Natural Wine 2 November 2018

The industrial food sector has been getting a bad press, and not only from luddites whose world-view involves an idealised vision of some agricultural Eden. The 1970s and 1980s was the worst era of modern French wine, when even the most heralded producers selected their planting material on the basis of yield, rather than clonal diversity, and then mechanised their viticultural practices. Tractors compacted the soils, agro-chemicals leached their natural vitality. Farming costs dropped, but so did quality. The vines may initially have been less susceptible to disease, but over time their natural resistance also crumbled.

At much the same time the organic farming movement began to make its presence felt, initially as a “new-age” fringe force. It still has that whiff about it – at least in South Africa. When Stellar Organics won a trophy for its shiraz at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show a few years back you could hear the more mainstream consumers (and wine press) wondering at the wisdom of the judges. When it repeated its triumph with a gold medal for its Woolworths bottling this year, the comments were more subdued.

In a region as susceptible to summer rainfall as Champagne, Louis Roederer now has over 80% of its vineyard certified organic, and a high percentage bio-dynamic. (Notwithstanding my interest in a company which imports Roederer), it’s important to report the results of the recent World Champagne and Sparkling Wine Championships, where Roederer picked up most of the major awards. These included the trophy for Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year, best Champagne, best deluxe Champagne, best French Sparkling Wine, best Classic Rose and best non-vintage Champagne. It’s impossible to ignore the connection between this blind-tasting result, and the commitment to organic viticulture. Romanee-Conti and Domaine Leroy, probably the two most prestigious domaines in Burgundy, are both run on bio-dynamic principles. Several of the leading Bordeaux chateaux are also organic, or in transition. Few, if any, publicise this – probably to avoid being thought too “new-age.”

David Clarke, a sometime Australian sommelier who now runs a fine wine distribution business in South Africa and represents several unashamedly “new-age” producers, kindly shared some insights into the next level of this seemingly arcane world, the realm of “natural” wine. On paper, the rules here are simple enough: you can’t claim to make “natural” wine if the vineyards are not farmed organically. At the winemaking level, no chemical interventions (except for minimal sulphur additions at bottling) are permitted. It’s an honour system, where producer integrity, rather than third party certification, determines the status of a wine.

I tasted several of David’s natural wines, and one “orange” wine (in other words, a white wine make with extensive skin contact, and in this case, no sulphur and no filtration, so slightly opaque, and more golden in colour). Craig Hawkins, whose pioneering Testalonga and El Bandito brands have played a key role in opening up this market, was represented by the El Bandito Cortez 2017 Chenin. There’s no question about its obvious purity and precision: luminous fruit, very fresh on the palate, low in alcohol, yet full on flavour. Oddly enough I preferred the far less appealing looking white, the Mother Rock “orange” wine of J.H. Meyer. Made in a very traditional way (foot-stomping and punch-downs) nine weeks of skin contact, basket pressed, aged in a concrete “egg” and bottled directly without filtration, it had rich textural qualities to go with the heightened flavours.

Finally David showed me the latest (2017) Intellego Syrah, intense, juicy and peppery, packed with youthful flavour, fruit-fresh at 13% alcohol, and made more accessible by a week of carbonic maceration prior to pressing, aged in old wood and bottled with minimal sulphur. At R170 per bottle, it’s a bargain. Given what we now know is happening in the major international appellations, it comes as no surprise that one of South Africa’s best shirazes is the result of non-interventionist winemaking.

Klein Constantia 26 October 2018

Most people with an inkling of the history of South African wine would regard the Constantia Valley as the cradle of our wine culture. Its case rests less along the lines of “first one there” and more upon the role it played in nurturing the country’s incipient fine wine culture. Van der Stel’s farm, which opened up the region, became a model agricultural enterprise. The governor wrote a rule book for wine production which was probably worth more in terms of driving quality wine standards than the Huguenot influx. His example, coupled with the region’s viticultural potential and (a century later) Hendrik Cloete’s genius, produced the dessert wine we know today as Vin de Constance. In the late 18th century it became the most sought-after wine in the world. It’s difficult to ignore the claims of Constantia with this kind of pedigree.

The region’s glory days didn’t last forever. The British occupation of the Cape brought to an end the lucrative VOC Amsterdam auctions of the Constantia dessert wines. The collapse of the wine trade following the end of Imperial Preference hit the quality sector at least as badly as the bulk business. By the end of the 19th century Groot Constantia was bankrupt. For most of the 20th century urban encroachment put paid to the region’s pretensions as a wine producer.

By the 1980s there was every indication that the developers would turn the remaining agricultural land into upmarket homes. It was primarily Duggie Jooste’s acquisition of Klein Constantia and Richard Mueller’s purchase of Buitenverwachting (together with a host of awards won the moment the vineyards came into production) that changed all this. Constantia suddenly had critical mass. Since then a further six or so properties have added their weight to the appellation.

In a sense, new generation Constantia dates to the 1986 maiden vintages of Klein Constantia – the first wines produced by Duggie Jooste’s team. Several extraordinary sauvignon blancs sent a message that the appellation was perfectly suited to this heat sensitive variety. The growers responded accordingly: today Constantia is more closely identified with sauvignon than any other cultivar.

Time will tell whether this does justice to an appellation as important to South Africa as the Constantia Valley. Several of the prime examples are unexceptional. Many winemakers battle to achieve full fruit ripeness at acceptable alcohol levels. At the very least a new way of managing its viticulture is required. There’s evidence that it can be done – to judge from the latest vintages from Klein Constantia. The estate came under new ownership and new management in 2011/2. Since then a massive replanting and cellar renovation programme has been under way. I tasted some of the fruit of that investment recently, including, and most importantly, wine from individual sites, separately harvested and separately vinified.

For the first time my reservations about Constantia’s sauvignon potential have been assuaged. The standard release Klein Constantia 2018 is worth every cent of its R125 per bottle. The 2017 Metis (a joint venture with Loire producer Pascal Jollivet) is a marked step above earlier vintages, and delivers Old World finesse with New World intensity. The 2017 Perdeblokke has real weight and personality, while the Block 382 (from a relatively recently planted low-yielding bush-vine vineyard) makes it clear that thoughtful planting and harvesting strategies do make a difference.

At nearby Constantia Glen, the top cuvée of the Bordeaux blend (known as Constantia Glen Five because it is composed of five of the authorised Medoc varieties) continues to impress: the 2014 is one of the best to date and is certainly one of the most delicious of the Cape’s Bordeaux blends.

In short, Constantia’s leading producers are starting to lift themselves off the laurels which made a comfortable cushion for the previous generation. The expectations of an ever-more demanding market are being met by a few of them: the others will have to follow suit.

For notes on a recent Klein Constantia vertical go to https://winewizard.co.za/article/560

Moderate Consumption 19 October 2018

It would seem a safe assumption that readers of a weekly wine column don’t need to be reminded of the virtues of moderate consumption. Nevertheless, the virulent attacks by the crypto-prohibitionists in our midst (many of them doctors who should know better) sometimes make it necessary to repeat why it is healthier to drink than to abstain.

The issue of alcohol is politically fraught in South Africa. It is easy to understand that for many people, and for whole communities, it is powerfully emotive. Anyone who has read Charles van Onselen’s pamphlet “Randlords and Rotgut” will know alcohol was used as an instrument of repression, and as a (particularly evil) inducement to press-gang rural males into the labour market.

This, however, should not be allowed to blind us to the facts, as they relate to the health-giving properties of moderate wine consumption, nor should historical injustice be allowed to justify poor statistical analysis of the contemporary situation. A recent piece in Daily Maverick claimed (as if this were a universally acknowledged fact) that South Africa is the 19th heaviest drinking nation in the world. In fact, the WHO puts us in 30th position.

Alcohol abuse is a very real problem: there is ample legislation to deal with managing excessive consumption and its consequences. What is lacking is the political will to police the regulations. The inevitable result of this failure to apply existing laws will be more repressive legislation, which in turn will increase illegal and (by its very nature) irresponsible consumption. Already 70% of retail liquor sales take place in an unlicensed environment.

For those who care to hear the other side, here are some pointers. Firstly, it is better to drink than to abstain. For all the evils of excessive consumption, the universe of imbibers (from moderate to manic) has a longer life expectancy than the universe of teetotallers. Those who drink wine, regularly and in moderation, are likely to live longest.

While this observation is supported by considerable empirical statistical evidence, it’s important to try to identify why this is so – in other words, how the consumption of wine helps to extend life expectancy. Firstly, moderate and regular wine consumption reduces the risk of heart disease by improving blood vessel cell health, thus reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. It also reduces the risk of strokes: wine (and in this case alcohol in general) acts as a blood thinner. The resveratrol which occurs naturally in the skins of red grapes, together with procyanids (which are also present in red wines) and which serve to reduce cholesterol, suggest greater benefits to red wine consumption.

Resveratrol is a potent anti-oxidant and offers a degree of protection against free radicals implicated in the development of some cancers (notably colon and prostate). A Harvard study showed that four to seven glasses of red wine per week halved the risk of prostate cancer. In addition, Resveratrol activates a protein which works as an anti-ageing agent. There are also studies which show that the silicon in wine helps in the battle against declining bone density. It has also been identified as an immune-system booster.

There are conflicting studies around wine consumption and long term brain health. The UC San Diego study, which followed more than 1,300 older adults for 29 years between 1984 and 2013, found that men and women 85 years old and older, who consumed ‘moderate to heavy’ amounts of alcohol, were twice as likely to be cognitively healthy than non-drinkers – a conclusion which differed from an Oxford University study published a few months before.

However, the most interesting recent research shows that wine tasting (which, sadly, is different from actual consumption) can play a vital role in enhanced cognitive function in later middle age. Apparently the use of the different sensory centres of the brain associated with tasting and judgement do for brain health what daily sudoku is supposed to achieve – but with vastly more enjoyment for the participant.

Scoring 12 October 2018

In the arcane world of wine geek bickering, the question of wine scores occupies a disproportionate amount of territory. Those who, like me, are parsimonious in allocating points suggest that no useful purpose is served in scoring hundreds of current vintage wines in the 95 – 100 point range. There’s not enough differentiation, there’s no room for the truly exceptional, there’s no real benchmarking if whole hordes of products are deemed “world-class” within weeks of release. Just as employers have become deeply suspicious of the value of a matric certificate in an era where the pass rate hovers around 75%, so wine drinkers are entitled to doubt the value of a standard which can be so easily attained.

Those who are more generous argue that their mean-spirited colleagues have failed to recognise the brilliance which they have been able to discern. There might be some truth to this, though the more cynical commentators observe that high scoring is merely self-promotion. The problem is that whoever buys over-hyped wines on the strength of an inflated score will only discover they’ve been conned when they get to open the bottle five or ten years hence. By then they will be told – if they even bother to challenge those who led them astray – that the wine was worth its score when it was rated, but that the bar has since been raised, along with the expectations of the next generation. Scores, they will be told, are not absolute, and a 98 point wine in 2010 is not the same thing as a 98 point wine in 2018.

There’s some wisdom to this – the world does change – but if a 100 point score is supposed to be “perfect,” it seems fair to expect a slightly more absolute standard. It doesn’t happen, partly because consumers who use scores as a purchasing guideline demand new thresholds, and partly because those who score (especially those who score generously) market themselves through the highest numbers.

Robert Parker, who first popularised the 100 point system over 35 years ago, has been something of a front-runner in the business of score inflation. In the 1980s his very highest scoring wines (from the widely accepted top sites in the world – such as the Medoc First Growths) would garner between 88 and 94. When, 25 years later, he awarded 18 of the very fine 2009 Clarets 100 points, he suggested that this reflected the quality of the vintage. It would have been more honest to acknowledge the devaluation of the currency.

Parker’s scoring system has an effective range of less than 20 points (very few wines score less than 82). Accordingly, when his category average moves from 87 points to 97 points (pretty much what has happened with Bordeaux in the past 30 years) either the wines are now twice as good, or a 2018 98 point score is worth half of a 98 point score from three decades ago.

I recently attended a blind tasting of a vertical of one of South Africa’s icon wines, the Mvemve Raats De Compostella. On my scoring system anything over 90 points is a gold medal and a handful reach 93. In the De Compostella line-up the 2012 achieved a creditable enough 87. The 2013 89, likewise the 2014. The 2015 90 – which incidentally is exactly the same score as I gave another bottle just over a month earlier, also in a blind tasting. The latest release, the 2016 came in with a very creditable 92.

When I shared these scores with Bruwer Raats, the winemaker, he was palpably disappointed. With all the hype around 100 point scores you could see he thought anything under 98 was hardly worth a mention in his marketing communication. In these days of score hyper-inflation he may be right. But 92 is one of my top 15 scores for 2018 and it comes in hard currency, not in Zim dollars.

For the scores of the DeCompostella vertical go to https://winewizard.co.za/article/553

Swartland Vertical 5 October 2018

For most of the 20th century the Swartland, (the region which is now so important to “new wave” Cape wine), was simply a bulk wine source for the wholesalers. In the late 1990s a joint venture between Charles Back (Fairview), Gyles Webbs (Thelema), John Platter and Jabulani Ntshangase (newly returned to South Africa from a job as a wine salesman in New York) became the catalyst for change. Called “Spice Route” and with its original brand home and cellar near to Malmesbury, it brought a fine wine operation to what had up to then been co-op wine space.

The partners appointed as the Spice Route cellarmaster a young graduate winemaker named Eben Sadie. After a few years he moved on, and in the ensuing decade created his own Swartland-based business which became the poster-boy for authentic artisanal winemaking in the Cape. This coincided with South Africa needing desperately to break with the industrial image that years of subservience to the KWV model had inevitably cultivated.

Sadie went on to work with viticulturist Rosa Kruger, scouting out and producing wines from some of the least recognised (and least appreciated) old vineyard blocks in the country. On the way he established a model which served as the blueprint and inspiration for the next generation of landless winemakers to build upon. Almost all of most important players in the world of small volume, single site wine production in the Cape today recognise and acknowledge their debt to him.

There is therefore a direct line from Spice Route to Sadie to the Mullineuxs, who began their winemaking careers at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards before launching their own enterprise in 2007. Their focus was also older vineyard blocks, their cultivars of choice those which were in relatively plentiful supply in the Swartland – syrah and chenin. Ten years later their most famous wines still depend on both varieties, with the top syrah cuvées from single sites (and marketed with reference to their specific soil types) and the chenin a key component in a white blend which draws on other heirloom cultivars in the Swartland.

I was recently privileged to taste a ten year vertical of the Mullineux white blend. Looking at the wines alongside each other it’s possibleto identify the coherence of the winemaker’s aesthetic vision in the mature (and maturing) wines, while tracking vintage variation and the role played by other old vine components (clairette and semillon gris) introduced more recently.

Within a day I attended another vertical – five different vintages spread over ten years – of Eben Sadie’s Palladius white blend. Here again, what united the wines was the aesthetic vision of the creator: selecting the building blocks in sometimes different proportions in order to arrive at a final and coherent whole.

Finally I had the chance of tasting several vintages of a completely different Swartland wine – one of the few new estate ventures in the appellation. About 10 years ago Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof acquired Porseleinberg – which included some old shiraz vines which had once contributed to Sadie’s Columella. While Kent retained what he could of the old vines (they supplied all the Porseleinberg fruit from 2010 to 2012, despite serious fire damage in 2006), he began a major replanting programme.

Callie Louw, who has been responsible for the vineyards and cellar since the inception, shares with Sadie and the Mullineuxs an aversion to interventionist winemaking. Except for varying the percentage of his crop which is vinified in large oak foudre and concrete eggs, and the ratio of new to old vines, vintage variation means exactly that. Still, you cannot dismiss the role of the younger vineyards – they now account for around 75% of what goes into the bottle. With the latest release (the 2016) comfortably my best wine in a recent line-up of every vintage produced (and possibly the highest scoring current release on my website), it’s living proof that the Swartland is not only about old vines.

For all the tasting notes visit https://winewizard.co.za/article/554

Whites 28 September 2018

If you are a red wine drinker, you’re probably tired of hearing that the Cape’s white wines generally outperform the reds in international competitions. While this was an absolute rule ten years ago, it’s much less evident today. It is probable that you will still find better value amongst the country’s white wines, though this is partly a function of pricing: all other things being equal, whites trade at about a 20% discount to the reds. In effect this means that there are some pretty neat whites from about R50 per bottle upwards (at R80 – R100 you’re spoilt for choice). With reds however you’re more likely to find something worth drinking if you set the lower threshold at R60, and the “sweet spot” somewhere between R120 and R160.

If you’ve been tracking the South African wine scene you would now have to be aware of the quality surge in the chenin blanc category. This pattern dates from the early 1990s and has been in full flight for the past five to ten years. With most of our older vineyards planted to what was once the country’s standby grape, there’s no shortage of quality chenin fruit for our avante-garde producers to source for their increasingly edgy cuvées. Small batch production, hand-crafted winemaking, and something of a chenin fashion tsunami have all contributed to this boom – which in turn has seen a marked increase in the average on-shelf bottle price.

This doesn’t mean you’re compelled to over-pay: at a recent tasting I scored the 2018 Protea Chenin a more than respectable 88 points. It sells for the princely sum of R60. Both of the Marras chenins retail at under R100. Cross the R100 per bottle threshold and you’re still getting excellent value – it’s just that the wines are no longer “cheap and cheerful.” At around R120 per bottle (and 90 points tasted blind) the 2017 Kleine Zalze is pitch-perfect and harmonious, with a little bit of everything – nutty, succulent, hints of dried apricots, made slightly creamy by thoughtful oaking.

The Glen Carlou Swartland 2018 – which also scored 90 points – delivers a weighty yet still nuanced wine for under R150. The same money buys the same score in the Delaire Graff – which is also produced from Swartland fruit. The chief point of difference lies in the minerality and intensity of the Delaire Graff – stonier and less plush. Also at a score 90 is the Cederberg Five Generations 2016 – which I see has also finished in the Top 10 of the Standard Bank Chenin Challenge.

In fact, a quick review of the laureates of this annual competition shows that most of the results could have been easily predicted: Dawid Nieuwoudt at Cederberg has been making intense and very pure chenins for at least 20 years. He shares the podium this year with Carl van der Merwe at DeMorgenzon, whose 2017 Reserve was a Standard Bank winner, as well as a gold medallist at the 2018 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Jean Daneel is there with his Signature 2016. At least 20 years ago he won the Wine Magazine Chenin Challenge. His expertise and commitment played a key role in the early stages of the Chenin renaissance.

The Spier 21 Gables Chenin 2017 is also amongst the Standard Bank’s Top 10. The 2015 was judged best wine on show at Veritas last year, the 2016 won the Chenin trophy at the Old Mutual this year. It’s hardly a surprise to see it among the top 10 winners. I was very pleased to see Tertius Boshoff’s Stellenrust “53” Barrel Fermented in the same august company: it is consistently one of the country’s best white wines. In fact, there are no real surprises in this line-up – and the presence of the Leopard’s Leap Cullinaria (a bargain at R90) should not be seen as a judging glitch, but a tribute instead to the extraordinary value inherent in Cape chenin, and in the Cullinaria range.

MCC Krone 21 September 2018

For most producers of Champagne-method sparkling wine (known in South Africa as Methode Cap Classique), the whole enterprise is a little like the vinous equivalent of writing a sonnet. The form is both the vehicle and the limitation. The opportunity for genius presents itself out of the discipline imposed by rules. Champagne itself has always been the implicit benchmark, so winemakers – wherever they work – find themselves unable to escape its gravitational pull.

South Africa’s Cap Classique producers have been rewarded with booming sales over the past ten or fifteen years, a tribute to their professionalism and the fashion for fizz. Over the same period Champagne imports have doubled. Bubbly has gone from being an occasional celebration beverage (birthdays, weddings and Christmas) to an almost every day aperitif. This is pretty much how it is treated in France, and increasingly in the UK.

However, while Britain has always been a very important market for the French, the rise of English champagne-method sparkling wine, and the Prosecco invasion has seen cross-Channel sales plummet. A cheaper production method coupled together with the more fashionista feel of Italy gave Prosecco a commercial and marketing advantage over Champagne. If you’re looking for quaffing wine for a party or as an aperitif, and if the image of Prosecco is as sexy as Champagne in your social circle, why not?

Prosecco is obviously a growing force in South Africa, though it cannot really compete in price against the leading Cap Classiques. Our hand-crafted bottle fermented bubblies carry all the production costs of real Champagne and still get to market at the same price-point in South Africa as the average Prosecco. Proof that the bigger brands appear to be impervious to the Italian invasion has been the extraordinary growth of Krone – in visibility and sales volumes – over the past five years.

Krone – the fizz brand of the Twee Jongegezellen estate in Tulbagh – was one of the first three Cap Classiques in South Africa. Pioneered by Nicky Krone some 30 years ago, it simply ticked along, selling reasonable quantities in what was something of a niche category. Everything changed with the purchase and recapitalisation of the property some five years ago. This, together with the Cap Classique boom, transformed Krone to a front-runner from an also-ran in the bubbly race.

Most of these new sales come from the current release bottlings across white and rose, brut and the increasingly popular Nectar marque. By 2019 the cellar will have seen a six fold increase in literage over a period of less than a decade. Until this year, the laborious business of riddling the bottles was still done by hand: despite the massive expansion, there is still a sense of craft.

Krone winemaker Stephan de Beer manages the hands-on business of meeting the ever-growing demand for the easy-drinking current release wines, while Rudiger Gretschel, chief winemaker for Vinimark and cellarmaster at Reyneke, has the opportunity of working on the single site bottlings and the special cuvées. Here is where one of the great exponents of organic and biodynamic winemaking enjoys free rein to make some quite extraordinary bottles of bubbly.

Playing with fruit sourced from the famous Kaaimansgat vineyard in the Elandskloof, he has made a couple of special release wines, one with base wine fermented in an amphora, the other (a year earlier) where the chardonnay began life in large oak foudres. He also manages the aged releases sold under the Krone RD label, a concept launched a year ago with the 2001 vintage. The 2002 RD has already made its way into the market, with the earthier and more biscuity 2006 likely to follow soon.

In many ways the massive Champagne house of Moet & Chandon does business has served as a model for Krone: most of what goes into the trade is youthful, technically correct, designed to make sparkling wine a festive drink. But there are special cuvées and aged releases which serious wine buffs ignore at their peril.

Shiraz and Pinotage 14 September 2018

The 1980 Meerlust Rubicon gave South African wine drinkers their first high profile red Bordeaux blend, effectively launching a category which, over time, has come to dominate the premium end of the red wine business. Sure, there are the exceptions – Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage, La Motte’s Hanneli R, Waterford’s The Jem – which trade in reasonable quantities at the more stratospheric price points. However, any analysis of successful ultra-premium reds will show that Bordeaux blends (many predominantly cabernet sauvignon-based) own the space. Some, like Meerlust Rubicon, achieve that perfect nexus of premium pricing and large volumes. Others, like Vergelegen V and Mvemve Raats De Compostella have been selling consistently above the R1000 per bottle mark (or equivalent) for at least ten vintages.

This doesn’t mean that all the other red wine categories are doomed to languish in a twilight zone: Rust en Vrede has a couple of ultra premium reds where shiraz is a component; the Mullineuxs single site syrahs sell out within days every year. Unless you’re extremely well connected you won’t even get to see a bottle of Boekenhoutskloof’s The Journeyman, released only occasionally and made mainly from cabernet franc.

True, average shiraz pricing has now plateaued: consumers are tired of the fatal combination of over-planting and poor winemaking. Their resistance has yielded a very healthy result: growers have had to pay better attention to their vineyards while winemakers are now more precise and thoughtful in their fruit handling.

At a recent tasting of generally quite popularly priced shiraz/syrahs (there’s no difference between the two names) there were several very attractive wines, mostly accessible, none requiring serious ageing. Three finished on 90 points (which may not sound like a high score in an age where most judges work in a five point range of 91 to 96, but which for me places them in my top 10% of shirazes currently in the market).

I was pleased to see the reappearance of Landskroon in the rankings: the Paarl property has been in the De Villiers family for generations. The 2015 is packed with slightly smoky raspberry aromas, delicate and savoury spice notes, all melded together with finely integrated oak. It’s neither overly big, nor is it too showy – just very good food wine.

Something of a renaissance also appears to be happening at Zandvliet – another property long associated with shiraz. The 2015 standard release offers slightly peppery red fruit notes while the palate is fine, restrained and effortless. It is not markedly different from the vastly more expensive Hill of Eon 2016 from the same cellar. The third of my 90 point shirazes came from Allée Bleu – the single vineyard 2014 – a wine which carries its intensity and depth of fruit perfectly.

It was at Allee Bleu that my top wine of the tasting had been produced, and it was not a shiraz: instead it was made from the one cultivar is still battling a pre-1990s prejudice – pinotage. Notwithstanding the success of producers like Kanonkop and Beyerskloof, and the work done by ABSA in sponsoring the Pinotage Top 10 for over two decades, the memories of the clumsy wines made in the 1970s have clearly tainted the achievements of the next generation.

Allée Bleu’s Old Vine Pinotage – produced from an ungrafted block of 40 year old Piekenierskloof vines – finished in the Absa top 10 and was my standout wine in an impressive pinotage line-up. Fabulously intense fruit, raspberries and blackcurrants, beautifully managed oak ageing, creamy but still savoury textures – everything you would expect from a memorable bottle of red. There were several other high scoring examples, including the Arendskloof Voetspore Pinotage 2017 (which sells for about R150), the Eagles Cliff 2017 (from the same cellar as the Arendskloof but at less than half the price) and the Bosman Family Vineyards 2015.

Pinotage really has made a come-back – it’s now time for serious wine drinkers to treat it with the respect that it deserves.

Ex Animo 7 September 2018

Stability is a defining feature of Old World wine-producing countries: the established order of a long-established region (like Bordeaux) is unlikely to change dramatically. The New World, on the other hand, thrives on flux. Wine drinkers are more fashion-oriented, which means that they are always ready to abandon last year’s favourites for next season’s “must-haves.” For wine distributors seeking to assemble an edgy but viable selection, life is a balancing act. You need producers who enjoy a level of recognition but are still not seen as part of the vinous establishment. You also require a few “wild cards” to offer an alternative aesthetic reality.

David Clarke is an Australian sommelier now living in South Africa. Together with his wife Jeannette he now runs a distribution business called Ex Animo wines with just such a line-up of generally avante-garde producers. Very few of the wineries he represents were even in business when he arrived at the Cape. Most don’t own the vineyards from which they source their grapes. Some aim for a purer style of quite conventional wines; others are constantly experimenting with fermentation and maturation strategies to coax unlikely flavours and textures from the fruit. Most eschew the use of new oak, almost all of them prefer freshness to opulence.

At a recent tasting I managed to work my way through many of the wines in his portfolio. En route I came across so many that were finely made, pure, linear and fresh that it became almost impossible to list them without producing a document that read like a catalogue. Despite that risk, I’ve decided to highlight one or two wines from most of the producers – if only to provide a short-hand guide of what to seek out.

There were several very good sparkling wines: Jane Ferreira-Eedes’s Dainty Bess, a rosé MCC made entirely from Pinot Noir, was showing lovely bready notes, while Melissa Nelsen’s Genevieve Zero Dosage 2012 Chardonnay was fresh, spare rather than austere and perfectly elegant. Both of Jocelyn Wilson’s Hogan wines were equally striking: the 2016 Chenin delivering great concentration while the Divergent blend of cabernet, cinsaut and carignan offers bright red berry notes with finely nuanced fruit on the finish.

Chris Williams (whose day job is cellarmaster at Meerlust) makes several very good wines under The Foundry label. My favourites were the Grenache Blanc and the Roussanne. The Myburghs at Joostenberg have quite an extensive range: Die Agteros Chenin (36 year old organically farmed vineyard), the Fairhead blend of roussanne, viognier and chenin and the 2017 Cinsaut were my standout wines. I also liked Mike and Jeanine Craven’s Clairette Blanche 2017 and their Chenin Blanc from the Karibib vineyard in Stellenbosch.

Johan Meyer’s JH Meyer range is a source of several single site pinots and chardonnays. The best of these come from the “Kleinrivier” vineyard (Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge) and Palmiet in Elgin. On the subject of chardonnay, Julien Schaal’s 2016 “Evidence” from Elgin was one of the best I tasted. Luddite’s Niels Verberg has been making some interesting wines under his “Saboteur” label. The white blend – closed under a crown cap (which is a great idea) – is mainly chenin, with some viognier for spice and some fume blanc for freshness. It’s very easy drinking. John Seccombe’s Thorne & Daughters brand is a source of great whites, while his Wanderer’s Heart is a beautifully assembled red blend.

Craig Hawkins’s Testalonga brand needs no introduction to wine buffs. The Baby Bandito chenin 2017 is one of his best to date. Koen Roose’s Spioenkop is also not really a newcomer to the wine scene. I doubt there’s a better dry riesling in the market at present than his 2016 vintage.

Finally every wine made by Trizanne Barnard can justify its place in a wine collection: all are thoughtfully crafted, beautifully poised, pure and harmonious. That said, her barbera, her sauvignon, her semillon, and her semillon-sauvignon blend are worth whatever effort it takes to track them down.

For more info:david@exanimo.co.za

Auction Season 31 August 2018

Lord Tennyson held that in Spring “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” In South Africa, however, Spring is auction season. On 7th and 8th September Nederburg hosts the opening salvo; three weeks later the Cape Winemakers’ Guild (CWG) wraps up proceedings.

It would take a very distant relationship with the truth to describe the wines on offer at either sale as vinous bargains. Prices – even in these dark times – will average somewhere between R600 and R1000 per bottle. While Nederburg combines an ever smaller array of older wines with younger, more current, releases, the CWG’s focus is pretty much freshly bottled stock.

Both auctions now operate with a similar culling system to ensure a rigorous quality standard. Nederburg employs the services of independent experts (of which I was one, together with several brought in from abroad) to sift their submissions in a blind tasting; the CWG’s own members perform a similar function – also tasting blind. The former relies entirely on outsiders, the latter is peer-reviewed. While neither is methodologically perfect, it is safe to say that the average quality at both auctions has never been higher.

A fair number of producers have stock on both sales: Groot Constantia, Boplaas, Delaire-Graff, DeMorgenzon, Kanonkop, Le Riche, Rijk’s Spier/Frans Smit. Since the Guild itself is a bit of an elite club (guilty of excluding some of the country’s best young talent) the range on auction is limited to the forty or so CWG members, making the offering much smaller than Nederburg’s. So are the total volumes – a strategy which guaranteed to produce a pressure-cooker sales environment.

Accordingly it’s likely that average bottle pricing will be lower at Nederburg – which means that here there may be better value (the term is used only in the relative sense of the word) for the astute shopper. On the other hand, the strong upward movement in the Guild wine prices (2017’s average was double that of 2012 despite a slight dip compared with 2016) will certainly bring its own aphrodisiac effect to the auction hall.

If you are seeking some maturity, your chances are better at Nederburg (though Miles Mossop’s decision to hold back some of his Maximilian Merlot 2013 and 2011 suggests that the more thoughtful Guild members are looking to provide something more complex than primary fruit). That said, when it comes to really old wine, it’s a one horse race: Nederburg has reds going back to 1968, and fortifieds to 1948.

This year’s Guild line-up is certainly the most sumptuous to date, with an evenness of quality which suggests that the peer-review system has served its avowed purpose. There are so many good – though youthful – wines that it’s impossible to do them justice in a single article: for more detailed tasting notes go to https://winewizard.co.za/article/537.

There are two very fine MCCs – the Graham Beck 2009 105 MGA, bone dry yet intensely bready, and the Silverthorn Big Dog IV 2013 – which is seductively delicious. There are also several very polished Chardonnays: the Waterford 2017, the Delaire-Graff Banghoek 2017 and the sublime Ataraxia 2017. Of the other whites, the DeMorgenzon Grenache Blanc 2017, the Mullineux Semillon Gris 2017, the Raats Chenin 2017, the Rijks Chenin 2016 and the Hartenberg Riesling 2016 were all standout examples.

It’s just as difficult to shortlist the top reds, given the high average quality: Jan Boland Coetzee’s Vriesenhof 2015, Gottfried Mocke’s Wine Projects 2017 and Newton Johnson’s Windansea 2017 were the most striking pinots, Miles Mossop’s Maximilian 2013 the best merlot, Etienne Le Riche’s 2015 Reserve Cabernet a fabulous farewell to his time at the Guild, and the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015 the top Bordeaux blend. Finally there were three very different but equally worthy shirazes: the Cederberg Teen die Hoog 2015 (a perfectly managed blockbuster), the Boschkloof Epilogue 2016 (utterly Rhone-like) and the silken textured and wonderfully perfumed Boekenhoutskloof 2016: plenty of choice for millionaires wondering what to do with their moollah.

Research shows that, taken in moderation, wine is good for your health. RMB WineX supports responsible alcohol consumption. © 2018 WineX Pty Ltd

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