Best wines of the S Africa trip

In the course of fifteen days in the Western Cape, more than half of them on a formal visit organised by Wines of South Africa, I think I received a pretty good snapshot of the current state of the wine lands. As elsewhere in the world, the emphasis was on fruit freshness, balancing acidity and reining in the oak. Nobody offered me so much as a sniff of the old-fashioned Coffee Pinotage and the specialist wine shop I asked said that they had sold their last bottle … Of course, trying to choose the best of the best is where the invidious meets the impossible, but here goes: 

Méthode Cap Classique 

MCC is South Africa’s take on bottle-fermented sparkling wine. It is a very good and worthwhile drink but rarely really outstanding by world standards.  My guess is the best Chardonnay and Pinot goes into still wine, certainly in the coolest areas. But Graham Beck, Cuvée Clive 2009 would give much Franciacorta a run for its money – very fine, not at all grippy, subtle lemon and green apple fruit, toast and brioche, very good length.  

Unoaked whites

Not for its grandeur but as an example of what the Cape can do at a £12 price level I am going to nominate Raats, Original Chenin Blanc, 2017, 13.5%.  A pretty low yield (about eight tons per hectare) accounts for the concentration of crisp green apple to pineapple fruit. The wine has a thrilling acidity, is lean and tight, and really refreshing. Yes, please I will have another glass. Or for just £8 a bottle you could drink Spier, Chenin, 2017, rather higher yield but still has lots of character and is great value. 

Oaked whites 

Now we are really in trouble!  South Africa’s oaked white wines are many and various and there are many, many really outstanding wines. Chenin, Chenin blends (often with white Rhône varieties), Bordeaux blends, Chardonnay, Rhône blends, Muscat and more.  Delaire Graff makes a magnificent Chardonnay from a really high site, Terraced Block Reserve 2015, on their luxury estate just outside Stellenbosch.  Olifantsberg Blanc, Breedekloof 2016, 14% is an excellent Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Chenin and Chardonnay blend with floral, peach and spice notes. It also turned out to be one of the pairing wines at the highly-rated La Petite Colombe restaurant in Franschhoek.  Steenberg, Magna Carta 2016, is a text-book Sauvignon Blanc (60%)/Semillon (40%) blend from their oldest and best sites and I would love to taste it alongside Cape Point Vineyards Bordeaux blend, Isliedh 2015 (rather more Sauvignon in this version). 

But the pick has to be an oaked Chenin or Chenin blend, partly because this is the Cape signature white and partly for sheer quality reasons.  Mullineux offers soil-specific bottlings of Chenin and I loved the linearity and tautness of their Granite Chenin Blanc 2016 with intense lime/lemon and peach fruit. Perhaps the most impressive of all was a new project at Raats for a tiny bottling of Eden High Density Chenin 2015. It was planted with the loose-bunched Montpellier clone, abandoned in recent decades because of low yields but now re-introduced by Raats for a parsimonious two tons per hectare yield of this magnificently structured wine.  If you can’t get your hands on one of the 1,000-only bottles, you can get the idea from many old vine Chenins (Ken Forrester FMC, Raats Old Vine Chenin Blanc, Mullineaux Old Vines …). Oaked whites are probably the Cape’s strongest category today. 

(Nearly) unoaked reds

Youthful, lightly extracted Pinotages definitely should be considered here.  Lightly chilled they make an excellent summertime drink, as was shown by  Olifantsberg, Pinotage 2017 13%. There are also creditable big-volume bottlings at Beyerskloof 2017 (1.5m bottles, short extraction, a little oak flavour only from staves) and Riebeek Cellars. The latter has cracked the issue of slightly longer maceration on the skins for greater flavour intensity without any bitterness. The approach is to allow a heat spike at the beginning of fermentation and then reduce the temperature to 25ºC for very approachable red fruit and moderate tannins.

But the prize for fruit purity with sufficient substance without high tannins (to go with the spicy food so common here) has to go to old vine Cinsaut. This variety was much planted in the past, for volume and reliability, a sort of red Chenin. Fortunately, some survived when the Bordeaux reds became the fashionable thing.  I really enjoyed Waterkloof, Seriously Cool Cinsault 2016, served initially below 10ºC and then allowed to rise in temperature at Delaire Graf’s Indochine restaurant. Also brilliant was Kaapzicht Skuinsberg Cinsaut 2015.  

Oaked reds 

Rather like the oaked whites, oaked reds cover a big range of wines, principally, Cabernet and blends, Shiraz and Pinotage.  Cabernet Sauvignon is still the most planted red variety, Shiraz is growing rapidly, Pinotage is once again being planted. Pinot Noir, by comparison, is tiny but very high quality – there only so many genuinely cool sites in South Africa.  Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Tinta Barocca and other southern European varieties, including Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, all have their champions.  

However, two wines showed the ageing potential of traditional Cape reds. Christo Le Riche very kindly shared a bottle of Le Riche, Cape Wine Masters Guild Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch, 2005, 14.5%. The Guild is a club of top winemakers who reserve a unique lot of their very best wine, in this case, 20 cases, for a charity auction. The proceeds now go to create a three-year work experience bursary for the newly qualified black or coloured winemaker to give them the experience of three different estates, including one in Burgundy (good choice!).  The 2005 was drinking beautifully: the rim was beginning to open up while the colour remained deep; exquisite leather and undergrowth notes accompanied dark cassis fruit. After 12 years the wine has absorbed the 100% new French oak and had a velvet mid-palate and a long textured finish with fine, chalky tannins.  Neetlingshof, Pinotage, Stellenbosch, 2004 was also a testament to ageability with lovely still fresh fruit and fine tertiary development.  So, while all the buzz is now around sexy Syrahs from Swartland and fine Pinots from Hemel-en-Aarde and other south coast locations, the Cape’s traditional reds continue to shine.  

Sweet wines 

Ah the Cinderella of the wine world, sweet wines. I tasted very few examples of these but particularly enjoyed Mullineux Straw Wine 2017, 8%, an impressive effort with a staggering 380g/l residual sugar and a total acidity of nearly 12 g/l. This is the result of picking fruit from 35-year old vines at normal ripeness and then drying in the shade for 2-4 weeks (reduces the yield from 30hl/ha to 6hl/ha). Intense honey and green apple fruit, brilliant acidity, sweet and gorgeous.  

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