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South Africa Visit 2015


It has been a few years since we last visited South Africa and we were more than a little excited to see what developments had taken place and to see what the wine industry was up to over there.

However, things didn't start out too well. Our shuttle from Manchester to Heathrow was delayed due to bad weather, causing us to miss our overnight flight to Cape Town. 24 hours later, we caught the next plane and arrived in South Africa to glorious sunshine that was a very welcome culture shock after the miserable January weather we had left behind.

Because of our unforeseen delay, we had no time to settle in and instead hit the ground running, going straight to DeMorgenzon for our first tasting. The tasting was tutored by winemaker Carl van de Merwe and by owners Wendy and Hylton Appelbaum. At DeMorgenzon they play music to certain blocks of the vineyard in the belief that it has a beneficial effect upon the vines. It is also played in the winery to the vats and barrels. We can't quantify or qualify what, if any, effect the music has, but all of the wines were excellent.

There were two wines that really shone through. The first was the white Maestro 2014, a blend of Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay, Roussanne and Viognier. Very much in the style of a white Rhône, the Viognier was evident on the nose giving a delightful floral perfume. On the palate it was full falvoured without being overblown, mouth-filling and yet elegant. As it stayed in the glass, the flavours and aromas really developed and, as we tried it again with a little lunch, it was excellent as a food wine. The other wine that was very impressive was the DMZ Shiraz 2012. This comes from a realtively young block of vines in Stellenboschkloof and the 2012 vintage was really kind to them here. It was well coloured, very ripe on the nose but with spice notes too. On the palate there was an abundance of spicy plums, cherries, white pepper and it was in perfect balance, making it great fun to drink now but with plenty of life in it.

After we left DeMorgenzon, we had time to check into our wonderful accommodation at Rustenberg, where the Barlow family made us more than welcome. That evening was taken up with a visit to the Ernie Els winery where we tasted the golfing legend's wines before tucking into the most wonderful Braai. As usual, the very genial Lynton Kaiser, estate export manager, was on terrific form. We tasted the whole range and particularly enjoyed the new addition, the Big Easy Rose 2014. This was really juicy and packed with berry fruit. The Ernie Els Signature wine was magnificent and worthy of inclusion in any cellar. All of the wines were extremely good and it confirmed our belief that this is not a celebrity winery, but a high quality winery owned by a celebrity. The night concluded with everybody having their photograph taken with the replica trophy from the British Open Golf Championship which Ernie won in 2012.

Up with the lark the following morning, we drove across to the Overberg for a tasting with Paul Cluver at his family winery. We were fortunate enough to have the chance to taste the wines up in the vineyards, in sight of the block where each wine had originated. The standout wines on this morning's tasting were the Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir. The Gewurztraminer was not oily in the least having a wonderful freshness with aromas and flavours of lychee, rose petals and spice. The Pinot Noir Estate Wine was from the older vines of the property and had had some oak influence during its ageing. Light in colour, it was full and generous on the palate, plenty of ripe fruit and good balancing acidity with hints of cigar box on the finish which was long and true.

Onwards and upwards from here with a visit to Cathy Marshall, again in the Overberg. Cathy doesn't own a winery as such but simply rents space in other people's places - a sort of cuckoo of the wine world! She's a delightful lady and is making some really great wines. This area of the Overberg - Elgin - gets around 300 days a year of cloud cover, so the cooler climate grape varieties perform really well here. We began with a Sauvignon Blanc 2014 that included 8% Semillon in it to enrich its style and it was simply gorgeous. Great fruit, with aromas through the spectrum from green pepper to more tropical pineapple notes. The palate was full and vibrant yet retaining great elegance. The finish was fine and long and this was a splendid effort in what had been a difficult year for Sauvignon Blanc thanks to the rainfall. Cathy had made some good Pinot Noirs too, but the outstanding red for us was Peter's Vision Merlot 2011. Everybody both before and after this tasting told us that Merlot was a difficult variety for the Cape, but this was quite incredible. Spicy plums on the nose with more complex notes beneath. Classically framed, it was complex and full on the palate, well balanced and chewy with a long and savoury finish.

The final visit of the day was to Bouchard Finlayson, where Vicki Toleman and Peter Finlayson put on an excellent tour and tasting followed by dinner. As with the previous tastings, the general quality level was as high as ever, although three wines remained foremost in our minds when we had finished. For us, the white Blanc De Mer offered great intensity and complexity. Here we tasted two vintages. The 2013 was fragrant, mineral and complex and perfect to drink right now. The 2014 had a slightly higher percentage of Riesling in the blend and had only recently been bottled. It was also cooler, at first it appearing tight and inexpressive, but as it came round in the glass it really showed its paces with delicious fruit, mineral notes and a generous finish. This will be fantastic in a few more months.

For the reds, we were torn between the Hannibal and the Galpin Peak Pinot Noir for a favourite. For me, the Galpin Peak just had the edge. It was the 2012 vintage and it was bursting with berry fruit with notes of plum. It was generous on the palate with beautiful velvety tannins and a soft, lingering finish. This is perfect for drinking now and is one of the classiest Pinots I've tasted outside Burgundy. It will also age well for some years to come.

After a good night's sleep, we were back on the road for an appointment with the Steytler family at Kaapzicht Estate. This is a large estate and we tasted through the range but it was two of the Chenin Blancs that most appealed. The entry level 2014 was fresh as a daisy, whilst the 1947 Block, that included some barrel fermented fruit, was richer and fuller.

The afternoon was spent at one of the Jean Engelbrecht wineries where we tasted The Stellenbosch Reserve range and also the Donkiesbaai wines, introduced by winemaker Philip Van Staden. Both ranges were excellent, despite the heat of the day quickly removing their chill. The Donkiesbaai Steen (Chenin Blanc) was fragrant and mineral, fresh in the mouth with a touch of citrus zest. It had a wonderfully lively finish that lasted well. The Pinot Noir was again very fragrant and packed with berry fruit. Chewy on the palate with perfectly balanced tannins.

Then came The Stellenbosch Reserve range which got us very excited. The Moedekerk Chardonnay was sublime! Open, with peach fruit and well integrated oak nuances on the nose, a fantastic palate dominated by stone fruits, a firm mineral core and perfect balancing acidity. Not overblown, it was fermented and aged 50/50 in stainless steel and old oak barrels. It was even better after ten minutes in the glass and it will certainly be a big hit with our restaurant clients. There were 3 reds to taste, but the star of the show was the Bordeaux Blend. A big and well structured wine with good intensity and complexity that was surprisingly elegant despite its 14.99% alcohol content. Cabernet Sauvignon dominated, with Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot alongside, this had the cedar and lead pencil notes that you would associate with the great wines of the Médoc at a fraction of the price. A great wine.

That evening we continued the Jean Engelbrecht theme with a dinner at Rust En Vrede. Again, a brilliant range of wines was kindly offered. They were mainly reds and we were unanimous in our liking of the 2011 Estate Wine. Full, ripe and mouth-filling with a sweet cover to the fruit, rich on the palate and a dark, brooding finish.

The following day we were treated to some more very memorable tastings. It all started with the jewel that is Indaba Wines. These are very well priced and very very well made wines and a certain percentage of the profits is donated to various children's charity projects. We've tried wines with similar noble aspirations before; the pull on your heartstrings can sometimes make you overlook the quality of what is in your glass. None of this at Indaba. Consultant winemaker Brewer Raats took us through the selection which kicked off with a Sauvignon Blanc. This did exactly what it said on the tin. Classically structured yet with just enough tropical fruit notes, vibrant acidity, great freshness and a wonderful citrus finish. Better than many offerings at twice the price. The same could be said for the Chenin Blanc that had just a small percentage (3-4%) of barrel fermented fruit added. This was a true star - fragrant, mineral with such sweet fruit balanced by a fine twist of acidity. An excellent Merlot was just pipped at the post or top spot by the Mosaic 2014. This Bordeaux Blend was really juicy with a rich fruit nose, plenty of berry fruit on the palate - not sweet but certainly not austere - and ripe, unobtrusive tannins. This would put many a Petit Château in Bordeaux to shame. Great wines at fantastic everyday prices. Watch our website for an upcoming offer!

We pressed on from there to Glenelly which was handy as it's right next door to Rustenberg! This winery is owned and run by May de Lenquesaing, the previous owner of Château Pichon Comtesse in the Médoc. As you would therefore expect, the wines were very classical in style, and almost Médocaine despite the huge geographical shift. Everything we tasted was excellent, but after having tasted such wonderfully approachable wines for the previous few days, they all seemed to be a little restrained and in need of a few more years in the cellar. However the Grand Vin 2008 was certainly very approachable and the 40% of Shiraz was obvious and gave an added ripeness to the wine. This will certainly be appearing on our list soon.

Rustenberg was the last tasting of the day for reasons I'll mention later. Son Murray is now at the helm and a very fine job he's doing too - not that father Simon did a bad one! All of the wines were outstanding but rather than just print a list, I feel that certain wines really need to be talked about.

The 2011 Five Soldiers Chardonnay and 2008 Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon were outstanding, but we have come to expect this from such a high quality estate. The 2013 Stellenbosch Chardonnay was also on great form, and the 2014 Roussanne really hit the spot. They only made 250 dozen bottles, but we'll be trying to get our hands on some for you. It had a lovely blossom and peardrop nose, chewy fruit on the palate with good balance, an overall sweetness derived purely from the fruit and not from residual sugar, and a long, savoury finish. A must for lovers of spicy seafood dishes.

The reds were all very fine, with the John X Merriman and R M Nicholson cuvées showing as well as always. The Buzzards Kloof Syrah 2011 definitely stood out from crowd: fragrant with both fruit and floral notes, it was elegant, juicy and ripe with some dark tannins supporting. A fantastic wine that was made all the more appealing when we went on the vineyard tour later and saw one of the Buzzards the gives the wine its name.

The evening was spent having dinner at the house with our perfect and charming hosts Simon and Rozanne Barlow. Fortunately, it just so happened to be my birthday so Murray raided the cellar and brought up some older vintages. We started off with a 2005 5 Soldiers Chardonnay which was drinking like a top white Burgundy. Then we had a run of 3 older vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon - 1971, 1974 and 1999. Although the 1971 was a little tired, it was still fun to drink.The star of the show was the 1974, which was still youthful and a joy to drink, especially with the roast lamb that Rozanne had prepared. Finally, the 1999 Peter Barlow was still a pup, fully flavoured and very complex. It was a dinner and a collection of wines that we won't forget in a hurry.

After saying our fond farewells the next morning, we headed out to Swartland for a tasting at the Spice Route Winery. We've been selling the estate's Pinotage and Viognier for some time, but it was a real education to try the whole range with winemaker Charl du Plessis. The 2014 Chenin Blanc was wonderful. Aromatic, fresh with a great texture and terrific purity of fruit. The Pinotage was its usual, fruit driven and massively appealing self, but the star of the show was the Chakalaka 2012. A blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Carignan, Petit Syrah and Tannat, it was a delightfully complex Rhône-style blend that was elegant in the mouth with a soft, chewy finish. Packed with fruit, this is a true star that drinks well above its spot on a list.

After a quick lunch, it was on to see an old friend - Adi Badenhorst - at his estate, again in the Swartland. Adi hasn't changed one bit and he still takes life with a pinch of salt, the only thing he takes seriously is his wines.  We first tasted each of the individual varieties that he produces before moving on to the final blends. The blend for the white version of the Curator (Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Sémillon) was very aromatic. The Sémillon really kicked in on the nose, with a full and generous palate that managed to retain great freshness and vitality. Long in the finish, this was a little star, sophisticated yet unpretentious, and it should really make our drinkers very happy. The red blend of Shiraz, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Viognier was fragrant, packed with red fruits and a touch of spice. It was firm on the palate with good structure and a generous, lasting finish. A great pair with which to end our tour.

All in all, this was a great visit and we are eager to get the new ranges shipped and onto our list and website. Watch out for their arrival and for some new mixed cases appearing so that you can see for yourselves just what excellent quality wines are being made in South Africa.

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