Is Cabernet a fit king?

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

While some doubt remains surrounding Cabernet’s credentials as the king of red grape varieties, it emerged earlier this year that Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most widely planted variety. In the Cape it’s also now the most widely planted red variety, just ahead of Syrah.

With the Cape’s longer viticultural history dominated by white varieties like Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Colombard, it is uncertain exactly when Cabernet was introduced to the Cape but Cabernet’s plantings have been increasing since the 1970s after having been planted in Constantia around the mid-nineteenth century.

Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery (SFW), a Distell forerunner, created legendary Cabernet-based blends in the 1970s that were still drinking very well more than 30 years later. These blends often contained Cinsaut (or Hermitage as it was known locally, although there is no Cinsaut in the Northern Rhône) and smatterings of Shiraz. Cinsaut was the Cape’s most important red wine vine until the 1960s and is a parent, along with Pinot Noir, to Pinotage.

One of the most famous Cape wines of the mid-twentieth century was the GS Cabernet Sauvignon made in the 1960s by or for George Spies, production director at SFW. The front label displays ‘100%’, indicating that monovarietalism was unusual at the time and that Cabernet was capable of a solo act. These wines – awarded 95 by Wine Spectator – remain incredibly vital and tasting a GS Cabernet remains one of the most sought-after of Cape tasting experiences.

Some argue that Bordeaux’s greatest coup was in convincing the rest of the world that great red Bordeaux is pure Cabernet. Ironically, that is probably what early Bordelaise intended, since it was only judicious fruit farming as a hedge against late-ripening Cabernet that saw its less famous blending partners being planted. It was fortuitous that the blend worked in the cellar.

During the 18th and 19th centuries many red Bordeaux wines were in fact Hermitage (Syrah), as Bordeaux merchants needed to puff up King Cabernet in lesser vintages. Early in the 19th century, merchant Nathaniel Johnston wrote: “The Lafitte of 1795, which was made up with Hermitage, was the best liked of any of that year.”

However, while varietal Cabernet has grown, the Cape still has a greater leaning toward Bordeaux blends than other New World producers such as Australia and California, and Cabernet Sauvignon remains the Cape’s pre-imminent red grape variety.

Those who have built their top-notch reputation around Cabernet include Boekenhoutskloof, Ernie Els, Kanonkop, Le Riche, Meerlust, Neil Ellis, Rust en Vrede, Rustenberg, Stark-Condé, Thelema, Vergelegen and Waterford.

More recent achievers include:

  • Decanter World Wine Awards International Trophies Bordeaux Varietals under £15 – Hartenberg Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
  • Gold Medal – Cederberg Five Generations Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
  • International Wine & Spirit Competition Gold Outstanding* – Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 & Cobblers Hill (Bdx blend) 2010 (*qualifies for international trophies, to be announced in November)
  • International Wine Challenge Gold –Guardian Peak Lapa Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
  • Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Gold – Linton Park Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
  • Neal Martin 90+

Cederburg 2010; Ernie Els 2010; Stark-Condé 2010; Boekenhoutskloof  2009;

Botanica Wines 2009; Delaire Graff 2009; Glenelly 2009; Hartenberg 2009

Kanonkop 2009; Kleine Zalze 2009; Le Riche 2009; Meerlust 2009;

Rust en Vrede 2009; Waterford 2009; and Glen Carlou 2008.

– Jonathan Snashall