Greg Sherwood MW: Some South African wine highlights of 2023
By Greg Sherwood, 17 January 2024
Reflection is always an important part of critical analysis, whether assessing your personal highs and lows, successes or failures, or whether you simply looking back on the year that was. While 2023 remained challenging economically for all, both across the UK and in South Africa, it also, as luck would have it, saw South Africa’s top wine producers release some of the finest vinous expressions to date, forcing collectors and connoisseurs to once again stick their hands into their pockets to buy wines that simply could not be overlooked.
On the ground in Cape Town, my own visits allowed me to witness firsthand the true resilience of South African people as wineries, restaurants and the wider tourist industry of the Western Cape bounced back with a resounding spring in its step after suffering some of the harshest Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in the entire world.
Further afield, and up country in high population centres like Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria, the long-lasting economic shackles have perhaps been less easy to cast off as the pandemic’s scars remain clear for all to see. But of course, in wine terms, the 2021 vintage that was primarily responsible for most of my new release wine highlights of 2023, fell right in the midst of the pandemic and remains something I think about every time I open a producer’s bottle from that or the previous year.
After producers battled through government restrictions to deliver some very decent 2020 wines, the 2021 vintage however was, by most accounts, extremely good. The growing season began with a cooler than average winter, which saw some heavy rains. That definitely helped restore some of the water tables ravaged by the severe drought from 2015 to 2018. The chilly weather continued into the spring, delaying budburst, while the rains raised the risk of rot and disease. Frost also struck several times, nibbling away at the new vine growth, however, the vines were able to bounce back reasonably well, and flowering was largely a success with sufficient yields.
Summer was benign, albeit cooler than normal, and grapes were slow to reach phenolic ripeness – although their aromatics and acidity were perfectly preserved – and the harvest was pushed back a couple of weeks. Despite the delay, good conditions prevailed, and the harvest was phenomenal success for most wineries, producing reds that were intense, dark, fruit-forward and spicy, but still well-structured, while the whites had an expressive aromatics with crystalline, refreshing acids.
Starting with my white wine highlights, I thought it was fairly poetic that Ian Naudé, who vowed that his white blend wine making days were over, was to finally succumb to the lure of yet more old vine vineyards up the West Coast near Vredendal, where he sources grapes for his exceptional Langpad Old Vine Colombard. This time, Old Vine Chenin Blanc (83%) was blended with Old Vine Colombard (17%) to produce his new 2023 Soutbos (salt bush) white (97/100 GSMW), that for me, represents one of the most exciting white blends created in South Africa since Eben Sadie launched his Skerpioen Chenin Blanc – Palomino old-vine field blend. Fortunately, stocks of this delicious wine have just arrived in the UK, and I look forward to buying a few bottles and revisiting this unique wine again soon.
We all know that old vine Chenin Blanc is one of South Africa’s true trump cards in its hand so there will be no surprise that another pair of this cultivar’s whites made my highlights list. The Tiernes 2021 Old Vine Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc from Jasper Wickens, made from vines planted in 1983 on deep decomposed granitic soils on his Waterval farm in the Paardeberg, is a wine of exceptional focus, depth, power and purity that cannot fail to impress anyone who tastes it. My enthusiastic score of 97/100 GSMW was rightfully matched by Winemag.co.za’s editor, therefore also making it one of his top scoring new wine releases of 2023. Another was the similarly impressive Sky Old Vine Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2022 from André Bruyns, who himself is no newcomer to the Swartland, having impressed with his City On A Hill range of wines in the past. Once again, this block buster white cracked a 97/100 GSMW score, pushing it into the ranks of definite must-buy wines. With only 300 cases were produced, you’ll need to be quick if you want to enjoy a rare bottle of this maiden release single vineyard wine.
The last of my notable whites of 2023 comes from a winery newish to the South African winescape. Having found instant success with their maiden 2019 Onskuld Chardonnay from the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and made by the talented Stephanie Wiid, 2023 saw Draaiboek Wines launch a new Elgin Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2022 called Kinkel. Needless to say, this new wine impressed the critics once again, allowing it to be selected amongst the Platter’s SA Wine Guide prestigious 5-Star winners. With an impressive 96/100 GSMW in my own review highlights, this wine represents a very special expression of cool climate Chardonnay.
For my selection of reds, there just seems to be no holding back the top Stellenbosch and Paarl expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-based Cape Bordeaux blends. Starting with my favourite wine release of 2023, the MR de Compostella 2021 is a wine I have followed religiously since its maiden 2004 release, and Bruwer Raat and Mzokhona Mvemve’s latest release cracked my highest new release still wine score ever for a South African wine at 99/100 GSMW. A true accolade indeed.
Like the MR de Compostella, the new release Vilafonte Series C 2021 Cape Bordeaux blend rated 97+/100 GSMW from me last year, and only recently in the past weeks was also awarded the highest South African red wine score at 99/100 from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. With the delicious Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 also collecting a whopping 98/100 from the Wine Advocate as well as a solid 97+/100 GSMW score from myself, South African red wines are certainly on a roll and these incredible scores from the Wine Advocate are sure to resonate with buyers across the US market.
While my personal preferences unashamedly lie with Cabernet and Cape Bordeaux blends, the success of top Syrah in South Africa is undeniable. So, to close out my top wines of the year, I have selected several wines that could not be more different in style, including the Granite 2021 from Mullineux Family Wines (98/100 GSMW), the Porseleinberg 2021 Syrah from the Swartland (98+/100 GSMW) and the Sakkie Mouton Dawn of the Salty Tongues 2022 Syrah (97/100 GSMW) from vineyards in Vredendal. All draw on inspiration from the Old-World classics of the Northern Rhône with the Porseleinberg fashioned very much in the style of a powerful Cornas or St Joseph Syrah while the Dawn of the Salty Tongues Syrah takes its inspiration from the elegant, precise, ethereal Syrah reds of Côte Rôtie.
In the UK, some of these incredible new releases may still be available in very limited quantities. In the local South African market, probably less likely. So, if you are new to the South African fine wine category and would like to see what all the SA wine industry excitement is about, trying any of my top wine highlights from 2023 will certainly be illuminating for you. But of course, the conveyor belt of new releases never stops and already I am salivating at the prospect of tasting both the Kanonkop 2021 Paul Sauer and the new Taaibosch Crescendo 2021 from Schalk Willem Joubert’s Helderberg property. Both wines have already been described as ‘once in a generation’ quality wines. Plenty to look forward to then as we broach another exciting year in the South African fine wine trade!
- 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.
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