South Africa: where’s the excitement?

  • Tuesday 23 January 2007

Where’s the excitement? Anthony Rose asks why the Cape is the only New World giant without any icon wines to its name

California’s got them, Australia’s got them, even Argentina

and Chile are offering internationally-recognised ‘icon’ wines.

anthony rose asks why the Cape doesn’t fit in.

At the highest level of achievement, it is every New World winemaker’s ambition to produce world-class wines that can share a stage with France’s greatest. With icons that fetch top dollar at auction, Australia and California are two candidates that can hold up their hand and say they’ve arrived. But what of South Africa?

The first South African red I thought world class was the now legendary 1997 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah from Marc Kent, which I tasted while in the Cape judging the South African Airways competition. Côte Rôtie, I thought, although the French judge, Michel Bettane, was more sniffy. He was prepared to go to Cornas but no higher. Either way, it was an indication of a potential others had already noted when André van Rensburg produced his momentous 1994 Stellenzicht Syrah. But they were one-offs. The bought-in old vines that went into the 1997 Syrah were grubbed up to make way for urban development, and van Rensburg moved on to plough a Cabernet-based furrow at Vergelegen.

I had never had such an epiphany with the Cape’s Bordeaux style reds and I wondered whether an evening at Cape winemaster Angela Lloyd’s, tasting a handful of venerable South African reds, would provide one. An impressive line-up of oldies included, among others, a 1978 Kanonkop Cabernet, a 1969 Groot Constantia, a 1963 Nederburg Cabernet and a 1979 Rustenberg Dry Red. Dry reds they were indeed. Unfortunately, varying degrees of desiccation made them little more than curiosities of a bygone era in which the prevalence of virus in the vineyard and the debilitating effects of apartheid had taken their toll. But that was then, and the assembled group, made up largely of tasters for the John Platter South African Wines guide, including the great man himself, probably wished we’d been tasting instead a selection from the record number of 25 five-star wines featured in the new 2007 edition.

Even without Platter at the helm, the 26-year-old guide has become such institution that the colour of its cover (orange, this year, since you ask) is as much anticipated by the Capetonian chattering classes as the 5-star ratings from among the 6,000-odd featured wines. Ten of the top 25 this year are reds, the balance made up of eight whites, three sweet and four ‘ports’. Of the top 10 reds, five are Shiraz with three Cabernet Sauvignons, a red blend, a solitary Pinot Noir and not a Pinotage or Cape Blend (a blend with a minimum of 30% Pinotage) in sight. According to the guide’s publisher Andrew McDowall, ‘Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the strong classes, with three five-stars from seven nominees’. If that’s the case however, it’s tempting to ask though why, after all this time, the Cabernet-based styles haven’t excelled when the Bordeaux model has been touted for so long by South Africa as the way to go. And conversely, why, given the comparatively short lifespan of Syrah/Shiraz here, the Rhône styles emerged covered with comparative glory.

Given reinforcements by substantial overseas investment in South Africa’s vineyards, not least by the French, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Bordeaux model is a done deal. Anne Cointreau at Morgenhof (1992), Alain Moueix at Ingwe (1997) and Rupert & Rothschild (1998) had led the Gallic movement in the Cape even before more recent investments at Glenelly (2003) by Château Pichon Longueville Lalande’s May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, and Bruno Prats and Hubert de Boüard, who teamed up with Klein Constantia’s Lowell Jooste at Anwilka (2004). South Africa is in thrall to what it sees as homage to Cape winelands terroir, yet the presence of the Bordelais is no automatic guarantee of wines of classed growth distinction. None of this year’s 5-star awards went to French investment wines, and while de Lencquesaing cited ‘excellent terroir’ as one of the reasons for her investment, another factor, that ‘I believe we in the developed world should help others’, seems merely patronising.

Having worked a harvest at Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, Anwilka’s winemaker, Trizanne Pansegrouw, is still trying to work out why she feels Cape Cabernet doesn’t age as well as red Bordeaux. ‘It’s a battle to get physiological ripeness before the sugars [and potential alcohol] peak’ she says. The picking window is much tighter in South Africa, where harvest takes place at the height of summer. If the name Trizanne suggests three-way Bordeaux blends, it’s not for want of trying that she hasn’t been able to include Merlot in the final package. Merlot is a tough nut to crack because ‘it’s the most prone to green flavours unless the leaves are plucked, but not too soon, and the canopy opened up to allow the methoxypyrozines to burn off’. Anwilka’s Merlot has been left out of the final blend, yet as one of the French investment wines with evident potential, the 2005 Anwilka, an attractive, cassis-laden blend of nearly two-thirds Cabernet and a third Shiraz, still shows herbaceous borders around the nose and finish.

Among the list of Cape estates vying for the highest Cabernet honours are Rustenberg, Le Riche, Ernie Els, Neil Ellis, Waterford, Thelema and de Trafford. Most determined of all, perhaps, is Vergelegen’s André van Rensburg, who feels that the eradication of leaf-roll virus – the continuing bugbear of the South African vineyards – is of key importance. Van Rensburg, who aims to move to biodynamic viticulture, admits that the maiden vintage of Vergelegen’s flagship wine, the 2001 V, with its 15% alcohol, was too much of an attempt to woo Robert Parker. The 2003 V, a blend of 90% Cabernet plus Merlot and Cabernet Franc, was toned down from an excessive 15% to 14.5% and is a more impressive, better balanced blend as a result. To enhance its would-be icon status, the V 2003 will sell for £55 a bottle, but while limited production will probably guarantee a sellout, such conspicuous high pricing is ambitious.

Of the three Platter 5-star Cabernets at a Wines of South Africa tasting, there was none left by the time I got to Teddy Hall’s 2003 Rudera, while the 2004 Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection showed a core of cassisy richness albeit with a telltale capsicum edge to it. Better still is the opulent 2004 Boekenhoutskloof from Marc Kent, whose 2004 Syrah, consistently one of the Cape’s best, was also a 5-star winner. Kent acknowledges that South Africa has made great strides since the 1980s. ‘Once it was a big thing to own a case of Roodeberg, but when you came to open the bottle, it was undrinkable,’ he says. Progress in his view derives from a combination of vine age and yield in the vineyard and from improved winemaking techniques including grape selection, management of tannins and alcohol, and use of oak.

With 10 years at Boekenhoutskloof under his belt, Kent’s approach to terroir is matter-of-fact. ‘I was a hippie-like character, a “hey man it’s all about terroir”,’ he says, ‘but now I’ve calmed down and matured a bit, it’s not really where it’s at. It’s not a guarantee of quality. I didn’t see Stellenbosch picking up many 5-stars in the Platter guide this year. If you’ve invested your money somewhere, you’re going to be passionate about it, aren’t you?’ Like a first-rate chef with access to the best raw material, Kent believes that the winemaker’s skill and experience are the keys to the production of a top wine. ‘I’m not emotional about terroir here. I can buy good fruit. We haven’t yet reached the point where we can say that this slope will be the cracker Shiraz’.

The grapes that form the basis of the consistently fine Boekenhoutskloof syrah come from the warm Wellington region north of Paarl, while much of the Shiraz for his other labels comes from Malmesbury. This rural grain town is where I first came across Eben Sadie when he was working with Tom Lubbe for Charles Back’s Spice Route. In 2002, after he left Spice Route, Sadie spent a good deal of time looking for sources of supply for his own red, Columella. Since then, the Swartland and Tulbagh areas north of Malmesbury have become increasingly exciting prospects for Rhône-style reds, with Sadie himself the self-styled champion of Swartland.

Columella is one of the most impressive of an increasing number of fine Syrah-based reds emerging from beyond the Stellenbosch-Paarl-Franschhoek axis. ‘Swartland is an incredible appellation and the soils will speak for themselves’, says Sadie. He admits to liking Cabernet, but the sting is in the tail. ‘Cabernet has huge personality, but take it out of Bordeaux and it manifests itself as a variety without transporting the sense of place. Syrah is the opposite, Pinot Noir even more; along with Grenache they are varieties that profoundly transmit the character of their soils’. He sources the Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache for his top red, Columella, from seven growers in Swartland. The varieties are vinified separately and blended together because ‘each vineyard has its own transmission of character, whether fruit structure or minerality’.

East of Swartland, the remote, tranquil farm of Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, whose main pests seem to be grape-loving baboons, is an exciting prospect for Rhône varieties. The cellar was built in 2002 and the 16 hectares of planted vineyards nestling in the shadow of Tulbagh’s Witzenberg Mountains are farmed organically. With Chris Mullineux at the helm, the wines are based on Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault and the results have been startlingly good, although as yet the fine TMV 2004 Syrah-Mourvèdre and sleek, blackberryish TMV 2004 Swartland Syrah are made from Swartland fruit. Tulbagh is a region to watch though, with fine Shiraz-based blends emerging from Rijk’s Private Cellar and newcomer, Saronsberg, whose Shiraz-Mourvèdre-Viognier blend, Full Circle, made by Dewaldt Heyns, shows impressive depth of fruit.

In the ongoing debate over Bordeaux and Rhône styles, it would be easy to overlook Pinot Noir, yet both the Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinots from the lower Hemel-en-Aarde Valley can be exceptional. After analysing the soils and the vinification of some 30 separate parcels, Anthony Hamilton Russell found ‘the main contributing factor to the classicism and more European styling of our Pinot was the very high clay content of the soil. Pinot has to have something to say about site and soil before it’s even classed as good Pinot’. Apart from Paul Cluver in Elgin, who’s starting to make exceptional Pinot Noir, few would disagree that these two site-specific wines are the exception that proves the rule that a genuine understanding of the relationship between terroir and great wine remains in its infancy in the Cape. Which isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been rapid in the 13 years since the end of apartheid. Or that we won’t in future see top Cape Cabernet, Syrah and Pinot willingly gathering dust in international collectors’ cellars. I just feel that there are still a few corners to turn before we reach that point.

Rose's Red Cape World-Beaters

Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ????

Aged in new oak for over two years, this fine blend of Franschhoek Cabernet with Boekenhouts’ own Cabernet Franc displays an enticingly fresh dark cherry nose capped by stylish toasty oak with a rich, opulent cassis fruit core and balancing savoury fruit character. Drink 2007–2015. £23.00; Han, Hgt, Lay, Odd, Swg, Wai, WSo

Columella 2004 ????

Dense colour, intense nose

of liquorice spice and

pepper, concentrated black cherry and blackberry fruits with spicy oak integration and fruit opulence counterbalanced by firm acid and tannin structure defined by textured, savoury fruit. Drink 2008–2015. £39.99; ACh, BBR, F&M, IEC

Fairview Solitude Shiraz 2004 ????

Single vineyard, dryland-farmed red from Agter Paarl displaying rich, ripe aromas of liquorice, spice and chocolate, complemented by concentrated blackberry fruit flavours with a spicy sweet fruit middle cut by fresh acidity and succulent tannins. Now to 2012.

£15.95; Lib, SWO

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, Walker Bay 2005 ????

Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot characterised by spicy vanillan oak and berry aromas, a modern red Burgundy-style whose intense depth of sweetly ripe, raspberry fruit and well-crafted oak combine in a framework of resolved tannins and stylish balance. 2008–2015.

£22.95; Ave, Hal, Odd

Kaapzicht Steytler Vision 2003 ????

From the Bottelary Hills west of Stellenbosch, this is the Steytler family’s top-of-the-rage Cape blend, a mix of 50% Cabernet, 40% Pinotage and 10% Merlot in a seamless, rich blend in which the Pinotage brings a supple berry frut quality to the more structured coffee bean oak and cassis fruit of the Cabernet. 2007–2013. £20; Han, PrV, SWO, Wnd

Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon, Simonsberg Stellenbosch 2003 ????

Consistently one of the Cape’s top Cabernets; a powerful, aromatic red with vanilla and cedary oak undertones, intense cassis and dark cherry fruit concentration whose supple tannins and juicy acidity make for an accomplished Cape-meets-Bordeaux style. £25.00; Han, Hgt, L&S, SHJ, SWO

TMV Swartland Syrah 2004 ????

Syrah from Swartland vineyards brings fine concentration of black cherry and loganberry fruitiness with a juicy, almost mulberry-like blend of richness and refreshing acidity that add up to a natural, pure red. Now to 2012. £15.99; Hgt, P&S, Swg

Vergelegen Estate 2002 ???

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, this estate red is nicely evolved with spicy undertones hinting at tomato leaf and cedary oak, attractive supple tannins and opulent cassis and dark cherry fruit with maturing leathery undertones. Drink now to 2012. £25.00. Har, HoF, Maj, Odd, Swg, Tes

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