It’s probably not a great reflection on human nature, but people are more inclined to believe you when you are grumpy and uncomplimentary, than when you are positive and enthusiastic. It may be that they assume that polite is your default mode, so less thought (and possibly less integrity) goes into an upbeat comment.
I’ve just spent a couple of evenings tasting a serious array of wines at a show in Mpumalanga, and it was near impossible to find wines I wouldn’t happily have opened for dinner. The producer line-up was impressive enough in its own right, with most of the country’s premium producers represented. As one of country’s best known estate owners observed to me – as he glanced around the room – “you don’t see a turnout like this at a Cape wine show in London, Hong Kong or New York.”
On this basis alone, the range of quality on offer covered the spectrum from “less good” to “absolutely brilliant.” Ten years ago the same turnout would have needed a spin doctor to gloss over the dismal quality of the bottom 30% of the wines in the exhibition hall.
What has changed? Firstly, producers have come to recognise the importance of the country’s regional capitals. They have learnt to respect the sophistication and taste discrimination of the punters. Condescending as this sounds, it has taken time. In my early days in the wine trade, I frequently encountered Cape wine producers who were astonished that I even pretended to know about wine – given that I was from “up-country” (Johannesburg, in other words).
More importantly however, the reason for the marked improvement in what is on offer is that there are fewer bad wines in the market, and certainly, fewer mediocre wines in the ranges of the country’s better producers. It’s become too risky to bury the inferior tanks in a blend of otherwise ordinary wine, and hope that consumers will be persuaded by the brand value of the estate name.
The Fort Simon 2012 Chenin Blanc I tasted at the Mpumalanga show was worth every cent of its R85 per bottle. It had heft, texture and freshness. Their 2012 Barrel Select Red (also available in half bottles) was equally refined and harmoniously managed. Rustenberg’s Sauvignon Blanc – never really the wine that’s front of mind when I think of this well-known Stellenbosch cellar – was quite superb. So incidentally was Strandveld’s single vineyard Pofadderbos Sauvignon Blanc 2013.
It’s not surprising that everything at Hamilton Russell/Southern Right was of a very even high standard: it’s what you would expect from a producer who targets the apex of the pyramid. Just the same, the Southern Right Pinotage has become really refined, and now lives up to Anthony Hamilton Russell’s vision for the cultivar. Equally evident was the improvement in the cellar’s flagship Pinot Noir 2012 – which may be the best vintage produced there in the past decade.
Hidden Valley’s 2013 Pinotage is earthy, rich-fruited, and with beautifully managed tannins. It sells for a mere R80. Welgemeend, under new ownership, is making very good wines – though without the confidence (yet) to price them where they should be. At R60 per bottle for the Amade blend and R130 for the estate Reserve (the heir in quality as well as in title to the wine with which the late Billy Hofmeyr’s launched Bordeaux blends in South Africa) both fairly represent the proposition our wine industry over-delivers on a scale that would have been unimaginable ten years ago.
Finally, if you are thinking of spending real money (R200 or more) on some smart reds, you could do a lot worse than the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2010 or Laibach’s Frederich Laibach Reserve 2011. And if the other end of the pricing spectrum is where you think you should be shopping, Vondeling’s Petit Rouge – which sells for under R50 – is genuinely worth twice the price.