It used to be fashionable to point out that although the Cape wine industry prided itself on its red wines, its whites were much finer. This, so the cynics with more than a passing interest in sport liked to observe, was not unlike the national obsession with Springbok rugby, no matter how bad, at a time when the Protea cricket team dominated the international leader board. Curiously, the current reversal in the standings of these national sports teams coincides with a similar turnaround in the stature of the two main categories of wine.
In this case it does not mean that the white wine producers have lost their way: on the contrary, there are more superb examples about than ever before. Mostly however, they are single site wines, chenin and chardonnay in particular, though there are also some fine sauvignons, many of them oaked, and several striking blends.
What’s changed with red wines has been the return to fruit purity, the reduced dependence on new, heavily toasted barrels, the discovery of the importance of cellar hygiene and an appreciation of the value of restraint. Ten years ago the vast majority of reds were overdone and overoaked, high in alcohol, redolent of overripe fruit, with elevated pHs – ideal conditions for brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast which imbues the wine with horsey, pongy notes) to develop and fester.
These changes took time: critics with less parochial palates played a part. So did the ever-increasing price of decent barrels. The nature and quality of the past five vintages helped, as did the arrival in the Cape of inexpensive alcohol-removal technology (though this has brought its own problems.)
A line-up of cabernets tasted blind in the past week may have been too small to pass for a statistically valid sample, but it covered most of the bases. It included a Bonnievale 2017 Cabernet selling for around R140 per bottle and delivering dollops of blackcurrant and plum notes. Its primary shortcoming was a slight lack of freshness: I suspect the fruit at the crush was riper than the 13.5% alcohol at which the wine is sold.
It was no surprise that the Cederberg cabernet was so finely balanced, or that the Rust en Vrede managed its massive fruit weight with such aplomb. If there are still wine drinkers who doubt the absolute quality of what comes from the Ernie Els cellar they should sample the 2017 Major Series Cabernet. That balance of harmony and fruit intensity requires thoughtful viticulture as well as focused winemaking. A lovely 2018 La Kostas cabernet produced in tiny quantities by first time winemaker Cyril Meidinger, and correctly priced at R200 per bottle, was a fitting wrap-up to the tasting.
Since I had also just sampled the latest release of Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer, I found myself reflecting on how traditional winemaking does not depend on technology to achieve its outcome. The 2017 Paul Sauer is a faultless bottle of wine. True, the vintage was a winemaker’s dream, unlike the previous year. In 2016 Abrie Beeslaar had managed to pick and choose his way through the fruit of that much more challenging vintage to make a wine which was every bit as good as the much vaunted 2015.
As for the 2017: it is already finely integrated, no rough edges, yet nothing of any importance polished away. It has brightness and tension, rather than intensity, and a textural creaminess which can only be achieved by assembling perfectly crafted components when they reach the point of fitting seamlessly together.
Will it be as good as some of the legendary vintages from the late 20th century? It’s been built to last, it’s fresher than the wines made fifteen years ago, there’s no evidence of vineyard stress, or technological interventions. Is any other South African wine selling for R700 under-valued in international terms? I don’t think so: at double the price the Paul Sauer would still be a bargain. I can’t say that for anything else at the same price point.