International Taste 7 December 2018

The famous “Judgement of Paris” tasting in 1976, in which a line-up of Californian wines substantially dented the French claim to vinous supremacy, vindicated the American belief that their wines stacked up comfortably against the top French examples. For the wine world however the result was hardly uncontroversial. How competent were the judges? (Pretty good: they included the owner of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti and the sommelier of the legendary Tour d’Argent restaurant.) How credible was the French selection? (Two First Growths and two Seconds in the cabernet line-up.)

What no one seems to have considered was the apples-and-pears nature of what had appeared to be a comparison of like products. The Californian and Bordeaux reds were cabernet-based, the whites chardonnays. It seemed fair to assume that what was being judged was like-for-like. At one level, this is entirely true: every blind tasting compares like (a class of red wines, a class of pinot noirs, a class of wines from a particular vintage) but at the same time there is an “unlike” component: Stellenbosch wines are different from Swartland wines, high elevation chardonnays are different from maritime ones.

When you are judging a competition you can award gold medals to a number of different styles, a chardonnay from Elgin and a chardonnay from Paarl. When you are being driven to a preference between two wines however, you are being asked to decide on whether a particular Elgin chardonnay is better in absolute terms than a particular chardonnay from Paarl. Sometimes the very intrinsics are what tilt a decision – hence the apples-and-pears factor.

Last month I conducted my annual tasting in Hong Kong for Christie’s most important wine clients. This year there were 13 Cape wines across a number of categories, all paired blind against comparable international benchmarks. For example, Jordan’s Nine Yards was set against Etienne Sauzet’s Batard Montrachet, Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer against Chateau Lynch Bages and Vilafonte Series “M” against Chateau Trotanoy.

The guests are invited simply to choose their preferred wines from each of the flights. The idea was to focus on enjoyment rather than the distraction of trying to identify origin. This year I sat next to one of the auction house’s best-heeled and most knowledgeable punters (these two attributes don’t always come together, sadly). It was his comments which alerted me to the apples-and-pears nature of choosing a single “winner” from a short line-up.

At the top end of the market it’s no longer an easy exercise to separate one country’s wines from another’s on a qualitative basis. The best are equally good. My companion in Hong Kong recognised this so he decided that once he had made his choice, he could still take a stab at origin. He was never wrong, and on several occasions his preferred wine was South African.

Every time he motivated his decision by highlighting features which relate more to origin than to winemaking, for example the nature of tannins in Cape cabernets, the acid-fruit balance in our chardonnays. Confident of his taste, as well as of his judgement, he saw no reason to pretend that the French wines were always better – which is often what happens when people are asked to choose between international benchmarks and relatively unknown contenders.

At the Judgement of Paris tasting, the French judges assumed that the quality of their top wines would shine through, and were lost the moment these differences weren’t obvious. After that they were left to choose on the basis of pleasure. In the pre-climate change 1970s many of the French classics were lean and austere while the Californian wines had a warmth and generosity about them. Provenance, in fact, triumphed over perceptions of brand identity: they liked the taste of the Californian wines more than they liked the taste of home. It’s no surprise that Odette Kahn, editor of the Revue du Vin de France, tried unsuccessfully to get her ballot form back before she stomped from the room.

Chardonnay 30 November 2018

My recent review of some of the country’s best and most interesting white wines – all of high quality, all true (though often diverse) expressions of the cultivar – indicated that chardonnay would need a column all on its own. South Africa’s best examples are world-class and plentiful in number. Unlike viognier, where, despite extensive plantings, it’s a challenge to find a wine worth recommending or riesling, where there are now only a handful of growers, chardonnay has an ample presence and offers a cornucopia of vinous treasures.

Quality chardonnay material is a relatively recent addition to the national vineyard. After an abortive start in the 1970s (some of what was smuggled into the country turned out to be Auxerrois), the variety only achieved commercial volumes in the 1980s. This coincided with our winemakers discovering small barrel vinification. The lethal combination of fruit from young vines, poor quality barrels foisted upon naïve producers by devious suppliers and sheer technical inexperience did considerable harm to the reputation of the cultivar.

For most of the 1990s Chardonnay was a hard sell. Consumers remembered over-paying for wines which were thin, tart and very oaky – and blamed their unhappiness on the variety rather than the circumstances which produced it. However, the impact this had on sales may have served the cultivar’s interests in the long term. Producers who believed in its potential, or who were so invested in their vineyards that they had no choice, worked ceaselessly to make better and more saleable offerings.

By the first decade of this century, and based on wines she had judged at the Old Mutual Trophy Winer Show, Jancis Robinson praised the quality and age-worthiness of some Cape chardonnays. Commercial prospects were picking up. The market started to embraced the variety (or at least forgave it the sins of an earlier generation of producers). Plantings were extended, mainly into the cooler climate regions of Elgin, Hemel-en-Aarde and the Cape South Coast, and dedicated specialists rose to the challenge.

Fast forward to 2018 and wine drinkers are spoilt for choice. There’s decent Chardonnay being produced at Plettenberg Bay (Newstead Lund), Riversdale (Baleia Bay), in pretty much every coastal appellation from Elim to Cape Point, and inland in Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Tulbagh. Richard Kershaw MW has been marrying sites to clones, revealing nuances that compare with the patchwork of Burgundy’s single vineyards. At a blind tasting held recently in Amsterdam, the 2016 vintage of the Kershaw Clonal Selection Bokkeveld Shales emerged first in a line-up from around the world – including Meursault and Premier Cru Puligny. However, be warned: they are not priced for the faint of heart: if you can get any of them (and you can bet the Bokkeveld Shales 2016 is sold out) expect to pay upwards of R800.

If you’re looking for Chardonnays that are still available, make your way to Ataraxia in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley: Kevin Grant’s wines are equally pure and equally age-worthy. You might also try to lay your hands on the 2017 Hamilton Russell: delicious to drink now but likely to improve immeasurably in the next five years. Also from that part of the world, La Vierge, the two Crystallum cuvées and the Newton Johnson Family Vineyards chardonnays are worth tracking down. From nearby Elgin, add Paul Cluver, Pasarene, Boschendal and Oak Valley to your list.

The Glenelly Estate Chardonnay 2016 (which has collected gold medals at Veritas, the Trophy Wine Show, the Decanter Awards and the Six Nations Challenge) is also worthy of space in your cellar. Its fine lime-citrus notes melded with faint almond nuances from the oaking make it a flag-bearer, together with DeMorgenzon, Meerlust, Jordan, Rustenberg, Tokara and Mulderbosch, for Stellenbosch’s claims to Chardonnay pre-eminence. From Paarl the Glen Carlou Quartz Stone is a serious wine with a long-established track record. Near-neighbour Babylonstoren now adds its weight to the claims of the Paarl-Simonsberg. Pretty much wherever you look, there’s brilliant Cape chardonnay selling for a fraction of their international price/value ratio.

Wonderful Whites 23 November 2018

The quality and diversity of South African white wine is unique in the world of wine. Most of the best examples are produced within 100 kilometres of Cape Town, an area significantly smaller than Bordeaux (where only two white cultivars hold sway). The effect on climate of two ocean currents (one equatorial, one originating in Antarctica) on the relatively small land mass is partly what makes possible the production of world-class chardonnay, chenin, sauvignon blanc and sauvignon/semillon blends (amongst others). In France, the prime regions which are home to the same four varieties are separated by the breadth of the entire country. To drive from Beaune via Rochecorbon to Bordeaux would take a day, even on the French autoroutes, and you would traverse over 800 kilometres. Even the most direct route between the two extremities is further than Johannesburg is from Durban.

The mere idea that South Africa is a source of whites wines that compare comfortably with the best of the Old (or New) World would have been considered incredible, if not outrageous, twenty years ago. In the early 1990s the late Pamela Vandyke Price, a distinguished British wine writer with over twenty major titles behind her name, pronounced imperiously that “South Africa was not chardonnay country.” As for the other varieties, chenin was used to produce bulk wine sold under generic names such as “blanc de blanc” while the sauvignon blanc producers of that era felt it necessary to add fake flavourant to make their wines more expressive.

Nowadays there’s ample evidence, from competitions and from the comments and scores of international critics, that in all these categories South Africa plays in the first division. Even excluding chardonnay, which deserves a stand-alone review (watch this space), the line-up of world-class whites from South Africa is impressive. We should start with the sauvignon blancs, of which Oz Clarke observed that South Africa, unconstrained by a single definitive style like the Kiwis, performs comfortably over a much wider spectrum. There are the gently fragrant examples (like the new generation wines from Klein Constantia), the more intense wines, like the latest Paul Cluver (where 8% semillon bolsters the mid-palate), those with light-oaking, such as the Mulderbosch 1000 Miles and Starke-Conde’s Round Mountain, and the full spectrum offering from Diemersdal.

In fact, Diemersdal’s range, which begins with an impressive entry-level standard release at around R70 and moves through a profoundly good Reserve wine to some single cuvées, shows what can be done with thoughtful handling of good fruit. The Winter Ferment bottling has almost viscous textures, for sauvignon drinkers who dislike grippy acidity; the Eight Rows meets the needs of people who are willing to pay extra for a whiff of exclusivity.

When it comes to chenin blanc South Africans are now spoilt for choice: for less than R100 Marras offers two separate Swartland cuvées. Grande Provence in Franschhoek has an excellent 2017 which won gold medals at Veritas and the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. The DeMorgenzon Reserve is always worth tracking down, so too Ken Forrester’s FMC and the Spier 21 Gables. I recently tasted the Doolhof Riviersteen, a wine so beautifully crafted I wasn’t entirely surprised by the R350 price point.

Our wine producers have done very well with the white Rhone varieties, except for the most widely planted of them, viognier. Most of the examples I’ve tasted are simply too big, too oily. Happily it seems that the new winemaker at Tamboerskloof, Reynie Oosthuizen, has worked out how to make it perfectly. His 2018 (priced at about R125) has a classical Northern Rhone feel to it. Finely perfumed, with wonderful peachy notes, it is fresh, low-ish in alcohol and without any overt oak notes. Also for aficionados of Rhone whites is the new French Quarter blend from the Old Road winery. A thoughtfully assembled combination of marsanne, roussanne, grenache blanc and semillon, it has nuance, detail charm and poise – everything you would expect from a wine selling for double its R130 price-tag.

Platter 2019 Edition 16 November 2018

The Platter Guide hosted its annual book release and awards ceremony in Cape Town in early November. With the Five Star laureates, category winners and various “Wineries of the Year” there are now so many awards that the press release reads a little like a middle school year-book. By 2020 expect the list to include the country’s best LGBT rosé producer as well as a special mention for the brandy distiller with the longest beard. What used to be John Platter’s personal selection of the top wines he tasted in preparing the guide has morphed into a wine competition in everything except name.

This in itself is no bad thing: the Platter Guide tasters have access to more wines than the judges in any of the reputable local competitions so their list of the country’s best wines is bound to be more complete. While it’s been said many times that the process by which these wines are identified has its flaws, it’s worth adding that it also has its virtues. The first round judging is sighted, so the shortlist of 500 – 800 wines (this year 651, to be precise) which then go to the so-called Five Star tasting (which is blind), can hardly be described as objective. I don’t think this is necessarily problematic. Pedigree plays a part in determining a wine’s potential: blind tasting can tell you how well it has been made, but for a complete assessment of where it’s going it’s useful to know how past vintages performed.

What isn’t certain is how far this track-record principle is applied, and whether the sifting mechanism is able to respond to anything except the most recent history. Obviously the five star laureates from an immediate past year are more likely to get a pass to the following year’s blind tasting, but what about those which performed well a few years back, but not recently? Inertia works both ways. I suspect that wines which have been off the podium for a few years experience an unequal gravitational pull. Newcomers, at least, are free of the burden of history. This doesn’t mean they get a free ride: their wines are reviewed by two tasters who must agree before sending them through to the five star round.

The Guide’s top wines and wineries deserve the attention which follows the release of the results. The Winery of the Year (for the third time) is Mullineux. The Newcomer Winery of the Year is Erika Obermeyer Wines (Erika was previously the winemaker for the Graham Beck’s still wines so her newly launched venture comes to market with her considerable experience). Guide Editor Philip van Zyl has also created an Editor’s Choice, the first winner of which is Newton Johnson – identified for “consistent superb quality” across a wide range of wines. No one could dispute the worthiness of this call.

I see no point in making much of the category winners (highest scoring wines within a particular class). By the Guide’s own admission, the voting was marginal and based on aggregating the scores of the panel designated to select the five star winners in that category. This may be an improvement on the old “red (or white) wine of the year” but it needs to be more persuasive. The judges weren’t setting out to identify the best in class – they were focusing on separating the five star laureates from those destined for the limbo of 4.5 stars.

Probably the book’s greatest weakness, at least insofar as the five star selection is concerned, resides in the dynamics (and competences) of the Five Star judging panels. This is evident without nit-picking the results in much detail: eighteen five star chenins but only one wooded and one unwooded five star sauvignon blanc is an obvious anomaly. However, since no competition or selection is free of inexplicable omissions and inclusions, this means that the results, available on, should be treated not as scripture, but as a useful enough guide.

Building a brand 9 November 2018

When I first visited Lafite in the 1970s the great Bordeaux estate had a very primitive packaging line: it took several months to bottle the vintage. The wine which came off the line last was clearly going to be different from the bottle which had been first off some time earlier. At Chateau Margaux in the same era the wine ran from the fermentation vats to the barrel cellar along open concrete sluices – a distance (from memory) of at least 20 metres – picking up oxygen and “sediment” along the way. This was how wine was made at two of the top estates in the world less than half a century ago.

Nowadays the wine business is intensely competitive. It’s easy to find the wreckage of poorly conceived, ill-planned, and under-managed ventures which have failed. They stand as monuments to the naivety of those who threw (often enormous) quantities of money at trophy properties, imagining that passion and cash were all that was required for success.

In fairness, there was a time when strategies like this had a better chance – but that was a few decades back when much less was known about the importance of cellar hygiene and the science of viticulture. Today there’s no room for perceptible defects. Too much oak, discernible acidification, lack of fruit intensity, over-filtration, high alcohol levels – the market has a long list of no-nos, which leaves very little room for enthusiastic amateurs.

There’s evidence of this new professionalism in the Cape. Several of the high profile investments of the past decade are now starting to yield impressive results. Vitaly Gaiduk (from the Ukraine) acquired Quoin Rock in 2012 following the famous Auction Alliance “faked” auction. In the past six years the family has overseen essential redevelopment. While some older Stellenbosch vineyards were retained, 36 hectares were replanted. An extension to the winery also addressed some technical issues, such as the humidity levels in the barrel cellar. The estate – replete with the newly launched Gåte restaurant and luxury accommodation – is now back in business.

Visitors will find a whole new generation of wines, made mostly in a more modern, Californian idiom by Jacques Maree. The entry level Namysto range (with packaging inspired by Ukranian beadwork) is the more savoury option, with shiraz and cabernet in the red blend and sauvignon and semillon in the white. The premium Quoin Rock range is more opulent. The estate’s flagship red is plush and opulent, the tannins polished to a deep lustre, the 15% alcohol kept in check by appropriate acidity. The Quoin Rock chardonnay, like the estate red blend, is full and intense, the oak evident but balanced by the massive undertow of fruit. The top cuvées are beautifully packaged, as befits their R350 – R600 price points

Less than 10 kms away as the crow flies is Babylonstoren, where Naspers’s Koos Bekker has spent serious money restoring and developing one of the most beautiful old properties on the Paarl side of the Simonsberg. In addition to the now famous gardens, restaurants and spa, the estate has returned to its roots as a wine producer. For several years the wines were offered with diffidence, a restraint appropriate to the youth of the vineyards. (Lest this sounds like damning with faint praise, consider this: most new owners pump their over-priced wines made from young vines into the market as soon as possible to claw some cash flow. It takes vision – and deep pockets – to follow this less aggressive approach).

The latest vintages reveal that this is no longer necessary. They show a thoughtfulness in the winemaking which suggests that the best wines of Babylonstoren will offer as much justification for a visit as the gardens and bakery. The Nebukadnesar 2016 is cabernet dominated, with the other Bordeaux varieties offering breadth and dimension to complement the cassis notes. The Chardonnay 2017 was my preferred wine – intense, Burgundian, with fruit-weight to match the time in barrel.

Natural Wine 2 November 2018

The industrial food sector has been getting a bad press, and not only from luddites whose world-view involves an idealised vision of some agricultural Eden. The 1970s and 1980s was the worst era of modern French wine, when even the most heralded producers selected their planting material on the basis of yield, rather than clonal diversity, and then mechanised their viticultural practices. Tractors compacted the soils, agro-chemicals leached their natural vitality. Farming costs dropped, but so did quality. The vines may initially have been less susceptible to disease, but over time their natural resistance also crumbled.

At much the same time the organic farming movement began to make its presence felt, initially as a “new-age” fringe force. It still has that whiff about it – at least in South Africa. When Stellar Organics won a trophy for its shiraz at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show a few years back you could hear the more mainstream consumers (and wine press) wondering at the wisdom of the judges. When it repeated its triumph with a gold medal for its Woolworths bottling this year, the comments were more subdued.

In a region as susceptible to summer rainfall as Champagne, Louis Roederer now has over 80% of its vineyard certified organic, and a high percentage bio-dynamic. (Notwithstanding my interest in a company which imports Roederer), it’s important to report the results of the recent World Champagne and Sparkling Wine Championships, where Roederer picked up most of the major awards. These included the trophy for Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year, best Champagne, best deluxe Champagne, best French Sparkling Wine, best Classic Rose and best non-vintage Champagne. It’s impossible to ignore the connection between this blind-tasting result, and the commitment to organic viticulture. Romanee-Conti and Domaine Leroy, probably the two most prestigious domaines in Burgundy, are both run on bio-dynamic principles. Several of the leading Bordeaux chateaux are also organic, or in transition. Few, if any, publicise this – probably to avoid being thought too “new-age.”

David Clarke, a sometime Australian sommelier who now runs a fine wine distribution business in South Africa and represents several unashamedly “new-age” producers, kindly shared some insights into the next level of this seemingly arcane world, the realm of “natural” wine. On paper, the rules here are simple enough: you can’t claim to make “natural” wine if the vineyards are not farmed organically. At the winemaking level, no chemical interventions (except for minimal sulphur additions at bottling) are permitted. It’s an honour system, where producer integrity, rather than third party certification, determines the status of a wine.

I tasted several of David’s natural wines, and one “orange” wine (in other words, a white wine make with extensive skin contact, and in this case, no sulphur and no filtration, so slightly opaque, and more golden in colour). Craig Hawkins, whose pioneering Testalonga and El Bandito brands have played a key role in opening up this market, was represented by the El Bandito Cortez 2017 Chenin. There’s no question about its obvious purity and precision: luminous fruit, very fresh on the palate, low in alcohol, yet full on flavour. Oddly enough I preferred the far less appealing looking white, the Mother Rock “orange” wine of J.H. Meyer. Made in a very traditional way (foot-stomping and punch-downs) nine weeks of skin contact, basket pressed, aged in a concrete “egg” and bottled directly without filtration, it had rich textural qualities to go with the heightened flavours.

Finally David showed me the latest (2017) Intellego Syrah, intense, juicy and peppery, packed with youthful flavour, fruit-fresh at 13% alcohol, and made more accessible by a week of carbonic maceration prior to pressing, aged in old wood and bottled with minimal sulphur. At R170 per bottle, it’s a bargain. Given what we now know is happening in the major international appellations, it comes as no surprise that one of South Africa’s best shirazes is the result of non-interventionist winemaking.

Klein Constantia 26 October 2018

Most people with an inkling of the history of South African wine would regard the Constantia Valley as the cradle of our wine culture. Its case rests less along the lines of “first one there” and more upon the role it played in nurturing the country’s incipient fine wine culture. Van der Stel’s farm, which opened up the region, became a model agricultural enterprise. The governor wrote a rule book for wine production which was probably worth more in terms of driving quality wine standards than the Huguenot influx. His example, coupled with the region’s viticultural potential and (a century later) Hendrik Cloete’s genius, produced the dessert wine we know today as Vin de Constance. In the late 18th century it became the most sought-after wine in the world. It’s difficult to ignore the claims of Constantia with this kind of pedigree.

The region’s glory days didn’t last forever. The British occupation of the Cape brought to an end the lucrative VOC Amsterdam auctions of the Constantia dessert wines. The collapse of the wine trade following the end of Imperial Preference hit the quality sector at least as badly as the bulk business. By the end of the 19th century Groot Constantia was bankrupt. For most of the 20th century urban encroachment put paid to the region’s pretensions as a wine producer.

By the 1980s there was every indication that the developers would turn the remaining agricultural land into upmarket homes. It was primarily Duggie Jooste’s acquisition of Klein Constantia and Richard Mueller’s purchase of Buitenverwachting (together with a host of awards won the moment the vineyards came into production) that changed all this. Constantia suddenly had critical mass. Since then a further six or so properties have added their weight to the appellation.

In a sense, new generation Constantia dates to the 1986 maiden vintages of Klein Constantia – the first wines produced by Duggie Jooste’s team. Several extraordinary sauvignon blancs sent a message that the appellation was perfectly suited to this heat sensitive variety. The growers responded accordingly: today Constantia is more closely identified with sauvignon than any other cultivar.

Time will tell whether this does justice to an appellation as important to South Africa as the Constantia Valley. Several of the prime examples are unexceptional. Many winemakers battle to achieve full fruit ripeness at acceptable alcohol levels. At the very least a new way of managing its viticulture is required. There’s evidence that it can be done – to judge from the latest vintages from Klein Constantia. The estate came under new ownership and new management in 2011/2. Since then a massive replanting and cellar renovation programme has been under way. I tasted some of the fruit of that investment recently, including, and most importantly, wine from individual sites, separately harvested and separately vinified.

For the first time my reservations about Constantia’s sauvignon potential have been assuaged. The standard release Klein Constantia 2018 is worth every cent of its R125 per bottle. The 2017 Metis (a joint venture with Loire producer Pascal Jollivet) is a marked step above earlier vintages, and delivers Old World finesse with New World intensity. The 2017 Perdeblokke has real weight and personality, while the Block 382 (from a relatively recently planted low-yielding bush-vine vineyard) makes it clear that thoughtful planting and harvesting strategies do make a difference.

At nearby Constantia Glen, the top cuvée of the Bordeaux blend (known as Constantia Glen Five because it is composed of five of the authorised Medoc varieties) continues to impress: the 2014 is one of the best to date and is certainly one of the most delicious of the Cape’s Bordeaux blends.

In short, Constantia’s leading producers are starting to lift themselves off the laurels which made a comfortable cushion for the previous generation. The expectations of an ever-more demanding market are being met by a few of them: the others will have to follow suit.

For notes on a recent Klein Constantia vertical go to

Moderate Consumption 19 October 2018

It would seem a safe assumption that readers of a weekly wine column don’t need to be reminded of the virtues of moderate consumption. Nevertheless, the virulent attacks by the crypto-prohibitionists in our midst (many of them doctors who should know better) sometimes make it necessary to repeat why it is healthier to drink than to abstain.

The issue of alcohol is politically fraught in South Africa. It is easy to understand that for many people, and for whole communities, it is powerfully emotive. Anyone who has read Charles van Onselen’s pamphlet “Randlords and Rotgut” will know alcohol was used as an instrument of repression, and as a (particularly evil) inducement to press-gang rural males into the labour market.

This, however, should not be allowed to blind us to the facts, as they relate to the health-giving properties of moderate wine consumption, nor should historical injustice be allowed to justify poor statistical analysis of the contemporary situation. A recent piece in Daily Maverick claimed (as if this were a universally acknowledged fact) that South Africa is the 19th heaviest drinking nation in the world. In fact, the WHO puts us in 30th position.

Alcohol abuse is a very real problem: there is ample legislation to deal with managing excessive consumption and its consequences. What is lacking is the political will to police the regulations. The inevitable result of this failure to apply existing laws will be more repressive legislation, which in turn will increase illegal and (by its very nature) irresponsible consumption. Already 70% of retail liquor sales take place in an unlicensed environment.

For those who care to hear the other side, here are some pointers. Firstly, it is better to drink than to abstain. For all the evils of excessive consumption, the universe of imbibers (from moderate to manic) has a longer life expectancy than the universe of teetotallers. Those who drink wine, regularly and in moderation, are likely to live longest.

While this observation is supported by considerable empirical statistical evidence, it’s important to try to identify why this is so – in other words, how the consumption of wine helps to extend life expectancy. Firstly, moderate and regular wine consumption reduces the risk of heart disease by improving blood vessel cell health, thus reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. It also reduces the risk of strokes: wine (and in this case alcohol in general) acts as a blood thinner. The resveratrol which occurs naturally in the skins of red grapes, together with procyanids (which are also present in red wines) and which serve to reduce cholesterol, suggest greater benefits to red wine consumption.

Resveratrol is a potent anti-oxidant and offers a degree of protection against free radicals implicated in the development of some cancers (notably colon and prostate). A Harvard study showed that four to seven glasses of red wine per week halved the risk of prostate cancer. In addition, Resveratrol activates a protein which works as an anti-ageing agent. There are also studies which show that the silicon in wine helps in the battle against declining bone density. It has also been identified as an immune-system booster.

There are conflicting studies around wine consumption and long term brain health. The UC San Diego study, which followed more than 1,300 older adults for 29 years between 1984 and 2013, found that men and women 85 years old and older, who consumed ‘moderate to heavy’ amounts of alcohol, were twice as likely to be cognitively healthy than non-drinkers – a conclusion which differed from an Oxford University study published a few months before.

However, the most interesting recent research shows that wine tasting (which, sadly, is different from actual consumption) can play a vital role in enhanced cognitive function in later middle age. Apparently the use of the different sensory centres of the brain associated with tasting and judgement do for brain health what daily sudoku is supposed to achieve – but with vastly more enjoyment for the participant.

Scoring 12 October 2018

In the arcane world of wine geek bickering, the question of wine scores occupies a disproportionate amount of territory. Those who, like me, are parsimonious in allocating points suggest that no useful purpose is served in scoring hundreds of current vintage wines in the 95 – 100 point range. There’s not enough differentiation, there’s no room for the truly exceptional, there’s no real benchmarking if whole hordes of products are deemed “world-class” within weeks of release. Just as employers have become deeply suspicious of the value of a matric certificate in an era where the pass rate hovers around 75%, so wine drinkers are entitled to doubt the value of a standard which can be so easily attained.

Those who are more generous argue that their mean-spirited colleagues have failed to recognise the brilliance which they have been able to discern. There might be some truth to this, though the more cynical commentators observe that high scoring is merely self-promotion. The problem is that whoever buys over-hyped wines on the strength of an inflated score will only discover they’ve been conned when they get to open the bottle five or ten years hence. By then they will be told – if they even bother to challenge those who led them astray – that the wine was worth its score when it was rated, but that the bar has since been raised, along with the expectations of the next generation. Scores, they will be told, are not absolute, and a 98 point wine in 2010 is not the same thing as a 98 point wine in 2018.

There’s some wisdom to this – the world does change – but if a 100 point score is supposed to be “perfect,” it seems fair to expect a slightly more absolute standard. It doesn’t happen, partly because consumers who use scores as a purchasing guideline demand new thresholds, and partly because those who score (especially those who score generously) market themselves through the highest numbers.

Robert Parker, who first popularised the 100 point system over 35 years ago, has been something of a front-runner in the business of score inflation. In the 1980s his very highest scoring wines (from the widely accepted top sites in the world – such as the Medoc First Growths) would garner between 88 and 94. When, 25 years later, he awarded 18 of the very fine 2009 Clarets 100 points, he suggested that this reflected the quality of the vintage. It would have been more honest to acknowledge the devaluation of the currency.

Parker’s scoring system has an effective range of less than 20 points (very few wines score less than 82). Accordingly, when his category average moves from 87 points to 97 points (pretty much what has happened with Bordeaux in the past 30 years) either the wines are now twice as good, or a 2018 98 point score is worth half of a 98 point score from three decades ago.

I recently attended a blind tasting of a vertical of one of South Africa’s icon wines, the Mvemve Raats De Compostella. On my scoring system anything over 90 points is a gold medal and a handful reach 93. In the De Compostella line-up the 2012 achieved a creditable enough 87. The 2013 89, likewise the 2014. The 2015 90 – which incidentally is exactly the same score as I gave another bottle just over a month earlier, also in a blind tasting. The latest release, the 2016 came in with a very creditable 92.

When I shared these scores with Bruwer Raats, the winemaker, he was palpably disappointed. With all the hype around 100 point scores you could see he thought anything under 98 was hardly worth a mention in his marketing communication. In these days of score hyper-inflation he may be right. But 92 is one of my top 15 scores for 2018 and it comes in hard currency, not in Zim dollars.

For the scores of the DeCompostella vertical go to

Swartland Vertical 5 October 2018

For most of the 20th century the Swartland, (the region which is now so important to “new wave” Cape wine), was simply a bulk wine source for the wholesalers. In the late 1990s a joint venture between Charles Back (Fairview), Gyles Webbs (Thelema), John Platter and Jabulani Ntshangase (newly returned to South Africa from a job as a wine salesman in New York) became the catalyst for change. Called “Spice Route” and with its original brand home and cellar near to Malmesbury, it brought a fine wine operation to what had up to then been co-op wine space.

The partners appointed as the Spice Route cellarmaster a young graduate winemaker named Eben Sadie. After a few years he moved on, and in the ensuing decade created his own Swartland-based business which became the poster-boy for authentic artisanal winemaking in the Cape. This coincided with South Africa needing desperately to break with the industrial image that years of subservience to the KWV model had inevitably cultivated.

Sadie went on to work with viticulturist Rosa Kruger, scouting out and producing wines from some of the least recognised (and least appreciated) old vineyard blocks in the country. On the way he established a model which served as the blueprint and inspiration for the next generation of landless winemakers to build upon. Almost all of most important players in the world of small volume, single site wine production in the Cape today recognise and acknowledge their debt to him.

There is therefore a direct line from Spice Route to Sadie to the Mullineuxs, who began their winemaking careers at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards before launching their own enterprise in 2007. Their focus was also older vineyard blocks, their cultivars of choice those which were in relatively plentiful supply in the Swartland – syrah and chenin. Ten years later their most famous wines still depend on both varieties, with the top syrah cuvées from single sites (and marketed with reference to their specific soil types) and the chenin a key component in a white blend which draws on other heirloom cultivars in the Swartland.

I was recently privileged to taste a ten year vertical of the Mullineux white blend. Looking at the wines alongside each other it’s possibleto identify the coherence of the winemaker’s aesthetic vision in the mature (and maturing) wines, while tracking vintage variation and the role played by other old vine components (clairette and semillon gris) introduced more recently.

Within a day I attended another vertical – five different vintages spread over ten years – of Eben Sadie’s Palladius white blend. Here again, what united the wines was the aesthetic vision of the creator: selecting the building blocks in sometimes different proportions in order to arrive at a final and coherent whole.

Finally I had the chance of tasting several vintages of a completely different Swartland wine – one of the few new estate ventures in the appellation. About 10 years ago Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof acquired Porseleinberg – which included some old shiraz vines which had once contributed to Sadie’s Columella. While Kent retained what he could of the old vines (they supplied all the Porseleinberg fruit from 2010 to 2012, despite serious fire damage in 2006), he began a major replanting programme.

Callie Louw, who has been responsible for the vineyards and cellar since the inception, shares with Sadie and the Mullineuxs an aversion to interventionist winemaking. Except for varying the percentage of his crop which is vinified in large oak foudre and concrete eggs, and the ratio of new to old vines, vintage variation means exactly that. Still, you cannot dismiss the role of the younger vineyards – they now account for around 75% of what goes into the bottle. With the latest release (the 2016) comfortably my best wine in a recent line-up of every vintage produced (and possibly the highest scoring current release on my website), it’s living proof that the Swartland is not only about old vines.

For all the tasting notes visit

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