Good buys from a good name

It feels somehow inappropriate to be welcoming a pair of modestly priced wines from Rustenberg. Rustenberg is one of the most aristocratic old names in South African wine and the estate, with the Simonsberg towering majestically behind it, is amongst Stellenbosch’s loveliest. It’s almost wrong that there should be anything other than grand wines bearing this grand name.

There used to be an entry-level range called Brampton, but that was sold off a few years back to a big merchant house, while in prehistoric times there was the famous Rustenberg Dry Red as the “second” wine. The two new wines, Ida’s Red and Ida’s White, use retro labels recalling that older one.

Rustenberg has been through a few winemaker changes in the past 15 years or so, which probably promoted some lack of coherence and consistency. There’s generally been a push towards a rather showy modernism, often tending to the ultra-ripe, oaky, slightly sweet and powerful, but not inevitably or always convincingly. While Rustenberg’s reputation remains high, it has slipped.

The modern period began dramatically in 1996, with a massive rebuilding and replanting programme – and the exit of long-time winemaker Etienne Le Riche, who had made here some of the Cape’s best wines of the 1980s. In came New Zealander Rod Easthope, and then Adi Badenhorst, who also left after some years, to do his own very different thing in the Swartland.

We must hope that Rustenberg has entered a more stable phase, with Randolph Christians settled in as winemaker and the next generation of the owning family, in the youthful person of Murray Barlow, now integral to the team.

There’s a surprisingly large variety of wines, at a time when many serious producers are reducing their ranges, but most are impressive enough. And there are signs that more restraint – in new oak and ripeness, for example – is coming in. At the top end, the Five Soldiers Chardonnay 2009 (R330) is rich but well balanced, succulent and intense, harmoniously oaked – just the sweetness on the finish bothers me (it’s also on the rather oaky Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2009).

Equally pricey Peter Barlow 2007, the single-vineyard cabernet, shows more modesty than some earlier vintages in terms of oaking and ripeness; it’s handsome and already drinking well. I preferred the 2009 Syrah (R195) – more elegant, subtle and fresh, and drier than some other wines here, with spicy, herbal (sage and rosemary) edges to the fruit.

The John X Merriman 2009 blend is, as always, a fair buy (R165) – quite voluptuous, but seriously built, and still youthful. The Merlot 2010 (R95) is an unusually good version of this grape – plenty of fruit, alongside a dry, savouriness, and no obvious greenness.

Of the mid-level whites I most enjoy the Roussanne 2011 (R150); it’s perfumed and floral, crisply elegant and interesting. As for the comparative cheapies – they are undoubtedly a good value and rather delicious way of getting this famous name onto your table. Both are softly easy-going, plumped up and smoothed with a little residual sugar. That’s more detectable on the White (R50), a blend dominated by the tropical fruit of sauvignon blanc, with some floral charm. Ida’s Red is particularly good and recommendable at R60, a blend led by merlot, shiraz and cabernet, with most attractive aromas and flavours, and a gently firm structure that won’t intimidate anyone.

From Mail & Guardian, 25 May 2012

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