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South Africa's leading reds: ready for the premier league?
Handford Wine Tasting, presented by Greg Sherwood
Tuesday 13th February, 2001

A recent newspaper article from South Africa was entitled, 'South Africa needs iconic wines and cult wineries, but not at R100 or more a bottle'. Yes, it's true folks: although from the UK/US perspective this may seem odd, South African wine geeks are very upset when their premium domestic wines are released for more than R100, which equates to just over £9. And the domestic market is very important to most South African wineries: not only do they rely on domestic sales to shift most of their wine, it would be against their nature to ditch local custom for that of wealthy foreigners. 

This creates something of a problem for the image of South African wines: iconic wines -- the South African equivalents of Grange -- would raise the profile of the whole industry in foreign markets. However, especially in the US, wines aren't taken seriously if they are not expensive enough. It's sad but true. 

The Chilean solution to this problem was to create premium wines and then slap a largely arbitrary but extortionate price tag on them. [Aside: with these wines lacking any sort of track record, there's no evidence that it has been successful.] I suspect that this approach would go against the grain with most South African producers.

But I do find it puzzling that most consumers don't have a higher opinion of South Africa's top red wines. Could it be that in a world of rapidly inflating wine prices, they are just too cheap? I think there's a good case for suggesting that of all the new world wine nations, South Africa's wines represent by far the best value for money. And in the UK we are lucky: many of the famous wines that sell out rapidly at cellar door in South Africa can be found languishing unloved on the shelves of high street wine merchants and department stores.

As well as the lack of iconic 'trophy' wines, South African wines face another problem in cracking crowded foreign markets like the UK. While the premium wines are often superb, the cheaper stuff is rather too cheap, and lacks real appeal. South Africa badly needs more tasty wines with some real character at the £5-7 level, which is where Australia has succeeded so admirably. If consumers are won over in this price bracket, they may be more willing to trade up and try the really good stuff. There are signs that this is beginning.

This tasting of some of South Africa's best red wines was divided into four flights of four wines, covering 'Merlots', 'Other Varietals', 'Bordeaux Blends', and finally, 'South African Flagship Wines'. Overall the quality was high, but things were complicated by the fact that some of the wines came from the 1996 vintage. This was quite clearly a difficult year for most regions, and it would be unfair to judge the wineries who were represented here by their 1996 wines too harshly (Thelema and Meerlust normally make better wines). I was particularly impressed by the two stunning efforts from Veenwouden, and the classy wines of Rupert & Rothschild. Pinot Noir pioneers Hamilton Russell seem to be getting better and better, and the Stellenzicht Syrah is a delicious, modern-styled wine. Last but not least, the Kanonkop Paul Sauer shows just how good the more traditional-styled wines can be. For South African reds, it seems that things can only get better.

The wines were served in four flights, and the two prices given are approximate cost on release in South Africa (in Rand) and approximate retail in UK (where available). The current conversion rate is roughly £1 = R11. Credit must go to Greg Sherwood who chose the wines and presented them very well.

Flight One: Merlot  back to top

Meerlust Merlot 1996, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Georgio Dalla Cia (R90.00, £14.99)
This concentrated wine is a little bit shy on the nose, and the palate is firm and tannic, with meat and olive notes, and a raspingly dry finish. It's quite unapprochable now, but I'm not sure it will gain a great deal with further bottle ageing -- there just isn't the richness of fruit to support this. Still, I'll rate it as very good, because this would be nice with the right food. Meerlust usually makes superb wines in a very traditional style, so I suspect the weak vintage is to blame here.

Jordan Cobblers Hill Merlot 1997, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Cathy Jordan (R100.00, £14-16)
The ripe, roasted nose shows rich berry fruits with a smoky edge. The ripe fruit on the palate is joined by green olive notes and careful oaking. An attractive, savoury wine. Very good+

Thelema Merlot 1996, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Gyles Webb (R80.00, £13.99)
Another slightly disappointing 1996. The shy nose shows a touch of herbal fruit. Good concentration on the palate, which displays savoury fruit with notes of coffee, herbs, olives and a touch of vegetation. The finish is dominated by drying tannins. Very good

Veenwouden Merlot 1997, Paarl
Winemaker: Marcel van der Walt (R100.00, £15.95)
A delicious and substantial wine. A very deep red/black colour, the nose shows herbs and eucalyptus notes. The palate shows dense fruit and oak, with ripe, chocolatey berry fruits, spice and firm-but-fine tannins. Very good/excellent

Flight Two: Other Varietals back to top

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 1998, Walker Bay, Overberg
Winemaker: Kevin Grant (R98.00, £19.95)
Hamilton Russell have taken a quality-first approach with their wines, focusing on the European idea of 'terroir' expression. As a result, they make just two wines, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, because this is what they feel their soils and climate are suited for best. This is a mid-density cherry red colour, and the nose shows herbal-edged cherry fruit. On the palate, the ripe fruit is joined by spicy caramel notes, with an slightly pungent, medicinal undercurrent. An impressive take on Pinot Noir showing nice balance, it fully deserves the critical acclaim it has received. Very good/excellent.

Whale Haven Pinot Noir 1997, Elgin
Winemaker: Storm Kreusch (R70.00, £14.50)
Quite light in colour. Attractive but slightly stinky nose with some cheesy, animal notes. The complex palate shows savoury, spicy, cherryish fruit with more barnyard character. Definitely a bit bretty, and quite southern Rhône in character. Very good+

Kanonkop Pinotage 1998, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Beyers Truter
(R80.00, £13.99)
Inky red/black colour. Initially quite shy on the nose, after some time in the glass it opens out to reveal some gamey, animal notes as well as dark fruits. On the palate it is full, dense and tannic with a slightly cheesy edge. It's hard to assess a wine like this when it is obviously so young, but it does seem to have impressive potential. Very good+

Stellenzicht Syrah 1998, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Guy Webber (R120.00, £28.95)
A bit of a celebrity this wine: the 1994 vintage once 'beat' Penfolds Grange in a well publicised blind tasting. However, people often get confused because Stellenzicht also make a much cheaper Shiraz, as well as this premium-level Syrah. They are quite different. A red/black colour, this has a sweet, rich, exotic nose that smells very expensive. This leads to a palate showing seductively rich chocolatey fruit, concealing a relatively tannic backbone. Very modern, quite classy and will probably develop nicely for five to ten years. Very good/excellent

Flight Three: Bordeaux Style Blends back to top

Morgenhof Premier Selection 1995, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Jean Daneel (R80.00, £12.99)
A lovely dense wine that's currently just a little austere. The full, ripe, spicy nose is followed by a full-bodied palate showing spicy oak, firm tannins and relatively high acidity. Great balance and power. Very good/excellent

Camberley Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 1998, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: John Nel (R80.00, £11.99)
Only 1200 cases of this delicious wine were made. It combines ripe blackcurrant fruit with spicy tannins, smoky complexity and a tar-like edge. Quite firmly structured, but still very attractive now. Very good/excellent

Meerlust Rubicon 1996, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Georgio Dalla Cia (R90.00, £16.95)
Quite a traditional South African style, in 1996 this wine was about 70% Merlot. The savoury herbal nose follows through to a firm, austere palate exhibiting high acidity and spicy/dusty tannins: it's almost Italian in character, and needs food. Very good+

Veenwouden Classic 1998, Paarl
Winemaker: Marcel van der Walt (R100.00, £14.99)
Beautiful stuff from star estate Veenwouden. It's a shame only 2000 cases are made, but for this quality the wine is severely underpriced by today's rather inflated standards. Rich, ripe fruit combines beautifully with well integrated, spicy oak and smoky complexity. It's not too modern and over-the-top: the tannins and acidity hold things together nicely. Excellent

Flight Four Flagship Wines back to top

Rupert & Rothschild Classique 1998, Coastal Region
Winemaker: Sckalk Willem Joubert (R60.00, £16.00)
60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. Concentrated and dense, this displays leafy blackcurrant fruit with great balance and strong tannic structure. Tastes expensive, with the Merlot making its presence known. Very good+

Rupert & Rothschild Baron Edmond 1998, Coastal Region
Winemaker: Sckalk Willem Joubert (R150.00 £25.00)
Richly tannic with blackcurrant fruit, spice and sophisticated oaking. Full flavoured and beautifully textured. Splendid stuff. Very good/excellent

Rustenburg Peter Barlow 1997, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Rod Easthope (R150.00, £30.00)
Disappointing showing. Possibly faulty bottle so judgement reserved. At a recent tasting I tried the 1998 vintage of this wine, and my notes read: 'Deep purple/black, with a complex leafy nose. Richly balanced palate with dense fruit and a blackcurrant, leafy and mineralic core. Perhaps a little bit of greenness, but good potential for further development. Very good+'

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1995, Stellenbosch
Winemaker: Buyers Truter (R100.00, £14.99)
85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. A distinctively South African wine but a lovely one, with real character. The full, herby, savoury nose leads to a palate of spicy herbal fruit and firm tannins. Very savoury and with a huge structure that indicates a bright future for this wine. Quite delicious. Very good/excellent

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