Paul Clüver sees Cape Chardonnay as Global Powerhouse

The international recognition of Chardonnay as a leading South African wine offering received another boost at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards, with Paul Clüver from Elgin being one of two Cape Chardonnays to receive a Platinum award and 97pt score at a show described as the world’s most influential wine competition. Paul Clüver Estate, a pioneer of viticulture and winemaking in the cool-climate Elgin region, received a Platinum award for its revered icon Seven Flags Chardonnay 2020, one of only five South African wines to stake a claim in the Platinum category.

Over 18 200 wines from 54 countries were judged at this year’s Decanter Wine Awards.

According to Paul Clüver, CEO of the Paul Clüver Estate, this award underscores the international recognition of the quality of South African Chardonnay, which must now be seen as one of the country’s major wine offerings.

“Chardonnay is not for nothing the most planted white grape in the world,” says Clüver. “The fact is wine drinkers all over recognise what Chardonnay offers in terms of its dazzlingly diverse flavour profile and the variety’s ability to express the geographical source where the grapes are grown. Here the Cape has shown in just over 40 years since the first Chardonnays were made in the country that South Africa has a vast number of sites and terroir expressions to offer an incredible palette of wines made from this grape.”

When Chardonnay was established on the Paul Clüver estate in 1987, South Africa only had 688ha of this variety planted in local soils, just over 10% of today’s 6 500ha. “With the advent of the modern Cape wine industry in 1990, the local and global demand for Chardonnay led to plantings increasing rapidly,” says Clüver. “This was obviously encouraged by the quality of the wines emanating from South Africa by producers who continue to show a commitment to harnessing their respective terroirs with their skills in the making of this magical white wine.”

Paul Clüver

With Chardonnay the most famous quality white wine in the world and in the privileged position of there being a market for good Chardonnay in every wine-drinking country, the variety has the potential to drive South Africa’s image as a premium wine-producing nation.

“The recognition of our Chardonnay at the Decanter Wine Awards is thus of the utmost importance as it is from this global stage where recognition for the classy pedigree and unique styles of Cape Chardonnay can be achieved,” says Clüver.

Paul Clüver Seven Flags Chardonnay is the icon white wine in the estate’s range, originating from vineyards set in Bokkeveld and clay soils, the other part of its terroir being the cool climate conditions of Elgin.

Vineyards on Paul Clüver Estate on Elgin.

“The wine from the 2020 vintage, which achieved Platinum status at Decanter, is pure expression of Elgin terroir,” says Clüver. “White fruit including winter melon and quince are evident, while extended lees contact in variously sized oak vessels ensure refined texture, mouth-feel and persistence for which great Chardonnays are known. The wine truly shows worthy of this Decanter accolade, which is a true honour.”

Going Down Under with the CWG

They came from the valleys and the meadows; from the mountains and the parched flats; the cool misty kloofs and that arid shrubland of rocks and hills. They came with collective centuries’ experience in and knowledge of the world of wine, descending on Kanonkop Estate for their monthly gathering and tasting, these members of the Cape Winemakers Guild. To be an outsider invited into this hallowed grouping for two hours’ exposure to dazzling vinous insights, informed opinion, and spirited engagement, well, this leaves one with a feeling of blessed enlightenment. One that makes you feel ready to walk on water into a new world, armed with memory and crowned with gleaming shards of freshly acquired knowledge.

Margaret River, down there in south-western Australia, that’s where David Finlayson took us in his role of Guild member tasked with this month’s tasting. On this area, my knowledge was cursory before David’s introduction, only knowing it is coastal and south of the dull Australian city of Perth, and that Margaret River is coaxed by Indian Ocean breezes and has a climate pretty close to that of my beloved Cape. David has been there… walked the old soils, seen the vineyards and experienced the rigour and respect with which viticulture is practised in that region. He knows many of the producers, their approach to wine, the vision and achievements. Some 5 000ha of land is under vine down Margaret River way, and its quality – especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – is deemed disproportionate in its excellence and superiority compared to the rest of Australia’s vast wine offering.

Settling down after the comprehensive and informed introduction each Guild member is expected to make when tasked with the hosting of a tasting, 15 wines were presented. The selection was shown in three flights of wines for which Margaret River is known: Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends; Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The first flight comprised three extremely delicate white wines, which to my mind were somewhat lost as a result of the fervent discussion that ensued later during the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon flights. The introductory troika were two Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon Blends – Domaine Naturaliste SBS 2021 and Xanadu DJL 2021 – and a typical Finlayson curve-ball in the offering of a Chenin Blanc, the delightfully named Tripe Iscariot Kroos from vintage 2020.

Margaret River winelands.

All three of these wines were meticulously crafted and gently graced, alcohols at 12.5% and showing a harmonious balance between acute freshness and delicate layers of white grape beauty. Domaine Naturaliste stood out with a heady guava perfume, while Xanadu featured a prominent black-currant note, typical of Graves Sauvignon-Semillon two-step. The Chenin Blanc was almost honeyed in texture, the presence elevated by spectacular reams of yellow citrus and salt-lick.

But I’ll remember the almost fragile, vulnerable presence of three gorgeous white wines that harnessed land, sea and sun into its offering of polished, well-crafted glasses of pale gold wonder.

The tasting took a more serious tone when six Margaret River Chardonnays were poured, as we were now heading into the revered territory of one of the New World’s renowned wine offerings. Even Margaret River gringos like myself know of the reputation names such as Leeuwin and Voyager Estates had staked their claims on, so this was going to be a highlight, and rightfully so.

Scrumming down in this Chardonnay line-up – all 2019 vintages – were Leeuwin Art Series, Stella Bella Luminosa, Flametree SRS, Voyager Broadvale Block 6, Vasse Felix Heytsbury and Xanadu Reserve.

Having scrutinised the line-up, Guild winemakers raised issues of reduction and tightness, possibly the result of the screwcap closures, although the unanimous opinion was that the winemaking was exceptionally well-executed. Kevin Grant said he would have been proud to have made any of these Chardonnay, which pretty much is the final word on the flight for me.

The flight began with a taste of real cold in the Leeuwin wine which was tighter than a rugby-player’s jock-strap during weight-training and initially about as reluctant to open up as a first-year accountancy student during the mid-term house dance. There was an icy frigidity about the wine, rapier-sharp thrusts when – once withdrawn – gleamed with the sap of green lime and the sour plums of northern Portugal. It was quite an introduction to Margaret River Chardonnay.

The Stella Bella and Flametree Chardonnays allowed slightly more sun in, showing touches of yellow fruit and hits of a yeasty brioche-ness. Finishes were long and riveting, brightness showing as in most of the flight.

Voyager was a beaut, and here my Chardonnay reference recalled more familiar terrain. White flowers and chalk showed on the nose, with the palate of grilled nuts and honeysuckle riding the by-now-familiar Margaret River shore-break of brisk, bracing acidity, broken rocks and piercingly resounding raw citrus.

My favourite was the most complex wine in the Chardonnay line-up, namely Xanadu Reserve from a producer which, thanks to this tasting, I now have my eyes on. It came across as a friendly wine, a “G’day Mate” walking out from the chilled, stormy Southern Ocean wherein its colleagues rolled, dropped and clamoured. Crunchy grape-fruit and ripe loquat gave the Chardonnay a quaffable drinkability with a thin slice of zesty green apple to keep the wine alive with an excitable vigour. Layered in texture and taste, this was Chardonnay Complete.

As for the much-vaunted Cabernet Sauvignons, our host had selected from the A-list. From the 2018 vintage came Cullen Diana Madeline, Moss Wood, Devil’s Lair, Deep Woods Reserve, Cape Mentelle and my friend Xanadu.

Stand-out features on the Cabernet Sauvignon line-up were, for me, the clean precision and almost restrained varietal expression of this regal Bordeaux grape. Wines showed balance with gentle, prying attacks on the palate, a cloud of berry-fruit hanging on the mid-palate, followed by clear, unhindered finishes.

I loved the freshness of the Moss Wood, a slight hit of mint giving air and vitality to a wine glowing with black-currant, dusted with cedar and seeped, briefly, in Cuban cigar wrapper. Cape Mentelle had a beautiful nose of dates and fig-paste with a brief whisp of old balsamic, and the fruit was cut finely and interwoven by a tapestry of tannins that really created a wonderful red wine. Memorable, evocative, musical and dramatic.

Devil’s Lair played a similar tune, although at a lower volume and with bit of a shorter, inattentive finish.

The wines were, however, all memorable thanks to an amazing environment. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of South African wine, sharing the experience of a renowned wine region and being permitted access to the collective wisdoms of the Cape Winemakers Guild is an unforgettable experience that was as much of a privilege as an honour.

Brandy: Built on a Spirited Foundation

Unique to the local liquor industry, the South African Brandy Foundation is an inclusive representative body founded in 1984 to promote the excellence, versatility and quality of the country’s brandy offering. It is a world-class example of an organization representing various producers and corporates who, while fierce competitors in the market-place, work together in managing a platform committed to the generic promotion of one of their most famous commercial offerings, in this case brandy.

Christelle Reade-Jahn, the current director of the SA Brandy Foundation, says the goals of the foundation are twofold.

“First and foremost, brandy is a major contributor to the South African economy,” says Reade-Jahn. “It offers thousands of employment opportunities on the wine farms where grapes for our product is grown, the producers of the distillation wine and the brandies themselves, as well as in the supply chain. Here the Foundation acts as the link between the industry and government.

“There are tariffs and levies to negotiate, laws surrounding the responsible use of alcohol to implement and oversee, and hundreds of thousands of jobs to represent when dealing with the authorities. As one could imagine, the past two-and-a-half years have been fraught with challenge due to the disruption Covid-19 caused in, among others, the liquor industries. Here the Brandy Foundation had to work closely with other liquor industry bodies in negotiating some tricky waters.”

Christelle Reade-Jahn, chairperson of the SA Brandy Foundation.

The other task of the Foundation is to generically promote the quality, the diversity, culture and intrinsics of the gorgeous creation that is South African brandy. And Reade-Jahn relishes the task of donning these two very different hats, from hard-core industry lobbyist in the circles of government administration to acting as an ambassador for the distilled offering of the vine.

“The Foundation is almost 40 years old, and I don’t thing that I nor my predecessors have had one dull day in the job,” says Reade-Jahn. “Like South African’s wine offering, our brandies are just so startling diverse with so many characteristics that one can not be anything but enthusiastic about this category of the drinks industry. From terroir-driven estate brandies, to the crafted pot-still elixirs and the exciting lifestyle range of blended brandy brandies that have been a part of all South African cultures for decades, it is just incredibly stimulating to represent this product to the trade and the consumer.”

And today more than ever, the challenge is to make brandy exciting in the eyes of the younger, fashion-conscious consumer who is exposed to the dynamic and creative marketing done in the spirits sector, much of it by huge international brandy.

“Among the younger adults, brown spirits such as brandy, Cognac and whisky are sometimes a second fiddle to white spirits like gin, vodka and white rum that are first choices in the vibey cocktail culture,” say Reade-Jahn. “Here the Brandy Foundation has to ensure we keep our ears to the floor, reading the market trends and collaborating with mixologists and lifestyle-gurus to see how we can get brandy seen as fashionable and trendy option when it comes to creating and offering cocktails in aspirational settings.”

Reade-Jahn laughs with pleasure. “Here I think I have the best job in the world, truly, and if more people knew about Brandy Foundation I would be inundated with job applications,” she says. “On the one hand I get to promote the luxury surrounding the classy pot-still brandies that is heavenly just to be around these flavours and aromas. And on the other hand, the Foundation is out there seeking-out opportunities of getting brandy noticed, used and consumed in night-clubs and cocktail-lounges – and all this among the cultural diversity that makes South Africa as exciting as the category of great brandy the country has created.”

Tasting Brandy

Nobody, just nobody, can tell anyone how, what where or when he or she should enjoy brandy or any other drink, albeit wine or Champagne or thrice-distilled vodka. When it comes to brandy, it is the complexity of aromas and flavours and the heady, seductive frame of high-alcohol distilled spirit that draws me in.

Brandy time, thus, is me time. It will involve a pot-still brandy. Oude Molen XO, an elixir blended from barrels of which the youngest component is 10 years old, is a current favourite. Next on the list would be the Van Ryn’s 12 – because it is a great brandy and the house from where it originates underscores Stellenbosch as not only the Cape’s wine capital, but a major force in brandy as well.

The measure at which to pour, is at least three tots as the true enjoyment of a good brandy requires a diverse approach. Sniffing. A few tentative lip-wetting sips. And then when the spirit has warmed the stomach, heightened the senses and elated the mind, modest draughts of brandy are taken so the pleasure may overwhelm.

In the glass – a snifter, of course, and add one block of ice to the three tots. The melting ice causes a slight dilution, allowing the brandy’s flavours to be released, fluttering lazily to the surface like just-hatched fire-flies.

Then there is the smoke. My ultimate companion to a good brandy experience is civilised practice of smoking a fine cigar. Havana. Cohiba, MonteCristo or Partagas, if a choice is available. Cut, lit and smoking, the cigar is held in one hand, sending its stream of aromatic blue smoke drifting in silk-threads into the air. In the other, the glass of brandy, now cool and golden, is sipped and swallowed.

A great pot-still brandy will be a masterly integrated sensorial experience. Smooth, delicate and soft to the edge of plushness, the rude alcohols have been mellowed and smoothened by years of aging in the cask. Yet, the heart of the brandy beats with the spirit of the distillation, the fiery blaze of alcohol combines with the plushness to unleash the darts of splendid flavours. There will be dried apricots and dense, dark prune. A touch of ground coffee, and life-affirming orange peel with some exotic notes of ground cardamom and nutmeg. The brandy will flow, true and soulful, a work of art that began with the crafting of nature in the vineyard.

Followed by a deep smoky puff from the cigar, the smoke warm and drying the palate like a fragrant dessert wine, the brandy adds a touch of something unashamedly decadent. But something you know you deserve.

Types of Brandy

Blended: A brandy with a minimum of 30% pot-still component, aged for three years in barrel. The balance is made up of unmatured wine spirit. Minimum alcohol: 43%

Vintage: 30% to 80% pot-still brandy. 70% to 20% unmatured wine spirit. Minimum aged in wood for eight years. Minimum alcohol: 38%

Pot-still: 100% pot-still aged for at least three years in wood. Minimum alcohol: 38%.

Interesting facts:

  • I takes five litres of wine to distill one liter of brandy.
  • South Africans consume some 32m litres of brandy a year.
  • This requires over 150m litres of wine the South African industry makes specifically for distillation.
  • Brandy is also known for its medicinal attributes. Of the over 250 official “boere-rate” of Afrikaans traditional medicinal advice, over 100 include brandy as part of a cure for a number of ailments, from influenza to heat ailments.
  • South African brandies are internationally recognised as the best in the world. On occasions too many to mention, it has been a Cape brandy that has been adjudged the world’s best brandy in a specific year. Our regulations of production aimed at superlative quality and the wine from the terroir of the Cape winelands that is used for distillation gives South African brandy an edge of class, distinction and magnificence.

Livering it Up at Newton Johnson Restaurant

In the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, and on a clear day you can truly see forever. Unless one is settled at the Restaurant belonging to winery Newton Johnson, in which case chances are you’ll be looking at your plate instead of scoping the stunning scenery.

Like all Newton Johnson’s offerings – the easy brilliance of its wines, the calmly exhilarating setting facing west over the valley to the sea, that laid-back efficiency of proprietors and staff – the Newton Johnson Restaurant is, well, just so effortlessly sublime, delivering some of the finest cuisine in the Overstrand region.

Emul Ross, the emotional burger-eater.

But if Hamilton Russell winemaker Emul Ross is to be believed, a visit to this restaurant can be emotional. Emul recently admitted, in hushed tones of reverence, that he had actually shed a tear upon tasting the chicken curry prepared by chef Tullishe le Roux.

So, who better a man to accompany me to the Newton Johnson eatery on a peachy autumn day for a cheeky Friday lunch than Emul. I hauled him fresh from the Hamilton Russell winery where he had been checking up on the Chardonnay quality of harvest 2022, warning him that lunch was on me, providing he held back on the tears. One has a reputation to uphold here in Hemel-en-Aarde, and sharing a table with a winemaker bawling over a plate of curry can have consequences on the image front.

Le Roux’s menu comprises pretty eclectic stuff with influences ranging from Korean to Indian, European to local South African. An adventurous spirit is underscored by the ever-changing menu. Our starters varied from classic bistro fare such as cream of parsnip soup and chicken liver parfait to spicy Korean chicken wings, pork dumplings and the cheesy Indian stuff that be paneer.

Chicken liver parfait.

On the mains side, chef showed – inter alia – roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, fresh cob and Sri Lankan chicken curry, the latter not to be ordered so as to avoid my dining partner’s emotional frailty at things culinary.

We sipped Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2021 and looked over the valley sky shrouded in a fine lace of autumnal sun-woven gold, the vineyards releasing leaves to reveal attractively patterned rows against the hardy soils of Hemel-en-Aarde. To the south, the Atlantic Ocean lay viscous and heavy in an ungodly deep blue. You want to eat it all up, but I was sticking to the food.

Starters for Emul of parsnip soup, while I headed for something cool in the chicken liver parfait. The liver arrived in a rectangle the colour of a baby’s blushed cheek, a beautifully clean-lined slab of pale-pink goodness lying next to a few slices of toasted brioche. These were custard coloured, revealing an aroma of vintage champagne.

My partner’s soup was the texture of ladled cream and heavy dawn dew, eaten with gusto and good appetite, being interspersed with slight groans of satisfaction and profound moments of moving silence.

Liver

The liver parfait was almost butter-like, the fat and organ having been pounded, stirred, blitzed and whacked into a beautifully poised texture that lay on the palate like a silky Sauternes wine. Flavours were delicate and subtle, but with just the correct amount of primal savoury fattiness to make for an exquisitely satisfying eating experience. The brioche scrubbed the palate with buttery crumbs, preparing the mouth for the next onslaught of smooth, lardaceous liver and a sip of Chardonnay, bright and cool.

For the main-course Emul ordered the beef-burger, the one permanent item on the Newton Johnson, while I continued my journey into the murky, yet pleasurable, depths of animal organs. This be seared lamb liver with mash.

That beef-burger appeared formidable and superbly put-together with the ideal bun-to-beef ration, a scattering of good-looking fries laying next to it. My liver was plated with the view of offering sustenance and pleasure. Two generous slices of perfectly seared liver, brown and slightly crusty on the surface with the interior perfectly prepared to a deep pink, making the organ cooked and warm while ensuring that enough of the good, bloody and earthy liver taste remains.

The liver was lovingly placed on mash the texture of velvety potatoes whisked to a marble-white luxuriousness. A dense layer of gravy encased the food, with a few crunchy blanched green-beans the colour of Irish meadow provided a life-affirming, fresh look.

By now I had taken the liberty of ordering Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2019 to accompany the heady pleasure my liver dish was providing. The wine’s characteristic perfume of dried jasmine, fallen plums and oak bark lifted the liver’s presence to a new level, and once the Pinot Noir juiciness and refined tannins joined the sensual gastronomic fray, the senses were drifting to new undiscovered places.

These are those moments Evelyn Waugh wrote about, the ones you wish you could take hold of and bury, returning to re-live their exquisite beauty and human affectation. And no, cowboys don’t cry, because sometimes tears are just not enough.

Still Life with Cabernet Sauvignon and Stellenbosch

Aroma and taste aside, Cabernet Sauvignon’s most endearing trait is the respect it commands and the sheer presence the wine exudes even before the pouring and tasting commences. On hearing that the next wine is a Cabernet Sauvignon, the staccato chattering and ambient noise dims, the surrounding temperatures drop a degree or two. It is a wine that, upon hearing its name, draws you in, making forget what is going on around you and forcing focus on the main event.

Sure, like all red wines, all Cabernet Sauvignons are not created equal. But more than any other of the world’s wine grape varieties, the two words “Cabernet Sauvignon” have the best chance of offering a wine placing you in the presence of greatness.

Cabernet Country: Stellenbosch.

There are, of course, the mythical wines of Bordeaux’s Left Bank in the region where Cabernet Sauvignon began three centuries back as a natural mutation between the varieties Cabernet Franc (red) and Sauvignon Blanc (white). Then there is Napa, California where Cabernet is King and the wines share the revered space of cult and icon with some of Bordeaux’s best. Chile. Italy. Australia….the potential for making good and great wine from Cabernet Sauvignon has led to its planting in all four corners of the wine globe. With consumers finding the wines’ drinking experience ranging from deliciously fruity, firm and classical, to earth-moving and life-changing. For winemakers and viticulturists, again, the grape variety throws down the gauntlet. Here Cabernet Sauvignon offers these tenders of the vine and creators of the wine the opportunity to showcase their winelands’ respective geographical features through a red grape of proven potential from which a winery and a wine region can be set onto the path to vinous glory.

Over the past decade, the Stellenbosch wine region has stepped-up to the plate by encouraging the rest of the world to realise what South African wine producers, marketers and media commentators (some of them) have known for a whole lot longer. And this is that here, too, is a region capable of producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the world.

The history of Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa and Stellenbosch is, as much of the history of premium grape varieties at the Cape tends to be, a recent one.

The Cape has not always been concerned about wine quality. At the beginning of the previous century, the country’s vineyard space was planted to grape varieties focused on brandy distillation, sweet fortified elixirs and mass-produced bulk wines. The thirst for making and consuming classy wines from single noble varieties was practically non-existent.

Groot Constantia, the mothership of South African wine, did document the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon on those hallowed soils in 1894, although it would be decades before the variety was to be bottled under its varietal name.

Seeking the origins of Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa – and specifically Stellenbosch – the name Abraham Izak Perold pops-up once again, albeit in a less dramatical sense than it does when there is talk of his status as the creator of the Pinotage grape. In Perold’s seminal book Handboek oor Wynbou published in 1926, the legendary viticulturist and oenologist made it clear that as a variety, Cabernet Sauvignon held the potential to unlock immense value to the South African wine scene. He had made a thorough study of the cultivar, the growing conditions and its wines while visiting Bordeaux.

Despite Cabernet Sauvignon not offering the vigorous growth and higher yields of Cinsaut, which was by far the Cape’s most planted red grape at the time, Perold was convinced the Bordeaux variety’s potential to contribute to South African wine quality was non-negotiable. Perold, always in-synch with economic realities, was also aware of Cabernet Sauvignon not suited to offering the heavy and economically enticing yields Cinsaut is known for. He wrote: “Cabernet might offer two-thirds of the yields of Cinsaut, but the quality of this grape is superior. Looking at the vineyard growing conditions here, our wine-farmers should be planting Cabernet in Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Cape.”

Perold’s word was pretty much gospel back then. It is thus generally accepted that he paved the way for the proliferation of Cabernet Sauvignon plantings. In fact, Perold was physically involved with establishing the variety in Stellenbosch where in 1919 he assisted Manie Malan in planting these vines on Malan’s Alto Estate on the slopes of the Helderberg.

Other early Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in Stellenbosch included Delheim on the Simonsberg where the variety was established in the 1930s by the first owner, Hans Hoheisen, who made wine under an own label. The maiden Cabernet Sauvignon under the Delheim label goes back to 1958.

Despite the fact that wines from early plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Stellenbosch were getting the recognition for quality Perold had anticipated, the progression of the vineyard space accorded this variety was slow. Up until the mid-1970s there were but a handful of wine estates making and bottling their own wine with a commitment to premium quality, such as that the Cabernet Sauvignon variety was known to offer. Most of the region’s vineyards comprised mass-volume, bulk-wine varieties such as Cinsaut, Chenin Blanc and Palomino destined for use by the local corporates in big, non-descript wine brands.

Out of total vineyard plantings of 120 000ha in 1974, only 2% constituted Cabernet Sauvignon, underscoring the nature and priorities of the wine industry back then.

However, with the passing of legislation permitting estate wine production and the implementation of the Wine of Origin Scheme in 1972 to guarantee regional authenticity, an increasing number of Stellenbosch wine farmers looked at quality grape varieties with which to express the terroir of their estates and lead their commercial ventures. And many of these farmers knew that when great red wine is talked about, it is Cabernet Sauvignon that commands much of the conversation.

With the introduction of single-varietal bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon from renowned Stellenbosch wine estates such as Alto (1965), Rustenberg (1971) Kanonkop (1973), Meerlust (1975) and Simonsig (1976), the awareness of great red wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon on wine farms of unbridled classical pedigree came to the fore. The leap to making this grape one of the signature varieties of Stellenbosch had begun.

The Impact of Geography

The Roman viticulturist Columnella (4AD to 70AD) wrote that the vineyard “likes rocks and hills”, and on this front Stellenbosch has got it taped. Helderberg and Simonsberg provide the mountains, Bottelary and Polkadraai the hills, and the rocks – 700m years old – well, these are all over the place.

Climate-wise, Stellenbosch is in a world-league of its own for a wine farmer committed to Cabernet Sauvignon. The region is influenced by the restless maritime air flows from the Atlantic Ocean in False Bay as well as the northerly drift from the north-west coastline. And being in Africa, there is no shortage here of that vital cog in the wheel of growing wine grapes, namely sunlight. The soils of decomposed granite, shale and clay allow the roots to cool and warm at the right time during the plant’s annual growing cycle, as well as providing good drainage in the rainy season and water-retention in dry summers.

These features see Cabernet Sauvignon thriving in terms of growing grapes exuding those muscular tannins and refined flavour spectrums that make the wines the captivating masterpieces they are. As Johan Malan from Simonsig, one of the legendary Stellenbosch estates says: “Stellenbosch did not find Cabernet Sauvignon – Cabernet found Stellenbosch.”

Louis Strydom, CEO and winemaker at modern classic Cabernet Sauvignon producer Ernie Els Wines situated on the Helderberg, has been making wine from this variety and growing it for 23 years, appearing to be an eternal student of this grape.

“Cabernet Sauvignon might be part of Stellenbosch DNA, but there have been some interesting phases the grape went through in getting to the current recognition we have for the overall regional quality of the wine,” he says. “In the 1990s there was a shortage of Cabernet plant-material due to the industry’s greater focus on red varieties. And in this scurrying for material, a lot of virus-infected matter was put into the soil which greatly affected the area’s general health. Leafroll virus is havoc on a late-ripening variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Then the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the monster Cabs. “Many producers went the Californian route, making wines of big alcohol-levels in the region of 15% and the profile thick and dense due to excessive use of new oak barrels.”

Today, says Strydom, Stellenbosch’s Cabernet Sauvignon is characterised by a focus on expression of the region’s unique terroir with wines of elegance and refinement, but with that brooding muscular power.

“It goes back to the vineyard, as in everything wine,” says Strydom. “As generous with its heady fruit-profile as it can be, Cabernet Sauvignon can show a green, weedy character due to the methoxypyrazine presence in the grape’s physiology. Remember, the Cabernet Sauvignon is a crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, two varieties known for showing an underripe side even when harvested at phenolic ripeness. Canopy management is crucial to ensure levels of sunlight and exposure to air movement required to coax the grape into a stage of balanced ripeness. Only then can you begin to think about making good wine.”

Set on the Helderberg, Ernie Els and neighbouring estates such as Alto, Rust en Vrede and Uva Mira have north and westerly faces that warm in the glow of the afternoon sun while being coaxed by the cooling breezes off False Bay. Simonsberg’s north facing slopes are often shrouded in mist, and being further from the ocean, this region experiences dramatic variation in day-night temperatures. Despite having similar soils, the differences in Cabernet Sauvignon expression between Simonsberg and Helderberg are tangible.

“Simonsberg tends to show bigger tannins in its Cabernet Sauvignon, with a bit of edginess,” says Rijk Melck, CEO of Muratie, the legendary wine estate that has a history going back to 1685, the oldest wine farm in Stellenbosch.

When Melck’s father, South African wine icon Ronnie, bought Muratie in 1987 there was no Cabernet Sauvignon planted on the farm. “A desire to make Cabernet Sauvignon showing the class this variety can attain in Simonsberg, Stellenbosch, was one of the primary reasons my father purchased the property,” says Melck. “Today Cabernet Sauvignon is one of Muratie’s foundations, both as a single variety and in our Bordeaux blend, Ansela.”

West from the Simonsberg-Helderberg strip on Jordan Estate in Stellenbosch Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon vines face in a north and easterly direction. Soils differ here, says Gary Jordan. “Some 600-million-year-old, coarse porphyritic granite soils, farmed by successive generations slowly releases nutrients that sustain old and young Cabernet Sauvignon vines alike,” he says. “Feldspar soil breaks down into deep, red, moisture-retaining clay-loam soils, allowing the grapes to develop cassis and black berry flavours even in the driest of years. Large quartz fragments ensure good drainage and elevated, cool, north- and east-facing vineyards leads to a velvet-like texture and seamless, integrated tannin structure.’

Then there is the lower-lying flatland, a part of Helderberg, but only some 80m above sea-level and home to Le Riche Wines, a name synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon excellence.

“This diversity of terroir pockets found in Stellenbosch plays a huge role in creating a formidable category of regional Cabernet Sauvignon wines,” says Christo le Riche, who is also chairperson of the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, a body committed to creating an international and local awareness of this variety’s Stellenbosch offering.

“You have the dramatic differences in Helderberg and Simonsberg where vineyards go up to 500m, the rolling hills of Polkadraai, Bottelary and Stellenbosch Valley and then the Lower Helderberg, where we are,” says Le Riche. “In all this, soils differ, as do climatic influences. Add to this viticulturists and winemakers committed to ensuring Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon can take a spot on the world stage, and this sector is an unashamed leading light of Cape wine.”

At Muratie Estate.

Despite this geographical diversity, Le Riche says that Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon has managed to capture the imagination with a specific style that sets it on its own trajectory away from the world’s other offerings.

“There is a juiciness and a charming fruit-profile, combined with good acids and alert tannins,” says Le Riche. “Tannins are one of Cabernet Sauvignons pronounced features as they give the wine freshness, life, length and the ability to age and grow in the bottle. Here Stellenbosch straddles the tight tannins of Bordeaux and the exuberant juiciness of California – with a slight fynbos character that no other region can offer.”

But it is that other dimension, the one behind aroma and taste that makes a good Cabernet Sauvignon such a gloriously intriguing great wine. As the acclaimed wine writer Terry Theise says, a complex wine is not pushy or demanding. Exceptional wines, again, show a quiet calm and grace; they shine with an inner light that is not dependent on the spotlight. “Many wines let you taste the noise,” says Theise. “But only the very best wines let you taste the silence.”

And they leave you speechless.

1982 Shows its Reputation as One of Best Cape Vintages

They stood proud and dignified, their pale green glass cloaks faded by time and dulled with the dust of four decades past. Nine wines they were, all from South Africa, sharing the date of vintage 1982. Selected for showing to an assembly of Cape winemakers, some who still must reach the age of 40, others having passed the doubling of that milestone, and then some.

The more I attend tastings of old Cape wines, the more these bottles’ contents impress me. For from the nine wines presented here, I expected the rule of thirds to come into play which usually features on similar occasions: one-third vinegared drek; one tired, musty and lame, with the other third comprising drinkable wines, with, possibly, one or two stand-outs.

But perhaps the Gods were smiling down on the party that had gathered to taste these wines from vintage 1982 on a stunning autumn day at Muratie Wine Estate, the air warm and lighted by pale gold. Maybe vintage 1982 was, as attendee Jan Boland Coetzee, said, one of the great Cape wine years. Whatever it was, all these wines captured the attention, grabbed the imagination and – most importantly – reminded one of the pleasures of drinking good wines made to mature for 40 years and even more.

The Simonsig Chardonnay set the tone, especially since I had recently been privy to some spine-tingling old Chardonnays from Backsberg. When this Simonsig wine was made, South Africa only had 70ha of Chardonnay vines stuck into Cape soils. The wine came at the very birth of the local Chardonnay industry, and this quality underscores the undeniable fact that South Africa and Chardonnay are meant for each other.

The Simonsig poured airily into the glass, emitting aromas both floral and forest. It lay on the palate with assured confidence, agreeable in its offering of flavours of pear, loquat and orange-peel held together nicely with strapping fresh acid and a firmness on the palate leading to a patient, lingering finish. Heavenly, sure.

Cabernet Sauvignon comprised the bulk of the 1982 offerings, and the bowling over was done by the diversity in structure and flavour, with the harmony provided by the wines’ excellent health.

Kanonkop, well, not really surprising that this was one of the wines of the line-up – were you forced to choose. Those famous Simonsberg tannins trumpeting in the arrival of vinous splendour which struts along the palate, its cloak of dark-fruit, prune and fig-paste ruffled by the edginess of pine-needle, autumn forest and Havana cigar wrapper. The stroke of fennel on the finish, which is clear and unhindered by the mists of time.

Still on the Simonsberg, the 40-year old Le Bonheur Cabernet Sauvignon was also in exceptionally rude health, at the height of its powers, actually. The wine shows an extraordinarily fresh and sappy attack on the palate leading to powerful dark fruit perked with prods of floral, savoury and raspberry confit. Some real stoniness on the wine, too, giving the Cabernet Sauvignon a Saint-Estèphe-like coolness recollecting the old walls of medieval cathedrals and the greened bronze of church-bells.

Nederburg, always game to remind one of its classic provenance, showed a good Cabernet Sauvignon from 1982 at the tasting, but it was the R103 blend of Cabernet and Shiraz that caught my attention. The calm grace and power of the Cabernet Sauvignon is broadened with some fleshy Shiraz muscle, creating a broad and open wine, very generous in its offering of plushness and drifting notes of prune, wet tobacco, raisin and mace. Truly gorgeous and Rubenesque-like in its alluring appeal.

The 1982 line-up, with some Portuguese numbers thrown-in, courtesy of hosts Amorim Cork.

The wine of the day, for me was the 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alto out in the Helderberg. North-facing slopes and loads of sunlight dappled by the clouds fluttering in off False Bay gives the wine a ripe edge to off-set the cannonball-power of Helderberg Cabernet Sauvignon. The four decades in bottle had given the wine a charm and wit, seductively inviting one to partake in the tales of mystery and intrigue that has built-up during all those years spent lying in a dark place. Ridiculously energetic and flirtatious, the wine rests showily on the palate, throwing darts of taste around the place: pencil-shaving and old, dry pine-cones; mulberry and freshly tarred highway; petrichor and prune. Tannins are randy and frisky, but a sensual cloak of dry rose-petals falls from the sky, giving this wonderful thing an air of the surreal and a clear glimpse of the amazing thing that great wine can be.

Of any age, and from any place.

  • The nine-strong 1982 team consisted of: Simonsig Chardonnay; Cabernet Sauvignon from Alto Estate, Kanonkop, Le Bonheur, Nederburg Private Bin R163, and Zonnebloem; Nederburg Private Bin R103 (Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz), Chateau Libertas and Zonebloem Pinotage.

Hemel-en-Aarde: Don’t Forget the Sauvignon Blanc

As a grape variety, and as a wine, Sauvignon Blanc has attracted its fair share of clichés. “One-trick pony”, “crowd-pleaser” and “bring the indigestion pills” being just a few. Tim Atkin, South Africa’s best-loved wine critic, was invited to New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc Celebration a few years back, but declined, saying he could not make it as he had his “sock-drawer to re-arrange”.

It must be remembered, however, that it is success and popularity that tends to attract the clichés. And so it is with South African Sauvignon Blanc which is by far the country’s best-selling white varietal wine – locally, as well as internationally. Some producers see this self-selling variety as a cash-cow with which to fund their endeavours concerning more esteemed varieties and wines. On the other side there is a band of Sauvignon Blanc acolytes who, through the making of their own wines, and by promoting the traits of Cape Sauvignon Blanc in general, are busy putting this variety on the pedestal of quality and international recognition it deserves.

Bartho Eksteen clearly falls into the latter category. Having espoused his obsession with Sauvignon Blanc since first finding the grape on his winemaking to-do list at Wildekrans Estate in the Botrivier back in 1993 – as well as making some of country’s best wines from this cultivar – Bartho is busy promoting the merits of the Hemel-en-Aarde region in terms of this cool-climate region’s extraordinary potential for his beloved savage white variety.

“The issue with being this guy on a small spread in the Hemel-en-Aarde obsessed with Sauvignon Blanc is that the region’s reputation is built on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” says Bartho. “And quite rightly so, as the terroir here is the best in the country for these two Burgundian varieties. But most of the producers also have Sauvignon Blanc in their stables. And having gotten to know the region and its wines over the past three decades, as well as making wine here, I’m on a mission to let the other winemakers, as well as the wine-consuming public, know that Hemel-en-Aarde is also one of the Cape’s areas most suited for making great Sauvignon Blanc.”

Great Sauvignon Blanc is something Bartho knows of, and he has proved it. Not only with his own wines from the various addresses at which he has hung his winemaking hat over the past 35 years, but also in his pioneering role in placing Cape Sauvignon Blanc alongside the best from New Zealand and Sancerre to see how the local wines weigh-up against the world’s perceived best.

“Since 1993 I held celebratory events, bringing-in international wines and having them tasted alongside South African Sauvignon Blancs,” says Bartho. “Looking back now and going through the scores from these informal ‘competitions’ it is amazing to see how many times the South African Sauvignon Blancs have come out top against the best New Zealand and France have to offer.”

In this context he reckons Hemel-en-Aarde is a leading Sauvignon Blanc region in its own right. “From day one of being introduced to and working with the variety in nearby Botrivier, I knew that the potential of Sauvignon Blanc can only truly come to the fore in a cool climate,” says Bartho. “And this feature of cool-climate is more pronounced in Hemel-en-Aarde than my early dealings in Botrivier, the temperatures here obviously having also resulted in its attraction for the planting of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”

Last winter saw him measuring an early morning of -1°C at his Bartho Eksteen farm entrance to Hemel-en-Aarde Valley from Hermanus, with mid-day temperatures running to between 12°C and 14°C.

“Excessive heat kills acids, and in wine – especially Sauvignon Blanc – natural acidity is needed for life and freshness,” he says, “In summer, daytime temperatures seldom pass 26°C, although in January and February you can get a belter of a day well into the 30°C’s which, fortunately, does not hang around long enough to become uncomfortable for the vines or ripening grapes.

“The cool, mild conditions are largely the result of the cooling air dropping down from the valley’s upper reaches, as well as the air-movement from the ocean which, where I am, is only 4km away. Being a maritime region, however, does not give us the sharp diurnal variation of Marlborough, New Zealand or the continental climates such as Sancerre. But the air-movement off the sea, which is found all-year, coaxes the vines and ripening grapes with a constant touch of coolness and plays a profound role in the balanced expression of Sauvignon Blanc in this region.”

Balanced expression, says Bartho, is a feature of the Hemel-en-Aarde Sauvignon Blanc wines. “With Sauvignon Blanc the winemaker is dealing with two major aspects within this grape, and those are methoxypyrazines and thiols. The former makes for the green features, such as cut-grass, asparagus and canned pea. While thiols are responsible for Sauvignon Blancs tropical notes of granadilla and goose-berry.”

The variety’s penchant for offering one of these two elements – or both – in amounts that can euphemistically be described as powerfully exuberant has led to many of the clichés for which Sauvignon Blanc is infamous. Fruit-bombs. Cat-pee on a gooseberry bush.

“This is where Hemel-en-Aarde Sauvignon Blancs have one overarching feature, in that there is balance in the wines,” he says. “Yes, there is lovely variation with some showing hints of aromatic and tropical flavours and others being a touch on the pyrazine-driven green side. But in all of the wines, no one aspect overshadows the complete wholeness of what is in the glass. Freshness and energy, those aspects that help make Sauvignon Blanc the crowd-pleaser it is, are shown in abundance – even on wines of five years and older. And the balance between the tropical and pyrazine characteristics is spot-on, accurate and linear. These Hemel-en-Aarde wines are, for me, a perfect example that in Sauvignon Blanc – as probably in all wine – you don’t have to be showy to be great.”

Bartho is a firm follower of the movement promoting the aging of Sauvignon Blanc. “Especially with the quality of wines Hemel-en-Aarde terroir provides, it will be a waste to release or drink these wines at too young an age,” he says. “The quality and health of the grapes harvested here make for wines of tremendous structure and balance, the kind that needs time in the bottle to truly evolve into the world-class and unique expression that is putting Hemel-en-Aarde – and South Africa – into the global Sauvignon Blanc spotlight.”

Bartho Eksteen

Tasting through a line-up of 14 wines from the region, two observations are made of which the first is agreeing with Bartho’s emphasis on balance and restraint. Direct and invasive fruit-forwardness is absent, with primary flavours seamlessly stitched into bright acidity and all wines showing a pleasing combination of varietal freshness, satisfying palate-weight and brisk, grippy finishes. Some bordered on the edge of tropical expressions with delightful strokes of white flower and ripe pear, while there were wines offering a very classy Sancerre-like gritty austerity that truly tastes of cold and rocks, and of the wild.

However, even in the confined borders of Hemel-en-Aarde it is evident that Sauvignon Blanc is no one-trick pony. Quality and cold terroir expression might harness the galloping herd, but each wine offers a discernible unique character worthy of top-notch recognition in its own right.

Like all the offerings from the Hemel-en-Aarde, Sauvignon Blanc shows a pride of place that continues to beguile and impress, as well as reinforcing South Africa’s status as one of the best wine addresses on earth, and as it shall be in heaven, too.

David Finlayson’s Flagship GS Announced Best Cabernet in the World

David Finlayson Wines from Stellenbosch reaffirmed the international status of South African Cabernet Sauvignon with its GS Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 announced Best Cabernet in the World at the annual Concours International des Cabernets in France. This annual competition is committed to awarding the world’s best wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and other Cabernet-related grape varieties.

David Finlayson, owner-winemaker at David Finlayson Wines, says the award is a highlight in his career as winemaker, not only in terms of this international recognition for one of his premium wines, but also due to the profound role the Cabernet Sauvignon variety has played in his career.

David Finlayson

“Growing-up on a Stellenbosch wine farm where my father, Walter, was winemaker, I became aware of Cabernet Sauvignon from an early age,” says Finlayson. “Back in the 1970s and 1980s Cabernet was already recognised as being at the forefront of Stellenbosch’s wine pedigree, a variety and wine talked about with reverence by the older winemaking guard. I myself have worked with the variety since my days as a student at the Elsenburg Agricultural College. At David Finlayson Wines, Cabernet Sauvignon has always been the focus point, as I firmly believe the terroir of Stellenbosch offers one of the most singular and magnificent expressions of Cabernet anywhere in the world.”

GS Cabernet Sauvignon, the flagship in Finlayson’s wine range, is made from a 2.5ha vineyard on his Edgebaston farm which lies on the foothills of Stellenbosch’s famous Simonsberg mountain. The vineyard is planted on ancient soils of decomposed granite for which the region is world-famous, but with pronounced gravel and shale components and a deep clay-bed. A north-easterly slope and the 15km distance from the Atlantic Ocean at False Bay to the south ensures the vineyard’s exposure to constant air-flows from the south-east in summer and north-west in winter.

“The uniqueness of the fruit from this site is already seen in the size of the berries, the bunches being small and compact, giving me an average yield of only four tons per hectare,” says Finlayson. In making the GS Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a process of minimum intervention and keeping it simple. “Fermentation in stainless steel for three weeks, and into new oak 300 litre barrels for 18 months,” says Finlayson. “Cabernet Sauvignon from exceptional, terroir-driven fruit allows for a simple, pure winemaking approach which is extremely rewarding in the final product. Because you know what you are tasting is a wine made in the vineyard – the winemaker was just the carer that coaxed the fruit into the final product.”

The award-winning GS Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 also reflects an exceptional vintage for Stellenbosch. “The 2019 vintage saw low yields throughout the Cape as we were just coming out of a five-year drought, but fruit quality was excellent,” says Finlayson. “Rain in February and March – during Cabernet’s crucial ripening phase – slowed down the ripening, adding to concentration of flavour and depth of colour. I knew special red wines were going to be made from 2019, but getting an international award for Best Cabernet Sauvignon in the World was not really on the horizon back then.”

Finlayson says the award is not only a great honour for the team at David Finlayson Wines, but also recognises Stellenbosch’s international reputation as a leading producer of Cabernet Sauvignon. “The region is proving itself as an exceptional place to grow Cabernet, and it is a true privilege to be a part of this quest in attaining global recognition for Stellenbosch and, of course, for South Africa,” he says. “This global reputation as a wine country will be established on classic, noble grape varieties known and recognised the world over, of which Cabernet Sauvignon is, arguably, at the very top of the list.”

Vino Sicily: An Offer you can’t Refuse

Just as in all forms of art, there is no “Best Film Ever”. Yet, with this year being the 50th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterly The Godfather, it is obvious that some works of art are more timeless in their greatness than others.

Last night I watched The Godfather for what must have been the 45th time and was as just as riveted and enthralled as I was upon that first viewing 40 years yonder in a dim bughouse off Leicester Square.

Good films have a strong and direct influence on me. Directly after experiencing Pulp Fiction in the 1990’s I wished for nothing more than to be black, wear an undertaker suit and to – like Samuel L Jackson’s character, Jules – emit quotes from the Bible in a cool and threatening tone. I stumbled on the verge of signing up for fighter-pilot training after seeing Top Gun and  more recently spent a fortune on a dashingly coloured Smeg toaster after spotting one in an apartment appearing in Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory.

Don Corleone

Fortunately, that most recent viewing of The Godfather did not have me develop an increased urge to decapitate a horse and to surreptitiously slide the head under the covers of a sleeping movie producer. But the saga of the true Sicilian Mafia having it out in New York during the atmospheric 1940s did have a lot of wine-drinking in it, and this saw my hand – the gun-free one – twitching for the taste of something winey and of the Sicilian kind.

The closest location from which to heed this calling this is the Pink Valley restaurant-winery out in the Helderberg, Stellenbosch that sells wines made at all properties owned by the French Oddo family. Besides the Pink Valley wine itself, the selection includes the stuff from family’s Serra Ferdinandea winery in south-west Sicily. And this is heaven for a lover of The Godfather, as Serra Ferdinandea is located only 40km south-east of the town of Corleone from where young Vito hot-footed it to America to become Don Corleone, the main Mafia cannoli in the film we are talking about and in which he is played by, magnificently, by Marlon Brando.

The Serra Ferdinandea selection includes a red blend of Nero d’Avola and Syrah, while the white sees Sicily’s native Grillo variety blended 50-50 with Sauvignon Blanc.

With the autumn sun still, bright, I sit down with a bottle of Serra Ferdinandea white, which combines two grapes known for being aromatic. Sauvignon Blanc needs no introduction in this department. And as for Grillo, well, the variety was created in the 1800’s to add a floral, aromatic component to the fortified Marsala wines for which Sicily has been known for far longer than it has for quality table wines. For long, Sicily was the bulk-wine factory of Italy and the local industry only began striving for premium quality and terroir-expression in the 1980’s.

At Serra Ferdinandea the white grapes ripen in the summer months of August, with Sauvignon Blanc the first to attain the correct levels of phenolic ripeness for harvest. This variety is usually harvested between the third week of August and the first week of September, while Grillo is picked in mid-September – depending on the specific climatic vagaries of each year. Grapes are cooled overnight, and only free-run juice is used. Prior to fermentation the wine undergoes two weeks’ cold settling and is stirred daily. Fermentation is done in a combination of large wood vessels and stainless steel, whereafter the wine is aged for nine months in foudré and large barrels.

Lighting a short, fat Cuban cigar as I pour, the wine spills into the glass the colour of pale straw with subtle, pale green hue the colour an icy kelp pool. On the nose, not spectacularly aromatic of the showy tropical kind. Powerful potpourri, some dried Provence herbs, and a drift of honey. It is all very European on the palate, harnessing flavour, texture and body in a classic whole. Presence initially overpowers taste and flavour, the wine being cool, wet and long, about as long as the wheeping of a Sicilian widow who has just lost her husband to the thrust of an opponent’s vendetta knife. Although not vice-like, the grip which the wine commands attention is formidable with a firm confidence bordering on the edge of being a threat.

But flavours do abound, and they are lovely: Undertones of white flowers, honey and nuts open to a vivid array of taste leading with citrus, lemon-peel to a contained buttery complexity. There is a maritime rush and some clam shell which sharpens the senses as you hope that it is only Luca Brasi sleeping with the fishes.

For now, the wine is Sicilian heaven in a glass or two.

The Irrelevance of Scoring Wine

As the svelte brunette, a sommelier at one of my favourite restaurants in the Stellenbosch winelands says: “If I want to score, I’ll head for the bars just off Main Road in Sea Point.” This irreverent, yet weight-bearing reference, usually comes up when she is asked an opinion on the score a specific bottle achieved at the hands of critics tasked with adorning wines with points and star ratings. Like me, the lady in question is an utter agnostic when it comes to the religious fervour with which wine-drinkers follow the ratings of wines handed out by the disciples of vinous judging.

It was a film that convinced me art is un-rateable. And my conviction that the use of points to “score” what is in the glass, stems from the fact that I am truly convinced that wine is an art-form. For reasons I have stated in the past and will not go into at this moment in time, suffice to say that Ernest Hemingway does it for me by saying that “good wine is the most civilised thing on earth”.

In the early 1990s I was a film-reviewer for Die Burger, an Afrikaans language daily newspaper, where house-style dictated the judging of films using a one-to-five-star system. One and two stars usually went the way of movies featuring Leon Schuster or Jean-Claude van Damme. When reviewing modern classics such as Dead Poets Society, Goodfellas, Philadelphia and Silence of the Lambs, I spent more time sweating over deciding between a 4- and 5-star rating than writing the actual 600-word review.

One night I was tasked to check-out an art-house flick called Barton Fink made by the then up-and-coming brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Half-way through this extraordinary film about a New York playwright’s internal struggles resulting from him having sold his artistic soul to 1940’s Hollywood, I started wondering: How the hell was I going to confine this piece of film marvel to 5-stars? The acting (John Turturro, John Goodman and Judy Davis), the intense originality of the storyline, the power of the script….all the other movies I was reviewing and had handed 5-star ratings to paled and withered when compared with what I was watching here.

When it came to ending the writing of that review and listlessly typing in the 5-star rating, it was with a feeling of dishonesty to the readers. For despite my – I think – powerfully positive appraisal of the film, those 5-stars seemed a lacklustre and lazy cop-out, a restrictive and stuffy way with which to rate, recommend or review an exceptional experience.

Which brings me back to wine. The rating of wine with a score, a practice that Robert Parker made acceptable, is to me an incomplete and sluggish way with which to end-out one’s appraisal of a wine. Sure, ratings are motivated by critics claiming their scores are driven by virtue, the defining of the points-score being the generous offering of the reviewer’s insight and knowledge in order to guide the consumer who – obviously – needs such expert guidance in order to gain an informed opinion.

But this I don’t buy and certainly don’t follow. Points ratings are for air-fryers, flat-screen television sets, and wireless head-phones. Would one use a points-rating to guide a reader to a novel by Lionel Shriver, Douglas Stuart or Etienne van Heerden? If Irma Stern, Pierneef and Walter Meyer are 5-star artists, what about Gauguin and Picasso? The same goes for music, drama; poetry and sculpture.

Art is not followed by scores and ratings, although monetary value has today become a popular and shallow guide to its perceived merit.

John Turturro in Barton Fink.

This is why social media is changing the face of wine reviewing and rating for the better. Two sentence-tweets containing real and heart-felt words and enthusiastic Instagram pictures are becoming more convincing and more relatable to consumers than a 92pt rating. Sure, the conveyers of these social media opinions and recommendations are mostly nowhere near the lofty heights where informed and educated wine critics reside. But their raw and spontaneous reaction to wine succeeds in conveying what a score cannot do, and that is emotion and experience. The sharing of this emotion and experience, in ever-which-way, is by far the most effective way of eliciting consumer response and will, in due course, make the current obsession with ratings and scores irrelevant. If it is your thing, however, enjoy it while it lasts.