Justin Keay: a tour of South African wineries

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Justin Keay reports back on a recent visit to 12 South African wineries.
Most of the South African wineries I visited are keen to stress that the days of chasing Chile or Australia at the lower end of the market are long passed. Many wineries have given up on supplying the ultra-tough UK supermarkets altogether, tired of the constant demands for discounts despite the UK's swingeing import and excise duties.

 

These include Spier and Diemersfontein which are now focusing purely on the on-trade market, whilst Fairview's well-regarded Goats Do Roam brand has been supplanted in UK shops by the newer, more one-dimensional but still serviceable La Capra label.


I visited some 12 wineries across Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek over eight days and would have done more had time - and kids - allowed.


My overall impression is that the industry is on the right track in its efforts to redefine itself: the focus is diversity and quality at a reasonable price with winemakers generally unafraid to experiment, but at the same time finding their niche.


So which wineries were the most interesting? Spier has been through something of a transformation since my last visit some years back. Winemaker Frans Smit has been at the forefront of the move upmarket and his limited release, pricey (around £60 a bottle) multi-varietal flagship Frans K Smit gives full expression to his attention to detail. This really is a very decent full-bodied expression of the various terroirs in and around this winery but not surprsingly is made in tiny quantities.


"As a winemaker over a lifetime you have, what, maybe 30 vintages in you. It is important to pay close attention and make sure you get everything right," he says.


Smit is doing this across the Spier range starting with the Signature series (though at around £8 a bottle this is a far cry from the days Spier used to work with Asda at the very cheap end of the market).

 

Particularly notable is the Signature Chenin Blanc 2011, unwooded and just 12.5% despite being made with grapes from the intensely hot Swartland region: this is a very more-ish wine, with lots of character and zest.


Also good is the uncomplicated and approachable Signature Chardonnay 2011 which has lots of fresh citrus on the palate but also lots of tropical flavours. At the other end of the scale, the up-scale 21 Gable ranges range - named after the historic structures still found on the wine estate - focus on South Africa's two most famous native grapes.


The 2009 Pinotage is a new style wine made using cooler climate vineyard blocks and thus eschews the heavier, oakier style beloved of Pinotage traditionalists. Pleasant enough and with good ageing potential but I preferred Smit's upmarket take on Chenin Blanc: the 21 Gable 2010 Chenin Blanc uses new French oak to add character and structure to the grape and works very well, producing a sophisticated full bodied food wine.

 

Mention must be made of Spier's Creative Block wines, 2 - the 2011 comprising 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon - 3, 2009 a delicious, well-integrated SMV - and 5, also 2009, a Cabernet-dominated Bordeaux blend. Numbers 2 and 3 were most interesting, with the Semillon in 2 giving character, depth and backbone to the Sauvignon, whilst the sturdy Shiraz in 3 given add complexity by the Mouvedre and Viognier making this a good wine to savour on its own as well as with food.

 

Fairview has also been working on its strengths.

Again, much has changed since my last visit. The visitor area is huge, comprising a vast new tasting area, a restaurant and shop highlighting not just the wide range of wines (the eponymous Fairview range, La Capra and Goats do Roam) but also the excellent cheeses and olive oils made by Charles Back's growing empire. Back also bought the next door winery (formerly Seidelberg) to showcase his hefty Spice Route wines, made in Swartland, which Back wishes to insulate from the core Fairview/Goats do Roam brands.


The wines here are as ever excellent, and my tasting confirmed that Fairview make some of the most exciting wines in South Africa. Who else would make a 100% Carignan (an unfashionable grape most use for blending) or a 100% Mouvedre (the grapes grown for Back's Spice Route Mouvedre in Swartland represent the largest planting on the continent). True to form, Fairview have two new and on first tasting rather exciting wines on the way: a 100% Durif (full of dark red fruit and warm, leather tannins) and a new blend Forestera combining Tempranillo, Grenache and Carignan. These wines should be available later this year.

 

The most striking thing about Tokara is its futuristic design, suggesting the Death Valley house that explodes multiple times at the end of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 movie Zabriskie. The location - on the pass between Stellebosch and Franschoek - also takes some beating, with stunning views from the glass-fronted tasting room, suggesting that the millions spent by banker-owner GT Ferriera on this state of the art winery have not been wasted.

 

However, it would be remiss not to mention the wines which in the capable hands of winemaker Miles Mossop are flourishing. It was fascinating to contrast and compare Tokara's two Chardonnay's - a Walker Bay 2009 and a Stellenbosch 2010; both very well made but quite distinct, the former for me had the edge, with lovely floral flavours and delicate balance reflecting the cooler climate of this region. Also noteworthy is the 2007 Director's Reserve, an elaborate but well-structured blend of 60% Cabernet, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec, which spent some 25 months in barrel before bottling. Mossop's own wines - named after his three kids and made here - are also pretty good, especially Max, a smooth, easier drinking more rustic-style Bordeaux blend.

 


Rickety Bridge was something of a surprise for me, not least because of all the wineries visited on this trip, it was the only one of which I had not heard. The head winemaker - the appropriately named Wynand Grobler - has been winning accolades for his Cabernets, especially the flagship Bridge (made in tiny quantities, in part from Bush Vines) and the very solid Paulina's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Grobler has expanded the range since taking over. Amongst the portfolio are two intriguing Semillon (one in the superior, Paulina's Reserve range), a delicious, well-balanced Chardonnay (albeit made in small amounts). There were also two very decent contrasting Chenin Blancs (the more expensive, the Paulina's Reserve, was left on the lees for 5 months, with 30% of the wine then barrel fermented and left to age for five months in French oak casts).

 

Less exciting though very much worth a visit was Groot Constantia, grande dame of South African wineries. The focus has remained on quality despite - or maybe because of - the winery's unusual ownership status: it is run commercially via a trust with all profits ploughed back into the business. The most noteworthy whites here were the Governor's Reserve 2010 - a well constructed blend of 87% Semilion and 13% Sauvignon Blanc - and the Governor's Chardonnay 2010 with nice vanilla flavours balancing the plentiful fruit, reflecting the 9 months in new French oak. Amongst reds, although most praise here usually goes towards the Governor's Reserve - the 2009 is a well-blanced blend of Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. However I found the Shiraz excellent: the 2010 is quite young but with lots of pepper and spice on both nose and palate, whilst the 2009 sulphur-free Shiraz is a joy, with lots of concentrated fruit and good structure.

 


So what does my brief but nonetheless highly instructive tour of the Cape tell me?

 

"Quality and diversity have been rising throughout the industry and this will continue - this is an exciting place to make wine and that is reflected on what ends up in the bottle," says Wines of South Africa's Su Birch.

 


I would have to agree. Ignore those who say South African wines are losing their edge and focus. In an increasingly uniform, homogenised world winemakers here are striving for individualism but also seeking to marry tradition with modernity. The results are impressive.

 

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