The ups and downs of modern SA wine

By , 2 November 2021

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“One winemaker, one winemaking philosophy,” said Alastair Rimmer when introducing the recent “A Decade of DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc” – as the newly appointed CEO and winemaker at this Stellenbosch property, he was presenting a vertical tasting of the Reserve Chenin Blanc made by his predecessor Carl van der Merwe during the period 2011 to 2020 (Adam Mason briefly on board from May 2020 to April 2021).

This is, of course, a highly decorated wine (the 2018 was our White Wine of the Year in 2020) but revisiting the line-up it was striking how relatively high the alcohols were, the range being from 13.78% in 2015 to 14.4% in the case of 2017.

Did this imply a later pick than, for instance, in the Swartland where alcohols on top Chenin are usually below 14% and sometimes below 13%? Apparently not, harvest usually taking place at the end-January or beginning-February and hence very similar to the Swartland. How, then, to explain the difference? “Interesting question,” said viticulturist Danie de Waal while Rimmer who has only been incumbent since May this year was understandably not in a position to give a definitive answer, although he did point out that the blocks for the Reserve date from the early 1970s. “New vineyards established according to best practices may well give wines of different analyses,” he suggested.

Kleine Zalze 25 Year Celebration tasting.

Shortly after the DeMorgenzon tasting, the “Kleine Zalze 25 Year Celebration”, former lawyer Kobus Basson having acquired the Stellenbosch land that would underpin the development of this brand in September 1996. To mark the occasion, a tasting of the 2009, 2012 and 2017 vintages of the Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc; the 2013, 2015 and 2017 vintages of the Family Reserve Chenin Blanc; the 2003, 2009 and 2013 vintages of the Family Reserve Shiraz; and the 2005, 2010 and 2015 vintages of the Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

The key take-out from this tasting was the dramatic variation in how each of the varieties were interpreted over time, the reds from the early 2010s now looking rather overblown, which is to say sweet and hot. This caused Madeleine Stenwreth, the Swedish MW who is now increasingly inclined to work locally as a consultant, to comment that the Kleine Zalze winemaking team had “lost confidence” in their winemaking vision but now that their top wines were again showing more balance, they were back on track.

An alternative explanation for changes in how the wines presented might well be that the astute Basson and his various winemakers over the years were always keenly reading the market and producing precisely what the international collective of retail buyers, sommeliers and critics deemed to be “best wine quality”.

Let’s not forget that SA fine wine, particularly when it comes to red, has undergone something of rollercoaster ride when it comes to deciding what trends to follow. In the notorious SAA Shield tasting of 1995, South Africa was pitched against Australia and got badly beaten, prompting a pre-occupation with “full phenolic ripeness” for the next few years; then local wines were accused of being simultaneously green AND over-ripe which alerted growers to the problem of leaf-roll virus; and then in the late 2000s there was the “burnt rubber” controversy, an unfortunate character that was eventually put down to tar-treated trellising poles. Of course, US critic Robert Parker with his (real or supposed) predilection for wines of power still held sway until the early part of the last decade and this also influenced the country’s more ambitious producers.

Then again, there are advances in technology (or in the case of wine, moves away from technology back to more traditional farming methods) that also massively determine wine outcomes. At the Kleine Zalze function, current winemaker RJ Botha spoke proudly of their vineyard replanting programme that is underway. What were the major changes being implemented? Something as basic as North-South rather than East-West row directions to ensure bunches receive optimal sun exposure. More generally, organic and biodynamic practices become increasingly commonplace as more conservative members of the industry note the good results that early adopters like Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines through to Johan Reyneke of Reyneke Wines enjoy (see Jamie Goode’s article on regenerative viticulture here). In the cellar, meanwhile, clay pots have gone from fringe to fairly ordinary in a remarkably short space of time.

“Fashion changes but style endures,” said French fashion designer Coco Chanel and this applies as much to wine as it does to haute couture. There will always be fads – from red wines matured in 200% new oak on the one hand through to zero-sulphur, natural wines on the other – but balance and complexity are as close to absolutes as anything when it comes to appreciating what’s in the glass.

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