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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A Nicer Shiraz is the Spicer from Kleinood

Two ex-wives and three sets of in-laws – former and present – does afford me a certain expert-status on the topic of multiple personalities. Wines, too, are people, although more forgiving and far better recipients to one’s voice of opinion and attempts at reason.

I’d hazard a guess that when it comes to serious multi-personality disorder in wines, Shiraz has to take the honours. The diversity and inconsistency of Shiraz makes Robert de Niro’s diversity of film characters seem as one-dimensional as Bob Dylan’s singing voice, just not as jarringly painful and with less depression-inducing moodiness.

Some of the finest wines I have ever had, have been Shiraz. I am a huge fan of Jaboulet in the Rhône, and in particular those from Domaine de Thalabert with their blue-flower and crimson plum freshness. Yet, just down the river them local French vignerons pass-off mousy, bretty wines as earthy rural Shiraz classics, under labels whose names I don’t care to mention for the danger of demeaning these pages.

Here at the Cape, KWV’s Perold Op die Berg 1998 will forever go down as the finest Shiraz I have had from vines rooted in South African soil. In the same breath, some of the rudest and most inconsiderate wines produced here are from Shiraz, monstrously hot numbers that can fire-up a stalled armoured vehicle and leave your throat feeling like an opera-singer who has gargled with Deep Heat.

Once bitten, twice shy, therefore I am a tad cagey in my selection of and enthusiasm for Shiraz. Although when done well by a winemaker aware of the variety’s schizophrenic personality and edgy mood-swings, Cape Shiraz turns out well. Beautifully.

Such a beautiful thing was delivered recently from the pretty Kleinood Estate up near Waterford where the Helderberg takes over from Stellenboschberg. The valley is permanently verdant and pastoral, with those magnificent granite mountain faces on every side except for the valley’s opening out south-west, towards Table Mountain.

Kleinood Farm

It is granite that makes the wine here, those mounds of decomposed rock chiselled from the mountains for over 80 million years. Shiraz has found a certain expression here at Kleinood, whose John Spicer Syrah from the comet 2015 vintage is a wine delivered with politeness and received with immense gratitude.

The John Spicer evolves from a particular patch of vineyard found to contain an especially pronounced decomposed granite component. The vines rooted here are, thus, marked and the fruit handled separately from Kleinood’s other Shiraz offerings. In the cellar the wine ferments at 26.5ºC for 14 days, surging wet pump-overs giving a balanced extraction for that sweet-spot between tannic power from skins and energetic juicy freshness. Then it all goes to wood: 18 months in 300 litre French oak barrels – 15% frst, 35% second and 50% third fill.

Only released at the end of April, the John Spicer Syrah spent a lengthy period in bottle, allowing one to now experience a wonderfully matured 2015 wine from the moment of opening.

I splashed my bottle into the decanter, and was met with a brooding dark inky wine, this presence complemented by a heady perfume of red wine fragrance, the kind I’d prefer to Chanel No. 5 any day – in case anyone is wondering.

In the glass, the nose is potpourri of spring fynbos flowers, sun-baked Algerian prunes with an intriguing whiff of the sweet smell given by a 36 month-aged Iberico ham. I smelt wine, then Shiraz, and it is good.

To the mouth, and it is texture that reaches me before flavour. The wine is silk, not showy Hermes scarf, but the cream-coloured Uzbekistan silk slightly dampened with the warm sweat of a well-hydrated and sultry jazz dancer. Its presence is evocative and polite, and here lie the flavours of what Shiraz does when its best personality comes to the fore. Dark, dense berries with an edge of sweetness, nothing tart. Cardamom from Zanzibar and good old white pepper, as used by Louis Leipoldt in his South African kitchen, give an exotic air but are weighed down by the good stuff: succulence of plums, heavy and ripe and fallen from the tree; mulberries, sticky and colourful and stain-inducing; dried pomegranate pips, slightly sharp before the bright fruit takes over. It caresses, slides and seduces the drinker.

Bring it on, Shiraz. Spoken with one-tongue, you can be the wine of wines, the king of kings. And we salute you.

  • Lafras Huguenet

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The One Wine of my Heart

If some kind of vinous catastrophe – other than the 100pt scoring system and mandatory screw-cap bottling – hit the world and I was down to having only one bottle of wine left to choose for drinking by myself, it is : Calon Ségur. Château Calon Ségur from Saint-Estèphe. Bordeaux.

Yet, I am not even that into Bordeaux, preferring the focussed and sterner agricultural approach of Burgundy when the chance to buy and drink French wines makes an appearance. And why go to France at all for great Cabernet Sauvignon-led blends? Three, four Stellenbosch properties make a better blend than Calon Ségur, a Bordeaux 3rd Growth whose price-point fortunately still has to reach the stratospheric levels of the more well-known Châteaus adorning the ties and T-shirts of Chinese wine lovers.

But with Calon Ségur I have a history, and it has a history with me. The Australians talk about “emotional take-out” linking a wine to the consumer. And if Calon is a take-out, it needs an 18 wheeler truck to deliver the emotional baggage it carries.

My parents have always consumed wine, rather than sniffed and swirled it. It is enjoyed. “Life is too short to drink bad wine” is a common family phrase still heard around the house, but wine-geekisness was never part of the scene.

There were and still are some serous wine folk in their circle of friends. Jan Boland Coetzee, Johann Krige, Duimpie Bayly and Danie de Wet. Also, the late greats: Nico Myburgh from Meerlust, the legendary Ronnie Melck and George Spies of GS Cabernet fame. But they are and were friends first, and whatever the wine may be which is consumed during their spirited gatherings, it is always secondary to the importance of the personable camaraderie.

Growing up, thus, in a family with a lot of bottles, wine books and wine people around, I was but eight or nine years old when I started taking an interest in the labels on the bottles as well as their origin. This was in the early 1970’s in London, and most of the wines opened were Spanish, French and Italian, probably run-of-the-mill stuff. But then again, I learnt at an early age that “plonk” was not bad, and “snobbery” is awful. Plain common.

I do remember a period of Australian wines poured from clunky tins, but this was probably at the end of the month when my father’s employer, Nasionale Pers, was late in wiring the pay-cheque from Cape Town to the UK.

On a day there were hushed tones in the Earl’s Court flat. My father had placed a wooden crate on the kitchen table, and he and my mother were looking at the contents: 12 wine bottles, each with a heart on the label.

And inside the heart the words: Calon Ségur.

Moi, a kid of eight or nine, was probably running around in a set of Star Trek pyjamas, and upon asking what the fuss was about, was told that this wine came from France, and from a special region in France named Bordeaux. This was the first time I was drawn to the fact that wine is not only made in different countries, but regions, too.

For the next few years, the arrival of the case of Calon Ségur was met with equally hallowed terms. It was put away, the opening of a bottle reserved for moments of importance. I was given a small sip which was wasted on my infantile palate. I mean, at the age of eight I was still trying to make sense of Sancerre and Languedoc, how was I prepared for high-octane Bordeaux?

Through the years, many great wines passed through Casas Joubert in London, Cape Town, Paarl and Washington DC. Burgundies and Bordeauxs higher up in the food chain than Calon. Some fine Spanish wines. Californian monsters. Ancient Ports. All the South African greats.

But to this very day that Calon bottle with the heart continues to remain imprinted on my memory, taking me back to an innocent, pure time when the fascination and wonder expressed by your parents had a profound effect on what you deem to be important in the world.

“Why Calon Ségur?” I asked my father a few years back, long after I had become a legal drinker and devotee of this wine.

Working in Fleet Street in around 1971, he and other journalists would meet up at the famous wine bar El Vino. Buying classed Bordeaux was on his wish-list, but the Margauxs and Petrus’s and Lafites were out of a newspaperman’s league. One day, glasses of plonk in hand, the South Africa writer Roy MacNab told him about Calon Ségur, stating it as a Château punching above its weight in the price-to-quality ratio, and so the relationship began when that first wooden box arrived.

I am currently drinking Calon 2004, and while an interesting and good wine with obvious class, it is not going to shoot out any lights or cause any earth-tremours in calm urban squares. This is Saint-Estèphe’s most northerly classed Growth, poor soils and salty wind making it anything but a tame wine.

But as I smell the stone and dust and broken twigs on the wine, taste the crushed raw fruit and feel the bloody embrace of the fine old world of Bordeaux, the wine takes me back to a part of me I wish to see again. That’s why this will be my last wine. It is a wine of hope, and memory immortal.

  • Emile Joubert

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Shock Departure of JP Rossouw Leaves Platter’s Wine Guide Reeling

The popularity of the Platter’s Wine Guide, South Africa’s leading wine-rating publication, is set to plunge after the shock departure of its debonair publisher Jean-Pierre Rossouw. Fondly known as JP in wine circles, Rossouw had been at the helm of the Platter’s Wine Guide since 2013, growing the book’s popularity with his wine knowledge, management skills and charming personality off-set by a suave sense of style and disarming good-looks.

JP Rossouw

A spokesperson for Diner’s Club, owners of Platter’s, confirmed Rossouw’s departure, adding that this has left a void, not only in the day-to-day running of the guide, but also in the publication’s marketing division.

“With that ice-white smile, piercing dark gaze and well-coiffed fringe, JP added a dangerously sexiness to the guide,” said the spokesperson who was speaking on condition of anonymity. “Here he definitely gave Platter’s an edge in the wine world, elevating the appeal of a book with not much more to offer than a few thousand wine-ratings. For years, the most – only – exciting aspect of the guide was the annual revealing of the book’s cover colour. This was until JP came along to personally present the top wine-performers at the book’s annual launch. One smile and a nonchalant flick of the fringe, and he brought a cult following to a normally staid formal occasion.”

JP Rossouw and Erika Obermeyer.

Beth Dinglestrat, a media and image consultant for various South African wineries, says Rossouw’s departure is an “insurmountable” loss for the Platter’s Guide.

“JP took the cobwebs out of wine, his involvement with this publication adding a dynamic and stylish metrosexual appeal to a book which has been a part of the South African wine land-scape for four decades,” says Dinglestrat. “Besides charm and coolness that makes Richard Gere seem neurotic, JP had a terrific work-ethic. Commitment to the edge of tenacity, it was. Each year we were astounded by his ability to pose with every single individual Platter’s Five Star winner without dropping his intense come-hither gaze or dulling that dazzling, even white smile. I just don’t know how Platter’s is going to come back from this.”

JP Rossouw and Craig Wessels.

Donna van Tetvallen, an assistant winemaker in Stellenbosch, says that JP’s leaving the Platter’s Guide has made her question her professional aspirations. “Every girl makes wine with the hope of getting to pose with Mister JP and a Platter’s Five Star certificate,” says Van Tetvallen. “I and my friends – girls and boys – were miffed to learn of JP’s leaving the guide as our chances of an appearance alongside him are now going nowhere. I want to appeal to Mr JP and the whole lot at Team Platter’s to bring back our publisher man. You don’t know how much he means to us. Since hearing the news of his going my Chardonnay has tasted dull and my Cabernet all bretty. There is just not much to look forward to. Thus, Platter’s, save South African wine and bring back JP.”

JP Rossouw with Nadia and Gordon Newton Johnson.

Dinglestrat says JP will be a hard act to follow for Platter’s. “While vanity is not much of a problem in wine media circles, good-looks and style are,” she says. “Wine writer Malu Lambert would be a good call as replacement, although her stamina for incessant smiling has yet to be tested. French wine expert, pioneer, selfie-king, visionary and best-at-everything Jean Vincent Ridon is another possibility, but we have yet to see what he really looks like when photographed by someone who is not himself.

“The thing is, talent like JP does not grow on trees – or vines.”

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Stellenbosch Wine Routes: The Second Wave that Saved the Day

The evolution of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes included two important phases, its initial founding in 1971 by Frans Malan, Niel Joubert and Spatz Sperling being the first and most significant. With the advent of the new millennium and said Wine Routes now finding itself at a crossroads, the second chapter for Stellenbosch began in 1999.

The catalyst was Pietman Retief, well-known Stellenbosch personality, Tourism Association stalwart and former director of the South African Brandy Foundation, a body committed to the generic promotion of brandy and brandy culture. Retief had been invited to address local wine industry dignitaries and attendees at the Stellenbosch Food and Wine Festival in the spring of 1999, at that time the region’s premier social event.

Here Pietman took the opportunity to raise certain issues of concern at the road the Stellenbosch Wine Routes and the general tourism community had embarked upon. For although the organisation was founded in 1971 as an inclusive body representing all Stellenbosch wine cellars, the character of Stellenbosch wine tourism had over 28 years morphed into a disjointed and disparate entity. Due to the proliferation of wine cellars and confident individual voices, Stellenbosch had been broken into a number of wine routes each wishing to promote their specific regions. Where cellars in Helderberg, Bottelary and Simonsberg – all blue-chip Stellenbosch wine regions – had once happily settled under the umbrella body of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, by 1999 these areas were running their own wine tourism gigs.

What was left of the original Stellenbosch Wine Routes comprised only some 40 of the then 100 cellars, the balance eschewing a bond with Stellenbosch preferring to fall under one of the aforementioned sub-regions.

As a seasoned tourism industry specialist and a respected part of the Stellenbosch community, Retief took to the podium and let rip with a stirring speech demanding, more than encouraging, Stellenbosch to get its act together by ensuring all the region’s producers work together under one banner. And that banner is to be Stellenbosch.

“How could we have allowed this venerable institution of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, founded in 1971 by people united in promoting this wonderful wine region, to break up into suchnsoulless, disjointed fragments?” asked Retief. “South Africa is at the cusp of becoming a major player in international and local wine tourism, the potential benefits of which are enormous to a community such as Stellenbosch which has its soul immersed in wine.

Pietman Retief, Mr Stellenbosch.

“If Stellenbosch is to be South Africa’s leading wine tourism body and wine region, which it deserves to be through historical reasons as well as the fact the nation’s best wines are made here, we must get off of our petty individual pedestals and have one united Wine Route – Stellenbosch Wine Routes.”

The sentiments of many in the Stellenbosch wine world were now out in the open thanks to Retief’s impassioned speech, causing local wine figures to act on the scenario sketched in the Stellenbosch Town Hall on that warm spring night of 1999.

Bennie Howard, then communications director of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, set-up a brainstorming session attended by some of local wine industry heavyweights including Ken Forrester, Johann Krige of Kanonkop and grape-grower Johan Gerber.

Nicolette Waterford, first CEO of the American Express Stellenbosch Wine Routes.

Before he knew it, Krige was tasked with chairing the movement towards a greater, inclusive Stellenbosch Wine Routes.

“Initially this was a job that I was not particularly looking forward to,” recalls Krige. “The break-way groupings who had formed wine routes in Helderberg, Simonsberg and Bottelary were quite rightly protective over what they had established and were doing a good job. I expected the job of uniting the more than 100 wineries from various of Stellenbosch’s sub-regions to be like herding cats.”

But once the various groupings got together to thrash out synergies and opportunities, as well as re-connecting with the importance of the Wine of Origins Stellenbosch certification, the ball towards unification began rolling. The whole is, after all, greater than the sum of its parts.

Krige had two trump-cards to discourage any wineries from sticking to a sub-region instead of being corralled together with greater Stellenbosch. Firstly, Krige managed to convince the more than 200 grape farmers who grow grapes for selling to wineries making Wine of Origin Stellenbosch products to become wine route members, thereby ensuring a substantial boost to the Wine Routes kitty through the collection of these extra levies.

The second play saw Krige ensuring a sponsorship from American Express, making Stellenbosch the first local wine route to benefit from any form of commercial partnering.

At the official launch of the new Stellenbosch Wine Routes in 2002, Krige said: “The formation of the new, all-inclusive wine route is a leap of faith by the entire region’s wine industry players to promote their area and their product unilaterally.”

Johann Krige, at the helm of the New Stellenbosch Wine Routes.

What he didn’t add, was that South African wine tourism had now entered a new era with a tourism powerhouse called the Stellenbosch American Express Wine Routes comprising over 300 wineries and grape growers, a full time CEO in the form of Nicolette Waterford and a lucrative sponsorship from an established brand synonymous with local and international tourism.

This new face of wine tourism in South Africa’s wine capital showed the way in a dynamic and important part of the wine industry. A new, larger Stellenbosch Wine Festival was held. Proactive actions targeting the wine drinkers in Gauteng with Stellenbosch wine were embarked upon with great success, ensuring a greater awareness of the Stellenbosch brand and its status as the centre of wine excellence. Media campaigns aimed at connecting Stellenbosch with fine wine to local and global audiences saw this region leapfrogging other regional wine routes and taking its place as the country’s leading wine tourism exponent, a position held until this day.

And in the current climate where focus is on premiumisation of wine and excellence in tourism offerings, the adage created during the Wine Routes’ second phase is more relevant than ever. Simply: “Think quality, drink Stellenbosch.”

  • Emile Joubert for Stellenbosch VISIO

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Wines from the Great Wilderness

It is location, geography and a sense of place that makes wine the most diverse and interesting beverage in the world. No-one really cares from where the hops come that is used to brew a cold beer, nor do we ponder over the origin of the maize milled to distil the base-spirits for gin or vodka. But wine is on its own planet in terms of defining and emphasising provenance and specificity of vineyards from where it is made.

Here, our address counts. No other wine producing country can compete with South Africa when it comes to the diversity, natural heritage and spectacular beauty of its wine regions. The oldest soils in the world and a location slap-bang in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom with its thousands of species of fauna and flora makes Cape wine’s address, the place we call home, just incredible.

In this era’s emphasis on sustainability, conservation and preservation of natural areas so as to sequester those nasty carbon emissions, South Africa can become a world-leader in promoting its wines as far in-tune with the natural environment as humanly possible.

This aspect of the local wine industry has drawn the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the most recognised and important conservation body in the world, especially known through its panda-logo. Through the WWF, the Conservation Champions project has harnessed some 50 Cape wineries who each have shown an extraordinary commitment to protect and nurture the natural habitats of their respective farms whilst at the same time continuing to produce wines of which South African can be proud. In synch with nature through conservation, these wines sport the WWF Conservation Champions logo and validate the various members’ conservation actions – as well as helping promote the Cape wine industry’s overall commitment to its natural living environment.

Among these 50 WWF Conservation Champion members are found some of the country’s leading producers. Which makes it easier still – and logical – to pursue these wines in my purchases. As the following serve to illustrate.

Creation Viognier 2020

Situated in in the beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge area of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley outside Hermanus, Creation seamlessly incorporates it gorgeous physical location with the making of an extensive range of superb wines. These have not only sent Creation to the top of the Cape wine offering, but with its restaurant and tasting centre perched between two wilderness edges and the scent of fynbos in air, this has become one of the country’s most visited wineries.

Winemaker and owner JC Martin is a sure hand at Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two varieties that excel in Hemel-en-Aarde. But I find Creation’s Viognier to be one of the other exciting wines in the range. This white variety, origins being in the Rhône Valley of France, seems to flourish in cool maritime Hemel-en-Aarde.

In its making, the wine is fermented and matured in stainless steel, thus keeping the perky freshness of the grape which so often turns into a glass of mushy apricot-driven juice when kept in wood. Creation Viognier is brisk to the edge of raciness, yet on the mid-palate shows a calm and cool creaminess with a broad, floral finish. Fruit and minerals come together for a delicious white wine of the kind of easy complexity one finds in the acting of Steve McQueen.

Neethlingshof 1802 Collection Pinotage 2017

This is one of Stellenbosch’s oldest wine estates, with a history traced back to 1692. Not only has the natural environment been kept in-tact, but so too has Neethlingshof done a great job in preserving its traditional buildings. Such as the old wine cellar that was completed in 1802, the date chosen to name Neethlingshof’s new range of premium wines.

The 1802 Collection sports a Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon, both great wines from vintage 2017. But there is something about the Pinotage that makes me want to traipse around Neethlingshof’s fynbos patches whispering good things to the caracal and owls who live there.

Made from a single Pinotage vineyard planted in 1997, this wine was crafted from hand-selected berries. Fermentation was done in barrel, after which the wine spent a mighty 26 months maturing in 300l vessels of French oak. The three finest barrels were selected for the 1802 Pinotage, and this focus is evident in the wine.

A sweet-fruited core drives this polished, immaculate red wine, the beauty of which lies in its completeness. No specific flavours leap to the fore, nor any notable hooks in the form of tannins or alert acidity. It is just a long, pure and refined wine of beauty and elegance. After finishing one bottle just to ensure that my assumption was correct for the whole journey, I ordered another few bottles as this classic Pinotage is going to mature beautifully over the next decade or two.

Boschendal Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Boschendal, together with Groot Constantia being South Africa’s oldest wine estate, circa 1685, is a powerhouse when it comes to conservation with the protection of its natural surroundings complemented by incredible eco-projects incorporating, among others, solar energy and waste-water management. Of course, the wines are fantastic and despite its rich, long wine-tradition Boschendal continues to innovate. Such as its Appellation Range of wines made from grapes grown in specific areas identified as bringing out the best in the various varieties concerned.

Stellenbosch is Ground Zero for Cabernet Sauvignon, thus Boschendal has introduced its maiden Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon, made from the comet 2017 vintage.

The grapes are grown on the Helderberg, along with Simonsberg Stellenbosch’s two finest regions for Cabernet Sauvignon as a result of the decomposed granite soils, afternoon sunlight radiation and consistent air-flows. Trucked to Boschendal’s Simondium winery, the grapes are fermented for over two weeks, pump-overs drawing maximum flavour, structure and character from the skins. Maturation is for 16 months in French oak, and the result is wine made very well from South Africa’s finest red wine variety grown in the best region for it.

Immediate aromas of pine-needle, dark fruit and fynbos waft from the glass. From the first sip, the wine is enormously satisfying in a sit-back-and-wonder kind of way. Ripe plums, dried figs and sun-kissed herbs come to the fore, with muscular tannins giving it a broody presence which, in the world of great Cabernet Sauvignon, is only natural.

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Covid Vaccine and Your Wine Taste

The anti-Corona virus vaccinations are apparently doing more to the human body than preventing an infection from China’s finest biological experiment. Since the rolling-out of the Covid-vaccinations in South Africa two weeks back, recipients of the jab have noted a definite and marked changing in their abilities to taste and perceive wine.

Improved flavour profiles, heightened freshness and overall increased deliciousness of the drinking experience, these are some of the experiences wine-lovers have noted after receiving the Pfizer or Johnson&Johnson vaccinations.

Dawes Cotterill, a retired high-school teacher from Kenilworth in Cape Town, is adamant that the vaccination has had a profound effect on his daily wine-drinking.

“I used to belong to a wine club, collecting wine and all that, but since retiring in 2004 I’ve had to rein in the splurging and am mostly drinking box wine or supermarket own-label stuff,” says Cotterill. “Three days after getting my jab at Lentegeur on the Cape flats I was sitting down to a glass of cheap Drostdy-Hof white when I noticed something peculiar. Upon the sniff, I was smelling pure Montrachet white Burgundy in my glass. This gift kept on giving when I sipped the wine. Usually, I just put it away to get a buzz going so that I can handle the television news in a slightly sozzled state. But now, from that glass of cheap plonk Drostdy-Hof I was tasting white flowers, marzipan, sun-kissed citrus and char-grilled organic hazelnuts – features I remember from the days I could afford Burgundy with the wine club.”

Cotterrill’s experience proved not to be a one-off, as the next day’s experience with a bottle of Tassenberg showed. “God knock me down if the Tassenberg did not have a nose of Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1995, all petrichor, pine-needle and crushed mulberry. The wine was still light in colour, as Tas usually is, but in the mouth it had firm tannins, depth and dense dark fruit with an aftertaste far longer than my school-teacher’s pension is going to last.”

His conclusion? “It could only be the vaccination. The jab has made tastes and smells more pleasurable, I am sure,” he says. “Since the Covid vaccination I can even eat my wife’s rhubarb sponge-pudding, and whenever Banger, my Dachshund, rips with one of his farts I only smell Chanel No 5.”

Vector illustration old man drinking wine

According to Clitana Boshoff, a retired viticulturist who still consults to the South African bulk-wine industry, her post-vaccination experience has been equally remarkable. “I was concerned about the Pfizer-jab’s potential side-effects, such as cellulite, decreased sex-drive and an increase in facial hair,” she says. “But I had never considered the potentially positive influences of this vaccination. Which are amazing in that wine now just tastes better. I am tasting tropical fruits, minerality and freshness in the lowliest of bulk wines from Worcester and the Breedekloof. Since I had the jab, even Ruby Cabernet is hitting my palate with the same complexity and purity as a Bordeaux 2nd Growth. And when I tasted a Paarl Shiraz without any Brettanomyces on it, I finally knew that my sensorial abilities had been affected by the vaccination.”

Prof Joseph Nellekin, a renowned wine collector and professor in Sensorial Science at the University of Cape Winelands, says he has heard of similar experiences from members of the wine industry who have received the vaccination, but cannot validate this as he is not yet of vaxxer-age.

“I have alerted Johnson&Johnson and Pfizer to these instances of increased pleasure in wine-drinking, and the researchers are looking into it,” he says. “It is early days yet, but if this is the case, the wine industry stands to benefit in droves. No more hipsters complaining about mouth-puckering red wine tannins or bowl-sensitive middle-aged wine drinkers eschewing the acidity of Sauvignon Blanc or unwooded Chardonnay. If everybody who has been vaccinated against Covid finds nothing but pleasure in the wine-drinking experience, beer and gin will fall by the wayside. And wine will rule the world.”

Marissa Parradine, a daily columnist for various wine blogs, says she is not surprised to hear these post-vaccination stories concerning more enjoyable wine drinking. “This is just another ploy by China, this time to promote their own substandard wine industry,” she says.

“No doubt Beijing fiddled with the Covid-vaccines so that all wine tastes acceptably good, which will include those appalling Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots made in China and with which they plan world-domination. Once everybody is vaccinated and everyone is loving the joy of any wine before them, China will flood the market with its rotgut stuff knowing that this grog will, at last, be palatable. Their last resort and the only way. And as with everything to do with Covid, China will have the final say.”

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Youthful Beauty in Chamonix’s Early Wines

The proof is in the pudding. So, with all the hype surrounding the quality of the Cape 2021 wine vintage and the fostering of a focused sense of duty, I ventured into the Chamonix winery in Franschhoek to check-out this year’s young wines.

From the outside, things are looking good for vintage 2021. Producers’ organization Vinpro recently issued a media release underscoring the health of this new vintage, both in terms of grape volume and early signs of wine quality. The latter resulted from a cold 2020 winter and a cool, mild summer which led to slow ripening of grapes, something winemakers deem favourable to ensuring balanced chemistry in the fruit as well as completeness of flavour development.

Truth be told, a cellar filled with young wines in tank and barrel, just-fermented and some still going through malolactic fermentation, daunts me. Only wine professionals, mostly winemakers, have the tasting equipment to cut through the aggressive young acids and the meaty clods of dying yeast cells which prevail in these raw, underdone wines. The promise and fulfilment are distant, unattainable to the average casual drinker used to imbibing finished wines.

But there is nothing quite as vividly stimulating to one’s olfactory tools than a winery just after harvest. Aromas are heady and intense, sour-wild fermented skins combining with wet oak barrel and a feral, musky smell. Barrels are lined-up like worshippers in a cathedral, and the full tanks glisten with the film of condensation set-off by their cool vinous contents.

Neil Bruwer, Chamonix winemaker, ushered me to the tanks of white wine to align the palate. Actually, these tanks of unwooded Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were finished wines, awaiting bottling. But they would set the tone for what was to follow, the two un-barrelled varieties having no place to hide any unagreeable characters.

Sauvignon Blanc, this was tropical, accurate and with just the right amount of green on the rim. A finished, full mouth-feel ending crisply with a flurry of cymbals. The unwooded Chardonnay, well, this is going to be a stunner. Green apple and lemon-peel abound, with a blousy, floral presence that I found truly striking. From a wine of only a few months old.

Bruwer watched my nods of approval. “That’s the vintage you are tasting,” he said. “Everything was in the grapes this year. Perfect ripeness, bracing acids and everything in balance.”

Neil Bruwer, Chamonix winemaker.

With his wine-thief in hand, Bruwer marched myself and Stefan van Rooyen, Chamonix CEO, to the first row of barriques. He drew a 2021 Pinot Noir into the glasses. The surprise was all mine, as while obviously presenting a woody toastiness, that characteristic whack of red cherry juice and tobacco leaf was coming right through the barrel’s timber limbs. Fresh, zippy and tart, the three-month old Pinot Noir was already showing a developed fruit core of blackcurrant and slight hit of Turkish delight. Mouthfeel was lovely and already charming, coaxing the palate with fruit and forest. If I closed my eyes and forgot about where I was standing, I would have thought that this was a young vintage Pinot Noir poured out of bottle.

Onto the Chamonix Chardonnay 2021, and with the unwooded version having provided a glimpse into the quality of this year’s offering, it was no surprise that the wine out of barrel lit the place up with the glow of great things to come. Power and grace had already drowned the wood, leaving one with a young Chardonnay audaciously showing a ridiculous maturity, development and a mark of the classic. Citrus of all sorts ride on a tide of fresh, brisk acidity while white flowers and nuts stand on the side-line, waiting to climb onto the wave over the next few months in barrel. Extraordinary, really, and what a privilege.

Onto the last barrel of yet-nameless wine, and I would have flattered myself with my tasting-skills if it had not been so obvious. The wine was white, its scent rose from the glass like a snake-charmer’s pet and flooded me with quince, salt, kelp and lime-peel. On the mouth the stuff stomped over all the senses, gripping onto the inner-jowls with a tartness that was eye-watering, yet pleasant.

It had to be…..and I called it….the Chamonix Old Vine Chenin Blanc. Stern, complex, loud and attention-demanding. Released for the first time last year, the 2021 offering will undoubtedly further this wine’s reputation that has already reached lofty heights.

Various other young works-in-progress were tasted, including a juicy, sensually warm Pinotage and a densely classic Cabernet Franc, but nothing changed the opinion that this, 2021, is going to be a very special year for Cape wine. The good are going to be better, the better will become classics and the classics shall show greatness. As I once knew, there is beauty in youth.

  • Lafras Huguenet

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Bumper Cape Wine Harvest, with Top Quality to Boot

Wine lovers from across the globe can enjoy outstanding wines from a much cooler and later 2021 wine grape season in South Africa. This according to the annual South African Wine Harvest Report 2021.

“It seems as though the vines really took their time to prepare this year’s harvest,” says Conrad Schutte, consultation service manager of the wine industry body Vinpro. “Moderate weather throughout the season, and specifically during harvest time, resulted in grapes ripening slower, while developing exceptional colour and flavour.”

The 2021 wine grape crop is estimated at 1 461 599 tonnes, according to the latest estimate of industry body SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information & Systems) on 19 May 2021. It is 8.9% larger than the 2020 harvest.

The harvest kicked off around two weeks later than normal due to unusually cool weather conditions throughout the season, which persisted throughout harvest time and resulted in some wine grape producers harvesting their last grapes in May. Water resources were also replenished in most regions following the recent drought, which contributed to good vine growth, bunch numbers and berry sizes.

“Although these are general observations, it is always important to take the South Africa wine industry’s diversity over ten wine grape growing regions into account,” Conrad says.

Remarkable wines

“The late and slow harvest was definitely worth the wait. Wine lovers can really look forward to remarkable wines from the 2021 crop,” Conrad says. “The cooler weather enabled producers to harvest their grapes at exactly the right time, and viticulturists and winemakers are especially excited about good colour extraction, low pH levels and high natural acidity in cases where vineyards were managed effectively, which all point to exceptional quality wines.

The 2021 wine harvest – including juice and concentrate for non-alcoholic purposes, wine for brandy and distilling wine – is expected to amount to 1 136.4 million litres at an average recovery of 778 litres per ton of grapes.

“We are delighted that harvest 2021 has proven to be somewhat of a silver lining for the South African wine industry, which will no doubt further bolster our international positioning,” says Siobhan Thompson, CEO of Wines of South Africa (WoSA). “What stands out above all else is the consistency in quality that we have come to see over recent years. This will go a long way to convincing those who may still have been on the fence and reinforce our overall standing alongside our international competitors. It is also very promising to note that the volume and value of wine exports from South Africa are higher compared to the year on year figures in 2020 and 2019.” 

South Africa is the ninth biggest wine producer world-wide and produces about 4% of the world’s wine. The wine industry contributes more than R55 billion to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 269 069 people throughout the value-chain, of which 80 183 work on farms and in cellars. 

Strike a balance

Intermittent restrictions on the export and local sale of alcohol in South Africa from March 2020 to February 2021 as part of the country’s national state of disaster resulted in 650 million litres of wine stock at the end of 2020, of which a large portion was not yet contracted.

“With so much stock still in the tanks at the beginning of harvest time, producers and wineries were concerned about processing and storage capacity when taking in the new harvest, many of whom rented additional storage space or restored old tanks,” says Rico Basson, Vinpro MD. “However, the fact that sales reopened, along with the harvest starting later than normal, helped ease the pressure to some extent.” A number of wineries were also able to secure contracts with grape juice manufacturers, which helped work away some of the stock. 

“The larger wine grape crop will require careful planning from producers and wineries to sell the current wine stock in a responsible and sustainable way. This situation will, however, also create the opportunity for innovation and growth of existing and new markets,” Rico says. 

2020/21 Growing season

The weather was moderate in most regions during the post-harvest period, which led to leaves falling later than normal and vines building up good reserves. Producers also had access to sufficient water for post-harvest irrigation.

Winter was colder than the previous season, with much higher rainfall, which replenished water resources and led to sufficient cold accumulation to break dormancy.

The cold and wet weather continued into spring, which contributed to homogenous, but delayed bud-break and initial growth. In the coastal region, however, the wetter conditions made the timing of disease control more challenging.

Frost damage occurred in some irrigation areas and it was expected that significant frost damage in the lower lying areas of the Northern Cape and strong winds in the Cape South Coast region would have a notable effect on these crops. Fortunately, the frost and wind occurred at an early enough developmental stage for vines to recover.

Flowering and set was mostly efficient and even, while shoot and leaf growth picked up the pace by the start of November, which necessitated additional inputs from producers to manage the fast and vigorous growth.

Temperatures remained moderate during the summer, which slowed down ripening and resulted in harvest time starting out around two weeks later than normal. Although most wine regions experienced little rainfall during harvest time, there were also almost no characteristic heat-waves, and the lower day and night temperatures throughout the season led to producers waiting patiently for grapes to reach optimum ripeness.

  • VinPro Press Release

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Administrative Mess with SA Wine Regions

Old habits die hard. And if they don’t want to, best one puts them out of their misery with a quick, decisive whack to the head.

A whole thesis of moaning and ridiculing can be committed on the way in which the relevant authorities have carved-up South Africa’s wine regions and decided which parcels of land are designated under various official banners. Some of these will confuse a fourth-grade geography pupil, but it is what it is.

However, when strong regional brands are concerned and where South African wine ridicules itself in the eyes of anybody interested in our country’s wine – locally as well as internationally – the dimmer side of wine officialdom has to be noted.

Recently my indicators were switched on by a very nifty infographic from the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group. This communication indicated that Stellenbosch has the most turf under Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, some 27%. Of course, my bull-shit detector went on immediately. Stellenbosch produces fine Sauvignon Blanc, but stating the region being the country’s most heavily populated in terms of this variety’s vines is a bit of a stretch.

A quick look down the infographic indicated where the misinformation lies, a bit of inconceivable stupidity I thought the industry had gotten rid of with together with KWV quotas, grey shoes at wine shows and the infamous dop system. For in terms of wine production districts, the wine bodies still corral Stellenbosch together with Durbanville and Constantia.

Far-fetched as it may sound, the South African Wine Industry Systems (Sawis) lists the country’s wine producing areas as follows: Northern Cape, Olifant’s River, Swartland, Little Karoo, Paarl, Robertson, Stellenbosch, Worcester, Breedekloof and Cape South Coast. Obviously one can pick this apart, such as there being no Franschhoek -this falls under Paarl.

But it is the appearance of Stellenbosch officially representing Durbanville and Contantia that underscores this ludicrous system to the fullest. Constantia is, arguably, South Africa’s most famous regional brand name, with Durbanville itself being an established power-house in terms of area under vine and wine quality. So, to have these two regions disappear under the very individual Stellenbosch umbrella, probably for ease of administration and because this is how the KWV once wanted the landscape to look, is a jarring error and an embarrassment.

Take that aforementioned infographic from the Sauvignon Blanc producers, which has probably been viewed around the world by those interested in South Africa wine. The information presented there is faulty and incorrect, and further hazes the understanding of the Cape winelands at the very time the industry is trying to have the country seen as a patchwork of terroir individuality.

I know for a fact that this situation has been queried with Sawis and Vinpro, the producers organisation. Yet to date no attempts have been made by the authorities to address these stark and glaring misrepresentations.

If I had a hammer……

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