South Africa’s reputation as a source for quality, consistent, affordable premium wines increases by the year. To date it has been the go to country for Chenin Blanc, for New World Rhone and Bordeaux blends, Cinsault and for off-beat and different from Swartland. Now Su Birch believes Cabernet Franc is about to enjoy its most in the winemaking spotlight.
South African winemaker, Bruwer Raats, describes the country’s Cabernet Franc as being the “scalpel that delivers flavours with great precision”. It’s probably why so many of his fellow winemakers are so keen to work with it.
The current excitement around South African wines reminds me of my kids’ Father Christmas app on my i-Pad. Every time you click on Santa’s sack, yet another pleasing gift emerges. In wine terms, the first gift has been Chenin, followed by everything Swartland, then white blends, then old vines, then Cinsault, then Chardonnay from Elgin, and now the latest riches from the Cape? Cabernet Franc.
Elin McCoy (wine writer for Bloomberg) predicted that Cabernet Franc would be one of wine’s hot new trends for 2016: “Why? It’s highly versatile and makes fragrant, elegant wines with earthy, spicy, herbal notes with a food-friendly tingly acidity.”
Well I don’t know about 2016, but it’s certainly South Africa’s hot new grape for 2017.
Cabernet Franc plantings account for less than 1% of total South African vineyards, and, as it is with all our vineyards, the hectares are declining. There were nearly 1,000 hectares planted to Cabernet Franc in 2008, eight years later and the figure in 2016 is down to 835 hectares, of which 68% are in Stellenbosch and Paarl.
Yet despite the decline in vineyards, single variety bottlings of Cabernet Franc are rapidly increasing. In 2005, only 17 different Cabernet Franc wines representing 72,594 litres were certified by SAWIS. Ten years later in 2015 there were 78 wines with 214,394 litres. Last year, the figure jumped dramatically to 147 wines and 254,289 litres. It’s sizzling!
Way back when
The first single variety Cabernet Franc was produced by pioneering Norma Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate in 1988, and today Warwick still champions this variety, with six consecutive 5-star Platter ratings for every vintage from 2008 to 2013, and the 2014 yet to be scored. According to Brian Cluver, global sales manager at Warwick he has been so encouraged by the potential shown by their younger high density plantings that they are on a huge drive to plant more and expect it to be their most planted variety by 2020.
Cabernet Franc was the dominant variety in Chris Keet’s maiden Cordoba Crescendo in 1995, one of South Africa’s first ever cult wines. Today Bruwer Raats is regarded as our leading proponent of Cabernet Franc. This and Chenin are the only varieties he produces, both to worldwide acclaim.
When Christian Eedes of Winemag asked Bruwer why he liked the variety so much, Bruwer answered: “Cabernet Franc has the ability to give you three distinct sets of aromas on the nose: fruit, spice and herbaceousness. On the palate, it has a linear structure with silky, soft tannins at the end. It maintains its minerality and freshness. Where Cabernet Sauvignon is a broad-sword, Cabernet Franc is a scalpel that delivers its flavours with great precision.”
Young star winemakers are joining the trend. This year Keermont Vineyards released Pondok Rug 2014, its first single varietal Cabernet Franc. Winemaker Alex Starey showed us the vineyard high on the West-facing slopes of Stellenbosch Mountain, surrounded by natural fynbos. Simply stunning in its isolation and with views of the rugged mountain face and the Atlantic Ocean in the near distance. It is an intense wine, with herbal aromas and red fruits and simply delicious.
Will Cabernet Franc be the latest South African success story? You may find the answer amongst these producers:
Kalk Bay Vineyards
Raats Family Wines
Stellenbosch Vineyards Flagship