Pride and passion in South Africa

After just a few days in South Africa I’m hardly in a position to start drawing definitive conclusions about the wine industry there but several things really marked my recent visit: the pride the people have in their country, their industry and their wines, their desire to establish South African wine on its own quality merits, not as a ‘cheaper new world option’ and the dynamism and attention to detail that seem to link it all together.

We frequently heard: ‘I don’t know why people insist on calling us a new world wine region, we’ve being doing this for over 350 years’. South African wine was reintroduced to the world wine stage in 1994 after decades of isolation from international markets. Abandoning quotas has opened up new land; especially higher, cooler land. That, along with a new generation (not always young!) of highly educated winemakers with international experience that shines through in the quality of the wines.

The other theme that came through was a frustration at being considered a source of cheap wines, they have long been relegated into an ‘affordable’ category. If what I tasted was anything to go by, now is the time to sit up and take notice of these wines that hit well above their price point.

South Africa offers a fabulous range of wines and although the national vineyard is just smaller than Bordeaux, at almost 100 000 ha, the diversity of wines on offer from the different terroirs, topography and varietals is impressive. Everywhere you look there are wonderful views of mountains, the altitude that gives a freshness and elegance to wines. As if to prove the point we had two very chilly days whilst we were there.

You can find red, white, sweet, dry, sparkling, port, sherry and brandy – you name it they make it, unharnessed by European legislation. There is an almost 50:50 split between red and white varietals, Chenin Blanc dominates white planting and the like it loath it Pinotage, still just about dominates the reds.

Perhaps the most spectacular visit was to Delaire Graff, the brainchild of London diamantaire Laurence Graff. His link to South Africa and its diamonds, will come as no surprise but he has taken this one step further by buying the Delaire winery in Stellenbosch; 20 ha of red and white grapes producing a range of wines for all purses including South Africa’s most expensive Cabernet, the Delaire Laurence Graff Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon retailing at around R 20 000 (approx. €US 1 400) per bottle. This is wine tourism at its most luxurious; a spectacular tasting room, 2 top restaurants, a handful of private villas for rent amongst the vines and a world class African art collection. Unsurprisingly, Delaire Graff was voted global winner for Art & Culture in this year’s Best of Wine tourism awards.

The entrance to the cellars at Delaire Graff
The entrance to the cellars at Delaire Graff

Both the winery and hotel are spectacular showcases for the country, its art and wine, as well as the diamonds of course. My first ever visit to a winery with a diamond shop! As the diamond expert said (and yes I did go in for a peek) ‘It’s so nice that people come here for a celebration and can take away a little souvenir’. Usually it’s a bottle but I guess diamonds are a lot easier to get into carry-on! I loved their Méthode Cap Classique (MCC, their Méthode Traditionnel) named Sunrise after the canary diamond. I came away with the bottled version.

The Spectacular view from Dealaire Graff
The Spectacular view from Delaire Graff

Even if you are not that familiar with South African wine you may have heard of Stellenbosch and neighbouring Franschhoek. Franschhoek means French Quarter, which takes its name from some of the first French immigrants. (The Dutch were the first to import vines in the 1650s).

The French influence still continues today, The Glenelly Estate was purchased by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing 13 years ago. The old fruit farm is now a vineyard of 60 ha producing mainly Bordeaux blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot) inspired by the wines she brought over from Chateau Pichon Comtesse. The ultra modern cellar juts out from the mountainside and gives winemakers Luke O’Cuinneagain and Jerome Likwa the perfect conditions to aim for the Bordeaux elegance that Mme de Lencquesaing is accustomed to. Gravity feed, picking into crates, French oak barrels. They do a great job from such young vines (an average of 9 years old), the Bordeaux blends are complimented by lovely fresh Syrah. There is also a small (10%) production of elegant Chardonnay.

The tasting line up at Glenelly
The tasting line up at Glenelly

Their wine sales are export driven, which seems to be the theme for the whole of the South Africa as sales to export are increasing year on year and now account for about 60%. The Lady May is aged in 100% new French oak and the Chardonnay is barrel fermented in 500l barrels with no malo, then aged for 10 months with no battonage (lees stirring). The more affordable Glass Collection, named after Madame’s passion for glass, has a subtler oak approach; a very approachable range despite its youth. According to assistant winemaker Jerome, 2015 is their 1st perfect year so things look great for the future.

Familiar French oak barrels at Glenelly
Familiar French oak barrels at Glenelly

Women are not strangers to the South African wine scene. If you can manage to tie her down, Rianie Strydom is a successful example. Jancis Robinson recently named Rianie as one of the worlds leading women wine makers. I was lucky enough to meet her in 2010 in the Napa Valley at the Wine Entre Femmes event bringing together women wine makers from Bordeaux and Napa with a few special guests; including Rianie.

She has been making wines at Haskell since 2005 after American Preston Haskell invested there. Before that, she was already an award winning wine maker at Morgenhof, winning Decanter Best New World Red with her 2001 vintage.

Chardonnay from Dombeya and Haskell
Chardonnay from Dombeya and Haskell

Wine making experience in Burgundy and Bordeaux has given her an elegant focus, which clearly shows in the wines. Previously known as Dombeya, the 23ha property now produces wines under both labels.

On the diverse Helderberg slopes the names of the wines are evocative of their origins, showing the importance Rianie pays to the soils. The plots (blocks) are small, a clear recogntion of the complexity of the terroir and the opportunity it gives for micro expression and diversity of the wines. The Aeon Syrah is from old soils; Haskell Pillars 2011 is from a sandy loam ex horse paddock guarded by 3 pillars.  Haskell II is a blend of the 2 varietals Cab and Syrah and IV unsurprising from 4: Cabernet Sauvignon (and occasionally cabernet Franc), Merlot, Petit Verdot and Shiraz. She feels the Petit Verdot brings earlier drinking to the wine. The beautiful Haskell Anvil Chardonnay takes its name from the shape of the plot it comes from, ageing in 2nd year old barrels keeping its fresh European style – very much a signature of all her wines. The Dombeya range is more varietal led with the Sauvignon Blanc coming from cooler terroir, alongside the Chardonnay, Merlot, Shiraz and the Fenix blend.

Rianie for the Cape Winemakers Guild
Rianie for the Cape Winemakers Guild

Rianie is one of only two ladies in the 46 members Cape Winemakers Guild, quite an honour. It’s an invitation only association, where top Cape winemakers, are asked to create a unique cuvee for sale by auction, the proceeds going to educational development in the wine lands.

Trying to catch Rianie standing still at Haskell - impossible!
Trying to catch Rianie standing still at Haskell – impossible!

For the Strydoms wine is a family affair; Rianie’s husband Louis is the winemaker & MD for the Ernie Els winery just around the corner. This is altogether a bigger affair.  Ernie is a famous name for golfers and the 75 ha estate has 45ha planted under vine but the range is large, complimented with grapes and wine bought in to add to the diverse offer. It’s an interesting contrast from Rianie’s small Haskell winery to Ernie Els’ slick operation; the wines have quite a different focus too.

Louis Strydom for Erni Els
Louis Strydom for Ernie Els

The Big easy range does what is says on the label; easy drinking affordable wines from a range of origins each chosen for the best expression of the single varietals in red, white and rosé. (They carry the same name as a very good restaurant they own in Stellenbosch). I particularly liked the Big Easy Red Rhone blend, fresh with low tannins & lots of fruit retailing at R125, a perfect summer red, serve chilled. The whites are brought in from the Darling region as Louis feels his vineyard is too hot for whites. He explained how varietal wines are often perceived as better quality in the home market compared to blends. It is difficult to explain a blend as premium wine in the local market. They offer blends at their two top levels: the Proprietor’s blend, (there are also proprietor’s varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) and the range culminates with the Ernie Els signature blend with an important Cabernet influence. He feels the local terroir gives a great expression to this varietal.

The husband and wife team also produce wine between them; The Strydom family vineyards but I get the feeling that Rianie is very much in the driving seat as far as wine making is concerned; the same elegance in these wines echoes that of the Haskell wines. The Strydom wines on are on Simonsberg and they clearly express where they come from. Soil variation is enormous and is expressed not just in style but again their names give them away. Rock Star is a Syrah grown on rocks, Rianie says that Syrah will grow everywhere here, and this is a Single vineyard where Rianie successfully aims to balance opulence against restraint. Hades takes it’s name from a plot where it is so rocky it’s hell to grow there and Rex, well because Cab is King, giving a tight, smoky minerality that will age beautifully. She has as much fun with the names as she does with the wine making. She also produces a Sauvignon Blanc called the Freshman, the 1st wine she produced under own name in 2010, In 2015 4500 bottles will be bottled and she is adding another wine to this range – watch this space. As if all that didn’t keep her busy enough she also consults and makes wine for a few friends – told you it was difficult to tie her down.

Rianie Rock Star
Rianie Rock Star

Rianie took me over to the other side of the valley for lunch to Jordan, another champion of hospitality as well as block-by-block vinification. Their delightful Sauvignon Blanc is grown on higher land, 410m above sea level enjoying a cooling breeze. The views were spectacular and when we called in at the weekend, despite a wedding in full swing they took the time to take us up through the vineyard to sample the different wines in the blocks they came from presenting us with the spectacular views that are such a signature of the region.

On safari with jordan
On safari with jordan

At Warwick a woman has also played a major role. Passionate Canadian, Norma Ratcliffe, put this family winery on the map as the 1st woman to make wine in South Africa.The feminine theme continues with the lady range (Pink Lady, White Lady, First Lady), the labels designed around an old marriage cup.

Part of the Warwick line up
Part of the Warwick line up

Her son Mike is now at the reins, bringing the property firmly into the 21st century with his marketing expertise putting these wines firmly on the world wine map. This is a great example of blending the new and the old. The estate was started in the 1700s and Mike is the 3rd Ratcliffe generation at the helm. He is very much at the forefront of putting SA wines on social media with accounts for Warwick, himself and their other property Vilafonte, that he owns with iconic US wine maker Zelma Long. At Warwick we tasted our best South African rosé; Pink Lady 100% Pintotage. It’s the best use for Pinotage according to Mike, which  doesn’t mean it’s easy; it leeches big time so it’s a challenge to get the delicate rosé colour that defines this wine reflecting the delicate aromas of roses and raspberries. Watermelon was the local descriptor.

Talking of local descriptors, do you know what a Guava smells like? It’s used as a descriptor often here, especially for the Sauvignon Blanc, where tropical fruit aromas seem to be the underlying signature. And the Whites from Warwick are simply spectacular, we loved The White Lady Chardonnay, from a high-density single vineyard. This is Simonsberg, the smallest and oldest appellation and the emphasis is on the freshness. They protect the whites from oxidation, preferring to roll the wines aging in barrels on the lees rather than stirring. When we say Bordeaux Blend we invariable think about Cab:Merlot but Warwick makes a white Bordeaux Blend too; a delicious Sauvignon Semillon blend called Professor Black. The story goes (and we do love a story) that the block is called after the Professor Black peaches previously grown on an orchard here. They in turn took their names from the professor of pomology (yes that is a science) at the University of Stellenbosch who developed a species of early ripening peaches for the export market. The wine is certainly a beautiful aromatic – not sure if I could detect peaches though.

Cabernet Franc seems to be gaining in popularity in the region, it’s freshness taking the ‘edge’ off Bordeaux blends of Cab Sauvignon and Merlot, Warwick was the 1st vineyard to grow Cabernet Franc in 70s and it produced the 1st single vineyard Cab Franc in 1986. I loved it. Mike feels it is very vintage sensitive, this was one of the rare times that vintage variation was readily discussed.

Cabernet Franc from Warwick
Cabernet Franc from Warwick

Stellenbosch is not the oldest wine making area in South Africa. Constantia or the ‘Vin de Constance’ has this claim to fame. It has a long history dating back to the 1680’s and has enjoyed historical popularity in Europe. Once a single vineyard it has now been divided into two: Groot and Klein Constantia divided between 2 brothers Groot (large) went to the oldest and Klein to the youngest son. Klein Constantia is currently undergoing a transformation thanks to recent investment by majority shareholder Zdenek Bakala and his partners including two Bordelais; Hubert de Bouard of Chateau Angelus in Saint Emilion and Bruno Prats, previous owner of Cos d’Estournel in Saint Estèphe.

For 100 years the estate produced no wine, it started again in 1986 under the then new owner Doogie Jooste. Sold to the current owners in 2011 current investment continues in the cellars and in the 19th century Cape Dutch manor house. 100m2 of solar panels now pump 500 kW into the system per sunny day.

The cellars at Klein Constantia
The cellars at Klein Constantia

Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ is a sweet wine, that traditionally was made from a blend including Semillon and often botrytised. Now it is 100% Muscat de Frontignan grown as bush vines for sun exposure to maximise the drying and there is no botrytis. Dried on the vine they are hand picked in up to 25 batches. The raisins (that’s not my French spell check they really are raisins) are picked one by one, 1-5kgs per person. We tasted the 2014, harvested from end January until the end of April to keep the acidity as well as the sweetness. (165g sugar per litre, 14° alcohol, 6.8-7g acid). Fermentation in 60% new French oak with light toast stops naturally, then it ages for up to 4 years. Lightness and delicacy define the wines and they are easily recognisable thanks to their unique bottles. At lunch after our visit at the nearby Conservatory at Honhort cellars, we sprang for a half bottle of the 1992 Klein Constantia clearly marked Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis Noble Late Harvest.

The characteristic Kleine Constantia  bottles
The characteristic Klein Constantia bottles

Wine maker, Mathew Day, who was promoted from assistant to head winemaker upon the arrival of the new owners, seems even more passionate about the Sauvignon Blanc plantations on the highest slopes.  In 2005, a unique Sauvignon Blanc vineyard block called ‘The Perdeblok’ was released; it has great length and a saline minerality, influenced by the coastal breezes perhaps? Matt’s descriptor of this SB was G&Tish – perfect! As the years go by Matt is identifying smaller and smaller blocks each with an individual identity that allows him to improve and build on the wines’ complexity. Here again is this intimate understanding and passion for the terroir that we saw in all the Cape vineyards we visited. For example the Block 371, a natural ferment with a creamy mid palate, despite oak fermentation and ageing there is no oak dominance and again that savoury finish.

Excellent Sauvignon Blanc from Klein Constantia
Excellent Sauvignon Blanc from Klein Constantia

Matt’s international wine making experience includes time in Sancerre, the home of Sauvignon Blanc, with Pascal JOLIVET. They have collaborated here at Klein Constantia making Metis; a selected block of SB, natural ferment, aged on the lees, again, no racking, no stirring in barrels, just rolling with thicker and wider staves – it’s all about reducing oxidation and keeping that fresh salinity he loves so much. If you need any more encouragement to try these wines Matt was named as one of the top 30 wine makers under 40 to watch by the Drinks Business in 2014.

These whites are not to be confused with their KC range made from grapes from further afield producing charming wines, less complex in style but benefiting from the same wine making expertise. They also make a MCC that we sipped high up in the vineyard next to the dam across the reservoir, admiring the view across the vineyards to False Bay. We were not the only ones enjoying the idyllic spot; a Sea Eagle was circling overhead, waiting for us to leave so he could fish in the reservoir for trout.

The view over the Kleine Constantia vineyards to the ocean
The view over the Klein Constantia vineyards to the ocean

A perfect end to a wonderful Cape Wine lands experience.

Follow the guide If you want to know more, Platter’s Wine Guide is the South African wine bible. A jury judges every year on what is great and good. There is also a web site. The 2016 edition was released when we were there to much fanfare. Browse through it and you will see that several of the wineries I mention above reached the coveted 5 star status for their wines in this latest edition: Delaire Graff, Ernie Els, Haskell, Klein Constantia and the White Lady Chardonnay 2014 from Warwick that also won white wine of the year. Just saying.

My conclusions: My brief visit just scratched the surface of the South African wine scene and I was blown away by the freshness and elegance of the whites in particular, and the fresh fruit driven expression of the Syrah with the lightness of touch it brings to the red blends, they are Bordeaux blends with a twist, a very distinctive South African twist.

The vineyard perhaps suffers from the complexity of the varietals and blends on offer, making it difficult to manage consumer expectations. The trend seems to be towards a more precise and intimate knowledge of their extremely varied terroir, making plot-by-plot precision viticulture commonplace, with plots getting smaller and more adventurous. This is leading to clearer regional identities expressed through precise varietal choices, a philosophy championed by producers such as Mike Ratcliffe and Rianie Strydom. It was explained to me that if you see Syrah on the bottle the winery is aiming at an elegant ‘old world expression‘ whereas if you see Shiraz on the label expect a bolder (Australian?) expression of the variety. But what is the South African expression? It is in the hands of these dynamic, enthusiastic and welcoming wine makers. Winemakers the world over have unbounded enthusiasm, but here there is also a pride in their country, not something you always find in the more blasé ‘old world’.

Every region has a cross to bear in terms of consumer (and sadly often trade) perceptions. Here it is a historical expectation that South African wines should be cheap – there is a price ceiling that even the most expensive fail to shatter. This is great value for the consumer, these terrific wines are still so very affordable, but disheartening for the producers. They are also tackling the devastating leaf roll virus.

I wish them higher prices to reward their investment in capital, education and passion. The good news is that, just like Bordeaux, the 2015 vintage is a great one, so keep an eye open for it on the shelves near you very soon.

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