2012 - some reflections
Wine has been the winner in this year of 2012; so, despite the industry’s many other troubles, wine is a deserving focus for my final scribblings until 2013.
If any variety or style has defined the year, it’s chenin blanc. The sheer momentum of experimentation and success with this most planted of grapes in South Africa has propelled diversity and quality at a breathtaking pace; I guess what has been achieved the past two years has covered as much ground as the previous ten or eleven. And don’t those former sweetish, heavily oaked wines that were designed to make a statement when South Africa got serious about chenin, now look so horribly old-fashioned. Yes, we still have oaked, richly-textured versions, but the oak has taken on a new supportive role, while fruit and richness, even a gram or two of sugar, is counteracted by a natural vitality. For those who prefer the challenge of a more oxidative style, there is better understanding of how to achieve it with a generosity of flavour and texture rather than as a misinterpretation of oxidised. Even more daring are those who put their reputation on the line with an austere, lower alcohol wine yet one packed with flavour and the potential to blossom. That too is being successfully negotiated; skill, especially at minimal interference level, is on show across the board.
Sometimes the vinification is straightforward, others split both harvesting times and employ a bewildering variety of methods to reach their desired goal. But what links the best are the crown jewels of old vines, mostly bush, some dryland, with low yield but incredible concentration.
My favourites of the year: the elegant Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2011, certainly now one of South Africa’s most consistent and best; DeMorgenzon 2010, the last made by Teddy Hall for the Appelbaums with current incumbent, Carl van der Merwe’s 2011 promising steady succession; Lammershoek 2011, low sulphur, and the Mullineux’s Wine Club Chenin 2011, no sulphur added, show just how technically sure-footed our winemakers have become while never losing sight of trying to reflect a sense of place; Chris and Suzaan Alheit’s Cartology 2011, which has as much intrigue as the Hampton Court maze. Intriguing too is its almost immediate cult status, which even at the lofty, for chenin, price of R185, just flew from the shelves before any dust could even think of settling. Eben Sadie’s Platter five star Skurfberg, WO Olifantsrivier, intense flavours and bone dry.
Just as we’re drinking in the deliciousness of these wines, along comes Mount Abora Koggelbos Chenin 2011 (R100 retail); don’t be deluded by an apparent slightness, there are few chenins with more flavour, freshness or finish but the full spectrum has yet to be released, the only hint of the glories in store are the fresh honey, winter melon fragrance, promising more truffly decadence with time.
This wine already has attracted much positive attention, as has the Saffronne (R60), a 2012 cinsaut Blanc de Noir, made along the lines of a base wine for Cap Classique, with 10.8% alcohol, which alone should wheedle its way into your heart, but with six months on lees which has focused flavours and balance. Dubbed the pinot of the Swartland by marketing guy, Krige Visser, its persuasive delicacy is an absolute delight.
Look out too for the soon to be released Antebellum Syrah 2012, joining the already released Chenin Blanc 2012 (R60). Antebellum is another rather than second label, though more reasonably priced than Mount Abora wines. Winemaker, Johan Meyer (pictured) has an unusual method to achieve integration in such young red wines, he does a warm post-ferment maceration, but as with his other wines, vinification is carried out in various ways; here part of the syrah was destemmed and fermented as whole berries in tank, the balance crushed and fermented as whole bunches in tank and 4000 litre vat. Ageing in older French barriques followed. Again, alcohol is a lowish 12.5%. Whispers of fynbos, herbs and spice provide the gentlest of fragrance, while precocious integration of fine, grainy tannins with fleshy succulence concludes a delicious winner at R70. Mount Abora will soon be spoken of alongside the likes of Mullineux and Sadie, mark my words.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, there are still whites to mention; as many of my colleagues have expressed, our white wines are surging ahead, while reds’ progess hiccups along.
Talking of surging ahead, the wine style that must be the fastest growing is Méthode Cap Classique. The biggest problem I see with these bubblies is that they’re released too young before they have the chance to acquire complexity with time on the lees. Chatting to John Loubser, who, apart from being GM of Steenberg is, with his wife, Karen, founder of the Silverthorn label, he confirms it’s one of the most technical styles to make, so needs specialist expertise and time. Which is why the Loubsers new Silverthorn Jewel Box 2009, with 36 months on the lees, nabs my best bubbly of the year. Here are my thoughts from the launch
Chardonnay is quietly discovering new identities, again with less oak and oiliness, more structure and core vitality. Ataraxia 2011, the first from Kevin Grant’s own Hemel en Aarde Ridge own fruit, De Wetshof The Site 2011 typify the more compact, vibrant yet well-oaked style, while the lesser-known Koelfontein 2010, from near Ceres, is deliciously rich yet fresh. My favourites in 2012.
If mainstream is getting more interesting, the appearance of new(ish) varieties has upped the ante in 2012. Craig Hawkins Lammershoek Cellarfoot Harslevelu 2011 gives a new lease of life to a variety last enjoying niche popularity in the days when Janey Muller was at Lemberg. The name translates as lime leaf and this refreshingly dry wine does have a brightness and freshness with a hint of citrus. Just slightly better known is that Rhône grape, roussanne but the few producers of a varietal wine do a good job; watch out for Ken Forrester’s maiden 2012, which lit up my taste buds at his ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ tasting.
Has sauvignon blanc so fallen from flavour that it doesn’t get a mention? No, there are better than ever examples: the last Steenberg Reserve from 2011 (part of the vineyard has been uprooted to due unviable yields), Shannon Sanctuary Peak 2012 with an influential semillon input, but for sheer value and quaffability with quality, that Du Toitskloof 2012, which cracked the FNB Top Ten, can’t be beaten. Sauvignon blanc is alive and well, long live sauvignon blanc! But having said that, I do see an increasing number of varietally labelled sauvignons including some semillon for both flavour and textural dimension. But then I also see the white Bordeaux-style blend growing. As the vertical of Vergelegen and the smaller one of Steenberg Magna Carta also showed, the style has wonderful ageing potential.
So to the memorable reds, where the stars are individuals rather than categories. Unlike some white varieties, there isn’t similar consistency across the range.
The undisputed two best red wines I’ve tasted this year are both 2009 cabernets, grown and made across the road from each other: Thelema 2009 and Delaire Graff Reserve 2009. Both are majestic and will mature over many years. If you don’t believe Stellenbosch is cabernet country and 2009 is a ‘vintage’ vintage, these should convince.
More sterling cabernet but in blends: Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer 2009 is receiving mixed reviews, some calling it too elegant; not me. You need to taste this wine until it’s well down the oesophagus to appreciate its length and richness yet to evolve. Shiraz (90%) might dominate the Reyneke Reserve 2009 but that splash of cabernet lends a completely different and distinctive dimension. It’s the best South African wine I’ve ever tasted from this combination; at the time of trying it with the Reyneke team (pictured)I compared it with Domaine de Trévallon, a renowned cabernet/shiraz blend from close to the mouth of the Rhône. For those whose pockets don’t run to three figures, the Reyneke Syrah 2011 intrigues with its fynbos, buchu perfume and silky delicacy. Like the Antebellum Syrah, it offers far more than many more expensive varietal shirazes.
Finally and since we’re dabbling in the Rhône, mourvèdre aficionados can start to anticipate more exciting local varietal offerings – hopefully correctly spelt and accented! Bandol is not well known nor represented here, but this French appellation is the spiritual home of mourvèdre, while in the southern Rhône it’s an important component in Chateauneuf du Pape.
Beaumont 2009, Lammershoek Cellarfoot 2010 and, by joining the Mullineux’s Wine Club, their 2011 (to be included in the April 2013 pack); these are the three to look out for to get a grip on this variety.
I’m hoping 2013 brings a similar embarrassment of riches.