Among the many changes that make today’s South African wine industry unutterably different from what is was 30 years ago, the emergence of the red “Bordeaux blend” is not insignificant. There are five important red-wine grapes associated with Bordeaux in south-west France, chief among them, of course, cabernet sauvignon. Merlot and cabernet franc are also important, petit verdot and malbec proportionately much less so – especially malbec, which is now the great grape of Argentina and little used in Bordeaux.
The 30th year I’m celebrating actually marks something like the halfway point between picking the grapes for the first Bordeaux blend and marketing the finished wine nearly two years later. The wine was Welgemeend 1979, made by part-time winemaker and full-time Bordeaux-lover Billy Hofmeyr, at his small farm near Klapmuts in the Paarl district. This pioneering release was quickly followed by Meerlust Rubicon 1980, with Kanonkop Paul Sauer (Paul Sauer Fleur, that first one was called) and Overgaauw Tria Corda close behind (in the earliest years Tria Corda contained cinsaut, so wasn’t a true Bordeaux blend, in fact).
The success of these wines, in a decade where the estates were become increasingly important to fine wine production, led to the style proliferating. It would probably be true to say that the majority of such blends continue to be based on cabernet sauvignon, but experimentation with the Bordeaux grapes led to a great range of cépages – even Welgemeend very soon produced a second version, with Merlot and Malbec predominating. Nowadays, many are based on merlot and rather fewer on cabernet franc
Now the numbers of such blends are legion, and many are the flagship wines of their estates. No doubt it is because of the care lavished on them – and having first call on the best grapes – that makes this one of the strongest categories of red Cape wine.
Some of these blends are simply named for the property (Vergelegen and Morgenster amongst the grander examples); others have more or less whimsical and arbitrary names – Buitenverwachting Christine, De Trafford Perspective, for example; and a host are boringly but serviceably named for the grape varieties involved.
One or two of the fancier names of these blends even allude to the owner’s pride in using all five of the Bordeaux grapes, like De Toren’s Fusion V and Raka’s Quinary. In fact, the pioneering Welgemeend also had a full house – or thought it did; after a few decades the (tiny) petit verdot component was discovered to be an uncertain variety they decided to call “petit mystery”. Sadly, Welgemeend – whose elegant Bordeaux blend in the 1980s and 1990s was arguably second only to Kanonkop Paul Sauer – has rather fallen by the wayside these days, with the winery in different hands and the mostly ageing vineyards ravaged by virus.
Apart from the rather abstract aim of offering arithmetical homage to the example of Bordeaux, the point of blending different varieties is to – with a bit of luck and skill – create a whole that is greater than any of the parts individually and also greater than the mere sum of them. So that, sometimes at least, merlot might offer a bit of softness to pad the austerity of cabernet sauvignon; or franc might add an intriguing fragrance. In Bordeaux itself, with rather more uncertain climate, having different varieties with varying ripening dates gave some assurance that there’d be at least something to go in the bottle.
Most of the wines mentioned above are the flagships of ambitious properties, some of them excellent, and all more or less expensive by local standards. There are, however, a number of Cape Bordeaux blends selling for under R100 per bottle which offer fine quality and some interest. I’m impressed, for example, by Ridgeback’s Journey, which is closer to R80: a wine in the spirit of traditional Bordeaux, with a graceful tannic firmness and a lovely light elegance – with 13% alcohol, which seems very modest these days (that maiden Welgemeend was around 11.5%!). It has the added advantage of being a few years more mature than most currently available reds – the 2005 is still around, and even the 2006 is starting to drink well.
Other good examples, little more expensive, would include La Motte Millennium, Rupert and Rotshchild Classique (a good stop-gap alternative to the more ambitious and maturation-deserving Baron Edmund) , and Le Bonheur Prima. And widely available, and a great buy at the price, Nederburg’s Edelrood, which I remember as a smart wine for a student to aspire to in the latter 1970s, though it included alien varieties in those days.
– First published in Mail & Guardian, 10-16 September 2010, but this is a longer version