Independents, rebels, rogues, zoo biscuits, risk takers, revolution. Buzz words, gathered sects and constituents of rebellion. Clusters of assemblage ruminating, circulating and percolating at the latest edition of organized wine in South Africa.
Who among us might have foretold in dramatic foreshadowing the story of September’s Cape Wine 2015? Who could have known that the southern hemisphere’s largest gathering of producers, marketers, buyers, sellers, sommeliers and journalists would do more to quell preconceived notions and stereotypes for any wine producing country than any trade show that has come before? Total, utter energy.
Centuries ago, when the fishing and trading boats would return west to the Cape they would mistakenly enter the wrong basin. “There’s that confounded bay again,” they would curse. False Bay. During the week preceding and following Cape Wine we climbed aboard cars and vans headed out from Cape Town or Stellenbosch. En route to a farm, estate or winery, more often than not, out the window, there was False Bay, like a magnet, drawing attention, setting and re-setting the excursion compass. As we watched the bay ache into and fade out of view each jaunt-acquiesced day, it just seemed as though we were always heading north and gaining altitude. Not really.
Cape wine country meanderings exist in requiem well beyond points A to B. Directional challenges are inclusive of L-shapes, U-turns and rotations. Lines draw as much east, southeast and northeast as they do falsely north. Journeys always conclude in a valley, at the base of a mountain or in an amphitheatre bound by geological reality. The getting there is often hazy but the arrival always comfortable.
South African wine is not what we thought it was. This mantra can’t be repeated often enough. Ventures into the wine lands compounded the about-face turn of mind. Tastings, tours and zealous immersion into Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Swartland and Hemel-En-Aarde saw to that. South Africa is not what you thought folks, but it just might be what you dare to dream. If you’ve not visited you can’t possibly know what revelations lurk.
The frontier is inhabited by cowboys and their multifarious varietal schemes. It’s surfeited by demi-century established Chenin Blanc bush vines, painted pell-mell with expatriate rootstock and cuttings outside the Bordeaux and Burgundy box; Nebbiolo, Barbera, Tinta Barocca, Albarino, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Tempranillo and Tannat. Nothing is sacred and everything is fair game. Rhône blends are the current rage and Cinsault is going it alone with nothing short of remarkable results.
Natural fermentation, skin contact and carbonic maceration have infiltrated the winemaker’s psyche. The eco-bio movement has challenged the fundamentalist incumbency and forced sweeping reforms. Fresh, natural, orange, caliginous and tenebrous have taken the Cape by storm. Praetorian makers are changing their ways. Pinotage has abandoned decades of Bordeaux wannabe style to once again don bell bottoms and retro suede. In 2015 South Africa, cats and dogs are living together.
Introduce me to a winemaker who is not in tune with his or her terroir and I’ll show you a winemaker who is either faking it or blindly towing a company line. That breed is few and far between. In South Africa I met exactly none of that ilk. So what? What’s so special about a nation of winemakers who work as one with their soil, their meso-climate and their geology? You’re supposed to intuit those abstracts to make great wine. “You’re supposed to take care of your kids!”
No, what separates South African vignerons from the rest of the world is the playground mentality and the execution 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 in the local vernacular, the Cape Winelands. Any varietal of choice can find its way to achieve perfect phenolic ripeness virtually anywhere the grapes are planted. The mitigating effect of Cape winds eradicates all 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 is the wine collective equivalent of the wild west. In the Western Cape, anything goes.
I will expand, in due course, on all the wines tasted during the eight days I spent in South Africa. A list of top wines and a preponderant unfurling are sure to follow in the form of fifty odd tasting notes. For now I will concentrate, in the name of lede consistency, on the varietal and stylistic revolution taking place.
The following notes will unquestionably focus on three platoons, Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (PIWOSA), the Swartland Independents and the Zoo Biscuits. The first is a collective of straight-shooting, accordant, premium, independent wine producers from across the diverse wine regions of South Africa’s Western Cape. The second comprises 25 (give or take) cricket playing, indigenous fermenting, Anglikaans-gabbing grape shepherds. The third may draw their name from beloved childhood memories of packaged iced silhouettes of animals on cookies when in actuality they are a gaggle of like-minded, boundary-pushing, fun-loving, serious winemakers.
Cape Wine 2015 may have seen 300 presenters toting thousands of South African bottles but the swagger of 40 young vignerons stole the proverbial show. They did it with passion, innocence, acumen beyond years and attention to history. They go it alone and with a pack mentality. They care about old vines, tradition and respect for the land but they also have chutzpah. They don’t really give a fuck what the establishment thinks about their winemaking.
Three days at the Cape Town International Convention Centre allowed for extensive coverage of the South African wine scene. It was a perfectly organized show. Credit begins with the vignerons. Their work is tireless, especially when all must be dropped to focus on all-in, three relentless days of pouring while offering elaborate dissertations about their wines and their place in the South African scene.
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.
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 reality.
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Chenin Blanc Skin Contact 2013, Swartland, South Africa (Winery)
It begins with viticulturist Rosa Kruger and the cleanest fruit this side of Matroosberg Mountain. Vigneron and winemaker Chris and Andrea Mullineux use egg inversion to press and skin contact lasts for three months. This plus old barrels hyper-intensify umami; part bread dough, some pine forest, all wild yeast and a hint of Matsutake mushroom. The meld into acidity is a wild carpeted Chenin ride. Exhibits layers of Greekdom, in spice and complexity. The long inosinate to guanylate finish arrives and lingers in thanks to the scraped skins of many citrus fruits. They strip, stripe and spank the mouth. The spirited lashing and accumulated bejewelling is a sign of spiritual and plentiful life. Drink 2015-2021. Tasted September 2015 @ @ @
From Adi Badenhorst, old bushvines planted in the 1950’s and 1960’s and whole bunch handled with no crushing or de-stemming. Fruit is transferred to concrete and 500l old foudres. The simple, minimalist approach and lots of less stirring, leading to great texture, right up there with the most complex Chenin. Also possessive of the righteous level in bitters, intense citrus and bookworm herbology. Lucent, lambent, capable Chenin Blanc. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted September 2015 @ @
Not exactly household or predominant by any stretch of the imagination, 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.
A more serious effort than the sibling ‘Dry Encounter’ because this Riesling knows what it wants to be. On its left may be Alsace and on its right the Mosel but in truth this speaks to a Kabinett reasoning, with Elgin layering. At nine per cent alcohol, 36 g/L RS and 8.2 g/L TA it knows the difference and speaks the truth about off-dry Riesling, with elevated and yet balancing acidity. It pretends to be nothing but what is of and for itself. Flint and an attainable stratosphere (between 300-500m above sea level) accept the airy drifts of oceans and the gathering returns to earth with the weight of wax and glade. If you think South African Riesling is “a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land,” taste Elgin and think again. The skeptical Nowhere man is ignorant to the new frontier for Riesling and to him I say “please listen, you don’t know what you’re missing.” Drink 2015-2020. Tasted September 2015 @ @
A category not to be taken lightly, what with so many varieties available to work together and with the idea of appellative blends not necessarily so far off or far-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.
Rall Wines White Coastal Region 2014 (Winery)
A contiguous king blend of Chenin Blanc with Verdelho, Chardonnay and Viognier from vineyards allowing for increased production year after year. Natural fermentations acquiesce varying degrees and species of spiced dipped flowers set upon expressions of lees. The Chenin is 41 year-old Swartland (Paardeberg) fruit with Stellenbosch (Bottelary and Helderberg) quartz soil Chardonnay and Verdelho. Anise, star anise and pure white stone groove me in a gather of complimentary and controvertible Chenin (and friends) complexity. “Uhh! Awww, sookie sookie now!” @
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 at even that a handful of least employed Châteauneuf and/or Gemischter Satz varietal wines show up at a CapeWine Fair sometime soon.
David Nieuwoudt’s Dwarsrivier rare take on the cultivar (less than 77 hectares of vines remain planted worldwide) is a wine with altitude and attitude. Cederberg is one of only three South African farms in kind of these vines in Glenrosa and sandstone soils on the escarpment atop the Cederberg Mountains. Natural sugar of 25 g/L from the arrested ferment is toothsome in a next to Spätlese way, though the citrus and herbal crasis separates this from Riesling. What brings it circling again is the formidable acidity, circulating and rounding up, culminating in a viscosity and a palate coating that ends with none word. Delicious. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted September 2015 @ @ @
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 Winery of Good Hope Radford Dale Cinsault ‘Thirst’ 2015, Stellenbosch, South Africa (Winery)
If the Thirst Gamay from vignerons Alex Dale and Jacques De Klerk is “a live rock concert rather than a manufactured, boyband studio album,” the carbonically macerated Cinsault is weekend long palooza replete with music, clowns, acrobats and roaming minstrels. The wonders of natural, nouveau Gamay are well known but the natural fermentation application on Cinsault goes funky, wild and complex in a whole other attitude. Chilled properly this Thirst adds a Mad max factor to the circus, tannins even and most certainly an explosive grit. If the Gamay is smashable, the Cinsault is obliterateable. Drink 2015-2017. Tasted September 2015 @ @ @ @
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.
The ’12 signifies a departure and a new style for the winery and for Syrah in the Cape. Some (three weeks) of carbonic maceration leads to a dichotomous passion play in which the middle romance is acted out in seven barrels for 18 months of (70 per cent American and 30 per cent French) oak. It’s as if the grapes are shocked into an awakening and then slowly brought down to calm. As if the fruit develops a protective shell, protected from and coerced by and with ushering along by slow motion micro-oxidation. This is Syrah void of cracked nut, pepper, veneer and big league chew. It’s a terribly beautiful experiment, the Syrah equivalent of similar function world’s away, done with Chardonnay, in Orange and all the while with natural yeast that sling the fruit to destinations previously unknown. At least around here. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted September 2015 @ @ @ @
Porseleinberg Syrah 2013, Swartland, South Africa (Winery)
They call Callie Louw a lekker ou. Having played on his side and under his tutelage for a bowl and a bat or two, I can concur. He is a nice guy. Having eaten his smoked pork shoulder, brisket and wings, I can tell you that he is a master smoker. Having tasted his ’13 Syrah twice, I can also say he is a great winemaker. Louw is proficient at many things, including cricket and smoking Swartland’s best BBQ. Making Syrah from the schist soils of Riebeek Kasteel is his true calling and with thanks to Marc Kent (of Boekenhoutskloof) he is able to work with some of South Africa’s best fruit out of one of its harshest climats. Picked fruit is left to its own devices, 40 per cent in concrete eggs and 60 in larger foudres. I’d hate to smack a natural sticker on this one because it resides outside the realm of labels, generalizations and uneventful stipulations. It has killer tannins and the legs to walk the earth. What else do you need to know? Drink 2017-2030. Tasted September 2015 @
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.
Blackwater Wines Pinot Noir Cuvée Terra Lux MMXI 2013 (Winery)
Winemaker Francois Haasbroek is not merely on to something. He has it figured out. The elegance of his wines (sourced from vineyards across the Western Cape) share a strong affinity with one another. In a consistently distinguished line-up this Pinot Noir may not be his most accomplished but it is his most definitive bottle. From three Elgin Vineyards this spent 18 months in older 225L barrels and help me if this does not purely express the humanity of Pinot Noir. Oh, the natural funk of Elgin, where Pinot Noir need be embraced and fostered. Not unlike Haasbroek’s Syrah, the sweetness is impossible, the imagined imaging haunting and asomatous. With time the true luxe will emerge, in the form of mushroom, truffle and candied cherry. Drink 2016-2021. Tasted September 2015 @ @
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.
From parcels of the highest possible elevation and black rock that imparts swarthy tannin on a frame of alcohol sharpened at 12.5 per cent. Nothing short of stunning aromatics. Whole bunch fermentation, three weeks of skin contact and minimal punch downs are directed with pinpoint precision to what Pinotage should and simply must be. Fresh, lithe and promising. Good-bye Pinotage being Pinotage. Hello Pinotage in pure, honest perfume. Older oak barrels (4th, 5th and 6th fill) round out the texture, amplify the arroyo seco and excellence washes through, with simple acidity and riverine length. Drink 2015-2019. Tasted September 2015 @ @
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. 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.
Wildenhurst Red 2012, Swartland, South Africa (Winery)
Shiraz (62 per cent) co-fermented with Viognier (5) is joined in rank by Mourvèdre (33, though is some years it’s Cinsault) in an unembellished red that not only lies back but rises in free spirit. A red to express the personality of its maker, Sheree Nothnagel. Silk and lace, cure and mace, spice and so many things nice are the aspect ratios of a very natal wine, like a prevailing wind. A real stretch in tannin, sweet and smooth of grain leads to length, from Koringberg to the slopes of the Picketberg and Paardeberg mountains. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted September 2015 @ @ @
Savage Wines Follow the Line 2014 (Winery)
The Western Cape has likely never seen such polish and precocious affinity with its varied soils as it has or likely soon will when Duncan Savage is making wine. The blend of Cinsault (58 per cent), Grenache (21) and Syrah (21) is predominantly Darling grapes and shows a deeper, funkier understanding of Cape soil. Bright red cherry fruit supports life on this brooding planet and propagation is furthered with cinnamon-like spice and a purity for supplementary red fruit so direct and so very pure. The wine’s moniker comes from the farming expression “follow the line.” All rows lead to the farmhouse, eventually. All winemaking roads in the Cape will lead to the name Duncan Savage or at least involve him in the conversation. He is the farmhouse. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted September 2015 @
Chris Alheit’s brand might allude to a chapter in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers but Days of Yore must pay some homage to the 80’s thrash metal band and with great irony. This Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault blend is no Doomsday for the Receiver and certainly No Place for Disgrace. What it is instead is pure liquid brilliance. Old 1960 Cabernet Sauvignon bush vines are (even if unintentionally) farmed the way they used to be, back in the days of yore. Now cropped, tended and produced in pitch perfect cure, the resulting wine (when Cabernet is blended with Albeit’s dry-farmed, stomped and tonic-singular Cinsault) shows smoky depth and musicality. Sour-edged or tart can’t begin to describe the tang. It’s something other, unnameable, sapid, fluid and beautiful. It brings South Africa from out of the heart of its wayfinding darkness. Drink 2015-2025. Tasted September 2015 @ @
Momento Wines Tinta Barocca 2013, Bot River, South Africa (Winery)
From a south-facing, 40 year-old, one and a half hectare vineyard in Bot River that Marelise Niemann convinced the farmer not to rip out so that she may continue to produce some 2,000 bottles of a variety you can’t really find or are want to grow anywhere else. This has been a small love affair since 2007 with this block. “My child, my charity case,” she admits. I am not sure I tasted any other wine in South Africa with such fresh, pure, unspoiled innocence as this Tinta Barocca. “You have to have a connection to the vineyard. To guide it.” The underlay of perspicuity is a streak provided by Bokkeveld shale. The clarity of red fruit and deferential tannin is too sacred to spit, too beautiful to spill and too genteel to waste. Drink 2015-2018. Tasted September 2015 @ZooBiscuitsWine
Good to go!