Tim James: From Cordoba to Taaibosch – Cab Franc on the Helderberg
By Tim James, 26 April 2021
It must be some 20 years since I last took that dirt road off the R44 between Somerset West and Stellenbosch, climbing the lower slopes of the Helderberg, to the farm then called Cordoba. It’s now named Taaibosch – for the olive-green indigenous shrub that grows there in some profusion – and is as beautiful a farm as ever, with its steep slopes and varying aspects and view across to False Bay. There’s a new winery (the old one put to other farm uses now), but the vineyards are those which were being re-planted under the guidance of vigneron Chris Keet in the years around the time of my last visit. A new cellarmaster now, Schalk-Willem Joubert, and (after the farm being on the market for about ten years) a new owner since 2017 – the Oddo family of France, who have a few vineyards around the world in addition to their financial services business, but this is the jewel in their vinous crown, Schalk-Willem tells me. And they are clearly a generous, involved but non-dictatorial presence.
And the wine is in a direct line from Chris Keet’s cab franc-based blend of those days, and also called Crescendo. In fact, Chris, as generous as ever, told me that he thinks that Taaibosch 2018 is better than his Crescendo – I don’t necessarily agree, but perhaps my memories of great Cordoba vintages like 1997 are tinged with nostalgia. Chris’s maiden 1995 was something of a revelation in the mid 1990s, the first Cape Bordeaux-style blend with a majority of cabernet franc (with 20% cab sauvignon and 10% merlot), to my knowledge, and of a finesse and comparative lightness that was already becoming rare in local reds. The last labelled vintage was 2003, but 2004 to 2006 were also bottled, and sold off unlabelled at a ridiculous price – I wish I’d bought more of them than I did. Then the grapes were all sold off: I know, for example, that Delaire made a very good rosé from Cordoba cab franc for a time.
Fortunately, the vineyards seem to have been sufficiently well cared for in the interregnum period. Now there is further planting – interestingly, on one steep slope, with carefully shaped bush vines, as a way of maximising the sunlight available to the grapes. That’s needed: at this altitude (300-400 metres), and with cool breezes off False Bay, ripeness is not always easy to achieve. The added complication is that the farming is converting to organic and possibly biodynamic in the future. Either way, says Schalk, “we are already farming with the soil” – and he shows me with evident pleasure its loose, rich texture. (It is always my favourite thing on a farm visit if the winemaker/viticulturist gets on his or her knees, to digging with hands in the soil – I know that the wine will be as good as it can be.)
The plan at Taaibosch is to focus on the one cab franc-based blend (well, two wines in fact, but I’ll get back to that). That ambition was, in fact, a lot of the reason for the original re-plantings from 1999 onwards, and again Chris Keet is delighted at this vision being taken forward. The hope, says, Schalk, is to build volumes up to about 100 000 bottles. It would indeed be a great step forward for South Africa to have a terroir-reflective wine of the highest quality being made in such volumes (Kanonkop Paul Sauer is at present one of the largest, at about 50 000 bottles, and Johann Krige told me recently that the most it could grow to, without changing its terroir-expression, would be around 70 000).
The first two vintages of Taaibosch Crescendo, 2018 and 2019, were made in the old cellar. The new one is much larger – which Schalk gave as the reason why the owners have also bought property on the Polkdraai Hills: to help utilise its full capacity with another wine, but that will have entirely its own identity and should make for a fascinating comparison with Taaibosch. Incidentally, the Oddo family also own the farm just below Taaibosch, renamed Pink Valley, dedicated to making a fresh and elegant rosé, notably pale, in its own cellar there.
I’m somewhat jaded when it comes to cellars, but the new Taaibosch (in a corner of which is the space where tastings are given – an excellent idea) has a real element of excitement to it, thanks to Schalk’s brilliant idea of painting all the large cement tanks red – I like grey, but why don’t more people do something like this? There’s a lot of red cement, and a lot of big oak foudres, along with the usual barriques. This is all eloquent of the purity of fruit expression that Schalk (and his winemakers Kowie du Toit and Petri Venter) are aiming at.
The 2018 Taaibosch was fermented in stainless steel and cement, then moved to 225-litre barriques (a third new), blended after 14 months and then spent another year in mostly foudres but also 30% cement. But the second Taaibosch wine (a development that Schalk clearly couldn’t resist), a tiny bottling of cab franc didn’t see any small oak or steel at all – just cement and foudres, which restraint underlines a fragrant, ethereal delicacy. Watch out for it in a few years, it’s something very special.
The Taaibosch Crescendo itself I first tasted a few months back, and made a comment to Christian’s tasting note, endorsing his score, and expressing just a touch of disappointment. But I then carried on tasting from that bottle over a few days and my respect for the wine grew continuously. The plush, full-fruited element resolved into something more complex, hinting at what proper maturation would bring. Perhaps that prepared me for my second tasting in the cellar, with Schalk and Petri, or perhaps it was the greater coolness of the wine this time, or perhaps even the Riedel pinot noir everted glass that Schalk had chosen to serve it in. Anyway, I was more conscious of the subtle but forceful tannic structure, an elegance and a tension and freshness. The overt, youthful fruit is notable at present, but the wine is extremely young, and shouldn’t be expected to give of its best until at least ten years from vintage, when the transmuted fruit and the lovely cedary notes (I think from the mere 5% cab sauvignon – it’s not present on the 2019 straight cab franc) will have harmonised and transcended themselves.
Truly fine and lovely wine and, at R300, a bargain of the kind that will have the advocates of raising prices to aspirational levels gnashing their teeth in irritation, but should delight lovers of serious red wine. Taaibosch is set to make a great contribution to the emerging Stellenbosch red wine renaissance.
- 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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