Greg Sherwood MW: A notable Cape Bordeaux trade tasting in London

By , 26 June 2024



It seems summer has finally decided to grace us with its presence as the thermometers hit 28C° in London this past week. While columnist Tim James has been indulging in a spot of Bordeaux blend trainspotting on the Muizenberg to Simon’s Town line, here in London, the wine calendar has been rather busier with numerous tasting events, new wine launches and multiple winemaker visits making it over this side of the pond resemble something more like Clapham Junction on a busy Monday rush hour commute.

The chatter back in South Africa might be all about editor Christian Eedes’s eye-catching score for the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2021, but over here in the UK, the talk was more about how unfortunate it was not to have Abrie Beeslaar and the Kanonkop Estate attend the exceptional Cape Bordeaux Blend tasting for the UK wine trade at 67 Pall Mall private members club, titled, “Building the Future, Exploring the Past.” The tasting kicked off an action-packed week, being organised by Vilafonté ’s importer, John E. Fells, in conjunction with Meerlust, Glenelly, Bruwer Raats and MR de Compostella, and Wines of South Africa UK.

All of the above producers have long been recognized as producing world-class wines, but it is of course Meerlust and the Myburgh family who have been credited with producing the first unofficial and then official Cape Bordeaux Blends in 1978 and then 1980, just pipping Kanonkop by one year. Under the ongoing guidance of Hannes Myburgh, the eighth-generation custodian of this seventeenth-century national monument, Meerlust continues to produce some exceptional high-quality wines.

The format of the tasting involved a sighted presentation of the above-mentioned producers’ 2011 vintages tasted alongside their 2021 vintages, with a speaker panel consisting of Bruwer Raats, Mike Ratcliffe and Pauline Vicard of Areni Global, all expertly chaired by Stefan Neumann MS. The slight hiccup was that Meerlust did not bottle a Rubicon in 2011, instead deciding to declassify the entire vintage into their Red, which was then released to not only the international market but also locally, as is the tradition when the Rubicon blend is not bottled.

With pleasantries out of the way, the guests were given some interesting insights into what we mean by ‘a fine wine’ by Pauline Vicard. With Areni Global due to publish their latest research into consumer engagement, Pauline was full of facts and figures, discussing wine quality, wine age-ability, the prerequisites for a brand to create emotion, as well as wine producers’ philosophy in regard to sustainability, creating a long-term reputation for their fine wines, and understanding how a winemaker’s actual raw ambition feeds into the overall recipe for a truly fine wine.

The first flight to taste was the Meerlust pair. I am a massive fan of the Meerlust Red cuvée in general as it fills a wonderful mid-week drinking price point for consumers who may otherwise enjoy a young Petit Chateaux Claret from Bordeaux. Previously only offered for export, Meerlust management were always slightly worried that if it were to be released every year to the local market, this wine might eventually start to cannibalise sales of their flagship Rubicon. I personally don’t believe this to be the case so was pleased to learn recently that the new regime under winemaker Wim Truter have changed tact and will now offer the Meerlust Red locally.

My tasting notes were as follows:

Meerlust Estate Red 2011

This declassified Rubicon allows the Red 2011 to lead with a high percentage of Merlot at 52%, with a smaller amount of Cabernet Sauvignon at 33%, together with 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. Garnet red in the glass with a brown / orange rim, the aromatics are sappy and spicy, packed full of grilled herbs, sweet cedar oak, brewed breakfast tea and earthy red currant and graphite nuances. The palate is piquant and spicy, showing bitter orange peel, black chocolate, sweet, stewed plum, with moderately dense silky tannins together with a soft fresh acidity. Showing clear evolution and tertiary complexity but drinking well right now. (91/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Meerlust Estate Rubicon 2021

A blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 46% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot aged 18 months in 300-litre barrels, 60% new. The aromatics are mineral and spicy underpinned by layers of blueberry and black berry fruits, salty black liquorice, graphite pencil and sweet sappy cedar, sandalwood and a subtle tobacco leaf spice. Beautifully constructed, the palate is taut but tensile, tightly wound, tight knit and polished, displaying impressive stony, polished marble tannins but also a great core of energy. The textural precision is notable showing power, focus and a piercing black cherry and saline black currant intensity with a kiss of nori kelp, grilled herbs and iodine on the long finish. (96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Next up was the flight of Vilafonté  Series M 2011 and Series M 2021 presented by co-organiser Mike Ratcliffe, whose journey with this project has been quite remarkable, initially partnering with American duo, Dr Zelma Long and Dr Phil Freese, in a true transatlantic partnership in the late 1990s, with the maiden releases of Series M and C coming with the 2003 vintage. Known to be obsessive about viticulture and the vinification of their wines, Vilafonté now produces some of the most modern, polished and internationally styled Cape Bordeaux Blends in South Africa.

Vilafonté Series M 2011

Garnet colour with a slight mahogany rim, in the glass the aromatics are complex and slightly evolved showing salted caramel, earthy red currant, stewed red plum, brûléed coffee beans and subtle burnt orange peel nuances. The palate shows a fine creamy density, a fleshy depth of extract with sweet, soft, velvety tannins before a black currant and chocolate orange finish. (We noted that there was some bottle variation between samples poured in the room, so I made an express point to retaste the alternative sample which was indeed fresher and more richly fruited on the nose and palate.) (94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vilafonté Series M 2021

The 2021 Series M is a blend of 41% Merlot, 35% Malbec, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Cabernet Franc that spent 22 months in French oak barrels with a 26% new oak portion. The aromatics are enticing and youthful, offering up notes of dark berries, exotic Asian spices, plum compote, black liquorice, graphite and wood smoke with subtle dried bay leaf nuances. This wine remains very much in a Bordeaux right bank leaning style boasting precociously sumptuous notes of supple black currant fruits, mulberries, black plum with hints of cocoa powder, chargrilled charcuterie and pithy blood orange peel. Beautifully plump and opulent in the mouth, the tannins are velvety, supple and sweet, finishing with notions of baked blackberries, preserved plums and star anise. (96+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

The Vilafonté flight was followed by another very impressive pair of reds from the Mvemve-Raats collaboration, MR de Compostella. In September 2019, just before Covid-19 struck, I hosted Bruwer Raats in London to present a full vertical of MR de Compostella from 2004 to 2017. A spectacular flight of wines with not a single wine tiring or on the downhill evolutionary slope. So expectations were very high for the MR pair, and they certainly did not disappoint. Indeed, the MR 2011 was probably the most youthful of the various 2011 blends presented.

MR de Compostella 2011 

Ruby garnet opaque red rim, this is probably the most impressive and youthful wine among the 2011 vintage wines, this beauty is dense and bold, magnificently vibrant with aromatics of sweet tobacco, cedar spice, Italian herbs, potpourri, dried rose petal perfume over herbal tea, graphite lead pencil and subtle smoky nori seaweed complexity. The palate is creamy and dense with velvety tannins, an exciting vibrancy and subtle notes of red currant, chocolate oranges and earthy black currants. Beautifully fine grained, mineral and classical. A real beauty standing up to the challenges of time. (96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

MR de Compostella 2021 – 98-99

The newest 2021 release astonishingly takes this wine to yet another higher niveau of quality with a blend of 26% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec, 20% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. Made from vines aged between 9 and 22 years old, the aromatics are wonderfully bold and exuberant displaying seductive notes of blackberries, crème de cassis, violets, wet tobacco, black cherries and tart black plum. In the mouth, the concentration and focused steely intensity is astounding – tart, bright and architecturally soaring, shaping this wine into a powerful, linear, multi-dimensional masterpiece. A timeless classic in the making. (99/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

In 2003, at 78, May de Lencquesaing, owner of Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande, began a new venture in South Africa, acquiring the Glenelly Estate in Stellenbosch. Echoing the French Huguenots before her, she replaced the plums trees with vines, crafting a premier winery harmonising with the land and the local community. Her vision was to establish Glenelly as a world class estate, producing award-winning wines, a challenge that has been comfortably achieved, but punctuated in particular with the impressive Lady May blend. I had tasted the 2011 some time ago with now ex-winemaker Luke O’Cuinneagain but was pleasantly surprised to see just how well it was evolving in bottle as the Lady May cuvée only really started to hit its straps from the 2015 vintage onwards. As a special treat, Glenelly also showed their as yet unreleased Lady May 2021 – another of the highlights of the whole tasting.

Glenelly Lady May 2011, 14.5%

A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, and 5% Merlot aged for 24 months in 100% new French oak barrels. An incredibly opulent and dense wine showing vibrant, perfumed aromatics of black currant, mint leaf and milk chocolate with delicate notes of grilled herbs and attractively complex sweet herbaceous notes. The palate is dense and tight knit with fabulously silky, cool, spicy black berry fruited core, a surprisingly youthful freshness and purity, finishing with sweet cassis and graphite nuances. Truly classy. Wow, what a surprise! (95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Glenelly Lady May 2021, 14.5%

A blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot aged for 24 months in 100% new French oak barrels. Dense dark and opaque in the glass with incredibly potent and pure fruited aromatics of creme de cassis, saline black currant, cherry tobacco, grilled herbs and subtle vanilla pod spice nuances. The palate embraces power and density showing fine chalky tannins, a real black and blue fruited intensity with just the most classically restrained, harmonious and elegant finish. This is a phenomenal red wine that registers quality wise in the highest of echelons of Cape Bordeaux Blends. (98/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Back over to Mike Ratcliffe again to profile the excellent brace from Vilafonté’s Series C Cabernet Sauvignon-based range. A perennial favourite with Cabernet collectors around the world, the Series C has established itself as one of the top Cape Bordeaux Blend contenders in South Africa.

Vilafonté Series C 2011

Beautifully sweet fruited and complex in the glass with aromatics of chocolate orange, earthy red currant, black currant leaf, grilled herbs and a malty, meaty, black fruited complexity. Wonderfully textural and broad, tightly packed with creamy sweet tannins and a fine-grained texture, finishing with a granitic stony minerality and subtle pithy, cherry tobacco and tea leaf nuances. Very attractive. (94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vilafonté Series C 2021 – 97+

The Series C 2021 is another sumptuous Cape Bordeaux Blend made up of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 10% Malbec and 7% Cabernet Franc that was aged for 22 months in 81% new French oak 225 litre barriques. Beautifully lifted and floral with a piercing array of perfumed violets, iris, cherry blossom, potpourri and incense with a delicate dusting of cocoa powder and vanilla pod spice. With the cool fruited aromatic ebb and flow, delicious notes of saline black currant, black cherry, crème de cassis, sandalwood, cigar wrapper, and cinnamon spice slowly develop in the glass. Medium bodied, tightly wound and layered, the sleek supple mouthfeel truly typifies the very finest premium reds produced in this classically cooler vintage, with sweet well-rounded tannins, a fresh piercing acidity and magnificently weightless, crystalline tart red and black berry fruits on the velvety, seamless palate. (97/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Finally, the tasting was capped off with a bonus round of two blind wines. With some of London’s best MS and MW palates in the room, this was a far more challenging task trying to identify the wines. I plumped for California / Napa Valley for the first wine and Bordeaux Saint Emilion or Pomerol for the second wine. Many in the room also thought they could both be another pair of top South African Cape Bordeaux Blends. In the end, a classic left and right bank Bordeaux duo from two of the most famous high-flying Chateaux, left many a little red faced.

Mystery Blind Wines:

Chateay Leoville-Poyferre 2011, Saint Julien

Exotic, peach skins, guava roll, musk and a sweet / sour fruit intensity over black currant, blue berry and sweet silky textured tannins. Prominent but high quality oaking, leading to a long and classy finish. (96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

(Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate note reads: This property, which has been on a qualitative tear over the last generation, has produced one of the most successful wines of 2011. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and the rest Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, it is broad, rich, medium to full-bodied and dense. It boasts an inky/purple color as well as lots of concentration, silky tannins, and a bigger, richer mouthfeel than any of its St.-Julien peers. The result is one of the stars of the vintage. 94/100 RP)

Chateau Canon 2021, Saint Emilion Grand Cru

Loaded with sweet black currant, blueberry and raspberry aromatics with dusty limestone nuances, chalky tannins, and a silky soft texture. There is a peppery minerality, a subtle austerity and restraint but well balanced overall with a moderate medium weighted plumy fruit concentration on the finish. (94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

(Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate note reads: The 2021 Canon opens in the glass with a pure bouquet of raspberries, cherries and plums mingled with attractive top notes of iris, licorice, mint and sweet spices. Medium to full-bodied, deep and layered, it’s fleshy and sensual, with a deep and seamless core of fruit framed by ultra-refined tannins, a bright spine of acidity and a long, mineral finish. With an impressively low finished pH of 3.37, it was taken out of barrel a month earlier than usual and saw no fining—as has been the case since 2010. 95/100 RP)

A truly fabulous tasting, well-conceived and well executed, you would have been hard pressed to find an attendee who was not suitably impressive with both the quality of some of South Africa’s finest wines on display alongside their ageability and great value. Indeed, it was thought rather brave of the producers to show their 2011 vintage wines which was certainly not one of the Cape’s finest. But the 2021 vintage certainly took yet another step towards cementing its position as one of the top three vintage in the Cape in the past 20+ years. Just a shame we didn’t get to assess the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2011 and 2021 and hear from the audience if they thought the wines were saignant, bien cuit, or a point!

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years traveling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. Earlier this year, he moved across to South African specialist merchant Museum Wines to become the Fine Wine Director. He qualified as a Master of Wine in 2007.


9 comment(s)

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    Gregory | 1 July 2024

    Nice bit of expo for SA bdx, and great to outscore the French 😁

    …but Welgemeend were first 👀😂

    Erwin Lingenfelder | 29 June 2024

    I am sorry, but Welgemeend produced the first official Bordeaux blend in 1979.

      Greg Sherwood | 29 June 2024

      But Meerlust already produced one in 1978. But you’re right, any reference to the early Cape Bordeaux blend producers would not be complete without mentioning Welgemeend. 👍🏻

        Tim James | 30 June 2024

        I think you are simply incorrect here, Greg. There were a few producers experimenting with such blends in the late 1970s, including Meerlust. Welegemend 1979 was unquestionably the first such blend released to the market. Meerlust’s first release was 1980; saying they “already produced one in 1978” is irrelevant, seeing it was experimental stuff. If you think otherwise, perhaps you could tell us how many bottles of it were produced, whether they were labelled (under what name?), and what happened to them.

          Greg Sherwood | 30 June 2024

          If you read my column properly, you’ll see I clearly differentiated between the 1978 blend and the 1980 first commercial release. My column wasn’t meant to be a treatise on the origins of the first Cape Bordeaux blends in SA… but yes, Welgemeend did pip Meerlust by a year in commercial, first to market terms. So no, I’m not incorrect. I never stated Meerlust released a 1978 commercially to market. I merely stated they already bottled a 1978 Cape Bordeaux blend.

            Tim James | 1 July 2024

            Perhaps it’s you who should read your column properly! You say “the first unofficial and then official Cape Bordeaux Blends in 1978 and then 1980”. OK, your syntax is a bit tangled up, but in what way was the 1980 “the first official Cape Bordeaux Blend”? (Whatever “official” means….)

    Melvyn Minnaar | 27 June 2024

    I’m trying to get my head into ‘grilled herbs’ and ‘brewed breakfast tea’…..

      Greg Sherwood | 27 June 2024

      You need to unleash your senses… be alive to the smells and tastes of everyday life. Most drinkers can smell and taste a wide array of descriptives – their problems is simply putting a work to it. After 30 years of writing tasting notes, ones senses become quite attuned. 👍🏻

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