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Romancing The Vine: Riding The Big Red Wave

28 September 2017  -  Graham Howe

Over winter the media tasted vertical flights of flagship reds from top Stellenbosch producers, a journey which shows the evolution of modern styles of winemaking.

At a rare tasting of Vriesenhof wines at Auslese in mid-winter, cellar master Jan “Boland” Coetzee discussed his winemaking philosophy over a relaunch of his the new look wine labels. Tilting at windmills, the veteran winemaker criticised “the banal view of wine as a commodity in modern consumer society” - focusing on his own journey to explore the terroir of his Stellenbosch vineyards over four decades.

“Through wine we learn to understand the relationship between man and mother earth. By making changes, we learn to be brave,” declared Jan, “By focusing on a single label (the Paradyskloof range is now dropped), we aim to recapture the essence of Vriesenhof”. Over a vertical flight of signature Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache and the Bordeaux Kallista blend, winemaker Nicky Claasens demonstrated a style shift towards new clones and older barrels to express the purity of fruit of newer vines. I also enjoyed Vriesenhof’s sublime Grenache/Shiraz Mourvèdre 2016 blend.

“We planted seven clones of Cabernet Franc in a ten-year project to find the best plant,” explained Jan. “We were one of the first farms to make Grenache - but it has been planted at the Cape since 1729. Some call it the poor man’s Pinot - it’s very fashionable and fetches high grape prices. Romancing the vines, the label carries a charming quote from the poet EE Cummings, “And now you are and I am and we’re a mystery which will never happen again”. Piet Beyers commented, “Stellenbosch clearly makes the best Cabernet year after year. You’ve got to stand for something. Stellenbosch hasn’t driven a unique position. We need to reclaim our status.”

Staking Stellenbosch’s claim to Cabernet Sauvignon as the region’s hero variety, Klein Zalze hosted an unusual comparative tasting in winter - pairing older and newer vintages to leading examples from the old and new worlds. A brave blind tasting paired the flagship Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 2009 - 2013 to wines from Bordeaux (St Estephe), Australia (Vasse Felix, Margaret River) and Napa (Hess). “Where do we fit in the great Cabernet debate?” asks cellar master Alastair Rimmer, “We’re working ahead to shape the next generation of Cabernet”.

New plantings of virus-free Cabernet are taking Kleine Zalze on a journey to explore sub-sites of terroir while evolving a new style. Alistair explains, “We occupy a space somewhere between Napa and Bordeaux, the middle ground between the old and new world. We’ve got the diversity of ripe black and red fruit. You want the herbaceous varietal character - but without green or minty notes. Low ph is more important than alcohol levels in terms of preserving freshness, longevity, elegance and power”. The workshop ended with a tasting of new vineyard selection releases paired with Michael Broughton’s superb fare at Terroir, the award-winning restaurant at Kleine Zalze.

Staying with big reds, Tokara led a rare inaugural tasting of their flagship Director’s Reserve Red at chef George Jardine’s restaurant in Stellenbosch. The ten-year vertical tasting of their flagship Bordeaux blend from 2003 (formerly under the Tokara Red label) to 2013 was led by outgoing winemaker Miles Mossop and viticulturist Aidan Morton who have worked on all ten vintages. The A-team demonstrated a seamless style evolution away from big and robust wines to “wines of elegance, balance and power” through new virus-free plantings, special bloc selection and older oak usage. The shift to riper fruit from younger plantings and new row orientations showed in the purity of fruit of recent vintages - and in the rich, ripe dark fruit and supple tannins.

“We’re farming sunlight,” declared Aidan, who uses remote sensing to identify the best blocs and practises what he calls “precision viticulture”. While vintage variations in climate played a significant role, the evolution of the blend to encompass all five Bordeaux varieties (the addition of Malbec and Cabernet Franc in the assemblage) broadened the wine to make it one of the most powerful and opulent new world blends coming out of the Cape today. Cabernet, the lead variety in the blend, is planted on 23 blocs in their high-lying Stellenbosch vineyards - and the best blocs go into their Director’s Reserve Red and sublime Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Staying in Stellenbosch, the thirty-fourth annual Blaauwklippen Blending Challenge (cheekily called the BBC!) is always a highlight on the winter wine calendar. I’ve been attending this unique event since the mid-1990s - a competition which encourages wine clubs around the country to experience the art of blending wine. This year some 84 wine clubs participated, blending five different components of the 2016 vintage - Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Zinfandel (the cellar’s unique hero variety) into a blend which demonstrates the old adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. This year the finalists included three wine clubs from the Western Cape - and one from Gauteng called appropriately Die Uitlanders!

Blaauwklippen upped the ante this year, putting the winning blend from newcomers De Kelderhof of Stellenbosch into its flagship wine - under a redesigned Cabriolet label. Matured in oak barrel for 16 months, the 2016 BBC blend shows accessible upfront red fruit, elegant, smooth tannins and a twist of Christmas spice. According to new winemaker Narina Cloete, the BBC brief was to make a multi-layered wine blend with complexity and ability to age, with limits set for most of the five components. Shiraz was the lead component of the winning blend - followed by Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Chef Louise created a fabulous prawn bisque and beef roulade to match.

There’s always something new out of Stellenbosch. I’ve also enjoyed tasting the innovative limited release series from Lanzerac. The new Keldermeester Versameling (Cellar Master Collection) is the brainchild of cellar master Wynand Lategan. He explains, “With these wines, the focus is very much on experimentation. They are also a vehicle for challenging conventional winemaking methods and to prove that a wine estate with so much history and tradition can also be innovative at the same time”.

The new range is a personal journey for Wynand, who adds, “I chose Afrikaans on the labels because I am very proudly Afrikaans as well as South African. Many French wines use only French on their labels – and I wanted to do something in my mother tongue.” PROF 2016 is one of a trio of new wines - a blend of 60% Cinsaut and 40% Pinot Noir. He says he wanted to find out what Professor Abraham Perold had in mind when he created Pinotage by crossing Cinsaut (aka Hermitage) and Pinot Noir in 1925. Lanzerac bottled the first Pinotage in 1961, now celebrated with its heritage Pioneer Pinotage label. The new DOK Malbec 2015, from a single vineyard in the Jonkershoek Valley, pays tribute to rugby legend Dr Danie Craven, who regularly visited Lanzerac with his dog, Bliksem. Last but not least, I’ve enjoyed BERGPAD Pinot Blanc 2015, also from a single vineyard block in Jonkershoek - named after the mountain path I’ve walked from the University of Stellenbosch to Lanzerac.

My learning curve into the big reds of Stellenbosch this winter shows how Cape wines combine the best of the new and the old worlds, tradition and innovation, passion and technology, old and new varieties. Best of all, every wine tells a story.