SA vs Californian Cabernet Sauvignon

June 9, 2015
by Christian
in Opinion & Analysis
with 7 Comments
Cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism.

A sign of the growing confidence among local winemakers is that they are more prepared to put their own wines up against the best from elsewhere in the world in an open forum than ever before. Yesterday, Razvan Macici, until now Nederburg cellarmaster but soon to be Distell’s head winemaker, hosted a benchmarking exercise which saw 13 examples of local Cabernet Sauvignon next to seven from California.
The wines included in the line-up were as follows:

Flight 1: 1. Plaisir de Merle 2012; 2. Alto 2012; 3. Francis Coppola Diamond Collecton Black Label Claret 2012 ( average price: R212 a bottle) ; 4. Fleur du Cap Unfiltered 2013; 5. Behrens Family Winery Have You Heard? 2012

Flight 2: 1. Waterford 2012; 2. Neethlingshof 2012; 3. Nederburg II Centuries 2011; 4. Behrens I Am Listening 2012; 5. Rust en Vrede Single Vineyard 2012

Flight 3: 1. Plaisir de Merle 2011; 2. Nickel & Nickel Branding Iron 2011 (R1 077); 3. Spier Woolworths The Hutton Single Vineyard 2012; 4. Uitkyk 2009; 5. Stellenzicht Golden Triangle 2011

Flight 4: 1. Nederburg II Centuries 2010; 2. Regusci Stags Leap District 2010 (R635); 3. Silver Oak Alexander Valley 2009 (R904); 4. Durbanville Hills Rhinofields 2009; 5. Shafer Hillside Select 2008 (R3 117)

We tasted blind and here’s what I rated 90 points or above on the 100-point quality scale:
94 – Waterford 2012
93 – Rust en Vrede Single Vineyard 2012
93 – Spier Woolworths The Hutton Single Vineyard 2012
92 – Fleur du Cap Unfiltered 2013
92 – Nederburg II Centures 2010
91 – Durbanville Hills Rhinofields 2009
90 – Neethlingshof 2012

Some observations: I did not score a single wine from California above 90 although they are all more or less highly regarded Stateside. This is not the first time I’ve encountered this phenomenon – what we are dealing with is two radically different paradigms as to what constitutes wine quality, the US wines favouring power above all else.

The most expensive wine of the day, namely Shafer Hillside Select 2008, makes the point emphatically. This is a wine which proudly bears an abv of 15.5% on the label and has received a score of 96/100 from both Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. I scored it 85 and my tasting note was: “Intense black in colour. Jammy fruit, vanilla and reduction. Super-rich and thick textured, lacks any kind of verve. Extremely difficult to drink.”

If South Africa takes its cue from typical top-end California, then we are still way off the mark – we might think we’ve shifted away from our reds being too “green” but not nearly far enough. I would, however, sound a word of caution – a wine like Shafer is for Americans by Americans and the market is not monolithic. There is a classicism (a freshness of acidity and firmness of tannin)  that our best wines are now starting to show that will surely find favour somewhere in the world.

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  1. MichaelJune 16, 2015 at 2:34 pmReply

    I am a consumer that enjoys red wines especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and blends like Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz etc. Having spent a few weeks recently in Sacramento, I had the pleasure of tasting and drinking wines from Napa. I agree that the top of the range SA Cabernet Sauvignon wines are better tasting. However when one goes down to the everyday R50 and under wines I found Napa better tasting i.e. smoother. Even the Trader Joe “Two buck chuck” i.e. Charles Taylor Cab. Sav. at $3 a bottle beat any -R50 that I have tasted in our wine lands to date

  2. Christo le RicheJune 15, 2015 at 10:51 pmReply

    I love this debate. I am not going to add my two cents as I will only be repeating, but I can say that people should watch this space.

  3. ChristianJune 15, 2015 at 7:10 pmReplyAuthor

    Thought-provoking comment from all. A couple of observations from me after 15 years of commentating on SA wine: 1). Cab is a pinnacle wine almost the world over and given our extensive plantings, best SA has some decent examples; 2). the imperative to have wines from Cab does not mean they all have to all taste like “Left Bank Bordeaux” or “Napa” – the market is not monolithic; 3) SA is intrinsically complex in terms of terroir and people – that doesn’t make for easy marketing but if we meet the challenge, so much more compelling for at least some of the punters out there…

  4. Neil Fortes/ Wine GuruJune 15, 2015 at 4:24 pmReply

    I concur with Mike wholeheartedly. We are distributors in the Canadian market and California Cabs have a certain stamp of recognition amongst consumers and wine buyers in this market. The perception is that South African Cabs are all over the map when it comes to a specific point of recognition minimising the perception of quality and consumer appeal. Wine buyers therefore are not prepared to commit to SA Cabs in the top price points and are only prepared to buy very inexpensive Cabs from South Africa or prefer to stay with safer varietals such as Shiraz and Cab blenders. I do not see that a uniform thread will evolve from SA Cabs in the not too distant future although it would be nice as we need another top end red from SA in this market which would be a raising of the flag for SA wines

  5. Mike RatcliffeJune 11, 2015 at 1:45 amReply

    With my Cabernet-lover hat on, perhaps some thoughts on this topic would be appropriate? I have just completed five days of extensive tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley specifically. I have made it my business over more than a decade to try to understand what it is that makes Napa great. This is a work in progress.

    Based on the above article, it would appear that the Distel tasting should be categorised purely as an ‘interesting’ exercise rather than having the potential to really produce any kind of meaningful conclusion. My 2nd point would be that even domestically, Cabernet styles in South Africa are varied and only slowly starting to represent any kind regional fingerprint. The wines that were included in the tasting could not be more fragmented in terms of their origin, vintage, philosophical expression, target consumer, rationale for existence and winemaking style. I would challenge anyone to identify any hint of a common thread running through the South African examples without criticising the quality of any of them. On the other hand, my Napa Valley experience is that the entire (large) Napa style is telegraphed strongly and definitively and seems to form a golden thread which has come to define a Napa style. Perhaps it is more important to stress that Napa Cab has established a relatively definitive style other than to define exactly what that style actually is? The consumer has a clear understanding of what to expect, has become accustomed to spending highly on these wines and this has translated into large-scale commercial success.

    On another related note, I would contend that Cabernet Sauvignon – and as a spin-off Cabernet blends – remains South Africa’s single biggest opportunity for large scale high-end commercial success. I base this on an (admittedly) pragmatic, but well supported global viewpoint. The backbone of Cabernet’s inherent attractiveness is that a lot of the ‘heavy-lifting’ has already been done by Bordeaux, Napa and a multitude of other high-end wineries. This ground-work has gone a long way to indoctrinating the considered and literate consumer into the inherent virtues, relative ageability and perceived elevated value of King Cabernet. This is not going to go away and swimming with the tide of consumer perception will always be a solid strategy – especially if you produce wine at the Southern tip of Africa in an industry that does not have the muscle to change global perceptions.

    Winemaking artists and philosophers may indeed baulk at my comments above calling them utilitarian and pragmatic in the extreme. Well, I would agree to some extent and contend that the ability of South African Cabernet Sauvignon to plug into the conveyor belt of global sentiment is premised on the ability to produce excellence. This ability is on the rise, but it is only recently that we as an industry have started moving away from having lingering methoxypyrazine as standard in a large proportion of our domestic Cabernets. This viticultural phenomenon is far from being solved – excellence in a more general sense remains elusive for the category in general. Progress and evolution in the Cabernet category remains swift, compelling and exciting, but there is much to be done.

    The Cabernet Sauvignon train has a long way to go, but the current exciting state of the category is encouraging. Watch this space I would suggest.

    • Hennie LouwJune 15, 2015 at 11:29 amReply

      Mike, I am a novice when it gets to the real knowledge of winemaking. I am just a merchant and tried to do these comparative cultivar tastings with people from the wine trade in our area. Really a difficult excercise. So many factors to take into account. We merely tried to compare the single cultivar wines from dfferent areas around our country and even threw in the odd overseas product. So yes, what you said is true, but then again, what is winedrinking all about? My guess is that if you want to do a thing like this, in a perfect way, it will never happen. As a Cab fan, I would have loved to attend the tasting mentioned. Johan Krige from Kanonkop told me at a trade show in Knysna that there is some momentum building up to revive the awareness for King Cab. Anything on the horizon? The hype about Shiraz/Syrah is way to big.

    • Ian DeanJune 15, 2015 at 12:17 pmReply

      I concur with the important insights that Mike provides. They are credible and as pointed out, based on considerable pragmatism and experience. Following the market leaders because of commercial considerations and established market ‘practices’ will offer some viability for SA producers.
      The critical question however is: can SA producers ever out-Bordeaux and out-Napa those heavy weights in their heavy weight oriented markets? That I dare say will be an exercise in futility.
      The up and coming Cab producers in SA have an opportunity to create new expressions, in new ways in new markets for new consumers. That’s their challenge more than ever and certainly not trying to replicate what others have already done in abundance.
      Caution should be exercised in thinking that the great world of wine will remain much the same as it has been for decades if not centuries in a world characterised by radical change. SA producers can show agility and rapid adaptability through creations for the new world.

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