BD Site Specific 010814

For punters of “authentic wine” the importance of site is paramount. Even though science cannot fully explain why one piece of dirt produces better fruit than another, there is enough empirical evidence to show that over time some vineyards yield quality wines which have a consistent smell and taste to them. In other words, provenance alone accounts for the discernible aesthetic uniqueness of the end product. This is why a skilled blind taster, presented with a line-up of ten vintages each of Romanee-Conti and La Tache, will sort them correctly in terms of origin – even though the two vineyards are  100m apart and the wines are made by the same cellarmaster, in the same winery, from the same varieties, and are aged in casks from the same oak sources and the same coopers.

When South Africa’s wine of origin laws were promulgated just over 40 years ago the smallest certifiable plot was the estate itself, and for wines to obtain the requisite estate seal the fruit had to be harvested from the demarcated property and vinified on site. (As an aside, in those early days, estates could be made up of non-contiguous tracts of land, so an estate certification was no guarantee of provenance in the narrow sense of the word.) The law did not recognise the concept of a single vineyard, so there was little incentive for producers to manage the grapes from each block separately and to discover whether some yielded wines with their own particular aesthetic coherence.

The legislation has changed over time. With improved opportunities of linking the final wine to an identifiable and demarcated site more and more producers are offering vineyard-specific special releases. This has not always been clear on the label, and consumers could be forgiven for thinking that Schaapenberg on a Vergelegen label was simply a sub-brand, or that Merindol at Simonsig was a named cuvee – like the Frans Malan. Learning and understanding the distinction will require time. It’s taken Burgundy centuries to develop its arcane nomenclature and even regional specialists sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between a producer’s sub-brand, a “lieu-dit” and a site protected by the laws of Appellation Controlee.

Stellenzicht’s Guy Webber has been on a roadshow to launch the property’s single vineyard syrah, a wine which goes under the curious (but not inaccurate) name of “Plum Pudding Hill.” It’s origins go back to the legendary 1994, produced by Andre van Rensburg mainly from a single site which (anecdotally, at any rate) was omitted from the harvest schedule and only remembered some days later when the grapes were ‘super-ripe’. The resulting wine was pungently aromatic, with a distinctive plum-pudding aroma. It literally took the world by storm, beating the iconic Penfold’s Grange in several blind tastings and competitions and elevating the image of South African red wine just as our post-apartheid exports were penetrating international markets.

The 1997 vintage followed a similar trajectory though – at least in my opinion – it lacked the freshness and concentration of the 1994. It was however indisputably a pea from the same pod, as indeed were subsequent vintages (including the less showy but better ageing 1999 and the blockbuster 2001 – a monster of a wine at almost 16% alcohol.) Put any of the Stellenzicht Syrahs in a line-up and you will see they have a sameness and coherence about them, notwithstanding vintage variation and the personality differences of the two winemakers who have been vinifying fruit from the property’s ‘Plum Pudding Hill’ for the past two decades.

In short, the case for creating a single-site wine at Stellenzicht is indisputable. While the 2007 Plum Pudding Hill may appear to be the first release in this particular category, it has long and established antecedents. Like its predecessors, it’s an acquired taste. I prefer my Shirazes fresher and less blowsy, but for punters who like what has come to be known as the South-eastern Australian style, rather than Northern Rhone, it’s the obvious “add to basket.”

BD Walker Bay 080814

An American wine marketer once pointed out that no one in California (most of which is not cool) ever claims that his wine is produced in a warm region. If cool implies good, then warm suggests plonk – so why even go down that avenue? It is equally true that some of our most successful regions are warm – and they do well (or at least don’t seem to suffer any stigma) – precisely because they have been wise enough not to enter the temperature debate.

The Swartland – easily South Africa’s ‘sexiest’ international appellation – is one of the toastiest premium wine areas in the world, and this hasn’t tainted its reputation. True, it doesn’t appear to focus on any traditionally cool climate varieties, (though adjacent areas have long been a source of fine sauvignon blanc – one the most heat sensitive of the premium cultivars). If your vineyards aren’t in a recognised cool place, the trick is simply to avoid that discussion.

Nevertheless, cool climate has been something of a buzzword in South African wine circles ever since the late Tim Hamilton Russell launched the vineyards of Hemel-en-Aarde Valley over 35 years ago. Until then, weather conditions (and, for that matter, area of origin) were never really an issue. The punters bought the wines they liked and assumed that the winemakers knew more than they did.

Ever since Hamilton Russell made the temperature conditions of the Hemel-en-Aarde the region’s USP (even before his first vineyards had borne fruit), the world has come to expect climate-appropriate wines from the vineyards around Walker Bay. No one, for example, seriously talks about the region’s Cabernets. The Valley is judged on the success of its cool climate varieties, most notably Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

More than 30 vintages after its first release, the Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir enjoys the South African equivalent of Grand Cru status, with the latest release, the 2013, exuding the confidence (as well as the intensity and restraint) which comes from being the region’s recognised benchmark for a generation. Less showy than the Bouchard Finlayson Tete de Cuvée – the region’s other ‘elder statesman’ – it has more purity and less ‘earthiness’ in its fruit notes.

Elsewhere the area is vibrant with change. Bouchard Finlayson’s Peter Finlayson (Hamilton Russell’s first winemaker before setting up his own winery over two decades ago) can observe with some satisfaction the achievements of his sons (Peter-Allan and Andrew) who make several different Pinot cuvées under the Crystallum label. My favourite remains the Cuvée Cinema (edgier than the Mabalel from Elandskloof, more refined than the Cuvée Max). The Newton Johnsons have come to dominate the Platter five star Pinot ratings, and a recent tasting of the Family Vineyards 2012 showed why: real harmony combined with haunting aromas. It is not perhaps as linear and intense as the Domaine des Dieux 2011 – one of the most striking South African pinots I tasted at a recent review of the category – but it is one of the most ethereal. Pinophiles can also profitably chase down the Sumaridge, and the reserve bottling of Creation.

Climate is also an important factor in Chardonnay production, though the variety is somewhat more forgiving than Pinot when it comes to surviving the impact of warmer weather. You need look no further than the delicious Ataraxia 2013, limey with the finest whiff of peach, or the Domaine des Dieux 2011, to see how the cooler location contributes its own mineral notes (as well as obvious freshness) to the mouthfeel and the length of the wine.

With Chardonnay there’s a choice about climate and style: many people prefer the fullness and texture of the altogether creamier Glen Carlou or the sweet-sour lemon and tangerine notes of the Mulderbosch or the Springfield Methode Ancienne – the latest release (2011) of which is truly delicious. With Pinot there’s no such luxury – which is why it’s not just a marketing trick to stress the point, over and over and over.

BD Big Name Wines 150814

It is generally believed that a sighted wine judging environment favours better known producers (whose reputations obviously precede them). If you know you are looking at a vinous classic, so the logic goes, you are more likely to award it the points appropriate to its perceived status. Even if the wine is not showing at its best, the strength of the brand will carry it. This is what tends to happen when wine lovers are confronted by the world’s best known and most expensive labels. I have seen people raving about cork-tainted Bordeaux First Growths – assuming that the slightly ‘miff’ character imparted by the faulty cork was how the wine was supposed to taste.

At a judges dinner following a day at the Royal Sydney Show I watched the late Len Evans, the great mentor of the modern Australian wine industry, interrogate the associate judges about a wine that had been served to everyone – with the label in plain view: a slightly defective bottle of 1967 Echezeaux from the Domaine de la Romanee Conti. One after the other the young judges-in-training said pretty much what you would have expected of them in the presence of a great Burgundy. Evans then asked a couple of the more experienced judges for their comments. It quickly became apparent that they were less-than-seduced. He turned to the associates and said “I asked you to tell me about the wine, not the label.”

I recently attended a sighted tasting of some of South Africa’s most prestigious wines. Not all the wines were outrageously expensive, though very few were under R200 per bottle and most were in the R300+ range. It occurred to me – probably for the first time – that perhaps these wines had been put at something of a disadvantage in this sighted environment. When you’re looking at a line-up of what are regarded as amongst the best of South Africa’s current releases, it’s possible that you burden them with elevated expectations. If they don’t – or can’t – live up to their reputations, they could actually emerge with lower scores than might otherwise be the case. (This doesn’t mean that they would have been better off tasted blind – simply that lack of anonymity also carries a price).

Only a couple of the samples made it into the realm of gold medal ratings: Richard Kershaw’s 2012 Elgin Clonal Selection Chardonnay and the Mulderbosch “1000 Miles” Sauvignon Blanc were my two unequivocal golds, though the Beaumont “Hope Marguerite” Chenin 2013 was close enough, as was the Mullineux Syrah 2012. There were several safe silver medals (scores of 80 – 89) – the 2009 Meerlust Rubicon, the Le Riche Cabernet 2011, the Bouchard Finlayson Sans Barrique Chardonnay 2013, the Stellenrust 48 Barrel Fermented 2012 Chenin Blanc, and the Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2012 and the 2012 Pinot Noir.

My disappointment at this tasting was shared by almost everyone else in the room. There was a sense that they had been expecting more from the wines – and this may have influenced the outcome. When you are happily surprised by a wine, or a line-up of wines, your calibration moves upwards, and vice versa. But there are other, perhaps more important questions which arise from this: have we raised the bar too far too soon in our own minds or is the bracket of top-ranked wines over-populated? Have we left any room in our scoring system for the great wines still to be made?

The danger of the 100 point system as it is applied internationally is that no one is interested in a score of less than 90 – and very few critics ever score a wine 100. The real range of interest is somewhere between 91 and 97. This is a Procrustean bed into which a country’s top wines are forced to fit, making disappointment – the result of unreasonable expectations or unrealistic promises – inevitable.

BD Nederburg Forty 220814

The first Nederburg Auction took place in 1975. Forty years may not sound like much in the history of wine auctions – the Hospices de Beaune sale dates back to the Middle Ages and Christies has been selling wine since the 18th century – but it is a claim of some significance in the New World. While it wasn’t the first of the modern era Cape wine auctions (that distinction goes to Fairview – an early sign of Charles Back’s innovative marketing nous), it was the sale which caught the country’s imagination, launching the concept of ultra-premium wine pricing and noble late harvest dessert wines.

Initially neither was much of a success. Not even the most upbeat of wine marketers could have described the financial outcome as worthy of the effort, while Gunter Brozel – Nederburg’s cellarmaster and wine personality extraordinaire – muttered darkly that the R1-50 or so per bottle that his early Edelkeurs fetched did not justify the time and effort invested in making them.

My career in wine began while I was still a student in 1973, and I spent 1975 in France (acquiring much of the basic knowledge which made it possible for me to return to South Africa to permanent employment in the wine trade in 1976). I therefore missed the inaugural sale – though I gleaned a great deal about it from Benny and Sylvia Goldberg, who were stalwarts of the Auction for the first 25 years of its existence.

I began writing about wine shortly after my return to South Africa (initially for the Financial Mail and then, after John Platter moved to the Cape, for the Rand Daily Mail and its successor, Business Day). As a result, I have attended almost all of the subsequent auctions. For much of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, I was also Sotheby’s wine consultant in South Africa, so I had the unusual – and perhaps unique – perspective of seeing the auction both as a commercial event, but also a public spectacle.

In its earliest incarnation it was a battleground of retailer egos, a place to settle scores which lingered from one year to the next in the minds of the larger-than-life personalities who peopled the trade. Since wine flowed more-than-freely (and since the bottle-store owners were intent in clawing back value for every cent spent over the year with the wholesale division of Nederburg’s owners – Stellenbosch Farmers Winery) much of what took place could be ascribed to effects of alcohol.

There was the small-time and palpably inebriated retailer who tried to dominate the sale by spending more money than he could ever hope to pay-off (no one has ever satisfactorily explained how his account was settled); the bidding war between the owners of the the Rebel chain (erstwhile friends who had become sworn enemies of Benny Goldberg) for the charity lot of a 19th century Martell Cognac (knocked down to Benny Goldberg for the then outrageous sum of R1500). There was also the succession of retail chains over the years – including Pick & Pay and Makro – who vied to be the biggest buyers at the sale.

And then one day, the oomph went out of it: from being the most desirable event of its kind (if you weren’t there, you needed a doctor’s certificate to explain your absence), it became another chore in an over-busy wine year. Prices eased, the dogs barked, and the caravan moved on.

The Auction has lately emerged from High Care. While it is widely accepted that it is too important to be allowed to fail, its way forward is not as clearly mapped out as the road behind. To be sustainable it must be real – which means realistic prices paid for truly desirable wines. To this end the selection process has been tightened up, and the balloons and bunnies toned down. Now it’s up to the punters to buy into the deal.

The 40th Nederburg Auction takes place in Paarl on 12/13 September. For more info go to www.nederburgauction.co.za

BD SA’s New World Value 290814

I have just returned from judging the Six Nations Challenge in Sydney – a show which began life as the Tri-Nations Challenge in 2003 and has not only survived – against all odds – but actually flourished. In 2011 it added the wines of Chile and Argentina to those of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and from last year, those of the United States. It is now probably the most focused New World wine competition on the planet.

The full results will only be announced in October, though we already know that this year South Africa and New Zealand shared most of the category trophies as well as top honours for the ‘best wines on show.’ This has largely been the norm since the competition was extended beyond the original three countries, and a far cry from the early days when South Africa battled to take home any trophies at all.

Partly this is the result of a changed judging dynamic – where Antipodean judges (who are familiar with and prefer a particular style) are now in a minority. It is – more importantly – a reflection of the fact that our best wines are now clearly “world class.” This is not just a subjective view, nor is it the selective use of data from only one wine competition. Last week’s subject line on Jancis Robinson’s website mailer was “South Africa 1 California 0” and her note describes both the general under-performance of Californian Chardonnay as well as her opinion that South Africa makes “great, distinctive and under-priced white wines.”

In many ways, “under-priced” has become something of a burdensome cul-de-sac for our wine producers. In the early post-isolation days they were so pleased to have floods of international orders that they accepted price-points which only made sense because of currency weakness. Now they depend on an ever-falling Rand simply to break even on sales while the quality of what is going into bottle has improved dramatically. The price-points are set in granite, with trade buyers intent on resisting any national re-positioning: it’s simply easier to sell wines which over-deliver on a massive scale.

This is an issue which demands the attention not only of the industry’s self-funded generic wine export body, Wines of South Africa (WoSA), but also the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The current average price per bottle of South African wine in the UK is around £4-50. Of this amount, less than £1-00 comprises the actual income accruing to producers. The rest goes into transport, duty, VAT, distribution and promotional costs, as well as the traders’ margins. Kiwi wine – which clearly enjoys a better image (a fact clearly unconnected to any quality advantage, as the Six Nations Challenge results make clear) – sells at a substantial premium, averaging £6-70 bottle. Until we make more of an effort to lift the bushel and reveal the talents, we have no one but ourselves to blame for a state of affairs which probably costs South Africa between R5b and R10b in foreign earnings.

Identifying the problem is easier than solving it (though, for a start, WoSA could do its members a great service by subsidising their entries to competitions where the published results would help international consumers to re-calibrate their assessment of Cape wine). The DTI could also use some of the funds it currently contributes to the few producers who qualify for the hand-outs reserved for the previously disadvantaged, to trumpet these successes in the international media. It could even justify this investment – in terms of its own arcane criteria: the stronger Brand SA becomes in the world of wine, the more wine will leave this country in bottle, rather than in bulk, thus saving thousands of jobs in our packaging industry. Oh, and there will of course be an enhanced tax take from producers – something which may make more palatable their spending money on what is essentially an industry still predominantly owned by whites.

BD CWG 050914

On Saturday 4th October the Cape Winemakers Guild (CWG) will hold its thirtieth auction. The organisation (and its wines) has come a great distance in three decades, with the progress over the past five years comfortably outstripping the achievement of the previous 25 years. While the rest of the industry has also done remarkably well, there’s no doubt that the Guild is beating the average.

Its relative stagnation up to 2009 was largely the result of a membership policy which protected those on the inside at the expense of new admissions, creating a climate of complacent smugness. Now we are seeing the benefits of generational change. People like Andrea Mullineux, Bartho Eksteen, Miles Mossop, Coenie Snyman, Gottfried Mocke, Rianie Strydom, Andries Burger – to name but a few – are adding their skills and experience to the pool. There is an aggregating effect as they strengthen a vanguard which includes Marc Kent, Duncan Savage and Adi Badenhorst. Before this influx, the younger members did not have the critical mass. Now, working together they have been able to lift the intensity, the passion, the focus and the concentration.

But the achievements have not been solely the work of the most recent arrivals to the Guild’s ranks. The CWG leadership has managed to harness the dynamic potential of the revitalised Cape wine industry, particularly through a regular workshop programme in which the members share their research and expertise. There are in-house seminars to broaden their understanding of the technical issues around winemaking. Focused tastings also add an international dimension, providing a better sense of what to expect from the more esoteric varieties. When you look at the content of the courses which were on offer when even the youngest members were students, there is a discernible gap between what winemakers are taught, and what they still need to learn.

The line-up of wines for this year’s sale reflects much of this progress. For the first time there were no overtly faulty wines, in other words, no wines showing defective or unclean handling of the fruit. Five years ago brettanomyces would have been evident in several of the reds. Sure, there are still wines which won’t appeal to everyone, but this is now largely confined to subjective criteria – like the extent to which new wood is evident in (generally very young) wines and what kind of ripeness levels are sought. Even here, the reds showed more restraint than a few years back and the Sauvignons less overt greenness.

I’ve tasted 42 of the 60 wines on the sale. It is clear that the white wines still substantially out-perform the reds. The fruit has been handled more sensitively, the wines are more nuanced, and their age-worthiness is less in doubt. Scores of 85 or more  went to 11 out of 14 whites but only 12 out of 28 reds. (These are very high ratings on my 100 point scale, even if this seems less impressive to producers and punters attached to the American 100 point system where anything under 90 does not count. For detailed notes go to http://www.winewizard.co.za/article/cape-winemakers-guild-tasting-2014/)

White wines scoring 90 or more included the Mullineux Sauvignon Gris 2013, the Cape Point Vineyards 2013 white blend, the Kleine Zalze Granite Selection Chenin Blanc, the Chamonix Chardonnay 2013, the Paul Cluver Wagon Trail Chardonnay 2013 and the Jordan Auction Reserve Chardonnay 2013. The reds scoring 86 or more included the Neil Ellis Reserve 2011, the Vriesenhof Cabernet 2007, the Tokara Tribute 2010, the Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Auction Reserve 2012, the Cederberg Teen die Hoog Shiraz 2012 and the Beyerskloof Traildust Pinotage 2012.

While there’s no doubt about the quality of most of what is on offer, pricing is likely to provide a sobering reminder that when too much testosterone chases too little stock, it’s not a bad idea to have a bank as the Guild’s headline sponsor. I assume Nedbank will be happy to offer second mortgages to over-enthusiastic buyers.

BD Perold 260914

For students of Cape wine, the name “Perold” is hardly unknown. Abraham Perold was one of the country’s first viticulturists, famous because it was he who crossed pinot noir and cinsaut to create pinotage. However, his importance to our wine industry extends beyond this: his early work in sourcing planting material for our vineyards resulted in the introduction of over 150 different varieties of vitis vinifera in South Africa.

It was therefore with some restraint (and perhaps with a view to avoiding a dispute with  KWV, which had trade-marked the name for a wannabe cult wine) that Herman Perold, great-nephew of the famous man, and his wife Susan have chosen to name their estate in Prince Albert “SoetKaroo.” They describe their operation as a hobby which got out of hand, though it’s difficult to know just how wildly out of control any operation which harvests a mere two tonnes of grapes can possibly be.

For those who obsess about wine trivia SoetKaroo is a treasure trove. With only one hectare of vineyard it may be South Africa’s tiniest wine estate. It certainly yields less fruit than La Romanée, Burgundy’s smallest Grand Cru. Situated in the midst of Prince Albert (the address is in Church street) SoetKaroo is a boutique operation wrapped up in a garagiste guise. Its real focus is fortified wine – a beverage category which has been shrinking for decades as the market for the high volume, low-priced, brands offered as a short-cut to inebriation has been superseded either by the increased disposable income of its target consumers (who now drink alcopops) or by the widespread distribution of the illegal ‘ales’ which are far and away the cheapest route to getting blotto.

In the bad old days South Africa produced and consumed an enormous volume of these fortifieds. In 1970 the market was around 53m litres annually. By 2013 it has dropped to 32m litres. Between 1997 and 2013 per capita consumption declined from 0.91 litres annually to 0.62. In the same period consumption of alcopops increased from 3.15 litres per person annually to 8.79. In short, fortifieds have fallen out of fashion and a true Cape classic is dying out for want of punters interested enough to keep the best producers going. One of the grape growers to Nuy – consistently one of the country’s top muscadel cellars – grubbed up a forty year old vineyard because it earned him too little to justify its farming cost.

To make the production and sale of these classically-styled wines your core business is arguably at least as insane as letting a hobby get out of hand – though the two go together (if you’re going to do something crazy, it might as well be in the context of something you are passionate about). In any event, this is what the Perold’s SoetKaroo enterprise is all about – tiny volumes of highly individualistic fortifieds, made for aficionados of this unfashionable (but still fabulous) beverage category.

I recently tasted several of their wines. They are all – as you might easily imagine – hand-crafted in the true sense of the term and it is their purity and nuanced fruit which sets them apart from many of the larger volume examples which are still produced for the survivors of muscadel’s traditional market. My clear favourite was the 2014 red Muscat de Frontignan, the most detailed and the most finely managed of the present line-up. This was closely followed by the 2012 Cape Vintage Touriga Nacional, which shows intense berry fruit, fresh savoury notes, and the hallmark dry-edge of true Port. Still (obviously) very young, it is certainly worth laying down.

If you seek an earlier maturing style, then go for the richer, plusher Cape Vintage Petit Verdot – more forward on the nose and palate, but still uncloying on the finish. Either way, since the Perold fortifieds come in smaller-than-standard bottles, they age a little quicker – a useful attribute for the more impatient among us.

BD Grenache Day 190914

In June 2010 the newly formed Grenache Association – essentially a partnership of a few interested producers in and around the southern Rhone valley in France – hosted a symposium whose avowed purpose was to create enhanced awareness about the variety. Until the 1980s, grenache had been the world’s most widely planted variety. Now it was being grubbed up in favour of cultivars whose names were better known to supermarket wine buyers.

Speaker after speaker stressed the versatility, the intrinsic quality and the commercial potential of the cultivar. There was a sense of the high priests preaching to the converted: if all this was so obvious, why was it even necessary to host the symposium? The answer – of course – is that sometimes the short-term demands of fashion force growers to take poor long-term decisions. It doesn’t matter how good the intrinsics of a variety: if the trade isn’t interested in it, commercial logic will trump viticultural commonsense.

The 2010 Grenache Symposium was well-timed: it was already evident that the globalisation of taste had produced an undesirable homogeneity across the world of wine. Until the early 1980s the grape varieties which flourished in major appellations had a long-established history of yielding sound wine under the climatic and viticultural conditions of that region. They had been selected by growers primarily because they were likely to yield an optimum quality, commercial crop in most vintages. Now chemical sprays and industrial vineyard management strategies reduced the dependence on site-appropriate varieties. This coincided with supermarket buyers trimming their shopping lists to a few preferred cultivars. Cabernet, merlot, shiraz, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc were ‘in.’ Pretty much everything else was ‘out.’

The traditional plantings of the sound but uninspiring regions close to the major markets were grubbed up and replaced with varying combinations of whatever of these major cultivars could be farmed in these particular sites. A broad swathe of southern France suddenly became the largest single tract of merlot in the world. In parts of Australia new chardonnay vineyards exceeded the total national chardonnay plantings of two decades previously. South Africa was not exempt from this process: in the late 1970s our most widely planted red variety was cinsaut. Today there are fewer than ten producers bottling it as a single varietal wine, and the total vineyard area dedicated to it has declined from 13% in 1979 to 2% today

It’s not entirely clear when boredom set in, but by the late 1990s evidence began to emerge of a consumer-led rebellion. ABC – “anything but Chardonnay” – became an oft-repeated refrain which in time came to symbolise a disenchantment with the very ordinariness of these amorphous wines. Slowly regional nuance began to replace varietal familiarity – at least in the middle and upper price ranges.

The Grenache Association launched itself into what was already a sympathetic environment. The Rhone began usurping Bordeaux as the more commercially acceptable red wine benchmark. Its traditional varieties – grenache, syrah/shiraz, mourvedre and viognier – caught the interest of the trade. In fact, by 2010 it was becoming clear that demand for shiraz and viognier was tapering off. Grenache offered a useful blending partner, a place to bury increasingly unfashionable shiraz in Rhone blends which were suddenly a la mode. There was still enough of it about in Southern Europe and Australia – much of it old vineyard yielding subtle but concentrated fruit – for the variety’s renaissance to be assured.

In South Africa the situation was slightly different: there was very few old vines, but these were tracked down by the producer avante-garde and used to make super-premium wines. This in turn encouraged new plantings: in the past ten years the number of wines in which grenache is a blending component has increased from single figures to over 100. Today – 19 September – is international Grenache Day. It’s as good a Friday as any to choose one for your dinner.

BD Sem and white blends 031014

Last week I tasted two extraordinary Cape semillons. One was the 2009 Stellenzicht, now at the peak of its maturity and showing a restrained plushness reminiscent of a great Mount Pleasant from the Hunter Valley. It was the kind of wine which would have appealed to a chardonnay consumer, primarily because of its depth and richness, and the tangy citrus notes on the finish. There are very few Cape semillons like the Stellenzicht (it’s a wine Guy Webber does particularly well) though the Boekenhoutskloof, with a little bottle age, comes pretty close.

The other – which, tasted blind, picked up a slightly higher score – was the Cape of Good Hope Laing’s Vineyard 2012 from Anthonij Rupert Wines. Looking through previous tasting notes I saw that I had given the 2010 vintage a score of 90 (which probably puts it in my top 10 dry white wines, tasted blind, for the past couple of years). This latest release was even better, with a linearity and restraint which made it a wholly different from the Stellenzicht. The Laing’s would appeal more to a Sauvignon than a Chardonnay drinker,  great minerality, purity rather than austerity, and no overt woodiness.

More than a century ago semillon was the Cape’s most planted variety. It presumably served the same purpose as chenin blanc did in the 1970s and 1980s, and, as with chenin, its versatility was both its strongest feature, but also its Achilles’ Heel. Easily used and easily abused, it started to vanish after the phylloxera devastation as the replanted vineyards reflected a wider diversity of varieties. Where semillon was retained, the new clonal selection – high yielding large-berried fruit – undermined the cultivar’s quality prospects. Until the 1980s it went into cheap white blends and also for distillation. A few growers – mainly in Franschhoek, where there were vineyards dating back to the early 20th century – made some good (but often erratic) wines. No one was willing to pay much for them, and since old vines produce less fruit, the whole business became uneconomical.

Henk Laing’s semillon vineyard, which supplies the fruit to The Cape of Good Hope cellar, is one such block. Situated in the Skurfberg near Clan William, it is over 60 years old. With yields around two tonnes per hectare – it would be unviable were it not for Johann Rupert’s old vineyard programme. Even so, at roughly R130 per bottle, it sells for too little to make economic sense.

This is not a peculiarly South African problem – Hunter Valley semillon is an acknowledged classic but producing it is more an act of love than a pursuit of profit. However, if we agree about the importance of quality old vine fruit, then the best old vineyards need to be preserved, and consumers must be ready to pay more to compensate for the lower yields. To an extent this is what has transformed chenin blanc: consumers have come to recognise the appeal of the variety and the value imbued by the site and the age of the vines. It isn’t happening with semillon – and the result is that a number of the Cape’s best whites are neglected or under-valued and in time they will vanish from the wine merchants’ shelves.

Semillon’s problem contaminates white Bordeaux blends – a category recently judged at this year’s Riscura White Hot Wine Awards. The number of entries remains small, despite the obvious strength of the class. (50% of the wines rated 4 stars or more). White Bordeaux blends have steadfastly failed to catch on, while sauvignon blanc, the one blending component, is probably the country’s most popular premium white. The problem clearly lies with semillon – whose greatness remains unrecognised and whose qualities continue to be unappreciated.

With blends like Steenberg’s Magna Carta, Vergelegen’s GVB, Tokara’s Director’s Reserve and Cape Point’s Isliedh as well as host of fabulous semillons on the line, it seems unimaginable that the message has still not penetrated the market-place.

BD Glenelly 101014

After 1994, following South Africa’s return to the real world, the wine industry’s craving for overseas investment (as a vindication that we had moved beyond the irrelevance of the isolation era) had a faintly ludicrous air about it. Foreign buyers (no matter what their credentials) were greeted with the same fervour ordinarily reserved for the arrival of the messiah. Mostly this reflected our neediness: what might have made a difference, in terms of our international standing, would have been a deal (not just a licensing arrangement) with First Growth, the equivalent of the Mouton-Mondavi Opus One joint venture.

It still hasn’t happened. However, we have seen some action from the world of Superseconds and Second Growths. Towards the end of the 1990s Hubert de Bouard (Chateau Angelus) and Bruno Prats (Cos d’Estournel), working with Lowell Jooste of Klein Constantia, put some money into a property called Anwilka in Stellenbosch. Then, a few years ago, when Jooste sold his South African wine businesses, the buyers offered his erstwhile partners an equity opportunity in the enlarged company. Accordingly today Klein Constantia has, amongst its shareholders, one who used to own a Medoc Supersecond and one who is still a proprietor of a St Emilion Premier Grand Cru.

Just over ten years ago (and while she still owned Chateau Pichon Lalande) May-Eliane de Lenquesaing bought a property called Glenelly adjacent to Rustenberg in Stellenbosch’s Ida’s Valley. There has been nothing cosmetic about her involvement, and since then she has lavished great care, as well as considerable investment, on her Stellenbosch estate. When she sold Pichon to the Rouzaud family (of Champagne Louis Roederer fame) about a year later, she freed up her time to give Glenelly her full attention.

May de Lenquesaing inherited Pichon in 1978. At the time the property was bankrupt and a long way from becoming the showcase it is today. She directed and drove its renaissance, lifting its profile and transforming it into one of the top ten estates of the Medoc. She has now brought the same energy and drive – but with vastly more experience – to her South African investment. Given the reputation of the investor, the international technical expertise, the new vineyard programme, and the state-of-the art cellar, Glenelly is probably the closest South Africa has come to the Mouton-Mondavi Opus One venture in California.

Tasting the current and near-future releases with cellarmaster Luke O’Cuinneagain, it is clear that “Madame La Generale” (as she was known in Bordeaux) has not erred in her choice of property or in the man appointed to make the wines. The vineyards are starting so show some maturity, and this much is evident in the fruit. Georg Riedel (of the eponymous wine glass company) described the 2010 Syrah as the best he has tasted outside the Northern Rhone. The Grand Vin – a Bordeaux blend with a healthy dollop of shiraz – is a striking interpretation of how most 19th century clarets were made.  The Lady May – a Bordeaux red blend which has already garnered a Platter Five Star award – has the balance, intensity and finesse you would expect of a future South African classic. Both of the cellar’s two Chardonnays (one unwooded, the other branded “Grand Vin”) have great intensity and purity. The former offers refreshing elegance, the latter the complexity – without excessive ‘creaminess’ – of a more restrained example from the Cote de Beaune.

Luke O’Cuinneagain (who has been at Glenelly since its first fruit came into the winery), uses the ambient natural yeast for all fermentations. He has been delighted and a little surprised to discover that, every year, alcohols are getting lower. By the time the 2013s and 2014s are released, the levels will rival current fine wines from Bordeaux. However, a word of caution: these are not wines which will appeal to those seeking instant gratification: the whites need at least three years, the reds a minimum of five.

Research shows that, taken in moderation, wine is good for your health. RMB WineX supports responsible alcohol consumption. © 2020 WineX Pty Ltd

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