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.

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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, 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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What a Whopper! Meerlust Pinot Noir

South Africa’s venture into the making of Pinot Noir did not get a good rap from the judges at this year’s Trophy Wine Show, arguably the strictest in the ever-growing South African wine competition circuit. No, results for Michael Fridjhon’s annual show are not out yet, but last week at the feedback session, agreement that Cape Pinot Noir appears to be a work in progress seemed unanimous.

Not that failing to claim a gold gong at this competition is a calamity – of the 645 entries, only some 5% secured a gold medal, which is about the annual average for the Trophy Show. And when it came to judges’ commenting on the wines entered, the Pinot Noir category was given a brief diss. Narina Cloete, Blaauwklippen winemaker who judged this sector said the wines lacked the reflection of a suitable site. Michael himself alluded to the fact that many regaled Cape Pinot Noir marques were not entering competitions – punters paying R500 and north for a bottle of Pinot Noir were apt to be less supportive of said wine should it fail to meet expectations by not roping any bling in shows entered.

Despite not having a cooking clue as to what a gold medal Pinot Noir – or any other wine, for that matter – looks like, it is a cultivar I enjoy, believing that like rugby matches and pizza, even sub-standard Pinot Noirs are better than not having any in all. My promiscuous drinking of the royal Burgundian red recently had me charmed by the 2022 Pinot Noir from Meerlust Estate in Stellenbosch, one of the few Stellenbosch farms to venture into Pinot Noir and one underscoring the fact that the appellation is actually able of making wines with a distinctive edge from this cultivar.

Look, cool climate Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde it ain’t, despite the Meerlust patch in what is known as Stellenbosch South is markedly cooler than Simonsberg, Helderberg and Polkadraai. This Pinot Noir does not have any red floral perfume or flirtatiously leaping berry-fruit, but what it lacks in these departments it makes-up for in structure, a reverberating crunch of black fruit and sheer polished presence on the palate.

Aromas are meaty, bloody and feral with a slight grasp of forest-floor, just enough to make the cultivar sign its initials. The wine is plush in the mouth, hitting the senses secure and true with sour cherry, dried fig and mulberry, tannins being sinewy, long and rippling. Burgundy-acolytes will be referencing northern parts of that region, the Meerlust showing a density and power perfected by Gevrey-Chambertin as opposed to the more expansively decorative offerings from lower down Musigny way. I just think it is great show by one of Stellenbosch’s leading producers, more known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rubicon Bordeaux-style red blend, to comfortably also offer a class Pinot Noir in its arsenal.

Of course, there is also the only Meerlust white wine, namely Chardonnay, and the wine from vintage 2022 shows a lovable fragility that makes you want to stroke the bottle’s head before pouring the next glass. There is a crispness to the wine that is alert and tantalising, as well as accurate expression of varietal character in the specks of sage-butter, Seville orange rind and lemon curd. Pronounced as they are, these flavours are stitched together in a fine, detailed tapestry displaying grace and light rather than resounding and stern depth. Good, and prettily so.  

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Getting to Grips with the Site Stuff

“Site” is not so much a word referencing the geographical origin of a wine as it is an obsession. Not quite as persistently overused as terroir or minerality, site finds its way into wine communication the way a baguette crumb tends to lodge onto one’s upper-lip and a scant underwear brief just has to ubiquitously wander up to perch itself in the butt-crack.

The point of harping on about site, is to emphasise that the wine in question expresses the unique earthly fingerprint of the place where the grapes are grown to a distinct non-replicable singularity. Hereby the mono-geographical authenticity of the wine is underscored, helping to position it as the fruits of a part of the world selected by its creator. It is special, from a special place.

But is a wine bearing the hallmark and provenance of expressing a singular site the ultimate result of the natural world’s offering to the beauty that is a good wine? What about the intermingling of different sites, where grapes from diverse terroirs are combined to form a whole that shows a very agreeable sum of its parts?

This harnessing of diverse terroir offerings is promoted in Cap Classique, after all. The makers of these wines will be using Robertson fruit for stone-fruited brightness, Darling for a cool maritime torrent and Stellenbosch for linearity. Variety is, here, deemed the spice of life in search of the optimal end-result aimed to provide pleasure and joy.

Klein Zalze Wines, the Stellenbosch-based winery, employs this strategy of mixing the best to great success in its wine range, as its impressive scoreboard shows in terms of awards and commercial success in local and export markets. The Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2024 has just been released, proudly referring to the fact that grapes from three sites were used to formulate the final wine.

So fruit from Stellenbosch’s wind-scraped Faure region joined grapes from Durbanville, with an element of Darling terroir thrown in, too. Each parcel selected to meet the objective of Kleine Zalze’s cellar-team, instead of being limited to settling with what you get from one vineyard.

The result is a truly delicious young Sauvignon Blanc, this Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection. There is a spray of saline and fresh kelp from the Faure harvest, beautifully complemented by Durbanville’s cool-climate thiol expression, there where the flavour lies. On its own, Darling Sauvignon Blanc relies a tad too heavily on the asparagus and pea flavour, but combined with the other two diverse terroirs it brings a commanding Sancerre bitter-lemon lift to the wine. The wine has grace in the mouth, bringing exuberance and a palate-lifting flow of joy.

A brilliant example of site-specificity’s ability to work in more ways than one.

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Springfield Garuzis: The Luxury of Cap Classique

Danie de Wet from De Wetshof refers to his Robertson neighbour, Abrie Bruwer of Springfield Estate, as “the Salvador Dali of the South African wine industry”, for reasons I have not actually quizzed Danie on. An individual of non-conventional ilk might be one, with a substantial dose of creativity the other. Together with this, Abrie and Springfield’s commercial success is something not unfamiliar to the legacy of Dali. Although as is the case with many wine brands of scale and crowd-pleasing popularity, Springfield does not draw the kind of critical acclaim and insider group-hugs smaller, more modish producers do.

Especially known for its ubiquitous, distinctively structured Sauvignon Blancs and fruit-driven Whole Berry Cabernet Sauvignon, Springfield tends to put a unique finger-print on its wines. Chardonnay. Albariño. And in some years, a generously layered earthy Pinot Noir. Oh, and not to forget the Miss Lucy Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend.

This year Springfield joined the legion of Cap Classique producers, arguably one of South Africa’s strongest wine sectors. Abrie obviously gave the go-ahead, but it is his daughter Emma who – after a successful sojourn at Cape Classique specialist Le Lude – returned to the Robertson farm as winemaker and got the fizz going.

And so, Springfield Garuzis Brut n/v hit the market early this year. In case you wondered, Garuzis has something to do with an ancestral piece of earth in north Namibia where some of Abrie and Emma’s forebears felt at home. Dreaming of verdant vineyards and drinking cool wine while stalking kudu through the dry thorn-bushes and boring deep for brack water.

Most important is that I have indulged, copiously, in Garuzis since January and truly find it one of the most enjoyable Cap Classiques on market, one with – as you would expect from Dali & Co – a smack of originality.

The wine is made from Springfield fruit, 50-50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a portion of the base-wine fermented and aged for 12 months in oak before joining the other mix for 30 months bottle-fermenting on the lees.

Now, with Robertson’s reputation for chalk-soils’ prodding its wines in a direction of low pH vibrancy and zest, Springfield’s Garuzis bucks the trend with an intoxicating sumptuous luxuriousness – both in texture and taste.

The immediate impression is perfumed fruit veering on the red side instead of the white, with a discernible swathe of ripe nectarine. The brioche taste is of the subtle, under-baked style and there is not a Granny Smith apple or scape of lemon-zest in sight. Instead, just a brief hit of cracked mace to add to the exotic.

And this exotic, glowing and golden-hued and broad and expansive as a sunset over the Etosha pan, is enhanced by this Cap Classique’s gorgeous texture. It is the bubble, of course, and here they are fine and plenty, hugging each other to provide a comforting blanket of dense sparkle to elevate the flavour profile and make the drinking easy, generous and enormously satisfying.

The opulence of this wine, both in taste and in mouth-feel, also makes it a top partner to any kind of food imaginable. From a Rawsonville garage pie to a shivering Agulhas oyster, I have had the Garuzis with a medley of culinary offerings and, as most things Springfield, it never fails to please. Adding to my belief that Springfield is a brand of brilliance from a great South African wine region.

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DA’s Blind-eye to Wine Extortion not Getting my Vote

Not that it matters, but the DA ain’t getting my vote at this year’s elections. And the reason is that the party permits extortionary practices to persist in the hospitality trade. You know, the eating, drinking, hoteling, tourist thing that is the goose that brings the golden eggs to the Western Cape. And it is here, in the Cape, where restaurants are allowed to continue screwing wine-farms and customers through the bribery that is the wine-listing fee.

For the uninitiated, a listing fee is an amount of money the restaurant deems fit to charge a winery for the winery’s privilege of seeing one or more of its offerings appearing on that specific restaurant’s wine-list. So instead of eloquently and strategically marketing one’s wine as a potential complement to the restaurant’s culinary offering, as well as to the eatery’s general individual ambience, all the winery’s marketer has to do is hand over a wad of cash and bingo, your wine is accepted for re-selling by the dining establishment.

Annual amounts may vary from R3 000 to R26 000 charged to get your wine onto the restaurant list.

Now I am no enemy of free-market capitalist business practices. But that a growing number of restaurants here in the Western Cape are partaking in this mild extortion leaves a bad taste. The main reason for this is that wine is already a healthy and easy contributor to an eatery’s bottom-line. So why squeeze the producer even more?

Restaurants will buy at a 30% trade discount. This means the bottle of Chateau RippedOff you and I pay R100 for in retail will be sold to the restaurant for R70. But if you think said establishment is going to charge us R100 to enjoy the wine at the table and be happy with a 30% profit, cloud cuckoo is waiting. For said restaurant will place a substantial mark-up on the price at which the wine was bought. Think 300% to 500% on trade price.

This means by the time it appears on the wine-list, Chateau RippedOff will carry a tag of between R210 to R350. Minus R70 from those two sums, and the restaurant is sitting with a substantial return.

What makes this profit tastier is that wine is an easy part of the restaurant value-chain. It does not have to be cooked to perfection and sauced by a trained chef. It does not need a uniform, nor does it require the paying of UIF benefits and taxi-fare. The wine only has to be stored and poured, in return giving love, pleasure and profit.

Which begs the question: why, with the restaurant already gaining a happy profit from the reselling of wine, do certain elements in the sector see the need to bump-up the wine-related income by slapping on an added listing fee?

If blatant greed is not the answer, then I do not know the difference between a steak tartare and a Beef Wellington.

….well, some of them.

The other nasty issue with a restaurant relying on a pay-for-play wine-list, is that the diner is blissfully unaware of this sleazy underhandedness. Many of us frequent a restaurant assuming the same amount of care and the same spirit of hospitality that goes into the food preparation and the service will apply to the selecting of the wine-list. Chardonnay from limestone soils to accompany the seafood dishes. Elegant Cabernet Sauvignons to partner the accurately grilled beef. Bright cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc for those spicy Asian dishes. Wine and food offered with an holistic approach towards customer satisfaction, one would expect.

When the restaurant relies on listing-fees, it displays a crude disrespect to its culinary offering by using money as the sole criteria for making its wine selection. Lack of respect for the diner, coupled with ignorance. Not exactly conducive to adding integrity to your hospitality offering, is it?

Of course, as long as wineries are willing to fall for this scam, it will go ahead unabated. The only party that can have a say is the customer. And for this, the wined-and-dined foodie media have a role to play by alerting the public to restaurants entertaining unethical wine-lists. Restaurant guides such as Eat Out should, along with a restaurant’s wheel-chair friendly status and the offering of vegan options, state whether the establishments listed play the listing-fee game.

Those provincial bodies who oversee the hospitality industry should force guilty restaurants to blatantly state – on the wine-list – that this list is based on wineries who have paid to see their products offered for sale, and that the selection was not the personal choice of the restaurant and is about as democratic as a parliamentary election in Rwanda.

Hence my unwillingness to support the Western Cape’s ruling party. If they turn a blind eye to this obvious extortion on the door-step of the province’s best-known industry, how to trust them further down the line? I would have expected the DA to show a better example.

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