Tim James: Cab Franc as a lighter red, and Radford Dale

By , 4 March 2024

Jacques de Klerk of Radford Dale.

Recently writing of my especial pleasure in pinotage amongst varieties called on in the modern quest for genuinely light red wines, I didn’t consider cabernet franc alongside “grenache and pinot noir, occasionally syrah and carignan and a rare gamay” as well as cinsault and pinotage.

I don’t actually know any cab francs that are actually what I’d consider low-alcohol (sub-12.5%ish), And in fact I get the impression that most of the few lighter cab francs have, if anything, put on some weight in recent years. That’s true of the important Van Loggerenberg Breton, which remains fairly light-feeling, but has added a percent of alcohol since the maiden 2016’s modest 12.5%. Weather Report, the specialist cab franc producer, has also gained – undoubtedly to its benefit and seriousness. On the other hand, Hogan Mirror of the Sun 2022 has come down from an earlier 14+% to a declared 13.5%, which suits Jocelyn Hogan-Wilson’s style much better.

These and a few others fit into what is generally discussed here as the Loire model. That’s as opposed to the Bordeaux model that is dominant for varietal cab francs in the Cape (and obviously for most classic blends). The latter tend to have sometimes riper and richer wines – though there’s something like a convergence in the middle, around 13.5%, for both styles – but usually have greater extraction and more emphatic oaking, aiming at maturity rather than just immediate pleasure. The Loire-oriented ones are generally matured in old oak or concrete.

A more recent entrant on the Loire side. And characteristically lighter than most, comes from Radford Dale, in the range off the organically certified vineyards they bought in Elgin a few years back (as I reported in 2022). I visited that pretty farm, with its exuberantly rolling hills, last week and tasted the two vintages thus far of the portentously named Higher Purpose Cabernet Franc, as well as of the other estate wines.

Radford Dale, with its winemaker Jacques de Klerk, is not always given the credit it deserves as an early and keen advocate of light, fresh, minimal-interventionist winemaking in the Cape. Frankenstein Pinotage, for example, taking it’s pinot noir heritage as seriously as one might expect from prime mover Alex Dale, emerged light and perfumey as far back as 2011, a real pioneer. Some of the later wines in the range have tended to be rather too light and, frankly, acidic for my own tastes but seem to have met with some success locally and internationally.

I unreservedly enjoyed the Higher Purpose, however, which declares 13% alcohol on the label and comes off vines planted in 2017. There’s none of the feared greenness, though some autumn-leaf fragrance is a pleasure, and Jacques’s favoured whole-bunch fermentation, with its carbonic maceration component, works well, and there’s a lovely fruit purity. The current 2022 has a particularly prominent aromatic charm – of the kind which always suggests some triviality to me (as in so many of the fashionale hipster cinsaults). That was matured in old oak after fermentation in clay, but there’s a shift to two-thirds concrete in the 2023, accentuating the stony dryness and focused fruit purity. There’s less of the ingratiating perfume, which suits me, there’s more spiciness and generally more of an air of seriousness (of higher purpose perhaps), and I preferred this vintage. I took the bottle home with me and it didn’t suffer over three days, which portends well for a good medium-term future of development. A rather gorgeous wine. By no means cheap at about R500 (as with the others off the estate), but lingering and lovely.

Incidentally, I’ve just opened a bottle of that Van Loggerenberg Breton 2016 that caused such a stir back then. The lack of real fruit substance perhaps implied by the 12.5% alcohol is now clear at eight years of age, when it’s not compensated for by early charm. There’s still enough in the wine to be enjoyed for its elegance, lightness and restraint – though the totality of these now amounts to leanness; the fruit has faded to an echo, leaving the tannins a touch more exposed than mature pleasure demands. I’m sorry I kept my bottles so long, and hope later, riper vintages, will prove more suited to a bit of development.

Back to Radford Dale Organics. Jacques has been working hard on the farm. Irrigation has been introduced everywhere, and judicious watering is playing its part in increased production at no quality cost. The six hectares under vine have doubled – with the only new varietal addition being gamay, which RD has long championed.  There’s still plenty of sauvignon blanc, but until they are replaced, the grapes are sold off. Until the gamay comes along (just perhaps in 2025), the range will stick at four bottlings. I did taste the current releases of those, along with the forthcoming new 2023 releases (mid-year, probably), except of the unbottled pinot noir. The Touchstone Chardonnay 2023 continues the lemony acid vibrancy of the 2022, but is a little more airy and more mineral-vibrant, without the slightly disconcerting touch of sweet, leesy richness in the older wine. Revelation Semillon remains lime-lemon fresh, textured and with some phenolic bite. For me the 2023 flirts a little too dangerously with insubstantability, though at a mere 12% alc it doesn’t have any of the greenness that comes with some cooler-climate Cape examples.

Freedom Pinot 2022 has been around for a while, after a 2021 was made from just one of the farm’s blocks. That older wine is not maturing impressively, it seemed to me, and is rather lean – drink up, I’d suggest. The 2022, benefiting from Jacques’s management of the vineyards as well as access to all the vines, is much better, with more flesh, muscle and depth. Jacques says it started off with “very loud plum fruit”, but it’s settling down nicely.

Jacques is frank about having needed to feel his way with vineyards that are new to him, and which he is still coming to understand as he works with them. The whole range is clearly on the up, and the light, fresh streamlined elegance is going to be widely welcomed (see Christian’s reviews of the 2022s here – he also particularly enjoyed the Higher Purpose). We can look forward to the Gamay – but I will be particularly keen on how the cab franc develops as the vineyards mature. It’s a great addition to Elgin’s limited red wine repertoire outside pinot.

  • 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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