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.

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Some Wine is Mossop’s Sam

Twenty years back everyone was wondering what the Kid was going to do up in Helshoogte, Stellenbosch at the country’s most-eagerly anticipated new winery. The place was Tokara where the Kid, a.k.a. Miles Mossop, had been tasked by Tokara founder GT Ferreira to launch the wines from this spectacular spread of vineyards and cellar and all-round fabulous wine destination.

Then in 2005 the first Tokara wines hit the world like a Cheslin Kolbe line-break, with quality and a distinctive sense-of-place showing that, wine-wise, the product could assuredly match the gravitas Tokara had reached, image-wise, even before the first stuff was bottled.

Despite having left the joint five years back to do his own thing, the Kid will go down as the guy that put-down the foundations for the magnificence Tokara has claimed at the top end of the Cape wine spectrum, a spot it is not likely to lose anytime soon.

Sam and Miles and Sam the Wine.

My interest in the doings of the Kid originated from the reputation of his late father, Tony. He was a leading wine commentator and critic and all-round wine gentleman who also happened to be infatuated with Port. This stuff he made in Calitzdorp on his Axe Hill farm. Those interested in wine read what Tony Mossop wrote, listened when he spoke and agreed with the many winemakers and other people who revered the man’s opinions and appreciated his understated and self-deprecating sense of humour.

And as far as son Miles is concerned, and if Tony is looking down, one can paraphrase the Who song and state that, yes, the Kid is alright.

Now making his own Miles Mossop Wines, as well as assisting with a couple of other ventures, Miles has a track-record ticking all the right boxes: Name made at Tokara. Former Cape Winemakers Guild chairman. A hero in the eyes of the younger generation of winemakers. International reputation. And not to mention that the Kid still has great hair.

He lives his wine career in the fast-lane, does Miles. Busy. Happening the hustle. The opportunity, thus, of attending a tasting of a new release at the Mossops’ Banghoek home, verdant forest-garden looking up to the colossal blue-grey Simonsberg, was eagerly taken.

The occasion was the latest vintage of Miles’s wine named Sam, a Cabernet Sauvignon-led beauty in the Mossop Family range, this one named after Mrs Miles. It is pitched top-end at just under a grand a bottle and represents the culmination of Miles’s vinous vision through a meticulously crafted wine.

Before hitting the latest Sam release from vintage 2020, glasses were filled with various renditions of the same wine from the maiden 2017.

While Sam’s geographical origin has moved to the Polkadraai Hills appellation, the 2017 started out in Bottelary, with the 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot both sourced from those rugged slopes and once again confirming Bottelary’s terrain to be a truly great setting for classic Cape wines. This 2017 Sam has a true bloodline of old-school Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon about it with that meaty dark fruit and cedar approach levelled out by a silky charm still allowing the required degree of force and presence to reverberate throughout the palate.

Good winemakers wield a deft hand at taming tannins to still the roar but allow the excitement to thrill, and this feature is noticeable in that 2017. Also helped, of course, by 2017 being a comet vintage.

Sam 2018 saw some Cabernet Franc from Polkadraai coming into the Bottelary Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot mix, and of all four vintages tasted this was rather showy in terms of a sweet-fruited rim, a firm graphite grip and some lush, glow and warmth. Fig-paste, plums and bramble-berries with wafts of fynbos and just a tad of cigar box make for a delectable wine that is both very drinkable as well as admirably commanding of respect. Pretty much like Taylor Swift wearing a Royal Navy admiral uniform.

The 2019 still spoke of some assertive and adventurous tannins of the grainy kind, the sappiness shown by 2018 being in the background. It is powerful and alert, and immensely cool and confident with the accent on petrichor, broken shale and potpourri rather than fruit succulence, the latter which will be coming to the fore in a year or three’s time.

Concerning the latest release, Sam 2020 underscores the fact that this is a great Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon vintage offering wines of immense varietal expression and a fruity eagerness, yet with polish and poise that will age to talkative secondary complexity. The 92% Cabernet Sauvignon element is now all Polkadraai, and as Bruwer Raats has displayed with his stuff, this region is known for its ability to bring accuracy and precision from them heavy granite soils, while offering just the correct degree of plushness to give depth and meaning.

A juicy tenderness lies at the core of this wine, fresh acids providing a taut harness on which to peg a tapestry of joy-giving flavours. Ripe pomegranate flesh with raspberry confit. Some sour cherries with a lick of blackcurrant and a few slivers of sun-dried prune. Brief glimpses of washed-up whelk-shell add a cooling maritime touch, while a few cedar cuttings give a civilised feral edge to a wine of immense presence and with an individual voice.

There’s a lot to like, and more to come as the Kid is at the top of his game. And the hair, man, the hair is still just great.

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Breaking New Ground for Riesling that’s Staying Alive

Lafras Huguenet

Were it not for sport, I would never have made it to Germany in 1972 and discovered the delights of Riesling wine. In a rare moment of spontaneity, I bought a ticket to Munich where that year’s Olympic Games were held and ended staying at the home of the South African consul who, besides having passes to the magnificent Olympiastadion, entertained lavishly. Fellow diplomats from South Africa, Britain, Australia, Switzerland and the United States descended on Mr Willem Retief’s rambling Munich home where he and his wife entertained us with barbecues, Mrs Retief’s famous bobotie and enough Riesling to drown a pod of orca whales in.

I did see Valeriy Borsov, the ace Russian sprinter, win the 100m gold and was able to marvel at the legs of German high-jumper Ulrike Nasse-Meyfarth, while at nights I joined the merriment at Casa Retief. Before terrible things happened with that terrorist incident inflicting mayhem and murder on the Israeli athletes’ compound.

What I do remember as well, was truly falling in love with the German Riesling wines that were laid on each evening, one of the reasons being that their low alcohol count meant I could spend the full night imbibing without having an oompah band playing in my head at the next day’s wakening. Being a connected diplomat, Mr Retief hauled out some big-gun German wine names: Weingut Gunderloch, Kloster Eberbach, Schloss Johannisberg – to name a few. And there were even some local winemakers around with whom one could discuss matters vinous between bites of bratwurst and pickles and the frequent bouts of song the German guests would break into.

Marlene Dietrich

German Riesling, I discovered then, was intriguing stuff. But much like South African Chenin Blanc, you never quite knew what you were getting. Under one grape’s name, the wine could be drier than the humour of a Berlin accountant, fleshier that a model in a Leni Riefenstahl film or as sweet as the lipstick John F Kennedy tasted when he canoodled Marlene Dietrich. This being the case, of course, before one had learnt to decipher the German wine-labels. Gothically confusing, these bottle adornments made ancient Cyrillic script seem as legible as a Dick Bruno kiddies’ book.

But, astoundingly so, in all its variety of renditions, good Riesling for me remains intensively true to its classic fruit origin. Even the sweet stuff has a spatial, glowing sunniness about it backed by a goose-step run of fine acidity. The dry stuff matches white Burgundy for the riveting expression of geography, and like Burgundy, the wine houses of Germany were founded by monks choosing to grow grapes in challenging environments so as to remain true to the maxim of “the more you suffer, the closer you are to God”. Well, try telling that to someone tackling a cloggy natural armpit wine from the Swartland of South Africa.

I had fond memories of my introduction to Riesling back in ’72 when German winemaker Christoph Hammel breezed into Cape Town recently to talk about the state of wine-play back in his motherland. He was also here to introduce a new label he had made in conjunction with the Delheim Estate from a Riesling spread on Stellenbosch’s Simonsberg. Christoph is a ninth generation winemaker at Hammel&Cie, out in the Pfalz, and during his visit he was keen to share the direction the newer generation of Riesling producers were taking.

He laid-out some German wines from Künstler in the Rheingau and Kruger Rumpf in Nahe, as well as a beautiful number from his own Hammel&Cie outfit, and Herr Hammel enjoyed hearing my noting the lack of a character that one often found in Riesling, namely a slight petrol, turpentine feature. Christoph explained that, yes, that feature was being discarded. Obsessed with the little sun Germany’s wine regions get, the wine-growers had always opened their canopies to invite light and warmth. But, this caused tough, tanned skins which, during fermentation, encouraged the fermenting Riesling to literally fart-out a slight petrol-whiff into the wine.

Subsequently, the German farmers are limiting the Riesling vines’ exposure to sun, creating purer, cleaner white wines with brilliant focus and unhindered varietal accuracy along with vivid terroir manifestation.

Of the three German wines, the Hammel&Cie offered more fun-filled enjoyment in one glass than a whole team of Prussian comedians could provide. There was freshness and lustiness in the wine, but also a poised delicacy and tender coolness. I loved it, have ordered a case.

The Künstler Riesling, made with a touch of oak, offered a clod of apple-peel and smoke, yet was still true and whistle-clean, while the Kruger-Rumpf – from vines planted in 1937 – was just statuesque. White wine at its most complex and engaging.

Of course, Herr Hammel was most enthusiastic about his collaboration with Delheim in making the maiden Staying Alive Riesling 2022, which was cobbled together in partnership with Delheim’s Roelof Lotriet. Christoph had worked at Delheim in 1985 under patriarch Spatz Sperling, fell in love with South Africa and when Spatz’s kids Victor and Nora asked if he would collaborate on a Riesling, it was like asking a Berlin night-club bouncer if he’d like another tattoo. Jawol!

Christoph Hammel and Roelof Lotriet.

The juice was kept cold for six weeks before fermentation. And this was done with the 1895C yeast, a strain discovered in the residue left in wine bottles aboard a ship that in 1895 had sunk in Lake Zurich, Switzerland. The wine was then aged in barrels consisting of oak staves and acacia wood head to finish-off the uniquely singular approach to Staying Alive.

Tasting the Staying Alive Riesling truly reminded me of experiencing this variety for the first time in the celebratory air of Munich in 1972, also allowing me to relive the sombre, despair-filled atmosphere that set-in over the city after the attacks on the Olympic Village. It is a very fine wine, and one that truly introduces a new taste-offering to the brilliant palette that is South African wine.

Staying Alive takes a line from the Riesling playbook Christoph had recited, the accent being on taut restraint but not without expression, character or personality. The nose is clarion and unobtrusive, just a tickle of dry grape perched on a shard of clean, brittle slate. As it opens up, a brief heather-scented airiness rises from the glass, not the colourful honey-laced scent of spring fynbos, but a northerly smell of broad valleys where rocks and plants precariously perch with expansive views of wide, strong flowing rivers.

Oh, but the taste is delicious, actually more experience than taste. A prickle of aroused acidity does disco on the palate, settling down to give the soul of the Riesling chance to take the beat. Fresh, dew-moist petals of white flowers abound, a lick of grated grape-fruit peel drifting around the essence of green-apple, raw almond-skin and just a slightly teasing spot of bitter thick-peel Cape lemon.

Structurally, Staying Alive Riesling makes John Travolta’s solo-dance scenes in Saturday Night Fever resemble a Bavarian folk dance by ten buxom Fräulein wearing cement loafers. The wine hits the mouth with a frosty clarity, a surge of crystal-clear taste creating experiential enhancement on the mid-palate and ending in a slice of surgical precision, like a samurai-sword effortlessly cutting through virginal Egyptian cotton.

It is a stupendous wine, the art of its structure and its classic framework deftly offset with the warm, fun-hearted label.

If Riesling tasting were an Olympic event, one would have to clear the podium as currently, to my mind there is only one winner. And it’s staying.

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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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The Heart of a Cape Classic, Hartenberg


Footsteps of wine legends have carefully trodden the slopes of Bottelary’s winelands into undulating expanses of glorious vines. From the late Stevie Smit of Koopmanskloof, Danie Steytler at Kaapzicht and the Roos-family on Mooiplaas and the Morkels of Bellevue, to name a few. This unique part of Stellenbosch’s wineland geography is home to not only some of the region’s oldest farms and vineyards. Some of the area’s best wines are made here and supply grapes to some of the finest bespoke wine labels in this country, the terroir of gravel, clay and koffieklip exposed to the maritime air from the north-west in winter and the south-east in summer, complementing the legacy of the pioneering forefathers.

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Working with the Living History of Rustenberg

The resurgence of old(er) Cape wine goes ahead unfettered, garnering greater interest every month. More is being written about and spoken of wines from the 1960s through early 1990 than ever before. Only ten years ago these wines were scoffed off as “pre-democracy”, “old school” and “Afrikaner ox-blood”. Now, 30-year-old hipsters with “Swartland Forever” tattoos admit to being willing to swop a crate of beard-grooming oil for a taste of a 1974 Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon and their complete collection of Goldfish CDs for a bottle of GS Cabernet 1966.

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The World through the Eyes of Madame May

Wine blood gets no bluer than that beating through Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing. And at 95 years of age, it beats alert, clear and with warmth.

At her birth in 1925 she was already a part of one of Bordeaux’s most respected wine families. Her father, Edouard Miailhe, was the fifth generation of a family that had since 1783 owned some of Bordeaux’s most respected wineries, including Château Palmer and Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, names guaranteed to make every true wine-lover’s heart skip a beat.

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Iconoclast: Tribute to a Real Icon

Mr Michael Sperling

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.

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Once Upon a Time at Stellenbosch Mafia HQ

It was time to go in, right to the heart of the Stellenbosch Mafia. Guy who wrote the book about them, Pieter du Toit, well he reckons the local mobsters hang out at a joint named De Volkskombuis, pretty hard to pronounce for two New York wiseguys like me and Frankie the Juice. But nothing a little google-translate ain’t sorting out. Volks the kombuis and go volks yourselves, too.

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The Real Great White Hope

In the world of serious wine recognition, South African Sauvignon Blanc appears to be a victim of its own success. In its own country.

During a recent consumer survey done by MediaVision Communications among wine drinkers in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KZN aged between 25 and 50, Sauvignon Blanc was identified by far as the respondents’ “favourite” white wine variety.

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