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Something stirs in Stellenbosch

Text and photographs © 2012 Tom Cannavan

In May 2012 I visited South Africa to spend a week as guest international judge at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, but did manage to squeeze in a day of visits to vineyards in the long-established quality region of Stellenbosch.

In recent years a lot of focus has been on other newly planted - or newly fashionable - areas of the Cape, from Elgin to Swartland. These areas have been producing top quality wines of a slightly different style, from the crisp Sauvignons and Rieslings of cool Elgin, to the Rhône-like, peppery Syrahs of Swartland. Yet Stellenbosch is home to some of the Cape's undoubted 'first growth' estates, and nothing has changed in terms of quality or the dedication of the best estates to producing their long lived Bordeaux blends or full-flavoured, alluring Chenins Blanc and Chardonnays.

So I was delighted to visit four of the region's best producers, though four of dramatically different styles. Two are beautiful, long-established farms: red wine supremos Kanonkop, and Rustenberg with its famous wines like its John X Merriman and Bordeaux-style Peter Barlow. Two are much more recent, the stunning Tokara with its superb visitor facilities including art exhibitions and one of the best restaurants in the winelands, and Glenelly, a little piece of France in South Africa, being established recently by Madame de Lencquesaing, the energetic octogenarian ex-owner of Bordeaux's Château Pichon-Lalande.

Rustenberg

randolph Winemaker Randolph Christians is a quiet, contemplative character, not given to talking up his wines, but rather expressing his views openly, honestly and thoughtfully. Assistant winemaker here for over a decade, he had some big shoes to fill when he took over from Adi Badenhorst who moved on in 2007 to start his own family business in Swartland.

Randolph's philosophy is simple: "I am trying not to do too much to the wines after picking, make them very naturally and without any 'messing about'," he tells me. That includes the seemingly retrograde stem of doing away with sorting tables for the top wines, but the logic of the move is sound: "We now do all sorting in the vineyards - our pickers are briefed every morning on exactly what they should be picking, parcel by parcel, wine by wine."

The company recently sold-off its second label, Brampton, which surprised many in the industry as the wines were successful, and seemed like a good, lower-cost introduction to the Rustenberg style. But new on the shelves, and just arrived in the UK via Tesco, are a couple of entry-level blends that are presumably aimed at filling that gap, whilst also bearing the Rustenberg name.

Rustenberg is imported into the UK by Seckford Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Rustenberg, Sauvignon Blanc Chardonnay 2011
Christian tells me this also has little bits of Roussanne, Marsanne, Semillon and Viognier," in the blend. Lovely aromatic nose, lots of juicy, bright passionfruit, apple and a bit juicy, tropical mango. Fresh and juicy, Christian has notched a little extra sugar in this for the commercial market, but it is still very dry, singly and appealing. 87/100. £9.99, Tesco.

Rustenberg, Sauvignon Blanc 2011
A lot of Elgin fruit in this, with a very aromatic nose, but not "a showstopper style" according to Randolph. Good hints of green flavour, but much more juicy apple and melon, hints of tropical and a very clean finish. Juicy and firm on the finish. 89/100.

Rustenberg, Roussanne 2011
2004 was the first production from 2001 plantings of Roussanne. Over years, Rustenberg has decided their Roussanne does not take to oak, so now around half the wine is whole bunch press, with only 12% fermented in barrel for only three months maximum. Lovely nose, a touch of oatmeal and rich full and ripe apple fruit,. Retains good acid and a little pithiness, touch of grapefruit and lemon pith. Very stylish, the oak barely noticeable but a touch of nuttiness. 90/100.

Rustenberg, Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2011
Twelve months in oak, a mix of new, first and second fill. Mostly natural ferment, with a little inoculation for over ripe grapes as Randolph does not want the ferment to stick. All Burgundian oak. Nice nose, very Burgundian with green fig and smokiness, abundant fruit beneath, that hint of wild ferment complexity. Lovely mouth-feel, the palate has richness and sweet fruit, but a lovely savoury background and fresh palate, and that lovely creamy texture. 90/100.

Rustenberg, Five Soldiers Chardonnay 2010
From a single vineyard, names after five tall pine trees that stand guard over the vineyard. 15 months in oak, 65-70% new, all in 300litre Burgundian, all natural ferment, natural malolactic and natural acidity. Nutty, a touch buttery, delicious sweetness apparent on the nose, ripeness without tripping into tropical aromas. Really lovely definition on the palate, again a nutty, gently figgy character, but lots of freshness and delightful juiciness -big squirt of fresh lime and lemon. 92/100.

Rustenberg, Merlot/Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, in older barrels and alcohol adjusted slightly. Quite a generic black fruit nose with a touch of cedar and charcoal, just an echo of a slightly burnt character. The palate has a juiciness - black fruit and cherry, not as vibrant, but savoury and perhaps a touch too lean. 85/100. £9.99, Tesco.

Rustenberg, RM Nicholson 2009
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Syrah plus Petit Verdot, Cabernet franc and Malbec, all estate fruit. American and French oak, 20% new. Quite a dusty, gentle incense-like quality to the nose, with good graphite character. The palate has very good balance - this has the juiciness and the sweet-edged, bloody intensity missing in the small wine. Very fresh on the finish, the tannins and acids very nicely balanced. Juiciness. 91/100.

Rustenberg, John X Merriman 2009
Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with a large proportion of Merlot, but uses all five Bordeaux varieties. 45% new French 225l barrels, 55% second use, all malolactic in barrels. Quite big and bold, lots of cassis and deep black fruit. That little elegant note of graphite again. On the palate very dry, has lovely freshness and juicy character, lots of elegance but no shortage of juicy, burstingly fresh berries to give it a lively, energetic mid-palate freshness. A very smart wine with lovely balance and length. 93/100.

Rustenberg, Stellenbosch Syrah 2009
All French clones of Syrah, first vintage was 2004. 38% new French oak 225 litre barrels for 19 months, the rest in second-fill French oak. Some natural yeast fermentation. Very fragrant, lovely cherry lift, very nice oak quality, touch of bloodiness and peppery notes, but the fruit is ripe and cherryish and it has lovely density. Very full, rich, full-textured, with the delicious sweetness of the fruit on the mid-palate turning savoury and quite cedary in the finish. Another beautifully made wine and very stylish and fresh in the finish. 91/100.

Rustenberg, Peter Barlow 2007
One hundred percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 65-70% new oak for 22 months. Named after the current owner's father, the property having been in family hands for 70 years. Very nice edge of herbal, green olive note that is very lovely and typically Cabernet. Backed up by plenty of cedar and pencil-shaving finesse, and a savoury core of black fruit: blackcurrant and a touch of earthy plum. Delicious palate - plenty of energy and life, plenty of juiciness, a wine on arguably the leaner side which gives it plenty of savoury , smoky appeal, a long, juicy finish, where the touch of oak and touch of cedary, herbal quality freshens and sits beautiful. 93/100.

Rustenberg, Straw Wine 2010
56% Viognier, 41% Chenin Blanc and 3% Crouchen. 226g/l sugar. 10.5%. Fermented with Sauternes yeast called Zymaflore ST. Dried on straw racks for five weeks or so until it sweetens up enough. Old American barrels for seven months. Beautiful, rich, rounded honey nose, lots of quince and nectarine, touch of barley sugar. Gorgeous texture, the limpid, liquid honey and lemon flavours just delightful, but with the acid to balance and a touch of vanilla. Very pure flavours, absolutely delicious balance. 93/100.

Glenelly

Luke Glenelly (slogan: "South African Wine with a French Touch") was purchased by Madame May de Lencquesaing in 2003. At the time it was a fruit farm, mainly growing pears that had first been settled by French Huguenots in the 17th century. Attracted by the virgin soils, Madame de Lencquesaing planted certified virus-free vines on the east-facing slopes to capture the morning sun and retain freshness. Winemaker Luke O'Cuinneagain (right) met me on the terrace of their winery and described what makes these slopes special: "We have very good water resources here, but the most important characteristic is the granitic soils that are low in oxides and give us really fine tannin quality. It all culminates into a 'terroir' that makes this place special. We want our wine to be individuals, the cultivar is the champion - the wood and the winemaking is just a support act."

South Africa's troublesome leaf-roll virus is carried by mealy bugs, so a programme here controls the ant population, because ants live symbiotically with the mealy bugs and removing them allows predators to attack the bugs.

Luke travelled and worked widely in the wine industry. His experience includes stints at Châteaux de Fieuzal and Angelus in Bordeaux, Screaming Eagle in California and with wineries in Alsace. His European passport (thanks to Irish parents) allowed him to spend six months working in Europe. He says his "technique and philosophy of winemaking is naturally French." All wines are made using natural yeasts, and work in the vineyards is focused on achieving natural balance so they can avoid acidification or alcohol manipulation. There is minimal spraying and lots of cover crops and mulching to get life in the soils. There's a relatively big proportion of Petit Verdot here, but when I point out that this is the case at Pichon Longueville too, Luke says that apart from a little initial advice on vineyard planting from Bordeaux, the estate is run very independently.

Glenelly is imported into the UK by Seckford Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Glenelly, Glass Collection Unwooded Chardonnay 2011
A wine made only from estate fruit (as are all of Glenelly's wines). "An alternative to Sauvignon Blanc", says Luke and this indeed has zest and would be ideal as an aperitif. Lovely lemony freshness, a bit of mealiness and richness, but cool and clear. Nice bit of weight on the palate which has texture and creaminess, and there's a melon juiciness, as well as hinting at a little bit of green crunch, to keep it fresh. 88/100.

Glenelly, Grand Vin Chardonnay 2011
Made in 500 litre French oak casks, natural ferment in barrels with a 'blonde' toast, but no battonage, only resting on the lees. Lovely touches of vanilla and gentle buttered toast. The fruit is cool and precise, with citrus aromas and a bit of crunchy green apple. Beautiful palate, fresh lime zest, some juicy melon, but also deliciously juicy and zesty in the finish with enough creaminess and oatmeal richness just to broaden and flesh out the finish a little. 92/100.

Glenelly, Glass Collection Merlot 2010
Most difficult grape to grow, suffers heat stress terribly and shuts down according to Luke. So he opens the bunches completely to get maximum ripeness early, which thickens the skins as the grapes protect themselves avoiding burn and Porty flavours. Planted in heavy clay soils, Luke says he is looking for a big, structured style of Merlot, but he is not expecting the plushness that the grape can produce in Bordeaux: here it gives freshness to compliment the opulent Cabernet. Cedary, pencil shaving aromas, rich but fresh berry fruit. Nice creamy texture, soft attack, but the fruit is juicy and fresh. Sweet fruit and very good balance, quite spicy, lovely wine. 89/100.

Glenelly, Glass Collection Shiraz 2009
Lots of stems in the ferment here, 70% whole bunch. The nose has an earthy, spicy, grippy quality, with pepper and cedar and quite tight core of slightly herbal-edged black fruit. The palate has a leanness and grippiness, quite a juicy blue/black fruit quality, with a firmness to the tannins and acids on the finish, but again the wine manages to retain a juicy, fresh character. 88/100.

Glenelly, Glass Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Nice touch of herbal edge to this, and has a dried herbal character which Luke says is a classic Simonsberg mountain. That character is there, as well as really fresh blackcurrant and a touch of cedar. This gets around 25% new oak, all 300 litre barrels. Rich palate, plum and blackcurrant sweep across, fine tannins, nice sandy suppleness, and good acid. A hint of anise and clove spice, and delicious. 90/100.

Glenelly, Grand Vin Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Petit Verdot 2007
The first wine released from the property, this is 40% Shiraz, and large proportions of the other grape, with only 1% Petit Verdot - which is all there was at that point. "A chameleon wine," says Luke explaining that it sometimes seems dominated by the Shiraz, but is now showing more of the Bordeaux character. A nice bit of Bordeaux-like animal and game, savoury, cedary, very nice black fruit. The palate has a silkiness, a really gentle, supple tannin quality and very fine fruit flavours: juicy, with a bit of cherry and blackcurrant-skin grip. Deliciously savoury and racy. 91/100.

Glenelly, Lady May 2008
The blend is 91% Cabernet Sauvignon with 9% Petit Verdot. Aged in 100% new oak for 24 months. The Petit Verdot has lovely fragrant qualities, a really floral note (Luke says 'iris') but I get cedar and pepper and spice, over such supple blackcurrant fruit, lots of juice, lots of creamy richness, that lovely cherry and plum skin grip to the tannins, and a very natural balance. Lovely tang and precision, the oak adding exotic spice, and this has fabulous structure for a young vines wine. 93/100.

Glenelly, Lady May 2009
Now 90% Cabernet with 10% Petit Verdot, the nose at this stage is far less aromatic, but has a bloody, pencil shaving, cedar quality with graphite and cool black fruit. Supple, creamy palate, very smooth tannins, supple, glossy, has all the svelte sweetness of fruit, almost chocolaty and coffeeish, but never vulgar - the freshness comes through again, drying the finish and giving delicious tang into a long finish. Astonishingly good wines for such young fruit. 93/100.

Kanonkop

Abrie One of the Cape's most famous estates, I last visited Kanonkop in 2002 so it was fascinating to see what had changed in a decade. The answer is: in some areas quite a lot, in other nothing at all. All of the fruit still goes into Kanonkop's big, old, square open maceration vats made from Concrete, and this is still an estate totally focused on red wines and with a penchant for Pinotage. On the other hand there are brand new visitor facilities since my last visit, they have introduced a rosé and there's a new winemaker in the shape of Abrie Beeslar, who has been with the estate since 2002, taking over winemaking in 2003.

As we passed through the winery and settled in to taste through the wines, we were surrounded by decades of dusty vintages, as if to reinforce this estate's history and bone fide credentials. Abrie is continuing the work of previous winemaker Beyers Truter, and says "Wine must make me hungry and must make me thirsty." For Abrie that means the wine must be savoury and juicy, inviting not just some good food to match with it, but a second - or third - glass too.

He adjusts acid with natural tartaric acid if need, but done very early just after crushing the grapes. He loves Pinotage, but says "It's much easier to understand when it is older, when the more velvety and complex secondary flavours develop." Indeed the winery has held back 1,000 cases of every vintage since 2002 so that mature examples can be sold at the cellar door. He says late 90s vintages are drinking perfectly at the moment.

Kanonkop are acknowledged masters of Pinotage, and Abrie emphasises that it needs special handling: "Shiraz has very thin skin so it is difficult to over-extract, but because of its high nitrogen content the ferment with Pinotage goes fast and gives a lot of extraction." Sales of Pinotage are strong in Belgium, "especially with Sommeliers," says Abrie, but also becoming popular in the US. Abrie cites a recent US visit where it was matched with seared tuna and Wasabi, "it was a fantastically good match," he says.

Kanonkop is imported into the UK by Raisin Social. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Kanonkop, Kadette Pinotage Rosé 2011
Second vintage of this wine, nice pale peachy colour, quite Provence in style. Quite a nice herby, lightly earthy rosé, with a Provence style. Raspberry fruit, a touch of tannin, this has real savoury structure and a bit of real grip, a touch of lemon and lime, but no hard phenolics. Lovely. 87/100.

Kanonkop, Kadette 2011
Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a small percentage of Cabernet Franc, this spends 12 months in older barrels. Lovely bloody nose, very good black fruit and very fine quality, touches of cedar and spice. Nice complexity on this for an entry level wine, with fresh, ripe fruit (from younger vines), a bit of cedary complexity and a fresh finish with a bit of lemony bite. 88/100.

Kanonkop, Pinotage 2002
Lovely gentle development. Some gentle coffee and dried blood, a plummy richness to the fruit, hints of spice and still of raspberry. The palate still has good fruit, with a slightly aggressive quality arguably (Abrie thinks so) but lovely stuff. 88/100.

Kanonkop, Pinotage 2010
Big, bold fruit, masses of plum and mulberry juicy characters, really solid fruit base, with a touch of earthiness. On the palate it has a lovely svelte, rounded flesh and juiciness to the fruit, the tannins grippy and the wine has real structure. The sweetness and the depth of the fruit stands up to the big structure very nicely. 89-90/200.

Kanonkop, Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
Lovely nose, a real Bordeaux style, lovely meatiness and savour, with some animal character that is beguiling, dried blood and cedary black fruit. The palate has a lovely mid-palate juiciness and medium bodied sophistication. It finishes with a slightly dry finish - not dried out but a mouth-watering dry edge with good acids and a tight, savoury appeal. 91/100. From a very hot, dry vintage with early ripening and harvest.

Kanonkop, Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Lovely ripe nose, showing just a touch of green pepper, but more graphite-edged, meaty but rich plum and cassis fruit, very attractive. The palate has real juiciness - a big sour cherry, tangy acidity, with fine tannins and delicious balance - not a structure that feels too big and too dominating, it already drinks very nicely, but has a supple. A very fine Cabernet for drinking now after decanting or ageing. 92/100. Had been decanted for an hour or so.

For some reason though we also tasted the top Paul Sauer blend and I recorded my thoughts, my notes were not saved for this wine unfortunately.

Tokara

leopard Forgive the lack of a winemaker photograph, but on the very night I visited Tokara this Cape Mountain Leopard was captured by remote sensor security cameras as it took a 1am stroll through their Semillon vineyards. The first time a leopard had ever been spotted on the Simonsberg mountain.

I had visited Tokara around a decade ago, at a time when the winery had just opened but was not yet ready to release a wine under the Tokara name, so was (very successfully) bottling and selling what has now become its second label, Zondernaam, or 'the wine with no name'. Before the wine, a word for the restaurant at Tokara under chef Richard Carstens. This was the best of many excellent meals on my trip, and his poached crayfish on a bed of calamari risotto with an almond cream sauce will long live in my memory. A must visit if you are in the Cape.

Tokara's vineyards were initially planted - some to terraces - on the homeland of the Simonsberg Mountain. But since then two other farms, in the Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde Valleys, have been added to give a wider range of climates and terroirs. Winemaker Miles Mossop has been on board since 2000, after stints at Spice Route and Thelema, and Knappstein in Australia's Clare Valley. This is a no-expense-spared sort of operation, with beautiful state-of-the-art winery and an uncompromising approach to quality. The Stellenbosch winery itself is an architectural showcase, with galleries displaying Africa art and artisan crafts, that restaurant and a delicatessen.

Tokara is imported into the UK by Enotria. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Tokara, Sauvignon Blanc 2011
From multiple regions, Walker Bay (Hemel-en-Aarde), Elgin and Stellenbosch. Lots of cool, clear, lemon and gently green, with some pea-pod crunch and almost floral freshness, lots of citrus and lime bite. Very dry. 87/100.

Tokara, Elgin Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Much bigger pea shoot and herbal nose, lots of grassy cut and freshness. Very punchy and delicious, big passionfruit juiciness in the middle. Fuller, punchier, but really zesty, crunchy palate with a passionfruit and Asian pear juiciness, but lovely dry finish. 89/100.

Tokara, Director's Reserve 2010
Sauvignon 70%, 30% Semillon, portion of the Semillon into barrel for 10 months. Lovely nose, with creaminess and oatmeal, a background of gentle nutty toast, but clear, precise lemon fruit. Wonderful mid-palate sweetness and breadth, with lime zest and punchy finish - lots of lime and ripe, concentrated fruit, but not at the expense of freshness. 92/100.

Tokara, Walker Bay Chardonnay 2010
Has a nuttiness. This was a last minute wine from and already opened bottle, and I thought showed a little lack of freshness. Very clean, crisp, lemony and fresh palate, with a nice spice coming through and nice fruit and savoury finish. 89/100 but based on this sample.

Tokara, Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2010
10 months in French oak, all new, a touch of cedar and minerality, and a nice orange note to the oatmeally nuttiness of the oak. Slightly richer palate feel, slightly more ripeness it seems, with a juicy touch of ripe Ogen melon, but with lots of lemon, full fruit and still delicious acidity, pithy grapefruit lick in the finish. 91/100.

Tokara, Shiraz 2010
Most of fruit from Stellenbosch, a small percentage from Walker bay. Mostly in older barrels. Lovely nose, has some lift and has some floral and herbs and fine red and black fruit. Delicious palate and beautiful berry and cassis fruit, some creaminess and nice roughening edge of tannin and acidity to give this spice and freshness. 91/100.

Tokara, Director's Reserve 2008
All new French oak for 24 months, 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Petit Verdot plus all the other Bordeaux varieties. Bloody, creamy, spicy, lovely cedary fragrance with real power and quite a lean, savoury, smoky bacon note, but copious fruit coming through. Very good fruit and a racy finish. 91/100.