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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2013.


bot-river Whilst my tasting with a group of Hemel-en-Aarde producers later the same evening was a slightly formal affair - the rest of the group discreetly disappearing to allow each producer a bit of one-on-one time with me, usually spent in silence as I attempted to taste a total of 20 wines in one hour - the tasting with the Bot River band was a much more rumbustious affair, all gathered round a huge table and all chipping in, and occasionally heckling, as I tasted through each of their wines.

That informal, jovial tone is exemplified by the man mountain that is Niels Verburg (below), owner and winemaker at the regions' leading estate, Luddite Wines. Niels greeted me sporting a frankly scary assemblage of facial hair. Just the weekend before the region had hosted its annual 'Barrels and Beards' festival, a harvest festival with a difference where winery workers in the region (and beyond if they wish to participate) stop shaving between the start and end of harvest, then the beardy king is crowned during the weekend of festivities. It may be slightly exclusive (i.e. there hasn't been a female winner so far), but it sums up the irreverence and bonhomie of the region.

Niels The name Bot River derives from the settlers who stopped here to replenish water and feed livestock. Word spread that this was a great area for the production of butter, or 'botter' in Afrikaans, hence Bot River. It is a schizophrenic region that's sandwiched between Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde, but where the 12 producers seem more comfortable in trying to establish their own identity than throwing in their lot wholesale with either. All farms are family-owned and as Niels says, "Hopefully all on the same page." There is a real band of brothers and sisters feel here. "Oh yes, " says Bernard Heynes of Gabrielskloof, "There's no hesitation amongst the winemakers to pick up the phone and ask each other for help."

The Bot River valley is a natural bowl ringed by mountains. The valley heats up, but there's a stiff breeze from the sea eight kilometres away to compensate. Soils are mostly decomposing shale over clay, which Niels says is "Cool and rich," with pockets of Table Mountain sandstone, which tends to give racier and fresher wines.

With slight incongruity given this boisterous crew, we finished the tasting with tea, cucumber sandwiches and scones with cream and jam being served. These guys take themselves just seriously enough, and whilst Luddite remains the superstar of the region, there are other names here that are well worth investigation.


UK importer of Beaumont is Vincisive. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Beaumont Wines, Chenin Blanc Hope Marguerite 2012, South Africa
With a modest 12.6% abv this has a delicate nuttiness and honey, with nothing showy or overt. There's a suggestion that this is very ripe, very fine, and onto the palate it has a lovely balance between fresh, clear, running water clarity and the subtle concentration of the fruit. A touch of lime peel and melon peel, juicy fruit but a resolved clarity and harmony too. A delicate but deliciously drinkable style. 89-90/100.

Beaumont Wines, Vitruvian 2009, South Africa
A different beast with 14.46% abv, a blend of 32% Mourvèdre, 27% Pinotage, 27% Shiraz, 13% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. Gorgeous, creamy and lifted red and black fruit, with plenty of cassis and really ripe blackcurrant, lots of cream and cocoa, lots of plushness but has a suggestion of a firm backbone. The palate is juicy and has a big, lean, slightly gamy focus with chocolate covered cherry. The palate is smooth with really nice quality of oak that adds a smoky swirl and touch of plum skin, tart freshness. Lovely length. 92/100.


UK importer of Luddite Wines is Caves de Pyrène. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Luddite Wines, Chenin Blanc 2012, South Africa
All barrel fermented in old oak, "all sorts of ferment on skins," according to Niels. Lovely fresh colour and lots of flinty, mineral smokiness, some soft green herb notes too. The firm, crisp apple is there, but this is more about something mineral. Is there a touch of oak on this? It certainly has a little of that nutty quality, a touch of something toasty, but that could be minerality again expressed as a flinty, racy character. The sweet mid-palate ripeness and richness builds in a complex, long wine with concentration. An intriguing expression of Chenin. 91/100.

Luddite Wines, Shiraz 2008, South Africa
Meaty, gamy, northern Rhône style with lots of dark mulberry fruit and hints of chocolate, there are hints of leafiness and complexity too, a touch of pepper in a very attractive, complex nose. Beautiful palate. It has the sweetness of fruit of the Paardenkloof, but adds substantial layers beneath of full, creamy textured oak and plum, the tannins very svelte and creamy on the mid palate, and the spice and pepper filling in on the finish with a powerful freshness and length. 92/100.


UK importer of Gabrielskloof is Ellis of Richmond. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Gabrielskloof, Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc Magdalene 2011, South Africa
52% Semillon fermented in 500-litre casks, Romanian and French. The Sauvignon Blanc is unwooded. There's a creamy, gently almondy and toasty note here of barrel ferment, with the buttery and lemony aromas to the fore, much more white Bordeaux than Loire or NZ. The palate is very fresh, very vibrant, the lemony freshness coming through powerfully and the white fruit and mineral acidity. Does it have a slight hole in the middle/disjointedness? Very impressive, but perhaps that transition from creamy to crisp needs to be smoothed a little. 89/100.

Gabrielskloof, Five Arches 2009, South Africa
A big wine at 15.1% abv, this is 28% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 7% Petit Verdot. Big, coffee dominated nose, the Cab Franc, just about showing through with a freshening touch, plenty of spice and cedar is quite classic, certainly power here, but also a sense of clarity. On the palate it has a lot of dry extract, a lot of alcohol too, just giving a little heat, but again the quality of fruit, wood and the ripe but grippy tannins and acidity all nicely balanced. If this could have been a degree lower in alcohol with somehow the same phenolic ripeness, it would have been even better. 90/100.


UK offices: Barton Vintners, Tel: 01489 878673. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Barton Vintners, Chenin Blanc 2012, South Africa
Fresh, a touch of lemon and leafiness, though not hugely distinctive. The palate has fine juicy freshness though the ripe sweetness of the fruit is what makes this gently tropical and easy to drink. Dry in the finish, not complex but balanced. 86/100.

Barton Vintners, Merlot 2011
Creamy and gently earthy red and black berry fruits, this is direct and ripely juicy. The palate has a lean streak of firm, quite tight plum and black, tart fruit skins. There is a little coffee and earth in the finish, a roughening rustic tannin grip and enough fresh acidity. 87/100.


See international stockists of Wilderkrans on wine-searcher.

Wilderkrans, Methode Cap Classique 2010, South Africa
Made from Chenin Blanc. Fresh and appetising nose, with a touch of lime and lemon, but mostly a ripe apple fruitiness. A rolling, rich mousse, with a lovely sour apple and sour lemon fruit and acidity, with plenty of flavour and a nice element of toast to marry with the lovely apple acids. 88-89/100.

Wilderkrans, Chenin Blanc 2011, South Africa
This is made with 8.6g/l of residual sugar, so is just off dry. Much deeper, more yellow colour. Nutty, touches of nectarine or pineapple, a touch of syrup or honey on the nose too, some vanilla again. On the palate this is a big wine, the RS apparent, and against the structure and power of the wine it feels a little hot in the finish, perhaps a little disjointed. 86/100.

Wilderkrans, Pinotage 2010, South Africa
14.5% abv. Subtly rich, deep and creamy, the oak giving a deep sheen and gentle mintiness, even violet, just a touch of chocolate but nothing too showy in terms of the wood. The black fruit is rich and ripe, fleshy on the plate, showing a lovely weight and texture, plenty of sweetness, but a cut and freshness too. The juicy finish is beautifully judged, the oak again tight grained and fresh, though it does have spice and chocolate. 90-91/100.


See international stockists of Eerstehoop on wine-searcher.

Eerstehoop, Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, South Africa
Nicely earthy, a touch of game and animal quality here, the solid cassis and black fruit with cedary and incense finesse, but mostly about the black fruit. The firmness is there on the palate too, juicy, a big squirt of tart black cherry and blackcurrant, seems to have plenty of acidity and a freshness about the finish despite an impression of fruit sweetness. 88/100.


See international stockists of Genevieve on wine-searcher.

Genevieve, Methode Cap Classique 2010, South Africa
Specialises in Cap Classique sparkling wines. With only 10% abv, this cuvée is made from 100% Chardonnay. More yeasty autolytic notes here than the Wilderkrans, a touch of oak perhaps adding a creaminess and touch of buttery quality. On the palate it is creamier and richer too, with a delicious apple and snap of orange and lemon to the acidity. Stays full, but very nicely dry and crisp, very citrusy and juicy. 89/100.


See international stockists of Feiteiras wines on wine-searcher.

Feiteiras, Verdelho 2012, South Africa
Only 12.68% abv and plenty of aroma here, plenty of lemon verbena and touches of leafiness. The palate is bone dry, and racy, that acid keeping the picture sharp if not complex. 85-86/100.

Feiteiras, Troca Tintas, South Africa
14.5% abv and a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Shiraz. Quite freshly spicy, a touch of cedar, the fruit savoury and quite racy on the nose, with a little more vanilla coming through. The palate has really nice balance between sweet, ripe and full fruit and the racy leanness with a bit of tannin, though that is soft and gentle, and decent, with a lot of spice and really nice fresh character. 88/100.


See international stockists of Paardenkloof on wine-searcher.

Paardenkloof, Sauvignon Blanc 2012, South Africa
12.5% abv, with plenty of elderflower and thiol character, with a gooseberry freshness and hint of passionfruit. On the palate it has lots of juicy freshness and it is very dry, though perhaps a touch less decisive, a little hint of dilution, but fresh and appetising. 86-87/100.

Paardenkloof, Shiraz 2008, South Africa
15% abv, there's a slightly odd, vegetal and animal notes at first, a bit reductive perhaps, or is it just meatiness and oak character? Blows off, leaving a deep and quite meaty character. On the palate intense sweetness to the fruit, it is big, sweet and creamily ripe stuff, the tannins very ripe and smooth, the finish juicy, a real squirt of cherry to freshen. 88-89/100.


See international stockists of Rivendell on wine-searcher.

Rivendell, Sauvignon Blanc 2012, South Africa
12.5% abv, this is quite pungent and green, with loads of herbs and rosemary and dill, a real streak of herbaceousness over lemony fresh fruit. On the palate it has a really nice concentration, the fruit retains that herbaceous bite, but the apple and fresh, lemon really streaks through into a decisive, dry but long finish. 88/100.

return to South Africa 2013