To Hell and Back with Dry January

The concept of Dry January falls strange and incoherent, rings hollow and is met with churlish nonchalance and – despite my respecting the wonts and motives of each and every one – a tad of the absurd. No partaking in the glorious offering of the vine for a month? It just seems incomprehensible in my world, but I suppose it depends on what one’s relationship is with wine.

If it is a physical thing, Dry January can perhaps find purchase among those wishing to cleanse livers, purify colons and align urinary tracts for 31 days, before again exposing them to alcohol for the next 11 months. Only to then repeat the guilt-assuaging, monastic sanitising process. The mind, too, is replenished by the dry-spell with that feeling of having done the right and the good, like ordering Coke Zero with a cheesy carb-heavy sourdough pizza, green salad on the side.

But in my world, eschewing wine means the crass, heartless shunning of culture and beauty; the voluntary rejection of art and the poetic rhythms of daily life.

Tertius Boshoff, Stellenrust.

Just as I will frown upon any fad, trend, or mode that wills me to forgo rock or jazz, films, literature, and art exhibitions for a month, so too can I not partake in this thing of a Dry, wine-less month.

Like art and other elements of culture, wine evokes fascination and curiosity. It inspires and makes me wonder about soils and plants, and about the people driven to transform a derivative of nature into something offering pleasure and light and something which is sensorially uplifting. It makes my world a better place, this partaking of a creation that is the result of so much and so broadly a constituted giving. From the land and from the hand that partakes in all the varying chapters of wine’s making. No, I am not going to deny myself this wonder for a day, never mind a whole month.

Thus, I am upending Dry January by going big and looking for wines offering pleasure that is unbridled in their decadence, almost sluttish in that visceral overpowering of the senses.

An example of this is from the Bottelary producer that is Stellenrust which – by the way – had a formidable run in 2023. Four Chenin Blancs in the Standard Bank Top 10. And Diners Club Winemaker of the Year for Stellenrust padron Tertius Boshoff – not with a Chenin, but a Shiraz.

But it is to a Chenin Blanc I go to poke holes in the rarefied Dry January veneer, namely Stellenrust Barrel Fermented 2022. The bottle bears a gilded “58” which refers to the age – in years – of the Chenin Blanc vines offering their firm, palm-filling grape-bunches for creating vintage 2022.

This fruit originates from Bottelary, always a wonderous and enchanting part of Stellenbosch for its authentic ruralness and undisturbed pastoral rythmns. Grapes bleed from vines that have been rooted in the iron-rich decomposed granite and clay soils for almost six decades, now responsible for classic, regal Chenin Blanc wines instead of the run-of-the mill, unimaginative co-operative juice they were destined for in their first 35 years of life.

Before getting them to the winery, Boshoff gives these grapes extended hang-time, allowing the sun to cure the sap and, when it becomes cooler in March, to develop just a prickle of botrytis to broaden the curves, extend dimension, stir drama.

The juice is fermented and aged for nine months in French oak, 16% of which is new and the rest split equally among barrels up to sixth fill.

Once opened and splashed into the glass, I have even fewer doubts about my aversion to Dry January or any other month of dryness. It is all gorgeous, and it is wine. The colour is of pale gold reflecting a stained-glass window in which emerald is the dominant colour. On the nose, the aromas are lush and rich and decadent, exuding pickled pumpkin, clove and a ripe pear cut into paper-thin wafers with a samurai sword.

O hell, the presence in the mouth is a beautiful thing. And it is presence and structure and texture that cement initial impressions onto the mind like a coiled snake tattoo on the lower back of a Brazilian samba dancer. The wine is unctuous and glides around the mouth, drawing impressions from the tasting machinery with a confident charm and alerting flirtatiousness.

Then comes the taste, commanding and regal and almost vocal in its expression. Yellow quince left to confect sugar in the quiet confines of a sunny wooded loft. Honeycomb plastered by wild bees in the hollow stumps of ancient dead trees. A slight note of lime zest to move the palate along with a sense-alerting energy and briskness. The finish is longer than a Russian ballerina’s quadriceps and as memorable as the last line in a Chekov short story.

I fill the glass again, and drink deeper this time, the only dry thing being my sweatless and refreshed brow and the cuff of the dress-shirt I deemed necessary for donning to experience another piece of never-ending wonder. Day in, day out.

Kleine Zalze Leads Way with Stellenbosch Old Vine Chenin Blanc

The Chenin Blanc grape has over the past two decades become synonymous with the top wine offerings from South Africa, the country not only having the most extensive plantings of this variety in the world, but also through the fact of Chenin Blanc being interwoven with the history of winemaking at the Cape.

It is assumed that when the first wine grapes were pressed at the southern point of Africa in 1659, Chenin Blanc was – along with various Muscat varieties – part of those initial vinous offerings. And from those early beginnings of the country’s wine industry, Chenin Blanc has played a major role in the history of Cape wine, the variety today still the country’s most widely planted wine grape.

“Chenin Blanc is an integral part of the legacy of Cape wine,” says Carina Gous, GM of Kleine Zalze Wines in Stellenbosch. “Not only for its being planted throughout the Cape winelands, but also due to the fact that – despite its origins in the Loire region of France – South Africa is today seen as the leading producer of quality Chenin Blanc wines. These are made in a diversity of styles reflecting the individual features of the diverse terroir found in the Cape and have become a calling-card for South African wine.”

Carina Gous

Being one of the country’s oldest wine-grape varieties has allowed Chenin Blanc to bring another intriguing aspect to the brand that is South African Wine besides its riveting flavour spectrum ranging from lean, mineral-led wines to oak-matured golden beauties of enormous depth and complexity: This is in allowing Cape wineries access to old Chenin Blanc vines, the fruit of which adds further gravitas and distinction to the wines made from it.

In South Africa, the official Old Vine Project certifies vineyards of 35 years and older as Heritage Vines, with over half of the country’s 4 292ha of official Old Vines being Chenin Blanc and underscoring the variety’s inextricable link to the history of the Cape wine industry. Some 558ha of Old Vine Chenin Blanc is found in Stellenbosch, a factor that has contributed to the region’s status as the country’s foremost appellation.

“As a leading winery in Stellenbosch, with a profound focus on Chenin Blanc wines, Kleine Zalze values the tradition of the Old Vine Chein Blanc offering and has made this an important part of our Chenin Blanc portfolio,” says Gous. “In fact, of the 558ha Old Vine Chenin Blanc found in Stellenbosch, Kleine Zalze manages 95ha of these historical vineyards, making us the largest producer of Stellenbosch Heritage Vineyard Chenin Blanc in the country.”

These Kleine Zalze vineyards of 35 years and older are mainly planted on granite soils in the Stellenbosch sub-regions of Faure, Bottelary and Devon Valley. Most, too, are unirrigated bush-vines, hardy old plants that have over decades perfected the expression of their distinctive terroir in grapes used to make wines for Kleine Zalze’s Chenin Blanc portfolio.

According to RJ Botha, Kleine Zalze cellarmaster who, along with his team, has the privilege of working with these vinous treasures, old vine grapes add an ‘X-factor’ to their Chenin Blanc wines.

“There are two ways of recognising the allure of Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” says Botha. “On the one side, there is the attraction of each vineyard having a story to tell. These are of old, gnarled vineyards growing on tough granite soils that have for over three decades been exposed to stormy winters, breezy spring seasons and sun-drenched summers. Through age, they have become a part of the soils and their environment, able to truly express the world in which they have lived – which we on the outside call terroir. These are vineyards commanding respect.”

This brings Botha to the second beguiling factor of Old Vine Chenin Blanc: and that is, when it comes to working with the grapes in the cellar, the character of the grapes deserves the respect they command.

“Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyards express the varietal character and terroir more vividly than younger vines do; it’s as simple as that,” says Botha. “You see it in the tight bunches of small berries. The juice spreads its intoxicating aroma through the cellar at harvest time. And the balance between sugar and acid is tense, almost electric, leading to wines of multi-layered complexity.”

Studies done by the Old Vine Project show that wines from old vineyards have discernible differences to those from younger wines, mainly in terms of concentration, texture and length.

“No-one says old vines make better wines, but that the wines have an own personality and individual finger-print, this is non-negotiable,” says Botha.

RJ Botha

Kleine Zalze’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc finds its way into three wines in the portfolio. The critically acclaimed Family Reserve Chenin Blanc as well as the Vineyard Selection are led by old vine fruit. And the Chenin Blancs in Kleine Zalze’s irreverent experimental range of Project Z wines rely on grapes from these mature vineyards. There is, too, bottle-fermented Old Vine Chenin Blanc Cap Classique currently lying on lees that will in due course be added to the Kleine Zalze range.

“The tradition of Old Vine Chenin Blanc at Kleine Zalze is carried through to vinification,” says Botha. “Maturation in French oak casks as well as in terracotta amphora amplifies the gravitas of the wines from these majestic vineyards and further underscores our respect for making wines from these heritage vineyards and contributing to South Africa’s wine legacy.”

When a Cork is not Just a Cork

The primary task of any wine closure is, obviously, to protect the contents inside the bottle as well as preventing the stuff from leakage prior to the grand moment where the bottle is opened and drinking joy commences. However, after some practical research of late it is evident that the closure’s role supersedes the merely functional, in fact having a profound effect on the taste of the wine.

This is obviously known to most winemakers – or should be. But as a keen and motivated consumer it is enlightening to experience the difference a closure makes. Wineries jump to communicate the fact that their wines are aged in new or third fill barrels, for example, as this creates expectation in the mind of the consumer. Yet little is said on the nature of the closure with which the wine has been shut, despite the fact of this object’s influence on the product’s final personality being evident and rather profound.

I had heard much talk about the impact different cork closures have on bottled wine but had never been allowed into the rarefied surrounds where experts assess such influences. And even if I were, my limited amateur sensorial abilities would surely not allow me to distinguish differential aspects resulting from something so apparently negligible as the structure of a cork closure. 

An experimental bottling of Chamonix Estate Chardonnay 2021 under three different closures recently allowed me to join winemaker Neil Bruwer and CEO Stefan van Rooyen in assessing possible degrees of variance. A cork-supplier had provided three corks: composite, twin-top (composite centre between two natural cork discs) and a natural cork. Same vineyard, same barrel aging, same wine. Aged in bottle for one year, but under three diversely different cork stoppers.

Chamonix’s blue-blooded, classically complex Chardonnay was ideal for providing evidence of the diverse effects of the three cork closures, so much so that even my non-winemaker palate was easily able to detect the differences.

From the outset it must be said that all three wines displayed the characteristic distinctive trait of Chamonix Chardonnay. This is a comforting density on the palate. A satisfying mouth-filling presence with notes of quince and sun-dried lemon-peel, a crack of mace elevated by glowing instead of brisk acidity. So, the effect of the cork closure was not suppressing site and place, just allowing it to be experienced with tweaked nuances.

The three closures were composite cork, twin-top and natural cork.

Composite corks are cork granules that have been moulded into a stopper with a neutral binder. And the Chardonnay closed under this model was reticent and apprehensive to yet offer the full array of white fruit and nuttiness for which Chamonix Chardonnay is known.

But it must be said, the longer the wine under composite cork spent in the glass, the more it opened-up to express a more familiar sense of what it can offer.

The twin-top is a good-looking cork with its natural cork discs set on the top and bottom between a fillet of composite. Here the Chardonnay was presenting its more familiar Chamonix guise. The wine had a broader and sunnier presence on the nose, Chamonix’s supple palate-weight now more discernible with the white fruits and green almond coming to the fore.

The final wine was closed under natural cork, i.e. stoppers drawn from the bark in solid cylindrical cork units. Initially the impression here was similar to that found in the Chamonix wines closed under twin top, although after a few minutes of rigorous assessment all three tasters agreed that this wine was the most complete in its sensorial offerings. There was a finely tuned balance between acidity and fruit, as well as an impression of a wine polished in terms of flavour-profiles and texture.

My take was that none of the closures had after a year in the bottle-neck led me to experience that any of the wines are better. A class product remains a class product, and we were assessing experimentation with a fine wine. But discernible differentiation? Absolutely. If I were in the game of the close scrutinising of wine and rewarding them with points out of a hundred there is sure as hell enough going on in the differing closure-effect to make the choice of closure an aspect worth mentioning. Or at least, taking note of. Because it’s real.

Michael Olivier: A Man in Full

I was still laughing at a deliciously dirty video-clip Michael Olivier had sent me a day earlier when I got the news that Michael had passed away. Dumbfounded, I pulled over at a garage in the Overberg town of Napier and struggled to come to terms with the news. Something I am sure everyone who had known Michael was doing as the shock set in.

Immediate thoughts, obviously, to his wife Maddy and children, the latter whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting – although Michael often sent me pictures of son Peter lifting some brutally heavy weights in a gym. And then there followed that hollow feeling of a spark, a shard of light and of life that is forever gone.

By the time I got to know him some two decades back, Michael’s glory days as chef had passed. Although those in the know spoke of his prowess in various kitchens. From Boschendal. Burgundy in Hermanus. And Parks in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. Classically trained, Michael was spoken of in revered terms among foodies-in-the-know, although the man himself was never opinionated nor outspoken about his talents, skills and successes.

He would often recall a funny incident with a stock-pot in the kitchen, or dealing with a sous chef going through a love-crisis, or allowing a Bearnaise to split at a crucial moment.  Michael preferred complimenting other chefs, not only on their skill and prowess, but also about what “wonderful” or “gorgeous” people they were.

As a PR consultant I invited him to numerous events, which – as others in the game will know – are not always a resounding success. A fickle, cool mood can hang over the function. Catering can be sub-par. Wine presentations cliché-ridden, uninspired and plain boring. But Michael would always, always, call to thank one for inviting him, tell me how stunning so-and-so looked and how wonderful it was for him to spend time with kindred spirits. And the wines tasted were always “magnificent” or “splendid”.

In fact, and Michael will excuse me for this, but in a small circle of friends we referred to him as “Luv”. E-mails were always signed “with love”, regards sent to your “lovely” parents and wishing to see you soon as this would, too, be “lovely”.

He also loved to name-drop, and why not? Michael had cooked for Henry Kissinger, hugged actress Joanna Lumley, entertained Bryan Ferry and chewed the fat with Roger Moore. If you’ve had it, flaunt it.

From experience it was noticeable how keen Michael was to share mutual interests. Once he got to know of my love for dachshunds, I’d get frequent messages concerning the mischievous doings of his and Maddy’s wire-haired sausage dog. We both had a thing for silly British comedy and thanks to this I have a complete collection of skits performed by the wonky and delightfully politically incorrect Benny Hill.

Once Michael heard me talking of a certain wine that had legs Rita Hayworth would be proud of. And over the next few weeks I was bombarded with videos of Hayworth strutting her leggy stuff to merry music tunes. True to form, he loved the classics in life. Music. Actors and actresses. Painting and books. A man in full.

Few people can be described in one word, but for me Michael was the consummate gentleman. His manners were impeccable and his person gracious. I truly never heard Michael have a bad word to say about anyone, and if you approached him for gossip you had come to the wrong address.

In my eager youth I once wrote some column dissing something or somebody and received a polite note from Michael subtly reprimanding my barbed missive with some stern advice incorporating Christianity. I had not felt so ashamed of myself since my mother caught me scotching a R2 note from her purse while I was in primary school.

A slice of life has died with Michael. A chapter closed, impossible to open. It was a privilege and an honour to know him. Fortunately, like class and grace, memory is forever.

Seven Flags Chardonnay and the Gaucho

By Lafras Huguenet

The mob was donning Palestinian flags, loud and baying and smelling of garlic and hummus. I passed them at Hyde Park Corner, wrapped my scarf close, and continued west along the park’s edge, the protestors’ guttural wails drifting off in the distance, silence once descending on an icy late afternoon in London.

Chilled air was being sucked in through dry lips, slightly chaffed, and the light was fading quickly. It was good walking, even steps in a graceful rhythm, and I continued unwavering, pausing only to look at the Royal Albert Hall on my left, the most splendid theatre in the world. Kensington High Street was throbbing with pedestrians and traffic, the rear-lights of the idly paced vehicles now red and bright in the dark. Turning left at Kensington High Street Tube Station, I felt shards of iced rain on my face, and passing the Armenian Church on the left, I bit my lip against the snow.

The heat was on in the Abingdon Villas apartment, and I gladly rid myself of the confines of coat, hat, scarf and gloves. Kicked off my brogues and, using the phone, allowed the summery sounds of Steely Dan’s Gaucho album to send ribbons of cool sunlit jazz-rock through the place. Licking my lips, I realised how dry they were, a sensation shared by my throat. The walking had been all day and it had been long, and apart from the half Guinness off Sloane Square, I hadn’t had a drink all day.

A feeling of slight loss and homesickness set-in, emotions not much helped by Donald Fagen’s nasal, neurotic voice while singing “Glamour Profession”. I thought of the Cape where, I gathered, the summer sun was shining, and dry warm breezes were blowing through the vineyards and down from the mountains in the most splendid of all the winelands in the world.

There is nothing to connect one’s soul to a beloved place like a glass of wine from that place’s origin. For the past few months, I had been drenched in Barolo, soused from Burgundy and seduced by Bordeaux. Now, in the London chill of a not-such well-lit place, my heart did not desire a South African wine: it needed it.

The 78-bottle wine fridge was alarmingly empty on account of some furious bouts of entertaining prior to my return to Cape Town a few days hence. But this was of no issue because pausing at the door of the cooler, the wine I wanted and needed lay before me as if it had been placed there by a concerned angel who looked after my well-being on this place that is the world.

Paul Clüver Seven Flags Chardonnay, the wine an old friend, but this from the 2022 vintage yet to be formed and acquaintance with. I grasped the bottle in joyous hands, pulled the cork and – as is my wont with younger Chardonnay – ran the wine down the crystal glass throat of a not-too-showy decanter. An intoxicating aroma of fine white wine filled the room and I poured a glass as the music ran into the very fine song “Gaucho”…”your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes.”

Sitting down, appropriately in a lived-in leather couch, I nosed the wine with admirable restraint and knuckle-clenched patience as I was just dying to get some liquid passed these parched lips. It was seductive and beautiful smelling this, pure Chardonnay notes of jasmine, green sage and churned Ayrshire butter being spread on a crust of very good home-baked white bread.

I noted the vintage – 2022 – implying that this Seven Flags Chardonnay was made from 35-year-old vineyards planted in 1987 on Dr Paul Clüver’s splendid Elgin farm. There where the Groenlandberg edges a turquoise sky and indigenous wild-flowers dapple the slopes from where one looks down to one of the most splendid valleys in all the Cape.

It is a cool country, too, known for apples, but since the initial forays of Dr. Clüver into viticulture, Elgin has leaped to the top of the Cape’s fine wine offerings. If one revived the embalmed corpse of a Cistercian monk from Burgundy, I am sure the brother would muster enough life to agree.

I took a deep draught as I am not known for going in lightly. A generous thirsty first mouthful allows the wine to show itself in all its adventurous, lusty vividness, something all that poncy sniffing and swirling before taking a cautious first sip can never emulate.

This was all I needed, and more. Chardonnay expressing a place attached to my heart and one that clasps my mind in the most unexpected moments. It provided, generously, the comfort and ease and reassurance that I needed.

While the nose is rather delicate, the wine presents itself in the mouth with sincerity in its dedication and completeness. Flavours are vast, bewildering in their almost promiscuous diversity. Lime-peel and dry apples. Lemon-curd. A crunch of kumquat with a long run of salinity elevating the fruit to a level of sensation, I believe, is called umami by the Japanese folk. There is line of burnt-butter and brioche to add a feeling of reassurance, that splendid feeling that all is right with the world.

By the third mouthful, as the Steely Dan album was running down to the haunting melodic drama of “Third World Man”, I began appreciating the grace and body of the Seven Flags Chardonnay. Here it has the kind of cultured civility deserving a place in the British Museum, aptly placed next to the Elgin Marbles. For the wine is formidable in the alert, gushing power it presents to fortify the senses as well as the bejewelled, refined environment allowing one to experience the whispered secrets of the wine’s very heart.

I filled the glass, and decided on Gaucho all over again.

Two More Kids of Cap Classique

Pierre de Klerk, Graham Beck Wines

There must be a certain degree of the enviable when Cap Classique producers look at Graham Beck Wines. Not only for the immense presence of this leading South African brand in the local and international markets, but also to the team responsible for creating a range of classy Cap Classiques in considerable volume. There is Pieter Ferreira, the voice of Cap Cassique, as Graham Beck’s chief operating officer, with Pierre de Klerk riding shotgun in the role of cellar master.

Some 13 years after joining Graham Beck under the auspices of Pieter, Pierre has become a recognised Cap Classique man in his own right, acknowledged today as one of the category’s most skilled, visionary and thoughtful practitioners. Not bad for someone who during his initial job interview told Pieter, “I know nothing about bubbly.”

How times have changed.

“Looking back now, I can hardly believe I uttered those words in Pieter’s presence, as today every aspect of Cap Classique holds for me mystery, intrigue and fascination,” he muses. “It is a wine that is challenging and frightening for a winemaker, as well as immensely rewarding.”

Being a specialist Cap Classique operation, for Graham Beck the focus, heart-beat and life-blood is the nuanced sparkling wine created from the right grapes, grown on suitable soils and bottle-fermented to allow the magic of the bubble to occur. Fashion and image might play a major role in the appreciation of the final product. But getting there can be interpreted, as Pierre is not shy to admit, as rather geeky.

“Yes, it is about detail from the word go,” he says. “Making Cap Classique takes no prisoners and doesn’t allow you to take your eye off the ball.”

There is the pinpoint accuracy of determining the days for picking the grapes. “Using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in early stages of ripening to get the right levels of acidity for the base wine means we have a two-week window to get the grapes to the cellar,” explains Pierre.

“There is no recipe here. Each year presents grapes with their own characteristics, so decisions must be made on fermentation yeasts, different vessels for ageing various sections of base wine, accurately blending to get to the desired style of each final wine, dosage composition… The degree of patience involved in all this was something I had to learn, but fortunately I’ve got it now.”

According to the Graham Beck ethos, the importance of terroir in creating its Cap Classiques is non-negotiable in the continuous pursuit of perfection. Pierre and his team select Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from 12 regions in the Cape Winelands, each area providing distinctive flavour profiles and palate expressions. “I get into the vineyards of our 25 different grape-farmers as much as I can, because this is where it all starts. Here Cap Classique is blessed, with ourselves and other producers having access to a varied spectrum of grape diversity that allows us to compose our wines from a varied palette of terroir expressions.”

A discernible challenge in making Cap Classique that fascinates Pierre is that elusive striving for perfection. As Pieter Ferreira says, “Quality is not a destination, it is a journey.” And Pierre concurs.

“We are always seeking new ways, methods and influences in our approach to Cap Classique,” he says. “Secondary fermentation under cork instead of the traditional crown cap, for example. Exposing the base wine to clay amphorae… There are so many steps in the process of Cap Classique that despite what we have achieved with this wine style over the years, I sometimes think we are only just scratching the surface.”

Danielle Coetsee, Boschendal

She walks in the footsteps of giants, but with tremendous ease, efficiency and a seemingly unflappable serenity. As winemaker responsible for Cap Classique production at Boschendal Estate in Drakenstein, Danielle Coetsee is all too aware of the fact that she bears the legacy of one of the Cape’s leading wine brands that was an early pioneer of Cap Classique. It was here that the legendary Achim von Arnim made Boschendal’s first Cap Classique in 1981, the second winery to do so after Simonsig’s Frans Malan started it all 10 years earlier.

“I think legacy and tradition play a major role in Boschendal’s overall image as a premium producer of Cap Classique,” says Danielle. “With a history going back to 1685, generations of legendary winemakers and being a brand that has been part of South Africa’s wine history for as long as most people can remember, Boschendal has achieved icon status. My job of making Cap Classique thus comes with a lot of responsibility in ensuring that our legacy continues. But working for an established and admired brand is a tremendous inspiration – that and my total obsession with Cap Classique.”

Danielle showed her prowess with Cap Classique from an early age. She was only in her 20s when, in 2019, she made her way to the rostrum to receive the award on behalf of Boschendal as overall winner of the annual Amorim Cap Classique Challenge, the leading competition committed to honouring winemakers in this category.

“Actually, I don’t really take to the term wine-‘maker’,” says Danielle. “The process of getting something like Cap Classique from vineyard to bottle is such an extensive, multi-faceted journey involving nature, science and various people along the way that I see myself as a guide more than a maker of something tangible. Although the final responsibility does lie with me.”

In this ‘guiding’ from grape to bottle to glass, the magic for her lies in the detailed steps required to get to the final product, as well as the sensory skills involved along the way.

“I love getting into the vineyards when I can, harvesting and creating the base wine and then seeing the wines come alive with bubbles during the secondary fermentation in bottle,” she enthuses. “But the result depends on me and on the team’s analysing of the wines’ flavour profiles and aromas to ensure the final product is of the standard expected of Boschendal. That makes it such a terrifically rewarding job, knowing you have to rely on your senses to get to the final result.”

Recognised as one of the Cape’s leading Cap Classique specialists, Danielle’s inspiration for this wine style lies in just that: the style.

“Cap Classique is the closest one can come to having something in your glass that is alive,” she says. “I have never been sad when pouring and holding a glass of bubbly, and the fact that this is such a beloved product among consumers reminds me that I am not the only one who feels this way. As a winemaker, it is just such great reward when you meet the final product after all the time and patience it has demanded of you. When I see those bubbles rising in the glass, it as if the wine is giving me a wink and saying, ‘Congratulations, we did it!’”

The Mavens of Cap Classique

Shirley van Wyk, Terre Paisible
Like all the fine sparkling elixirs made from the vine, Cap Classique depends on an image of style, class and elegance as much as it does on that engaging pop of the cork and the effervescent rush of flavours on the palate. Shirley van Wyk, MD of Terre Paisible in Franschhoek, for me has always been the embodiment of this element of style and grace in wine marketing. Coupled with this is her love of Cap Classique and fervent ambition to see it at the top end of the Cape’s wine offerings, comfortably standing alongside Champagne and the rest that the world has to offer in terms of things sparkling.
No surprise then that when she was tasked to make of Terre Paisible a world-class destination for wine, food and accommodation, overseeing the presence of a premium Cap Classique was at the top of her agenda.

“As a wine category, Cap Classique has leapt to the forefront of our country’s wines, in terms of quality as well as image and status,” she says. “Fifty-two years after the first South African sparkling wine was made in this style of bottle fermentation, we find ourselves with a diverse array of Cap Classique wines that exude excellence and express the amazing terroir of the Cape’s wine regions. These can proudly stand alongside Champagne, Prosecco and Cava and, as one who has an international outlook in terms of realising the potential of Brand South Africa, I believe this recognition of Cap Classique as a local product desired in a global context is something we in the industry must advance.”

As a marketing specialist and brand custodian with experience in California and South Africa, Shirley is no stranger to the wines that sparkle. Working in the Los Angeles film industry made Champagne a part of her everyday life. And in the Cape Shirley headed up marketing for Boschendal, one of the country’s first Cap Classique producers, where she played a major role in taking Boschendal Cap Classique to new heights in creating an image of style and desirability, especially in the so-called ‘new market’.
“The beauty of marketing and promoting Cap Classique – and I’m sure the same goes for the promoters of Champagne and Prosecco – is that it’s about more than the quality of the product; it’s about the image and expectation,” she says.

“The brand and every detail in that brand need as much attention as the quality of grapes, the chemistry of the base wine and the levels of dosage. One can equate it to the world of fashion. When a designer creates a beautiful gown, they ensure it is worn and seen so that it can be fully appreciated. However, if the fabric or stitching of the gown are not exquisite, the complete design will lose its lustre. Quality is the ingredient that ensures an exquisite design becomes desirable and truly valuable. Similarly, crafting an exceptional Cap Classique is only half the fairytale – how it is presented is what creates the magic.”

At Terre Paisible, winemaker Adam Mason has created the Vivre Cap Classique, a Blanc de Blancs expressing the property’s terroir and ability to offer a sparkling wine of energy, refreshment and life (vivre). “What I love about creating a Cap Classique brand is that one does not have to make excuses for offering a luxury product,” says Shirley. “And with luxury at the core of Terre Paisible’s total offering, this is one Cap Classique that came naturally for me.”

Lizemari Geldenhuys, Kleine Zalze

There is a well-worn adage that wine is made in the vineyard. Well, as the late wine legend Duimpie Bayly loved to retort to this statement, “The vineyard is important, but no one wins the Durban July without a jockey.” In other words, it is the winemaker who defines and determines the final outcome. And few, if any, wine styles are as dependent on the consistent involvement of a winemaker as Cap Classique.

And this suits Lizemari Geldenhuys, winemaker at Stellenbosch’s Kleine Zalze Wines responsible for the winery’s range of Cap Classiques, to the proverbial tee.

“That’s what I love about making Cap Classique: the fact that the wine in each bottle is individual, undergoing its own secondary fermentation process in that bottle,” she says. “This and other aspects of the category allow a winemaker to be creative in determining each specific style of Cap Classique, as you are basically making two wines.

“The first is the base wine from early-harvested grapes with bracing acidity that must carry through to ensure freshness in the final wine, while demanding attention in the cellar to ensure complexity and character. Making the ‘second’ wine involves priming it with a yeast portion I call the ‘yeast bomb’. This bomb I have to get started, feeding and growing it like you do when preparing a yeast mother for sour-dough. The yeast is then added to the base wine, which is bottled and sealed to begin the secondary fermentation. That’s when the bubbles develop in the wine and all those typical Cap Classique flavours develop.

“All this demands my constant attention for the year or more the wine develops in the bottle, making it a hands-on wine that I find truly rewarding to make and love to see through to the end.”

Lizemari graduated from Stellenbosch University as a winemaker and viticulturist before working in California and Australia, as well as at Boschendal in the Cape. Although these experiences include none with Cap Classique, upon joining Kleine Zalze in 2016 the making of bubbly fell on her shoulders.

“It’s developed into a mild obsession,” she says. “Making Cap Classique for a big established winery such as Kleine Zalze is immensely rewarding, as you know there is a large consumer base of people loyal to the brand due to its overall reputation for wine quality. Consumers have also really taken to Cap Classique over the past decade. It is no longer something reserved for celebrations and special occasions – although no celebration is complete without Cap Classique! – but is enjoyed as part of the inclusive wine lifestyle.”

Besides the satisfaction of total involvement in the process of making Cap Classique, Lizemari and her team love the challenge of something new. The latest is a Chenin Blanc Cap Classique from the 2023 vintage.

“This is truly exciting, as it’s a wine made from registered Old Vine Chenin Blanc and, to boot, the base wine was fermented and aged in clay amphorae, giving it a unique flavour profile. But like everyone else, I will have to wait for the final product as it is now fermenting in bottle, with release pending until 2025.”

Product loyal, Lizemari opens a bottle of Cap Classique to celebrate life. “Waiting with a glass of Cap Classique is the cherry on top!”

Of Spirits and Cocktails

In the name of diversity, my drinking does include some modest partaking of elixirs other than wine. Now I am fervently preparing for summer by ensuring that my list of warm-weather refreshing drinks is up to speed, and barring one or two exceptions, the upcoming festive season will see the imbibing of a few trusty and spirited coolers.

I don’t much use the word cocktail, for this implies one requiring a set of flashy mixing-skills, donning a floral Hawaii shirt and walking around with a stainless-steel shaker. My mixed drinks are tres ordinaire and have never failed my personal wants as well as those of my guests.

Few things beat the trusty gin-and-tonic for a daytime summer drink. And with the stupendous number of flashy gins on the market, one is spoilt for choice. I don’t, however, much like the florally scented and fruity gins that are so in fashion. Gordon’s is pretty much my go to. However, the straight-up Musgrave Botanical Gin provides a perfect balance between a juniper-driven gin with a bit of vooma and some refreshing botanical flavours.

As one should always do when selecting your gin, try a neat sip to determine its suitability in terms of strength and flavour. And here Musgrave is on-point – I have even taken to drinking it neat with a bunch of ice and a slice of lemon. The immediate kick of alcohol leading to that irresistible numb, pleasurable feeling is an added incentive for knocking it back neat.

However, the G&T is this gin’s perfect home. One-third Musgrave Botanical, two thirds tonic-water and a slice of lemon….joy comes in simplicity. There is the hearty hit of gin spirit soothed by the reverberating freshness of the tonic with a citrussy lemon cut. A lovely drink. And don’t believe in all the press about the crafted tonic waters being superior – Schweppes is just fine, my dear.

Despite being of mature age, the bitterness of the Negroni has never done it for me until this winter past when I joined some fashionable ladies before a fireplace in sipping these gin drinks. One part gin, one part dry Vermouth and one part Campari and lotsa ice. This thud of crunchy bitter does have something going for it and sure does sharpen the appetite. Once again, making my own Negronis at Casa Joubert I found Musgrave totally ideal as those manly big-branded gins force the bitterness just a bit.

Having done some long-haul flying over winter I had plenty of opportunity to indulge in my favourite airport drink, namely the Bloody Mary. Vodka, tomato cocktail, ice, Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco. Why this drink appeals to me in airport lounges I cannot say, but I get a craving for a Bloody M just by seeing an airline commercial on television.

Like the G&T, I am picky about the vodka used in this bloody marvellous drink, and of late I have decided that I am a Stolichnaya fan. This once Russian spirit is now distilled in Latvia and is the perfect mixing vodka, although a few neat shots of ice-cold Stoli does have its charms in times when called for.

I mix one-third Stoli to two parts tomato cocktail with a few ice-cubes in the glass. Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco, of course….but here’s the kicker: A Swedish bar-tender recently lifted my Bloody Mary to new heights by serving it with a strip of crispy bacon. Yes, a lengthy line of golden-brown grilled bacon in the glass of Bloody M. Sipping the tomato-and-vodka drink between nibbles of crunchy bacon made this the most satisfying drink of the year so far, the only trouble being that you may really be tempted to have a Bloody Mary for breakfast.

Cap Classique and other sparkling wines are terrific bases for mixed drinks, with – talking of breakfast – the Mimosa being a case in point. Orange juice – freshly squeezed, of course – is the traditional Mimosa ingredient, with one-third juice to two-thirds fizz. However, after watching the second series of White Lotus set in Sicily where the characters were breakfasting over pineapple Mimosas I had to try this. Gorgeously fruity with the Cap Classique’s sparkly wine-flavoured fizz elevating the pineapple to new levels of cheerful, cheeky morning-drinking enjoyment.

While on the matter of sparkling wine, do not forget the Black Velvet, a mighty mixed drink especially worshipped by those of us with Irish roots.

For this, take a beer glass and fill halfway up with Guinness or any other stout – Castle Milk Stout is great – and top-up with a Cap Classique or Champagne. The quality of the fizz matters here. One sip and the name comes to life, a dark velvety curtain of creamy black stout complemented by the zingy freshness of good sparkling wine. A great drink with oysters and at times when reassuring fortification is required, deliciously.

Bruwer Raats: A Vision of Multitudes

As a winemaker, Bruwer Raats is a guy the American poet Walt Whitman would define as one containing multitudes. Wine brand builder. Son of the vineyard soil. Engaging conversationalist and promotor extraordinaire of his acclaimed wines. And now South African Winemaker of the Year, as per Tim Atkin, MW in his 2023 Special Report on South African wines.

But I’ll always remember Bruwer’s thing with rocks. First time we met for a wine chat some two decades back I expected this hearty fellow Afrikaner to braai me some wors, haul out a few bottles and chew the fat on wine and life and the world, and all that stuff. After all, I know a kindred spirit when I see one.

What I got instead was being hauled to a quiet top-level room in Bruwer’s house on Polkdadraai in Stellenbosch to look at a row of rocks placed on a gleaming wooden counter. Here were diversely shaped chunks of granite, slivers of slate and clods of shale. Then there followed a lecture on how soil and rocks and earth affect wine – and not any wine, but the wines he was then making, and continues to make. Only difference between now and back then, is the levels of success those bottles of Raats wines have accumulated locally and internationally, both commercially as well as in terms of critical acclaim.

And his hands have always been in the soil. “My father was a high school principal and wherever we moved to, he made sure to have a big garden,” says Raats. “Myself and my brother Jasper would work the garden with him, or just us two, growing vegetables and stuff. We were not a farming family, but those gardens got my mind going about soil and plants. Add this to the fact that my parents liked do drink wine and share it with us kids from an early age, and winemaking slipped onto my radar pretty easily.”

Despite this love of land and its rocks, vines and slopes, Bruwer was from the outset clear on his vision of not wanting to own a wine farm. With the benefit of hindsight and the realities of how the Cape wine industry has developed over the past three decades it can assuredly be said that when graduating from Elsenburg Agriculture College back in 1995, Bruwer was ahead of his time.

“Back then the concept of a winemaker starting his or her own brand was no industry convention,” says Bruwer. “But this is what I planned to do, the only plan. To make the best wines I wanted to make under my family name without huge investments in vineyards or wineries.”

To realise this vision, he sought experience in other parts of the world. America for the cellar technology and winemaking logistics. Germany for a scientific and very meticulous approach to viticulture. And Italy to experience the passion and personable approach of tradition and the role family and people play in making wine the cultured product it is.

Back in South Africa he did some work in the cellars of others, most notably Blaauwklippen, Delaire and Zorgvliet, but when the first own-label Raats Family wines rolled out in 2000, Bruwer’s journey to the very top echelon of the South African wine offering began.

“My focus on Chenin Blanc came at the right time, as this was at the beginning of the Chenin-revolution that saw people like Irina von Holdt and Ken Forrester take this work-horse of the Cape wine industry and turn it into what I believe the country’s most distinctive and alluring white wine,” says Bruwer, modestly not claiming the rightful role of Raats Family Wines in elevating Chenin Blanc to new levels of excellence and acclaim.

He loves Chenin Blanc’s ability to express a sense of place, in Bruwer’s case the Polkadraai Hills region in Stellenbosch. “People thought I was crazy with my commitment to Polkadraai when starting out,” he smiles. “Back then it was the arse-end of Stellenbosch wine country more known for vegetables and bulk wine production. But I have always believed in that region’s fantastic granite and dolomite soils that are more rugged and visceral in expressing the site through the vines. Until today, Polkadraai is the home of Raats Family Wines where I work closely with growers to get the grapes I want for my style.”

And in dolomite and granite Chenin Blanc can trust. As Raats Family Wines has shown over the years, the brand’s various wines express enticing degrees of variation, but all united in their steely mineral grip and energetic fruit core.

On the red side, Bruwer is known as a pioneer of Cabernet Franc, the old Loire and Bordeaux variety that way back in France, teamed up with Sauvignon Blanc to create Cabernet Sauvignon.

“I was working at Blaauwklippen in the late 1990s and came across a barrel of red with a perfume and sensual palate, the likes of which I had not experienced in Stellenbosch,” he recalls. “Upon learning this barrel was Cabernet Franc I had that ‘right, that’s it’ moment. Chenin Blanc on the white for Raats Family Wines, and Cabernet Franc on the red.”

Suffice to say that while there were only a handful or Cabernet Francs when Raats Family Wines started off, it is currently one of the most talked-about red varieties in the South African diaspora and rapidly becoming a sought-after calling card for the Cape on the local and international wine scene.

Oh, and there was the fruition of Bruwer’s vision to create an icon wine, a red Bordeaux style blend which he launched in 2004 with Mzokhona Mveme. Not only a cult wine emerged, but one of the first true partnerships between black and white wine personalities. MR Compostella it’s called, and from release it has been talked about in revered circles, being one of the consistently excellent wines that resulted in Atkin confirming Winemaker of the Year Status on Bruwer.

“It’s been an amazing journey thus far and awards like these are for sure a great honour,” says Bruwer. “My name might be on the bottle, but it’s all a team effort. This includes the growers of my grapes, the Mvemve Raats partnership and my cousin and partner Gavin Bruwer Slabbert who oversees all the vineyard management and winemaking production of our brands Raats Family Wines, Bruwer Vintners and Mvemve Raats. The most rewarding is knowing that I took decisions I wanted to take that proved to be the right ones. For my business, my family, my team as well as the people that appreciate South African wine and recognise its status as being among the best the world can offer.”

A lot of fat worth chewing.

Tide Turns for Cape Sauvignon Blanc

American base-ball legend Yogi Berra was also known for his way with words, such as when being asked whether he still goes to Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York, the Berra quipped: “Man, nobody goes to that place anymore, it’s too crowded.”

This line always reminds me of the opinions on Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa’s – and one of the world’s – most popular wines. As a variety, serious wine circles are lean in allowing mention of or encouraging discussion on Sauvignon Blanc due to its image of being commercially successful, extensive in its presence on the wine shelves, and widely likeable. Enjoyable, it is, to the millions of people who reach for the wine’s fresh, vital approachability.

Those who frown on this variety and its wines, well, I can read your mind: Like the novels of John Grisham, the films of Jerry Bruckheimer and the tunes of Taylor Swift, your cultured opinion states that if it is omnipresent and appeals to the populace, then this must be devoid of profound merit and lacking in profundity.

Tim Atkin MW, South Africa’s most loveable international wine voice, summed it up acutely. When asked to attend an international Sauvignon Blanc gig in Marlborough, New Zealand a while back he stated that he was unavailable for the event as rearranging his sock-drawer was more important.

But the waves in the world of wine are always alternating directions, the currents ever-shifting. Thus, Sauvignon Blanc appears to be moving in a direction towards its commanding more attention as a fine wine variety rather than a one-dimensional agreeable quaffer. While it might handsomely add to the bank balance of its producers, the cultivar is also becoming worthy of filling the editorial space so keenly devoted to “sexier” and “off-centre” white cultivars.

RJ Botha, cellarmaster at Kleine Zalze Wines in Stellenbosch and chairperson of Sauvignon BlancSA, is realising this. During this year’s FNB Sauvignon BlancSA Top 10 he said it’s opportune to talk less of the commercial success and overall popularity of South African Sauvignon Blanc. “Now is the time to get the message out that our Sauvignon Blancs are diverse in their expressions of the Cape’s multi-dimensional terroir, but also to grow the emphasis on the attention and adventurous approach Cape winemakers are using to ensure their Sauvignon Blancs are world-class in complexity and structure,” he said. “While it will always be one of the world’s most popularly enjoyable wines, Sauvignon Blanc does not have to stand-back when it comes to offering excellence and status as a world-great variety.”

RJ Botha

RJ’s words were scarcely cold when Andrew Mellish from Mellish Wines in Durbanville presented a tasting of South African and European Sauvignon Blancs with the view of underscoring precisely this: The cultivar is no one-trick pony and presents a multi-layered white wine spectrum. Andrew’s line-up offered 12 Cape Sauvignon Blancs, three French (one of which a Sémillon blend) and an Austrian wine. The line-up: Iona Elgin Highlands Wild Ferment 2021, Tement Ried Zieregg Karmileten Berg 2019 (Austria), Bartho Eksteen Houtskool 2019, Mellish Family Vineyards Blanc Fumé 2021, De Grendel Koetshuis 2019, David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner Wild Ferment 2019, Vergelegen Reserve 2019, Alphonse Mellot Edmond 2016 (Sancerre), Thorne & Daughters Snakes & Ladders 2019, Dagueneau Buisson Rehard Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2015 (Pouilly Fumé), Bloemendal Suider Terras 2015, Klein Constantia Clara 2021, Trizanne Signature Wines Sondagskloof White 2018, Reyneke Reserve 2017, Diemersdal The Journal 2019 and Le Petit Cheval Bordeaux Blanc 2018 (Bordeaux).

Served in four flights, each including an international wine, the major impression was the deliciousness of the Sauvignon Blanc cultivar. A purity and vibrancy, a polished cleanliness – without sterility – characterised the wines, with various levels of thought-provoking depth found throughout the line-up. The multi-pronged onslaught on the senses was complemented by the fact that the youngest offering was two years old, going right down to 2015. All the Sauvignon Blancs, thus, had been exposed to silence and stillness for at least 24 months, a period of rest and breath, pausing after the fervours of their lusty youth and ready to awaken in the mouth with refreshed and mannered confidence.

The experiences ranged from the stony maritime bursts resonating in Trizanne Signature Wines Sondagskloof White 2018 and Iona Elgin Highlands Wild Ferment 2021, to the mature palate-weight of Bloemendal Suider Terras 2015 with its glow of bruised apple and jasmine, still a stunner at eight years of age.

Mellish Family Vineyards Blanc Fumé 2021 and Diemersdal The Journal 2019 are both generously wooded, but the oak both discreet in allowing white fruit to show, while being directive in piling the solid layers of edification required to give the wines weight and presence and respect.

Reyneke Reserve 2017 and Klein Constantia Clara 2021 are world’s apart as far as terroir is concerned, namely Stellenbosch the former and the latter hailing from Constantia. Yet both are knee-tremblingly graceful in their restrained harnessing of the sometimes pugnacious Sauvignon Blanc thiols and pyrazines, here presenting wines of extraordinary life-affirming appeal with firm, vital cores yet donning a subdued and courteous cool cloak of white wine elegance.

The foreign wines were gorgeous but by no means overshadowed Brand Sauvignon Blanc South Africa. Tement Ried Zieregg Karmileten Berg 2019 from Austria is like something carved from a cold slab of Carrera marble, unbreakable and permanent with flowing curves and jagged, defined cuts of beauty. Dagueneau Buisson Rehard Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2015 might not be as vigorously captivating or hold the impending danger as the same producer’s Silex cult wine, but it is rapturous with sappy green fruit running over upturned clods of fossilised earth.

One of the leading narratives among those assembled at the tasting was: So, how does South Africa stack-up to the international wines on offer? With respect, I am getting past this kind of question with its undertow of inferiority. It is not how do we measure against the world, but to what degree does the world welcome South Africa as a brother and sister of the Family of Wine Excellence? And with Sauvignon Blanc, it should be welcoming with open arms. Deservedly.