While doing some exhaustive research so as to be of service to the informed readers of this publication, it was quite amazing to see how little has been written, spoken and sung about South African Merlot wine. There are reams of missives on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc and little-known, trendy bottles made from weird grapes like Verdelho and Palomino, but the Merlot voices are largely silent.
What makes this dearth of information stranger still, is the fact that – as far as single varieties go – Merlot is the number one selling red wine in South Africa. Which, actually, might offer some explanation as to why it is not getting more airtime from the weighty voices of the informed wine critics who follow the rule of: if it is so popular, it can’t be that good.
But common taste be damned, I love me a good juicy Merlot. When well-made, this red wine offers a muscular, stern presence while at the same time wrapping the senses in a silky cloak of gentle, seductive fruit flavours.
Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch has captured the essence of Merlot in a wine it calls Black Magic, an evocative name that is doing wonders in attracting a new generation of wine-lovers to this variety. But then again, everything Jordan does is pretty much spot-on. If I ever find myself in doubt as to what wine to select I’ll go for something with Jordan on the label. Owners Gary and Kathy Jordan are both wine-makers who follow a rigorous commitment to quality in everything they do, and Jordan’s reputation as one of the Cape’s leading producers is well-deserved.
The Jordan Black Magic Merlot 2014 has its origins in vineyards set in granite soils lined with black tourmaline – Gary is a trained geologist, so I am with him on this one. Merlot vineyards were planted in these ancient dark soils to complement the grapes’ flavour profiles, which along with skill in the cellar has helped create a wine I can only describe as magnificently delicious.
The wine spent 16 months in French oak barrels, a combination of old and new, and the wood has added a statuesque structure to a wine oozing flavours of red fruit and spice with a slight herbal tint. Prunes and ripe plums abound, and on the spice side I found a touch of cardamom and cinnamon. But the main feature is the gorgeous smooth, soft way the wine lies on the palate allowing the heady flavours to drift towards a long, smooth finish.
A great wine on its own or with roasted meats and creamy pastas.
While we are on the theme of funky names, how about the Steenberg Rattlesnake Sauvignon Blanc? Well if snakes are the thing, Rattlesnake is more in-tune with the Constantia language than Pofadder of Geelslang.
However, this wine is named after HMS Rattlesnake which fought against the Dutch in the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795 and has become one of the most popular offerings from Steenberg Vineyards, which claims to be the oldest registered farm in the Cape.
The Rattlesnake is always dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, but in some years a small percentage of Sémillon is added to give palate-weight and a bit of body. This was not needed in the 2016 vintage, and the 100% Sauvignon Blanc offers a pristine example of who great this kind of wine can be when the grapes come from the right site and the winemakers handle them with the requisite skill.
No, you are not going to get a zingy, sharp, green Sauvignon Blanc in the Rattlesnake. For the wine was given wooding in large barrels of French oak, adding a dimension of class, sophistication and superiority.
Fruit is there, a fresh line of lychee, kumquat and white pear. But what the wooding does is broaden the structure, providing a podium from which the balance of acid, fruit and freshness can speak in an assertive and lasting voice. What a white wine this is, and a call for wooded Sauvignon Blanc to be placed in the category of South African Greatness.
Alright, would you believe the next wine I selected also has a name which could be described as un-conventional. This be the Close Encounter Riesling from Paul Cluver out Elgin way. Paul Cluver pioneered wine farming among the apples orchards in cool-climate Elgin, and Riesling was one of the first varieties planted. But sales of Riesling hit a hiccup a few years back, and Cluver almost pulled out all the Riesling vines as a result – a close encounter, if you wish.
The resulting wine is arguably South Africa’s finest Riesling. Paul Cluver Close Encounter 2016 is a Riesling that brings the fruitier, sweeter elements of this German grape variety to the fore. The trick is, and this winemaker Andries Burger does superbly, is to ensure the grapes’ natural acidity is retained to perk-up the sweet-side so as to ensure the wine remains fresh and does not become cloying or candy-like.
Close Encounter offers all the unique traits of a fine Riesling to an exactness Paul Cluver’s wines have become known for. The wine has notes of quince, ripe apple and honey-comb riding on a broken wave of exuberance and life-affirming drinkability. Also worth mentioning is that this wine has a modest alcohol level of 9,4%, making it one for guilt-free enjoyment if this is your kind of thing.
For me, it is down the hatch by the bottle, and perfect accompaniment to – oh stuff the “spicy Asian thing” – a great hot curry.
- · Emile Joubert for Southern Vines Magazine