A sit down at Montecito Restaurant last month engaged three flights of South African wines, introduced by master of presentation ceremonies Will Predhomme, who declared a federal truth politic. “This is meant for sommeliers but you journalists will get what you need out of it.” Mr. affable’s public service announcement held great meaning. Pour 15 wines from South Africa to a group of somms, journos and consumers to discover there will be something for everyone.
When execution and style is so varied from within one very large wine region, things can turn into dramaturgy verging on the absurd. At any sort of political theatre tasting comprising a range of disparate wines, three things need to go right. First the presenter must have a keen sense of the rug that ties it all together. Second, the support needs to be in place from the larger powers that be and third, the wines must be good. Three for three, first in the care of Jimson Bienenstock and the kitchen at Montecito, then with thanks to Wines of South Africa Canada and finally by way of succinct explanation via Mr. Predhomme.
A tasting like this, explained Predhomme, “is about expressing what South Africa is but with wines that are available in our market.” South Africa’s wine history, or at least how it exists in relation to the modern world, is quite young yet has advanced with incredible speed. Imagine that Chardonnay did not arrive until 1983 and had to be smuggled in. Some of the world’s finest Chardonnay is now made on South African soils.
Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the country’s strive for democracy had a profound effect on the revolution, evolution and expedient rush to embrace modernity. Twenty one years later “South Africa as a whole is really starting to see where it fits,” says Predhomme, “though it will still take at least another generation to really figure it out.”
Home to 600 producers, the country exported 22 million litres in 1992 and 417 million in 2012. The U.K. is the number one buyer, followed by Holland and then Canada, who ranks number seven. “You can’t maintain this type of growth,” notes Predhomme, “but you can shape it.” This is why WOSA has set up shop in nearly a dozen countries.
South Africa is a geographical and geological land of wonder, of ancient soils and picturesque intrusions. Extreme examples include the shale and schist of Swartland that turns into dust and the granite domes of Paarl, which are 30 million years old. “Beginning of time stuff, but how does it impart into wine?” Taste fifteen wines and you will get a sense.
South Africa is barely older than Ontario in terms of the modern era of winemaking and yet it produces some 18,000 hectares of Chenin Blanc, double the amount in the Loire Valley. In Swartland the betide is nothing short of a Rhône revolution, with producers doing “whatever they want.” There are hot climate wines from dry-farmed table lands with bush vines similar to Mendoza, minus the Andes. A huge diurnal shift is taking place. Wines are coming from high elevations, where it’s hot but the nights are cool. New upcoming areas in cool, coastal areas, in places like Elgin, Bot River and Walker Bay’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley have Sonoma like conditions, with maritime influences and fog. All of this adds to the diversity of the South African palette.
Western Cape in the hands of winemaker Jeff Grier is all about varietal fruit, here Stellenbosch helped into blending-like ambition by young, spritely Elgin berries. A kitchen sink varietal nose gathers gooseberry and fig fruit, incorporates earthly elements (3.46 pH), medicines, sugars and tonics. The Sauvignon Blanc aspect is riper than most. Where the discombabulation comes is from atmospheric pressures, rescued in part by a candied (3.7 g/L RS) Granny Smith apple, pyrazine palate. The MOR alcohol (12.9 per cent) and final act of tart (6.3 g/L) acidity is the calling card to remember, acting as the twist, the tie and the rock. Drink 2015-2017. Tasted April 2015 @villiera @
Vinum Africa Chenin Blanc 2012, Wo Stellenbosch, South Africa (739995, $15.95, WineAlign)
Robust, high-strung, wrapped tight Chenin Blanc that acutely pushes the limits of excitable fruit. The aromatic tonality causes salivation and the eyes to water, as the nose drifts upwards, like the feeling of looking straight into the sun set high against a perfect blue sky. Then the palate lifts to off-dry, sending tingling sensations rippling through, with a cool-climate Chardonnay like prickling. Some oak and crunchy mineral add a smack of Stellenbosch in this rangy white from Alex Dale from the Winery of Good Hope. Drink 2015-2018. Tasted April 2015 @WineryGoodHope @
Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc 2013, Stellenbosch, South Africa (231282, $17.95, WineAlign)
The 2013 Forrester OV Chenin has less early, obvious and striking appeal but that does not take away from its persistent and indubitable quality. This is a most fine and elegant vintage, with a faint yet obvious quiver of honey. Yellow fruit and their flowers mingle with the fleeting sweetness, in the name of balance and purity. A slide from one moment effortlessly into another, through a waft, from a swirl. Though the fruit is harder to find, it’s a cause of placing the origin; something south Asian but not quite tropical sweet. Like Salak or Kumquat or Jack. So much mineral, tightly wound on a spindle, wound to unwind, unwinding to rewind. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted April 2015 @ @
De Morgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, South Africa (339762, $29.95, WineAlign)
Even at four years of age, the wood aspect of this Chenin Blanc exaggerates rather then amalgamates. At the time, winemaker Carl van der Merwe held nothing back to fashion a white with considerable heft and weight. Alcohol (14.1 per cent) persists in linking with the barrel for a humid, toasty and sultry affair, cosigned by matching (7.7 g/L) sugar and acid tones. This is a prime example of a love/hate Chenin Blanc relationship. If you are on the varietal fence then the magnifications will drive you away. If Chenin Blanc and barrel fermentation are your splintered cup of tea then this will woo you with passion. The hyperbole of rocks, medicines, tonics, peats, elements (including iodine and heterocyclic aromatic organic compounds) are all here. It’s a veritable CB feast. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted April 2015 @ @
Glenelly Cellars Grand Vin Chardonnay 2012, Wo Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, South Africa (382200, $19.95, WineAlign)
From out of Stellenbosch in the Idas Valley, on the southern slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, opened in 2010 by May de Lencquesaing. State-of-the-art facilities give range and class to this whole cluster pressed Chardonnay, aged for 10 months in new and second fill 500L barrels and left for nine months on the lees. The intensity of chalk, remedy, tang and tart fruit volleys and assails in many ways. It hangs on the edge and teases. You can take the Chardonnay out of the Coastal Region but you can’t remove the ancient geology granite and schist, reinforced iodine aroma from the Chardonnay. Drink 2015-2018. Tasted April 2015 @ @
From decomposed Dolomite granite soils and vines in that vigorous young adulthood range of 18 to 25 years. A Cabernet Franc of ripeness, extraction, warmth, picked at fully realized sugar potential and vinified nearly bone dry. No stranger to wood, it spent 18 months in French Vicard and Mercury oak barrels (25% new, 25% second, 25% third fill and 25% fourth fill). Was neither fined nor filtered. All tolled it is quite steroidal, highly ferric and plugged in. Transmits currants by frenetic current, by bush smoulder and melts with macerated cherries. What minor holes in the oak blanket that show through are patched with a thin veneer of pungent compound, decomposed stone and the effects of dry farming. The lack of irrigation trumps the iron gait and grit, limiting the solvent to minute drips and drops. This is a big, arid red with few tears and many years ahead. Drink 2017-2024. Tasted April 2015 @ @
A mouthful to be sure, this Simonsberg is a cup runneth over “red wine bowl” of a Cabernet. Such a ripe, rich, rapturous and varietally obvious wine, overflowing with red fruit (berries and plums) and gilded enough to beat the ferrous inference into submission. Just a dusty rub of greenery, a sage and charcoal aggregate residue that dissolves into the sappy juice and the rush of late acidity. Quite a clout of sauvage and garrigue in this modern red with a loyal, rustic swell. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted April 2015 @ @
A stone’s throw from of Cape Town comes this maritime red as close to cool-climate as you are likely to find in those environs. Two Cabs and a Merlot legato conjoin to continue the bent to modernist winemaking, with a twist of old world funk and soul. Smoky jazz beats darken the room filled with bright, ripe, con brio waves of concentrated fruit. Though this has the gauze and the grippy, firm, gritty B key blow of tenor sax, the cool middle tinkling keyboard bars temper the tension and the nerves. Bordeaux blend with a wall of sound and value to boot. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted April 2015 @ @ @
A healthy swath of oak (18 months in 60 per cent new and 40 in second fill French) buoys and blankets this deep, cimmerian Cabernet. The nose is quite candied and while floral too, those edibles are dipped in a frosty coating. There are separations between the lines of intention, at once all forest floor, truffle and mushroom and again sugary, sappy and like a stew. Lustrous and silky of texture, with a grain running on tension and a drying out on the finish. Big, brawny, toothsome and hot. Drink 2015-2019. Tasted April 2015 @HartenbergWine @
The nose is quite unusually pretty and floral. So much strawberry, of fruit and leaves. A cool and polished red with a late push of varietal ferrous on the back of the tongue. This has layer upon layer, wave over wave, a veritable cake and vegetable garden, a terrace of nightshades and beets. May not be everyone’s cup of multi-varietal Napolean but it is complex. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted April 2015
Boschendal 1685 S & M Shiraz/Mourvèdre 2013, Wo Coastal Region, South Africa (403667, $19.95, WineAlign)
From the hands of winemaker Bertho van der Westhuizen, this puts 70 per cent Shiraz from vineyards in the Faure area of Stellenbosch, Helderberg and Bottelary hills sites together with 30 per cent Mourvèdre from the Paardeberg area. Goes directly to a happy place so not quite the S & M you might have expected. The playful reverse psychology and complex fermentation regimen spins the world right around (80 per cent of the wine went into 300L oak barrels, a quarter each in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th fill, while the remainder was left unoaked). The S & M spits out with a remarkable impression of weightlessness, of hovering inches above the ground. Like the gentle, almost awkward and swerving of a bouncing rubber ball, playful and innocent, into comfortable Rhône territory. Smoked berries, fine cherry and very persistent, in memory, forward and onwards. Drink 2015-2019. Tasted April 2015 @ @
A ripe, plush, super annotated, developed and slowly developed aromatic layering that defies even South African logic. A smoky, slow-roasted Syrah seemingly only winemaker Marc Kent could procure, like a combined 24-hour brisket and an entire porcine roast in a pit of sand on Brendan Beach. And yet tell me this does not somehow smell like Curry? Like a full-on, whole spice ground, stratified Masala, of cardamom, dalchini, jaiphal and kalonji. This is Syrah of intense concentration, ripe hauteur, serious breadth and a sense to be Rhône without the bacon cure. Won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon. Drink 2018-2025. Tasted April 2015 @TheWolftrapWine @ @PorcupineWines
Graham Beck The Game Reserve Shiraz 2012, Wo Stellenbosch, South Africa (383570, $18.95, WineAlign)
The game is in The Game with musky scents from just charred roast venison and wild boar hide. Also modern, reminiscent of internationally-styled blends from Terra Alta or Montsant. The game works in smothering partnership with heavy, fully ripe and extracted fruit. This is a strong, big willed and boned $18 South African red that should help to alleviate old prejudices and is really quite seamless at the price. Almost tastes volcanic. Wood is used and used well, without pretence or obnoxious behaviour. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted April 2015 @ @
Estate, pedigree and price raise all the bars of expectation for the grape with a modern crush on and for espresso and mochaccino. OK Pinotage, what have you got at $45? A deep red wine in demand to draw plenty of attention, to pluck strings with pizzicato and reverberation? The answer is yes and my attention is indeed captured. Light on chocolate, mocha, creme and nary a lissom or bouncing tone, but instead this Pinotage sings straight lines of red fruit. A stone temple of Pinotage, a pilot of its own fruitful flight. The Pinotage flavour, of tar in summer comes late, is more obvious, notable and grounded as the wine dries to its finish. This is one of the better, even great renditions to date. Bravo. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted April 2015 @ @
The varietal potpourri is an Italian-French polygamous matrimony, a cross-section of colour, aroma and flavour that somehow comes righteously together. Call it a lavandino della cucina or évier de cuisine but either way you translate this mix is one of gastronomy and oenology, crafted, blended, sautéed and vinified. Hanibal is barrel matured for sixteen months after fermenting the different grapes separately, comprised of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Mouvedre, with Nebbiolo and Barbera. The culmination revolves on an axis bold as love, of Brett, funk and circumstance. A wildly natural wine, very 1960’s, smoky and with wafts so thick you need a fork to eat and goggles to see through the haze. A wicked blend of heaven and earth. Meaty, cured, sanguine and charred. Super-charged and running hot. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted April 2015 @ @
Good to go!