South Africa might have a wine industry going back all the way to 1659 when one Jan van Riebeeck oversaw the first Cape harvest, but in certain aspects the country’s vinous ventures make this neck of the world appear like a new kid on the block. Take, for example, the spirit of independent wine-making where wine farms make wine from their own grapes and bottle the result under an own label.
Fifty years ago there were but a handful of such independent ventures. Stellenbosch, widely recognised as South Africa’s most prolific wine region and second oldest to Constantia, is a case on point.
Today there might be some 200 wine-producing labels in this area, but back in 1968 only six farms had taken it upon themselves to make their own market-ready wine.
Although grapes were being grown in abundance, the big wine corporates such as the KWV, Distillers Corporation and Stellenbosch Farmers Winery were buying up most of the fruit and wine in bulk for their own brands. This led to a comfort zone for farmers of the time. They simply had to deliver grapes and bulk wine to the big guys and bank the cheques without having to contend with the challenges of bottling, marketing and selling an own label which – as any modern winery will tell you – can be a daunting task.
But certain independently spirited producers challenged this situation, believing that if South Africa was to produce its best wines, the way to go was alone. By actually making your own wine from grapes grown on your doorstep which will express a sense of place, something a mass-bottled brand from batches far and wide – such as Chateau Libertas or La Gratitude – could not do.
Simonsig in Stellenbosch was one of the leaders of this independent movement and this year celebrates its 50th anniversary as a grower, maker and marketer of an own brand. To mark the occasion Simonsig released a commemorative and limited volume Chenin Blanc wine, Chenin being the first variety to adorn a Simonsig label. And besides the swanky slender magnum (1,5l) bottle and nostalgic label, this is a deliciously drinkable white wine that looks like a collectors’ item but wants to be polished off, as in pronto.
Back then in 1968 Chenin Blanc was still called “Steen”, and the Simonsig Steen 2017 is labelled as such. The wine is made from one of the oldest vineyards on the farm, harvested at four levels of ripeness allowing the cellar master, Johan Malan, to get creative in making a wine for the special commemorative year.
Each parcel of the harvest – from zesty and young to mellow and ripe – was aged separately in oak for a year before Johan and his team set about blending the components until the sweet spot was found. And this they did smack-on, delivering a wine of intriguing complexity and depth with, at the same time, the whack of exciting freshness and bouncy brisk energy good Chenin Blanc should have.
The wood-aging ensures the wine has a real presence on the palate with sufficient length to do justice to those gorgeous flavours of pear, green apple and melon. This is what makes Chenin Blanc such a great grape when it is vinified to perfection: detectable fruit characteristics in a wine that is most definitely dry and crisp at the same time, without any of the cloying or clumsy sweetness a lesser skilled producer of Chenin Blanc might be tempted to put on the market. But I guess that is where experience comes into it.
The Simonsberg Steen 2017 is available from the farm only, and it’s worth the journey or the phone-call.
The magnificent Lourensford farm out Somerset-West way might sport a history going back to 1700, but only began releasing its own label fifteen years ago. The estate has taken a while to find its straps in terms of vineyard plantings and focussed ranges, but is of late attracting a lot of airtime with the superb quality of wines coming out of that super-size winery on the slopes overlooking False Bay.
I have always believed that this cool region of Stellenbosch is made to grow Pinot Noir, and Lourensford is showing it can indeed be done. The Lourensford Dome Pinot Noir 2017 might just be one of the “hidden secrets” on the local Pinot Noir seen, especially if you are a Pinot lover who dares admit to buying versions of this noble variety at under R170 a bottle.
The grapes are grown on those hills where the vines are fanned by the south-easterly breeze in summer and pummelled by the north-west in winter. It is cool, really, and this is what the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape likes.
In the cellar, wine maker Hannes Nel gives the wine a 13 month slumber in older French oak barrels, just leaving it there so the unique character of this grape variety can come to the fore. Yes, 2017 might sound pretty young to drink a Pinot Noir, but is this not what could be strong point for South Africa? The fact that you can create a pure, expressive and ready-to-drink wine made from the Pinot Noir grape without having to wait until the next total solar eclipse.
The Dome Pinot Noir 2017 has upfront berry-fruit and overall brightness, the kind that brings a smile to your face when sipping a glass of enjoyable wine. As it lingers on the palate an edge of spice – quite intriguing – comes through, something good Pinot does if the wood aging has been done by a craftsman and not a lumberjack. The acidity perks-up the wine, causing spot-on integration between the red and black fruit and the deeper, sophisticated and markedly sensual elegance of a wine for which I see tremendous potential.
Definitely one of the finest Pinot Noirs from Stellenbosch, and a wine to watch – and to get hold of.
Unlike Pinot Noir, its Burgundian brother Chardonnay is quite promiscuous in that it settles down easy on just about any piece of vineyard dirt. Great Chardonnay is found from most of South Africa’s regions – cool, warm, hot and cold; high in the mountains, next to the ocean and on the edge of the desert. Thus I was not that surprised to find an absolutely riveting Chardonnay from the Wellington region, an area about as closely suited to cool climate as the Hussar Grill is to vegan dining.
Linton Park is the name, and the Chardonnay vines lie at between 380m and 560m on the Groenberg ensuring respite from the mascara-melting heat lower in the valley. The Linton Park Chardonnay 2016 was scrutinised recently, and together with that spine-tingling Lourensford Dome Pinot Noir I felt I had been abducted to Burgundy – kicking and screaming, of course.
Linton Park’s Chardonnay is wooded in 1st and 2nd fill, but judiciously so. This allows a creamy lemon curd flavour, complemented by grilled nuts and that classic edge of hot butter and brioche. But acidity is the life of wine, and here a surge of freshness is reached to elevate the harmonious flavours that are typical of a good wine made from the world’s greatest white grape.
Spring might still bring some cool weather, but a well-made, muscular and taut Chardonnay such as Linton Park makes for an all-climate white wine, polished and beautifully vivid in displaying those torrents of spring one Ernest Hemingway wrote about. And as he said, this wine affirms his belief that good wine is the most civilised thing on earth.
- Southern Vines, Spring 2018