Taking Cape Chardonnay to Infinity and Beyond

The South African Chardonnay Forum has been re-launched under chairmanship of Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof Estate. In a heart-to-heart Q&A he outlines the objectives and flies the flag for Cape Chardonnay.

What roles do cultivar groupings such as the Chardonnay Forum play?

Johann de Wet: Well, I’d like to start by saying that this grouping had been dormant for a few years, so at the end of 2020 we did a re-launch after talks with South Africa’s Chardonnay producers. These discussions, and the decision to re-look this specific cultivar grouping, were inspired by the astounding positive reception Cape Chardonnay has been getting – local and internationally – over the past few years. Positive comment, plus the undeniable quality of Chardonnay we are currently seeing, inspired myself and a few like-minded industry players to get the forum back on track.

As far as the role of such groupings, I don’t think there is one overriding ethos and vision representing all such collectives. Like the country’s wines and the different terroir they represent, we all have unique traits. The SA Chardonnay Forum aims to provide a platform committed to two aspects. First, to use the forum to share technical information as well as to identify these pertinent topics and issues for communicating.

During our first get-together earlier this year, most of the representatives identified technical information as one of the significant desirables. Fermentation, wooding, viticulture, clones, yeasts….there is a never-ending need for information and a platform on which it can be exchanged. And to this, we are committed.

Secondly, the forum has to ensure the profile of South African Chardonnay is continuously communicated as one of premium and of excellence. The Celebration of Chardonnay at De Wetshof, which I helped manage since 2006, has been instrumental in creating an awareness of the brilliant diversity and stylistic excellence of Cape Chardonnay. Local and international commentators constantly comment on our quality in this category, and as a producer, I also see the interest from the market. Through the forum we want to ensure the image and reputation for this category goes from strength to strength.

Johann de Wet

What are the plans for the Forum in 2021?

JdW: Besides the basics such as a website, social media presence and communication to members, we have committed to a few physical events. There was a very successful tasting of 2021 barrel samples to kick-off the year. And in early summer, we are planning a visit to Chardonnay vineyards that form part of Vinpro’s Gen Z Project for experimental plantings. An information day would be a top choice, but the Covid-19 situation will have to lead us.

We are, however, an inclusive body and we listen to our members. If someone has a great idea and wishes to suggest a research project, tasting or technical information session, we’ll do it.

To what do you attribute the strength of the category of Cape Chardonnay?

JdW: Obviously, I can’t avoid the cliché of terroir and site, but that is the driver of great Chardonnay anywhere in the world. If one wants proof of the incredible geographical features that make up the Cape winelands, look at the spectrum of astounding Chardonnays originating from this country. We have maritime and continental climates, soils varying from limestone to decomposed granite to alluvial, and a mind-blowing diversity of aspects and altitudes.

Secondly, being a relatively new cultivar to be planted here – Cape Chardonnay is only some 40 years old – Chardonnay has benefitted from producers’ terroir-driven planting mindset. The characteristics of site drove and continues to drive Chardonnay plantings, with the result being that producers generally have expressive fruit to begin with.

Thirdly, Chardonnay winemakers are infatuated with the variety. They realise they are working with the world’s greatest white wine grape and this respect and care bodes well for creating great wine.

De Wetshof recently won two gold medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards, and in the media release you said an interesting thing, namely that international accolades are more important for local producers than ever. Explain.

JdW: Since the first local liquor bans last year, I think it has become imperative that the South African industry now – more than ever – grows its global footprint in the premium wine segment. Exclusive focus on the local market is just not sustainable for any mid-tier to large producer of premium wines. We have known this for some time and some attempts have been made by the industry to address it. But Covid-19 enforced the urgency.

Having said that, those statements on the Decanter awards were made before the recent violence and looting in South Africa which has put our national image in a very negative light. But that does not change the fact that the market for premium wines in South Africa is very limited, and to sustain and grow the industry we are really going to have to get our act together in the major international markets – Europe and America.

And you believe South African Chardonnay has a role to play here?

JdW: For sure, Chardonnay has the potential of being one of the varietals spear-heading South Africa’s foray into the upper-segment of the international wine market-place. It is the most popular premium and best-known white wine in the world. The UK imports over 70m litres a year and in America Chardonnay sales are over 200m litres. Along with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay is a white wine that does not have to introduce itself, as consumers know what a good version of this wine has to offer. If we do enough to get the word of good Chardonnay into the world market and have enough brands to service those markets, the entire local wine industry will benefit from the resultant positive image of South Africa’s bullish presence with a world-famous wine variety of superb quality.

Yes, but do we have enough Chardonnay?

JdW:National plantings are 6 500ha, which is still pretty small. But producers who have worked the markets are planting more – De Wetshof is planting 16ha this year – and I expect the Cape to edge to 8 000ha in the next few years. In the past two years we saw a shortage of Chardonnay, mainly from bulk wine buyers, so this must have inspired further planting – now, or in the future.

Where can interested parties find out more about the Chardonnay Forum?

JdW: Further information and contact details can be found on www.chardonnayforum.co.za. As I said, we are inclusive and wish to be a home for producers as well as anyone interested in joining us on this great journey that is South African Chardonnay.

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WWF Conservation Status for Diemersdal

Diemersdal, the Durbanville wine estate which has been under ownership of the Louw family for six generations, has become the first wine farm in the Durbanville wine region to achieve WWF Conservation Champion status. This unique wine initiative, managed by the World Wide Fund for Nature and unique to the Cape winelands, underscores the local wine industry’s commitment to conservation, the close relationship between wine farmers and their natural environment, and the indigenous natural setting where the country’s wines are made.

The WWF Conservation Champions, represented by 45 Cape wine farms, showcases the extraordinary measures local winegrowers have gone to protect and conserve the inimitable natural habitat situated in and around their farms.

Diemersdal received its official status as WWF Conservation Champion in July this year after numerous thorough audits by WWF field officers who manage this programme.

Diemersdal’s emphatic conservation credentials include its preservation of a 16.8ha conservation area on one of the farms pristine hills on which a number of scarce renosterveld plant species are found. This conservation area spans the Dorsberg, the most northern hill range within the Tygerberg cluster. The vegetation type of the conservation area is Swartland Shale Renosterveld, currently the most threatened ecosystem in the country, having lost more than 90% of its original extent and for this reason bearing Critically Endangered Status.

Unlike true fynbos vegetation, Renosterveld typically has no Protea, Erica or Restio components and are associated with clay soils that are more nutrient rich. As a result, most of the vegetation on these fertile soil types has been transformed for agriculture and only tiny, isolated islands remain, such as the one on Diemersdal.

During the botanical scan done by officials of the WWF Conservation Champions programme, 38 species of flowering plants were recorded. The list is, however, still preliminary and it is likely that at least 200 species still occur in this area.

The most interesting find was a small population of endangered of plant species Oxalis strigose and Geissorhiza erosa.

Thys Louw, Diemersdal’s proprietor-winemaker, says that conservation has been an ethos shared by all six generations of Louws who have farmed there since 1885.

Diemersdal conservancy – Swartland Shale Renosterveld.

“I remember being a kid and my father taking me to that area which is today demarcated as a conservation area and showing me the indigenous shrubs and flowers and remarking how important it was to preserve this natural heritage for future generations,” he says. “We have always planted vineyards with care so to maintain an ecological balance, and by not irrigating our vines we further ensure our wine farming and conservation go hand-in-hand.”

Farmers who are WWF Conservation Champions own some 45 000ha of land between them, of which 22 000ha is conserved as a pristine part of the world-famous Cape Floral Kingdom comprising fynbos and Karoo succulent plants. The 45 members work closely with the WWF in their conservation endeavours and are subjected to annual assessments to ensure they meet the specifications required of a Conservation Champion. All Champions’ credentials are also underscored by South Africa’s Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) certification, with these wineries having achieved 70% of more in their IPW evaluation.

View from the Dorsberg on Diemersdal.

Shelly Fuller, WWF South Africa’s sustainable programme manager for fruit and wine, says the wine industry’s Conservation Champions are truly ground-breaking in their innovative ways of managing farming practices while proactively conserving the natural environment.

“With every visit our field officers find new approaches to environmental management practices shown by the wine farms,” she says. “This spirit of innovation and respect of their land is a truly unique feature of the Cape winelands and has the potential of positioning Brand South Africa as one of the leading wine countries in the world as far as sustainability and conservation is concerned.”

Louw says the WWF Conservation Champions programme underscores the South African wine industry’s unique sustainability credentials. “With sustainability being a paramount issue in the global wine world, the Cape finds itself at the forefront of conservation as well as sustainable wine production,” he says. “It is thus an excellent credential with which to further raise an awareness of our country’s wines.”

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Urgent Call for more Vaccination Selfies

The South African wine industry could be in for a marketing and communication crisis due to a large number of influencers, wine marketers and other high-profile individuals failing to post selfie photographs of themselves being vaccinated against Covid-19. Tech companies, including social media giants Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have expressed concern at the slow uptake of South African wine representatives in posting pictures of themselves succumbing to the Pfizer or J&J jab, and thereby missing an opportunity to elevate the self-awareness and vanity profile of the country’s wine community.

According to Mitch Smegman, Instagram’s marketing head for Africa, the South Sea Islands and Greenland, there was an initial flurry in Instagram posts of bare-armed men and women being vaccinated by a masked health representative.  “What was surprising was that this initial show of modesty and humbleness was found among the group of people aged between 50 and 59, a relatively senior group yet showing trendy adeptness at posting photos of themselves being jabbed, preferably with a raised thumb: Look folks, I did it!” says Volkgraaf.

However, now that vaccinations are open to the 40 to 49 year-olds, Instagram and Facebook – which owns Instagram, are worried that the groundwork laid by the senior vaxers was not being followed-up with enough self-conscious exhibitionism by the younger influencers and marketers of South African wine.

“We are only seeing one-in-four of these younger vaxers plugging a post of themselves getting the shot,” says Volkgraaff. “With social media awareness being more prevalent among the younger crowd there was an expectation that the world would be seeing a heated flurry of selfies showing needle in arm. But this ain’t happening – if you guys want to raise the profile of your wines, you’d better show more skill in self-promotion and visual opining than is currently the case.”

According to Tilda Kameltow, adviser to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and an avid wine-lover, South Africans must break their shackles of timid Calvinism and post more vax-photos than ever before. “It is your social responsibility to show the world that you are a proud engager with Twitter and share our goals of making the world a more humble, informed and reconciliatory place,” she says.

As a woman, Kameltow says she can understand why some people are reserved in selfie-ing themselves. “The fact that one has to don a mask during the jab is definitely a hindrance for great selfies,” she says. “I mean, how are we going to show our lips, aquiline nose and flushed cheeks when it is all hidden behind a face-cloth?”

She calls on influencers and marketers to for once set their vanity aside and get posting those pictures of the jab-in-process. “Think of other people, namely the hundreds and thousands of Twitter-followers you will deny the witnessing of you getting that Covid-shot,” she says. “The world will be all that much the poorer, and as Jack always says: Vanity is a small price to pay for becoming part of our social media family, where you are loved.”

  • The Reporter

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A Wine from a Genius, and from Time

No matter how far humankind develops, there will always be a few mysteries about wine that shall forever remain out of our reach. And this is good, as without definable answers and without the breeding of curiosity, wine will lose much of that which makes it the most cultured and revered item devised for human consumption.

Take the presence of leaf-roll virus in the vineyards. Why would certain winemakers and viticulturists rather pour flaming grappa onto their eye-balls than make wine from grapes growing on vines infected with leaf-roll? While on the other hand, some of South Africa’s finest wines originate from vineyards happily living with the virus. A drive through and look at the winelands in autumn serves as proof of the latter.

Billy Hofmeyr, photographed by Victor Holloway.

Then there is, too, the seduction of the label. How is it that qualified critics who judge with a full view of the identity of the wines they are scrutinising are unable to be led by quality alone, allowing themselves and their ratings to be swayed by their perception of the relevant brand and its producer?

One mystery I find worth pondering is the matter of aged wines, for here all wines are definitely not created equal. What is it that allows certain wines to grow old and yet maintain a wondrously expressive and energetic presence? Storage conditions play a huge role, obviously, in allowing wines to live for four, five decades and more. But having been subjected to perfectly stored oldies for a few years now, it is intriguing that some brands can be counted on to deliver exquisite maturity, while others are certain to creak and grown and break-up after 15 to 20 years, no matter what the ullage or the integrity of the storage.

The benchmark for old Cape wines appears to be the mystical GS Cabernet 1966 made by the late George Spies when he was heading up production at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. Considered South Africa’s greatest red wine, this single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Durbanville continues to present itself in a state of blue-blooded splendour able to counter a great Left Bank Bordeaux from the same era. Yet, the GS 1968 – same vineyard – has for the past 15 years been dull, tired and blousy with a musty tang.

Of the 1970s, Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage, Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon, Uitkyk Cabernet Sauvignon, Vriesenhof Bordeaux-style blend, Rustenberg Cabernet Sauvignon and Welgemeend Bordeaux-style blend have in my tasting circles consistently shown their respective exhilarating presence in the ability to mature. Yet, many other wines from that era which were perceived great 40 years ago now consistently provide soured bitterness not even worthy of the name vinegar.

Variation of vineyard provenance and winemaking technique must therefore contribute, but why and how? And what be the role of grape cultivar – show me a fine Cape Shiraz of 40 years old and I’ll show you a three-legged dung-beetle.

This particular mystery only adds to the spectacular enjoyment of an older wine, and that is why finding one is so special. Like the Welgemeend 1988 I recently scored from the cellar of a deceased friend, a magical and delicious highlight of the Cape winter so far.

Welgemeend Estate in Paarl was an important contributor to the local wine scene. Sure, the late owner Billy Hofmeyr made the country’s first Bordeaux-style blend there. Still, Welgemeend’s main influence was its attachment to the name Billy Hofmeyr who was one of the most inspirational figures in South African wine.

A quantity surveyor by profession, Hofmeyr’s attraction to and expertise in things of culture included a phenomenal knowledge of classical music, the fine arts and wine. The latter inspired him such that he bought Welgemeend to take-up winemaking, his commitment to the wine culture and his obsession with the topic inspiring a generation of legendary winemakers such as Jan Boland Coetzee, Kevin Arnold, Peter Finlayson, Etienne le Riche and Walter Finlayson. It was in 1982 that Hofmeyr founded the Cape Winemakers Guild these winemakers, among others, and became the Guild’s first Chairman.

If the quality and ageability of his wines are anything to go by, Hofmeyr must have been a born winemaker despite this not being his chosen profession when he set out in life. Like other Welgemeend red blends from the 1980s I have experienced, the 1988 is an absolutely magnificent wine, a comet, a zenith, a classic.

The Welgemeend 1988 blend is 41% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon and 29% Cabernet Franc. As an expert in classical music, Hofmeyr appears in the mind’s eye when I sip this wine, conducting, orchestrating, coaxing the vineyards, the fruit, the fermentation and the barrel-aging into a harmony of his distinct composition.

Billy Hofmeyr

Despite its 31 years of age, there is not a slack string in the symphony to dull the overriding gush of exuberance and energy. The wine is pure and fine, extremely polite and well-mannered in its supple tannins, the enlightening palate presence and that lengthy and thoughtful finish that lingers longer than a Maria Callas high note. Yet, calm and elegant as it all is, something is exciting and adventurous. The flow of flavour. The magical aroma. You smell fynbos and tar; petrichor and fig-paste. It is the perfume of life, and of heaven.

Flavours are restrained, but immense. Alaskan cranberry preserve springs to mind, off-set by heavy plums and a line of cured game. The wine manages to be both plush and satisfying, yet scintillating and zestily sharp, accurate and focused. But above-all, memorable, letting you await the next experience thereof with shivers of anticipation.

This, is wine. Made greater by the mysteries of time.

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Some Sémillon this Old Road is

The Old Road Wine Co. in Franschhoek has reaffirmed the exceptional quality of wines made from South Africa’s legendary old vineyards by winning the Trophy for Best Sémillon at the prestigious Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. The Trophy went to Old Road Wine Co.’s Grand Mère Single Vineyard Sémillon 2017, this trophy and a 96pt judges’ rating playing a profound role in making Old Road one of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show’s Top 10 producers for 2021.

The Grand-Mère 2017’s most recent award at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show follows on the prestige the wine accrued in June when the same wine won a Gold Medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, one of the world’s leading wine shows, where it was also named the Highest Scoring South African White Wine.

Ryan Puttick, who has been at the helm of Old Road Co.’s winemaking since the beginning, says that it is tremendously rewarding to see wines made from treasured old vineyards capturing the imagination of the critics and judges at wine shows such as the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

“With our Grand-Mère Sémillon, Old Road is privileged to have access to the famed, 86 year old, La Colline vineyard, which truly has a personality and character of its own,” he says. “Sémillon is a grape variety that has made – and continues to make – Franschhoek famous, and in local and international wine circles the La Colline Sémillon vineyard is spoken about in revered terms. Planting of the vines goes back to 1936. And lying at between 310m and 350m above sea-level on a southern-easterly slope on the Dassenberg Mountain, these vines have been exposed to over 85 cold wet winters and dry, wind-beaten summers. They are low and gnarled, appearing to be at one with the earth which on this site is comprised of decomposed granite and sandstone rich in quartz.”

Puttick says that to add to this site’s unique geographical fingerprint is the fact that research proves these Sémillon vines to be related to plant material brought to the Cape by the VOC in the 17th century. “This has led to the vines mutating over the years, resulting in some parcels of Sémillon Gris finding their way between the Sémillon Blanc, with us harvesting these two components together while making the wine. One can truly say that this vineyard has a life of its own which is reflected in the visceral expression of the wine.”

“Our approach to winemaking is indeed akin to following an old road that is tried and tested. “First up are the vineyards, and here we have made a point of going off the beaten track to find parcels of fruit that express each variety in a unique way. The winemaking is strictly minimum-intervention aimed at preserving – at all costs – the signature of site-specific terroir.”

Old Road Wine Co. is a collaboration between Tim Hutchinson, executive chairman of DGB, and private partners. The winery was formed in 2019 to ensure vineyards in the Franschhoek Valley are protected for future generations to continue the region’s legacy of winemaking and viticulture, as well as to source grapes from the finest vineyards in the Cape to make superlative terroir-driven wines.

Ryan Puttick, Old Road’s winemaker.

Andrew Harris, DGB’s Marketing Director for wine, says the continued success of the Old Road Wine Co. Grand-Mère Sémillon and other wines in the stable, reaffirms the fact that Old Road’s entrenched values of conserving old vineyards and making wine through an approach of minimum intervention and utmost respect to the fruit leads to wines of exceptional quality.

“This Trophy for Grand-Mère Sémillon is the second Trophy in as many months for the winery after the Anemos Chenin Blanc won the Trophy for Best SA White Wine in Show at Mundus Vini in Germany” says Harris. “What this points to is the overall exceptional quality of these old vineyard wines, implying that Old Road’s decision to build its ethos around legacy vineyards of unique individuality and using the primary fruit to create excellent, terroir driven wines is being duly recognised.”

“Having access to old vineyards and vinifying the grapes is one thing, but honouring the provenance of these old vines by using winemaking techniques to allow the vineyards to express themselves throughout riveting quality that grabs the imagination of the consumers, judges and critics is another aspect all together. Fortunately, by having fruit from old vines and a winemaker understanding what is required for the grapes to express their full potential in the bottle, Old Road Wine Co. has managed to do full justice to these vineyards.”

Puttick says that medals, awards and high-ratings, such as received by Old Road Co.’s Grand-Mère-Sémillon act as an important indicator of one’s ethos and progress in terms of wine quality and stylistic endeavour.

Other accolades include a 94pt rating in the South African Report by Tim Atkin MW, Double Gold Medal at the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards and being named Franschhoek Champion Semillon at the Novare Terroir Awards.

Grapes for the Grand-Mère Sémillon were hand-harvested in the La Colline vineyard in two batches to achieve a spread of balanced ripeness. The fruit was left overnight, on the skins, and allowed to settle before 50% of the juice was inoculated with a specially selected yeast-strain, the remainder being wild-fermented. Once fermentation was complete, the wine was placed in older French oak barrels. Regular stirring of the lees was done to ensure complexity of flavour and mouthfeel.

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The Wine Who Came in From the Cold

Mike called from Calitzdorp after a day’s harvesting olive trees, but the crisp Klein Karoo winter air had not chilled him as much as I had presumed it would. Cape Town was, however, shudderingly cold in a relentlessly savage, raw way, and after I put the phone down, I felt in need of some robustness of the red and alcoholic kind.

Guests were coming by for a chat at seven, so I preceded proceedings. Opening a bottle of Alto Estate’s newish offering, namely the Estate Blend from vintage 2016. The bottle looks good with its black label and red and gold lettering, and I predicted it would be a fine wine as Alto never disappoints. It is one of the Cape’s leading wine estates. Sitting on the beautiful elevated patch of soil on the Helderberg outside Stellenbosch, Alto’s offering of red wines has always been a slice of South African wine culture. We drank it by the glass at El Vino wine bar in the 1980’s, on Fleet Street, before the awful Rupert Murdoch closed the newspaper plants and sent them to soulless Wapping.

The Alto Estate Blend is a top-tier. It looks so. And it tastes so. The 2016 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, a union made up by Alto cellarmaster Bertho van der Westhuizen. Bertho is a young man, but his knowledge of Alto’s geography and his understanding of what the Alto brand wants to be and has to taste like has made him responsible for creating some of the best wines in the historic estate’s illustrious history.

Alto Estate Blend trumpets Helderberg red wine terroir in certain, strident and identifiable notes. The wine greets with an expansive plushness on the nose, aromas of open veld, endless starry nights and maritime breezes leading the way. The rest is fruit and graphite.

The wine is made for men of large appetites who wish to drink with gusto instead of prissily scrutinising each drop. It is a wine in which the palate wallows. Flowing into the mouth like a gust sending a yacht’s sail billowing, the Alto Estate Blend brings all the elements of sappily ripened grapes set on south-westerly slopes comprising granite rocks that have been decomposed over 80 million years. Plummy and dark-fruited, the wine opens-up to reveal a friendly, charming combination of fluid tannins and guttural power in the expression of complexity. Such as the presence of petrichor and dry, clean mountain-trail dust leading to a mirage where black-currants, Cuban cigars and purple figs await to be realised. A very fine spot of wine to set the evening’s tone.

Alto Estate, Stellenbosch.

After checking the Irish stew in the oven and with 20 minutes before the first people are set to arrive, I open a Port-style wine to elevate the blood sugar for the anticipation of social exposure.

De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve 2015 is from Calitzdorp, the Cape version of the Douro and overseen by Boets Nel who is very accomplished in the ways of Port and Port-style wines.

The varieties include Tinta Barocca, Tinta Roriz, Souzão, which have proven themselves to grow mannered and well in the dry, warm Klein Karoo.

A vintage Port-style, wood does not play a big role here, as development comes from time in the bottle. After fermenting and fortification the wine is kept in concrete tanks for a year and then spends a further 10 months in barrels that are decades old and thus unable to contribute wooded character.

This wine might only be six years old. But the De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve 2015 has the intriguing character and spirited soul that makes Port and its styles some of the most riveting wines in the world. The nose is a heady perfume of crushed black-currant and Egyptian dates, with an edge of Madagascar chocolate bean. It fills the mouth so very well, irresistible sweetness in perfect balance with charging fruit elements, confidently firm tannins and a warming presence of spirit to add to the wine’s commanding presence. Classic as ever, a fine Port or Port-style wine must, for me, have an edge of the exotic. A nub of spice, a sweaty muskiness, a dark mysterious call to enter places unexpected and unforgettable. This is where the wine led me, for a while.

Until the doorbell and the first guest arrived, and we took it from there.

  • Lafras Huguent

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SA Needs International Recognition more than Ever – Johann de Wet

De Wetshof Estate, South Africa’s pioneering Chardonnay producer in the chalk-rich Robertson wine valley, confirmed its reputation for continuously making excellent wines from this variety with two Gold medals at the Decanter World Awards held in London. The Gold medals went to the De Wetshof Lesca 2020 – labelled ‘Finesse’ in South Africa – and to the estate’s icon Bateleur Chardonnay 2018, made from a single vineyard planted at De Wetshof in 1987.

Johann de Wet

The Decanter World Wine Awards was judged by over 170 expert international judges who scrutinised the 18 000 wines entered from 56 countries. Judging took place last month at Canary Wharf in London at the offices of Decanter magazine, with the awards announced this week.

The Decanter Gold medal is the third major accolade bestowed on De Wetshof’s Lesca (Finesse) Chardonnay from the 2020 vintage. Earlier this year the same wine took a Gold medal at the Chardonnay du Monde, the world’s leading competition devoted to Chardonnay and was also named in the Top 10 wines at this year’s Du Monde. This was followed with another Gold at the Mundus Vini Competition in Germany, also regarded as one of the wine world’s major wine shows renowned for selecting wines of revered excellence through a thorough judging process.

Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof, said this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards were of special significance for De Wetshof and other South African producers due to effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country’s industry.

“The banning of wine sales, which was first imposed by the authorities last year and is still a regular occurrence, has had producers more than ever realising the importance of international sales as the local trade has been decimated,” says De Wet.

“With exports of Cape wines allowed to go ahead, fortunately, it is paramount to increase our exposure to global markets, especially for wines in the premium sector and to get South Africa out of its image as a primarily bulk-wine exporter. Therefore international accolades, such at Gold medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards where  our country is afforded the opportunity of being compared to wines from around the world and to show the quality we are able of, are of major importance to elevate the image of Brand South African wine.”

De Wetshof vineyards.

About the winning wines, the De Wetshof Lesca (Finesse) 2020 is one of the five wines in De Wetshof’s offering. Lightly wooded, it has garnered a reputation for a terroir-expressing minerality with delectable notes of citrus and a fresh mouthfeel.

The Bateleur Chardonnay has a reputation as one of South Africa’s icon Chardonnays focussed on showcasing the unique limestone and shale terroir of the specific site on which the Bateleur vineyard was planted 34 years ago at the birth of the country’s Chardonnay industry.

“We are extremely grateful for this recognition at the Decanter World Wine Awards, and hope that this helps in elevating the profile of South African Chardonnay, which I believe is one of our country’s finest categories,” says De Wet.

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Alcohol Ban Tough on Animals and the Old

When Cyril Ramaphosa banned alcohol sales last week, was he or his Covid Commandos not thinking about the animals? I mean, had not one in that motley crew of meat-headed officials ever listened to The Carpenters…..”bless the beasts and the children/ for in this world they have no voice/ they have no choice… “

The “beasts” – I prefer animals – are in for a torrid time now that alcohol has once again been declared undesirable for reasons only the government and their fellow prohibitionist tyrants, such as Dr Charles “Get me a Job at WHO” Parry can explain. For it might not be a well-known fact, but animals, too, find certain benefits in the imbibing of alcohol.

Take Babi, the ginger Tom cat who arrived at a Free State veterinary clinic last week with the Dark Angel looming above his feline head, ready to take him to the great cattery in the sky. For Babi had taken it upon himself to lick on some anti-freeze, that stuff car-engines need to thaw on cold nights. Why the cat had even ventured towards mistaking anti-freeze for cream or fish-blood, I would not know. Thing is, this poisonous stuff was putting Babi under.

The vets knew that this kind of intoxication could only be neutralised by dosing the cat with ethanol. And with no ethanol around, a bottle of Romanoff vodka was procured. After a dose of one-part vodka to three-parts saline water, the poison was rendered harmless, and Babi was back on his feet looking for the next female (feline) to ravish or a rare South African creature of the feathered kind to maul to death.

Now, I ask Ramaphosa and his Covid-cockeyes, if this were to happen again and these vets were prohibited from obtaining vodka, how would you feel about the death of Badi through painful anti-freeze poisoning? Yes, there will be blood and cat hair on your hands. Many of you comrades are already pussy-whipped, but this will be a bitter pill to swallow.

Other creatures are known to find exposure to alcohol beneficial to their health. The late Gerald Morkel, one-time Premier of the Western Cape, was a keen pigeon-racer who kept his flock in rude health thanks to Cape brandy.

He personally told me how brandy was an elixir with myriad health benefits, especially for his pigeons, who often displayed signs of mental and physical exhaustion after long training flights. “You’d get to a bird lying on the floor of its cage, tired and listless with a dead glaze over his eyes, its wings tremouring and feathers dull,” said Morkel.

“Then I’d go to the food cupboard where I kept a special pigeon-revival muti: maize kernels that had been soaked in brandy. Man, I’d pop one or two kernels in the beak of the tired pigeon, whose eyes lightened up upon smelling the uniquely scented grain. He’d eat the brandy-laced corn, jump to his feet and give me a loud squawk, an indication of him being ready to fly. And then he’d be out of the cage like a bat-out-of-hell, fit as a fiddle. Okay, the first few loops he flew would be a bit wonky, but then he’d chart his course and rip through the air like a comet – probably thinking that when he comes home, he’d get another dop.”

While I am on the topic, also note the enormously positive effect brandy has on the aged. I once contacted the legendary medical journalist Dr Jan van Elfen, who has also passed to greener pastures, about the health benefits of brandy. Upon which he immediately said he’d saved many old lives with a tot of the Cape’s finest spirit.

And no, not through the concocting of a special dosage. “When sipped, the true medicinal benefits of brandy take forever to reach the tired organs of an old person,” Dr Van Elfen told me. “So, when doing my rounds at the old-aged homes and coming across a person weak of body and gloomy of mind due to thoughts of death and such, I’d take out a syringe. Pop a teaspoon of brandy and a bit of water in and needle the brandy straight into the veins. That was guaranteed to kick-start the old body, jolting him or her into action and leaving them all fired up and looking at life with a new sense of being. It was quite emotional, had me in tears sometimes. But nothing a good drink couldn’t sort out, via glass and bottle this time.”

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Diemersdal Named Best-of-the-Best at 20th Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show

In its best showing at any South African wine competition to date, Diemersdal Estate in Durbanville was named Best Producer at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, which this year celebrates its 20th year as one of the countries leading wine awards ceremonies. Diemersdal came out at the top of the heap of the entries representing the finest the Cape has to offer, winning the Trophy for Best Pinotage with its Pinotage Reserve 2019 and Gold Medals for the Private Collection Bordeaux Blend 2017 and The Journal Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The results of the 2021 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show were announced on a special edition of Dan Really Likes Wine at midday on 30th June. Broadcast from The Houghton in Johannesburg, the live online event included the on-screen participation of the leading category winners as well as several of the judges.

Some 32 Gold Medals and 11 Trophies were awarded at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, which is recognised for its strict and meticulous judging.

Thys Louw, sixth-generation owner-winemaker at Diemersdal, says this achievement will go down as one of the farm’s major achievements in its 323-year history.

“The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show has an international reputation for its high standard of judging, skilled and knowledgeable judges, and its attracting South Africa’s leading producers in the entries line-up,” says Louw. “We have had some success in the competition in the past, so have experienced the elation of winning gold medals at this show. But to be awarded a Trophy plus two Gold Medals and to be named the Best Producer is a huge honour and the kind of recognition that I believe every wine farm hopes to achieve someday. For us to have done so is extraordinarily rewarding.”

Diemersdal cellar team: Thys Louw, Mari Branders, Janeke Beck and Jeandre Bruwer

Louw says that the accolade is the result of team-work on Diemersdal, with every individual working to the best of their abilities towards an end goal. “Which is honouring the heritage of our farm and our culture of generational wine excellence,” he says. “Although we work very specifically and to great detail in the vineyard and the cellar, the most important players remain the vines rooted in our soils. By maintaining a culture of unirrigated viticulture allowing the vines to naturally express the true identity and character of each varietal, the winemaking team is ensured of obtaining the best, pure fruit. From then on we are just custodians of what nature has given.”

Known for its range of Sauvignon Blanc wines, Louw is quick to remind of Durbanville’s history of producing excellent red wines.

“This just shows that in terms of terroir for wine-farming, Durbanville is a very special place,” says Louw. “Close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and decomposed granite soils have for over 300 years made Durbanville one of the Cape’s leading wine regions – for red as well as white varieties. One must remember that the GS Cabernet 1966, arguably South Africa’s greatest wine ever made, was vinified from Durbanville grapes. This makes us very privileged to be custodians of this very special piece of earth from which to make wine, and accolades such as this one from the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show will ensure that we Louws of Diemersdal never veer from this.”

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Stellenbosch’s Great Eight Reds

Of all the 50-something winters I have spent in various countries, the ones in Stellenbosch have been the best. Shards of mist drift in overnight from the ocean and hang in the valleys like silver samurai sword blades. The rain falls relentlessly in icy curtains, whereafter the black tarred streets running between the old white buildings shimmer under a purple-grey sky.

The rains also fill the Eerste River, which rumbles through the town and along the wine farms, and when the surroundings are , quiet you hear the football-sized round river rocks clacking against one another.

It is a winter wonderland, made even better by the presence of Stellenbosch’s famous red wines. Of these, there are plenty of good wines, and many great ones. Of which I have made a cursory selection for guidance – of personal opinion, and no specific order.

Stellenbosch – Helderberg.

L’Avenir Single Block Pinotage 2018

This estate on the lower-end of Stellenbosch Simonsberg is one of the modern legends when talk of Pinotage is had. Great terroir comes in spades, and through the 1990s and early 2000s, the legendary winemaker Francois Naudé helped cement the farm’s reputation for good Pinotage.

This wine is now in the hands of L’Avenir’s very skilled winemaker Dirk Coetzee who has polished this liquid expression of earth, air, and soil into something truly marvellous. Maturation was done in 300l barrels of French oak, 15% of which were new.

L’Avenir Single Block is opulent in aroma, exuding cedar wood, crushed mulberry with a hint of cigar-box. It is the kind of wine you fall in love with from the first sip as that gentle, silky juice slips between the lips. From here, it is pure seduction, an exotic sweetness holding together tastes of Dutch liquorice, purple-ripe plums, cherry and fresh fennel. Pure and linear, the wine has not an inkling of the roughly edged, the tannins beautifully integrated with the complexity of tastes leading to the drinker becoming truly involved and exhilarated by the wonder of it all. Gob-smacking tasty, amazing and proud to call it Pinotage.

Taaibosch Crescendo 2018

The highly anticipated first vintage from this new French-owned Helderberg property exceeds the hype that started spreading a few years back when the Oddo family added the old Cordoba wine farm to their international portfolio. Managed by the dynamic Schalk-Willem Joubert, a classic-schooled winemaker with a get-it-done energy, Taaibosch is set to become one of the great names in Stellenbosch wine.

Excellence and focus are core values, along with the commitment to expressing the spectacular geography of the vineyards’ site. Only one wine is made: Crescendo, and the basis is Cabernet Franc which, according to Schalk, reaches magical degrees of ripeness in the farm’s vineyards set 360m above sea level. The maiden Taaibosch Crescendo 2018 shows a 65% component of Cabernet Franc, with Merlot (30%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (5%) making up the balance. The wine underscores the elegance of the 2018 vintage and along with Joubert’s classic approach, this is a polished, refined and stunning red wine exuding true class. Cherry and plum flavours will appeal to those seeking fruit, but for me, the shy, careful palate-weight and the purity of the wine’s length from lips to finish elevates this to instant classic status.

Meerlust Red 2019

The surliness of the 2019 vintage made for late-ripening of red varieties, thus with-holding the sun-spurred energy and power many wine farms seek. Meerlust Estate announced the character of 2019 by refraining from the making of the legendary Meerlust Rubicon Bordeaux-style blend in that troubled cool year.

Instead, a Meerlust Red 2019 is offered due to the inability of that year’s grapes to achieve the commanding presence and graceful power a wine requires before it qualifies for donning that familiar black Rubicon label. Despite this talk of a lesser vintage, the Red is a stand-out class of its own. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates (43%) with 31% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.

The wine is shy on the nose, but not without presence. Beneath the gentle aroma of dry oak and pressed grape skins, a fine thread of Provence herbs and violet awakens the senses. Cabernet Sauvignon’s passive beauty is enhanced by some red fruit sappiness, thanks to the Merlot component, while Cabernet Franc props-up matters with a crafted stage of pine-needle and slight pencil-shaving.

This is a brilliant example of a whole wine, honed and toned by the ethos of excellence sought by those behind Meerlust, an ethos that has been passed onto the vineyard where the DNA of Meerlust’s human-capital and the legacy of centuries has joined nature to provide something quite special and quite beautiful.

Vriesenhof Pinot Noir 2018

One of my Stellenbosch dreams is to see Pinot Noir joining the acclaimed vinous offerings contributing to the region’s reputation. These offerings of wines made from the heartbreak grape are few and far between, with Vriesenhof being the major player in town.

Of course, one can too a degree trust a wine made by Jan Boland Coetzee who has had a life-long obsession with Pinot Noir, going to work in Burgundy forty years ago in an attempt to understand the source of the variety that – somewhere, sometime – placed a spell on him.

The decomposed granite and clay soils of Vriesenhof’s spread in Stellenboschberg provide the foundation, Jan believing there is a distinct correlation between wine quality and the clay component of vineyard soil. The wine is fermented in wood and matured for 12 months in French oak – 30% new and 70% 2nd fill.

The Pinot Noir 2018 confidently displays the revered features of this grape variety, also underscoring the fact that Pinot is made for drinking and enjoying. Slightly chilled with a plate of cheese or a hearty stew, few wines create the feeling of camaraderie and love of wine than a bottle of good Pinot Noir does.

Vriesenhof’s version offers classic tastes of Cherry and all-spice, with a slight glimpse of mushroom and forest floor, the earthiness of which will grow as the wine ages in the bottle.

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2017

Not only destined for line-ups of great South African wines, this vintage of Kanonkop’s icon Bordeaux-style blend can comfortably assume its place on the list of best Cabernet Sauvignon-based red wines outside France.

The blend is usually a marriage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc to a ratio of 60-15-15. But with the brilliant 2017 vintage offering powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon and a gorgeous spread of perfumed Cabernet Franc, the Paul Sauer from this year comprises 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot. For me, the magic of Paul Sauer is in the way cellarmaster Abrie Beeslaar brings the different components together.

Instead of vinifying and maturing each variety separately and then building the blend, the wine is put together just after harvest and the process of malolactic fermentation. This permits the wine to spend 24 months in new oak barrels (French) as one true whole, allowing complete integration of the three components. The result represents the magnificence one is used to getting from Paul Sauer, but the complexity and visceral expression of the 2017 vintage is incredible.

The wine is foreboding in its dense colour of garnet, mauve and black. A heady aroma wafts from the glass. Dense dark fruit with tense lines of acidity is drawn deeper into wine wonderland with notes of fynbos, cigar box, and pine needles. Statuesque, muscular and just beautiful.

Reyneke Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Johan Reyneke is one of the most important voices in South African wine due to this international reputation as a wine-grower that lives the ethos of organic farming, biodynamics, and sustainability. And if there is a more important agenda in the world of wine than this, I would like to know.

One of Reyneke’s major contributions to wine, too, is that he has broken some naïve perceptions of organic and biodynamic wine-making being limited to lentil-eating practitioners of bhakti-yoga who have a thing for the music of Leonard Cohen.

To make great wine, Reyneke farms as naturally as possible to allow vineyards to grow in pure, healthy soils. This has resulted in Reyneke’s brightly expressive and deliciously polished wines, of which the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2017 is a masterpiece.

Vineyards grow on the Polkadraai Hills, exposed to False Bay and its energetic air-flow. The Cabernet Sauvignon is aged for 20 months in French oak, and spends another year calming in the bottle resulting in another weighty hit of proof why Stellenbosch is Cabernet country.

This wine has a clarity, the assertive palate weight complemented by darts of delicious tastes: fig-paste, sun-dried pine-cone and a lovely juiciness recalling plum, mulberry and crunchy blueberries.

Johan Reyneke

Alto Rouge 2018

If it is reliability you want, Alto Rouge is your wine. Provenance, craftmanship, and that superb Helderberg terroir have for over seven decades given Alto a level of provenance that is a rarity in the South African wine world. Much of this has been the result of Alto Rouge, a five-way blend of Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

Wood maturation obviously plays a huge role in the final expression, and here current cellar master Bertho van der Westhuizen insists on using 300 litre French and American barrels, with the Alto Rouge always incorporating a portion of new wood along with 2nd and 3rd fill. Components are aged separately for 14 to 16 months, then the blending is done. And it is here I am assuming that this signature “Alto” taste is imparted.

A part of this character is a richness, a muscle presented to the vines by the late afternoon sun as it makes its way west.

The 2018 is a wonderful version of this ubiquitous brand. A clean, healthy nose with a rush of fynbos, mulberry leaves and a hit of fresh dough. The attack is deft and polite, calm and unrushed with the first impression being one of light and grace before the flavours of sour cherry and wet clay and stroked linen take over. On the mid-palate, a savouriness comes to the fore, things opening up allowing a gush of breezy plum, fresh blackcurrant and pine-needle to command attention and presence. The finish is full and firm, yet clean and memorable.

Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The luxury Leeu Passant outfit based in Franschhoek under the auspices of wine-couple extraordinaire Chris and Andrea Mullineux and Indian business mogul Analjit Singh is, to my mind, making some of the finest wines in the country. Included in the range is a Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon that sends shivers down the spin so thrilling and audaciously exceptional it is.

Well, Andrea does hail from the Napa Valley, Ground Zero for Cabernet Sauvignon. But unlike the over-extracted fruit missiles bottled under Napa Cabernet, the Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 is more restrained in its showiness, more Liza Minelli than Lady Gaga.

Fruit from Firgrove, Helderberg and those Polkadraai Hills is used, 20-months maturation happening in 500l barrels of French oak, 30% of which is new. The grapes are worked gently during fermentation, and exposure to broader, older oak allows the essence and aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon and of vineyard sites to drive this wine.

It has a plush, confident presence on the palate and lots of freshness with quite a bit of tannin presence that carries the flavours well and true. Think blackberry, cedar, and violets with a discernible brush of dry fynbos. Refined and elegant, yes, but with a charming bit of wild-child vivaciousness. A super Cabernet Sauvignon.

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