The Master of Cape Syrah

Cape winemakers can hardly afford to be one-trick ponies. Unlike their Old World brethren who spend most of their lives committed to working a handful of grape varieties into two to three wine-styles, South African vignerons must tap into the national vinous psyche. Which in most instances demands an almost promiscuous approach in handling a vastly diverse array of grape varieties and wine-styles under one umbrella brand.

Here in the New South, it is not uncommon to find one winery happily producing Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Merlot – with a Cap Classique bubbly or two thrown in for good measure. Port and Noble Late Harvest, optional. It is wild and varied, and we like it.

Specialisation is a rare luxury afforded only a few winemakers. Although, there are a handful of Cape winemakers whose skill with a certain variety has risen to the surface; the yin meeting yang, the experience, craftmanship and commitment offering the consumer a guarantee of something exceptional. Danie de Wet and Chardonnay springs to mind. Beyers Truter and Pinotage. Jan Boland Coetzee with Pinot Noir, while Sauvignon Blanc happens rather well when handled by Thys Louw.

Charles Hopkins.

When it comes to Shiraz, my leaning is towards Charles Hopkins of De Grendel, a man who has established an amazing track-record with the Rhône grape and one who has the wines to show why this is so.

Hopkins was one of the first to produce Shiraz from cool-climate, southerly sited Elim vineyards. He made a name at Bellingham, a pioneering Shiraz farm, before moving onto Graham Beck. Although known for Cap Classique, and rightly so, Graham Beck did make some of the best red wines around, The Ridge Syrah being one of them. Hopkins’s wines from the Shiraz grape have always seemed to show refinement and restraint, with brooding dark moodiness beneath the fruit core. But, at the same time, a joyous drink-me appeal.

Since 2005 Hopkins has been at De Grendel, home of the Cape’s blue-blood Graaff clan who, with Charles’s help, have added wine to their extensive list of interests in business and agriculture. In 15 years, Hopkins has helped elevate De Grendel to the top echelon of local wine offerings, making an extensive range of white and red wines accurately expressing varietal and terroir. For the latter, De Grendel sources fruit from wherever Hopkins deems the best sources to be.

The latest patch of dirt Hopkins got to play with for his De Grendel Shiraz ventures is high up, namely the Ceres plateau. A kilometre above sea-level and 140kms from the coast, this site is about as continental as a croissant breakfast in Brussels. It is called Op die Berg, a place De Grendel already palms for grapes with which to make a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

A recent addition to the De Grendel range, thus, is the Op die Berg Syrah 2019, adding to the marque’s other Syrah, the one made from Elim.

During the on-line launch, Hopkins used his unique accent – an intriguing blend of English spoken with brushes of Afrikaans and French – to enthuse on the simplicity of his approach to this new Syrah.

The vineyard is high, dry and cool. The grapes are trucked in from the plateau in the dead of night. Pump-overs are done in closed tanks – fermenting Shiraz sucks oxygen like a F1 driver getting out of a car wreck. And maturation is in old wood, French oak ranging from 2nd to 4th fill, for one year.

There was some talk of pepper and elegance and other stuff in the De Grendel Op die Berg Syrah 2019, but the one thing that jumps at me from the glass is purity. High and dry the vineyard might be, but the wine is wet. It gushes and oozes, swirls and flows.

The nose is invigorating, a mountain stream at speed just before it breaks into white water. An aroma of salt and pickled ginger just manages to overpower the summer scent of lavender and sage-brush, petunia drifting out back. To the mouth, a line of elderberry and sour-cherry with a spread of sundried tomato. The splashing stream, however, returns and now the wine runs with bright energetic succulence, a bite of ripe fig, dried pomegranate seed and just an edge of truffled prosciutto.

Yes, in case one has missed it, the wine is absolutely delicious. Drinkable. Yet, a classical beauty becoming the work of a master. Pure thoroughbred.

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Am I Becoming a Wine Snob?

Say it ain’t so, Joe, say it ain’t so. After decades of being a proud non-fussed imbiber and glugger of wine – any wine –  and an unphased partaker in wine culture, there are signs that I am, too, showing certain traits that others might identify as being characteristic of homo sapiens vino snobbium, aka the dreaded wine snob. Against this, I have fought valiantly. By showing an open and non-opinionated disposition to any wine coming my way. By maintaining the habits and manners of the common man instead of breathing the rarified air sustaining the lofty residents at the top-end of the wine spectrum. A recent bout of introspection, however, showed red flags. The talons of wine snobbery have descended, the grip is being felt. For I am showing the following symptoms:

  1. I took a selfie of myself sniffing a glass of Simonsberg Cabernet Sauvignon. No, it was not the wine’s fault. There was just this overwhelming urge to document my manner of engaging with the wine. A desire to show the rest of the world that I can hold a wine glass decently and at the correct tilt, with an admirable studious look as I seductively engage with the liquid. Sure, vanity was involved as the scene looked pretty cool. But most of all the selfie was driven by a wish to let the rest of society know that I am not just a normal plebian wine drinker, but a serious student, worshipper and disciple thereof. At one with the liquid, a relationship earned and not by many deserved. Snob factor: 96/100.
  2. The fact that I admit to taking my own stemware to certain restaurants is a dead giveaway, from the word go. The word “stemware” says is all. No glass, white wine glass, red wine glass or wine glass. Glasses are for beer or whisky or organic mineral water. Wine snobs drink from “stemware”. Sure, this is like purporting a dog-leash to be a “canine restraining device” or a Covid vaccine is “China generated virus prophylactic”. But yes, when visiting eateries who still pour wine into Paris goblets with which – if forcefully thrown – one can cause serious concussion in a hard-headed wildebeest, I prefer to lug along a few carefully polished pieces of stemware. These not only do justice to the aromatic and flavour offerings of the wines, but look damn cool on the table. And also let others know that he is, well, a wine person, aka wine snob. Factor 90/100.
  3. French words are finding their way into my wine vocabulary, and this has to be stopped. Stirring the lees after wine has fermented is pretty self-explanatory, but now I only think “battonage”. The term “grape variety” is simple enough, however, “cépage” is creeping into my lexicon, leading to confused looks from those I am requesting to know what grape is planted out back. And of course, no talk of Cap Classique or Champagne is complete without throwing in terms such as “remuage” and “tirage” to the more familiar words of “cuvée” and “disgorgement”, which even the plebs know of. The strength of the snob factor for this French indulgence depends on the pretentiousness of the pronunciation, but usually hovers around 91/100.
  4. I’m beginning to laugh off young wines. One of the more common terms employed by the wine snob is “infanticide”, referring to some dark, mysterious abuse one is committing when daring to drink a wine which has, according to the self-determined rules of said wine snob, not undergone the necessary aging process. A Burgundy which has been opened without having been allowed to mature for 15 years in the bottle is, according to the wine snob, laughably young. And opening a Bordeaux 2nd growth or Kanonkop Paul Sauer from a vintage later than 2005 is assured to attract stares of disdain and mockery. The snob factor here is heightened by the stupidity thereof, as the statement of a wine being “far too young” is not backed up by any evidence. As how would you know if you have not tried it? Snob factor for infanticide obsession, thus 98/100.
  5. Let people know you are one of the fortunate few to receive “allocations”. For this, let everybody once and for all realise that you be no mere mortal when it comes to procuring wine. You walking aisles of Woolworths of Pick ‘n Pay liquor stores? Never – buying socks from Ackermans and cookery utensils from At Home would be almost as bad. Nor does the wine snob swing by a winery to stand alongside mortal wine loving tasters and purchasers to place an order. No, the true aficionado, the expert, the prophet of the vinous realm, he or she applies for winery allocations. Not necessarily because the wines are that much better than those labels found at supermarkets or in wine stores. But just by being given the privilege of receiving a wine or two that the relevant producer has deemed to apparently be rare enough to sell in limited volumes to discerning buyers, one cements one’s status as a paranormal walker of the wine earth. A special one. Snob factor year, 93/100.  

With some symptoms showing, advice on how to rid them shall be welcomed. Otherwise, bring on the next vaccine.

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Duimpie Bayly: Loss and Memory

Whoever said that nobody is irreplaceable had obviously never met Duimpie Bayly. Many of us, so many, had the rug pulled out from beneath our respective worlds on Wednesday when the news came that Duimpie had died of a heart-attack at home. Fittingly, if there is such a thing in death, he had just returned from a visit to Neethlingshof Estate to collect wine before his number was dialled.

Francis Carr Bayly packed a massive slice of the South African wine industry into that short frame of his. Not that short, really, but the kids at St Andrew’s in Bloemfontein thought their fellow scholar was slight enough to be named after the Afrikaans word for a small thumb, that be Duimpie.

Everyone in wine knew him. And if they did not know him, they knew of him.

The son of a sheep-farmer who died when Duimpie was only 12, he came to the Cape in the late 1950s to study BSc at the University of Stellenbosch. His mind was set on science, wine he knew as an integral part of student life, something he lived to the full. He loved telling how he was asked to leave university residence and told not to return. The student authorities, apparently, wrote to his mother, informing her his son was expelled from campus lodgings for “the repeated use of strong drink”.

A chance meeting with the legendary former MD of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, Ronnie Melck, saw Duimpie landing a job in the SFW laboratory in 1962 doing analyses on samples. The fermented juice of the grape triggered something in him. Off he went to University of California, Davis to study winemaking and viticulture.

Back with his MSc Degree in Viticulture and Oenology, plus his American bride Sue and a throaty Mustang supercar, Duimpie hit the cellars of SFW where he selected vineyard blocks, negotiated contracts with grape-growers and made many of the wines in SFWs legendary range. He also travelled the wine world, learning with his eyes, honing his incredible skills as taster and making friends wherever the winds took him.

As small as the name Duimpie implies, as large was his personality and the effect he had on people. He was a thoughtful and interested listener, and an easy conversationalist, as comfortable talking to his lowest cellar-hands as he was with the global captains of industry he befriended. When the conversation opened to allow a gap for a joke or a story, Duimpie was first out of the blocks. He jested others in his company with a lovable quick wit and was a master of self-deprecation, always ready to laugh at himself.

Somehow you were always glad to see Duimpie, and he would appear happy to see you. A mischievous smile and an ever-present twinkle in his eye, waiting for a reason and opportunity to enthuse, riposte or help kick-start the conversation on whatever topic this might turn-out to be. In this, I for the life of me cannot remember Duimpie speaking unkindly about anybody or going off on some dull, negative and morose rant.

To me, the reason for this eternally positive outlook resulted from his appreciation of what he had, where he lived and the world he moved in. There was Sue in the house on the Lynedoch small-holding they shared with Duimpie’s beloved cattle. There were friends, so many friends, old and young, friends he felt just as fortunate to have as we ourselves were to have him.

And I think this was one of the reasons Duimpie so loved wine and saw in its fabric layers that are not often recognised, namely that the diverse facets of wine’s making and growing and selling and studying and learning, this draws people to one another. This allowed for life-long friendships. It saw him able to hold a wealth of friends. This wine gave him. Therefore, he loved it so.

For Duimpie, his friends would move mountains. Even years. Ask business tycoon Johann Rupert. In August 2010, Danie de Wet was visiting Rupert’s farm in Graaff-Reinet. De Wet remembers a call coming through to Rupert from Jan Scannell, then MD of Distell. Scannell needed Rupert’s advice concerning one Duimpie Bayly. With Duimpie turning 70 in October that year, he had reached the stipulated age for retirement from the board of Distell. Upon which Rupert told Scannell that “Duimpie will turn 70 – when I say so”. Duimpie remained on the board until 2013, into his 70s.

The wine industry he loved will forever be indebted to Duimpie’s selfless commitment in furthering its interests. Here he sat on more boards and committees than even he could remember: President of the South African Society of Oenology & Viticulture, as well as of the Cape of Good Hope Agricultural Society. He also served as chairman of the South African Demarcation Committee of the Wine of Origin System, the Wine and Spirit Board’s technical committee and of the SA National Wine Show Association. He was one the first people ever to earn the Cape Wine Master accreditation and he was a sought-after judge on many wine and brandy competitions.

I was fortunate to attend some meetings with him. When these were held in a winery board-room and the request for coffee or tea was thrown-out at around 10:30, Duimpie would put on a stern face complemented by a devilish frown and a look at the host. He’d nudge his head, egging-on our host to offer the third drink of choice, namely “a little something”. A glass of wine, preferably of the sparkling kind, would be brought for Duimpie, with the other guests soon following.

Now and again Duimpie would proudly refer to his Irish heritage, but Irish poetry was the one thing I never got to chat to him about. So, for you Squire, a few words from WB Yeats which I had the liberty of choosing now you are no longer here in body, but forever in spirit shall be:

Go ask the springing flowers,

And the flowing air above,

What are the twin-born waters,

And they’ll answer Death and Love.

The End.

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Paul Sauer: The Great Man of Wine

It comes from good vineyards growing on broken granite soils of over 500m years old, and it comes from the heart. Thus, from 1 July of each year, usually a cold winter’s day beneath the Simonsberg of Stellenbosch, men and women visit this place of ancient earth and vineyards – and of other people living there – to buy South Africa’s most famous wine. Which is also one of the great wines of the world, and it is the place by name of Kanonkop where this wine called Paul Sauer is made. As it has been made every year since 1981, which sounds young to many, but the few will realise that four decades is old in South African wine terms.

This place with its flat earth to the right of the farm’s entrance and the sweeping, steep slope of vines stuck into rust-coloured soils on the left, is a wonder of nature, and of human vision and creation, and that man was Paul Sauer, after whom South Africa’s finest red wine is named.

New and old vines on Kanonkop Estate.

Here he tended the land he inherited in 1929 from his mother Mary, the daughter of Hendrik Cloete, past-owner of Groot Constantia. Paul’s father, JW Sauer, had died when Paul was a boy, but not without instilling in him a love of land, vineyards and people. JW and Mary, who lived on Uitkyk above where Kanonkop is today, were notable historical personalities in their own right. He, a liberal Cape politician and she a fervent advocate for human rights, with figures such as Emily Hobhouse and author Olive Schreiner being close family friends. In fact, Paul’s middle name was Oliver after his godmother, aforementioned Olive.

Upon inheriting the patch of land that was to be Kanonkop, the earth offered only bushes and trees and shrubs, not one vine or building. Paul and Danie Rossouw, his right-hand man, cleared the land and treated the soils, and planted vines. Because, if there was one thing Paul loved after family and people, and life itself, it was wine.

Paul and Danie built a cellar on Kanonkop in 1942. That the owner worshipped wine is not an exaggeration. Paul’s daughter, Cato, went to the cellar with her father, and she said his tasting of wine was like a religious experience. “He would remove his hat, demand silence, and study the colour of each wine and take the aroma and taste with emotion of wonder and reference.”

Yes, the wine from Kanonkop was and is good. Yes, the soils are magnificently suited to the wants of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Cabernet Franc and Merlot that have found a home here, a home they love as much as do the people who today live and work among them.

Paul Sauer

But the founder’s heart lives on, and keeps on beating, and that is one reason for each year of the Paul Sauer wine being so special and very, very good.

And what Paul did for wine, he did not only for Kanonkop, but for wine and South Africa. He was the country’s first wine ambassador, a formidable contributor to the South African wine culture of the 1950s and 1960s. When not talking politics and general current affairs, Paul used his public persona to advocate the recognition of wine as an essential part of the South African lifestyle, something representing culture, history, art and beauty, as well as being an indispensable part of good-living.

He loved reverting to ancient history to endorse his praise of wine. “Since Roman times, the wine farmer was recognised as a cultured man of the soil,” he said. “The other farmers were cattle-herders and ploughman, but the wine farmer….now he was the one that moved among the poets and the philosophers,” said Sauer.

“And let’s face it, which poet ever sang the praises of the potato? Show me the philosopher that bestowed the virtues of the humble cabbage?”

Paul’s own drink of choice was Tassenberg, an everyday red blended wine. For if there was one pet peeve he had, it was wine snobbery, something Paul saw as an infliction that prevented the general public from accessing and enjoying wine.

On wine snobs, he said: “Don’t be intimidated by the pretentiousness of those who purport to be wine connoisseurs. Please, do not allow them to get in your way, and don’t allow the snobs to terrorise you. Don’t become obsessed with the ‘right’ wine. Decide for yourself what a good wine tastes like. For you, the best wine is the wine that tastes the best, and to hell with the rest.”

During a parliamentary debate in 1956 on the amendment to the country’s liquor laws to promote quality wine production, Sauer took to the floor in an impassioned call for the importance of good wine and the artisanal approach required to make it.

“I once visited a winery in Australia, a massive impersonal place that looked like a cross between an infirmary and a factory,” he said to Parliament. “I told the winery owner that you can’t make good wine in a place that looks like a hospital. Good wine is like a child, I said. It must be created through love and must be raised in a happy home, not in a place like this (Australian) cellar that looks like a hospital. As a wine farmer, I don’t believe in all this chrome and chemistry. I want an endearing and loving atmosphere.”

And at Kanonkop, this endearing atmosphere had, too, to prevail. That is why the estate was seen as pioneering when in the 1960s, and in the dark days of apartheid, Kanonkop led the way in the Cape winelands by providing dignity for its farmworkers through respectable housing, running water and electricity and various sporting facilities. Factors expected today, but six decades ago, something out of another world.

Thus, the heart beats through the wine, as it has and forever will. Under the name Kanonkop Paul Sauer – like the wine, one in a million.

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Madeira Wine Makes me Humble

I was not made for consuming small portions, albeit in food or liquid form. I prefer draughts to sips, chunks and hunks to crumbs. Don’t give me your deboned quail-wing in Champagne jus, even if you have Michelins times ten. Give me it all, and I want it now.

This is a problem for drinking partners with whom I often enjoy a special bottle of wine. If you want your half-bottle share, you better keep-up with the big, thirsty guy. Moi.

Island of Madeira.

I’m thinking about this, wondering yet again whether large and capricious consumption is a vice, when I gaze across the room and spot the bottle over yonder, next to the cigar-clipper and the Nicole Krauss novel. It’s a bottle of Madeira wine, and it’s still all of two-thirds full, despite me having opened it over a month back. And it reminds me that I may be a lusty, over-eager imbiber of most things. But not Madeira.

The wine I’m looking at is a Boal, one of the four main styles of wines from the enchanting island of Madeira lying 1 000kms south-west of mainland Portugal. This bottle is from the house of Barbeito, a 2002 vintage that was drawn from the cask and bottled in 2020. Quite young, thus, for a style of fortified wine that has been known to last over 160 years in the bottle and ages for close-on a century in the barrel.

Provenance, history and heritage in Madeiran wine culture might be some of the reasons causing me to treasure small sips of this kind of wine rather than my usual energetic knock-it-back mode. Klap it, my broer. Maybe. But the real thing is, nothing tastes like Madeira. It can’t be replicated. Anywhere. And this is all the world has of it: wine made on that island from the 400ha of vineyards that grow there. Nothing more doing.

The word “Madeirised” is often, and incorrectly, used to describe the style of Madeira winemaking. This is a process requiring oxidation spurred on by exposing the wine to mild heat. By leaving barrels or glass jugs of fortified wine in the sun.

However, unlike Port or Sherry whose styles are comfortably replicated in other parts of the world outside of their native Portugal and Spain, Madeira can only come from Madeira. Because there is only one island with the geographical features allowing the four grape varieties to ripen to the correct degrees of acidity and phenolic characters to compose a wine with “Madeira” on the label.

The soils are volcanic. The climate struts tropic and Mediterranean, all-year mild and temperate with low levels of sunlight radiation, allowing grapes to mass the kind of acidity levels last seen at a Grateful Dead concert in San Francisco. The wine made from this earth, its robust rawness smacks of ocean and rock, is then exposed to barrel, sun and the ethos and culture from a society making this wine for centuries. That is what results in Madeira. And the result, when made well, which not all Madeiras are, is astounding.

Vineyards on Madeira.

Boal, the one standing here still two-thirds full, is the second sweetest of the Madeiran grape varieties. Sercial is the driest, followed by Verdelho. Bual slots in before the nectar that is Malmsey.

The feature of Madeira is the aforementioned acidity that allows all Madeiras, no matter what the age, to show a perkiness, a silk neck-scarf slashed with a silver, sharp blade. It is this honed edge that partly contributes to making Madeira conducive to my restrained drinking. And with the Barbeito Boal, the example I am having now, a haunting feast of flavours attach themselves to the senses. It is dried Jaffa orange peel soaked in honeyed mineral water. There is a gravelly, graininess such is found in toasted sourdough bread. Dried red flowers on stems withered by the tropical sun. A hit of ground coffee and the warm stub of a MonteCristo Havana cigar drifting to the ceiling of a Paris apartment with wood ceilings.

No man is an island. And no other wine is Madeira.

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Taking Cape Chardonnay to Infinity and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johann de Wet

What are the plans for the Forum in 2021?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, but do we have enough Chardonnay?

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

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

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

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WWF Conservation Status for Diemersdal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diemersdal conservancy – Swartland Shale Renosterveld.

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

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

View from the Dorsberg on Diemersdal.

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

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

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

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Urgent Call for more Vaccination Selfies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Reporter

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A Wine from a Genius, and from Time

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

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

Billy Hofmeyr, photographed by Victor Holloway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Hofmeyr

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

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

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

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Some Sémillon this Old Road is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan Puttick, Old Road’s winemaker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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