Nothing succeeds like excess at the CWG

In the good old, bad old days of the 1980s the Cape Independent Winemakers Guild was all about modest winemakers learning and experimenting. The little auction they conducted of some of their wines was meant to highlight just that.

By the time there  was no longer a need to be independent of the big boys in the industry (so that word was dropped from the name) winemakers knew everything. They’d mostly learnt from Australia, so they especially knew it was necesssary to pick grapes very ripe and whack them with oak. This depressing wisdom, rather than experimentation, was flaunted in the bigger and brighter annual Auction.

Now it seems that they’re trying to pull back a little in some directions, and urging themselves (43 mostly well known, mostly talented winemakers) to offer a bit more than special selections of their standard wines. Let’s hope that becomes a strong tendency, even if it is unlikely to overcome the unsurprising wish to please a conservative, wealthy market that likes flashy stuff.

Possibly the most obvious indication of that wish, as reflected in this year’s line-up, is the predominance of red wines (about 70%) when, as more and more people are realising, the Cape’s white wines are generally superior.

An unfortunate feature of the reds is how many of them still aim at blockbusterism: they start off opaquely dark and progress from oaky, fruity aromas to intense flavours and soft, sweet-fruited (occasionally sugar-sweet too) conclusions.

Such as most of the pinotages this year. They came towards the end of a recent blind tasting of most of the auction wines, and I confess my modest powers of discernment were already diminished. But there was little subtlety demanding respect. All I could bring myself to note for one of these pinotages was a despairing “Unbearable. Sweet, thick, ghastly.” For the others much the same. Only Kanonkop offered an element of grace, with a balance between flesh and infrastructure. The Spier, Simonsig, Rijk’s and Kaapzicht examples – unutterably not for me. (Incidentally, this thoroughly overdone style of pinotage was also only too obvious on the Platter 5-star tasting. What’s going wrong?)

Pinotage seemed to bring out the most exaggerated expressions of this style – Spier’s Merlot and Kaapzicht’s Cab-Merlot were preferable to their pinotages, while clearly of the same tendency. (And Rijk’s Chenin Blanc was almost my favourite wine of the whole line-up.) Louis Nel’s Rebel Rebel also fell into the utterly excessive category for me – I much preferred the other Louis Wines offering, Turtles all the Way Down (despite my dour attitude to wines with silly names).

Few of the reds, in fact, were not sweet-seeming and notably ripe. The pinots largely escaped the problem, and the Paul Cluver seemed to me as good as I’d have expected, and the De Grendel, while still rather insubstantial, was the best they’ve made so far. Bouchard Finlayson impressed me nearly as little as it did last year.

Ripeness and alcohol seem to have been more of a problem than overoaking this year in the excesses of CWG offerings. Some were good of this type – like Ernie Els and De Trafford Perspective. Even Etienne le Riche, formerly a bastion of elegance in the Cape, seems to have slipped in 2008; I do hope he’s not definitively moving in this sweet, ripe, alcoholic direction. I’ve previously criticised Boschkloof for overdone wines, so I should mention that I was impressed by the direction of Conclusion 2007.

Other tasters seem to have admired David Trafford’s Touriga Nacional from his Sijnn property at the mouth of the Breede River. I didn’t, at all. “Fruity, impossibly dense, thick, undrinkable” was my note – though, again, I confess I was very tired at this stage of the tasting, somewhat despairing, and easily put off.

Thank heavens, firstly, for the few comparatively few white wines. My top white at this tasting was Steenberg The Magus, with Cape Point Vineyards Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc and Nitida Decorous Sauvignon Blanc close behind – all 2010s.  The Paul Cluver Wagon Trail Chardonnay 2009 was very good, but seemed a bit brasher and oakier than previously, and I preferred the subtler  Edgebaston Tete du Ciel 2009. The  Ataraxia 2010 lacked a bit of substance, but was beautifully balanced and should give a lot of early pleasure (while those 2009s should be left for five or so years. I’d guess.)  All of these splendid wines will, I’m sure, get much lower prices than some of the huge, over-ripe reds.

And thank heaven too for the few classically-oriented reds. Grangehurst Cabernet Reserve 2006 was fine and serious – almost austere in this context. I hope it does well on the Auction on 1 October. Waterford’s BB (standing for Bordeaux Blend) 2009 similiarly – but it needs time to show its best. Paul Cluver Pinot Noir and the two wines from Luddite were the other reds that I most admired.

I confess I paid insufficient attention to the fortified wines, and none at all to the Boplaas brandy, which I have absolutely no doubt is as excellent as it always is.

This is a much-extended version of the article in the Mail & Guardian,2-8 September 2011

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