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?