The Platter’s South African Wine Guide remains the most comprehensive and most-sold publication on South African wine. Since 1980 it has aimed to have its judges tasting as many of the country’s wines as possible, scoring them with stars from one to five.
It is that time of the year when the wine industry’s report card for 2017 hits the mail-box. And if corporal punishment was still legal it would be just the time to dust-off the cane, roll-up the sleeve and prepare to dish-out a bit of pain. For what’s going on with the poor showing of South African wine exports?
I hadn’t killed a marlin for some time now, so I decided to go out and eat one. Not a whole thousand pound fish, mind you. At least, not in one sitting.
This lust for game-fish lead me to Miller’s Thumb, the restaurant that has for over two decades been a local institution to those residing in the Cape Town City Bowl. It does fish and some meat, as well as having the kind of casual homely atmosphere that makes one tend to frequent the joint often, if only to hang at the small bar talking to other locals about killing fish with surface lures, tools with which to trim beards and the current tattoo fashions.
In general, players in the modern South African wine industry have been relatively slow to recognise the importance of brand-building, preferring the micro approach of marketing centuries-old buildings, terroir-driven vineyard sites and finely-tuned artists working among a few rows of barrels lined-up in a dank cellar. With the importance of economy of scale in driving a successful business coming increasingly to the fore as a non-negotiable part of the business model, Brand Building in Wine 101 is now all the rage, and one of the names popping up on the case-study list is Stellenbosch’s Kleine Zalze.
I’ve always dreamt of a tall, gangly blonde looking down at me and utterings words to the tune of “oh, just eat it like a mielie”. But this she did, smiling before turning around to head for the kitchen leaving me with a still heart and a deep-fried pig’s tail in my hand.
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.
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.