Much has been made of the great divide (socio-economic rather than merely geographical) separating the major South African cities. Someone once explained it to me as follows: in Johannesburg they want to know how much money you have; in Durban they want to know how you made it; in Cape Town they want to know how long you’ve had it. When it comes to patterns of wine consumption there are equally marked differences. Branded premium wines consumed in the Western Cape are sold in steakhouses and family restaurants, rather than those servicing the high end tourist market. Once you get to an establishment where the wine waiter is called a sommelier, only the most niche products feature on the wine lists. These same, low volume, craft cuvées are exactly the ones which enjoy the bulk of the coverage in the online wine publications, the majority of whose subscribers/readers reside in the Western Cape.
You’ll find very few of these wines in the KZN market, where the trade is altogether more mainstream. In Gauteng – the largest market in the world for Cape wine – there’s a bit of everything, though it’s only in the past few years that the distributors of the more artisanal wines have bothered to cross the Vaal River. When it comes to wine fashion, the caricatures hold, with the blogs the somewhat cliquey arbiters of what is “in” and “out.” As a result, producers of the more mainstream brands often despair over the absence of editorial about their wines in the specialist press. They win major awards – locally and internationally – yet no one appears to write about their achievements. On the other hand, when a young “rockstar” winemaker gets a 90+ (or, in fact these days, 95+) rating from a foreign journalist the specialist media is abuzz with excitement.
So it was completely refreshing to sit down to lunch with Spier’s chief cellarmaster Frans Smit, whose triumph at the latest Veritas awards is pretty much an annual occurrence – though this time with more golds and double golds than ever, and more than anyone else. Spier is one of those mainstream brands, selling across a number of price segments and in volumes too significant to be of any interest to the enigmatic gate-keepers of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Not everything which comes out of Spier’s cellars is “commercial” in the sense of glib and accessible. By way of an example, the Cap Classique, while easy enough to drink, has been thoughtfully assembled and requires real engagement if it is to yield up its subtleties and complexities: 28 months on the lees, half chardonnay, half pinot noir, real baked brioche aromas, satisfying and very precise. The 21 Gables range includes a fabulous, refined, concentrated 2013 Cabernet and a quite Burgundian Pinotage, savoury black cherry notes, rather than the kind of chunky monster that has turned so many consumers away from the variety. The 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2015 – which collected the newly launched (and appallingly named) Vertex award for being the pinnacle of achievement at this year’s Veritas judging – is a really smart wine: polished, opulent but still fresh and nuanced.
The 2014 Creative Block 3 (Rhone blend) is plush, complex and indisputably showy: plenty of spice, but with ample richness to give the mouthfeel a kind of teflon-coating. However, I preferred the more savoury notes of the Creative Block 5 2014 (the Bordeaux blend). With the range’s top cuvées – the Frans K Smit red 2012 and the newly launched Frans K Smit white 2015 – the quality is undeniable. Both share the same precision, the same focus, but, unlike the red, the white doesn’t overstate itself. If I have a reservation about this otherwise seamless performance from the man who has managed Spier’s winemaking for over 20 years, it is his tendency to make “statement” wines. They are bold and beautiful, but sometimes it’s easier to listen to the message when it’s more softly spoken.