24 November Luxury Wine

At a time when there is so little life in the economy that there’s talk of the high priests at the Reserve Bank administering last rites, it’s bizarre to discover that new wines are being released at such stratospheric price points you could probably buy a decent house in the platteland for the cost of a case. That there is even life in the rarefied atmosphere in which these statement wines trade is an indication that for many consumers wine has long ceased to be a beverage. Instead it has joined fast cars, contemporary art, and complicated watches on the trophy shelf of the super-rich. It was not always thus: as recently as the 1970s even the world’s most highly regarded wines could be found in middle class homes. Dom Perignon – and for that matter Chateau Lafite Rothschild – retailed for around R15-00, ten times the price of a bottle of Nederburg Cabernet (so not a trifling sum), positioning them as special occasion bottles, rather than an alternative to paying school fees.

With this transformation in its meaning (the drink is secondary to the status it conveys) has come many changes. For a start, the top international brands are now profitable. In the 1960s even the Bordeaux First Growths under-recovered on their running costs. As a result, the quality of the best wines has improved. Site is only half the battle in producing a decent drink: ample supplies of labour, the discretionary ability to ditch poor fruit, premium oak barrels and high tech cellars have all contributed to enhanced quality. Whoever laments the bygone era of the classic wines has clearly not sampled any for a very long time.

However, as wine has become commoditised – even in its most elevated echelons – the burden of reputation has actually increased. In part this is due to more overt performance criteria. Parker ratings assumed an almost unassailable status forcing producers to refine what they were doing in order to obtain scores higher than their immediate competitors. But the other, more substantial, reason is that the moment wine ceased to be wine and instead became a luxury consumable then issues such as brand management, positioning, and status became as important as the contents of the bottle. When you buy a First Growth today the transaction requires the same prudence as a contemporary art investment – including a background check on the dealer and research into the provenance of the wine.

Take away brand, and what you are left with is an enjoyable drink. It’s hardly surprising that producers of good wines which don’t yet have the reputation of the top-end examples pitch their offerings alongside the established icons and then propose a price which is less than the more famous example, but still steep in comparison with what is available in the market. Luddite’s Niels Verberg, working with Elgin Ridge’s Brian Smith, has just released a delicious Cabernet Franc under the The. brand. He was happy to serve it sighted next to Chateau Margaux and Chateau Mouton Rothschild (both admittedly from the deeply unprepossessing 2013 vintage, and neither containing much cabernet franc). It was certainly easier to drink than the Mouton, and more substantial than the Margaux.

Both of the First Growths sell for between £250 – 300 in the UK, which would put them on shelf here for between R8k and R10k. The. Cabernet Franc is being released at R5k per bottle – but you have to buy a three bottle case. There are 900 bottles, and Verberg is hoping that rarity will add the value that the brand still lacks. Other than his investment in his own success, he is hoping that The. Cabernet Franc (three barrels from a single site) will contribute to elevating the image and price of the top Cape wines. It’s a brave endeavour, but I fear he hasn’t understood that in this new world of wine, brand trumps rarity (and what’s in the bottle) by a factor of ten, and not two.

17 November Wine Test Matches

International wine test matches – such as the “Judgement of Paris” tasting of 1976 which put California on the map, or the SAA Shield between South Africa and Australia in 1995 – work best when the outcome defies the rational expectation of an influential audience. The Paris tasting acquired its historical importance precisely because 40 years ago everyone (not only the French) believed that the best Old World wines would necessarily outperform anything the New World had to offer. California’s overwhelming triumph forced everyone to re-examine their most basic assumptions. Suddenly the world wasn’t flat, and no matter how many flat-earthers denied that it was round, the view could never ever be the same again. This is why no subsequent “test match” has ever had the same impact as Spurrier’s quite casually organised 1976 event.

For South Africa, our drubbing in the SAA Shield of 1995 achieved the same result from a negative perspective – it forced our over-complacent winemakers to re-assess their blind faith in the quality of what was coming out of our cellars in the immediate post-isolation era. On the other hand, as UK wine writer Oz Clarke subsequently pointed out, the result of the Shield sent the “cellar rats” of the mid-1990s out into the real world. They came back inspired and emboldened, ready to create the style of Cape wine which today has many influential international critics suggesting that South Africa is producing some of the world’s most exciting wines.

At this year’s Six Nations Challenge (where ten years ago we battled to collect a few medals, and certainly never contemplated the prospect of a trophy) South Africa bagged two trophies, one runner-up award, 7 double golds and 23 gold medals. This was by no means our best performance at the competition (a few years back we took home the majority of the show’s trophies) but it was creditable enough. Our trophy winners were the Uva Mira OTV 2014 (a 60:40 cab. sav/cab. franc blend) and the Stellenrust “51” Chenin Blanc 2015. Simonsig’s Kaapse Vonkel Cuvée Royale 2013 was the runner up in the MCC class. Looking through the double gold and gold medal winners there are no real surprises: amongst the double golds are Graham Beck’s 2012 Blanc de Blanc, Silverthorn’s Green Man (an earlier Silverthorn bubbly won the fizz trophy a couple of years back) and Steenberg’s Lady R, (all fizz), Stark Conde’s Round Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Bosman Family Vineyards’ Nero d’Avola, Uva Mira’s Cabernet Franc and Darling Cellar’s Bushvine Cinsaut.

From the long list of gold medallists it’s worth highlighting a trio of 2015 Sauvignons, Delaire Graff Coastal, Mulderbosch 1000 Miles and Nitida Golden Orb as well as five chardonnays – Paul Cluver Seven Flags 2016, Chamonix Reserve 2015, Eikendal 2015, Restless River Ave Maria 2015 and Rustenberg’s Five Soldiers 2015. Other standout whites were the Foundry’s Grenache Blanc 2015, Darling Cellars 2016 Chenin, Botanica’s Mary Delany 2015 and Deetlef’s 2014 Semillon. There were (as always) fewer red wine gold medalists but Newton Johnson’s Family Reserve Pinot, Paul Wallace’s Brave Heart Pinot and his Black Dog Malbec, Shannon’s Mount Bullet Merlot 2014 all rate a mention, as do a trio of Bordeaux blends – from Haskell, Ernie Els and Diemersdal. Nederburg safe-guarded its slot among the dessert wines medals, a position it has held almost without interruption for at least the past decade.

About two months after the judging I hosted a dinner for Christies in Hong Kong at which I presented a number of South Africa’s top wines – all served blind alongside highly reputed French benchmarks. Classics like Jordan’s Nine Yards Chardonnay were pitched against Corton Charlemagne, while the Mullineux Syrah went head-to-head against Ogier’s Cote Rotie Reserve. The guests were simply asked to indicate their preferences, and in all but one of the ballots, the Cape wines trumped their French counterparts. Forty one years after The Judgement of Paris this isn’t news – but it’s still a gratifying and meaningful outcome.

10 November Winemakers

It’s interesting how often a change of winemaker transforms the wines coming from a producer’s cellars. On the surface this seems like a contradiction of the perennial message about how the “wines are made in the vineyard.” You might expect a result like this following a change in the viticulturist, or a different farming regime – but if the winemaker is simply the midwife (which is the standing myth) why should the baby emerge any differently?

There’s much that this debate shares in common with any discussion around the importance of the role of the Formula One driver – who stands to win the driving championship – and the marque (which wins the Constructor’s championship). The car is the car, it’s the same raw material, but a different hand guides the outcome. Nowhere has this been more evident than at Gabrielskloof where Peter-Allan Finlayson has tweaked the already fine wines produced at this Botrivier property so that they are palpably different.

A few years back the cellar’s two Bordeaux blend landed up amongst the highest scoring wines in their class at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Their identity was, of course, unknown to the judges and in the end one finished on gold (and won the Trophy) whereas the other finished in high silver, effectively the runner up. When the results were announced, it transpired that the ultra premium wine had been beaten by the less expensive release. As show chairman I was a little nonplussed, so I tasted both wines together at the first possible occasion – and I had no difficulty agreeing with the panel’s decision. The Five Arches was over-oaked (so it tasted expensive) but it lacked the purity of fruit of the standard Blend.

Peter-Allan Finlayson, whose own Crystallum wines are an industry benchmark when it comes to pinot noir, has exactly the lightness of touch which fine wine needs. This is immediately obvious in the whites (where his vintages are already in the trade). The Magdalena (semillon-sauvignon blend) is textured and harmonious while the Elodie (chenin blanc made from Swartland grapes) balances the natural richness of old vine fruit with a delicacy that spares it any lugubriousness.

Among the reds in the ultra-premium Landscape series, both the Syrah on Sandstone and the Syrah on Shale are worth tracking down (and comparing). Both are savoury rather than plush, but the soil differences express themselves in a surprisingly marked way: the Sandstone being more perfumed, the Shale denser and more intense. However, the real hand of the winemaker is to be found in the Landscape Cabernet Franc: here freshness comes with an almost pinot-like spice, and with real precision to the finish.

There’s been an equally interesting change in the feel of Glen Carlou wines with the arrival of Johnnie Calitz to manage the 2017 vintage. Arco Laarman, his predecessor, had been in charge of the cellar since 2000 and was looking for a change – so there was ample time for Laarman to share with Calitz the key coding of the wines’ DNA. On paper therefore there should be very little difference between Laarman’s vintages (up to 2016) and Johnny Calitz’s 2017s.

My first impression – having tasted the 2017 Curator’s Collection range (small batch production where the winemaker can make a statement outside the more commercial range) – is that there will be a distinct shift in time at Glen Carlou. The 2017 whites are impressive – a function of the vintage itself, which was very good, but also of Calitz’s approach. The Sauvignon Blanc is dense and textured, while the Chenin is intense, very fine, and with lovely compote notes. There’s also a clue as to what to expect of the reds in the next few years – at least to judge from the 2016 standard release merlot, a wine that Calitz would have finished-off and bottled. It is soft, plush, juicy and definitely not simple: a real achievement with Cape merlot, and a bargain at under R100 per bottle retail.

3 November New Wave

Much has been written lately about South Africa’s New Wave winemakers, with a couple of articles on Jancis Robinson’s website in the past week alone (and literally hundreds of thoughtfully assembled tasting notes available to purple pages subscribers). Many of the wines are produced in minuscule quantities, often from sites identified by The Old Vine Project inspired by viticulturist Rosa Kruger and underwritten by Johann Rupert (a gesture of considerable generosity which deserves greater recognition than it has hitherto received).

There is no really easy definition of what constitutes this “new wave.” Judging from the group which made such a huge impact in London recently, it’s a spread which runs from the one barrel wonders to the more established producers who make everything from small parcels to high volume commercial wine. If there is a common thread it is the sense of craft which unites the various submissions. Your day job may oblige you to put together large volumes of well-priced drinking wines whose production demands the kind of compromises which most people make in their everyday lives, but at least you have one wine into which you can pour your creative heart.

Many of the group have been around for a bit: a few, mainly those who inspired the movement and who – explicitly and implicitly – determined its guidelines are now comfortably past the first flush of youth. Their names have become synonymous with the Cape’s break from it past: Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, David Trafford. But many are just setting out, short on capital, dependent on others for cellar space to make and store their few barrels, often buying their fruit from growers whose venerable vines lie interspersed among other more mundane vineyards and alongside the detritus of thankless and profitless mixed agriculture: rusty tractors and scrap farming implements.

Given that in the context of this group wine is more art than craft, combining them all under one roof is a little like curating an exhibition of student art works by presenting them alongside the pieces of those who mentored and inspired them. A glimpse of the UK pricing makes this analogy more than just a comment on style or artistic confidence. There are wines which can be bought in the UK – with duties of over R20 per bottle, and VAT at more than 20% – for little more than R200, and others at almost R2000.

What is clear is that the protagonists of this New Wave are primarily dedicated to the idea of authenticity, of what Frances Percival has called “narrative luxury” – where origin and the story behind what finally emerges from the bottle is at least as important as the taste. Many come from single sites – so there’s a tale about the grower, as well as a story of the vineyard, how the variety came to be planted there, and why the winemaker has produced the wine in its particular style. Unsurprisingly many have been made from varieties which some time back ceased to be fashionable (and which, in part, is what has made them fashionable again). Generally there is little evidence of oak in the finished product (because it is important for the site to be expressed, rather than the quality of the cooperage). The wines are mostly lower in alcohol than the showy “statement wines” which were once the sole occupants of the apex of the pricing pyramid. To predict which will become the future classics will require the same tools literary critics use to recover the integrity of authorial meaning or the clarity of the artistic intention.

What is certain is that for the first time in the history of the South African wine industry there is a sense of real creative impulse. Suddenly the role of the winemaker is not simply that of a chef at a diner, transforming raw materials into a decent meal. Instead there’s a movement, the sense of a message, the prospect of aesthetic engagement.

27 October Spier and niche

Much has been made of the great divide (socio-economic rather than merely geographical) separating the major South African cities. Someone once explained it to me as follows: in Johannesburg they want to know how much money you have; in Durban they want to know how you made it; in Cape Town they want to know how long you’ve had it. When it comes to patterns of wine consumption there are equally marked differences. Branded premium wines consumed in the Western Cape are sold in steakhouses and family restaurants, rather than those servicing the high end tourist market. Once you get to an establishment where the wine waiter is called a sommelier, only the most niche products feature on the wine lists. These same, low volume, craft cuvées are exactly the ones which enjoy the bulk of the coverage in the online wine publications, the majority of whose subscribers/readers reside in the Western Cape.

You’ll find very few of these wines in the KZN market, where the trade is altogether more mainstream. In Gauteng – the largest market in the world for Cape wine – there’s a bit of everything, though it’s only in the past few years that the distributors of the more artisanal wines have bothered to cross the Vaal River. When it comes to wine fashion, the caricatures hold, with the blogs the somewhat cliquey arbiters of what is “in” and “out.” As a result, producers of the more mainstream brands often despair over the absence of editorial about their wines in the specialist press. They win major awards – locally and internationally – yet no one appears to write about their achievements. On the other hand, when a young “rockstar” winemaker gets a 90+ (or, in fact these days, 95+) rating from a foreign journalist the specialist media is abuzz with excitement.

So it was completely refreshing to sit down to lunch with Spier’s chief cellarmaster Frans Smit, whose triumph at the latest Veritas awards is pretty much an annual occurrence – though this time with more golds and double golds than ever, and more than anyone else. Spier is one of those mainstream brands, selling across a number of price segments and in volumes too significant to be of any interest to the enigmatic gate-keepers of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Not everything which comes out of Spier’s cellars is “commercial” in the sense of glib and accessible. By way of an example, the Cap Classique, while easy enough to drink, has been thoughtfully assembled and requires real engagement if it is to yield up its subtleties and complexities: 28 months on the lees, half chardonnay, half pinot noir, real baked brioche aromas, satisfying and very precise. The 21 Gables range includes a fabulous, refined, concentrated 2013 Cabernet and a quite Burgundian Pinotage, savoury black cherry notes, rather than the kind of chunky monster that has turned so many consumers away from the variety. The 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2015 – which collected the newly launched (and appallingly named) Vertex award for being the pinnacle of achievement at this year’s Veritas judging – is a really smart wine: polished, opulent but still fresh and nuanced.

The 2014 Creative Block 3 (Rhone blend) is plush, complex and indisputably showy: plenty of spice, but with ample richness to give the mouthfeel a kind of teflon-coating. However, I preferred the more savoury notes of the Creative Block 5 2014 (the Bordeaux blend). With the range’s top cuvées – the Frans K Smit red 2012 and the newly launched Frans K Smit white 2015 – the quality is undeniable. Both share the same precision, the same focus, but, unlike the red, the white doesn’t overstate itself. If I have a reservation about this otherwise seamless performance from the man who has managed Spier’s winemaking for over 20 years, it is his tendency to make “statement” wines. They are bold and beautiful, but sometimes it’s easier to listen to the message when it’s more softly spoken.

20 October Stellenbosch

The least controversial observation that could be made about South African wine is that the overall quality has improved dramatically over the past 15 years. It’s only once you dig into the detail that points of dispute emerge. Is the Swartland the Cape’s saving grace? Are the prestige districts of the so-called Coastal Region our viticultural heartland? Does it make sense to have created the Wine of Origin Cape Town appellation? Do we value are wines and our vineyards at their true worth, does patriotism blind us to their shortcomings? The list is endless – even before the debates acquire territorial or political overtones.

I recently hosted a presentation of wines from four Stellenbosch estates. It was easy enough to assemble a line-up comprising two wines from each property – where each sample was world class and none of the wines a duplicate of any other on the table. In a break during proceedings I suggested to Luke O’Cuinneagain – the wine maker at Glenelly – that although Stellenbosch is rightly regarded as the source of the Cape’s best (and best known) Cabernets, it’s most striking claim to fame is the breadth of options across the quality wine spectrum. He replied that Glenelly’s owner, May Eliane de Lencquesaing, had recently said to him that she could think of no other appellation in the world where so many varieties performed so well.

Madame de Lencquesaing is one of the few wine people to whom the term “legendary” might rightly be applied. She is the former proprietor of Chateau Pichon Lalande – her family having once owned eight Cru Classe Bordeaux estates. As a teenage girl during the Second World War she played a key role smuggling French Jews and others on the run from the Nazis through the Medoc. (The details of her heroics in Bordeaux and Maurice Drouhin’s in Burgundy are recorded in the Kladstrups’ book “Wine & War”). A key figure in the international wine world for over 40 years, she is unlikely to make observations of this kind frivolously – especially given her investment in Stellenbosch.

Unsurprisingly her efforts at Glenelly have a Medoc feel about them: there are several Bordeaux-style wines in the range. But given Stellenbosch’s versatility there are wooded and unwooded chardonnays and an increasingly impressive cabernet shiraz blend. (Shiraz was planted in the Medoc until at least the 1820s and it was certainly illicitly added to blends well into the 20th century.) Glenelly is situated in Ida’s Valley, more or less next door to Rustenberg, whose traditional strengths have been cabernet and chardonnay. There’s something of a coherence in what performs well in this mainstream (but slightly off the beaten track) corner of the appellation.

DeMorgenzon – a relative newcomer in the Stellenbosch Kloof – contributed a bubbly made with chenin as a welcome drink, and then two fabulous reserve wines, the 2016 Chenin and the 2015 Syrah.  Jordan, DeMorgenzon’s neighbour, does well with both these varieties, and enjoys a stellar reputation for its chardonnay and its red Bordeaux blend – so no surprises here. The Stark-Conde wines from the Jonkershoek side of the appellation were classical Bordeaux cultivars: the trophy-winning lightly wooded Round Mountain sauvignon blanc and the equally highly feted Three Pines cabernet. Jonkershoek has always been cabernet country: in the past (before urban creep took out some of the best sites) it was the source of some of the Cape’s most famous reds.

Finally Morgenster’s contribution to the event was its white Bordeaux blend as well as its sangiovese-dominated Tosca: with Vergelegen (probably the Cape’s consistently best white Bordeaux producer as a neighbour) Giulio Bertrand’s decision to add a sauvignon-semillon blend to his range could not have been difficult. As for the Tosca, the success in Tuscany of cabernet and merlot alongside the traditional sangiovese made the idea of a Stellenbosch super-Tuscan an obvious gamble – one which has clearly paid off. This line-up alone proves that Stellenbosch’s extraordinary versatility is one of the great certainties about Cape wine.

13 October Elgin

Despite the relative proximity of the Cape’s wine regions – many of the better known appellations are little more than an hour’s drive from each other, and not much further from the Mother City – it is clear that regionality, together with varietal specificity, is not some kind of wine writer’s fiction. Paarl is warmer than Stellenbosch, Elgin is cooler and has more rain (and higher levels of humidity in summer). Growing conditions determine which cultivars are likely to perform optimally: you could risk cabernet in Elgin (and some growers do), but you’ll never quite escape the now unfashionable herbal notes. Moreover, since cabernet is a late ripening variety, the chances of the crop being compromised by early winter rains (admittedly more regular in the past than lately) would be high. On the other hand early ripening cool climate cultivars do well there – hence the high percentage of Elgin sauvignon, pinot and chardonnay.

Inevitably regional marketing associations try to trade off an appellation’s perceived strengths. Hemel-en-Aarde has nailed its colours to the pinot noir mast, Stellenbosch to cabernet and Elgin to chardonnay. For several years the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Symposium has attracted an impressive turnout at the end of January: wine lovers from around the country (and some from even further afield) descend on the Valley for a series of talks and tastings and some of the most entertaining lunch parties you’ll ever attend. Stellenbosch – surprisingly late to the game – took its iconic cabernets on a roadshow to Johannesburg for the first time earlier this year, easily substantiating its claim to being the country’s cabernet heartland.

Elgin’s answer to all this has been the Chardonnay Colloquium, the second edition of which took place in the first weekend of October. In format it’s not vastly different from the Pinot Party: some erudite presentations – of more interest to the producers and geekier members of the audience, but perfectly accessible just the same – followed by a series of wide-ranging tastings. These included all of the Elgin 2016s, some fine Burgundies, and benchmark wines from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, California, Argentina and Chile. A sit-down dinner heralded the end of day one, with the Saturday dedicated to farm visits and themed lunches at the various producers’ cellars.

Those tempted to consider that the decision by the Elgin producers to promote the appellation through Chardonnay was little more than a cynical and opportunistic swoop on one of the few prestige cultivars not yet taken up by another region were disabused of the idea by the expert presentations which kicked off proceedings. Once you get to see the “fit” between Elgin’s climate and the variety’s ideal growing season it becomes clear that the appellation’s claims to chardonnay pre-eminence – at least on paper – are not misplaced. That said, despite the compactness of the Elgin Valley, conditions are anything but homogenous. Average growing season temperature variation has a spread of more than 5 degrees. While average rainfall for the valley exceeds 1100 mm, the southern side has to make do with half of that. Vineyards are planted at altitudes ranging from under 200 metres to over 450. If chardonnay wasn’t an extraordinarily versatile variety, it could never do as well as it does across this spread of terroirs.

As for Elgin’s top producers (of which there are many) almost everyone bottles at least one wine with a statement to make. Paul Cluver and Oak Valley deliver intensity and finesse; Richard Kershaw thoughtfully composed generally single site wines of great coherence and complexity. Iona generally offers a rounded and richer style, so too Almenkerk, Paul Wallace and Highlands Road. South Hills seems to extract more perfume, Boschendal and Lothian more flinty notes, while Elgin Ridge delivers an earthier (some might say funkier) offering. Every site within the valley, and every winemaker, has an influence on the outcome. Elgin might be Chardonnay country in the broadest sense of the word, but given its smorgasbord, there’s no risk of drinking boredom.

6 October Price and Value

It’s not all that difficult to find great value wines in South Africa: high tech skilled wine making marries easily enough with massively under-valued good quality fruit. The growers who complain that they can’t make ends meet are not trying to sell a sob story to their customers: VinPro, the grape growers’ organisation, has published detailed research which shows that at least 60% of them are under-recovering on their running and replacement costs. Part of their problem is that the history of Cape wine has been a story of perennial over-supply. From the days of the Dutch East India Company it was more fashionable to be a wine farmer than to engage in more mundane agriculture. This is why Jan Smuts imposed the KWV on the industry, setting back competitive quality wine making by three quarters of a century, but saving the indigent grape growers from the economic consequences of their folly.

The exit of the KWV as the buyer of last resort nearly 20 years ago (a potentially catastrophic event for its erstwhile members) proceeded almost without a blip, because exports were growing and the Rand was falling. While grape producers were on their own from that point onwards, the boom in sales (mainly to Europe) made it easy enough for them to market their production. What has happened since then is that their cost inflation has vastly exceeded their net rand revenue: the demand is there, but the loot gets less every year. To make matters worse, average selling prices have remained resolutely low, tarnishing the image of Brand SA. Roughly two thirds of all wine exports are bulk, filling gaps in the most price-sensitive categories. In short, bulk exports have replaced the KWV as the cistern for the surplus – except that these off-shore trades come with much higher marketing costs.

The smart players optimise the opportunities presented by the home market – even though over 50% of all domestic sales land up on shelf at under R50 per bottle. Given the ease with which it is possible to find good wine at that sort of price point, you might wonder why anyone bothers to pay more. Human nature being what it is however, there are always punters about who find it easier to judge quality by the price tag, and producers who are happy to oblige them. But what about the players who are really good at what they do, and steadfastly stick to their (elevated) price positioning and wait for the market to vindicate (or not) the statement they are making?

The obvious example here is Vilafonte, whose 2015 Series C is about to be released at the not inconsiderable price of R950 per bottle. Vilafonte is project started by the Californian duo of Zelma Long and Phil Freese, both of whom enjoy a considerable international reputation. From the first releases of the cellar’s two distinct reds – the Series C (Cabernet dominated) and the Series M (Merlot and Malbec dominated) they have positioned these wines at the apex of the pricing pyramid. The 2009 launched at R450. If you want it now, you can buy it at the cellar door for R2500. The 2010 sold initially for R475 and is now a relative bargain at R1200. The 2011 has gone from R500 to R1550 – in three years – a reflection as much of demand as it is of making the pricing statement stick over time.

I’ve just tasted the 2015 – blind – and gave it 92 – one of my highest scores this year. It is a superbly crafted wine, made in a style I find easier to admire than to love. It exudes quality, and leaves you in no doubt that this is not just another good red wine in a heavy weight bottle. In a way, this is what distinguishes Vilafonte from most of the parvenus which come to market with all the hype and packaging – but remain as unconvincing as Donald Trump at a G-8 summit.

29 September Summer Whites

With summer powering its way through our ever more abrupt spring days, the swing to white wines has been faster than the fall of Bell Pottinger. A month ago restaurants and wine stores were still doing a roaring trade in robust reds. Now even the Rosés are battling to get a look in as “fresh and crisp” are the key descriptors on many shopping lists.

Fortunately the Cape’s strength in white wines offers a seemingly endless range of possibilities. For the sauvignon blanc fans there is a choice of styles, and a palette of flavours to suit every palate. Oz Clarke, one of the UK’s best know wine writers, was in South Africa a few years back to judge at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. At the post-judging press feedback session he announced that the stylistic breadth of South Africa’s sauvignon blanc sets us apart from every other wine producing country. “You can do fabulous Loire-style wines, but also brilliant Kiwi lookalikes. You also have your own unique expressions of the grape. Nowhere else in the world offers this versatility.”

What he wasn’t in a position to add at the time (because judges taste blind and have no idea of the selling prices of the bottles on the tasting bench) is how extraordinarily well priced many of our top sauvignons are. The 2017 Douglas Green Tall Horse (with its “critter wine” packaging counting against it in the world of wine snobs) is simply delicious, jam-packed with easy, accessible tropical flavours, none of the austere green notes which usually betoken under-ripeness, and just enough lime blossom on the palate to spare it finishing cloying. At under R50 per bottle, it’s a perfect casual lunch time drink.

If you’re looking at spending a lot more money (and indeed, the extra few hundred Rands will buy you more complexity) you could track down the fabulous Tokara Director’s Reserve 2014 – a white Bordeaux blend which has 31% semillon to accompany the sauvignon – and is obviously much richer, and more age-worthy as a result. An in-between choice would be to go for the Boschendal Elgin Series Sauvignon blanc 2016 (more of the mown hay whiffs) or the Tokara Elgin Sauvignon 2016 – fresher capsicum notes (none of them truly herbal) and great palate weight and intensity.

In the same pursuit of freshness, it’s worth tracking down two semillons – the 2014 Deetlefs, and the Cape of Good Hope Laing’s Vineyard (pretty much any vintage). These together with the Boekenhoutskloof and the Landau du Val Semillons from Franschhoek are true industry (and international) benchmarks. They are infinitely more interesting than most of the fresh, fragrant and pretty summer wines that work well enough when no one is paying attention. There’s also a semillon dominated white Bordeaux blend – the other side of the Tokara Director’s Reserve – in the form of the 2015 Cape Point Isliedh: 83% semillon, grippy and very thatchy now, but with a future of infinite possibility stretching out ahead of it for at least another decade.

There’s also much pleasure to be had from really fine, bright-fruited whites. Among the Rhine Rieslings The Fledge’s Jikken Bareru Elgin Riesling is a steal at around R100 – and it has great keeping qualities. David Trafford’s Sjinn property at Malgas is the source of a truly authentic Viognier – all the perfume and fruit you would expect from a Northern Rhone classic, but at a fraction of the price. Diemersdal’s Gruner Veltliner – the only South African bottling of this fabulous Austrian white grape – is also a “must-buy” summer white wine: the 2016 is a lively fruit salad of tangy citrus, quince and melon, but with real concentration and detail, all for about R100.

So, without even considering South Africa’s most successful (and most widely appreciated internationally) cultivars, namely chardonnay and chenin blanc, it’s pretty easy to assemble a great line-up of white wines. You couldn’t do this, while matching the value, anywhere else in the world.

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





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