Platter 11 December 2019

The latest edition of the Platter Guide has just been published, together with its ever-growing list of Five Star laureates. While the book is certainly no longer the Spoken Word it used to be many years ago, it continues to be a valuable source of rankings and ratings. It is also as much a perpetrator of score devaluation (or point inflation) as most of the industry’s tasting panels. With 125 five star awards this year compared with fewer than 40 ten years ago, it’s impossible to ignore the bracket creep. In 2015, 63 wines met the (admittedly vague) criteria for five stars. Wines scoring 4 stars and above totalled 1945 out of 7300 wines reviewed. For this edition the four star and above categories have seen a 67% increase on that number, while the Five Star awards have ‘merely’ doubled. Sadly, the 2020 Platter ratings are edging closer and closer to Veritas, which this year yielded 1411 medals from an entry of 1491. Even a matric certificate is worth more.

There are many wine drinkers who think the Platter Five Star awards represent an absolute standard, that they are not arbitrary, and not subject to the pendulum of fashion. They are mistaken, for several reasons. Cape wine quality improves every year. This presents judges with the problem of whether to raise the bar (unfair to those targeting past standards) or to keep it where it was (unfair to consumers whose expectations have advanced in line with the improvement in Cape wines.)

Then – and this is very important – aesthetic criteria are subjective, so the stylistic choices made by judges or judging panels reflect their preferences. A quick look through the list of wines the Guide has now given its top accolade to shows a strong bias towards small batch artisanal selections. While they may indeed be wonderfully crafted, and very exciting, they are not necessarily better than the wines which come from the Cape’s historic properties. To argue otherwise would be to suggest that fine Burgundy, which comes from tiny sites and is mainly produced in artisanal cellars, is necessarily better than Classed Growth Bordeaux which is grown, made and bottled on great estates.

While the Platter Five Star judges don’t know anything about the production volumes of the wines in front of them, the first round tasters, who are the gatekeepers deciding whether or not to submit the wines to the Five Star (blind) tasting, certainly do. Presented with an array of wines from one of the “rockstar” cellars, the primary taster is unlikely to consider many (if any) of them unworthy of consideration for five stars. This means that a disproportionately large number of these small batch production wines occupy the tasting benches at the Five Star judging. Often the same judges who submitted them (sighted) to the final round tasting are on the panels which make the Five Star call. Statistically, a high number will make the Five Star cut. By way of an example: this year the Guide gave Five Star awards to four different chenin blancs from David & Nadia – all no doubt worthy, none produced in quantities of more than a few barrels. This is not to diminish David & Nadia’s achievement, or even (in this case) to question the value of the award: merely to challenge the usefulness of the accolade to wine drinkers (and perhaps partly to explain the proliferation of laureates.)

The Platter Guide is not a wine show. It does its best to judge everything in the industry. Its universe is therefore greater than any other ratings agency: it reviews over 6000 wines every year, unlike even the biggest competitions which consider an entry of between 1000 and 2000 submissions. Many of the wines presented to the Guide’s panellists are never submitted to competitions. In most cases, this hardly matters, but there are also the small-batch geeky wines which must be taken seriously. Balancing the recognition due to them with the recognition due to the high-end prestige cellars is never easy. My impression this year is that the end result reflects an excessive swing away from styles – and wineries – whose best wines are no less impressive but which are produced in larger-than-ultra-boutique quantities.

This is particularly evident when you look at the retail pricing of the Five Star laureates (from before they collected the award). Port2Port lists many of them, and they range in price from R120 per bottle for the Laing’s Semillon (from the Anthonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope winery) to R3500 per bottle for Sadie’s Paladius. Over 60% of them sell for R450 or more. This suggests a high percentage of wines produced in very small quantities – and therefore a preference (from the Guide’s perspective) for a craft style.

What, you may ask, are the editors of the Guide to do? They ensure that whatever is submitted to them is judged – without fear or favour, or even the payment of an entry charge (unlike WineMag, whose shareholders wanted to limit commentary about wines on the site only to those for which producers had paid a submission fee). Their tasters have soldiered their way through many wines over many years. Pure economics means that those who judge for Platter will all be Cape-based, which means they are more exposed than wine drinkers anywhere else in the country (including Gauteng – where over 60% of the country’s premium wines are consumed) to geeky wines, and the value system by which they are judged. To revert to the earlier analogy, they are like Burgundians judging Burgundy when presented with these small batch treasures: they are not in the Bordeaux headspace when it comes to considering other submissions.

The answer isn’t obvious – but it is worth noting that shortage is a key factor in the way a producer determines the price point of a wine he wishes to sell for more than R300. It also plays a part in the way the primary taster thinks about the wine. It’s not easy to keep back from the Five Star tasting wines made by “rockstar” producers who are currently in fashion, and whose pricing suggests that they believe their creations deserve the highest possible ratings. If enough of these wines are submitted by primary tasters to the Five Star blind tasting, statistically they are likely to dominate the results. Way too many of the Platter Five Star laureates occupy this rarified space.

Ideally we all need to stop thinking of the Five Star wines as objectively assessed inhabitants of some vinous hall of fame. There is no doubt that the Platter Guide is the most complete resource of its kind available in South Africa – and possibly one of the best in the world. However, it is not infallible, nor are the boundaries between 4, 4.5 and 5 stars etched in a clear black border line. Wine is performance art, and so is wine judging. It can never be susceptible to objective criteria. It’s not the fault of the Guide that we persist in imbuing it with divine insight. But its publishers and the producers – all of whom are driven by the imperative to sell – must share some responsibility for the height of the pedestal and the reverence accorded to the golden calf which stands atop its plinth.

Restless River 4 December 2019

It’s easy to recognise a blockbuster wine for what it is: there are powerful wood and fruit flavours, it’s juicy and brash. The other side of the spectrum is not as easily defined – a fine line divides elegant/refined from insubstantial and bland. But certainty about what describes these broad categories doesn’t help when it comes to aesthetic judgement. Wines which are less in-you-face are not always better, while blockbuster wines can very well done. Those which launched South Australia onto the world map may have been obvious and oaky in their youth, but anyone who has sampled a fully mature Grange would agree it’s a great and unique expression of the winemaker’s art.

“Flashy” and “showy” are descriptors which used to apply more generally to New World wines. Lately however, there are serious French properties releasing wines with very visible new wood aromas (together with the elevated alcohols which come from the impact of climate change). There are also New World producers where the opposite applies, who go to great lengths to ensure that the bouquet does not depend on the choice of cooper, whose wines convey their aesthetic message in an understated and subtle way.

This is not always easy for them. The finesse associated with great wines recognised for their subtlety, energy and refinement is the result of a multitude of factors, of which ancient vineyards whose fruit delivers more concentrated and intense flavours is one.  Soil and climate do not necessarily divide the Old World from the New – but centuries of viticultural and winemaking experience of a site certainly do.

From a consumer perspective, the long-established classics come with the guarantee of pedigree. Wine lovers are more likely to age them long enough to obtain the full expression of the terroir. This puts the New World at something of a disadvantage: how are consumers, confronting a new release from a new site, supposed to know that the seemingly anodyne young wine will transform into a thing of beauty? If there’s nothing evident in those first few years after the vintage, and no history which encourages serious cellaring, why waste the space and effort in the off-chance of a fabulous outcome?

There is another, darker side to this coin: in the absence of a track record, winemakers can make promises about future potential based on nothing more than wishful thinking (a positive take), selling enthusiasm (a neutral take) or shady barrow-boy tactics (a not-improbable but negative take). By the time the punter finds that his vinous treasure has not so much flown as plummeted it’s too late.

There’s no simple barometer to serve as a guide. Craig and Anne Wessels have been making wine at Restless River in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley for about 15 years. In that time they have acquired a loyal following which takes up their production religiously every year. “Religiously” is not a term used frivolously: it requires something of an act of faith to see in their wines at the time of release the prospective depth and complexity which might emerge several years hence.

What you get now is a finely crafted, if somewhat elusive, pure expression – of cultivar rather than of place. Craig is not seeking the easy, showy way forward. He uses very little new wood, so the Chardonnay (Ave Marie) is not brash or oaky, and it comes without the easy-to-understand notes of butterscotch and marzipan. It is more lime than tropical, more fresh and savoury than plush and creamy. The Pinot Noir (Le Luc) has black cherry notes rather than the softer bruised strawberry aromas.

The 2017s have just come to market, and are still a little angular. Craig reckons they need at least another year before they begin opening up. No one buying red or white Burgundy from a village grower would expect to drink the wine before it was three to five years old. New World producers, helping to shape and grow new appellations, don’t enjoy the same licence.

Spanish Wine 27 November 2019

Pretty much everyone agrees that the Cape wine industry is a vastly different proposition today compared with the 1990s. We take this for granted, having witnessed its achievements close-up and on an on-going basis over the period. It’s a little like being aware of – rather than tracking – the minutiae of your kids growing up. You’re certainly more conscious of change when your exposure to it follows extended absences. You don’t expect to recognise your cousin’s children – who have been living feral in the Appalachians – when you see them for the first time in two decades.

This is what happens to our sense of “foreign” wines – meaning, most particularly wines which were less known (or understood) when we first encountered them, and which have remained largely beyond our ken ever since. This is most obviously true of Central and Eastern European wines. There were very few to be found in South Africa before the Wall came down, and not many more now, 30 years later.

Spain isn’t quite as alien or exotic as Slovenia or Georgia, but it’s also not the heart of the Medoc. There’s been decent Rioja in South Africa for more than 50 years, and sherry has been part of the wine scene in South Africa probably since the British arrived for the Battle of Muizenberg. Today there are probably 150 different Spanish wines available, from three or four different importers. Sherry, sadly, has suffered the massive attrition. Once upon a time no decent establishment could operate without Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Now you simply cannot find it anywhere. Tio Pepe – the best known of the dry and delicate Finos – is still available, together with a range of all the special premium bottlings from Gonzalez Byass. There is also a small range from Lustau, while Douglas Green continues to source its own brand from a bodega in Jerez.

Very people South Africans give this most extraordinary of beverages the attention it deserves. Dry sherry evolves in cask under a blanket of white indigenous yeast (called “flor”) which converts it biologically – as opposed to oxidatively – from a young, slightly sour wine to a stony, nutty and intensely complex refreshing aperitif. Small though the market is, there are occasional supplies of “en rama” (unfiltered) and select single casks. Few cost more than R500, except for the richer, more intense styles – amontillado, oloroso and Pedro Ximinez – but then they will have been in cask for at least 30 years.

On the wine front there are several different brands from Rioja. These include Muga, La Rioja Alta, Marques de Riscal, (pretty much the original producer from a region developed in the second half of the 19th century by Bordeaux growers fleeing the plagues of oidium and phylloxera) and Beronia. All share in common the characteristically vanilla-and-coconut notes derived from American oak barrels, all are made predominantly from tempranillo grapes, all are savoury, dry and never heavier than medium-bodied. The same variety accounts for most of the reds from the Ribera del Duero, a region which is home to Vega Sicilia, one of Spain’s truly legend wines. You will need at least R2k to buy a youthful example of the “Valbuena” and more than double that for the more famous “Unico.”

There are other regions (such as Priorat), styles (such as Cava) and a variety of cultivars fighting to get a look into the South African market: godello and mencia from Bierzo, grenache (known as garnacha) and tempranillo from old vineyards in the north, with some fine examples sold – literally for a pittance – at Checkers, and perhaps, most interestingly, albarino from Rias Baixas in Galicia. This last mentioned is Spain’s answer to Chablis: crisp, flinty and dry – the perfect accompaniment to prawns and oysters. Fresh and with lovely intensity, it has inspired several South Africa producers to plant experimental blocks and to give us an alternative to unwooded chardonnay and aggressively green sauvignon blanc.

Lomond and old wines 13 November 2019

Sometimes we forget that while it’s useful to age table wine for a while, great wine must be matured to reveal its full spectrum of flavours. This distinction – between everyday wine and the more serious bottles – is not always evident, though you would be forgiven for thinking that price alone should provide a clear enough indication. Table wine is supposed to be a decent enough beverage that might survive many years in bottle without actually evolving. The better stuff is supposed to “pay rent in your cellar” by transforming from cygnet to swan.

Predicting the potential of a young wine is an act of augury. The basic building blocks required for ageing must be in place, but after that, there’s more guess work than science. It helps if you know the pedigree: vineyards which have long yielded age-worthy wines are liklely to continue to do so. For those without a track record you may as well look at the entrails of a chicken to determine their prospects.

The table wine industry obtains most of its fruit from high yielding irrigated vineyards. Well-managed cellars convert the grape juice into a chemically stable fermented beverage remiscent of the grapes from which it was produced. However, if the fruit has no intrinsic personality, even the best winemaker cannot make of it what was never there. The fine wine industry faces a different challenge: how to preserve in the wine the nuances imbued by site and thoughtful viticulture.

Recent changes at Lomond, near Gansbaai, provide an insight into the importance of having a winery in close proximity to the vineyards, and designed specifically around the fruit it’s intended to process. The property has long enjoyed a reputation – mainly for its white wines – despite subcontracting production to a large commercial winery at least 150 kms distant. Really good fruit, refrigerated trucking, and a quality commitment from all the parties in the value chain meant that Lomond made award-winning wines despite the hurdles and impediments of the long distance and less-than-specialised production process.

Now owner David Mostert has taken the plunge and built a winery at the property, where Hannes Meyer has full control from the vineyard-to-bottle. The results are palpable. The 2019 is visibly better than the 2018 and 2017 (though both the earlier vintages are very good). Arguably some of this improvement could be vintage-related, though since it is textural (rather than aromatic) my money is on the role played by the cellar itself. I’ve not yet sampled the 2019 reds. I suspect that the same will be true – though, because they are less fragile, perhaps not to quite the same extent. The older vintages are pretty smart already, especially the Cat’s Tail Syrah 2015 and the Conebush Syrah 2015.

All these are relatively young wines, from cooler sites, which means they will be slower evolving that those from warmer regions. Those willing to age them further will need patience and a measure of luck. If you seek certainty it’s best to go for wines where others have carried the maturation risk. The recent pre-sale tasting for the Cape Fine & Rare wine auction showed what is possible in this regard. If you are lucky enough to come across well-stored bottles of Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1995, Vriesenhof Cabernet 2003, Zonnebloem Shiraz 1987, Nederburg Auction Cabernet 1971 and Stellenryck 1989 – amongst the much older examples – don’t hesitate: you’re in for a treat.

Amongst the younger (but still non-current) examples that should be easy enough to find, and are worth the effort of tracking down, you might add the following to your wish list: Perdeberg’s Dry Land Chenin Blanc 2011, Boschkloof’s Epilogue 2014, Lismore’s 2014 Syrah, Kershaw’s Chardonnay 2015 and Elgin Syrah 2012, Eikendal’s Infused by Earth Chardonnay 2016, Longridge’s Clos de Ciel Chardonnay 2013, Rijk’s Pinotage 2008, DeMorgenzon’s The Divas 2013, Vergelegen’s GVB 2005 and Vilafonte’s Series C 2005. Happily, there are more good wines about than time and opportunity to consume them.

KWV 6 November 2019

The KWV has come a long way in the past two decades. For most of the 20th century it served the interests of politicians and producers, rather than wine drinkers. As the national wine cooperative, it enjoyed untrammelled statutory powers, partly because it was obliged to act as the buyer of last resort. Deregulation enabled it to convert to a commercial enterprise, but (obviously) shackled it to the rules of the market-place. Like a long-term prisoner released from the routine of institutional incarceration, it wandered around in something of a daze for several years.

It battled to obtain commercial traction for its brands in the local market. Management had assumed that since “KWV” was a household name, people would flock to buy anything which came from its cellars. They did not understand that route to market counted for more than brand recognition. They also failed to recognise that big blends produced from surpluses and designed for dumping in export markets would not find instant appeal amongst local consumers spoilt for choice as a result of a fragmented production sector.

It took time to identify why it wasn’t succeeding, and even longer to make the necessary structural changes. Since 1918 the KWV had operated in an artificial world in which the laws of (commercial) gravity did not apply. In many ways, the discovery roughly fifteen years ago that the winemaking team had been applying illegal solutions to the problem of defective quality proved the first step towards fixing the whole organisation. In the purges that followed, fresh expertise (and finally new shareholders) came on board.

The KWV is now operationally a leaner and more focused business. The winemaking team which replaced the crooks and charlatans is alert to smart production strategies and the expectations of the market. Nowhere is this more visible than in the latest releases in The Mentor’s range.

The brand itself initially tracked the same problems experienced by the long-established KWV ranges. It was conceived by Richard Rowe, the Australian consultant brought in to clean up the winemaking operations, and named (presumably) in celebration of how the new winemaking competence was being built from the ground up. Unsurprisingly, the market simply didn’t get it. The labels still bore the KWV name (they don’t anymore) but the look was clean and classy. The wines however could not be ignored. They won medals – serious medals – wherever they were entered into shows.

In the decade or so since their first release they have become more refined – a reflection of what has been happening at the winemaker level, and a better directed relationship between fruit sources and and the cellar. When The Mentors was launched, Richard Rowe was the hands-on presence in the winery. He passed the baton to Johann Fourie and their protege Izele van Blerk. Fourie left in 2016. At that point, the original mentee became the mentor.

Van Blerk’s latest bottlings are all very good. The 2018 Grenache Blanc is fresh, textured, and precise, its maturation potential confirmed by the aged release of the 2015, a richer and more complete version of the same wine. At R125 per bottle, it’s hard to imagine a better buy. The 2018 Chenin is also very fine, but will also need a little time in bottle to reveal its full potential.

Among the reds (priced from R280 up to R600), there are several wines worth tracking down. The 2017 Cabernet Franc, the 2017 Petit Verdot and the 2017 Orchestra (Bordeaux blend) were my preferred wines in the standard range. A step up (so R530) will take you to the Perold, a Cape blend comprising mainly a third each pinotage, cabernet and shiraz. Finally, if you’ve just won the lotto, you could do worse than buy the Limited Release Carmenere (one of only a few single bottlings of this almost unknown Bordeaux variety in South Africa). The purchase will relieve you of R650, but in return it will give you a wine that is bright, savoury and beautifully refined.

Qvevri and Klein Constantia 30 October 2019

The line-up of wines on my tasting bench appeared almost a coincidence: they had arrived from the producers’ cellars a couple of days earlier, and because they were not destined for blind tasting they were put out alongside each other. Three were from Fairview, the final one from Klein Constantia. The Fairview wines were all part of a new passion of the ever-creative Charles Back: vinification in the most ancient of all winemaking vessels, Georgian qvevri (or kvevri). The Klein Constantia was the latest release (the 2016) of the estate’s most famous wine, the Vin de Constance.

The juxtaposition was thought-provoking. Wine has been made and buried in qvevri for at least 2600 years. Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance is certainly South Africa’s oldest wine brand from our earliest area of origin – it’s as original as any post-medieval wine. Before qvevri – and perhaps leading to the idea of qvevri – grapes would have been left to decay in clay vessels, and the resulting juice extracted before the flies and oxygen had turned all of it to vinegar. Before Vin de Constance became the most famous wine on the planet – fetching more on auction than even the best known French examples – origin and authenticity counted for little in the world of wine.

I first encountered fermentation in terracotta amphorae at Quinta do Carmo in Alentejo in Portugal almost 30 years ago. In the days before temperature-controlled vinifications the insulating properties of the clay played an important role in warmer climate regions.  Unlike the Georgians, the Portuguese didn’t bury their terracotta vessels and they chose to leave the top of the pot open to allow the carbon dioxide gas to escape. They also transferred the wine to barrel as soon as the fermentation was complete.

The Georgians didn’t have barrels, and archaeological evidence suggests that the original winemakers were migrants. Presumably they returned many months later, exhumed their qvevri, separated the wine from the pomace of skins, pips and stalks, and then consumed it. Some modern day Georgians still persist in using this original “Kakhetian” production method; others have chosen to make less tannic and less chewy wines.

You may ask what would possess any 21st century winemaker to revert to a style which was last fashionable when Nebuchadnezzar ruled over Babylon. The answer is that skin-contact white wine is now very much a la mode and careful qvevri vinification achieves an extraordinary purity. Charles Back traveled to Georgia to know more about how the wines were made, and to source a container-load of qvevri for his Paarl winery. All of the current release Fairview Obscura wines are now made in the Georgian style.

There are two whites (a semillon and a blend) and one red. The semillon’s cut-hay aromas have clearly been magnified by the vinification method. The white blend is richer and less edgy, delivering a faintly sherry-like bouquet and a fuller mouthfeel. The red is surprisingly fresh, with crushed berry notes and a Beaujolais-like zestiness. All three are intriguing: they are certainly not intended for everyday quaffing (the R180 – R280 price-point should make clear) but if you are in a wine-geeky mood, you’ll find them aesthetically engaging.

And so to the latest (2016) Vin de Constance – the 5th vintage since the estate came under new ownership. It may be the best of the modern era. The muscat notes are subdued, but very present, the fruit quality is hauntingly precise, the sweetness so well contained in the tensioned freshness that at times it seems almost evanescent. It’s perfectly delicious – which poses something of a problem: Vin de Constance is pretty much immortal. I’ve sampled several 18th century bottles and I was also recently part of the team which recorked three relatively modern (1821) ones.

If you really want to drink the 2016 at its peak, perhaps you should begin harvesting your stem cells: you’ll need all the elixirs of modern medicine to keep going till the latter part of the 22nd century.

Pinot Single Site 23 October 2019

Anthony Hamilton Russell can rightly claim to be one of the senior statesmen in the world of Cape pinot and chardonnay – so he was speaking with some authority when he observed recently that neither of the two burgundy varieties has attracted the attention of the Cape’s “New Wave” winemakers. There are a few exceptions: Leon Coetzee at Fledge & Co has been making pinot noir for years; Mullineuxs offer a fine Stellenbosch chardonnay in their Leeu Passant range.

 

New Wave is largely identified with older, generally virus-resistant vineyards. Look down any list of single variety or New Wave blends and (with the exception of chenin) the Mediterranean, rather than continental France, rules supreme. Excluding chenin, grenache (red and white), cinsaut, mourvedre, shiraz, and clairette blanche account for 80% of what’s on offer. Mainstream international varieties – cabernet, merlot, riesling, malbec, as well as pinot, chardonnay, pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc, hardly feature at all.

 

This is not really surprising. Most of these so-called “noble cultivars” are prone to virus – which means that there are very few healthy old vineyards. The fruit from these sites  sells for a great deal more than the Young Guns were able to afford, especially when they were starting out. Then, to get the most from chardonnay and pinot you need decent barrels – not all necessarily new. For a young craft winemaker without serious financial backing trying to produce great wine, deluxe oak is an expense best avoided.

Nowadays, especially for millennials, “craft” has become the single most important attribute driving the purchase of alcoholic beverages: craft gin, craft beer and craft wine have taken off while big brands (whether as producer names or the varieties which go into the bottle) have had to shift their focus to other consumers. The craft Cape wine sector is booming – or at least appears to be (since you cannot conclude from the on-shelf pricing how well a small wine business is actually doing). New Wave producers have more wines priced for R400 a bottle or more than all the grand cellars of Stellenbosch combined.

Pinot Noir is the variety selling in the same bracket as the most sought after wines at the top-end of the craft wine sector. There are very few on shelf for less than R250 and several where you won’t get any change for R500. Until recently, shelling out that kind of money for pinots (most of which were either from young or else from virus-infected vineyards) made no sense to me. Young vines yield simple, pretty fruit; wines from virused vines show discernible stress notes: what lands up in the glass lacks the charm and finesse which are the hallmarks of good pinot noir.

Lately however there have been several very classy pinots on the market. Besides the usual suspects – Hamilton Russell, Cluver Seven Flags and Bouchard Finlayson Tete de Cuvée – there are specialists like Peter-Allan and Andrew Finlayson’s Crystallum (Peter Max, Cuvée Cinema and Mabalel), and the Newton Johnsons (Seadragon and Windandsea). There are also cellars where pinot enjoys a special place, and the kind of focus necessary if you wish to avoid pedestrian wine: Radford Dale (AD and Freedom), Creation, La Vierge, Cape Chamonix and lately, Andrew Gunn’s Iona.

I recently tasted a couple of pre-release examples of the 2017 vintage made from almost adjacent single sites at Iona in Elgin – two vineyards called Kloof and Kroon. Both differ markedly from each other, suggesting that the term “terroir” is meaningful in this context. One is palpably “earthier” while the other has an almost crystalline purity. Both will be released before the end of the year.

I suspect that with a total production of only one barrel each they’ll vanish as quickly as the Guptas, despite a proposed R600 per bottle price tag. They are likely to cement Elgin’s and Iona’s reputation for the so-called “heart-break grape,” as well as adding to the growing fascination with single site wines.

Kanonkop 16 October 2019

The annual Kanonkop vintage release evening is one of those events on the calendar worth taking seriously: in addition to a complete line-up of all the latest vintages, there are several aged releases available in limited quantities, and a couple of even older wines on the tasting tables “to make pleasure” as the French would say. There is also the entertainment value of the Kanonkop team’s roadshow itself. Co-proprietor Johann Krige’s dour, dry take on things is as disarmingly funny as it is meant to be; winemaker Abrie Beeslaar’s seemingly bland tale of the travails of the vintage is both informative and entertaining.

This year’s dog-and-pony show had its own personality: Summer Place, which has been home to bash for several years consigned Kanonkop to a section of the property that was invisible from the parking lot. Signage would have helped, but clearly the excitement of the other booking (which demanded exclusive use of the main entrance) caused the venue to forget this common courtesy. Making my way down the pitch-dark, unevenly surfaced, narrow pathway to what I think was called the pool house, I reflected on how easily venue owners neglect to value their regular/return customers because a once-off international organisation waves a little hard currency at them. Johann was gracious about it, though he urged guests en route to the traditional snoekbraai to keep away from the rest of the property because the international guests didn’t want contact with the locals. I’m fairly certain that the Hotel Crillon would not have treated Chateau Lafite Rothschild in the same way in Paris.

Kanonkop is to South African wine what Lafite is to the French. No one seriously disputes its place at the pointy end of the pyramid. It’s a proper estate – so all of the grapes that go into the Kanonkop (not Kadette) range come off the property. It’s had only three winemakers since it first bottled its own production in 1973. Accordingly each knew and understood the terrain and its potential. Over the almost fifty vintages that Kanonkop has been bottling wines there has been a gradual and strategic evolution. New wood came into the cellar gradually, the creation of a second label ensured that only the best fruit from the best blocks went into the grand vin. Alcohol levels came up a little over the years, but are now edging slowly downwards. When Beyers Truter was in charge of the cellar, he reinvented pinotage – for Kanonkop and for South Africa. This was particularly evident at the launch this year of the Black Label 2017: sumptuous, yet precise, it makes it almost impossible to imagine a time when to have a pinotage as your flagship wine would have been inconceivable.

Some of the changes have been more subtle: a new crush cellar was built a couple of years back and its influence on the wines has been subtle, but profound: the tannins, in particular, are finer, more powdery. They fill out the textures with a savoury richness. This was particularly evident in the Black Label pinotage and must have played a part in the structure of the 2018 Kadette Cabernet, which is delicious (and offers extraordinary value). It doesn’t however explain the 2016 Paul Sauer (the last harvest processed in the old facility). It may be the best the estate has produced, despite the difficulties of the vintage.

Emile Joubert has written a sumptuously illustrated book about the estate, and it was launched at the same event. It talks about the history the culture, defining components of the DNA of the property and its wines. Other proprietors would never have managed to extract from the site the results achieved by the Kriges. Their vision has been precise, and theier dedication to it unrelenting. Unlike corporates, they’ve not permitted the temptations of a quick return to interfere with the route they’ve chosen. They make very few mistakes. They do what they do, very well indeed, and they let time do the rest.

Cape Fine and Rare Auction 9 October 2019

The final wine auction of this year’s Cape season takes place at the Rembrandt Museum on 19th September. While it goes under the name of the Cape Fine and Rare Wine Auction, it’s actually the successor to the Nederburg Auction, hosted under a wider-brimmed industry hat. This is no bad thing: while the Nederburg Auction dates back to 1975 and has been through a number of iterations, it was in need of more than a cosmetic face lift. The evolution of the wine industry in the 45 years has been substantial. The number of privately owned wineries has increased seven or eightfold. There are now around 9000 wine labels in the trade. Nederburg may still be the biggest premium wine brand in the country, but the centre of gravity of the fine wine trade has moved considerably.

Distell Ltd, Nederburg’s ultimate owner, has been acutely aware of the shift in the balance of power. Millennials everywhere seek craft and boutique in preference to corporate and industrial. This means that they would rather take their chances with artisanal production than seek out the security of brand. The appeal of Nederburg means less to them than it did to their parents. For the producers who for over 40 years submitted their wines for inclusion in the Paarl sale, the shadow of Big Brother was beginning to loom uncomfortably large over the event. It’s one thing to agree to sell wines to the audience which Distell’s deep pockets attracted to the auction. It’s another to lose your identity under a brand umbrella ranked in the Top 50 most admired wine names in the world.

The new auction has been designed to catch the zeitgeist. If big used to be beautiful and small is now a la mode, the Cape Fine and Rare Sale has embraced the change with almost too much enthusiasm. In its heyday the Nederburg Auction saw over 50000 litres of wine change hands every year. Much of what went under the hammer came from the Nederburg cellar, special blends and special bottlings intended for a collectors’ market but increasingly disposed of in retail and on the wine-lists of hotels and franchise food chains. The catalogue of the 2019 Cape Fine Wine Auction contains a fraction of this volume: a mere 3000 litres are on offer, the equivalent of a little over 300 dozen, with many of the wines available in quantities of 12 bottles or less. Much of what was submitted comes from the producers’ private “library” stocks: it is unlikely that parcels such as these will be seen again on a sale – unless investors bring them back to auction at some stage in the future. The term “rare” is certainly not being used frivolously.

The term “fine” is less easily measured, since subjectivity plays a role. As a member of the panel which made the final selection I cannot pretend to impartiality on the subject. I can however point out that I worked with Cathy van Zyl MW and Francois Rautenbach, that we aimed for consensus rather than majority decisions, that we included brand reputation (since this affects investment potential) in our considerations and that we rejected significantly more wine than we accepted.

Among the casualties were a number of Libertas Vineyards/Nederburg products – which proves that although Distell is still footing the bill, it has been meticulous in not using the auction as a platform for its own wines. Instead, it has been true to its avowed aim of giving the Cape wine industry a platform from which to present its collectibles to the world. It’s also clear that the country’s producers have accepted this in good faith. Virtually every player of note – from New Wave to classic estates – submitted wines for consideration. The final line-up is an impressive and unprecedented array of the Cape’s best and most fashionable brands.

For more information, and access to the online catalogue go to

https://capefinerarewine.auction/producers/

https://capefinerarewine.auction/registration/

Neil Ellis 2 October 2019

The much-abused term “reinventing the wheel” – together with near synonyms such as “shape-shifter” and “pathfinder” – implies a change so significant that the place arrived at is qualitatively different from wherever anyone had been before. Not just a better wheel, but a wholly re-invented one, an undiscovered country, another dimension. If these terms are not devalued to insignificance, there can be very few re-inventors or shape-shifters in a generation. The metaphorical producer of the “better mousetrap” is unlikely to deserve the sobriquet; Kalashnikov’s tweak to automatic assault rifles was commercially significant – which is why the AK 47 has been so successful – but it was hardly a game-changer compared with the invention of gunpowder or the atomic bomb. Real – rather than incremental – change is rare: Gutenberg and printing, Morse and telecommunications, some unknown ancestor and the wheel.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know at the time the importance of the change: did Gutenberg tap himself on the back and say “I guess that this little invention of mine has vouchsafed me a place in history ahead of Charlemagne, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan.” Today it’s difficult enough for us to imagine a world without the internet: how would we manage the transmission of knowledge if we still depended on scribes?

Some 35 years ago Neil Ellis came up with a idea which suited his particular needs and launched a business on the back of it. In an era when hand-crafted wines could only come from cellars of premium (usually estate) producers, he formulated a plan which enabled him to source the very best grapes and to use them to make wines to sell under his own name. John Platter described back then as “a pioneering concept in the Cape….The rationale is that he can specialise in the cellar while the grower devotes his energies to the vineyard.”

I remember thinking at the time that this was clever, but not all that innovative. Wholesale wineries bought fruit all the time, using their production facilities to make big blends, but also to craft small volume reserve wines. Neil’s point of difference lay in real commitment to vineyards owned by others. In time he attached the identity of the site (as far as the law allowed) to the final bottled product. This was widely done in Burgundy (and still is) and on a small scale in California. I don’t think that he imagined he was creating a model which would lead – through various later innovations – to the single most important transformational change in the modern South African wine industry.

Most of what he produced in those early days was single variety wine: cabernet, riesling and sauvignon blanc. At times he had to blend from two different sites within an area of origin, either to make up volume, or because he needed the flavours and textures of grapes from one producer to complement the fruit from another.

Ellis soon discovered you can’t make good wine without control over the vineyards. His association with Hans-Peter Schroder’s Oude Nektar property – which endured for two decades – yielded palpable improvements. Suddenly there was a solution to the quandary of not owning land. By the late 1990s, when Eben Sadie was ready to create his own enterprise, he knew what was possible. His innovation was qualitative rather than quantitative: taking tiny parcels of single site Swartland grapes, he imbued Cape wines with the excitement and credibility the international market had been waiting for, and providing vital inspiration to the next generation of producers.

Today’s “New Wave” winemakers – of whom the international press has been unstinting in its praise – are the direct descendants of this innovation. It may not be quite the same thing as inventing movable type – but the Neil Ellis’s creative solution to becoming an entrepreneur rather than an employee did more than establish one of the Cape’s great modern cellars: it transformed the wine industry and its international profile.

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