BD Innovators 31.01.2014

Every generation has its leaders and its innovators, and the Cape wine industry can look back over the past 50 years or so at several who have left an indelible mark. In the decades following World War 2 those who embraced the idea of cold fermentation – NC Krone at Twee Jongegezellen is the name most often associated with this approach to white wine-making – transformed an entire industry. Working from his experience the team at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery used the technology to create some of the biggest wine brands in the world.

Gunter Brozel at Nederburg was a comparable force in the field of quality red wine production and the single most important innovator in the field of noble late harvest dessert wines. In a career in which the period from the mid-1950s until the beginning of the 1980s was the most important, Brozel not only made some of the Cape’s most iconic and long-lived reds, he also created new blends, auction cuvees and accessible – yet not simple – popular ranges. Without his creativity it is unlikely that the wine market of today would have the reach and following that it enjoys.

The role played by John Platter is as important, as much for creating and self-publishing the guide which still bears his name, but in using the influence he had – not only domestically, but also in a broader international context – to force the industry to focus on the plight of vineyard workers. The initiative he launched with Tim Hamilton Russell and Rustenberg’s Simon Barlow disrupted the smug complacency of the winelands and isolated them from their neighbours and colleagues. However, beyond the moral force of the campaign, it was an essential step towards sensitising a reactionary and intransigent employer/producer-driven industry to the expectations of a post-isolationist world.

Platter also brought together the unlikely partnership of Cape Classics’s Jabulani Ntshangase, Fairview’s Charles Back and Thelema’s Gyles Webb into what became the Swartland’s first modern era winery, poetically named “Spice Route.” In time Back took over the project and, applying his restless and innovative intellect to the changing world of international wine, created several carefully positioned brands which represented the new world of Cape wine. From his cheekily named “Goats do Roam” (a play on the French Cotes du Rhone) and Goat Rotie (Roast Goat but also Cote Rotie) to his entry level La Capra wines, he was able to offer brands for the UK supermarkets, quality wines for the on-consumption trade, and some finely made super-premium bottlings.

I recently re-tasted most of his current range and was struck by the purity and integrity of the fruit handling, as well as the finely managed sense of what the wines are worth. It has to be said that Back is too smart to over-deliver on a massive scale, but by the same token he never under-delivers on value. The best of what is presently available includes the Fairview Caldera 2011, (perfumed grenache beefed up with mourvedre and shiraz), the Fairview Stellenbosch Merlot 2012 (not as herbal as most Cape examples), and the La Capra 2012 Cabernet. I also recently had a marvellous old bottle of the Oom Pagel Semillon – 14 years old and still fresh and rich.

Finally, the Spice Route cellar begat the Eben Sadie phenomenon. He was the property’s first winemaker, remaining there for a couple of years before setting up on his own to become the undisputed guru of the cult wine scene. His efforts catapulted the Swartland into prominence and created a rallying point for the next wave of talent – Adi Badenhorst, the Mullineuxs and Chris Alheit, to name but a few – who currently represent the cutting edge of Cape wine.

BD Elevage 24.01.2014

The old adage that there’s no such thing as bad kids, just bad parents, could easily have been written for the world of wine. The French use the term ‘elevage’ – which literally means ‘bringing up’ or rearing – to describe the process of nursing wine to market-ready condition and it suggests that the analogy of poor parenting is not a poetic liberty.

I used to find drinking Cape sauvignon blanc something of an ordeal – not quite in the league of Egyptian cinsaut, but close enough. I’ve been much more enthusiastic lately, and what has changed is the vinous equivalent of the parenting and home environment. When sauvignon blanc became the gout du jour of the country’s well-heeled wine punters, growers sited plantings wherever they had land available. Winemakers treated it with scant respect, pumping up volumes and even, on occasion, lifting the already mouth-searing acidity. In short, incompetence and inexperience conspired to make many of those early sauvignons the kind of reach-for-the-Rennies beverage you shouldn’t risk in your mouth. In the same way, a generation of South African wine drinkers condemned pinotage for its harsh tannins, gamey aromas and rustic mouthfeel. Instead of excoriating the parents (the viticulture and the winemaking) for the delinquent child, they blamed the grape.

It is clear that the same problem now afflicts shiraz – and not just in South Africa, but wherever it has been over-planted by growers hoping to milk its ten minutes of fame. The Cape’s shiraz area grew ten-fold in as many years, so poorly sited vineyards and bad winemaking have been the inevitable outcome. It’s easier enough to find wines which are impressive but unappealing, made in a showy style, bulked up with dollops of oak, plush with texture – but very difficult to drink. Sadly producers who looked to the success of the South-Eastern Australian classics have landed up caricaturing the best examples (a sin, it has to be said, of which many Australian winemakers are themselves equally guilty.)

One of the chief reasons for the lack of drinkability of these new generation overly bold shirazes/syrahs are their high alcohols. The slow-evolving Barossa block-busters of the 1980s were significantly lower in alcohol than their counterparts today, and the Cape producers emulating the style have fallen into exactly this trap. Many of these wines simply lack freshness, appearing raisiny in their youth and turning porty within a few years.

The alternative is not necessarily the austere, peppery (but also sometimes too green) Northern Rhone style. However, when a producer manages the middle ground – or even, as we are increasingly discovering – something original enough so as not to fit into either model, there is often a sense of real excitement. Many producers are also discovering that blending, particularly with mourvedre, grenache and even cabernet, helps to achieve a better balance.

A recent tasting of shiraz blends yielded several wines worth tracking down: the Uitkyk Shiraz Cabernet 2008 is lovely, and with age its component parts have made a harmonious whole. It also delivers great value, especially when compared with the equally impressive Graham Beck Ad Honorem 2007 – which sells for roughly 6 times the price.
The 2011 Alto Rouge is a full-on Bordeaux blend to which shiraz has been added. Like Fairview’s Caldera 2011, which is admittedly more grenache and mourvedre than shiraz, it has infinitely more sex appeal than the blockbuster shirazes lining the merchant’s shelves. Finally, I looked at a pair of pinotage-shiraz blends – the Neethlingshof Escape 2011 and the Nederburg Duet 2013. Both delivered good quality, inexpensive, easy drinking for those who like their red wines medium-bodied, fruit-driven and readily accessible.

BD Steenberg 21.02.2014

The world of wine offers, at best, an illusion of permanence. Transformation is a continuous process, even at ancient estates. There are the obvious changes, which come on an annual basis and are driven by vintage conditions. However, there are broader trends – climate and ownership are the most obvious – the effects of which may only emerge after many years.

In the last decade of the 18th century, for example, the fruit at many Bordeaux properties did not ripen and the harvests were abandoned. The producers knew that it had become a lot colder – but they weren’t really able to conceptualise it coherently until after the short term weather cycle had passed. In the same way, French producers in the 1930s went through a series of catastrophic vintages, only to discover that nature’s bounty returned in the five year period from 1945 to 1949.

Then there’s the question of the role of the proprietor (hands-on or absentee) and the investment strategy. In tough times those who are under-capitalised cut back: what begins as an imperceptible decline becomes increasingly evident over time. If a nearby competitor has been able to maintain planting programmes and cellar renovations, the gap between the two will become increasingly evident. When the Ginestets owned Chateau Margaux in the 1960s and 1970s they weren’t able to keep up with the kind of technology appropriate to a First Growth estate. Chateau Latour – which had been purchased by Pearsons in 1963 – moved ahead and stayed there until Andre Mentzelopoulos acquired Margaux in 1976 and made the investments that the Ginestets had deferred.

Sometimes improvements arise from everything finally bedding down: the money wisely spent, the vineyards showing some maturity, a winemaking team familiar with the terrain and on top of its game. That was certainly my feeling when I visited Steenberg recently and tasted through some of the range with winemaker J.D. Pretorius. JD has been in charge of the winery since 2009 – having taken over from Ruth Penfold who in turn had been running the cellar (under the direction of the previous winemaker – now group GM, John Loubser) for six years.

Pretorius would be the first to admit that the continuity with Loubser and the stability of the production team made it easier for him as a young winemaker to step into one of the most prestigious positions in the industry. In a sense, the planning had largely been done, the vineyards were being maintained (as far as possible – some of the very old blocks, essential to wine quality, were starting to become uneconomical). He had the advantage of knowing that the man running the business had been in his shoes only a few years before.

That said, the position was not without its challenges: limited production and growing demand meant that the range needed to be expanded, and with fruit from elsewhere than the property’s Constantia vineyards. On the other hand, Steenberg’s strength lay in its white wines, so there was clearly room for improvement with the estate’s reds.

Perhaps the most visible difference since his arrival has been in the two varieties for which Steenberg has enjoyed a reputation with aficionados, but which seemed inaccessible to consumers of less arcane cultivars – the semillon and the nebbiolo. Subtle tweaking has transformed them dramatically. The Semillon is still dry, but not austere, and without the herbaceous notes which have compromised the variety’s popularity in South Africa. Pretorius’s oaking regime has given it an almost creamy texture, and the complexity and allure of a fine white Bordeaux. The Nebbiolo is almost Burgundian in its delicacy and finesse, though with a haunting aroma of violets, the hallmark of the greatest Piedmontese examples. Both are suddenly expressing their potential: time and circumstance have turned them from cygnets into swans.

BD Taint 07.02.2014

Imagine it’s World War Two and, despite the hostile environment, there’s a surprisingly level of transparency in the progress being achieved by the parachute industry. The Ministry of War issues a press statement announcing that, as a result of new technology developed by the silk weavers, the failure rate of parachutes has been brought down to around 5%. If you were a pilot, or the spouse or parent of a pilot, wouldn’t you be delighted with this disclosure?

This is pretty much the kind of news we get from the wine cork industry. Rates of taint have dropped from levels which used to hover around the 15% mark. Depending on who is trumpeting the latest triumph, they could be down to under 5%. In a recent piece in the Wine Spectator, James Laube has now recorded a disconcertingly upward trend, reversing the apparent progress of several years. Using the statistics assembled from the California wine tastings at the Wine Spectator’s offices (it’s a meaningful sample, with over 4000 wines tasted annually), he noted that taint levels had dropped from 9.5% in 2007 down to 3.67% in 2012 before rising again to 4.26% in 2013.

Now Laube is clearly not an apologist for the cork industry. He says all the right things about how corks ruin countless tasting experiences every year. Unusually (given America’s ante-diluvian attitude to screw-caps) he comments positively on the increasing number of bottles in the US market now closed with ‘twist-offs.’ He is not a spokesman from the Ministry of War, rejoicing in the 95% safety levels of the parachutes being issued to the airmen.

I can’t believe it is taking so long to consign corks – as wine closures – to the scrapheap of history, together with stone-age implements, Roman slave galleys and human sacrifices. Useful though they were as the most effective means of sealing wine bottles in the three centuries following the discovery of the benefits of the slow ageing of wine, corks have been superseded by newer and more effective closures. Chief among these is the screw-cap – which, though it still offends people who think of it as the primary designator of cheap wine, offers the perfect taint-free seal. It also has its critics who hold that its hermetic nature leads to pongy, sulphury notes developing in the bottle.

Back to parachutes: when they fail because they have been made with poor fabric, the fault is in the manufacture. When the airman crashes to earth because one was incorrectly folded, you blame whoever packed it. When bottles are sealed with ‘twist-offs’ and the wines emerge smelly or reduced, the fault does not lie with the closure but reflects the incompetence of the producer.

For those who find screw-caps aesthetically unacceptable, the one type of cork closure which really does seem to have a very low incidence of taint is a particular brand of agglomerated cork made by Diam (and branded accordingly). All other agglomerates – in my experience – are significantly worse than regular corks. It seems that the cheap cork bits which are crushed and combined to produce the average particle cork carry a much higher risk of introducing taint to the wine.

I taste an average of 100 wines blind every week, and the team in my tasting room will confirm I identify (unsighted) probably half the wines closed with non-Diam agglomerates because the taste has been contaminated by the closure. Winemakers who use them should be boycotted: they have chosen to use a no-name-brand component to achieve a small saving at the expense of the entire package. Putting them into bottles is the vinous equivalent of issuing pilots with defectice parachutes. Those who market them and those who use them should be hanged along public highways and left for the crows to feed off.

BD Value 14.02.2014

The concepts of wine and value do not often share the same space. Just the same, the term “value-for-money wines” is one of the most widely used in producer promotions, and by wine commentators. If you analyse what it really means, it comes down to the claim that a particular bottle offers “better value” than the one alongside it on the supermarket shelf.

The wine component of most brands is usually a fraction of the retail cost of the product. With cheap wines – something retailing for between R20 and R25 in a supermarket – it’s usually about R4 before excise. Packaging comes to between R5 and R7. Transport and handling of the finished product adds a further R5 – R9. Leave a little margin for the bottler, something for the wholesaler-distributor and sales rep, and excise for the tax-man, and clearly there’s not much money for the beverage itself.

Basic bulk wine prices start at around R5-00 per litre. This is a category where the weakness of the Rand now empties the producers’ tanks for them. Accordingly, floor prices move upwards in inverse proportion to the exchange rate. We are talking here about commodity wines, technically adequate but wholly without any redeeming features. If you double what you pay for the bulk wine there should – in theory – be a dramatic improvement in the quality of what goes into the bottle. After all, it costs the same to process cheap grapes as it does to handle better fruit. If a producer is paying R6000 per ton instead of R3000, he’s entitled to be a lot more demanding about the grape quality.

It’s easy to see why the bottle of wine which goes on shelf at R30 could potentially be twice as good as the one selling for R25. But what of the bottle at R35, or even R40? And for that matter, R350 or R400? It would be naïve to think that the fruit component of the R35 bottle costs three times as much as the R25 bottle, and insane to imagine a R400 bottle of wine has fruit at least 50 times better than the supermarket cheapie.

Of course there are other input costs the further up the pricing pyramid you travel. Oak alone adds significantly to the producer’s investment (assuming we are talking about French oak barrels and not staves or wood chips). At current exchange rates this could contribute R30 to the cost of bottle of wine. There’s a reason why punters buy wines which smell as if they’ve been dragged through a furniture factory: the oak makes them taste expensive. Then there are heavy-weight bottles, longer and better quality corks, higher margins for slower moving wines – and the cost of holding them until the market buys into their pretensions.

So where should the wise punter narrow his/her focus, where exactly is the sweet spot in all this? There’s a huge concentration of quality white wine in the R55 – R75 bracket, with the unwooded varieties near the lower limit, and the oaked styles (mainly chardonnay) generally more expensive. There’s real competition at these price points – it’s the next category above the sub-R40 level which is the focus of the supermarket trade – and the pretenders are weeded out swiftly enough.

For red wines – which must be matured for a little longer and where oak ageing is very much part of the process – expect to look in the R80 to R120 range. There’s sufficient margin here for producers to make an effort, and for the distributors to get the wines into the trade. Beyond these price points expect the law of diminishing returns to kick in: though if it makes you feel more comfortable to bite the bullet and pay more, there’s nothing except your e-toll bill to stop you from indulging.

BD Exports 28.02.2014

South African wine exports are booming – and it has nothing to do with the fragility of the Rand. Overseas buyers shop at fixed price points – determined largely by what they believe consumers will be prepared to pay. Many of these were set at the time that Cape wine made its way back into international markets. However, since the second half of the 1990s, the average quality of what comes from our vineyards has improved immeasurably. Sadly for growers, hard currency prices have not increased proportionately. In fact, their recovery as a percentage of the selling price of a bottle has actually declined. Supermarket buyers – especially in the UK – generally don’t budge on price points. When excise, VAT and handling costs increase they expect the suppliers to carry the cost. Of course, producers who have other customers and other markets move on. For many now the UK – and especially its big chains – is a client of last resort.

When the Rand was at R10-50 to the Pound, most of these exports recovered little more than their production cost. Now that the rate is over R18-00, they’re earning real money. The exchange rate does nothing except make the business more or less interesting for the suppliers. What drives the volumes is the quality of what is on offer – and it is its sheer value-for-money that has persuaded consumers in our major markets to shift their allegiance to Cape wine at the expense of other exporting countries.

The figures are little short of extraordinary: in the early 1990s (straight after Mandela’s release) exports totalled 20m litres and represented about 2% of national production. Ten years later they had risen to 177m litres, or almost 20% of the harvest. In 2011 they had reached 357m litres. A year later a further 60m litres was added to the total. Last year total exports reached 525m litres, a 26% increase on the 2012 figures – well over half of the country’s wine production. This trend has continued into January 2014, with just under 40m litres in what is traditionally a quiet month.

However, as Trade and Industries’ Minister Rob Davies pointed out in 2012 to his British counterpart, the fact that much of this increase comes from bulk shipments is not good news for Western Cape employment. A war of words at the time between the DTI and the UK suggested that control of the situation resided in the hands of the authorities. Lionel October, Davies’ Director-General claimed that the preference for bulk rather than bottled wine exports was “a new form of protectionism under the banner of reducing the carbon footprint.”

The sad reality is that consumers only care to have their premium wines bottled in the country of origin. There is a massive saving in shipping costs (and plenty of carbon footprint bonus points to be earned) by bottling wine in or near the markets in which it is sold. As long as our packaging costs are higher than those in Europe, and there is a significant saving in shipping expenses, importers are bound to choose bulk over bottled purchases. Only when their customers demand that the wines are bottled in the country of origin will they give ground. Everyday drinking wines don’t qualify for this kind of treatment.

This is the dilemma facing producers. They’re getting the volumes precisely because their wine quality is dramatically better than the prices which importers are prepared to pay. With the exchange rate at over R18, there’s good money to be made. If they want to lift the price point, and with it the image of Cape wine, they should refuse to sell at the levels established in the 1990s. But it’s hard to turn away the business – especially when the local market is flatter than a grape-skin at the bottom of the press.

BD Wine Tourism 07.03.2014

Not so long ago, when wine was consumed either by the communities who produced it or by an elite living in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and New York, the idea of wine drinkers visiting vineyards and tasting wines in producers’ cellars was alien to most people. No one wandered around wineries, except a handful of fanatics and the merchants who traded in what was produced in them. Those for whom wine was an everyday beverage thought of it as just another agricultural product. Those who served it in their town and country houses took advice from their preferred suppliers, and bought it in much the same way as they acquired their furniture or their paintings: from showrooms, galleries and retailers, rather than from factories, workshops and studios.

This only began to change in the second half of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, South Africa’s oldest wine route – that of Stellenbosch – was only established in 1971. Its founders – Delheim’s Spatz Sperling together with the late Frans Malan from Simonsig and the late Niel Joubert from Spier – needed to find a way to promote their wines. At the time, almost all of the Cape’s cellars supplied the wholesalers in bulk. In fact, any attempt to solicit business for bottled wine sales (whether to retailers or directly to consumers) was strenuously discouraged. When Malan indicated that he wanted to develop a retail side to his estate wine business, his major trade customers made it clear that they would cease purchasing from him.

Recognising that unless he created his own brand he would spend his entire commercial life at the mercy of the producer-wholesalers, he elected to abandon sales in bulk and to develop a new market for his entire crop. Though there were producers – such as Rustenberg for example – with private customers at the time, Malan and his colleagues were the real pioneers of the estate wine business in South Africa. Today, just over forty years later, there are over 600 wine cellars in South Africa, and almost every one of them welcomes visitors. There is a clear connection between the growth of the wine tourism industry and the growth in the diversity of the country’s wine offering.

This is also a reflection of the extraordinary shift in the way that wine is marketed and consumed. An increasing number of wine lovers do not depend on the recommendations of long established merchants. If they seek advice, they look online, or consult guides, or they follow the writers and ratings specialists who have made a career out of the independence of their palates. These changes reveal a great deal about the self-confidence of the market and the enhanced knowledge of the average wine buyer. The concept of cellar door sales may have spawned the wine tourism industry, but unless the punters had been willing to visit, and ready to believe that the subject matter of winery tours was not too arcane a communication for leisure travel, none of this would have come about.

A significant percentage of South Africa’s new generation wineries – in other words, of the 300 or so which have sprung up in the past 15 years – have no real trade distribution. They live off a combination of an established mail order database and a wine show circuit from which they garner new names to refresh their mailing lists. Stellenbosch Wine Routes, the umbrella body of the Stellenbosch regional wine routes, has just been judged the Best Promotional Body at the 2014 Wine Tourism Awards in London – an indication of how seriously this is taken.

Alongside wildlife safaris, wine-land travel is believed to be one of the top drivers of leisure tourism to South Africa. If government is keen to create jobs and boost foreign revenue flows, it need look no further than the hospitality component of the Cape wine industry

BD Pinot 14.03.2014

South African Pinot Noir has been in the spotlight lately, and not only because of the recent symposium hosted in the traditional cradle of its production, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Plantings have more than doubled in the past five years, and grape prices have pretty much done the same thing.

Modern Cape pinot was pioneered by Tim Hamilton Russell and his then winemaker, Peter Finlayson in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it was something of an acquired taste. At the time, the only planting material available to them was the so-called Swiss clone (BK5) which had been developed for sparkling wine. All pinot clones are low in anthocyanins, the component which imparts colour to the juice. The Swiss clone had less than most, which is what suited it to fizz production. It also lacked fruit intensity. These advantages – from the perspective of a sparkling wine producer – were grave shortcomings when it came to making a still red wine.

Despite all of Hamilton Russell’s considerable marketing skills, the wine market in the 1980s did not take pinot noir into its collective heart. When Finlayson left Hamilton Russell to start his own enterprise – the cellar now known as Bouchard Finlayson – he brought with him his passion and enthusiasm for the great Burgundian red grape. However the market was still small – big enough for a few small producers – but hardly important in the same way as chardonnay or cabernet is to the country’s consumers.

It has grown slowly but consistently since then. Firstly growers have enjoyed an increasingly broad planting selection, with most of the top Dijon clones now available from the nurserymen. Secondly, the local Methode Cape Classique (MCC) industry has expanded beyond recognition. Pinot noir is one of the key varieties in Champagne, and is therefore much in demand among local fizz producers. While many of the newer pinot vineyards have been established for bubbly – in higher yielding, warmer sites, rather than the cool climate locations which would favour red wine production – there is enough quality fruit about to begin changing pinot’s status as a niche cultivar.

The Pinot Celebration held in Hermanus at the end of January anticipates a time when there will be more quality pinot noir about than there is demand for what was has been – at least until now – an often over-priced fashion beverage. It is not uncommon to find the better known Cape examples selling for R300 – R500, a price point at which thoughtful consumers could buy reputable and more mature Burgundies. It was important to celebrate the achievements of the better known performers and to focus on what is happening with pinot noir in South Africa.

It’s not difficult to put up a list of the country’s consistently best pinot producers. It would certainly include Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson, Cape Chamonix, Paul Cluver, Meerlust, Newton Johnson, and Crystallum. Close enough to these cellars in terms of recent performance would be Creation, Dalla Cia, La Vierge and Catherine Marshall – and there are probably at least another half dozen or so with comparable claims to this league.

This is partly where the pinot producers’ predicament lies: the variety is strongly identified with a countable number of cellars, and all of them, without exception, make relatively small quantities. This is what has helped to keep pinot pricing artificially high. With significant quantities in the pipeline as young vineyards come into production, something will have to give. Either the market will have to grow – a reason no doubt for hosting the Pinot Party in Hermanus – or the pricing pretensions of the long established players will have to make some concessions to reality. Already we see Paul Cluver creating a popularly priced offering aimed, it would seem, at moving volume and increasing the market. Sadly – both for Cluver and for the pinot market – anything as ordinary as his recently released “The Village” 2012 will fail on both counts.

BD MPL Selection 28.03.2014

It’s probably not a great reflection on human nature, but people are more inclined to believe you when you are grumpy and uncomplimentary, than when you are positive and enthusiastic. It may be that they assume that polite is your default mode, so less thought (and possibly less integrity) goes into an upbeat comment.

I’ve just spent a couple of evenings tasting a serious array of wines at a show in Mpumalanga, and it was near impossible to find wines I wouldn’t happily have opened for dinner. The producer line-up was impressive enough in its own right, with most of the country’s premium producers represented. As one of country’s best known estate owners observed to me – as he glanced around the room – “you don’t see a turnout like this at a Cape wine show in London, Hong Kong or New York.”

On this basis alone, the range of quality on offer covered the spectrum from “less good” to “absolutely brilliant.” Ten years ago the same turnout would have needed a spin doctor to gloss over the dismal quality of the bottom 30% of the wines in the exhibition hall.

What has changed? Firstly, producers have come to recognise the importance of the  country’s regional capitals. They have learnt to respect the sophistication and taste discrimination of the punters. Condescending as this sounds, it has taken time. In my early days in the wine trade, I frequently encountered Cape wine producers who were astonished that I even pretended to know about wine – given that I was from “up-country” (Johannesburg, in other words).

More importantly however, the reason for the marked improvement in what is on offer is that there are fewer bad wines in the market, and certainly, fewer mediocre wines in the ranges of the country’s better producers. It’s become too risky to bury the inferior tanks in a blend of otherwise ordinary wine, and hope that consumers will be persuaded by the brand value of the estate name.

The Fort Simon 2012 Chenin Blanc I tasted at the Mpumalanga show was worth every cent of its R85 per bottle. It had heft, texture and freshness. Their 2012 Barrel Select Red (also available in half bottles) was equally refined and harmoniously managed. Rustenberg’s Sauvignon Blanc – never really the wine that’s front of mind when I think of this well-known Stellenbosch cellar – was quite superb. So incidentally was Strandveld’s single vineyard Pofadderbos Sauvignon Blanc 2013.

It’s not surprising that everything at Hamilton Russell/Southern Right was of a very even high standard: it’s what you would expect from a producer who targets the apex of the pyramid. Just the same, the Southern Right Pinotage has become really refined, and now lives up to Anthony Hamilton Russell’s vision for the cultivar. Equally evident was the improvement in the cellar’s flagship Pinot Noir 2012 – which may be the best vintage produced there in the past decade.

Hidden Valley’s 2013 Pinotage is earthy, rich-fruited, and with beautifully managed tannins. It sells for a mere R80. Welgemeend, under new ownership, is making very good wines – though without the confidence (yet) to price them where they should be. At R60 per bottle for the Amade blend and R130 for the estate Reserve (the heir in quality as well as in title to the wine with which the late Billy Hofmeyr’s launched Bordeaux blends in South Africa) both fairly represent the proposition our wine industry over-delivers on a scale that would have been unimaginable ten years ago.

Finally, if you are thinking of spending real money (R200 or more) on some smart reds, you could do a lot worse than the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2010 or Laibach’s Frederich Laibach Reserve 2011. And if the other end of the pricing spectrum is where you think you should be shopping, Vondeling’s Petit Rouge – which sells for under R50 – is genuinely worth twice the price.

BD Thelema etc 04.04.2014

It’s hard to stay front-of-mind when you’re a wine producer. The big names of yesteryear are easily consigned to dump-bins, even though their quality is usually as good as it ever was, and often better. The punters move on, like teenagers at a school social, preferring the promiscuity of new experiences to the substance of deep and abiding relationships. It’s hard to blame them. If you’re not going to be adventurous when you’re young, and you think you’re immortal, you may only come to this conclusion when you’ve been given six months to live so it doesn’t matter much anyway.

Proper relationships require effort and engagement, they go through dull patches, they’re not always rewarding. The top wineries of a few years ago cannot maintain your interest indefinitely. Once the initial excitement has worn off, the pedestrian moments become more evident. Predictability may be something of a virtue in marriage (and in the work place). However, if it’s an adrenaline high that you are seeking, it comes way down the list. You’re unlikely to see a Bugatti Veyron and a Volvo parked in the same driveway.

The thing is though – if you need to get somewhere, and be sure you’ll arrive there, and on time, you might just take the Volvo and leave the Veyron for the kids to wrap around a tree. For all the excitement of the new and the untested, you will only drink a finite number of bottles in your life so why – to quote the late Len Evans – would you want to waste capacity on even one bad one?

In the past decade the number of new wineries in South Africa has increased by at least a third. Many make excellent wine. Inevitably the excitement around new names, new areas and new varieties takes attention away from places that came to prominence in the 1990s. The Tokaras and Delaire-Graffs have usurped the Rust en Vredes and Vergelegens, who in turn took limelight away from the Thelemas and Meerlusts.

But usually (and there are exceptions) the quality of what is being produced at these older – and longer established – cellars has not declined. In fact, in many cases, they have continued to track the same upward trajectory as the current industry darlings. Fashions change, but most wineries stick to what they do best. Rust en Vrede has been making big, polished Californian-style wines since Jean Engelbrecht assumed responsibility for the direction of the estate. Vergelegen continues to offer a more savoury version, as well as some fabulous whites.

Perhaps one of the country’s most consistent cellars is Thelema. Since the farm was laid out in the 1980s it has been under the direction of founder-owner-winemaker Gyles Webb. He developed the site and planted the vineyards, and has managed the viticulture and directed the cellar throughout the life of the business.

A few weeks ago he hosted a tasting which reviewed  a vertical of Thelema’s Cabernets from 2009 back to 2000. In a strange way, the surprise was that there were no surprises. What determined the difference, bottle by bottle, was not the winemaking, but the vintage – exactly as you would expect if you were looking at a Bordeaux First Growth over the past two decades. Of course the winemaking has kept track with the latest technical developments, but in an almost imperceptible way.

My highest scores went to the 2001 (which was fabulous, mature but not really ageing), the 2007 (still quite youthful, but no longer young) and the 2009. All were within a point of each other, and all comfortably in the 90s – in other words, gold medal ratings. There are not many cellars in this league, even today, and none that could cruise to a trio of golds. There’s a lesson in this: you don’t survive at the top of the winemaking game this long unless you’re doing your job as well as it can be done – no points for handicap.

Research shows that, taken in moderation, wine is good for your health. RMB WineX supports responsible alcohol consumption. © 2018 WineX Pty Ltd

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