An interesting tasting earlier this week at KWV headquarters in Paarl. KWV! – I guess they’re still, like the rest of us, grappling with the still-powerful image of the monolithic powerhouse of 20th-century Cape wine. The classic remark for me in this regard was Michael Fridjhon’s when he compared the days of KWV’s power and glory, when it was more or less the winelands outpost of state and government power, and its diminishment after the collapse of the apartheid regime. Now, said Fridjhon, KWV is just one hustler among all the rest, trying to sell its wine.
Indeed. And it took KWV much longer than, say, Distell to shrug off the past and adopt modern winemaking and modern wine-marketing approaches. And, interestingly, just as Distell brought in Linley Schultz from Australia to bring the winemaking up to speed (and perhaps even more significantly, the Romanian Razvan Macici to revolutionise Nederburg), so did KWV (eventually) bring in another Australian, Richard Rowe, to do the trick.
To continue the parallel – I don’t think that KWV has reached Nederburg’s level of quality yet, but the transformation is well under way, and the flagship Mentors range (the focus of my tasting) is pretty good, on the whole. Anxious to prove this in a hurry, KWV has entered Mentors wines in a vast number of competitions, local and international, and has done well in them, on average).
The recently appointed chief winemaker, Johann Fourie, and Rowe himself (who handed over to the local man, and is now consultant and brand ambassador, and clearly still hugely significant) – they are clear that the Mentors range is still something of a work in progress, however. And they are confident that quality is still improving – and it clearly has made great headway since the establishment of the range with some 2006 wines. There are still stylistic issues being debated and considered, and also the question of how much they’re aiming at quality per se and how much at the expression of terroir – at present, it is clear that they are, reasonably enough, playing with both concepts.
Richard Rowe arranged the tasting for my visit, and also present were Johan Fourie and winemaker Lizelle van Blerk. We tasted (before a bonus of some gorgeous old KWV fortifieds) 13 table wines, including many of the current-release Mentors as well as some local standards and one furriner. We tasted them blind (apart from Richard, of course, who’d planned the event), knowing just the varietal make-up and the vintage. In my notes below, I give my own scores, and then in brackets the average score of the group of four.
I will deal here with just the white wines; later I will report on the reds – which actually brought out a much greater degree of difference in the tasters’ stylistic preferences (mostly me versus the KWV team!) than the whites did.
Mentors Sauvignon Blanc Darling 2012 Subtle nose, fairly ripe, with a green edge. Decent length. Perfumed element. Nice touch of blackcurrant, which is my favourite character in sauvignon (it’s pretty rare here). Attractive fruit purity. 17/20 (Average 17.4)
Jordan 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Suggestion of oak on nose. This subdues obvious fruitiness, but adds complexity. Lively, but more magisterial than the Mentors. A phenolic element shows on finish. 16.5/20 (Average 16.6) [Both Richard and I suspected an oak influence, but I don’t think any was used!]
Mentors Chardonnay Stellenbosch 2012 [From Bottelary] Ripe, but could be more touch more vibrant. Power but less finesse. Acid a little harsh on finish. 16/20 (Average 15.9)
Ataraxia Chardonnay 2012 Forthcoming, notably oaked nose, along with citrus. Lime. Perfume. A little sweet on the palate, but oak a bit less noticeable. Nice freshness, but in broader style, a little congested. Power fairly well controlled, decent length. Going back to it, it was even more impressive. 17/20 (Average 16.4) [The revelation of this wine was something of a shock to me, as I’ve associated Ataraxia with a much racier, more restrained, less showy style than this. I didn’t really much enjoy this wine, but thought it necessary to reward the obvious quality, regardless of stylistic preference.]
Mentors Chardonnay Elgin 2012 Much shyer nose than the previous; rather more elegant, with nice limey fruit, well balanced, but not very expressive. Improved after time in glass, however. Very decent. 16/20 (Average 16.6) [The KWV team noted afterwards that the track record of this label – not available to tasters doing it blind, of course – showed that wine from this source needs a few years to start showing its best.]
William Fevre Chablis 2011 Lighter than other chards, with elegance but also a touch insipid; nice lightness, but not much concentration. 15 (Average 16.2) [A classic case of me, especially, falling into the trap of under-appreciating the subtlest wine in a blind-tasted line-up. Tasting it later, more slowly, and looking out for quietly-expressed charms, I appreciated this wine much more and would have raised my score to 17.]