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A Year in the Life of a Wine Scribe

7 December 2017  -  Graham Howe

Graham Howe survived some sixty wine tastings on the circuit in 2017 - and reports on a few of the highlights and trends of the wine year that was.

Vertical flights of flagship wines allow us to experience the living history of the vineyards and viticulture of the top wine cellars of the Cape. Vertical tastings are a great way to share the journey with winemakers, understand the evolution of modern wine styles, the ageing of vineyards, the role of terroir, the planting of new varieties and virus-free clones, vintage variation, the refinement of winemaking techniques and trend to more subtle use of oak. When the wine is a benchmark blend, the creative apex for winemakers, a vertical flight becomes a lesson in the getting of wisdom.

That said, one of the highlights on the tasting circuit in 2017 were the two inaugural  tastings of Tokara’s Director’s Reserve Red and White, the Stellenbosch cellar’s flagship Bordeaux blends. Over the years, the annual showcases by viticulturist Aidan Morton and winemaker Miles Mossop have become a tour de force of new vintage release, giving wine writers insights into the finer details of what Aidan calls “precision viticulture”. A vertical flight of Tokara’s blends from 2003 to the present  at George Jardine’s in Stellenbosch showcased the evolution of a Tokara style and elegant expression of virus-free vines, riper fruit, softer tannins and reduced new oak.

Cabernet Sauvignon - picked from the best of 23 different blocs on Tokara’s Stellenbosch farm is the backbone of the red blend. The vertical flight also showed how augmenting the blend with small components of Cabernet Franc and Malbec has grown the complexity of the five-way wine - and what role vintage variation plays. Mossop comments, “The great thing about these wines is their ability to age. These are wines with a sense of power and place, wines which show purity of fruit, wines with elegance and balance”. Morton says, “The lifespan of vineyards is a major issue in the Cape. We need to find ways of sustaining vines into old age”. Owner GT Ferreira asks, “What’s the conclusion? Do you become better or worse with age?”

Moving from the newer to one of the oldest South African wine brands, I enjoyed a rare vertical flight of one of Distell’s flagship red blends, Zonnebloem Lauréat from 1995 to 2014. Led by winemaker Bonny van Niekerk, the tasting demonstrated a style evolution under three legendary winemakers who all put their stamp on the brand:  Jan de Waal (1969-1999), Michael Bucholtz (2000-2006) and Bonny van Niekerk (2007 - 2017). What started out as a Bordeaux blend now includes Shiraz (and Mourvedre, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, in some vintages) in the spiced-up assemblage. The tasting demonstrated the amazing longevity and vibrant thread of acidity of older Cape reds, the lower alcohols and brooding intensity of early vintages, and purity of ripe fruit of recent vintages. Zonnebloem marks its centenary next year.    

On the trend to vertical tastings, the flight of Simonsig Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) at Aubergine in Cape Town was another highlight on the wine tasting circuit in 2017. After winning best producer (for the fourth time) at the annual Amorim Cap Classique Challenge 2017, Johan Malan of Simonsig led a tasting of the winning Cuvée Royale Blanc de Blancs from 2005 to 2012 - and Kaapse Vonkel Brut from 1999 to 2015. The rare opportunity to taste older vintages of South Africa’s pioneer of bottle-fermented sparkling wine was a real treat. The vertical tasting demonstrated inter alia the ageability of Simonsig MCC, the primary, secondary and tertiary flavours of young to older, bottle-aged MCC, the shift to fresher, more vibrant fruit styles of base wines, longer lees contact, the comparative influence of extended cork contact, reduced dosage and Pinot Meunier. One of the memorable tastings of 2017!

One of the smartest tastings of the year was a magnum flight of Allée Bleue’s new premium black label series - led by winemaker (and stand-up comic) Van Zyl du Toit. The man who spent nine years at Simonsig before joining this Franschhoek cellar has deconstructed the cellar’s flagship red and white blends - L’Amour Toujours and Isabeau - to highlight the best of components and sites in varietal bottlings. Van Zyl says the magnum project builds the brand by paying homage to site and cultivar - and they don’t lose all the variety in the blend. The result is a limited release magnum of Cabernet Franc 2012, Cabernet Sauvignon 2013/2014 and Chardonnay 2014 - made from one or two of the best barrels. Van Zyl calls magnums a form of wine theatre.      

If vertical tastings were one of the highlights of 2017, varietal tastings is the other trend. Chenin was again the star of the show - with three showcases during the year at the Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge and consumer and trade showcases at the V&A Waterfront. The tastings demonstrated the diversity of winemaking styles, regional terroir and single vineyard expressions of Chenin Blanc - from the Breedekloof and Swartland to Stellenbosch and Paarl. Challenge judge Cathy van Zyl commented, “Chenin Blanc from South Africa holds a special position in the world - like Shiraz from the Barossa. It bears a unique stamp. We need to make the variety our own.” The varietal tasting at the annual Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 was another highlight - as was a lesson in Sauvignon Blanc, the hero variety at Buitenverwachting in Constantia.  

Another highlight of the year were the tastings in situ at the cellar-door, the best way of building brands, and my many visits to traditional wine farms whose very heritage is a unique selling point. One of the many privileges of spending two decades in the wine media is those tastings over long lunches, getting to know legendary wine families who have been making fine wine for generations. Any visitor to the Cape should drop into family farms like Delheim, Meerlust and Muratie to experience the heart of the Cape winelands. Two of the highlights of my peregrinations in 2017 were to Groot Phesantekraal, an old family farm in Durbanville - and to Bosman Family Vineyards in Wellington, to witness the shape of the future of the Cape wine industry.  

The eighth generation Bosman farm with a history going back to 1699 is one of those undiscovered gems of the Cape winelands. A tasting in the 1750 cellar with its museum of vintage farm implements is one of the many attractions - along with a farm tour to see the fourth oldest vineyard in South Africa, planted in 1952, source of the single vineyard Optenhorst Chenin Blanc. The “stokkie” business started at Lelienfontein farm in the 1880s has grown into one of the most modern vine nurseries in South Africa - a gene pool of new disease-resistant clones and drought-resistant varieties which go into wines like Bosman’s Nero d’Avola (originating in Sicily), a first for South Africa. Watching workers graft rootstock, the vines of the future, is my lesson of the year in patience - it takes up to 8 years to develop a new commercial clone in the laboratory, nurture it in the nucleus, foundation and field nursery before it is planted in a new vineyard - producing the first vintage 3-5 years on. So no hurry!

Last but not least, the impact of drought, water shortages and global warming on the Cape wine industry was one of the big talking-points of 2017. At almost every tasting winemakers spoke about their concerns about the conservation and management of water as a precious asset - and ways of dealing with a 50% reduction of water supply to wine farms. The new debate in the industry is about dryland viticulture, canopy management, crop cover, biodynamic viticulture, remote sensing of stress pockets, rain water harvesting, the planting of heat-resistant varieties, moisture retention and lower energy resources in vines. The message is clear - the vines they are a ‘changing.