Stellenbosch’s One Grape Question

Stellenbosch is, and always will be, the greatest red wine producing region in South Africa. Why? Same reason that Hawaii has great pipeline, Germans make good cars and Chelsea will win the Champions League: because God intended it that way.

Call it terroir, terrain, heritage, tradition, human brilliance?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+.Stellenbosch is, like, where it’s at, man. And despite what the new Old Vine wave of Mediterranean variety disciples and their gushing sycophants say, when shone on South Africa the ray of divining light falls on Stellenbosch and Bordeaux grapes. It is in this light of life that the image and reputation of the South African wine industry will stand or fall.

This is why Stellenbosch and its Bordeaux-led excellence are needed. To, firstly, reassure us as South Africans that we preside over a wine industry worthy of getting that champion feeling about. And secondly, of course, letting our international counterparts know we are not just a bunch of bulk-exporting bunny-huggers more concerned at ensuring eco-friendly hotel bills during wine shows than focussing on real vinous excellence. But that we can, and do, make some seriously good wine worthy of being taken more seriously.

One of the ways to achieve this is by presenting not a good bottle of wine, but a truly great one. And let’s for a moment do that most un-South African thing and put prejudice, envy, malice and regional discrimination aside. Let’s think of one glorious bottle of red wine from our country.

Anyone not going to pick one from Stellenbosch? Really? Look deep. Look true. Look sharp.

Right, moving on. If we want that bottle to showcase the industry with the clarity the market deserves, blends are irrelevant. Blends are brands, not styles. We need a grape variety.

Well, could there then really be anything else besides Cabernet Sauvignon?


Stellenbosch scenery.


Remember, we are working ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ or trying to work ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ as a team here. But in any team there are individual differences of taste and experience. So that’s when the successful team says to hell with it, let’s reach for consistency of superb quality into the mix.

Cabernet. Cabernet Sauvignon.

Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon. For there is no finer an array of wines in the country than this spread of excellence. Real excellence.

Not only do these wines represent greatness, but they have a narrative. Comparing the Cabernet Sauvignons from the Helderberg and Simonsberg alone offer enough rich diversity and varietal complexity to warrant a fascinating study.

Philosophy of inclusiveness frowns upon breaking away to mention individual parts, because this is all about the sum being greater. But let’s throw in a couple of names for the ADD generation: Vergelegen. Rust en Vrede. Le Riche. Waterford. Kanonkop. Meerlust. Alto. Thelema. Muratie. Edgebaston?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+.just a teasing taste of what Stellenbosch has to offer in the Cabernet Sauvignon mix.

So if Cabernet Sauvignon is the answer, what is the question?

Well, I for one would like to know what Stellenbosch is doing about embracing this culture, skill and natural gift for producing a wine with which to woo South Africa and the world? For if our wine culture is truly a combination of New World sexy energy and classic Old World discipline and purity, there cannot be any other cultivar able of expressing this on a consistent basis than Cabernet Sauvignon as made from a Stellenbosch bloodline.

No-one should be allowed the indignity of having to be compared to others. But by idly allowing this great opportunity of entrenching a reputation for delivering a magnificent version of one of the world’s great wine grapes, Stellenbosch is losing its edge as a leading wine region.

Hemel-en-Aarde, no small thanks to Anthony Hamilton-Russell, has done a superb job of making this area the Number 10 address for South African Pinot Noir. Ditto Robertson and Danie de Wet for Chardonnay. And give credit where credit is due, but the Swartland dudes have put themselves on centre-stage with a lot of guts and passion, despite the dodgy way they work with reality.

On the organised front, the Pinotage Association does the most, while the Chenin Blanc Association definitely talks the most. The M+¬thode Cap Classique producers have taken ownership on groupings based on technical prowess whilst presiding over an extraordinarily successful category.

Well done. Hats off.

But where is the big kahuna – a balls-to-the wall, lippe-op-die-klippe umbrella body or event showcasing the greatest wine from the greatest area? An attention-grabbing campaign making Stellenbosch Cabernet stand-out from the crowd in an evocative manner?

Sure, those little asides of throwing in some Stellenbosch Cabernets in blind tastings with Bordeaux and Napa are quaint. Provide a bit of “whoopee!” when a few sommeliers and wine hacks see Kanonkop or whoever whacking Screaming Eagle or Harlan or that Medoc.

But an international Cabernet Sauvignon Showcase. In Stellenbosch. By Stellenbosch. To grab imagination you have to grab initiative. And the industry as a whole would be foolish not to get behind this. Of course, it goes beyond a regular event. It is about the whole region embracing Cabernet excellence, for through this the entire Stellenbosch address as a premier region stands to gain.

Greatness is achievable. Especially when it is, undoubtedly, there.

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2 thoughts on “Stellenbosch’s One Grape Question

  1. Hmmm, maybe a red from Klein Constantia rather than a Stellenbosch? Even so, given the the preponderance of fine reds in Stellenbosch then Stellenbosch can lay claim to being the preeminent district in South Africa, although there can be a tendency to rest on laurels.
    However, why are blends just brands? I accept that many blends, world-wide, tend to be in the branded style but, even allowing for the dilution of the blessed concept of terroir which blending guarantees, is it not true that many of the fine wines of Bordeaux show origin character every bit as much as varietal?
    True, Mosel riesling, Northern Rhone syrah and Australian shiraz, Burgundian pinot noir and chardonnay are all the ultimate origin wines and are all, by and large, mono-varietal but I think “blends are irrelevant. Blends are brands, not styles” is by no means obvious at all, especially in the South African context.

  2. What if it so happens that some ‘brands’ which are so-called mono-variety Shiraz wines for instance, are blends of wines made from Shiraz vines from two, three or more different clones, and likely on different rootstock and even more likely on different slopes and on different soils and most certainly selected from different barrels and back-blended with a tiny percentage of current vintage wines for freshness and fruit – this all on a standard-sized estate of between 50 and 100 ha. This is pure brand, as the proprietor seeks to differentiate his offer – granted if he or she is indeed clever enough. Yes, style as well, but perhaps this is when style and brand converge. Surly this holds true for Bordeaux as well. And more, what if ‘origin character’ is so diluted that in a blind tasting and especially in a blind-sided tasting a modern Stellenbosch Cab rides on the same saddle as a the finest modern Bordeaux wines. So varietal character reigns supreme, thanks to the modern Bordeaux consultant who created faceless, uniform wines from the Gironde to the Eerste River. Lastly, Stellenbosch Cab, or let’s say the finest Stellenbosch Cab examples are found in that rich belt towards Paarl which include Kanonkop and Le Bonheur. This is terroir Cab, the others need to catch up still, unfortunately and do so by making block-buster stuff. Impressive, but only for sniffing, spitting and perhaps bragging. The exception is Le Riche, which pioneered a particular style through brilliant winemaker Etienne.

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