Stellenbosch and the Cape wine revolution

Forget that ambiguous and unfortunate story about Andre van Rensburg and Gary Jordan sneering at Swartland wine – it’s not necessary. Stellenbosch makes some great wine – it’s the preeminent wine-producing area of the Cape, certainly, even if it’s arguably not the most forward-looking as a whole (a little too much devotion to oak, extraction and extreme ripeness).

Plenty of newness and excitement though: Waterkloof, for example, an estate devoted to wines from organically farmed vineyards and made with little intervention; Reyneke, another organic (and also biodynamic) estate making in its Reserve Red a shiraz that, for excitement, matches anything from the Swartland; the Winery of Good Hope has caught the “natural” story and is moving away from intervention (though their “natural” wine, Nudity, is from grapes from Voor-Paardeberg, somewhat closer to the dominant force of challenge to conservatism in South African wine). There are many other signs of real vitality to supplement the (also very necessary and admirable) elements of conservatism in Stellenbosch

There are real and marvellous signs, then, that the avant garde is making recruits in the great heartland of quality Cape wine. And, almost surreptitiously, a few leading “new” wines already come, almost unnoticed, from Stellenbosch, though their winemakers are based elsewhere: witness Sadie Mev Kirsten, from the country’s oldest chenin blanc vineyard – in Stellenbosch. Witness Alheit’s Radio Lazarus, from valiant old  chenin vines on the Bottelary Hills – and then wonder if Kaapzicht (wow – a traditional producer of big, alcoholic reds if ever there was one) would have ever got round to giving us their lovely 1947 Chenin Blanc without this bit of push.

The greatest aspect of the Cape wine revolution is that it is spreading wider and wider.

And Stellenbosch even has its real, authentic radicals, it’s good to note.

Yesterday (thanks to the energy of David Clarke, the immigrant Australian who’s showing some local agents what it means to work hard and enthusiastically on behalf of his clients), I had the pleasure of sampling the Clairette Blanche 2014 from Craven Wines – the own-label of another Australian, Mick Craven, assistant winemaker at Mulderbosch and his wife Jeanine, winemaker at Dornier, also in Stellenbosch.

This is a wine which fits beautifully into the Cape avant-garde: a variety that’s been given little shrift until its proud inclusion in some recent Swartland blends (but the Mullineux pair have also made varietal wines from it); and the Cravens make it in a low-alcohol (11.5%) version, half of the final blend coming from a wine which was on its skins for two weeks, the remainder from a whole-bunch-pressed portion.

It’s a most delightful wine, fresh, alert and easy to enjoy – there’s nothing challengingly funky, really, even if some neophytes might be disappointed by the avoidance of simple fruitiness in favour of character. Ginger-beer notes, perhaps, and some winning earthiness. Perhaps it’s Stellenbosch (the grapes are from an old block in the Polkadraai Hills area, in the pic below) that’s responsible for the soft, velvety richness that shapes the fine acidity expected from this grape. It sells for around R125, and I reckon that’s a good buy (I intend to get some myself).

craven clairette

But how good is it to have mustardy young winemakers dedicated to making wines from Stellenbosch. I gather that they turned down the offer of some some good grapes from some more trendy mountainsides, in the name of this commitment. Bravo!

One thought on “Stellenbosch and the Cape wine revolution

  1. Totally loved this read. Just one comment: I wish Stellenbosch could do some avant garde marketing on their Cabernet.

    Stellenbosch terroir is SO suited to making Old World style Cabernet to compete with the great ones from France. Yet (outside the well known labels) the marketing and willingness to boost this cultivar is astonishingly poor.

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