A week of wine in the Western Cape

Janet and I have spent an amazing, experience-packed week in South Africa’s Western Cape. The wine itinerary has been excellently organised by Wines of South Africa.   On some days we have already visited two estates by 10.30 in the morning. Other visits have been to bodies like the Chenin Blanc Association, the Stellenbosch University wine faculty and Vititech, the supplier of rootstocks, healthy vines and wide range of wine varieties to the industry.  It will take me weeks and months to digest all this knowledge and insight, but here are a few first impressions. The selection is a somewhat random in keeping with this helter skelter experience. 

South Africa is rightly proud of its Chenin Blanc

There have been so many very good to outstanding examples of Chenin to taste. It would be difficult to beat the Mullineux, Kloof Street Chenin Blanc 2017 13% as an everyday wine (£10 a bottle in bond from Berry Bros), while their Mullineux Old Vines, a Chenin Blend, is a magnificent wine. It is invidious to pick out one producer. Even in a week with many other things to taste there have been 20 top examples: depth of tropical fruit, stoniness and brilliant acidity is a great combination.   

Poverty and wealth 

For affluent tourists and those, like me, lucky enough to be treated with warmth and outstanding hospitality by the producers hosting this visit it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge South Africa’s current and historic struggles. In the preceding photo blog you can see the statue commemorating Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom.  But more than two decades later, many of his fellow country men and women are still living in townships which are unimaginable to the more fortunate of us. The picture below is a tiny and rather attractive example. 

One million people and rising live in the tin-shack townships in Cape Town under the beating sun. Around the corner (and of course not in view of one another) in Constantia and many other outer parts of the city are grand houses and estates set in the most fabulously beautiful landscape. I calculate that the cost of one night in a very good hotel here is roughly equivalent to the monthly wage for a normal South African worker. And that doesn’t take into account the 35% who are unemployed. We can all only hope that the political changes of the last few weeks will help this nation steer a better path and lead to a better life for the great majority of its people. 

Experimentation and renewal

The Swartland revolution in wine is well documented: brilliant, textured, Chenins and Rhone varieties from innovative growers.  But that is not the whole story by any means. Over the mountain in Breedekloof, Elizma Visser is making remarkable wines from close-planted single pole-trained Rhone varieties at Olifantsberg, definitely one to watch.  We have had enough of the debate about minerality and wine. The real question is how you can get this much personality, enthusiasm and commitment into your wines. 

In plush Constantia, Steenberg Farm, the oldest recorded farm in the Cape, founded 1662 ten years after the Dutch took control of the Cape, is bottling Nebbiolo.  Lammerschoek has a dry wine made from the old wine-student favourite, the minor blender in Tokaj, Hárslevelu.  The Cape is not just about Chenin, Bordeaux varietals, the now fashionable Rhône invasion and …

Pinotage 

It’s official: Pinotage has been tamed!  There is a good range of top wines being made, some in a  dense, ageable style (Kanonkop), some in a lighter styles from almost Beaujolais in a great year (Riebeek – clever use of temperature control and alternative oak) to medium reds. Also, needless to say in trendy Swartland, Huis de Chevalliere are making a easy-drinking sparkling wine from a hectare of virus-affected Pinotage (if you are going to pick early the virus is irrelevant).  Cheeky name too: Circa Rosecco NV.  If I want to taste an older-style Coffee Pinotage (copious amount of oak) I will have to go to the supermarket to buy my own! 

Drought

As you pass (slowly) through Cape Town airport you cannot fail to see the huge posters alerting you to the worst drought in living memory. Rainfall varies dramatically here due to the presence of mountains (200-1000mm) but everyone is down from their normal figures this year. But the real issue is that this is the third consecutive year of drought and poor winter rains. The farmers are down to the 50% of their normal water allocation. It was reported that in the volume area of Olifants River vines are literally dying as farmers have to chose which rows to irrigate. Reservoirs are are at the 20-35% level.The worst case scenario is that Cape Town will be the world’s first major developed city to run out of water in the next two months or so.  Pray for rain. Even the vine growers approaching harvest this year are saying that they would take rain now.  

Sparklers 

One of the highlights of this trip undoubtedly was the fantastic tasting put together by Pieter Ferreira, long time (just starting on his 28th vintage) chief winemaker at Graham Beck, sparkling wine specialists. We were at Graham Beck so the normal thing to do would be to show his own wines. Instead he assembled 35 wines across all the categories from many wineries – NV, Blanc de Blanc, vintage, prestige cuvée, Chenin, rosés, alternative varieties. Time being as always short we did taste 13 wines. Pieter is a trenchant critic of Chenin sparklers – for him they just don’t have the elegance of Chardonnay. But the wines which did shine were Delaire Graff Sunrise NV (Chenin with a healthy slug of Chardonnay, which may prove the point), the outlier umami-and-orange rind ultra-brut Sprankel, Babylonstoren NV and La Lude’s fine Reserve Rosé. Two great prestige cuvées accompanied food: Cuvée Clive 2009 from Graham Beck and Lourensford Cuvee 89 MCC Brut Zero 2007, the name celebrating the 89 months it spends on the lees.  There is a world to explore in top-end South African sparkling wine. 

And there is another week to go …

 

 

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