BD Stellenbosch 171014

For most of the past two hundred years the premium end of the Cape wine industry centred around the towns of Stellenbosch and Paarl. This was partly because the major producing merchants had their cellars (or, more recently their show cellars) there, but also because the appellations associated with the towns were clearly a source of many of the better wines. In time there developed a kind of apartheid around the regions – with those on the Cape Town side of the Du Toitskloof Pass regarded as fine wine producers, and the others “over the mountain” as bulk and distilling wine sources.

While much of this prejudice has vanished, or at least diminished, it is still retained in matters of grape pricing. When the wine of origin legislation was introduced just over 40 years ago, a fiction – the Coastal Region – was created solely to permit the wholesalers to blend wines from different premium-price appellations. These included Constantia, Durbanville, Stellenbosch, Paarl, Tulbagh and the Swartland. It excluded a number of places which are right on the coast, but which weren’t important at the time – such as Walker Bay/Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

If you blend fruit from Coastal Region vineyards with grapes from anywhere else, their designated origin (in terms of certification) becomes Wine of Western Cape – which is effectively meaningless. There are now plans to amend the legislation, extending the concept of Coastal Region all the way up the West Coast to Lutzville and along the Cape South Coast to Plettenberg Bay. Of course there would then be sub-divisions within this – not necessarily useful from a consumer perspective – but at least a step towards diluting the two class “citizenship” of the past.

If you ignore the politics of this and test the assumptions around the whole question of origin/terroir, the issues are generally geeky, rather than commercial. Those for whom the Swartland represents the most authentic expression of what the Cape produces, have their reasons. The cool climate brigade focuses on the Hemel-en-Aarde area, together with Elgin, and the vineyards near Cape Agulhas. Others support the pioneers opening up new frontiers like Sutherland or rediscovering old ones like Piekenierskloof.

There are of course a few notable exceptions. Constantia profits from a cooler climate than the other members of the Coastal Region club, and an image premium based partly on historic reputation, partly on shortage of supply. The real and undisputed exception however is Stellenbosch – an appellation which has been synonymous with South African fine wine for so long that even foreigners with only the sketchiest sense of our wine-lands know the name, and are willing to pay extra for its wines.

Much of Stellenbosch’s reputation resides in the palpable quality of its best examples. It doesn’t require a detailed analysis of wine show results to see the extent to which wines of Stellenbosch origin punch above their weight in local and international competitions. There could be some cause-effect confusion here: since there has been greater investment in vineyards and cellars in Stellenbosch compared with anywhere else, some of the apparent quality may be the result of the care which went into the production of the wine, rather than the intrinsics of soil and climate.

Just the same, it is difficult to gainsay the evidence: with properties like Jordan, Kanonkop, Vergelegen, Rustenberg, Tokara, Thelema, Kleine Zalze, Glenelly, Morgenster, DeMorgenzon, Hartenberg, Kaapzicht, and Stellenrust (all working – mainly or entirely – with fruit from their own vineyards, ofr at least from the appellation) there’s clear evidence that location is a key factor. Equally extraordinary is the breadth of what’s on offer. Some of the country’s finest cabernets, (including the vastly more temperamental cabernet franc), chardonnays, pinotages, shirazes and chenin blancs are grown here. Even sauvignon blanc, better suited to cooler zones than Stellenbosch, yields wines of elegance and finesse from sites closest to False Bay. Nowhere else in the world manages this diversity, at this level of quality.

BD Veritas 6 Nations 241014

With Christmas around the corner, it’s hardly surprising that the news is all about competitions. The Veritas results were announced a few weeks back. 1767 submissions yielded 51 double gold, 155 gold, 538 silver and 601 bronze medals. The fact that 75% of all entries collected a medal seems to suggest that the judging operates in an environment akin to the national matriculation system. If this is so, it serves primarily to offer weaker candidates a soft landing, rather than any prospect of long term success. The punters are under no illusion when it comes to the value of a Veritas bronze. On the other hand, a double gold is rightly held to be real currency. To give you a sense of its rarity, once you exclude the double gold achievement of the three top-performing cellars (KWV 9, Spier 7 and Nederburg 6) there are only 29 double golds to be shared out between everyone.

No doubt there are wine lovers who wonder about the disproportionate success of the big producers – though of course they have more wines to enter. No one disputes the quality of their ultra-premium ranges, but can they truly be that much better than so many of the top estates? If you tally the double golds of Beyerskloof, Cederberg, Jordan, Dewetshof, De Grendel, Delaire-Graff, Diemersdal, Glenelly, Hartenberg, Haskell, Kleine Zalze, Rustenberg, Rust en Vrede, Saronsberg, Steenberg and Tokara the combined total comes to 5 – fewer than Nederburg managed on its own and just over half KWV’s haul.

There’s no easy answer to this conundrum: given that the top three cellars make really smart wines it’s fair to say that the judges must have been doing their job to pick out the best of them. The Trophy Wine Show – of which I am chairman – has had each one of these three wineries as the show’s best producer in the past six years. The days of the big cellars producing pedestrian wines is long gone. But our smaller estates also make fabulous wines, and it’s not clear why their medal count was no match for the behemoths. It may have something to do with panel dynamics: the larger the number of judges, and the less discussion between them, the more the outcome is likely to gravitate to the safe, middle-of-the-road choice, rather than the edgy, avante-garde selection.

The potential for panellists’ preferences to obscure qualitative assessment is never more pronounced that when they come from vastly different aesthetic backgrounds. Each votes for (in other words, retreats into) a comfort zone. It was exactly this process which made my early days of judging the Tri-Nations Wine Challenge problematic. Two Antipodean judges and one South African were never likely to share a coherent vision. For some years a neutral (UK-based) judge was invited to chair. Now the event has become the Six Nations Challenge (with Argentina, Chile and the United States joining in the fray) and the judging methodology has been adjusted to limit the chances of a wine with a high score from one judge but minimal support from the group usurping a class, a greater sense of balance prevails.

Results announced in Sydney in early October showed that South Africa, together with New Zealand, dominated the trophies (though we still lag behind in overall country points). John Loubser’s Silverthorn The Green Man Blanc de Blanc MCC 2011 won its class, the trophy for the best white wine of show and shared the trophy for the best wine in the competition. South Africa’s other trophy winners were Tokara’s Elgin Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Stark-Conde’s Three Pines Cabernet 2011 and KWV’s The Mentor’s Petit Verdot 2012. South Africa was also overall class winner in single White Varieties, White Blends, and Shiraz and we shared the honours in the Bordeaux blend category. Altydgedacht, The Foundry, Eagles’ Nest, Mulderbosch, Paul Cluver, Delaire-Graff, Vergelegen, Cederberg, Mount Sutherland, Vriesenhof, Eikendal and Tokara won double golds while several more took home gold medals.

For the full results go to

BD Platter 2015 311014

The 2015 Platter Guide is now out, and with it the list of Five Star laureates. Ask most producers which of the various industry awards they would rather win, and a Platter Five star is right up there with Nobel prizes and Angelina Jolie (or Brad Pitt – depending on your preferences) as a blind date. However, for the past couple of years the results have been published to less than resounding applause. The increase in the number of wines making it past the gatekeepers could not be explained solely in terms of the palpable improvement in what is being produced in Cape vineyards.

In 2004, only 17 wines made the cut. By 2008 this had become 20. By 2010 this had gone up to 39 and in 2011 56. Last year the 2014 edition came out with 80 (including the new brandy category). Relative to the stringent criteria which had previously kept numbers down to under 0.5% of the total number of wines tasted, this was clearly too many. J.P Roussouw (of the eponymous food guide), who has taken over as publisher following Diners Club’s purchase of the industry’s most best known wine book, recognised that something needed to be done to restore rigour to the selection.

An entirely new Five Star judging process was introduced this year. It has been successful in reducing the number of laureates (only 50). Judging from the list of wines which made the cut, it has produced a very credible looking line-up. Of course, without knowing which nominees never made the grade, one can’t be sure. This is why it is important to understand what changed in how the selection process was conducted – and then to ask the question of whether it raised the standard, or simply culled a higher number of candidates.

Here I must declare my hand. Last year I made it clear that I thought the escalation in numbers was indefensible, in part because progress alone demands that the bar should constantly be raised. No one seriously expected that the Five Star winners would always hover around the 20 – 25 mark, but three to four times that number was plainly a sign that the currency had been devalued. I contributed (together with many of the Guide’s tasters) to the discussion around how the Five Star selection (which is conducted blind) could be managed to produce a fair and credible result. In the end, groups of three judges focused on the categories they understood best. They were assisted by two roving chairmen – of which I was one – to mediate, and to help calibrate across the different classes.

Now that I have seen the results, I am in no doubt that this is a vastly improved outcome.  Eben Sadie has repeated his 2010 triumph as Winery of the Year, DeMorgenzon its 2014 victory in the white wine category while De Trafford took line honours with the red wine of the year. If you look at the list of producers who have made the cut, they are pretty much the group you would expect to see. Alheit, Boekenhoutskloof, Delaire, Thelema, Vilafonte, Vergelegen, Kanonkop, David Sadie, Mullineux, Flagstone. Reyneke, Newton Johnson, Le Riche, Stark-Conde, Warwick, Nederburg, Boplaas, The Foundry, Nuy, De Krans, Hartenberg, Richard Kershaw, Graham Beck, Nederburg and Buitenverwachting. There also noteworthy omissions – KWV The Mentors, Paul Cluver and Jordan come to mind – but it is better for all that the floodgates have been closed.

For the full list of the 2015 Five Star wines go to

With 80 as opposed to the 62 laureates of last year, it’s clear that the Platter panelists weren’t scraping around for worthy bottles.

This is a list which has grown consistently in numbers over the past decade, well ahead of the rate of increase of labels in the South African market. As recently as the 2004 edition there were a mere 17, and in 2008, 20. In 2010 the number had risen to 39 and in 2011 to 56.

BD Unusual Varieties 071114

The unusual thing about wines made from unusual varieties is that instead of their being attractive to punters because of their rarity, they usually languish unloved and unsold. Take nebbiolo for example. There are a few producers in South Africa working with what is conceivably Italy’s most important premium cultivar. Almost all of them do a pretty creditable job. Three at least are potentially exceptional (depending on vintage). Morgenster has just released its 2012 (under the proprietary name of Nabucco). It is a bigger and more intense wine than the delicious and more forward 2011 and will need a few more years before it yields the same seductive textures and aromas.

At this stage the 2012 is closer in style to the great Barolos and Barbarescos on which it has been modelled, though it sells for a fraction of the price. (This does not mean that it is cheap, by the way: expect to pay about R300 per bottle and to have a comparable time before you can plunder your purchase). The 2011 was more approachable – though not in any way simple. Yet despite the fact that production is limited and the 2011 was comfortably the most accessible vintage released by the cellar, at least 20% of the original stock remained unsold at the time the 2012 was released.

Morgenster’s proprietor, Giulio Bertrand, appears not to be in the least put out by this – he aims to hold back roughly this amount every year so that he can build up an aged release programme (exactly as he has done with the more sought-after Bordeaux blend). What surprised me was that the entire harvest had not been sold out within a month or two of release. Given its obvious quality, the rarity of nebbiolo in South Africa, and its competitive pricing vis a vis imports from Italy, I had expected demand to make more of a dent in the production.

Talk to John Loubser at Steenberg, and you will discover the same trend: the fabulous Steenberg Nebbiolo is one of the cellar’s slowest moving wines, relative to the amount made every year. Despite consistently high ratings, and a sales force that has no difficulty placing far greater volumes of more popular (or simply better known) varieties, Steenberg’s nebbiolo only trickles out of the cellar.

Bouchard Finlayson’s solution to its admittedly minuscule nebbiolo production is to include it with other (equally obscure – at least to South Africans) varieties like sangiovese and barbera in a compote with three slightly less arcane French cultivars. It has taken many years and much critical success to achieve solid sales for what we all know now as a wine called Hannibal. It’s clear that these relatively unknown cultivars don’t attract much of an audience in their own right.

You could argue that Morgenster’s Bertrand is something of a masochist when it comes to hard-to-sell varieties – given that in addition to the nebbiolo he has also planted sangiovese. Sold as Morgenster Tosca (in a blend of 60% sangiovese, 20% cabernet and 20% merlot – effectively a super-tuscan), the 2012 is far and away the best release to date, and at under R200 per bottle infinitely better value than the Italian counterparts in the market. Like the Nabucco, it’s a slow sell, even to aficionados.

Talk to the country’s few surviving riesling producers and you will hear the same story. Ask the KWV how easy it has been to sell its award-winning petit verdot and the answer, unsurprisingly, will be that the very small amount produced comfortably lasts the 12 months from the one release date to the next. Feiteras, which sometimes makes a world-class verdelho, is not fighting off punters trying to get an allocation, nor is Overgaauw, which produces South Africa’s only sylvaner. (It’s consistently good, and it’s been in the market for almost 40 years). Theres only one conclusion that can be drawn from this: South African wine lovers prefer their vinous rarities to lie along well trodden paths.

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