Cape Winefarmers’ Admirable Conservation Ethos

The spirit of innovation shown by wine-farmers in conserving the sensitive ecologies of the Western Cape winelands continues to play a major role in ensuring South Africa has one of the most conservation-conscious wine industries in the world. According to extension officers of the WWF Conservation Champions programme, Joan Isham and Jacques van Rensburg, the innovative approach to conservation shown by Conservation Champions has been one of the profound successes of this initiative aimed at creating a tangible culture of the importance of conserving the delicate wineland ecologies.

“As extension officers, we spend most of our time on the 40 farms who have applied for and been approved for WWF Conservation Champion status,” says Isham. “Since the programme began 15 years ago, then known as the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, it has captured the imagination of the wine community. This has led to practical successes achieved by Conservation Champion wine farmers in preserving some 22 000ha of the Cape Floral Kingdom situated on their properties, which has underscored the tangible success of this initiative. However, it must be said that together with the practical measures taken to protect these unique ecologies, the ethos of conservation shown by these farmers and their farming communities is one of the most successful and rewarding aspects of the programme. What is most satisfying is knowing that the foundations are now being laid for the future generations who will pick up the baton and follow the examples set by today’s generation of conservation-minded farmers and farm-workers.”

Farmers who are WWF Conservation Champions own some 45 000ha of land between them, of which 22 000ha is conserved as a pristine part of the world-famous Cape Floral Kingdom comprising fynbos and succulent Karoo plants. The 40 members work closely with the WWF in their conservation endeavours and are subjected to annual assessments to ensure they meet the specifications required of a Conservation Champion. All Champions’ credentials are also underscored by South Africa’s Integrated Production of Wine certification, with these wineries having achieved 70% of more in their IPW evaluation.

Bartinney Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, a true example of wineland conservation.

According to Van Rensburg, the commitment to conserving the natural habitat of their respective farms has resulted in benefits that were likely not foreseen when the programme began in 2005. “Having worked with the wine farming community for some time, I know that the spirit of innovation runs deep – including when it comes to conservation,” says Van Rensburg. “Initially, the main priority of the WWF Biodiversity Champions was to conserve the over 9 000 species of indigenous plants making-up the Cape Floral Kingdom as well as the insects, birds and mammals depending on this unique ecological system. But today this conservation mind-set has grown to conserving water and to ensure the responsible usage thereof. And then of course, with the global drive to decrease carbon emissions, WWF Conservation Champions are playing a leading role in the South African wine community in regulating and controlling the off-set of carbon on their farms.”

Water stewardship became an especially relevant topic during the extended drought experienced by the Western Cape between 2016 and 2018 and is one of the main criteria on which WWF Conservation Champions are monitored.

“No-one experienced the full extent of a drought the way a farmer did,” says Isham, “and those years definitely caused many to relook the way water is used.”

The drought showed the importance of water stewardship as some WWF Conservation Champions were able to avoid the worst effects of the dry years. “By already having systems in place to use up to 50% less water than they had become accustomed to through their water stewardship commitments, Conservation Champions were in a far better position to ward-off the potential destruction of drought than farms without similar water conservation programmes in place,” says Isham.

“Boschendal, one of the WWF Conservation Champions, in fact found themselves with access to more water during the drought than they did in years with normal rainfall, this the result of the farm having cleared their water catchment areas from alien vegetation,” she says. “Just by applying logical conservation strategies, such as removing water-guzzling alien plants and trees, a farm gets a new lease on life, waterwise.”

Flowers between the vines on Vondeling Wine Estate.

Van Rensburg says the use and conserving of energy has also rapidly leapt to the top of the list of priorities for WWF Conservation Champions, with carbon calculation being used to monitor members’ farming activities.

“World-wide this is currently the most talked-about aspect of wine-farming and production, so it is important that energy usage and carbon emissions receive top-priority within the realm of the WWF Conservation Champions programme,” he says. “Here we are seeing incredible innovation from our members, especially on the front of renewable energy with solar power rapidly becoming the norm for providing electricity for production as well as housing facilities on farms.

“Here we also see our members being tremendously innovative: La Motte Estate in Franschhoek, for example, uses water-pumps with variable speed-drives to ensure that as the elevation of the irrigated land lessens, the energy used to pump the water decreases, ensuring the optimal use of power. Then at Anthonij Rupert Wyn in Simondium one finds hydro-electricity used with a mountain waterfall generating power to complement the solar and other energy sources on which the farm operates. Hydro-electricity in a wine region that is just emerging from the effects of a drought might sound a bit ironical, but it shows the combination of human innovation and natural resources in this wonderful part of the world.”

Van Rensburg says that another role undertaken by the WWF Conservation Champions over the past few years is that of training and education among the wineland communities, especially among farmworkers and their families.

“For a true conservation mindset in the region, the hearts and minds of all people living and working in these ecologically sensitive areas have to support this ethos of looking after and embracing nature,” he says. “We are therefore not only aligning with wine producers and vineyard managers, but with the people who work the vines and tend the land. By educating them of the harm caused by pollution, alien vegetation and illegal snaring of animals – which is disturbingly rife – we are aiming to make the conservation of the Cape winelands a programme whose aspirations are shared by all who reside there. And to make them understand that their collective futures and that of their region depends on their interaction with the natural world.”

Boschendal: Water conservation at its best.

Isham says that the WWF Conservation Champions programme is unrivalled as far as conservation in wineland protection and wine production goes.

“Australian bodies have contacted us for advice on a similar programme, and are slowly adapting similar measure so ours,” she says. “Chile has shown interest but find it very hard to get traction for such initiatives due to the poor state of regulated conservation in that country. And the European winelands have become victims of urban sprawl, without any real natural ecologies remaining. The South African wine industry, thus, can truly lay claim to being a leader in conservation, which should be one of the unique selling points of our wines.”

The Useful Idiots of Prohibition

A sign of a state being successful in its striving towards totalitarianism lies not so much in its implementation of laws and regulations deemed important to control its population as it does in its duping the populace into believing that this enforcement is necessary. As Iranian-American academic and author Azar Nafisi wrote: “The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes.”

With this third stage of banning the sale of wine and other alcohol as part of its feeble Corona-strategy, the South African government has shown it is edging closer to the state of oppression and social control it so strongly desires by seemingly winning the hearts and minds of its people.

With a couple of exceptions, the majority of South Africans rejected the banning of alcohol and wine sales during last year’s shut-down. Hell, being new to this lockdown-thing, the country objected roundly to many of the government’s laws. This mostly unilateral moral revolt was, of course, made easier by a couple of uniquely brain-dead regulations laid-down by president Ramaphosa and his Covid Command Council. Such as it being illegal to buy warm pies for eating and open shoes for wearing.

A glass of wine and cold beer joined a list of consumables deemed illegal, their banning apparently necessary armaments in the fight against Covid-19.

The third liquor ban came flying in at the end of last year, and signs are here that the public is increasingly supporting the banning of the selling of wine, spirits and beer. Whether society’s sudden increase in support and tolerance of the liquor ban is the result of plain Corona fatigue, a generally greater moral vigilance caused by the undeniable concerning path of death and social tragedy of Covid-19 or an all-round increase in puritanical values due to this state of human vulnerability, this is open to question.

That the government is winning the moral high ground through the tagging of liquor as the evil that keeps dying people out of hospital wards, is a fact. Social media is full of this support. Media commentators and those who call into their talk-shows assertively state the need for a ban on liquor. Even the Western Cape government, home to the wine industry, uses each opportunity to underscore the necessity of this lock-down on wine sales.

Those of us who did military service in the army will remember that saying of the most important battle being winning the “hearts and minds” of the local populations among whom the enemy moved. Prohibition Ramaphosa has done exactly that. The minions are backing his message.

If alcohol is resulting in greater trauma-ward admissions due to drink-fuelled violence and motor vehicle accidents, the fault lies on the side of the South African authorities before the blame can be placed on the alcohol industry.

Through a lack of will to regulate and poor policing, the government has allowed the proliferation of illegal, unlicensed liquor-outlets. There are over 180 000 booze-sellers plying their trade – or waiting to do so once the ban is lifted – and these illegal sellers are going about their business with the apparent consent of the authorities. That 180 000 is double the number of the country’s legal liquor outlets. Suffice to say a large number of these trauma cases apparently choking hospitals are the result of this illicit liquor trading, which the government has a responsibility to shut-down. And is not doing.

Since anti-Corona measures were placed on society last year, the supposed contract stipulates that regulations would be enforced and policed in order to apply the measures deemed necessary to protect South Africans against the spread of Covid-19. Thus, when anti-liquor laws were relaxed last year to permit the sale of alcohol, where was the regulatory vigilance to ensure the safety of the population? Currently I can’t set foot on Clifton beach without being hauled-off in the sand-strewn cage of a police van. So, where were was all this concerned policing when society began drinking again? Had it been applied, surely a greater awareness of the need for responsible behaviour would have lessened the degree of booze-fuelled depravity.

This is how it works. Or is supposed to work.

What has now happened, is that the rights of a large number of South Africans have been assaulted. Responsible consumers of a legal product have no reason to have the right to do so taken from them. Irresponsible consumers and illegal liquor sellers do not have the same rights as responsible consumers. I have the right to own a dog. Once I begin mistreating that animal, I lose this right. What’s so difficult to understand?

Especially concerning is that the past 10 months has given the government a taste of the vast power it can wield on millions of people by means of a few sentences. If its action of banning liquor sales is not protested against and legally questioned, the door will gradually be opened for bans and lockdowns and restrictions in a post-Corona world. Anytime the social fabric is deemed disrupted, liquor could be made a potential scapegoat along with other elements that were – up until now – for many law-abiding people a daily way of life.

To be complicit to the liquor ban is admitting to having allowed the government to pull the wool over your eyes. And makes you an idiot, useful or otherwise.

SA Set to Face New Ban

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Corona Command Council are not quite finished with their array of restrictions, bans and prohibitions on hapless South Africans. According to a secret memo, leaked to this website by a mask-wearing informer, the government plans to ban poverty due to the debilitating effect it is having on the fight against Covid-19.

In a strongly worded warning expected to me made any day now, Ramaphosa writes in the memo that he and his government’s patience is wearing thin with the continued poverty in South Africa and that it is only a matter of days before South Africans can see poverty as being deemed illegal under the Corona Command Council’s Covid-19 restrictions.

“Alcohol is banned because it changes the behaviour of South Africans, leading them to eschew anti-Corona safety-measures and contribute to the filling of hospitals,” says Ramaphosa. “Well, alcohol is not the only culprit – poverty, which South Africans continue to embrace, is just as much responsible for changing the attitudes and actions of some of our fellow countrymen and women, causing them to act in an irresponsible manner not conducive to the fight against Covid-19.”

Cyril Ramaphosa

Ramaphosa says examples of the affect poverty has in hampering the government’s fight against the pandemic are rife.

“Poverty sees people drop their guard against Corona by continuing to live in cramped quarters in tin-shacks,” he says. “Being poor also makes South African feel that they do not have to buy a car to commute to work, opting instead to be transported in over-filled mini-bus taxis. And it has been proven that poverty leads to violent crime, which sees injured victims taking-up space in hospital trauma units. Not to mention the inconvenience of malnourished children in medical-care centres at this time when we should unilaterally be focusing on Corona virus.”

Ramaphosa says that although he and the ANC have remained patient until now, poverty is set to be made illegal as long as the Covid-19 pandemic persists, and longer if required.

“On advice of the Corona Command Council and with the support of government, we are setting-out motions to ban poverty in the near-foreseeable future,” he says. “South Africans can expect strong and decisive measures through which the occurrence of poverty will be policed, and anyone not adhering to the regulations by continuing to live in poverty will face the full brunt of the law. I suggest that we as a nation also use this period in which poverty is illegal to reflect on how poverty was able to gain such a strong and pervasive hold on the country.”

Ramaphosa writes that South Africans should look at the example set by their government. “Myself and the cabinet have not allowed poverty to enter our worlds,” he says, “so it is inexplicable that the rest of the country permit the ongoing poverty to prevail unabated.”

The date of this announcement is not known, but it is suggested that South Africans get rid of any signs of poverty as soon as possible as the ban is likely to be enforced as soon as it is communicated at the next family gather.

Middelvlei Celebrates 100 years with Pinotage brilliance

No chapter of Stellenbosch’s wine legacy is complete without the Momberg name making an appearance. When I arrived in the town of oaks in 1979, the Mombergs had been around for 60 years and the very mention of the name caused a ripple of excitement. There was talk of great wine made by the Momberg families (cousins) on Middelvlei and Neethlingshof, political ambitions and a pedigree of sporting achievements.

And – of great importance to a teenage-pupil at Paul Roos Gymnasium, like me – there was also the fact that any girl whose name preceded the Momberg surname was bound to be a dark-haired beauty guaranteed to make knees weak and turn your own attempts at conversing into incomprehensible and nervy stutters.

Full moon over Middelvlei.

While the Neethlingshof Momberg clan have long left the wine world, the Mombergs of Middelvlei continue the family’s wine ventures on the original farm acquired in 1919. Patriarch Jan (Stiljan) Momberg has handed the operations over to sons Tinnie (winemaker) and Ben (marketing), although Stiljan regularly regales tales of years yonder on the beloved Middelvlei when he is not holding court at Dias Tavern eatery in downtown Cape Town. (The Mombergs have always had good taste – they also like Dachshunds.)

No reason is needed to visit the hospitable Middelvlei Mombergs, but I recently did develop an eagerness upon ascertaining that Middelvlei’s new once-off premier Pinotage offering was being let loose. This is a variety the farm has been known to do especially well, the result of central Stellenbosch terroir and legacy of fine Pinotage-crafting in the cellar.

The limited-release wine is named Momberg Pinotage and this sole vintage is from 2018. Its appearance in 2020 coincided with 100 years of winemaking on Middelvlei. And despite the historical weight and provenance behind this marque, the wine is far from conventionally classic in what it offers.

Over the years Middelvlei has built a reputation for capturing the brighter, less stern and less earthy side of Pinotage. The farm’s Free Run Pinotage, which has gained a cult following with its animated presentation of red fruits held together by a liberated, loose ribbon of gently vibrating tannins, arguably led the way in the new generation of Pinotage-makers venturing to this variety’s fresher side. The statuesque Momberg Pinotage 2018 is of far firmer body and more authoritative person than the aforementioned wine. But its beauty lies in the way it straddles both its commanding presence and those more dashing, liberated attributes.

Mombergs: Tinnie, Jan, Jeanneret (CEO of Visit Stellenbosch) and Ben.

Tinnie Momberg can select great Pinotage grapes and manage fermentation and skin-contact with his eyes closed, so the intriguing aspect of this wine lies not in the basic foundations. The decision to age a whack of the wine in American oak makes for the wow-factor. Some 80% of the wine got new oak exposure, with 70% of the new stuff being sourced from the land of the unwashed Capitol Hill climbers.

This American oak is not that evident on the nose, where the Momberg Pinotage 2018 shows real dandy, with aromas of wet violets, potpourri and sun-dried hay, a nice juicy hit of ripe plum orchard lurking underneath it all. To the mouth, the wine is the kind of Pinotage underscoring my belief that 62 years since the release of the first bottling, the full potential of Pinotage still needs its surfaced scratched.

Yes, it is a big wine. Nothing to do with alcohol, which comes in at an accurate 14%. The formidable presence lies in the depth of character, the confident showing of a vivid spectrum of complexities of taste and aura, and the tangible excitement this Pinotage evokes. (Yes, I am excited, having trouble balancing the lap-top as I type this.)

On the attack the wine arouses the taste-buds through a sappiness filled with exploding red-currants, raspberry sorbet and diced crab-apple. Coating the palate with darts of pulsating liquid energy, the plushness takes over. Things calm down, lead-guitar turns to rhythm and bass. An expected mocha-like sense covers the mouth, like a cashmere scarf worn by a lady chocolatier mixing single-bean Uganda cocoa at midnight. There is the creak of Havana cigar-box, as well as darkness of flavour: black Moroccan honey, those prunes from Kazakhstan soaked in vintage Armagnac; the fatty nut-taste of a layer of Jámon Iberico Pata Negra.

The finish is, however, clear and discernibly clean, leaving memory, thought and a life-affirming satisfaction.

With half the bottle of Momberg Pinotage 2018 finished, the next part will toast the continued presence and importance of great family wines from this phenomenal wine region.

Long may they live, as in forever.

Delheim: Terroir with Soul

Anyone driving up the road to Delheim Estate, the rows of vines ahead and that sight of the majestic Simonsberg towering over the landscape, will understand that the Sperling family are somewhat impassioned about Delheim’s sense of place. It is a home and the source of their livelihood, namely vineyards and wine. And, of course, there is the magnificent natural beauty the Sperlings have been taught to conserve, protect and guard-over since their first breath of fynbos-scented mountain air.

Place and address are aspects that people are inextricably attached to. Place of origin defines their being and determines their routes in life. Nobody can take it away from you. And wine people know that place and origin are also vital features in the pedigree, quality and provenance of that finished bottled product.

This is where that much-used term terroir comes in. Terroir is the geographical fingerprint of the patch of earth on which grapes are grown and from where wine is made. Soil, topography and climate differ on all four corners of the globe and are ever-changing. The effect of this terroir on vines grown on a specific place determines the final quality of the wine originating from the specific address. It is this characteristic that makes wine the captivating product that it is, and the most diverse agricultural endeavour the human race has undertaken.

The young Sperlings on Delheim: Nora, left, and Victor on the right with Spatz and Vera.

This is what draws people to wine, the geographical difference. A Cabernet Sauvignon wine made from grapes grown in Bordeaux in France, for example, will differ from wine made in Napa, California from the same grape variety, as will a Cabernet from Stellenbosch. The reason? The difference in the soils, climate, aspect…the terroir of the different countries.

The same applies to regions within a country. Take South Africa, where the winelands are relatively close to Cape Town, but the geographical features of these regions are so diverse that wines from Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville, the Swartland and Hemel-en-Aarde – to name a few – all have their own unique identities due to the differences in terroir.

For an old wine country like South Africa, which has been making wine since 1652, it is surprising that the Cape only fairly recently realised these geographical variances. Up until the late 1960s there was no legislation in place to determine and validate the origin of the vineyards from where the various South African wine labels sourced their grapes. It was, quite frankly, a situation of “anything goes”.

The wheels to legislate and recognise the importance of origin withing the Cape wine industry were, in fact, set in motion on Delheim. In 1969, over a lunch of sauerkraut and sausage, Spatz Sperling and his two similarly outspoken friends Sydney Back of Backsberg and Frans Malan of Simonsig decided that South Africa needed a system validating the importance of wineries’ and wines’ origin and address. To create a more authentic bloodline for the country’s wine offerings.

In those days, the wine industry was largely controlled by the big corporations who would source grapes from all over the Cape to make wines that might have been acceptable in terms of quality, but had no provenance and individual identity. Sperling, Malan and Back knew, as did many other wine farmers, that to progress and to gain a better image, South African wines needed to underscore the uniqueness of their diverse vineyard sites and points of origin. Just look to Burgundy or Bordeaux, for example, where a quilt of separate pockets of earth each produce wines of individuality and uniqueness from one umbrella region.

From this meeting of three men on Delheim, and the strength of the personalities concerned, a major turning-point came for South African wine. First there was the formation of the Estate Wine Producers Association driven by Sperling, Malan and Back, allowing official recognition of wines made and bottled from vineyards grown within the boundaries of a specific wine estate.

This led to the Wine of Origin System of 1973 which eventually permitted South African wines to, like those of France, Germany, Spain and Italy – to name a few – show-case their geographical authenticity through official indicators on the respective bottles’ labels.

This Wine of Origin System changed the way South African wine farmers saw their product. Now, with the wine consumers able to access and understand wines with regional typicity instead of a few mass-volume homogenous blends, the excitement of diversity and regional uniqueness swept through the local wine world like a breath of fresh air.

Today it is address and geographical uniqueness that underscores Delheim’s place in the wine world. The Simonsberg is one of Stellenbosch’s unique areas, and Delheim’s 116ha of vineyards are situated on the steep slopes of the Simonsberg as well as on the lower parts of the mountain three kilometres to the west in the region of Klapmutskop. The decomposed granite soils that dropped down from the mountain millions of years ago are unique in the world, and their ability to drain-off water which then lies in the clay underbed to sustain and cool the vines’ roots create a terroir suited to making some of the finest red and white wines in the world. Wet winters and sun-drenched summers, and an exposure to the breezes from the south-east in summer and north-west in winter add to the specificity of the terroir.

However, if one listens to Victor and Nora Sperling, terroir and its influence on wine is more than climate, soils and topography. It is about the human spirit in which the vines grow and the grapes ripen. It is about people. The heritage of family.

“Being a second-generation family wine farm is, for us, a major part of our identity and our offering,” says Nora. “Growing-up on Delheim, the making of wine and growing of grapes was in the Sperling-family DNA, the result of our father who planted the vineyards, got to know the land and began the history of Delheim wine. It is a fact that that influence formed the ethos of the estate and all who have lived and worked here. To be custodians of that vision and those goals is a great honour, and I think that like other family wine farms in South Africa and other parts of the world, this heritage and the generational involvement of family is vital in the quality of our product and the reputation of the brand.”

Victor felt the red mountain soils before he could walk, and for all his working life had been between the vines of Delheim. “I learnt everything from my father, who farmed the vineyards and made wine with an intuition he drew from this piece of Simonsberg earth that inspired him since he landed here as a young man,” says Victor. “Following in the footsteps of one’s ancestors, a wine farmer blends in with the physical terroir, making your personal contribution to the way grapes are grown and wine is made an integral part of the soul of the vineyards and the final bottle product. Delheim wine is a part of who we are, and I am sure that if wines and vineyards could talk, they would say that the Sperlings are a part of them.”

Thoughts of wine and family, both of which run more than skin-deep.

5 Signs You are No Wine Snob

You should not be wondering, but just in case you thought you might be one we offer a handy check-list. Five signs that you might actually not be a wine snob.

  • Arriving at a dinner-party or social gathering, you plonk down the bottle of wine you brought with you without offering rapturous descriptions of the wine’s provenance, critical acclaim and the tremendous lengths you had to go in order to procure this vinous pangolin. A non-wine snob will simply place the bottle of wine in your host’s welcoming hands with a “there you go, Steve” before looking for the beer bucket and any single women in attendance. This attitude is also appreciated by the host who, while you are chewing the fat with interesting people and partaking in the smoked salmon canapés, is still stuck listening to the wine oracle going on about the soil and aspects of the vineyard which produced the pontificating guest’s lovingly gifted offer.
  • Ice is okay. An assured way of causing PTSS (Present Traumatic Stress Syndrome) among wine snobs is to add a cube of ice to a glass of Chardonnay or Riesling. Dropping ice into a red wine is ill-advised as this has been known to result in cardiac arrest and self-inflicted wrist-injuries to afficionados. To the wine snob, adding ice is less about the physical effect on the wine than about the assault on the revered status wine should be seen to have attained in the experts’ opinionated beliefs. By adding ice, you lower the prestigious image of wine to that of commoner drinks such as brandy, whisky and gin, a path trodden by low-lifes incapable of appreciating the offer of Bacchus. How dare you.
  • Snap-snap. Should you drink wine without photographing the label next to a stylish expensive-looking glass and posting it on Instagram, twitter or facebook, you are surely just a regular wine-drinker without the least bit of danger of moving into snob-territory. These photos are normally accompanied by informed thoughts such as “probably too young, but what the hell”; “a fair line-up” or “living the life”. #cabernetforever #lovechardonnay #betyoucantaffordthis. Simply drinking wine for enjoyment while delving into interesting conversation about all things life without posting a trophy photo of your bottle of Porseleinberg Syrah or Radio Lazarus Chenin Blanc means you are, unfortunately, just a normal person, one for which winemakers make wine to have a good time with. No chance of snob status…..yet. #gettingthere
  • Eating and drinking. You like all wine and all food, and don’t give a damn about convention which confines certain styles and cultivars to being consumed with specific dishes or food-types. Drinking Chardonnay with a steak and glugging a hearty Pinotage while slurping a plate of oysters might be enjoyable for you. But continue on this path, and wine snobbery will forever evade you. In the world of the wine snob, it is sacrilege to follow your own taste in selecting the kind of wine you’d like to have with your meal. For acceptance into the hallowed world of the wine snob demands that convention be adhered to. White wine with fish and robust reds with beef and lamb. Veer-off from that and your mind is as uncouth as your palate. Yes, I don’t give a fuck either.
  • Liking Sauvignon Blanc is not conducive to wine snobbery, so you’ll have to try harder. The wine snob is a species presuming itself to be rare due to the enormous knowledge, tasting-skill and social admiration required to gain acceptance to this tribe. As the world’s most popular white wine, Sauvignon Blanc is too easy to like, a point proved by the hundreds of millions of normal people around the world that like this wine. A fondness for Sauvignon Blanc shows signs of running with the masses and a predilection for the taste of the common man or human, something no wine snob wishes to be associated with.

You know who you are.

Never Lose Site of the Pleasure of Chardonnay

By Lafras Huguenet

As a retiree and without wife, woman or life-partner, I am less familiar with the term “tension” than Ace Magashule is with the words “admit” or “truth”. Yet, tension continues to be used when describing one of the finer and wondrous features of life. Namely wine.

Andrew Jefford, he of Decanter fame and one of the world’s finest wordsmiths on things vinous, was the first active deployer of tension in describing the taut, leanness of especially white wines. Those sporting a run of acidity slicing through the liquid’s fruitier aspects. AJ opened the coup, and now most serious wine commentators marvel at the tense features of a piercing Chablis, steely Sancerre and rock-pelted dry Riesling.

A descriptor such as tension is of no use to me, a basic lover, imbiber and willing sharer of wine and the way it enhances my life and makes the world around me a better place. Tension and joy just don’t belong in the same glass.

I thus made an extra relaxed effort when opening the latest vintage-release of The Site Chardonnay 2018 from De Wetshof Estate in Robertson. Of the five wines in De Wetshof’s Chardonnay range, it is The Site that has attracted the word “tension” in amassed droves. It is always an elucidating experience to attempt tasting the tenseness, of what they all speak, in this wine.

The Site’s vineyard is rooted in a patch of almost pure limestone on the De Wetshof Estate, a lower bed of clay ensuring cool dampness for the vine’s roots within which to remain calm. Exposed to the broad southern skies on a gentle slope, the vineyard receives energy and wisdom from loads of sunlight, while the lack of obstructive rocky mounds allows the air to move freely among the plants. It always has been a gorgeous spot to look at whilst driving to the southernmost part of Africa, some 90km from the De Wetshof farm.

Tasting this version of The Site, it is evident that 2018 is proving to be an excellent vintage for De Wetshof. The farm’s Bateleur Chardonnay from that year is one of the best I have ever had, and without wishing to sound repetitive on my appraisal, The Site has also joined the party in offering an absolutely fantastic wine.

Pale straw in colour, aromas of torn orange leaves and sherbet ascend from the expansive rim of my wine-glass. The attack on the palate is about as discreet as a 03.00am phone-call from a former mistress who still has access to her husband’s credit card. Illuminating shafts of lime, salt-lick and river-rapid race into the mouth, immediately elevating the mood and alerting the senses. As is my wont, I swallow the first sip while noting the effect of the wine’s entrance.

The next glug is to ascertain the manner of the mid-palate. Here, the salty citrus, so gorgeously abundant, mellows as some of those classic Chardonnay features take over, traits common to the wines of Corton. This involves the settling of those lemon and bitter orange elements to allow the mysterious drawers of classic Chardonnay to be unlocked, opened and savoured. Green almonds and white flowers, with a bit of jasmine perfume. Freshly laundered linen, just-dried in a harsh African sun. A touch of William pear picked and eaten, greedily, on the greener edge of ripeness.

As the wine nears the finish, an immense sense of satisfaction is experienced. It is complete in its beauty, a woven silk rope providing robust power and steadfastness, without sacrificing beauty. Thirst is sated and there is that privileged feeling of good wine in the stomach, and the knowledge that there is a whole bottle to come.

Absolutely nothing to be tense about.

A Troika of Cape Brilliance

Anton Smal of Newstead putting in the blade.

Much like Jewish humour, good sparkling wine is a bit quick for me. To analyse, that is. Reason being, when partaking in a glass of fizz, the elixir tends to go down the hatch quicker than an ANC tender-preneur does upon receiving a call from the Hawks.

But recently it was all work as far as fizz wine was concerned, merry glugging being kept to a minimum. The Amorim Cap Classique Challenge announced this year’s top South African sparkling wines made to the original method of Champagne. That is, secondary bottle-fermented with some time for the wine to not only give birth to the 50 million awesome bubbles found in one bottle, but also to add those spell-binding flavours and that creamy texture featuring in the sparkles I like.

Lo and behold, this year’s Cap Classique Challenge was won by a winery situated in Plettenberg Bay. That’s right: Newstead Wines Blanc de Blanc 2015 whipped all-comers to be adjudged the top-scoring Cap Classique among the 121 wines entered into this year’s competition.

Rumours of wine-making from vines planted between the polo patches in Plett began circulating ten years ago. And although some passable Cap Classiques and Sauvignon Blanc hit the scene, tentatively, the Plettenberg Bay wine world kept to itself. And the Western Cape-based wine industry sure as hell was not really taking this patch of terroir 550km east of Cape Town seriously.

Until now. For trumping at the Amorim Cap Classique Challenge, the leading arena for judging Cap Classique is a big deal. With a history of 19 years committed to fizz, its reputation rests on rigorous judging solely focussed on bubbles, as well as the competition’s official endorsement from the Cap Classique Association. Just as Plett is the place in which to hoof a couple of chukkas of polo, so the Amorim Challenge is the place to go if you want your bubbly judged.

So, onto the winning wine.

Newstead’s vines are set on flat, undulating soils east of Plett. Sandy loam is shallow, and underneath this a severe clay bed. Vines are planted north-south, ensuring the south-easter – the only feature more synonymous with Plett than the Beacon Isle Hotel – blows true and cool through the vineyard rows.

The Newstead Blanc de Blanc was made by Anton Smal, he of former Villiera Estate fame, who allowed the wine to lie for 42 months in bottle – a time-frame conducive to spending downtime riding the left shore-break off Keurbooms.

It is a wonderful glass of Cap Classique. One exuding both craftmanship in the cellar as well as Chardonnay ripening to a point of precise and accurate focus, the base-wine racing with acidity as well as bearing complexity resulting from the fact that Plettenberg Bay’s weather allows a longer, slower ripening period than out west, Cape way.

On the nose, Newstead Blanc de Blanc offers crushed green almond shell with a nostril-prickling hit of wet sherbet and wild oyster shell. The attack on the palate is confident, thunderous and with more foam than a bachelorette party at the Beacon Isle. Once the roar of bubbles subsides, the front palate picks-up Granny Smith apple, lots of it, as well as loquat and lime. As the bracing wine heads to the finish, the fruit becomes sunnier, followed by a tantalising salt-lick umami jet, all ending gorgeously brisk and clean, inviting a follow-up glug. Which must be done, as the next chukka is about to get underway.

The message is clear: no more horsing around. Plett wine is a thing. And a welcome addition to the Cape winelands.  Neigh-sayers be gone.

Closer to Cape Town, the Hemel-en-Aarde region has become familiar to wine lovers seduced by its Pinot Noir and Chardonnays. Just when I’d thought I had pretty much acquired a handle on this valley’s offerings, the Restless River Winery reminded one that, in wine, there is always something riveting lying around the next corner.

Restless River is a small winery run by Craig and Anne Wessels who have a collective past in that wine has never been a profession. Eight years since their first vintage, however, Restless River is rated as one of the Cape’s leading wineries with self-taught Craig delivering wines that are just getting better-and-better.

The Chardonnay is worth trundling the earth and soaring to the heaven for. Bottled under the label Ava Marie, the wine is a reflection of the labour of love put into its making.

The Ava Marie 2017 is made from grapes picked at various stages of ripeness to build balance. Ageing over 12 months is in big old barrels, with a portion matured in clay amphorae adding a thought-provoking depth to the wine.

What this does, is deliver something underscoring South Africa’s reputation as one of the world’s leading Chardonnay producers. The wine offers floral and fynbos aromas on the nose, followed by a tantalising zingy freshness as it enters the mouth. Here, a presence of utter deliciousness takes over with flavours ranging from green apple, yellow citrus and grilled nuts. As befits a wine from the hands of creative craftsman, Ava Marie Chardonnay’s strongest feature is the captivating, riveting and wonderful texture and mouthfeel. Here it is able to charm and refresh, stir and delight. A truly fantastic wine from a property set to become one of the most talked-about names in South Africa wine.

Also, check-out the Restless River Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, underscoring that this winery ain’t no one-trick pony.

The joy of Christmas might be in the giving, but let’s be honest and not forget the receiving. And wow, would a bottle of Olerasay 2° from the Mullineuxs not be a gift from the gods?

Chris and Andrea Mullineux are the superstar couple of South African wine. Whether they are making Chenin Blanc, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon….everything that comes out of the winery is just stunning. Amazing. Incredible. Truly.

And none more so than their Olerasay 2°, a magical sweet wine made from Chenin Blanc grapes dried before vinification.  I have said it before and I’ll say it again: South Africa makes some of the greatest sweet wines in the world. Therefore I am extremely pleased the Mullineux’s sweet number has knocked the lights out internationally, reminding the world what we do really well.

And what a wine the Olerasay 2° is. Heartbreakingly fragile and achingly delicate, it exposes the mouth to sweet, fruit, sun, wild honey and the nectar from jungle flowers.  It is almost emotional to sip this wine as joy meets drama and mystery, clothed in pure brilliant beauty. The sweetness does not coat or clog the mouth, instead drifting around on a perfumed breeze that could have only originated in paradise.

Andrea and Chris Mullineux

Yes, the wine is scarce due to its deserved reputation. But whoever is blessed to drink from that stylish small bottle can rest assured the gods are watching and nodding in approval. Because they know it comes from that higher place. Of theirs.

The Ken Forrester Enigma

The vibrant energy of the lush cover-cops lining these gnarled Chenin Blanc vines is only surpassed by the imposing figure sitting next to me. “How’s that for some serious cover-crop?” says Ken Forrester in that familiar tone of voice which always seems to sound one-part question, one-part wonder and two-parts enthusiasm.

He commands disembarkation from his vehicle to inspect the dense, knee-high growth of grass and grain. This forms a living natural cluster between the vineyard rows, rejuvenating the soil with carbon and earth-worms, as well as attracting critters to rather inhabit this plush growth than to chomp on the vines.

Ken stomps across the crops covering his land, stooping to pluck white carrot-shaped roots from the damp earth. “Chinese radishes,” he exclaims, “great for a vineyard cover-crop as well as making one hell of a tasty salad.”

Ken Forrester

With bunches of Chinese radishes in the hands and muddy boots on the feet, we get back into the vehicle, heading to other parts of his Scholtzenhof farm. This is the spread next to the R44 between Stellenbosch and Somerset-West he bought back in 1993. Today some of the top grapes are grown here for use in the range of wines named after a man whose formidable personality is possibly only just clipped by the quality of his wines. Of which there are many. But when Ken walks into a room, you are thinking Chenin Blanc. And Rhône-style reds. Although such is his presence and power of persuasion, Ken can make sherry from Shiraz, and still have you believe it’s the greatest thing around.

“Just came down from Johannesburg for a wedding, and ended-up buying this farm, would you believe,” Ken says as he drives past the beautifully restored manor house with its characteristic wolf’s nose Dutch gable. “Of course, the place did not look like this then, and there was a lot of lending of money and cleaning-up and vineyard-planting. But now, 27 years later, it’s all turned out pretty okay.”

Of course, when Ken and his wife Teresa arrived from the Big Smoke to take-up residence in the Cape winelands, ambitions were needed as they were still in their thirties. And Ken’s goal was quite simple: “I wanted to make the best wine in the world.”

Well why the hell not, hey? Great soils on the lower slopes of the Helderberg, one of Stellenbosch’s two best wine addresses and a piece of land planted with some fine old vineyards. Thing is, Ken had never made wine. Loved it, deeply. A graduate of the Johannesburg Hotel School, Ken got to drink and know wine through various adventures in the kitchens of hotels and restaurants. From the culinary mosh-pit of the Sun City Kitchen in the 1980s, to a tad of cooking and serving more refined table-offerings at his Gatriles Restaurant in Johannesburg, the love of wine grew into more than an obsession through discovering and drinking. He had to get his hands onto the making of it.

FMC vineyard as the sun sets.

I asked him about the wines that inspired him. Those elixirs that broke the heart, stirred the soul and made this imposing figure go weak at the knees.

“White Burgundy,” he says without hesitation, “and especially Chablis. Moving in the hospitality circles in Johannesburg I was fortunate to gain access to great wine collections from people I befriended. The Chardonnay from Burgundy made me realise how great white wine can be. And on the red side, well, myself and my partner at the restaurant each year bought a case of Mouton-Rothschild instead of paying ourselves a bonus. But the Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Papes made magic for me. Particularly Château de Saint Cosme.” He pauses after mentioning that wine.

The main part of our drive around Domain Forrester lies ahead of us, back in the direction of Stellenbosch. Namely the FMC vineyard, a Chenin Blanc block planted in 1970 and used in the wine that launched South Africa’s foray into premium Chenin Blanc since Ken’s maiden FMC Chenin Blanc was released from the 2000 vintage.

The guy’s been talking Burgundy and Rhône, and other parts France. How did the thing with Chenin Blanc come along? And, more specifically, the decision to use this traditional work-horse, ubiquitous Cape cultivar to realise that ambition, you remember, the one about making the best wine in the world?

The answer comes along with an open smile beneath bright eyes. “Well, when I arrived in the winelands the position of Chenin Blanc acolyte was pretty vacant, wasn’t it?” Absolutely. Chenin Blanc, known as Steen for a long part of the Cape wine history, is still the most planted variety in the Cape and for decades formed the backbone of the entry-level, mass-volume wine offering, as well as a base for distilling wine on which the reputation for South African brandy was built. For decades, this appeared to be Chenin Blanc’s lot in life.

In the late 1990s, however, I remember rumours doing the rounds of a Stellenbosch wine-farmer espousing the merits of Chenin Blanc as a premier variety, capable of making the best wines in the country. Not only that – the guy doing the talking was English-speaking, and from Johannesburg. Even had a car number-plate that read “Chenin”.

Two decades later, Chenin Blanc is recognised by international critics, wine writers and buyers as South Africa’s finest white wine offering, as well as the fact of the Cape making the best Chenin Blanc in the world. The Loire Valley in central France, Chenin’s traditional home, has been de-throned. And Ken’s been the main toppler of that crown.

“Sure, I’ve done a lot of the talking and marketing, and it’s been fun,” says Ken. Yes, but the talk has been backed-up by great wines, introducing consumers not only to Chenin Blanc itself, but the diversity in styles it is capable of offering. Other producers followed, with there today being a swarm of Chenin prophets, preachers and imbongis to inspire and encourage South Africa and the world to #DrinkChenin.

Ken reminds me that cowboys don’t ride alone. “It all begins with the vine, and look at this,” he says pointing to the FMC Chenin vineyard. The 50 year-old vines are neat stumps, gnarled and pruned into what can ironically be described as rugged uniformity. “And this is what I got to work with – fantastic vines and terrific fruit. Then there is Martin Meinert, my winemaking partner on this path – Martin is arguably one of the most unsung heroes of South African wine. No, FMC is not standing for “Fucking Marvellous Chenin”, but Forrester Meinert Chenin! What the name Ken Forrester has achieved, well, Meinert’s been a major part of it.”

Later, during an extensive tasting, there is Pinotage and Grenache, Pinot Noir and Mourvèdre and red blends. Plus line-ups of FMC and other Chenin Blancs with spectacular light and power, breeze and song. Flavours abound, white fruit and citrus; spice and rock; sea-air and the shells of fleshy molluscs. Here, it is Chenin Blanc second, first being just superbly brilliant white wines that could, yes, be some of the best in the world.

The late Anton Rupert said that wine depends on only three things: Image, Image and Image. As I give the opinions on the wines, for as a guest it would be rude not to, he nods sagely. Yes, wine is all about three particulars, he says: “Balance, balance, and balance.”

This fine wine is what he strived for since beginning as a winefarmer. “I had no formal training in the field, which perhaps was a blessing as I had no preconceived ideas of what this or that has to smell or taste like, and under what conventions something had to be made,” he says. “There was nothing to confine me. Sure, you make mistakes along the way – a lot of them – but there is nothing like making a mistake to force you to learn. Quickly.”

He will know what they’ve been, but Ken Forrester’s done right, and done good. During his tenure as chairman of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes he used his broad connections in business, tourism and hospitality to put Stellenbosch on the top of the heap in terms of wineland tourism. Today’s young wine guns, who have the international spotlight on South African Chenin Blanc to thank for a large amount of their success, will know that it all began back in Stellenbosch when Ken jetted in for good to apply his mind to that singular vision and ambition.

Because while the cover-crops may abound, be sure that if there is one guy under whose feet grass is not growing, ever, it is Ken.

Pig Crisis for Germany as Wine Show is Cancelled

While the national South African vineyard is facing a crisis as a result of  huge stocks of unsold wine due to Covid-19, German pig-farmers are also lamenting the parlous state of the wine industry. The German hog-rearers are up-in-arms over their pending pork surplus anticipated as a result of the decision to cancel next year’s Prowein, the world’s largest wine fair held in Dusseldörf each year.

The decision to call-off Prowein 2021, which was set to take-place in March, will apparently lead to thousands of unsold pigs due to the lack of Prowein attendees from the Cape winelands who have in the past consumed prodigious quantities of pork in the form of schweinhaxe – roast pig knuckle.

Manfred Würstessen, chairperson of the German Pork Feeders Confederation, says the eradication of the lucrative market for schweinhaxe at Prowein adds to the misery the country’s pig-farmers have faced as a result of the Covid pandemic. “We truly thought that with the South Africans visiting Prowein to do their customary eager devouring of schweinhaxe, our pork industry will receive some relief,” he said.

“During 2020 we could not sell sausages at soccer games and the lack of British tourists due to travel restrictions caused the market for bacon-sandwiches to vanish overnight, especially as the brothels also had to shut-down. Thus, when we heard the South African wine farmers were on their way to Düsseldorf for Prowein, it appeared as if our prayers had been answered. No nation puts away German pork knuckles like a Cape vigneron, and we had even ordered the raising of 10 000 extra hogs in Lichtenstein to meet with the anticipated demand from South Africa.”

With no Prowein and no South African appetites, German pig farmers are facing a bleak future. “What to do with the extra hogs – if you have a wine surplus you can distil it. But an oversupply of pigs is not easy to manage – even by the standards of German logistics.”

According to Manfred Varkvölen, owner of the restaurant Das Essen in downtown Düsseldorf, the decision to cancel Prowein will have a huge impact on the city’s hospitality industry. “Usually extra supplies of schweinhaxe are brought into the city for Prowein, as the thousands of visitors from over 120 wine countries have shown a particular liking for this roasted piece of lower pig’s leg , a pinnacle of German gastronomy,” he said.

The Pig: Schweinhaxe.

“In 2019, for example, I and the whole street of restaurants around me were cleaned out of schweinhaxe by Monday afternoon, the second day of Prowein. Of late it has been the South African wine industry representatives showing relentless destruction of our schweinhaxe stocks, at Das Essen as well as in the whole region.

“Up until two years ago, the Georgians and Ukrainians were the keenest schweinhaxe consumers, but the South Africans surpassed the combined consumption of both East European countries two years ago. So, no Prowein, no knuckle-eating men and woman from down South.”

Bettina Wulpskuchen, spokesperson for Eat Düsseldorf, the local association for restaurants, said the last time the Germans longed for a visit from a foreign contingent to this extent was in World War II when they waited for the Italians to relieve Berlin.

“I don’t think the rest of Germany realises how dependent we have become on the South Africans spending a week in one of the country’s major cities enjoying our wonderful culinary offering of schweinhaxe,” she says.

“With Prowein not going ahead this year, the sight of the cheerfully interesting wine farmers from Stellenbosch, Robertson and Paarl eating German pork knuckle will be sorely missed. Especially as the mayor of Düsseldorf was planning to this year unveil a bronze statue of a Simonsberg winemaker holding a schweinhaxe in one hand and a glass of Mosel Riesling in the other. This work of art, commissioned in 2018 already, celebrates the remarkable relationships between Germany and South Africa, cemented in the glories of a regional culinary offering. We hope to be able to unveil it in the near future and will be holding thumbs this does not happen after pigs learn to fly.”