Coming in from the Old

Wine has a true friend in time, that concept of the aged and old, the historical and antique deemed nothing but beneficial and revered in the halls of wine-speak. A bottle bearing a label attesting to that wine having been made 40 years ago or more is carefully held in hands slightly trembling in awe, the contents spoken of in hushed tones of respect and anticipation. It is the names of wine cellars from Bordeaux to Piedmont, Rioja to Stellenbosch, Napa to Robertson who have been making wines for decades and centuries that command admiration on account of their legacy and reputation, places whose history and generations of cellarmasters underscore and extend the providence of the wines they have made for years, and will be making for years to come.

The old vineyards from which wine is made, too, bear a gravitas. These living plants rooted for years and generations in patches of soil they call home. They have withstood the challenges and tests of time by, year-in and year-out, ripening bunches of fruit from which the wine is made. Stormy winters belted their leafless shoots and gnarled trunks with wind and rain, snow and sleet. They have battled under the sun of scores of hot summers, offering a warrior-like and formidable resistance to the harsh rays’ heat and the parching dryness it brings to the soils, where those life-giving roots lie deep and true. These senior sages have adapted to the heartless vagaries of nature, learnt to exist in its ever-changing rhythms.

South Africa did not invent the concept of recognising and honouring the unique properties of old vineyards and the need to embrace them as an integral part of a country’s wine legacy. Europe, Australia and the Americas have older vineyards than South Africa, and more of them. But through innovation and will, a proud realisation of the role old vineyards offer a country’s legacy as well as current wine profile, South Africa has to a large extent taken charge of a rebirth in the global recognition of the role old vines play in the wine.

That’s why the name Rosa Kruger can be found at the top echelon in terms of South Africa’s most important wine people. Back in 2002 this former lawyer and journalist fell under the spell of the many old vineyards she had encountered during her forays as viticulture consultant.

Timeworn patches of vines, many forgotten, were tracked down in the Swartland, outside Vredendal and in Citrusdal. Spirited place-names such as Piekenierskloof, Skurfberg and Moutonshoek added to the allure. And once rock-star winemakers like Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Chris Alheit showed  – with the inspiration of Kruger – an interest to vinify the fruit from these low-yielding far-flung vineyards, it all began falling together rather nicely as a greater understanding of South Africa’s old vineyard treasures made its way into the public domain. Then in 2016 the Old Vine Project was launched to map all vineyards over 35yrs old and whereby wineries wishing to do so could honour the wines made from these mature vines with an official seal.

Rosa Kruger

The Old Vine Project’s innovative approach to creating a platform from which the magical appeal of old vineyards and their resulting wines could be expressed did not only capture the imagination of the local wine world. Kruger’s brain-child and her unbridled commitment to these vinous treasures in Southern Africa sparked an interest in old vineyards from around the world, and among the many international accolades she has received has been Wine Personality of the Year for 2018 at the International Wine Challenge.

Time and age are synonymous with romance. And for sure, as with any art form, romance has a vital role to play in wine, otherwise it would not be the multi-layered and diverse offering it is – no other consumed product has more labels portraying more countries and areas of origin than wine. Throw-in 6000 years of wine’s presence in the world presided over by humankind, and the romance is unavoidable.

But today is today, with consumers becoming more questioning and discerning. And the ask is, besides all the nostalgia and violin-playing to honour vineyards that have stood in the soils for 40, 50, 60 years, do they make better wines? If not, what is the song and dance all about?

Kruger herself says: “Do old vines make better wine? I believe they very often do. Age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil.”

But it is to the winemakers I want to go to get an explanation, they who oversee the farming of the old vineyards and who at harvest-time must send the bunches of ripe grapes on the road to becoming a bottled wine. And here it is apt to turn to those who make Chenin Blanc, the erstwhile work-horse grape of the Cape wine industry that understandably represents the greatest mass of the country’s Old Vine spread. Of the 4 292ha of vineyards aged 35 years and older, Chenin Blanc represents 2 207ha – the next largest is Sauvignon Blanc at 454ha, to give an idea of Chenin Blanc’s dominance.

Tertius Boshoff

Stellenrust in Stellenbosch is one of the country’s great Chenin Blanc brands  – in 2023 four Stellenrust wines found their way in to the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10, with a wine made from vineyards planted in 1964 being among the farm’s most revered offerings.

Tertius Boshoff, co-owner and winemaker at Stellenrust, is not hesitant to reveal the intoxicating effect of old vineyards, remaining pragmatic before a poetic tone embraces his words.  “It’s not that old vines – 35 years or older – necessarily produce better fruit,” says Boshoff. “Often yields decrease as the vine ages – so it’s not all sunshine and roses. But Old vines are like old people – they have seen good times and bad come and go, and are at peace with themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that they can deal with anything.” 

He fiddles with a cork-screw and smiles. “Young vines, like young people, are often enthusiastic growers and a touch too vigorous. They set more fruit than they can ripen. But as they age, vines learn to self-regulate. Yields come into balance and the grapes ripen slower and more evenly. Older vines produce smaller berries, which leads to powerful fruit concentration and consequently more structured wines; there’s a greater ratio of tannin-packed skin to juice. We see vintage-on-vintage consistent premium quality and beautiful pH levels in the juice.”

Stellenbosch, in fact, is the headquarters of South Africa’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc offering, carrying 558ha of the total national spread of 2 207ha. Kleine Zalze Wines uses the largest portion of Stellenbosch Old Vine Chenin Blanc, the enticement of this category shared by Kleine Zalze’s French owners Advini who deem it a jewel in the Cape wine crown.

RJ Botha in an old Kleine Zalze vineyard.

RJ Botha, cellarmaster at Kleine Zalze, relishes in this offering of Old Vine Chenin, deploying the fruit in a diverse range of the marque’s 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.”

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 aforementioned respect they deserve.

“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.”

Chenin Blanc might be ruling the roost in the Old Vine scenario, but South Africa’s national red grape of Pinotage delivers two of the country’s greatest red wines made from historical vineyards in the Lanzerac Commemorative Pinotage 2019 and Kanonkop’s perennial iconic Black Label Pinotage. Both wines, incidentally, made from vineyards planted in 1953.

Wynand Lategan, cellarmaster at Lanzerac who had the honour of making the Commemorative Pinotage from an old vineyard planted in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary appellation, says this wine would not have been what it is without the old vineyard fruit.

“I just think old vineyard fruit brings soul to a wine,” he says. “Compared to the other vineyards I use for our Lanzerac wines, I look at an old vineyard as the Chairman of the Board. The grapes don’t always have the virility and up-front fruit you find in younger vines, but the Chairman has seen it all. He isn’t easily affected or influenced by storms, drought or wind, nor the discrepancies of different seasons. There is just that quiet confidence honed by decades of having seen and lived it all. It is almost as if the old vineyard is saying ‘don’t sweat the small stuff in life’. Because the old vines bear fruit that have an immovable gravitas, leading to wines of assured length and substance that will prevail over everything else.”

Gravitas in wine, seemingly, but Old Vines also carry a hefty marketing clout. Few realise this better than Shirley van Wyk, MD of Franschhoek luxury wine destination Terre Paisible which includes a historical vineyard Sauvignon Blanc in its portfolio, Les Dames de 1987 Sauvignon Blanc made from a vineyard planted in 1987.

“Despite being a new destination, I was from the outset adamant about cherishing our old Sauvignon Blanc vineyard through a wine aptly called Le Dames de 1987 in the Terre Paisible line-up,” says Van Wyk. “History, provenance and legacy will always have tremendous marketing appeal, so if you have access to these traits in any of your offerings – use them. For us, an Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc is a major benefit for Terre Paisible, not only honouring our but also the whole of the Cape’s winemaking heritage.”

Known as one of South Africa’s leading wine marketers with a background in advertising and film, Van Wyk talks the Old Vine talk with charming conviction: “Old Vines are like beautiful history books – they carry the stories of all the harvests past and when we take the time to nurture them, they have so much to give back. These vines have survived many seasonal changes and climatic extremes and are now so resilient and adapted that they easily bear fruit each year which carry the nuances they have so carefully cultivated over the year. It is a gift to work with these vines and to capture their essence.

 “In a time where there is such a rush for instant gratification, new technology, innovation etc – it is ever more important to protect, respect and cherish our heritage wherever we can. Our old vines are treasured, and we are doing our best to ensure we look after them for many years to come.”

A search for a pragmatic and less romantic explanation behind the allure of wines made from old vineyards led me to Robertson and De Wetshof where my personal wine sage Danie de Wet planted a block of Chardonnay in 1987, the 37-year-old vineyard still harvested for making De Wetshof’s magnificent Bateleur Chardonnay.

“My answer as to the merits of old vineyards? Well, each year when the De Wetshof team tastes the barrel and tank samples of that season’s harvest it is the Bateleur that comes out as the best wine in the cellar,” says De Wet. “And it is made from the oldest vineyard on the farm, so if you put two-and-two together, the answer could be that more mature vineyards give an added dimension.”

Being a man of science but with enough experience and savvy to realise that vineyards and wine do bear unanswered mysteries, De Wet is not going to pin-point a specific reason for this added dimension. But he turns to the subject of soil, and he goes deep.

“Above the surface, the vineyard changes in each season as shoots are pruned, leaves grow and drop-off, grape-bunches develop and are then removed when ripe,” he says. “But what happens beneath the soil, there where the vines’ roots are, this we never know. An old vineyard can have roots going down to 10, 15 metres beneath the surface, prodding between the soils’ various layers, seeking nutrients and carrying what has been discovered deep below the earth through the vine and into the grapes as they ripen. I can only think that it is what these older roots find deep down below that adds another level of character and personality to the vine itself, which finds its way into the final wine.”

That the time is right to talk of the hot topics that are old and age in vines and wine, this is a given. But the finding of the answers is going to demand a lot more time, and this has still to come. If ever  – sometimes a mystery should remain shrouded, especially one that is as fascinating as this.

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9 Cape Winemakers Guild Wines to Punt On

The show is on. Cape Winemakers Guild season, and with the auction beckoning in October a selection of wines crafted by the Guild’s esteemed members was recently laid out for scrutiny. Your intrepid reporter scored an invite to this gig and decided that some gold reserves are to be cashed and Cape buffalo bulls sold to bid on the following stunning nine CWG vinos:

Kershaw Wines Ziggurat Chardonnay 2022

A master at work. And working well. Richard Kershaw takes grapes from Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge – Corton Charlemagne clone, to boot – gives them a whole-bunch squeeze and natural ferment. Bung in Burgundian barrels for 12 months with rigorous assessing done every eight weeks. As can be expected the paint is still wet on this master-piece, but signs of greatness are evident. The steely thrust of polished power, a neurotic edginess verging on the dramatic and electric rays of green citrus-peel, smashed almond and sun-baked buffalo skull. The most fantastic Cape Chardonnay in a long, long time.

Bartho Eksteen Vloekskoot Sauvignon Blanc 2022

The only Sauvignon Blanc in this year’s CWG offering, yet shows this variety has a role to play in the organisation’s lofty ambitions. Grapes from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley give momentous cool-climate flavour, with whacks of buchu and thyme joining grapefruit and gooseberry to offer a delectable juiciness. A slight salt-lick maritime edge adds to the deliciousness and drinkability, although a few years in the bottle will re-invent this wine as an austere Sancerre-like classic from the south.

Paul Clüver Wagontrail Chardonnay 2022

Andries Burger has made this wine a perennial CWG classic and vintage 2022 is unique in that the vineyards from which this Chardonnay is vinified are now 35 years old – the first commercial Chardonnay sticks planted in Elgin. All the classic features of Wagontrail are evident: the yellow citrus on the nose, honey-suckle and bitter-orange on the palate with a whisper of Meursault-like nuttiness. But vintage 2022 has a flirtatious complexity that I can’t recall this wine ever having, as if some Turkish delight, persimmon and green plum has joined the fray to offer a seductive and very beautiful white wine.

De Grendel Op die Berg Pinot Noir 2021

CWG member Charles Hopkins shows his versatility as a winemaker with a brilliant Pinot Noir made from grapes sourced from the Witzenberg mountains, the vineyard just shy of 1000m above sea-level. Hopkins does Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and red Bordeauxs at exceptional levels, but somehow, I think he’s outdone himself with this Pinot Noir. Scintillating stuff, with a brooding power waiting to pounce as the wine ages yet already offering enough sour-cherry, brittle pine-cone and seedy Marseille musk to make the wine evocative and vivacious with a long run of polite refinement.

Erika Obermeyer

Erika Obermeyer Wines Silver Linings 2021

I want to use an infantile expression like “fuck me, sideways”, and I shouldn’t.  But hell, this is a marvellous wine. The blend is Syrah-dominated at 63%, with Grenache and Cinsault filling in the gaps plus a teensy 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Not much information is available about the wooding, but this red wine is crafted with masterly skill by someone with the soul of an artist and an eye for beauty. A comforting plushness on the palate leads to that sensual grip of supple tannins as dark fruit – plums, currant, mulberry – oozes into the mouth, cut with a riveting line of pine-needle freshness. Truly gorgeous.

Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Sandford Chardonnay 2021

Gordon Newton Johnson gets lotsa mileage for his perfumed Pinot Noir, but I’ve always reckoned Chardonnay is the best grape on this Upper Hemel-en-Aarde property. And getting this wine selected for CWG duty vindicates my assertion. It is Chardonnay greatness on every level and the offering of this greatness looks just so damn easy. The nose is a medley of floral aromas with a mouth-watering edge of burnt-butter. In the mouth a hospitable, broad generosity pumps nutty, citrus and floral flavours while a cool lasso of steely minerality keeps things fresh, wanton and very much alive. Take me to the edge of heaven…..

David Finlayson Wines Inkunzi Tempranillo 2018

The Zulu for bull, is inkunzi, and this wine has the biggest balls of any of this year’s CWG offerings – except possibly for Donovan Rall’s pony-tail look. Aged for four years in oak, as per a Rioja regime, this Tempranillo is brooding in colour and already shows enormous power in its feral tannic scent. The attack on the palate is about as coy and genteel as an Eben Etzebeth clean-out at ruck-time, but thundering tannins and a vice-like grip are tempered by succulent black fruit and a hit of paella spice, finishing with a musky sliver of freshly sweated flamenco dancer. The biggest and most unique wine on show, and a keeper. No bull.

David Finlayson

Kanonkop CWG Paul Sauer 2020

No surprises in this selection as this wine is the CWG’s hottest item, and that includes Sam O’Keefe. Vintage 2020 has Paul Sauer, made by Abrie Beeslaar, once again showing a low-alcohol refined elegance allowing one to ascertain the splendour and beauty while the wine is in a state of youth. Calm, polite and cool, Paul Sauer 2020 brings autumnal dark fruit together with graphite and oyster-shell to make for a wine of such classic profile that it can make a Rasta DJ switch to violin music. A whiff of oak still drifts on the surface, but a dive into the still depths reveal awesomeness where taste, mouth-feel and beauty await.

De Trafford Glenrosa Syrah 2021

This number from David Trafford is one of those wines that defies corralling into a grape varietal or a region in that it is just such a super offering transcending preconceptions and borders. As Terry Theise wrote, many wines let you hear their noise, but only the great wines allow one to hear the silence. And this is one of them. A shy, yet intriguing nose of damp, dew-wet plum grove. On the palate the wine coaxes with silk-lined tannins while a resounding power reverberates across the senses. Dark, deep and mysterious flavours evoke the will to pry, search, but the joy is right before you.

David Trafford

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Seven Take-outs from Prowein 2023

After 20 years of enjoying a peaceful week in March at home while all his PR clients jetted off to the Prowein show in Düsseldorf, Germany, it was time for Emile Joubert to join the fray. Here are his top impressions of the world’s largest wine trade fair.

  • The vastness of it all. This is truly something to behold. On paper the facts of 6 000 exhibitors from over 40 countries showing their liquid-wares to 50 000 people from all over the world does not begin to do justice to the real-life experience of three days at Prowein. The 13 halls, some inter-connected, others detached demanding a few hundred metres’ trek across a glum tarmac, are each at least twice the size of the Cape Town International Centre. Each hall is filled to the brim with stands of various sizes, colours and dimensions representing producers of wine and other beverages from all corners of the globe. From 09:00 to 18:00 the exhibition centres buzz as sections of the aforementioned 50 000 visitors move around the stands to conduct business, meet-and-greet and to pursue that shared inbred trait of satisfying curiosity. Pausing to take a breath while walking the 1 200m from Hall 14 – where the South African delegation camped-out – to my German mates in Hall 1 – I could not but philosophically reflect on how big the wine world actually seems. How small South Africa is. How challenging the prospect of, among all these vast vinous offerings, getting one’s wines into the global market-place. Wine gladiators, we salute you.
  • It’s all business. For the opening hours of the show, that is. While some cruisers who managed to score a Prowein ticket are happy to aimlessly waltz about tippling a drop of Uruguay Alvarinho or sculling a glass of golden Commanderia from Cyprus before attempting to swop phone numbers with one of the ice-queens on the Moldovia stand, most people attend Prowein for business. Importers, distributors and buyers from over 140 countries flit from one scheduled meeting to another reconnecting with familiar suppliers or filling an appointment with a new winery from a new country which has been identified as being, possibly, the next big thing. Down where the South African exhibitors were strutting their stuff it was impressive to see local wineries such as De Wetshof, Chamonix, Diemersdal, Kanonkop, Delheim and Kleine Zalze hosting back-to-back meetings with clients from all over the world. Making deals. Fielding queries on the general state of play back in South Africa. Providing updates on their respective farms and wineries and families, with which many of the international buyers appeared to be reassuringly familiar.
  • South African wine is on the map. Introducing myself and chatting down the diverse halls of collected nationalities, it was apparent that South Africa is seen as a major wine player and an inextricable part of the global wine space. From the more familiar wine countries of Germany, France and Italy to the exhibitors from Serbia, Ecuador and Macedonia, everybody knows of South Africa. Not all of them might be able to point-out the country on the map – or find the African continent, even – but an awareness of South African wine was evident among everyone I spoke to. Granted, most wine professionals – i.e. everyone attending Prowein – would have come across the name South Africa in their business reading and statistics lists, but the tone of familiarity shown about the country as a wine producer was pretty awesome to experience. Stellenbosch is recognised as a top region. South Africa’s hosting of the international Concours Mondial du Sauvignon Blanc was noted. Robertson has limestone and Chardonnay. And Kanonkop is one of the world’s best wineries. Familiarity, yes, and not the kind breeding any contempt as far as I could tell.

Maryna Calow from Wosa and Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof Estate.

  • South Africa has a sellable varietal mix. Moseying around the South African hall and eavesdropping in on the conversations and hustling, it is clear that the selection of Cape wine is appealing in its uncomplicated yet interesting spread. Unlike countries offering wine varieties such as Tamjanika (Serbia), Mavrud (Romania) and Malagousia (Greece), the South Africa selection represents a smorgasbord of want and familiarity: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot do not have to be explained, not even to wine-buyers from Kazakhstan or Albania. As exotics, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage have built-up an identifiable international presence with just the correct degree of curiosity-inducing edginess to round-off a undaunting, yet exciting palette of wine offerings. To this must be added the fact that Cape wines are deemed generally well-made, structurally sound and delicious, with accurate displays of varietal character. This is something the buyers at Prowein want. As one representative from a Belgian supermarket chain told me, “I am here to buy wine for my paying customers, not for impressing wine critics”.
  • We are a Vibe. As a collective of producers and marketers representing their country’s brand, South Africans are a discernibly effervescent, vivacious and spirited lot. Traipsing the Prowein halls I was on a daily basis exposed to restrained yet polite Germans, surly Eastern European wine reps who eyed you as if you owed them something, vacuously smiling Spaniards and over made-up Californians more intent on showing their dental-work than the wines before them. The South African contingent, however, greeted known and unknown visitors with hearty guffaws, spirited smiles and that “I am genuinely glad to see you” look. A shared spirit prevailed, one of warmth and confidence and genuine pride in what the gaggle of Cape wine producers have to offer.
  • It’s tough out there. To quote the great Steely Dan song – “The world that we used to know, people tell me it don’t turn not more.” Speaking to wine marketers, from those representing small producers in Alicante to French behemoths it is clear that the current global wine market is a tough one. Energy crisis in Europe. Rampant inflation. Cost-of-living. Long-term effects of Ukraine-Russia….belts are tightened and the European supermarket space is about as friendly to a wine producer as a Macedonian bouncer is to a late-night post Prowein reveller in downtown Düsseldorf’s Altstadt. Average wine prices per bottle in Europe remain shy of 2.5 euro per bottle amidst an environment where beer, ciders and non-alcohols are aggressively invading shelf-space. South African exports of packaged wine for February 2023 are 40% down on the same month’s reportage for last year, an indication of the current international environment. Suffice to say that this global market uncertainty, which is set to hang around for a while yet, is not conducive for a major overhauling of the Cape wine industry in terms of investing in the large-scale replanting of vineyards from Chenin Blanc and Colombard to more profitable varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Trendspotting among this gargantuan display of drinks offerings was about as challenging as trying to find a vegan curry-wurst, but with keen foresight and an accurate fashion sense a few focus points of attention were identified. Fizz is going great guns, for one. Champagne houses are not meeting the incredible demand for the real stuff. Prosecco is going ballistic, Spanish Cava is on the rise and even German producers of carbonated sparkling wine can’t find enough order-books to fill. Rosé is huge, with the French putting themselves forward as the only makers of pink wine worth indulging in. And brace yourselves, inky black sweet wines made from Primitivo are continuing to take European markets by storm. Wine nations stepping to the fore appear to be Portugal and Greece, both taking-up huge Prowein space with EU subsidised stalls. Although as far as the New World goes, it must be said that South Africa has an edge in terms of grabbing the imagination. Opportunity beckons, awaiting to be unleashed.

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50yr Old Kanonkop: The Eternal Taste of Greatness

As Cape icon estate Kanonkop celebrates the 50th anniversary of its maiden wine release, there has been a run-on the demand for those remaining treasured initial bottles of 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage wines that were made by Jan Boland Coetzee. The Kanonkop team is hosting a number of tastings to international groups to accentuate the brand’s provenance, and to have a 1973 to pour for the assembled tribe to experience is deemed a must.

The search party has, however, turned-up a few of these rarities, namely the maiden Cabernet Sauvignon. Obviously, just because you have the bottle doesn’t mean it is worthy of exposure to an enlightened audience. Which made the opening and recorking of these discovered wines non-negotiable.

This was done by Amorim Cork, with MD Joaquim Sá – the Cristiano Ronaldo of the recorking technique – doing the work himself last week.

To be present at this occasion was like accompanying an archaeologist into the just-discovered lost tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh, without the embalmed cats and funny headgear. The Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 lay in bottles of agreeable ullage, green and bright with a firm layer of old compacted dust around the closure. This was scraped away with surgical precision, the five decade old cork – soaked and frail – carefully removed before argon gas was placed in the opened bottle to prevent oxygen getting to the waking old wine.

This gave Abrie Beeslaar and Deidre Taylor, Kanonkop’s winemaker and marketing director respectively, the chance to scrutinise the wines so as to judge their condition and to ascertain whether these aged elixirs tasted like the monuments of South African wine they are purported to be.

Of their making by Jan Boland, the interesting aspect is that this first Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon was made from grapes harvested from vines Jan had planted on the farm in 1969 – four years old, thus. One of his first tasks was, with the permission of Kanonkop-owner Paul Sauer, to remove the farm’s Shiraz as this was not a variety he was interested in and, after all, he felt then as he did today that Cabernet Sauvignon and Stellenbosch go hand in glove.

The other feature was that the 1973 Kanonkop wines were some of the first in the Cape to be exposed to new French oak. This on account of Jan having met the Demptos family from the eponymous cooperage when he went over to France in 1970 on rugby-playing duty.

Along with the new wood, traditional Kanonkop winemaking was done, with open concrete fermenters and manual punch-downs setting the fermenting juice on its path where, in 2023 with an open bottle of Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 before me, one was able experience living vinous history.

Jan says 1973 was a good vintage, a mildly temperate growing season with grapes reaching pin-point accurate levels of ripeness. “Not like 1975, when the easterly wind blew on 26 January and knocked the good grapes out of the bunches.”

It is hard to approach a 1973 Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon without clouded objectivity. It’s like reviewing a play starring Marlon Brando after it was found that the great man is, actually, still alive. You want to like it, you want it to be great. You will be sure it is.

But truth and honesty prevail in greatness. Just like argon gas blows the oxygen off an old wine, a great wine does not allow for wondering, pondering or doubting. It overpowers one with its presence, washing away romantic thoughts and dreamy reflections. When it is good, it is just that – good. Fantastic.

So, before the Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 was recorked, tasting had to be done to ensure the wine’s suitability for showing to a fortunate audience later in the year.  And this was just marvellous, showing the sort of marvel encountered by those fortunate to have experienced wine capable of reaching ripe old ages in states of assured and confident grace.

Joaquim Sá and Kanonkop winemaker Abrie Beeslaar.

The nose was meaty, charcuterie and roasted coriander soaked in liquid scented by dry rose petals, dried figs and that aroma of preserved age one experiences when opening the drawer of a yellow-wood Jonkmanskas three centuries old. It was a heady, intoxicating aroma strong enough to evoke emotion, quickening the heart-beat and replenishing the soul with the wonder of discovery that something good and old is still here. For you.

Warm tar featured on the taste, a sun-baked endless highway, straight and true, with a faint edge of fennel and liquorice coaxing the gravelly heat. And then a murmur, a stirring and there it is: a prickle of fruit, sappy and bright, sweet and berry. Damson and mulberry; cherry, black-currant and a moist little crab apple. Here, after 50 years, the nectar of the vine lived still.

Most extraordinary was the perkiness of it all, the energetic and the shivering freshness. Acids sparkled bright and vivid, while a freshness whistled haunting tunes of lost love, memory and hope for things to come.

It was a small taste, as the bottled must be closed with a tight new cork, locking-up the beauty of it all for future imbibers of this miracle whose lives will, too, be made better with such an incredible experience, one few things can offer, but great old wine can.

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Cape Rosé: Showing a Blushed for Life

The drier version of that delicious blush wine known as rosé has been one of the success stories in the Cape wine industry, with more quality rosé’s than ever being on offer, and consumer uptake making sales thereof increasing year-by-year. I for one am not surprised, as South Africa’s climate and our get-up-and-go outdoors’ lifestyle make rosé a perfect wine for quenching the national thirst and cultivating home-grown wine appreciation for this beloved product of our winelands.

Provence, the southern part of France where sea, olive groves, lavender and seafood define its being, is the world’s central point for rosé. Over there the stuff is made by the hundreds of millions of litres, and from May to September a glass of rosé is found on every table, picnic spot and al fresco restaurant.

This is also the region where the making of rosé has been perfected. Red Mediterranean grape varieties such as Grenache, Cinsaut and Shiraz are picked and the juice immediately bled from the coloured skins, allowing just a slight blush colour liquid to make its way to the fermentation tank. Ferment, keep it on lees for a few months, and voilà, you have a dry wine bearing a subtle hue ranging from pale onion skin to salmon pink to one of the gorgeous light pink lipstick-shades that were so in vogue among 1960s actresses.

For long, South African rosés were made sweet and sticky, the colour more candy-floss than the blossom duskiness of the classics. But over the past 15 years more-and-more wineries have gone the classic Provençal route of offering dry rosés showing a more refined colour. It is not just about colour, though. Remember, these wines are made from red grapes and even if the time the wine spends on the colour-enhancing skins is brief, the wines do grasp some lovely berry flavours and a hint of tannin to give them a presence in the mouth.

What local producers also have going for them, is the national red grape of South Africa, namely Pinotage. This has shown to make brilliant rosés, therefore giving our rosé-offering an edge on what can be expected from the French stuff.

Delheim Estate in Stellenbosch was one of the pioneers of Pinotage rosé, and due to its success continues to be one of the leaders in Cape rosé production.

The Delheim Pinotage Rosé has a cherry-blossom colour and what stands-out for me is its bracing dryness. As a rampant enjoyer of all things cold and refreshing – including beer and gin-and-tonic – the Delheim Rosé can be found in my fridge for most of the summer months. And I have no qualms about adding an ice-cube or two to the glass to increase the pleasure, as this is the kind of wine for drinking with wanton abandon.

Bone-dry, the wine has subtle notes of plums and crunchy berries with a bracing finish full of zest and accompanied by that moreish calling. It is the ideal partner to sushi, especially if you like to go heavy on the wasabi, and is truly summer in a glass.

The world-famous Kanonkop Estate, like Delheim situated on Stellenbosch’s Simonsberg, is known for robust red wines, including the Paul Sauer Bordeaux-style that is arguably the country’s finest offering. But this iconic farm could, too, not let the opportunity pass of tapping into the lucrative rosé market, and its Kanonkop Pinotage Rosé has become one of the most popular wines in this category.

Sourcing the finest Pinotage grapes, the wine is oozed off the skins, the ferment and other winemaking stages presided over by Kanonkop’s wizard winemaker Abrie Beeslaar. The result is an astounding rosé that I would like to see in a line-up of the best the world has to offer. For besides being a most charming pink wine, this has a true taste of the Cape.

Sure, being of local DNA, Pinotage does give the wine a wow factor with the vivid, bright berry profile and an underlying savoury character. But along with this elegant cool freshness comes a brisk note of herbaceous fynbos together with a saline, maritime thread.

Even served ice-cold and merrily glugged, there is a discernible refinement in the wine, true polished  class showing that despite its glitzy fashionable image, rosé does manage to get an edge on the porch of wine greatness.

For something completely different, there is the Diemersdal Sauvignon Rosé. Diemersdal proprietor and winemaker Thys Louw is a classically orientated winemaker, but now and again he goes off-kilter, following his nose and with successful results.

So, Diemersdal Sauvignon Rosé eschews the conventional route in the winemaking process. Two Sauvignon grape varieties are used: The red Cabernet Sauvignon and its white partner Sauvignon Blanc. (Incidentally, Cabernet Sauvignon as a variety resulted in France as a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, making the weighty Cabernet the offspring of the fresh white Blanc.)

Sauvignon Blanc forms the foundations of the Diemersdal Sauvignon Rosé, and the pale garnet hue results from Thys simply adding a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon to the white wine.

The result is a fullish rosé, dry, but oozing black-current and cherry riding the characteristic wave of nettle and gooseberry freshness Sauvignon Blanc is known for. Invigorating and juicy, this wine is brilliant with fish just-off the braai-coals or a spicy curry.

But as we rosé-lovers know, one does not need guidance or parameters to live this style of wine, as a rosé of any name remains just as delightful and enjoyable.  

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Snoek: Classic Fish of the Cape

Snoek is not so much a fish as it is a Cape cultural phenomenon. When the large shoals comprising thousands of these lean, torpedo-shaped marine creatures begin to run around the West and South Coast of the Western Cape, there is a buzz in the air. A tangible energy and, for a while, joy and blessing, and that feeling of achievement by the fishermen who set-off on their boats, the mornings dark and kelpy, to catch the snoek. For them it is a livelihood, and a good seasonal one when the snoek shoals run thick and long, as they have done over the past three weeks. And continue to do so.

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Sweet Success of The Chocolate Block

Having recently flown half-way around the world – literally – it was astounding to see the presence of one specific South African wine label at every stop. From Cape Town International, the frenetic bazaar-like space of Dubai Airport all the way to Auckland, New Zealand a bottle bearing a white label with the words The Chocolate Block was encountered in nearly every wine  store.

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At Last! A 100pt Score for South Africa from Tim Atkin

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015 has become the first South African wine to receive 100pts in the annual report on the South African wine industry by respected British wine judge, journalist and critic Tim Atkin MW. For his seventh South African report, which has just been released, Atkin tasted 1 986 wines from throughout the country, with Kanonkop’s iconic Bordeaux-style blend achieving the highest score.

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Taming the Pinotage Animal

The animal is there, the question being what are you going to do about it? At a monumental Pinotage tasting held in the Braemar domain of Anthony and Olive Hamilton Russell, a gathering of wine-makers, insightful marketers and lonely scribes assessed a line-up of wines drawn from a broad spectrum. Some familiar Pinotages were allowed in among a collection dominated by offerings from cooler and far-flung regions, signed-off by wine-makers who might be termed as being non-traditionally associated with South Africa’s home-grown red grape.

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Time for Super Pinotages has Come

Quietly, the new category of Super Pinotages is causing a ripple through the incoming tide of things offered by Brand South Africa. Not everyone – present company excluded – is convinced that Pinotage can bear the torch as the nation’s grape: that sought-after focused ray of light, in clarity unmatched by any wine country, that cuts through the wad of global vinous offerings and makes universal consumers sit up and say, “Oh, that is South Africa in a glass, and we all like it. What a great piece of the wine world that neck of the woods must be.”

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