Tim Atkin's top 25 South African wines

Tim Atkin,South Africa People & Places Articles
  • Monday 7 December 2009

He’s been accused of having it in for South Africa, and being overly critical of its reds (especially those ‘rubbery’ ones). So we asked tim atkin mw to tell us what’s great about the Cape. He wasn’t short of options…

Why don’t you like our wines?’ a South African producer asked me recently. The view in the Cape, spread by a mix of ignorance and mischief-making, is that I’ve got it in for South Africa. The other falsehood is that I spend most of my time on visits sitting by the pool or playing golf, rather than tasting wines. One mediocre local hack even published my itinerary on his blog the last time I toured the Cape.

This article is my chance to put the record straight. I’ve visited South Africa a dozen times since my first trip in 1991 and I love the place. I’m also married to a South African and have more friends in the Cape than in any other wine region. I find the place beautiful, dramatic, vibrant, exciting, hospitable, politically engaging and sometimes downright scary.

And what about the wines? Some I like; some I don’t. But that applies to every wine-producing country.

It’s no secret I’ve been a long-term critic of the rubbery, green, yet curiously over-ripe flavours found in some Cape reds, but that’s only part of the story. The problem hasn’t gone away – in fact, no one seems to understand its root cause – but there are plenty of reds that don’t suffer from it. Part of my job, at least as I see it, is to distinguish between the good, the bad and the mediocre. If that ruffles a bit of plumage in the Cape, then so be it.

If I still have some reservations about South Africa’s reds, most notably when Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage are involved, I have nothing but praise for the average quality of its whites. From a standing start in 1994, Sauvignon Blanc has become a global star, while more established grapes such as Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc get better with every vintage. All three grapes make wines in the Cape that are as exciting as anything produced elsewhere in the New World.

On that note, South Africa is often described (not least by itself) as the most Old World of the New World countries. This is presumably a way of laying claim to ‘European elegance’. I’m not convinced it does anyone any favours. South Africa makes a range of wines, some in very hot places, but an increasing number in cooler, coastal climes. New and Old World styles are equally represented.

When Decanter asked me to come up with my favourite 25 South African wines, I thought the list would make itself. Then I sat down with the notes from my last trip, during which I tasted wines from 96 producers, and my notes from subsequent UK tastings. The task was harder than I imagined, partly as there were so many wines I wanted to include.

The upshot was that I had to set a few ground rules; first I’d only include one wine per producer. This was unfair on the Cape’s best wineries, like Vergelegen, Boekenhoutskloof and Sadie Family, all of whom have at least two contenders for a top 25, but it meant I could include a greater spread of wines. I also decided to exclude wines not available in the UK, which ruled out a few great bottles fromLe Riche, Bouchard Finlayson, Morgenster and Hermanuspietersfontein.

Many great names ended up on the cutting room floor: Klein Constantia, Jean Daneel, Constantia Glen, Newton Johnson, Anwilka, Flagstone, De Grendel, Catherine Marshall, Constantia Uitsig, Cloof, Diemersdal, Durbanville Hills, Eagle’s Nest, Graham Beck, La Motte, Jordan, Kleine Zalze, Luddite, Iona, Nitida, Paul Cluver, Mullineux, Rudera, Saronsberg, Quoin Rock, Springfield Estate, Simonsig, Spice Route, Sterhuis, Warwick and Miles Mossop. Sorry guys, maybe next time.

My final selection was biased 14 to 11 in favour of whites (including two sweet). The blends came out best, with Semillon adding weight to Sauvignon in each case. The best of these should frighten château owners in Bordeaux. And the reds? A Syrah-Mourvedre took the top spot but I was surprised by the six Cabernet-based reds that made the final cut. Something else to worry the Bordelais.

This selection is personal. I expect it to provoke debate, not only in South Africa but elsewhere. You may or may not agree with all of my choices, but let me assure you of two things. I love every single one of them. And I can’t wait to get back to South Africa.

Atkin’s top whites

Cape Point, Isliedh, Noordhoek 2007 (18.5/20)

Duncan Savage thinks he hasn’t hit his full potential yet. Heaven help his rivals when he does. This ageworthy, barrel-fermented Sauvignon-Semillon is the Cape’s Domaine de Chevalier. £22; HvN; SVi

Ken Forrester, The FMC Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch 2008 (18.5)

Ken Forrester’s turbo-charged, barrel-fermented, bush vine-sourced FMC is rich, honeyed and toasty, with lashings of new oak and ripe tropical fruit. £17.99; Wai

Hamilton Russell, Chardonnay, Hemel and Aarde Valley 2008 (18.5)

The competition to make the Cape’s best Chardonnay gets more ferocious by the vintage, but Hamilton Russell is still (just) out in front. This is a superb Burgundian-style white, with oak, minerality and citrus fruit in near perfect harmony. £17–£23.50; Ave, Evi, GG r, Hai, Han, Har, Jer, MiL, N&P, SLp, SWO, Teg, WDi, WnS

Tokara, White, Stellenbosch 2007 (18.5)

As at Vergelegen, the top white wine here just pips the red for complexity and broad appeal. This blend of Sauvignon with 15% Semillon is leesy and rich, with elegant oak, toast and remarkable freshness for such a big wine. £19; Hic, SLp, SWO

Vergelegen, Flagship White, Stellenbosch 2008 (18.5)

André van Rensburg would argue that all the wines he makes are brilliant, but a few stand out from a excellent range. This equal blend of Sauvignon and Semillon is his best white yet: grapefruit, honeysuckle, toast and a fine, herbal finish. £22; Jer, Lay

Ataraxia, Chardonnay, Western Cape 2008 (18)

Kevin Grant used to make the wines at Hamilton Russell until 2004 and clearly learned a few things about Chardonnay there. This creamy, elegant, beautifully focused Chardonnay from Elgin and Hemel en Aarde fruit is a star.

£14.50; SVS

Cape Chamonix, Chardonnay Reserve, Franschhoek 2008 (18)

Gottfried Mocke makes some of the Cape’s most refined wines; this dry-farmed, barrel-fermented, Puligny-like Chardonnay is at the top of the pile: fresh, toasty and superb balance. £12.99–£15; Ben, BoC, Han

Groot Constantia, Sauvignon Blanc, Constantia 2009 (18)

An excellent follow up to 2008 from an historic property no longer overshadowed by other local producers. Citrus fruit, green fig and green pepper intermingle in this sappy, zesty white. £9.99; Maj

Neil Ellis, Sauvignon Blanc, Groenekloof 2008 (18)

Neil Ellis makes great red and Chardonnay, but I think this Sauvignon is his best wine. Depth of gooseberry and a hint of tropical fruit with taut minerality and impressive concentration. £9.36– £14.95; Maj, Pip, Rai, Rbs, SWO, VLL

Steenberg, Semillon, Constantia 2008 (18)

Why isn’t there more Semillon in the Cape? Many out there are delicious like this barrel-fermented, low-yielding one: rich, textured and herbal with crunchy green bean and buttered toast notes.

£21.55; Arm

Raats, Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch 2008 (17.5)

Bruwer Raats makes the Cape’s best Cabernet Franc and one of its outstanding Chenins. It’s tighter and more focused than many, with subtle oak, intense apple, quince and vanilla flavours and bright, palate-cleansing acidity. £12.99; ExW, Han, Har, MgW, SVF, TVD, Vgy, You

The Foundry, Grenache Blanc, Swartland 2009 (17.5)

As well as making the wines at Meerlust, Chris Williams has his own brand. His Syrah and Viognier are both top notch, but this minerally, lightly oaked example could outdo them both. £8.99; WSo

Atkin’s top reds

Sadie Family, Columella, Swartland 2007 (19/20)

When I tasted the eight components of this wine from barrel, I thought it was one of the greatest Cape reds I’d ever tried. Now it’s in bottle, I’m not changing my mind: violets, plums, liquorice and very fine, savoury tannins. £45; Swg, WSo

De Toren, Fusion V, Stellenbosch 2007 (18.5)

A deceptively forward yet classic blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec, 10% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. I love its freshness allied to subtle oak and cassis and chocolate notes. £24–£27; BBR, Han, Swg, SWO, WSo

Engelbrecht Els, Proprietor’s Blend, Stellenbosch 2006 (18.5)

Ernie Els’ reds are as smooth as his legendary golf swing. This blend of five Bordeaux varieties plus 20% Shiraz is huge, but its alcohol is balanced by rich fruit and fine tannins. £20.99–£23.99; DLL, Gen, GG r, Hed, L&S, SWO, WHo

Waterford, The Jem, Stellenbosch 2005 (18.5)

Since the first Jem in 2004, Waterford has shifted into another gear. This Cabernet-based blend of seven French and Italian varieties is powerful, perfumed and complete. £38.95; BBR, Odd

Boekenhoutskloof, The Chocolate Block, Western Cape 2008 (18)

Marc Kent’s straight Syrah and Cabernet are more classic but this wacky blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet, Cinsault and Viognier is perfumed, smooth, spicy, complex and packed with blackberry and apricot fruit. £20; BoA, Bon, CeD, F&F, F&M, Han, HgD, Hgt, Hig, Hnt, Imb, MBW, Odd, P&S, PLG, Rbs, SWO, TVS, Vik, WaD, WCc, WDi, Wmb, WWi, You

Kanonkop, Pinotage, Stellenbosch 2008 (18)

I chose the straight Pinotage over the Paul Sauer and Bush Vine Pinotage, as

it’s a great example of what the variety can do: silky tannins, voluptuous red fruit, spicy oak and harmonious balancing acidity. £17–£19.95; Har, Maj, Pip, SWO,

VLL, WSo

Hartenberg, The Stork Shiraz, Stellenbosch 2005 (18)

One of a handful of thrilling Syrahs made in the Cape, Carl Schultz’s has a New World style, with a nod to the Barossa Valley rather than Hermitage. Bramble, blackberry and liquorice, with lashings of oak. £33.50; DLL, Har, HBa, SWO, Vik, WLi

Meerlust, Rubicon, Stellenbosch 2004 (18)

Chris William’s first vintage at this historic Cape winery brought about substantial improvements. This blend of 60% Cabernet, 27% Merlot and 13% Franc is ripe, yet extremely elegant, in a Cape-meets-Margaux style.

£21.99; BcW, Evy, F&M, F&R, Han, Hds, Hgt, HvN, L&S, MHL, P&S, Par, PLG, PWA, Rbs, SeL, Smp, Swg, SWO, Vik, WSo, WFM, Wmb, WnW, WUH

Rustenberg, Peter Barlow, Stellenbosch 2005 (18)

Unusually for a top Cape wine, this is entirely Cabernet Sauvignon. Super-ripe, bold and expressive, with masses of oak and cassis fruit, yet with dense tannins that need time to unfurl. £25.50–£28; DLL, F&M, Hed, L&S, OWC, SWO, Swg, Vir

Vilafonté, Series C, Paarl 2005 (18)

Mike Ratcliffe’s venture with Californians Zelma Long and Phil Freese has yielded two excellent wines, M and C. I just prefer the latter, based on Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. Serious, dense, Bordeaux-like with great ageing potential. £25; Han, SWO

Thelema, Merlot, Stellenbosch 2007 (17.5)

Thelema has been around for so long it often gets overlooked, despite its brilliance. Its Limited Release Reserve Merlot is the best example of the grape in South Africa, but this isn’t far behind. Mint, chocolate and grainy tannins. £14; AG AG W, WDi

Atkin’s top sweets

De Trafford, Straw Wine, Stellenbosch 2006 (18.5)

South African critics get very excited about David Trafford’s reds, but I prefer his Chenins, especially this remarkable straw wine made from air-dried grapes, with its notes of vanilla oak, honey, dried fruits and tarte tatin. £17.50 (375ml); Bib

Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, Vin Pi Two, Tulbagh NV (18.5)

TMV makes some of my favourite Cape Rhône-style reds but this solera-produced Chenin is exotic, floral, yet smoky with flavours of crême caramel, dried fruits and 300 grams per litre of sugar. £25.99 (375ml); CeD, CPe, VLL, WCt

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