Tim James: It’s time for Stellenbosch cab to lighten up

By , 18 January 2019



It must be a long time since Stellenbosch saw an ambitious cabernet sauvignon released at around 12.5% alcohol. Not to mention the wine having no acquaintance with new oak. Throw in spontaneous fermentation and natural acidity, 100% footstomped, wholebunch fermentation, and avoidance of fining and filtration – well, it starts to look like something really new. It looks perhaps as though Mick and Jeanine Craven, already successfully established as something of a new-wave anomaly in Stellenbosch, had got round to grappling with the region’s signature variety.

They have. It happened suddenly last harvest, when they started paying proper attention to the block of cab alongside the chenin vineyard they use. There had been little reason to do so, really. Although they like drinking cab, Mick says, there are very few examples in the New World that escape the massive alcoholic style they don’t like. Locally they were tasting too many that were showing greenness even at 14% or 15%, “so we thought, what’s the point of even trying?” Last year, though, when harvesting their chenin they sampled some of the cabernet grapes alongside, found them to be already tasty, and thought they should give it a try when the grapes ripened.

They didn’t make a lot – there are only about 1300 bottles of the 2018; it was something of an experiment after all, making a comparatively early-picked cab more or less in the same way they make their syrahs: “just for fun”, Mick insists; they were by no means sure it would work. Half-way through fermentation, it was already getting pretty tannic (exacerbated by the presence of stems, of course), so they pressed off the juice and let it finish fermenting in tank (it took a worrying month to get dry, but did so very pleasingly: genuinely dry reds, including cabs, are fairly rare in the Cape).

They showed the wine to a few people at Cape Wine last year, including their importers, who were as pleased with the result as they were. And including me. Now, a mere year since harvest, and after a sojourn in older oak barrels, the wine’s been bottled – in a traditional claret bottle: some traditions you don’t mess with. So I visited the Cravens in their Somerset West house (one baby crawling on the rug, the other tucked away more sleepily). The wine will be released in a few months, as the Cravens can’t see any point in holding on to it longer. “People are demanding it”, says Jeanine happily. The price will be in line with their syrahs – about R220. And they plan to make a lot more of it in 2019.

The 2018 wine is delicious and drinkable now, but there’s no doubt that it will gain from at least a few years’ maturation – there’s understandably still a raw element. It is emphatically not a trivial, light wine aiming at immediate perfumey charm (along the line of some of the new-wave cinsauts, for example). That charm is there, but there’s some power, a soft but very firm tannin-acid structure, an intensity of flavour and some genuine vinous depth. It’s hardly unprecedented, of course, to make a Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon at 12.6% alcohol. This is what most Cape cabs (and most Bordeaux) came out at a generation back, before a change in fashion prompted by the American market – much more than anything else – shifted the norm everywhere. “What’s exciting is how far it is from being green”, says Mick; the wine confounds the conventional cab mantra that ultra-ripeness is needed to minimise the touch of herbalness in fine cabernet.

Not really revolutionary, then, but a comparatively lightish cab, made with low levels of winemaker intervention, does now seem something of a challenge to the status quo. And there are already one or two mainstream winemakers experimenting a little with alternative practices and styles (including wholebunch pressing, and freshening up – sometimes with an admixture of cinsaut, for example). It is, in my opinion, greatly to be hoped that the Craven’s immensely attractive example will have some influence on the destiny of Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon. I’m ready to bet that some of the earliest buyers of a bottle of Craven Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 will be other Stellenbosch winemakers, curious to experience a new possibility. I do hope so, anyway.

  • 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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