Business Day 9 September 2020

When fellow wine enthusiasts suggest I try a hand-crafted wine made from a surviving block of what was once a high-yielding vineyard which supplied the once-insatiable demand of the Cape brandy industry, my eagerness is usually a little muted. This same (hopefully polite) sense of reservation extends to many of the more pedestrian workhorse reds. I’ve worked in Priorat in Spain where some of the oldest and most photogenic carignan vineyards in the world are to be found. I find it impossible to express unrestrained enthusiasm when reviewing the beverage coaxed from those marvellous gnarled bushvines. The landscape may be harsh and uncompromising: the wines are generally bland and unmemorable.

Not every old vine is an undiscovered vinous treasure, nor are most of the cultivars planted on account of their ability to yield fruit (usually in inverse proportion to the price of grapes) capable of producing anything better than box wine. The blunt but useful expression about silk purses and sow’s ears comes to mind. Sometimes a thoughtful vinification of an obscure but unremarkable variety is fun, and breaks the monotony of bucket-loads of faultlessly produced merlots and shirazes which offer about as much personality as the governance officer of a major bank.

The Alheits put out one such wine a few years ago: called “Vote for Pedro” it came from a tiny parcel of so-called False Pedro vines, a vineyard established far enough back that no one could now be prosecuted for inadvertently planting Galego Dourado thinking it was Pedro Ximenez (hence False Pedro). It was a good enough beverage, and fun to share with friends. No one has since badgered the authorities to permit the cultivation of a few hundred hectares of this Iberian rarity.

This reservation about workhorse varieties should not be taken to include chenin blanc – though it was mercilessly exploited for most of the 20th century. When fashion demanded tanker-loads of sweet fortified wines, or base wine for sweet carbonated fizz, chenin vineyards everywhere were press-ganged into service. The chenin renaissance which began in the early 1990s had an easy run for the first few years: if the vineyard hadn’t been over-cropped, and you were prepared to play with some new oak, or some barrel leesiness, or even a dash of botrytis-infected fruit, you could make a wine which was passably original.

Now we have a better sense of where the best chenin vineyards are located, and a clearer idea of the impact of origin on style, it’s an altogether different game. A dash of oak still adds charm – but not complexity, or edginess, or uniqueness of expression. If you’re hunting today for world-class South African wines, you’ll find chenin blanc disproportionately represented – but then there are more older, virus-free chenin vineyards than of any other variety, and many of our most ambitious winemakers have honed their skills on readily available old vine chenin fruit.

We’re also seeing the reappearance of cinsaut, the workhorse red from the same era. There are far fewer older vineyards, so much of what is trickling onto the market has been made from more recent plantings. So far most of what’s on offer is pretty, rather than profound, and may never match the best of the Cape’s chenins because of the intrinsic shortcomings of the cultivar.

That said, I was forced to reassess my views about colombard – exactly one of those varieties that pretty much lived and died for the now much reduced brandy industry. Alerted to the charms of Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Lowerland Vaalkameel Colombard 2018 by Jancis Robinson (it sells for over £30 per bottle in the UK), I tracked down a case. It was every bit as good as I was promised: concentrated, charged with energy, tense and yet at the same time just rich enough to deliver real dimension. Who ever would have thought that Prieska in the Northern Cape would be the source of what may be the best colombard ever produced, anywhere on this planet?

Business Day 2 September 2020

It’s been a real winter: longer and more relentless than usual, with cold spells more reminiscent of the 1970s than the past few decades of global warming. Covid and the lockdown added a bite to the winter chill, a kind of forced hibernation of the kind our ancestors would have known only too well: nowhere to go, and nothing to forage,

Especially not wine. The puritans of the National Control Command Council made sure that things would be as bleak for the citizens as they were lucrative for their own well-connected cadres. By the time the alcohol ban was lifted, cellars were empty while the bootleggers bank accounts were full. Now is the time to stock up, before the Queen of the Zoll and her cronies contrive another excuse to drive their non-Covid agenda under cover of the Disaster Management Act.

With the change of season, white wine again takes centre stage. This isn’t an absolute rule, merely a statistical certainty. So it may be wise to defer replenishing the reds which gave you comfort through the long nights of the lockdown and instead make sure you have some decent whites to see you to the solstice and beyond.

Wine consumers tend to divide into those who like chardonnay (in which case they don’t really enjoy sauvignon blanc) and vice versa. There are a few crossover points bridging the chasm, such as wood-aged sauvignon blanc, and unoaked chardonnay. The moment I could restart my blind-tasting schedule I aimed straight for these two mainstream varieties.

Unsurprisingly Springfield Estate in Robertson featured high on the sauvignon list. Both the Life from Stone 2020 and the Special Cuvée 2020 scored equally well – as they pretty much always do: Abrie Bruwer knows exactly how to coax intensity and flavour, including a whiff of passion-fruit, from his grapes. I couldn’t discern a huge difference between the two cuvées – this is something that usually becomes more evident as the wine evolves. Both are pitched at much the same price-point – which is only fair for near-identical twins.

It was equally easy to fall for the Bouchard Finlayson Sauvignon 2019: it offers more of the blackcurrant-leaf notes evident in wines from cooler, more maritime sites, coupled with a perfectly controlled, flinty linearity. Steenberg’s Constantia sauvignons were equally striking: the regular 2019 showing lime-blossom and honey-suckle aromas, while the barrel-fermented 2018 Rattlesnake – the highest scoring wine from the tasting – managed to retain these same site-specific notes despite the oak. There’s no doubt the barrels contribute to the complexity, as does the extra ageing: it delivers quince-like intensity and a more complete finish.

The chardonnay line-up was just as satisfying: a truly fabulous 2018 Crocodile’s Lair from Bouchard Finlayson followed by a trio of some of the Cape’s hardest-to-find deluxe whites – the Capensis Chardonnays produced in a joint venture between Antony Beck and Barbara Banke of California’s Jackson Family Vineyards. All were classically styled, with the younger 2017 Silene cuvée not yet quite as interesting as the other two wines, both 2015s.

Winemaker Graham Weerts, ex-South African and now resident in the States, has been crafting this Cape icon since the release of the 2013. The wines are not, and are not meant to be, flamboyant (and they certainly aren’t priced for the faint of heart). They mop up the oak perfectly, with just the faintest hint of burnt match on the Fijnbos 2015. As the older wines show, they need at least five to eight years in bottle.

Except for riesling (whose aficionados are reduced to appeals to St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes) there’s nothing to displace chardonnay from the apex of the white wine pyramid. Its capacity to evolve and gain complexity and nuance is unmatched. Wine-drinkers who remember the badly oaked examples from the 1990s and proudly announce that they won’t drink chardonnay must get over themselves: it’s worth losing a little face to gain the pleasure that lurks in the very best bottles.

 

Business Day 26 August 2020

A recent (unsighted) line-up of current release shirazes a few days back turned out to be a bit of an apples-and-pears exercise. While there’s general agreement that there are two distinct shiraz styles, not all the samples were that easily boxed into these categories. Certainly some were more typical of the Northern Rhone – spicy, quite peppery and perhaps a little austere. Others matched the South-eastern Australian style, big, oaky and quite sumptuous.

There was one which did not seem to me to be vaguely close to either of these broad stereotypes. It was much paler in colour, and perfumed in a way more reminiscent of cinsaut – an impression heightened by its accessible juiciness. There’s no reason why a producer needs to panel-beat his fruit to make the wine fit a mould, except perhaps to avoid the disappointment of the average punter when what emerges from the bottle is unrecognisably different.

Shiraz (or syrah – there’s no difference) lingered in the shadows of most wine producing countries except Australia. In France it was slipped into Bordeaux blends – either legitimately (before the regulations of Appellation Controlee) because it was part of the vineyard plantings, or illicitly, when Rhone or Algerian red was added to weedy light Bordeaux rouge to give it some colour and grip. In South Africa it accounted for less than 1% of the national vineyard until a few decades ago. In the United States eccentrics like Randall Grahm championed its cause – to very mixed results. Even in France, sixty years ago, its share of over 1.4 m hectares of total area under vines came to a mere 1600 hectares.

In the 1990s, as the wine world was tiring of chardonnay, consumers began looking for something to break the monotony of Bordeaux varieties. Shiraz was an obvious candidate. By then Australian wine – much of it shiraz-based – had invaded the markets in Europe and was making inroads into the United States, while Californian Rhone aficionados like Grahm were giving the mid- to high-end trade some much needed profile.

For all the opportunity presented by this late 20th century timing, shiraz never quite usurped the other mainstream premium varieties. There was a time – probably 15 years ago – when grape growers in America despaired of selling their shiraz fruit at a decent price. In South Africa, a ten-fold increase in shiraz vineyards between 2000 and 2010 made the cultivar a bit of hard sell for many growers. Now we have some very skilled practitioners who’ve perfected their art over many vintages, as well as a new generation of producers.

At my recent tasting the best wine of the line-up was also the least expensive: the standard release Landskroon from the 2018 vintage. As a wine it walked the tightrope between the two styles to perfection. Ample spice and pepperiness, but enough richness of fruit to make it more than simply academically interesting. At under R90 it represents extraordinary value. The great disappointment – at least for me – was the Wildekrans Reserve: this was the wine I thought seemed more cinsaut than shiraz.

At around R350 it’s in the territory of the Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah as well as the Mullineuxs’ entry level Swartland selection. It’s also up against Lomond Cat’s Tail, Cederberg, and the long-established Rust en Vrede. If your budget doesn’t stretch beyond R200, there’s Strandveld. If you don’t have R1000 for a Mullineux single vineyard, Porseleinberg at half that price will do you proud

There’s a real dichotomy around shiraz/syrah pricing: fruit is plentiful so there are any number of delicious wines – like the Landskroon – for less than R150. But there’s a carriage trade in single site wines where the local market tolerates significantly higher price-points on account of the perceived rarity. This is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. While commercial French and Australian bottlings rival our entry level wines, it doesn’t take much of an effort to find current release prestige labels at the R10k mark.

Business Day 19 August 2020

It’s a safe bet that fewer than 10% of the pinot growers in Burgundy knew or cared about the fact that 18th August was International Pinot Noir Day. For a start, they don’t see themselves as pinot noir producers: in their professional world the site, the patch of dirt in which their vines are rooted, is the single most important fact. If they make white wines, their vines are chardonnay. If red, then pinot noir.

Not so those in the New World who live from the juice of the so-called “heartbreak grape.” The mere fact that they have pinot rather than syrah or cabernet confers a peculiarly different stature to their enterprise. Since pinot noir was traditionally much harder to manage (and once upon a time even harder to sell) they bear the trans-generational scars of their fathers. By way of an example: the first modern pinot plantings in South Africa were exclusively the desperately ordinary BK5. Only after 1990 did the first Dijon clones appear.

Until then only Tim Hamilton Russell had been brave enough to turn non-Burgundian pinot noir into a saleable proposition. In doing so he laid the foundations for the entire modern industry in South Africa, and prepared it to assume the mantle of the most prestigious cultivar the first two decades of the 21st century could ever imagine: if the 1980s was the era of cabernet, and then next fashion wave was syrah, then what followed was what pinot had been waiting in the wings for since time immemorial.

Try and explain this to an aficionado who has come to wine in the past decade: in the lifetime of the current proprietor of Romanee-Conti, the grail of all pinotphiles and, at over R200k a bottle for the latest release, at least five times the price of the nearest contender for apex status, you could buy mature examples at his cellar-door for less than R5 per bottle. Today aspirant producers propose a baseline price of at least R700. Established names in up-and-coming New World appellations would consider it poor strategy to aim for less than three times this amount.

In this time, not much has changed. Burgundy went through a quality dip in the 1970s as increasingly desperate producers planted high yielding inferior clones to try and make ends meet. Ten years later younger and more adventurous producers took a more quality-oriented view. Many chose “to go it alone” abandoning their grape contracts with the negociants, vinifying and selling their estate wines under their own names.

There is no region quite like Burgundy to drive insane price inflation: there’s only a very small section of the heartland capable of yielding great wine.  French inheritance law partitions estates equally amongst all the heirs. Parcels are now so small that even the most ordinary appellation boasts its own rarities. With a new generation of buyers, impatient to enjoy what they have shelled out tens of thousands of Rands for, modern day Burgundy has become its own South Sea Bubble of precocious alcoholic Ribena. Even the most youthful examples are delicious; few enough of the great names are expected to reach the kind of maturity that traditionally would have separated the great and glorious from the bog-standard and unremarkable.

More than forty years ago Tim Hamilton Russell, with great prescience, saw a burgundian future for the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, thus making it possible for South Africa to ride this wave. There are comfortably over 250 different Cape pinots in the market, most selling for between R150 and R250 per bottle, and enough priced over R500 to make even the most complacent Stellenbosch Cabernet producer tweezer-lipped with envy. In addition to the usual suspects – Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson, Paul Cluver and Meerlust – there’s an entire pantheon of newer (but not new) generation players producing thoughtful, sometimes edgy, sometimes riveting wines: Crystallum, Storm, Newton Johnson, Radford Dale, Catherine Marshall, Domaine des Dieux, Creation, Kershaw, Oak Valley, JH Meyer, The Fledge, Tesselaarsdal and Vriesenhof, to name but a few.

Business Day 12 August 2020

Pinotage is probably the most controversial cultivar in South Africa. The mere mention of its name provokes stronger reactions from wine enthusiasts than even the names of our more mendacious politicians. Most of the people who revile it do so either because their opinions were formed in the distant past, or because they consider it witty and fashionable to make it the whipping boy of all that was once bad about Cape wine.

Those with long memories (and no current tasting experience) at least have a shadow of history on their side. Many pinotages before the 1990s had a distinct “varnish” or acetone note; several made in the early 2000s a “burnt rubber” pong – no doubt the result of poor cellar practices. You would be hard pressed to name one faulty pinotage produced in the past five years. Years of carping and pillorying have had their effect: anyone who makes pinotage in this day and age aims for squeakier-than-squeaky clean wines. Holding the current pinotage industry responsible for the faults of the fathers (or grandfathers) would be a little like berating modern Bordeaux producers for the thin, weedy and dilute wines typical of the 1960s and 1970s.

Pinotage was one of several crossings made by Professor Perold in the 1920s. Its parentage was pinot noir and cinsaut (known locally as hermitage) – hence its name. For many purists it was doomed to be a mongrel – until DNA testing in the past couple of decades proved that most so-called noble varieties were also cross-breeds. Cabernet sauvignon, for example, is a natural crossing of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, and is no more ancient than our wine industry. It could never have been on Van der Stel’s planting list.

No one much cared about Perold’s creation – least of all its creator who left it in the garden of his old home when he moved to another one. But by a series of coincidences the young plants were saved, firstly by the timely intervention of Charles Niehaus (who happened to be walking past the site just as gardeners who had been sent to tidy up the overgrown property were about to remove the vines) and then by Perold’s successor, C. J. Theron.

Wine produced from vineyards established in the 1940s landed up in the bulk end of the industry. The late Piet Venter of Distillers told me it was used for “dop” wine. However, one day he was inspired by a sample and became something of a pinotage evangelist. By the 1950s there were vineyards at Kanonkop, Bellevue and Meerendal. Some of these 60+ year old plantings remain on all three sites.

The 1959 vintage produced on the Morkel family estate Bellevue was judged the best wine at the Young Wine Show that year, and was acquired by Lanzerac who released it in 1961 to widespread acclaim. This was the first commercial bottling of pinotage and it was an extraordinary wine. I last sampled it over 30 years ago when I included a bottle in a line-up of truly fabulous Burgundies. All the wines were tasted blind, and no one thought it out of place. Two years later Kanonkop’s entry at the Young Wine Show also bagged the General Smuts Trophy (the show’s highest accolade) – proving that the 1959 result was no fluke.

The Morkel family still owns and farms Bellevue and now offers a reserve wine selection in the range. The line-up I tasted recently comprises a 2016 Pinotage, a 2018 Cabernet, a 2018 Bordeaux blend (called Tumara) and a 2019 Chardonnay. The Pinotage pretty much stole the show. It was the finest of all the wines, as much in the sense that it was pure and intense, as well as complete and refined. Like the 1959 Lanzerac which came from Bellevue, it is quite Burgundian, more pinot than cinsaut, more red fruit than tannin. I’d happily have chosen the chardonnay for the curtain-raiser: the pinotage however was the main game, and also the after-party.

Business Day 5 August 2020

The bushfires in Australia not only drew the attention of the world (though not the Australian Prime Minister) to how climate change can dramatically affect a country, but they also highlighted how extreme events can decimate a wine industry overnight. Brian Croser, one of the most knowledgeable producers and commentators Down-under, has pointed out that the circumstances which transformed the continent into a furnace were not solely attributable to global warming. In a piece which appeared on Jancis Robinson’s website he detailed what factors had come together to create this “perfect storm.”

“…Climate change is not the direct cause of what Australia has just experienced. Two unprecedented meteorological events dried the Australian continent to a crisp over the past year, creating the conditions that burnt rainforests in Queensland and the lush ancient ecologies in the wettest and coldest part of Australia, north-west Tasmania.

The first… was the 2019 winter establishment of the strongest Indian Ocean dipole ever recorded, meaning the biggest differential of surface water temperature between the eastern (Australian) side of the Indian Ocean and the western (African) side. The unusually cold ocean and dry atmospheric conditions of the north-west of Australia .. have led to a particularly delayed southern monsoon season and have had a very drying effect on the Australian continent. And as if one unprecedented event were not enough, the Antarctic vortex experienced a rare and sudden stratospheric warming exceeding that of 2002.

The net effect has been the shift of the Southern Ocean westerly winds towards the equator. Spring temperatures increased, rainfall decreased and heatwaves and fire risk rose. If one of these two events provided the kindling, the other produced the fuel of our national misery.”

The fires themselves were devastating. Over 1000 hectares in the Adelaide Hills were caught up in the catastrophe. This is something of which we have happily had very little experience in South Africa – that is, until the Greyton fire which wiped out Samantha O’Keefe’s Lismore Estate on 17th December last year. That evening a bushfire which had been smouldering for days picked up force and energy, sweeping through her home, her vineyards and her cellar. Sam and her children were lucky to escape with their lives. Fifteen years of hard work evaporated in a single night. Some of the vines may recover, but it’s going to take almost as long for the estate to be restored.

A broad-based industry effort to raise funds for Ms O’Keefe and Lismore yielded an extraordinary array of fines wines and collectables – almost 200 items ranging from the rare and unobtainable to unusual large format bottles, special bottlings and difficult-to-obtain cuvées. The entire proceeds from the sale of these items will help to fund the rebuilding of this highly regarded property.

The wines donated for the Lismore appeal were committed to just ahead of the first lockdown. The sale was therefore delayed until Level 3 in June. Port2Port, the online retailer which has spearheaded the initiative, then needed to check that producers, many of whom were badly battered by the lockdown, would still be on board. While finalising the donations, the second liquor ban was implemented. Nevertheless it was decided to run the sales offer now, with delivery promised as soon as it would be legal to supply.

The Lismore Appeal site went live last week, and has already enjoyed remarkable support – fewer than 40 items remain. The quality of the donations – at a time when most of the country’s wineries are battling to survive – is quite extraordinary. The spirit which unites the wine industry when catastrophe on this scale obliterates the achievements of one of their number reflects our common humanity. It reminds us of the goodness in good people. It is a necessary antidote to the daily evidence of the debased, power-grubbing malfeasance of our politicians, their relatives and their cadres.

For more about the Lismore Relief Appeal go to https://lismore.port2port.wine/

Michael Fridjhon is part of the team curating the Appeal.

Business Day, 29 July 2020

There’s more fashion to wine than most people realise. For all the talk of the winemaker as “midwife” translating the fruit into the best possible expression of the site, the process is driven by many options – beyond the selection of site and variety. Clos St Jacques in Gevrey Chambertin is 6.7 hectares in extant, divided into five strips which run pretty much parallel to each other down the slope of the Cote. Each of the five owners, working only with pinot noir vines of roughly the same age, makes a palpably different wine. While the five parcels differ in size, it’s not possible to attribute these differences to terroir, to slope, to aspect or to variety. Ultimately the wines are different because different winemaking choices produce different intended aesthetic outcomes.

Sometimes the result is determined by choice of harvest dates or driven by a pre-bottling decision regarding appropriate sweetness levels. In Germany the same site can, in the same year, yield a dry (or dry-ish) wine from a mid/late summer harvest, or a completely voluptuous dessert wine because botrytised grapes have been left to ripen on the vines into November or December. In Champagne the final sweetness level is determined by the chef de cave when he prepares the liqueur d’expedition to top the bottle after disgorgement.

Champagne, in fact, is living proof of changing fashion. In the 19th century it was generally sweet. Then the English market demanded a drier beverage, which led progressively to the styles of today. With sugar very much out of fashion (in sophisticated wine circles, as opposed to Woolworths prepared foods), even great dessert wines battle to find a market at prices which cover input costs and reward the risks.

In the middle of another (ill-thought out and largely indefensible) lockdown on liquor sales, it’s hardly fair to suggest there’s a wine you must go out and buy the moment the opportunity presents itself. This may seem even more inappropriate given its residual sugar content of 331gms/litre. However, I would be failing in my job if I didn’t urge you to acquire at least a couple of bottles of Mullineux’s Olerasay 2nd release Straw Wine. It’s a worthy rival to any current release sweet wine made anywhere – including Chateau d’Yquem and Tokaji Essencia.

Straw wines are made from grapes harvested with ample but not excessive sugars. The acidity levels must still elevated, because this guarantees freshness and balance. Traditionally the grapes were then laid out on straw mats (nowadays shade cloth works fine since it allows for ample air circulation, permitting the fruit to raisin without rotting). What distinguishes this endeavour of Andrea and Chris Mullineux from most others is that while each year they make several casks of the wine (some of which is sold as vintage straw wine), the remainder goes into a solera system. Soleras – literally from the Spanish “on the ground” – are a series of barrels where the oldest casks (those on the ground) already include fractions from the very first vintage as well as some of the younger wines from the barrels stacked above them. By the time wine is bottled from these barrels it is completely stable. In the case of a high acid/high sugar straw wine, it is extraordinarily intense and pretty much immortal.

The Mullineux’s last bottling included wines from the origin of the solera in 2008 until 2014. This second edition begins with what remained of the original and has wines through to 2019. The total volume, for the next five years, is just over 6000 375ml bottles. Selling for between R800 and R1000 it is complete steal – concentrated seville orange marmalade, nutty apricot compote and dollops of honey. You can drink it a glass at a time because it won’t go off even after you’ve opened the bottle. However, you’d have to be realistic – I know of no one with enough self-restraint to resist knocking it off at a single sitting.

Business Day, 22 July 2020

The pre-modern history of grape varieties in South Africa is shrouded in mystery. Early records were sketchy and in those days cultivars were known by different names in different regions. The first vines imported at the request of Van Riebeeck were sourced by the Dutch East India Company, headquartered in Amsterdam. The Lords XVII would no doubt have sent an agent – with no knowledge at all about viticulture – to buy some vines for shipment to the Cape. The first consignment was pretty much dead on arrival. The second batch did quite well, and may have provided the basic planting material for the country’s vineyards for several generations.

Researchers have been able to guess at the identity some of these long serving varieties. We believe chenin blanc – previously known as “steen” – is one of the oldest cultivars in the Cape; likewise several members of the Muscat family. However, by the 19th century semillon (known as “groendruif” ) was comfortably the most widely planted grape.

The earliest recorded red was Pontac, which has since more or less vanished from the Cape (and from the world of wine). One of only a few teinturier cultivars, (that is, one whose juice is as red as its skins), Pontac had a special place in the Cape well into the 20th century. The last commercial plantings were at Hartenberg/Montagne, the Finlayson family’s estate. The Montagne wines from the 1960s may have been the last vintages of dry red wine bottled with the varietal name on the label, though some port-style fortifieds were released later by other producers.

It’s depth of colour probably made it possible for producers to blend a little pontac with almost any white wine to make something which looked convincingly red. It was only towards the late 19th century that cinsaut plantings are recorded for the first time; cabernet seems to have arrived on the scene a short time later. As Tim James pointed out in a recent article in WineMag, the first real evidence of shiraz in the Cape was the Cape Government’s importation of plant material from Australia in the early 20th century.

Until the 1960s there was very little demand in South Africa for unfortified dry red wine. In 1980 – a mere 40 years ago – red varieties constituted only 20% of the national vineyard, and cinsaut made up more than 60% of this. Shiraz was the fourth most planted red and it comprised a mere 0,7% of the total plantings, making it as rare as trebbiano.

In those days there were pitifully few wines sold with the name “shiraz” on the label: Nederburg Auction, Allesverloren, Hartenberg, a newly released cultivar bottling from Zonnebloem and some estate wines, notably Backsberg, Fairview and Groot Constantia. This paucity of labelled shiraz was the result of legislation, introduced in the 1970s, which obliged producers to prove their marketing claims. Prior to this inconvenient statutory requirement, the most popular premium priced red in South Africa was Bellingham Shiraz. To be fair, many of the well-known and popular cabernets were just as much figments of the producers’ imaginations. Many were mainly cinsaut, and then filled out with whatever other red varieties were available.

The end of isolation changed everything for shiraz – and for the composition of Cape vineyards. In the first decade of this century shiraz plantings increased ten-fold. Unfortunately, in many cases the vineyards were poorly sited, and much of the wine was appallingly made. The worst era was probably between 2005 and 2015, when there was a vast number overripe, over-oaked pongy examples in the market. Since then however there has been an extraordinary quality improvement. Today shiraz has one of the highest five star wine counts in the annual Platter guide. Included on this list are wines from properties which have long enjoyed a reputation for the variety – Hartenberg and Mullineux for example, but also a host of relative newcomers, such as Porseleinberg, Radford Dale, Kershaw, Savage and Trizanne Signature Wines.

Business Day, 17 June 2020

As recently as the 1980s the South African wine industry, extrapolating from the diversity of the Cape floral kingdom, suggested that most cultivars did well on most estates. As a corollary (so the story went) pretty much every vintage was as good as pretty much any other vintage. To be fair, some of the bigger family-owned properties did have most major cultivars planted, and produced reliably solid wines in most years. Some harvests were more difficult than others – but the European experience of the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s, where half the wines of the decade were largely written off – seemed a distant universe.

Lately those responsible for promoting the various areas of origin have designed their narratives around more singular attributes. Elgin calls itself chardonnay country – even though it is home to some very good pinots and shirazes. Hemel-en-Aarde markets itself as the place of pinot, even though some of the Cape’s best chardonnays come from there. Constantia took the sauvignon blanc gap, choosing (perhaps for more cynical reasons) to identify the appellation with South Africa’s most popular white variety. Stellenbosch landed up with out-of-fashion cabernet.

At least there’s nothing mercenary about this decision. You can’t cherry-pick your “fit” on the basis of maximum sales volumes at a particular moment in time. What happens once the cultivar falls off everyone’s wish list or it becomes blatantly obvious that the region is not the best place to be growing it? In the case of Stellenbosch and cabernet, the connection is obvious – though merlot, shiraz and chardonnay come with strong claims: Stellenbosch is the one area of origin which best epitomises the old Cape narrative of “everything does well here.”

Cabernet is traditionally South Africa’s most prestigious red. Long before we had even a whiff of merlot, or a pinot noir that any one took seriously, cabernet was king. Wine writer Tim James decided to track its history in the Cape, expecting to find examples of cabernet sauvignon dating well into the 19th century. To his surprise, at least at this stage, he can find no evidence of commercial cabernet which pre-dates the early 20th century. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t there before the Rinderpest: just that the proof has been surprisingly elusive. No one was expecting to find lots of it – almost all Cape wine production in the 19th century was white – but the absence of any cabernet at all has taken us all by surprise.

Still, the one place in South Africa where, for the better part of the last hundred years, you would expect to find good cabernet is Stellenbosch. Starting along the False Bay side there are famed vineyards at Meerlust, Vergelegen and Morgenster. Tracking along the Helderberg towards the town itself, there’s Alto, Waterford and Rust en Vrede. In the Stellenboschkloof there’s Jordan, over Devon Valley and into the Bottelary Hills there’s Kaapzicht.

Once you get to the Simonsberg and Jonkershoek you are in the undisputed heartland, with many of the Cape’s best properties located within a 10 km radius of each other. Stark-Condé, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Thelema, Tokara, Delaire Graff, and then over the crest of the range, Uitkyk, Kanonkop, Warwick, Muratie, Delheim and Le Bonheur. People like Neil Ellis can tell you where some of the finest parcels are to be found: he gets some of his best fruit from Jonkershoek, and no doubt remembers what the long defunct 60 year block on Lanzerac was capable of producing.

Mike Ratcliffe, erstwhile proprietor of Warwick, now with responsibilities at Paarl-based Vilafonte, was elected by the Stellenbosch producers to breathe some life into the region’s moribund image. Unsurprisingly he’s chosen Cabernet to make the point. It may seem a hard sell, given the decades lost to the pursuit – by producers and punters – of new sites and new varieties. In his favour he has the unerring simplicity of his message: you wouldn’t look anywhere except Stellenbosch if you wanted to find a world class cabernet in the Cape.

 

 

 

 

Business Day, 15 July 2020

It’s been a real winter, the kind that a few years ago was remembered with nostalgia when the Cape was without rain and Johannesburg was so warm that everyone feared the seasonal bugs would survive till spring. Inland the weather’s been really icy, so now instead of the cold weather wiping out infections, we fear that the chill could extend the shelf-life of Covid droplets. Meantime dam levels in the Cape are looking distinctly healthy – over 65%, even before last week’s rains reach the reservoirs.

This is not the kind of weather that sees a booming market for sauvignon blanc. If anything, it will do for the moribund Port and fortified wine business what the National Control Command Council has done for the illicit tobacco industry. As temperatures fall below zero, it’s worth bearing this in mind, whether or not you were once a Port drinker – before drink-drive restrictions and the fear of high sugar beverages sent you along the “skinny” latte route. Unlike single vintage Ports, cask-aged “tawny style” wines remain stable for months after you’ve opened the bottle. With nowhere to go, and no need to finish the bottle once it’s been opened, you can use this time to have a glass or two of a 10 or 20 year old tawny Port (or Port-style) wine as a night-cap: it’s more pleasurable and more reliable than Eskom at keeping you warm.

If you’re looking for something to accompany dinner, you’ll find there’s enough decent red wine about to spare you any risk of having to dip into your reserves of crisp dry whites. In the last week or two I blind-tasted my way through several line-ups, sampling forty or fifty current release wines from a number of different producers. There were very few disappointments, and a few wines which performed at least as well as they might have had they been tasted “sighted.” It’s a tribute to authenticity rather than to “spin” when a wine lives up to its marketing message even when you have no brand information to “guide” you.

The standout wine of the two weeks was the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2017, tasted blind in a line-up of other Bordeaux blends a week or so after I had sampled a pre-release bottle from the estate. In my (ungenerous) scoring system it came in at 93 points (at least equal to a 96/7 of most other critics, almost all of whom taste sighted). This is pretty much as good as young wine score can be, the equivalent of awarding a Best of Breed Trophy to a month old puppy at Crufts.

It wasn’t the only high-scoring red: the Saronsberg Seismic 2017 cruised in with 90 points, also way too young, delivering sumptuous textures to go with the violet whiffs and bright cassis aromas. At 89 points there were a couple of serious candidates – the 2016 Simonsig Tiara now showing a little evolution and reminding us of what a little bottle age can do. There was also the Tokara 2017 Shiraz. Priced at a mere R125 it’s a real bargain. Though a year younger, the 2018 Delaire-Graff Shiraz offers similar value: the same price and only a couple of points shy of Tokara’s score.

Sometimes it’s too easy to be fixated on the rating: the Guardian Peak 2019 Shiraz recorded a respectable enough 86 and it’s already quite delicious. You can hardly expect complexity from a wine which has been in bottle less than 9 months. Still, its purity, intensity and freshness make it a very easy drink – as does the sub-R100 price point.

It’s a different matter finding yourself fixated on price – especially when a wine sells for around R1000 per bottle: the Delaire-Graff The Banghoek Bordeaux-style blend is clearly aimed at consumers for whom £40 or £50 is a mere bagatelle, but at least it delivers a seamlessly assembled, concentrated, plush winter wine for half the price of a comparable Napa red.

 

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

netoops blog
netoops blog