South African wines at the London
International Wine & Spirit Fair 2001: stealing the show?
Greg Sherwood is bowled over by the South African wines on show at the
2001 London wine trade fair -- some stunning wines that by all accounts
totally overshadowed the other new world representation. But then you
could argue that he's biased….
Few single events allow the media and wine trade in general the
opportunity to compare and contrast national, regional and individual wine
producer progress and development under one roof. So when the London
International Wine and Spirit Fair (LIWSF) rolled around again in May
2001, in bigger and better format than in many a recent year, I decided to
ignore the harsh warnings from my dentist, put my head down and hit the
wine stands, notepad in hand.
Wine show time
After searching out the best red Stellenbosch gems at the Wines Of
South Africa Show in October 2000, tasting through the top Aussie
Cabernet, Shiraz and Chardonnay in January at Wines Of Australia, and
looking for ground breaking Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs at Wines Of
New Zealand in February, I now had a chance to take a birds-eye view of
all three industries, shoulder to shoulder.
While much will surely be written on the LIWSF 2001 both here on the
Wineanorak and elsewhere in the media, justice cannot be done unless South
Africa's presence is given a special mention! The generic body Wines Of
South Africa seems genuinely to have captured and exploited the huge
forward momentum created after October's national wine trade fair. For
this, they deserve a large round of applause. In comparison, Australia's
participation was professional but lacked excitement in terms of products
and presentation. New Zealand too disappointed, with the big boys Montana
and Villa Maria dominating proceedings at the expense of smaller, more
exciting and innovative wine cellars. And as for California, the only
thing higher than the quality of their wines were the prices! But then no
South African surprises
For me, South Africa clearly stood out head and shoulders as the
unshakeable all-rounder. Or in class terms, as the English so dearly love
to classify everything, there was a rainbow representation with everything
from working-class budget quaffers all the way up the spectrum to
blue-blooded vinous fine wine jewels. Admittedly, some might argue that if
you have been the underdog in the wine industry for so long, the odds
would be on for an upset win against the bigger boys sooner or later.
So what made South Africa's participation so remarkable? Well, for
starters, merely having such a large 'presence' was evidence of the Cape
wine industry's unwavering commitment to becoming a major international
player. I cannot even start to imagine the cost in South African Rands
that must have been spent on stands and exhibition space etc., considering
an exchange rate of R11.50 to £.00. And while "presence" may
not be classified as one of your important 4 marketing "P's", it
is definitely equally as important as price, product and promotion.
And just as South Africa's strongest asset on the cricket field is
their team's impressive list of world class all-rounders, it seems the
wine industry has also taken note and similarly boasts an array of wines
and wine styles to suit all palates and prices.
Moving from the bottom up, the commercial budget ranges were very well
represented, but unlike the New Zealand pavilion, at no point did I get
the impression that smaller quality-orientated boutique cellars were being
overshadowed and swamped by the corporates. But then perhaps the size and
spread of South Africa's participation might have played a role there too.
In contrast, from the Australian representation at the show, one couldn't
get away from the gut feeling that literally half of the producers present
were probably owned by one or two giant corporate shareholders, a
questionable factor that now dominates the politics of the wine industry
On and upwards, the middle ground, where SA has always traditionally
been a strong contender in the UK market, showed sure signs of yet further
marked quality improvements, with wines in this bracket now surely
representing some of the very best value for money around. No shame in the
£6.99 to £8.99 ranks!
But no doubt about it, for me the prize for 'first class' must go to
the upper middle and premium level wine producers. For here is a small but
rapidly growing group of producers that is on par in marketing and quality
terms with most New World peers. And even more excitingly, these producers
seem to be breaking new ground daily instead of just following where
others have tread. All experienced tasters out there must be in agreement
that never before has South Africa's own stylistic identity been more
pronounced, stronger and healthier.
Marketing talk aside, let's get down to the nitty gritty and have a
look at my 'Pick of the Bunch' from the fair.
Land's End Sauvignon Blanc 2000
New venture between Graham Beck's winemaker Charles Hopkins and three
friends who are growing grapes only a few kilometres from the southern tip
of Africa, Cape Agullas. Great cool-climate concentration and varietal
Neill Ellis Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc 2000
Cult white from Neill Ellis's West Coast vineyards near Darling. The
2000 comes in yet again as one of the top Sauvignons in South Africa.
Neill Ellis Elgin Chardonnay 2000
As with above wine, ideally situated cool-climate vineyards and
thoughtful wooding create a wine with heaps of character and finesse.
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2000
A big ripe weighty example from H-R. In many ways this wine is showing
a bit like the 1999 Cloudy Bay Chardonnay, with big fresh citrus balancing
a full, round mouthful. Needs 6 months plus to come together and really
start to shine. Drink-up your 1999 and then move onto the 2000 for Xmas.
Bouchard-Finlayson Sauvignon Blanc 2000
Yet another white from B-F that maintains concentration without losing
elegance. Displays the characteristic delicate touch that comes through in
all Peter Finlayson's whites.
Bouchard-Finlayson Kaaimansgat Chardonnay 2000
Delicately structured cool climate Chardonnay that is up there with
the best. Not as muscular as H-R but certainly not inferior.
Klein Constantia Rhine Riesling 1998
A wine that maintains the Estate's reputation
as one of the top Riesling producers in the New World. A lovely mouthful
with complex touches of botrytis, kerosene and peachy fruit.
Meerlust Chardonnay 1999
Love it or hate it, this is a big, well-made wine. Quite 'new wave'
Burgundian in many ways. Not cheap but then not that widely available
Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc 2000
Perhaps a little more pronounced and consumer friendly that the
unobtainable Schaapenburg Single vineyard Sauvignon. Elegant wine making
at its best. I would like to see what Andre Van Rensburg could do with
Neill Ellis's Darling grapes!?
Jordan Sauvignon Blanc 2000
Cathy and Gary Jordan have the "quality wine at an affordable
price" concept taped up! What more can I say. It's that simple. Don't
ask me how they pull it off year after year for both red and white?
Perhaps something to do with those early days they spent in California?
Jordan Chardonnay 1999
Might not taste like top Burgundy, but boy is it drinkable. Not
totally un-serious though.
Rupert & Rothschild Baroness Nadine Chardonnay 1999
A big round rich effort that is perhaps a little over blown? Certainly
has great depth and a touch of sweetness and finishes with that feel of
quality. Good effort.
Neill Ellis Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
Top effort from a lovely ripe vintage. Lush, accessible now with
creamy tannins and ripe black berry fruit. All his wines typify top
quality at an affordable price.
Neill Ellis Shiraz 1999
Not quite as good as his Cape Independent Wine Makers Guild (CIWG)
1996 that must rate in my top 10 Shirazes tasted, but certainly a lovely
wine. Vintage shines through again.
Beyerskloof Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
Talking of vintage character, 1998 produced some of the most juicy,
ripe wines ever made in South Africa. Now 'synergise' that together with
one of the most 'hands in the earth' winemaker in SA, Beyers Truter, and
this is what you get. A great Cabernet now, but sure to improve and
develop into a classic in 5 to 8 years time.
Kaapzicht Steytler 1999
Danie Steytler, now what a great guy to talk to! Always pleasing to chat
to a winemaker that is genuinely interested in what people think of his
wines and the way they are marketed. My "advice" to Danie was to
press on and make a prestige Steytler Cabernet or Cabernet/Merlot blend.
So far, his prestige Steytler range only consists of the Top 10 Pinotage
and Michaelangelo Gold Award Winner. It would be sure to fly off the
shelves for around £14.99 to £15.99! Let's wait and see what happens.
Meerlust Rubicon 1997
Well, Georgio Dalle Cia has certainly returned to his best with this
release. Great to see that some Estates are able to hold back and age
those reds that require it. 1997s in general are only starting to show
their true colours, being real products of a long cool French-like
Meerlust Merlot 1997
A rich and plump Pomerol-like Merlot. The 1996 may have shown some of
these characters by default, but the 1997 displays true class and style.
Georgio must be smiling, as Merlot is his pet love.
Vergelegen Merlot 1998
Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
Once again, Andre has let the vintage talk for both of these wines and
subsequently has produced perfectly ripe, complex, balanced wines. Sheer
drinking pleasure! The Van Rensburg legend grows ever larger….
Vergelegen Vergelegen 1998
While visiting South Africa in February, this was the wine that
everybody was talking about. All well and good until I tried to find some
to buy! I eventually did succeed and well yes, paid the price. Not a cheap
wine in Rand terms, but then again, it is a 4 1/2 Star award winner in the
SA WINE magazine and recommended for up to 15 years of ageing. A real
Bouchard-Finlayson Tete de Cuvee Pinot Noir 1999
At the B-F stand, Peter Finlayson was standing there as modest as
ever. Not showing any evidence of acknowledging his stature as one of the
most celebrated Pinot Noir producers in the Southern Hemisphere! This wine
will be on strict allocation when is arrives and will also surely
disappear into the UK industry without a trace.
Graham Beck Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
I suppose it all started with the Single Vineyard selection Shirazes
from the straight Graham Beck stable. Now, Charles Hopkins introduced me
to the next development for the winery, the Cornerstone wines, chosen for
displaying specific terroir characters from isolated vineyard blocks.
Great product development and differentiation. Premium wines with good
complexity and character.
Jordan Cobbler's Hill Merlot Reserve 1998
I became intimately acquainted with the Cobbler's Hill range through
drinking ample amounts of the 1997 Reserve Merlot. The 1998 carries on
where the 1997 left off, but perhaps displays a slightly juicier
Hamilton-Russell Pinot Noir 2000
The 1998 seems to have been the first pure Burgundian clonal blend H-R
produced. But with the 2000, we are talking almost Chambolle-Musigny
weight. Big and rich with concentration the operative word. A SA cult
Pinot that continues somehow to grow from strength to strength.
Onyx Kroon Red Blend 1999 Darling Cellars
I have always been more impressed with the DC whites than reds, but
this wine certainly comes up to scratch. A Cape blend that is slightly
quirky but primarily intriguing on the palate. Well worth a look in.
Yonderhill Merlot 1998
Yonderhill Inanda 1998
I specifically lumped these wines all together because they all
display the same sleek, chocolatey, ripe elegant characteristics. Not a
huge amount produced but has been sighted at selected Oddbins Fine Wine
outlets. My first real encounter with these wines was in 1998 at the
Stellenbosch Wine Maker's Road Show in Pretoria. It was new(ish?) and
stood out as one of the surprise wines of the show, along with the Gilga
1996 Shiraz that was being poured from underneath the Overgauw table.
Camberley Cabernet Merlot 1999
John Nel should be proud of his achievements with his Camberley wines.
Only two vintages old, yet this cellar looks set to become one of the 'in'
collectable private boutique wineries in the near future. Merlot 1999 a
bit of a disappointment due to tainted barrels that John says have now
been disposed of.
Veenwouden Classic 1998/9
When wines start being allocated by the UK agents (Seckford) you know
there is a serious wave of interest brewing. Buy the Classic or Merlot
while you still can. I just wonder how long it will take until this 6000
case a year estate cracks the £20+ per bottle 'collectable' bracket…
Rupert & Rothschild Baron Edmond 1998
I have it on good authority that Mr Rupert has finally settled on a
choice of distributor for his wines in the UK market. The only shame
appears to be that most of the stunning 1998 vintage will have already
been sold to America, Europe and the Far East. The Baron Edmond is a silky
smooth prestige wine that is, I feel, worthy of the hype. But UK wine
buffs should note that this is NOT a Mouton Cadet type stable mate selling
on a name! No, it’s from the (Benjamin) Lafite Rothschild corner and
secondly, is made to be as high quality as possible, or a first-growth
style wine in a New World context, with no expense spared.
Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1997
Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1997
Beyers Truter shines again. If you need a classic wine to give to someone
who has never tasted a top SA red, try one of these on them. Large
structured wines that will improve for a decade or more. Surprisingly
drinkable now though.
De Toren Fusion V 1999
Sheer infanticide to try and drink this wine now even though the
tannins are ripe and smooth. A spicy, multi-layered, complex wine that
reaches new levels of winemaking innovation (in SA if not the New World).
If you missed out on the 1999, hit their website at De-Toren.com and buy
futures in the 2000 or 2001 vintage!
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