Still Life with Cabernet Sauvignon and Stellenbosch

Aroma and taste aside, Cabernet Sauvignon’s most endearing trait is the respect it commands and the sheer presence the wine exudes even before the pouring and tasting commences. On hearing that the next wine is a Cabernet Sauvignon, the staccato chattering and ambient noise dims, the surrounding temperatures drop a degree or two. It is a wine that, upon hearing its name, draws you in, making forget what is going on around you and forcing focus on the main event.

Sure, like all red wines, all Cabernet Sauvignons are not created equal. But more than any other of the world’s wine grape varieties, the two words “Cabernet Sauvignon” have the best chance of offering a wine placing you in the presence of greatness.

Cabernet Country: Stellenbosch.

There are, of course, the mythical wines of Bordeaux’s Left Bank in the region where Cabernet Sauvignon began three centuries back as a natural mutation between the varieties Cabernet Franc (red) and Sauvignon Blanc (white). Then there is Napa, California where Cabernet is King and the wines share the revered space of cult and icon with some of Bordeaux’s best. Chile. Italy. Australia….the potential for making good and great wine from Cabernet Sauvignon has led to its planting in all four corners of the wine globe. With consumers finding the wines’ drinking experience ranging from deliciously fruity, firm and classical, to earth-moving and life-changing. For winemakers and viticulturists, again, the grape variety throws down the gauntlet. Here Cabernet Sauvignon offers these tenders of the vine and creators of the wine the opportunity to showcase their winelands’ respective geographical features through a red grape of proven potential from which a winery and a wine region can be set onto the path to vinous glory.

Over the past decade, the Stellenbosch wine region has stepped-up to the plate by encouraging the rest of the world to realise what South African wine producers, marketers and media commentators (some of them) have known for a whole lot longer. And this is that here, too, is a region capable of producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the world.

The history of Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa and Stellenbosch is, as much of the history of premium grape varieties at the Cape tends to be, a recent one.

The Cape has not always been concerned about wine quality. At the beginning of the previous century, the country’s vineyard space was planted to grape varieties focused on brandy distillation, sweet fortified elixirs and mass-produced bulk wines. The thirst for making and consuming classy wines from single noble varieties was practically non-existent.

Groot Constantia, the mothership of South African wine, did document the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon on those hallowed soils in 1894, although it would be decades before the variety was to be bottled under its varietal name.

Seeking the origins of Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa – and specifically Stellenbosch – the name Abraham Izak Perold pops-up once again, albeit in a less dramatical sense than it does when there is talk of his status as the creator of the Pinotage grape. In Perold’s seminal book Handboek oor Wynbou published in 1926, the legendary viticulturist and oenologist made it clear that as a variety, Cabernet Sauvignon held the potential to unlock immense value to the South African wine scene. He had made a thorough study of the cultivar, the growing conditions and its wines while visiting Bordeaux.

Despite Cabernet Sauvignon not offering the vigorous growth and higher yields of Cinsaut, which was by far the Cape’s most planted red grape at the time, Perold was convinced the Bordeaux variety’s potential to contribute to South African wine quality was non-negotiable. Perold, always in-synch with economic realities, was also aware of Cabernet Sauvignon not suited to offering the heavy and economically enticing yields Cinsaut is known for. He wrote: “Cabernet might offer two-thirds of the yields of Cinsaut, but the quality of this grape is superior. Looking at the vineyard growing conditions here, our wine-farmers should be planting Cabernet in Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Cape.”

Perold’s word was pretty much gospel back then. It is thus generally accepted that he paved the way for the proliferation of Cabernet Sauvignon plantings. In fact, Perold was physically involved with establishing the variety in Stellenbosch where in 1919 he assisted Manie Malan in planting these vines on Malan’s Alto Estate on the slopes of the Helderberg.

Other early Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in Stellenbosch included Delheim on the Simonsberg where the variety was established in the 1930s by the first owner, Hans Hoheisen, who made wine under an own label. The maiden Cabernet Sauvignon under the Delheim label goes back to 1958.

Despite the fact that wines from early plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Stellenbosch were getting the recognition for quality Perold had anticipated, the progression of the vineyard space accorded this variety was slow. Up until the mid-1970s there were but a handful of wine estates making and bottling their own wine with a commitment to premium quality, such as that the Cabernet Sauvignon variety was known to offer. Most of the region’s vineyards comprised mass-volume, bulk-wine varieties such as Cinsaut, Chenin Blanc and Palomino destined for use by the local corporates in big, non-descript wine brands.

Out of total vineyard plantings of 120 000ha in 1974, only 2% constituted Cabernet Sauvignon, underscoring the nature and priorities of the wine industry back then.

However, with the passing of legislation permitting estate wine production and the implementation of the Wine of Origin Scheme in 1972 to guarantee regional authenticity, an increasing number of Stellenbosch wine farmers looked at quality grape varieties with which to express the terroir of their estates and lead their commercial ventures. And many of these farmers knew that when great red wine is talked about, it is Cabernet Sauvignon that commands much of the conversation.

With the introduction of single-varietal bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon from renowned Stellenbosch wine estates such as Alto (1965), Rustenberg (1971) Kanonkop (1973), Meerlust (1975) and Simonsig (1976), the awareness of great red wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon on wine farms of unbridled classical pedigree came to the fore. The leap to making this grape one of the signature varieties of Stellenbosch had begun.

The Impact of Geography

The Roman viticulturist Columnella (4AD to 70AD) wrote that the vineyard “likes rocks and hills”, and on this front Stellenbosch has got it taped. Helderberg and Simonsberg provide the mountains, Bottelary and Polkadraai the hills, and the rocks – 700m years old – well, these are all over the place.

Climate-wise, Stellenbosch is in a world-league of its own for a wine farmer committed to Cabernet Sauvignon. The region is influenced by the restless maritime air flows from the Atlantic Ocean in False Bay as well as the northerly drift from the north-west coastline. And being in Africa, there is no shortage here of that vital cog in the wheel of growing wine grapes, namely sunlight. The soils of decomposed granite, shale and clay allow the roots to cool and warm at the right time during the plant’s annual growing cycle, as well as providing good drainage in the rainy season and water-retention in dry summers.

These features see Cabernet Sauvignon thriving in terms of growing grapes exuding those muscular tannins and refined flavour spectrums that make the wines the captivating masterpieces they are. As Johan Malan from Simonsig, one of the legendary Stellenbosch estates says: “Stellenbosch did not find Cabernet Sauvignon – Cabernet found Stellenbosch.”

Louis Strydom, CEO and winemaker at modern classic Cabernet Sauvignon producer Ernie Els Wines situated on the Helderberg, has been making wine from this variety and growing it for 23 years, appearing to be an eternal student of this grape.

“Cabernet Sauvignon might be part of Stellenbosch DNA, but there have been some interesting phases the grape went through in getting to the current recognition we have for the overall regional quality of the wine,” he says. “In the 1990s there was a shortage of Cabernet plant-material due to the industry’s greater focus on red varieties. And in this scurrying for material, a lot of virus-infected matter was put into the soil which greatly affected the area’s general health. Leafroll virus is havoc on a late-ripening variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Then the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the monster Cabs. “Many producers went the Californian route, making wines of big alcohol-levels in the region of 15% and the profile thick and dense due to excessive use of new oak barrels.”

Today, says Strydom, Stellenbosch’s Cabernet Sauvignon is characterised by a focus on expression of the region’s unique terroir with wines of elegance and refinement, but with that brooding muscular power.

“It goes back to the vineyard, as in everything wine,” says Strydom. “As generous with its heady fruit-profile as it can be, Cabernet Sauvignon can show a green, weedy character due to the methoxypyrazine presence in the grape’s physiology. Remember, the Cabernet Sauvignon is a crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, two varieties known for showing an underripe side even when harvested at phenolic ripeness. Canopy management is crucial to ensure levels of sunlight and exposure to air movement required to coax the grape into a stage of balanced ripeness. Only then can you begin to think about making good wine.”

Set on the Helderberg, Ernie Els and neighbouring estates such as Alto, Rust en Vrede and Uva Mira have north and westerly faces that warm in the glow of the afternoon sun while being coaxed by the cooling breezes off False Bay. Simonsberg’s north facing slopes are often shrouded in mist, and being further from the ocean, this region experiences dramatic variation in day-night temperatures. Despite having similar soils, the differences in Cabernet Sauvignon expression between Simonsberg and Helderberg are tangible.

“Simonsberg tends to show bigger tannins in its Cabernet Sauvignon, with a bit of edginess,” says Rijk Melck, CEO of Muratie, the legendary wine estate that has a history going back to 1685, the oldest wine farm in Stellenbosch.

When Melck’s father, South African wine icon Ronnie, bought Muratie in 1987 there was no Cabernet Sauvignon planted on the farm. “A desire to make Cabernet Sauvignon showing the class this variety can attain in Simonsberg, Stellenbosch, was one of the primary reasons my father purchased the property,” says Melck. “Today Cabernet Sauvignon is one of Muratie’s foundations, both as a single variety and in our Bordeaux blend, Ansela.”

West from the Simonsberg-Helderberg strip on Jordan Estate in Stellenbosch Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon vines face in a north and easterly direction. Soils differ here, says Gary Jordan. “Some 600-million-year-old, coarse porphyritic granite soils, farmed by successive generations slowly releases nutrients that sustain old and young Cabernet Sauvignon vines alike,” he says. “Feldspar soil breaks down into deep, red, moisture-retaining clay-loam soils, allowing the grapes to develop cassis and black berry flavours even in the driest of years. Large quartz fragments ensure good drainage and elevated, cool, north- and east-facing vineyards leads to a velvet-like texture and seamless, integrated tannin structure.’

Then there is the lower-lying flatland, a part of Helderberg, but only some 80m above sea-level and home to Le Riche Wines, a name synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon excellence.

“This diversity of terroir pockets found in Stellenbosch plays a huge role in creating a formidable category of regional Cabernet Sauvignon wines,” says Christo le Riche, who is also chairperson of the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, a body committed to creating an international and local awareness of this variety’s Stellenbosch offering.

“You have the dramatic differences in Helderberg and Simonsberg where vineyards go up to 500m, the rolling hills of Polkadraai, Bottelary and Stellenbosch Valley and then the Lower Helderberg, where we are,” says Le Riche. “In all this, soils differ, as do climatic influences. Add to this viticulturists and winemakers committed to ensuring Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon can take a spot on the world stage, and this sector is an unashamed leading light of Cape wine.”

At Muratie Estate.

Despite this geographical diversity, Le Riche says that Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon has managed to capture the imagination with a specific style that sets it on its own trajectory away from the world’s other offerings.

“There is a juiciness and a charming fruit-profile, combined with good acids and alert tannins,” says Le Riche. “Tannins are one of Cabernet Sauvignons pronounced features as they give the wine freshness, life, length and the ability to age and grow in the bottle. Here Stellenbosch straddles the tight tannins of Bordeaux and the exuberant juiciness of California – with a slight fynbos character that no other region can offer.”

But it is that other dimension, the one behind aroma and taste that makes a good Cabernet Sauvignon such a gloriously intriguing great wine. As the acclaimed wine writer Terry Theise says, a complex wine is not pushy or demanding. Exceptional wines, again, show a quiet calm and grace; they shine with an inner light that is not dependent on the spotlight. “Many wines let you taste the noise,” says Theise. “But only the very best wines let you taste the silence.”

And they leave you speechless.

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5 thoughts on “Still Life with Cabernet Sauvignon and Stellenbosch

  1. And now, 100 years later, a new generation is bottling Cinsaut/Cinsault. Won’t they ever learn from the past?

  2. natural mutation between the varieties Cabernet Franc (red) and Sauvignon Blanc (white).

    Mutation? C’mon……..

    Cross is the word you were looking for

    1. Hi Peter
      Unlike Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon was not a laboratory experiment, but an accidental cross in the vineyard. The difference between that and mutation is accidental. I think.

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