So, in the blink of an eye, we’re 10 years on from 2008, a vintage I doubt anyone thinks of as a classic in South Africa. Reading through a brief report I wrote, there was much disease pressure due to the cool, wet conditions and humidity. Viticulturists were kept on their toes and sorting tables never stopped shaking. Lower quantities is about all that resembles vintage 2018, a year, which I hazard with its unrelenting drought, will be more about winemakers than viticulturists. Nature is having the upper hand this year.
Winding back ten years, I had to search hard to find any 2008s in the cellar; I always have the urge to try a ten-year-old local wine early in the year. I could turn up only two wines, both white: Thelma Rhine Riesling and Vergelegen GVB.
It’s quite a coincidence that one should be riesling, as it was in a Call for Comments from the Wine & Spirit Board, dated 26th March 2008 that the long-debated issue of the naming of riesling finally reached a head. Producers of real riesling had long fought a battle against Cape riesling, which was no such thing but a lowlier grape from south west France, known as crouchen. The proposal recommended to the Minister of Agriculture, was from the 2010 vintage:
a) Cape Riesling may still be shown as Crouchen, but not as Riesling; and
b) Weisser Riesling/Rhine Riesling may be indicated as Riesling.
And so it came to pass. (SAWIS still refers to Weisser Riesling in their list of vines in the regions).
Platter 2009 listed just 16 rieslings; that number has doubled in the latest 2018 and more are on the way. Chris and Suzaan Alheit will be harvesting their first from Ceres this year. Some have taken the dry route, others pursued a sweeter, zesty but lower alcohol style; there are also a few botrytis-laced Noble Late Harvests. There is a much greater sense of purpose and style about today’s rieslings, which implies no disrespect to Gyles Webb, who’s always made a serious wine.
This screwcap bottle had remained bright and full of zest, though the first evening those evolved petrolly flavours were pronounced. Strangely and over the next few days, they disappeared, leaving fresher, more appealing lime tones, lingering on the dry tail. If not vastly complex, the back label told no lies.
Sadly, my only other 2008, Vergelegen GVB, was oxidised; as I had just one bottle, there’s no telling whether others are better. Sauvignon blanc/semillon blends found a natural home in the Cape’s cooler areas with André van Rensburg’s Vergelegen 2001 leading the pack (though Charles Back made a brief foray into the style first in the 1980s). The best mature into classics. Pity about that 2008. Undoubtedly, progress has been made in fine-tuning but little in broadening consumer appreciation for these and white blends generally.
A quick note about 2008 reds: I remember buying Eagles Nest Shiraz (a variety that did better than other reds) and the maiden Newton Johnson Domaine Pinot Noir; that was probably it. Both have long been opened and enjoyed, no doubt a good thing.
Needless to say, exports increased between 2008 and 2017 (by about 36 600 000 litres) but, more importantly, so did South African wine’s image. While we already had Sadie Family Wines and Lismore, with Adi Badenhorst just taking off solo, the explosion of international media coverage and enthusiasm for our wines began its momentum at Cape Wine 2012, reaching further heights at the following event in 2015 by which time the young guns – the Alheits, Peter-Allan Finlayson, David & Nadia Sadie, more joining each year – had taken off.
The old vine story was the next to excite attention. Maybe greater varietal diversity, varieties and viticulture better suited to a changing climate, will be the next thing.
Ah, diversity; would that there was more within the industry. It puzzles me that there are so few black senior winemakers across the South African winelands, yet there are many excellent sommeliers/wine waiters at top restaurants, both Zimbabwean and South African. South African, Ntsiki Biyela with her own Aslina label is nearly a lone, albeit top-class, black winemaker voice. Carmen Stevens too has her own label, but I would guess is probably better known in the UK as part of the Naked Wines team.
As I wrote the above, an email dropped into my inbox from José Conde, co-owner/Cellarmaster at Stark-Conde Wines. This advised Rudger van Wyk, Assistant Winemaker for past two years has been appointed winemaker. Van Wyk is both a Stellenbosch University graduate in Oenology and formerly part of the Cape Winemakers’ Guild Protégé Programme. Knowing the winery and the people involved with it, this is a meaningful appointment.
May we be celebrating many more across the board by 2028; that’ll be even better progress.
Time can play tricks; it didn’t seem so long since I last saw Johan ‘Stompie’ Meyer and Jurgen Gouws, but at the recent comprehensive tasting of their wines – JH Meyer Signature Wines/Mother Rock and Gouws’s Intellego – I sensed a coming of age of both.
They’re hardly old, still in their early 30s and there’s already another generation nipping at their heels, but they’re clearly focused and every vintage shows improvements. Despite Meyer’s love of chardonnay and pinot noir, the two are attracted to the edgier side of wine, chasing minimal interference, lower alcohols, freshness, skin-contact whites and so on with the Swartland their palette (except for that Burgundian duo, but read on). Their audience might be small but it’s appreciative and growing.
I remember meeting the more reserved Gouws in 2010 (like his wines, Gouws’ has gained in confidence), when he was working with Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek; Hawkins was already experimenting with skin-fermented whites. Further inspiration from Tom Lubbe at The Observatory followed. Gouws’ established his Intellego label in 2009; it now numbers seven wines; three individual Swartland chenins – the skin-contact Elementis my favourite; Pink Moustache, described as a light red, rather than rosé, a pair of syrahs (one labelled Kolbroek) and the syrah-based Kedungu.
Many winelovers are cautious about skin-fermented whites, being more used to tannin in reds, but there’s no shortage of chenin fragrance and fruit in Elementis. If there’s uncertainty over grippy whites, lower alcohol reds also challenge today’s norm, though 11-12% was very much the norm for those of us who remember pre-mid 1990’s reds. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying Gouws’s reds (unless new oak and sweetness are your taste), which capture flavour, ripeness of texture with freshness and are appetisingly dry. Pure (forget new oak intrusions) but not simple. The labels on his wines are a delight too.
I came across the more ebullient Meyer at Meerhof in 2012, as he started making Mount Abora wines. His range is larger than Gouws’s and seemingly unstoppable; 15, under both the JH Meyer Signature and Mother Rock labels, tasted at this event. Don’t imagine he’s stopping here; on a recently purchased a 30 hectare, high-lying property in Piketberg, originally planted to citrus and fynbos, the planned 10ha of vineyard will include pinot noir. Yes, he wants to be the first to produce a pinot from the Swartland!
His eponymous chardonnay (two) and pinot noir (four) are approached without exaggeration, to express their diverse origins; my pick are the Palmiet Elgin Chardonnay 2016 and defiantly wild Outeniqua Cradock Peak Pinot 2016, with its attractive fynbos and spice.
We pick up with the more ‘natural’ side (‘It starts in the vineyard, not the cellar’, rightly insists Meyer) in Mother Rock range. From the approving murmurs around me, the white 2016, a juicily delicious blend headed by chenin, could have been the wine of the tasting. With prices bound to rise, R135 is good value. Another plus of lower alcohol, fresher reds is their compatibility with summer heat; the mouthwatering, fruitily fresh Mother Rock Grenache 2016 (+-R182) perfectly fits that bill but there’s much more to explore in Meyer’s range – if you’re quick.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn exports account for 85-90% of Gouws and Meyer’s sales; the local market for wines that push the envelope is limited. In fact, the pair are extremely lucky to be part of the Ex Animo portfolio; David and Jeannette Clarke energetically run an extremely professional business, making sure the media and trade are kept up to date with information and tastings, something these small producers would be hard pressed to achieve at any meaningful level. Ex Animo clearly highlights the need for an equally efficient organisation to represent producers big and small on the local market also acting as a link within the wider industry; a companion body to WOSA internationally. It’s a view voiced many times, one unfortunately landing on deaf ears.
On this topic, there has been much recent discussion between wine commentators about Vinpro, the body representing around 3000 grape growers and producers, which ‘strives (suitable term) to ensure their commercial sustainability’ and much else besides. Among the most important of the services Vinpro offers is that of viticultural consultancy. ‘Great wine starts in the vineyard,’ is by now a common opening remark by a winemaker at a tasting. Yet too many of our vineyards remain beset by the scourge of leafroll virus (those lovely red, autumn leaves, right?) which hinders ripening of the fruit and shortens the life of the vine. (It is no small ask to eradicate virused vines; read the programme run by viticultural consultant, Jaco Engelbrecht) Leafroll isn’t the only threatening disease and drought or no, water is an issue of concern; all make grape growing an increasingly difficult sustainable occupation; no wonder the area under vine decreases annually.
The scope of Vinpro’s interests was evident at their recent Information Day; presentations covered everything from business environment, state of the wine industry, wine’s place in society come 2030, as well the vineyard. Frankly, for anyone who keeps up with the news, whether on radio, TV or social media, much was not new. But the point is Vinpro is spread too wide; there needs to be a greater focus and more resources directed at the vineyards and primary grape growers. There can be no wine industry without them.
Thank goodness, the younger generation, whether winemakers like Gouws and Meyer, or growers, are today giving much needed attention to their vines; wine is no longer the first step to quality.
Can we afford to have less than optimally performing vines, when water, land and economic sustainability are at a premium? I think not.
For the past few years, early January has offered two occasions on which South African wines feature alongside their international counterparts. Both are partnerships between Michelin-star chef, Roger Jones of The Harrow in the UK and The Vineyard Hotel, headed by GM Roy Davies with his Food & Beverage team.
What is dubbed the Trinations dinner features pairs of wines (one South African, one foreign – to date, Australian, New Zealand and The World) served blind with complementary dishes (six or seven) prepared by Jones, guests themselves voting for their preferred wine. The event’s (and mostly South Africa’s!) success has seen Jones repeating it at his own restaurant and in New Zealand. Last year, California joined the party, the dinner being held at The Vineyard near Newbury, a hotel which boasts one of the most comprehensive lists of Californian wines. If the Californians thought they would walk it, they were sadly wrong; South Africa comprehensively trounced them. Equally sadly, South Africans weren’t given the chance of discovering what they thought of Californian wines; a change of mind saw California as a group pulling from this year’s Cape Town leg at the last minute (just one producer represented). Shame on you, California: a fun evening with top-class dishes, just six or seven wines and a small group of a hundred or so guests – is losing really going to dent your reputation? Methinks it’s just your ego that’s dented. But wouldn’t losing be less damaging than pulling out – late too, leaving a Rest of the World hurriedly taking your place.
There were some intriguing pairings and comparisons in that RoW line up; stylistically, the most marked contrast lay between the white blends. Biblia Chora Ovilos 2016 blends traditional Greek variety, assyrtiko with semillon. Offering bright fruit purity and a rich silkiness, it’s a wine easy to enjoy. A little assyrtiko has been introduced here in the hope it’ll perform well and counteract climate change; it’ll be one to watch. The Greek wine proved the guests’ favourite by a difference of just 10 votes, a narrower margin than I guessed, against Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier 2016; this semillon gris/semillon blanc partnership is skin-fermented, the focus being on structure and texture rather than fruit. For most South African palates it’s still a strange and not necessarily enjoyable style, even with food, an indispensable partner.
Sizzling freshness and generous fruit were also what I imagined would see the local Paul Cluver Close Encounter 2016 Riesling easily home over the less demonstrative (for now) Schaal Sommerberg Grand Cru 2016 from Alsace. I was correct but not about the ‘easily’; a mere 8 votes separating the two wines. Schaal is well-known for his South African wines; his Alsace Grand Crus are equally thoughtfully interpreted, though need time to blossom.
If I remain a little confused by the narrowness of these two wins (South African did go on to win overall 4 – 2), what remains a constant is South Africans’ love of fruit.
Elgin is a largely untapped source of really good riesling, whether bone dry, fruitily thrilling or sweetly spiced with botrytis. If the variety is unlikely to ever become a major player in Elgin, at least it adds a counterpoint to chardonnay in the region.
Méthode Cap Classique is also an important vehicle for chardonnay; many of our best MCCs are dominated by or made exclusively from chardonnay, as the international line up of bubblies at that other occasion illustrated. Silverthorn Green Man, Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2013, Villiera Brut Nature Chardonnay, Colmant Blanc de Blancs and Charles Fox Blanc de Blancs 2013 all have a freshness and tension providing a greater sense of driness, at whatever stage of development each has reached. Blended with pinot but no dosage, the Graham Beck Brut Zero 2012 shows a little more roundness but is also satisfyingly dry.
Does pinot get too ripe and when dosage is added, make some of the blends and many Rosés overly sweet and simplistic?
The most sought-after wines of the tasting, unsurprisingly, were the Prestige Cuvées, where Steenberg Lady R 2012 (a deserved Platter 5*), Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2012 and Charles Fox Cipher RM 2012 (what a classy wine! Such a delightful surprise after the disappointing, for me, maiden 2011) held their own against Arras 2005 (Australia), Janz 2005 (New Zealand) and one of the best English sparkling wines I’ve yet tried, Dermot Sugrue’s Dr Brendan O’Regan, which should be pretty smart for its £150 price tag! After the past two years of tasting English bubblies on this event and not being that impressed, the small contingent this year (Blanc de Blancs from Hattingley 2011 and Gusbourne 2013 – available at Wine Cellar) provided a more positive perspective. Krug 1996 was a rich, different and incomparable bubble game, just delicious!
South African MCCs can and do compare with traditionally made bubblies from the rest of the world, but our image fails through lack of consistency, something specialists such as Graham Beck, Silverthorn, Le Lude et al are busy remedying.
While my esteemed colleagues have produced lists of their favourite wines from 2017, I decided to express a few thoughts about what I look forward to in 2018. In any event, my list would repeat much of theirs.
Looking forward can be merely reflecting on what might or might not happen in the future; it can also suggest a sense of excited anticipation of the future. Let’s see how much of each follows.
Foremost in the minds of most people is the drought, more widespread than just Cape Town and the winelands, though some areas do have water and recently, I’ve seen vineyards in great condition. But I’ve also seen photos of dryland bush vines really struggling; those in the Swartland and up the West Coast are among the worst hit. Harvest 2018 looks to be small and mixed.
Struggling vines but what about the soil in which they grow? For anyone who has wider interest than what’s in the bottle, I’d enthusiastically suggest a regular read of Jaco Engelbrecht’s blog, Visual Viticulture; it’s informative yet accessible in style with great photos and videos – he’s very into drones!
In his latest post, he writes about soil health (mulching is a big thing in my garden this summer) followed by planting varieties that can better handle our dry summers and extreme heat. I hope such plantings will expand the varietal mix.
It’s clear chenin blanc’s turf is becoming increasingly competitive; good to very good chenins are the norm these days; pricing too is competitive, so to make a mark, the wine has to be distinctive (which doesn’t mean loud or showy) and be backed by a story. R240 is an ambitious price for a first chenin, especially when you’re known for reds, shiraz in particular. It’s also not irrelevant Wade Metzer spent two years in Switzerland before returning for the 2016 vintage, so somewhat out of mind among local consumers. His Metzer Family Wines Chenin Blanc is from old bush vines (planted in 1964), and barrel-fermented – all very à la mode. It’s zippily fresh with varietal interest that’ll benefit from the calming of age – but is it sufficiently distinctive? Does it have enough of a story? at R240 ex-cellar, it has a lot of competition.
Chenin has reached a level, both locally and internationally, few could have imagined some 18-20 years ago; is there a satiation point? Hopefully not, but part of wine’s attraction lies in its variety as well as varietal variety.
Grenache blanc, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, riesling, semillon and albarino (alright, just one on the market so far, but a hit for the Newton Johnsons) are showing potential in the right sites/hands, they too should be pursued; as should be much-abused sauvignon blanc, definitely more than a one-trick pony.
Add to the mix, skin-contact white and gris wines, on the increase and improving (inter alia Testalonga, Intellego and Craven Wines). As ideal food wines, I see an opportunity for more, especially with South Africa Sommeliers Association doing great work training sommeliers and wine waiters, who’ll be able to explain these very different wines to diners. They look to be a trend in the UK according to Fiona Beckett’s Guardian article report on a boom in natural wines on wine lists.
Red wines? Mastering the slimmer, fresher style weighing in at 12%-ish alcohol, which used to be the norm, while achieving ripeness remains a work in progress; a good number of winelovers still prefer the bigger, showier and sweeter (oak generally has been toned down) wines, but even these when balanced can be distinctive and deliver deliciousness. Both Tim and I thought along these lines about Bloemcool Tinto Fino Tempranillo 2014 (a bit of tautology, both are the same grape, depending which region of Spain you’re in); it’s big, 14.5% alc, but with an appealing natural freshness found in best Spanish versions. Just 470 bottles, matured in two very well assimilated new French oak barrels, were made, accounting in part for the price – R450.
Made by Stephanie Wiid, winemaker at Fairview, Bloemcool label was introduced for experimental wines; the name refers to Bloemkoolfontein, the original name of Fairview and dating from late 1600s. Is it worth the price? It’s expensive in terms of older Spanish wines available, but if this example is the sort of quality and point of difference we can achieve here, it should encourage more plantings. Over the border in Portugal, tempranillo becomes tinta roriz, so is usually known by this name in our fortified Port styles and dry red blends based on Port varieties, the latter another improving style.
Price and populism. With a smaller harvest, doubtless increased taxes and wages, wine prices are going to come under pressure. Few can afford to drink R100+ wines every evening, but why should more affordable wines not have character, structure and be proper wine like their more expensive counterparts (well, some of them)? (I refrain from saying cheap, believing the farmer for his/her grapes and the worker for his/her labours should be fairly paid.) For example, Côtes du Rhône provide a delicious, value alternative because Côte Rôtie, Hermitage or Cornas are too expensive for every day.
Wine Cellar’s list reveals the sort of affordable, properly made wines there should be more of: Adi Badenhorst’s Secateurs Red R95, Joostenberg Family Red Blend R90, Leeuwenkuil Shiraz R52 and Reyneke Organic Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 R75. Populism in wine does as little for winelovers as it appears to for electorates.
South African wine has been on an incredible roll in 2017; I’m looking forward to no letting off the pace in 2018.
One of the most discussed subjects in the South African wine world this year has been around old vines, the recently established Old Vine Project providing major impetus. While there are a handful of vineyards over 100 years old, membership qualification is just 35, i.e. vines planted in 1983 can join the club next year. (Amazing to think that was when I became professionally involved with wine!).
There’s a buzz too around the wines made from these old vines; a tasting in London earlier this year generated an enormous amount of positive publicity for South African wine. Although the best old vine wines reveal an easy grace in their concentration, it doesn’t mean to say all old vines produce great wine; the OVP team themselves suggest much of the 2000-plus hectares over 35 probably can’t.
From old vines and the wines made from them to old wines; vintages generally from the 1950s to 1980s continue to cause ripples of excitement and, when properly stored, can command decent prices on the secondary market. Well-vetted older wines are now available not only on select tastings but to the general public via Wine Cellar; maybe there are other retailers too. Again, they’re mainly from the 1980s onwards, fewer dating back to 1960s and 1970s.
The natural progression leads to old wineries, though the term old is relative. There are many well-known wine farms which have been in existence and producing wine longer than Jordan and Waterford – Delheim, Groot Constantia and Simonsig come to mind – but these two, celebrating their 25th vintage and 20th founding anniversary, represent the early starters in what was to soon become a boom, with roughly 50 to 60 newcomers entering the market every year. Each has packed so much into their 25 and 20 respective years, they do seem to have been around much longer.
Jordan was purchased by Ted and Sheelagh Jordan in 1982, selling grapes to other wineries until son, Gary with his wife, Kathy returned from a study/work stay in California, to produce the maiden vintage under the Jordan label in 1993.
Accompanied by old photos of the farm, themselves and some of their long-time employees (thankfully, they decided against any of media and friends who’ve attended the annual harvest days!), the Jordans led the 25 year celebration with an informative and insightful presentation of what has been packed into those years.
Confidence in their ability to succeed and remaining true to the Jordan style have seen the winery, wines and sales increase. This doesn’t mean they’ve not moved with the times; for instance, all the wines now have names, not just plucked out of the air, but relating to some event on the farm – Long Fuse Cabernet – or person associated with South African wine – Inspector Péringuey Chenin Blanc. New challenges have also been embraced with enthusiasm and success, among them: High Timber, co-owned with charismatic Bloemfontein lass, Neleen Strauss; Nine Yards Travel, celebrating the whole of Africa and, most recently the purchase of Mousehall in Sussex, where the Jordans will produce English fizz and gin. Social upliftment is as important as new challenges; the dop system (payment in wine) was stopped as soon as they moved on the farm. All those workers moved out; many of the current staff have been on Jordan for most of if not all the 25 years.
Waterford, the 120 hectare hillside farm on the Helderberg, was founded by the Ord family with partner and Cellarmaster, Kevin Arnold, leading off with 1998 vintage. Six years to make the winery profitable was the requirement which initiated the Kevin Arnold Shiraz, then from bought in grapes, now part of the Waterford portfolio; this is joined by entry level Pecan Stream range, the Library Collection, a range of once-off experimental wines and headed by the sextet of Waterford Estate wines grown and made on the farm; cabernet sauvignon and the red blend, The Jem, the flagships. The cabernet has always been my favourite of the varietal wines, classic in its savouriness and understatement. All are now under the confident guidance of winemaker, Mark le Roux, who joined Waterford as Assistant Winemaker in 2009.
The Jem is an interesting project, its goal an important one for South African wine. This red blend was designed to reflect the nature of the Helderberg; beyond the usual cabernets sauvignon and franc, petit verdot and merlot, shiraz, barbera, grenache, malbec, mourvèdre, sangiovese and tempranillo were planted. It took seven years of experiments to arrive at the maiden, 2004, released with a price tag of around R600. The price has now risen to R1100 but importantly, so has quantity while maintaining quality; there are 16 000 bottles of the Platter 5* 2012. Further increases will take it to 25 000 bottles with as many as 75 000 bottles possible. This steady growth on all counts from a producer with a track record is what will drive a broader and better image for South Africa.
Waterford has also been instrumental in driving the importance of wine tourism, the Cellar Door Experience in particular. For their excellence in this offering, they’ve received several awards.
In terms of the number of new producers on the South African scene over the past 20 to 25 years, Jordan and Waterford might seem like the old hands. In fact, they are still pretty young, but through their well-thought through planning and aim for quality in all they do, both have achieved an amazing amount in those relatively short years.
Vines are the same, requiring quality vine material, careful planning and attention to enable 35 year olds seem but at the start of their journey.
We’ve come a long way but there’s still a helluva long way to go.
Top winemakers have many attributes, some learned, others intuitive. Being a member of a family with an enviable winemaking heritage is no hindrance either, though first choice of study was philosophy rather than wine for Peter-Allan Finlayson (son of Peter/Bouchard Finlayson, nephew of Walter founder of Glen Carlou and responsible for those wonderful early Blaauwklippen cabernets, and cousin of David/Edgebaston, Carolyn/Creation).
It also struck me, after last week’s long overdue visit to Gabriëlskloof to taste his own Crystallum wines as well as Gabriëlskloof flagship Landscape range, a top winemaker can produce quality beyond any particular comfort zone. (It is actually now three weeks, thanks to Telkom taking just over two weeks to repair and re-connect my landline and ADSL; apologies. Now everything’s up and running again, expect more blog activity!)
For the past ten years, Finlayson has been associated almost exclusively with chardonnay and pinot noir, the two varieties variously explored in his seven-wine Crystallum range. A few early vintages included sauvignon blanc, probably a cash-flow necessity but it was soon discontinued.
The move to expand his repertoire arrived mid-2014, when Finlayson added Gabriëlskloof winemaker to his portfolio; this property, just outside Bot River, is owned by his father-in-law, Bernhard Heyns with a handful of shareholders (including Finlayson and his wife, Nicolene).
On my first visit, many before Finlayson took over, I was sufficiently impressed by Magdalena, a sauvignon/semillon blend, named for Heyns teetotal sister (!), to purchase a few bottles. Finlayson’s 2016, showed at another level, a seamless integration of fresh and silky textures in its home-grown sauvignon with Franschhoek semillon melded in larger and older oak; the yellow citrus and honey flavours so subtle yet convincing.
Like his father, Finlayson gives the impression of being permanently laid-back; it’s a different matter when it comes to his wines, where he shows absolute focus and intent. Sensitivity to the fruit and its origins is further evident in Elodie, a Swartland chenin blanc, naturally fermented also in older oak. Both whites went through the acid softening malolactic process, inducing breadth but retaining a good drive of freshness and persuasive individuality.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by Finlayson’s first two syrahs, both homegrown 2015s, one from Sandstone, the other, Shale (they are so labelled); the former dark flavoured and denser, the latter all bright red fruit, spice with lovely, fine-grained tannin. So often winemakers with an understanding of pinot transmit it so well to syrah. And these are just the start: 2016s and 17s tasted from barrel promise even better.
We had, of course, enjoyed a few Crystallum Cuvée Cinema pinots to start: 2013 through to the new, Whole Bunch 2016, that’s 100% whole bunch as opposed to smaller percentages in 2015 and a separate bottling of 2016. Spending six weeks on the skins in a single topped 500L barrel, Whole Bunch is an energetic succulent youngster, worth waiting until it grows up. In the meantime, the black cherry perfumed 2014 charms with its elegance and freshness.
Both Marelise Niemann and John Seccombe (Momento Wines and Thorne & Daughters respectively), who make their wines in the Gabriëlskloof cellar, add to the general luster. Unfortunately, John was ill, but what a pleasure to get up to date with Niemann’s wines, styled with finesse and fruit purity, but never overtly fruity. From the regular Chenin Blanc-Verdelho, Grenache and Tinta Barocca, fruit for the last ex Beaumont, where she worked prior to going on her own; curious to think this lively, dry wine with its fruit cake fragrance is also majorly responsible for Beaumont’s Starboard, Platter’s Fortified Dessert Wine of the Year!
Niemann also introduced us to her new skin contact grenache gris from the Paardeberg. Given her wines’ general restraint, this was an intriguing move; would it be in a very different style? Not at all; the pinky/beige tinge and tannin squeeze on the 2017 barrel sample derive from three days pre-ferment on skins rather than fermentation. It falls in line with her other Momento wines, and should make an equally compatible partner with food.
Niemann is also responsible for the new Anysbos wines, a neighbouring farm belonging to Heyns’ brother. He, apparently, prefers wines with a little more flourish; I’m sure Niemann will move out of her comfort zone with as much competence and success as Finlayson.
Gabriëlskloof is a rising star and should soon be as sought-after and appreciated as the other wines being created in this Overberg cellar.
Where to from here? There are reasons a-plenty why the years ahead should afford wine grape growers anxiety, the unprecedented drought just one.
A glance at the latest figures for Western and Northern Cape vineyards planted vs those uprooted, illustrates a level of disenchantment and lack of sustainability: since 2013, the annual shortfall has been around 1600 hectares.
Without giving precise figures, information from the Du Toitskloof team suggests their growers have a stable area under vine, with small pockets of citrus, kiwi fruit and mushrooms among other alternative crops grown. (Citrus is now a popular replacement for vines in the Robertson area.) Given Breedekloof’s aquifers, enough for irrigation even in the current drought, and the fertile soils, no general change to wine growing is foreseen. What is changing is the approach to viticulture; more suitable varieties being introduced; technology allowing for root depth manipulation and innovative canopy management all with the goal of producing higher yields of better quality and sustainability.
Quality and sustainability need to be complemented by better marketing. Over the past few years, a consortium of Breedekloof producers, both privately owned and producer cellars, have held a competition for chenin blanc, the most-planted variety in the area. The event appears to be well-organised and is beginning to attract some much-needed awareness of the area. The Du Toitskloof team not only see it as helping to generate more focus on quality but lifting the perception of the entire Breedekloof region as a brand. Their view is it could eventually lead to a collective Breedekloof brand, but it would need a collective mindset and collaboration.
It’s all a far cry from being nursed by the KWV. Some co-operatives have adapted better than others and even more adaptability is going to be required in future. What is going to be the situation in 2027; will there be even fewer wine growers, producer cellars and private ones too? Looking into their crystal ball, the team reckons sustainability will require more joint ventures establishing brands across price and quality points; even so, the market will largely dictate, as it does now but such brands would make it a far less confusing place. No change is envisaged for those sustainably established properties such as Kanonkop, Meerlust et al, which will continue to play an important role in supporting the positive image of Brand South Africa.
Du Toitskloof is already one of the leaders in establishing a collective brand different in several ways from their own. The Land’s End brand, with its well-known lighthouse label, was purchased in 2016. Fruit for both the sauvignon blanc and syrah will continue to be sourced from around the cool-climate, southern coastal area of Cape Agulhas and vinified at the Du Toitskloof cellar. (Rooiberg Winery is another, having purchased The Game Reserve conservancy range from Graham Beck Wines around the same time.)
Perhaps this is the future for many of the old co-ops, but come 2027, even if there are fewer wine growers, (as I suspect there will be), fewer producer and even private cellars due to closure or amalgamation, it will surely be the fittest, most market-savvy that survive, I expect to see Du Toitskloof among them.
A while back, in one of his weekly articles for Decanter, Andrew Jefford wrote about a co-operative in the Languedoc. Remarking on the movement as a whole, he noted that it is not just ‘commercial entities with a social dimension, but collections of individual entrepreneurs who have agreed to pool resources and efface individuality for the common good.’
Although South Africa’s co-operatives were substantially structured along the lines of the French model, a major point of difference prior to the country’s re-admission to the international market in 1994 was they had a regulatory overlord. The KWV set minimum prices for both distilling and ‘good wine’ as well as implementing the quota system. Nothing incentivised quality, nor marketing and, if there was overproduction (aka a ‘surplus’), the KWV would mop it up, albeit at lower prices. Wine was sold via the KWV (both player and regulator!) to wholesalers, where it landed on retailers shelves under their own brands. A small quantity was bottled for their members’ consumption, some available from the cellar door, but selling on the open market was frowned on; that would offer competition to the hand that fed them.
The advent of democracy and opening up of international markets brought a rude awakening to the co-operatives; their KWV lifeline was cut, quality (including better-selling varieties) rather than quantity was demanded and there was competition to be faced, both locally and internationally.
Statistics tell how the co-operative scene changed. According to the KWV issued SA Wine Industry Statistics booklet dated 1996, there were 4634 wine producers (ie grape farmers), 71 co-operative cellars and 78 estate wineries, 105 private cellars and 93 889ha of wine grapes. By 2016, SAWIS (SA Wine Industry Information & Systems) statistics listed 3145 primary grape producers, 48 producer cellars (the old co-operatives), 493 private wine cellars and 27 producing wholesalers with 95 775 ha under wine grape varieties.
Figures cannot tell the whole story; it’s as much about the producer cellars’ ability to adapt to change in circumstances: some disappeared, some combined with others, some have carried on solo under their original name, though now as a company, the growers being co-owners or shareholders.
Interested to learn a little about how an ex-co-op has gone about change, I contacted the team at Du Toitskloof, a winery noted for its positive and dynamic approach to the changing conditions and market place. I’m grateful to Chairman, Johan de Wet, GM, Marius Louw and Bernard Kotze (not a man for titles, but best described as Brand Manager), who combined to answer my questions.
One of Du Toitskloof’s major advantages is its location, the cellar complex being visible from the new N1 on the Worcester side of the Huguenot tunnel (apart from its own spectacular views); combine that with the name of the winery being the same as the brand gives consumers good reason to remember the name. The cellar is also recognised for consistency and value, further encouraging loyal fans. Visitors are greeted in a cheerfully decorated tasting area; a Melissa’s food shop is another attraction as are the summer picnics available. Rather than a workaday co-operative, the team believes winelovers’ impression is rather one of a large winery.
In fact, Du Toitskloof is of average size in terms of volume among local co-operatives; the annual production from the 22 members is around 15000 tons (or 12 million litres). Even then, the approach is on a smaller scale, similar to that of an estate. For example, site specific blocks are identified, appropriately managed and retained for the Select Vineyard range; regular awards have followed, a source of pride for everyone associated with the winery.
Pride was an issue raised in Jefford’s article; the director of the Languedoc co-operative was convinced of the value of co-operation but also noticed no one was proud of being in a co-operative; members didn’t want the word appearing on the labels.
In the old days, local co-ops had not much more to be proud of than big silver trophies on the Young Wine Shows, before the wine was swallowed up by wholesalers; now, pride and incentive for better quality comes from seeing their own brands on local and international wine shelves. Brand credibility also requires consistency; this is where working together pays dividends.
For instance, a Du Toitskloof grower receives a premium for grapes considered good enough to be packaged rather than sold in bulk – around 60% of production is sold in bulk, mainly due to British and European wholesalers’ demand for quality Fairtrade wine. The goal is to sell more packaged wine, but the team admit markets dictate to a large extent on this issue.
From the cellar side, a high-tech make over has ensured the grapes receive optimum treatment to allow for quality wine. A high-tech cellar still requires a skillful and understanding cellarmaster; this Du Toitskloof have in Shawn Thomson, whose long tenure at the winery – he’s been there since 1999, taking over as Cellarmaster in 2011 – brings its own benefits. More recently, he’s had the opportunity to test his skills on grapes grown way beyond the winery’s Breedekloof borders; but that and some discussion of the future are for Part two.
However rigorous and fairly set up a blind tasting may be, it is impossible to discount an element of luck (or lack of it) in the results.
Be that as it may, Bruwer Raats has put in a spectacular performance in Platter’s South African Wine Guide 2018, launched this evening at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town. His successes are thoroughly deserved: a quintet of five star wines and Winery of the Year under his own label; two in association with his cousin, Gavin Bruwer Slabbert under B Vintners Vine Exploration Co and last, but certainly not least, the iconic MR de Compostella, the result of a 13 year partnership with Mzo Mvemve. That’s an incredible eight five star wines Raats has a hand in. If there was a little luck, individual bottles of wine having their own say in matters, there’s definitely also a lot of understanding and skill from Raats. Bravo Bruwer and your partners too.
In any other year, Richard Kershaw MW (Richard Kershaw Wines) or Eben Sadie (whose Sadie Family Wines has already been a Winery of the Year), with four five star wines each, would have battled it out for top honours; they are also worthy awardees.
What the lack of a tie did avoid, yet again, was a decision from Platter editor, Philip van Zyl, about selection of Winery of the Year. I wrote last year; ‘But the format has always been the winery with the most number of five star wines, luckily there’s never been a tie … But the time has come to change this format.’ Despite several ideas put forward to both van Zyl and publisher, JP Rossouw, sadly lack of decision-making ruled and, although this year has provided a new and clear winner, rumbles of dissatisfaction continue from wineries with fewer wines in their range. Any producer who submits to Platter should have the chance of being awarded this honour. And to make it quite clear, I respect those, for whatever reason, who choose not to submit; it’s an entirely voluntary and free process, as sad as it is not to see a wider range of South Africa’s most exciting wines missing from Platter pages.
As for all those starry wines, chenin blanc again beat all-comers for most five stars; 17, a repeat of last year’s total. With that dominance – chardonnay was chenin’s closest white rival with nine – you could be forgiven for thinking the White Wine of the Year is most likely to emerge from those 17, but they were trounced by Chris Williams’ The Foundry Grenache Blanc 2015, one of a tiny handful of varietal grenaches, though adding character to and gaining popularity in white blends. Williams’ success not only gives grenache blanc a further boost but less mainstream varieties as well.
Less mainstream, but not niche; that descriptor I’d tag onto Craig Sheard’s Elemental Bob Grenache Blanc 2016, which includes some verdelho but, more importantly received skin contact, slotting it under the Alternative category. That five star award is another positive first for Platter.
A less positive move in my opinion, is to print scores out of 100 on the five star (95-100) and highly commended (94) seals. Firstly, it diminishes the five star rating (is it even relevant now?), always regarded as the ultimate rating in Platter, let alone the Wines of the Year, but it’s also confusing to have a score; most won’t understand how it’s arrived at and what about the lower star ratings. As a taster and someone who takes a lot of trouble in trying to convey the style and quality of each wine in (a very limited number of) words, I’m beginning to wonder whether actual notes are obsolete. I’ll watch reaction to this new move with interest but to my mind it’s ill thought-through, wasn’t conveyed to the tasters at any stage, and certainly doesn’t get my approval.
Less grumpily, I note there’s generally a good mix of varieties and styles across the five star board from MCC (I’m particularly happy to see three up there – it seems such a difficult style to find consensus) to Port styles. Sad not to see Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir there though; this breaks the wine’s record, consecutive eight year run of five stars since the maiden vintage.
My own input and that of two colleagues on the five star tasting was to determine which of 74 shirazes and 16 semillons deserved that valued rating: general positives in shiraz are less new oak and less extraction, allowing the wines a more natural, supple flow. On the downside, acid additions are often clumsy. Really pleasing is that the nine wines we selected come from both warm and cool climates, something they well express. We set an equally high bar for the semillons, a variety that tends to be unyielding in youth, a difficulty we did encounter; this didn’t stop us from giving enthusiastic nods to three (with a few more years on them, it could have been more) but all 16 showed distinctive style and great personality. It was a taxing yet fun two days.
One of the major lessons I learn from this annual tasting is generalising about a vintage is dangerous; most agree 2015 is excellent, producing ageworthy wines but there will always be exceptions. This edition’s Red Wine of the Year, Nederburg’s II Centuries Cabernet is a 2014 – there are others too from this talked-down red wine year – is a timely reminder that it often pays to follow individual producers rather than a vintage per se.
There are vintages, styles and producers a-plenty to choose from in this, the most numerous to date of five stars in Platter; 111 from just under 1000 in the blind tasting and around 7000 tasted sighted for the guide in total.
Congratulations to all.
WINERY OF THE YEAR
Raats Family Wines
RED WINE OF THE YEAR
Nederburg II Centuries Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
WHITE WINE OF THE YEAR
The Foundry Grenache Blanc 2015
DESSERT WINE OF THE YEAR
Klein Constania Vin de Constance 2013
FORTIFIED WINE OF THE YEAR
Beaumont Family Wines Starboard Dessert Wine NV
FIVE STAR WINES
AA BADENHORST FAMILY WINES White 2015
ALHEIT VINEYADS La Colline 2016
ALVIS DRIFT PRIVATE CELLAR Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc 2015
Harlem to Hope 2016
Liberte Pinotage 2016
BARTINNEY PRIVATE CELLAR Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
BEAUMONT FAMILY WINES
Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2016
BELLINGHAM The Bernard Series Small Barrel SMV 2014
BOEKENHOUTSKLOOF WINERY Syrah 2015
BOTANICA WINES Mary Delaney Collection Chenin Blanc 2016
BOUCHARD FINLAYSON Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2015
CAPE CHAMONIX WINE FARM Troika 2015
CAPE POINT VINEYARDS Isliedh 2016
CAPE WINE COMPANY Erasmus Family 2015
CARINUS FAMLY VINEYARDS Rooidraai 2016
CEDERBERG PRIVATE CELLAR
Ghost Corner Sauvignon Blanc 2016
COLMANT CAP CLASSIQUE & CHAMPAGNE Brut Chardonnay NV
CONSTANTIA GLEN Sauvignon Blanc 2017
CONSTANTIA UITSIG Semillon 2015
CREATION WINES The Art of Pinot Noir 2016
DASCHBOSCH Hanepoot 2015
DAVID & NADIA
Skaliekop Chenin Blanc 2016
Höe-Steen Chenin Blanc 2016
DE TRAFFORD Blueprint Syrah 2015
DELAIRE GRAFF ESTATE
Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015
White Reserve 2015
Cape Vintage 2015
DEMORGENZON Chardonnay Reserve 2016
DONKIESBAAI Hooiwijn 2016
EAGLES’ NEST Shiraz 2014
EDGEBASTON David Finlayson ‘GS’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
EIKENDAL Charisma 2015
ELEMENTAL BOB Grenache Blanc 2016
FLAGSTONE WINERY Writer’s Block Pinotage 2015
GROOT CONSTANTIA ESTATE
Grand Constance 2015
Gouveneurs Reserve White 2015
HARTENBERG ESTATE Gravel Hill Shiraz 2013
HERMANUSPIETERSFONTEIN WYNKELDER Kat met die Houtbeen 2015
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.
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.
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.