Hot on the heels of her Bordeaux red blend, The Mentors Orchestra 2018, winning the Veritas Vertex award for best South African wine, winemaker Izele van Blerk takes Victor Smart through the entire The Mentors range, with a selection of cheeses to match. The KWV winemaker is allowed a free rein on how she makes the company’s prestige wines and which she picks as the varietal that takes the top premium spot – with this vintage the accolade going to a Petite Sirah of which only 1000 bottles have been made.
The Petite Sirah spends 18 months in 70% new French oak barrels; full of deep plum and blackberries, it has great structure and an exemplary smoothness. And yet like the rest of the range it manages to remain remarkably approachable.
Few winegrowing regions of the world have suffered in the Covid-19 crisis more than South Africa. At one stage the South African government banned alcohol sales and wine tourism and – in its wisdom – even prohibited wine exports. For Brits, supporting the local viniculturalists by buying South African became the charitable thing to do.
Things could only get better and they have, as Izele van Blerk, the engaging winemaker from KWV attests in a tasting of six of the company’s top-of-the-range The Mentors series. Inevitably, the tasting takes place over Zoom with Izele calling in from Paarl. As if to compensate for any lack of face-to-face rapport, the organisers ensure we are treated liberally: a case of six bottles – including the premium £40 a bottle Petite Sirah 2018 – are delivered to us followed by an package of artisan cheeses from Jermyn Street cheesemaker Paxton & Whitfield.
Founded in 1918, KWV used effectively to act as a cooperative but shifted to become a private company in the mid 1990s. It now produces a vast range of wines and brandies across different price points and across the diverse terroirs of South Africa.
Izele herself is a familiar face to readers of The Buyer. Her remit has been to lavish care on The Mentor range launched in 2006. With small batch vinification and the use of top-grade grapes, the premium offering is designed to show the world what South African winemakers are capable of and provide an expression of the country’s terroirs.
“South Africa is remarkably diverse with so many different soils, climates and micro-climate, and I recognise how fortunate I am to work here”, comments Izele.
The company has freed her of many traditional constraints – she’s well-funded and is free to experiment and, she insists, make mistakes. Significantly, KWV is no longer rushing to get each vintage to market but is allowing the wines a longer time to age.
And so to the tasting
We launch off with the one white, The Mentors Chenin Blanc 2019 from the Coastal Region, matched with a beautifully textured Red Leicester cheese. The wine has notes of apricots, guava and citrusy fruits and there is a little, well-controlled oakiness. The Chenin Blanc isn’t much of a novelty yet it displays the virtues for all the wines in The Mentor range: it is well-made, displaying some complexity and elegance and, above all, it’s approachable. These are wines that have finesse and immediate appeal to the drinker.
Second is the The Mentors 2018 Pinotage from Stellenbosch. This varietal, of course, is special to South Africa since its creation 100 years ago, but the style has evolved quite a bit over the last two decades. There is beautiful fruit and not a little elegance that answers earlier criticism of the grape. The wine is paired with a cheese from the Loire – a Selles sur Cher, a gloriously gooey goats milk concoction.
Next up is the Stellenbosch The Mentors Petite Verdot 2018, followed by The Mentors Canvas 2018 from the Coastal Region. Whereas the former is made from a single varietal, the latter boasts no fewer than seven, from 39 per cent Shiraz to 3 per cent Tannat, displaying Izele’s winemaking capability when employing her imagination at full stretch.
All of the wines we have tasted so far retail at £16 a bottle with an AVB of either 14 per cent or 14.5 per cent. We have been drinking the wines at room temperature. Izele, though, tells us she often pops the reds in the fridge for half an hour.
The last of the standard range is The Mentors Orchestra 2018, Western Cape. Izele explains almost incidentally that this has a couple of days earlier won the Veritas Vertex ranking as the best wine in South Africa. It is also the highest volume wine in a Bordeaux style with 33 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 30 per cent Petit Verdot plus four other grapes.
The fall in the value of the Rand makes all of South Africa’s wines outstanding value. Curiously, that somehow only seems to have compounded the deficit of prestige vis a vis wines from the Old World. A corrective comes in the guise of The Mentors Petite Sirah 2018 from Paarl, which at £40 a bottle is gratifyingly expensive and is sold in a volume of just 1000 bottles, each individually numbered. Each year Izele creates a new wine for this most premium-of-premium slots. The Petite Sirah spends 18 months in 70% new French oak barrels; full of deep plum and blackberries, it has great structure and an exemplary smoothness. And yet like the rest of the range it manages to remain remarkably approachable.
As we progress through the wines, tasting the individual pairings with specific cheeses somehow falls by the wayside; the detailed tasting sheets for the cheeses remain blank. Still, all that can wait for another day as we relish the ways we’ve discover to enjoy Lockdown until the pandemic is past.
KWV’s The Mentor range is imported into the UK by North South Wines