When innovation beats specialisation

Out of the great revolution in South African wine we’ve seen in the past few decades, something of a contradiction is emerging. Two tendencies we might expect from a leap forward in growing grapes and making wine are becoming evident, perhaps acting against each other — although we can no doubt expect more from their complex interaction.

First, growers of grapes are learning the potential and strengths of their regions down to specific vineyards with slopes, soils and climates that might favour one grape variety, or a few of them. This is the tendency towards specialisation that proceeded inexorably in old Europe for hundreds of years and is now solidified into law, as well as custom, to the frustration of some. Second, better-trained growers of grapes do their work ever more skilfully, while winemakers translate these efforts into finer wines.

We have two strands of progress, then. So what’s the clash? Well, for example, just as we marked the Hemel and Aarde area as specialising in pinot noir and chardonnay, winemakers there cleverly managed to make good wines from other grapes, too. It seemed clear that Elgin was for white grapes only, but Shannon broke the norm with its brilliant merlot, Mount Bullet.

As for cool Constantia, it seemed right that the valley should also keep, by and large, to white grapes (Buitenverwachting Christine was one of few fine anomalies). If you want sauvig-non blanc, which you probably do, or semillon, which you probably don’t but should, Constantia is an excellent place to go. But hard, intelligent work in the vineyards and cellar at Klein Constantia produced some good cabernet sauvignon and the Marlbrook blend — rather dreary for decades — suddenly became lovely.

Further up the mountainside, angled better for the sun, the still-youthful vineyards of Constantia Glen are producing two fine red blends, respectively named Three and Five, reflecting the number of varieties in each. The 2008 Five, which will be available later this year, seems to have a distinct edge on the 2007 — it is elegant and poised, despite its ripeness and power, and easily matches in style and quality some vastly more expensive Bordeaux.

Most successful of the newer Constantia reds has been the shiraz from Constantia Glen’s neighbour, Eagles’ Nest (both were beneficiaries of the fires of 2000 that allowed vines to replace pines).

The modest maiden 2005 is still drinking well, but 2006 marked a big improvement. The 2007 had a surfeit of new-oak influence (older barrels were not allowed across the threshold of the cellar where it was made) and I find the oaky flavours excessive. Fortunately, the following vintage was made in the newly built home cellar — and it’s all one could hope for. Tasting it alongside the 2009 it’s easier to see that the 2008 is a little too ripe and fleshy, lacking the greater degree of freshness and elegance that makes the new release, to my taste, the finest yet.

It’s a testimony to the intentions and skill of young cellarmaster Stuart Botha (advised by grandmaster Martin Meinert) and further disputes the idea that narrow specialisation is the way Cape winemakers need to go.

First published in the Mail & Guardian, 8-14 July 2011

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