Tim James: Hopelessly reviving moribund varieties

By , 31 October 2022



It seems that the Cape wine revolution is not going to allow any grape variety an easy death or even a quiet, inglorious existence. It’s been obvious for a while that the likes of clairette, colombar and carignan (to give just the Cs) cannot take it easy and rest in obscurity by being ignominiously bagged in boxes of co-op Dry White (or, worse, Natural Sweet) or, rather more prestigiously, converted  into brandy (for colombar). No, there’s an attentive hipster winemaker determined to save some grapes, preferably off some weary old vineyard, from the vast blending tanks, and turn it into some lowish-alcohol, scarcely vinous wine that will delight the habitués of inner-city winebars, at an unlikely price.

Fair enough, and sometimes it works. Though I’m yet to be fully convinced of, for example, the joys of carignan unless it’s well hidden in a blend, despite the efforts of producers I admire like Blackwater and Olifantsberg. But the rehabilitation of colombar for delicious and moderately serious whites has had a number of signal successes, from, amongst others, Lowerland, Naudé and Patatsfontein. And I’d like to gratuitously move from C to P to include palomino, the great grape of Sherry, which has made some greatly welcome gestures of comeback as a varietal dry wine of elegance and character (Blackwater, Gedeelte, Badenhorst…).

But one can, dear reader, get much more obscure than this in revivals. Cinsaut blanc, for example, has declined in the last 10 years from 6.48 hectares to 0.59. However, it has a champion in the great Donovan Rall and, though I don’t admire his bottling quite as much as some others seem to, it seems to be doing well. ArtiSons also makes a lauded wine called Cinsaut Blanc, from a Bottelary vineyard that delivers white and red cinsaut mutations – in fact there’s no official cinsaut blanc vines in Stellenboch listed by Sawis, and the only official cinsaut gris (ie with a red as opposed to a black or white skin) is in Malmesbury – ten years ago there was, officially at least, none.

And what of raisin blanc? If you’ve heard of it, congratulations. I’d even forgotten, until reminded just this last week, that in 2018 I wrote a piece on this website called “The Unlamented Disappearance of Raisin Blanc”. In the course of other research, I’d realised that the grape, identified here by Perold in 1912 as the variety known in southern France as Servant, and mostly used there (as it had been here) as a table grape, had declined precipitously from 2000-plus ha in 1983 to 125. This didn’t seem to be a matter to regret. A few years on, at the end of 2021, there were under 10 ha grown in the Cape. No one else seemed to want the stuff.

But hey, this is the Cape wine revolution! Chris Alheit could be tempted some years back to make a wine from a grape called Pedro Luis (Vote for Pedro it was called). To put it kindly, it was perhaps the least successful of this great producer’s bottlings, and I haven’t heard of it since. Though there are 2.26 ha of Pedro Luis still out there, presumably having returned to feeding the co-op’s million-litre blending tanks.

Raisin blanc, unlamented by me four years ago and unknown to nearly everyone else, now has its turn. For just last week, at a noisy event in suburban Cape Town (where Christian Eedes and I were probably the only people geekishly taking notes and making use of a spittoon) I tasted two examples, going by the name Servant (put the stress on the second half of the word, please – it’s French and sounds slightly better that way).


Trevor DeRuisé and Pierre Rabie.

No coincidence that there are two of these wines, as they’re made by a pair of producers who seem to quite often work together, down near the windy southern tip of Africa. One is a young American, rather splendidly named Trevor DeRuisé, who makes his wines at Lomond. The other is Pierre Rabie – the most impressive of the Cape Town advocates who’ve spent some of their ill-gotten gains on making wine: his Giant Periwinkle is now an eminent and pretty substantial operation based at Baardskeerdersbos, where Pierre makes some of the Cape’s best cool-climate sauvignon blanc, amongst other wines. With a cousin, he also has the rather more extreme, even experimental label (bottling in magnums only, it seems) called Koueberg – though the range in question is, rather questionably in my opinion, called Candy Mountain.

We first tasted the Candy Mountain Colombard alongside the Lost Boy Colombard, from a vineyard whose high yield apparently accounted for the low alcohol levels – little more than 9%. Fresh, with some faint fruity charm (I slightly preferred Lost Boy), they are not going to much advance the claims of colombard as a grape, I fear. We also tasted, incidentally, a pretty, aromatic Lost Boy Rosé from pinot, which was very attractive, brightly fresh, its strawberry character abetted by some interesting liquorice notes. An MCC version of this was also very pleasing – though, given its discounted price of R350, I’d say it faces some tough competition in the marketplace. The Lost Boy Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (R350 on the night) was rather tasty, and as vibrant as you’d expect from a cool-climate cab, though soft-tannined. (See the Lost Boy website for the whole range of wines.) It seemed more successful to me than Candy Mountain Merlot – but, then, cab has shown itself a vastly better traveller beyond Bordeaux than merlot, though cool Agulhas is pushing things a bit.

Old-vine raisin blanc.

But I at least, was there really for the raisin blanc – sorry, servant. The grapes are from a 1978-planted hectare of vines in Robertson, which, says Pierre, the farmer only keeps going because the vineyard is so beautiful (see the thick, shaggy trunk of the vine in the photo). With a little more alcohol than the colombars, both wines had a touch more vinosity and weight, more aroma, a little more intensity. There is a spiciness (white pepper, says Pierre), and a bitingly dry delicacy. Freshness, of course. But.

The winemakers are certainly to be congratulated for giving this rarity a serious go – Pierre says that there’s probably only one other bottling of Servant in the whole world, from the south of France). Frankly, however, these wines are not going to revolutionise the Cape wine industry and make the farmers wonder: why, damnit, did we pull up all those vines? Not all old vineyards are superior; and some varieties should be allowed to slip quietly into oblivion. Some should be gently encouraged on their way.

  • 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.


12 comment(s)

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    Marko Pentz | 6 November 2022

    Hi Tim

    Just take a look at the 2022 Veritas results for Colombard wines.


      Tim James | 6 November 2022

      Thanks Marko, I have just looked at Veritas (first time in years, I confess – I don’t take these big competitions very seriously). I see that Orange River Cellars got gold medals for two colombars. It was a small list of winners that didn’t give any double-golds and didn’t include any of the names that Pieter or I mentioned as new-wave colombars that we admired (those producers don’t enter competitions as far as I know). Five out of the 7 Veritas winners were off-dry or semi-sweet, I see, including one of the wines in question – which doesn’t generally suggest seriousness to me. I’m afraid one needs rather wider recognition than that in order to qualify as an “industry leader”. But I have no doubt that these are very pleasant wines and I will try to find the drier, oaked one – it’s not in my local bottle store, but I’ll look at Pick’n’Pay and Checkers.

        Jeremy | 6 November 2022

        Elitist paternalism Tim. Does you no favours.

          Kwispedoor | 8 November 2022

          That’s a bit off hand, Jeremy (does you no favours). According to your palate, which are the better Colombard wines: the OWK versions or the likes of Aspoestertjie, Naudé and Lowerland?

            Jeremy Moolman | 9 November 2022

            My comment was addressed to Tim James about his attitude. He has replied and if you want any futher clarity adk him personally.

              Pieter de Klerk | 9 November 2022

              I just thought that you’d be better qualified to answer my question, Jeremy. But okay, I’ll give the advice you’ve provided a shot: Hey, Tim! According to Jeremy’s palate, which are the better Colombard wines: the OWK versions or the likes of Aspoestertjie, Naudé and Lowerland?

        Marko Pentz | 8 November 2022

        Hi Tim

        The wooded Colombards(we currently have 2) are only sold at the cellar door, will gladly send you some to try.


    Jan Kemp | 4 November 2022

    Hi Tim,

    The OWK Colombar is probably the leading and best example to this C, rivaled only by the Bruwers. I find it difficult to take any of the above seriously and relevant if you, as you confessed, dont even know of the OWK champion, industry leading Colombar.Shame on you!!!!

      Pieter de Klerk | 5 November 2022

      Hi there, Jan.

      You’ve got me curious about the OWK Colombard. I must confess not having tasted it in quite a few years, but my recollection of it is of a wine that was pretty technical and commercial, which means it traded quite a bit on its highly aromatic fermentation ester characteristics (guava and other heady youthful aromas that started to become muted after about 10-14 months in the bottle). So it was forthcoming, seemingly fruity, etc. but not complex or detailed and tended to fade after some time in the bottle.

      Thus, the likes of Lowerland, Naudé and Yellowwood (Aspoestertjie) certainly make much finer Colombard IMHO. But, like I’ve said, I haven’t tasted a OWK Colombard in a while, so would like to discover what I had been missing. Firstly, though – which one are you talking about here? I’ve just pulled my Platter’s guide closer and see that they seem to make three nowadays: Omstaan Colombard, Regopstaan Colombard and The Hedgehog Colombard. Only the latter is rated (three stars). Which one of these do you consider to be the industry leader? And please divulge a bit more about its production and taste that places it in the middle of the podium for you?

    Wessel | 1 November 2022

    Thank you Tim – great article. You mentioned Colombar..I would really appreciate your opinion of the OWK Colombar which I personally believe is amazing value for money

      Tim James | 2 November 2022

      Hi Wessel – You must be referring to the Orange River Cellars/Oranjerivier Kelders wine? I don’t know it, but will keep a look out for it. If anyone else has an opinion, would be good to hear.

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