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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.


Wilhelm Driving through the gates of Nederburg's dreamy, ancient estate in Paarl took me back to 2002, as this was the very first South African wine estate I ever visited. With its vast lawns, towering oak and plane trees and magnificent thatched Manor House, it is one of the must-see estates of the Paarl region.

Winemaker Wilhelm Pienaar met me and we immediately made our way to the recently completed and enormous new cellars. Wilhelm who trained in Montpellier is one of five winemakers, all aged between 33 and 35 years of age, so it is a young team. "We process 33 different grape varieties," he tells me, "so although we are a big company we have a philosophy of trying things out - 'driven by innovation and passion' is our motto." Wilhelm also says that despite being a colossus and cornerstone of the giant Distell portfolio, Nederburg is "A very stimulating environment to work in." Four big receiving areas process up to 1000 tons of grapes per day, but there are separate vibrating sorting tables for wines in the Manor House range upward, with "Lots of investment to upgrade quality."

Almost everything in the winery is moved by gravity, and with this scale there is certainly flexibility with tanks of every shape and size able to be fitted to the batch and the style needed. "We own six different farms across the Western Cape, including the home vineyard in Paarl, in Swartland and in Darling," he tells me, and they work with 30 on long term, exclusive contracts. "We do make single vineyard wines," says Wilhelm, "but we don't promote them as such - it's not on the label."

oak chips As we wander through the older, more industrial cellar beside the glistening stainless steel temple of the newest one, Wilhelm talks openly about the sacks of oak chips I see lying in a bay, even agreeing to open up a sack of used chips to show me how they look having done their job. There is a sense of openness about the commercial side of the operation that for visiting journalists would once have been shuttered behind the marketing spin of top wines, the Manor House and the sculpted lawns. That is refreshing.

the wines

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Nederburg, Manor House Sauvignon Blanc 2012, South Africa
Western Cape fruit from Darling, Philadelphia and Durbanville plus Elgin. Quite a rich and tropical nose, with exotic fruits and an almost creamy note. Quite fresh on the palate, a wisp of smokiness perhaps, but a piercing fruit quality with a lot of tangy, lemon rind freshness. Very nice concentration and lip-smacking, juicy finish in a nicely balanced, dry SB. 87-88/100.

Nederburg, The Young Airhawk Sauvignon Blanc 2012, South Africa
Darling and Durbanville, 7% Semillon from Philadelphia. 3/3/3 new oak, 2nd and 3rd fill. Quite a dominant oak character, lots of almond and marzipan, a touch of mealy, smokiness. Big blast of ripe nectarine-like fruit on the palate. There's a juicy, fine apple coolness and acidity too, adding a lovely smoothing balance, with a touch of spice and a touch of nuttiness in the finish. 89/100. Morrisons.

Nederburg, The Anchorman Chenin Blanc 2012, South Africa
Quarter each from Swartland, Durbanville, Paarl, Darling. Part fermented in foudre, part in barrel and 25% through carbonic maceration. Nice deep yellow/gold, with bright lemon rind and apple skin fruit that seems tangy and fresh, some nuttiness and a hint of toffee too, I prefer the oak handling on this. On the palate the there is a honeyed sweetness to this, and there's a dry, apple-core finish that is dry and succulent, a bit of fat. 89/100.

Nederburg, Ingenuity White Blend 2011, South Africa
Based on Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Semillon (60%), with Viognier, Riesling (30%) and with Muscat, Gewurz, Chenin, Verdelho or Nouvel - it changes. Parts of the blend are barrel fermented and aged. The best wines of the vintage are put on the table and selected. Creamy oatmeal leesy character here, a lemony character too, seems light with a touch of floral character in a gentle complexity. The palate has a freshness, a poise and a succulent juiciness that has some flesh and has some sour orange acidity adding a bracing, slightly saline character. An interesting wine that has both weight and creaminess, but the finish has that salty, freshness and subtle intensity. 92/100.

Nederburg, Manor House Shiraz 2010, South Africa
From Philadelphia. Very nice schist, cool, peppery aromatics. \Tight blackcurrant fruit beneath. There's a fat, sweet black fruit suppleness, with a rounding chocolate and coffee beneath, and a nicely grippy and tangy, lots of bracing acid and tannin bite adding a lovely freshness to a big wine. 89-90/100.

Nederburg, Manor House Shiraz Mourvèdre 2010, South Africa
From darling, A Fairtrade wine. A little more blunt on the nose, with plumier, less fresh fruit quality, a bit of meat and leather too. The palate has delicious tangy freshness again from those well-handled tannins and fresh plum skins grip, but there is a bit of meaty quality here, the fruit plumier and more full, and finishing with a bit of heat and plenty of spice. 90/100. Exclusive for Swedish monopoly.

Nederburg, The Motorcycle Marvel 2010, South Africa
Grenache, Carignan, Shiraz, the first two old bush vines, from Swartland and towards Wellington, Shiraz from Philadelphia. A little baked and leathery on the nose, a little nutty note, then good fruit comes through, black and red fruits but very solid. A touch of meatiness. Lots of full, confiture sweetness on the palate, a chocolaty richness and juicy quality, a big raft of savoury, racy fruit despite the big-scaled quality of this wine. 90/100. In Morrisons.

Nederburg, Manor House Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, South Africa
Paarl fruit. Fresh cassis and black cherry, not too much oak on the nose, but there is a subtle pencil-shaving/smokiness and touch of chocolate. The palate has full fruit sweetness, quite a nice elegant cherry edge and chocolate note, but then an awful lot of slightly raw oak dominates the palate, with the wine finishing on oak spice and tannin dryness. 86-87/100.

Nederburg, BrewMaster Bordeaux Blend 2009, South Africa
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot the rest Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc from within Paarl. A little bit of woodiness and smoky oak at first, a touch of cedar. Quite an intense fruit beneath, with the palate nicely juicy and fresh - much more fruit focused than the Manor House, the spiciness is there and those plum skin bittersweet notes, but the fruit drives through melding with spice and a touch of chocolate to add depth to the finish. Lovely stuff. 91/100.

Nederburg, Ingenuity Red "Italian Blend" 2010, South Africa
50% Sangiovese, 45% Barbera, 5% Nebbiolo. Fermented separately and into old 500l barrels, then after a year it is blended and back into barrels for a few months, mostly Romanian with a touch of American. Does capture the lighter cherry character of these grapes, with a smoothing infill of vanilla, and a touch of the Sangiovese tobacco in the background. The palate has lovely texture: it is creamy and quite plush, but medium-bodied and has a sense of red and black fruit to give a little freshness. Is the oak a little too charry just in the finish? But then the juicy cherry acidity is excellent and it finishes long and focused on fruit. Very good and will age, power but supple precision. 89-91/100.

Nederburg, Winemaster's Reserve NLH 2012, South Africa
Only 10.8% abv. Chenin Blanc with Semillon, Riesling and Gewurz, and a little Muscat. 200g/l residual sugar. Toasty orange aromas, lovely barley sugar and those leafy touches of tobacco and tea leaf. Gewurz perhaps adding a touch of exotic Lychee too. Deliciously creamy and sweet, but has freshness and a bit of lemon and apple bite over the luscious honey and delicious length. 92/100.

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