It’s a sad story, as the title suggests. There are many such sad stories about riesling. It was hounded to include the qualifier ‘Rhine’ or ‘Weisser’ to differentiate it from ‘Cape Riesling’, an imposter if ever there was one. Eventually, riesling producers and fans won the day, when real riesling was permitted to be labelled without any unnecessary qualifiers. Although no Cape Riesling (or synonym, crouchen) is listed in the Platter index*, Theuniskraal in Tulbagh still produces probably the only extant varietal, commercial example. (*correction; there are three Cape Rieslings listed in the Index: Osbloed & Hildenbrand as well as Theuniskraal).
Sad stories for riesling used to be good news for fans of the variety; the wines didn’t sell or at least not with any speed, meaning the currently available vintage could often be four or five years old; that little edge of maturity is what aficionados seek and riesling can deliver, thanks to its naturally high acid. A whiff or two of botrytis brings even more interest but back in the day, few went bone dry; a little residual sugar – 10-12 grams/litre – encouraged complexity and a better alcohol balance.
But when you love Mosel riesling, with its irresistible delicacy and low alcohol, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to attempt a similar style locally. Hermann Kirschbaum, long-time winemaker but now Estate Manager at beautiful Buitenverwachting in Constantia, was one Mosel fan who took on the challenge. Most of the farm’s Rhine Rieslings clocked in around 10% alcohol with thrilling acid tension and varying residual sugar levels, depending on the vintage, but drier rather than sweeter. Sadly, they were not appreciated by the wider wine-buying public. For them, Buitenverwachting is the source of some of South Africa’s best sauvignon blanc, a reputation secured since the first vintage.
Eventually, the decision had to be made of what to do with the riesling vineyard, which was on some of the farm’s best soils.
Lars Maack, co-owner of Buitenverwachting, explains the decision to uproot the vineyard. ‘The vines were actually getting better and better with advancing age, but unfortunately the demand and price we could achieve was not on the same level as with our sauvignon blanc. I also wanted to focus Buitenverwachting on a smaller range of wines and with the riesling sitting on one of our best soils, it was inevitable to replant the block with sauvignon blanc.’
Maack hastens to add they remain passionate about riesling; ‘but we are better off purchasing great rieslings from around d the world instead of producing it ourselves.’
The last riesling vintage was 2009; I had the pleasure of reviewing it, along with the rest of the Buitenverwachting range, in Platter 2011.
‘Rhine Riesling **** 09 ‘last vtge, sob!’ cries Hermann K, uneconomical vineyard uprooted. Departs on high note; zest, elegant lime, green apple nuances lifted by 3.9 g/l sugar ..’
Hermann has one of those faces which can look extremely sad when the occasion demands, so you can imagine this last riesling drew an extremely sorrowful look.
He might’ve been less sorrowful at how it performed ten years on. As pale and brilliant in colour as it is delicate and exhilarating. Will-o-the-wisp spiced lemon and lime flavours – now you see them, now you don’t – brushed by refreshing acid, race to a, literally, breathtaking finish.
Would I have guessed it’s ten year old? No; there was very little sense of development, despite the disappearance of those green apples. A great wine? No, but a delightful reminder of what is possible with riesling in the Cape.
Despite his sorrow at the loss of his beloved riesling, Hermann should be pleased others have taken up the challenge of drier, lower alcohol rieslings, with a positive response from a growing number of appreciative winelovers.
Not much has changed in Cape vineyards, yet much has changed. The ‘not much’ refers to a handful of varieties which small number traditionally make up the majority of the area under vine.
Currently (SAWIS 2017 figures) the top eight account for 82.5% of the 94 545 hectares of vineyard; 70.6% if one discounts colombard, mainly used for brandy. Of the remaining seven, six are classic French varieties; the other is pinotage.
Today we take this order of things as a given, yet as recently as 2000, shiraz and merlot weren’t in the top seven and hanepoot filled that seventh spot.
That’s as a by the by, for one only has to look down Platter’s index to see how those grapes dominate the local wine scene. I’ve always believed, and often voiced such belief, that we should be broadening the varietal spectrum, even more so now with the accruing information on climate change. I was once shouted down by an eminent English wine person, who would have none of it, saying we should get right what we already have. Perhaps it then didn’t occur there may be other varieties which could perform even better than those Frenchies, which are mainly from cooler climes of that country.
With the ‘discovery’ of the Swartland and the warmer reaches of the Olifants River up the West coast, so heat-loving varieties from the South of France are showing just how much they like it here too.
But, we’re still in France. Or we were. Changes are happening, even if new varieties sometimes have as much to do with the producer’s connections with the country as suitability. Italian and Portuguese grapes are popular partly for these reasons.
Climate change is also starting to influence thinking. After detailed exploration of the vines and the wine in Greece, Gary and Kathy Jordan are planning to make their first, major planting of Greek variety assyrtiko on their Stellenboschkloof farm this year.
I hope it adapts as well in the ground and the bottle as albariño appears to be doing so far. While albariño is the Spanish version of the grape, in Jancis Robinson et al’s Wine Grapes, it is discussed under its Portuguese name alvarinho. Just a border separates their respective homes in the northwest of Spain and north eastern border of Portugal.
‘Fresh acidity balances the full body and firm structure and there can often be a marine note, reminding the taster how well these wine go with seafood,’ writes Robinson of the variety.’
Love of seafood, both the catching and eating of it, inspired the Newton Johnsons to go through the lengthy procedure required in importing albariño vine material. Since the first miniscule 8 litres, the wine has displayed remarkably authentic varietal character (and affinity with seafood!), both making it a hit with consumers since the maiden, commercial release in 2015.
The Springfield Bruwers also have the catching-and-eating seafood bug, but Abrie and his sister, Jeanette were drawn to albariño via a bottle shared in Uruguay (who knew there is Uruguyan albariño?). It obviously so impressed them that they considered importing the vine material – until they discovered the Newton-Johnsons had already done so. Being the delightful wine people both the N-Js and Bruwers are, albariño cuttings crossed the mountains from Hemel en Aarde to Robertson; two-and-a-half years later, Springfield Albariño 2018 proved at its launch that it too lives up to Jancis Robinson’s description and, of course, affinity with food from the sea. The eye-catching label, which leaves one in no doubt as to the grape’s origin (all the local labelling requirements are on the back (front)),should tempt further inspection.
In response to my photos from the launch, a UK friend tweeted a perfect reason for choosing Springfield Albariño: ‘Sometimes you don’t want head-thumping complexity, especially in the sunshine; just a good, refreshing wine.’ I couldn’t agree more: at a moderate (for today) 12.5% alc and with that racy acid, it’s a drinking rather than thinking wine. It’s also reasonably priced at R120 ex-cellar.
Those first vines yielded just 5000 bottles, but every year new cuttings are making new vines and so the number of bottles will increase in future vintages.
On the showing so far of both Springfield and Newton-Johnson’s Albariños (I haven’t tasted Nederburg’s, the only other one), I suggest they will add to the burgeoning reputation of South Africa’s white wine portfolio.
Success is important, as it will encourage others to experiment with more varieties suited to our climate.
Sales and marketing are often conflated, cancelling out the effect of either on consumers, who fail to respond. Yet, at the recent Vinpro Information Day, Ultra Liquors Mark Norrish, explained their respective roles are quite clear. ‘Sales is getting goods on to retailers shelves; marketing is the art of getting those goods off the shelves.’ In other words creating consumer demand.
Marketing remains a challenge for many (most?) South African producers. It’s often winemakers with great personality who attract the public attention; many make some of the country’s best wines, so are worthy of such attention. In today’s crowded market, even a producer with a quality range, can be overlooked if not featured regularly on social media or in the news: perception is all important.
Much the same roller coaster applies to varieties or wine styles. I often bemoan the seeming inertia of some of the interest groups; the Chenin Blanc Association and Méthode Cap Classique Association are admirable exceptions, promoting chenin and bubbly respectively to consumers as well as research among their members to improve quality.
Sadly, semillon has no such producer fan club. It’s ironic that semillon and riesling, two varieties the media, both local and international, regularly enthuse about, struggle to gain similar enthusiasm from consumers. And that’s not for want of highly-profile producers making super wines from these grapes.
A discussion on Facebook involving retailers, consultants and experienced winelovers, all of whom enjoy semillon, has thrown up a variety of thoughts. Firstly that semillon has never been fashionable; it deserves its place in the market but needs to be hand sold by someone who believes in the wines and is able to tell the stories behind them. Another detraction for today’s ‘immediate’ society is that semillon requires several years to show at its best. In its youth, traditional semillon from Hunter River in Australia’s New South Wales, for example, is rather neutral. With lowish alcohol and unoaked, it’s not a promising start; 10 years and more down the line, it’s a different story, with all sorts of toasty, nutty flavours developing, which lead many to think it’s been in oak, turn the wine into a flavoursome individual. White Bordeaux, usually sauvignon-semillon blends, fuller-bodied and oaked, likewise needs those pesky years to turn from chrysalis to butterfly.
The view of one retailer is that consumers do buy semillon, but not because it’s semillon, rather because of the brand behind it. Where on Eben Sadie’s Old Vine Series Kokkerboom does the word Semillon appear? Yet that wine is as popular as the others in the range. Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh, Boekenhoutskloof (Semillon) or Landau du Val; winelovers are buying on those names rather than because of the variety, so says my retailer.
Landau du Val Semillon comes from a vineyard planted in 1905, one of the oldest in the Cape. Basil and Jane Landau bought the Franschhoek farm, La Brie in the mid 1980s and with it this four hectare semillon vineyard (there is also some pinotage on another block), which they have nurtured ever since. The first vintage under their ownership was in 1995 and over the years a series of winemakers in various cellars have been responsible for its vinification. My ten-year-old 2009 was in the hands of Anina Guelpa, also winemaker at then Anatu Wines.
These and the many other old semillon vines in Franschhoek produce wines with a very particular character. They are flavourful rather than fruity (semillons from new clones and cool, coastal vineyards are reminiscent of lemon grass, tangerine and more than a nod to sauvignon blanc as well), with a broad, heavy silk texture, emphasised by the concentration of old vines.
Tim James, who tasted the 2009 for Platter 2011 edition, describes it as: ‘Always serene & lovely. 09 no exception, with its classic notes of lemon, lanolin & wax – &, in youth, a hint of oak (ferm/9 mths, half new). Satisfying, easy drinking with the force of ancient vines shown only in long, lingering subtlety.’
With age has developed a ripe, honeyed note, adding another dimension to the ever-present lemon, lanolin and wax. The oak is fully assimilated, as one would hope, now evident only in the wine’s extra breadth. To an extent, the serenity Tim writes of is still there, but this is a big wine, 14.5% declared on the label, with apparent lowish acid and lacking freshness, so his ‘easy drinking’ is less easy to reconcile. By no means a sipping style, it went very well with my pork rasher and veg; it does need food to bring out the best in it. Despite semillon’s record for longevity, I’d rather drink this over the next year or two before the alcohol glow becomes too pronounced. That said, it is an authentic example of old vine, Franschhoek semillon.
For those who believe I’m a diehard purist, enjoy the following. I like to drink a glass of white wine as I cook my supper, but the Landau du Val being unsuited to such aperitif sipping, I had opened a 2018 fresh, 12.5% alc chenin; perfect from a refreshing point of view, but rather rawly youthful after the semillon. Cheekily, I added a few splashes of chenin to the semillon. Bingo! Who says age and youth can’t make perfect partners.
Confidence is an inspirational quality, it drives so much that is positive. Confidence was the focus of Agricultural Economist, Wandile Sihlobo’s presentation at the recent Vinpro Information Day. Defining confidence as the belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something, Wandile told the audience that confidence drives growth in the economy, the subject most discussed by South Africans.
But what drives confidence? In agriculture, there are two major issues of concern: one is rainfall – when there’s less than annual average, confidence lowers; the other is land reform and the uncertainty surrounding how it’s being handled. Obviously there are other issues such as grape and wine prices, where, for many, low levels lead to low confidence in future sustainability. There is also the question of declining vineyard area, many making way for other more economically viable crops; some were likely no good for quality wine anyway.
But, thank goodness, there are many proven vineyards producing the wines which so excite international journalists, wine buyers and consumers. Vineyards, even when there’s a change of winemaker, that are so consistent, even under a new pair of sensitive hands, still produce star quality.
Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh is one. Riandri Visser joined as Duncan Savage’s assistant in the cellar in 2014, taking over the winemaking reins when he left in 2016. Her first solo vintage was 2017, a vintage she celebrated with a Platter 5* with Isliedh; this was one of several received by the wine, including the now 10-year-old 2009.
Riandri confirms that since the maiden 2003, all the sauvignon blanc and semillon have come from the same vineyards, producing consistent quality fruit year after year. While acknowledging how incredible the site is, she’s never over-confident nor takes its quality for granted; ‘I respect the vineyards and mother nature; each vintage is different and has its own challenges.’ As stand-alone vineyards (there are no others in the area) Riandri has to make her own judgements on everything from anticipating the weather to when to pick; the Isliedh blend is always in mind when that decision is made. ‘To reflect our unique terroir, it’s vital to harvest at just the right time.’
Vinification has always been about making adjustments rather than wild changes. ‘We stick to basics but adapt to situations,’ Riandri explains; ‘for instance clay amphora are used mainly for semillon, but sometimes sauvignon; oak barrels are always from the same cooper, but toasting is based on vintage with less new oak nowadays. Every change is made only with the idea of improving the wine,’ she concludes.
Well now, how has Isliedh 2009 stood the test of time? The blend is 85% sauvignon, 15% semillon, which compares with 2017s 77% sauvignon blanc, 23% semillon.
I guess most winelovers are more familiar with a young Isliedh, distinguished by its cool climate lemon grass, tangerine and honey purity; 10 years on, they have retreated, if not entirely disappeared, but of more interest are the light toasty notes of mature semillon. Not toast from oak, rather an inherent quality of the variety, more akin to toasted nuts or oats (an aroma I’m familiar with thanks to making my own muesli). There’s a good swish of semillon’s rich silky texture braced by sauvignon’s fresh acid, but sadly neither allow for great complexity or length; the culprit, I think is 14.5% alcohol. That the wine is still enjoyable, if never fully satisfying, stands testimony to both quality in the vineyards and winemaking.
I’d suggest now is the time to enjoy any remaining bottles.
Next, let’s see how a 10-year-old 100% semillon from one of the Cape’s oldest vineyards performs.
Age. As with people, so with wine; age treats some better than others. Some don’t improve or become more interesting with age, they just get older; some aren’t meant to age but be enjoyed in the bloom of youth. Yet, I’m sure most winelovers would agree drinking a properly mature (as opposed to aged) wine is an experience not to be missed.
In recent years, South African pre-1980 red wines have been poured, often to great acclaim from locals and international luminaries alike. White wines of a slightly younger age have also impressed. These tastings have led to debate as to how the more modern red wines, both riper and more heavily oaked, would age. There’s a deal of scepticism that they’ll have similar legs to those pre-1980s
Ten years might seem a short time as compared with those golden oldies, but it does give some indication as to where they’re headed, especially in an excellent vintage, which is how many winemakers reflect on 2009.
Summer 2009 was ushered in after a very cold, wet winter and mild spring, the traditional heatwave arriving in February, much later than usual. This allowed for slower ripening of a healthy crop with excellent analyses. So no downsides? Fires, probably the worst since 2000, wreaked havoc from Somerset West to Paarl with others in Tulbagh, the Cederberg and Table Mountain. Not only were vineyards burnt or so badly affected by heat that they needed replanting, there was also the issue of smoke-affected fruit. On Vergelegen, where around 5 hectares of vineyard was affected by heat, vines were marked where there were traces of ash or smoky smells in the canopies; berries were sampled, trial fermentations and finings carried out; all to no avail. ‘Nothing helped and in the end we had to dump about 20% of our total harvest,’ André van Rensburg’s despair can surely only be matched by his delight at the tremendous quality of unaffected fruit. One of these wines will feature in future articles. On the smoke issue, Wineland’s Elona Hesseling wrote a thought-provoking article here.
Beyond wine, weather and wild fires in 2009, the Proteas became the first South African team to win a test series in Australia and the Springboks beat the All Blacks three times in a year. Less propitious; Jacob Zuma became President, arms deal charges against him were dropped and Schabir Shaik was released from prison on medical parole – he’s currently still defying the prognosis ‘terminal illness’.
Enough context. What of the ten-year-old wines? Where better to start than with a chenin from Ken Forrester. ‘The FMC 2009 was our tenth vintage’, recalls this cheninophile, ‘and one of my favourites; in fact I just wish I’d bottled the whole lot in magnums; Stellenbosch was blessed with fantastic quality.’
FMC or Forrester Meinert Chenin (there are other names used for those initials!) is the leader of Ken Forrester Wines chenin pack, the fruit mainly from a single vineyard planted in 1974 and fermented in all-new, 400 litre oak barrels (though one would be hard pressed to say so).
I’m delighted to record the 750ml bottle still has a lot of steam in it (probably helped by a screwcap closure, which Ken first used on some 2005 FMC). The subtleties of natural ferment, complexity of a brush of botrytis – now developing some truffly decadence – and the still evident sweetness from the usual few grams of residual sugar, all are there, as is the flash of freshness to balance the wine’s rich texture. A natural with spicy dishes would be my recommendation.
Alright, so the wine’s aged well over the past 10 years, what about positive changes in the industry? ‘The rise of ‘new’ regions like Elgin, Hemel en Aarde and the Swartland; an entirely new generation of winemakers, many the sons and daughters of my colleagues, who have hit the ground running with new winemaking styles, great labels, stories and a huge opportunity to play a role in wine tourism,’ Ken reels off and also acknowledges how foreign investment has given the benefit of access to global distribution.
One doesn’t get far by looking back; what simply has to change between now and 2029? ‘Our single biggest challenge is viticulture and the need to educate labour and vineyard management. At the other end of the chain, we need to stop apologising for being South African, establish price points for fine wine and grow the market.’ And the future for chenin? ‘By far the most chenin consumed isn’t the award-winning wines, but those unoaked, fresh and fruity wines, the silent champions of chenin, which continues to be the backbone of the industry.
There is no doubt, South African wine has enjoyed a remarkable 2018, with much positive publicity.
A note of annoyance, for me at any rate, arising from many of those positive reviews, has been the frequent qualification; ‘South African wines offer great value’. We need more of the ’great’, less of the ‘value’; can’t the wines be simply ‘great’?
On that score, while year on year export volume figures for the period December 2017 to November 2018 has declined, value has risen just over 9% (SAWIS).
There can be no resting on laurels as 2019 is on the doorstep. What I would hope to see more of are quieter wines, wines that whisper rather than brag and bluster but at the same time display distinction and ageworthy structure. This request ties in with the trend for earlier picking and the resulting greater natural freshness. This is still a work in progress; for some, the wines are becoming too light. Craig and Carla Hawkins’ Testalonga range has, for me, come of age in respect of lightness with freshness and depth of flavour.
Is it easier to craft wines of distinction when your vines and cellar are located in a remote area, away from the heart of the winelands? It’s tempting to imagine this is the case, especially when the journey takes one down a long, rough dirt road. Imagination is hardly required for the Sijnn wines; it’s amazing to remember David and Rita Trafford almost accidentally found and purchase this piece of land in Malgas some 19 years ago. Although at one stage there were some varietal wines, the range is now mainly made up of blends, with chenin-based Sijnn White and shiraz-based Sijnn red setting the tone of this fynbos-strewn, stony area. Both are wines with calm authority, everything in balance with the rest, delivered with a lightness of touch yet depth of flavour.
Tim James and I recently tasted the 2017 white (R280), where chenin’s partners viognier and roussanne combine in a rich yet elegant, fresh wine. Two vintages of the red – 2015 (R350) and 2011 (R250) nicely illustrate both ageing potential, development as well as overall thumbprint of the vineyards. An intermingling of wild herbs and fragrant wild flowers in the younger wine, (the first made by Carla Haasbroek which also inaugurated the new cellar on the farm) evolves into dried herbs, spice and small, thick-skinned woodland berries in 2011. Both include touriga nacional, trincadeira, mourvèdre and cabernet as well as syrah, Perfect demonstration of wholly satisfying wines that whisper. New labels featuring the stony soils and the winery reflect a coming of age of the vines and what the Traffords term ‘the end of the beginning’. Pricing is equitable with quality, which I don’t see doing anything but improving.
Other wines of similar individuality, employing several of the same varieties and increasing quality are the Blanc (R200) and Silhouette (R242) from Olifantsberg, with its dramatic vineyards on the slopes of Brandwacht mountain between Worcester and Ceres. There is more of a sense of sunny climes in them than in the Sijnn range but they are equally honest and true to their growing environment. More wines of this style and calibre, please.
What’s also pleasing about Sijnn and Olifantsberg is their use of regular bottles; there’s no extravagance in shape or weight. I prefer to be impressed by the wine in the bottle rather than by the bottle (the label is another matter). It’s irritating to see producers continue to use these ultra-heavy bottles, which deposit a large carbon footprint.
Heavy bottles and a little heavy-handed with extraction were detractions for both Tim and I with the new Welgegund Cinsault 2017 (R340) and Grenache Noir 2017 (R340). From a vineyard planted in 1974, the cinsault carries the Old Vine Project Heritage Seal; the intensity of old vines is evident in the wine’s rich texture and concentrated flavours and rather tough, over-extracted tannins – it’s unlike many of the lighter style cinsauts, so will need ageing to discover whether these will harmonise. Somewhat angular tannins, plus a sweet note, didn’t attract us to the Grenache; again, time may bring a semblance of harmony. So, not just for this Welgegund pair, but fewer heavy bottles and less over-extraction, please.
Chenin blanc. Is any year nowadays not the year of chenin blanc? Still new ones join the growing army, and terribly good so many of them are. Wade Metzer hit the ground running with his Montane Chenin Blanc 2017 (R300). From bush vines planted on the foothills of the Helderberg in 1964, Metzer took a stand-back approach, leaving the grapes to express themselves as much as possible. Flavour rather than fruit, ripe fleshy feel with enlivening pebbly vibrancy and a finishing, pithy grip (from a little skin contact) produces a chenin worthy of both its Platter 5* award and Tim Atkin’s 95 rating. Metzer’s Maritime Chenin Blanc 2017 (R250), from a 1981 vineyard close to False Bay, captures more immediately recognisable chenin fruit in a brisk, light-of-touch style.
For new chenins to make a mark in 2019, more distinction than ever is needed.
If we’re awash with chenins, a few new varieties are making a welcome appearance. Watch out for Springfield’s first albarino 2018 to be launched in February. Sharing a love of seafood with the Newton Johnsons, who were the first to launch an albarino, the Bruwers developed a vineyard with some NJ cuttings. A pre-release taste of this tangy, flavoursome dry white shows promise and should benefit from a bit more time to settle. Definitely more new varieties needed, planted in suitable spots, with climate change and especially water in mind.
Leading on from that, a more environmentally-friendly attitude is needed throughout the wine chain. Fewer heavy bottles, as mentioned above, packaged in less polystyrene – rather, no polystyrene. Packaging is part of IPW (Integrated Production of Wine) but I believe more stringent adherence than ever is required.
At the customer end of the spectrum, more restaurant wine lists need older vintages; without the space to age young wines, wineries should keep back a library of vintages to sell to these restaurants. The delights of a mature wine are something every winelover should experience at least once, preferably many times.
My New Year’s resolution is to write many more frequently next year; I have a few ideas bubbling, so watch this space. Happy and fruitful 2019 to all.
Sauvignon blanc has delighted local consumers with its pungent fruit and vibrant freshness since it broke the variety’s previous somewhat neutral image in the early 1980s; Le Bonheur 1983 Blanc Fumé (but unwooded), followed by the renowned Klein Constantia 1986 Sauvignon Blanc were but two that led the charge. A charge that, apart from a blip of over-enthusiastic plantings of this climate-sensitive variety in unsuitable spots, continues to this day. Demand is always for the youngest and freshest sauvignon on the market (that’s typical of all whites, there’s no culture of ageing). Those youthful grassy, asparagus or tropical, figgy tones and zippy, refreshing acidity are easy to understand and readily recognisable by the average consumer.
Youthful sauvignon’s popularity ensures a quick turn around from vine, through cellar and into the market place, a process that generates some much needed cash flow for producers without requiring too much selling effort. One can understand reluctance to drop such a cash cow from the range, even when the variety isn’t a producer’s major focus.
Given such demand and good returns, what could sauvignon blanc producers possibly have to be unhappy about?
A few things, which I’ll come to but I was prompted to consider sauvignon’s position in the local wine heirarchy by the chasm between it and chenin in the Platter Five star awards.
There were raised eyebrows when just two sauvignons, Steenberg’s Black Swan 2017 (unwooded) and Bartho Eksteen’s wooded Houtskool 2017, received that ultimate rating and chenin blanc received 18 – that’s eighteen; 16 more than sauvignon and the most achieved by any variety or style.
If that’s an extreme example, sauvignon hardly rolls in awards on other shows: a single sauvignon Trophy and no other golds on the Trophy Wine Show and just three Double Golds on Veritas (Michelangelo Awards’ layout is too time-consuming to count). Are judges prejudiced against sauvignon?
Given nearly all these awards went to 2017s, does this suggest producers are being too greedy and shooting themselves in the foot by releasing too young? Or are they thinking more of the consumer after those youthful, uncomplicated wines, than awards?
Keen to get some answers, I turned to someone who knows a thing or two (or eight, if my count is correct) about sauvignon; Thys Louw, cellarmaster at the Durbanville family farm, Diemersdal, who is also on the committee of the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group.
There is obviously a level of frustration, especially with the Platter results; ‘It’s wrong, sauvignon isn’t bad,’ Louw is perplexed. He mentions sauvignon is, per bottle, the highest-priced export white wine and still outsells chenin, ‘even some who talk up chenin sell more sauvignon’.
Timing of shows probably affects sauvignon more than other varieties, especially as the majority of entries are from the current vintage. That still doesn’t explain why the generally more serious wines, a year older, fail to claim high medals. Louw times bottling so he can enter both Veritas and FNB Top Ten; all, bar MM Louw and Wild Horseshoe 2017, are 2018s and listed in Platter as bottled wines. Louw kindly gave me a bottle of both MM Louw 2017 and Winter Ferment 2018 to try; these are serious, complex wines which will benefit from the further ageing they deserve and when the former could well perform better than its Gold Veritas award.
If sauvignon producers are unhappy about the paucity of awards, one also gets the feeling they’re irked by chenin’s ‘darling’ status and the generous international promotion it receives, especially given the far greater volume and value of sauvignon exported (see table below). Louw informed me sauvignon received none of the specific focus afforded other varieties at Cape Wine, something which doesn’t align with international sales.
But if brand sauvignon needs improving, which I think is the crux of the matter, then it’s up to the producers and SBIG to drive this. The Chenin Blanc Association is very visible and active, driven by the indefatigble Ina Smith and Ken Forrester. Who knows what the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group does, apart from the FNB Top Ten, nor the people involved (well, now I know Thys Louw is). This is not a criticism applicable to SBIG only as few other Interest Groups do much or anything to promote the wine or style they represent.
In SBIGs case, this could easily be seen as producers resting on their laurels of successful sales, especially at the youthful, uncomplicated end; a short-sighted view. If politics are involved in how SBIG operates (in some form or other, I fear they do in every group) they need to be put aside in the interests of this variety with its important financial implications. Involve the media, involve consumers; show them sauvignon’s diversity and ageability, whether unoaked or oaked; differentiate the everyday from special, individual sauvignons through later releases; tell them your story; involve sauvignon’s personalities; create more awareness and a positive image.
There’s room for fresh, fruity and uncomplicated sauvignon as a populist style, but don’t expect respect at the top end without giving it the promotion it desperately requires. There’s a world of competition out there.
SAUVIGNON BLANC FACTS AND FIGURES
with thanks to SAWIS
Area under vine and percentage of total area
1983 – 1091.30 ha – 1.17%
2017 – 9276.67 ha – 9.81%
PACKAGED WINE SOLD IN 750 ml (JAN 2017 – DEC 2017 )
As we gathered to enjoy a 10-year vertical of Niels Verburg’s Luddite Shiraz, I innocently asked for their Twitter handle. Verburg looked puzzled, mumbled and confirmed he doesn’t do technology. Of course not, he’s a Luddite! Though I subsequently discovered Luddite Wines are on Twitter, their profile describes their Luddism as follows: ‘Luddism reflects our belief in winemaking. We choose to practice our craft conscientiously. Technology & mechanization will never be a substitute for passion.’
Neither will they be substitutes for consistency, a most admirable attribute in winemaking, but something that comes with many demands on the winemaker. In his introduction, Niels Verburg gave a few clues as to what consistency requires. Wide experience of wines from around the globe; a clear idea of desired style; a rigorous approach to quality while paying attention to reflect both place and vintage.
He has indeed travelled, made and tasted wine far and wide since leaving Elsenburg in the early 1990s, before returning to South Africa in 1995. The following year he took up the winemaking reins at Beaumont, where he helped plant the first shiraz ‘between Sir Lowry’s Pass and Cape Agulhas.’
His belief in shiraz (‘My cellar is full of Northern Rhône’) and Bot River, saw him, wife Penny and family establish their own vineyards – shiraz, obviously, but also grenache, mourvèdre, cabernet and chenin)- not far from Beaumont. Bought-in shiraz made up the first few vintages, while home-grown fruit gradually came on stream until 2009, the first year Luddite Shiraz was all home-grown and made in the Verburg’s brand new cellar.
That vintages 2005 – 2008 included differing fruit sources and cellars proved no deterrent to Verburg’s constant winemaking approach. Picking dates, determined by flavour; ‘sometimes very ripe’; no added acid, usually around 7 g/l at harvesting and 5.5 g/l in the wine and since 2009, spontaneous fermentation only which he believes imparts a greater sense of place.
Where adjustments are made is with regard to vintage; warmer years will see more punch downs, longer time on skins and a little more new oak; in cooler years, fewer punch downs and a back-off on oak, although the two-year regime in oak remains.
This shouldn’t suggest Luddite Shiraz is made in one batch; there are around seven or eight different portions offering blending choices: clonal, different parts of the vineyard, new/2nd/3rd and 4th year 225 litre barrels. Verburg’s rule for deciding on the final blend is to take a bottle home and finish it one sitting; if he’s satisfied once the last drop is drained that the wine has good drinkability now but also ageing potential – that’s it – bottling follows with a further two-year wait before release.
If this appears an inordinately measured and disciplined approach, it more than pays rich dividends.
There is no denying these are big, dark, brooding wines, but unlike many which exhaust after half a glass, these have energy, layers of flavour and, most positively for me, are delightfully dry. This dryness, Verburg explains, comes down to ‘paying attention to the yeast cell, it has to be comfortable to complete its task’. Whatever, the dry finish aids digestibility, the fine, polished tannins encourage drinkability but as the 2005 illustrates, the wines have staying power. Most are characterised by black spice rather than red berries, though cooler vintages such as 2007 and 2009 do exhibit more elegant floral aromatics.
Only one, 2008 (generally a difficult vintage) was less convincing; a little disjointed with a suggestion of oak not evident in any of the others and alcohol sweetness. The latest, 2014 (R560 ex Wine Cellar), launched at this vertical, deservedly has been awarded Platter 5* rating in the 2019 guide, the fifteenth time Luddite Shiraz had been nominated and the first success – breathe a sigh of relief, Niels! Expressive aromatic breadth, silky texture, supportive structure, concentrated flavour and seamless integrated tannins combine in this balanced wine that meets all Verburg’s demands.
There’s frequent discussion among wine writers about negative reviews. Some feel there are too many good wines to waste space on criticising poor ones, but if the reviewer only ever comments positively, it brings his or her credibility into question. The reader also needs to know any conflict of interest the reviewer might have.
My view is that if I’ve got to know a wine over several vintages, such as Luddite Shiraz after this vertical, and the winemaker’s intentions, then I feel well-placed to better criticize individual vintages. Hence my comments on 2008. Otherwise, with everyday drinking wines that should offer no more than pleasure, I’m more likely to reflect on value than quality.
There’s no doubt about the quality of Luddite Shiraz and I don’t anticipate any change in the consistency either.
Another year, another edition of Platter’s Wine Guide launched this evening; 2019 recording the 39th for those keeping count.
Of special significance is the 21 years Philip van Zyl has occupied the editor’s seat. For the first three years – 1999 to 2001 – Erica Platter is also acknowledged as Consulting Editor, an arrangement which allowed for a smooth handover as she and John sold and left the guide. There was always going to be concern about who could take over from Erica; with perfect timing, Phil and Cathy van Zyl relocated to the Cape from Johannesburg, Phil seamlessly stepping into Erica’s shoes. With her organisational skills, Cathy has always provided strong and invaluable support, keeping tabs on tasks completed, those still to be done and chivying us tasters to meet deadlines and our other tasks.
Working with Phil throughout those 21 years, apart from being a technical whiz kid, I’ve found he’s meticulous in his attention to detail – nothing gets past him; woe betide any taster who forgets to insert a vintage or inserts the wrong one (or any other piece of vital information). He also has a commendable sense of fairness; try being too hard on a wine and a gentle query will pop into your inbox (often sent at some unearthly hour of the night!); ‘Perhaps you should get a second opinion on this.’ A blind tasting by one or more of the other tasters usually results in a defendable rating. After a personal visit at the beginning of the year to ascertain each taster’s participation in the next guide, Phil is rarely spotted; he’s happiest behind his computer, where he deals with the current 13 tasters, admin and technical people with unbelievable calmness. It takes a special sort of person to do this so successfully, let alone for 21 years. How lucky we and the guide are to have such a talented and dedicated editor.
This year’s five star haul contains many regulars; it’s good to see Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017 back for a 9th time after strangely missing out last year; Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2017, Sadie Family Wines Skurfberg 2017 and Stellenrust 53 Chenin Blanc 2017 take away three consecutive five stars. Chenin Blanc yet again claims the greatest number of five stars; 18, one more than last year but inexplicably not including any of the Alheit wonderfully expressive 2017 individuals. As the lucky taster of Chris and Suzaan’s range, I was bowled over by all their wines but the five chenins in particular. I’m bemused none sufficiently impressed the panel but it doesn’t detract from their excellence. The same applies to Richard Kershaw MW who makes a fistful of clonal chardonnays and syrahs, both intelligently- and finely crafted; unfortunately, they too failed to sway the respective panels.
Just a reminder that each producer’s wines are initially tasted sighted and over a day or so, if necessary, by the person responsible for the entry. The five-star tasting is blind, the tasters see only the glass of wine in front of them. This sort of result happens every year, which is why, whilst celebrating the five star awardees, the excellent wines that don’t make it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Some believe the five-star tasting should also be sighted, but every effort is made to keep it as fair as possible. One attempt has been to give the panel the home-taster’s score to double check against their own deliberations, this bearing in mind the home taster has longer to assess the wine.
There were also many fewer wines in the five-star line up this year thanks to a new selection method. Every wine now receives a score out of 100, as well as a star rating. All wines scored by the home taster between 90 and 92 are rated 4.5* but do not go into the five-star tasting; that’s reserved for wines rated 93 and above.
This method not only resulted in fewer wines in the five-star line up, but fewer five stars: 90 versus 111 last year. As a more manageable affair for both organisers and tasters, it still didn’t deny wines worthy of 4.5* their rating.
Those wines in the five-star tasting which didn’t make the grade are rated either 93 or, if the panel considered them Highly Recommended, 94. As usual, 95 was the magic score for five stars, but with the idea of awarding best wines per category (rather than Wines of the Year), the panels were asked to single out their best wine in each category with a higher score; hence a very few wines are rated 96 or even 97.
The advantage of this would give wineries with fewer wines in their range the chance of a significant Platter honour. This has been adopted this year and those wines are indicated with a * in the list below. There is also a Top Performing Winery of the Year, an Editor’s Award and Newcomer Winery of the Year. I have absolutely no quarrel with any of the recipients – Mullineux, Newton Johnson Vineyards and Erika Obermeyer respectively – all are thoroughly deserving of such accolades. But it’s also an improvement to see the honours spread wider.
That said, for many, Platter has lost relevance (‘too many four stars’ is still a frequent complaint). Platter isn’t and will never be perfect (wine is only perfect in the mind of the drinker at a moment in time), but it is a guide, way beyond stars and scores and deserves recognition for that.
Meantime, the question foremost of mind is: what colour is Platter’s 2019!
TOP PERFORMING WINERY OF THE YEAR
Newton Johnson Vineyards
NEWCOMER WINERY OF THE YEAR
FIVE STAR WINES
METHODE CAP CLASSIQUE
Colmant Cap Classique Absolu Zero Dosage NV
Villiera Wines Monro Brut 2012*
Woolworths Vintage Reserve Brut 2012
SAUVIGNON BLANC UNWOODED
Steenberg Vineyards The Black Swan 2017*
SAUVIGNON BLANC WOODED
Bartho Eksteen Houtskool 2017*
Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2017
Botanica Chenin Blanc 2017
Cederberg Five Generations Chenin Blanc 2016
City on a Hill Chenin Blanc 2017
David & Nadia Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc 2017
David & Nadia Chenin Blanc 2017
David & Nadia Skaliekop Chenin Blanc 2017
DeMorgenzon The Divas Chenin Blanc 2017*
DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc Reserve 2017
Metzer Family Wines Montane Chenin Blanc 2017
Rall Ava Chenin Blanc 2017
Sadie Family Wines Old Vine Series Skurfberg 2017
Savage Wines Never Been Asked to Dance 2017
Spier Organic Chenin Blanc 2016
Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2015
Spioenkop Wines Sarah Raal 2017
Stellenrust 53 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2017
Thistle & Weed Duwweltjie 2017
Haskell Anvil Chardonnay 2017
Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2016*
Oak Valley Groenlandberg Chardonnay 2017
Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2016
Warwick Estate The White Lady 2017
Alheit La Colline 2017
Benguela Cover Lagoon Wine Catalina Semillon 2017
Rickety Bridge Road to Santiago 2016*
B Vintners Vine Exploration Co Harlem to Hope 2017
Lourens Family Wines Lindi Carien 2017
Mullineux Old Vines White 2017
Rall Wines White 2017
Sadie Famiy Wines Palladius 2016
Savage Wines White 2017
Stark-Condé Wines The Field Blend 2017
Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse 2017*
BORDEAUX-STYLE WHITE BLENDS
Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2017
Shannon Vineyards Capall Bán 2015
Vergelegen GVB 2015*
Warwick Estate Professor Black 2017
Crystallum Cuvée Cinema 2017*
Newton Johnson Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017
Beeslaar Wines Pinotage 2016
Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage 2016
Kanonkop Black Label 2016*
Dorrance Wines Syrah Cuvée Ameena 2016
Hartenberg CWG Auction Reserve 2015
Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah 2015*
Luddite Shiraz 2014
Mullineux Schist Syrah 2016
Mullineux Iron Syrah 2016
Porseleinberg Shiraz 2016
Rall Ava Syrah 2017
Rhebokskloof Wine Estate Black Marble Hill Syrah 2015
Rust en Vrede Single Vineyard Syrah 2015
Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Erika Obermeyer Wines Erika O Cabernet sauvignon 2015
Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015*
Reyneke Wines Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Stellenbosch Reserve Ou Hoofgebou Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
Warwick Estate The Blue Lady 2015
Oldenburg Vineyards 2015
Shannon Vineyards The Shannon Black 2013*
Thelema Mountain Vineyards Reserve 2015
Raats Family Wines Cabernet Franc 2016
Raats Family Wines Dolomite Cabernet Franc 2016*
Van Loggerenberg Breton 2017
BORDEAUX BLENDS (RED)
Allée Bleue L’amour Toujours 2014
Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015
Muratie Wine Estate Ansela van de Caab 2015
Plaisir de Merle Signature Blend 2012*
Ridgeback Signature C 2016
Beyerskloof Faith 2014 (Red blend with Pinotage)*
Boekenhoutskloof Chocolate Block 2017 (Shiraz-led Red blend )
Erika Obermeyer Erika O Syrah Grenache Noir – Cinsaut 2016 (Shiraz-led Red blend)
Saronsberg Full Circle 2016 (Shiraz-led Red blend)
Ernie Els Proprietor’s Blend 2016 (Other red blend)*
Rust en Vrede Wine Estate Estate blend (Other red blend)
Waterford Estate The Jem 2014 (Other red blend)
Elemental Bob Graveyard Tinta Barocca 2017*
Sadie Family Wines Soldaat 2017 (Grenache Noir)
Thelema Mountain Vineyards Sutherland Petit Verdot 2015
Klein Constantia Estate Vin de Constance 2014*
Mullineux Straw Wine 2017 (Vin de Paille)*
Paul Cluver Estate Wines Riesling Noble Late Harvest 2017*
Amber, Orange, Skin-macerated, Skin Contact, even Alternative White; there are as many descriptions for white wines which have spent time on their skins, as there are colours in the wine themselves. Add a range of varieties, blends and degrees of tannin and the winelover has to pick an uncertain path through the maze to find a wine suited to his or her taste.
It will come as some reassurance that Cathy van Zyl MW, Christian Eedes, Tim James and I found the overall quality of the 29 skin-macerated white wines we recently tasted, is good. Those 29 represented 19 producers and, at the time I thought pretty well covered what is available; just two days later I discovered the Joostenberg, so will allow I may have missed more.
Go back just ten years when interest for these wines among South African winemakers was just starting. Craig Hawkins, then at Lammershoek, (now at Testalonga, his and his wife, Carla’s own winery) was the first to experiment, his interest piqued after tasting the skin-macerated wines of an Italian producer. This inspired him to search for more, eventually coming across those from the heartland of the style in Fruili/Italy, Slovenia and Georgia (Simon Woolf’s Amber Revolution traces the history of these wines; I reviewed it here). Hawkins’ first attempt was a chenin blanc left for five weeks on the skins, but he acknowledges one has to ‘ .. determine the level of extraction which gives the most pleasure in the bottle.’
Pleasure is what we all seek in a bottle of wine; skin-macerated white wines are no different. If there were a few in the lineup which failed on the pleasure rating, it was, as Tim noted, from having too much dry tannin lending an unwelcome austerity, a feature intensified by the generally low alcohols (four came close to 14%; Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon, Richard Hilton The Ancient, Bosman Fides and Dragonridge Cygnus; 11%-13% was the norm). In notes he sent me, Craig concurs; ‘a lot of skin contact whites for me are too extracted now, which takes away too much of the fruit and purity of the vineyard and soil.’ While these wines are anything but fruity in the sense we think of traditional young white wines with their primary aromas, the successful ones have fruit to balance the tannins and freshness. Because of the lack of primary fruit, the aromatics in wines such as El Bandito Sweet Cheeks from Muscat d’Alexandrie, Richard Hilton’s The Ancient Viognier and Maanschijn Muscat de Frontignan Grenache Gris blend appear more concentrated and exotic. Something borne out by Craig, who loves the increased muscat aroma in his Sweet Cheeks from maceration. Christian noted the most successful examples are those offering such new aromatics and flavours without losing all varietal character. That said, chenin blanc once again shows its versatility with Jurgen Gouws’ Intellego Elementis 2016, Jasper Wickens Chenin Blanc 2017 and Johan (Stompie) Meyer’s Mother Rock Liquid SkinCheninBlanc 2017 getting general nods of approval.
It was no surprise when the subject turned to whether these wines reflect terroir or their character is determined by winemaking. For Cathy, the latter seemed to dominate in some but in his notes, Craig claims the increased spectrum of flavours originate in the vineyard, so intensify the expression of terroir but agrees over-extraction can dim a sense of place.
At this early stage of skin-macerated whites, the curiosity factor is likely more of a drawcard than any particular thoughts of terroir, or of ageing, which we can’t imagine would be of measureable benefit.
A change of mindset with regard to the purpose of these wines would be helpful. White wines are often consumed as an aperitif, reds (with their tannins) reserved for the meal. But is there any reason why tannined whites shouldn’t make just as suitable partners with dinner? More to the point, both Jasper Wickens and John Seccombe (Thorne & Daughters) confirm how popular their wines are in Japan, where the umami factor make the wines and food complementary partners. The Japs are such hipsters, they enjoy Jasper’s unfiltered chenin in its shook-up cloudy state! (He exports all these wines to Japan, where 600 bottles sold in two weeks!) ‘The Japanese work on a simple rule,’ Craig confirms; ‘either you like it or you don’t. You don’t find many huge, woody, alcoholic wines there, it just doesn’t suit their food.’
My own, more Western dish of roast chicken went particularly well with Jurgen’s Elementis, while Richard Hilton’s The Ancient with its intense flavour and structure is a good match for lightly spiced dishes and pork. Untried but I suspect the Mostert/Suddons Smiley Spesiale (chenin) with its nutty character find a match in mature hard cheese.
The biggest drawback currently for these wines is two-pronged. On the one hand, as is so often expressed by the producers, the Wine & Spirit Board is inconsistent when it comes to certification.
Craig Hawkins was instrumental in helping the Board draw up guidelines for Skin-macerated whites and Alternative White (and Red) Wines, classes which were introduced in 2015. The only difference between the two is that the skin-macerated whites have to remain on the skins for a minimum of four days. Full malo-lactic fermentation and a maximum S02 of 40ppm help avoid dodgy wine or one killed with sulphur. Even now, this hasn’t eliminated the problem of wines being failed, some on numerous occasions, which, apart from anything else, is costly for these small volume producers.
Craig: ‘For a few years it (certification) was quite simple, but what we’ve found is the wine producers remain constant but the Wine & Spirit Board and SAWIS tasters/panel are changing. For them it’s just a job to tick a box with what they believe is correct because that’s what the mandate says. Today, the people involved are completely different from those seven years ago, the result being we’re still having the same issues within the same categories we came up with because the education of the panels has not improved.’
That’s one side; the other lies with the producers. The list below shows very few indicate on the label, (where the wine is labelled), whether the wine is skin-macerated or Alternative White. If the wines are to be better understood and accepted, the relevant category should be declared on the label.
It was gratifying that the idea of this tasting was enthusiastically received by all the producers approached and I thank them all for participating. We found it an interesting experience, each of us finding pleasurable wines – even if we wouldn’t necessarily want to drink them every evening.
Perhaps an idea to see developments in these colourful whites in two or three years.
PARTIAL SKIN-MACERATED VARIETAL WINES
Rousseau Grace Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2018 CONTROL NO SKIN CONTACT