South African Saga

My wife and I have only ever argued about two matters, I think. One is my legendary untidiness. The other is South Africa. You see the ravine between our views is cut very deep. She has fond memories of working in Cape Town in her twenties. Me, I’m a veteran anti-apartheid hard-liner who considered such actions ‘propping up an illegal regime’.
Matters came to a head some years ago when I found myself sat at a dinner party next to an Afrikaner lady. As conversation opener she proclaimed “I think South African wines are better than French wines”. “Oh really,” I snarled and immediately went on the attack impugning both her reason and her (assumed) political views. Eventually she left the table in tears sobbing “Why does everybody hate us?”, my wife suddenly remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere and the host, a friend, didn’t speak to me for three years. The morning after, I woke up with fierce pains in my leg. I looked down to find it black and blue from being kicked under the table! Richly deserved, you may say, but I am largely unrepentant. Still, all things change and I’m glad to say that South Africa and I have since (Christmas just past) supped at the same table. And had the lady made the same remark today, while not agreeing entirely, I’d probably find some common ground .
After tasting in excess of two hundred wines in what was undoubtedly a real ‘bus man’s holiday’, I am of the belief that South Africa, since it shed itself of the trappings of the ancient regime and came out to play in the real world, is making magnificent wine and, what’s more, getting better at it year by year. Okay they’ve had a long way to come in a short time since the days of Pinotage and Steen overload; and yes I’ve heard about the recent ‘scandal’ of fruit juice infusions in budget Sauvignon Blanc which they are stamping out as I write. But compared to the lodestone of complacency that runs through Bordeaux and Burgundy and compared to the Aussies’ laid-back confidence that ‘marketing will win the day’ there’s an impressive missionary zeal about latterday South African winemaking; coupled with a willingness to try new methods and revert to the old as circumstances dictate.
Not everything in the garden is rosy. There are some very ordinary wines to be sure, and finding your way around is a bit of a minefield. There’s a book to help you – the Platter pocket guide. However while it’s a marvellous aide in introducing you to who makes what and where, when it comes to judging quality, Platter dishes out stars like a kindergarten teacher at an end-of-term party, so it’s not a deal of use.
But we did find some immense winemakers, sometimes through dipping into Platter, sometimes by word of mouth and sometimes through sheer serendipity.
On the crest of a slope at the Helderberg Mountain end of Stellenbosch there’s a guy called Chris Keet who, in the middle of masterminding a massive replanting programme, finds time to make a wine called Crescendo. Chris is an unassuming guy who clearly prefers his wine to speak for him and in this Crescendo lives up to its name, hollering “class act” at the top of its voice. It’s a Bordeaux blend, largely constructed from Cabernet Franc and while comparisons with Ausonne and, (whisper, whisper) Cheval Blanc might be a trifle fanciful there’s no doubt that Chris is also wringing the maximum potential from what is, in my opinion, an under-considered grape variety.
I’ve sung the praises of Springfield Estate ‘Life from Stone’ before; let’s just say it loud and clear one more time – this is world-class Sauvignon Blanc, as is the same vineyard’s ‘Special Cuvée’. The two wines, whose individual plots are separated only by a road wide enough to get a 4WD down, are distinctively different in character. ‘Special Cuvée’ is a Cloudy Bay competitor (for much less money) – grassy, gooseberry, lush mouthfeel. ‘Life from Stone’ is altogether leaner, but in no way meaner. It’s flinty, delicate and a tribute to Abrie and Jeanette Brewer’s hard work. – how many other vineyards have been realigned through 90 degrees?
Meanwhile, over in unfashionable Bots River Niels Verberg is making superstellar Shiraz. The label is Luddite, a telling name for a wine that would justify the description ‘hand-made’. I believe that one day this wine may become “South Africa’s Grange.”
Good news is Vaughan Johnson’s branches in Dublin stock all three.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]