The success of the established “classed growths” of South Africa (Meerlust, Kanonkop, and Hamilton Russell are useful examples) raises a question around whether or not longevity of ownership is essential to the reputation of a brand. There are, of course, many counter examples – estates in long-term family ownership which have not flourished, as well as properties which have only emerged from the shadows because of new capital and a new mindset. There are also those – like Thelema or Glenelly – which came to prominence almost at the moment of their creation because of the prior reputation of their proprietors.
About six weeks ago I visited Saxenburg for the first time in more than 20 years. Then, a little more recently, I sampled the latest releases of Le Bonheur, which in the 1980s was one of the pathfinders of the Cape’s avante-garde. What both share in common is recent and serious investment. At Saxenburg the next generation of the Bührer family – which bought the Stellenbosch estate from Anglo-Alpha over 30 years ago – is imbuing the brand with new life. At Le Bonheur the ghastly regime of LUSAN is still a relatively recent memory. Any sense of Mike Woodhead, the shy and unassuming prior owner who had been finessed out of his asset by The Bergkelder “Partnership” remains in a couple of the vineyards he had laid out meticulously some forty years ago.
The Bührers acquired Saxenburg – nominally in Stellenbosch but so close to Cape Town that it has views directly onto Table Mountain and False Bay – at a time when the Cape wine industry was in the midst of an era of not-such-splendid isolation. New ideas were as rare in the winelands as enfranchised opponents of PW Botha. It was a brave – some might say foolhardy – purchase. The market fell in love with the then new Saxenburg wines pretty much immediately, and within a few years its ultra premium Shiraz Select (SSS) dominated the top-end of the growing shiraz category.
Since then the estate has made shiraz its primary calling card, though it is a source of fabulously intense sauvignon and increasingly impressive chardonnay. The Private Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2019 is fresh, tropical and multi-dimensional, with aromas of canned gooseberries and real textural nuance on the palate. It’s a bargain at R125. The 2018 Private Collection Chardonnay delivers the same precision and detail. Unlike the 2017 where the oak plays too obvious a role, there’s real purity and linearity in this latest release.
Still it is clear that Shiraz is what Saxenburg does best. The Private Collection 2016 is pretty enough: real palate weight, juicy but not simple, and with only 20% new French barrels, it’s not overly oaky. However, the SSS is still the standout wine – and at a standout price: over R1000 per bottle – if you can get any. The 2015, which will be released shortly, appears to be South Africa’s answer to Barossa shiraz: real fruit weight melded with sensible but generous oaking. The 2017 – due out next year – is finer but no less mouth-filling: powdery tannins, seamless on the palate and jam-packed with flavour.
The new generation wines from Le Bonheur don’t attempt to scale the same heights, though there is evidence that the farm made famous by Mike Woodhead’s dedication to proper soil preparation will yield wines of which he would be proud. Chief among these is a reserve Sauvignon Blanc from what is believed to be the oldest sauvignon block in Stellenbosch, a couple of decent reds (a Bordeaux blend as well as a cabernet) and a Reserve Petit Verdot which delivers genuine fruit-driven palate weight without losing freshness – no small achievement, given the variety. Current release Le Bonheur wines range in price from just over R100 to around R400 for the reserve red. This suggests that at this stage the newish owners realise they need to build reputation before they try to milk it.