Tim James: A closer look at the Secret Cellar range

By , 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.

Secret Cellar rangeNot 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.


13 comment(s)

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    Emelda | 15 October 2021

    Good evening .
    Where can I get secret cellar in cape town?
    Ultra no long cells it

    Penelope Gurney | 28 May 2017

    BTW that 068 Shiraz is on the shelves now, but 2011 (not 2013) – were there two? Very decent though – just went back for more. I too was disappointed with the 235 Chenin – think I must have got the dud batch!

    Simon Ford | 8 December 2016

    Many SA wines are overpriced (for what they are) and I for one am grateful to Ultra for providing a range of wines for the budget conscious consumer – I buy at the lower as well as mid/upper end of the SA wine spectrum. I grew up in the Northern Hemisphere, with access to all the classic and also innovative wines of Italy, France, Spain and Germany – as well as wines from all over the new world. When I think of the price/quality ratio of SA wines, I am comparing them to the wines I know from elsewhere in the world. Pricing of consumables in general – wine definitely included – is notoriously volatile in South Africa. In the short time I have been here (11 months) I have seen some wine prices yo-yo and sadly, this pattern appears to repeat itself with food and many other items. I am happy to shop at Ultra, because almost without fail, their prices for spirits, wines and beers are consistently lower than any other retailers I have tried. Before you say it, no I am not affiliated to the company in any way. I just like a good/fair deal.

    Jonathan Snashall | 22 June 2016

    Tim, when I last checked there were about 50 local and international competitions listed in the SA wine industry directory. Without suggesting they all dish out trophies, surely that many demands the full name, including sponsor, so we all know to which competition you’re referring? There is, for example, the Classic Wine Trophy competition, and others no doubt, with ‘trophy’ in the title.

    jonathan snashall | 21 June 2016

    I enjoyed the Secret Cellar Chenin Blanc 2015 no 235 from batch starting with serial no 7660, the other (7525) was vin ordinaire at best.

    Tim james | 21 June 2016

    Well, Jonathan (if “the writer” may be permitted to omit part of your name), you’re right about the name of the TWS, and it used to be prefixed by Fairbairn Capital instead. I choose to omit sponsor names if I can, as most people do when, for example, they’re talking of rugby teams or sportsfields, without leading to any misunderstanding. As to the wine, I confess I’m a bit confused – you say you didn’t like Chenin No 235 – but presumably this is the one that exists in different versions (a problematic thing, I’d agree)? You mean you didn’t like either version?

    Cathy Marston | 20 June 2016

    It is a deep mystery to me how that Big 5 red didn’t win big time at Old Mutual when other, definitely less good wines did. Because I teach a lot of Ultra staff, I get to taste their own label frequently and for the money, they’re all pretty great value. But that Big 5 is exceptional. In fact, it’s outrageous and anyone wanting an all-day, every-day winter warmer is advised to get thee hence and buy as many cases of 6 bottles for R200 ( yes really) as they can.

      Kwispedoor | 21 June 2016

      I’m left wondering how many different bottlings/batches/wines are to be found under the Big 5 2013 label? Who knows what’s in there?

      I would often go back to buy more of a wine that I’ve tasted and liked, in order to mature the wine further. What now if a few years later the wine is not up to the standards that I’ve tasted in the first bottle?

      I think that Ultra Liquors needs to own up to this “Chenin #235” mess and apologise to their customers. They should release a statement that they commit to giving different labels to different bottlings/batches from now on. Trust needs to be restored here.

      Joe | 21 June 2016

      But how can we be sure that we’re getting the same batch nr you got, Cathy? Something’s rotten in the State of Ultra, and it sure ain’t the cheese…

      NEIL FORD | 28 January 2017

      Hi Cathy

      I can only concur. Again. We raided our stash this evening and it’s drinking beautifully, with years ahead still too. Lekker wine, fantastic value!

    jonathan snashall | 20 June 2016

    I know of one instance (and busy investigating another) where Ultra bottled what appears to be two different wines (Organoleptically and analytically) under exactly the same packaging, one was a multiple trophy the other not, yet both were sold as the trophy winner in at least three branches of Ultra Liqours. Not sure why the writer excludes mention of Old Mutual – it was at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. One of my definitions of a good wine is that you want another glass (if not bottle) and while i wanted more of the one batch i certainly didnt want more of the other, particularly the Chenin Blanc No 235.

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