in a drier style and is much more in demand, but still ages as well (see my write up on 2007).

If riesling was a difficult sell, semillon was even more so. Those who bought and still have 2004 are the winners; yet how many would bother to wait for the satiny breadth and ripe toastiness to unfold? It seemed more complex, complete than Mme Marlbrook 2004 sauvignon-semillon blend.

How many other varieties get a raw deal in Constantia at the hands of sauvignon? Add chardonnay to the list, especially when they are generally understated, as was our 2007, still full of life, excellent chardonnay character and from a really good white wine vintage.

Of course, a tasting at Klein Constantia has to end with a sticky; in this case Sauvignon Blanc Noble Late Harvest 1998. A glowing reddish gold, the balance between sauvignon character and botrytis spot on, providing an exhilarating finish and end to a memorable morning.

This, 2004 semillon and 1987 riesling were my stand outs but there wasn’t a white wine that didn’t give pleasure.

There’s just one red wine in the present Klein Constantia estate range, a blend of cabernet, shiraz, petit verdot and malbec; pleasant enough but hardly providing the distinction the farm enjoys in its sauvignons, chardonnay and riesling.

Will we ever see Klein Constantia producing white wines only? I’d like to think so; it might help shift some of those contradiction which decree having a red wine is obligatory.

Winter light over Klein Constantia’s vineyards. The closest, bare earth at one time was planted to cabernet, if I remember correctly.

Steenberg re-visited

In the continuing tsunami of new wine producers and labels, keeping up to date with those who made their name many years ago isn’t easy.

An invitation from Steenberg’s winemaker, JD Pretorius, for a catch-up tasting and lunch was both timely and welcome.

I’d forgotten what a comprehensive range comes from this cellar at the southern end of Constantia valley: even tasting 15 wines meant one or two were left out. Pretorius, one of the nicest guys involved in wine, has been at Steenberg for nine years and one has the feeling he’s got his finger on the pulse pretty well across the board. As he would need to; against the general grain, 2017 delivered the biggest crop off the farm ever; in all, 1200 tons were processed in a 900 ton cellar!

The MCC bubblies remain unfairly unsung, the main acclaim falling on the sauvignon blancs. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of consumer fans, which is what really matters. Of course, the bubblies are excellent; Pretorius is as enthusiastic about the style as is previous Cellarmaster and more recently MD, John Loubser, who originally honed his skills at Graham Beck (Steenberg is part of the Graham Beck stable). Loubser leaves this month to concentrate on his own MCC label, Silverthorn.

Steenberg Brut Chardonnay NV is now given a year on the lees rather than nine months and more interesting for it. Although it has a riper feel, the dosage is exactly the same – 8 grams – as in the apparently much drier Pinot Noir Brut 2015, my favourite. A delicate coppery pink, with sour cherry, raspberry flavours, rather than sweet strawberries, it’s full of attraction. The newish flagship, Lady R, 2011 the current vintage, is a 70/30 pinot noir/barrel-fermented chardonnay blend. Disgorged some 18 months ago, it’s still as fresh as a daisy. Freshness and delicacy are hallmarks of today’s quality MCCs; admiration for the more oxidative style has thankfully all but disappeared.

Old & new Steenberg labels. Catharina white (l), a prototype of Magna Carta (r). The then golden swan much resembling an award!

If the Chardonnay Brut NV is a popular seller, the Estate Sauvignon Blanc, around 140 000 bottle production, faces such unprecedented demand, 2017 is already on the market. There was a time the farm bit the bullet, holding it back for a year; sadly, that’s no longer possible. Steenberg’s sauvignon reputation is endorsed in the oaked Rattlesnake 2016; a drop of semillon enriches the texture, the focus of attention rather than fruit, it’s a great partner for food. As is Black Swan 2016 (R195), the original Reserve, still, I was surprised to learn, from the original 1989 vineyard, which was going to be uprooted due to uneconomic yields. Through careful farming, 2 tons/ha has grown to 6 tons/ha and, thank goodness the vineyard remains. This is steely, lees enriched, unfruity sauvignon at its best with years of ageing potential.

The jewel in the crown belongs to Magna Carta (R545) a judiciously oaked sauvignon/semillon blend introduced with 2007 (but not made every year); the latest, 2015 is as excellent as the vintage promised and in more classic mode than some of the other bright-fruited, cool climate blends.

Reds have fought their own corner, Steenberg Merlot in particular often the focus of attention, mainly because of its ‘love-it or hate-it’ minty features. The current 2014 curiously shows very little of this character, yet amusingly, Stately Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz 2015, one of three non-estate wines, where grapes are drawn from Darling and Helderberg, has a distinct mintiness!

But this was nebbiolo’s day and the second time Tim and I have tried 2015 (R255) recently; it also impressed at our new releases tasting a couple of weeks ago and must be the best vintage from this property. Herman Hanekom, viticulturist in the farm’s early days, would be delighted to hear this; in his enthusiasm for the variety he suggested it be planted.

Those vines are now 23 years old and showing their mettle; the wine has lovely purity in its tar and floral aromas, with great freshness and attack, but still more accessible than in its homeland of Piedmont.

Looking through my notes, I’ve frequently recorded the use of larger and less new oak barrels, both benefitting the wines. The nebbiolo was in 500 litre, just 10% new.

What there isn’t less of is the number of happy customers; Bistro 1682, where Kerry Kilpin does more than justice to her previous mentor, the excellent Franck Dangereux at Foodbarn, was packed and, according to Pretorius, it’s like that every day. No surprise to learn then that sales are pretty equally divided between the farm itself, locally and exports.

Over lunch discussion turned in many directions, including the new District WO Cape Town, something Pretorius says is unlikely to be used by producers in Constantia. ‘Firstly, so many have Constantia as part of their name; many also used the Constantia molded bottle,’ he explains, ‘which would preclude the use of WO Cape Town.’

From WOs to water and power. Unlike the Graham Beck Robertson operation, where roof space and access to sufficiently long sunlight allows for solar power, Steenberg’s structure and positioning underneath the mountain do not. Water is another matter. Pretorius tells me three, old 35 000 litre stoog vats are being epoxied and will catch rainwater from the roof, enough to provide for the cellar, tasting room and restaurant. There are also thoughts of making the toilet plumbing more water efficient and re-cycling waste from the cellar.

Pretorius won’t be asked to add the admin required of a GM to his portfolio, there is to be some sharing out of these duties; a good thing, leaving him to focus his very capable eye on the large, overall sound wine range with more than a few brilliant stars.

Red is for winter

The Cape weather is, at last, delivering what it should at this time of year: plenty of rain and cold. At last, too, it’s time for hearty food and red wine; ah, but what sort of red wine? Thanks to the luxury of having two, very different shirazes (one, tellingly labelled Syrah) open this past week, it’s been obvious that more matters than having the same variety on the label, even in different languages.

The first, Julien Schaal’s Mountain Vineyards Syrah 2016, was one of a small bunch of newish releases Tim James and I tried recently. I was pleased to see it return to the range, (neither 2014 nor 2015 were made due to fruit quality issues) as Schaal’s wines are always elegant with a natural freshness.

He’s now part of a group using the Gabriëlskloof cellar, where he realised the farm’s own vineyards could produce great syrah, one he describes as having: ‘Lower alcohol, great intensity and very much focused on the white pepper aromas that I like.’

That’s very much how Tim and I found it: radiant purple, crimson-rimmed with delicate, red fruits, lilies and spice, the flavours pure and persistent, tailing off with a pleasing savouriness; the only discord is in its youthful exuberance; it’s just too young. The picture of a gentle silky feel emerged over a further three of four evenings, suggesting there’s benefit in not pulling the cork for a further six months or, better still, a year.

Time will also take us to spring, summer and different dishes: hearty, winter meals (such as spiced, pork rashers with lentils and rice, beef olives in red wine I’m currently enjoying) just swamp this wine’s more elegant frame.

It’s worth the wait and, when shiraz prices generally are taken into account, very much worth a R125 retail price. But speed is also called for: only two (300 litre) barrels were made; that’s little more than 100 x 6 bottle cases if my calculations are correct. At least it’s all being sold in South Africa with quantities increasing from 2017.

Those who know me will likely be very surprised at my enthusiasm for a wine boasting 15% alcohol, but wine is much more than its alcohol content. I really enjoy Janno Briers Louw’s Eenzaamheid Shiraz 2013, what’s more it’s the perfect style to match up to my winter dishes; it has muscle, shape and structure. Sadly, it’s sold out from the farm (where it cost just R132) but some may still be available at retail.

I’m into the first few pages of Jamie Goode’s ‘I taste Red’ the science of tasting wine; so far, so very interesting and relative. I nodded in agreement at his claim: ‘Indeed, the structure of a red wine is to a large degree “felt” rather than tasted.’ An apt way of describing the Eenzaamheid; it’s a positive feeling too; nicely dry, even a sense of freshness in its firm grip and absolutely no flashy oak nor soggy over-ripeness, ending on a note of flavoursome warmth that satisfyingly creeps down through the body.

I didn’t have the chance of enjoying Bosman Nero d’Avola 2015 over the few days that I’d have liked; that pleasure was left to Tim (we share out wines we’ve tasted and enjoyed enough to re-taste – drink! – them later). We both enjoyed Corlea Fourie’s example of this Sicilian variety, the only one so far available in South Africa; on this showing, it deserves further exploration. Sicily, the large island off the toe of Italy, is hot, but it has beneficial diurnal temperatures in summer to permit the indigenous varieties – Nero d’Avola among them – to retain their natural acid, so even when full-bodied there’s still freshness. The vineyard, all 0.6ha and grown in Wellington, produces a wine with a wild scrub fragrance and a pleasing rustic grip. It’s big, but not heavy, structure balanced by that muscle again.
I like it so much more than 2014 – too much new oak – presented at the last Cape Wine in 2015. For anyone with an adventurous palate and R150, in today’s terms sound value, give it a try while the weather remains so wonderfully wet and cold.

Nero d’Avola vines & grapes, Firriato, Sicily

Winter whites? Why not. Despite an unpromising orange colour, Chamonix Chardonnay 2007 is flexing some fine muscle.