Biting cold on the highveld, while those at the tip of Africa are reminded why old Portuguese mariners fearfully called it the Cape of Storms. Time to forget about ice-cold sauvignon blanc. Think warm, think red – but let’s also put a toe or a tastebud beyond the comfort zone of what we know best.
A magnificent recent guide to wine-grape varieties described 1368 of them – many, admittedly, ridiculously irrelevant. Nonetheless the sheer number should make us pause. I’d guess that on most wine retail shelves in South Africa 99 percent of space goes to a mere half-dozen varieties.
Varietal variousness is correspondingly limited in the vineyard. Some 80 varieties grow in the Cape, many on a minuscule scale. The top five ocupy over 60 percent of the vineyard, the top ten 85 percent. Red-wine grapes take two places in the top five (cabernet sauvignon and shiraz/syrah). Merlot and pinotage join them in the top ten (with ruby cabernet – mostly destined for nameless boxed blends).
The spice of life needs spicing up! Fortunately it is starting to happen, though slowly – limited not only by wine-drinkers’ conservatism and grape-growers’ realism, but also by quarantines imposed by prudent agricultural authorities.
Just outside the top ten, and significant in my list below of unusual red wines, is a variety that needed no recent importation. In the mid 20th century, cinsaut was the most planted of all but for various reasons fell out of favour. Now old cinsaut vines are among the darlings of the revolutionaries playing their part in the extraordinary growth in the quality of South African wine – and its variousness.
Grenache, too, has been around for a while (in a smaller way) and is now becoming fashionable in blends and by itself. Like cinsaut, it’s a Mediterranean variety, well suited to the Cape climate – same for mourvèdre. Portuguese varieties like tinta barocca and touriga nacional have escaped from port and make some interesting table wines. Italy has an incomparable wealth of vinous interest and we will see more Italian varieties in the coming years, adding to the nebbiolo and sangiovese that inevitably find a place in my recommendations. Cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec play a small role in some Bordeaux-style blends and increasingly appear solo – often to marvellous effect.
There’s a wide world of other flavours, aromas and liquid textures out there, even on local shelves, and it’s worth exploring and seeking, especially as prices tend to be comparatively modest for the quality in relation to the standard varieties with established markets. If you find it all too disconcerting, you can always retreat once more to an unvaried diet of merlot, shiraz and cab. But I reckon you won’t.
The Wolftrap Syrah-Mourvèdre-Viognier 2012 Smartly packaged and smartly made – straightforward, flavourful and easy-going, but not dumbed-down, the dollop of white viognier adding perfume. As thousands are discovering, it’s hard to beat this at around R40. (Score: 15/20)
Villiera Down to Earth Touriga Nacional-Shiraz 2011 Spicy, exotic aromas lead to a velvety smoothness encasing the maraschino cherry sweet-sourness and a dark earthy note. A big, solid mouthful from a Stellenbosch family farm known for quality and value. R45. (14.5)
Boplaas The Portuguese Connection 2010 From the great Klein Karoo producer of port, a soft, slightly sweet, totally unchallenging blend of two port varieties (touriga nacional and tinta barocca with stalwart cabernet. A Woolworths bottling at R45. (14.5/20)
Nederburg Winemaster’s Reserve Grenache 2011 Delicately voluptuous, juicy, spicy and fruity but no pushover: there’s an edge of tartness and a dry, slightly tannic grip. About R60 from Woolworths. (16/20)
The Spaniard 2011 A winning Paarl blend of, yes, mostly Spanish varieties though the label gives the better known French names: carignan, mourvèdre, grenache, and cinsaut. Packed with ripe savoury deliciousness, gently firm – but not gushing, with a fresh, unpretentious charm. Made by BlankBottle (mostly an online-selling producer, always interesting, always quality-driven) for Woolies. Remarkable value at R60. (16/20)
Ondine Cabernet Franc 2009 A fine bargain from Darling producer Ormonde: nicely plump, but light on its feet, showing the autumnal leafy note and elegance which are both associated with this great Bordeaux variety. Ready to drink now, easy to love. R65. (15.5)
Eikendal Charisma 2011 An award-winning blend of shiraz with some petit verdot and sangiovese – the latter adding subtle earthiness and sweet cherry fruit. It’s ripe, succulent and tasty, full of flavour, and feels well padded. Good now, though just a little raw and will be more harmonious in a year or two. About R72. (16/20)
Terra del Capo Sangiovese 2010 A lovely structure on this Italianate effort from Anthonij Rupert. The fine strong tannin and good acidity discipline the raspberry and cherry fruit into elegance. Like its best Tuscan models, has a fresh stylishness. 13.5% alc. Good value at R76. (16/20)
Mount Abora Saffraan Cinsaut 2012 From a new producer in the revolutionary Swartland area. Don’t expect massive power or oaked grandeur here – it’s a mere 12% alcohol – but revel in the airy lightness and the sheer drinking delight of such pure-fruited cinsaut freshness. Perhaps my heart’s favourite of all those mentioned here, and with a brilliantly funky label. R80 – but not easy to find. (17/20)
Secateurs Red 2011 Another quintessentially new-Swartland wine with a funky label. This one from Adi Badenhorst, and a more typical Swartland blend, though the standard cinsault, shiraz and mourvedre is here partnered by good old pinotage. Typical again is that there’s not a shred of new oak – the lovely flavours are all honestly derived from grapes. It’s fresh, lively and one of the classiest glugs around for R80. (16/20)
Tormentoso Mourvèdre 2010 Made by MAN Vinters from Paarl grapes. Interesting and rather different aromas and flavours – saying ripe red and black berries and some earthiness doesn’t begin to describe what’s on offer. A rustic wine in the best sense – think good country cooking. It’s full and rich, soft and smooth, with a hint of sweetness to the fruit. Some will love this, some might not. R89 (15.5/20)
Spice Route Chakalaka 2010 Wow! A six-way Swartland blend – shiraz, mourvèdre, carignan, and grenache are the better-known names, and there’s also tannat and petite sirah. It’s chunky and forthright in Spice Route’s usual big, ripe style, packed with flavour, well balanced, and perfect to keep warm with on a winter evening. R110. (15.5/20)
Diemersfontein Malbec Reserve 2011 Malbec is sometimes a minor partner in Bordeaux-style blends, where it contributes the same fresh dark fruitiness that this wine delivers with aplomb (not to mention a plum – and a cherry). But there’s firmness and refinement here too. A very smart wine that should age gracefully. Woolworths, R160. (17/20)
Steenberg Nebbiolo 2011 This important Constantia estate was long ago the first local to bravely plant this great but difficult variety from cool north-east Italy. Richly textured and rather delicious, 2011 is the smoothest release so far, less youthfully stern and more obviously fruity than usual – approachable now, but should gain in interest and complexity over many years and repay its price (about R200). (16.5/20)
Vriesenhof Grenache 2010 Legendary rugby-playing winemaker Jan Boland Coetzee brings grenache grapes from the lovely Piekenierskloof area up the West Coast to his cellar in the equally lovely Stellenbosch. This is a more ambitious rendering of the grape than Nederburg’s – matured in new oak barrels, for a start. Intense and concentrated, with savoury notes mingling with fruity ones, in a firm, balanced structure. Altogether delicious now, but should develop excellently for 10 years. R175. (17/20)
From the Mail & Guardian, 14-20 June 2013