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South African update, part I

Text and Photographs © Tom Cannavan, 08/05

South Africa 2005 part I - South Africa report from 2002

This is part II of my 2005 update on the South African wine scene.

part I: South African overview, plus six producer profiles

Spier Estate, Stellenbosch

Spier is more than a winery, it is also a sybaritic luxury resort just outside the town of Stellenbosch with an eco-village hotel, and complex of restaurants, theatres, and various attractions. Part of the larger Winecorp group, Spier the winery is headed up by winemaker Frans Smit, who has overseen a 20 million Rand building project completed in 2001, that increased capacity and provides a highly flexible winery with 4,500 barrel maturation cellar.

Spier Estate dates originally from the 17th century, and Smit says that he wants to reflect the local terroir in his wines, whilst "retaining the complexity and finesse of the natural fruit." This is reflected in two main ranges: 'Inspire' that is a higher volume brand, and the 'Private Collection' of premium wines.

Spier "Inspire" Cabernet Sauvignon 2003
There are pencil-shaving and espresso notes over very dark, currant and black cherry fruit. There's a nice racy, crispness about this wine on the palate, with a seam of black fruit, more smoky oak, and a liquoricy grip of tannin. £5.99
UK Agent: PLB Group Ltd, Tel: 01342 318282

Spier Private Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2004
This has concentrated passionfruit aromas, and hints of more exotic fruit. On the palate it delivers a great sweep of asparagus and nettle-tinged citrus, with masses of crisp, melon and white fruit flavours and a good balance of vivid lime acidity. £9.99

Stellekaya Wines, Stellenbosch

By contrast, Stellekaya was born only in 1999. For now, the modern, cleverly designed boutique winery occupies a slightly unglamorous slot in the middle of an old brandy warehouse in the town of Stellenbosch. But owner David Lello has a hugely ambitious project that was well underway at the time of my spring 2005 visit to create a whole 'village' called Bosman's Crossing from the complex. An attractive, sun-drenched town square, shops, restaurants and hotels are nearing completion, with Stellekaya slap-bang in the middle. Winemakers here are the highly experienced Peet le Roux and Kwa-Zulu Natal-born Nontsike Biyela, the first black woman graduate of Stellenbosch University's winemaking course.

Stellekaya makes only red wines, a situation that pleases Biyela, "It is wonderful working for a cellar concentrating on small volumes made from specially selected grapes. Cold soaking and maceration, as well as working with open fermenters, gives the winemaker personal contact with the wines".
  david lello

Stellekaya Southern Cross 2003
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinotage, this is juicy and approachable, with svelte black fruit on the nose and a fine, smooth palate with a fudge-like depth, plenty of cassis, chocolate and a juicy acidity.
UK Agent: Auromeera Fine Wines, Tel: 0208 777 4512

Fairview Estate, Paarl

The wines of Charles Back's Fairview Estate will be familiar to most readers, as will the Fairview wine farm's resident goats, who have found fame through Back's punnily named Rhône-style wines like 'Goat's do Roam' and 'Goat-Rôtie'. Recently added to the estate is an excellent restaurant ('The Goat Shed') where farm-produced cheeses and artisan breads can be washed down with estate wines at cellar-door price.

Invention is the name of the game at Fairview, with new labels like the Agostinelli Sangiovese and new wines like 'Caldera', made from 60-year-old bush-vine Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah joining more established bottlings. Winemaker Anthony de Jager had a long stint working with Chapoutier, which helps explain a continuing obsession in these typical Rhône grape varieties.

Fairview Oom Pagel Semillon 2002
Superbly rich and buttery, toasty notes are layered thickly over waxy peach and lime fruit. On the palate this is intense and spicy, though the smooth texture and tangy orangy acidity keep it very fresh. £9.99

Fairview Caldera 2003
There's a keen, schisty, mineral quality to cherry fruit on the nose, with a fine, raspberry component. On the palate there is cocoa-dusted cherry fruit and a peppery note with a balanced, elegant finish. £10.99
UK Agent: Charles Hawkins, Tel: 01572 823 030

Vilafonté, Paarl

This brand new name is a joint venture involving Mike Ratcliffe, Managing Director of Warwick Estate, Phil Freese, ex-head of vine growing for Robert Mondavi, Zelma Long (right), who is one of the world's great winemaking names and Bartholomew Broadbent, an important wine distributor in the USA. The partnership has acquired a single vineyard called Vilafonté in the Paarl region to make tiny amounts of ultra-premium wines for the UK and US markets.Freese has so far planted 12 of Vilafonté's 42 hectares with Bordeaux varieties, and less than 50 per cent of that fruit makes it into the two estate wines (the rest is sold off to other producers).

For now the wine is being made in the Tokara winery, though Vilafonté intends to build its own facility in due course. The first two wines have just been released in the UK, priced around £30 and £40 respectively. "Series C" and "Series M" are blends intended to express a Cabernet character (C) or Merlot character (M). Though these varieties are dominant in the blends for the first release, Long says that won't necessarily always be the case - it is the character that is important rather than the specific varietal blend.
  zelma long

Vilafonté Series 'M' 2003
Spicy, cedary and earthy quality, with black cherry fruit on the nose. The palate it juicy and filled with blackcurrant fruit, with a rasp of bittersweet plum skin and cherry acidity. Plummy fruit persists, with a deepening chocolaty character. £30
UK Agent: Louis Latour, Tel: 020 7409 7092

Vrede en Lust, Paarl

Dana Buys studied IT and Management at Harvard University, and whilst there, formulated a business plan for a highly unusual wine estate, that would be very tourist friendly, and would sell directly from the 'cellar door' and its online store. In 1996, whilst working as chairman of an international software company, Buys had the chance to buy the 300-year-old Vrede en Lust estate. 2002 saw the firs release of their wines. After extensive renovations, chic and luxurious guesthouses and the old Cape Dutch manor house - complete with garden and pool - are available to rent. The spacious and beautiful tasting area is a popular destination for weddings and conferences.

Managing the farm is Dana Buys' brother Etienne, and winemaker is Stephane de Saint Salvi, a wiry, good-humoured Frenchman, born and trained in Bordeaux. The 35,000 case winery was designed by former Mondavi Winemaker of the year, Günter Brözel to be neat, easy to work, and highly efficient. Bordeaux blends are the main focus here, though there is some Shiraz and Chardonnay too.

Vrede en Lust 'Jacques de Savoye' Classic 2002
A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec, this spends one year in French oak barrels (25 per cent of them new). It is meaty, dark and rich, with svelte black fruit opening out to a broadening, dark, plummy character.
Available from:

Boekenhoutskloof, Franschhoek

Marc Kent is dressed-down in open-necked shirt and jeans, and this relaxed style extends to his demeanour, despite the fact that my visit coincided with the height of the 2005 harvest. His cell-phone burbled almost constantly until he flicked the off-switch and began opening bottles instead. Boekenhoutskloof (the name comes from the Boekenhouts, or beech trees on the farm) is one of the hottest names in South African wine currently, their brilliant portfolio extending from the value 'Porcupine Ridge' brand, through to the much-lauded estate wines. Though Boekenhoutskloof dates from 1771, Kent and a group of partners purchased it only in 1993. Since then, he has constantly tweaked his operation to extract maximum quality

Boekenhoutskloof has become a major force in South Africa, with 1.5 million bottles produced. Eighty per cent of that is for the Porcupine Ridge label, produced in a separate facility, whilst the top estate wines - including a brilliant old-vines Semillon and superb French oak-aged Syrah - account for only five per cent of production.
  marc kent

Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2003
Two-thirds of this wine is aged in French oak barrels, giving it a very elegant, cedary, aspect on the nose and a lovely core of black fruit. On the palate there is copious black fruit that is bittersweet and svelte. £6.99

Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2003
Full, creamy, butter and lemon-scented nose with tons of developing waxy character. On the palate there is a fine, lime-fruited core to this wine, supported by toasty oak that adds breadth and warmth, before a lemon and mineral acidity into the finish. £17.99
UK Agent: Charles Hawkins, Tel: 01572 823 030

pick of other wines tasted

white wines

Forrester Meinert Chenin Blanc 2003, Stellenbosch
This stunning Chenin has a honeyed, nutty, sumptuous nose that brims with peach and nectarine and a limpid, honeyed character. Rich and textured on the palate, there's a blast of ruby grapefruit acidity that cuts through all the opulence. £14.99, Selected Waitrose

Iona Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2004, Elgin
Also from the Elgin valley, Iona's wines are made at the Tokara winery whilst their own cellar is completed. Quite delicate and crisp, this classically-styled Sauvignon has melon and greengage fruit on the nose and a full, leesy palate with plenty of zest and juicy acidity. £11.49, UK Agent: Enotria Cellars, Tel: 0208 961 4411

Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc 2004, Elgin
The very cool apple-growing district of Elgin is one of the most talked about up and coming areas, especially for aromatic white wines. This is very punchy, with some asparagus and herbal notes giving way to yellow plum and more tropical fruit, before a decisive grapefruit acidity. £8.49, UK Agent: McKinley Vintners, Tel: 020 7928 7300

Vergelegen Chardonnay 2003, Stellenbosch
Superstar André van Rensburg continues his good work with a fine range of wines, including this modestly-priced Chardonnay that has toasty, hazelnut notes underpinning scintillating ripe pear and tropical fruit on the palate, with fine acidity and balance. £7.99, UK Agent: Paragon Vintners, Tel: 0207 887 1800

red wines

Dornier Wines 'Donatus' Red Wine 2002, Stellenbosch
Eighteen months in new French oak has imbued this wine with a cedary, spice-box nose that is fabulously aromatic. It bursts with ripe berry fruit onto the palate, with a mocha-coffee darkness and impressive length. Around £15, UK Agent: Vinnovative Imports, Tel: 01704 489 9463

Flagstone Winery 'Mary Le Bow' 2003, Somerset West
Bruce Jack has created a beautifully creamy, pure, black-fruited 'Bordeaux blend' wine suffused with coffee and spice and a fine, dark, plummy core. Savoury and perfectly-balanced, this is a great standard bearer for modern South African wine. £28.50, The Wine Society

The Foundry Syrah 2002, Stellenbosch
An absolutely terrific wine, co-fermented with a little Viognier, that is imbued with all sorts of herb and garrigue notes amongst copious black fruit. The bittersweet palate is elegant, yet rich and substantial. £17.99, UK Agent: Richards Walford, Tel: 01780 460451

Haute Cabrière Pinot Noir 2002, Franschhoek
Very densely planted vines (10,000 per hectare) is one of the secrets to the quality here, with a truffly, earthy nose and flood of soft berry fruit, leading on to a palate that is full of finesse, with sweet fruit, fine tannins and a discretely toasty finish. Around £15, UK Agent: Old House Wines, Tel: 01743 465005

Starke-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon 'Condé' 2003, Stellenbosch
Jose Condé makes hand-crafted 'boutique' wines in small, open-top fermenters. This has a very pure, brilliant black fruit dusted with cedar and incense. On the palate there is a grippy cherry-skin quality but a seam of pure black fruit and lovely sweetness. £14.49, UK Agent: Stratford's Wine Agencies, Tel:01628 810606

Rupert & Rothschild 'Classique' 2002, Franschhoek
Michel Rolland is consultant here, and the Classique is a typically well-made, camphor and blackcurrant-scented Bordeaux blend with a supple palate showing a very good fruit quality and an elegant, fine, tannin and acid balance. £11.99, UK Agent: Marne & Champagne, Tel: 0207 499 0070

go to part I: South African overview, plus six producer profiles