Tim James: Serious Cab Franc and Viognier from Paarl

By , 31 May 2021

The Deck restaurant and wine tasting centre, Ridgeback.

It seems that Paarl winery Ridgeback increasingly want to identify their top offerings with viognier – a variety that perhaps no longer has quite the cachet that it once did – and cabernet franc – a variety that is gaining and ever-higher reputation in the Cape, both as a varietal wine and in blends. Ridgeback Viognier needs, of course little introduction, as undoubtedly amongst the Cape elite for the variety. A Cabernet Franc is also firmly in place, and that variety also leads the fine His Master’s Choice Signature C blend, and is a crucial part of a new super-premium blend, of which more later.

Ridgeback is on the other side of a hill from Rhebokskloof, another ambitious Paarl winery that I visited not long ago, in one of the prettiest parts of this often unfairly ignored appellation (see my general thoughts on that here). I last came to Ridgeback more than 15 years ago, when it was still fairly new – the first wine was made at the turn of the century, some four years after the Zimbabwean owners (whose Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs inspired the name and the logo) had acquired the property.

Toit Wessels of Ridgeback.

Ambition was clear from the start, with Paul Wallace brought in to design and plant new vineyards and the redoubtable Cathy Marshall acting as winemaking consultant (she was still operating Barefoot Wine Company/BWC) doing her thing at first in rented space, and then in the new winery, built in time for the 2003 harvest. But Toit Wessels, now presiding over both cellar and 35 hectares of vineyards, has been there from the start – at first among the vines and then later joining Cathy in the cellar. That’s an immense boon for the estate in terms of experience, and surely a positive thing for a winemaker to have started learning about his vines even before coming to vinify their grapes. In the vineyards (where virus is very apparent at this time of year), Toit is particularly working on improving the soil quality – with noticeable improvements over recent years he says; and there’s a replanting programme underway.

Ridgeback has been developed as an attractive “destination”, pleasingly rustic, with the revamped restaurant and new tasting room built around the dam with its swans gliding above and koi gliding below. After a drive around the autumnal vineyards, it was in that tasting room that I chatted to Toit and sales manager Luan Aucamp about the wines, and sampled eight of the top wines.

As you might expect from a warm area like this, with a pretty conventional approach to things, the wines are generally quite ripe, big and forthright, with added acidity to compensate and balance. And they are indeed all well balanced, with oaking excellently managed to support rather than dominate, and dryness an important component of their effect. To generalise further – they combine plenty of flavour (but no excessive fruitiness and a savoury element too) with a firm but unobtrusive structure. They’re certainly not new-wave wines, but far from old-fashioned blockbuster wannabes; responsive to their terroir, but Toit does not resist, for example, adding tannins to his reds at judicious stages, adding to their suppleness and texture.

Red-wine varieties make up about 65% of plantings, and I tasted only two whites. The Chenin Blanc 2019, from older bushvines, is typically good, with its generosity reined in, fairly big but focused and succulent. I confess I was suprised how much I enjoyed the Viognier 2020. Not usually my favourite variety, but this has a winning, gorgeous ripeness without any hint of blowsy excessiveness, with as much pineapple and citrus as apricot, bright and unobtrusively supported by oak, and a firm grippiness. Toit points out that the average quality of Cape viognier has been rising, which I think is true, and the Ridgeback is a good advertisement for that – ten years ago it was over-ripe, over-voluptuous and over-oaked, but now it is lovely in its comparative restraint.

Of the three monovarietal reds I tasted, the fragrant Cab Franc 2018 was the standout (though the 2017 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon pleasingly combined some seriousness with immediate attractiveness – helped by being that bit more mature than most similar reds on the market. The Franc (“my favourite cultivar to work with”, says Toit), moves more in the direction of elegance thanks to an inherent finesse. As the majority component in His Master’s Choice Signature C 2017 (70%, with cab, merlot and petit verdot), it certainly advantages that wine, which has a lovely integration of moderate power, bright acidity and tannin. A very good drink, which should mature nicely for a good few years, and reasonable value at R400.

The 2016 vintage of Signature S is the last to be of only shiraz (plus a little viognier), with later vintages bringing in mourvèdre and grenache. Intense, ripe and bright, with oaky tobacco mingling with dark cherry notes – in typical house style, combining richness with a degree of elegance.

To be released soon and with a totally different packaging from the other Ridgeback wines – in fact downplaying the connection – is a 2016 wine called The Brave. A notably late release, as, to their credit, the team wanted to gauge the development of the wine before deciding to add it definitively to the portfolio – next up will be the 2020, whereafter it should be a regular presence. Only two barrels have been made, and the wine is joining the ranks of those over R1000 – but most of this first vintage has gone to a private list (of merchants Frogitt and Vonkel), with just a few cases available from the farm. The Brave – the name and label honouring early pioneering settlers – is a blend, one barrel each, of cab franc and shiraz. It’s subtle and delicious and lovely, neatly mingling the perfumes and flavours of the two varieties, with time toning and complexifying them into a very satisfying whole – the most elegant of an impressive and decent value portfolio of Paarl wines.

  • 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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