Welcome to South Africa’s Capelands
Text and photos by Michael Godel
Take Godello to a place that’s far away and it will fill him with words. With memories still thick as Bredasdorp pea soup, it is hard to believe it has already been four months since travelling to South Africa in September for Cape Wine 2015. The southern hemisphere’s three-day vinous congress of producers, winemakers, marketers, buyers, sellers, sommeliers and journalists is a matter of utter energy. That show plus an expansive, wayfaring winelands itinerary included encounters with Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (PIWOSA), along with South Africa’s newest wine-procuring superstars, the Swartland Independents and the Zoo Biscuits.
South African wine is changing rapidly. Tastings, tours and fervent immersion into Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Swartland and Hemel-En-Aarde acceded to that belief. With your finger randomly plunging onto a map of the world, direct it to land on South Africa and plan to pay her a visit. Time to unearth what revelations lurk.
On Saturday, February 6th, VINTAGES is running a feature on South African wines. Laid out in varietal by varietal terms, South Africa is deconstructed to articulate and accentuate what’s happening in today’s Western Cape and how it translates to markets around the world. I spent some time back in September with VINTAGES product manager Ann Patel in the Cape. Her picks have much to do with what she found, in excitement from “breaking boundaries and forging new ground with winemaking.” As consumers we should look forward to more chances taken in LCBO purchasing decisions, in varietals and from a more eclectic mix of wineries. Read on for my thoughts, or skip directly to the wines below.
Cape Wine 2015
I tasted hundreds of wines over three days at the bi-annual Cape Town event, along with dozens more in restaurants and at wineries in Stellenbosch, Swartland, Franschhoek and Constantia. Three of the more memorable culinary experiences happened at Open Door Restaurant located at Uitsig Wine Estate in Constantia, at Publik and the Chef’s Warehouse, both in Cape Town.
A visit to the Franschhoek Motor Museum at the Anthonij Rupert Wyne Estate rolled into a tasting of wines with Gareth Robertson, Sales and Marketing Manager at Anthonij Rupert Wines. Verticals were poured; Cape of Good Hope, Leopard’s Leap, La Motte and Optima L’Ormarins. Then the varietals of Anthonij Rupert Estate.
A full on PIWOSA experience at the Car Wine Boot hosted by Journey’s End Vineyards was nothing short of a wine-soaked, large object flinging, Stellenbosch hoedown throw down. A trip down astral memories being laid down lane in the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley is the hardest impression to lay down in words.
South African vineyards are surfeited by demi-century established chenin blanc bush vines, painted pell-mell with expatriate rootstock and varietal cuttings outside the Bordeaux and Burgundy box; nebbiolo, barbera, tinta barocca, albarino, riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, tempranillo and tannat. There isn’t a grape known to human kind that can’t complete a full phenolic journey. Grenache and cinsault on solo flights are producing exceptional wines.
Natural fermentation, skin contact and carbonic maceration have infiltrated the winemaker’s psyche. Fresh, natural, orange, amber, caliginous and tenebrous have established Cape footholds with enzymatic force. The act of passing off pinotage as Bordeaux has been abandoned and now, in the hands of both progressive and praetorian makers, finesse and elegance rule the day.
What separates South African vignerons from the rest of the world is a playground mentality and their confident executions in consummation of those ideals. The soils and the weather are nothing short of perfect in the vast growing region known as the Western Cape, or, as it is known in the local vernacular, the Cape Winelands. The mitigating effect of Cape winds helps to eradicate vine disease. The place is a veritable garden of viticulture eden. Or, as in the case of the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley, a verdant, fertile valley known as “heaven on earth,” the adage takes on the paradisiacal guise of the sublime. South Africa exudes progress.
A certain kind of comparison presents South Africa as the wine equivalent of the wild west. In the Western Cape, anything goes. The landscape of South African wine is demarcated by ancient geology and by the geographical diversity of its regions, sub-regions and micro-plots. Varietal placement is the key to success. As I mentioned, South African winemakers can grow anything they want, to both their discretion and their whimsy. The choice of what grows best and where will determine the successes of the future.
And now for the wines…
In addition to the February 6th South African releases I’ve added some extra highlights. Some are available through their Ontario wine agents while others are not. At least not yet. There are many undiscovered South African wines that will soon be finding their way into our market.
No discourse on new versus old in South Africa can be addressed without first looking at the modish dialectal of chenin blanc. The combination of bush and old vines, coupled with indigenous ferments and skin contact addresses has elevated the stalwart, signature grape to its current, hyper-intense reality.
Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc Old Vine Reserve 2015, Stellenbosch – In VINTAGES, February 6th, 2016
Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Chenin Blanc 2014, Western Cape
Oldenberg Vineyards Chenin Blanc 2014, Stellenbosch
A. A. Badenhorst Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2015, Swartland
Beaumont Family Wines Hope Marguerite 2013, Bot River-Walker Bay
Other Whites and Blends
The idea of appellative blends as a designated category is not necessarily so far off or fetched. Chenin blanc is most certainly the pillar and the rock with support ready, willing and applicable from clairette blanc, verdelho, chardonnay, viognier, gewürztraminer, semillon, roussane, marsanne, grenache blanc and colombard. Riesling does play a bit part in the white idiomatic presentation of South African wine. With the emergence of Elgin as a cool climate growing area capable of expertly ripening both aromatic and aerified varieties, the future will crystallize with more riesling, gewürztraminer and offshoot concepts.
What obscure or less heralded white grape variety would you like to play with? Ask the Cape winemaker that question and he or she might keep you awhile. The rules again need not apply. Spin the wheel and work your magic. Odds are even that a handful of least employed Châteauneuf and/or Gemischter Satz multi-varietal styled blends will show up at a Cape Wine sometime soon.
Avondale Wines Jonty’s Ducks Pekin White 2014, Paarl – In VINTAGES, February 6th, 2016
Cederberg Bukettraube 2014, Cederberg Mountains
Kleinood Farm Tamboerskloof Viognier 2015, Stellenbosch
Alheit Vineyards Cartology Chenin Blanc-Sémillon 2014, Western Cape
La Vierge Original Sin Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2014, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley
As the understanding of cool-climate locales dotting the landscape continues to develop, so too does the Sparkling wine oeuvre. The association that determines the authenticity of Méthode Cap Classique is more than just a marketing strategy and a copy of Méthode Champenoise. It is a distinctly South African program, established in 1992. Rules dictate a minimum of 12 months on the lees and post disgorgement, further maturation under cork. Winemakers are free to play with beyond those simple parameters. That is the South African way. Stand together and act alone.
Graham Beck Brut Rosé, Méthode Cap Classique, Western Cape – In VINTAGES, February 6th, 2016
Boschendal Cap Classique Grand Cuvée Brut 2009, Stellenbosch
There was a time when all South African Rhône varietal wines needed to be compared to the mother land and many continue to encourage the adage “you can take the varieties out of the Rhône but you can’t take the Rhône out of the varieties.” The modern cinsault maker has turned expatriate exploits on its axiomatic head. You’ve not likely had your way with these versions of cinsault and like me, once you have, you may never go back.
The globe trekking grape has been backed into a corner, with blood primarily spilled at the hands of big box Australian producers but some blame has also circulated South Africa’s way. Heavy petting, elevated heat and alcohol, street tar and vulcanized rubber have combined in resolute, culprit fashion to maim the great variety. As with cinsault, but in an entirely more mainstream way, the fortunes of syrah are wafting in the winds of change. Natural fermentations, some carbonic maceration and especially prudent picking from essential syrah sites are turning the jammy heavy into the genteel and dignified wine it needs to be.
Nederburg Manor House Shiraz 2013, Coastal Region – In VINTAGES, February 6th, 2016
Journey’s End Syrah ‘The Griffin’ 2012, Stellenbosch
Mullineux & Leeu Syrah 2011, Swartland
Radford Dale Nudity 2014, Voor-Paardeberg
Porseleinberg Syrah 2013, Swartland
The future for pinot noir is bright beyond the pale, with certain exceptional growing sites producing varietal fruit so pure and of ripe phenolics as profound as anywhere on the planet. A few producers have found their way. More will follow and when they do, South Africa will begin to tear away at the market share enjoyed by the likes of New Zealand and California.
Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2014, Hemel En Aarde Valley
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2014, Hemel En Aarde Valley
J H Meyer Cradock Peak Pinot Noir 2014, Outeniqua
For so long we ignorant, pathetic and far away people knew not from pinotage. We imagined its machinations through, by way of and expressed like espresso, forced and pressed with nothing but wood in mind. That the grape variety could have a personality bright and friendly was something we had no reference from which to begin. A visit to the Cape Winelands re-charts the compass and the rebirth is nothing short of born again oenophilia. The new pinotage may be what it once was but it is also what it can never be again.
Cathedral Cellar Pinotage 2013, Coastal Region – in VINTAGES, February 6, 2016
Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Pinotage 2014, Western Cape
Paardebosch Pinotage 2014, Swartland
Other Red and Blends
The sky is the limit for what can be attempted and achieved with the varietal kitchen sink of availability. In consideration that any red variety can scour the Cape Winelands in a journeyed search for phenolic ripeness, a prudent pick, ferment (or co-ferment) will certainly, invariably conjoin towards assemblage nirvana. Rhône styling is most often mimicked, from both north and south but OZ indicators and even California flower child prodigies are both seen and heard. Common today is the exploratory cuvée of recherché to examine the diversity of mature dryland bushvines out of vineyards dotting the Western Cape. There is no tried and true in this outpost of red democracy. In the case of Cape wine, anarchy rules and there is really nothing wrong with that.
Graham Beck The Game Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Western Cape – in VINTAGES, February 6, 2016
Rustenberg R.M. Nicholson 2013, Stellenbosch – in VINTAGES, February 6, 2016
Rupert & Rothschild Classique 2012, Western Cape – in VINTAGES, February 6, 2016
Grand Vin de Glenelly Red 2009, Stellenbosch
Ken Forrester Renegade 2011, Stellenbosch
Savage Wines Red 2014, Western Cape
At the lead there is Wines of South Africa, headed by Michael Jordaan and Siobhan Thompson, chair and CEO, respectively. André Morgenthal and Laurel Keenan head up communications, marketing, events and PR for WOSA, in South Africa and in Canada. The show and the excursions around the Cape Winelands were made possible by their collective efforts. Their immense efforts and impeccable work can’t ever be overestimated.
The act of intense immersion into any important wine-producing nation and its diverse regional expressions can only leave a lasting impression if the follow-up takes a long, cool sip of its meaning. Though just the embarkation point of what I am planning for a life-lasting fascination with South African wine, the wines tasted, people met and places seen were collectively just the beginning.
Good to go!
From VINTAGES February 6, 2016