Tim James: A closer look at the Secret Cellar range
By Christian Eedes, 20 June 2016
It’s always both gratifying and frustrating to point to the great value to be found in South African wines at all price levels. Gratifying because, of course, we all like good bargains; frustrating because some good aspects of the wine industry would greatly benefit if prices were higher (saving old vineyards, for example; possibly even wages for wineworkers – dream on). There was a little flurry of comments about this sort of thing when a cheap (R33) Secret Chenin 2015 from Ultra Liquors won all sorts of trophies at the recent Trophy Wine Show – and no-one came forward to claim it was not a good wine (though I thought it not much more than that in the scale of Cape chenin’s magnificent achievements).
I worry, though, that a generalisation is made too easily from such an example, and it’s assumed that such a disparity between price and value is to be everywhere found. Because it’s not (again at all price levels.) There a great deal of South African wine, in bottle and box, that is poor quality and far from underpriced.
Not to prove this point, but out of genuine enthusiasm for a few Secret Cellar wines I’ve had in recent years, I mentioned to Mark Norrish (the eminently savvy wine man responsible for sourcing these Ultra wines) that I’d like to sample more. I ended up with 22 bottles. Last week I tasted the 12 reds (all within spitting distance of R35) with Angela Lloyd, and the 10 whites (R27-35; R65 for the bubblies) by myself.
The first general comment to be made is that the quality was extremely uneven – few came up to the standard of the Chenin, and there were some that I’d put quite far behind water or beer when it comes to choosing something to sip or to accompany food, however low the price. The second general comment is that white wine lovers are, as always, lucky in the Cape: the whites were unquestionably of a higher standard than the reds.
Best of the reds for me was the Shiraz 2013 (all these wines are identified by a number, so even if two wines share a variety and vintage, each bottling is uniquely and clearly identified; this one is No. 068). Incidentally, it was one of few under cork. A non-vintage Syrah Mourvèdre Grenache from Stellenbosch (No. 303) was also good, of its ripely soft, slightly sweet type.
There was a fair sprinkling of Bordeaux varietals and blends, mostly from Stellenbosch, none of them as good as the Big Five 2013 (No 273) from Constantia (Buitenverwachting, in fact – the only wine with a fully identifiable origin), which is undoubtedly a fine bargain. Best of the rather dismal Stellenbosch showing was a firm and juicy Cabernet Franc 2014 (No 426), and then the LFT Bank (No 464) and RHT Bank (No 471) (presumably varietal indications weren’t allowed on the labels and these are Bordeaux-style indications – Left and Right Bank – to the few that would understand them).
Otherwise (but this is a good average at this price), a mix of clumsy winemaking and too much evidence of virused and heavy-yield fruit.
As to the whites, all pretty good value at least, with those from Robertson showing best. Non-reds, I should say, as there was a very decent, dry and lipsmacking Chardonnay-Pinot Noir 2015 (No 955) and a Dry Rosé, also nicely tart, also with a modest 12% alcohol. A Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (No 600) is well-balanced, flavourful and fresh, as is the rather greener Darling version (No 527). All very drinkable.
Stellenbosch contributed the Chardonnay Unwooded 2015 (No 488) and the Chardonnay Wooded 2014 (No 495), which were just OK – but I preferred the former.
Two MCC sparkling wines are both extremely good value at R65 (no numbers or vintages here), but I marginally prefer the more characterful Blanc de Blancs over the Brut. I’m sipping it as I type this on an early Sunday evening, the blessed rain still drizzling down outside.
And of course the famous Chenin Blanc (No 235), which is indeed very nice, performing well above its price-level, but not, I’d say, of gold-medal quality.
- 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.