Going through the reading matter about Cape Town’s new wine district, I was surprised at how relatively simple it all sounded. Producers from Constantia and Durbanville get an idea. Apply to the Wine and Spirits Board’s Demarcation Committee to check out the possibility of creating a district based on the regional, geographic similarities between Constantia and Durbanville. Committee approves it after detailed research. The new district gets advertised for objections. None. And hey presto, Wine of Origin Cape Town is born.
The sun is high, high above the mountain that can no longer cast any shade. That mountain is a good mountain, it is Simonsberg mountain outside Stellenbosch and I am drinking South Africa’s best wine varietal. Cabernet Sauvignon. For me, that is, as like mistakes and secrets, all opinions and tastes and loves are personal.
Sanity has set in, and it would appear that those voices claiming the South African wine industry only really began to make its mark in the 1990’s are either deciding to shut-up themselves or are being silenced. Sure, when economic sanctions prevailed in the 1980’s it was harder for a South African wine farmer to get a wine listing at Waitrose than a ticket to the Nottinghill Dreadlock Weaving Convention. But just because we were stuffed in the market place, does not mean no good wine was being made here.
There is nothing like thirty-six minutes of deft levitating while listening to the droning hum of a Buddhist priest to work-up an appetite. The other members of my Black River Soul Revival Club may be happy to munch on raw nuts, low-fat yoghurt and organic sprouts after a spiritual work-out. But the real holders of an inner-void need heartier fare.
Despite the centuries of blue-blooded Cape wineland culture resonating from its splendid buildings and vineyards, there is something wild and sparse about Meerlust that intrigues me. As if the entrance gate next to the dam is a frontier post, beckoning those who have crossed wild, unwelcoming terrain from Cape Town and is now about to take the first steps into the amicable palm of Stellenbosch’s wine region.
It is supposed to be a joyous annual occasion, but somehow I am always left with a thickness in the throat and a sense of loss. Once a year I head out to Kanonkop Estate to collect my annual wine allocation, a trip during which from the outset everything around me looks brighter and sharper, all appearing right with the world due to the knowledge that within an hour a few boxes of South Africa’s best red wine will be mine.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman may always have had Paris in Casablanca, but further down South, here in the Cape Winelands, it is Cabernet Sauvignon that is truly timeless.
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.
At wine marketing school they say a wine needs to tell a story. That’s about all you learn at wine marketing school, mind you. They don’t even tell you it needs to be a good and interesting and compelling story.
Perfection, or near perfection, must be a heavy burden. How do Carl Schultz and his team at Hartenberg Estate handle it? Such a diverse range of wines, all made to such high standards – it’s all enough to make a French vigneron kick a hole in a vat of 1928 Armagnac.
Hartenberg makes a mean Merlot. Stupendous Shiraz. Riveting Riesling. Cracking Cabernet. But my heart was won over, again, recently by the Chardonnay. Not the iconic Eleanor, but the straight-up Hartenberg Chardonnay from the very classy 2009 vintage.
This came courtesy of a good offer from my sales agent at the Wade Bales Wine Society at a price that made me wonder if this stuff hadn’t fallen from the back of some truck. But I bought a case, most of which has been sent down the hatch, leaving me half-a-bottle from which to contemplate.
The wine is clear and attractive with a lovely greenness to the golden robe, as usually worn by a classic Chardonnay south of the Beaune region in Burgundy. A chunky firm attack on the palate leads to an armada of ripe fruit, from stewed quince, grated Packham pear, kumquat and Key Lime Pie. This is all supported by a zesty acidity, giving the wine more life and verve than a Mavericks’ dancer on Free Russia Day.
Unlike said dancer, the Hartenberg Chardonnay only has a bit of wood, not enough to mask the life in the wine but just the right amount to provide a silky, buttery mouth-feel and a lingering finish.