Back to the Future

The oldest Cape wine region is also the newest

The Cape wine industry turns 350 years old this year. While the first vines were planted in what are today known as the Company Gardens, the first commercial plantings were further down the peninsula, around Wynberg (Wine Mountain) and on Van der Stel’s farm, Groot Constantia, which was proclaimed in 1685. Later, in the hands of Hendrik Cloete (from 1778), Groot Constantia became world famous for its natural sweet-style wine made from Muscat grapes. This wine, made from very ripe, but not botrytised grapes, is now replicated in the Vin de Constance of Klein Constantia and Groot Constantia’s Grand Constance.
Today, Constantia symbolises both Cape wine’s history – and its future. Those early farmers knew what they were doing. Choosing gently-sloping land with good soils and a view of the ocean, the cool sea-breezes mitigated the heat of summer and helped them make balanced wines. Another influential factor has always been the Constantiaberg itself, which casts long shadows over the vineyards in the afternoons, as the sun sets on the other side of the mountain. By the late 20th century, Constantia’s reputation was built on its white wines, as many of the newer clones of the red varieties need more sunlight to ripen ideally.
The local wine industry has changed in a number of important ways since our re-admission to global markets. Technologies are better, clones are improving, and wine-makers travel to make wine and learn from international peers. At home, there is a spirit of discovery – and no more crucial than the establishment of new areas for the planting of vines. Previously farmers mainly worked in the traditional areas of Constantia, Stellenbosch and Paarl and on the flatlands or gentle slopes where it was easiest; now new regions are being farmed – and the vineyards are climbing higher.
The winery Constantia Glen is a great example of the new in the old. Here the vines are planted high on the Constantiaberg slopes, just before the spill over onto the Hout Bay side. The height and access to a few more aspects allow some of Constantia Glen’s vineyards a couple of hours more late afternoon sun – perfect for the ripening of red varieties. So whereas the white to red ratio down the valley is dominated by white; here red is king. Altitude has other benefits like different soil profiles – they are often more rocky (compared to the finer weathered soils down slope). These stonier soils undoubtedly give the wines a different dimension.
350 years on, and Cape wine is still evolving. For all our successes, it’s worth reminding ourselves that three and a half centuries is not a long time in the world of wine. Even constant Constantia is changing.


The Original Icon – Klein Constantia Vin de Constance
Made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes which have not been botrytised, this is a powerful wine of undeniable sweetness but also rich in complexity. They age famously: bottles from the late 18th century can still be enjoyed! First made during the long reign of the Cloete family, the wine became famous in Europe but then disappeared towards the end of the 19th century when the Cape wine industry was crippled by the phylloxera louse. The current owners of Klein Constantia, the Joostes, re-introduced it in 1986.
The New Icon-in-Waiting – Constantia Glen 2007 Bordeaux Blend
Since their first bottling of Sauvignon Blanc in 2005, the property’s wine has caught world-wide attention, winning numerous awards. But with 80% of the farm planted to red varieties, it is this red blend that will now become Constantia Glen’s calling card. This is a wine of excellent balance and fantastic elegance, made by Karl Lambour in consultation with Bordeaux’s Dominique Hébrard of Cheval Blanc fame. If you thought fine red wine starts clumsy and tannic, you will be stunned by the feather-soft tannins of this still-young wine. Certainly a label to watch closely.

Golfing wine

Of all the sportsmen that seem to love buying wine farms or making wine, none seem keener than golfers. Historically, rugby players were the sportsmen you could count on to be involved in this business, and this is still the case, but of late golfers have made a serious effort to lead the category (which probably says more about earnings in golf than anything else).

Of our local star golfers engaged in this 19th hole activity, we can list Ernie Els, David Frost, Retief Goosen and recently Gary Player. Cleary, these men don’t spend much time picking grapes, hauling pipes or rolling barrels. What they do is to find experts to collaborate with, to make the wine for them. These wines, with the famous name imprimatur, sell pretty well (and have captive markets in clubhouses).

Interestingly, all the wines made under the names of these golfers are red wines. I can only imagine this is because the bywords here are luxury and premium. The first of these wines I encountered was the Ernie Els, made by the team behind the Rust en Vrede and Guardian Peak wines. It’s been made since 2000, so now has something of a track record. This wine is rich and modern, but always made from the traditional Bordeaux varieties so that it retains a classical style. You can count on it to impress.
For some reason, I have only recently tried the David Frost, from his own farm in the Voor Paardeberg. A former Rust en Vrede winemaker is in charge of the wine making, interestingly, and of the four red wines in the range, I most enjoyed the “Par Excellence,” despite its name. It’s also made from the five Bordeaux stalwart varieties and is bold in style and tends towards the over-ripe. The other wines, single variety Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, took this too far and were far too big and alcoholic for my taste.

Recently, the Gary Player “Muirfield 1959” 2003 was released, made by the Quoin Rock winery. This is the most probing wine of the lot, since it’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinotage. It’s very rich, both on the nose and palate, where it is remarkably dense – and has an intriguing savoury dimension. Certainly a masculine wine, it continues to roll powerfully over your tongue, perhaps too forcefully, but I have great confidence in the Quoin Rock team so will be intrigued to track its development. Only nine future vintages are planned (to commemorate his nine Majors).

Delaire

It’s a bit of a “watch this space” – the re-launch of wine estate Delaire – but I was reminded of the winery again because SABC3 are rebroadcasting their mini-series on the life of mining legend Barney Barnato. Diamonds have been the vector in a number of rags-to-riches life stories (as they have unfortunately caused worlds of pain) and the more notable the diamond, the bigger the story. The new owner of Delaire, Laurence Graff, is known as the King of Diamonds, so this is one big story.
Graff began as a teenage apprentice in a London diamond workshop and wheeled and dealed his way to the top. He now sells rocks to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and David and Victoria Beckham, along with your usual Saudi prince or two, who buy them like candy. Much of his business is done on private yachts and cities like Monte Carlo and Cannes. He’s the kind of guy that understands the world that James Bond inhabits.

So when he bought this piece of Helshoogte real estate, you knew there would be action and that the action would be worth a look. It’s a corner of the Cape with some pedigree. Thelema and Tokara are immediate neighbours, and Zorgvliet is another rich man’s plaything with a state-of-the-art cellar. Today there’s a lot going on at Delaire, from a total revamp of the cellar and vineyards to the building of a luxury hotel and restaurant. It’s a building site at the moment, but there are no flies on this project. Chris Kelly has been appointed as winemaker, and he’s been told in no uncertain terms that his goal is to make a wine that ranks among the world’s best. Kelly has settled on a very ambitious time-frame of ten years to achieve this.

One expects the new Delaire range to be frightfully expensive. Kelly, who was one of the first Cape winemakers to explore the idea of the flagship white blend with the Kumkani VVS (Viognier, Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc) will be heartened by the range of whites he has on the farm – and the prices that flagship white wines are being put into the market at these days. For example, Steenberg have just launched their Magna Carta at R395. Steenberg is backed by the deep pockets of mining magnate Graham Beck, so taking these risks with the market is mitigated. Delaire will be in much the same position to make a few statements, and word has it Graff is not shy to make a few.

Wine training and Project Laduma

Blessed with wonderful (and wonderfully visitor-friendly) wine regions, the Cape is a fabulous proposition for wine lovers. Our setting can’t be beaten, and as our wines improve in quality there are very few wine regions in the world that can compete on our total package, with the good value of our wines being a certain trump card.

Yet, the one place outside the wineries where our wines could be introduced and enjoyed by locals and visitors – but has historically been neglected or treated very carelessly – is the South African restaurant. I have written before about the ruthless mark-ups imposed on wine by restaurants. These margins come with precious little value added to the bottle. All we can do about over-priced lists is vote with our feet, or complain. 300 percent mark-ups still amaze me, since friendlier wine prices always result in higher turn-around and happier customers.

On another front, restaurants have generally not invested in the training of wait-staff in the nuances and details of the wine that they are serving. Again, it seems a no-brainer: you will certainly sell more if the waiter charmingly explains a wine you may not be familiar with. However, in a competitive industry, where part-time staff come and go, the restaurateur’s argument is that this may well be time and money wasted.

Wines of South Africa, the non-profit international marketing arm of the industry, have come up with an ingenious solution. Spurred by 2010, and to enhance the foreign visitor experience (but with the clear spin-off of making our experience better too), they have launched Project Laduma – the training of 2010 restaurant wine stewards by 2010.

It’s certainly ambitious, but what a great idea. Half of this number represents waiters and waitresses already in the industry and the other half will be a fresh crop drawn from the currently unemployed. Project Laduma is being launched this weekend and you can contribute by buying the Project Laduma wine.

The Laduma wine range has been selected through a blind tasting by the Cape Wine Makers’ Guild and will be sold in restaurants and retail outlets across the country for a limited period at approximately R120 (retail) and R150 in restaurants. Proceeds of all the wine sales will contribute toward the SETA accredited training programme. A total of 17 500 cases will be available for sale, with the hope of raising R4, 5 million for Project Laduma.

Old reds

The winery at Chamonix has a new restaurant, run by a French couple who used to have Mon Plaisir at the bottom of the Hartenberg Road. The new place is also called Mon Plaisir, and all pleasures are heightened by their list of French wines which augments the small list of Chamonix wines. In recent years, the Chamonix wines have really improved, led by their Pinot noir and Chardonnay reserve wines.
On a boeuf Bourguignon day a pinot was calling and the winery list featured the 2007 Chamonix Reserve Pinot Noir at R160. The French wine list featured a “village” Burgundy at R220. (Broadly, “village” is a term that refers to the basic level of Burgundy quality, before you get the “crus” where the individual vineyard is specified). Not that French wine is always better (though French pinot is usually truer to itself than our oaky versions), it is always interesting to taste, so we asked for the “village”.

The bottle that arrived was vintage 2001. Faced with the choice of drinking a fresh 2007 vintage red or a 2001, I will always choose the older. A red wine needs a few years to settle. Tannins knit, polymers join up, acids integrate. Some secondary flavours, called “bottle age,” often develop which add to the complexity of the drink. Besides all that, here in the Cape we so often drink only the young stuff that it is a treat to get older wine to drink.

Wasn’t always like this of course. When cellar maturation was the norm, reds were designed to age – they were pretty tough to drink before a few years had elapsed. Today, the approach to wine-making and style of wine has swung 180 degrees. Reds are built to drink now. Both for rapid commercial turn-over and because the perception is that the market does not like tannin, it likes easy-drinking.
Hence, nowadays, many of our red wines do not age (in the sense of continuing to improve) for much over five years. These wines are less tannic, softer and more approachable in youth, and the corollary is that they do not mature and improve for long. In the old style of wine-making (still practised in many parts of Europe), a red wine is hard and unapproachable in its youth, tannic and leathery. After five years it’s beginning to be drinkable, but it’s only soft and smooth after 10.

“Modern” wines are “pre-integrated” through riper fruit and soft handling and age is often not a prerequisite to further pleasure. The flip is that they will not go the same distance. In many ways, the red that really needs a decade to reach optimal drinking is now a relic of another era. This column salutes the 1975 Zonnebloem Shiraz. A month ago, still a wine to enjoy.

Perdeberg

The Perdeberg lies between Wellington and Riebeeck Kasteel, named after the zebras that used to roam here. Many of the vineyards are now of great age (in the Cape that’s 50+ years) because the small mixed agriculture farmers planted white varieties for distillation rebates and it so happened that these farmers never pulled these old vines out – while the rest of the Cape’s vineyards were rapidly replanted in the commercialisation that began in the 1990s. The combination of rare old vine stock and the Perdeberg’s naturally granitic soils has resulted in an area of undeniable excitement for a new wave of winemakers.

Leading the new wave with confident energy and now world-famous wines is Eben Sadie, who makes his Palladius white blend solely from Perdeberg grapes. A good portion of his red blend, Columella (the 2005 was the highest rated South Africa wine ever in US Wine Spectator magazine), also comes from these slopes. For Sadie, a good wine is assessed by its structure, not its obvious fruit. The Perdeberg vines, with their age, give him this structure in spades, and their granitic composition preserves the natural acidity of the grape – and natural acidity is far superior to added acidity for a wine’s balance.
The Palladius 2006 comes across as a beguilingly soft wine, but its lingering persistence and mineral heart give you an idea of what role provenance can play in making individualistic wine. It’s a solid wine without being at all hard, and its consistency in the palate is fantastic. Difficult to find, expect to pay around R349 in fine wine shops. If Palladius is unavailable, get hold of some of his Sequillo 2006 white (R165). Again a white blend from the same soils, this time lower on the slopes, the result is a more accessible style of wine.

Other wines to seek out are the Lammershoek Roulette 2005, a blend of Shiraz, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier that packs a sophisticated punch and the Black Rock White 2006. The latter is made from old vines; it’s an intense blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and a little Viognier. On the reds, the Scali Syrah 2005 is herbal and lithe and even though it carries the structure of the area, this wine proves that Shiraz does not have to be fruit soup. Vondeling Baldrick Shiraz 2007 is a lightly wooded wine with an exuberantly spicy palate that’s fresh and delicious. If famous brands are your game, the David Frost Par Excellence 2003 is a modern wine of great intensity, still very much in its youth. Contact (021) 869 8655 or visit www.voorpaardeberg.co.za for more on these wines.

Do our reds age?

No theme to this column today, but a wandering through some of the wine experiences I’ve recently had. Always been a fan of Solms Delta for their idiosyncratic approach (you may recall the vine-dried or “desiccated” wines they make) and the fact that they have a fantastic on-site museum that explains the human side of our wine heritage. Now they are establishing a museum of music, a collaborative project with Richard Astor, whose farm is next door.

They’ve also started a harvest festival in the roots sense, where music and merriment replace commerce, uptight music and desultory picnic baskets. At the first one, the new Solms-Astor wines were launched. There’s a white blend, a red blend and a curious pétillant Shiraz. The blends are great table wines, easy-drinking but not simple, and lovely for the fact that they are dry wines without residual sweetness. They also have great names, the white called Vastrap, the red Langarm, and the 2007 vintages sell for R46 each. And if you are generally bored with clichéd back label blurb, check these out.

Another wine that makes good, lively drinking without being OTT is the Elgin Vintners Shiraz 2006. It’s got good spice notes, lots of fruit but also a tangy quality that refreshes. Only problem for me is the R78 price tag, I think this is more of a R60 wine.

Been launching into some older wines recently, opened the 2001 Delheim Vera Cruz Shiraz alongside their 2001 Grand Reserve. 2001 was a good vintage, and seven years should show these wines in a great light. This was true for the delicious Grand Reserve which has integrated beautifully and is really a polished wine – but less for the Vera Cruz which is tired and somewhat flabby. It’s still my opinion that the modern Cape makes Cabernets and Cab blends that age well, but have not yet cracked the code on Shiraz.

Of course, I say modern Cape because we now make wines that are easier to drink in their youth, and are less likely to age as well as the Cape reds made in the 1970s and 1980s. When you taste a 1974 Fairview Pinotage that’s still a lively, delightful wine today, you really appreciate this. In its youth, I heard from current winemaker Anthony de Jager, it was an austere, rather forbidding wine, with firm tannins. When last have you tasted a Cape wine that sounds at all like this today?

So I said no theme, but I have come back to a recurring feeling I have that our modern reds, for all the back label promises, are ill-equipped to mature (in the sense of improving) for longer than six to eight years. Whether this is actually a bad thing is debatable.

Burgundy

The other day I was invited by a wine import company called Great Domaines to a tasting of the Burgundies of Jean-Marie Fourrier, a fourth generation wine-maker from this favourite wine region of mine. Mr Fourrier is an engaging man, with lovely wines to boot, but since the 2005 vintages that we tasted are completely unavailable to purchase from Great Domaines (you could aim for the acclaimed 2006 vintage if you contact www.greatdomaines.co.za), I won’t bother to write about them.

Fourrier is returning to his roots. For a region that is already pretty fixed on tradition, this is something. He grows his vines without the use of any chemical fertilisers, and never uses vine stock treated for disease resistance or high yield. It’s about respect for the natural order. He waits until a vine is 30 years old before he uses its grapes to make Domaine Fourrier wine, until then he considers them immature. Aside from the fact that plant virus wrecks many of our vines within 20 years, our growers also have little tolerance for a plant with the small yields of an older vine. For most of them, it’s about quantity more than quality.

Fourrier then makes his wines using as little new wood as possible – no more than 20%. He has a number of reasons for this. In terms of wine quality, he states that “oak is for the slow breathing of the wine, not for taste.” He is after fruit purity, not barrel flavour. Again, consider the local model. Almost every producer chasing high quality “treats” the wine to 80-100% new wood. “Treats” means both an indulgence and a treatment, for the powerful flavour that oak imparts is one that we, the consumer, now think is the taste of fine wine.

But consider the other meaning of “treat”. New French oak, or any oak, is a dwindling global commodity. To use new oak, the prime staves from an old, slow-growing tree, primarily to flavour a wine, and then next year to ship another few hundred new ones in, for their flavour, is supremely wasteful – even arrogant. As supply dwindles, the luxury will dissolve anyway, so expect the oak flavour you are accustomed to to soon come from flavourants.

Fourrier also has a great deal to say about cork. For a Frenchman, he is unusually critical. Though he does love their place in wine tradition, their failure rate has led him to revert to the old practise of sealing all his bottles with wax. 50,000 bottles are all hand sealed. Wax is the perfect substance to prevent the exchange of gas, and the subsequent oxidation of the wine, that a poor cork allows. Cork, too, is a natural product under threat from commercial expansion. Did you know that men with guns patrol prime forests to prevent theft of bark?

Changing the world

I like the way Michael Pollan writes. He brings it back home. The recent New York Times Magazine carries this piece by him, it discusses what individuals can do to help our mother earth along.

Meerlust Rubicon

Meerlust recently released the 2004 Rubicon – the 25th vintage of this famous Cape wine. The first vintage to see the market was the 1980, making it one of the first “Bordeaux blends” from the Cape. Today, winemaker Chris Williams is less inclined to call it a Bordeaux blend, preferring the idea of a flagship Meerlust wine made with Bordeaux grape varieties.

The distinction is one of philosophy. Williams, an articulate and thoughtful wine-maker, wants to capture the soul of the Meerlust property in the wines, not follow a template that has been set in Bordeaux. Therefore, to take these grapes, native to Bordeaux, and to make a wine that tastes rather of this corner of the Cape than of that corner of France.

Tasting back over older vintages of Rubicon, it is clear that the philosophy in the past was to mimic the French model quite closely. Vintages 1986, 1991 and 1994 all show a lean and tannic character, with rather strappy acidity. But from 1998 onwards, the wine first becomes more “new world” – riper and richer and more handsomely wooded – and then gradually more refined until we reach the elegant 2004.
Williams says that his marketers rein him when he starts talking about soil. Before eyes glaze over, he relates how Meerlust has ten soil types and, within this, 50 different forms. This diversity is the puzzle that the winemaking team have to unravel in order to create wines that are both excellent and unique to this property.

If this sounds like a daunting task, it is, and Williams is the first to be humbled by the immensity of the challenge – one that is unlikely to be completed in his lifetime. Fortunately he is working with a family, the Myburghs, that understand the meaning of long term – they have been farming here (and making wine) since 1756; which is beginning to look like a term that can compare to Bordeaux!

Talk also turned to the price of the recent release. At R230 there is ample evidence that this is a very fair price, probably even a good price. Take the heritage factor of this property. If ever there was a farm and a wine that suggests iconic status, this is it. With so many Johnnie-come-lately producers charging more than R500 per bottle, you have to respect a more “honest” price. If you don’t really buy into that stuff, consider that the farm only releases Rubicon after four years of maturation (as opposed to most others at two years) and that the wine from this point on has a proven track record of maturation potential. Your R230 spent now will look trifling in ten years. And we all know that’s guaranteed.