A good deal of the recent media headlines about South African winemaking have been reserved for the New Wave producers as well as the established names that keep delivering the goods year after year. Geoffrey Dean has been visiting the country for the past 25 years and, on a recent trip, decided to visit a large number of wineries that are still under the radar – new wineries that we haven’t yet heard about or ones that are making giant strides forwards.
The 10 South African wineries that Geoffrey Dean thinks we should keep an eye on are either new, undiscovered, have made a major leap forwards or in one case, raising the bar to exceptional levels.
As a regular visitor to the western Cape winelands over the past quarter of a century, I would argue that the quality of wines produced has risen faster in that time than in any other country. The best-known wineries initially led the way, but in the last decade, inspired perhaps by the free-spirited Swartland and ‘New Wave’ winemakers, scores of producers have raised their game immeasurably. Here are a mixed bag of ten from seven different districts and no same ward (or appellation) that caught the eye on a trip last month.
Babylonstoren (District: Paarl) – NEW
One of the oldest farms in the western Cape, tucked into the Simonsberg slopes, finally saw vines planted between 2005-7, with the first vintage being 2011. Already, the highly capable pair of Charl Coetzee, cellar master, and Klaas Stoffberg, winemaker, have come up with an excellent range of six still wines and an impressive sparkling wine – Sprankel 2013 (Afrikaans for ‘Sparkle’) – a blanc de blancs (Chardonnay) that spends 54 months on the lees. The medium-bodied Shiraz 2016 showed especially well while the Nebukadnesar 2015 is a powerful Bordeaux blend with great intensity and structure with many years ahead of it. (UK distributor: Babylonstoren UK Ltd)
Beaumont Family Wines (Walker Bay) – RAISING ITS GAME
Sebastian Beaumont crafts an eclectic range of superb wines on the family farm in the tiny Bot River ward, west of Hermanus. Old vineyards on shale soils provide good texture and structure. The Buyer was the first to taste the just-bottled 2017 Hope Marguerite, one of South Africa’s best Chenin Blancs. It has it all – fabulous fruit intensity, concentration and length, with 5g/l of residual sugar balancing some lees pithiness and vibrant acidity. A white blend, named the ‘New Baby’, of Chenin, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Colombard and Chardonnay, also stood out.
Beaumont was the first in South Africa to bottle a single varietal Mourvedre, and the current 2013 release has glorious fruit expression. His Starboard Dessert Wine, a sumptuous blend of five port vintages from 2005-11, won the current Platter award for SA’s Fortified Wine of the Year, and is being shipped to the UK. So too is the 2015 Pinotage, made from 44-year old vines. (UK distributor: Dreyfus Ashby UK)
JC Wickens Wines (Swartland) – NEW
Jasper Wickens could not have had a better mentor than Adi Badenhorst, whom he teamed up with nine years ago as assistant winemaker. Jasper still works with the old greybeard of wisdom but also makes his own Swerwer range (from the Afrikaans for ‘Wanderer’). The perfumed, complex and long 2016 Red Blend (of Tinta Barocca, Cinsault and Grenache) has taken the local market by storm, selling out, while his Chenin Blanc and Shiraz are both fresh and supple with very attractive fruit. Definitely a name to watch. (UK importer: Gudfish)
Saronsberg (Tulbagh) – UNDISCOVERED
It is no surprise that winemaker Dewaldt Heyns consistently wins awards year after year for Saronsberg wines. The estate has an extremely wide diversity of soils – shale, rocky riverbeds, clay, loam, alluvial and decomposed granite – with the shale helping to give wines a low pH and, with it, higher acidity. The latest vintage of the winery’s flagship red, the Full Circle 2015, a Rhône-style blend with a dash of Viognier, is a masterly effort. Absorbing 100% new French oak effortlessly, it has many layers of complexity along with finesse and silky tannins. The 2016 Shiraz, to be released in May, is a fine example of that varietal, as is the Viognier 2016, a creamy, full-bodied food wine. Throw in a notable blanc de blancs, and you have quite a stable. (UK importer: www.HVvin.co.uk)
Scali (Paarl) – UNDISCOVERED
In the picturesque Voor Paardeberg ward of Paarl lies a gem of a winery that has been certified organic since 2010. The Afrikaans for Scali is ‘shale’, totally apt as the vineyards lie on this soil. Willie De Waal, whose ancestor bought the farm in 1870, produces such exceptional fruit from low-yielding vines that several well-known other producers buy it, notably Eben Sadie and Miles Mossop, but he makes half a dozen of his own labels from Chenin Blanc, Syrah and Pinotage.
The mid-market Sirkel range is all about ‘fun and drinkability’ in de Waal’s words, with the red-fruited Pinotage already selling well in the UK. The premium Scali estate range is characterised by freshness, medium body and elegant fruit expression. The sparkling Methode Ancestrale 2014 (single fermentation with two years on the lees), produced from 50-year old Chenin Blanc vines, is a delight. For his wines, de Waal uses wild yeasts, in keeping with the estate’s identity. (UK distributor: Astrum)
Spier (Stellenbosch) – MAJOR LEAP
A big producer, coming up with 500,000 cases per annum, but one with a laudable philosophy of self-sufficient sustainability, and a top winemaking team, headed by Frans Smit. The estate is farmed organically, although fruit is bought in from various parts of the western Cape, including Durbanville, Elgin, Elim and Paarl, giving useful options. There is so much quality in the three main premium ranges that picking individual wines out is not easy, but the just-bottled Creative Block 5 2015 (a Bordeaux blend) is a crackerjack. To be launched at the London Wine Fair, Smit rates it as one of the three best vintages he has made. At £15-17 RRP, it will represent tremendous value. The soon-to-be-released 21 Gables Pinotage 2015 from a single vineyard has gorgeous black fruit with great intensity, while the Frans K Smit White 2015 (Sav Blanc/Semillon co-fermented) is a classy new premium label. (UK distributors: Walker & Wodehouse; Bibendum)
Sumaridge (Walker Bay) – MAJOR LEAP
Owned by two Brits, Simon Turner and wife Holly Bellingham, this Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley winery has got better and better over their ten-year tenure. Walter Pretorius, who took over as chief winemaker in 2016, is continuing the production of top-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in this cooler climate area renowned for both varietals. Sumaridge’s Cape blend ‘Epitome’ label (Shiraz/Pinotage) is a wine that has also won a strong following, as has the ‘Maritimus’ white blend of Sav Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay. (UK importers: Mr Wheeler Wines; Sporting Wine Club)
Val du Charron (Wellington) – UNDISCOVERED
Just east of Wellington can be found this former fruit farm, with views that are majestic even by western Cape standards. This is the tenth vintage for the boutique winery, whose Reserve Merlot 2015 is the pick of the reds, closely followed by the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014. Winemaker Paul Engelbrecht also produces an appealing mid-market Pinot Gris. Later afternoon breezes and the fact the farm sits 60m higher than Wellington helps keep temperatures down and pHs lower. Quebec is a big market for Val du Charron, including Celine Dion’s restaurants there. (UK importer: Val du Charon UK)
Welbedacht Wine Estate (Wellington) – UNDISCOVERED
The farm, owned by one of the great Springbok rugby families, has long been producing top-class fruit, notably Syrah that Schalk Burger senior used to sell to Boekenhoutskloof for their premium label. Now he keeps it for his own purposes. Winemaker Hardus van Heerden skilfully vinifies as many as 19 varietals from the estate, which sits on decomposed granite in the new Groenberg ward, named after the mountain that has the biggest uplift of wind in southern Africa, attracting leading hang-gliders but, more importantly, cooling the vineyards.
Burger has just released a limited edition ‘Famous Dozen 2016’ case of 12 different red varietals – (Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Pinot Noir, Carignan, Cinsault, Pinotage and Petite Sirah). “You can really taste the estate on what is the most unique decomposed granite soil, with some clay and shale,” Burger says of the numbered cases (300), an allocation reaching UK in May. A collector’s item. (UK importer: Sporting Wine Club)
Zandvliet (Robertson) – MAJOR LEAP
This historic old estate, with its magnificent Cape Dutch manor house, is aiming to focus on Shiraz and Chardonnay. Robertson is a renowned region for the latter grape, the cooling breeze that blows up from Cape Agulhas most afternoons playing a key part. A soil survey in 2016 showed Zandvliet possessed a unique patch of high salinity which, while requiring careful management, holds back naturally vigorous Shiraz vines. Jacques Cilliers, the winemaker, maintains the resultant stress on them and produces ultra-concentrated fruit.
The ‘Small Berry Pick’ Shiraz 2016 provides ample evidence, while the Kalkveld Shiraz 2015, produced from a hotchpotch of soils, is a belter with approachable tannins and marked intensity of flavour. The ‘Hill of Enon’ Chardonnay 2015 is, in Cilliers’ words, the ‘type of wine of wine I want to export to the UK.’ Ultra low-yielding (18 tons from seven hectares) this is the last year it was made as the block was grubbed up due to leafroll virus. A buy. (UK distributor: Harley Wines)