Fruit power isn’t going away any time soon

By , 21 September 2022



The wine market is not monolithic and while wine geeks might be enjoying a paler, lighter, fresher style of red wine, there’s still a segment of consumers that appreciates something bigger, darker and thicker.

This struck me at the recent Luxury Red Wine Review hosted by retailer Wine Cellar – 33 paying guests gathering in Cape Town to blind taste 10 wines with an average price of R2 409,50 a bottle. Winemaking across the line-up showed admirable precision but most of the wines came across as showing plenty of fruit power and smoothness of tannin.

Those shopping at this price level want to drink something impactful as a way of justifying their expenditure and the most obvious way for producers to do this is to pick riper. Put bluntly, these wines need to taste “expensive” and high fruit concentration and heavy extraction is the way to do that.

Some might think that local wines selling for R1 000 a bottle and over are so high-priced as to be irrelevant but this is wine as conspicuous consumption. Emil den Dulk, former owner of De Toren, the Stellenbosch property that produces Fusion V at R695 a bottle and Book XVII at R3 425 a bottle, once remarked to me that his target market was high-income, low-asset urban professionals – those who wanted these wines on their dinner table for bragging rights.

It’s not just a commercial thing, however. Consumers of so-called luxury wines generally want wines with big flavour and less aggressive tannins. Avante-garde wine bars might be pushing whole-bunch fermented Syrah on their customers but the uninitiated wine drinker might well find such wines too green and rustic. Conversely, carbonic maceration Cinsault or Pinotage gets a lot of love among the hipsters for being aromatic and subtle but there are certainly some wine drinkers who find such wines dilute and insipid.

It also needs to be acknowledged that wines are now really cellared for any length of time. More and more consumers are expecting their wine to be consumption ready at purchase and  early drinking requires a softer, more accessible style. Fruit power delivers immediate pleasure rather than the more elusive charms that aged wine tends to offer.

South Africa also doesn’t have a strong fine dining culture, which is to say that there are few consumers that are sufficiently food conscious to support a very sophisticated restaurant scene – Marble, arguably Gauteng’s most prominent eatery, bills itself as “Meat & Flame Enthusiasts”, for instance. At best, the country’s preference when it comes to eating out is for superb ingredients simply rendered and the consequence for wine is that there’s no place for anything that intrudes in terms of acidity and tannins – again, sumptuousness of fruit is what’s required.

Glenelly, Stellenbosch.

All the above said, ripeness is not a sin and I’ve encountered a number of wines recently that excel despite eyebrow-raising alcohols. De Trafford Elevation 393 2015, which has an alcohol of 14.93% to go with its R1 100 a bottle price tag, rated 96; Glenelly Lady May 2017, 14.96% and R695 a bottle, rated 97; and Buitenverwachting Cabernet Franc 2014, 15.2% and R380 a bottle, rated 94.

The point is that wines of power and size can also be complex and nuanced. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, however, and if a producer, in attempting to avoid under-ripe, vegetal wines, leaves his or her picking date too late, the resulting wine can become heavy and dull all too easy.

Ultimately, what we want to avoid is a tyranny of style, one way or the other. In that regard, it’s reassuring to know that South Africa’s top-end wine offering is as diverse as ever. The current-release Leeu Passant Dry Red 2019 (R1 120 a bottle) has an alcohol of 13.5% and succeeds precisely on account of its elegance while the excellent Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2019 (R850) has an alcohol of just 12.9%, the lowest since 1993.


9 comment(s)

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    Derek | 23 September 2022

    Very good article Christian. Well balanced and appropriate. While I appreciate the purity and tension in many of the “new wave” (whole bunch, lower alcohol etc) style wines my strong preference is still to drink bigger, bolder wines as long as they are in balance (fruit, tannins, acidity, oak). Luckily many of SA’s winemakers have continued to stick to their formula of producing such wines for people like me. I offer no excuses or apologies to the wine geeks who eschew this style of wine. Each to his own. It’s strange how there is no stigma when it comes to food preferences but wine somehow seems to polarize people!!?

      GillesP | 23 September 2022

      Hello Derek, I think there are few things which can explain the clivage. One can be the generation or age gap between people. Older people would probably prefer more classic style wines ( such as myself) than the young hipsters. Then there are the wines made for geeks personality and the wines made for traditionnal wine connoisseurs. Same with food actually. Some people are delighted by the gimmicky food served in our top Cape Town eateries while I am so over it and would rather enjoy good traditional Brasserie Bistro or steakhouse cuisine.Interesting times to say the least between generations

    Edi van D’Plass | 22 September 2022

    People who want “wines on their dinner table only for bragging rights” have no place at my braai.

    South Africa has such a wide variety of outstanding fruit power wines. The Kaapzicht and Von Loggerenberg Cinsauts are deep in fruit and both come in below 13%. I’m also relishing the possibility of vertically tasting the aforementioned the Paul Sauer 19 at 12.9% (drought) with a more traditional % older vintage in a few years.

    Michael Ratcliffe | 22 September 2022

    Some interesting insights which deserve comment.

    Everything about wine is relative, and subjective. The Wine Cellar ‘Luxury Red Wine Review’ is an interesting exercise and an excellent opportunity for the consumer to consider wines of a particular domestic positioning. I recall a time when Tim James challenged me on the term ‘luxury wine’, more than a decade ago, and I promptly acquiesced by dropping the term. Luxury is a term that should only be conveyed by the consumer, and never ordained by the supplier or producer.

    Like wine, the term luxury is relative, and massively subjective. Pricing, and the perception of pricing, relative to the perception of quality is equally subjective and massively relative, but ultimately informs the perception of value. The Strauss Fine Wine auctions in South Africa have become a neutral environment in which the prices that the consumer is willing to pay is purportedly transparent. The domestic auction circuit anecdotally rewards a perceived higher value inherent in international ‘luxury’ wines relative to local premium cuvées. This has long been the case, but observant onlookers will have recently noticed the perception gap starting to narrow, but slowly. This is probably good news for South African wine, but bad news for the domestic consumer.

    South African perceptions are shaped by the local environment, which is entirely natural. Domestic perceptions are ZAR-denominated which betrays our status as currency hostages in the real world of fine wine. The Wine Cellar ‘Luxury Red Wine Review’ with an average price of R2,409.50 a bottle is indicative, and portrays a line-up of expensively perceived wines, based on domestic perception. Accomplished international collectors possessing worldly insights would accrue faculties to discount the domestic ZAR filter to reveal a smart collection of mid-market-priced wines only just starting to challenge international notions of South African value in the fine wine market.

    Lucie Vos | 22 September 2022

    Anything of substance will stand the test of time – fads will come and go, but a wine made with precision, whether full bodied, of fruit or light, if any good will be enjoyed and savoured. Or cellared, should time permit. And spoken about, should it be remarkable in any way. And just like in fashion, style is eternal, as a full bodied, fruit driven wine of richesse, will last through the ages.

    Michael Fridjhon | 22 September 2022

    Just as there are many new style “lighter” wines which are simply flimsy, so there are bigger, richer wines which cannot simply be dismissed as “fruit bombs.” I suspect that while geeky producers have perhaps been too well served by critics who like their version of the perfect tailoring for the Emperor, consumers – and not just those so patronisingly identified in the quote attributed to Emil den Dulk – have been less fortunate.

    Gareth | 22 September 2022

    I have to admit that while I appreciate the pure, clean balance of some of the newer age winemakers, this is still very definitely the style that I enjoy most.

    GillesP | 21 September 2022

    I am glad to read about people wanting to drink wine which is Wine as opposed to the gimmicky lighter wine scene which has been put on a pedestal for too long now.

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