The best? The very best? Perhaps some of the following are, but not necessarily so, though certainly all very good; I don’t resolutely believe in “the best”, given the many sorts of best there are. But memorable, marvellous, heartwarming, exciting, yes.
It would be easy, I suppose, to populate most “best” lists with reference to just a few wineries, but I’ve tried here to seek beyond the obvious for what, looking back with an admittedly faulty memory, have been some significant South African highlights of my wine-life in 2016.
Wine Producer of the Year: Newton Johnson Vineyards. This quintessential family winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde has fully confirmed its place high amongst the best. In Grape’s “Top 20” earlier this year, based on a poll of judges, critics, sommeliers, etc, Newton Johnson came only just behind the final top 5 superstars, up one place over its 2014 performance. Its range of wines is now quite wide, generally excellent stuff. Most exciting this year, and emblematic of the energy, meticulous care and creativity that the whole team bring to this fine project, was the CWG Auction Reserve Seadragon Pinot Noir 2015. I admired the wine, and I relished the idea: early one morning founder Dave Johnson, winemakers Gordon and Nadia, and viticulturist Dean Leppan trailed a line of claystone that meanders through their grantitic vineyards, picking perfect bunches of pinot to make this fine wine. (It could have been my Red Wine of the Year, but seeing I’ve mentioned it now, I’m free to go elsewhere for that.)
New Wine Producer of the Year: Van Loggerenberg Wines. As usual, the Cape has this year had a good crop of small producers releasing immensely welcome maiden vintages, but no new range can match the conviction, thrill and seemingly effortless finesse of Lukas van Loggerenberg’s well-shaped quartet. (See here for further enthusiasm on the subject.)
Grape Variety of the Year: Chardonnay. It’s partly, of course, that we’ve been seeing the release of so many chards from the brilliant 2015 vintage – and a variety to celebrate could also have been chenin, on the same grounds. But rather suddenly it’s totally unquestionable just how superbly chardonnay is performing in the Cape – especially but not only in the Hemel en Aarde, Elgin and Stellenbosch – and not just with a few isolated examples. I’d like to choose a single wine as emblematic of the whole, and it could have been so many – but one that sent a tingle through me that I can still recall was Hannes Storm’s quietly eloquent Storm Vrede 2015. As I’m making up the rules here (as I go along, what’s more), I’ll also mention, however, a chardonnay producer rather than a single one of his wines: Richard Kershaw, who released his three clonally deconstructed chards as well as his excellent Elgin blend. We need more of the “horizontal” exploration of chardonnay that has happened increasingly with pinot (not least from the Newton Johnsons).
White Wine of the Year: Grande Provence Amphora 2015. Having squeezed in chardonnay already, I’m happy to remember and acknowledge here one of numerous splendid chenins released in 2016. In fact, this is a chenin cunningly supplemented by a touch of aromatic viognier and muscat (see here for more details and deliberation). As the name implies, the wine (a subtle and complex blend of stony austerity and silky richness) was fermented and matured in clay pots; it happened under the guidance of the peripatetic Karl Lambour, former winemaker and GM at this Franschhoek estate.
Red Wine of the Year: Van Loggerenberg Breton 2016. Oh, this plinth-place could go to so many of those that have excited. Sadie Columella 2014 (it would be nice to escape 2015 for a moment!) and Crystallum Mabalel Pinot Noir 2015 come quickly to mind. But (perhaps because I tasted Breton so recently, so it’s at the forefront of my mind, and anyway it fulfils my trivial wish to not have a 2015 – and not all that many 2014 Cape reds are not a touch disappointing), I’m going to nominate Lukas van Loggerenberg’s maiden cab franc. Youthful though it is, Breton is clearly revealing a whole new Cape expression of this variety, which has already produced, or played a major role in, many very good wines here. These have all been Bordeaux-oriented, as it were, while Lukas’s earlier-picked version has the freshness, the unpretentious elegance and charm of the widely under-rated cab francs from the Loire – which were, indeed, the inspiration for this.
Purely personally, and with even more self-indulgence than the above, I have suddenly decided to mention not one, but three Tastings of the Year – those that have given or pleased me most. It’s not entirely whimsy. One thing that gives credibility to people who publicly offer their opinions about wine is the variety, depth and extent of their experience in tasting – and actually drinking. So I’m going to include here a tasting of red burgundy: sustained and substantial exposure to international comparisons is vital to pronouncing local judgements, I’d suggest. Three very different tastings, then, each marvellous in its own way, offered in chronological order:
- Horizontal: At the 2016 Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration, a Burgundy tasting presented by Ataraxia’s Kevin Grant and Derek Kilpin of importer Great Domaines: eight wines from Domaine Robert Chevillon, showing the subtle differences of Nuits-St-Georges terroir expression.
- Vertical: The fifteen released vintages of Sadie Family Wines Columella, making (if one had doubts) a strong case for this as one of the Cape’s finest red wines.
- That name once again – Lukas van Loggerenberg and friend Reenen Borman jointly presented their wines to me recently, informally, in Reenen’s Boschkloof cellar. A winning combination of unfailingly good wines (tasted out of Zalto glasses – as was Eben Sadie’s tasting, not that I’m a glass-fetishist … but it does make a difference), youthful enthusiasm, comradeship and mutual generosity, and a shared dedication to making terroir-expressive and delicious wines. I can’t remember when I’ve more enjoyed sitting down and tasting wines with a winemaker or two.
Thanks to them, and to everyone who has one way or another shared wine with me this year. Here’s to more in 2017!