USA Trophy Show Judge Wooed by Cape Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay

This article appeared in Die Burger newspaper on 17th May and has been translated from Afrikaans.

One of the hallmarks of the Cape wine industry is its enthusiasm for wine competitions, especially for a relatively small producer like South Africa. The organisers, of course, benefit the most, as their coffers swell with the entry fees that cellars must pay to submit their wines for these shows. Over the years, however, one learns to distinguish between competitions that genuinely seek to enhance the recognition of wine quality and those that are mere money-making ventures.

The Trophy Wine Show has emerged over the past two decades as arguably the most authoritative and stringent wine competition for local wines. This prestigious event is the brainchild of Michael Fridjhon, South Africa’s most renowned wine personality, whose reputation as a wine expert, meticulous organiser, and authoritative voice on wine and wine quality is indisputable. A distinctive feature of the Trophy Wine Show is that Michael annually invites two or three top international wine experts to South Africa to join respected local judges in evaluating approximately 600 entries of diverse wine types and styles.

After the judging process, invited guests have the opportunity to hear the insights of these international experts on the wines they have assessed, with the identities of the wines kept anonymous. The judges taste the wines blind, without labels, and the results are announced in mid-June.

This year, the name Lisa Perrotti-Brown caught my eye on the list of judges. As a holder of the British Master of Wine qualification—the pinnacle of wine credentials—Lisa is undoubtedly a wine expert. It is said to be easier to obtain a license to fly a combat helicopter than to earn this Master of Wine certificate.

Moreover, as an American wine writer and critic based in Napa, California, her impressions of South African wines are vitally important. The local wine industry has long struggled to elevate its international image to achieve better prices abroad. America, being the world’s most significant wine import market, is crucial for South Africa to establish a commercially viable presence, a goal it has pursued for thirty years with little notable success.

Perrotti-Brown, who monitors South African wines alongside those from many other countries, acknowledges that the country’s wine profile is quite low in America. “But don’t be too hard on yourselves,” she advises. She explains that many people who view America as the golden market for wine do not realise how competitive it is over there.

“Firstly, America produces a vast amount of wine across all price classes,” says Perrotti-Brown. “Many South African producers believe that their wines can be price-competitive due to the weak rand and strong dollar. But it doesn’t work that way. America produces even cheaper wines, and there are also low-priced wines from South America and Europe. So, forget positioning yourself as a cheap wine country offering value for money.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown in the zone.

“Look at what happened to Australia when they tried to conquer America with that cheap Yellowtail stuff. They clashed with other cheap wines and left Australia with the image of a country that only offers low-price, low-quality wines.”

Following her week-long tasting for the Trophy Wine Show, Perrotti-Brown is more convinced than ever that South Africa should not be associated with low-quality wines. “The wines are truly outstanding, almost overwhelming,” she says—this coming just days after she was invited to assess the en primeurs from top cellars in Bordeaux, France, with her palate still resonating with the flavours of Petrus, Margaux, Angelus, and Lafite.

“At the Trophy Show, I found myself on the panel judging Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which is perfect for me since these are some of my favourite wine types and also a specialty of California,” says Perrotti-Brown. Ten years since her last visit to the Cape, she notes a significant improvement in the presentation of the country’s Cabernet Sauvignons.

“It’s a bit frustrating to talk now because, as judges, we obviously don’t know which regions or vintages we tasted,” she says. “But unlike ten years ago at the same competition, the Cabernet Sauvignon at this year’s Trophy Show generally shows more finesse and freshness. It’s clear that winemakers are more cautious about how much new oak they use and for how long the wines are in wood—I can’t recall any wines that tasted like they were made by a lumberjack. These were elegant, lovely wines that can stand alongside the great Cabernet Sauvignons of the world.”

She was also on the panel reviewing red Bordeaux blends, a category that South Africans regard as formidable due to the legendary Cape wines known for this style. “Blended wines, especially from a relatively unknown wine country, are very difficult to sell in America,” observes Perrotti-Brown. “What does the average person know about a red blend? Nothing, unless the producer is an icon like Haut-Brion or Château Margaux. But if the bottle simply says Cabernet Sauvignon, you have a better chance of catching the consumer’s attention, as they at least recognise the grape.

Are there many Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the world? Certainly. But is there something distinctive about the South African offerings? “You know, there is such a lovely herbal character in some wines, like a wildflower note,” she says. “This vegetal-aspect is not overwhelming, not the green herb and leafy effect of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that aren’t properly ripe, but instead the most beautiful hint of veld and fynbos. It’s truly special, and I gave the wines with this character my top scores.”

Perrotti-Brown is now heading to the airport for her long flight to San Francisco, near Napa. I ask her if she will reflect on any “wow” factors during her whirlwind wine visit. “South African Chardonnay,” she says. “For me, this category was even stronger than the Cabernet Sauvignons. Sublime wines, fruit and sun, but with long, cool streams of refinement and complexity, among the best in the world. I still have plenty of time to find the right words and will let you know.”

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Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon: Drowning in Honey

The week past presented a tasting that left me as astounded as the palpable resonance of appreciation and fortune. But more than that, genuine amazement and wonder at the greatness South Africa is achieving in terms of red wines, and specifically from Stellenbosch.

It was the tale of Cabernet Sauvignon, a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon and an experience that left me with that line from Evelyn Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisited: “I was drowning in honey, stingless.”

Le Riche laid on an extensive Cabernet Sauvignon immersion, with the star of the show being the Reserve 2021 – vintage number 25 since pater familias Etienne le Riche made his maiden 1997 after going solo, post his years at Rustenberg. Son Christo is pretty much in charge of the wines these days and has become a veritable prophet for Cabernet Sauvignon and, specifically, Stellenbosch’s interpretation of this cultivar.

Excluding the three niche single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons on show during the presentation, Le Riche sources from growers in various pockets of Stellenbosch. The producer is not hellbent on the site-specific narrative; the Reserve 2021, for example, is made from vineyards in Jonkershoek, Simonsberg, and Helderberg, carefully cobbled together to reflect Christo’s idea of what a Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon should portray under the Le Riche label.

Christo le Riche

Other Reserves thrown-in at the tasting were from 2001 and 2013, with a Bosstok, Steynsrust and Simonsberg – all 2021 – being singular terroir in origin. Then there were the standard Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignons from 2004 and 2022.

The success of such a vast showing of various wines – even if they are from one cultivar – is the occasion’s ability to leave one with a singular, overriding impression. For me this was simply one of having been privy to great South African red wine. As diverse as these Cabernet Sauvignons are, they sing from the same hymn-sheet in offering depth of fruit, a tapestry of indestructible – yet refined – tannins and a soul-stirring powerful beauty.

But the parts that stood-out in the whole greatness, for me, were three wines.

At 23 years of age the Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 showed the pure joy of ageable red wine, and specifically Cabernet Sauvignon. To have such an exuberant aroma on a wine of over two decades underscores both the reliability of the fruit source and precision winemaking, for there was not an iota of dullness, an atom of the oxidative or a splinter of a porty note. On the palate, a gorgeous feral hint of polished saddle-leather which added depth and meaning to the flavours of blackcurrant compote, Turkish prune and pine kernel. The balance between luxurious, evocative plushness and pulse-racing viridity was precise and the finish as clean as a nun’s joke on laundry-day.

Of the single-site wines, the Le Riche Steynsrust 2021 had my number. The vineyards grow in Stellenbosch’s windswept Firgrove region, and the wine had 24 months’ maturation in a combination of new and old barriques. This, such a great example that only a fool will predict the nature of a wine by the physical appearance of the site. Firgrove is hardy country, cold and influenced by the maritime air-flows. Yet, this Steynsrust Cabernet Sauvignon shows a reverberating bright fruitiness with ripe cherry and a warm mulberry sunniness. Absolutely delicious and very amicable, but with Cabernet Sauvignon pedigree kept intact courtesy of corded sinewy tannins and an intangible profundity.

Then, of course, there is the Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2021, to be released in early June and now confidently and justifiably priced north of R1 000. A blend of three geographical parcels, Helderberg leads with 67%, followed by Simonsberg (22%) and Jonkershoek (11%). Fruit from the different wards is vinified and aged separately in French oak, 70% new. After a year in wood, the three components are blended, then back in barrel for another 12 months.

Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon has always struck me as a result of craftmanship, no matter the indisputably vital role of geography and vineyards, and the Reserve 2021 just confirms this impression. It is all so seamless, and it all seems so easy and so very good, and so damn right.

A delicious, heady juiciness. The tannins coaxing the mouth like the fronds of a silk-bush. Dense, dark fruit with a slight touch of fennel and whisper of garrique and sun. The resounding symphony of power as the flavours expand in the mouth, shivering, thrusting with excitable tannin. It is not a taste, it is an experience.

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What a Whopper! Meerlust Pinot Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting to Grips with the Site Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Springfield Garuzis: The Luxury of Cap Classique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….well, some of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hoax of Food and Wine Pairing

Despite being in the profession involving the crafting of copious tasting notes and other wine marketing material, I have always considered wine and food recommendations to be patronisingly prepared with just a hint of arrogance. For who am I, or a winery or a food and wine writer or a sommelier to suggest that a certain dish should be “paired” (Christ, I hate that word) with a glass of something that apparently forms a perfect match?

Through reams of food-luvvie writings, hours of pontificating by the wine trade and lectures from self-appointed experts, the general consumer has now been indoctrinated into thinking that there is some Holy script of wine-food matchings enlightening the path to an ideal culinary experience.

A lightbulb moment in self-illumination appeared a few years back when I attended a talk by Tim Hanni, Master of Wine, nogal, at a Sauvignon Blanc conference in Marlborough, New Zealand. Tim had hardly stopped his entrance on stage when he said that this wine and food pairing business was all “bull-shit”.

Tim, by the way, has been around. Over 55 years of experience in the food and wine game and is a highly-regarded lecturer and writer in his homeland of the USA as well as doing wine gigs around the world.

Employing some simple psychology, he laid it out for those commentators and recommenders who deem it a right to tell others what is going on inside their own sensorial world: “Avoid the pretence of thinking what you smell, taste and prefer is what someone else should experience,” he said. Just think about that for a while.

Tim Hanni, MW

While the sommeliers and food-writers in the room were choking on their water-biscuits, Tim went on, just short of calling the industry of food-and-wine recommendations a hoax. Some of his points:

  • Wine and food “pairing” or “matching” was never a tradition in France until recently
  • The emergence of wine and food pairing coincides with plummeting wine consumption in France (and Italy)
  • Biological sensory individualism (genetic/physiological differences) alone provides a basis for revising how we approach enjoying wine with food.

With this in mind, Tim called on his peers “to educate the wine trade, hospitality professionals and wine influencers to better serve the personal interests of wine lovers.”

One specific aspect of Tim’s presentation attracted my attention, a quote he had pulled from the rather influential book Larousse Gastronomique (1938). Here the chef-cook-entertainer-host of a meal is told that for the third course of meat and vegetables, the wines that can be served are Romanée, Lafite, Hermitage, Côte Rôtie “of if the guests prefer the white wines of Bordeaux, the Sauternes, the Saint-Peráy should be served”.

In simpler non-Larousse terms: give them what they’d like to drink with their meal. Today’s wine scene, says Tim, has lost the plot of true consumer engagement, the writers, sommeliers and chefs having fell victim to metaphors, pseudoscience, misunderstandings, hyperbole and plain ignorance.

But he wasn’t there to stir or diss. The take-out message was that if a greater, all-encompassing love for wine is to be created for the consumer, those in the industry are going to truly have to understand the factors that contribute to personal preferences. “Connect with consumers at a powerful and personal level,” he said. “Understand, embrace and cultivate all wine consumers and guide the people who are interested in learning more about wine to do the same.”

For those subscribing to wine-pairing gospel, I can add a few observations of my own. The one being that when it comes to selecting a wine to accompany a dish, we consumers are encouraged to have developed a Pavlov’s dog set of expectations. So, with a plate of freshly shucked oysters, a cool Chablis or Sauvignon Blanc is going to be the way to go.

But this is so only because the diner, or the person recommending the combination – be it a writer or sommelier – has never attempted to discover the possibility of chasing a live plump oyster with a glass of chilled Pinotage. And this ignorance influences generations of consumers until the one-dimensional recommendation is cast in stone.

The prospect of a bloody rare steak automatically evokes instinctive calls for a claret-shaped bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux-style red blend or possibly the slicker form of a bottle of Shiraz/Syrah.

Sit back and think why this is so? Because due to all that food magazine and cookery book thumping one has come to assume that a full-bodied red wine will move your world when chomping some bloody meat.

Your democratically disposed individuality, over which one should be so protective, has never been allowed the opportunity to discover the joy of chomping the best cut of charred beef with a buxom glass of wooded Chardonnay served just-off room temperature. Because it is “not done” and it “doesn’t say so” on the wine-list.

So the list can go on, and it is such fun. But the point remains that there is no ideal food and wine combination, and harping on about this topic through countless prescriptive recommendations and assertions of doctrine does more to detract from the exciting wonders of wine and food than encourage it.

What a great challenge this is…to turn the current status quo of poncy wine-themed dinners and wine-service dogma on its head. True art needs a blank canvas. Glass of New World Pinot Noir optional.

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Pinotage: 100yrs Old This Year

Despite most of the industry claiming 1925 as the date of the birth of Pinotage, the correct year is 1924. This article appeared in Die Burger, the world’s largest Afrikaans daily newspaper and can thus rightfully be assumed as fact. This version was loosely translated from the more poetic Afrikaans.

Right in its own kraal, the South African wine industry is always looking for a reason to throw a party, celebration, or shindig. The establishment of the country’s wine industry on February 2, 1659, is annually celebrated with solemn reverence. Then once each year’s grape harvest is complete, cheerful gatherings take place at the cellars where vineyard and cellar workers – despite the fatigue of three months of hard work and long hours – let loose properly.

And when a farm unveils its latest vintage wines, the festivities kick off anew. This year, 2024, however, in my opinion, is an epic year for the South African wine industry deserving full-scale celebration. Because it’s precisely 100 years since the grape variety Pinotage originated – here in the Cape. Not only is it the country’s national grape variety, but our Pinotage wines are known worldwide, with countries like America and New Zealand even planting the variety.

In fact, of all the wine-producing countries outside the vineyard’s traditional home in Europe, South Africa is the only one to create its own grape variety that can be considered a global force in terms of wine offerings. And its name is Pinotage. The “father” of Pinotage is Abraham Izak Perold, the ingenious viticulturist who was associated with Stellenbosch University and later the KWV. He was a scientist with a restless and creative soul, earnestly seeking better vineyard conditions in the Cape and the ideal grape varieties to plant in the right places. Perold’s many deeds and actions are recorded in the book “Abraham Izak Perold – Wegwyser van ons Wingerdbou” by R.U. Kenney, and it is here that it is noted that the wise wine man brought Pinotage into being in 1924.

This was done by crossing two French grape varieties, namely the noble Burgundian variety Pinot Noir and the hardy cultivar Cinsault, which in Perold’s time in the Cape was known as Hermitage. The fruit born from this ambitious combination was thus named Pinotage. With no history or references, several Stellenbosch wine farmers began planting the “new” grape variety. Among them was one Paul Sauer from Kanonkop wine farm, who happened to be one of Perold’s first viticulture students.

However, Pinotage only made its debut as wine from the 1959 vintage under the Lanzerac label. Since then, Pinotage has grown into one of the cornerstones of the South African wine industry, widely planted, and its wines of Cape origin found on shelves around the world. A few years ago in Beaune, the capital of the grand wine region of Burgundy, I stumbled upon a few bottles of Pinotage (Kanonkop) in an upscale wine shop. When I asked the owner why this wine among all the offerings of fine French wines, he said: “Because it’s your country – South Africa’s – greatest contribution to civilization. And civilization is indeed wine, oui monsieur?”

Once the parties start, those words along with that wine is certainly on my lips.

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Nico Myburgh: Meneer of Meerlust

The first wines under the Meerlust label, Cabernet Sauvignon 1975, resulted from the vision of the late Nico Myburgh, 7th generation Myburgh on this Stellenbosch estate. Fritz Joubert, a retired journalist, remembers a remarkable pioneer who helped lay the foundations for the modern success of the Cape wine industry.

For wine-lovers of my generation the name Nico Myburgh will immediately herald an association with Meerlust Estate and its legendary Rubicon wine. Those who were fortunate to know him will, however, remember the nature of the man who, as its seventh generation Myburgh-owner, created the Meerlust brand that has become a global icon. The pride of South African wine.

One could describe Nico as a true man in full, an enigmatic personality and a farmer with a broad range of interests, as well as someone who could come to the fore with the irreverent and unexpected. Myself and my family got to know him intimately when in 1979 we found ourselves living on Meerlust for a few months. On the move from Cape Town to Paarl, our new Boland home was not yet ready and here Nico graciously stepped-in and offered to “put us up” for the required period.

Actually, this was probably due to my wife Maureen, who was at that time editor of the Wynboer magazine, today known as Wineland. Nico attracted women like honey does bees, and Maureen was one of his favourites.

Nico Myburgh

In any event, we had the privilege of staying in the Jonkershuis on Meerlust. And upon arriving on the farm after a day’s work in my Cape Town office the inevitable was to enjoy a few glasses of wine with Nico and his wife Eileen. This was always red wine – Nico did not have much time for white.

The bottles Nico opened usually came from the Meerlust cellar itself, unlabelled. One of these unlabelled wines that stood out for me was a Carignan, a deep-red, robust wine that Nico truly enjoyed in social circumstances. It never saw the market, however – Nico probably handed it out too generously and loved too much of it himself.

Only later would I discover the origins of Carignan on Meerlust. Eileen had smuggled some vine-cuttings from Argentina, inspired by Nico who was not the kind to subscribe to the conservative wine industry conventions of the time. Cinsault was at the time one of the most planted varieties at the Cape, but a cultivar for which Nico showed no interest.

For he was a man for Cabernet Sauvignon and had a vision to create blended wine of the type he had gotten to know in Bordeaux. Merlot, however, was non-existent at the Cape, so Nico had some Merlot shoots clipped in Bordeaux with the help of the legendary Danish viticulturist Vinding Diers and the contraband was ferreted to Meerlust with the help of a pilot friend.

Thus, more smuggled vines passing the KWV control board – Chardonnay was not the only illicit variety commuting through dark channels between France and South Africa.

On Meerlust the French Merlot vines were, under instruction of the legendary viticulturist Desiderius Pongrácz, placed in frozen storage until the nodes were ready for propagating.

Pongrácz, who at the time was involved at the Bergkelder, was the true inspiration behind a Meerlust Bordeaux blend. The making of the wine by Meerlust’s winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia was one thing – finding a suitable name for it was another. Here Nico turned to the great Afrikaans poet and academic Dirk Opperman. In a sort of “Eureka” moment, Opperman said “Rubicon”, and so the mythical river had been crossed, so to speak.

One thing I remember about Nico was his directness and ability to sum-up a person immediately. Either he liked you, or he did not. As illustration he liked to tell a story of the self-deprecating kind.

On a tour with Wynboer to Argentina Nico found himself on the pampas where the gaucho cowboys were working the cattle with horses. There was also an opportunity for the many tourists to themselves get onto horseback. While Nico and another Wynboer guest were standing around a man came trotting by on his horse. Nico nudged his companion, pointing to the rider.

“Het jy al ‘n drol op ‘n perd gesien (Have you ever seen a shit on a horse before?)” Nico asked his pal in Afrikaans. The rider stopped and looked down at Nico, replying in perfect Afrikaans: “Het jy al ’n kont op die grond gesien? (And you, have you ever seen a cunt on the ground?).”

Unbeknown to the Wynboer-group, another South African party was also touring the farm……

I remember Nico’s fascination with baboons. And they unleashed all levels of havoc on the seaside farm he had at Potberg on the south Cape coast – Nico was an extraordinary, committed and accomplished angler. But the chaos caused by the baboons disrupted his joy of angling and being at the sea, and he unsuccessfully deployed scarecrows, rubber-snakes and any sort of primate-repelling gadget to keep the apes out of his house.

One day Nico opened the door to the Potberg house and saw that the baboons had, once again, been inside and made their usual mess. But there was something different about this troop’s particular visit: the apes had, genuinely, gotten hold of a pack of playing cards and had set-up a game before being disturbed by the master of the house. “There, on the dining-room table four hands of poker had been dealt by the baboons,” Nico told me. “But you know, one of the bastards must have been cheating because there was a hand that held five bloody aces.”

I am not going to doubt Nico’s eye for detail in the telling of the above story as he was meticulous and a true perfectionist, which could border on the cantankerous. One day myself, Nico and my youngest son Fritz were having lunch on Meerlust before heading off for a week-end’s fishing at Potberg. Fritz was seated next to Nico as the mutton and vegetables were being enjoyed, and Nico saw the kid was struggling to get his peas onto his fork.

“No son,” Nico reprimanded Fritz, “not like that. Here on Meerlust we eat our peas this way,” he said, illustrating how the peas were to be eaten from the back of the fork and not scooped with the bottom-end.

The experts will have one believe good wine is made in the vineyard. But looking at where Meerlust is today, a brand glowing with provenance and legacy in tandem with the quality of its fine wines, I believe the souls of the people behind such wines play as vital a role as any in their success. Of this, Nico Myburgh is a fine example.

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