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.

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