Tim James: Fine wines from the CVC, but doubts about its future

By , 29 March 2021

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Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2017 sporting the CVC neck label.

It’s been a little more than eight years since the Cape Vintners Classification was launched (to enthusiasm from some commentators but, I admit, skepticism from me – see my first-anniversary review here). The laudable aim was to bring local and international attention to great, site-specific South African wines. There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of the CVC, or, if you have, that you’ve forgotten in the intervening years. I bring you news about the organization – some good and hopeful, some … sadly, not.

Prompting this reminder of the existence of the CVC was an event held for media, a retailer, and some others at Kanonkop last week when the estate’s owner and now CVC chair, Johan Krige gave a brief talk about the organization and introduced a tasting of a dozen CVC-accredited wines. I’ll come back to those wines – but the good news part of my report is that most (if not quite all) of them were extremely good, and some truly excellent.

If you see a wine bearing the gold CVC neck-label you can be sure that it has survived a pretty serious examination of its quality (including by independent judges) – via a tasting of five vintages to ensure that the wine has a distinctive character, expresses its terroir and varietal origins, and comes from vineyards either owned by the producer or subject to a long-term arrangement. Moreover, the member producer has some sort of paperwork testifying to “farming in an environmentally sustainable and respectful manner” and treating its workforce in an “ethical and fair” manner. Also – yes, also! – and perhaps more problematically and complicatedly, the producer must have its own cellar and have “cellar door facilities exceed[ing] global expectations”. A few other criteria are mentioned, too.

There are currently 38 accredited wines (apparently some candidates have been rejected), from 16 producers. Groot Constantia has six, the most, while Lanzerac, Diemersdal, and Tokara have one each. So you might well have seen – or even bought – a bottle bearing a neck-label whose significance you probably had no idea about. And why should you? I’m not aware of the organization telling anyone about the (very modest) progress it has made in the past eight or so years. And if you google a bit and get to the website, and stay unbemused by its portentous descriptions of the project, you might not even find mention of the producer in question. And you won’t find an illustration of the all-important neck-label (which seems a rather glaring omission). The website is absurdly out of date – it mentions members who don’t appear to have any accredited wines (we were given a list of these at the tasting) and doesn’t mention producers who actually do. The “Latest news” is dated 2013. Plus, I also can’t see much reference to the CVC on the websites of the member producers – or on googled pictures of most accredited wines.

This points to one fundamental problem of the CVC – it’s finally worked out some of the problems it should have solved before launching, but still seems to have no idea of how to offer itself to the world. Perhaps this recent gathering was a start in doing some self-marketing and PR, but, charming though Johann Krige was, and good as the wines were, it’s an almost meaningless gesture unless followed-up by a great deal more. I have doubts about expecting this, although WOSA has indicated that they’re happy to cooperate, which should help a bit. There was not even a media release to accompany the event.

A more fundamental, problem, however, is that the CVC project is likely to prove extremely difficult to market, even if they get their website up to date and manage to generate some publicity, and some buy-in from media, sommeliers, retailers, etc. It looks to me like too complicated a story they have to tell. An organization like the Old Vines Project has a straightforward, easily understandable story (marketed via a vibrant, modern seal and with a lot of effort and energy); the CVC criteria are admirable, on the whole, but it will be extraordinarily difficult to get consumers to stop and listen and learn it all.

The multiplicity of criteria mentioned above are made more unwieldy by the baggage inherited from the old concept of “estate”, which used to be a part of the Wine of Origin system. It was abandoned by the WO system earlier this century, although the concept of an Estate Wine continues (understood by a minuscule percentage of even serious winelovers). Apparently, the CVC took over the assets of the defunct Estate Wine Producers Association along with a wish to perpetuate some of its precepts. It eventually realized that requiring its accredited wines to be Estate Wines (don’t ask) was a journey to nowhere, but there’s still bits of mumbo jumbo about it all on the website – and the requirement for members to own a winery seems to be derived from this idea. And a tasting room, though the relevance of that for wine lovers from Johannesburg to Beijing must be remarkably limited.

Two problems result from this – it adds to the complications of the criteria (to wine lovers already scratching their heads), and it excludes a great many fine producers. Frankly the latter point doesn’t worry me as much as it seems to do some critics of the CVC (and it was hard to find many who weren’t critical after the tasting). It’s surely not a bad idea to push, internationally, the claims of the serious Cape wines, including the established estates, that have been somewhat overshadowed this century by the excitement around the “new wave”. But whether the CVC is going to get anywhere in doing this seems to me unlikely. I genuinely hope I’m wrong, and wish the CVC success – but it will have to become a great deal more dynamic, and deliver a clearer message, if that will come about.

The wines

A brief note on some of last Thursday’s wines. Apart from a welcoming bubbly, there were 11 pairs of wines (the selection resulting from which of the members chose to participate): one current release and one older. The Cape of Good Hope Van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc 2017 and 2019, from the Skurfberg area, were lively, succulently fresh, richly textured. Very worthy. The Lourensford Viogniers didn’t much appeal to me. Of the three chardonnays, De Wetshof Bateleur was the standout, including the 2009, which is developing well and gaining complexity yet still with a fresh lemony finish. The 2018 should follow suit. The other older chards were less impressive – De Morgenzon Reserve 2014 was frankly over the hill, very honeyed, rather heavy in its sweet richness and with little compensating complexity. The 2018 was drinking well, as was the same vintage from Almenkerk – though again the 2014 was less satisfactory, while much more alive than the DeMorgenzon, and notably sweetish.

The reds were mostly impressive, though the sweet, ripely rich, fruit-filled Diemersdal Pinotage Reserve is not to my taste (but good of its type). Groot Constantia Governeurs Reserve is also rather showy, but well balanced and serious – the bold 2006 holding up well, though revealing a lot of green character which not everyone will tolerate. I didn’t mind it. The 2017 is more chocolately and modern; pretty good. And what to say of Paul Sauer? The 1995 truly splendid, the 2017 on the same path.

Morgenster also offered a properly mature vinatage of its Estate Reserve – the balanced, softly textured, silky and rather elegant 2003. Am excellent drink now. The 2018 is very smart, with lots of fruit, lovely succulent tannins – but too sweet-finishing for me.  Another oldster still in great shape is Vergelegen 2001 (they called it GVB here but back then it was actually just Vergelegen). The 2015 very good, more refined and complete, a fine wine. And we finished with Waterford The Jem. The older one (2005) in this case a bit unbalanced and oaky, sweet-fruited and not much complexity. But the balanced, savoury and delicious, early-complex 2015 showing happily amongst the best of the reds – and rightly celebrated by Christian Eedes.

  • 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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  • Benny B Zinyake30 March 2021

    Thank you for this article, I didn’t know about this association myself and i am glad i have leant about it now. Its most unfortunate that there hasn’t been enough publicity about it but i strongly think that’s exactly what the South African industry requires. As a wine enthusiast myself I would like to see the quality of SA wine improve and compete effectively globally therefore bringing much needed revenue for Estates. The biggest challenge right now is that SA wines is still mostly in the category of the “critter” wines, cheerful and exciting but not to be taken seriously but with organizations like the CVC this can change with time. The American Meritage Association and Germany’s Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter (VDP) are similar organization and i am a very strong advocate of strict appellation to guarantee quality and i definitely look forward to engaging the CVC to laern more about them.

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