Tim James: In search of cheaper red wines

By , 27 February 2023



There are various reasons why a serious wine producer might want to have a “second” label – usually less expensive and sometimes thought of as an “entry-level” wine or range of wines. In old classic Europe, such a wine came from vines that were too young to provide fruit for the grand vin, or for some other quality reason – perhaps a lesser corner of a vineyard  or a particularly troubled lot in a poor vintage. In a really good vintage, when the market was awash with good wine, it was a repository for some even very fine wine, as a way of reducing the volume and +bolstering the price of the grand vin. Some of the top domaines’ second-label wines in Bordeaux have become expensive and lucrative wines themselves – I remember buying Les Forts de Latour in the 90s at a modest price, but it’s ludicrously expensive now.

In South Africa, the second label of an estate can serve a similar purpose, absorbing the fruit deemed not quite good enough for the top wine or wines, but more often than not, I think, it’s a way of catering to a wider market, a means to offer cheaper stuff – or, simply, a wider range of wines without appearing to lose the producer’s central focus. Occasionally, let it be noted, such a strategy can turn round and bite you. If you’re wondering why Sadie’s Sequillo and Alheit’s Flotsam and Jetsam labels were dropped, well, there’s no doubt that at least part of the reason was that the cheaper, but still high quality wines that carried some of the cachet of the famous winemaker name were cannibalising the market for the top, pricier bottlings.

Some producers have managed the strategy very well and sustainably – though one of them, Badenhorst Family Wines looked for a while as though its hugely successful “entry-level” Secateurs range from mostly bought-in grapes was going to eclipse the top wines, simply because it was the most succesful part of the business. And surely one of the most successful, though maintaining integrity and quality at both tiers, is Kanonkop, with its Kadette range now enormous and lucrative, benefiting from the prestige of Kanonkop but not significantly encroaching on those wines (though I must say that the excellence of Kadette Cab Sauvignon 2020 at a modest percentage of the price of the senior version should give pause for thought if you’re counting your cash as well as your cachet).

Thoughts about second labels were prompted by looking to find good red wines for about R100, in the spirit of my surprising (or, at least, surprised) success with pinots a few weeks ago. By “good”, I simply mean wines that someone accustomed to drinking at higher levels would be pleased to imbibe – with a bit of concentration, structure and, with any luck, character. (So, with those pinots, for example, I was very happy to finish the bottles of Kruger and DMZ over a few nights, with the DMZ in fact continuing to grow in stature.)

Selecting a mere four initial bottles from supermarkets and independents was invitably a pretty random thing, but I did look for a couple of second labels from prestigious estates: Saxenburg Guinea Fowl bordeaux-style blend I chose because I knew it to be a serious offering – not entirely the dumbed-down version that some producers offer with their second label (seemingly convinced that people wanting to spend less money also want something approaching Four Cousins in style – which simply isn’t always true, whatever the silly “ladder” theory of wine consumption suggests). Sophie le Rouge I chose because I know it to be from Iona (though the connection is scarcely acknowledged on the label), but didn’t know the wine and thought it might be interesting. Marras Cinsaut I did know. And then I noticed, at Tops at Spar, a bottle of Kumusha Cabernet Sauvignon & Cinsault, which seemed worth including – the only one of the four costing a little over R100 (and the only with with a cork rather than a screwcap).

Marras The Trickster Cinsault 2022 from Piekenierskloof isn’t intended to be “serious”, and does the charming, prettily aromatic, red-fruited cinsault trick nicely, for when you’re in the mood for it – which I am occasionally. Soft texture, decent acidity, the merest hint of tannin; it chills nicely in summer. I paid R99 for it at Woolworths.

The Kumusha 2021 (made by eminent sommelier Tinashe Nyamudoka from Slanghoek grapes) takes that aromatic, fresh cherry cinsault charm and lightness and uses it very effectively to help make cab softer and easier-going. It’s beautifully calculated for early but not trivial drinking, and I think I could work my way down the bottle, though I would prefer a slightly sterner structure from some of cab’s admirable tannins, and the finish has a touch of sweetness. A R104 price tag makes it pretty good value for money.

There’s more sweetness on the finish of Sophie Red Blend 2020 (the oldest wine in my quartet) – but that is the curse of so many Cape reds. I wish winemakers generally would work a little harder to get their fermentations to take the residual sugar below 2 grams per litre, especially when the alcohol level is not low (here it is a declared 13.5%). The blend is not revealed on label or website, but there must be a good contribution from syrah, giving a nice bit of perfume (while the Cape South Coast origin gives a touch of herbaceousness). Light structure with more acid than tannin, good fruit. Decent-enough value at R99, but not a revelation.

Saxenburg Guinea Fowl 2021, at R12 less than Sophie (both from Constantia Wine & Craft in Cape Town), is splendidly good value, and my very recommendable favourite here, just pipping Kumusha. From grapes off the Polkadraai Hills estate, it’s a genuine second label to Saxenburg’s ever-improving Private Collection Cab, harmoniously augmented by malbec, cab franc and merlot. With a savoury edge and herbal twist to the good fruit, it has some character and intensity, with succulence and a bit of grip, though it’s very approachable now. I can think of a good few much pricier and showier Stellenbosch bordeaux blends that I’d spurn in favour of this.

  • 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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    GillesP | 28 March 2023

    Hello Tim. A little bit of a follow up on your article. I did try the Saxenburg Guineafowl. Drinkable I would say. Not much more. Was on the same mission last week to find and purchase everyday drinking red wine which would be palatable at below R130 a bottle. Epic fail at all level. I tried Franschoek Cellar shiraz, dreadful. Robertson Winery The Blend, dreadful, Das Bosch Cab Sauvignon 2017, even more dreadful, Petit Plaisir 2020, dreadful, Bon Courage , acceptable, Retief reserve blend 2020, ok the first night, bad after 3 days but I will forgive that. I feel this is mission impossible

    Tim James | 4 March 2023

    Thanks all for comments. Alto Rouge (I agree, it has long been great value since being degraded from a fine wine to that level by the worst efforts of the destructive Lusan/Distell joint venture) and Kanonkop are a bit above the R100 level I was imposing (with a little leeway for Kumusha). There are indeed many good value reds approaching R150. I was looking, hopefully, for even cheaper ones that might be pretty good stuff. But if I pursue this quest, maybe R120 would be a more sensible limit.

    Bam | 4 March 2023

    After one or two good wines bottles (depending how many are sharing), any wine between above r60 will make no difference.

    PK | 1 March 2023

    So many good little wines at that R100-150/bottle mark. And I would go go as far and say, you can get a feel for a top operation when they can nail their range at this price point. Let’s not even mention Kanonkop Kadette range.

    Gareth | 1 March 2023

    I’ve always really enjoyed Hartenberg cab/shiraz, a solid wine at a very reasonable price

    Donald Griffiths | 1 March 2023

    Two words. Alto Rouge. Consistently the best vfm red blend in SA by a considerable distance in my humblest opinion.

    GillesP | 28 February 2023

    Thank you for this Tim. I will definitely try the Saxenburg Guinea Fowl after your post. Indeed it is now such a difficult exercise to find a decent red drinkable now within a budget of not going over R120

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