A Song of Summer in the Heart of Darkness

The storms pelt the Cape, bringing sheets of welcome rain and bracing chilled air scented by the salt and kelp from an ocean that is heaving with anger and danger. For the first few days all this is rather entertaining as the natural elements thunder and wail, and assert their oft-forgotten presence on the world around. We are but a little being.

But after nearly a week, the soul grows tired of the gloom, the situation not helped by the continued chill that has the knees creaking as you rise to put more wood in the fireplace and fingers numbly struggling to handle a cork-screw with the required aplomb.

To warm the soul there is sport from sunny northern climes where tennis is played on the verdant grass-carpets of Wimbledon and wiry gentleman peddle around beautiful France under blues skies in Le Tour. I am also elevated by streaming the European shows given by Taylor Swift, the greatest singer of all-time, and a songwriter of tremendous literary dimensions. And when she sings of Champagne, I am especially enraptured:

Because I dropped your hand while dancing
Left you out there standing
Crestfallen on the landing
Champagne problems

Your mom’s ring in your pocket
My picture in your wallet
Your heart was glass, I dropped it
Champagne problems

For now it is not only the right time to sing about Champagne, but also an apt time to consume it – despite the frigid air and stormy weather, the damp earth and the dim heavy sky. Nothing lets the sun in like Champagne, or any other traditionally made sparkling wine of fine quality.

The persons in my immediate surrounds, thus, were questioning my state of mind last night when I plucked an ice-cold bottle from the fridge and removed the cork on a bottle of Pieter Ferreira Birdsong Cap Classique from the year of 2020. While others took soul-warming draughts from glasses of Tawny Port and sips of Irish whiskey, I watched with expectation as the life-affirming sparkling wine frothed into a broad and deep glass.

Pieter Ferreira needs no introduction, being the leading persona of South Africa’s Cap Classique category. His work at Graham Beck is legendary. And the wines under Pieter’s own label each bear the hallmarks of a true and skilled craftsman, whose comprehension of Champagne and Cap Classique and all such good fizzy things brings his personal bubbly soul to every glass. Where it is experienced, as well as being tasted.

Birdsong is an extra brut, coming in at just 3.5grams of residual sugar, and is made from 75% Chardonnay, with the balance being Pinot Noir. An eagle eye for perfection in the expression of terroir via this extra brut style saw Pieter sourcing grapes from Napier in the Overberg, as well as the limestone-rich soils of Robertson. No wood or such was used to swell-out the base wine, which spent 48 months on its lees during that wonderous process of secondary fermentation in bottle, where texture and flavour is drawn, and bubbles are born.

To have this wine in the dark heart of winter makes the name of Birdsong especially relevant. Along with the sliver of golden sunlight its presence brings to the soul, the wine’s exuberant energy and loving, joyous sparkle evokes the same feeling as does hearing a flock of cheery, noisy bokmakieries celebrating the wonder of a new day.

The mousse settles, and an aroma of warm, sun-dried hay and arum lily drifts from the glass. It is pale-cold in colour, the shade of a pharaoh mask reflecting from the eye of love-struck Cleopatra. The attack on the mouth is gushing and thrilling, rapturous, the sparkle turning one’s five senses into nine, opening the mind and heart to speculate on what flavours this beautiful wine might hold.

I find forelle pear, picked just before the nectar of complete ripeness has set in. Then, a run of thick-skin lemon-peel with a generous helping of sherbet, a mouth-puckering grip of salt-lick and – thank be to the Pinot Noir – there is a teasing poke of red-berries with a slight essence of floral perfume. A comforting note of brioche threads its way through the medley of taste, but just so, leaving the focus on a fruity, stony purity.

Two glasses later, and Birdsong has worked its wonder, and the world opens. And here comes the sun.

A Parow Icon: Bar-B-Que Restaurant

Man was not created to eat small portions, said the late, great American writer and gourmand Jim Harrison. He would also have liked Voortrekker Road in Parow, a garishly seedy part of this thoroughfare winding its way from Cape Town to the north-east, groaning and heaving under the slow pulse of urban decay, South African style. It’s liquor shops and funeral-parlours, crumby all-night cafés, second-hand car dealers and shady bars and gambling-dens.

This area is also home to the steak-house named Bar-B-Que, a joint that has achieved cult-status – perhaps not so much for the location as it has for its offering of meals that are the very antithesis of what, according to the gospel of Jim, humankind is not meant to eat. Namely gargantuan slices and chunks and rib-cages of meat that Bar-B-Que has been dishing up for 55 years straight. Now that the Harlequin Restaurant down the Parow road has closed, BBQ must surely be the oldest sit-down eatery in Cape Town, still attracting an eager throng of carnivores who fill the simply furnished hub night-after-night.

I go there for the first time, a few months back, with Thys Louw, owner-winemaker of Diemersdal Estate, who cut his meat-eating teeth at BBQ after just beginning to walk. We are in celebratory mood after another string of awards for Diemersdal’s wines, and the visit is more about an occasion than scrutinising the eating options. Owner-chef Marius Strauss, a wiry man from Namaqualand with a curio-shop full of bracelets, copper hoops and bangles on his arms, joins us at the table. He regales us on Afrikaans humour, Namaqualand-style, and buckets of Diemersdal Private Collection are consumed between the off-kilter jokes, the belts of laughter and platters of beef and pork.

The night ends in a blur, with Marius standing outside his restaurant under the dark Parow sky cracking a bull-whip, the sharp-snaps making guns-hot booms that drift into the warm, moonless night.

Last week, I head back BBQ-way to check-out the food in a more sober, less distracted frame of mind. Thys is once again present, as are journalist Suzaan Potgieter and fiancé JD Esterhuizen – Suzaan’s, not mine. And by arrival at 19:00, the place is heaving, patrons seated at plain wooded booths and creating a din that implies pleasure, joy and gaiety through a mutual bloodlust for the cooked flesh of animals, mostly four-legged.

The focus is on pork schnitzels, steaks and spare-ribs, with a sole, lonely chicken schnitzel thrown-in. Pescatarians will have to fill-up on the mussel-starter, the only marine creature found on the menu.

Thys, Suzaan and I start-out on the ubiquitous steak-house classic of snails in garlic-butter, while JD heads straight into carnivore mode by ordering some biltong to kick things off. We are seated in a front-booth, allowing a view of Marius preparing all the meals himself, only a few assistants clearing plates away and delivering raw produce to Chef from somewhere that has a cooling unit.

Suzaan’s classic Copacabana with some classy Bordeaux.

The snails are hot and slimy, as they should be, drifting in a butter-and-parsley sauce with enough garlic to turn a vampire into a life-long vegan. Slices of white bread are used to mop-up the liquid, the buttery-ness of which throws a suitable, comforting lining for the stomach. There is a lot of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc going down, and this is only the start.

Thys has brought along a bottle of Chateau Canon 2017, a top-class St Emilion, so the main-courses are selected with attention and respect for the wine.

Suzaan, Thys and JD opt for the BBQ schnitzels, the establishment’s piece de resistance, while I – wishing to witness Marius’s prowess before the grill and his selection of beef – decide on a rump-steak, medium-rare.

The pork-schnitzels opted by Suzaan and Thys are the glorious house speciality, namely Schnitzel Copacabana. These are thin(ish) slices of pig-meat covered with a delicate, nuance-embodying sauce of banana, ham and cheddar cheese. JD requests the pepper version which is, as can be detected, peppery and cheesy. Seeking generosity of flavour, I ask for my steak to be accompanied by a Monkey Gland sauce, the mark of any steakhouse that has its heart in the right place and a skilled saucier in the kitchen.

Ever the proponent of healthy eating, Thys requests that a Greek salad be brought to freshen the palate during partaking of the main-courses.

Ribs, anyone?

By now the aroma of the Chateau Canon has worked its way between the savoury, fiery wafts emanating from Marius’s grill. The wine is juicy, brightly fruited with an immense gravitas sending telegram-notes that, tonight, something cultured is happening in Parow.

The meals arrive, and if one eats with your eyes, you will be sated by the visual offering alone, a BBQ signature. The schnitzels are the size of tennis-rackets, a seemingly endless ocean of melted cheese the colour of a Van Gogh sun-flower lying atop expansive decks of pork. Piles of hand-cut, perfectly cooked French fries fight for space on the plate, although for Thys this is not an issue as he has a fluffy baked potato with his food.

My steak is, fortunately, not as commandingly massive as the schnitzels but is going to take some work getting through, something I have prepared myself for with a green-tea enema the previous day, and a 24hr diet of sprouts and lemon-juice.

With a call to arms, everyone digs in without interrupting the lively, amicable conversation that eating at a place like BBQ encourages. My rump is grilled to perfection, top-quality beef cooked red-pink – yet warm – in the middle, with that all-important steakhouse char ensuring an exterior of crunch and flavour to off-set the tender, primal flavour of a good steak. The Monkey Gland is sweetishly sour, umami to the max, crafted with enough restraint so as not to override the flavour of the beef.

Pepper Schnitzel, expertly snapped by Suzaan Potgieter.

The fellow-diners are making good work with their vast schnitzels, but I manage to procure a shimmering slice of Thys’s Copacabana. First there is the taste of breaded, fried pork, the slight neutrality of which provides sustenance and a feeling of well-being that allows the innovatively and skilfully crafted Copacabana sauce to show its gourmet-minded class. Warm, fragrant slices of banana add a wholesome Gauguin-esque tropical note to the silky melted Cheddar, with the slivers of smoky ham elevating, lifting, the dish to another dimension. If this were a wine, the complexity, the grace and the pure sensorial opulence would be a Montrachet.

JD digs into his pepper-cheesy spread giving gentle sighs of satisfaction, and apart from Thys we all are so engaged in this meal of heartfelt, homely generosity that we forget about the Greek salad before us, mountainous and fresh with marble-white wedges of feta cheese.

Patrons begin to leave, but we stay. Everyone greets and thanks Marius, and he offers murmurs of appreciation. JD and Suzaan have an Irish Coffee and Dom Pedro, while Thys and I engage in earnest, evocative conversation with Marius, who – like Bar-B-Que – can only be described as a force of nature.

And here in downtown Parow, it reminds one that humankind was made for visiting places like this.

JD Esterhuizen, Marius Strauss, Thys Louw and Suzaan Potgieter.

Wine and Writing for Immortality

Despite not exactly falling into the most popular, vastly read forms of what is still called journalism, wine writing appears to be the sector in which the most navel-gazing occurs. I can think of no other segment of precis, essay, review, comment and general non-fiction writing where so much energy and thought and opinion is spent on bemoaning and preaching its current state than within the modest confines of those wording on fermented grape-juice.

This year, so far, has seen an especially inspired array of writers asking questions and deliberating on the subject – not of wine, which is on what they write, but on the general state of the wine writing diaspora. There are opinions and concerns on practicalities: the decline in wine coverage in traditional media; the rise of so-called ‘influencers’ who apparently down-grade the hallowed subject of wine by resorting to videos and abruptly captioned images, emojis and dancing optional; the lack of paid-gigs for those wishing to share their insights with the world; the murky border between editorial writing and paid-for, advertorial stuff.

The very appearance of all these concerns finding their way into cyberspace underscores the stifling confinement with which many wine writers approach their world. For who is really going to be interested in the travails of wine-writing except for a very, very limited and closed community. And is this not what lies at the heart of what is perceived as a concern among those aggrieved at the current state of wine writing: the fact that too much of the insular reflection takes place in the hallowed confines of an assumed audience, instead of a real one.

Briefly put, if there is so much to enthuse upon, to say and to share about wine, why waste ink writing about, well, wine writing? But we can’t help ourselves – present company included, as this modest missive shows…

Wine is not an easy thing to write about. In my previous life as a journalist reviewing film, contemporary music and drama, it was all so easy. You had actors to discuss, plot-lines to analyse and infectious rhythms to spur one on to giving wordy opinions. Give me a blank sheet to discuss a film like Anatomy of a Fall or Ralph Fiennes’s acting in Hamlet, and I have more hooks with which to fill that space than you’ll find on an illegal Chinese long-liner.

Wine is different, and it is hard. It sits there in a glass. You smell and sip. There is some back-story on the place where the grapes are grown and the techniques employed in its making, and that is that. Over to you. Not only tricky to write, but even trickier to capture the imagination of the reader. Especially a reader who does not know the difference between a Claret and a Bordeaux or a Champagne and a Mimosa.

And the question that is hardly asked by the writer is, why should they know?

Of course, it depends what the writer wants. An esteemed critic with a fervent following of wine-buffs can stay cool and keep critiquing and writing informed stylish editorial to an informed appreciative audience. Be his or her pursuit that of hobby, revenue or pure satisfaction in stringing wine-words together, this state is a good one to be in for writer and audience alike.

But for those writers dissatisfied with the environment in which they have to pursue their craft, the challenge is greater than being excellent in the way they do so. For not only do they have to satisfy an established community, but they have to create a new one.

I would see this as an exciting challenge for a number of reasons.

Firstly, wine writers have an opportunity to buck a trend, namely that of decreased audience – the primary reason for all this questioning the state and future of wine writing. What finer reward can there for a writer be than to in a decade’s time lay claim to having been at the forefront of the revival in wine communication, seeing wine as a now ubiquitous life-style and cultural item loved and enjoyed by many as a result of your active role in the media?

Secondly, this whole scenario can spur writers on to look and think outside the box, mustering their creative energies to use their knowledge and experience in a different way. Change of voice and tone to adapt to the current environment, find aspects about their subject which previously would not have inspired any writing about it.

And then finally, and probably the reason for the current quandary, the irreversible digital world. Never before has humankind turned to so many different forms of media for information and opinion as is the case today. And at no time have wine communicators had such a diversity of vehicles to disperse their voices into the world.

It is perhaps time to think not like a wine writer or conventional wine lover in the inner-circles of vinous appreciation, but like a winemaker. One who has discovered a new patch of virginal bare soil. And with conviction in its undiscovered terroir, you plant vines in uncharted territory with belief and a sense of discovery heading you to a new path on the world you yourself have created.

The wines, however they may be, will capture the imagination and draw new followers and, perhaps, give you a place in immortality.

Which like the creators of wine, writers strive towards.

Meerlust the Magnificent

This piece of writing first appeared in Afrikaans in Die Burger newspaper. This is a translation.

When William Shakespeare inquired, “What’s in a name?” he spoke of roses, certainly not of wine. For a man of the Bard’s indisputable genius must have known that in the realm of wine, a name means a great deal, if not everything.

The great names in the world of wine cause the heart to race at their mere mention. Body temperatures rise, and conversation turns towards awe and authority, respect and enchantment, evoking places where the magical gifts of the vine have been elevated to heavenly heights. These are the names of places whose wines command respect, authority, and prestige: France boasts many such names – Romanée-Conti, Mouton-Rothschild, and Bollinger, to name but a few. Spain’s Vega-Sicilia and Italy’s Sassicaia achieve the same, as does California’s Harlen.

And in South Africa, it is Meerlust, a name that anyone with an interest in Cape wines can link to excellence, one of the first South African wine names to be recognised by connoisseurs in Europe, America, and the Far East.

A name worth its weight in wine is one that has withstood the test of time, a feat that Meerlust has accomplished twice over, having existed at the southwestern gateway to Stellenbosch since 1693. The estate was discovered, created, and named by Henning Huising, who called the land Meerlust, meaning “the pleasure of the sea,” as the nearest False Bay breaker crashes a mere five kilometres from the manor’s front door.

However, the family history of Meerlust is dominated by the Myburgh family, who acquired the estate in 1756 and have owned it unremittingly ever since. Hannes, the current owner, is the eighth generation Myburgh, making the names Myburgh and Meerlust the most illustrious ‘M’ names in South African wine.

Although its long and colourful history greatly contributed to the estate’s iconic wine status, the name Meerlust has graced wine labels for only 49 years. The first bottle bearing the Meerlust label – a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1975 – was the brainchild of Nico Myburgh, Hannes’ father, who was the driving force behind establishing the Meerlust brand and moving the estate from supplying bulk wine to larger cellars to producing premium estate wines.

The first Meerlust wine had barely been bottled when Nico Myburgh began pondering how to immortalise the twin names – Meerlust and Myburgh – in wine terms with a third name that would etch his estate into the annals of Cape wine history. That name was Rubicon.

Together with his then winemaker, the Italian Giorgio Dalla Cia, Nico brought his love for the Bordeaux wine region to Meerlust and decided to recreate it in his own backyard. This involved crafting a Bordeaux blend, combining three of the five Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc – into a single wine. The only other estate engaged in a similar endeavour was Welgemeend in Paarl, which produced its blend in 1979.

When Nico and Giorgio’s new Bordeaux creation appeared on the market in 1984 – the 1980 vintage under the name Rubicon – the South African wine industry entered a new chapter. The historic and revered name, bestowed by Nico’s friend and Afrikaans poet Dirk Opperman, refers to the river Julius Caesar crossed in 49 BC on his way to invade Rome, knowing there would be no turning back.

The other part of the success, of course, is the continuous and meticulous adherence to the vision that led to the creation of Rubicon: namely, a quality wine that reflects Meerlust’s terroir and geographical location with the same passion, spirit, and soul that have sustained the estate’s name and place in the heart for centuries.

As with all good wines, location and address are everything, and during a recent visit to Meerlust’s 80 hectares of vineyards, it was once again evident how extraordinary this part of Stellenbosch is – so unique that the area, along with its neighbour Vergenoegd Löw estate, has yet to be given a ward name by the Stellenbosch wine authorities.

Here at Meerlust, the Atlantic Ocean is a mere five kilometers away, creating a maritime climate that exposes the vineyards to the fierce southeasterly winds in summer and the full brunt of the north-westerlies in winter. There are no slopes, peaks, or shelter: the vineyards stand between roughly 10 meters above sea level, with the highest point being the 120-meter granite hill just beyond Compagniesdrift. The soil diversity here is enough to make a geologist weak at the knees – and not just geologists. Wim Truter, who took over as the third head winemaker in Meerlust’s estate-wine history in 2020, clearly possesses many talents. But when it comes to the role of soil types in the vineyard’s final product, this aspect of Wim’s interest can be described as fanatical.

In blending the Rubicon wine, the main components – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – are sourced from a tapestry of each variety’s vineyards spread across the Meerlust estate. These include those standing on Greywacke sandstone, the more alluvial beds along the Eerste River, granitic soils near the hills, and the low-lying clay-shale areas.

As demonstrated during the visit, each soil type contributes its own dimension to the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot growing in these soils. At Meerlust, wine is not so much made in the vineyard as it is made from the vineyard. After each Rubicon component is harvested and aged separately for a few months in French oak, Wim, Hannes, and the rest of the team sit like conductors, tasting the more than 40 vineyard batches to decide which ones are worthy of being bottled under the Rubicon name.

The chosen blend – mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot playing supporting roles – is then returned to the barrel for further aging, allowing the selected elements to marry and fulfil each year’s Rubicon union.

“It’s not about a Rubicon style,” says Wim. “It’s simply about taking the best of what each vineyard has delivered each year and using it for the wine.”

Certainly, there are other wines at Meerlust: the Cabernet Sauvignon that started it all, a Merlot, in my opinion the best single-varietal Merlot in the country; the earthy, robust, and rounded Pinot Noir, and that lovely, lively, citrusy Chardonnay.

But Meerlust’s prestige and the authority it commands as South Africa’s premier wine estate rest on the Rubicon, an undeniable proof that Cape wines can achieve the highest international standards.

Wim Truter, the cellarmaster.

There is an indefinable and mysterious element that enables good wines to age, and a 20-year-old Rubicon proves that this trait is present at Meerlust. The 2004 Rubicon tasted under Wim’s guidance is as fresh, lively, and energetic as Gerda Steyn at the end of another Comrades Marathon. Shining notes of black fruit with an airy pine-needle scent, and a charming, meaty hint of saltiness bestowed by the years in the bottle.

Jump to Rubicon 2017, one of the Cape’s standout vintages, and the tannic muscles are bold and insistent, with shades of blackberries, mulberry, and cigar box spelling “classic” with a capital “C.” I’d even throw in an “R” for regal.

And the current 2021 vintage, a wine whose best years still lie ahead, is nonetheless fully drinkable with its crunch of ripe cherry and an exotic cocoa note lingering from its time in wood.

Every rose may have its own name, but there is only one Rubicon.

Paul Clüver Riesling: A Reminder of the German Grape’s Greatness

All those scenes from the UEFA Euro football championships currently underway find me in a Germanic frame of mind, a rare occasion indeed. But those images of warm German cities, show-stopping on-field exertion by über sportsmen, and the charming guttural chants from a diverse array of pasty supporters walking around in shorts showing legs like weisswürst, have me itching for a chilled glass of German wine.

And, of course, this must be Riesling, the greatest wine grape not to have struck the note of global and popular appreciation despite it being responsible for some of the finest white wines in the world. I would truly like to see the day when Riesling claims a similar world-wide appeal as achieved by Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Still, for some or other, reason this has just not happened – despite the variety’s ability to offer the same kind of vinous enthrallment, from refreshing gluggers to site-specific, meticulously crafted wines that can hold their own against a top Burgundy or Sancerre.

Perhaps it is, as in the case of South Africa, a result of Germany’s national image just not being aligned with what consumers expect from a wine-making country. That national vibe portrays a reputation of orderliness, organised, mechanically efficient and regimentally competent. Thus, when it comes to buying a car, piece of mining equipment or a functional kitchen appliance, German brands are in high demand. But all the warm-blooded, personable life-style offerings are deemed far more desirable if they originate from France, Italy or Spain.

Take German cuisine, for example. Can one really blame an outsider for not taking German wine seriously when that country’s culinary offerings centre around well-girthed sausages, smoked fatty pork, cabbage and potatoes? Compare German food to the colourful and diverse tables of France and Italy, and it is a no-brainer in assuming that the former nations take taste and pleasure more seriously than the land of the Big Eisbein. And seeing that wine-appreciation runs parallel to the assumption of the state of a wine-producing country’s heart, Germany falls short in desirability, as does its lovely national grape, Riesling.

This is a pity, as the German wine industry has origins similar to those of the world’s great wine regions, such as Burgundy. Emperor Charlemagne, he of Corton-Charlemagne fame, was regulating viticulture and winemaking in Germany back in the 8th century. And just as was the case in Burgundy, the Benedictine monks were responsible for parcelling terroir-specific sites and making wine in the Middle Ages. Burgundy, for example, has its ‘Clos’ and Germany its “Kloss”.

German vineyards.

But in the greater wine picture, even the most loyal German wine ambassador has to admit that they have been far outdone by the French and many other wine countries in terms of generating a global affinity for their Riesling and other wines.

When the mood for Riesling strikes, as now, South Africans are limited to slim pickings. Local offerings are limited – even the great Cape sage of Riesling that is Danie de Wet, who learnt his winemaking at Geisenheim Institute in Germany – has called it quits and pulled his Riesling vineyard on De Wetshof.

Paul Clüver in Elgin remains one of the die-hards, and when I saw the 2024 vintage was released a week back, and with the prospect of Euro football requiring a substantial amount of my attention over the next few weeks, I hastily procured a case of six. The occasion and general thoughts on Riesling led me to drink the first two bottles accompanied by much pondering on what this cultivar offers.

Vineyards on Paul Clüver.

Riesling was one of the first varieties planted in 1987 on the De Rust farm in Elgin – home of Paul Clüver Family Wines – the cold climate and the hardy Bokkeveld shale soils deemed appropriate for the grape. At that time, Paul Clüver was still teaming up with Nederburg, where maestro Herr Günter Brözel was running the show. And if the Herr assumed Elgin was good for Riesling, one can bet your last pair of lederhosen that it is so.

The Paul Clüver Riesling 2024 originates from vines at 300m above sea-level, the ocean only 20km off, giving the farm a combination of maritime and continental climates, something I have always found unique about the Elgin appellation. After the grapes are destemmed and crushed, the pressed juice is settled and racked to oak foudre and stainless-steel tanks for fermenting. Grapes from different blocks are fermented separately. 35% of the wine was fermented in the 2500l foudres with the remainder being in stainless-steel tank.

Andries Burger, Paul Clüver’s winemaker, wants to hang onto some of the floral fruit in the grape. This he does by lowering the temperatures of certain vessels so as to arrest fermentation. This ‘fruity’ segment is later blended to the dry-fermented parcels to give the Riesling its natural off-dry glow.

The result is a showcase of what Riesling can offer, namely a fine, brilliant and simply delicious white wine that exudes the traits I love in this cultivar. It is fresh as driven snow and from the outset shows a whistle-clean purity.

It is just impossible to resist glugging the first mouthful in its entirety, such is the moreish splendour. Assessing the wine a few sips down, it is apparent that despite the fresh accessibility and the pulsating bright verve, there is a lot going on.

The nose shows wafts of honeydew melon and jasmine in bloom. Initially sprightly and teasing on the palate, the flavours cascade in runs from the natural world, recalling images of dense forests, verdant wild grasses running up steep mountain-slopes and icy streams gushing from glaciers. The pastoral vigour splashes tastes of crunch and juice, and slivers of ripe fruit. Green apple and forelle pear, with a dollop of frigid cantaloupe. Fig-peel brushes by, while the discernible grip of lemon zest clings for an instant before being washed away by plucked sorrel and a chunk of crushed quince.

The line of taste is taut and seamless, offering a Swiss clock precision in the balance between a pulsating heart of flavour-offerings and the rapt acidity desired to move the wine forward as an upright, commanding and startlingly engrossing living thing. It knows where it wants to go, and if this should be in my direction, it has arrived. And always shall.

Chardonnay: Fill me up, Buttercup

It’s big, it is buttery it is rich, and it is back. After extensive research, done with thorough commitment and dedication, I can reveal that those enthusiasts of the royal Burgundian white who think butter-noted, bold oaky Chardonnay is a thing of the past, well, they best get with the programme.

World-over there has been an explosion in the demand for this style of opulent, corpulent style of Chardonnay, a wine offering that, like – permed hair, the songs of John Denver, and furry car dashboards – were thought to have disappeared to the great retro hall in the sky.

And it is the newer generation of wine drinkers who are lapping it up, Buttercup.

These younger wine folk do not harbour the disdain that sees today’s middle-aged and elder drinkers eschewing Chardonnays made in this smoky, Dairy Queeny and showily fruited style. For the current wine mods approach wine with a slate that is cleansed of opinion and advice from the conventional vinous intelligentsia. These newer consumers are drinking what they like. And one does not have to be a follower of cordon bleu trends, or know how to cook sous vide, to see the current demand for flavour in general leans towards the big, diverse, vivid and palate-thumping kind.

Today’s food preferences are for promiscuous sensorial satisfaction with salt, sweet, acidity, spice and sour rolled into one. Even fine-dining establishments are replacing delicately sauced Grand Cuisine French classics with dishes seeing exotic spice and umami-hits power-lifting carefully plated seafood, poultry and meat offerings to taste-bombs that would have seemed incomprehensible and down-right common three decades ago. It is all about betting as much flavour and satisfying texture in the mouth as possible to elevate the overall experience.

To take this down a level, we are also seeing smokers turning to vapes offering flavours of cranberry, mango ice and sour-apple – bland tastes are out, uncool and plain boring.

So why should wine be any different? I for one obviously do not wish to see artificially flavoured wine that assaults and demeans the basic elements that has me drinking it, namely a unifying sense of something made from grapes and a presence of grape-related flavours harnessed by discernible elements of sugar and acidity. But a trend towards wines made to a confident style exuding power and direct, loud flavour should be welcomed and supported, with wineries going-out and servicing the wish of the consumer.

The pull towards buttery and oaky Chardonnay is one I personally welcome, despite some of the big-sellers out of America – like Gallo and Bread and Butter – being just a tad too robustly abrasive for my palate. Over the past 15 to 20 years, many producers of New World Chardonnays have limited the potential of this gorgeously multi-faceted grape by going to extra lengths to chase stone, minerality and leanness in their offerings. The main reason being that Chardonnay-producers are petrified at the idea of any blousy “old school” plushness finding its way into their wines, which was the reason behind that anal ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd appearing in the 19990s.

This reigning in of discernible succulent fruit notes and the comforting cloak of a butteriness, only capable of being expressed by Chardonnay, has resulted in a lot of stylistic singularity that – and this I hate to admit – recently found me bored at a 20-strong Chardonnay line-up as most of the wines only showed one side of the grape in a tight, cool and linear offering.

In line-ups, go and experience how a Burgundy from Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet will stand-out from many New World wines for being positively sunny with notes of honey-melon, grilled nuts and warm butter compared to the stark modern style of wines where there is brightness only, but little glow.

Of course, there is a canyon-like gap in the opinions of wine critics and the demand of the consumer. But for whomever it is applicable, my modest opinion is that Chardonnays offering the more burlesque and well-fed aspects of this wonderful grape will be rewarded as richly as the wine-lovers experience it.

South African government Ready for a Minister of Wine

With a frenetic period of bartering, schmoozing and heart-felt promises lying ahead as South Africa prepares for a coalition government, it appears that one certain outcome of the next governing collaboration is a dedicated Minister of Wine in the new national government. According to a leaked memo to intrepid news website winegoggle.co.za, both the ANC and the DA have highlighted a pressing need for a wine minister in the legislature, while the EFF has also informed well-heeled donors and supporters that the South African wine industry needs to be represented on national government level.

According to political analysts, this implies that with these three parties expressing a wish for such a portfolio – and coalition negotiations set – to commence, the chances of a wine ministry being realised as a part of the country’s politics is a very real reality.

The leaked memo, a result of a misguided whatsapp message, states that the ANC and DA concur on elevating the South African wine industry to top national priority. From the ANC’s side, a Minister of Wine is apparently needed to guide President Cyril Ramaphosa’s wine cellaring activities in both his Cape Town and Johannesburg homes, as well as to assist with sommelier training on his Phala-Phala game farm.

“The President is struggling to get suitable help in managing his wine interests and sees the only way of addressing the situation is to appoint a Minister of Wine in national government which could with, proactive efficiency, co-operation and insight, help the President get his vinous house in order,” the memo reads.

Apparently, both the President’s cellars are disorganised and ineffective, with Barolo wines lying in the Burgundy shelves, Cap Classique stacked between grand marque Champagne and a complete sommelier Riedel glass collection continually being used for serving maas (soured milk) to the presidential gardening employees as well as for cultivating avocado shoots.

“At Phala-Phala the staff, again, have resorted to their old methods of stashing expensive wines under sofas, as well as using some back-dated issues of the Platter’s wine guide for fire-starters. The President says the first task of the Minister of Wine would be to appoint an oversight committee to address these issues and draft a report as to how these and other wine-related methods in the presidency can be addressed.”

The ministry of wine is also supported by the DA as it is deemed the only way of getting official body South African Wine to explain its strategy for the local industry in a comprehensible manner.

The President in Wine Mode.

“Somebody needs to step in at government level to interpret South African Wine’s goals, thoughts and potential solutions in terms of the country’s wine industry in a succinct, practical and outcomes-based manner. This official industry strategy currently reads and sounds about as effective, lucid and rational as the one aimed at promoting vegan biltong in the Northern Cape or foie gras cultivation in Noordhoek and – as the party ruling the country’s wine province – the DA and the nation demand better.”

Surprisingly, the EFF has also expressed a need to see a Minister of Wine installed in whatever form or shape the next government is to be.

“Julius Malema of the EFF has, apparently, for a time now deemed as ‘essential’ the need for a wine ministry, especially to explore the possibilities of turning parts of agricultural land in Mpumalanga and Limpopo into vineyard-rich regions producing wines that can rival the Cape’s best,” the memo reads.

Apparently, Comrade Malema and fellow EFF-vinophile Floyd Shivambo have undergone wine experiences at the great estates of Stellenbosch, questioning South Africa’s reliance on the Cape as the only source of suitable terroir.

“Comrade Malema has commissioned studies showing that the plains and valleys of Limpopo and Mpumalanga can offer a unique African terroir for growing myriad grape varieties, the fruits of which can be vinified to add diverse lustre to the entrenched profile of South African wines. Lush vineyards growing between disused mine dumps and charming shanty-towns can offer a wineland aesthetic like no other.”

A Minister of Wine can therefore remove the shackles of convention and help establish a new African wine offering, going against the grain of the Eurocentric, colonialist profile that South African wine has been known for to date.

The memo goes on to name potential Ministers of Wine being industry expert Michael Fridjhon, marketing guru Mike Ratcliffe, Carolyn Martin, hospitality extraordinaire, and wine-writer Malu Lambert, with the position not requiring any party involvement by the likely candidates.

With over two weeks of coalition negotiations to go, developments will be watched closely and could herald a chapter that is as new for the state of South African wine as it is for the country. Nothing wrong with Wine Republic SA.

New Luxury Levels of Cape Brandy

The world of drinks is awash with spirited talk. Never before has there been such a reflective, luxuriously toned cacophony promoting the availability of distilled alcoholic drinks that have, through craftmanship and singular focus, been taken to the “next level”. For the sake of offering the one thing that spirits drinks are made to offer, and that is pleasure.

Thus, midnight-black tequilas aged for 30 years in oak barrels and almost treacly in texture are now prized well above this Mexican spirit’s more familiar mode of shots knocked back with salt and lemon. Rum, distilled from sugar-cane growing in the Caribbean and other exotic locations, is also rapidly losing its image of being limited to that of a long, cold drink diluted with Coke and glugged to the rhythmic sway of beach-parties.

Bon vivants and drinks experts are discovering aged rums that have, like aforementioned tequila, been lying in wood barrels for years. The bite of the spirit has been eased through the time in oak, the colour takes on a dark moodiness and the taste is complex, sophisticated and bathed in a heady sumptuousness.

The two most common spirits, namely whisky and brandy, have over the past two decades also seen a revival in the way they are presented to a market far removed from so-called old-school spirits drinkers. Bourbon and other American whiskies promote their aging and ostentatious packaging. Those Scots of whisky fame are always digging up some lost mythical barrels to bottle under new “rare” labels, ready for flogging for a few hundred thousand rand.

Despite the availability of google earth and GPS co-ordinates, “lost” and “forgotten” whisky distilleries are miraculously being discovered in the highlands and on the Scottish coast, each unique back-story turned into a new label to feed the apparent bottomless market for Scotch. Here keen consumers are prepared to pay for story, individuality and that most dear of all consumables, rarity.

Of the above spirits drinks, as well as gin and vodka, I have had my fair share with appreciative joy and abandon. But in the end, my partiality always returns to the elixirs distilled from the fruit of the vine, namely brandy. Or as they are known for their respective places of French origin, Cognac and Armagnac.

Perhaps it’s just me. But there is something far more regal in a spirit resulting from vineyards growing in specific soils and subjected to unique climatic influences than there is in a whisky – or whiskey – made from wheat, maize, barley and other grains guaranteed to thrill a muesli maker and sustain a horse. Brandy is special. It is but an extension of the wine world, in its warm golden soul holding the narratives of land and of climate, and of the seasonal vagaries affecting the condition in which each season’s grapes ripen.

Just like Champagne – French, of course – has always and will always be seen at the pinnacle of sparkling wine from anywhere else in France or the world, so Cognac and Armagnac claim the top space in terms of the sector of distilled wine, a.k.a. brandy.

Both these spirits originate from the south-west of France, with Cognac coming from the limestone-rich soils just north of Bordeaux. Armagnac, again, is from the Gascon region in the south-west heartland of France, a region whose other revered offering is duck, goose and the fatty livers growing inside of them, also known as foie gras.

The reasons for Cognac and Armagnac dominating the brandy market in terms of perception, image and price is truly not surprising. I have seen the most loyal, patriotic South African brandy drinker go weak at the knees by just sniffing into a glass half-full of a 45 year-old Armagnac. The aged blended Cognacs, even from ubiquitous commercial brands such as Hennesy, Rémy Martin and Bisquit, are, too, extraordinary in their purity and the unexpected delicacy they harbour, despite being a hefty 40% alcohol. This is great stuff.

Like with French wine, tradition and provenance also play a major role in the X-factor found in Cognac and Armagnac. Both have been made in the two regions for over 600 years and their production is strictly legislated in terms of origin of vineyards and grape varieties used, as well as distillation and aging regimes. Add to this images of ruddy-faced French men in berets tending old, gnarled vines or sniffing a glass in front of an ancient copper pot-still, and the picture of authenticity is complete.

Over time, and through them being associated with a country responsible for the world’s greatest wines, Cognac and Armagnac have become seen to be – as far as brandy is concerned – the only true game in town.

This reality places brandy producers from other areas of the wine-making world in an unenviable position. They can make the best spirits from distilled wines on the planet – something South Africa has been recognised to do – yet in terms of true recognition concerning image and provenance, well, if you are not Cognac or Armagnac it is nay impossible to be even referred to in the rarified atmosphere the French spirits find themselves.

Image isn’t everything here, it’s the only thing.

It is, however, fortunate for South African spirit lovers that brandy is in our blood. Having overseen the making of the first wine at the Cape in 1659, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) saw brandy being distilled from local wine in 1672. Brandy became a necessity at the Cape. Not only for soothing the spirits of home-sick sailors stopping over on long hauls between Europe and the East, as well as warming the VOC residents during the harsh winter, but also for replenishing the Company’s explorers’ voyages of discovery into a new untamed land.

In his journal of 1685, Governor Simon van der Stel writes about an explorational journey into Namaqualand where great care is taken to preserve the stocks of brandy accompanying him and his men. Brandy was also, apparently, a terrific social lubricant, allowing different cultures to get to know one another better. When Van der Stel and his party chanced to meet an indigenous Khoisan group, the latter would slaughter and braai a sheep, while the colonists got the party going by offering brandy all around.

This local love for brandy grew in tandem with the expansion of the country’s now world-famous wine industry, offering standard brandies for the perennially thirsty commodity market, whilst at the same time valiantly pursuing excellence and distinction at the top-end with ultra-premium products.

IT IS at the top-end where brandy becomes, for me, extraordinary. I drink this not for refreshment as I do with a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay or for comfort during late-night fireside conversation as I would a half-bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. Spirits, and specifically brandy, are reserved for when there is a need for unapologetic pleasure and complete effortless relaxation. A leather couch in a cosy empty room with Chet Baker playing on the sound-system. Quite often, a MonteCristo torpedo cigar also burns, sending coils of earthy aromatic smoke into the air. And then, only then, will a bottle of good brandy be opened to add a final decadent touch to the sensorial experience and unfettered self-indulgence.

And despite my predilection for those beautiful drinks from Cognac and Armagnac, there is true excellence to be found in the luxury sector of South African brandy, with the intriguing diversity in aromatic and flavour expression being truly exceptional.

One thing local brandy is not is a one-trick pony. The crafters of this spirit are not only gifted in the art of distillation and selecting wood-aging regimes, but also in sourcing the raw product, which be the wine that has to undergo the fiery distillation process – twice – to achieve the pure spirit.

Colombard and Chenin Blanc are South Africa’s go-to brandy grape cultivars, to my mind the major reason for the quality of the country’s brandies. Both make high-acid, low alcohol wines – as required for distillation – yet have the natural sunny character to impart a floral, fruit essence to Cape brandies at any level of sophistication and price point. Cognac and Armagnac are largely limited to the Ugni Blanc variety, and various Cognac-producers have in the past few years taken to planting Colombard, Ugni Blanc being deemed as less expressive.

The magic of Colombard came my way by means of a brandy from Die Mas in Kakamas, Northern Cape and with the Die Mas Kalahari Truffle Potstill Brandy. Despite the reference, the brandy has no Kalahari truffle flavour component, the name of the local delicacy just being employed for some marketing verve. The brandy is double distilled from pure Colombard wine and aged in old oak barrels for between five and seven years.

Aroma plays a greater role in the appreciation of brandy than it does in wine, and there are for me few scents as comforting and reassuring as that of a good brandy. The Die Mas Potstill delivers with an evocative fragrance of firewood smoke and tilled earth, the primal aromas lifted by drifts of dry flower and citrus peel. Taking a small sip, allowing the liquid to warm on the palate, notes of bitter chocolate combine with cuts of lime, green apple and mocha. There is a lot going on, but the brandy – here at 38% alcohol – has something delicate about it, fragile and very clean. A wonderful spirit.

Chenin Blanc, the other grape used in most of the country’s brandy production, tends to make a brandy with the vivid flavours and aromas of Colombard, but with a slightly more muscular structure.

Tokara, the spectacular estate on the top of the Banghoek Pass is known for its internationally lauded wine range, but also makes an incredible pot-still brandy distilled from Chenin Blanc grapes growing on the farm.

Tokara XO is aged for a minimum of 14 years in old French oak casks and together with the luxuriously stylish packaging is, to my mind, one of the Cape’s foremost brandy offerings – one I would take to a battle in Cognac any day.

On the nose, the brandy charms, almost coyly so, with nectar-filled summer flowers offset with a slight exotic spiciness. The presence on the palate is firm and confident, yet exceedingly polished and well-mannered. Of course this is a heady spirits drink, but flavours of citrus, dates and apricot give an impression of conviviality and the invitingly moreishness.

I sip this brandy between cigar puffs, adding one cube of ice to the glass which – once melting – unleashes broader, expansive flavours.

It would probably have a Cognac producer choking on his eau de vie, but more-and-more South African brandy producers are using wines made from red grape varieties for brandy distillation. And with spectacular results, the difference in red and white “brandies” being obvious due to the lift of tannin found in the red varieties.

Premier Stellenbosch wine estate Rust en Vrede uses Cabernet Sauvignon from its Helderberg property for making its Estate Brandy. After double distillation, the spirit is aged for at least 14 years in French oak barrels that had previously contained Cabernet Sauvignon wine. And the result is truly riveting.

This Rust en Vrede brandy is bottled at 38% alcohol, and together with the rounded tannins on the base wine and the aging regime, it is a brandy that is incredibly soft, smooth and extremely drinkable. There are notes of leather and spice, the layers of complexity including dried sultana, apricot, Christmas mince pie with a slight perk of ground coffee. This is a prime example of a good brandy’s ability to offer sophistication and splendour, as well as downright deliciousness.

Another great, expressive pot-still brandy from red grapes is The Inventer Barrel Aged Pot-still XO Brandy Rosso, made by master distiller and legend Johan Venter. For the Rosso, Venter makes the base wine from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes sourced from the Stellenbosch region, the distilled spirit aged in French oak for a minimum of ten years. Skill and time delivers something spectacular, with flavours of stone-fruit and fynbos on the palate, as well as an intriguing salinity which just lifts the brandy to another realm, one I have not yet encountered in Cape brandies, but is a feature of some Cognacs from the Grande Champagne region.

Despite the current talk of spirits, the fact is that alcohol – especially drinks high in it – are sailing into troubled waters. Alcohol consumption world-wide is declining, rapidly, as older people become more concerned about their health and younger people are just not interested in the drinking culture.

However, I predict that there will always be room for drinks of refined luxury, wines and spirits that through their respective traditions and histories, quality and offering of life-affirming joy, will always be in demand. A bit of “me time” contributes to wellness, undoubtedly. And if that me time includes a small glass of something as fulfilling, satisfying and delicious as a good brandy it will always be in vogue. It is, after all, a part of the human spirit.

USA Trophy Show Judge Wooed by Cape Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay

This article appeared in Die Burger newspaper on 17th May and has been translated from Afrikaans.

One of the hallmarks of the Cape wine industry is its enthusiasm for wine competitions, especially for a relatively small producer like South Africa. The organisers, of course, benefit the most, as their coffers swell with the entry fees that cellars must pay to submit their wines for these shows. Over the years, however, one learns to distinguish between competitions that genuinely seek to enhance the recognition of wine quality and those that are mere money-making ventures.

The Trophy Wine Show has emerged over the past two decades as arguably the most authoritative and stringent wine competition for local wines. This prestigious event is the brainchild of Michael Fridjhon, South Africa’s most renowned wine personality, whose reputation as a wine expert, meticulous organiser, and authoritative voice on wine and wine quality is indisputable. A distinctive feature of the Trophy Wine Show is that Michael annually invites two or three top international wine experts to South Africa to join respected local judges in evaluating approximately 600 entries of diverse wine types and styles.

After the judging process, invited guests have the opportunity to hear the insights of these international experts on the wines they have assessed, with the identities of the wines kept anonymous. The judges taste the wines blind, without labels, and the results are announced in mid-June.

This year, the name Lisa Perrotti-Brown caught my eye on the list of judges. As a holder of the British Master of Wine qualification—the pinnacle of wine credentials—Lisa is undoubtedly a wine expert. It is said to be easier to obtain a license to fly a combat helicopter than to earn this Master of Wine certificate.

Moreover, as an American wine writer and critic based in Napa, California, her impressions of South African wines are vitally important. The local wine industry has long struggled to elevate its international image to achieve better prices abroad. America, being the world’s most significant wine import market, is crucial for South Africa to establish a commercially viable presence, a goal it has pursued for thirty years with little notable success.

Perrotti-Brown, who monitors South African wines alongside those from many other countries, acknowledges that the country’s wine profile is quite low in America. “But don’t be too hard on yourselves,” she advises. She explains that many people who view America as the golden market for wine do not realise how competitive it is over there.

“Firstly, America produces a vast amount of wine across all price classes,” says Perrotti-Brown. “Many South African producers believe that their wines can be price-competitive due to the weak rand and strong dollar. But it doesn’t work that way. America produces even cheaper wines, and there are also low-priced wines from South America and Europe. So, forget positioning yourself as a cheap wine country offering value for money.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown in the zone.

“Look at what happened to Australia when they tried to conquer America with that cheap Yellowtail stuff. They clashed with other cheap wines and left Australia with the image of a country that only offers low-price, low-quality wines.”

Following her week-long tasting for the Trophy Wine Show, Perrotti-Brown is more convinced than ever that South Africa should not be associated with low-quality wines. “The wines are truly outstanding, almost overwhelming,” she says—this coming just days after she was invited to assess the en primeurs from top cellars in Bordeaux, France, with her palate still resonating with the flavours of Petrus, Margaux, Angelus, and Lafite.

“At the Trophy Show, I found myself on the panel judging Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which is perfect for me since these are some of my favourite wine types and also a specialty of California,” says Perrotti-Brown. Ten years since her last visit to the Cape, she notes a significant improvement in the presentation of the country’s Cabernet Sauvignons.

“It’s a bit frustrating to talk now because, as judges, we obviously don’t know which regions or vintages we tasted,” she says. “But unlike ten years ago at the same competition, the Cabernet Sauvignon at this year’s Trophy Show generally shows more finesse and freshness. It’s clear that winemakers are more cautious about how much new oak they use and for how long the wines are in wood—I can’t recall any wines that tasted like they were made by a lumberjack. These were elegant, lovely wines that can stand alongside the great Cabernet Sauvignons of the world.”

She was also on the panel reviewing red Bordeaux blends, a category that South Africans regard as formidable due to the legendary Cape wines known for this style. “Blended wines, especially from a relatively unknown wine country, are very difficult to sell in America,” observes Perrotti-Brown. “What does the average person know about a red blend? Nothing, unless the producer is an icon like Haut-Brion or Château Margaux. But if the bottle simply says Cabernet Sauvignon, you have a better chance of catching the consumer’s attention, as they at least recognise the grape.

Are there many Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the world? Certainly. But is there something distinctive about the South African offerings? “You know, there is such a lovely herbal character in some wines, like a wildflower note,” she says. “This vegetal-aspect is not overwhelming, not the green herb and leafy effect of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that aren’t properly ripe, but instead the most beautiful hint of veld and fynbos. It’s truly special, and I gave the wines with this character my top scores.”

Perrotti-Brown is now heading to the airport for her long flight to San Francisco, near Napa. I ask her if she will reflect on any “wow” factors during her whirlwind wine visit. “South African Chardonnay,” she says. “For me, this category was even stronger than the Cabernet Sauvignons. Sublime wines, fruit and sun, but with long, cool streams of refinement and complexity, among the best in the world. I still have plenty of time to find the right words and will let you know.”

Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon: Drowning in Honey

The week past presented a tasting that left me as astounded as the palpable resonance of appreciation and fortune. But more than that, genuine amazement and wonder at the greatness South Africa is achieving in terms of red wines, and specifically from Stellenbosch.

It was the tale of Cabernet Sauvignon, a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon and an experience that left me with that line from Evelyn Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisited: “I was drowning in honey, stingless.”

Le Riche laid on an extensive Cabernet Sauvignon immersion, with the star of the show being the Reserve 2021 – vintage number 25 since pater familias Etienne le Riche made his maiden 1997 after going solo, post his years at Rustenberg. Son Christo is pretty much in charge of the wines these days and has become a veritable prophet for Cabernet Sauvignon and, specifically, Stellenbosch’s interpretation of this cultivar.

Excluding the three niche single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons on show during the presentation, Le Riche sources from growers in various pockets of Stellenbosch. The producer is not hellbent on the site-specific narrative; the Reserve 2021, for example, is made from vineyards in Jonkershoek, Simonsberg, and Helderberg, carefully cobbled together to reflect Christo’s idea of what a Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon should portray under the Le Riche label.

Christo le Riche

Other Reserves thrown-in at the tasting were from 2001 and 2013, with a Bosstok, Steynsrust and Simonsberg – all 2021 – being singular terroir in origin. Then there were the standard Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignons from 2004 and 2022.

The success of such a vast showing of various wines – even if they are from one cultivar – is the occasion’s ability to leave one with a singular, overriding impression. For me this was simply one of having been privy to great South African red wine. As diverse as these Cabernet Sauvignons are, they sing from the same hymn-sheet in offering depth of fruit, a tapestry of indestructible – yet refined – tannins and a soul-stirring powerful beauty.

But the parts that stood-out in the whole greatness, for me, were three wines.

At 23 years of age the Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 showed the pure joy of ageable red wine, and specifically Cabernet Sauvignon. To have such an exuberant aroma on a wine of over two decades underscores both the reliability of the fruit source and precision winemaking, for there was not an iota of dullness, an atom of the oxidative or a splinter of a porty note. On the palate, a gorgeous feral hint of polished saddle-leather which added depth and meaning to the flavours of blackcurrant compote, Turkish prune and pine kernel. The balance between luxurious, evocative plushness and pulse-racing viridity was precise and the finish as clean as a nun’s joke on laundry-day.

Of the single-site wines, the Le Riche Steynsrust 2021 had my number. The vineyards grow in Stellenbosch’s windswept Firgrove region, and the wine had 24 months’ maturation in a combination of new and old barriques. This, such a great example that only a fool will predict the nature of a wine by the physical appearance of the site. Firgrove is hardy country, cold and influenced by the maritime air-flows. Yet, this Steynsrust Cabernet Sauvignon shows a reverberating bright fruitiness with ripe cherry and a warm mulberry sunniness. Absolutely delicious and very amicable, but with Cabernet Sauvignon pedigree kept intact courtesy of corded sinewy tannins and an intangible profundity.

Then, of course, there is the Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2021, to be released in early June and now confidently and justifiably priced north of R1 000. A blend of three geographical parcels, Helderberg leads with 67%, followed by Simonsberg (22%) and Jonkershoek (11%). Fruit from the different wards is vinified and aged separately in French oak, 70% new. After a year in wood, the three components are blended, then back in barrel for another 12 months.

Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon has always struck me as a result of craftmanship, no matter the indisputably vital role of geography and vineyards, and the Reserve 2021 just confirms this impression. It is all so seamless, and it all seems so easy and so very good, and so damn right.

A delicious, heady juiciness. The tannins coaxing the mouth like the fronds of a silk-bush. Dense, dark fruit with a slight touch of fennel and whisper of garrique and sun. The resounding symphony of power as the flavours expand in the mouth, shivering, thrusting with excitable tannin. It is not a taste, it is an experience.