South African wine drinkers are well served by the show circuit which brings producers and their latest releases to our major cities and to nearly all the regional capitals. Often owners and winemakers (rather than reps and regional distributors) pitch up in the least obvious places: last year, a few weeks before Christmas, a group arrived in Plett – strategically a good thing to be doing as the well-healed and demanding enthusiasts from Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town settle into their holiday homes). The majority of exhibitors had made the trip from the wine-lands, recognising the value of a personal appearance as their potential customers begin easing into holiday mode.
Most of these shows share a common format: each producer brings half a dozen or so different wines, generally all of which are commercially available. Guests typically pay around R200 for access: admission includes as many tastings as they can manage. Those less squeamish about using the spittoons (usually available in reasonable abundance) can work their way through between 15 and 30 wines over the course of an evening. Those more inclined to treat the event as a social gathering where the beverage component has been provided by the wineries get less variety for their money, and enjoy far less of a benefit. You wouldn’t seriously use the standard ISO tasting glass if you were sitting around a table with friends, sampling a few different bottles of wine.
At one such show last week in Nelspruit I managed a pretty good strike rate. This suggests that anyone going about the (not entirely unpleasant) task of tasting in a very focused way could identify over the few hours of the show at least a dozen wines worth acquiring. If you pre-sort your selection, spending no time at all on wines you know already, you can make decisions involving R3000 – R4000 worth of samples for a fractional investment of the true cost of the wines.
In Nelspruit I re-acquainted myself with the wines of Keermont and decided that the Syrah 2014 (R185) and the Terrasse white blend 2016 (R150) were both well worth cellaring. I was also able to compare – in the same room and at the same time – the two best gewurztraminers produced in South Africa, and chat briefly about both wines to men who had actually made them. Johan Malan’s Simonsig Gewurztraminer 2018 is richer, sweeter and fuller in style than the Neethlingshof, which is just as perfumed, but pretty much bone dry. The show/festival space then made it possible for me to revisit the Jordan “Real McCoy” 2017 which I had tasted briefly a few months ago – to confirm it is consistently one of the best South African rieslings.
The whole range of Boekenhoutskloof current releases was also available – all 2016 vintage except for the Chocolate Block (2017). The Semillon is probably the least well-known wine in the range: most people think the cellar only sells red wine. Made from three of Franschhoek’s oldest vineyard blocks (one was planted more than a century ago), it is profoundly good.
I have been increasingly impressed with the red wines coming from the Babylonstoren cellar. It’s easy to buy good wine if your budget is around R400 per bottle (which is what you must expect to lay out for the Nebukadnesar). However, when the entry level red – The Babel 2017 – is as good as it is for a little over one third of that price, it’s a bit of a treat.
For those looking for great drinking value from ultra-premium brands, there was more than just The Babel to tick the box. Glenelly’s unwooded Chardonnay (the 2019 is already in the market) is simply delicious, likewise Delaire-Graff’s Cabernet Franc Rose, while the Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve delivers dollops of textured fruit for around R140 per bottle. Discoveries like these serve to remind us that not all producers use price as a proxy for quality and value.
The Johannesburg Cap Classique & Champagne Festival takes place on Saturday, April 13 and Sunday, April 14, from 12h00 to 17h00 at the Inanda Club.