The new, the exciting Cape winelands

Which are the most exciting wine areas of the Cape? I’ve been pondering the alternatives as I increasingly hear murmurs of discontent about too much media focus being put on the Swartland and on its wineries such as Sadie, Mullineux, Badenhorst and Lammershoek – although these examples suggest why so much attention is being directed there.

Whether the grumbles are justified or not is debatable (and I think the grumblers should honestly look for the reasons why the more alert parts of the media find the Swartland particularly interesting). But whether or not, it is not difficult to think of other areas where developments over the past decade or so have also been remarkable – and that is not to mention established places such as Stellenbosch and Constantia, where it has largely been a question of continuing traditions and expressing them ever better.

Franschhoek, for example, which has combined experimentation with persistence, has been transformed out of all recognition from the time when the overwhelming majority of good stuff with Franschhoek labels was made from bought-in grapes. A little less attention to spurious marketing invoking the questionable French tradition, and a little more attention to trying to build a united image on the basis of its genuine achievements (without muddying the story by allowing Simonsberg-Paarl wineries in on the game) would be useful perhaps.

The windswept bleakness of Elim and Agulhas also has a real claim – but, unlike Franschhoek, at the southernmost tip of Africa it is all new development and in five or 10 years time I suspect its claims will be even more clamorous than they are now. If it were just a question of yet more sauvignon blanc, I at least wouldn’t be as excited – but both shiraz and pinot noir look set to have a future here

And there is Elgin, where the quality just gets better and fine red wines are punishing people like me who’d thought that the only Elgin reds worth noticing must be made from pinot noir.

More surreptitious and surprising is the vinous development of the Hemel-en-Aarde area — that chain of valleys stretching inland from Hermanus. It’s 30 years since Hamilton Russell started demonstrating that good wines could come from here, and things are blossoming wonderfully. We find here the tiny, shoestring-financed dynamism that makes the Swartland so exciting and also the richer establishments more characteristic of Elgin’s growth.

One of the most intriguing signs of Hemel-en-Aarde potential is the way that they are now taking on the Swartland at its own game, with blends of red Mediterranean grape varieties such as shiraz (aka syrah), mourvèdre and grenache — and playing the game brilliantly, albeit on a small scale as yet.

Creation Wines, just about the most inland of all the Hemel-en-Aarde wineries, makes both a straight Syrah and a Syrah-Grenache. The large Creation range has been rising inexorably in quality over the four or five years that J-C and Carolyn Martin have been releasing wines. They are all good, dependable and designed to be both serious enough and easy-going enough to please most tastes.

The whites are not exceptional, but more than hold their own, while the reds do a little more. In a somewhat troubled category throughout the Cape, for example, the Creation Merlot must number among the most successful, while the Pinot Noir 2010 seems to me the best so far – not yet on a par with the best from the area, but good. Then we get to those Mediterranean reds. Syrah 2010 is rather fruity and sweetly ripe, perhaps a little alcoholic-warm. Well and restrainedly oaked, however, as is the Syrah-Grenache – for me the most interesting and enjoyable of the range – generous but not gushing, firmly structured and delicious. None of the Creation wines are by any means great bargains, but this wine, at R138, is decent value compared with its Swartland equivalents, for example.

Perhaps even better in this category are the Rhône-style blends from another family concern, Newton Johnson. This is one of the longer-established wineries of the area (preceded only by Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson), and it is unquestionably among its leaders in terms of its larger range, it is unsurpassed here. And the big surprise, really, amongst some other fine wines, are those Rhônish reds.

The Syrah-Mourvèdre which is actually well established, has changed its name for the 2009 vintage to Full Stop Rock, which will have significance for a dozen surfers (or so I’m told), but mystify or irritate everyone else. It remains a more perfumed, fresh and charmingly elegant wine than the monolithic name suggests. But I wonder if it could have been as subtle and powerfully delicate as it is if Gordon and Nadia Newton Johnson (in the pic) hadn’t mastered the trick with their first-class Domaine Pinot Noir, one of the country’s finest. Though who’d have thought of an affinity here?

A fruitier, supple, silky grenache-based blend is also forthcoming, starting from the 2010 vintage. A name for it hadn’t been chosen when I last heard. I’m bracing myself.


– This is an extended version of the article in the Mail & Guardian, 30 September-6 October 2011.

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