The world might be awash with tens of thousands of different wines from every country imaginable, but in essence there are only two types of vinous offerings: those made from single grape varieties or the case where two or more cultivars are combined, blended by the winemaker to present a whole that is deemed greater than the sum of its parts.
For the wine-lover, the composing of a blended wine has two attractions. Firstly, the amalgamation can offer a palate-pleasing wine providing not only all-encompassing drinking pleasure but immense complexity. Those imbibers, for example, finding a single cultivar wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon a bit tannic and forceful in the mouth will experience a plusher and more agreeable wine once the Cabernet has been given a juicier and spice-ladled veneer with the addition of a dollop of Shiraz. The same goes for the white side where the pungent grassiness of Sauvignon Blanc is toned down and fleshed out by dropping some fuller-bodied Sémillon wine into the mix.
As to the second important factor of blended wines, think branding power, status and pure presence. Here some of the greatest international and South African wines are simply known by one name representing the combination of grapes used in creating this merging of cultivars. Such as the great wines of Bordeaux, France.
The appeal and value of legendary wines like Châteaux Margaux, Lafite and Mouton Rothschild rests on their Bordeaux origin, provenance and status – and quality, of course – far more than it does in the grape varieties used to create them. The same goes for California’s revered Opus One and the Australian hero that be Penfolds Grange, New World wines that have gained mythical status almost rivalling that of aforementioned French luminaries. In these instances, the wines’ name and the brand are key in its commanding of attention through the reputation for quality it has built over decades, as well as representing the individuality and style of those bottles’ cherished liquid content.
In the South African context this is feature is particularly relevant where it has largely been blended red wines that have staked their place at the forefront of the local industry’s reputation. I would challenge even the most knowledgeable vinophile to deny that KWV’s Roodeberg, a blended red, was the most famous Cape wine offering in the 1970s and early 1980s. No-one really cared whether this wine was made by bringing together Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage or whatever went into those mysterious bottles. The fact of the name stating Roodeberg was enough said.
And despite tremendous improvements in viticulture and wine-making that has seen exceptional single variety Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc and Merlot wines today made in South Africa, our most famous red wines are still blends with big names. Meerlust Rubicon. Kanonkop Paul Sauer. Rust en Vrede Estate. Eben Sadie’s Columella.
Although it must also be said that some of the country’s most popular wines, on which many wine drinkers cut and stained their teeth, are blended numbers. Think Nederburg Baronne, Chateau Libertas and the perennial student favourite Tassenberg.
Of all the Cape’s esteemed blended red wines, Stellenbosch’s Alto Rouge must arguably take pride of place in terms of pioneer-status. The Alto Estate, on the Annandale Road outside Stellenbosch has been making its famous blended Rouge since 1922 and to my mind deserves far greater recognition for its role in establishing a culture of multi-cultivar wines to a degree of consistent excellence than is currently the case.
It was here on the slopes of the Helderberg that then-owner Manie Malan became impatient with the amount of time it took Alto’s Cabernet Sauvignon to soften while maturing in oak barrels, the four-year aging period to rid the wine of its tannic thrust not being conducive to marketing sensibilities and consumers’ need for an approachable, fruit-driven red wine. Malan understood the plush nature of Shiraz and Cinsaut, the other two main varieties grown on Alto, and used these in blending with his Cabernet Sauvignon to create a wine that was accessible and fully drinkable after two years from harvest.
By 1924 Alto was exporting this Alto blend exclusively to Burgoyne’s wine shop in London as the trader deemed this Cape stuff to be a splitting image of the red wines from the magical wine region of Burgundy in France – a fact that will no doubt have today’s wine-buffs choking on their Pinot Noir.
The international popularity of this Alto Rouge saw it being released onto the South African market in 1933 – 90 years ago. The fact that this wine still has pride of place in today’s environment is truly a momentous achievement and recognition of the commitment to its legacy by those who followed in Malan’s foot-steps.
Over the years and under stewardship of various legendary cellarmasters, the Alto Rouge blend has been adapted from that first vintage as the winemakers sought to constantly improve the wine’s quality in reflecting the terroir of Alto, as well to use new developments in viticulture practises and the availability of different clones. The primary components in Alto Rouge today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc, with Petit Verdot and Merlot also incorporated to add further complexity and depth.
History and nostalgia aside, under the winemaking prowess of current cellarmaster Bertho van der Westhuizen the Alto Rouge continues to be a superb red wine, punching way above its weight in terms the price-to-value ratio and staking its claim as a true South African great of immortal status.
The Bordeaux Connection
It was during the 1970s that the South African wine industry took a few earnest steps that would help it progress to becoming a more serious wine country devoted to underscoring the required principles of recognising terroir and defining its diversity of wine regions. This decade saw regulations passed to officially define areas of grape production through the Wine of Origin scheme, as well as allowing for the making of estate wines grown, made and bottled within the borders of individual wine farms. Before then the majority of the industry was used to cart grapes and wine from farm cellars to the major wine corporations where the fruits of the farmers’ labour were thrown together into big brands, some non-descript and soulless.
This more serious wine environment led to farm owners’ ability to now realise dreams and implement methods to express themselves and the individual nature of their properties’ soils and climate in an attempt to bring a new degree of class and distinction to Cape wine. And as with most other wine countries in the world, Bordeaux was seen as the ultimate reference point.
Looking back to that time, it must be said that the South African wine industry has missed a beat by not bestowing enough honour on the late Billy Hofmeyr. Not only did he make the country’s first Bordeaux-style red blend in 1979 on his Paarl wine estate Welgemeend, but his belief in the Cape as having terroir capable of achieving greatness in classic red wines, as well as the influence he had on pre-eminent winemakers such as Jan Boland Coetzee, Walter Finlayson, Etienne le Riche and Kevin Arnold made him as much a source of inspiration as a brother in South Africa’s vision of creating fine wine.
Hofmeyr was not a trained winemaker. A quantity surveyor, in fact. But his intuitive knack for wine-farming and winemaking was complemented by a deep and convincing acceptance of great wine being as integral a part of civilisation as his other two great loves, namely classical music and art, both of which he was an expert. He was, quite simply, a wine man in full and I am not the only one who reckons that without his multi-layered contribution to Cape wine the local industry would just possibly be a bit poorer today.
Fortunately, the Hofmeyr legacy is intact through his having created that first Bordeaux-style blended red wine in South Africa. His Welgemeend estate was planted to all five grape varieties for which the Bordeaux region is famous: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The first Welgemeend wines were Cabernet Sauvignon led, with the four other components used in varying degrees. As a music man, I can imagine Hofmeyr acting as a symphony conductor bringing these different wines together to achieve the precise harmony his experienced palate was looking for.
Hofmeyr passed away in 2000, yet his legacy is alive in the wines he made throughout the 1980s, wines that – if one can get your hands on them – are still incredibly elegant, fresh and deeply classical.
Unfortunately, the greatness of Welgemeend now only survives in the few remaining older vintages of the 1980s and early 1990s which have become true collectors’ items. But the advent of the Cape’s Bordeaux wine blend was arguably one of the most important episodes in South African wine as Hofmeyr’s original foray into this realm was followed by two wines that today stand at the pinnacle of the country’s offering.
Crossing the Rubicon and Meeting Paul Sauer
Recognised locally and internationally as representing two of the finest examples of South African wine, Meerlust Rubicon and Kanonkop Paul Sauer, both Stellenbosch wines initially produced from vintages 1980 and 1981 respectively, are Bordeaux-style red blends that have rightfully gained icon status. This the result of consistent quality, revered voice of name and brand as well as underscoring the fact that the grape varieties required for delivering these styles of wine have found a home at the southern point of Africa on which their Bordeaux origins can feel justifiably proud.
I’ll never quite forget the revered tones in which those first vintages of the Meerlust Rubicon were discussed after the maiden 1980 rendition hit the market in 1984. Even before the wine was seen or tasted there was already a lot to like about it.
There was Meerlust’s history going back to 1693 and the farm’s uninterrupted stewardship under the Myburgh family since 1756, factors which helped wrap the wine brand in a cloak of alluring provenance. Proprietor Nico Myburgh, whose vision resulted in the Rubicon Bordeaux-blend, was not only a pioneer but a single-minded legendary industry figure. A keen angler who fly-fished for trout in the Eerste River flowing through his Meerlust property, it was said that Nico expressed a wish for his ashes to one day be strewn into the river’s gushing flow. Upon which one of his friends remarked, “but Nico, of course you know that they being yours, those ashes will flow upstream, not down”.
With his Italian winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia, the wine blend led by Cabernet Sauvignon and off-set with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, was bottled under the evocative name of Rubicon referring to the river Julius Caesar led his troops across on the way to capturing Rome in 49BC with the understanding that, now, there is no turning back.
The combination of Meerlust’s legacy, the personalities of Nico and Giorgio, a dramatically classical name and a relatively new style of red wine of powerfully refined elegance made of Rubicon an instant success. Even in the dark days of economic sanctions against South Africa during the 1980s, Meerlust Rubicon gained international recognition for its timeless regal branding as well as consistent wine quality.
Tasting recent vintages of Rubicon today alongside aged bottles from the past three decades one cannot notice the Old World nuances in the wine, its tapestry of fine-grained tannins and harmonious balance from palate entry to finish. This is the beauty and the power of a great blended red wine. It is not Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc. It just is Rubicon.
Released from a vintage one year after Meerlust’s Rubicon, the Paul Sauer red Bordeaux blend from another iconic Stellenbosch property – Kanonkop – has over the past two decades become accepted as South Africa’s greatest red wine.
Two aspects have always intrigued me about the Paul Sauer wine besides its statuesque and consistent splendour. One is that, according to those more knowledgeable about soil, geology and such physical aspects, the vineyards grown for making this wine are rooted in what might be deemed as Kanonkop’s more unassuming soils, perhaps more suited to providing sheep fodder than conjuring wine royalty. And indeed, the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc vineyards from which the Paul Sauer blend originate do stand in earth that had in yonder years been used for livestock grazing.
Then there is the making of the Paul Sauer itself, the maiden 1981 vintage introduced by Kanonkop’s legendary winemaker Beyers Truter, who succeeded the formidable Jan Boland Coetzee.
When it comes to creating blended wines, the usual technique used is to ferment and age each of the grape components separately, then give each batch of individual varietal wine time in oak barrel allowing character to develop. After a few months as separate components, the skill of the winemaking team is employed to conjure the final blend through copious tastings of all the different units. After this, the agreed blend is sent back to barrel for a year or so’s further maturation as a complete entity. Meerlust Rubicon, for example is created in this manner.
Kanonkop blends its Paul Sauer in a different way, a helter-skelter, go-for-broke manner.
Conventionally comprising 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, each component is harvested separately in that cabbage-patch vineyard, then crushed and fermented. Once the process of malolactic fermentation is complete and before any contact with a wood barrel, the three different infantile raw wines are blended together in their virginal state by Kanonkop cellarmaster Abrie Beeslaar.
The complete wine is then and sent to barrel for two years without any further intervention or tinkering with the blend’s make-up.
The advantage here is that the Paul Sauer’s components spend the full maturation process as an integrated whole, no doubt assisting in giving it that seamless and complete character. But it also underscores the Kanonkop team’s understanding of their vineyards and their grapes, as to take only one shot at getting it right could be deemed risky. But this “dare to dream” approach has proved to be more than successful if one looks at the track-record and status of Paul Sauer.
There is a tired adage in the world of wine that states “good wine is made in the vineyard”. This is undeniably true. But the fact that blended wines find themselves at the top of the pecking order in terms of status, class and superior quality implies that the vineyards’ good wines require a touch of skilled human interaction to become truly great. Both need each other, and we the wine lovers need them.
Enjoyed this article?
Subscribe and never miss a post again.