Treve’s Travels: Cape Wine Discoveries
Cape Wine Discoveries
by Treve Ring
When discovering the wines of South Africa, there are some things to wrap your head around straight off. First, most of the selection we see in Canada has nothing to do with what is actually happening in the country. There are some exceptions (thank you Nicholas Pearce, UNIVINS, Noble Estates, Vinexx, Trialto, Symbioses, Rézin), but by and large, our world view of the wines of RSA is pinhole sized at best, and industrially dominated at worst.
Second, South Africa has over 350 years of winemaking knowledge, with first plantings dating back to 1659. They are currently in the midst of a full borne renaissance, kicking off with the end of apartheid and the beginning of democracy, only just in 1994. Forget outdated “New World” thinking, and focus on “New Wave” thinking. The golden era is now.
These past two decades of freedom have opened up the wine world to South Africa, and vice versa. For the first time, growers and winemakers were able to travel outside the country, learn, experience and taste. Wine export and import shackles relaxed, allowing for the flow of information as much as for wine.
Today, South African wine production is in a golden age, fuelled by a league of youthful, travelled and passionate winemakers, many in their late twenties and early thirties. Camaraderie and collaboration runs high, with collectives such as PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa), Swartland Independents, Zoo Biscuits and the brand new Cape Vintner Classification banding together for marketing, touring and resource pooling. Many of these talented folks run senior positions at large, established wineries while developing their own brands. Vineyard land, especially pockets of older, heritage vines in exciting fringe areas, is still relatively affordable, encouraging experimentation and garagiste wine culture. We all know that small, nimble operations are at the fore of change, adaptable and experimental; tasting through the country last fall it was readily evident that the trends sought after in major wine cities and by sommeliers worldwide are in full effect in the Cape. Fresh, lower alcohol reds and textured, higher acid whites; natural winemaking; reviving heritage vines; terroir exploration; pet nat; traditional method fizz – just a few darling, available and accessible finds. Quality is very high and prices are low – a unicorn find for wine consumers and professionals.
Expanded wine education available to South Africans is key to this quality boom, driving a better understanding of viticulture. Much of this has been the rediscovery of abandoned heritage grapes, though local terroir expert Rosa Kruger also attributes strides to the greater understanding of site, soils and grapes. For the last decade Kruger has been mapping the old vines in the Cape, building a registry of vineyards which is now accessible on her www.iamold.co.za website. A lawyer by trade and an adventurer at heart, Kruger has helped match winemakers who share her vision of vine preservation and terroir expression to specific sites. Some of the most lauded names in Cape winemaking today are a result of her pairing: Eben Sadie, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst, Chris and Suzaan Alheit amongst them.
The current sorry state of the Rand aside (it makes the Canadian peso look kingly), and not without recognizing and absorbing the extreme social barriers in South Africa, tasting around the Western Cape feels more energized and positive than any wine region worldwide that I’ve been to in the past few years.
WHAT is the Western Cape?
Recognizing that most consumers aren’t as familiar with the Western Cape, I thought it apropos to give a little primer. South Africa’s vineyards are mainly situated in the Western Cape, near the coast. These Cape Winelands stretch from the rugged slopes of the Coastal Region (seldom reaching beyond 50k to the ocean) to the open plains of the Klein Karoo, where river valley viticulture is at the fore. On the coastal side of the Western Cape rainfall is relatively plentiful, up to 1000mm/year, though it dramatically decreases as you travel up and over the mountains into the hinterland. There are nearly 99,500 ha of wine grape cultivation spread out over nearly 800km in length. Place matters; Under the Wine of Origin (WO) rules, this area is divided into six main regions, which encompass 26 diverse districts and 67 smaller wards. Soil variation is high and complexed, but the three most important soil types include derivatives of Table Mountain sandstone, granite, and shale.
The diversity in microclimate and soils is evident when you take into consideration the native vegetation of the region. Over 95% of the wine is produced within the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of only six such plant regions in the world, this being the smallest and richest of them all. Over 10,000 recognized plant species have been identified here – more than the entire Northern Hemisphere. Seventy percent of the plants found here are not found anywhere else on earth. Recognizing and protecting that diversity has been a huge push for the wine industry. Producers can become certified as sustainable and the Wine and Spirit board seal on their bottles earmarks this commitment. Consumers can use the numeric code on each bottle to trace it back through to the vineyard practices. South Africa also boasts more Fairtrade wines than any other country, with 75% of all Fairtrade wines sold in the world originating from there.
DISCOVERED : What to Watch For
Part of the thrill of exploring South African wines is the discovery; pretty much everything I tasted was new. Here’s my personal list of what to hone in on:
In many parts of the world, chenin is relegated to a workhorse status and blending partner. Though the Loire is still considered the zenith, twice as much chenin is planted in South Africa. Chenin is firmly rooted in the Western Cape, where Jan Van Riebeeck introduced the first vines in 1655. There are still gnarly aged bush vines here being taken care of by adventuresome growers, especially in Stellenbosch. The Swartland is also a striking area for Chenin, where vintners are letting the grapes express themselves through hands-off, sustainable winemaking. Chameleon-like, examples veer from vegetal and meadow through to waxy pours of lanolin and honey, and from bone dry to heady and sweet. Unmistakably constant in cared-for wines is the spiking acidity, apparent even through softening with time in wood or via heavy-handed winemaker intervention. Well handled, these compelling and memorable wines carry texture and complexity to match some of the finest whites in the world, and can last for a decade or two.
Mulderbosch Vineyard 2014 Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch
A series of three identically made wines on different soils and sites, this is a wine geek’s dream. Each wine was whole bunch pressed, racked to neutral oak and wild ferment, after which it spent 11 months on fine lees.
Mulderbosch Vineyard 2014 Block A Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch
Sandstone, 140m altitude. Floral and orchard fruit rises from glass. Pear, apricot pit and a wave of pithy mandarin on the juicy finish. Cushion of gentle lees. 90 points
Mulderbosch Vineyard 2014 Block S2 Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch
Shale, 240-265m altitude. Lemon curd creaminess, with earthy, grippy texture. Light, nutty lees and stony spice on the finish. 91 points
Mulderbosch Vineyard 2014 Block W Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch
Decomposed granite, dry farmed, massale selection, 4km to ocean. Intense smoked stone notes, light nut, powerful structure and weight. For the future. 92 points
Mullineux Wines Granite Chenin Blanc 2014, Swartland
This is one of the top tier Single Terroir Range wines from Mullineux Family Wines (see Syrah below). This comes from two vineyards in the Paardeberg, 38 and 42 years old, each with deep, decomposed granite soils. As with their other wines, winemaker intervention is minimal (wild yeast, low sulphur, no enzymes) allowing the terroir-transmission powers of chenin on granite in Swartland to shine. After whole bunch pressing and four weeks for the natural ferment this spends a year in older French oak before being bottled unfiltered. Give this singular wine some breathing room to air off a slight reductive note. With a bit of time to stretch its legs (I recommend decanting), alluring wild herbs, sea salt and broken stones emerge, backed with a concentrated and intense palate of pear, flint and a fine citrus peel. Very textured palate draws you through this powerful, finessed wine to a lengthy finish. Only 165 cases were made, so if you find some (or its cousin, Quartz Chenin Blanc), scoop and enjoy or cellar for the next decade. 93 points
Bet you thought I was going to say pinotage, yeah? Though pinotage has great genes (pinot noir crossed with cinsault in 1925), it’s overworked, overcropped, overoaked, overvillified status has it fallen from favour. And while cabernet sauvignon and syrah are the most widely planted reds, I was charmed by the characterfulness of humble cinsault. It used to be the most widely planted red variety, well adapted to the heat and capable of high yields – a workhorse grape. Cinsault was long a silent softening partner in red blends, and a historically favoured grape alongside cabernet sauvignon. In blends, cinsault brings perfume and lift, with a finely rasped pink and white peppercorn spice. These lovely, lighter, fresher perfumed qualities are readily apparent when the grape is vinified solo. At higher yields, a delightful and gulpable fresh red, ready to be chilled and enjoyed, abundantly. At lower yields, something more serious emerges, with stoniness, wild raspberry and wild herbs interwoven amongst the perfumed lightness. There are currently less than 2000 ha planted, though much of this is old vine material that nimble producers are working with, particularly in the Swartland. Here early picking, whole bunch and skin contact are making remarkably characterful, alluring wines – the type that one bottle simply isn’t enough.
Silwervis 2014 Cinsault, Swartland
Young, fun and passionate team Ryan Mostert and Samantha Suddons focus on finding old, special vineyards and making wines of them. This is a cinsault bottled under the Silwervis line and Avant Garde wines label, picked early from a sandy, shale layered site. 100% whole bunch spends three weeks on skins before going directly into concrete egg. Hugely fragrant and lively acidity, with finely gritty tannins, savoury wild cherry and alluring white pepper on the fresh finish. Highly pleasurable, almost too easily gulpable. 91 points
Alheit Flotsam & Jetsam 2015 Darling Cinsault, Darling
Chris Alheit is a name you’ll see popping up again and again – he is also responsible for Alheit Vineyards Cartology. The focus for Chris may be still white wines from South Africa’s heritage grapes, though he is also highly handed with reds, as this wine attests. This is 35-60 year old dry farmed bush vines from Darling, whole bunch fermented with a short time in wood and early to release. The result is a very pale, lifted, light and fresh red with gossamer fine tannins and a stony base, imprinted with cherry and raspberry. Quietly confident and very charming. 91 points.
More specifically, traditional method sparkling. In South Africa, these are called Methode Cap Classique, or MCC. The term was created in 1992 by The Cap Classique Producers Association (CCPA), a group of like-minded producers who banded to promote quality traditional method fizz. There are now 150 members producing 7.5 million bottles annually. Any grapes are allowed, though Chardonnay is seen as the best, and wines must spend nine months on the lees and a total of twelve months in bottle. According to Pieter Ferriera, sparkling winemaker guru and head of Graham Beck (transitioning to entirely fizz production), the goal is to up the minimum lees time to fifteen months in 2016.
Graham Beck 2010 Brut Blanc de Blancs, Robertson
Winemaker Pieter Ferreira is one of the leading proponents of the MCC (Methode Cape Classique) association, and a globally recognized fizz specialist. Graham Beck is transitioning to a 100% sparkling wine house, a move propelled by his skill at the style. This fresh, focused chardonnay was disgorged in 2014, yielding a fine balance between subtle tangerine pith and gently creamy, biscuit-laced lees. You can feel the wake of the region’s warmth on the finish, though this crisp and saline fizz rings with freshness. Robertson has a high proportion of limestone soils and this chardonnay is predominantly sited on them. 91 points
Huis Van Chevallerie 2013 Filia Chenin Blanc Brut Nature Kap Klassiek, Swartland
From gnarly old bush vine chenin from Paardeberg, planted at 330m. This is zero dosage, but with 4 g/l of residual sugar naturally left from the wild ferment, it is labelled Brut. Fourteen months on the lees provides this skeletal and racy fizz with a little cushion on its bones – just enough to prop up the green apple, salty, wet stone and lemon pith raciness of the chenin. 90 points.
The Zoo Biscuits is a like-minded gang of merry vintners making interesting low intervention wines across the Western Cape that honour terroir. To many, including me, they typify the energetic, intelligent passionate current generation of vintners propelling this golden era of wine (last year they held a tasting event titled The Young and the Restless). It’s hard to miss the roving pack – just watch for the VW camper van. They were the hit of Cape Wine 2015. www.zoobiscuits.co.za
Duncan Savage 2014 Follow The Line, Western Cape
This is the personal project of Duncan Savage, successful winemaker at Cape Point Wines and somewhat of an informal leader of the Zoo Biscuits collective. He sources fruit from mostly marine-influenced vineyards, preferably at altitude, for his finessed, graceful and precise wines. This is predominantly cinsault, splashed with equal parts grenache and syrah. Expressive and fragrant wild herbs and thorny florals, wild strawberries and raspberries open and drive through to the palate where rasped white pepper and plum join in. Tannins are fine, lithely structured and grippy. There’s a lovely core weight here, precisely balancing freshness with an anchor of gravitas. It strikes that chord between lightness and concentration that is intrinsic in the very best wines. Tasting beautifully now, but will continue to reward with 5+ years easy. 94 points
Craven 2014 Faure Vineyard Syrah, Stellenbosch
A global affair, husband and wife team Mick (Aussie) and Jeanine (South African) met while working at a winery in Sonoma before returning to Stellenbosch to source fruit for their natural wines. This was grown on granite, shale and dolomite, entirely whole bunch fermented with wild yeast and gentle extraction before 10 months in old barrels before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. Light and finessed, with fragrant violets, savoury broken stones, blue and black plum and a pulse of fine grained black pepper. Very savoury and fresh, and at only 11.5%, this haunting syrah is a surprising beauty. 93 points.
Crystallum 2014 Clay Shales Chardonnay, Walker Bay
Brothers Andrew and Peter-Allan Finlayson are third generation winemakers and the sons of the fellow who pioneered Pinot Noir in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley. This is a single vineyard wine crafted from fruit grown just outside of the Hemel en Aarde Ridge ward, at 300 metres in altitude. Whole bunch press with no additives, fermentation and aging lasted 10 months in barrel, with 17% new wood. Salted lemon and stone are integrated seamlessly into creamy, earthy lees and crystalline lemon curd, brightened and tightened with green apple and a lightly toasted almond note. Beauty focus and concentration here, one that will last this wine over the next decade. 92 points
Swartland Independent Producers
This group of like-minded independent individuals share the goal of making wines that purely express the Swartland. To this end, grapes are all from the WO, vinified naturally (without additives) and see no more than 25% new wood. They are also limited to varieties that have proven themselves suited to the terroir. A minimum of 90% of a red wine must be from syrah, mouvèdre, grenache, carignan, cinsault, tinta barocca or pinotage; and a minimum 90% of a white wine must be chenin blanc, grenache blanc, marsanne, roussanne, viognier, clairette blanche, palomino or semillon. This grape list is reviewed every couple of years as further exploration continues. www.swartlandindependent.co.za
A. Badenhorst 2014 Secateurs Chenin Blanc, Swartland
Welcome to new wave South Africa, from the leading oracle of doing things traditionally, Adi Badenhorst. Savoury earthy herbs and salt lead the nose, before pear, stone, meadow blossoms and fennel join in. A welcome chenin waxy sheen coats the textured palate, drawing almond, pear, nut shell, subtle honeycomb, melon and citrus pith along with it. Lively, energetic acids finish off with savoury salts. Lovely focus and drinking well now, but will reward with 3-5 years cellaring. And this, Secateurs, is their starter tier; it only goes up from here folks. 91 points.
Porseleinberg 2013, Swartland
One of the Swartland Independents, Porseleinberg is a wine sourced from Porcelain Mountain, and a label produced by Marc Kent and Boekenhoutskloof. This lifted syrah is a great place to start realigning your thinking of South Africa. Organically farmed, with wild yeast and low sulphur additions, Porseleinberg is 100% whole bunch (“a record of the vintage, according to winemaker Callie Louw”), and seen time in concrete eggs and aged foudre. Bright and crunchy, fragrant with red berries, cracked cassis and black cherry. A vein of wild herbs is drawn across grippy, fine tannins to a textured, stony finish. Tactile and fresh (only 13.7% alcohol) down to the labels – printed on the farm on a 1940 Heidelberg platen letterpress. 92 points
Rall 2013 Red, Swartland
Donovan Rall is another name that you’ll see connected to many projects, and many delicious wines. Rall is his personal project since 2008 and focused on making one red and one white wine from the most interesting vineyards he can find. 2013 Red is mostly syrah with 10% grenache, the former grown on schist and the latter on decomposed granite (and from the 2014 vintage). Authentic and bright, 50% whole bunch has left yielded a very savoury light red with crunchy acidity and fine, grippy tannins. Wild raspberry, strawberry and cherry crackles with energy, finishing with fine perfumed red fruit and white pepper. 92 points.
Mullineux Wines Single Terroir Range
One of the most respected names in the Cape, Chris and Andrea Mullineux began sourcing fruit in 2007, and now work with a dozen exciting vineyards. They focus on South Africa’s heritage grapes, including working with 115 year old cinsault, the oldest red vineyard in Africa. The Single Terroir Range Syrah mirrors their chenin blanc project (mentioned above).
Mullineux Wines 2013 Iron Syrah, Swartland
Sourced from a single parcel of organically farmed dry land bush vines on a rolling hillside west of Malmesbury. 100% whole bunch, with dark kirsch, black raspberry and a beautiful, persistent violet perfume. A sheen of dark cherry, black plum, iodine-laced fruit covers grippy, structured tannins. Full bodied and powerful, easily mitigated and balanced by brisk acidity. 92 points
Mullineux Wines 2013 Schist Syrah, Swartland
This syrah is sourced from a single parcel of 17 year old vines from the stony, schistose soils of Roundstone Farm on the Kasteelberg. Gently ripe cassis and a flow of kirsch and red plum offers a moderate generosity on the palate, though this savoury wine is ruled by its rocky structure and dusty, grippy tannins. Layers of thorny, savoury fruit and broken stone. Though drinking well now (decant in advance), it is still very much in youth, and full potential of this wine will be revealed with time. 93 points
*Thanks to Dr. Jamie Goode for sharing photos from Cape Wine 2015.