People provenance leads me to wine. For as that old sage Duimpie Bayly, former production head of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, likes to state: “I suppose they can say that wine is made in the vineyard. But I’ve never seen a horse win the Grand National without a jockey.”
For me, the minds, hands and hearts of people play as important a role in a wine’s attractiveness as terroir, cellar skills and perfectly grown grapes.
The rains eventually came at the end of another dry Cape winter, and it was a fine day to be on the top of the world. Since talk of the wine farm that business tycoon GT Ferreira was planning began doing the rounds in Stellenbosch during the 1990’s, there was a lot of speculation and excitement as to what Tokara was going to offer.
And despite having delivered the o-so-stylishly alluring winery-building with its gracious modern façade, elegantly comfortable interior, terrific restaurant and ubiquitous yet discreet displays of art, I’ll always thank Mister Ferreira for opening the true soul of Stellenbosch for all to see, feel and taste. Perched on the Simonsberg side of the Banghoek Valley, Tokara and its vineyards allows you to experience the fact that this is, truly, God’s wine country.
Gazing ahead, Table Mountain and Table Bay lie 50km due west, with False Bay to the east. With Tokara set on the easterly edge of the Simonsberg at elevations of between 350m and 550m, one feels the rapture of the vine and its product around you.
Driving around the spread of land inhabited by vineyards, olive trees and indigenous plants, it is apparent that Tokara is pretty hardy farming country. Aidan Morton, the by-now famous viticulturist who has been here since the first vines were planted at the turn of the millennium, has a relieved look on his face as the blue-layer of clouds comes drifting in from Table Bay. We are at 400m above sea-level, the vines are just-pruned and gnarled, and the soils in which they are rooted is as red as just-pressed Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Just what the doctor ordered,” says Morton whose energy and enthusiasm for this patch of earth he oversees is infectious. “It has been hell of a dry over the past winters, and we are not going to come near to the 900mm of rain we should be getting here on average, but every bit helps.”
Looking around you and feeling the revving and braking going on under the hood of Morton’s SUV, the diversity of the aspect on which the vines are grown is evident. Vineyards lie in an array of nooks and crannies and at various elevations. The plants appear well-tended, planted in neat rows, but set on terrain that is more rugged and undulating than the meticulous and harmonious exterior of the entry to Tokara would have one believe.
“This used to be fruit farmland,” says Morton, “soils are fertile, so from the outset our challenge has been to contain the vines’ vigorous growth. That’s why we plant the rows relatively wide apart and don’t hold back on the cover crops.” Indeed, in some vineyards the dormant vines appear to now stand in the shade of the cover growth – if the grey skies allowed any shade.
When we get out of the vehicle at the edge of a high Sauvignon Blanc vineyard to feel the breeze, the red oak-leaf and Tukulu soil smells of water, broken rock and autumn leaves. You just want to grab a shovel, fire-up a tractor and begin farming in this place. If, as they say, good wine is made in the vineyard this is the kind of farm where you can almost start making predictions before opening the first bottle.
Back at Tokara HQ, in a private lounge the size of a suite in the Ritz, I start talking about the location of the vineyards, the great wine terroir of Stellenbosch, that this is the place showing South Africa’s best, when I am courteously interrupted.
“Without a vision, this would not be Tokara,” says Karl Lambour, general manager. “GT Ferreira, who bought the property in 1994, had the vision and together with his wife, Anne-Marie, they have overseen its execution into something our whole team shares and is extremely proud to be a part of.”
Also in the room is one Stuart Botha. If Botha is keeping to himself, for now, it is for good reason. This is one day before he starts his new job of winemaker at Tokara, following in the footsteps of Miles Mossop who has been part of the team that founded the wine and vineyard project 17 years ago.
“I always said that if I were to apply for one job as winemaker it would be when the position at Tokara becomes vacant,” says Botha, who achieved a formidable reputation at Eagle’s Nest in Constantia. “So this is a dream job for me. Tokara is a jewel in the crown of South African wine. Nothing ever appears to have been done on a sub-par level. It smacks of a meticulous approach from top to bottom, and following in Miles’s footsteps is an honour as well as a terrific challenge.”
Mossop’s reputation as one of South Africa’s leading winemakers is largely built around his tenure at Tokara where he was part of a team that saw the wine vision became a reality and is inextricably linked to the brand’s total offering. Here, Tokara is firmly entrenched as one of the country’s leader in the quality stakes. Incredible red wines, based on Cabernet Sauvignon. At the top of the spectrum of the formidable reputation South Arica is garnering for Chardonnay. Brilliant renditions of Sauvignon Blanc, primarily from Tokara’s Elgin property.
The laid-back yet earnest and direct Mossop is matter-of-fact about his role as pioneer and long-term cellarmaster. “I believe we have achieved what we set out to do,” he says. “That is to produce some of the best wines in South Africa and to be recognised as world class. Quality, without compromise.”
Highlights? “Just being part of getting Tokara where it is today. That does it for me. From the beginning we focused on our strengths, not creating wines for the sake of the market, but wines true to the terroir we have and wines that we ourselves really love making and drinking. When you have this focus and commitment, the consumers recognise it and this is huge part of our current success.”
The talk turns to Cabernet Sauvignon, especially the success of Stellenbosch Cabernet and the current – and long overdue – revival this variety is undergoing. On Tokara you’ll find 23 blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon representing in 11 clones.
“Cabernet has been an integral part of Tokara since the beginning,” says Lambour who himself is a qualified winemaker with over 20 years’ cellar experience. “This is the Simonsberg, Stellenbosch and it is what we and the other producers here do best. It is about time this variety is thrust to the fore as something we do exceptionally well – not only for South African consumers but as an international calling card.”
Eager to prove his point, Lambour leads us to the tasting area, which is buzzing with visitors at 11 am. He selects a Tokara Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2014, wafts of cherry and pine-needle rising as the black-red wine splashes into the glass. “This is what South Africa offers the world,” says Lambour pre-empting my experience of the wine. “None of the overripe, overworked and ostentatious red wines styles the other New World countries are known for. Refinement and elegance and balance.”
He took the words out of my mouth as the wine is delicious with all the harmonious integration of a civilised red wine, seamlessly groomed yet with a tantalising juicy fruit core and a mesmerising feral edge of mountain grapes.
The Cabernet Sauvignon thread continues on the Directors Reserve 2013, Tokara’s flagship wine being a Bordeaux blend. Cabernet Sauvignon leads the way, but Petit Verdot and Malbec flesh out the dimensions, with Cabernet Franc offering a muscular, spicy grip.
In this wine, you smell the valley and taste the damp soil as the fynbos-scented breeze blows in off the rock faces of the Simonsberg, onto Tokara, on that day after the rains came.
Going through the reading matter about Cape Town’s new wine district, I was surprised at how relatively simple it all sounded. Producers from Constantia and Durbanville get an idea. Apply to the Wine and Spirits Board’s Demarcation Committee to check out the possibility of creating a district based on the regional, geographic similarities between Constantia and Durbanville. Committee approves it after detailed research. The new district gets advertised for objections. None. And hey presto, Wine of Origin Cape Town is born.
The sun is high, high above the mountain that can no longer cast any shade. That mountain is a good mountain, it is Simonsberg mountain outside Stellenbosch and I am drinking South Africa’s best wine varietal. Cabernet Sauvignon. For me, that is, as like mistakes and secrets, all opinions and tastes and loves are personal.
Sanity has set in, and it would appear that those voices claiming the South African wine industry only really began to make its mark in the 1990’s are either deciding to shut-up themselves or are being silenced. Sure, when economic sanctions prevailed in the 1980’s it was harder for a South African wine farmer to get a wine listing at Waitrose than a ticket to the Nottinghill Dreadlock Weaving Convention. But just because we were stuffed in the market place, does not mean no good wine was being made here.
There is nothing like thirty-six minutes of deft levitating while listening to the droning hum of a Buddhist priest to work-up an appetite. The other members of my Black River Soul Revival Club may be happy to munch on raw nuts, low-fat yoghurt and organic sprouts after a spiritual work-out. But the real holders of an inner-void need heartier fare.
Despite the centuries of blue-blooded Cape wineland culture resonating from its splendid buildings and vineyards, there is something wild and sparse about Meerlust that intrigues me. As if the entrance gate next to the dam is a frontier post, beckoning those who have crossed wild, unwelcoming terrain from Cape Town and is now about to take the first steps into the amicable palm of Stellenbosch’s wine region.
It is supposed to be a joyous annual occasion, but somehow I am always left with a thickness in the throat and a sense of loss. Once a year I head out to Kanonkop Estate to collect my annual wine allocation, a trip during which from the outset everything around me looks brighter and sharper, all appearing right with the world due to the knowledge that within an hour a few boxes of South Africa’s best red wine will be mine.
There are real benefits aligned to growing older in the wine industry. A chap becomes deft at selecting preventative measures for the tackling of gout, you know just when to slip out of a speech-laden wine event without upsetting the organisers and can impress vino virgins by recalling the weather conditions of those fine Cape vintages of 1974 and 1982.
Of course, in wine nothing is as valuable as experience. A bum-fluffed Cape Wine Master, glowing with the confidence of youth, has nothing on us old-timers who can vividly recall the fine old South African red wines of Stellenryck and had attended tutored tastings held by the great Ronnie Melck, former MD of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery.
Pride glows when I immerse myself in the Pinotage offerings of late. Vintages 2011 to 2013 are delivering more than a line-up of delicious, fine wines – they are announcing Pinotage’s progress from a noisy half-breed to a varietal that is achieving a reputation for greatness.
It was, of course, not always thus. Good Pinotage has been around since the first commercial bottling in 1959, but a lot of wading had to be done through a pool of wild, rude wines before reaching the cherry tree. The commentators, critics and wine makers who trashed the variety were obviously unfair in their generalised dissing of the grape, but in all fairness, after tasting 15 tots of examples showing nail varnish, banana-peel and sweaty goat scrotum one can be offended.
But as that great Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement read, “you’ve come a long way, Baby”.
The preliminary 20 wine line-up for this year’s Absa Top 10 made for riveting foreplay to the eventual Top 10 Trophy Winners who represent a selection of some of the finest red wines made in South Africa over the past few years. And this all from Pinotage.
In general, the Top 10 wines showed seamless and refined composition, elegance being one of the challenges posed by the Pinotage berry. The thing has a skin thicker than an EFF media-spokesperson and ferments faster than the Ebola virus spreads in Libreville. During the hasty fermentation – four to six days compared to two to four weeks for other reds – a lot of graceful harmony bleeds off and as a wine maker you have to keep your head to maintain balance until the juice has fermented dry. Racking and barrelling must be done with much care and focus – remember, as a variety Pinotage was only born in 1925 so compared to other cultivars it is still very much a work in progress.
All the Absa finalists were made with skill, every wine polished, shining and good.
Another golden thread – for me – is the sumptuous, juiciness of the wines on show. They are rich and plush, and unashamedly so. A direct fruit-core can be tasted, the wines have lavish palate weights and are smooth as silk. Like their wine makers, the Pinotages are confident in their robustness, undeterred by calls for lower alcohols, easier wooding, gentler tannins and other finicky requests.
Still on a high of admiration for this year’s Top 10 line-up, I do not have any outstanding favourites. But Pierre Wahl’s Rijk’s 2010 Reserve is a gut-wrenchingly great South African red wine full of spice and crushed cherry with a whiff of mocha. It was great seeing Delheim under the Top 10, its Vera Cruz Pinotage 2012 showing great Simonsberg terroir expression. A bead of forest-floor gives the rush of fresh red fruit a complexity on which neighbour Kanonkop would be proud.
Spier’s 21 Gables 2012 Pinotage has a soya sauce and berry umami-like profile, with an intriguing smokiness from the barrel. Windmeul is no stranger to the Pinotage Top 10 and their 2013 Reserve has a lovely brush of fynbos leading to a meaty, moreish length of appetising red wine.
The list continues, as does the fine display of what Pinotage is really capable of doing. And we’ve only just begun.