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De Toren: a new 'cult' winery from South Africa

By Gregory W. Sherwood

During a recent discussion with Jenny Ratcliffe, daughter of Norma Ratcliffe, owner of the famous Stellenbosch winery Warwick Estate, talk turned to her Cape Wine Master dissertation topic,  the 'cult' and 'iconic' wines of South Africa. At first thought, the subject seemed self-explanatory. But as she started to rattle off more and more winery names, it became clear that it's difficult to make a clear distinction between these two categories. When does a cult wine become iconic? Is there an established evolutionary curve? Does there have to be a limited production and is pricing a relevant attribute?

The South African wine industry is by no means youthful, but the fine wine and boutique revolution certainly is. But time is passing by at an alarming rate. Wineries I was writing about a few years ago are now drifting out of the 'cult' bracket and are on the cusp of icon status, as another generation of start-up ventures pushes back the boundaries of quality and innovation. Wineries like Veenwouden, Cordoba and Morgenhof, which have only really been making fine wine of an international standard since the early or mid 1990s, are now more often than not listed as iconic producers.

Since the creation of a truly fine wine takes years of planning vineyards, sourcing rootstock, preparing land and planting and cultivating vines, no winery venture is actually a flash in the pan unless grapes are bought on the spot market. So it only seems fitting that a winery like the De Toren Private Cellar should reach such lofty heights of fame in such a short time on the market. Producing only one wine with their own fruit, named after the unique five varietal blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, Fusion V is truly a labour of love where the different grapes are married to form a truly unique South African blend (and increasingly unique internationally as well).

To make a great wine from the very first vintage, you need enthusiasm and commitment and owners Emil and Sonette den Dulk confirm that ‘Fusion V marks a welcome return to the tried and tested traditional wine-making methods of the French masters. With old worldly passion and new worldly commitment to quality, De Toren Private Cellar is, perfectly positioned to ensure consumer after-glow.’ With the first vintage 1999 cracking the 90 point mark from both Parker and Wine Spectator, and receiving open-ended praise from the local industry and local consumers, the stage was nicely set for the creation of yet another cult wine. And with its production limited to 1900 cases, a feeding frenzy was inevitable.

With an artistic flair seldom associated with his trade, up and coming 27 year old South African winemaker Albie Kock refers to the vineyards of De Toren as a painter’s palette. On a relatively small property of 26 hectares, of which 19.9 hectares are under vine, seven soil types were identified and an impressive array of 13 cultivar clones were introduced -- Merlot x 4, Cabernet Sauvignon x 4, Cabernet Franc x 2, Petit Verdot x 2 and Malbec x 1. Designed to complement the terroir of the farm, the grapes are cultivated to release as many different flavours into the wine as possible. Even planting widths of the vines were altered depending on the soil, cultivar and rootstock. The farm’s low fertile soils are relatively cool and the water drainage good. Add to that a constant breeze from the ocean, which is within sight from the vineyards, and the farm is air-conditioned to perfection in a predominantly warm growing region, all ensuring optimal crop load.

De Toren’s USPs (Unique Selling Points) are numerous: Unique cultivars (for SA); unbeatable terroir; closely monitored farming practices that are environmentally friendly; wide array of cultivar clones; maximised cultivar complexity; intelligent cellar management; and expert blending – all the components required to make a truly great, world class wine. ‘Just as one thinks of France as being a cultured an elegant nation and South Africa as a more vibrant and physical country, so stands this wine in relation to Bordeaux’ says Emil den Dulk. ‘It’s far more muscular than anything the Medoc is likely to produce and it still has the same cedar and black currant characteristics – a brilliant blend of New World energy and old world panache.’

And so as an increasing number of producers move from youth into middle age, one almost feels a sense of duty to further elevate and differentiate the consistently true greats that we all know and love, like the famous Meerlust Rubicon, Kanonkop Paul Sauer and Rust en Vrede Estate Blend, in to another higher category like that of Classic Icons. If De Toren Private Cellar can hang in there, they are sure to join these names in due course.

De Toren Fusion V 1999
Cabernet Sauvignon 56%, Cabernet Franc 20%, Merlot 10%, Malbec 10%, Petit Verdot 4%. All vinified separately, basket pressed and blended after maturation. 12 months new French oak and American 225 litre tight-grained oak barrels. 13.5% alcohol by volume. 1,900 cases produced. Gold medal 2001 International Wine and Spirits Challenge. 4 Stars Wine Magazine.

De Toren Fusion V 2000  
Cabernet Sauvignon 60%, Cabernet Franc 10%, Merlot 13%, Malbec 13%, Petit Verdot 4%. All vinified separately, basket pressed and blended after maturation. 12 months new and second fill French and American 225 litre tight-grained oak barrels. 13.5% alcohol by volume. 3000 cases produced. 91 Points Wine Spectator, 4.5 Stars Wine Magazine.

An intensely aromatic wine. It has a rich, fruitcake-like quality complemented by the toasted oak and vanilla spice character of French and American oak. The palate is fine and silky - with tannins as ripe and smooth as this, you can already drink it merrily. The flavours are multiple and diverse with a balanced melange of creamy red and black berry fruits, minerality and floral and peppery spices. Great vital acidity, medium weight and dense concentration of fruit in the mouth should repay 5 to 10 years aging.

De Toren Fusion V 2001 (Released June 2003)
Cabernet Sauvignon 57%, Cabernet Franc 11%, Merlot 14%, Malbec 14%, Petit Verdot 4%. All vinified separately, basket pressed and blended after maturation. 12 months new and second fill French oak and American 225 litre tight-grained oak barrels. 14.5% alcohol by volume. 3000 cases produced. Gold Medal South African National Young Wine Show August 2002.

Editor's note: by happy coincidence De Toren Fusion V 2000 is one of the wineanorak's wines of the month for November 2002 

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