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South African wines at the London International Wine & Spirit Fair 2001: stealing the show?

Greg Sherwood
June 2001

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 surprises there.

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. Perhaps.

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 down under.

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.

Top whites

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 characteristics.

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. World class.

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 either.

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.

Top reds

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 vintage.

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 STUNNER!

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 friendliness.

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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