Of all the 50-something winters I have spent in various countries, the ones in Stellenbosch have been the best. Shards of mist drift in overnight from the ocean and hang in the valleys like silver samurai sword blades. The rain falls relentlessly in icy curtains, whereafter the black tarred streets running between the old white buildings shimmer under a purple-grey sky.
The rains also fill the Eerste River, which rumbles through the town and along the wine farms, and when the surroundings are , quiet you hear the football-sized round river rocks clacking against one another.
It is a winter wonderland, made even better by the presence of Stellenbosch’s famous red wines. Of these, there are plenty of good wines, and many great ones. Of which I have made a cursory selection for guidance – of personal opinion, and no specific order.
L’Avenir Single Block Pinotage 2018
This estate on the lower-end of Stellenbosch Simonsberg is one of the modern legends when talk of Pinotage is had. Great terroir comes in spades, and through the 1990s and early 2000s, the legendary winemaker Francois Naudé helped cement the farm’s reputation for good Pinotage.
This wine is now in the hands of L’Avenir’s very skilled winemaker Dirk Coetzee who has polished this liquid expression of earth, air, and soil into something truly marvellous. Maturation was done in 300l barrels of French oak, 15% of which were new.
L’Avenir Single Block is opulent in aroma, exuding cedar wood, crushed mulberry with a hint of cigar-box. It is the kind of wine you fall in love with from the first sip as that gentle, silky juice slips between the lips. From here, it is pure seduction, an exotic sweetness holding together tastes of Dutch liquorice, purple-ripe plums, cherry and fresh fennel. Pure and linear, the wine has not an inkling of the roughly edged, the tannins beautifully integrated with the complexity of tastes leading to the drinker becoming truly involved and exhilarated by the wonder of it all. Gob-smacking tasty, amazing and proud to call it Pinotage.
Taaibosch Crescendo 2018
The highly anticipated first vintage from this new French-owned Helderberg property exceeds the hype that started spreading a few years back when the Oddo family added the old Cordoba wine farm to their international portfolio. Managed by the dynamic Schalk-Willem Joubert, a classic-schooled winemaker with a get-it-done energy, Taaibosch is set to become one of the great names in Stellenbosch wine.
Excellence and focus are core values, along with the commitment to expressing the spectacular geography of the vineyards’ site. Only one wine is made: Crescendo, and the basis is Cabernet Franc which, according to Schalk, reaches magical degrees of ripeness in the farm’s vineyards set 360m above sea level. The maiden Taaibosch Crescendo 2018 shows a 65% component of Cabernet Franc, with Merlot (30%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (5%) making up the balance. The wine underscores the elegance of the 2018 vintage and along with Joubert’s classic approach, this is a polished, refined and stunning red wine exuding true class. Cherry and plum flavours will appeal to those seeking fruit, but for me, the shy, careful palate-weight and the purity of the wine’s length from lips to finish elevates this to instant classic status.
Meerlust Red 2019
The surliness of the 2019 vintage made for late-ripening of red varieties, thus with-holding the sun-spurred energy and power many wine farms seek. Meerlust Estate announced the character of 2019 by refraining from the making of the legendary Meerlust Rubicon Bordeaux-style blend in that troubled cool year.
Instead, a Meerlust Red 2019 is offered due to the inability of that year’s grapes to achieve the commanding presence and graceful power a wine requires before it qualifies for donning that familiar black Rubicon label. Despite this talk of a lesser vintage, the Red is a stand-out class of its own. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates (43%) with 31% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.
The wine is shy on the nose, but not without presence. Beneath the gentle aroma of dry oak and pressed grape skins, a fine thread of Provence herbs and violet awakens the senses. Cabernet Sauvignon’s passive beauty is enhanced by some red fruit sappiness, thanks to the Merlot component, while Cabernet Franc props-up matters with a crafted stage of pine-needle and slight pencil-shaving.
This is a brilliant example of a whole wine, honed and toned by the ethos of excellence sought by those behind Meerlust, an ethos that has been passed onto the vineyard where the DNA of Meerlust’s human-capital and the legacy of centuries has joined nature to provide something quite special and quite beautiful.
Vriesenhof Pinot Noir 2018
One of my Stellenbosch dreams is to see Pinot Noir joining the acclaimed vinous offerings contributing to the region’s reputation. These offerings of wines made from the heartbreak grape are few and far between, with Vriesenhof being the major player in town.
Of course, one can too a degree trust a wine made by Jan Boland Coetzee who has had a life-long obsession with Pinot Noir, going to work in Burgundy forty years ago in an attempt to understand the source of the variety that – somewhere, sometime – placed a spell on him.
The decomposed granite and clay soils of Vriesenhof’s spread in Stellenboschberg provide the foundation, Jan believing there is a distinct correlation between wine quality and the clay component of vineyard soil. The wine is fermented in wood and matured for 12 months in French oak – 30% new and 70% 2nd fill.
The Pinot Noir 2018 confidently displays the revered features of this grape variety, also underscoring the fact that Pinot is made for drinking and enjoying. Slightly chilled with a plate of cheese or a hearty stew, few wines create the feeling of camaraderie and love of wine than a bottle of good Pinot Noir does.
Vriesenhof’s version offers classic tastes of Cherry and all-spice, with a slight glimpse of mushroom and forest floor, the earthiness of which will grow as the wine ages in the bottle.
Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2017
Not only destined for line-ups of great South African wines, this vintage of Kanonkop’s icon Bordeaux-style blend can comfortably assume its place on the list of best Cabernet Sauvignon-based red wines outside France.
The blend is usually a marriage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc to a ratio of 60-15-15. But with the brilliant 2017 vintage offering powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon and a gorgeous spread of perfumed Cabernet Franc, the Paul Sauer from this year comprises 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot. For me, the magic of Paul Sauer is in the way cellarmaster Abrie Beeslaar brings the different components together.
Instead of vinifying and maturing each variety separately and then building the blend, the wine is put together just after harvest and the process of malolactic fermentation. This permits the wine to spend 24 months in new oak barrels (French) as one true whole, allowing complete integration of the three components. The result represents the magnificence one is used to getting from Paul Sauer, but the complexity and visceral expression of the 2017 vintage is incredible.
The wine is foreboding in its dense colour of garnet, mauve and black. A heady aroma wafts from the glass. Dense dark fruit with tense lines of acidity is drawn deeper into wine wonderland with notes of fynbos, cigar box, and pine needles. Statuesque, muscular and just beautiful.
Reyneke Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Johan Reyneke is one of the most important voices in South African wine due to this international reputation as a wine-grower that lives the ethos of organic farming, biodynamics, and sustainability. And if there is a more important agenda in the world of wine than this, I would like to know.
One of Reyneke’s major contributions to wine, too, is that he has broken some naïve perceptions of organic and biodynamic wine-making being limited to lentil-eating practitioners of bhakti-yoga who have a thing for the music of Leonard Cohen.
To make great wine, Reyneke farms as naturally as possible to allow vineyards to grow in pure, healthy soils. This has resulted in Reyneke’s brightly expressive and deliciously polished wines, of which the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2017 is a masterpiece.
Vineyards grow on the Polkadraai Hills, exposed to False Bay and its energetic air-flow. The Cabernet Sauvignon is aged for 20 months in French oak, and spends another year calming in the bottle resulting in another weighty hit of proof why Stellenbosch is Cabernet country.
This wine has a clarity, the assertive palate weight complemented by darts of delicious tastes: fig-paste, sun-dried pine-cone and a lovely juiciness recalling plum, mulberry and crunchy blueberries.
Alto Rouge 2018
If it is reliability you want, Alto Rouge is your wine. Provenance, craftmanship, and that superb Helderberg terroir have for over seven decades given Alto a level of provenance that is a rarity in the South African wine world. Much of this has been the result of Alto Rouge, a five-way blend of Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
Wood maturation obviously plays a huge role in the final expression, and here current cellar master Bertho van der Westhuizen insists on using 300 litre French and American barrels, with the Alto Rouge always incorporating a portion of new wood along with 2nd and 3rd fill. Components are aged separately for 14 to 16 months, then the blending is done. And it is here I am assuming that this signature “Alto” taste is imparted.
A part of this character is a richness, a muscle presented to the vines by the late afternoon sun as it makes its way west.
The 2018 is a wonderful version of this ubiquitous brand. A clean, healthy nose with a rush of fynbos, mulberry leaves and a hit of fresh dough. The attack is deft and polite, calm and unrushed with the first impression being one of light and grace before the flavours of sour cherry and wet clay and stroked linen take over. On the mid-palate, a savouriness comes to the fore, things opening up allowing a gush of breezy plum, fresh blackcurrant and pine-needle to command attention and presence. The finish is full and firm, yet clean and memorable.
Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
The luxury Leeu Passant outfit based in Franschhoek under the auspices of wine-couple extraordinaire Chris and Andrea Mullineux and Indian business mogul Analjit Singh is, to my mind, making some of the finest wines in the country. Included in the range is a Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon that sends shivers down the spin so thrilling and audaciously exceptional it is.
Well, Andrea does hail from the Napa Valley, Ground Zero for Cabernet Sauvignon. But unlike the over-extracted fruit missiles bottled under Napa Cabernet, the Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 is more restrained in its showiness, more Liza Minelli than Lady Gaga.
Fruit from Firgrove, Helderberg and those Polkadraai Hills is used, 20-months maturation happening in 500l barrels of French oak, 30% of which is new. The grapes are worked gently during fermentation, and exposure to broader, older oak allows the essence and aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon and of vineyard sites to drive this wine.
It has a plush, confident presence on the palate and lots of freshness with quite a bit of tannin presence that carries the flavours well and true. Think blackberry, cedar, and violets with a discernible brush of dry fynbos. Refined and elegant, yes, but with a charming bit of wild-child vivaciousness. A super Cabernet Sauvignon.
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