Tim James: A new Riesling and a few older ones
By Tim James, 14 March 2023
Beloved of the cognoscenti, even if many of them would struggle to rank its greatness vis-à-vis chardonnay (while some are sure it’s number one, for its stylistic versatility and its unrivalled expression of terroir), riesling is the least generally appreciated of the world’s well-known great wine grapes. Both the serious wine-lover’s high regard and the otherwise lack of interest are certainly true in South Africa and of South African examples.
That contradiction is curiously expressed. On the one hand, even after the official mistreatment of riesling was ended here, when eventually the authorities took the name away from crouchen blanc (though allowing it to be also known as Cape Riesling) and awarded it to what had previously had to take on “Weisser” or “Rhine” as a distinguishing adjective), plantings have declined. And hectares of riesling are now down to 126, from 189 a decade ago. These are mostly in Stellenbosch and Elgin; unlike the situation I reported for sauvignon blanc recently, vines in the more suited areas are not wildly outnumbered by those in hot, heavily irrigated parts: clearly, there’s little lower-end demand for riesling.
But, on the other hand, it appears from Platter’s and elsewhere that there are now rather more top-end examples being made – including some leading noble late harvest wines – than there were ten years ago.
Now there’s another fine example. Germany is, of course, riesling’s great heartland, so it was good to hear that Christoph Hammel had been working with the team at Delheim, led by Roelof Lotriet, on a riesling joint project. Christoph is the ninth generation at Weingut Hammel, in the Pfalz area, and is (apparently to great acclaim) leading it to a modern diversity in terms of style and grape variety – though the great riesling and tradition are far from ignored.
Christoph had worked a harvest at Delheim in his youth – and spent a few more years at Koelenhof, further building his affection for the Cape. When he and Vera Sperling of Delheim coincidentally met up in Europe a few years back, it marked a renewal of friendship, and Christoph was quick and generously enthusiastic in responding to the idea of working together. (As made abundantly clear at the launch of Delheim & Hammel Staying Alive 2022 in Cape Town last week, he’s altogether an enthusiastic, energetic man … somewhat loudly so!)
Apparently the wine’s name relates to a pop song of the past, but I’m the last person to do more than dimly recall that (when Google releases their top ten searches of the year, I’m condemned to ruefully realise how out of touch I am with the popular world, as I usually recognise hardly any of the names). But “Staying Alive” as a concept seems relevant on a pretty wide basis. The label is correspondingly cheerful, if not notably lively or interesting. They decided for some reason to aggressively avoid the “riesling flute” bottle in favour of a burgundy one – which does seem wrong and heavy, but no doubt I’m just too conventional here. Though a screwcap seems reasonable enough.
Quantities are small, and the wine is good, a welcome addition to the Cape’s riesling ranks if not a revelation. Essentially dry, with depth of subtle white-peach fruit but not emphasising aromatic fruitiness, thanks to an elevation in a mix of concrete egg (it seems Roelof was keen on this, and it does underline the fresh focus) and a mix of totally unobvious acacia and oak. There’s a firm grip of (partly added) acid, a well balanced 13% alcohol, and a pleasing hint of tannin from skin contact. Apparently the two winemakers disagree on whether the wine shows best chilled or just cold – it was first served chilled, but I returned to the wine later when it was less so, and I thought, along with Roelof, that it had gained greatly in complexity and interest, with the 4 g/l of sugar now adding a graceful touch. Which accords with my general preference and my general view that chilling most serious whites is pretty destructive.
There is one downside to report: the bottle price is R375. This makes it quite notably the most expensive non-dessert rielsing in the Cape, the only other one I know of approaching it is Moya Meaker at R300. Another recent newcomer, the acclaimed Saurwein Chi is R200, and there are a number quite a bit less than that. Clearly, local riesling is underpriced compared with other serious whites, so perhaps we should welcome ambitious pricing.
I thought it would be a good idea, while on the subject, to try some of those less expensive ones. A well-established example is Hartenberg, the 2019 (about R160). Like the Delheim & Hammel, it is fairly forceful, not insisting on delicacy or obvious charm, perhaps a bit more emphatically dry – with a hint of terpene detracting, it seems to me.
Cooler Elgin is arguably the best place to grow riesling in the Cape. There are a handful of good examples, and I’ve tried a few of them recently. Paul Cluver Village Riesling (R120-ish) is one of the few around that is still made in an off-dry style (as in Germany and elsewhere, there’s much more demand for dry versions these days), but the 2022 is certainly a pretty, attractive wine, though I don’t think the acid-sugar balance is anything like tense or thrilling enough for the variety. The (lesser) bit of sugar on Catherine Marshall Riesling (R155) just adds to the texture and weight, however, and it’s beautifully balanced and enlivened by a fully integrated core of fresh acidity.
But perhaps my favourite local riesling, and a remarkable bargain at little more than R100, is Oak Valley Stone & Steel. The name expresses the character well, though it ignores the pure and complex peachy, citric fruit that the 2021 shows. Here there really is something of the elegantly thrilling, balanced and integrated acidity that is part of the grape’s claim to greatness, along with texture and a firm delicacy. In the 2021 there is, for example, a higher acidity, at 8.2 g/l, than on the Delheim & Hammel and also a higher residual sugar, at 6.8 g/l – though you wouldn’t guess that. A good few years can only do further good things to the wine. Welcome though the new Stellenbosch version is, I certainly wouldn’t rather have one bottle of that than three-and-a-half of Stone and Steel, which must be one of the best buys in South African white wine.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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.
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