Tim James: Great value in modestly priced Stellenbosch Cab

By , 17 April 2023



As decent wines get ever pricier, it was good a few months ago to find (from DeMorgenzon) an affordable pinot that was eminently drinkable despite being from the heartland of big prices, Stellenbosch. So it seemed a worthwhile goal to try to do likewise with Stellenbosch cabernet. As someone seldom greatly optimistic in these things, I have pushed the price limit for modesty a bit northwards of R100, to about R150.

I was nudged towards this quest by being given a bottle of a new wine made by the Boekenhoutskloof team, called Helderberg Winery Reserve. You will recall that, after Boekenhoutskloof in 2010 purchased the historic Helderberg Winery co-op as “the greater logistics point” for its larger operations, they brought out a few wines under the Helderberg Winmakerij label. This project didn’t meet Boekenhoutskloof’s large ambitions and the label has been discontinued. The new (solo) wine is a rather grander one, partly making use of wine that doesn’t go into the fine Boekenhoutskloof Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon.

In South Africa the maiden 2021 vintage is going to be exclusively at Pick ‘n Pay for about the next four months, at R135, and thereafter generally available. Many of the other cheaper cabs from Stellenbosch producers I looked at came, in fact, from the wider “Western Cape”, so are obviously pulling in cheaper grapes from elsewhere. But to compare with the Helderberg as WO Stellenbosch, I found a Woolworths Villiera 2020 at R99, for the bottom bracket, Kanonkop Kadette Cab 2020 at about R150 for the top one, and Alto Rouge 2019 in the middle at around R120.

Undoubtedly, all these are good value for the money, as things go. The handsomely labelled Villiera Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (which includes a little cab franc) is drinking nicely and easily, but is respectably structured, with varietal aromas and flavours, but little depth or character. With a declared 13.5% alcohol (the others all say 14%), it’s the lightest of this bunch. I wouldn’t choose it myself, but wouldn’t sneer at anyone who does.

Alto Rouge admittedly doesn’t really belong here, as cab is only one of four Bordeaux varieties plus syrah, but it is such a stalwart (100 years old) good value Stellenbosch red, albeit not what it was in its heyday – and the label has always been one of my favourites – so why not. It’s a really attractive blend, livelier and more substantial than the Villiera, with some grip supporting the sweet fruit but also a dry savoury edge to it. Really good value. (Straying geographically and price-wise from my declared mission, and just because of the name and for old times’ sake, I also tried La Motte’s Grand Rouge, cab-merlot from Woolworths for about R70 – but all it did was reveal how very superior the Alto blend is; so it can remain in brackets here.)

At the next price up is Helderberg Winery Reserve 2021. As I’ve been mentioning labels, I should do so here, as it is quite an idiosyncratic one: florid and elaborate, in white and gold with touches of red, designed to look like an old fashioned Bordeaux – to match the “Estd 1906” which is prominent in the design. Some will love it, and it’ll look nice on a candlelit dinner table, I should think. The wine itself is much more modern, and good. It includes 10% cinsault and syrah – making it almost the reverse of Boekenhoutskloof’s Chocolate Block. There the cab element adds a touch of sternness, here the cinsault and syrah work with the overall obvious ripeness to add to the plush but fine texture (it’s just over 14.5% alcohol). Pure and expressive sweet varietal fruit, with lots of crunchy blackcurrant and some cedary-fynbos edges. It strikes me that the stylistic approach is really rather similar to that of Chocolate Block – and wouldn’t Boekenhoutskloof just love to see this taking off like that wine? It’s certainly very good value for money – and I gather that the intention is to have a bit of a price jump for the next vintage.

Kanonkop Kadette Cabernet Sauvignon is already a deservedly successful wine, with a pretty tidy 180 000 bottles made of the 2020. This is certainly to me the finest of this little bunch, though I suspect that many people might prefer the fuller-fruited richness of the Helderberg. The Kadette really is what it’s meant to be – a cadet version of the truly excellent Kankonkop Cab – which sells for about four times the Kadette’s R150-odd, and even that is pretty good value, given the overweening prices sought by some of the grander producers of Stellenbosch reds. This 2020 is a pretty senior cadet; it has a real element of the complex, savoury restraint and detail that I value in cabernet, and some elegant austerity tucked away in the depth of fruit, supported by subtle oaking. Elegance is not a word I’d invoke for the more voluptuous Helderberg Reserve, though perhaps yes in a minor way for the Villiera. The Kanonkop  has 14.1% alcohol, and is well balanced. I’ve bought some of it myself, and plan to keep the bottles for at least five years, ideally more.

  • 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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