Tim James: On Belfield and Elgin’s potential for high-quality reds

October 20, 2014
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 6 Comments

When Paul Cluver Estate some years back ceased bottling their cabernet grapes under their own label – to concentrate on whites and pinot – I thought it a good idea. Red wines from Elgin (pinot apart) seemed largely expendable, despite occasional exceptions – with the rarity of the exceptions making the point.

That’s not to say that wines like the abandoned Cluver Cabernet, Shannon’s Mount Bullet Merlot, the blend from Oak Valley, Iona’s reds or, most recently, Richard Kershaw’s maiden Syrah, were or are poor: certainly not, though in the examples I can think of, white wines (or pinots) from those producers easily trump the reds.

But it’s clear that any such conclusions with regard to such a youthful region as Elgin must be provisional. I was reminded of this a few months back when I tasted Angela Lloyd’s Platter’s samples of pinotage from up-and-coming Spioenkop; both were exciting and appealing – one a blend with Stellenbosch fruit, the other, as I recall, a new bottling entirely from home vines.

Belfield's Mike Kreft and dog.

Belfield’s Mike Kreft and dog.

Again I was reminded when I recently visited Belfield, where Mike Kreft has for nearly a decade now been making red wines off his few hectares (2.4 to be precise!) of cabs sauvignon and franc, merlot and shiraz. The Belfield soil, claims the website, “is well drained and rich in iron, and faces north, creating a pocket of land that produces elegant cooler climate red wines”.

Indeed it does (if not invariably). It had been a few years since I’d enjoyed Belfield’s Magnifica flagship, and it was good to rediscover its excellence – I’d easily put it among my top ten favourite Cape cabs, partly because I particularly appreciate its modest, elegant style.

I tried the 2009, 2010 and 2011. All had a lovely bright freshness, and a genuinely dry effect thanks to the good acidities (remarkably, Mike must generally adjust his acid downwards – the opposite process from that undertaken by most local producers), all in fine balance, with firm tannic underpinning. Oaking is restrained – about 20% new. Even the 2009 is still young and tight; they all are, really, but the 2010 is showing a little more easy-going fruit – it’s a beautiful wine, perhaps my favourite of the three. 2011, with a typical 13.5% alcohol, seemed a touch more extracted. At about R135 an excellent bargain.

Something of a similar pattern emerged with the Syrah, with the same vintages tasted. The maiden 2009 was nicely spicy, with some gently austere dry tannins. 2010 showed  somewhat more sweet fruit, though still with serious tannins. Neither intense nor lingering, I thought, perhaps revealing the younger vineyards, but pretty good. (Incidentally, it seems that shiraz is most widely being touted as a suitable red grape for Elgin, but I have my doubts, as I’ve not yet tasted one that I really admire – though it’s early days still, and cool-climate Elim is doing a little better with the variety.)

The 2011 Syrah is not yet released. It alarmed me somewhat, in fact, being in a different, to my mind unBelfieldy, style – with ultra-ripe flavours and somewhat soft-centred. Not a style I much care for, though some others no doubt will. For me, I’ll be hoping this doesn’t presage a change of direction for this producer.

The third Belfield wine is Aristata (like Magnifica named after a protea). The likeable 2010 is 80% merlot, with cab franc and a dollop (as we Platterites say) of cab sauvignon. A not-unpleasing touch of mint, gently fruity, lightly elegant. That word again. Long may it characterise Belfield.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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6 Comments

  1. AllisterNovember 1, 2014 at 4:13 pmReply

    Hi Tim, I thought you might be interested in these recent ratings by Neal Martin of Robert Parker ilk – just shows how the world wine palate tends towards the bolder showier wines, the opposite of our thesis. All good food for thought. At the end of the day, higher ratings sell wine, but we will stick to our guns and let the piece of dirt and cool climate do the talking :-)

    86 points – The 2009 Magnifica is a blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc raised in French oak for 11 months. It has a light, savory bouquet that is missing some vigor and complexity, while the palate is soft and savory, but just needs more backbone on the finish. Still, this forms easy-drinking pleasure.

    89 points – The 2011 Syrah has a well-defined bouquet with scents of crème de cassis, iodine and violets – good vigor here and varietal expression. The palate is sweet and rounded on the entry with crisp acidity, closing in toward the finish. But there is fine purity here and it should repay a couple of years in bottle.

    88 points – The 2009 Syrah has a pleasant floral bouquet that unfolds nicely in the glass with touches of wilted violet petals and iodine. The palate is medium-bodied with sweet ripe tannins, good acidity and quite a succulent finish. Fine.

    88 points – The 2011 Aristata is very backward on the nose with touches of licorice and burnt toast, but it opens nicely with aeration. The palate is medium-bodied with firm, rather chunky tannins and a classic, almost aloof finish that I quite admire. It needs a bit more length, but otherwise this is a well-made Bordeaux blend from Elgin.

  2. AllisterOctober 20, 2014 at 9:10 pmReply

    @Kwispedoor, please ping me on alkreft@gmail.com, I want to send you both Syrah vintages to taste and get your feedback. It really helps us, because as you say we are a tiny producer, and want to attract wine drinkers who are 100% passionate about what we do. We will send some winemaking notes, as we haven’t changed our production method too much, therefore we feel it may be the riper harvest having an effect in 2011! We do also macerate in 900l open top bins, so this could lead to more intensity if extraction is more marked, from vintage to vintage. Either way, we want feedback and insights.

  3. Angela lloydOctober 20, 2014 at 11:18 amReply

    Anyone who has driven around Elgin will appreciate it’s far from being an homogenous cool climate area; parts, such as where Belfield is, certainly seem capable of ripening cabernet, others excelling in sauvignon blanc, even riesling. One has only to think of Australia’s Clare Valley which also does brilliant riesling, shiraz and cabernet thanks to wide diurnal temperatures. This must also account in part for Elgin’s success with these varieties.

  4. KwispedoorOctober 20, 2014 at 10:34 amReply

    I fondly remember my first and only test drive of Belfield’s wines a few years ago. Pity it’s so hard to get a taste up here in Jozi…

    I really hope they don’t change their style, like you said regarding the 2011 Syrah, Tim. It’ll be like an independent radio station that used to play Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Django Reinhardt that finds out the larger market wants to hear Celine Dion, Black Eyed Peas, Kanye and One Direction. Now they also decide to play the mass market rubbish, in the process losing loyal fans along with their identity, only to find themselves competing with the big boys.

    • AllisterOctober 20, 2014 at 10:58 amReply

      Thank you Tim for the visit and the great feedback, and never fear Kwispedoor! We are definitely only caretakers of this place, and want to reflect it, not put a “stylistic or winemakers” stamp on it! We are still getting to know our Syrah, and whilst the bolder style of the 2011 may appeal to some, we will strive to protect the elegant nature of our wines. 2011 grapes came in too late.

      Rock on :-)

      • KwispedoorOctober 20, 2014 at 2:31 pm

        Ah, thanks, Allister. I think I’ll put on some White Stripes or Lynyrd Synyrd.

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