Speaking francly

Bruwer Raats is a big man, and in the old days he used to make big, burly wines for Zorgvliet and Delaire. But now he crafts some of the Cape’s most refined wines from the red Bordeaux varieties, notably cabernet franc. Not to mention – which I won’t any further – some very good chenin blancs.

Bruwer2Cab franc is still rare in South Africa as a monovarietal wine, compared with ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but ahead of malbec and petit verdot. This quintet makes up the major red grapes of Bordeaux, but most popular of all here, in the tradition of the great French wine region, are blends of varying combinations of those varieties.

South African winemakers have a wonderful love affair with the concept of blending, especially this Bordeaux blend. In “New World” winemaking countries, single-variety wines generally have most prestige, but not here. In the Cape there’s often even a determination to include all five varieties – as did the first local version, Welgemeend 1980 (or so pioneer Billy Hofmeyr thought; he later learnt that his petit verdot was something quite other).

Now more than a few estimable wine names even allude proudly to quintuple inclusiveness, including De Toren Fusion V, Gabriëlskloof Five Arches, Raka Quinary, and, less whimsically, Constantia Glen Five (while Haskell IV has four and Chamonix Troika a mere three).

Raats Family Wines does run to a blend, a cab franc-dominated one called Red Jasper. The 2011 version, recently released, is a good, serious but already happily approachable wine, well-priced at around R130. Even better, and a real bargain to my palate and mind, is the Dolomite Cabernet Franc 2011 at  little more than R100. It is firm but elegant, with a red-fruit character and some of the fragrance asociated with the best cab francs, but only the merest hint of the cab franc leafiness that not all appreciate (I do).

The Dolomite serves as a “second wine” to the more structured Raats Cabernet Franc 2010 (R350) and will, I hope, be drunk while the grander wine, in some cool dark retreat, gathers  its considerable elements together and resolves them in higher harmony. It’s compelling enough now, but in five or more years will be even more impressive. No-one in the Cape does this variety as well as Bruwer Raats.

An old winemaking friend of Bruwer’s, Mzokhona Mvemve, teams up with him to produce,  under a separate label, the Mvemve-Raats MR de Compostella. The 2011 Stellenbosch blend is one of those including all big five Bordeaux grapes, with cab franc (of course!) taking up a little more than half the bottle. It’s pricey at approaching R750, but don’t hang about if you’re tempted: there’s not a great deal of it about, and the wine is acquiring something like cult status, along with an international reputation.

It’s repute well earned. While Compostella is no wimp (there’s alcoholic and tannic power as well as forceful, ripe, red-fruit flavours, and it could be a fraction drier), it combines intensity with a genuine finesse that pushes it to the classic side of things rather than the side of fruity, showy modernity. But do give it some time to attain the full complexity and harmony it has the potential for – that, rather than immediate gratification, is what one is investing in when splashing out on wines like this.

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