Politicians, plushness and Bordeaux blends

It’s not every wine show that has a once-powerful politician pouring sips of wine for all and sundry. But there, at the recent Winex in Sandton, was ­Mbhazima Shilowa, former grand trade unionist and former premier of the country’s richest province. Having apparently mucked up his political career, he now at least has more time for marketing Epicurean, the label he created with some big-time capitalist pals (Mutle Mogase, Moss Ngoasheng and Ron Gault).

There’s just one wine, a limited-release, expensive blend of cabernet sauvigon, cabernet franc and ­merlot. The current 2008 is as usual big, plush and luxurious, undoubtedly well made and designed not to challenge too much those who’ve accustomed themselves to big, plush and luxurious wines — defining luxury less in terms of elegance than in terms of sumptuousness.

Epicurean is made (where else?) at the cellars of Rupert & ­Rothschild in Paarl and the entrepreneurial quartet like to present themselves as playing a substantial role in its making. They’re lucky enough to have some assistance from Schalk-Willem Joubert, one of the smartest wine-makers in the business.

I prefer his home-label reds, in fact, both also from widely sourced cabernet and merlot. Classique is made in huge volumes for such a fine wine, the quantity no doubt helping it to retail at just less than R100, giving a price:quality ratio hard to find elsewhere for a Cape Bordeaux-style red.

In your search you could try (as I did at Winex the same evening), the Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 2009 from Neil Ellis. All Neil Ellis wines are smart, well balanced, expert and polished. This one I found a little too sweetly ripe and easy-going. I preferred the Neil Ellis Aenigma, a similar varietal blend, but a little cheaper, and, no doubt because it comes from cooler Elgin rather than warmer Stellenbosch, it is more restrained, with some herbal qualities complementing the sweet fruit in a way that I liked.

The senior Rupert & Rothschild red is Baron Edmond, named for Edmond de Rothschild, the owner of Château Clarke in Bordeaux and the founder of this winery in the late 1990s with the late Anton Rupert. The two R&Rs showing at Winex were from 2009, generally a much better vintage than 2008, which is one reason why both of them are superior to Epicurean 2008.

Styling, however, is consistently different over the years, with Classique and Baron Edmond tending more to the elegant side of luxury.  Baron Edmond 2009 is very good and, if you have the extra money, worth the steep mark-up compared with Classique. It is just that much more profound, complex and satisfying. It will be even better in five or 10 years, when the infrastructure will have merged more harmoniously with the sweet-fruited cladding.

Just along the road from the R&R cellars, at the foot of the Paarl aspect of the mighty Simonsberg, is Glen Carlou. Most of its wines are designed for essentially the same sort of market as Epicurean aspires to, but more specifically American, I gather. Chardonnay has long been Glen Carlou’s most impressive offering, but there’s a range of reds that tend to be generally sweetish and rather obviously oaked. But Grand Classique, its Bordeaux-style blend, stands out in its comparatively restrained modesty. Very reasonably priced too, at about R130, it’s the one I would happily drink.


First published in the Mail & Guardian, 4-11 November 2011

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