A visit to the Cape Province of South Africa last week in order to help select wines for the Athenaeum provided a great opportunity to learn something about recent changes in the wine industry in the Cape and to taste some of the really excellent wines that are now being produced there. It is some 40 years since I last visited Stellenbosch and Paarl, and it is great to see the quality of wines now being made in the region.
Thanks to Stuart and George who arranged the itinerary, and the hospitality of many amazing wine makers, we had the privilege of tasting nearly 200 wines from Stellenbosch, the Cape Peninsula, Franschhoek and the hinterland of Hermanus. While this represented only a small fraction of the many wines now being made in South Africa, it did highlight three significant things for me:
- First, the quality of the wines has improved very dramatically indeed over the last 15 or so years. There are without doubt now some really excellent wines being made in South Africa, and they are very good value indeed, with many of the best wines being priced at under ZAR 250 (£15) a bottle. We scarcely tasted a poor bottle, and it was difficult to choose those that I preferred best for my list of favourite wines below!
- Second, South African wine makers have definitely learnt and understood the importance of terroir. Given my geographical wine “upbringing” in Burgundy, I have always argued that the physical environment has a very important role in determining the character of a wine, and it is good to see the increasing differentiation that now exists in the planting locations of different grape varieties in the Cape area. Many of the wines we tasted emanated from some of the cooler vineyard locations, higher up on the mountain slopes, in windier locations, and closer to the sea.
- Third, South Africa’s vineyards have to be amongst the most beautifully situated in the world, with many of them being in very picturesque locations, as I hope the pictures below illustrate. Whilst leafroll virus is a serious problem for grape-growers, it does have the merit of turning vines a beautiful red colour in the autumn!
Despite the pleadings of my colleagues, I am still not convinced by many of the Chenin Blanc wines we tasted, perhaps with the exception of some of the sweet dessert wines. I’m sure that some of my reticence stems from tasting too many rough Steen wines when I was younger! While I recognise that modern good quality Chenin Blanc wines are indeed being made, I simply don’t particularly like them, finding the astringent flavours that I encountered in my youth all too often still to be present. Likewise, I have to confess not really to liking wines made from the Pinotage grape. All too often they too retain bitter flavours, and I found many of those we tasted to be rather unbalanced and poorly structured – with one delicious exception!
So, to conclude, my favourite wines, in alphabetical order of producers were:
- Buitenverwachting (with MD Lars Maack)
- 2009 Christine – excellent open fruity nose; 14.5% alcohol; rich, rounded, soft tannins; red fruit flavours; 45% Cabernet Franc contributes to tobacco and chocolate flavours (with 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot); well balanaced and good length
- Chamonix (with Wine-maker Gottfried Mocke)
- 2011 Pinotage – a very unusual wine made in a similar style to Ripasso, combining fresh wine refermenting with air dried grapes; half-picked very young and undergoes carbonic maceration; other half desiccated and refermented with first picking; grown at 440 m on Greywacke soils; 14.5% alcohol; kept mainly in one-year-old Pinot Noir barrels; dark red with complex green and dark fruit flavours; very soft tannins.
- 2012 Chardonnay Reserve – 13.5% alcohol; 14 months in 228 l French oak; 30 year old vines which show character and personality; 80% barrel fermented with 20% in 600 l concrete eggs, which enable wine to be oxygenated and the lees stay in suspension for longer than using other fermenters; high acidity early grapes are put into concrete, with later pickings going into barrels; always goes through malo-lactic; tries to pick fruit at lower sugar levels to make wines more in a Burgundian style; 65% new oak used for this vintage, which remains very evident; need to keep for some time.
- Cape Point (with Wine-maker Duncan Savage)
- 2011 Late Harvest Noble 8 – only made when conditions are right, with some 2000 half bottles being produced in 2011; 160 grams residual sugar; 10.5% alcohol; Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon botrytised blend; rich balanced fruit flavours; good length; acidity balances out the rich fruit; dried apricot flavours.
- Delheim (with Viticulturist Vic Sperling)
- 2009 Vera Cruz Shiraz – we had the last bottle in the cellar sadly; produced from bush vines; 14.5% alcohol; rich, intense fresh red fruits on the nose; fruity flavours of plums and jam; good length and complexity; their Vera Cruz wines are only made in years when the fruit is good enough; a powerful wine to be kept for a while.
- 2013 Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest – botrytised Riesling from Simonsberg Mountain; good acid balance; not overly rich; classic slight petrol nose, but well structured and luscious flavours of honey and apricots.
- Glenelly (with Wine-maker Luke O’Cuinneagain)
- 2012 Oaked Chardonnay – light golden colour; blanche toasted 500 l barrels designed to keep as much natural fruit flavour as possible; fresh with good fruit expression; distinctive pear flavour, with slight citrus touches; richer and softer than their unoaked Chardonnay; good structure and depth.
- 2010 Syrah – designed to be like a northern Rhône wine; 100% whole bunch fermented; purple-red colour; very clean, with slight smell of bacon; white pepper and floral aromas; relatively low alcohol at 13.9%; soft tannins, but needs time to develop.
- Klein Constantia (Wine-maker Matthew Day)
- 2013 Sauvignon Blanc – made with free-run juice from grapes from across the property; very pale in colour; up-front nose of gooseberry and blackcurrant leaves; 4 months in steel on lees; fresh in mouth, with balanced acidity on edge of tongue; quite light and eminently drinkable
- 2008 Vin de Constance – classic dessert wine made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, left to dry on the vine; good rich flavours of candied orange, with other fruits including a slight pineapple taste; good depth and length; balanced acidity.
- Meerlust (with Chris Williams, Cellar Master)
- 2012 Pinot Noir – a serious wine; lovely rich nose; has been made since 2004 on coolest hilltops, which catch the breeze being only 3 kms from the sea; vines grown on decomposed granite; picked at 4-6 tonnes per hectare; vinified in small batches, some with natural fermentation; has an interesting liquorice nose; quite soft tannins; needs keeping for several years.
- 2009 Rubicon – excellent Bordeaux blend style wine (69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Cabernet France and 1% Petit Verdot); very rich and intense rich blackcurrant fruit flavours; complex; good length; well structured; definitely for keeping.
- Newton Johnson (with Bevan Newton Johnson, MD)
- 2012 Family Vineyards Pinot Noir – really good wine, clean, well structured, medium length, and rich complexity of Pinot flavours resulting from use of grapes from three adjacent vineyards (20% from Mrs. M, 30% from Block 6, and 50% from Windansea); first made in 2008/9; red fruit rather than vegetal.
- 2012 Windansea Pinot Noir – Pinot Noir from a single vineyard which has more clay than adjacent ones, giving a deeper colour; a bit closed and more restrained than the fruitier more open Mrs. M and Block 6; well structured with good acid balance; excellent finesse; red and black berry fruits. A really excellent wine.
- 21 Gables Sauvignon Blanc – hand harvested; made from grapes grown in Durbanville near the Atlantic on red gravel and clay soils; nose of new mown hay; acidity clearly felt at edge of tongue; but well structured; rich complex flavours of gooseberry and slight asparagus; 13.5% alcohol.
- Thelema (with Cellar Master Gyles Webb)
- 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon “The Mint” – made from the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines they planted, with eucalyptus trees nearby, which give the wine a distinctive minty nose and flavour; mid-red colour; well-balanced and good structure; will be long-lived.
- Vergelegen (with Wine-maker Andre van Rensburg)
- 2011 Merlot – the first 100% Merlot wine made at Vergelegen since 1998; although Andre sees himself mainly as a Cabernet Sauvignon producer, he believes they have the environment to produce excellent Merlot; lovely soft nose and very gently tannins; still a bit young, and lacking a bit in length, but overall very pleasant.
- 2010 DNA – Cabernet Franc does well at Vergelegen, but the yield needs to be reduced down to around 4 tonnes per hectare; aim is to pick the fruit as late as possible; mid-red, quite intense colour; 65% Cabernet Franc, Merlot 21% and Cabernet Sauvignon 13%; fantastic high notes on nose; very soft tannins; not as strong a smoky nose as I would have expected with this amount of Cabernet Franc; wine is designed to be fruity rather than green. Wine is made in recognition of Andre’s respect to Cheval Blanc, with the DNA often being thought of as being similar to terroir. Others might think that it is short for “Dickhead ‘n Arsehole”! Incidentally, the label is not a fingerprint, but rather the contours of a hill!
Finally, I have long appreciated the work that Charles Back has done at Fairview, and particularly his commitment to social change in the region. In 1997 he helped establish The Fairvalley Workers Association, which aims to help workers at Fairview to have their own land, and he was also the driving force behind the Fairvalley wine brand that is owned by the Workers Association, with profits from the sale of their wines (made using cellar facilities at Fairview, and FairTrade certified) being used to support community development initiatives. Being in South Africa enabled me to access further wines that it is difficult to get in the UK, and so I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to explore the shelves of Bootleggers in Fourways Crossing and purchase additional wines, including some of Fairvalley’s remarkably good value 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was delicious with boerewors, as well as a bottle of Fairview’s 2010 Goat-Roti (Syrah/Viognier blend) that went especially well with barbecued fillet steak!
For those looking for somewhere quiet and relaxing to stay while exploring the vineyards of the Cape, I thoroughly recommend Majeka House, just outside Stellenbosch, which also houses the excellent Makaron Restaurant!