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Report from South Africa: Volume One
By Michael Franz
Sep 19, 2017
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I returned from South Africa a week ago, where I spent more than seven days tasting very intensively across virtually every imaginable wine category…including fortified wines.  It was my sixth trip to taste there, and the second in the past two years.  Between trips, I’ve followed the wines very closely by tasting extensively in the USA, which I’ve done since 1994.  That was the year when Nelson Mandela was elected President and wines from the country began re-appearing on our shores.  It was also when I began writing a wine column in The Washington Post, and it you know a bit about the highly cosmopolitan wine market it D.C., it won’t surprise you to hear that everybody was dying to learn about the wines.

The first arrivals were, frankly, awful, with bad packaging and widespread evidence of heat damage to boot.  Then they started getting better, but a lot of them were cheap and gimmicky, dragging down the country’s reputation with cutesy animal labels during the Yellow Tail Dark Ages.  Then some importers rolled the dice and tried to bring high-end wines to the USA to sell on quality rather than price.  However, the industry within South Africa was still hampered by various production problems and working through stylistic confusion that seemed to require time (and even generational turnover) to be resolved adequately.

Today, I can report that South Africa has finally joined the ranks of the world’s truly elite winemaking countries, achieving widespread excellence across multiple grape varieties and product categories.  It remains true that many of the wines also offer excellent value, but that has mostly to do with exchange rates between the Rand and the Dollar and Euro, and is really irrelevant to the issue of sheer quality, which remains the key question for serious wine lovers around the world.  To reiterate, even at the risk of repeating myself, South Africa is now producing many wines of multiple types that aren’t just free of flaws, but that are stunningly good by global standards but still quite distinctive in style and reflective of their place of origin.  Some writers and many consumers won’t get this message because they can’t believe that a country’s industry could get so much better so quickly, but there’s nothing we can do about that.  Except buy the wines that they foolishly pass over.

If this assessment sounds a little more emphatic than what you’d expect to see from a wine critic, I can understand.  But I can also explain.  The first five days of this most recent trip were spent tasting “blind” while judging the Veritas Awards, the longest-running and most prestigious competition in South Africa.  This enabled me to taste very broadly in an entirely dispassionate manner, without any influence from seeing labels or being schmoozed while evaluating wines.  If you love wine, this may sound like fun rather than a “dispassionate” undertaking, and it is fun…but spitting in a booth for hours on end is an entirely analytical activity.  I got out of my booth for the fifth day, to taste all of the “double-gold” award winners judged by all of the panels, but there was still no discussion among the judges for that round…just solo evaluation across all categories, without any discussion.

Aside from this, I spent three afternoons out in the winelands during the competition, and three full days afterwards, tasting hundreds of wines and speaking with more than 25 winemakers or winery representatives.

Taking this all together, that’s a very extensive and intensive look at what South Africa’s industry is making these days.  But there’s one more reason to take my assessment seriously:  I don’t owe anybody anything, and wasn’t paid to judge, and flew economy class for nearly lethal spans of time to do all of this, and would be perfectly willing to report that the wines were uneven or mediocre if that was what I discovered.

But that isn’t what I discovered.  I tastes so many good wines that the reviews can’t possibly be accommodated within a single column, so I’ll be back in four weeks with a follow-up to this piece.  By then, there’s a chance that I’ll know the identities to some of the wines I judged while tasting blind, but for now, it doesn’t make sense to even summarize by findings from the competition tastings.  Below you’ll find accounts of wines that I tasted with winemakers or winery representatives in the afternoons of judging days, or during the intensive stretch of visits and tastings in the wake of the Veritas competition.

Wines are organized by category, and I’ll have additional reviews for most of these categories in next month’s column.  Within the categories, top scoring wines lead off, and when scores are identical, alphabetical order prevails.  USA importers are provided when possible, and some prices are more precise than others, but all should be in the ballpark.  Some of the wines won’t be easy to find at all, and some may require shipping from other states, whereas a few are quite widely available.  In every case, though, these are worth a search, and emphatically worth a taste:


Chardonnay:

Lismore Estate (Greyton) Chardonnay Reserve 2016 ($40, Kysela):  American ex-pat Samantha O’Keefe makes this delicious wine in Greyton, a tiny appellation marked by a harsh climate and 900 feet of altitude in which she is the only vintner…presumably on account of the aforementioned conditions.  The fruit for this wine was dry-farmed on steep slopes with shale “soils,” and the vines survive despite a lack of rain only thanks to a layer of clay subsoil that helps retain just enough moisture.  This shows more oak influence than O’Keefe’s non-Reserve Chardonnay (which is too good to be referred to as a “regular” Chard), but largely by accident.  In earlier vintages, this was made in all older, neutral oak, but she needed more cooperage for increased production in 2016, so two of the 5 casks (500 liters in size) were new.  Still, the oak influence on the wine is subtle and very classy, and the overall impression of the wine is spicy and energetic, with an arresting streak of lime and a very stylish, fresh finish.  If more producers of very expensive Chardonnay around the world took a taste of this wine, they’d get a lot less sleep at night.  94

Glenelly (Stellenbosch) Chardonnay Barrel Fermented 2015 ($27, Cape Classics):  My raw note from when I tasted this in South Africa ends with a note-to-self reading, “Where can I buy it?”  That should give you a good idea of what I thought of the wine’s overall performance.  The aromas are wonderful, showing the roasted nut and spice notes of very classy oak, and yet the wine’s wood signature is actually very tasteful in relation to the fruit, acidity, and other facets.  The fruit is generous but never heavy, as a notable proportion never went through malolactic fermentation, so the wine is enlivened with some tart malic acid that keeps everything buzzing with energy through the long, symmetrical finish.  If I’m off with my score, I’m off on the low side.  93

Lismore Estate (Greyton) Chardonnay 2015 ($32, Kysela):  Entirely barrel fermented but with quite restrained oak influence, this shows wonderfully nuanced aromas, layered texture, and very impressive complexity in the finish, with all of the notes tailing off slowly and symmetrically.  Outstanding Chardonnay at an entirely reasonable price.  93

Glenelly (Stellenbosch) Chardonnay Unoaked “Glass Collection” 2016 ($17, Cape Classics):  This is one of the best values I’ve tasted out of more than 5,000 wines to this point in 2017, and even if cost were not taken into account, it would still be a smashing success in my book.  A lovely scent recalling the floral sweetness of honeysuckle gets this off to an interesting start, followed by flavors that aren’t remotely sweet, yet don’t clash at all with the wine’s aromas.  The fruit notes include little whiffs of crisp apples and stone fruits, yet it is a lemony citrus note that takes charge on the mid-palate and runs right through the long, fresh finish.  Loaded with linear energy, this is supercharged with refreshment value, and yet it is certainly not too tart to be enjoyed as a stand-alone sipper.  This 2016 will soon be succeeded by the 2017 in the USA, and I’ll be buying both of them for myself.  92


Chenin Blanc:

Beaumont (Bot River, Walker Bay) Chenin Blanc “Hope Marguerite” 2016 ($35, Broadbent):  I wouldn’t blame you a bit for shying away from buying a bottle of South African Chenin for $35, and in fact I’d thank you for doing that, as more would be left for me.  But selfishness is unbecoming, so let me tell you that this is not to be missed if you can find a bottle, as it combines thrillingly sharp green apple acidity combined with broader, more succulent melon notes and very appealing oak spice.  It is rather taut and tense right now, and really built to develop over the course of another three or four years, so you’d be well advised to buy several bottles and taste them at multiple points along this excellent wine’s developmental path.  94

L’Avenir (Stellenbosch) Chenin Blanc “Single Block” 2016 ($25, Cannon Wines):  This old vine bottling (from a dry-farmed site that yields only 4 tons of fruit per hectare) is stunning for its combination of rich fruit, interesting wood accents, and zesty acidity.  Fully 50% of the juice sees time in 400 liter barrels for a year, and the rest goes into second-fill casks.  Very rich, it shows lots of wood spice but very little overt toast, which is exactly the recipe for successfully oaked Chenin.  The balance of fruit and acidity is already excellent, as is the integration of fruit and wood notes, yet the team at L’Avenir believes this is really a 10-year wine.  And having tasted it…I believe as well.  If I can find this for my cellar, I’ll start on it in another 2 or three years, but definitely save some to see how it looks in another 8 or 9.  Wicked good Chenin.  93

Beaumont (Bot River, Walker Bay) Chenin Blanc 2017 ($21, Broadbent):  This wine is an object lesson in the very high potential of un-oaked Chenin from South Africa.  It shows light floral aromas and notable breadth and substance on the palate, with fruit recalling ripe melons and even a faint tropical streak.  Yet those descriptors suggest a much less refreshing wine than one actually gets, as this is energized by terrifically zingy citrus acidity.  Only a few USA retailers have this 2017 in stock already, but it is indeed available.  But do not just look for this vintage, as older renditions may prove even more interesting, as South African Chenins can age marvelously, even with out any oak aging.  92

Gabriëlskloof  (Swartland) Chenin Blanc “The Landscape Series--Elodie” 2016 ($25, Pascal Schildt):  This gorgeous wine is beautifully wooded for 12 months in 500 liter barrels, all of which are French and 30% of which are new.  That’s a pretty intense-looking regimen, but light toast cooperage is employed, and Chenin absorbs oak and still shows fruit better than almost any other variety, and that includes Chardonnay.  In the finished wine, the wood notes are actually quite subtle, showing spice in the aromas and a bit of tannic grip in the finish, but the mid-palate is all about delicious, rounded fruit.  Probably not easy to find at retail, but worth a search.  92


White Blends:

Momento (Western Cape) Chenin Blanc/ Verdehlo 2016 ($30, Broadbent):  Never having tasted a blend of these two varieties, I would probably not stopped to even look at this wine on a retail store shelf, and if I had, I’d have put it back after seeing a $30 price tag as well as a very broad “Western Cape” geographical indicator.  And if I’d done that, I’d have made a very bad mistake.  Verdehlo comprises 22 percent of this blend, and it lends remarkable energy and freshness to the wine, which shows a relatively rich profile based on melon fruit with a hint of pineapple, but also an eye-popping zinginess derived from citrus notes.  Only older barrels are used in making this from whole bunch-pressed clusters.  Very, very exciting stuff that I’d like to try with about 30 different food items.  92


Rosé:

L’Avenir (Stellenbosch) Pinotage Rosé “Glenrosé” 2016 ($15, Cannon Wines):  Everybody knows that Pinotage has its detractors (both within South Africa but especially elsewhere around the world, though the number of detractors who have actually tasted recent releases has declined dramatically, and I am among those with a recently revived respect for the variety.  Be that as it may, the team at L’Avenir likes Pinotage a lot more than Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab Franc for making rosé, and this wine provides s convincing case in point.  It shows lovely, classy pale color and very pretty fruit to match, and though this is a decidedly dry wine (only 1.6 grams per liter of residual sugar, which is very low by global standards for rosé), it is quite flavorful and by no means austere.  Once can only imagine how exciting the even fresher 2017 will be when released soon, but there’s no rush…this still tastes terrific.  91


Cabernet Sauvignon:

Glenelly (Stellenbosch) Cabernet Sauvignon “Glass Collection” 2014 ($17, Cape Classics):  This is a Bordeaux-inspired wine founded in 2003 by a Bordeaux-based woman (May de Lencquesaing, then owner of the famous Ch. Pichon Lalande).  The first vintages were even more Bordeaux-like than this one, with an early austerity that stemmed from the fact that all lots of Cabernet were vinified with a view to including them in the long-lived flagship bottling, “Lady May.”  Experience showed that it was better to go with less new oak and less extraction for this more affordable wine, and yet it hardly seems “dumbed down.”  It is medium-plus in body, with restrained ripeness and a very subtle leafy aromatic streak, but a beam of fruity sweetness running through the mid-palate and finish make this easy to enjoy even without food.  This versatility is also enhanced by a wise decision to release this after it has some bottle age under its screw cap closure.  Look for this 2014 vintage, and look for me ahead of you in the checkout line.  92


Pinot Noir:

Crystallum (Elandskloof) Pinot Noir “Mabalel” 2016 ($45, Pascal Schildt):  I encountered this during the vinous equivalent of a speed dating session with four very nice people, some of whom were showing wines they had made, some showing wines as producer representive, and all of them trying to explain a few wines from other producers in the broader region around Bot River, a sub-appellation of Walker Bay.  This wine falls into the latter category, and I don’t believe any of my companions in this endeavor actually have a commercial relationship with Crystallum.  Consequently, this is a bit of an orphan, and I don’t know much about it.  I do know that Crystallum is a project of Peter-Allan Finlayson along with his brother Andrew, sons of Peter Finlayson, who is widely regarded as South Africa’s premier pioneer with fine Pinot Noir.  The fruit is all purchased (rather than sourced from vineyards owned by Crystallum), and I was told that 30% of this was aged in new oak.  I can’t even find mention of this wine on the Crystallum website, but I can find evidence of its existence on the importer’s site, so this is not a mere unicorn.  Why the long preamble for this review?  Because the wine is wonderfully delicate, almost ethereal and weightless, though it shows lovely red cherry and cranberry aromas and flavors, along with stylish scents of spices and tomato leaf.  The tannins are ultra tine-grained and perfectly tuned to the wine’s lean frame.  As an aside, this was shown alongside Crystallum’s Hemel en Aarde Ridge 2016 Pinot, which was significantly meatier, and preferred by most of my fellow tasters.  Fine people though they were, I sharply disagreed, as it is easy to find relatively meaty Pinots around the world, whereas finding gorgeous, gossamer wines like this outside of Burgundy is damned near impossible.  93


Pinotage:

L’Avenir (Stellenbosch) Pinotage “Single Block” 2015 ($30, Cannon Wines):  Sourced from a single parcel of old vines, this shows excellent fruit concentration and very nicely balanced wood spice and acidity.  Importantly, it also shows an enticingly earthy streak that gives this a sense of European style.  Very well made and sure to improve for years to come, this is just the sort of wine needed to make Pinotage haters realize how good this variety can be.  92

Beaumont (Bot River-Walker Bay) Pinotage 2015 ($30, Broadbent):  This stylish Pinotage (not an oxymoron, as many believe) isn’t yet in the USA, but I found it marginally superior to the 2014, and am willing to wait…though I’ll probably buy a few bottles of older vintages that are currently on offer from American retailers to learn more about this wine from the highly talented by ultra unpretentious Sebastian Beaumont.  Medium-plus in body, with very expressive and complex aromas and very satisfying fruit that easily counterbalances the (very well managed) tannins, this is delicious and destined for years of positive development.  92


Red Blends:

Glenelly (Stellenbosch) Red Blend “Lady May” 2011 ($50, Cape Classics):  This flagship wine from Glenelly is entirely convincing and very Bordeaux-like, with lots of tannic grip but plenty of underlying fruit to permit this to develop in positive ways for at least a decade--probably longer…and possibly much longer.  Cabernet Sauvignon is predominant, with dollops of Petit Verdot and Merlot.  Nearly 100% of the wine is aged for 24 months in new French Oak, so it is apparent from the formula that this is a very serious wine.  With that said, though, it is definitely enjoyable now with sufficiently robust food incorporating some dietary fat, so don’t shy away from ordering it if you see the wine offered on a restaurant wine list.  Still, buying this in a retail shop and laying it down for at least 5 years is highly recommended.  95

L’Avenir (Stellenbosch) Red Blend “Stellenbosch Classic” 2015 ($27, Cannon Wines):  This is L’Avenir’s best red wine, just a nose in front of the “Single Block” Pinotage and tied with the wonderful “Single Block” Chenin Blanc.  Blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, it is admirably complex, with layered flavors and texture and an essentially perfect balance of fruit and oak.  It shows the slightest herbal aromatic edge, which if experienced while tasting “blind” would make one wonder whether it is an Old or New World wine.  Yet this scent is neither vegetal nor remotely distracting…it just makes the wine easier to enjoy and harder to pigeonhole.  Cultured and convincing, this is terrific.  93

Glenelly (Stellenbosch) Red Blend “Estate Reserve” 2011 ($27, Cape Classics):  This nicely-matured blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot is impressively complex, with each of the included varieties showing their various contributions.  The wine is released relatively late because, I am told, the Syrah element is dominant early on.  That seems plausible enough, as the fruit component is relatively restrained in relation to the spice notes and savory layer.  Fine-grained tannins, a notably dry profile, and nascent tertiary aromas give this an Old World style that really makes it a wine for food--and an outstanding one.  93


Syrah / Shiraz:

Glenelly (Stellenbosch) Syrah “Glass Collection” 2015 ($17, Cape Classics):  This was among the very most exciting wines I tasted while in South Africa last week, though I admit that I approached it with some skepticism.  It was presented relatively early in an extensive tasting, and when winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain introduced it, he said it was inspired by the wines of Alain Graillot, a very highly regarded winemaker in France’s Rhône Valley.  Whenever I hear this sort of cross-country comparison, I’m now habituated to thinking to myself, “Yeah, right” while engaging in internal eye-rolling that I hope isn’t externally visible.  And yet, from my first sniff and sip, I had to admit that I could easily mistake this wine for a Crozes-Hermitage from a top growing site in an excellent vintage…and not just when I was having an off-day as a taster.  (Sorry Luke…you were right and I was wrong.)  Beautiful red berry fruit holds center stage, but there’s also an earthy aromatic streak that is clean (meaning, no brettanomyces) and nice, bright acidity as well as just a faint touch of oak.  At $17, this is a mind-blowing value, worth twice that price by global standards.  The USA importer (Cape Classics) doesn’t take this wine based on belief that it is too hard to sell Syrah in the USA.  So, I’ll be looking for this overseas, and if I find it, I’ll do what my friend and WRO colleague Michael Apstein does:  Just buy another suitcase and throw it in the attic after getting the wine back home.  94