Archive for October, 2011

Confidence boost

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

The Orange River is capable of many surprises. This watery artery in the arid red-hued Kalahari landscape surprised all and sundry by bursting its banks once again earlier this year. R2.4 billion worth of damage resulted – bridges and roads washed away, not to mention pumps, farming equipment, table grape vines and soil swept away by the rampaging waters. It’s a tribute to the hardy folk of the Northern Cape that they simply knuckled under and got on with setting things back to rights.

The Spar Country Cellars winemaker of the year competition also dished up a few surprises. 2011 marked a decade of Spar’s sponsorship of this competition – and the surprise to me and my fellow judges was that the overall standard of entries had once again been ratcheted up in what was proclaimed a bad year.

Ten years ago Spar’s group liquor executive Ray Edwards mooted the competition among the winemakers of the five wineries which comprise Orange River Cellars to stimulate them to up their game. It was a win-win situation for both – Spar’s offering to consumers in both bottle and bag-in-box has improved because Orange River Cellars have learned a lot of lessons and upped their quality standards.

I can recall very few wines in the inaugural year reaching even moderate scores of 14 and 15 out of 20. A decade later and there were very few which scored under 14… The strides taken over the course of such a short period of time has been remarkable. As one judge said, these were “real Stellenbosch scores – not the special Olympics!” Where there used to be one winemaker per winery there are now 24 winemakers and – more importantly – viticulturists spread between Keimoes, Kakamas, Upington, Grootdrink and Groblershoop cellars which coincidentally span a geographical spread of 350km from west to east.

Where 10 years ago wood contact on wine was unheard of, now it is accomplished and restrained. Searingly high acid levels have been toned down, overripeness is seldom a problem, clumsy winemaking in the form of reduction or sulphur levels is no longer an issue.

These wines are unlikely to see the light of day because they will be blended away into commercial batches. While these wines are made in minute volumes the influence on the large commercial wines produced is pronounced. The Chenin, Chardonnay and Viognier blend might well find traction with a market in the Far East as it’s ideally suited to their food. The overall winner was a red blend of Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Ruby Cabernet that was deliciously succulent, spicy and danced confidently on a restrained platform of oak. A straw wine made from Colombar had all the judges raving and drooling over its delicacy, fresh acidity and clean finish.

The Spar Country Cellars competition has motivated the entire team at ORC. They all vie energetically for the top prize since it carries with it the opportunity of a harvest abroad. The horizon for these Northern Cape winemakers has expanded dramatically in 10 years. They’re eager and ambitious to continue improving standards. These wines – and the fact that Spar is now doing in excess of R30 million worth of business with ORC annually – speaks volumes. And volume is something they know about: Orange River Cellars harvests in excess of 100 000 tons of grapes annually.

Over Friday night’s braai of skilpaadjies and lamb chops, winemakers casually mentioned that their cellars handle a few thousand tons of grapes a day. That’s more than most Western Cape wineries, 800km further south, handle in an entire season…

Gilded promise

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Chardonnay has fallen in and out of favour many times. Of late though, it’s been getting a lot of positive press. Many commentators, local and international, are of the opinion that South Africa’s white wines offer more than the reds – and nowhere is this more obvious than with Chardonnay.

The recent Cape Winemakers Guild auction held in Stellenbosch realised a total of R5 286 700, up R1.4million on the previous year’s sale – although it must be said that there were more six-bottle cases of wine on offer (2956 vs 2298 in 2010).

Bidding on red wines was predictably brisk with the top performers on the day being Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Auction Reserve 2009 which sold for an average R5 000 a case – or almost R1 000 a bottle; with Kanonkop’s CWG Pinotage 2009 and Hartenberg Estate Auction Shiraz 2009 realising an average R3 842 and R3 264 respectively – or R716.67 a bottle (when divided by the number of cases sold – 70 and 50).

In 2010 there were just two Chardonnays at the CWG auction – the Paul Cluver Wagon Trail Chardonnay 2009 and the Jordan Chardonnay Reserve 2009. This year there were four with the same two producers joined by Ataraxia 2010 and Edgbaston’s Tête du Ciel Chardonnay 2009 that were knocked down for average six-bottle case prices of R1 174.44 and R1 385 respectively.

Interestingly, the Cluver was the same vintage/wine as previously – and went for an average of R2 100, up from last year’s R1 613. But there were just 26 cases available.

The Jordan realised an average price of R2 285 per case for the 80 cases which went under the auctioneer’s hammer. It was the highest individual price attained by a white wine at the 2011 auction and meant that the bottle price was R416.67! That’s a better average than Jordan’s Sophia red blend which sold for R2 067.50, or R400 a bottle…

Looking at the average bottle prices, the Cluver Wagon Trail went for R366.67, Ataraxia R300 and Edgbaston R316.67.

Chardonnay has come a long way since the 80′s when the first cuttings were planted. There’s a distinct maturity in terms of both viticulture and winemaking. That bottles of Chardonnay could attain prices of R300 and R400+ would have been almost unthinkable 10 years ago. Yet this is a demonstration of both the market and the producer appreciating the value and quality of what is available locally.

Adding more food for thought is what’s Neal Martin recently wrote in his summary of the state of South Africa’s vinous nation, after judging at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, along with additional independent tastings before and after the judging. (Titled Pour without Prejudice his report was accompanied by an extensive list of tasting notes and ratings. For a copy of the article and tasting notes, visit )

“Then there is Chardonnay, which currently represents 8% of total plantings. Let me be facetious and remind South African winemakers that a: Chardonnay is comparatively easy to cultivate; b: a great Chardonnay tastes delicious and therefore: c: it is comparatively easy to sell. Ignore all this ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ clamour! A blind tasting of nearly 100 South African Chardonnay proved that this is South Africa’s most consistent white grape variety, and like Chenin Blanc, its greatest exponents produce world-class wines, I would suggest more Burgundy in style than Napa Valley. The biggest change here is patently less reliance upon new oak. The big, buttery, creamy styles of a decade ago are being replaced by crisp, terroir-driven, mineral-rich Chardonnays that are both more intellectual and delicious. Bring it on!”

Golden future

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

South Africa’s winemaking future is in safe hands.

The evidence to prove it took the form of a preview of the wines which will go under the hammer at the Cape Winemakers Guild auction at Spier on October 1. The aim of the Guild which was established 29 years ago was to try and produce wines of world-beating standard. Membership remains by invitation only and while there are a few of the country’s hottest oenological prospects who don’t require validation by belonging, the fact remains that arguably South Africa’s best and brightest belong to this august guild.

Just 39 wines of the 58 items (there is a potstill brandy on offer too) were tasted informally at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Obviously, impressions of the wines on offer differ but there were a few standouts for me. Neil Ellis’ Rodanos 2007 blend of Syrah and Grenache is a stupendous wine. It’s been auctioned before in 2009 and the wine has only benefitted from additional time in bottle. Ellis may describe himself as one of the “old farts” but there’s no doubt that he can show the youngsters a thing or two about respecting fruit and sympathetic oak maturation.

Saronsberg’s Dewaldt Heyns quipped that with his Die Erf Grenache 2010 he proves that he can make wine with an alcohol less than 15% and that it’s also possible for him to re-use barrels and not rely on brand-new oak! “These Grenache vines are only seven or eight years old and should start peaking from now onwards,” he said, expressing excitement and anticipation at forthcoming fruit off them.

Merlot has copped a lot of flak of late. Carl Schultz of Hartenberg showed the Loam Hill Merlot 2009 that defies criticism of the grape as being green, vegetal and unforgiving. The wine is rich, elegant and classic. Complex and refined with beautiful harmony between the fruit and oak, Schultz said fruit had come off Hartenberg’s first high-density vineyards planted with a new Merlot clone.

Other wines really impressed, notably those from first-timers Rianie Strydom of Haskell Vineyards who has The Expatriate 2009 (a Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blend), and that of Johan Joubert of Kleine Zalze who put up a deliciously drinkable Cabernet Sauvignon, Granite Selection 2009. Marc Kent is always good value and told a tale of how Boekenhoutskloof came by the Porseleinberg fruit from the Swartland which is in his Syrah Auction Reserve 2009.

The CWG tasting would not be the event it is without some humour. Speaking about the grapes which had gone into the Jordan Chardonnay Auction Reserve 2010 as being well hung and perfectly matured, Gary Jordan’s quip was that he realised this “refers to at least half of the room present today”…

(For a full list of auction wines and more details about the CWG Auction, visit )

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