On a Rall in South Africa

Donovan Rall

When I returned from South Africa two months ago people immediately began to ask. What’s it like? What’s new, what’s changed, what’s hot? I asked myself the same questions and the most obvious answers forthcoming were charged with the notions of quality and especially confidence. Case in point, fact and controlled emotion regarding the man, the winemaker and the wines of Donovan Rall.

Related – Around the Cape in 50 wines

Three years ago I had the opportunity to taste two of Rall’s wines at Cape Wine 2015. I was impressed with the quiet swagger of the Rall White and Rall Red. The former was from old Swartland (Paardeberg) and Stellenbosch (Bottelary and Helderberg) fruit I noted as “pure white stone groove.” The latter of Swartland schist to cure what troubles and saps. This sourcing, grabbing and snapping up grapes from vineyards, blocks and plots spread across the Western Cape is the humanistic phenomena of an independent South African winemaker’s condition. It’s what they do and yet Donovan Rall has taken the art form to a whole new level.

For one thing he has found the last Mohican of Wellington cinsault blanc and kept it alive for a very small portion of the world to enjoy. He’s mainly a Swartland guy but he also climbs high into the Piekenierskloof and dips into the depths of Darling cinsault. Mostly Donovan Rall is a Schistosier, a man of the Schist, El Schistorino, the Schister. He likes vines grown in the coarse-grained metamorphic rock, especially syrah and it is his latest varietal effort that blew my mind. It is truly one of South Africa’s most impressive varietal syrah.

Rall wines was established in 2008 after Donovan graduated with a Viticulture and Oenology degree from Stellenbosch University in 2005. He set out to travel and then returned to South Africa in 2007 for a Swartland vintage. Mediterranean varietals under his own label from scattered old Cape vineyards was the natural next step. Cape Wine 2018 marked the release of his 10th and 11th vintages in bottle, quite significant to mark the inaugural culmination of his early life’s work.

Donovan and I made eye contact at this most recent Cape Wine and I was flattered that he remembered tasting with me three years before. And so he went out of his way to pull seven bottles, disappear behind a partition and away from the mayhem of the Swartland booth and taste these seven South African beauties with me. The quantities are small but the hearts so very big. Here are my notes.

Rall Wines Cinsault Blanc 2017, Wellington, Western Cape, South Africa (Winery, WineAlign)

The fruit comes from a 32 year-old, tiny 0.2 hectares of certified vines and the only remaining vineyard planted to the varietal. Like red cinsault this thing drops acid as fast as anything else. What you will taste is only the grape, on the skins three days for phenolic pulling and then straight into the clay. Seven months only, not too far and so freshness is preserved. Not just spirit but mouthfeel with the lightest frame and 10.5 per cent alcohol, with nice dry tannins. It’s like a shout out louds very loud matter of “nothing is hard cause something always comes out.” Lemon like you’ve never experienced before, leaning lime, like clairette and grenache blanc, but then again no. It’s just this. Donovan Rall managed 1005 bottles. Drink 2018-2022.  Tasted September 2018  #Rallwines    @RallWines

Rall Wines Grenache Blanc 2017, Piekenierskloof, Western Cape, South Africa (Winery, WineAlign)

It would be hard to argue with Donovan Rall that in the Western Cape grenache blanc needs to be made in the freshest, anti-oxidative, anti-leesy way. Zippy, salty, driven by minerals and acidity. In the Piekenierskloof, at 650m plus, done in concrete egg after early-picked fruit, but some skin-contact (like red wine, done in open top vessels constantly punched down) for texture because it’s approached with early-picked acidity preservation. Has the texture but no melon flavours. Love the unique epsom saltiness, low pH and generous spicing. Drink 2018-2021.  Tasted September 2018

Rall Wines White 2015, Swartland, South Africa (Winery, WineAlign)

Leaving out the chardonnay component, the signature Rall White is now chenin blanc (60ish per cent), verdelho (30ish) and viognier. Mostly old oak, five years being the youngest, with various sizes. Other than the chard omission it’s the earlier picking that makes the difference to…lets say three years ago. That and the increase of the verdelho, which brings acidity. Whatever Donovan thought he might have been looking for and doing then, well he’s really doing it now. This shows how proper wine is being made out of necessity, not from a recipe, but most importantly out of adaptation. Great saltiness, bite, drive and instruction. Drink 2018-2024.  Tasted September 2018

Rall Wines Chenin Blanc AVA 2017, Swartland, South Africa (Winery, WineAlign)

AVA is named after Donovan’s daughter. From an adjuvant site close to Riebeek-Kasteel off of 20 year-old vines that deliver great concentration by the impetus of decomposed shale, schist and quartz. There are two unique vineyards with rocks galore in the soil. Richly textured and so layered. The concentration delivered is ridiculous. It’s somehow stretched elastic and makes for this viscous, saline, briny and beautiful wine. Malo was done in a week, the pH low and then, nine months of beautiful fluidity and suppleness. While not exactly dry, the minor tough of sugar will help it go petrol, glück and oily over time. Drink 2019-2028.  Tasted September 2018

Rall Wines Cinsault 2017, WO Coastal Region, South Africa (Winery, WineAlign)

From two vineyards, one in Swartland and one in Darling. A direct, lithe and purposed red looking for freshness and the Darling light transparency this varietal storm has created. Really pure berry fruit. Delightful, chalky, traversing the new South African ethos into a realm occupied by the ethereal. Drink 2019-2024. Tasted September 2018

Rall Wines Red 2016, Swartland, South Africa (Winery, WineAlign)

Four poster blend, Rhône-related, deeply rendered with great transparency but also major tannins. The syrah is 18 months in barrels, the cinsault and carignan are 15 per cent 2017 vintage, allowed under Swartland regulations. They bring back freshness and nervousness into the wine. It helps to manage that tannin and injects some life and spirit into their grainy weight. The red fruit also balances the purple profile of the syrah. Good glycerin and length. Drink 2019-2025.  Tasted September 2018

Rall Wines AVA 2016, Swartland, South Africa (Winery, WineAlign)

The red blend carrying his daughter’s name is Donovan Rall’s 2.5 hectares sourcing from the schistose section of 18 year-old planted vines. This is consistent with with many of the vineyards he works with, from dry land conditions, cause he’s the Schist Man. It’s varietal syrah of 1000 bottles, a true cimmerian beast, from struggling vines, between 50-60 whole bunch (as opposed to 100 in the RED). Pure ferric initiative, real hematic following. The glycerin, candied flower and aged balsamico is almost IGT, of Cortona but really more so in a mind’s eye memory of Cornas. Freshness is preserved and structure is infinite. Great, great acidity. One of the Cape’s greatest achievements in syrah. Drink 2020-2032.  Tasted September 2018

Donovan Rall

Good to go!

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Shades of South Africa

From left to right: Vinum Africa Chenin Blanc 2012, Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc 2013, De Morgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011, Boschendal 1685 Shiraz/Mourvèdre 2013, Graham Beck The Game Reserve Shiraz 2012 and Kanonkop Pinotage 2012

From left to right: Vinum Africa Chenin Blanc 2012, Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc 2013, De Morgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011, Boschendal 1685 Shiraz/Mourvèdre 2013, Graham Beck The Game Reserve Shiraz 2012 and Kanonkop Pinotage 2012

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.

Lunch at Montecito

Lunch at Montecito

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.

Winegrowing regions of South Africa

Winegrowing regions of South Africa

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.

Montecito

Montecito

Whites Flight

Villiera Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Stellenbosch-Elgin, Western Cape, South Africa (Agent, $17.95, WineAlign)

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  @AbconWine

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  @Noble_Estates

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  @KFwines  @Noble_Estates

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  @DeMorgenzonWine  @TandemSelection

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  @GlenellyWines  @HHDImports_Wine

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc

Bordeaux Cultivars

Raats Family Cabernet Franc 2010, Stellenbosch, South Africa (Agent, $39.95, WineAlign)

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  @RaatsWines  @TandemSelection

Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Wo Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, South Africa (403964, $48.00, WineAlign)

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  @KanonkopEstate  @Noble_Estates

Constantia Glen Three Cape Peninsula 2010, Constantia Valley, South Africa (Agent, $21.95, WineAlign)

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   @ConstantiaGlen  @TandemSelection  @constantia1685

Hartenberg Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Stellenbosch, South Africa (Agent, $35.00, WineAlign)

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  @hobbsandco

Villiera Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Stellenbosch, South Africa (Agent, $18.95, WineAlign)

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

Rhône/Blend/Indigenous

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  @BoschendalWines  @LiffordON

Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2011, Wellington, South Africa (Agent, $69.95, WineAlign)

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  @TandemSelection  @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  @GrahamBeckWines  @VinexxCanada

Kanonkop Pinotage 2012, Wo Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, South Africa (Agent, $44.95, WineAlign)

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  @KanonkopEstate  @Noble_Estates

Bouchard Finlayson Hannibal 2012, Hemel-En-Aarde, Walker Bay, South Africa (Agent, $47.99, WineAlign)

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  @BouchFinlayson  @LiffordON

Good to go!

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