The one thing I dread about attending any formal wine industry discussion is that corny cliché of “South African wines are too cheap” and producers must therefore simply go ahead and raise their prices. Just like those who encourage the eradication of “boring commercial” grape varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and propose replacing them with trendy Trousseau, Cinsault and Verdelho, the urge to raise price is usually made by folk without any real economic dependence on or general clue of the business side of the wine industry.
There’s been a lot of talk about the recorking of old South African wines currently being undertaken by Joaquim Sá of Amorim Cork, but for me the real revelation was the contents of those bottles. It was, indeed, rivetingly exciting watching Jean Vincent Ridon, a world-leader in cork-extraction, prying open the dust-covered antiquities with surgical-like precision and refined expertise.
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.
I have taken the liberty of referring to RTM Hutchinson instead of Tim when talking about the head of local drinks conglomerate DGB. “Route to Market” is the lifeblood of this industry, although its importance gets little air-time as distribution and marketing do not have the same sexiness as granite soils, wet northerly breezes, 83yr old vines and a winemaker quoting Camus.
When he shouldered through the lines
Of our cropped and mangled vines,
His unjaded eye could scan
How each hour had marked its man.
- Rudyard Kipling
Things have been getting quite emotional about the gnarled old vines scattered throughout the Cape Winelands. And yes, they are magnificent plants adding to the brooding atmosphere of some of the more robust and rural wine regions. The sight of an ancient vineyard, dense and obtuse vines pointing their wrinkled shoots at the heavens, set among the rolling hills of Bottelary or Malmesbury, can be mesmerising.
No matter how long it turns out to be, life appears too short to understand Italian wines. The 2000 plus grape varieties, regions, sub-regions, villages, communes and city boundaries that constitute the nation’s vinous character make the divisions of Burgundy and Bordeaux look like kid’s stuff.
The Cape Winemakers Guild rode into town last week, literally commanding the urban stretch between Cape Town’s Taj Hotel and the downtown Convention Centre. First-up was a tasting of this year’s Auction wines, one of those events naffly described as “tutored”, after which the Guild boys and girls hit the rain-splashed streets to the Convention Centre where the greater public descended on their wares.
The wine joint now known as Stellenbosch Vineyards has changed its name more times than Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has swopped his tranquilizer prescription. I am not sure if I have managed to keep up, but the branding has included the holistically transcendental The Company of Wine People to the awesomely dull Omnia.
Thinus Krüger might be one of South Africa’s wine rock-stars. But he still has my DVD of the Martin Scorsese classic The Last Waltz, which I loaned him about five years ago, not able to stomach the thought of any young music aficionado being oblivious of the existence of the mother of all rock films.
There are real benefits aligned to growing older in the wine industry. A chap becomes deft at selecting preventative measures for the tackling of gout, you know just when to slip out of a speech-laden wine event without upsetting the organisers and can impress vino virgins by recalling the weather conditions of those fine Cape vintages of 1974 and 1982.
Of course, in wine nothing is as valuable as experience. A bum-fluffed Cape Wine Master, glowing with the confidence of youth, has nothing on us old-timers who can vividly recall the fine old South African red wines of Stellenryck and had attended tutored tastings held by the great Ronnie Melck, former MD of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery.
Pride glows when I immerse myself in the Pinotage offerings of late. Vintages 2011 to 2013 are delivering more than a line-up of delicious, fine wines – they are announcing Pinotage’s progress from a noisy half-breed to a varietal that is achieving a reputation for greatness.
It was, of course, not always thus. Good Pinotage has been around since the first commercial bottling in 1959, but a lot of wading had to be done through a pool of wild, rude wines before reaching the cherry tree. The commentators, critics and wine makers who trashed the variety were obviously unfair in their generalised dissing of the grape, but in all fairness, after tasting 15 tots of examples showing nail varnish, banana-peel and sweaty goat scrotum one can be offended.
But as that great Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement read, “you’ve come a long way, Baby”.
The preliminary 20 wine line-up for this year’s Absa Top 10 made for riveting foreplay to the eventual Top 10 Trophy Winners who represent a selection of some of the finest red wines made in South Africa over the past few years. And this all from Pinotage.
In general, the Top 10 wines showed seamless and refined composition, elegance being one of the challenges posed by the Pinotage berry. The thing has a skin thicker than an EFF media-spokesperson and ferments faster than the Ebola virus spreads in Libreville. During the hasty fermentation – four to six days compared to two to four weeks for other reds – a lot of graceful harmony bleeds off and as a wine maker you have to keep your head to maintain balance until the juice has fermented dry. Racking and barrelling must be done with much care and focus – remember, as a variety Pinotage was only born in 1925 so compared to other cultivars it is still very much a work in progress.
All the Absa finalists were made with skill, every wine polished, shining and good.
Another golden thread – for me – is the sumptuous, juiciness of the wines on show. They are rich and plush, and unashamedly so. A direct fruit-core can be tasted, the wines have lavish palate weights and are smooth as silk. Like their wine makers, the Pinotages are confident in their robustness, undeterred by calls for lower alcohols, easier wooding, gentler tannins and other finicky requests.
Still on a high of admiration for this year’s Top 10 line-up, I do not have any outstanding favourites. But Pierre Wahl’s Rijk’s 2010 Reserve is a gut-wrenchingly great South African red wine full of spice and crushed cherry with a whiff of mocha. It was great seeing Delheim under the Top 10, its Vera Cruz Pinotage 2012 showing great Simonsberg terroir expression. A bead of forest-floor gives the rush of fresh red fruit a complexity on which neighbour Kanonkop would be proud.
Spier’s 21 Gables 2012 Pinotage has a soya sauce and berry umami-like profile, with an intriguing smokiness from the barrel. Windmeul is no stranger to the Pinotage Top 10 and their 2013 Reserve has a lovely brush of fynbos leading to a meaty, moreish length of appetising red wine.
The list continues, as does the fine display of what Pinotage is really capable of doing. And we’ve only just begun.