As recently as the 1980s the South African wine industry, extrapolating from the diversity of the Cape floral kingdom, suggested that most cultivars did well on most estates. As a corollary (so the story went) pretty much every vintage was as good as pretty much any other vintage. To be fair, some of the bigger family-owned properties did have most major cultivars planted, and produced reliably solid wines in most years. Some harvests were more difficult than others – but the European experience of the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s, where half the wines of the decade were largely written off – seemed a distant universe.
Lately those responsible for promoting the various areas of origin have designed their narratives around more singular attributes. Elgin calls itself chardonnay country – even though it is home to some very good pinots and shirazes. Hemel-en-Aarde markets itself as the place of pinot, even though some of the Cape’s best chardonnays come from there. Constantia took the sauvignon blanc gap, choosing (perhaps for more cynical reasons) to identify the appellation with South Africa’s most popular white variety. Stellenbosch landed up with out-of-fashion cabernet.
At least there’s nothing mercenary about this decision. You can’t cherry-pick your “fit” on the basis of maximum sales volumes at a particular moment in time. What happens once the cultivar falls off everyone’s wish list or it becomes blatantly obvious that the region is not the best place to be growing it? In the case of Stellenbosch and cabernet, the connection is obvious – though merlot, shiraz and chardonnay come with strong claims: Stellenbosch is the one area of origin which best epitomises the old Cape narrative of “everything does well here.”
Cabernet is traditionally South Africa’s most prestigious red. Long before we had even a whiff of merlot, or a pinot noir that any one took seriously, cabernet was king. Wine writer Tim James decided to track its history in the Cape, expecting to find examples of cabernet sauvignon dating well into the 19th century. To his surprise, at least at this stage, he can find no evidence of commercial cabernet which pre-dates the early 20th century. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t there before the Rinderpest: just that the proof has been surprisingly elusive. No one was expecting to find lots of it – almost all Cape wine production in the 19th century was white – but the absence of any cabernet at all has taken us all by surprise.
Still, the one place in South Africa where, for the better part of the last hundred years, you would expect to find good cabernet is Stellenbosch. Starting along the False Bay side there are famed vineyards at Meerlust, Vergelegen and Morgenster. Tracking along the Helderberg towards the town itself, there’s Alto, Waterford and Rust en Vrede. In the Stellenboschkloof there’s Jordan, over Devon Valley and into the Bottelary Hills there’s Kaapzicht.
Once you get to the Simonsberg and Jonkershoek you are in the undisputed heartland, with many of the Cape’s best properties located within a 10 km radius of each other. Stark-Condé, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Thelema, Tokara, Delaire Graff, and then over the crest of the range, Uitkyk, Kanonkop, Warwick, Muratie, Delheim and Le Bonheur. People like Neil Ellis can tell you where some of the finest parcels are to be found: he gets some of his best fruit from Jonkershoek, and no doubt remembers what the long defunct 60 year block on Lanzerac was capable of producing.
Mike Ratcliffe, erstwhile proprietor of Warwick, now with responsibilities at Paarl-based Vilafonte, was elected by the Stellenbosch producers to breathe some life into the region’s moribund image. Unsurprisingly he’s chosen Cabernet to make the point. It may seem a hard sell, given the decades lost to the pursuit – by producers and punters – of new sites and new varieties. In his favour he has the unerring simplicity of his message: you wouldn’t look anywhere except Stellenbosch if you wanted to find a world class cabernet in the Cape.