South African Sauvignon Blanc proved its excellence once again as one of the top five countries by number of medals at the largest and most significant international competition entirely dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, the 2022 Concours Mondial du Sauvignon.
“With four gold and 13 silver medals out of 1 120 entries from 23 producer countries, South African Sauvignon Blanc found itself in good stead with the likes of France, Austria, Italy and the Czech Republic at this prestigious competition which took place in Portugal,” says RJ Botha, Chairman of Sauvignon Blanc South Africa.
Diemersdal lead South Africa’s medal tally with one of four gold medals for The Journal Sauvignon Blanc 2021, a barrel-aged rendition of this variety, which also won the Revelation Trophy for Best South African Wine on show. Diemersdal also received two of 13 silver medals.
“It gives me a great kick knowing we are working with a variety the wine consumer loves and which is one of the most successful commercial varieties in the world,” says Thys Louw, Diemersdal owner-winemaker and vice chairman of Sauvignon Blanc SA. “The audience is there – now it is up to us winemakers to perform by – along with commercial success – showing there is greatness in Sauvignon Blanc.”
Gold medals were also awarded to the Delaire Graff Coastal Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Elgin Vintners Sandstone 2021, as well as the Vrede en Lust Blanc Fumé 2019. Silver medals were awarded to Neethlingshof Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Alvi’s Drift Signature Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Diemersdal The Journal Sauvignon blanc 2021, Groote Post Seasalter 2021, Zevenwacht 360 Sauvignon Blanc 2020, Cederberg Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Cilmor Winemaker’s Selection Sauvignon Blanc – Semillon 2021, Diemersdal Winter Ferment Sauvignon blanc 2021, Ghost Corner The Bowline 2019, Turtle House Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Elgin Vintners Sauvignon blanc 2021, Uva Mira Sing-A-Wing Sauvignon Blanc 2021, and Ghost Corner Wild Ferment 2020.
Over twenty nationalities, including South Africa, Australia and Canada are represented on the tasting panel, thereby guaranteeing the outstanding diversity that sets the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon apart from other wine competitions. Following the guidelines of the OIV and the International Oenologists’ Organisation, the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon grants accolades to a maximum of 29% of total entries.
“While there was little doubt in my mind about the quality and diversity of wines we would be tasting, what made the whole experience even more remarkable were the people I met while exploring the Portuguese wine region, Torres Vedras,” says Dr Carien Coetzee, oenologist of Basic Wine and chair of one of the tasting panels, as well as a Sauvignon Blanc SA committee member. “Hats off to the CMS team for coordinating and handling the judging flawlessly while creating valuable networking opportunities.”
For wine writer and judge at this year’s competition, Malu Lambert, it was a true privilege to take part in the diverse mix of cultures which all united in appreciation for one of the world’s oldest and most noble cultivars. “Besides the wines, what stood out was the early adoption to technology that assisted the judges with tasting and implementing their scores, as well as how this data was being captured and used on a greater scale to determine wine styles and consumers’ preferences. As the wine world evolves, we as tasters need to move with it and Concours Mondial du Sauvignon has clearly demonstrated they are ahead of the curve in new technologies, while still respecting tradition and inherent Old-World sensibilities.”
Although the majority of wine snobs would rather admit to drinking boxed Pinotage than stating an unconditional fondness for fried potato chips, this ubiquitous edible is an almost perfect companion to bringing-out a fine wine’s layered complexities. For in a good potato chip, we find a warm starchy neutrality, off-set by just the correct amount of palate-coating oiliness to draw bright flavours from the wine. A slight crunchy surface where the fried potato has reached a golden crust makes things, too, pleasing on the textural front, with the incinerated edges clearing the preceding cloying oiliness, perking the mouth for the next sip of wine.
But let’s face it, frying one’s own chips is time-consuming, demanding the peeling and chopping of spuds, heating oil and tending to the deep-frying of these potato slivers. Fortunately, various take-out establishments will hand over as many chips as you would like for your next round of wine-tasting. However, the aroma of a few parcels of fatty French fries does tend to seep into the interior of the Bentley or Jag, making the vehicle take on the atmosphere of a downtown Uber, without the glum Tanzanian driver.
Be forewarned, however, that all chips are not created equal. Therefore, great effort was undertaken to guide the reader through a review of the offerings dished out by a few of the more regular commercial establishments around town.
The popular flame-grilled burger joint was once guilty of placing too much emphasis on the firing of its delicious charred patties without recognising the important role the chip plays in the offering of a balanced meal. Well, those days of oily heaps of browned potato fingers stuck together with some murky goo are over. Steers chips are of the thick-cut variety, known to me as the British Chip, fried golden brown with a crisp exterior giving way to hot, fluffy potato. There is a slight oiliness, but not of the lip-glossing variety, just a layer of fat seeped into the chip to grease the palate, ready to meet the acidic entrance of a Sauvignon Blanc or clipped Grenache.
I only have to note Wimpy here as the Swartland members of my wine-tasting group usually arrive bearing bags of chips from this ubiquitous establishment’s branch on the N7 highway. And having experienced Wimpy on various Karoo road-trips, it must be noted that the chips from this chain of eateries are actually worse than their burgers, which – for those in the know – says a lot. Pallid and lifeless, these miserable uniform sticks of pre-cooked industrial chips manage to taste worse than they appear. The crust is dry and brittle and what lies below has the consistency of used ear-buds and the taste old wine cartons. Avoid at all costs, and if you must, swallow these chips quickly with a long cold beer.
Image being everything, it is common to trash McDonald’s as hell’s own commercial diner without ever having actually been inside one or tasted its wares. Sorry to spoil the party and to let a positive light shine on such a piece of crass American consumer symbolism, but the chips are super. These are real French fries, cut thin and spiky as a Kardashian’s nails, but without any dirt underneath. The fries are hot and firm, with an agreeable crust bordering on golden-brown. The crust-to-interior ratio, due to the slender chip, makes for a satisfying nibble. A slight oiliness and a taste of animal fat, plus the unquestionable deliciousness of warm potato, makes this a great chip for general use, as well as for accompanying a wine. Think buttery Chardonnay of a brooding, succulent Shiraz.
This South African franchise should be reported for high treason to generations of patriots who grew up supporting the brand. Gone are the days of tasty agreeable hand-cut Spur chips which you could hold between your thumb and forefinger while a blob of Spur Sauce hung in precarious deliciousness from the chip’s fore-quarter. Ordering a take-out portion of chips from one of these operations today shows that provenance and legacy mean nothing in the Spur value-set. Today’s chips are pale, having been pre-frozen to a state of soul-destroying oblivion. The Spur’s motto of “a taste for life” could not possibly apply to its chips, unless its idea of life is a funeral march or an after-dinner speech by Cyril Ramaphosa. If you must eat these chips, better have a great Cabernet Sauvignon of Champagne with it as there is nothing else to make the experience worth noting or remembering.
Unlike Spur, Nando’s shows some respect for its South African heritage by presenting chips as this nation of great gastronomes like them. The potatoes are cut lekker thick, like, and frying commences in oil hot enough to take the heat out of a Molotov cocktail. This gives the chip a surface which is sometimes more brown than golden, but imparts an umami-like smoky savouriness into the deeper flesh of the soothing warm potato. Some of the edges have a delightful crispiness, lending a satisfying crunch to a wine-tasting. And this requires wooded Sauvignon Blanc or a deep red, full-bodied Pinot Noir.
The only thing that could make a KFC potato fry taste worse than it does in its natural state is to allow some of this global fast-food brand’s chicken to depart its ghastly crumbed-greasiness on the chip. However, on its own the KFC chip is another example of neutered sterility deployed in the offering of what should be a pleasurable eating experience from a take-out joint. This chip is pale and lifeless with a flavour one would expect to find in a ration meal-kit for space travellers who needed further motivation for moving from earth to another planet. After relentless chewing, the taste of pre-fabricated potato gives way to an industrial taste of card-board and printing ink, the origin of which I still have to discover. Until then, down a Tawny Port or Sherry to help you forget that these chips are down.
To say that there are interesting wine properties in the Hemel-en-Aarde region outside of Hermanus is akin to stating that Saville Row has a couple of passable tailors or that one or two decent blues bars exist in Kansas City. This splendid appellation, divided into Valley, Upper and Ridge, is a sliver of geographical excellence created for growing distinctive grapes from which great wines have been made, and are continuing to be made. With a lot still to come, you should know.
Since my relationship with the valley began a few decades back, the farm that was Sumaridge captured the imagination from the onset. There was a visceral rawness in its exposure to the ocean and the sometimes brutal air flows from the north-west. Decomposed gravel and shale soils, hardy and poor, are a part of the contributors to the Hemel-en-Aarde vinous DNA, although the property I got to know as Sumaridge finds an intense clay component in its earth giving the wines from there, for me, a distinctive edge.
As the great Jan Boland Coetzee says: “There is a definite correlation between great wines and the clay component of the soils where those vineyards stand.”
To cut to the chase, Sumaridge is no more. Well, in name, that is. Under new ownership, including the Belgian couple Céline Haspeslagh and Frederik Herten, the 180ha property was recently opened under the name Hasher Family Estate. New name. New labels. A youthful new ethos showing eagerness, commitment and vision. But the same great patch of earth in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde which, as I and many others know, has the potential to become one of the regional and South African superstars.
Since purchasing the estate last year, the Belgian owners have not let mussels grow under their feet. 16ha of vines have been ripped-out, with new plantings beckoning come spring, leaving the current spread of vines at 19ha. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, of course, will be the focus. But during the recent launch, the exuberant Frederik Herten was quick to state that Hasher will continue the play with Pinotage, one of the wines that stood out under the previous owners.
Besides the direct approach to vineyard rejuvenation, Hasher got straight down to it, releasing three wines this year – a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Hereby announcing that the Hasher label is good-to-go and the farm is open for business, the writing of the new chapter in the history of this place having begun in all earnest.
Marimist is the name of the Hasher Chardonnay, referring to the maritime mists creeping into the valley, and the first release is from the 2020 vintage. 85% of the wine was fermented in wood (20%) new, and the barrel regime continued for nine months.
With the Hemel-en-Aarde’s reputation for magnificence in Chardonnay, I would say that the Hasher entrance into this lofty realm was done with confidence and an easy grace. First release, and able to comfortably stand alongside the best Chardonnays in the valley, adding to the reputation of South African Chardonnay excellence.
Hasher Chardonnay comes with a breezy expansiveness, the wine being wide and open and all-encompassing, without being broad or loud. Current varietal styles tend to chase a steely raciness before the fruit profile is reached. In this wine, it is cool fruit and white flowers from the attack on the palate, with a desirable degree of vivacious freshness and excitement evident from the wine’s beginning to its end. This is what malolactic fermentation brings to Chardonnay, showing a pristine structure in pH, acid and sugar, prying open the fruit’s mysterious hidden layers to let the sun in.
The sea, five kilometres away from Hasher Estate, helps build structure and balance. Yet it is the sun that gives this Chardonnay its delightful array of flavours, its enticing life-affirming taste.
Ernest is the name of Hasher Estate Pinot Noir, with the maiden release being from vintage 2021. And if it comes to introducing one’s first Pinot Noir from the Hemel-en-Aarde, one could have done a lot worse than selecting the comet 2021 vintage, which was as cool as a Steve McQueen monologue, yet not quite that short.
Ernest got 11 months in barrel, of which one-third of the component was new oak. Clay soils, northerly slopes, a cool vintage….a degree of new wood would have been required to temper the feral strains found in the just-fermented 2021 Pinot Noir. And the one-third component was on-song.
Yes, the wine is young, obviously. But not too young to show the Hasher property’s potential for creating Pinot Noir expressing the unique properties of the site, traits that were evident since Pinot Noir began to be made there.
The Ernest Pinot Noir 2021 is broody and dark in colour, and the aromas are heady and full – no berry-perfume or Pinot perfumed silk-nightgown here. For this is tough clay soil terroir speaking, dense and rocky.
Having made its presence known through the aroma, imposing yet pure and cultured, the Pinot Noir enters onto the palate with the sensation of fine Egyptian cotton being ripped to reveal a dense concoction of flavours ranging from exotic to untamed wilderness. A blue-berry crunchiness gives way to the satisfying succulence of ripe summer plum, while fine powdery tannins carry hints of cedar, cut fresh porcini and just the slightest edge of fresh game, bright and bloody.
In the mouth, the wine lies in broad pools of wonder and joy, while a symphony reverberates through the soul, a profound wave of something echoing that here are splendid things to come.
At the end of last year, I found myself in a chilly seaside village on the island of Sicily trying to tell some curious locals what South Africa tastes like. As in, what are typical flavours, aromas and tastes to be found in food and drinks from this country at the end of Africa, which to the Sicilians sounded like a place of exotic mystery filled with adventures, wilderness and an element of danger.
Answering them was, I mean, the most I could do. They had been treating me to copious local offerings of anchovies-on-everything, sea-urchin pasta and crisp arancini balls, plus pools of their regional wines made from Grillo and Nero d’Avola grapes.
I began a brief lecture on my knowledge of South African specialities: Biltong….boerewors…snoek grilled on the open fire…a flaky golden-trust milk-tart. And then, out of nowhere, came Pinotage, something I was not expecting to find hanging in my fond memory of typical local offerings. Pinotage the deep red wine that, I realised then, tastes like no other wine in the world. Because it truly is the taste of the vineyards and the winelands of the Cape. The one unique contribution South Africa has made to the culture of wine that began over 6 000 years ago and is made in a multitude of nations on all the earth’s continents.
“This wine, what does it taste like?” asked one of the interested young guys at the table looking out on the Mediterranean. “Wild and elegant,” I said. “Big and gentle. Rich and lean. Hot and mild….it is a wine of all things and of opposites. Because, after all, it is a South African.”
No missive attempting to hold substance on Pinotage can avoid the well-trodden tale of how this wine grape came to be a national vinous treasure. And it is pretty basic. In 1925 a very smart South African scientist named Abraham Izak Perold, then working at the University of Stellenbosch, fiddled around with his special field, namely wine grapes. Back then the local wine landscape was pretty limited in terms of grape cultivars and wine types, so Perold did what academics do: asked a question. Namely, what if the noble, blue-blood grape of Burgundy in France called Pinot Noir could be adapted so as to be able to flourish in the warm climate of the Cape? Not only to bring that variety’s refined flavour profile down south, but also have it grow to offer generous yields of the type that would make it economically sustainable for wine farmers to farm with the grape?
Pinot Noir was not going to do it alone. Therefore, Perold looked for a partner. And considered Hermitage, today more readily known as Cinsaut, which is more accustomed to a hot climate due to its roots in southern France. Besides being a keen grower of healthy yields, Hermitage has a spicy, juicy flavour-profile of its own.
So, it came to be that using his scientific brilliance, Perold brushed a male Hermitage flower against a Pinot Noir pollen donor to obtain a smattering of seedlings. Now, it must be remembered that this would have been one of hundreds of experiments a person of Professor Perold’s standing would have been busy with, so there were no initial “Eureka!” moments from Perold and his mates announcing the birth of a new chapter in the South African wine industry.
In fact, the precious seeds of this new grape crossing were almost lost to history in 1927 after Perold left his academic residence at Welgevallen in Stellenbosch to take-up the position of KWV’s chief wine expert. These seeds were saved by the legendary Charlie Niehaus, who also went on to become a name at the KWV and gave the material to Elsenburg Agriculture Training Institute where the first Pinotage experimental vineyard was planted in 1935.
It was in 1941 that CT de Waal, a wine-farmer and academic at the University of Stellenbosch, made the first Pinotage wine. The De Waal name is today still entrenched in the modern Pinotage world through De Waal Wines made on CT’s ancestral farm Uiterwyk in Stellenbosch and where the oldest Pinotage vineyard in South Africa – actually, the world – is situated.
However, this was still only an experiment. It was only in 1959 – 35 years after Perold’s crossing of Pinot Noir and Hermitage – that the first commercial Pinotage wine was bottled. This was under the Lanzerac label belonging to the erstwhile Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and from grapes that had been planted at Bellevue in the Bottelary region of Stellenbosch. The other Stellenbosch farm that had invested in Pinotage without having any idea of where the grapes or the wine was going to go in the cold commercial reality of the wine world, was Kanonkop Estate in the Simonsberg. Kanonkop is arguably the greatest name in the story of Pinotage as a result of the international reputation Kanonkop has gained as the First Growth of South Africa wine through its red wine ventures, Pinotage included.
It was also on Kanonkop where the chief disciple of the Pinotage rose from amidst the vines. No name is as synonymous with any grape variety as Beyers Truter is with Pinotage. From the moment he joined Kanonkop as its second winemaker, Beyers’s fascination with the variety and the unique characteristics of the wines produced from it led him to take up the cause of promoting Pinotage as the magical element of South African wine.
“I suppose I was privileged to begin at the top in my Pinotage discovery, getting to know the quality of Pinotage grapes grown and wines made at Kanonkop,” says Beyers. “It is also one of the ancestral homes of Pinotage with plantings going back to the 1940s. So, when I began working with Pinotage, it was of the blue-blooded variety, captivating me from my first harvest on Kanonkop and continuing to inspire me throughout my career on that farm and later at Beyerskloof.”
According to Beyers, the charm of Pinotage is that the grape and the wine is as vocal, hard-headed and nit-picky as a regular South Africa of the human variety.
“It is a hardy bugger of a vine,” says Beyers. “Its growth is fast and furious and to keep it all under control and prepare the vineyard for the growing of good grapes in a balanced environment asks a lot from the wine farmer – it is like diving into a ruck on the rugby-pitch with Eben Etzebeth waiting for you on the other side.”
But as tough as it is in the vineyard, just as sensitive and temperamental the Pinotage grapes are in the cellar. “From a winemaker’s perspective, Pinotage has its own set of rules,” says Beyers. “While other red grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, can take three weeks or more to ferment on their skins, Pinotage blasts off, fermenting less than a week. Through that brief week you have to keep your wits if you want to end with a good Pinotage, working the juice through the skins day and night to ensure acids and tannins are balanced. Of all grape varieties, Pinotage demands most from a winemaker.”
But it is all worth it, says Beyers, as nothing rewards like a good glass of Pinotage. “It has a unique taste, this is but so,” he says. “Berries, juicy berries. With a touch of seductive earthiness, especially as the wine gets older.”
One of the wine industry’s doers instead of just-talkers – although he is no slouch on the latter either – Beyers not only contributed to the Pinotage culture with his brilliantly made wines. In an industry that sometimes struggles to find the word “co-operation” in the dictionary, Beyers played a huge role in uniting Pinotage producers to generically promote the variety as a jewel in the South African crown. “We have to work together,” he said when the SA Pinotage Association was founded in 1995 to represent the country’s Pinotage producers. “I mean, come on: the last time the Afrikaner people stood together when they were on a ship as Boer War prisoners heading to the internment camps on St Helena – and the only reason they stood, was because the boat had no place to sit.”
Standing together was made easier for the Pinotage Association due to the involvement of long-time sponsor Absa bank. Seeing the potential of the body to spearhead generic marketing of a premium South African wine which is, too, unique in the international arena, Absa’s involvement has allowed the Pinotage Association to provide various promotion platforms. The major one being the Absa Top 10 Pinotage Competition, which since 1997 has annually awarded 10 trophies, one each to that year’s best Pinotage wines, as adjudicated by a panel of experts.
Cape Wine Master Winnie Bowman, wine critic and international judge, says the Absa Top 10 paved the way for this format of competitions which is now also used by other bodies representing, inter alia, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc.
“Besides highlighting the best Pinotage producers each year through a rigorously judged competition, I believe the Absa Top 10 has played a major role in inspiring winemakers to make better Pinotage,” she says. “Each year the winning wines seem to appear more spectacular in their interpretations of Pinotage. And time-after-time we see three to four of the same wineries come out trumps at the competition, underscoring the fact that there are cellars totally focussed and committed to the variety. Absa’s role in this has been pioneering and not only helped Pinotage, but also in promoting the quality proposition and image of South African wine.”
This abundance of riches in Pinotage offerings also makes it more challenging to select one’s favourite examples of this grape. But if having to choose:
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2019
Forget about the grape variety, just think world-class red wine. Made from a vineyard planted in 1953, this wine – maiden vintage 2006 – each year mesmerises with the vivid display of vintage variation in grapes grown from the same vineyard, on the same terroir. 2019 might still sound madly young to drink a premium red wine, and yes it will age brilliantly. What you have now is a vivid spectrum of dark fruit, forest floor and fynbos flung together in a gust of bracing freshness. The wine is an experience of texture and presence, more than flavour. Think deep, drink deeper.
Lanzerac 1959 Commemoration Pinotage 2019
One of the most exciting wine releases of 2021, Lanzerac paid tribute to its history of the first commercial Pinotage bottling (1959) with a 2019 release made from the same Bellevue vineyard that delivered those initial grapes over 60 years ago. Of course, now the fruit is handled by Lanzerac cellarmaster Wynand Lategan, one of the most astute winemakers of the modern era with a gut-feel and heart-love for Pinotage. The wine is beautifully put-together, aged for 15 months in oak which gives it a deserved regal power without removing the bright-fruited zest and charm for which Bellevue is known. Statuesque and a collector’s item, the mere realisation of this project shows Pinotage is in good hands.
The first commercial Pinotage: Lanzerac 1959.
De Waal Top of the Hill Pinotage 2015
One of South Africa’s truly legendary wines made from a vineyard planted in 1950 by the De Waal family on Uiterwyk in Stellenbosch Kloof. The Top of the Hill label is only deployed in exceptional years as the 72-year-old vineyard can be sensitive to precarious vintage conditions. But collectors are known to procure as many bottles as they can, for the combination between the personality of the vineyard and the skilled, attentive winemaking by Daniël de Waal provides a luxurious rendition of Pinotage. Aged in new French oak – 225l barrels – the wine is muscular with supple tannins which is required to rein in the explosive flavours. Darkness and forest-floor, sappy black plums and a whiff of cedar-wood cigar-box is evident. A marvellous wine-drinking experience of the highest order.
Simonsig Redhill Pinotage 2018
Simonsig’s founder Frans Malan himself played a profound role in putting Pinotage on the map, and now the third generations of Simonsig Malans are staking their claim as consistently fine producers of this variety. Made from a specific site on the estate’s red soils of decomposed granite and clay, the wine is deftly handled with a 20% portion of whole-bunch fermentation bringing gorgeous succulence to the wine. Matured in new wood for 15 months, which shows that Pinotage does not allow big wood to dominate its intrinsics. Here these are bright red cherry and a delectable sweet-fruited core harnessed by powerful tannins which give the wine a presence as big as its reputation.
Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage 2018
Bottelary is just a stunning area for Pinotage with its west-facing slopes exposed to the Atlantic and those soils of weathered granite and clay. The area is also home to renowned wine families, the Steytlers being one, of which Danie Jnr is the fourth generation. The kid is a class-act, picking-up where his father Danie left-off, which is maintaining a workmanlike approach to the rural environment of Bottelary in bringing extreme elegance and presence to the wines. The Steytler Pinotage 2018 is a knock-out, packing a weighty punch of visceral Pinotage flavours including cherry, fynbos and charcuterie but wrapped in a velvet glove. Warm-hearted and approachable, this is refined and elegant wine with a formidable voice, all its own.
Kevin said only girls read cookery books, he was going to the football section. I pointed to the shelf and said there was something I must show him.
The library was unusually busy, even for a Saturday morning. A lot of other children were mulling about the book-shelves and in the open area on the other side of the entrance where readings were held on Saturday mornings. Miss Dot, the librarian, was checking library cards with a smile on her face – she loved her library to be full – and her silver-framed spectacles glistened under the fluorescent lights. Outside, it was raining. Again. But I had only been in England for a few months, and quite liked the rain. Back home in South Africa my father’s family, who farmed in the Swartland, always told me that rain was a blessing from God, and that every drop must be appreciated.
Here, in Mill Hill in northern London, my father’s family would be blessed for a lot of the time.
I pulled a book from the shelf and called to Kevin. Africa. South Africa. Come look, I said, pointing to the cover. The title was The Cooking of Africa, one of the books in a series my Mom collected called “Foods of the World”. At home we had The Cooking of Italy, The Cooking of Provincial France and The Cooking of Spain and Portugal. Here was one of Africa, and in it a section about South Africa, my country. Kevin was always asking me to tell him about or show him pictures of home. Before I came to England, kids like him had never heard of South Africa, never-mind knowing an actual living human from there.
I placed the book on the wooden surface of one of the lower shelves and paged through it until I found the words “South Africa”. There were pictures of wide-open spaces baking under the sun, of sheep and cattle, of pots filled with stews and chunks of meat roasting over coals. You could smell the veld and the animals through the page, and the food looked mouth-watering. Kevin walked over to the same shelf my book had come from and returned with another one from the series: The Cooking of the British Isles. He placed it next to mine and opened it. We were engrossed in the pictures: roast beef, Irish stew, smoked salmon.
“You boys like to eat?” said a voice, a man’s voice. I looked up and saw a very tall, thin man, about the age of my grand-father. He pointed to the two books open in-front of us. “Not many boys your age come in here pottering about cookery-books, now are there?”
The man stooped to get a closer look at the open pages. He smelt of cigarettes and moth-balls. “Ah, roast-beef, now that does look good.”
Kevin, who was never shy, told the man that his Gran makes better roast-beef than this one in the cookery-book, but her steak-and-kidney pudding was better.
The man put his hand through his thin hair, which was slicked-back on his head. “Tell you boys what,” he said, “it is not beef or pork or chicken that is the best meat. Do you know what is?”
He looked at me with pale blue eyes and then at Kevin. “Springbok,” I said. “At home in South Africa we shoot springbok and cook them.”
The man seemed interested in my story, but slowly shook his head. “Not them either,” he said, looking around to ensure none of the other children were close-by to our little corner of the library. “The best meat,” he whispered, “is human meat.” Kevin and I looked at each other. I could see Kevin was trying to hold in a smile, like he always did when he farted in class.
“But this you should know,” said the man as we turned to him. He was now leaning casually against the book-shelf. “Animals, well, they have to run outside in the rain, fight off the elements, worry about foxes and badgers, and walk long distances looking for food….humans, we just sit around and eat pork-pies and beans. Therefore, humans have soft meat, the most tender meat.”
He spoke like I wished more teachers would. Saying something interesting, if a little weird, and in a very enthusiastic voice which was almost friendly. Almost like he knew me. Or us. Saying something he wanted to share and was keen for us to hear.
“You see, everyone talks about steak, don’t they now?” he continued. “You lads had steak? Liked it?”
I nodded and said my Dad would sometimes cook fillet steak on the fire. When it wasn’t raining.
“Wow!” the man said softly. “Well, I’m sure the steak your Dad cooks is very, very good. But wait until, one day, he cooks you a fillet of a young boy or girl.” He stood up straight, turned slightly, and ran his thumb along his back. “That is where the fillet is,” he said and turned back to leaning against the book-shelf. “With a sharp knife, you slice from top to bottom and cut the fillet away from the spine of the boy or girl. It is a beautiful piece of steak.” He whispered, looking around. “Medum-rare is best.”
I thought about this, about the fillet steak. How to cut it, how to cook it. But most of all, how to get said boy or girl in a condition from which they could present themselves for the careful slicing and cutting he had described. Was this about killing? Because that’s what all meat is, I thought, killing.
The open book before Kevin showed cows grazing in a green pasture beneath a gloomy grey sky. Probably somewhere in England. Kevin pointed to the cows. “What about ox-tail?” he said, looking at the man. “I like ox-tail stew. Boys and girls don’t have tails.”
It was as if the man was waiting for Kevin’s question. He seemed delighted to hear it, a slight crooked smile appearing on his face and his eyes glistening.
“Oh, yes,” he said to Kevin. Then looking at me. “That ox-tail is delicious. But….” he raised one hand, wriggling all five fingers, “we have these.” We stared at him with equal degrees of curiosity, despite the fact that I had never had ox-tail before.
“You see,” said the man, now stroking one hand with the other, “if you get a sturdy boy or girl, they will have nicely developed strong hands. Thus, just cut-off the fingers one-by-one. And then, chop the severed fingers in half – the thumbs have hard bones, so be careful, but their meat is best.” He looked at Kevin. “The fingers have the same sort of bones as the tail of an ox, just that the meat is tastier and more tender. So, like I am sure your mother does, you fry the finger-pieces with onions, add carrots, celery and some wine. And let it cook in the oven for a few hours.”
The man looked at the roof, shaking his head slowly from side-to-side. “Oh Lord, you boys have made me so hungry,” he said. “I haven’t had finger-stew for such very, very long time.”
I looked down at the open page of my book. The picture of the lamb-chop suddenly looked very boring.
“Best be going,” the man said, standing-up straight. “It was awfully nice chatting.” And then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone. Although I could still smell mothballs and cigarettes.
Kevin and I put the books back in the shelf, not saying anything to one another. It now seemed very stuffy in the library, and I was wanting to get outside, even if it was still raining. I picked-up the two Willard Price novels I was going to take home. Kevin had a bunch of Biggles books to check-out, and also wanted to go. His interest in the football section had, apparently, waned.
I led the way to the counter where Miss Dot did the library-card rigmarole. It was quieter now, most of the other children were heading over to the reading area. Miss Dot looked up from her desk and smiled as I handed my books and library card to her. She looked at me and then reached across my way to take Kevin’s card.
“You lads not staying for the reading?” she asked in an accusing sort of way. She pointed across to where the children were now seated, waiting for the reader. The reader was seated, the thin and balding man, the same man from the cookery book section. A little girl was climbing onto his lap, and just then he looked across the eager heads before him and caught my eye, and smiled.
“Mister Dahl, that is,” whispered Miss Dot, nudging in his direction. “Mister Roald Dahl. He tells awfully good stories.”
Ten days ago this time, I was standing in a cold, bare winter vineyard in the South of France thinking of a dead poet. The poet in question was the great son of Provence, the late Frédéric Mistral who had obviously never walked through a Grenache patch in the Alpilles region in winter whilst the infamous mistral wind – no relation to monsieur Poet – was howling in from the north. If he had, Frédéric’s famous line stating that “when the Good Lord begins to doubt the world, he remembers that he created Provence,”might never have been penned.
For that icy wind, throttling at one in gusts and torrents, slices through each layer of clothing, finding skin and spreading an irritable damp chill through the body, the kind of chill that causes moodiness, ill-thoughts and a desire to shout abrasive abuse at Mother Nature. In this mood, the pale blue Provence sky above the vines starts looking like the veiny varicose thighs of spinsters, and the pale chalk-rock faces of the Alpilles slopes resemble the sun-dried skeletons of evil men who had died painfully.
But the wind keeps howling, having no sympathy or feeling for your despair at its meanness in disfiguring the region of Provence which, in warmer more forgiving times, is – as Frédéric wrote – one of the earth’s places capable of conjuring wondrous visions and feelings and emotions of splendour.
When shelter from the wind is procured in a hut next to a grouping of still bee-hives, how funny is it not to find one being offered a rosé. In the dead of winter, drinking a wine that is deemed to be summer in a glass and of which millions of liters are consumed in Provence. The traditional home of rosé wine.
This tradition runs deeper than the long summer days here, days made fragrant by the indigenous shrubs and herbs, afternoons and evenings that make the imbibing of chilled rosé so suitable. Provence’s culture of rosé actually began some 2 600 ago when the South of France was settled by the ancient Greek civilization of Phocaea. These folk discovered what is today known as Marseille and among other traits, the Phocaea grew vineyards – making Provence the oldest wine region of the greatness that is France.
These early settlers created a wine blended from red and white grapes. And by the time the Romans began colonising France in 50BC, they – being wine lovers – had heard of the “pink wines” of southern France. The might of Rome may have massacred the Phocaea, razed their buildings and sank those glorious sailing vessels, but the Romans held onto the vino and continued making the light-coloured pink blend of wine. As things go, the pink wine culture stuck, hence Provence’s reputation for crafting the best rosés in the world and in the largest volumes.
And here I was, ensconced in a goat-farmer’s hovel, the wind howling across the vineyards and plains of Provence while my room smelt of livestock hair, black tobacco and liquorice. Even here, under these conditions, Provençal rosé is a wonderful drink.
The wine in question is Oddo Rosé in the stable of Vallon des Glauges estate which offers the wine lover the pinnacle of Provençal rosé expression. From the glimpse of onion-skin and pale salmon that catches the eye, right through to the riveting finish on the palate, this wine is everything a great rosé should be.
The wine is made from three of the estate’s grape varieties, namely Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. Grenache offers fruitiness through cherry and plum, with Syrah providing a spicy edge and Carignan depth and presence.
I learn that reaching the right shade of colour and capturing the brilliant, vibrant zest of the fruit for which a classy rosé is known demands much more than managing the contact between pale juice and red skins. After the gentlest of pressings, the juice is given a fourteen-day settling period in a cold steel tank, which stabilises the colour and captures the vibrant essence of the grapes. This ensures that when the juice ferments none of the influences of the fermentation, whereby sugars are transferred into alcohol, affects the colour or dampers the fresh profile.
The result is Oddo Rosé: a sliver of salmon and pale pink to the eye. Energetic, fresh and inviting on the nose. And tasting it, this is what makes rosé such a thrilling and popular wine. Totally alive and fresh, the wine has a perky minerality underlying the delicious nuances of berries, peach and red-fleshed citrus fruit. Even sipped from a tumbler to the tune of goat farts and the foreboding screeches of a howling mistral wind, it tasted like the best wine in the world.
Upon my return to warm and windless South Africa, I thought about serendipity and its role in my life. For lunching at the Pink Valley estate in Stellenbosch yesterday, my host told me about the goats that she had procured for the making of goat-milk cheese outside the charming village of Greyton. I was listening to her while perusing the wine-list and, lo-and-behold, that very same Oddo Rosé from Vallon des Glauges had found itself onto the list. Owned by the Oddo family, Pink Valley had done the right thing, bringing its wares to the Cape and offering one a taste of true Provence rosé, giving the flavour of a land of wonder, and creating memories etched onto the mind.
The current harvest-season in the Cape winelands once again has the pink liberal segment of the wine commentator community bemoaning those pesky South African farmers who are using mechanical grape harvesters instead of manual labour. And although figures are not available, it can safely be assumed that the majority of the Cape’s wine grapes are now harvested by machine – Northern Cape excluded as the trellising systems up there are not yet conducive to mechanical picking.
Although a gleaming three-meter high metallic Braud harvester droning through the vineyards might not be as aesthetically pleasing and heart-warming as the sight of a horde of smiling, sweaty workers deftly removing purple bunches with their secateurs, the move to mechanical picking is a no-brainer.
Farming is a business. Already squeezed from all corners in a cut-throat market as well as sets of costly regulatory compliances, any farmer worth his or her salt is going to take measures required to be competitive and efficient. And if this entails employing a machine to harvest 120 tons a day instead of 250 workers to accomplish the same task in the same amount of time, well, the term no-brainer comes to mind.
The other benefit of mechanical harvesting is that the farmer can have a machine rolling at 1.30am, ensuring cool, fresh grapes reach the winery. In my days as cellar-hand in the 1980s – pre-mechanical harvesting – the loads of Chenin Blanc and Cinsaut would at 14:00 already be fermenting in their bins under the hot Boland sun. With a machine you can have your daily quota of fruit in the cellar at noon.
Judging by the number of machines I encounter on my journeys through the winelands, the tide has turned irreversibly in favour of mechanical harvesting. And those thinking that it is only big co-ops who are using these for the making of volume, cheap wines…..forget it. An increasing number of estates are getting behind the wheel and shall continue to do so as the abilities of these machines improve. For example, sorting of berries is now able to be done by the harvester in the vineyards, eradicating the need for further sets of costly hands and eyes in the winery.
Those aforementioned pinkos getting all choked-up by the job losses this move to mechanisation causes, will do well to remember that harvest-time in the Cape is only three months long. Grape harvesting has thus never been a source of sustainable employment. The advent of the modern wine production era, which only just dawned on South Africa 20 years ago, can surely not be blamed for rural poverty. The answer lies in deeper-rooted efforts to mentor and to uplift so as to get people out of the cycle of generational dependency on menial farm-labour and into more dignified levels of employment in an industry with yet-unfathomed opportunities.
Liberal-hearted bleating for the status quo is nothing more than a plea for the perpetuation of a vicious circle which surely has to come to an end.
Cabernet Sauvignon is today an internationally recognised showpiece of the South African wine industry, with the Simonsberg region of Stellenbosch largely regarded as not only producing the country’s leading wines from this great Bordeaux grape, but also being one of the variety’s ancestral homes.
The call for the cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon to make world-class South African wines came in 1926. The legendary Cape viticulturist Abraham Izak Perold wrote in his seminal work Handboek oor Wynbou that Cabernet Sauvignon had the potential to produce exceptional Bordeaux style wines in South Africa if planted in the right regions. Besides small parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon growing in Constantia at the time, the South African vineyard was dominated by white grape varieties offering high-yielding vineyards for the making of bulk wine, as well as wine for distillation.
Perold specifically identified Stellenbosch as an area suited to Cabernet Sauvignon. And as founder of the Stellenbosch University’s Department of Viticulture and Oenology, Perold’s influence in the industry led to the region’s wine farmers – slowly but surely – committing to the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon, predominantly beginning in the 1930s.
Hans Hoheisen, who bought Driesprong – as Delheim Estate was then known – in 1939, can be seen as one of the Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon pioneers. When he began planting vines for his winemaking venture, Cabernet Sauvignon was among the first varieties he rooted on his property on the slopes of the Simonsberg. Cabernet Sauvignon was also the first red wine Hoheisen made under his HOH brand in the late 1940s. Despite being mainly made for friends and home consumption, this was one of the first South African wines to feature “Cabernet” on its label.
When Spatz Sperling joined Hoheisen in 1951, Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the dominant varieties on the farm. And throughout Spatz’s winemaking life, Cabernet would feature prominently in the Delheim Estate wine offering. The oldest bottle of Delheim Estate Cabernet Sauvignon found on the farm carries the 1958 vintage, further proof that the estate is one of the oldest producers of bottled Cabernet in the country, preceding the advent of South Africa’s estate wine sector in 1972 with the introduction of the Wine of Origin scheme.
Like his wine farming neighbours on the Simonsberg, Spatz knew that Delheim Estate was suited to growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and making wine from them. The variety simply showed – as it does today – that Simonsberg’s geography matches the requirements of the cultivar for expressing classic, refined wines with a unique finger-print of site expression due to the Simonsberg terroir.
Simonsberg mountain forms part of the Cape Fold Belt that began in the late Paleozoic age over 500 million years ago in the south-western corner of South Africa.
At its peak, Simonsberg today stands at 1 399m, the bare rock faces leading down to the soil line, which is initially covered by indigenous fynbos until the first vineyards are found. They grow in special soils. Due to the origins of Simonsberg and other mountain ranges in the area, the Cape can lay claim to having some of the oldest vineyard soils in the world.
Delheim Estate’s vineyards are rooted in soils that originated during the Pliocene Epoch some 2,5 million years ago and are predominantly made up of weathered granites broken down by the ravages of time.
These granite soils and Delheim Estate’s south-facing slopes rising to above 300m are exposed to a raw Mediterranean climate of dry, warm summers and wet winters. And it is this unique terroir that has seen Delheim and its fellow Simonsberg estates being recognised as the Cape’s blue-blooded region for Cabernet Sauvignon.
Delheim Estate’s cellarmaster Roelof Lotriet, who has also made Cabernet Sauvignon on the Helderberg – Stellenbosch’s other great region for Cabernet lying to the South of the Simonsberg – says that there are a number of unique features typifying the wines made from the Simonsberg.
“Simonsberg is closer to the air-flow from the north-west and its north-facing Cabernet slopes does not give the vineyards as much direct afternoon sun as the south-west facing Helderberg,” says Lotriet. “Delheim Estate’s Cabernet reaches phenolic ripeness at lower sugar-levels, and I think this is what gives our wines a distinctly Old World profile, where complexity overrides fruit-forwardness. Tannins are broader, providing for wines of great length as well as ensuring that our Cabernet Sauvignons age with grace and finesse.”
Today Delheim Estate has 14ha of Cabernet Sauvignon, with the variety gaining pride of place in the estate’s offering. The vinification process places an emphasis on skin-contact, the 18-day fermentation on skins with pump-overs and rack-and-returns being essential to draw colour, tannin and depth from the skins to ensure these elements are integrated with the black-purple young wine once it is sent to oak barrels for aging.
“Cabernet Sauvignon is a noble wine with pedigree – this is why it is the world’s most planted variety from which some of the greatest red wines on earth have been made, and continue to be made,” says Roelof. “The quality of fruit on Delheim Estate and Simonsberg Cabernet in general requires decent barrel-aging. We have found that a combination of 45% new wood complemented with maturation in older barrels – all 300 litres – makes for the perfect combination. Currently, the wine is kept in wood for 14 months, a lengthy period allowing for the right combination between complexity and power and the all-important presence of grace and refinement.”
As a member of the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, a body committed to promoting and communicating the provenance, diversity and overall quality of the region’s wines made from this classic variety, Delheim Estate embraces the opportunity to focus on a variety that forms one of the estate’s foundations.
Being the most well-known grape variety in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon needs no introduction to international and South African wine-lovers. To be seen as a producer of quality wine from this variety, one which combines expressing a unique sense of place with being a pioneering role-player in the fortunes of Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon, is a position accorded on only a few. Of which Delheim Estate is proud to be one.
Just because a wine has survived to reach a ripe old age is no guarantee that the thing will make for interesting drinking. I have had enough cloying, porty Cabernet Sauvignons, collapsed Pinotages and demented Shirazes to attest to this. Especially since the old-wine craze hit South Africa 10 years ago and wines from the 1960s to the 1980s began rising for an appearance at wine auctions, tasting-clubs and on retail shelves. And while the old antiquated labels make for attractive aesthetics and researching them leads to quaint tales of yore, most of these bottles best remain unopened.
But when, after dusting the bottle and scraping out the old, a 50-year-old Cape wine spills into the glass with bright bloody colour and presents a nose that is still vibrant and breathing without signs of varicose veins or false-teeth, the matured wine is a beautiful thing.
Most of the attention accorded these senior Cape wines go, deservedly, to the reds. 1966 GS Cabernet Sauvignon. Kanonkop Pinotage 1973. Nederburg Cabernet 1974. Oude Libertas Cinsaut 1971. The magical process of vinous evolution, undergone under the right storage conditions, has turned these wines into things of wonder. Tannins have broadened to build on the initial flavour profiles of youth. Initial darting fruit traits have become more profound, more sensual, more ingrained and weightier. Integration has brought all the wine’s elements together in a joyous whole, a whole that commands respect without leaving a hint of the stern or arrogant. It is this that makes a wine worth waiting for, but a certain degree of luck is required to find an old wine in the kind of health required to offer this degree of splendour.
While red wines become interesting and fascinating with age, old white wines are also intriguing – provided, of course, that these too have arrived at a ripe old age in a state of approachable health.
I have not been fortunate to sample the tremendous German Rieslings that, after 60 or 70 years in the bottle, are still strutting, hopping and rolling like Mick Jagger upon renewing his Viagra prescription. But it was sampling a Louis Jadot Meursault 1979 a few years back that made me realise that white wines, too, can age with brilliant confidence to become different and, perhaps, better. This was a Chardonnay that blew my mind, not because it was 32 years old, but just because it was wonderful and timeless.
As far as the Cape’s old wines go, more mature reds seem to be going around than whites. But lately, I have been fortunate to get hold of some white wines in a state of seniority, which proved to be thought-provoking and delicious.
A Backsberg Chardonnay 1986 presented itself, the topped ullage being the sign of decent storage. Things got better as the in-tact cork popped and the wine fell into the glass in a shimmering gold cloak and with clarity-assuring calmness.
No further evidence was required that this 36-year-old wine was in pristine shape, and the fun had not yet even truly begun. The nose was honey and clotted-cream, with a faint presence of jasmine. At this stage, I truly could not believe what was happening. In 1986 the Chardonnay grape had not yet been vinified for 10 years in the Cape, yet here was a wine stomping around like it had been leading communion in Burgundy’s Citeaux abbey.
On the palate there were none of the piercing citrus-slashes of modern-day Chardonnay. The Backsberg was coolly plush and pliable, dreamily slipping around the mouth bearing tastes of almond, yellow-peach and dried Saville orange peel. A bit fleshiness for some, maybe, but fleshiness of the Kate Winslett type that only holds good things into places where something exciting is going to happen.
A fresher, zingier older wine came in the form of Simonsig Vin Fumé 1985. The late Frans Malan, pater familias of Simonsig, used Robert Mondavi’s famous Fumé Blanc as inspiration for this wine’s name. Although unlike the Mondavi number, which was made from Sauvignon Blanc, Vin Fumé 1985 was a Chenin Blanc – Sauvignon came later.
The Vin Fumé had definite age on the colour, which had turned from the pale-straw of Chenin youth to a liquid with a slight ochre tinge. Showing old, true, but to the senses this wine was a revelation having transformed from wooded Chenin into a fascinating and complex white wine.
Loads of quince on the nose, with a thread of oxidation, as if a few drops of Sercial Madeira had been plonked into the bottle. But what wonderful exuberance did this wine not show as it entered the mouth. Bitter orange, grilled hazelnuts and marzipan came to the fore but quickly gave way to the bracing, zesty alertness the wine carried through the mid-palate to the long finish.
Hunting and sourcing old wines may be a bit of a gamble, but the chase is thrilling when the quarry delivers what some winemaker, way back when, had aimed at.
The South African wine industry must be commended for the step it took in selecting the individual on which to bestow this year’s 1659 Visionary Leadership Award during the annual function at Groot Constantia. By presenting this accolade to Carmen Stevens, the petite and feisty winemaker who 25 years ago began paving the way for many of today’s black winemakers, these awards veered onto a new path. Not only by recognizing the role of persons of colour and emphasizing the industry’s commitment to transformation, but also by admitting that “visionary leadership” can be shown by people who still have the power of youth on their side.
These awards, a traditional highlight on the Cape wine calendar, have been vital in recognizing the roles of various industry stalwarts who have been at the forefront of getting the South African wine industry to where it is today – namely one of the world’s great wine corners in terms of quality of product, innovation, energy and character. Previous recipients of the 1659 Visionary Leadership Award include individuals of the likes of Dave Hughes, Spatz Sperling, Norma Ratcliffe, Charles Back and Danie de Wet, which pretty much says it all in terms of the accolade’s representative gravitas.
The criteria for individuals or organisations to qualify for this iconic award include demonstrable efforts and initiatives that have benefited the South African wine industry; a lasting impact and legacy; and to encourage and inspire others in the game of wine. And up until now, these criteria have appeared to be exclusively appropriate to industry veterans of at least 60 years of age. Well, Carmen has changed that.
With the speed at which the modern world and the modern wine industry allows change to be affected, a winemaker, viticulturist or wine marketer no longer needs four decades in the profession to make his or her mark. Due to the demand for change, rejuvenation and the implementation of vision in today’s wine arena, a talented person can – with respect to the old-guard – achieve in 15 or 20 years what it took his or her predecessors 40 or 50 years to do. Who can doubt that Eben Sadie has in just over 20 years played a profound leadership role in the opening-up of a new South African wine region and a new local wine character and identity?
Thys Louw, still to reach 40 years of age, has in under two decades been at the forefront of the dynamic evolution of the South African Sauvignon Blanc category in local and international markets.
Many more young industry leaders, worthy of this 1659 commendation, can be named. And by including these in the annual awards ceremony will not only mark an evolution in this hallowed event, but will recognise the fact that legacy, progress, foresight and influence are no longer the sole domain of the masters and veterans.
As recipient of this year’s Leadership Award, the fact that Carmen is a person of colour has dominated the story. Which is a pity, as youth, talent, determination and dedication are – for me – the more deserved reasons for her getting the accolade. It is important that future recipients of industry accolades and awards – of which many will surely also be black individuals – are made to feel that whatever fortune becomes them, is the sole result of their genuine talent and recognisable professionalism.
The only awkward aspect about this year’s 1659 Leadership Award to Carmen Stevens is the silence with which the news was met by the so-called liberal media commentators who are constantly and monotonously bemoaning the lack of transformation in the South African wine industry. Of course, these folk will never see their restless negativity being satisfied.
In light of this year’s phenomenal achievement at Constantia, it appears as if this truly then is a case of the more things change, the more they remain the same.