22 September Auction Season CWG etc

With the 43rd Nederburg sale done and dusted and the Cape Winemakers’ Guild Auction scheduled for the end of this month, wine auction season is now in full swing. Judging from the results of Nederburg (over R6m in turnover, from under 1000 dozen on offer, and no unsold lots) the recession has not eaten too significantly into the disposable income of those who like to shop in the oxygen-thin space of the rare wine trade.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the pricing of the Guild wines, where volumes are up on 2016, an upbeat reflection on the increasing credibility of the Guild Auction brand. Total volumes on the sale last year were 1214 12 bottle case equivalents compared with 1481 this year. Last year’s prices were pretty extraordinary – given that it would have been hard to argue that the South African economy in the second half of 2016 was anything other than soggy, and turning to swampland in front of our eyes. The average per bottle price was R950 – with the bulk of the sales going to local buyers.

So is the demand for the Guild selection growing at a rate that exceeds the increase in availability, and will there be the resources to show better-than-inflation increases on last year’s average prices? The Guild has played its cards pretty neatly up to now, so presumably there’s more than simply brash confidence informing these decisions. If the gamble turns out to be correct, and the producers’ take (on this admittedly tiny segment of the market) prescient, perhaps they know also what the next six months will bring to our toxic political landscape – and in which case it might be time to go long on the Rand.

I tasted most wines in this year’s CWG catalogue – all blind – and compared my notes and scores to what has been on offer in the past few years. Last year I attended the sighted tasting led by the producers (so the scores can never be exactly comparable – it’s hard not to be influenced by the enthusiasm of the winemaker as s/he talks you through the virtues of his/her achievement). Nevertheless, I was conscious then of the marked improvement in the average quality of the Guild offering, an impression which remains true of the current releases – allowing for vintage variation. (Last year the fabulous 2015 vintage added depth and dimension to some of the whites, this year it’s doing a great job for many of the reds.)

There were obviously many standout wines – the Silverthorn fizz 2012 being a worthy successor to last year’s 2011, the Newton Johnson Seadragon Pinot Noir 2015 looking even better than it did on release last year. In fact the Pinot class as a whole was pretty good, with Gottfried Mocke’s 2016 also garnering a 90 point score alongside the Paul Cluver, and the Bouchard Finlayson and De Grendel not much off the pace. The Leeuw Passant Old Vine Cinsaut 2015 was also very good, as was The Drift Farm’s 2013 Barbera. Both Bartho Eksteen and De Grendel have very fine wooded sauvignons on the sale, while Simonsig’s Roussanne-Marsanne blend is a finely played Cape statement of what the Northern Rhone does so well. Miles Mossop’s Saskia-Jo 2014 (chenin/clairette) made the 90 point threshold, alongside Louis Nel’s Rapscallion 2015 (cab/shiraz), Groot Constantia’s Gouverneur’s Auction Reserve 2014, Delaire-Graff’s Banhoek Chardonnay 2016 and Rijk’s Pinotage 2014.

There were even higher scores for The Drift Farm’s “Whole Bunch Tinta” 2016, Adi Badenhorst and Duncan Savage’s Love Boat red 2016, the Ernie Els 2015, the Tokara Tribute Cabernet 2013, Ataraxia’s “under the Gavel” Chardonnay 2016 and the Hartenberg Cabernet 2015 – which was my highest scoring wine in the entire line-up.

The 33rd Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Auction takes place in Stellenbosch on 30th September. For online/commission bids visit www.capewinemakersguild.com, email

info@capewinemakersguild.com. For a full set on my notes and scores go to

https://winewizard.co.za/article/434

 

 

 

15 September Nederburg Auction

It’s auction season again, with Nederburg this weekend and the Cape Winemakers’ Guild sale in three weeks time. Both are established events on the industry calendar, with enough longevity between them that it’s no longer realistic to think of Nederburg as the “institution” and the Guild auction as the parvenu. Both have had to evolve over the years – a measure of the market itself becoming more sophisticated, with different expectations, and, more importantly, different reasons for buying auction wines.

In its first decade the prestige of the Nederburg sale powered the competition between bidders and set pricing which, taking inflation into account, achieved levels which have probably not been repeated. As the punters became more astute, they learned to cherry-pick what was on offer, leaving the big commercial lots for the liquor chains and the re-distributors, and focusing instead on the small parcels of vinous gems, or the ancient rarities for which Nederburg justly became famous.

About ten years ago Nederburg began losing its cachet: with more (not always wonderful) wine on offer than there was demand for, prices fell, image was tarnished, and a major re-think was required. The last few years have revealed the benefits of this soul-searching: volumes are down and the selection process which is rigorously applied goes a long way to ensuring that literally every item in the catalogue has passed the strictest scrutiny.

I must confess myself initially a little sceptical about the claims of the independence of the selection process: would Nederburg (and its shareholders, Distell) really allow a panel of largely foreign wine tasters to decide whether its own wines would be permitted on the sale? When you are footing the bill for one of the most sumptuous events on the industry calendar, surely you want a say about whether or not your own production can be included in the line-up?

Accordingly I agreed to become a member of the selection panel for this year’s sale, to witness the process in action. Every one of the panellists was an internationally recognised palate, mostly UK certified Masters of Wine, all familiar with Cape wines, all equally at home tasting current release wines from the leading wine appellations of the Old and New World. Decisions were taken after discussion, and with the group (divided into two panels) constantly cross-calibrating to ensure an evenness of standard. We didn’t know anything about the origin of the wines (though it was easy enough to guess the source of the 1957s and 1967s) and the panels’ decisions were final – so no concessions even for the paymaster’s wines. Looking at the line-up for this weekend’s Nederburg sale, the one thing you can be sure of is that every wine which made the cut is there on its merits.

The catalogue reads a little like a Who’s Who of the Cape wine industry: no longer is it a clubhouse filled with a cosy network of old boys. The 2010 Almenkerk Chardonnay from Elgin sits alongside the 2005 vintage of Axe Hill (Port) from Calitzdorp; Catherine Marshall’s 2011 Pinot Noir shares space with David and Nadia’s 2014 Aristargos. A couple of different vintages of DeMorgenzon’s Reserve Chenin Blanc (2005 and 2014) will compete against a selection from the Old Vines Project: the Sadie Family’s ‘T Voetpad 2015, the 2004 Boekenhoutskloof Semillon and the 2011 Alheit Cartology.

The big parcels of slightly ordinary Nederburg Auction wines are ancient history: instead there are impressive single site offerings, some cellar-aged reds (Bin R121 Shiraz 2006, Bin R163 Cabernet 2003 and 2011, Bin R101 Malbec 2003) and a carefully compiled selection of the cellar’s fabulous dessert wines – Edelkeur back to 1982 and Eminence to 1989. As for the truly aged collectibles – there’s a small parcel of the legendary Stellenzicht Syrah 1994 (which beat Penfolds Grange twice at international blind tastings), 1970 Lanzerac Cabernet, magnums of 1980 Meerlust Cabernet and two extraordinary, still vibrant vintages from Chateau Libertas – the 1967 and 1957.

Commission and online bidding arrangements are possible via

https://www.nederburgauction.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Bid-Mandate-Form-2017.pdf

8 September Ageing, KC and Holden Manz

Notwithstanding the New Testament injunctions about the virtues of old wine, most modern day consumers seem perfectly happy to flatten their wine purchases with 24 hours of getting home with the stock. Many claim that they like the taste of young wine. As more and more people fall in love with the joys of primary fruit, it’s likely that fewer and fewer consumers will ever know or come to understand the secondary and tertiary flavours present in properly matured wine.

Winemakers have responded (sometimes with indecent enthusiasm) to this trend, happy to pocket the cashflow benefits arising from instant drinkability. Not all young wines have meaningful long term potential, and cash in the bank wins every time against reputational dividend in the hands of future generations. (However, it must be said that the present incumbents of long-established estates do very well out of their ancestors’ willingness to defer a portion of current revenue in the investment of aged stocks.)

The cost (to the producer) of maintaining a library of past vintages can be considerable: excluding wines held for aged release (where the deferred income should compensate for the expense of holding costs) a decent wine library (where the bottles are kept for control purposes and occasional tastings) is an expensive adjunct to what is always a cash-strapped business. Assume that every year the average producer makes five different wines whose age-worthiness warrants tracking, and keeps 60 bottles of each wine – at R120 per bottle. After 20 years that’s R720k, and growing at R36k in constant Rands every year, simply so that you can monitor something that consumers appear to have lost interest in.

So when the owners of Klein Constantia invited me to taste some of their old wines – an exercise they do regularly enough – it wasn’t difficult to accept. They were clear about the purpose of the exercise: it wasn’t to show off, it was simply to show and share. (Most of the wines weren’t available on their aged release programme.) There were three sauvignon blancs, 1995, 2002 and Perdeblokke 2007. All three were very much alive, but only one had evolved into something which justified the cellar space of storing it for all this time, and that was the 2002. One of the least prepossessing modern Cape vintages, 2002 at Klein Constantia illustrated the old adage that there are no good/bad vintages, just good/bad wines. The 2004 Semillon was extraordinary – for me it was one of the two best wines of the tasting and proof that the Cape doesn’t make nearly enough of its semillon plantings. There were also two very good rieslings – the 1987 which was just beginning to fade – and the 1996 which (with the 2004 semillon) turned out to be the wine of the moment. The reds were better than I had expected, with the 1990 Marlbrook still a little austere, but quite Bordeaux-like in its purity and finesse.

As for the charms of younger wines…. On the same day I attended a showing of the current releases from Holden Manz, a Franschhoek winery whose latest wines have been vinified by Thierry Haberer, the man on the ground in South Africa for consulting oenologist Michel Rolland. Two features were instantly evident: firstly that the change of winemaker has played a transformative role at Holden Manz and that, secondly, judging at least from this line-up, those who prefer the infanticide young wines may be onto something. The Rose Garden Rosé 2017 is one of the smartest rosés on the market in South Africa and an absolute steal at R80 per bottle. Fine, delicate, dry and savoury, it would pulverise most fashionable Provence examples. The two best reds are both “straining in the slips” to be let loose: the Visionaire 2013 (Bordeaux varieties plus a little shiraz) has fruit weight and real intensity, all for R140 per bottle, and the ultra-premium Cabernet Franc 2015 (R595), while quite delicious, may never be better than it is right now.

1 September Top Cultivars

The international Prosecco boom was only easy to predict in retrospect: while it was happening it appeared to be something of a five-minute wonder, with most commentators expecting it to run out of fizz as suddenly as it appeared on the scene. However, now that the category has become large enough in its own right to be self-sustaining, at least in Europe, the reasons for its success have become abundantly clear.

For a start Champagne sales had been on the increase, and only the 2008 financial crisis had taken the steam out of their year-on-year growth. With more people enjoying fizz – either as an aperitif or as a beverage – another cheaper option was always going emerge. Given the credibility of Italy as a source of good wine at reasonable prices, as well as the country’s image among fashionistas, Prosecco was poised to take the gap.

In fairness, even its producers had failed to anticipate what was about to happen – otherwise they would have acted sooner to protect their appellation. Prosecco used to be simply the name of a grape, and although it is recorded as a kind of a wine associated with the castle of Pucinum, near the village of Prosecco, not much turned on this until it became clear that the appellation could not be protected as long as there was a grape type bearing the same name.

Accordingly the Italians decided to use the name Glera for the grape and applied to the European Commission for protection of Prosecco as a geographical indication (GI). The reason for this is that, in the world of wines and spirits, areas of origin always enjoy preferential protection over all other forms of intellectual property. Unfortunately for those involved in this sleight of hand, prosecco grapes had already been planted in a number of countries, including Australia. The effect of the IP protection that the EC sought would have been to deprive the Australian growers of their right to use the name “prosecco” on wines made with prosecco grapes.

Unsurprisingly, the Winemakers Federation of Australia successfully brought an action against the European Commission which – at least insofar as Australia is concerned – has stopped this strategy in its tracks. This doesn’t simplify things for consumers in the Antipodes, since they can now (confusingly) buy a bottle of still Australian wine made from prosecco grapes and bearing the name “Prosecco” on the label, while at the same time and in the same shop pick up a can (not even a bottle) of Italian sparkling wine produced somewhere in the Veneto region of Italy and labelled “Prosecco.”

The same problems won’t afflict South African consumers. I don’t think there is any prosecco planted in the Cape. Even if there was, it’s extremely unlikely that our authorities would offer any opposition to the Italian claims, given the ease with which they rolled over when it came to the much bigger issue of port and sherry. This means that the locally available proseccos will have been produced in Italy, either in the wider generic area (Prosecco DOC) or from the more premium appellations such as Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG – which can only be made in the Treviso province of Veneto.

Insofar as buying prosecco in South African stores is concerned, the choice appears to grow daily. The Villa Sandi selection ranges in price from about R140 for the DOC Brut to the DOCG extra Dry at R180 (with small quantities of vintage 2015 at R190). Sommariva is more expensive: the Treviso Extra Dry is R160, while the 2015 DOCG from the small Rive di San Michele appellation is R220. Valdo – which is more widely distributed, starts at R150 per bottle of the DOC Extra Dry and continues upwards through the DOCG at about R200, the Fondatore Brut at R325, the Cartizze at R395 and the Millennium Edition at a heart-stopping R1000. The prettily packaged Rose Floral is, by comparison, a give-away at R250

25 August CVC

In discussions about inherent wine quality, the word “terroir” is used with the same enthusiasm and lack of precision as the feel-good concepts which pepper the preambles of most modern national constitutions. The belief in the importance of origin enjoys a status similar to religious dogma in the Middle Ages. Despite this, precious little is known about exactly how the connection between place and product manifests itself in the final object. As Andrew Jefford has written, “the relationship between rock, soil and wine flavour is as little understood as it is widely celebrated. There is a long-held European belief is that nothing matters more than the physical medium in which vines are rooted, and growers will often dazzle visitors with their command of exotic geological detail.”

Alex Maltman, a career geologist with a deep personal interest in the connection between soil and wine, has produced a series of peer-reviewed articles showing the lack of any direct, scientifically quantifiable, causal relationship between wine flavours and the growing medium of the vines. The arcane techno-babble around soil types and the role they play in the resultant wine quality looks increasingly like vinous one-upmanship. We know that certain varieties do particularly well on certain sites; we can’t say in what way the clay/schist/marl soils or sub-soils have contributed to the organoleptic outcome.

Maltman is not asserting that vineyard geology is irrelevant. Clearly, this environment determines the water and nutrient supply crucial to vine growth, especially in the absence of irrigation or fertilisation strategies. While this makes the case for “terroir” seem even more tenuous, its abiding claim rests on the empirical evidence of the consistent performance of some varieties in certain designated locations.

Enter the CVC – the Cape Vineyard Classification – an ongoing attempt by a number of brave (some might say foolhardy) South African producers to identify site-specific features that consistently deliver above-average wine quality. For them the problems have been far greater than Alex Maltman’s cold shower of reality. For a start, in the past even certain high performing properties did not necessarily always source the fruit for their top wines from the same vineyards or even from the same appellation. The ongoing success of many of these wines lay in the skill of the winemaker and his ability to ensure that the final cuvée was stylistically representative of a particular house style. What has assisted the CVC has been a change in the regulatory environment identifying a single vineyard as the smallest designated unit of origin. (In the past this was an entire “estate” as defined by legislation written almost half a century ago). The CVC is thus in a position to track the performance of a wine over several vintages from a single block of vines.

This scrutiny has now been taken to the next stage – a blind tasting of at least five vintages from a particular appellation. Panels of three judges (I worked on one of these) were presented with five-wine flights and asked to arrive at a consensus-driven conclusion which had to cover several aspects. Firstly, did the wines have the intensity, gravitas and complexity to make recognition of the site a meaningful quality criterion? Secondly, was there a coherence to all five wines which at least alluded to a common origin? Finally, was the perceptible quality more attributable to site than to winemaking (in other words, to fruit quality rather than, for example, to oak ageing)? While vintage variations were inevitable (and in a way are equally an expression of terroir), was the overall standard driven by site intrinsics?

Here’s the interesting thing: despite the doubts raised by Maltman’s research, the role of place was evident in the outcome – and while I had also been asked to serve as the review panel chairman, my services here were not required. At the end of the tasting the panels had produced an entirely consensus-driven result revealing that two thirds of the designated sites met all the criteria.

11 August New Whites

Spring is close enough for me to be extolling the virtues of white wines, especially the more recent sauvignon blanc releases – a few already from the sumptuous 2017 vintage. Notwithstanding the shortage of water in the Western Cape, this year’s harvest seems to have turned out remarkably well. The crop in the more premium areas is obviously smaller than average, but this is no bad thing from a quality point of view. Smaller berries mean more intense fruit notes, greater concentration and less dilution of flavour. For winemakers who thought that the quality of the 2015s was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, 2017 has arrived to undermine their confidence in the laws of probability.

With two great vintages in a three year period, it’s natural that the reputation of the third year in the trio – 2016 – would suffer. This is a little unfair: diffident though some of the producers were at the time of the harvest, many are happily surprised by how the wines have turned out. This isn’t only the result of grower enthusiasm (which is usually in direct proportion to the number of cases in the winery’s cellars). While many of the 2016s were a little gawky at first, and suffered by comparison with the 2015s, now that they are coming together it is clear that the vintage has yielded some very fine wines.

I made my way through some of the Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection wines, where both the Chenin Blanc and the Chardonnay are 2016s. Both were excellent – the former with palpable opulence balanced out with a savoury dryness, the latter with real viscosity, restrained oak notes and lovely integration. Incidentally, both the Shiraz and Cabernet in the same range are 2015s, and both deliver extraordinary value for money at around the R130 per bottle mark.

South Hill vineyards in Elgin has an impressive 2016 Sauvignon – precise, tropical rather than overtly green – with a delicious linearity which runs all the way to the long persistent finish. It’s a less serious wine than the cellar’s 2015 Bassey white blend, a 50/50 assemblage of sauvignon blanc and semillon. For those with deeper pockets the property’s top white – the King of the Hill Chardonnay – is worth tracking down: dense rather than plush, textured rather than rich, it’s finely balanced, ready to be enjoyed now but clearly capable of several years more ageing. Finally – and this is a wine only available from the cellar door – South Hills has one of the best South African malbecs (the BBK 2015) I’ve tasted to date. Lower in alcohol than most (13.5%), it has none of the overdone tannins and heavy oaking which accompanies many of the examples (including the Argentinian show wines) I’ve tasted to date: fine red fruit notes, tobacco and tea-leaf whiffs, it is elegant rather than insubstantial and beautifully harmonious.

Back to the white 2017s: two standout examples from recent tastings were both surprisingly inexpensive: Adi Badenhorst’s Secateurs Chenin Blanc has always been a bit of a trendy cult wine at an affordable price: his 2017, on shelf for somewhere between R80 and R100 (depending on where you do your shopping), is the best vintage I’ve tasted to date. Creamy and intense, with real palate weight, it somehow manages to combine freshness with the viscosity typical of Swartland chenin blanc.

The other fabulous value 2017 is the Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc. Like all the wines in this inexpensive high volume range, it over-delivers in terms of price. What makes it different however is its real fruit purity. Fine and tropical with beautifully managed acidity, it is good enough to be enjoyed on its merits, rather than because it’s on shelf at around R40 per bottle. If that sounds too cheap to be believable, tell your wine merchant you’d prefer him to double the price. I’m sure he’d be happy to do so, and then you can have the satisfaction of a more credible price-to-quality ratio.

4 August Merlot

For the past several years Merlot has taken a hammering from wine writers. In the meantime it remains the most popular variety among South Africa’s red wine consumers. This is not as contradictory as it may seem. Most critics focus their attention on wines selling in the rarefied atmosphere of R150+ per bottle whereas more than half of all red wine in South Africa is on shelf for under R50.

There’s no doubt that part of merlot’s appeal to people who are regular everyday wine drinkers is the idea of it: soft-tannined, easy drinking and accessible. Unlike cabernet which is understood to be a cultivar that needs to evolve in the bottle, merlot is expected to deliver bucketloads of fruit the moment the cork is drawn. Since people tend to taste what they are expecting – at least when it comes to wine (and anyone who doubts this generalisation can google the reams of research which substantiates it), the sales of merlot flourish – at least in part – because the punters believe that it’s juicy and consumer-friendly.

The serious merlot producers on the other hand have been battling with the cultivar’s negative press. Its critics point out that many of the more premium examples are either unpleasantly green, or overripe and porty. Winemakers hoping to steer a course between the two positions tend to produce wines which reflect the compromises they must make: super-ripe berry notes underpinned by chewy herbal textures. Our leading producers regularly host workshops to see how best they can manage its idiosyncrasies in the South African context. Today (4th August) they are being addressed by the world’s most famous merlot producer – or at least the winemaker (Olivier Berrouet) at the world’s most famous merlot-based estate, Chateau Petrus.

This is therefore an opportune time for me to look at the examples which have lately made a positive impression – and to acknowledge the work that has been done with Cape merlots has produced some very positive results. Take the Protea 2015 for instance. This is a wine (like all the others in this great value range) which retails for about R70 per bottle. Fresh, savoury, with creamy tannins and real vinosity (despite its youth) it scored an impressive 88 points, tasted blind. There’s nothing of comparable value about: to find a merlot closer to the 90 point mark (and in this case, right on it) you need to look to roughly three times the selling price. For this you get the Rust en Vrede Merlot 2015, which is palpably bigger and richer, without a significant loss of freshness. Weighty, textured and indisputably ripe, it’s not everyone’s idea of an easy to drink wine. However, it is savoury rather than porty, and something of a classic in the big and bold style.

Of course, not all merlots have to be accessible and showing well within a year or two of coming to market. The De Grendel 2015, for example, still has a hint of almost cabernet-like greenness: not hard, chewy, unripe tannin, but rather a distinctive herbal note, reminiscent of Right Bank Bordeaux wines that have been made for French rather than new world consumers. The Vilafonte Series “M” (which is merlot and malbec dominated) has none of the greener notes, but needs as much time to evolve if it’s to justify the investment in complexity which comes with its terroir and winemaking.

Finally, the industry’s undisputed benchmark – the Shannon Mount Bullet (the 2013 of which I scored at 90 in a blind tasting two weeks back) – balances ripe plum and mulberry aromas with real textural nuance. Stylistically this is, I guess, the Grail for merlot: opulence balanced with freshness, intricacy and persistence lighting up the finish. You don’t see it very often, not even in its heartland of Pomerol, but when you do, it’s possible to understand how even the R50 bottle of everyday drinking wine can be imbued with the aura of Petrus.

28 July Investment and Marc Kent

As the economy plunges ever deeper into the worst recession in 35 years, one segment of the wine industry seems sufficiently unperturbed by trading conditions to be debating the issue of investment grade wine. This is not the first time this high-end nirvana has been discussed. Cape producers look enviously at their counterparts in Bordeaux and calculate the cash flow benefits of selling a sizeable chunk of the crop into a futures market. They forget that this structure – developed over centuries – comes with a particular set of circumstances. For all the advantages of early sales, there are margin losses to middlemen, and a pipeline which needs to have been filled before there’s any benefit in emptying it at the consumer end of the trade.

Ryan Mostert is the winemaker for a very successful Swartland brand called Silwervis, which has been doing very well selling small volumes into a niche market. This year the cellar has released a premium shiraz called Terracura, spicy, intriguing, fine and not overly peppery. It has all the trappings of a cult wine in the making. One of the Silwervis shareholders is Roland Peens, whose day job involves selling ultra-premium wines – local and imported. Peens is in the unusual position of being a broker as well as a brand-owner. He believes that there is potential for a real investment market in South Africa – but only if the established names keep their volumes small. He bases this view on his own experience – which has seen tiny quantities of select vinous collectables sell for significantly more than their release prices.

He may be right if you consider the performance of the top wines from a cellar such as Eben Sadie’s, and which have shown a 10% – 15% compounded annual growth. However, the volumes are very restricted, and are unlikely to increase significantly, given Sadie’s old vine site-specific focus. It’s hard to think of many other possible players. We simply don’t have enough wines with a long-established reputation. Almost all of those which come to mind are cult products (several of which are one-vintage wonders) whose price is fuelled by rarity. To complicate things further, we don’t have the same set-up the Bordeaux trade enjoys: there’s no developed secondary market, there are very few suitable long-term storage locations, our industry is too dynamic for the fashion wines of today to deliver any certainties in the future.

The one person who could be a game-changer here is Marc Kent, who graduated as a winemaker in the same cohort as Sadie and who runs what is undoubtedly South Africa’s most successful wine enterprise. Starting out twenty years ago with Boekenhoutskloof, Kent has developed and grown brands – all of them very successful – that occupy every segment of the market. I chatted to him at The Wolftrap Steakhouse Awards (which he sponsors). He is as comfortable putting R40 bottles of the Wolftrap onto the table as he is offering Porcupine Ridge (a notch up in terms of price), The Chocolate Block, Boekenhoutskloof itself and the (current) jewel in the crown, Porseleinberg. Potentially both Boekenhoutskloof and Porseleinberg could breathe life into an investment market. They sell in volumes of more than a few hundred cases, they come with a real pedigree, and, in the case of the former, there’s as much of a track record as an investor would need.

Kent however is more interested in growing his business than in creating an investment wine environment. As the Porseleinberg vineyards acquire some age, there’s a real likelihood of the volumes increasing – not significantly, but enough for Kent to price his wines circumspectly. Without a guarantee of year-on-year price inflation, speculators are disinclined to take a punt – at least until production plateaus. Some might argue that Kent should play his part in giving the investment market a chance to take off. However, serious commentators recognise that if we are ever to have a genuine secondary trading environment, transparency must be the first requirement.

21 July Rolland and Vergelegen

For a man who was once the enfant terrible of the Cape wine industry, Vergelegen’s Andre van Rensburg has mellowed rather well. Except for the occasional outburst involving his pet hatreds viz. Pinotage and the Swartland, he’s not made headlines for so long that his employer (Anglo American) have been able to focus on its core businesses. It now emerges that what has kept Andre van Rensburg out of harm’s way is his working partnership with Michel Rolland, the French oenologist whose worldwide consulting activities have, since 2014, included Vergelegen.

Van Rensburg has finally emerged from the cocooned stillness of the fabulous “winery-on-the-hill” to share, with unbridled enthusiasm, the results of Rolland’s input. As Hamlet might have said, “that would be scann’d.” The very idea of Andre van Rensburg entering willingly into a collaboration with a man who has been praised for “modernising” Bordeaux wines, but also excoriated for stripping them of their “classical” austerity, seems inconceivable to those who know him from his more hardline pronouncements. But here he was, wandering around Gauteng armed with BR (before Rolland) and AR (after Rolland) samples to show evidence of the transformation. The experience could only have been a little disappointing for those expecting a miracle along the lines of the wine of service at Cana. For everyone else however, the tastings were nothing short of riveting.

There’s a bit of a back story here. Michel Rolland’s influence – especially in respect of wine style – has been controversial. In the 2004 movie Mondovino – about the globalisation of wine styles – he is depicted as an enthusiastic proponent of technological interventions such as micro-oxygenation. In the dame context he has been satirised alongside influential American critic Robert Parker for driving a fashion of heavy fruit, overt oak and plush tannins – all at the expense of savouriness, longevity and long-term complexity. For producers whose vision extends beyond high ratings and the easy sales they engender, he is sometimes seen as a technician who will achieve these results, even at the expense of dumbing down great wines from long-established sites. In the world of Andre van Rensburg, where fashion is for airheads and nothing (especially wine maturation) should be set on a fast-track, a less likely collaboration would be difficult to imagine.

Instead, what has emerged is a kind of vinous love affair, where the value of what Michel Rolland has brought to Vergelegen’s fruit is palpably evident, thus freeing Van Rensburg (whose love for the property is just as obvious) to praise the work of the man who has helped to breathe new life into what was fast becoming a moribund brand. Interestingly, Van Rensburg openly acknowledges that the idea of obtaining outside advice had been something he had actively sought, and that at one stage he considered contracting with one specialist solely for the white wines, and another for the reds.

It is difficult not to be caught up in his enthusiasm. The 2015 wines – which have had the multiple benefits of a great vintage, a few years of Rolland’s input and the increasingly meaningful impact of older, virus-free vineyards – look to have come from another era. In many ways, the pre-Rolland wines are reminiscent of how fine Bordeaux reds used to look in the 1970s. The 2015s (including the GVB estate white) better resemble those from the current era. Tannins are better managed, the fruit is more forward, the harsh edges finessed away. That said, the past is not all bad, and the latest bottlings not always the most interesting. Of the wines I tasted – ranging from 2012 through to 2016 – there were several very good wines from the in-between vintages, where Rolland was primarily involved in assembling the final blend. What is evident however, is the spring in Van Rensburg’s step: he has wines to offer which he knows are irresistible, and it’s difficult not to admire his generous acknowledgement of the role played by Rolland.

14 July BF & HRV

The “Young Guns,” “Young Turks,” “Lunatic Fringe” (and whatever other monickers are used for the latest generation of wine producers) have been garnering a great deal of publicity lately. No doubt some of this is due to the fashion which holds that new is always “cutting edge.” It was therefore something of a pleasant surprise to taste wines in the past few weeks from a couple of the country’s best established Pinot producers, both united by a common history, a common appellation, and a common focus.

The first of these visitors to the Big Smoke was Peter Finlayson – the Finlayson part of Bouchard Finlayson, but also the founding winemaker of Hamilton Russell Vineyards – and therefore the pioneering Hemel-en-Aarde Valley cellarmaster. Fashionable though it is to celebrate the adventurous spirit of the young (especially the courage and daring which comes from having little or nothing to lose), when it comes to wine, there’s a serious premium attributable to experience. Of course, it’s only worth venerating the less youthful when they have not been dulled by the constant repetition which comes with the job.

Peter Finlayson has been working in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley since the late 1970s, so he knows more than most about its growing and vintage conditions. He has also pretty much specialised in Pinot and Chardonnay, so he brings to his winemaking a lifetime of accumulated experience with these varieties. The tasting he assembled on his visit to Johannesburg was entirely about Pinot – not only his own, but also a number of top American and French examples.

It revealed that there are as many styles of Pinot as there are winemakers, but that the broadest divide is between the more classically, more nuanced examples, and the plusher, more opulent wines which have served to popularise the cultivar. In this context the American wines were unbelievably juicy, soft-tannined, deep-coloured, intensely fruited. The Bouchard Finlayson wines (we tasted the 2009, 2001 and 2000) were much more Burgundian, and sat comfortably alongside several top Premiers Crus from Beaune.

Unsurprisingly, this stylistic classicism was a feature highlighted by Anthony Hamilton Russell when he hit town with a full line-up of his latest releases (most of which are already sold out). At Hamilton Russell (the longest-established of South Africa’s pinot producers and the pioneering cellar in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley) the House itself is the repository of accumulated experience. Winemaker Emul Ross only arrived on the property for the 2015 vintage. The viticultural practices have been decades in the making, likewise the style of the wines (which were determined by the late Tim Hamilton Russell in conjunction with Peter Finlayson). Anthony and Olive Hamilton Russell are very hands-on proprietors. Ross would never have been allowed to deviate from the very clear aesthetic which has defined the brand since the outset. Hamilton Russell himself was clear about this. “We don’t want to be producing soft, simple juicy pinots,” he said. “We seek detail, nuance and refinement.”

He might as easily have said this about all the wines – especially the reds – which come from his various properties. The Southern Right Pinotage 2016 is earthy rather than chewy, the Ashbourne 2015 (possibly the best, though least showy, example of this variety currently available anywhere) is a statement of pure vinosity, while the newly launched Ashbourne Pinotage/Cinsault exudes finesse. The 2016 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir offers ample fruit intensity, without any dumbing down.

Emul Ross may be new in the job, and the aesthetic rules may have been clearly articulated to him, but he has already imposed his personality on the wines. The job of the winemaker is to coax from the vineyards their best possible expression. If the house style is right (and non-negotiable) this means that changes will never be dramatic – a little more refinement, greater intricacy, more precision. The job of youth is to ensure that the sails catch the most wind; experience remains the guiding hand on the tiller.

Research shows that, taken in moderation, wine is good for your health. RMB WineX supports responsible alcohol consumption. © 2017 WineX Pty Ltd

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