South African wine ambassadors

The theme of this year’s Adams & Adams’ sponsored WineLand Seminar was South African identity; what makes our wines stand out from those of other countries. One of the most interesting of the topics presented was the ambassadors’ tasting.

This featured three well-known wine industry people: Roland Peens, director of Cape Town retailer Wine Cellar, Cathy van Zyl MW and Michael Fridjhon, commentator, international judge and author, who each selected four wines which they believe speak clearly and authentically of South Africa.

Cathy van Zyl MW, Michael Fridjhon and Roland Peens

Taking into account current trends, the choices made by them weren’t so surprising but the themes behind their selections gave food for thought.

Peens’ first choice was Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards Chenin Blanc 2015, made on account of its quantity/quality/value ratio: 1.5 million litres, all naturally fermented, aged on the lees, weighing in at just 13% alcohol and selling for R35 – remarkable value. The Dreyer family, owners of Leeuwenkuil as well as large vineyard holdings in the Swartland and Paarl, are getting attention for their wines at both ends of the price scale.

On a much smaller scale but still including Chenin, Peens’ next selection was from Sijnn (pronounced sane), a lonely outpost at Malgas near the mouth of the Breede River co-owned by David Trafford. It’s just one instance of how the Cape’s winelands have spread since the quota system was dropped. Sijnn White 2013 blend is based on Chenin but also includes Viognier and Roussanne, a combination of subtlety and intrigue.

Turning to reds, Peens presented a pair blending currently trendy variety Cinsaut with Cabernet. This combination harks back to the 1970s and 80s, and Etienne le Riche’s much-loved Rustenberg Dry Red. As Cinsaut regains popularity, Le Riche’s children, Christo and Yvonne, decided to embark on recreating the blend but in a more serious, age-worthy style. The first 80/20 Cabernet/Cinsaut has yet to be released, its age-worthiness to be proved, but it’s a renaissance worth watching. In a very different style, Chris Alheit (of Chenin fame) proved he’s a dab hand with reds too. His whole bunch fermented equal Cinsaut/Cabernet partners blend is full of joie de vivre and red, spicy fruits. Alheit has yet to decide what to do with the wine but no doubt he’d find many ready buyers. Peens explained his choice thus: “Why are so many producers trying to emulate Bordeaux styles, the most expensive, and neglecting quality like this at a lesser price?” His overall theme was showcasing wines lighter in style and more food friendly, wines that retailers and sommeliers should be encouraging consumers to try.

The marketing panel had stressed the importance of telling a story. This was the theme Van Zyl chose with her four wines. The Cluvers, one of the original families producing wine in Elgin, are passionate about the land and conservation. “Wine ambassadors don’t have to be only new, unusual or sexy,” claimed Van Zyl when presenting Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc.

Reverie Chenin Blanc, the label of Jacques de Klerk, also winemaker at The Winery of Good Hope, represents the boutique end of the scale. The story here is of pushing boundaries, reflecting terroir and exploring techniques, aspects that not all big producers can focus on. De Klerk manipulates his Swartland fruit as little as possible and uses older oak only.

Van Zyl reiterated Peens’ message that lighter style reds needn’t be wishy-washy, a point clearly made with David Sadie’s Grenache, which has good depth of flavour and form but also a light, fresh feel. The good news is that more Grenache is being planted, even though the vines really need age to give of their best – something the next generation can be grateful for.

South African reds are often criticised for being under- or over-ripe, too oaky or, well, anything but drinkable. Van Zyl’s last wine, Cabernet-based Rupert & Rothschild Classique, impressed me not only for its quality but mostly for the quantity produced: the one million bottle mark has now been reached.

So to Fridjhon, whose theme was South Africa’s heritage, an important story and something he explained can be used to our benefit. But names can be a stumbling block, can’t they? Fridjhon doesn’t think so. He spelt out Czerszegi Fuszeres, a Hungarian grape. After pronouncing it, he got the audience to repeat it a few times. He repeated the exercise with Vergelegen, a notoriously difficult name to pronounce. “If a brand name is difficult to pronounce, once learned it will be remembered, more than an easier name,” Fridjhon believes.

Fridjhon’s two heritage white wines focused on Semillon, a variety that accounted for most of the Cape’s vineyards in the 19th century. Morgenster White, a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, was poured first. The genre’s strengths lie in the considerable production of Sauvignon and Semillon’s heritage. If Morgenster’s vines are still relatively young, Basil and Jane Landau’s Landau du Val Semillon is produced from vines planted on their own roots in 1905. “It speaks of the age of the South African wine industry,” Fridjhon noted. (I wrote about old vines and what’s being done to preserve them in my July blog.)

Then what would a tasting be without a home-bred Pinotage? Kanonkop’s is one of the best and best known. “It’s time,” Fridjhon indicated, “to get over Pinotage.” Indeed, there are far more quality examples out there but, as he emphasised, people need educating about the variety, it won’t be understood in advance.

Likewise, what would a tasting be without a South African dessert wine? Fridjhon chose Nederburg Eminence, a natural sweet from Muscat de Frontignan. The Nederburg brand is closely associated with dessert wines, especially those with botrytis. Fridjhon also mentioned Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance which replicates the historic and renowned Constantia dessert wines. Noting how they’re handcrafted and demand a high labour component, including several passes through the vineyards, he concluded by saying these wines sell at a price point that would not be possible in the rest of the world.

Such an interesting and informative exercise deserves to be repeated, as South Africa enjoys so many more wines and styles worthy of ambassadorial status than just this dozen.

– Angela Lloyd