South Africa: Brave New World (Part 2)

South Africa: Brave New World (Part 2)

Wednesday 10th April 2019
by Mark Dearing

Ten years ago, there were just four single-varietal Cinsaults on the market. Eben Sadie’s Pofadder, from schist soils around Riebeeck Casteel, was the most famous then, and probably still is now. 

However, today there are at least forty straight Cinsaults on the market and based on what I tasted, this feels like a sensible development. Not only is Cinsault accustomed to hot weather and dry conditions, it is a high yielding variety and regarded now as one of the main reasons why the Cape red blends of the mid-twentieth century have aged better than their modern Bordeaux-style counterparts. When delicately handled, Cinsault can be red fruit forward, spicy and succulent, with an authenticity built on tannin rather than acidity. While some examples, such as “Pofadder” manage to straddle complexity and depth with dancing aroma, most are best when produced in a primary, light and fruity style where the natural tannic grip stops short of astringency. A renewed focus on Cinsault in general means that the vineyards are generally either very young or very old (and thus increasingly hard to come by) as the unpopularity of Cinsault in the latter part of the twentieth century meant that new plantings ground to a halt. My preferred examples were Duncan Savage’s silky Follow the Line 2017 from alluvial soils around Darling and Blank Bottle’s My Koffer 2017, produced in homage to Tassenberg – a cheap Cinsault they drank lots of as students. The name My Koffer translates as “my suitcase” and represents the memories of the good-old-days stored within. From a vineyard in the Breedekloof, just outside Paarl, in a region dominated by co-operatives, this Cinsault is a wilder strawberry, herbal-spicy affair. Donovan Rall’s as yet unreleased 2018 from a vineyard on the border between Swartland and Darling is an incredibly satisfying juicy example aged for just 6-7 months in a combination of concrete and barrel.

Particularly in the Swartland, Grenache is the darling grape of the moment, and the poised, tensile red fruit and heady feminine aromas, when harvested at the right time and extracted gently, belie the extreme drought and heat of recent years. The best Grenaches seem to find a natural balance and deftness of touch more akin to the shimmering mountain-Garnachas of Spain than the heavier wines of the Rhone Valley. David & Nadia’s 2018 is set to be a beauty; cut in a slightly deeper and more structured mould than the previous two vintages – the combination of naturally low yields and the lasting impact of the drought, it is nevertheless a wine of flowing purity. Momento’s Grenache 2016 is another particularly fine expression, like David Sadie’s it hails in the majority from the decomposed granite soils of the Paardeberg mountain in the Swartland. Granite and Grenache are happy bedfellows; the soil and high mineral composition imbuing the wines with pure, restrained fruit and fine boned, almost powdery tannins. Increasingly, we’ll see Grenache setting the agenda when it comes to the top red wines, I hope.

A growing number of Tinta Barocca and Touriga Nacional bottlings appear very promising, cut with a rustic, moreish charm. Adi Badenhorst, Jasper Wickens and Marelise Niemann are making some very exciting wines from these varieties, and the Swartland is again the canvas on which they experiment. Syrah in general proves a little more variable but is truly excellent in places. Columella aside, Chris & Andrea Mullineux have arguably been Syrah’s most prominent exponents in recent years, at least in the export markets, and they now sit in the top handful of producers in South Africa. On the same Kasteelberg ridge in the Swartland, where the soils are schist rather than granite dominated, the old vines of the Porseleinberg turn out some of the most distinctively ferrous, spicy, almost bloody Syrahs I’ve tasted – wines that are built to age, while the younger plantings are now providing all the Syrah fruit for Boekenhoutskloof’s Chocolate Block – one of country’s best known premium wine brands. That too is moving in to a more delicate and restrained style and is very impressive for a wine that is still produced in large quantities (2,057 barrels!). In Stellenbosch I was particularly struck by the high-acid, high-altitude translucent single vineyard Syrahs from Keermont; both the Topside, from granitic sandstone, and the Steepside from the red clay soils of the Heldeberg mountain are stellar examples, and the 2015s in particular are the best I tasted. A very honourable mention must go to Terracura for their purple-violet scented 2016 Syrah (and delicious 2017 white) again from schist Riebeeck Casteel soils in the Swartland.

Pinotage is benefitting from a culture of gentler winemaking, and, if not quite “back” from an international perspective, there is nevertheless a concerted effort to produce more elegant and drinkable wines than in days gone by. I personally fail to find compelling enough reason or complexity in the great majority of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based blends to speak with any excitement, conscious as I am that this broad generalisation writes-off great swathes of the traditional South African wine heartlands. Boekenhoutskloof’s Franschoek Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 is a very fine, noteworthy exception as is Restless River’s Main Road & Dignity in the Hemel-en-Aarde – again the 2015 vintage here providing one of the standout wines of the trip. Regretfully, with a handful of examples aside, a la Kershaw, Restless River and Ataraxia, I feel similarly about Chardonnay. While on the one hand there are good, if in my opinion not truly great Chardonnays to be found across the Cape, on the other, the steady warm temperatures and recent droughts mean that Chardonnay grapes have tended to accumulate plenty of sugar and thus potential alcohol to a level whereby natural acidity is quite low. Commercial style acidified Chardonnays are in my mind pretty boring and one-dimensional, while, conversely, picking early to capture acidity or countering the drought via irrigation also runs the risk of producing relatively neutral wines – a tricky business indeed. Pinot Noir in the Hemel-en-Aarde has gone from strength to strength and small producers like Storm Wines are producing wonderful small-scale single vineyard wines, thanks in part to the region’s generally more temperate climate and higher average rainfall (double the Swartland) and learnings from winemaking abroad.

Lukas Van Loggerenberg is the flagbearer for Loire-inspired Cabernet Franc in Stellenbosch and his was the best single-varietal I encountered, although, in a different shape, there is enormous pleasure to be had from the wines across the range at Gabrielskloof in Bot River now that they are being made under the direction of Peter-Allan Finlayson, himself a very accomplished Pinot Noir producer with his own project Crystallum Wines.

Despite the spread of excellent reds available, I do feel that the white wines in South Africa still have the edge, led by Chenin Blanc and the Cape white blends that have done so much to reinvent the country’s reputation. Never have I tasted such a breadth of serious, yet joyful wines, with structures that range from the austere to the caressing interlace of rich fruit and spice, threaded with a subtle, almost whispering acidity. Old vine Chenin is a hardy beast and yet it has the potential to turn out some world-beating whites – they are rightly South Africa’s flagship wines. The best Chenins I encountered came courtesy of David & Nadia’s 2018 single vineyards (more on those in due course), Donovan Rall Ava 2018, Swerwer Chenin 2017, Chris Alheit Huilkrans 2017, Lukas Van Loggerenberg Kamaraderie 2017 and 2018 and Terracura 2017.

Verdelho, Palomino, Semillon, Roussanne, Marsanne, Carignan are helpful blending varieties, rarely bottled alone. Thorne & Daughters’ exceptional, softer style of Semillon and Semillon Gris, to my mind, offer genuine interest and complexity in the 2017 vintage. Meanwhile, Sauvignon Blanc continues to be the most popular white wine domestically. Sadly, it is largely insipid and produced on an industrial scale, or indeed burly and overly pungent, which is probably true of Sauvignon Blanc all over the world. Constantia’s prevailing winds, markedly cooler temperatures and higher rainfall though provide the right conditions for taut, restrained Sauvignon Blanc of real concentration and character, appealing to anyone wanting clear, delicious, refreshing wines. Klein Constantia, with the affable Matt Day at the helm, are producing seriously enticing, downright lip-smacking Sauvignon Blancs, and as they delve in to single-block expressions and more precise winemaking technology there is clearly lots of exciting stuff to come. Vin de Constance remains an iconic wine that every wine lover should have a case of in their cellar.


Upcoming Vintages:

2018 – Generalisations. The last of the drought vintages, 2018 was a tough vintage resulting in a very small crop of concentrated, small berries, requiring good winemakers to adapt in order to maintain the best balance and as much freshness in the wines as possible. For Mediterranean red varieties this tended to mean a slightly higher proportion of whole bunch fermentation, but not always, and, commonly, shorter time in contact with the skins so as to keep the tannins soft and supple. For Bordeaux varieties, fermentations and aging have seen a movement toward larger format and more neutral wood, combined with concrete as a way to pare back the wines a little. Extractions needed to be as gentle as possible. In the case of the whites, particularly dry-farmed Chenin, harvest dates were often brought forward to save the fruit and keep acidity. The composition of white blends was adapted in many places, both because of access of fruit but also in favour of varieties with naturally in-built acidity for example Verdelho and Roussanne in place of Viognier and Chardonnay. Allowing certain varieties to spend time in contact with the skins is another way that producers tried to build structure/freshness without recourse to acidification. In dry years such as 2018 the levels of potassium in the wines increases, which binds to acidity and lowers the total, dropping again post-malolactic fermentation, which almost all Chenin producers allow so as to naturally stabilise the wine. In certain instances acidification was necessary in order to save the wine. 

2019 – Generalisations. Rain finally arrived in the late winter of 2018 and although the total water level was higher than the past three years, the winter itself was shorter and a little warmer than they would have liked. Uneven flowering because of rain, especially wind, and heat spikes meant uneven budding and reduced yields from the outset. However, the water reserve meant denser canopies providing welcome shade to the grapes and eventually low pHs. Sugar levels at the time of harvest were lower than average but with good phenolic ripeness, pointing to moderate alcohols and citrus/mineral driven fruit in the Chenins. Skin contact with the reds will be adapted depending on acidities and profile after malo. Although not a drought vintage the bigger canopies meant even and quick ripening, and a hot January accelerated things. It is generally considered another reasonably early harvest. Reports from producers in Stellenbosch and parts of the Swartland suggest that cooler, windier nights than average allowed the grapes to relax, accounting for the moderate sugar levels and good acidities even in the traditionally hotter, drier regions of South Africa. Lots to look forward to!    




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