KWV’s double vision

KWVChardonnayThe KWV – former overlords of South African wine and now, as Michael Fridjhon once memorably remarked, “just another hustler like everyone else” – recently released the latest vintages of their top range, The Mentors. I don’t personally enjoy all of them, but none are less than good, even very good, and some are better than that. Yet there seems to me something lacking in the range – a coherent aesthetic, perhaps. Is that a problem for them? Or for anyone other than me?

Before a stupendously good lunch at the Test Kitchen, press in Cape Town were given 15 wines to taste: seven 2013 whites, seven 2012 reds and a 2013 Noble Late Harvest.  The price structure is simple, if not modest; about R220 for the whites, R325 for the reds.

After an introduction by Richard Rowe, the Australian successfully brought in to turn the KWV ship around and point it towards quality, the wines were presented by chief winemaker Johann Fourie and viticulturist Marco Ventrilla – who indulged in some pleasant mutual banter about their respective roles in getting the wines to the table. Given that both cellar or vineyard are both vital elements, which, for the KWV, is more important? It’s a good question.

The whites well expressed The Mentors’ claimed aim to find good and interesting vineyards, and express variety and terroir at a high level of quality. Two Sauvignon Blancs respectively from Stellenbosch and Darling, for instance, kept separate rather than blended together, because they offered different characters. A really good Semillon from Darling – subtly oaked, austere, vibrant and grippy, promising good development. It shows KWV’s commitment to doing interesting things in this range: I doubt if it’ll be an easy seller, compared with the sauvignons, the native-yeast Chardonnay (impressive, ripe, balanced, on the showy end of the chard spectrum), or the notably youthful oaked Chenin (rich but rather elegant).

Another on the interesting side was a new Verdelho, also wild-yeast-fermented. I’m not confident to judge it as a verdelho, but it’s intriguing and a welcome, exciting addition to the portfolio, which has, unfortunately, lost the Grenache Blanc.

My favourite of the whites was the Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon Blend, from Darling – restrained, slightly austere, and elegant; long-finishing and harmonious. Lovely now, should develop well for a good few years (though I suspect that asparagus notes will become more prominent – not my most-favoured character). It has the lowest alcohol level of the whites – just over 13%.

In fact, I look at the statistics for the wines supplied by the KWV, and see that all the whites are between 13% and 14% ABV. (Alcohol reduction is, I believe, a technical possibility for KWV, but I don’t know which, if any, of these wines went through a reverse osmosis machine).

KWVpetitverdotA big contrast
Then I look at the statistics for the reds: only one, Petit Verdot squeaks in under 14% alcohol (at 13.98%); the others range between that and 15%. Four of the seven have residual sugar levels over 3 grams per litre, and none has RS less than 2g/l (usually necessary if the wine is to be properly dry). This combination of high alcohol and residual sugar gives a definite sweetness of effect – in my opinion, the most widespread problem with Cape reds, and usually resulting from precisely this balance.

Furthermore, all of the reds had been matured in 70% new oak, while oaking on the white wines was either non-existent or restrained; even the Chardonnay’s barrels were only 50% new.

It’s not a matter of tasting statistics, but they do explain my reaction to the reds. Big, ripe, rich, fleshy, fruity, sweetish and oaky were words I frequently jotted down. Could I actually drink more than a glassful of any of these wines, I wonder? Well crafted they certainly are, with well-adjusted acidity (but failing to give real freshness to this late-picked fruit); beautiful softly firm tannins, a velvet texture.

I’m not surprised that the reds seem to be selling well abroad, as they are very good examples to fill importers’ current “New World blockbuster” slots. But to me they’re looking a touch old-fashioned, even – isn’t the world generally moving a little away from this style, towards less oak, less power, more freshness? (Incidentally, my two favourites of the reds were the two blends: Orchestra, the Bordeaux-style one, and Canvas, a shiraz-based Mediterranean mix.)

Johann-FourieWinemaker Johann Fourie (right) seemed genuinely surprised when I diffidently suggested that there’s something of a dichotomy between his whites and his reds. We did have a chat about it over lunch – it was good to see his genuine wish to discuss the matter openly, without arrogance or belligerence.

Without doubt, what is happening in the Mentors cellar reflects a great deal of skill, hard work and determination to make good, serious wines. But as I hinted before, perhaps what is lacking is a focus, a wish to achieve a particular KIND of excellence. On the one hand, for some wines, finding the right vineyard seems to be the prime answer and manipulating as little as possible. On the other hand, for some wines it’s all about more work in the cellar, where the organoleptic quality of the wine is what counts, even if it arrives through blending and adjustments of acidity, alcohol, etc.

This is, I think, why there’s nothing at the Cape’s cutting edge at the top end of KWV. The whites are much closer to being there. The reds could all have been made in the 1990s so far as their style goes – no problem with that in itself, it’s not old-fashionedness I worry about (if they reminded me of the good stuff of the 1970s, I’d have been thrilled).

So: good wines from KWV;  but if they want the reds to become as good as the whites, and they want both to become really exciting, what is needed is not skills, expensive equipment, new oak, benchmarking, competition wins to brag about and competition losses to forget, marketing strategies, etc. What is needed is soul – which is, really, the antithesis of all those things.

5 thoughts on “KWV’s double vision

  1. Much more interesting reaction than a list of scores and descriptions. Why do SA wine writers hardly ever actually think about anything?

  2. I agree that these reds are a bit soulless, Tim. Polished, but ultimately a bit too ripe and boring.

    Did they offer any reason for dropping that gorgeous (and emphatically not boring) Grenache Blanc? It must be a good one, like perhaps a meteorite decimated the vineyards…

  3. Yes, Kwisp – the grenache vineyard regrettably became unavailable (can’t remember if it was because of a meteorite or what).

  4. Having spoken to a few of the grape suppliers to the Mentors range, it is no wonder these reds are alcoholic, manipulated and soulless. If you pick your grapes at 26brix (and above) and focus in the cellar rather than the vineyard, this will be the result. As you say Tim, perfect for the average consumer/competition that applauds block-busters, but KWV can’t expect to woo the real wine lover with excessively ripe wines. We need to get the decision makers at KWV (and Distell etc) to drink more authentic/soulful wines and understand that they are being left behind making these wines.

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