Cape expectations: Best-value South African wines

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Drinks: Drinks, Wines

There’s probably nowhere else in the wine world that delivers as much bang for the buck as South Africa – particularly once you move a little upmarket. Jacopo Mazzeo joins a team of sommeliers as they see what the on-trade can get between £12 and £20


South African wine is on a roll. When the country emerged blinking into the global spotlight 25 years ago, we were expecting oceans of cheap wine to crash onto our shores. However, it’s become obvious that the way winegrowing is set up in the Cape – with mostly small- to mid-sized wine estates rather than giant, heavily irrigated wine farms – makes this exceptionally difficult. Instead, those same estates are producing wines that are distinctive, balanced and innovative – particularly as the next generation of winemakers takes over. The Cape genuinely has a claim to being one of the most exciting winegrowing regions in the world at the moment.

From full-bodied Bordeaux blends to fleshy Syrahs and elegant yet concentrated Grenaches, the reds have plenty of balance and diversity. Meanwhile, creamy old- vine Chenin Blancs and carefully oaked Chardonnays are increasingly attractive to venues that are struggling to get good white Burgundy (or even Australian Chardonnay) for what they can afford to pay.

In fact, that value for money really sets South African wine apart, especially in the £12-£20 range. Here at Imbibe, we’ve felt for a while that this price range is the country’s sweet spot, where ‘over-delivery’ really hits its peak. Were we correct? To find out, we called in a selection of wines available in the UK and invited a panel of somms and on-trade buyers to give us their opinions.

James Brain, Anderson’s Bar & Grill; Sonal Clare, Purnell’s; Mikolaj Harmider, Adam’s; Giuseppe Longobardi, The Cross Kenilworth/Simpsons Restaurant; Jacopo Mazzeo, ImbibeDanny Nuttall, Adam’s; Jayne O’Malley, The Edgbaston Hotel; Lionel Periner, LP Sommelier; Thom Smyth, The Edgbaston Hotel; Giangiacomo Stella, Simpsons Restaurant

 

How it works

We asked UK agents to submit examples of wines from any South African region priced between £12 and £20 ex-VAT from their portfolios, all available exclusively to the UK on-trade and independents. These were blind tasted and scored by a panel of sommeliers, with tasters unaware of age, style or exact price. Wines were scored out of 20, and the average panel scores were then extrapolated up to give percentages. All wines scoring below 70% have been listed as Also Tasted.

Results

Reds

88 Laibach, The Founder’s Blend 2016, Stellenbosch
‘An elegant wine, showing dark fruits and a well-balanced tannic structure. Good freshness and long fi nish,’ LP. ‘A Bordeaux blend. Excellent freshness and vibrancy with plenty of crunchy red and black fruit. Coff ee beans, smoke and liquorice add to the complexity. A wine to age,’ JM.
£15.50, Ellis Wines

86 Spice Route, Chakalaka 2015, Swartland
‘Light, delicate nose, with aromas of crisp dark and red berries, a hint of garrigue and cream. Full, velvety, with silky tannins,’ TS. ‘Clean aromas of dark fruit and berries, plus bell pepper and hints of Mediterranean herbs. Dry palate, with fi rm tannins and well-balanced acidity,’ LP.
£12, Liberty Wines

86 Jordan, Cobbler’s Hill 2014, Stellenbosch
‘Elegant, with a light fl oral and red-fruit character, leading to a dry, medium-bodied palate. Some green pepper and garrigue on the mid-palate. Long finish,’ LP. ‘Great red- and dark-fruit character, with a gentle pepperiness to round it off. Tannins are ripe and soft,’ JB.
£17.45, ABS Wine Agencies

83 Tokara, Director’s Reserve 2014, Stellenbosch
‘Red and dark fruits, with hints of Mediterranean herbs, eucalyptus and wood. The palate is full, with black cherries and blackcurrant. The finish is characterised by a spiciness,’ SC. ‘Lots going on: redcurrant, raspberry, cocoa and tobacco. Smooth palate with silky tannins and a fruity finish,’ GS.
£16.75, ABS Wine Agencies

83 Kleinood, Tamboerskloof Syrah 2014, Western Cape
‘This wine opens with a delicate floral scent, a blend of red and dark berries and savoury notes; on the palate it has a pungent character, with orange peel, smoke and ash,’ JM. ‘Excellent aroma: red fruits, vanilla pod and smoke. Vibrant red fruits dominate the palate,’ JB.
£15.60, Enotria&Coe

83 Swartland Winery, Bush Vines Syrah 2015, Swartland
‘The nose shows clear use of oak, with dominant vanilla aromas. The tannins are smooth and the finish long. Very enjoyable,’ JM. ‘The nose shows hints of black fruit such as blackcurrant that complement an enjoyable herbaceous note,’ GS.
£12.53, Hallgarten & Novum Wines

82 Groot Constantia, Merlot 2016, Constantia
‘Powerful, fruity, with enveloping cassis and plum aromas. Very intense palate with sweet tannins,’ JB. ‘Rich, with peppery, gamey, and fruity notes. Its clean palate makes for an easy-drinking wine,’ SC.
£16.27, Hallgarten & Novum Wines

82 Creation, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Petit Verdot 2016, Walker Bay
‘Leathery, intense nose, with plenty of red fruit and berries. Very long finish,’ JO. ‘Good balance of primary and secondary aromas. Preserved fruit, meat, plum and cherry,’ DN.
£18.56, Bibendum

81 Thelema, Sutherland Grenache Reserve 2016, Western Cape
‘The aromas are elegant with scents of vanilla, wood, red cherry and some spices. It benefits from fresh acidity in the mouth, and an enticing floral palate,’ JM. ‘The nose has some cassis tones. The palate shows high acidity and fresh red fruit, blackberry and blueberry,’ DN.
£16, Enotria&Coe

81 Spice Route, Pinotage 2017, Swartland
‘Fresh red berries on the nose complement a creamy, almost lactic tone. Dry, firmly tannic on the palate, with notes of raspberry compote,’ JB. ‘The nose displays raspberry, strawberry and redcurrant. It’s austere in the mouth, with a hint of smoke,’ GS.
£12, Liberty Wines

81 Morgenster, Lourens River Valley 2008, Western Cape
‘Mineral, stony, savoury, austere nose with some underlying sour cherries. Orange peel, smoke and ash add to the complexity and make for quite a peculiar yet intriguing palate,’ JM. ‘Powerful nose: barnyard, plum, cigar box. Some pleasant vegetal notes on the palate – I even detect cucumber, plus cherries, black pepper and leather. Long-lasting finish,’ MH.
£14.80, Enotria&Coe

79 Chamonix, Troika 2015, Franschhoek
‘Powerful nose. Black fruits dominate, such as overripe blackberry, and a bit of black peppercorn. Firm tannins,’ GL. ‘Unusual nose, displaying aromas that range from leather to chilli and tropical fruit. On the palate, balanced acidity and tannins,’ GS.
£13.25, ABS Wine Agencies

79 Robertson, Constitution Road Shiraz 2015, Robertson
‘Beautiful, inviting, deep colour, followed by plenty of intense dark-fruit aromas. Tannins are soft, well integrated. Very good,’ JB. ‘A wine supported by good acidity and led by lots of forest berry notes. Really nice,’ MH.
£14.40, New Generation Wines

Whites

87 Fram, Chenin Blanc 2016, Western Cape
‘Great intensity on the nose with peach, honey and hay. Not as powerful on the palate, which is still full and pleasantly dry,’ GL. ‘Funky, with cigar box and even some dark-berry notes. On the palate it shows more stone fruit, but retains almost a red wine character,’ TS.
£18.88, Enotria&Coe

85 Julien Schaal, Evidence Chardonnay 2016, Elgin
‘Very complex. Intense citrus and tangerine notes, plus hints of fresh spices and vanilla. Well-balanced acidity, creamy and long,’ GS. ‘Toasted vanilla with buttery aromas. Acidity is high, which will allow it to age for a few years,’ MH.
£12.50, ABS Wine Agencies

85 Luddite, Chenin Blanc 2014, Bot River
‘Ripe nose, with apricot, orange peel and even some candied fruit. On the palate, it becomes leaner, with a marked orangey, citric character,’ JM. ‘Elegant, gentle, with some delicate oak flavour and great acidic structure,’ LP.
£17.10, Les Caves de Pyrene

83 Thelema, Chardonnay 2015, Western Cape
‘Earthy, barnyardy, plus notes of cured meats. It displays a medium body and hints of butter, salt, honeycomb and asparagus,’ TS. ‘Quite funky, intriguing. Meaty, toasty, some vanilla in the background. On the palate it’s clean, lean, with hints of pear and good acidity,’ JM.
£12.70, Enotria&Coe

82 Olifantsberg, Grenache Blanc 2016, Breedekloof
‘Crisp, zingy and zesty. A very lively wine with strong minerality. Certainly my favourite white of the flight,’ JB. ‘Lots of fruit and a hint of petrol. Relatively light palate, fresh, very drinkable,’ JO.
£13.26, Hallgarten & Novum Wines

82 Backsberg, Family Reserve 2017, Paarl
‘Intense aromas of pink grapefruit, hints of vanilla and light toasted bread. On the palate it’s complex, with some ripe yellow fruit, balanced acidity, well-integrated oak and long finish,’ LP. ‘Dry and crisp, with plenty of tropical fruit and balanced oakiness,’ JB.
£17.95, Ellis Wines

80 Tokara, Director’s Reserve White 2014, Stellenbosch
‘Intriguing nose, fruity and saline, with notes of seaweed. Gooseberries on the palate, lime, grapefruit, flint and apples,’ MH. ‘Saline, fresh nose, disclosing apple and delicate floral aromas,’ JM.
£15.45, ABS Wine Agencies

80 Luddite, The Saboteur White 2017, Bot River
‘Good aromatic and flavour intensity, led by herbaceous notes and citrus. Well-balanced acidity,’ DN. ‘Excellent complexity: stone fruit, spices and vanilla. It’s creamy and buttery, with medium acidity and a long finish,’ GS.
£12.25, ABS Wine Agencies

78 Swartland Winery, Bush Vines Chenin Blanc 2017, Swartland
‘Fruity nose, with hints of orange blossom and vanilla. Orchard fruits on the palate, with fresh apple and grapefruit,’ MH. ‘Red apple, white flowers and a bit of honey. Good acidity on the palate, which shows more honey character,’ GS.
£13.38, Hallgarten & Novum Wines

78 Spice Route, Chenin Blanc 2016, Swartland
‘Floral, with touches of fresh lime juice. A creamy palate, with some green fruit,’ LP. ‘Lime, pineapple and some petrol notes. Dry and crisp, with a lemony finish,’ GS.
£12.99, Liberty Wines

77 De Wetshof, Limestone Hill Chardonnay 2018, Robertson
‘A balanced wine, with crisp acidity and a nose characterised by citrus and tropical fruit,’ GS. ‘Tropical fruit and lemon peel lead the palate, with a hint of minerality on the finish,’ JB.
£12.05, Ellis Wines

77 Reyneke, Chenin Blanc, 2017, Stellenbosch
‘A fruity, easy-drinking white with plenty of clean, ripe, melon and stone-fruit aromas,’ GL. ‘The wine is fresh with some grassy citrus character. Good acidity on the palate, with a bit of grapefruit
peel on the finish,’ LP.
£12.00, New Generation Wines

76 Morgenster, Estate White 2015, Western Cape
‘Grassy, vegetal nose. Fresh, crisp palate. A hint of bitterness in the finish,’ LP. ‘A Sauvignon Blanc character with burnt notes. On the palate, hints of creaminess,’ JM.
£13.85, Enotria&Coe

76 Boekenhoutskloof, Semillon 2016, Franschhoek
‘Round nose, good minerality and acidic structure. Very pleasant,’ MH. ‘Precise, focused. Some vegetal and vanilla notes on the palate and a lingering finish,’ SC.
£18.88, New Generation Wines

76 Journey’s End, Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2017, Stellenbosch
‘Light and floral with some lavender tones. Ripe tropical and citrus fruit on the palate with oak,’ JO. ‘Tropical-fruit nose. Lemon and lime on the palate. Well-integrated toasty, creamy notes,’ SC.
£14.04, Bibendum

76 Lismore, Chardonnay 2016, Cape South Coast
‘Buttery, with some tropical fruit and a spicy finish,’ SC. ‘Balanced, showing floral and herbaceous notes. The palate is dry and displays elegant acidity,’ LP.
£19.51, Hallgarten & Novum Wines

76 Intellego, Story of Harry Chenin 2017, Swartland
‘Pears and apples on the nose, plus delicate greengages. Harmonious palate, with a hint of lemon curd,’ MH. ‘Burnt cream on the nose, leading to an oaky palate dominated by toasty flavours,’ JM.
£17.85, Les Caves de Pyrene

Also tasted
Lismore, Age of Grace Viognier 2017

Conclusions

  • Our panellists were struck by how good most of these wines were. They could detect a significant increase in the quality of South African wine over the past few years.
  • Swartland might have made a lot of noise over the last five years, but three out of the four top reds here were Bordeaux blends from Stellenbosch. This region and these varieties are still the Cape’s flagship style.
  • That said, the buzz around Swartland is clearly justified. Every wine from there scored above 80. Syrah, old vines and other Rhône varietals are particularly strong.
  • The whites that made it to the top were full-bodied and, in most cases, oaked. Yet, while there seemed to be more of a willingness to pursue fruit ripeness than the modern Australian style, for instance, there was still balance and complexity. The Cape’s winemakers seem to be creating a definite style of their own with whites.

 

Panel comments

James Brain Anderson’s Bar & Grill
I enjoyed the full-bodied, high-tannin Bordeaux blends. Especially for our restaurant, where we do a lot of red meat, they’re ideal with protein.

I can see the Pinotage working well with the smoked food on our menu.

Sonal Clare Purnell’s
South African wine’s quality has been consistent in the past years. From a restaurant perspective, if you want to drink Bordeaux style, then this is the sweet spot. As a guest, you spend £60 or £70 and drink a very good wine.

Mikolaj Harmider Adam’s
The whites were balanced, with elegant toastiness, and some of the reds were exceptional.

They all work well as an alternative to European wine and a sommelier explanation makes guests super happy with the choice.

Giuseppe Longobardi The Cross at Kenilworth/Simpsons Restaurant
I found the whites the most interesting. For some Bordeaux blends, they’re better than the French.

In South Africa, what was of average quality has improved.

Jacopo Mazzeo Imbibe
The quality and diversity of these wines is impressive. The reds are elegant and complex, without making too much of a fuss about it, while the whites are becoming more focused and precise vintage after vintage.

Danny Nuttall Adam’s

I found the reds to show better value than the whites. In general however, the quality of South African wines has increased across the board, from classic Bordeaux blends up to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Jayne O’Malley The Edgbaston Hotel
I see South Africa as a country that makes wines meant to be enjoyed.

My favourites of the tasting have been the reds, from start to end. While on the whites, I did enjoy some of more full-bodied, oaked ones.

Lionel Periner LP Sommelier
Just 10 years ago South African wine was a bit of fruit and lots of oak; now it’s better. Also, alcohol used to dominate and now it is well integrated.

It would be nice to see more unoaked wine – more pure fruit, freshness.

Thom Smyth The Edgbaston Hotel
The wines were all made in roughly the same style but each still showed its own different character. Both whites and reds delivered good quality, and the reds can benefit from a bit more ageing too.

Giangiacomo Stella Simpsons Restaurant
I don’t like it when South African wines try to imitate Burgundy, I prefer to have some diversity.

For this reason I’ve got a Pinotage on my list, and in this tasting I’ve discovered excellent wines that deliver great value.

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