In October 2012 I persuaded Roland Peens of Wine Cellar in Cape Town to organise a small tasting of fairly modestly priced red blends. The point was to compare wines at that price level from the increasingly fashionable Swartland and from Southern France. My feeling at the time was that one might, in fact, find better value from imports, as the Swartland wines were far from cheap in the local context of those days. For example, Adi Badenhorst’s Secateurs Red was R76 (from Wine Cellar). That was my top wine of the tasting, and second by the average scores of the six tasters. One of the most popular of the French wines was Chapoutier’s Belleruche Rouge 2010, costing R100.
Incidentally, the only wine at this blind tasting that all who attended unanimously agreed was French turned out to be Bryan MacRobert’s Tobias Red 2011!
I sampled the Côtes du Rhône Belleruche 2014 recently at a Wine Cellar tasting of some of their current Chapoutier imports (for some thoughts on the whites, see here). It now costs R185 – which of course tells the depressing story of the rand’s continued decline. Given that Secateurs has only risen to R90, they are hardly competitors any more, and I’d suggest there can be no question of which offers locals the better value. Belleruche is a deftly made, pleasing, spicy but simple, unoaked wine (1.2 million bottles of it are made, so just dream of the profits there!). But frankly I can see no reason why anyone here should buy it, given the large choice of good Swartland – and other – red blends in that style for under R185, many of them much finer, more ambitious, serious and interesting. If Wine Cellar were to now put on a tasting of equivalently priced southern French and local grenache- or shiraz-based blends, well, I’m pretty sure it would reveal that truth.
At a higher price, it might be a more complicated story, but I’ll return to that. At the Chapoutier tasting, we also tried another entry-level Chapoutier red, at “just” R150: Les Vignes de Bila Haut Rouge 2014, from Roussillon in the south of France. I thought it a more interesting wine than the Belleruche, with a little more structure and complexity. A step-up in the Bila Haut range is the Occultam Lapidem (from syrah & carignan). At R285 it’s exactly the same price as (for example) the excellent Badenhorst Family Red. While the Bila Haut does offer a point of difference, I know which I think the better bargain.
The point is, that at current exchange rates, it’s very difficult for imports to compete in categories in which the Cape performs well. Bordeaux versus locals is possibly a different matter, for example, while ludicrously priced serious red Burgundy offers (in my opinion) something that is just not available here, however youthfully lovely the best local pinots undoubtedly are. White Burgundy – well, certainly in terms of value, I think there’s more of a contest.
As to more of Chapoutier’s many offerings. There are a few versions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and we tasted one at the lower end, the fresh and charming Bernadine 2012, a touch overpriced in local terms at R515. For character, interest and terroir expression, I’d suggest you’d do better with the Cornas Les Arènes 2013 at R575 (though it needs another 5+ years in bottle to make the expense worthwhile). Similarly (I know from long experience though the current vintage wasn’t tasted here), the St Joseph Les Granits Rouge offers something very special for R575.
I don’t think, however, you will go wrong with any Chapoutier, if price doesn’t matter much. At the top end, what’s to say? We had the lovely Ermitage Le Pavillon 2013, at R2850 the priciest of a range of Hermitages (Chapoutier eccentrically drops the H). What a treat. I wouldn’t want to compare it with, say, the Mullineux single terroir syrahs at a third of the price, or Porseleinberg at a fifth, or Leeuwenkuil Syrah at an eighth. I’d actually want them all. Unfortunately, though, I know which I’m least likely to have.
- 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.