Shiraz and multiplicity

Nearly two decades ago, Wines of South Africa (Wosa) had the catchy phrase “diversity is in our nature” as its slogan. Because of the growing awareness of climate change and benefits of regenerative agriculture and the importance of soil, those words resonate far more nowadays than they did in the early 2000s.

I was reminded of this after two days of visiting the winelands with an American wine writer, Dr Neal Hulkower. He’d wanted to learn more about the country’s Shiraz and had visited Luddite in Bot River, as well as Hartenberg and Boschkloof in Stellenbosch. All three supplied proof of the variety of South African Shiraz, both stylistically in terms of the winemaking aesthetic, as well as of the geographical or regional differences.

Luddite owner and winemaker Niels Verburg smiled somewhat fatalistically as he apologised for the lack of lighting and heating in his tasting room. Four days without power for the whole of Bot River meant that Luddite’s inverter and batteries were properly flat! He also took full credit for the protracted rain the Cape had experienced. “It’s all because I bloody decided to install irrigation, didn’t I!” The farm had already received in excess of 600mm for the year, comfortably over their annual average – with more rain predicted for the rest of winter. “So I won’t need irrigation any time soon…”

Sadly, the past few years have not been as kind and yields and production have diminished drastically because of the protracted drought between 2015 and 2019, at a time when interest in Luddite Shiraz continued to appreciate. And the current release 2018 (predictably sold out) tasted alongside an unearthed 2010 validated the reputation the wine enjoys.

Verburg still keeps things as artisanal as possible, but there was in interesting discussion about the use of whole cluster pressing and adding stems to the fermenting must. It’s far easier for producers in the Swartland to do Verburg maintained, because the stems become properly ripe, lignified and brown. “I find that our bunches or stems are still somewhat green even when the fruit analysis is optimal – and that’s not a characteristic I want in my wines.”

Hartenberg estate in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary area was a masterclass in presenting Shiraz in all ways. From the entry level Doorkeeper Shiraz which is pocket and palate friendly and allows the farm the opportunity to use younger vine fruit, through to the estate Shiraz and then the Reserves: The Stork and Gravel Hill Shiraz. It was in these two flagships that the differences were pronounced.

The koffieklip-beringed vineyard which produces the Gravel Hill offers different texture and mouthfeel than that of The Stork which is from a clay-rich loam soil. The former is somewhat more muscular and powerful with The Stork being a touch more perfumed and subtle but no less elegant. Again, the American was wooed by Hartenberg’s practice of presenting an older vintage alongside the more modern equivalent.

The 2019 Gravel Hill was one of 30 South African wines to be awarded a gold medal at the 2023 Decanter World Wine Awards*. The tasting note which accompanied the medal and score of 95 read as follows: “Elegant nose showing complex aromas of cassis, blackberry jam, black olives, rosemary, sage and smoky meat undertones. Big and bold, with supple tannins, spicy finish.”

A flapping crow wouldn’t have far to fly to reach Boschkloof from Hartenberg. It’s a hop over the Bottelary Hills towards Polkadraai. In 2012 Jacques Borman handed the winemaking reins to his talented son Rheenen but is probably responsible for having infected him with his love of Shiraz.

“My own love of Shiraz started with a tasting of La Chapelle years ago. It just bewitched me! I loved that Rhône perfume and character,” Jacques said. Like Verburg, he and his family established Boschkloof from nothing. “There was not a single building on the property, no electricity, no water – but there were vines, most of which I pulled out. We kept a nice block of Cabernet Sauvignon though,” he said.

It was during his stint as cellar chief at La Motte that he’d been turned on to what Shiraz in the decomposed granite soils of the Polkadraai hills was capable of, since it was where he sourced bought-in fruit for the Franschhoek label. So when he began looking for a piece of land of his own, that’s where he started.

Pouring the last Shiraz he made, a 2019 Cape Winemakers Guild bottling, alongside those of his son – also recently inducted into the Guild – was illustrative. Rheenen is probably one of the foremost proponents of Shiraz in the country at present. Boschkloof’s Shiraz has walked off with the top honour for the grape in the Platter Guide for the past three years, twice with the Sons of Sugarland example (2021 and 2023) and with Epilogue 2019 vintage in the 2022 edition.

Sons of Sugarland is all about the grape – with no oak interference, only concrete, from fermentation to maturation. It’s fresh, exuberant, spicy and engaging with remarkable purity but also fine tannin grip from the fruit. The swansong 2019 CWG from Jacques is deeper, darker, altogether more intense but with a beguiling litheness to it. The oak, while restrained, supplies backbone and structure but doesn’t mask the grape’s intrinsics.

And the Bormans are not done yet. One of the items on their “To Do” list is planting a new vineyard – and it’ll be a field blend of six different Shiraz clones. “It’s going to be interesting seeing what comes out of that vineyard in five or six years,” Jacques said.

It’s easy to see why the winemaker interest in Shiraz is matched by the enthusiasm of consumers who are discovering the multiplicity of different expressions from the country’s varied areas. Diversity on full display.

Top image: Niels Verburg conducting a tasting of Luddite for some American guests

- Blog by Fiona McDonald

*Fiona McDonald serves as the Regional Chair of the South African panel at the Decanter World Wine Awards.