Coming in from the Old

Wine has a true friend in time, that concept of the aged and old, the historical and antique deemed nothing but beneficial and revered in the halls of wine-speak. A bottle bearing a label attesting to that wine having been made 40 years ago or more is carefully held in hands slightly trembling in awe, the contents spoken of in hushed tones of respect and anticipation. It is the names of wine cellars from Bordeaux to Piedmont, Rioja to Stellenbosch, Napa to Robertson who have been making wines for decades and centuries that command admiration on account of their legacy and reputation, places whose history and generations of cellarmasters underscore and extend the providence of the wines they have made for years, and will be making for years to come.

The old vineyards from which wine is made, too, bear a gravitas. These living plants rooted for years and generations in patches of soil they call home. They have withstood the challenges and tests of time by, year-in and year-out, ripening bunches of fruit from which the wine is made. Stormy winters belted their leafless shoots and gnarled trunks with wind and rain, snow and sleet. They have battled under the sun of scores of hot summers, offering a warrior-like and formidable resistance to the harsh rays’ heat and the parching dryness it brings to the soils, where those life-giving roots lie deep and true. These senior sages have adapted to the heartless vagaries of nature, learnt to exist in its ever-changing rhythms.

South Africa did not invent the concept of recognising and honouring the unique properties of old vineyards and the need to embrace them as an integral part of a country’s wine legacy. Europe, Australia and the Americas have older vineyards than South Africa, and more of them. But through innovation and will, a proud realisation of the role old vineyards offer a country’s legacy as well as current wine profile, South Africa has to a large extent taken charge of a rebirth in the global recognition of the role old vines play in the wine.

That’s why the name Rosa Kruger can be found at the top echelon in terms of South Africa’s most important wine people. Back in 2002 this former lawyer and journalist fell under the spell of the many old vineyards she had encountered during her forays as viticulture consultant.

Timeworn patches of vines, many forgotten, were tracked down in the Swartland, outside Vredendal and in Citrusdal. Spirited place-names such as Piekenierskloof, Skurfberg and Moutonshoek added to the allure. And once rock-star winemakers like Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Chris Alheit showed  – with the inspiration of Kruger – an interest to vinify the fruit from these low-yielding far-flung vineyards, it all began falling together rather nicely as a greater understanding of South Africa’s old vineyard treasures made its way into the public domain. Then in 2016 the Old Vine Project was launched to map all vineyards over 35yrs old and whereby wineries wishing to do so could honour the wines made from these mature vines with an official seal.

Rosa Kruger

The Old Vine Project’s innovative approach to creating a platform from which the magical appeal of old vineyards and their resulting wines could be expressed did not only capture the imagination of the local wine world. Kruger’s brain-child and her unbridled commitment to these vinous treasures in Southern Africa sparked an interest in old vineyards from around the world, and among the many international accolades she has received has been Wine Personality of the Year for 2018 at the International Wine Challenge.

Time and age are synonymous with romance. And for sure, as with any art form, romance has a vital role to play in wine, otherwise it would not be the multi-layered and diverse offering it is – no other consumed product has more labels portraying more countries and areas of origin than wine. Throw-in 6000 years of wine’s presence in the world presided over by humankind, and the romance is unavoidable.

But today is today, with consumers becoming more questioning and discerning. And the ask is, besides all the nostalgia and violin-playing to honour vineyards that have stood in the soils for 40, 50, 60 years, do they make better wines? If not, what is the song and dance all about?

Kruger herself says: “Do old vines make better wine? I believe they very often do. Age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil.”

But it is to the winemakers I want to go to get an explanation, they who oversee the farming of the old vineyards and who at harvest-time must send the bunches of ripe grapes on the road to becoming a bottled wine. And here it is apt to turn to those who make Chenin Blanc, the erstwhile work-horse grape of the Cape wine industry that understandably represents the greatest mass of the country’s Old Vine spread. Of the 4 292ha of vineyards aged 35 years and older, Chenin Blanc represents 2 207ha – the next largest is Sauvignon Blanc at 454ha, to give an idea of Chenin Blanc’s dominance.

Tertius Boshoff

Stellenrust in Stellenbosch is one of the country’s great Chenin Blanc brands  – in 2023 four Stellenrust wines found their way in to the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10, with a wine made from vineyards planted in 1964 being among the farm’s most revered offerings.

Tertius Boshoff, co-owner and winemaker at Stellenrust, is not hesitant to reveal the intoxicating effect of old vineyards, remaining pragmatic before a poetic tone embraces his words.  “It’s not that old vines – 35 years or older – necessarily produce better fruit,” says Boshoff. “Often yields decrease as the vine ages – so it’s not all sunshine and roses. But Old vines are like old people – they have seen good times and bad come and go, and are at peace with themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that they can deal with anything.” 

He fiddles with a cork-screw and smiles. “Young vines, like young people, are often enthusiastic growers and a touch too vigorous. They set more fruit than they can ripen. But as they age, vines learn to self-regulate. Yields come into balance and the grapes ripen slower and more evenly. Older vines produce smaller berries, which leads to powerful fruit concentration and consequently more structured wines; there’s a greater ratio of tannin-packed skin to juice. We see vintage-on-vintage consistent premium quality and beautiful pH levels in the juice.”

Stellenbosch, in fact, is the headquarters of South Africa’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc offering, carrying 558ha of the total national spread of 2 207ha. Kleine Zalze Wines uses the largest portion of Stellenbosch Old Vine Chenin Blanc, the enticement of this category shared by Kleine Zalze’s French owners Advini who deem it a jewel in the Cape wine crown.

RJ Botha in an old Kleine Zalze vineyard.

RJ Botha, cellarmaster at Kleine Zalze, relishes in this offering of Old Vine Chenin, deploying the fruit in a diverse range of the marque’s wines.

“There are two ways of recognising the allure of Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” says Botha. “On the one side, there is the attraction of each vineyard having a story to tell. These are of old, gnarled vineyards growing on tough granite soils that have for over three decades been exposed to stormy winters, breezy spring seasons and sun-drenched summers. Through age, they have become a part of the soils and their environment, able to truly express the world in which they have lived – which we on the outside call terroir.”

This brings Botha to the second beguiling factor of Old Vine Chenin Blanc: and that is, when it comes to working with the grapes in the cellar, the character of the grapes deserves the aforementioned respect they deserve.

“Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyards express the varietal character and terroir more vividly than younger vines do; it’s as simple as that,” says Botha. “You see it in the tight bunches of small berries. The juice spreads its intoxicating aroma through the cellar at harvest time. And the balance between sugar and acid is tense, almost electric, leading to wines of multi-layered complexity.”

Studies done by the Old Vine Project show that wines from old vineyards have discernible differences to those from younger wines, mainly in terms of concentration, texture and length.

“No-one says old vines make better wines, but that the wines have an own personality and individual finger-print, this is non-negotiable.”

Chenin Blanc might be ruling the roost in the Old Vine scenario, but South Africa’s national red grape of Pinotage delivers two of the country’s greatest red wines made from historical vineyards in the Lanzerac Commemorative Pinotage 2019 and Kanonkop’s perennial iconic Black Label Pinotage. Both wines, incidentally, made from vineyards planted in 1953.

Wynand Lategan, cellarmaster at Lanzerac who had the honour of making the Commemorative Pinotage from an old vineyard planted in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary appellation, says this wine would not have been what it is without the old vineyard fruit.

“I just think old vineyard fruit brings soul to a wine,” he says. “Compared to the other vineyards I use for our Lanzerac wines, I look at an old vineyard as the Chairman of the Board. The grapes don’t always have the virility and up-front fruit you find in younger vines, but the Chairman has seen it all. He isn’t easily affected or influenced by storms, drought or wind, nor the discrepancies of different seasons. There is just that quiet confidence honed by decades of having seen and lived it all. It is almost as if the old vineyard is saying ‘don’t sweat the small stuff in life’. Because the old vines bear fruit that have an immovable gravitas, leading to wines of assured length and substance that will prevail over everything else.”

Gravitas in wine, seemingly, but Old Vines also carry a hefty marketing clout. Few realise this better than Shirley van Wyk, MD of Franschhoek luxury wine destination Terre Paisible which includes a historical vineyard Sauvignon Blanc in its portfolio, Les Dames de 1987 Sauvignon Blanc made from a vineyard planted in 1987.

“Despite being a new destination, I was from the outset adamant about cherishing our old Sauvignon Blanc vineyard through a wine aptly called Le Dames de 1987 in the Terre Paisible line-up,” says Van Wyk. “History, provenance and legacy will always have tremendous marketing appeal, so if you have access to these traits in any of your offerings – use them. For us, an Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc is a major benefit for Terre Paisible, not only honouring our but also the whole of the Cape’s winemaking heritage.”

Known as one of South Africa’s leading wine marketers with a background in advertising and film, Van Wyk talks the Old Vine talk with charming conviction: “Old Vines are like beautiful history books – they carry the stories of all the harvests past and when we take the time to nurture them, they have so much to give back. These vines have survived many seasonal changes and climatic extremes and are now so resilient and adapted that they easily bear fruit each year which carry the nuances they have so carefully cultivated over the year. It is a gift to work with these vines and to capture their essence.

 “In a time where there is such a rush for instant gratification, new technology, innovation etc – it is ever more important to protect, respect and cherish our heritage wherever we can. Our old vines are treasured, and we are doing our best to ensure we look after them for many years to come.”

A search for a pragmatic and less romantic explanation behind the allure of wines made from old vineyards led me to Robertson and De Wetshof where my personal wine sage Danie de Wet planted a block of Chardonnay in 1987, the 37-year-old vineyard still harvested for making De Wetshof’s magnificent Bateleur Chardonnay.

“My answer as to the merits of old vineyards? Well, each year when the De Wetshof team tastes the barrel and tank samples of that season’s harvest it is the Bateleur that comes out as the best wine in the cellar,” says De Wet. “And it is made from the oldest vineyard on the farm, so if you put two-and-two together, the answer could be that more mature vineyards give an added dimension.”

Being a man of science but with enough experience and savvy to realise that vineyards and wine do bear unanswered mysteries, De Wet is not going to pin-point a specific reason for this added dimension. But he turns to the subject of soil, and he goes deep.

“Above the surface, the vineyard changes in each season as shoots are pruned, leaves grow and drop-off, grape-bunches develop and are then removed when ripe,” he says. “But what happens beneath the soil, there where the vines’ roots are, this we never know. An old vineyard can have roots going down to 10, 15 metres beneath the surface, prodding between the soils’ various layers, seeking nutrients and carrying what has been discovered deep below the earth through the vine and into the grapes as they ripen. I can only think that it is what these older roots find deep down below that adds another level of character and personality to the vine itself, which finds its way into the final wine.”

That the time is right to talk of the hot topics that are old and age in vines and wine, this is a given. But the finding of the answers is going to demand a lot more time, and this has still to come. If ever  – sometimes a mystery should remain shrouded, especially one that is as fascinating as this.

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Putting Your Head on a Loveblock with New Zealand Pinot Gris

Looking at the statistics it is difficult not to see New Zealand as a one-trick kiwi in terms of its wine offering, Of the country’s 38 000ha under vine, just under 24 000ha is planted to Sauvignon Blanc, pretty much determining the mind-set of those doing the wine-thinking down under in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Despite the emphasis on Sauvignon Blanc, a grape that has undoubtedly found a suitable home in the cold maritime conditions and gravel and loam soils, various other varieties are coming to the fore that truly underscores the country’s ability to make exceptional wines.

Pinot Noir takes-up the second largest space at 5 588ha, followed by Chardonnay at 3 106ha, with both cultivars delivering some astonishing wines able of not only meeting standards set by good Burgundy, but offering riveting flavour profiles straddling pushy, talkative fruit and cathedral-like structures echoing light, dappled sun-beams and harmonious acidity.

Erica Crawford

On my last trip down under, there was, too, a lot of talk about Pinot Gris growing between the gargantuan spreads of Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough. Driving around the evocative landscape of fawn-coloured grass, elevated bumps of earth and endless rows of precision-aligned vineyards, my drivers would veer from our conversation about rugby to point out a Pinot Gris vineyard. “Special stuff,” I was told in tones of unmistakable, if gruff, reverence.

Some 2 470ha of New Zealand earth is under Pinot Gris, but there appears to be an acute focus on this variety and the wines created from it.

Unlike Pinot Grigio – the same grape – wines labelled Pinot Gris imply a gentler flavour-profile, broader and less brisk than what the Pinot Grigio-style is supposed to be. But I can’t really see this difference as being practically provable and the distinction is surely just a winemaker whim. Much like Syrah and Shiraz, the difference appears to be in the mind of the maker. As is his or her right.

A recent visit to the Cape from Erica Crawford, she of Loveblock Wines in Marlborough, presented an opportunity to delve into Kiwi Pinot Gris, as her Loveblock number has gained a reputation as one of the leading examples from New Zealand. Grown on the Lower Dashwood farm in Marlborough on the South Island, Loveblock’s first introduction entails an understanding that this is organic wine-growing to the max. It is a mind-set Erica and husband, winemaker Kim, have taken to heart with impassioned talking done on soil-health, use of animals in the vineyard, cover-crops and enough eco-friendly harmony to make a Noordhoek farm-girl burn her last stick of Dharamsala incense.

Lower Dashwood, Marlborough

The lovingly organically farmed vineyard soils are aged alluvial loams containing some silt loam over stone. According to Erica, organic management decreases the vigour of the vines, reducing berry size and, hence, overall yields.

In making a dry style of Pinot Gris, vines are managed to give physiological ripeness at low brix (sugars) to keep alcohol-levels low. “Organic management does this for us,” she says, “with the competition from the wildflowers and grasses forcing the vine to struggle.”

Once the grapes were deemed ripe, the fruit was machine harvested and membrane pressed immediately (no preservatives were added in the field to reduce the grape phenolics). The juice was then floated and inoculated with certified organic yeast in stainless steel tank. At 8 brix, 10% of the juice was fermented in neutral French oak barrels and another 10% was transferred to a concrete egg for fermentation.

But it is all about the wine in glass, and the overall impression is that Loveblock Pinot Gris 2022 certainly justifies the Crawfords’ meticulous approach to viticulture and their discernible love of the site responsible for the end-product.

It is just such a gorgeous white wine, finely straddling the line between disciplined precision and sheer delight in the enjoyment of its drinkability.

The first surprising observation is a slight muscat floral tone on the nose, which is also found on the palate once the wine reaches the end-zone of the finish. Residual sugar is 6grams/litre at 12.5% alcohol, giving the wine just a bit of easy, coaxing whispered breath outside the confinement sometimes found in bone-dry white wines of repressed austerity – also known as minerality.

Despite the Loveblock Pinot Gris’s extreme, virginal fragility there are truly spectacular flavours to be had, as if some wine god had attempted to extract as much fruit-filled delicacy from each grape, whilst maintaining the surrounds of a fine dry white wine. Custard apple and ripe pears spring to mind, with a sliver of green mango, some tangerine zest and a zingy squirt of pulverised grenadilla. And don’t forget the flowers: intoxicating cherry blossom, nectar-laced jasmine and white rose-petal.

A mesmerising tapestry of scents, aromas and flavours strung together in a racy cool wet wine. Remarkable, one of my favourite white wines ever. Just that.

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Bateleur: King of the Skies, and of Chardonnay

It graces the skies in a unique rocking motion, the eyes on its scarlet facial mask seeking its prey in the valleys, mountains and veld of Southern Africa. This black, white and grey plumed raptor, with the characteristic short tail and orange-red claws, is the magnificent Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), the eagle that has been named by BirdLife South Africa as the country’s Bird of the Year for 2024.

And for wine-lovers around the world, the name Bateleur might also find purchase, as this is the name of the premium Chardonnay made by De Wetshof Estate in Robertson, one of South Africa’s pioneering Chardonnay estates.

It was Danie de Wet who in 1991 as owner-winemaker of De Wetshof made the decision to name the farm’s first bottling of a single-vineyard Chardonnay after the Bateleur eagle – 10 years after De Wetshof had made released its maiden Chardonnay onto the market.

The Bateleur. Photograph: André Botha

“I had a vineyard planted in 1987 from plant material I propagated from vine-cuttings sourced from the Clos de Mouches vineyard in Burgundy,” recalls Danie. “The 3.5ha vineyard had produced an incredible Chardonnay expressing the distinctive terroir of its site on De Wetshof, and as the wine was maturing in barrel – new wood – I decided that this wine deserved to be bottled under its own label. Problem was, I did not have a name, something that is of vital importance if you as a winemaker and farm-owner want to make a statement.”

Since his childhood years Danie had been a frequent visitor to the Kruger National Park in the Lowveld, the African wildlife being – along with wine – his presiding passion. And in 1991 he was in Kruger with his wife Lesca and sons Johann and Peter, marvelling at the wonders of the bush. But still, at the back of his mind, thinking about that nameless and special Chardonnay resting in oak barrels back home on De Wetshof.

Danie de Wet

“At that stage the message I wanted to convey about that Chardonnay was that it should be able to soar and fly above any form of criticism, rising up above the rest,” says Danie.

And then it happened. “One afternoon, drifting above the veld in a pale blue sky was the form of the Bateleur eagle,” he remembers. “I had always been drawn by this bird’s flight pattern, a graceful rocking motion as if it was dancing through the sky. No wonder the eagle was named after the French word for juggernaut (bateleur).

“Looking at the bird in my usual state of wonder, it struck me – this was going to be the name of that Chardonnay. And the rest is, as they say in the classics, history.”

The first De Wetshof Bateleur Chardonnay was bottled in 1991 and since that initial offering it has gained a consistent reputation for excellence and deemed internationally as one of the world’s great Chardonnays. And the wine is still made from that very same vineyard planted 37 years ago.

The Bateleur eagle itself finds its home in diverse South African landscapes, from the Kruger National Park to the dry Kalahari as well as throughout sub-Sahara Africa. Unfortunately, it is now a threatened species with loss of natural habitat, poaching and poisoning having led to the demise of the population which today comprises less than adult 1 000 birds in South Africa.

Birdlife SA, who have named the Bateleur as South Africa’s Bird of the Year for 2024, has set-up various methods through which the public can contribute to efforts aimed at conserving the Bateleur. This is to be found at and The Endangered Wildlife Trust at

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Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc: Genius and Youth

Lafras Huguenet

In his marvellous book Drinking With The Valkyries the genius wine writer Andrew Jefford promotes the joy of young wines: “Who doesn’t enjoy being invaded by a young wine, and having your head turned, your horizons altered, your composure rattled? Acidity in wine is never better than in youth, when it, too, remains spliced to generous fruit contours, indeed when it seems to bubble and froth with fruit itself, like a gurgling baby with milk.”

However much I agree with these words and do enjoy Chablis, Alvarinho, Picpoul and Sancerre wines under a year old, I found my Editor’s encouragement of trying a Sauvignon Blanc wine a mere six weeks after the grapes were harvested a bit of a ballsy request. Surely a gimmick, I thought, this Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc bottled, on-market from grapes harvested in January.

But having researched into the pedigree of Diemersdal where Thys Louw established himself as one of the pioneers in the explosion in popularity and quality of Cape Sauvignon Blanc some two decades back, I relented. The bottle of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2024 did not end-up in salad-dressing or as a tenderiser to the batch of glistening squid recently procured in the Eastern Cape. It was chilled until the bottle beaded moisture, iced my rheumatic palms as a unlocked the screwcap. And with Jefford’s words echoing through my tufts of ear-hair, the wine was poured for pondering.

An underage, raw wine will mostly be aggressively sulphery and edgily pungent on the nose. But here this was not thus. Instead, the wine showed assured aromatics, a waft of jasmine-leaf, freshly mowed buffalo grass and just the ever-so slight sunny cirrus layer of guava sap. Very interesting and inviting at the end of a long day behind the steering wheel from Jeffrey’s Bay to Hermanus.

The promise from the nose was delivered onto the palate. A tentative perusal revealed delight that led to thirst and a desire to drink fast and drink deep and drink good.

Thys Louw from Diemersdal.

There must be some intuitively scientific techniques going on in the Diemersdal cellar for such a young wine to achieve this state of excellence. Which leads to wonder and amaze, but anticipation is not conducive to lofty pondering.

The exquisitely bracing revelation the wine’s nose held was furthered by its titillating, tasty and enjoyable presence in the mouth. There is the harmonious balance between the thiols of tropicality and a crisp crest of vibrant flavour so characteristic of fine, pure Sauvignon Blanc.

Expecting acidity, robust in its virile youth, there was, rather, a comforting glycerol mouthfeel making the temptation to glug the wine in huge dollops so much greater. This agreeable texture made the flavours confident and assertive, with everything being in balance. I found on my taste-buds a generous scoop of cantaloupe whetted with rivulets of passion-fruit juice. Gooseberry, tart and teasing, also presented itself, as did a hit of honey-suckle and yellow zest from those thick-peel Cape lemons.

I was reminded, fleetingly of a waterfall thundering into a pool surrounded by a forest filled with trees bearing tropical fruits and citrus, the splash and the roar elevated with each mouthful of a truly lovely, delicious wine. Reminding me that, as I always tell my neighbour’s daughter, there being great pleasure in youth. Indeed.

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Fryer’s Cove: Where the West Was Won

Having traversed the Cape winelands for a few decades, I yet have to find a more unique winery than Fryer’s Cove in Doringbaai, 300km straight-up the West Coast. The winery itself is set in a former crayfish factory that was built in 1928 and is the very reason for Doringbaai’s settlement as a once-thriving coastal village. Back then, Cape crayfish was fished and processed here – first as a canned product, and later frozen whole, adorning the swanky tables of America and Europe. Those in the know would know, too, that when it comes to the consuming of the lobster-species, Cape rock lobster has no equal.

The politicisation of the South African fishing industry post 1990 ended the Doringbaai fishing factory, and after two decades in disrepute it was purchased by Jan Ponk van Zyl and Wynand Hamman. They had begun making wines from the vines they had planted between Doringbaai and Strandfontein, focusing on Sauvignon Blanc set 500m from the icy rollers thundering in from the Atlantic Ocean. This is balls-to-the wall, rugged wine country if ever there was some, and not unexpectedly the fruit showed a visceral concentrated thrust ever since the maiden Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc release in 2001.

Initially the wine was made in Stellenbosch, but in 2010 Van Zyl and Hamman acquired the decrepit Doringbaai crayfish factory, turning it into a working winery literally on the edge of the ocean where in days of old the fleet of boats would off-load the day’s lobster catch. In 2020, local drinks behemoth DGB bought the Fryer’s Cove winery, taking ownership of this distinctive location and continuing to churn-out the toppish notch wines. It is great stuff, and I never miss the latest offering. Drinking these wines takes me to desolate coastal village of Doringbaai with its murky morning fog, scent of sea-spray and wild-brush and the sound of mussel shells being crunched by ceaseless waves braking in restless unison.

The latest releases of the two premium Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc wines are the Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve and its brethren Bamboes Bay, both from vintage 2023. They are made from the same Sauvignon Blanc vineyard outside Doringbaai, with vines varying between 12yrs and 25yrs, cropping yields of five, six tons per hectare. Same piece of wind-swept, ocean-splashed sandy red earth; two varying vinification regimes.

The Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2023 is an expression of pure Bamboes Bay terroir and was made to the principles of minimum intervention. Free-run juice is settled overnight and then racked to stainless steel tanks for seven day’s fermentation. The wine is then left on lees for seven months where texture takes hold and the grapes’ inner secrets are allowed to unfold.

The result is a Sauvignon Blanc of truly singular and distinctive terroir expression. On the nose, Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2023 exudes aromas of nettles and white flowers with a pronounced oyster-shell note, a familiar feature of Sauvignon Blanc fruit grown in extreme maritime conditions. The palate is dense with flavours of green citrus-peel and goose-berry with an intoxicating line of wild-herbs. A firm, lasting presence on the palate is elevated by the typical bracing Sauvignon Blanc freshness leading to a commanding and persistent finish.

Then the other wine. After destemming of grapes and pressing, Fryer’s Cove’s Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2023 underwent a spontaneous fermentation and was aged in a combination of 500l Austrian oak barrels and ceramic amphorae for seven months. The time spent in these vessels elevates the textural nuances of the wine’s terroir origin, resulting in a Sauvignon Blanc of statuesque, regal presence yet still expressing the unique flavour-profile of this wine’s Bamboes Bay origin.

The nose is led by a rakish maritime edge with underlying aromas of cut-grass and an exotic whisper of sage. In the mouth, Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve 2023 offers a luxurious density of flavours which include grape-fruit, kumquat and grenadilla leading to a discernable minerality. The tastes are presented in sumptuous layers lying beneath a luxurious veil that creates an experience harbouring both charm and excitement. An extraordinary white wine which will only grow in character through aging of five years or more.

In the rising tide of great South African Sauvignon Blanc, Fryer’s Cove is, for me, a force lifting all boats.

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Thamnus Adds to Cape’s Rosy Chardonnay Scene

The introduction of another extraordinary South African Chardonnay to the magnificence of the variety’s Cape portfolio is such a regular occurrence that a tendency to greet the arrival thereof with a shrug of complacency could be tempting. But we lovers of the glorious Burgundian white soldier on, duty-bound to admit enamoured admiration while attempting to supress the inner-thigh tremble of titillation when seduced, once again, by a wine confidently striding onto the stage of greatness.

Most recent to arrive on this scene was the Thamnus Chardonnay 2021, a number that took a graceful run-up, extended its right-arm and let rip, bowling me over, middle-stump and out.

Before getting to the wine itself I had to source the origin of the name, initially supposing it to be some poncy and forgotten reference to London’s River Thames. But no, the title is soundly based in the Cape, originating from Orothamnus Zeyheri. This might sound like an oily, yet well-read, Greek playboy, but is actually a wild rose. Part of the Cape fynbos kingdom and indigenous to the surrounds from where Thamnus wines sources its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Namely, in the Overberg, Caledon side of the Hemel-en-Aarde, a magnificent wilderness, rugged country with shrubby ridges and broad valley-like indents and lots of ancient poor soils.

Orothamnus Zeyheri also goes by the name of the Marsh Rose in English or the Afrikaans Vleiroos, and I can’t help but think that – objective, despite my Afrikaner rootstock CY Bellville – that the latter is the more beautiful name of the three.

In any event, it is vitis vinifera that rules, Chardonnay to be more specific, and Thamnus 2021 is, well, I have never seen a Marsh Rose, but if it is as gorgeous as this wine I better start looking.

The site of fruit origin is 250m above sea-level and 20km from Walker Bay. But being just over the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, it has to be slightly sunnier and warmer, in this case a benefit. Half the grapes were pressed whole-bunch, settled for two days in tank and racked to barrel. The other portion was destemmed and pressed. Fermentation was done in wood, taking two weeks, and then maturation ensued for nine months, 29% of the barrels being new.

My first impression of this wine was that it was going to be hard to swallow as the aroma is so intoxicating one wants to linger on the nose. There is a traditional dessert made in the Gers region of South-West France which entails butter and cream being heated with flour and then, once warmly bubbling, honey is added to the mixture. This is what my nose detected on the wine, a homely, comforting scent of honeyed buttery-ness with a whisper of cake-in-the-making.

True to focus, I shoved the nostalgia-evoking aroma aside and took the first sip. Now, if one asked any producer of Chardonnay in Meursault, Burgundy, what he or she dreams of in a wine, Thamnus is going to tick a reasonable number of boxes.

There is a taste of perfect, accurate ripeness which could be the result of the even and extended ripening of the 2021 vintage, but knowing the Overberg region well, for me this feature also reflects the place where the Chardonnay grows. This sensation, glowing shards of dappled sunlight coaxing succulence and juice from the wine’s life-affirming core, is something European winemakers strive to achieve. They dream of it while lying awake during their summer nights where the effects of weather on their vines is as dangerously erratic as a vodka-fuelled Russian soldier on week-end pass, as unpredictable as the colour of Taylor Swift’s next choice of underwear before showtime.

This long run of fruit gives Thamnus Chardonnay something I find non-debatable in any wine purporting to be great, and that is deliciousness. Tasty. Nourishingly moreish. Yes, the texture is all Moroccan silk and the first flow of oil from Kalamata olives. The acidity is animated, buoyant and breezy, not snappy and brittle but alive and present with the charm of a steady, anticipating heart-beat. Flavours of honey-suckle, ripe Packham pear and persimmon run true, and they run sure, with just a touch of grilled hazelnut on the finish.

The entry on the palate is trustworthy in the immediacy of the perfection, the mid-palate secure in its calm power. And it all ends in a taste of fond memory, the desire to top the glass and begin all over again.

Thamnus 2021 is a brilliant wine, text-book in its completeness in displaying the cultivar’s noble pedigree and shows that, indeed, a rose by any other name would taste and smell just as sweet, but more so if it is this Chardonnay.

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Alto Estate: Top of the World with 2015 Icon

They have been lying low and racked for some years now, the bottles of red wine representing the Cape winelands’ comet 2015 vintage. This recognition of that year as one in which good wines were born is largely due to Tim Atkin’s 100pt score for the Kanonkop Paul Sauer. And when questioned, Kanonkop’s winemaker Abrie Beeslaar describes 2015 as a perfect golf-swing “where everything was perfectly in synch, all chapters of the growing and ripening just right”.

Normally not of the patient type, I have been uncharacteristically hesitant to open 2015 wines, for once falling under the influence of the lofty advice from pundits warning against so-called “wine infanticide”. But nine years on from that year, I succumbed and carefully released a Stellenbosch red wine from the cool surrounds of its shelf on the wine-fridge. It was a wine from Helderberg, from Alto Estate. The M.P.H.S., a 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the name honouring the first four winemakers on Alto, namely Manie Malan, Piet du Toit, Hempies du Toit and Schalk van der Westhuizen.

Besides being a vintage of “golf-swing” perfection, 2015 was also the year in which Bertho van der Westhuizen took-over the winemaking duties on Alto from his father – the very aforementioned Schalk. This wine represents, thus, a father-son team effort: Schalk oversaw the harvesting of the grapes and the fermentation for that year, while Bertho – joining the cellar in May – managed the Alto M.P.H.S.’s blending and bottling.

The decision to open this wine at nine years of age underscored my belief in my instinct and ability to get the timing right in vinous matters. For this blend, Alto’s top-offering, is now at the cusp of greatness: it has evolved sufficiently to allow one to experience the marvel thereof, while a discerning sniff and taste reveals the potential to reach even greater heights over the next five to 10 years.

Those north-westerly vineyard slopes of Alto allow the grapes to ripen in glowing reams of extended sunlight, the warmth of which is tempered by the expanse of False Bay’s Atlantic Ocean some 10 kilometres to the south. The elevation – running steep to 500m – permits a vivid variation in exposure to sun and temperature as the microclimate scatters in variation to the summit. It is intense red wine country, here on the Helderberg’s decomposed granitic earth, and it shows as the M.P.H.S. runs into the glass, dark and red-black, the colour of the pupil in the eye of a stalking leopard at sunset.

Aromas abound, drifting and coiling with scents of fallen plums and dry pine-needles; a bloody sappiness and just a touch of Havana cigar wrapper from an old, forgotten cedar box.

Its introduction to the mouth is not of the indecisive, hesitant kind: this hits the palate like a thundering, misty wave crashing onto a family of nesting sea-birds perched on a rocky ledge. Immense and powerful, grating and dramatic.

But this wild-eyed, feral spirit is not of the offensive nor boorish kind. The dramatic opening is but the first attention-grabbing note of a symphony that warms, intoxicates and seduces with a spectrum of red wine marvels.

Bertho van der Westhuizen

There is an abundance of fruit, a feature of fine red wines from Helderberg whose tannins are generally more subdued that those made out Simonsberg way. The M.P.H.S. 2015 has black-currant and fig-paste; there is the note of maraschino cherry with an intoxicating layer of warm tar and a stroke of aniseed, the latter something I have only been able to determine in the upper echelon of wines made from red grapes with a Bordeaux pedigree.

But flavour is only permitted to show in its most refined splendour if there is balance and deft in the palate weight. And here it is as finely honed, as Zen-harmonious as an André Pollard drop-kick from the 40-yard line, as pitch-perfect as a tuning fork held to the loins.

The wine is broad, and it is deep. Sumptuous and opulent in its confident show of luxury and un-coy, flirtatious beauty. Yet, it is also riveting and edgy; shivering and thrilling with a vivacious, lusty energy. Respect it does not draw from the outside, but commands from within its assuredly spirited soul.

Alto might be more known for its ubiquitous Alto Rouge red blend, of which the 100th vintage – 2022 – will be released later this year. But in the M.P.H.S. the brand has a wine that comfortably sits at the very top level of Stellenbosch red offerings, which everyone knows can strut their stuff alongside the world’s best. Which this does, rewarding patience and stimulating the desire to experience the state of future comings.

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Creation Wines Wins 2024 V d’Or Award for Best Brand Experience

Press Release from Creation Wines

In Paris on Sunday, February 11, Creation Wines was awarded the global V d’Or award for Best Brand Experience. Dubbed the ‘Oscars of Wine’ by Committee Chairperson Michael Chapoutier, the V d’Or celebrates business innovation and CSR commitments among global producers in the wine and spirits industry. The V d’Or is sponsored by VINEXPO in Paris. 

Among an impressive list of nominees across the world, the international judging panel chose Creation as the winner of this prestigious award. It is based on five key criteria, including the innovative and original quality of the brand experience, its personality, and consistent quality.

According to the V d’Or committee, Creation’s category represents the significant contribution brand experiences make in the wine industry. 

Carolyn Martin

“This is such an important recognition for Creation,” says Brand Creative Director and co-founder, Carolyn Martin. “It is a journey we began over two decades ago with sustainability and innovation at the heart of what we do, and key to how we chartered our course. We are blessed with a beautiful setting in the Hemel-en-Aarde and an enviable climate for producing fine wines such as our flagship Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

“Creation’s fine wine alchemy is a rare blend of art, science, our people, and a sense of place. We live by ‘what grows together, goes together’ and create pairing menus that reflect the region. No one leaves our table without some sense of the journey we have taken together and the role they have played. This is what creates a memorable experience.” 

Submissions called for an extensive and 360-degree exploration of the brand. Judges were exposed to how Creation wines are affected by its terroir, reflecting a true sense of place. The entry also covered the importance of team contribution: the Creation team is encouraged to bring individual culinary heritage to the table, introducing their guests to unique, indigenous tastes and aromas. At the same time, wine lovers experience wines of rare balance, elegance, and finesse. The combination results in a wellness experience with guests leaving, feeling positively transformed and revitalised. 

Of critical importance is Creation’s impact on the surrounding community. Not only are Creation teams recruited locally, they are given vital technical and soft skills training. The team’s support of the Pebbles Hemel-en-Aarde project, which provides schooling and nutritional meals to children from the local community, is well recorded. Creation now selects graduates from this project to develop what could become a life-changing career, starting in the Tasting Room or cellar.

“Making Creation’s experience relatable is critical to our success and a positive influence on wine tourism,” says Carolyn. 

It has been a stellar 2023-2024 for Creation. The V d’Or award follows Creation’s position as number one in Africa and number four on the World’s Best Vineyards list. The estate furthermore scored 95 points for the Art of Creation Pinot Noir 2022 in the international Decanter Pinot Noir blind tasting, positioning them in the top 5 of the 273 wines tasted. In a recent Robert Parker Wine Advocate review of South African wines, the 2022 Creation Art of Pinot Noir came up tops among the 501 wines tasted, scoring an impressive 95 points. And then Creation was placed first in two categories at the Great Wine Capitals (GWC) Regional Best of Wine Tourism Awards: Wine Tourism Services and Art and Culture. What’s more, the estate was awarded one-star status in The Eat Out Awards, South Africa. 

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Jan van Riebeeck and the Wine Letters

The South African wine industry celebrated its 365th anniversary on 2 February this year. 2024 also coincides with the discovery of correspondence between Jan van Riebeeck, the VOC’s commander at the Cape during the first wine harvest, and his winemaker Barend Steenman. Documents have been translated from the original Dutch.

3 February 1659

Dear Commander Van Riebeeck                                                                                                                

Congratulations on presiding over yesterday’s first wine grape harvest at our small colony and making that incredible speech which, I am sure, will be quoted centuries from now. The words: “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes” hit the spot, especially as it was a Sunday and some of the less eager workers were miffed at having to graft under the sweltering sun on our Christian day of rest. I see these words of yours resonating for at least a hundred years!

We Dutch might not be known for winemaking – yet – and like you I am truly tired of being teased by the French and Spanish for our supposed lack of vinous acumen. So, despite you, Commander, ensuring the first wine is made at this maritime pit-stop in Southern Africa I foresee our Commander as also playing a profound role in the birth of the Dutch people’s reputation for vinous greatness.

But most of all I want to thank you for entrusting me to vinify these first Cape grapes into a wine that will please not only your palate, but those of our VOC masters back home. Accept my gratitude. And sorry to be brief, but I must return to the cellar to monitor the progress of the juice’s journey into wine.

Yours faithfully

Barend Steenman

5 February 1659

Good day Barend

I actually decided to get those grapes in on a Sunday so to be out of Maria’s hair. My wife and I have been at the Cape for over five years now, but she uses each moment of my week-end down-time to complain about the circumstances within which we find ourselves. If it is not the south-easter wind tugging at here wig, it is the lack of gardening know-how from the local Khoi who can’t get her damn tulips to grow. She crapped on me last Friday for grilling crayfish for our supper saying that if she had to once again eat a “sea-cockroach” she is climbing aboard the next vessel returning to the motherland – even if she must withstand the approaches of a crew of randy sailors. Believe me, I pity the sailors more than her – she hasn’t put out since last year Easter.

Thus, being in the quiet of the vines on Sunday with you and your team was a much-needed respite. I didn’t really want to go all religious and precious about those first few bins of grapes that came in, but as you said, the words will hopefully be noted for some time to come. This will possibly give the name Van Riebeeck a bit of respect, something my legacy sorely needs. I can already see the future woke crowd only remembering me as some long-haired leader of a pack of colonisers. My little wine interlude should, however, ensure a touch of a respectable legacy. In any event, how’s that stuff doing in the cellar?

Respectfully yours, Commander Van Riebeeck

8 February 1659

Dear Commander Van Riebeeck

Apologies for only reporting back now after your letter written in such appealing forthrightness. Good luck with Madam Maria. If the problems persist, let me know and we can always have her exiled to that island in Table Bay where the Cape’s loose ladies hang-out with the penguins and seals. In any event, the reason for my late writing is that we appear to have a stuck fermentation in the cellar. Yes, the juice from those first lovingly harvested grapes does not want to get going into the magical fermenting process, despite me shutting down the cooling in the cellar. I added some bread-yeast, rusty nails and toe-nail clippings to the juice, but the sugar is not moving down, staying sweet and syrupy and at this stage, just juice with no wine-thump.

But Commander, I suppose that this is a new challenge, working with grapes growing for the first time at a geographical location with which the vines know not a semblance of familiarity. I have appointed Malbal and Baby as my cellar-hands who suggested some non-traditional methods to get the juice to ferment. This includes their beating a sheep-skin drum while dancing around the barrel singing “ferment, jou dwis, ferment” in perfect harmony. I know not the meaning of this expression, but they are adamant that the ancestral spirits with whom they associate will lead to the necessary starting of the engine required to turn the sap into wine.

Nothing further to report, Commander, but as soon as something happens my inked quill will be put to parchment.

Sincerely yours, Barend

10 February 1659

Greetings Barend

I did not find your note about the stuck fermentation disconcerting as we are, as you rightly say, treading a new path. Please allow Malbal and Baby to assist in any way, as much as possible, as it is vital that our BEE credentials remain above reproach. As for the problem with the non-fermenting juice, why don’t I send Maria over? I am sure a few choice words from her acrid tongue will get the stuff fermenting like the clappers, possibly leading to an unexpected Champagne-style wine.

And I confess, perhaps I should have waited for a few more days before ordering the grape-picking to allow the fruit to reach a more desirable level of ripeness, with more sugar to urge the ferment. By the way, did you allow a bit of skin-contact? Being white grapes, skin-contact is – I believe  – in much vogue currently, according to a journal I received from back home.

Accept my complete faith in your cellar knowledge, and good luck. Remember we are not making wine, but also history. Remember to send Malbal and Baby to my fort with their drum. Maria is a keen dancer and with all the fat she is garnering from her perpetual eating of the local koeksisters she needs the disposing of energy.

Yours faithfully, Commander Van

13 February 1659

Dearest Commander Van Riebeeck

O joyous heavenly God, the juice has started to ferment. I put Malbal and Baby on double dancing duty, also ordering the increase of volume in their primal chanting, which now also includes our Dutch word “poes”, although I do not know what a cat has got to do with it all. Perhaps something with a fermenting wine having nine lives.

Off the stuff went the day prior to yesterday, bubbling and oozing aroma that is heady and hanging above our heads in scented pools. No, I did no skin-contact, as I believe the Commander’s first offering of wine from our colony should be clear and clean, presenting accurate varietal profile as well as true taste of terroir. If you would like to venture into the realm of hipster wine, I shall from now grow a beard, work in bare feet and partake in carnal pleasure with Baby. Just say the word.

The wine-in-progress is still heavenly sweet, but that beguiling flavour of lemony, bitter-orange pungency is showing, and I am sure we will have a most suitable wine. On your order to further involve Malbal and Baby, I am allowing them generous tastes of the alcohol-bearing juice, something they really seem to be adept at, showing great appreciation in this elixir they have never tasted. As to their experience with our new wine, I can state that the alcohol content is firm and present seeing as Malbal has now taken to playing his drum at all hours while Baby keenly screams a hotch-potch of phrases at him. She appears to have an obsession with reminding Malbal of his mother’s cat, which I find most strange as the mother nor the feline I have seen. There was one of her lines asking Malbal if his mother “pumps elephant pills” which did not go down that well, leading to a light physical tussle between the two, something I prevented from going further by offering them each two more tastes from the barrel.

If the Commander allows me to stay on as Company Cellarmaster I suspect my tenure will be filled with much more excitement than those anal French and Italian winemakers have been experiencing all these years, what with the Monks and stuff.

Yours appreciatively


17 February 1659

Dear Barend

Congratulations on your fermenting of the first grapes at the Cape, the result of which I am anticipating with an expectation the vastness of which is unbeknownst to me. As soon as Maria and my coach-driver have returned from their trip to the Table Mountain underground spring and I have executed him for adultery, I am getting on that coach and heading to your cellar.

In the meantime, please advise as to the number of bottles you require for filling as Table Bay harbour is currently a model of inefficiency and I’ll have to get the order in way in advance. Also, I know it is your wine to treat as you deem fit, but I would prefer cork to screw-cap – we have some Portuguese off-loading a few migratory workers from Angola in July, and I would like so to remain in their good-books. And perhaps the Porras will stay long enough to teach Maria to cook a decent chicken peri-peri, something I have not had since we pillaged Cape Verde on the way down south in 1652.

Also, on account of your experience with our first wine at the Cape, and your way with words, I request you to please draft the necessary tasting-notes for the first vintage of this pioneering wine. Once that’s done, I’ll send it to the local PR company to compile a press-release which will be distributed throughout the colonised Dutch world.

The more I think about it, the more I think that you and I have a good thing going here. Imagine three centuries from now and a crowd of people donned in smart-wear celebrating and honouring what you and I did on 2 February 1659? Impossible, incomprehensive….I know. But what worth is a dream if there is not hope in the heart?

See you later, Big Guy.

Regards Jan

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Le Chant: Chenin Blanc to Crow on You

The western Stellenbosch appellation of Polkadraai has leapt to the fore as one of the region’s wine hot-spots, and the origin of its name is as rustically quaint as are the souls farming the koffieklip and dolomite soils. See, in them days of yonder – 17th century – the adventurous colonists, would-be farmers and vagabond Dutch VOC settlers would enter Stellenbosch from the west. Initially a kind of rugged road developed, but one of the ultra-winding kinds, full of turns and switch-backs between the gullies and the bush; the streams and the trees.

Ox-wagons and those on horseback following this road seldom found a straight line along the bends and curves. Subsequently, these travellers said that travelling to Stellenbosch along this way was like doing the twirling “polka” dance. And hey presto – before you could say “pass me a powdered musket”, this access route to Stellenbosch was named Polka-draai (“turn” in Dutch and, also, Afrikaans). And so it stuck, although these days the road runs straight and true along the Stellenbosch Arterial, a gentle sloped koppie to the left and expansive lower vineyard land looking south-east over the False Bay Atlantic.

It is a more open, wide part of Stellenbosch wine country with bright sunlight radiance and tough soils, and a history of grape-farming going back to the early-early days. Of late, formidable wine exponents such as Bruwer Raats and Johan Reyneke have lifted the Polkadraai brand into the sphere of respectability through real wine excellence, offering various wines of accurate geographical expression and true Cape brilliance.

There has been some fervent investment in the region, and more can be expected. One of the major players has been the French Oddo Family of Taaibosch and Pink Valley fame who acquired the Eikenhof Farm where over 100ha of vineyards are planted on what is now known as Le Chant. Reds dominate with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Shiraz, as well as a spread of Chenin Blanc. From these, two wines originate, namely a Le Chant Rouge blend, and a Blanc which is made from the Chenin.

Petri Venter, one of the ebullient young guns of Stellenbosch winemaking, is responsible for the farming and vinification, and I have always liked the man as he is one of the few New Kids on the Block who does not call me “oom”. Actually, I’ve known the dude since his primary school days where he was a champion swimmer with impeccable manners and a smile like a Dachshund who is always glad to see you. He’s also become a pretty solid winemaker having worked at Rupert&Rothschild, as well at stints in France learning the classic ways of wine at the estates owned there by his French bosses.

While lunching at the Pink Valley Restaurant a few days back – 35°C in the shade – Petri must have noticed my uncomfortable relationship with the heat. Over he ambled, plonking down an ice-bucket with a bottle of the Le Chant Blanc 2022, waxing lyrical about what was happening on the Le Chant farm, all organic vineyards and great conditions and stony earth with a comforting presence from the ocean. Yes, he loves the ocean, does Petri, currently preparing for his next swim-crossing from Robben Island to Blouberg.

Petri Venter

The Chenin Blanc used for Le Chant Blanc contains a substantial portion of fruit from vines planted in 1983, harking back to the early days of Eikenhof which was then selling grapes and wine to local co-ops. Now, says Petri, “we get to put the Le Chant finger-print on what goes into the final bottled wine, and in this case it is Chenin Blanc in its purity”.

A portion is fermented and aged in older French oak to lift the grapes’ soul and presence, the rest kept zingy and clear in stainless steel.

But looking at the Le Chant bottle, it is the cock that first attracts attention. “The French rooster – a nod to our owners,” says Petri. “And ‘Le Chant’ is the call, the singing of the cockerel.”

Petri and I don’t do tastes and sips, so he pours the glass half-full of a wine pale-straw in colour through which I can see the green leaves of the Sangiovese vines planted next to the Pink Valley Restaurant.

“Chenin Blanc expresses vintage to the max,” says Petri. “When I began working with Chenin I had more experience with Chardonnay, but the better I got to know this variety, the more respect I have for Chenin Blanc’s ability to show its geographical origin as well as the vagaries of each vintage. And 2022 was a relatively mild year – cool breezes in spring and summer, but plenty of sunshine to get the grapes to ripen. One of the reasons I think Chenin Blanc loves South African turf is because of our sun.”

Despite this reference to sun, the Le Chant Blanc 2022 has an extreme graceful delicacy to it. The first impression on the nose is that of dry rock that has just been splashed with a jet of cool spring water. This is followed by a very Cape wineland scent of dry veld flowers with just a tad of sage.

On the palate, the cool wine hits the spot from the word go. Unlike the common opinion, I feel a good dry white wine can never be too cold – not on a hot day like this, or ever.

This is distinguished Chenin Blanc, the delicate aroma carrying through to its presence in the mouth. No glycerol mouthfeel. No lumpy hint of back-blended over-ripe botrytis fruit in an attempt to add oemf and palate-weight. No, just an extended purity. Long and lean, the muscular cords off-set by some fruity suppleness. Grated yellow apple with a rind of thick-skinned Cape lemon. Some herbed salt on the mid-palate with a softening jasmine-scented, floral layer.

Texturally the wine is both fleeting and assertive, pretty much like a brief seductive smile from Cate Blanchett before she goes all dramatically feminist rogue. It is all remarkably iridescent in the showing of variety and of place, and if the Le Chant cock has any reason to crow, this is it.

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