As published in the January 2017 issue of Decanter: Stellenbosch has the wine, the people and the natural beauty to rival any wine tourism region on earth. If the district leads with any variety in particular, then it leads with Cabernet Sauvignon but are global wine drinkers really aware of it and its wines?
For one thing, Stellenbosch hasn’t been making benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon for very long, not when compared to Bordeaux, the traditional home of the variety. Kevin Arnold of Waterford situated on one of Stellenbosch’s most significant mountains called the Helderberg suggests that the 1960s and 1970s were a pivotal time in the establishment of the variety in the area, observing that the big merchants could sell Cab at a premium as opposed to Cinsaut which had until then held sway, being used for everything from brandy, through rosé, to sweet, dry and fortified wines.
Since then, however, many of South Africa’s most revered wines have come to be Cabernets or at least Cabernet-driven blends. Kanonkop, considered by many as the closest thing that South Africa has to a First Growth, bought a Cabernet Sauvignon to market for the first time 1973 and then followed with the famous Bordeaux-style red blend known as Paul Sauer in 1981. The also highly esteemed Meerlust bottled its maiden Cab in 1975 before launching its version of a Bordeaux red called Rubicon in 1980. It is interesting to note that today many of Stellenbosch’s most ambitious producers offer both a single-varietal Cab and a Cab blend, the latter usually positioned as the flagship in the range but the former not far behind.
Finding its place
No mean history behind Stellenbosch Cab but does it today excite the international punter like Syrah from the Swartland, for instance? There is an acknowledgement among producers that Cab often makes for a pinnacle wine, which might allow South Africa to take its place next to Bordeaux, Napa in California and Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia but efforts to bring any sort of brand message to life have been poor in recent times.
Johan Jordaan, in charge of red wines at the large-scale but highly accomplished Stellenbosch winery Spier, says “Focus on Stellenbosch Cab is long overdue. We’re way too shy about promoting our achievements.”
Mark le Roux, winemaker at Waterford, thinks the success of the Swartland has only been positive for Stellenbosch. “There are many properties here with long track records that need to be respected. We move a lot slower when it comes to wine styles and that’s just the way it is. What the Swartland has taught us, however, is the benefits of talking to each other and standing together when it comes to marketing efforts.” Though not quite on the scale of anything that the Swartland has achieved to date, there do finally seem more efforts to position Stellenbosch as one of the world’s great Cab regions, the slogan “Kingdom of Cabernet” apparently set to stick.
So what does Stellenbosch Cab taste like? It is impossible to have a conversation about the variety from this district without bringing up the issue of “green-ness”. In the mid-1990s, many wines were thin and weedy and then followed an over-correction in some quarters with producers opting to go super-ripe. There is now an appreciation that while overt mint and eucalyptus aren’t ideal, a certain amount of herbal character is part of Cab’s inherent flavour profile and provide the end-wine with aromatic lift and refreshment.
“You want ripeness without jamminess. Wines that are alive not dead. Vitculturally, we’ve come a long way,” says Morné Very of Delaire Graff, the Banghoek property owned by international jewellery magnate Laurence Graff.
The best wines therefore tend to show luscious fruit and textual generosity without sacrificing freshness. “It’s a bit of a cliché but I think you can view it as a bridging wine between the Old and the New World – the wines tend to give you the structure of the former and the fruit of the latter,” says Jordaan of Spier.
The matter of site
What of terroir? Most individual producers insist that the different parts of the district, some of them official “wards” and others not, give the resulting wines distinctive characters. “Helderberg wines are classic in style – drier with more grainy tannins while Simonsberg are fruitier and sweeter,” says Arnold of Waterford. “They are different communes, if you will. Generally speaking, I would compare Helderberg with Pauillac, St Estephe and St Julien and Simonsberg with Margaux.”
Taste a dozen or more Stellenbosch wines blind, however, and it’s difficult to say from where each specifically originates, at least with any confidence. Soil types can vary dramatically over just a few hectares, while the mountains themselves are nothing if not undulating resulting in even one property having various different aspects which together make the impact of landscape more difficult to measure than might be the case in Bordeaux. Factor in that one winemaker is often applying significantly different technique to his neighbour and terroir is further obscured.
“Bordeaux has had nearly 200 years to figure out the impact of terroir while our history with the variety is much shorter than that,” says André van Rensburg of the renowned Vergelegen. “Only now are we discovering what rootstocks and planting densities work best. Then, of course, planting material is getting better and better.”
To some extent, Stellenbosch finds itself trapped between two very strong Cabernet paradigms, the one being that represented by Left Bank Bordeaux and the other by Napa Valley, California. Some consumers prefer the tension and detail of Bordeaux while others the density and power of Napa – who to please?
Going forward, the challenge is surely to be less derivative and more authentically of the place that is Stellenbosch. How to do this? As discussed, style does seem to trump terroir for now but as winemakers learn to do less rather than more with their wines, they will surely come to reflect their respective sites better. “The South African wine industry is open and adaptive. We’ve made quantum leaps in quality in recent times – we address the issues and move on. It’s clear that Cab is Stellenbosch’s calling card and I think the variety has got a great future,” says Jordaan of Spier.
It is uncertain when Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced to the Cape although it is known to have been grown with some seriousness at Groot Constantia in the last decades of the 19th century. During the first half of the 20th century, it began to gain prestige even though it is largely a matter of speculation how much Cabernet wines labelled as such actually contained – prior to the Wine of Origin legislation of 1973, controls over varietal naming were very loose.
Plantings remained limited for a long while – in 1990, the variety still constituted less than 4% of the national vineyard. But post-apartheid, things changed dramatically and by 2005 (the peak of plantings) it made up 13.4%.
While plantings have dropped significantly over the last decade, Cabernet Sauvignon remains South Africa’s third most widely planted variety and most planted red with11.3% of the vineyard area (11 170ha).Stellenbosch continues to have the most Cabernet of all wine growing areas with 28.4% of total plantings.