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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.


Izele Van Blerk KWV was founded in 1918, and soon became a huge player in Paarl as the largest cooperative cellar, and went on to become one of the biggest wine producers in the country through both popular brands and a small range of very high-end wines that were amongst the Cape's earliest 'icon' bottles. KWV, owned by its grape growers, became a powerhouse of the South African industry. As wine writer Michael Fridjhon wrote: "[KWV] managed the minimum pricing system, the maximum permitted yields per farm, the wine shows and competitions, the drafting of wine-associated legislation and most of the country's wine exports in the apartheid era."

But times change and KWV faced governmental and industry pressure to give up some of its power. After many a long battle, in the 1990s that started to change, including conversion from cooperative to publically owned company, but it also marked a period of steep decline including KWV being implicit in the 'flavourants scandal', guilty of adding flavours to its Sauvignon Blanc. Something had to be done, and KWV put together a board of 'mentors' including senior winemaking figures Neil Ellis and Charles Back who began to re-engineer the company and its products. KWV also embraced empowerment, with a black empowerment consortium taking 25.1% of the company in 2004, then new cellars were built for making premium wines in 2007. KWV's rehabilitation was under way.

I met up with bright and confident winemaker Izele Van Blerk in the 'Sensorium' an impressive tasting and art gallery space within KWV's Paarl HQ that opened last year. Izele is responsible for KWV's top red wines including those under the Mentors range ("where the focus is terroir, climate and varietal expression," says Izele) and the iconic 'Perold' label. Interestingly, and I suspect much to her bemusement, Izele has also been given the responsibility for KWVs portfolio of RTDs (Read to Drink mixed drinks and cocktails). I guess that is all part of the flexibility needed in a megalith like KWV that is constantly trying new things to change the business.

Before we returned to HQ for a large tasting of only the top wines in the KWV portfolio, a tour of the Mentors cellar were they are made showed the state of the art equipment and substantial investment there has been in recent years, even though we also passed through some far less impressive old facilities. Clearly KWV is on a journey, with much remaining still to do.

the wines

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KWV, The Mentors Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2012, South Africa
Pleasingly tropical and nectarine nose, plenty of fresh but ripe exotic fruit. A little of the thiol punch and green character, lots of grassiness. The palate has real concentration, a big blast of lemony fruit, tinged with pineapple and full, textural richness but finishing nice and dry, lots of tang and Marlborough-like punch. 88/100. 500 or so 6 bottle cases

KWV, The Mentors Darling Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Perhaps a little crisper and more citrus on the nose, with passionfruit and gooseberry, but hinting at the tropical again. Seems a tiny bit more dilute on the palate, or rather less concentrated, but with a racier character and a lovely bug lime blast ion the finish. Very dry and juicy, and a lovely vibrant but slightly more vivacious expression. 89-90/100.

KWV, The Mentors Elgin Chardonnay 2012
80% of blend fermented with indigenous yeast, only 10% went through malo. Barrel fermented and matured in barrel, nine months, 50% new. Big programme of regional selection and barrel programmes to find the right style for Chardonnay. Hazelnut and cream on the nose, plenty of orchard fruit and a hint of lemon and minerals too. Delicious blast of sweet fruit, but a big squirt of orange juice acidity, shimmering and long but is there just a tiny note of cloying sugar in the finish (4.04g/l) so probably just ripe sweet fruit. 89-90/100.

KWV, The mentors Coastal region Chenin Blanc 2012
65% Paarl fruit, 35% Swartland. Two components fermented in barrel, one with indigenous yeasts, three further months in barrel for these after blending, but one third tank fermented. Subtle and nutty, some Cox's Pippin fruit. The palate has an intense sweetness of fruit, a real hit of honey and the vanilla and cream adding to the impression of sweetness. In fact only 2.88g/l sugar, but overall impression is sweetness despite a very good, dry apple acidity. 89-90/100.

KWV, The Mentors Western Cape Grenache Blanc 2011
Fermented with Rhone yeasts in tank, half way through, 60% moved to barrel, all older barrels. No malolactic. Lovely nose, apricot and a touch of marzipan/almond, those custard and apple pie aromas more than overt fruit. The palate is sweet and ripe, a touch of dilution just in the finish perhaps, but an interesting and successful style. 88/100.

KWV, The Mentors Coastal Region 2011
90% Stellenbosch fruit, 10% Paarl. 18 months in oak, 85% French and 15% American, 70% new oak. Very attractive nose, with a nice cherry and red fruit brightness, a hint of red liquorice, and a touch of char, but not coffeeish. The fruit is very sweet, but there does seem to be a lot of oak here, massively sweet fruit, elegant cassis and cherry, quite refined chocolate tannins and a bit of spice, and it does feel a touch hot in the finish perhaps, though the ripeness is delicious, it perhaps lacks just a touch of structure and the acid is a little lemony. 88/100.

KWV, The Mentors Coast Region Shiraz 2011
83% Paarl fruit, 10% Swartland, 7% Banhoek, 25% whole berry. This goes into barrel for 18 months, 85% French. Nice kirsch and cherry brightness of red fruit, with a very ripe profile, added to by the creamy oak overlay. Oak arguably a little dominant on the palate, this is very creamy and ripe and richly chocolaty, masses of big Barossa power. 89/100.

KWV, The Mentors Coastal Region Cabernet Franc 2010
From Stellenbosch area. 18 months in 70 new French oak. Has that lovely green twist and olive character of the Cab franc, in a big wine with some black liquorice and black berries nicely there, oak seems quite nicely handled. The palate has a lovely juiciness, but I really like the leaner, green touch here that keeps everything on an edge - more of an edge than the Shiraz, with a long finish, not showing the heat too much. 90/100.

KWV, The Mentors Western Cape Orchestra 2010
Stellenbosch, Paarl and Bot River fruit. 16 months in French oak, all new. 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 17% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 5% Malbec. Very nice nose, tight and glossy black fruit, but quite refined, creamy oak and a touch of cedar, a hint of game or leather in the background. The palate has massive fruit sweetness, real luxe black fruit flooding the palate in creamy concentration. There's a sweetness here that is almost too much for my taste, though there is a nice balancing tannin and acid. 90/100.

KWV, The Perold Tributum 2011
40% Shiraz from Paarl, Swartland and Stellenbosch, 30% Pinotage, 15% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, spending 18 months in 90% French, 10% American, 70% new. Dramatically dark colour. Touch baked in quality perhaps - seems Shiraz to me - quite subtle, but the oak nicely handled and the creamy quality of the fruit being offset by a touch of smoke or subtle meatiness. The palate has a massive fruit presence, with delicious mid-palate sweetness, the power of the wine is obvious, the concentration, but the big drying effect of powerhouse tannins is delightful, acidity good adding a cherry bite, and the oak just fills in on the finish to support with some coffee and spice. 92-93/100.

KWV, The Perold Insignis 2011
18 months in barrel, 85% French and 15 American, 300+500, 70% new. 100% Shiraz. Very lifted, cherry and violet aromas, with a touch of real gamy perfume, this has nice Shiraz character and Shiraz perhaps, but buoyant and juicy. I like that red berry and cherry fruit as it continues on the palate, plenty of structure here, squirting juiciness, but lots of structural tannin and acidity keeping this very fresh, very juicy and concentrated with lovely spice and structure, but in some ways more elegant. 93/100.

KWV, Cape Tawny
Tinta Barocca, Cinsault and Sousão that spends 8 - 10 years in 300 and 500 litre barrels. 17.5% abv. Deliciously chocolaty and walnutty stuff, with massive sweet raisings at the core, coffee and toffee. The palate has gorgeous walnut and raisin sweetness and depth, coating with espresso and mocha and 128g/l RS, but such fine balancing acidity and spicy heat. Delicious and long and a stunning bargain as it costs around £3.50 per bottle locally. 91/100.

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