The wine writer kicked the tyre of her SUV motor vehicle outside the Spier Conference Centre. “I can’t believe that woman from Pick ’n Pay said wine buyers don’t care about terroir,” she said with a sigh and tossed her hair in the cool westerly breeze blowing from the Atlantic. “It is so scary that people responsible for putting wine on the shelves know so little.”
According to rock god Neil Young, rust never sleeps. Well neither does a great old vintage Port, like the Ferreira 1963 I have been sharing since procuring a stash from the dank cellar of a Nobel laureate in the Cape’s deep South.
Ever since my interest in Port began, the vintage of 1963 has been revered as the best ever. That was the year of the late bud-break in the Douro’s Cima Corgo region. A fresh wet breeze wafted through the valley in late July and early August, arresting the rush of the grapes’ sugars and cooling the slate soils that are known to bake the bunches from below. A full moon during harvest caused harmonious balance as the wines were fermenting in the lagares, and the old theory of a late sardine run along the coast of Portugal implying an exceptional wine vintage held true.
The only other 1963 I had previously managed to experience, was a colheita from Kopke. But after relieving the previous owner of his stash of Ferreira I was champing at the chorizo to put this down the hatch.
I recently took one bottle of this rare item to a gathering of the Wine Swines, the most famous male-only wine-tasting fraternity in South Africa to see how the Ferreira would stand-up to the scrutiny of such talented and experienced palates. And it turned out to be the most excitement the Wine Swines members had had since Dr Dixon Frugelvinger announced he was offering free prostate examinations for the month of September.
The Ferreira bottle was old and crusty, yet – unlike most of the Swines – showing no signs of leakage. Joaquim Sá, host of that month’s gathering, proved his skill as a cork aficionado by deftly removing the stopper that had been gently inserted onto the bottle 53 years ago. When this wine was made, Port was still being shipped in casks from the quintas to the storage cellars in Gaia by way of the rabelo boats on a treacherous journey down the Douro. Disaster often struck: boats keeled over causing crew-members to drown and, horror-of-horrors, casks of wine to be lost.
The before us wine was decanted, and the first thing that hit me was its angelic amber hue. For the first 20 years after being bottled, it would have been black-purple. Inky and concentrated and fiercely dense. But after two decades, the Port starts to lighten up. Forty years old and, as a bottle of Warre’s 1977 recently showed, it is the colour of darkish rosé. But then the sun rises inside the bottle, the colour changes to a golden hue pretty much reflecting the colour of the Douro at sunset.
On the nose I found hints of turmeric and wild honey, complemented by a slight aroma of cured tobacco leaf. It was all remarkably fresh and lively, dancing in the glass in an almost teasing, flirtatious kind of way. As if to say, “now you’ve found me, Ferreira 1963, what are you going to do with me?”
Sip, that’s what. I gathered a big generous mouthful, and this was something quite remarkable, unlike any Port moment ever to have befallen me.
There was lightness to the liquid. A texture of linen thread and distilled Angel’s sweat and dew drops on the fruit in a Gauguin painting. Flavours were, as could be expected, challenging to nail down so astonishing were their complexity.
It was Port, so obviously there was sweetness. A head dried peach lying on double-boiled apricot preserve. Between that I tasted flowers, dried with the sugary nectar powder lying on the parched petals. The complexity of it all was captivating. For through the confection lay citrusy layers, proving that what had made the 1963 so awesome was the acid retention. It was an ode to life. Some nuttiness gave the wine grip and weight, with every mouthful finishing as gentle yet arresting as a tickle from a male peacock feather.
We were all speechless, looking at the empty bottle with a sense of wonder only eclipsed by the immense gratitude. No rust, no sleep.
- Emile Joubert
The gunshots were still echoing in the night sky, but I was assured they were the last. For that night, at least. My uber-driven vehicle had arrived, courtesy of the Bonteheuwel Burgundy 73 Wine Society for which I had been asked to present a tasting of Côtes de Beaune Pinot Noirs, as well as to give a bit of general lowdown on the region. They are very into geography on the Cape Flats.
If I am going to listen to one voice of authority concerning the merits of a vintage, it is going to be the soft drawl of Jan Boland Coetzee. And, says this Great Son of the Soil, 2015 is the best South African vintage of the past 50 years.
The new approach at Constantia’s refined eatery named Catharina’s is refreshingly visceral and beastly. Set in a beautiful Cape Dutch house among the vineyards of Steenberg wine farm, Catharina bears the name of the farm’s founder who left an indelible impression since arriving to tame the South Peninsula wilderness in 1682.
The nearest South Africa comes to Chablis has nothing to do with Chardonnay. That searing slash of steely minerality found in Chablis is amiss from unwooded South African Chardonnays. Whilst some wines do offer some of those features wine boffins refer to as tense, nervous, edgy or wired, the country’s southern sunshine and its eagerness to ripen Chardonnay prevent the stony and anguished structure of the fruit from penetrating the juice.
Check out the explosion in restaurants offering patrons access to their “sommelier”. He/she is described as an “in-house wine-expert, especially trained to ensure your wine choice matches that of one’s culinary whims, ensuring an all-encompassing dining experience that you – our valued customer – deserves.”
Man, wrote the great novelist and raconteur Jim Harrison, was not created to eat small portions. That’s why Italian eateries are always close to my soft-spot. Yes, the ubiquitous Italian restaurant may vary in quality, consistency, service and range of offering. But you ain’t going to leave any of them hungry.
It is Waterford Estate, and I’m on a mission. But it’s easy to get side-tracked. The farm lies on the Helderberg-side of Stellenbosch, up Blaauwklippen Valley way and the wine region equivalent of a limited edition Bugatti or pure-bred racing stallion. The scenery of vines, mountain, meadows, pastures and forest makes you feel as if you’re driving in a painting done by an artist who still has to be born.
Entering Waterford Estate itself feels like a movie set, one where a Latin-looking guy on horse-back canters through the citrus orchards, pulls-up before the rural-chic building built from reddish-beige bedrock and dismounts to grab a cool glass of Chardonnay. Someday, I want to be that guy.
The tasting room is welcoming and spacious with young, bright staff appearing genuinely glad to see you, even if you are one of the hundreds of visitors they host per week. A gourmet-looking coffee machine is parked in the corner, and from behind a high counter, relaxed and efficient men and women orchestrate the array of wine-tastings on offer. From experiencing reserve selections to matching wine with tailor-made chocolates, to simply sitting in the courtyard pondering life and time over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc or cup of perfect espresso, the Waterford ambience is not conducive to rushed agendas or the meeting of structured deadlines.
But today my mission is another step in a long-time quest to discover the story of Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon. This quest is not going to be ending anytime soon – if anytime at all – but is one hell of a fascinating journey for someone who like me believes Cabernet to be South Africa’s greatest red wine grape.
Cabernet Sauvignon lies at the heart of Waterford, and in the soul of its cellar-master Kevin Arnold. Of course, Arnold has been around a long time before Waterford.
After studying at Elsenburg, the Bloemfontein-schooled Arnold worked under the legendary Spätz Sperling at Delheim from 1970 to 1987. This was followed with 10 years at another blue-blood Stellenbosch winery, Rust en Vrede, until an opportunity of a lifetime came along in 1998. Businessman Jeremy Ord wanted a wine farm on the Helderberg, a cellar and brilliant wines under the name of Waterford. And the man he wanted to make that happen as his partner in the operation, was Kevin Arnold.
“From our first harvest in 1998 I pretty much had a clean slate,” says Arnold. “With the proviso that the business became cash positive after six years.”
Well, 18 years later and with Waterford comfortably sitting at the rarified top-end of the list of South Africa’s finest wineries. The slate is now well-scribbled, with ticks outnumbering crosses.
The range of wines is extensive, from Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Noir, Cap Classique and Shiraz, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. But mention Waterford and Cabernet Sauvignon, and tones become hushed, an atmosphere of reverence in the air.
“The Helderberg is not only one of Stellenbosch’s, but one of the world’s great areas to grow Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Arnold. Knowing the more northern region of Simonsberg like the back of his hand, thanks to time at Delheim, he says Stellenbosch is blessed with these two Cabernet Sauvignon power-houses each offering great wines characterised by differences in terroir.
“Helderberg is a rugged, diverse area with valleys and rifts holding huge differences in soils, aspect and exposure to the elements,” says Arnold. “The Simonsberg slopes are more homogenous, even and flowing.”
Mark le Roux, who has been Arnold’s winemaker since 2013, shares Arnold’s fascination with the effect and influence of geography on grapes and wine-making.
“The soils here on Waterford are fascinating,” he says. “They are varied with granite, tukulu and some oakleaf, but when I got to know the farm I was really surprised to see how poor the soils are here and in the general Helderberg. Rocky. Stones. Impenetrable at parts.”
From a way off, the vinelands of Waterford and the Helderberg may look all post-card picturesque. But for a vine and a wine farmer, it is tough territory. And let’s not even mention the “pumping” south-easterly wind.
That is, however, up in the mountains behind the airy comfort of the Waterford courtyard where a few vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon have been opened and decanted.
“Our approach to Cabernet involves serious attention to the role of tannins,” says Arnold. “The vineyards have done the hard work in ripening the grapes to give us the right raw material to work with. Here the approach with Cabernet is gently does-it. Soft pump-overs to ensure sufficient skin contact that draws the desired degree of tannins and colour from the skins to great balance and elegance. No frenetic manual punch-downs or over-extraction.”
Wood maturation of between 18 and 20 months is in 30% new barrel – once again, tannin control – with the balance of the wine going into anything up to 6th fill.
“One thing that impressed my about Waterford when I first got a glimpse of the winery as a student in 2005 was the simple, no-airs approach,” says Le Roux. “There is nothing fancy in the wine-making process, and nothing gets over-talked.”
Before us, it’s the Cabernets are doing the talking. A 2001 is fresh and alive, brimming with crushed berries and carrying a hint of savoury and pine-needle complexity. The wine of 2003, from a hot and stellar vintage, is an indication as to why Arnold compares the Helderberg to Bordeaux’s Pauillac region. The wine has a sculptured, sinewy structure followed by an immense power, a wave of black fruit, cedar and a tangy, perky finish. A world-class wine that makes your ears zing with pride.
What’s more, at 13 years old, the best is still to come from this vintage.
I comment on Waterford’s focus on older vintages. “Great wines are timeless, and longevity is an important part of our wine-making approach,” says Arnold. “To stand up and be counted as a winery, I believe you have to be able to put 10 vintages of the same wine on the table. That is how you judge a producer, on his or her ability to do this and – of course – the quality of the line-up.”
Moving to the Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, it is apparent that the wines are definitely approachable at an age younger than the previous two to which I had been exposed. Here the meticulous approach to tannin control pays off, allowing the wine to show fruit composition complemented by a delectable juiciness with a tight finish giving a glimpse of the greatness to come over a few years’ bottle-aging.
Wine quality has always been a given at Waterford. But what makes a winery succeed in creating a successful brand, something the farm, its wines and people have done in a relatively short lapse of time?
“Consistency,” says Le Roux. “Once people have become accustomed to receiving nothing but quality from your product, then the brand achieves status.”
Arnold, however, says the world’s best brands, from fashion to jewellery to wine, must have custodians. “Excellence is largely created and driven by the people associated with that brand. No matter what the product is, everyone likes to know it has a human face and personality behind it.”
And it is here. In front of me, drinking Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Emile Joubert for VISIO Magazine
A return to the White House by the Clintons could be a trump for the South African wine industry which is struggling to make in-roads into the world’s largest wine market. For were President Hillary Clinton to take the keys, husband and former president Bill would be tasked with selecting the wine served at official White House events. Tradition calls on the First Lady to choose wines in conjunction with the White House Sommelier, and with Bill set to become First Husband, Cape wine will find a warm welcome at the most important address in the world.