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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2010 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2010.


What connects Flagstone, one of the Cape's quirkiest and most experimental wine companies and Kumala, one of its biggest mass-market brands? The answer is Bruce Jack (seeking divine inspiration, right).

It was something of a shock in February 2008 when it was announced that Constellation Brands, the world's biggest wine company, had bought Flagstone. Under Bruce Jack, Flagstone had developed a reputation as one of the Cape's best, but most idiosyncratic wineries producing mould-breaking wines of very high quality. Quite how that would fit in with the uber-commercial Constellation, masters of big-selling world wine brands, was baffling. Even more surprising was the news that as part of the takeover deal, Bruce Jack had also agreed to become Constellation's winemaking supremo in South Africa, in charge of both brands.
   sa-bruce-jack (31K)

Launched in 1995 into the UK, Kumala has been part of South Africa's emergence onto the world wine stage. Last year, 31.5 million bottles were produced - "the same as the number of seconds in a year," quips Bruce, but is staggering to think of one bottle per second as the production rate. The winery facility I visited is for the Flagstone wines: blending and bottling for Kumala is done by 12 suppliers, with wine also shipped to Bristol in bulk for bottling in the biggest bottling hall in Europe, Constellation's facility at Avonmouth.

Bruce has made it his mission to retain Flagstone's quirkiness and to improve Kumala. Indeed he says that Constellation have been supportive in both aims, which makes the decision of 2008 a little easier to understand. "Kumala is market led," says Bruce, "whilst Flagstone is nerd led".

Perhaps Constellation's willingness to let the Flagstone brand continue to be made by a 'nerd' for 'nerds' is because Bruce Jack is having such an impact on Kumala. It has grown 20% by volume and 19% by value in the past 18 months, its 31.5 million bottles dwarfing Flagstone's sizeable 450,000 production. And quality is good too: as an over-familiar big brand it had been a long time since I sat down to really taste the Kumala range, and this tasting provided a very pleasant surprise.

Flagstone's wines

UK Agent is Constellation Brands, but see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Fish Hoek Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Lovely fresh nose, lots of vivacious fruit and zing, with a nice herbal quality. The palate has plenty of fruit and plenty of punchy, leafy, vibrant citrus and just hints at a tropical sweetness. Lovely stuff. 87/100.

Fish Hoek Chenin Blanc 2009
Very punchy and vibrant, with a bit of leafy green punch to crisp, crunchy green apple. Little pineapple notes of ripeness. Balanced palate, with lovely juicy acidity and lemony fruit. Tangy and delicious. 87/100

Free Run Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Elim fruit ("place of God" from the old testament). Fantastically vibrant nose, with quite delicate pea-shoot and leafy green herb notes. Lovely fresh citrus fruit, with lots of finesse. 89/100.

Flagstone Sauvignon Semillon Blend 2009
100% barrel fermented with tiny percentage of Viognier and Riesling. Beautifully creamy, oatmeal touch to the nose. Lovely fat lemon fruit, with an Asian pear coolness and fantastic sense of sweetness. Has a lovely confit lemon peel concentration on the palate. Lovely length. 90/100. £14.99

Flagstone Writer's Block Pinotage 2008
Single vineyard in Worcester, over 15 years old. Fantastic nose, with a suede-like density to the fruit that forms a deep, deep pool of silky black and red fruit. Fills the palate with extraordinary sweet fruit, the softest tannin structure and the purity of fruit coming through beautifully. 92/100. £14.99 Wimbledon Wine Merchants and independents. 2006 vintage in Wine Society.

Flagstone Music Room Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
Wonderfully, ripe, creamy, chocolaty black fruit. Lots of spice, lots of chocolate, lots of silkiness, terrifically plush, but edged with a sinewy, liquorice tight edge. Fabulous stuff. 93/100.

Dark Horse Shiraz 2007
Very fragrant, floral and very spicy aromatics with clove and cinnamon, a delightfully herbal quality and tight, dusty black fruit. Immense fruit sweetness, with blackcurrant and bittersweet dark chocolate racing across the tongue. The tannins are fine, and though this has density and intense concentration, there is a freshening liquorice edge and clean acidity. Long and tantalising stuff. 92/100.

Kumala's wines

UK Agent is Constellation Brands, but see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Kumala Chenin Blanc Chardonnay 2009
Aromatic and sweet nose, with apple fruit and some pear skin grip. Nice mouth-feel and richness, with plenty of tang and vibrancy, a flattering touch of RS and nicely balanced acidity. 85/100.

Kumala Colombard Chardonnay 2009
Aromatic, with a bit of vivacious style, quite punchy. The palate has a certain richness and glycerine quality, much more lemony fruit, and a clean, quite dry finish with a bit of bitter orangey tang. 86/100.

Kumala Rosé 2009
Soft, ripe, appealing nose, a touch of leafiness and red berry fruits. The palate has a nicely dry acidity, but the soft strawberry fruit and juiciness is very pleasant. 84/100.

Kumala Pinotage Shiraz 2009
Peppery, spicy ripe cherry and black berry fruit. Nice floral lift too. The palate has real fruit sweetness and juiciness, a particularly easy-drinking, sweeter style, but not cloying. Good, fresh acidity. 84/100.

Kumala Cabernet Shiraz 2009
Fairly subdued nose, with quite soft black fruit. Sweet and rich on the palate, with a bit of earthy grip, but really about the soft, creamy fruit and finishing sweetness, but drinkable and balanced by good acidity. 84/100.

return to South Africa 2010