Tag Archives: Cape Town

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.

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South African Wines


Stopped quite a few wines from going bad on our trip, and sniffed, slurped, spat many more. Here are a few random musings on a country where the quality’s getting better year by year.

Agusta Chardonnay 2001. Franschhoek.
Smart, quite classy Chard with lime and grapefruit notes and sensitive use of oak; still developing. Rated: VERY GOOD

Backsberg Estate Chardonnay 2002 Paarl
Sensitively-oaked example, with marzipan and toast flavours contrasting with lemony notes. Rated: GOOD

Bartho Eksteen Sauvignon Blanc 2003 Hermanus
Rich, dessert gooseberry on the palate, almost NZ-ish in its intensity. One of SA’s best. Would have liked to have tasted the Premier Choix but alas couldn’t find it. Rated: VERY GOOD

Beaumont Chardonnay 2001
Fat grassy Chard of some class from unfashionable Bot River. Though it carries a punch at 14% there are no heavy vulgar tropical fruit flavours. Good winemaking. Rated: VERY GOOD to EXCELLENT

Beaumont Chenin Blanc 2001
Nicely ageing example of what’s rated as one of SA’s classier “Steens”. Herby, lemony flavours with a slight hint of marzipan. Not Savennieres but very nice. Rated; GOOD, WELL MADE

Bellingham Chardonnay Spitz series 2002 Wellington
Smart stuff from this modern winery; oaked, natural ferment, keen attention to acid balance so while its opulent with marzipan and oriiental spices it’s in no way fatiguing to drink Rated: EXCELLENT

Bloemendal Estate Semillon 2002
Quite liked this, especially as a change from SB and Chard. Rich and refined, pointed up by zippy acid that I’m sure will soften over time Rated: INTERESTING

Bon Courage Chardonnay Prestige Cuvee 2002 Robertson
Worthy attempt at a Euro-styled chard with great attention paid to acid balance and a certain mineral elan.Rated: EXTREMELY LIKEABLE, SOME CLASS

Ambeloui Miranda MCC 2001/2/3 Hout Bay
MCC stands for “Method Cape Classique” the approved term for what was called “Method Champenoise” until those stern lads from France came in with their big boots. This absolute pearl, from a tiny property just outside Cape Town gets my vote for one of SA’s top three fizzers – lovely full bouquet, bubbles to burn and that lovely toasted fresh bread taste you get from sparklers where the fruit (pinot and chard) has been generously bestowed. Increasing the percentage of new oak each year means it should get even better. Yum! Rated: BRILLIANT

Avondale Les Pleurs Merlot 2000 Paarl
Class act with a good deal of subtlety, tannins relaxing nicely, well endowed with full, soft fruit but enough acid to prevent it from getting lush and OTT. Rated: EXCELLENT

Bartho Ekstein Shiraz 2001 Hermanus
Liked this a good deal – perfumed, spicy, whopping wine, amazed to find it was only 13.5 ABV – a huge mouthful, still developing. Rated: GREAT POTENTIAL

Beamont Shiraz 2001
Hefty, muscular Shiraz with smoky bacon overtones coupled with the paprika-based spiciness of authentic goulash. Interesting stuff. Rated: EXCELLENT

Beyerskloof Synergy 2001 & 2002
Amazing Pinotage/CS/Merlot blend and even a bit of Shiraz sneaks into the 02. Straightforward, honest wine of some complexity from Beyers Truter, king of Pinotage. )I felt the 02 was already much more approachable than its elder brother. Rated: INTERESTING

Beyerskloof Pinotage 2002 If you have to drink Pinotage this is the one. Not for me, though, I can get the same buzz from licking newly tarmacked roads on a hot summer’s day. Rated: OF ITS KIND, GREAT

Bloemendal Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Durbanville. Hinted at qual but still very hard and green. Will it soften? Dunno but apparently Bloemendal have a reputation for slow-burners. Rated: MAYBE

Boekenhoutskloof Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2001 Franschhoek.
Like the name, a big mouthful at 14.2%, packed with dark plummy fruit and the sweaty saddle thing – my god how I hate that description. Rated: HUGE BUT LACKS CLASS

Bon Courage Syrah Inkara 2001 Robertson
Going to be great I think, but heavy going as of now. Cold steel feel, like young Cote Rotie. But did enough to hint at potential. Rated: VERY PROMISING, INTERESTING

Bon Courage Shiraz 2002
Curiously the one that’s matured only in French oak is called “Shiraz”. Lighter style, more approachable now. Smart stuff. Rated: GOOD, WELL MADE

Bon Courage Cabernet Sauvignon Inkara 2000 Limited release.
Middle of the road Cab Sauv of no particular distinction. Rated: FAIRLY ORDINARY

Bonnievale Shiraz 2002 Bonnievale, Robertson
Easy drinker of no particular distinction. Muted nose. Rated: AVERAGE

Avontuur Above Royalty Noble Late Harvest Riesling 2001 Stellenbosch/Helderburg
The excellence of the stickies came as a major surprise on this trip and this was one of the best. Rated: EXCELLENT

Bon Courage Noble Late Harvest 2002. Lightweight (10%) classy Riesling sticky already showing luscious dried fruits, apricots and figs, great balance. Rated: EXCELLENT

Bon Courage White Muscadel 2002 Really interesting and weighty sticky with floral aromatics. Liked this a lot. Really good winemaking with added pizzazz from fruit acids. Rated: EXCELLENT, ORIGINAL


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