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Cape Classics Blog
January 25, 2011
Last week a group of American wine writers had the opportunity to visit some of the finest South African estates. In the group included Elin McCoy (Wine & Spirits columnist for Bloomberg News,) Michael Apstein ( and San Francisco Chronicle wine contributor,) Marnie Old (sommelier, author and educator,) and Heather John (Wine & Spirits columnist for Bon Appétit.)
The trip kicked off  with a tasting and dinner at Buitenverwachting, a picturesque farm known as much for its food as it is for its wine. Lars Maack, Buitenverwachting estate owner, provided a general overview of Constantia’s history and terroir, prior to pouring Beyond 2010 and Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc 2010. Constantia is the wine region of South Africa in which Buitenverwachting and Klein Constantia are located. Laars followed with Hussey's Vlei Sauvignon Blanc 2010 vs 2006 in order to demonstrate the ageability of Constantia Sauvignon Blancs. The 06' was stunning, with beautiful minerality and great acidity, yet also a richness and almost nutty character that hinted at a wooded component (even though there was not one!)
Stiaan Cloete (Klein Constantia viticulturalist) presented a vertical of the celebrated dessert elixir Vin de Constance (VdC), featuring the 1999, 2004 and 2005 vintages. He spoke about the labor-intensive production methods of VdC, and how the methods of production and the style of the wine has evolved. Winemaker Adam Mason now crafts the wine in a fresher, cleaner style and uses many of the techniques used in Hungary to craft Tokaji. The 1999 had a deep burnished caramel color, with flavors of dried fruit (dates, raisins and figs) and notes of maple. The younger bottlings were fresh, with mouth-tingling acidity and pure flavors of apricot, orange zest and quince.
The following day the group arrived at Rustenberg for a picnic lunch in the Five Soldiers vineyard; they were thrilled to be able to take in the spectacular scenery and enjoy the beauty of the Cape winelands! Owner Simon Barlow talked a little bit about the geography and pointed out False Bay, and the various surrounding mountains. He welcomed everyone with the Rustenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2010, and then moved onto the Chardonnays (estate and Five Soldiers). Simon spoke about the massive changes he has implemented on Rustenberg since he took over in 1987. In those days, the winery only produced 5,000 cases. Fruit was their big cash crop at the time - economic sanctions prevented them from selling wine internationally, yet they were able to sell fruit to the UK. Until sanctions were dropped, fine wine was not an economically viable business on a large scale.
The journalists enjoyed a relaxed picnic lunch while sipping Rustenberg John X Merriman and Syrah. Very impressed with the Syrah, it was noted that in looking at a map they would have been shocked that such a warm climate site could yield a Syrah with a northern Rhone-y, peppery, cool climate character. But sitting high in the vineyards, feeling the cool breezes, and looking across to the ridge where the Syrah was planted, it was easy to understand why. Simon and Dave then treated the group to a very impressive 3 vintage vertical of Peter Barlow 2006, 2002 and 1999. All showed beautifully, and no one wanted to spit! It really was a magical afternoon on Rustenberg, and you could tell that the group was reluctant to leave!
Glenelly was the next stop of the day. Winemaker Luke O'Cuinneagain drove the group to the top of the vineyards to show how different the soils were from Rustenberg – despite being its neighbor – located on the southern slopes of the Simonsberg. He then took the journalists on a cellar tour and poured the 4 wines recently imported and available in the US: Glenelly Collection Chardonnay and Cabernet, Grand Vin de Glenelly, and Lady May.
Next on the day’s travels was Kanonkop, where Winemaker Abrie Beeslaar gave a brief tour of the cellar and spoke about their traditional winemaking processes. He gave the group some background on Pinotage – history of the grape, how it’s been controversial, and how they treat it differently from other varietals. While tasting Kadette,  Abrie talked about the tremendous growth of the label , and the fact that the wine is such a bargain yet receives the same labor-intensive treatment as other higher priced Kanonkop wines- and there are few, if any, other wines at that price point that see 100% French oak!
On to Kanonkop’s other varietals, two-vintage verticals were offered, tasting 2008 Pinotage vs 1999, 2007 Cabernet vs 2003, and 2007 Paul Sauer vs 1998. The journalists were impressed with the ageability of the wines, but the 1999 Pinotage was the most enlightening for them - as no one had experienced tasting old vintage Pinotage. Abrie explained how as Pinotage ages, it loses some of the sweet fruit character it has in its youth and gets more of a Pinot Noir-like character – earthy, forest floor, tea leaf notes. The 99’ was gorgeously elegant and absolutely superb!
Kanonkop Owner Johann Krige joined for the tail end of the tasting with an interesting thought… Pinotage is a difficult grape to work with, and many people have made bad Pinotage over the years. But people who know how to handle the grape have made fantastic Pinotage. So why do people say that Pinotage is a bad grape? Why blame the grape and not the producer? If you tasted a less than quality Cabernet from winery X, you would say “Winery X produces bad Cab!” and not “Cabernet is a bad grape!”
The second to last stop of the long day was Thelema. Winemaker Rudi Schultz led comparative tastings of Stellenbosch vs Elgin bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling to demonstrate the differences in the terroir of the wine regions. The group tasted current vintage Thelema Cabernet vs The Mint Cabernet, as well as the 2004 and 2001 Cabernets, finishing off with Rudi Schultz Syrah 2007.
Finally it was on to dinner at Winemaker Bruwer Raats’ home! He presented his wines very informally while everyone stood/sat around chatting, and he treated them to a very traditional South African braai. His nephew Gavin braaied sosaties, boerewors, “choppies” (lamb chops) and braai broodjies – the best grilled cheese known to man! The journalists seemed psyched to experience a true taste of SA. We tasted the new releases of Raats Chenin (Original 2010 and Family 2009) and they might just be the best vintages yet! We talked about the versatility of Chenin as a food wine, and Marnie Old demonstrated a particular passion for Chenin. Bruwer also poured his Cabernet Franc 2008 and MR 2007, and as a special treat he brought out his 2001 Cab Franc towards the end of the evening.
All in all, the group of journalists appeared truly impressed and delighted with the wines across the board - and they seemed to genuinely appreciate the window into South Africa.