A spoonful of sugar at Excelsior

They call the Robertson area the valley of wine and roses. To which they should add horses, as these sun-drenched limey soils are as good for equine purposes as viticultural ones (and the horses need less artificial irrigation). They could even add De Wets to the list of valley characteristics, as there seem to be any number of that extended family there.

One of the places where all these factors come together is the stud and winery called Excelsior. The vineyards are of prime concern, though, and the relevant De Wets (Freddie and son Peter) make a substantial range of mostly modestly priced wines off their 220 hectares of predominantly black grapevines.

Nearly all the wines are within spitting distance of R40, which is pretty good these days, especially for reds. It seems to me it’s a price level and range designed to appeal to at least three potentially overlapping categories: the less affluent, the mean and those who don’t much care what they drink. The first category, when it’s just that, is the only one for which I have much sympathy, a fellow feeling that increases when those people would actually appreciate some of the qualities that tend to come (though sadly not always) at higher prices.

For the Excelsior wines themselves are designed to attract those wary of character and interest, wanting easy gratification and thinking of wine as Mary Poppins did of medicine, as needing a spoonful of sugar to help it go down. The effect of the sweetish edge is abetted by high alcohol levels and ripe fruitiness.

That, of course, is description, perhaps tendentious, but not accusation. Most easy-drinking wines these days have sugar levels that classicists might sneer at in unguarded moments. The Excelsior wines do well in the United States, apparently, where “soda pop” has notoriously affected the dominant taste in wine (it is estimated Americans get about 10% of their calorie intake from sugary drinks).

There are three Excelsior whites. The Sauvignon Blanc 2010 is a little dull a year on but the 2011 should be available soon and livelier. The chardonnay and viognier are both just off-dry but more zesty, the Chardonnay subtle and pleasing, the viognier rich and powerful, but not excessive.

The cheapest offering, Purebred Red (R29), carries the winery’s tendency to soft, sweet plushness rather far. Of the others, the Merlot disconcertingly packs chocolate fruitiness around a green core, and the Paddock Shiraz also has a green sour-sweet finishing flourish. The Cabernet Sauvignon is the one I most liked: ripe, juicily sweet, fruited but with vinosity too, rich and succulent, soft but not squishy.

It’s not easy to be entirely fair about wines in a style I don’t much care for but undoubtedly many people, especially those who tend to find red wines harsh and rough, would enjoy these greatly. Moving from undoubted good value into more disputed terrain, not entirely convincingly, there are a few Excelsior wines at more than R100. I was sent two samples – both more grandly packaged than the standard range (and with corks rather than screwcaps), both bearing the names of presumably famous horses.

The San Louis Shiraz and Evanthius Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 combine the house style – soft, sweet fruitiness with more structure, obvious oak (especially evident on the smoky, leathery shiraz) and more thrust and concentration. But overall the easy-going Excelsior principle applies.

Originally published in Mail & Guardian, 15-21 April 2011

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