Donovan Rall, top wines from South Africa

There’s something about tall South Africans and wine. Three of the leading winegrowers from this dynamic country are all very tall indeed: Peter-Allan Finlayson, David Sadie, and Donovan Rall – whose wines I’m reviewing here.

Donovan Rall has been making his own wines since 2008, and immediately achieved a Platter 5 star for his first release, the 2008 Rall White (in the 2010 guide). He hasn’t looked back.

He studied viticulture and enology at Stellenbosch, and then worked with Eben Sadie for a vintage. At this stage, he said to himself: this is what I want to do. I can wither be an assistant winemaker, or I can make 6 barrels of my own wine (because this is all he could afford at the time). Now he’s making a bit more, focusing on varieties adapted well to the warmth of the Swartland and neighbouring areas.

Rall is keen on Cinsault, which used to be the workhorse red of South Africa. ‘I started drinking a lot more Beaujolais and lighter reds, and I wanted to make something like that,’ he says. Eben Sadie’s Cinsault, called Pofadder, inspired him to start working with the grape. ‘It’s a good grape for a winemaker who specializes in whites,’ he says. ‘White wine specialists make really good Cinsault because they make it softer. It is what it is.’

He makes some of his wines at Annexkloof with Jurgen Gouws (of Intellego), and then makes his non-Swartland wines at Vuurberg in Stellenbosch. Winemaking is low intervention but high skill, using a mix of fermenting and ageing vessels, blending cleverly, and picking appropriately early. These are some of the Cape’s most exciting wines.

Rall Cinsault Blanc 2017 Coastal Region, South Africa
This is a rare variety grown in a forgotten 0.2 hectare vineyard in Wellington. Rather than being a field mutation, it was planted as a separate variety in the 1920s and 1930s, popular for its mass production. It’s also registered officially under the name Albatros, which means big bunch. Like Cinsualt, it drops acid quickly, so it was picked early (10.5% potential alcohol) and left on its skins for a weekend before fermentation. Fermented in an amphora produced locally by Yogi de Beer, unlined with clay lid sealed with wax and cling wrap. Linear, bright and fresh with a distinct minerality, and some saltiness. Very bright and focused with some stoniness. Nicely grainy with such precision. 1000 bottles made. 93/100

Rall Grenache Blanc 2017 Piekeneerskloof, South Africa
Donovan Rall has worked with four different Grenache Blanc vineyards, but he thinks that this one has the most energy, and it can be picked earliest. It’s ungrafted, at 650 m, and he reckons it’s the most mineral and saline. 10% skin ferment, in concrete eggs. There’s real precision to this mineral white. Spicy and saline with a bit of grip. Such detail and precision, showing great acidity, with lovely aromatics and structure. 95/100 (09/18)

Rall White 2017 Coastal Region, South Africa
This blends together 65% of 42 year old Swartland Chenin Blanc, 30% of Stellenbosch Verdelho (for its bright acidity) and 5% Viognier, all fermented in old barrels. Very detailed and powerful with lovely focused citrus, pear and peach fruit. Generous, with a slight hint of green and keen acidity (the Verdelho had a pH of 3 and 7 g/l TA). Complex and detailed. 94/100 (09/18)

Rall Ava Chenin Blanc 2017 Swartland, South Africa
Donovan Rall started working with this very schist-rich block of 2 hectares in 2016. With yields of around a ton a hectare, he’s only made 1200 bottles, but it’s an amazing wine. ‘This has a unique profile,’ he says, ‘and I couldn’t blend it into anything.’ Fermented and aged in old barrels, this is complex and broad with fine yellow plum and white peach fruit, showing some generosity. There’s a sweetness to the fruit, but also amazing finesse. Mindblowingly good with real detail. 96/100 (09/18)

Rall Ava Syrah 2017 Swartland, South Africa
13.5% alcohol. This, for me, is the best new-release South African red wine I have tried to date. It is Syrah from a schist-dominated vineyard (the same one Donovan Rall sources his Chenin from) that looks a bit like Priorat! The drought on the schist was horrible, and he had yields of 6-7 hl/ha from this 2.5 hectare block. The wine shows interesting, aromatic, floral black fruits. It’s concentrated and bold and tannic but also really fresh. Astonishing concentration and purity with hits of meat, olives, spice and pepper. Thrilling. 97/100 (09/18)

Rall Ava Syrah 2017 Swartland, South Africa
Sensational stuff from Dominic Rall. Fine and elegant with some white pepper and cinnamon as well as clove, but this all integrates beautifully into the taut red cherry and black cherry fruit, with good structure and focus. Pristine, and surely with a good future ahead of it. 96/100 (08/19)

Rall Red 2016 Swartland, South Africa
Mainly (85%) Syrah from schist soils (the Roundstone farm of Mullineux), with some Cinsault, Carignan and Grenache. 100% whole bunch. Concentrated, vivid and fresh with nice texture, grip and density. Structured, fine and youthful with lovely fruit and great potential. 95/100 (09/18)

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