Tim James: Some early history of red blends in the Cape

By , 31 July 2020

One of the more curious aspects of wine-grape planting in the Cape before the latter 19th century is how little of it was for red wine. Red muscadel and pontac are the only black grapes I’ve seen mentioned (I’ve discussed before how unlikely it is that shiraz was around until the early 20th century), and they were quite far down the list, especially pontac. Both those varieties were, it seems, mostly used for sweet and/or fortified wines, including in the famous wines of Constantia. Then in the last few decades of the 19th century, Cinsault (known then as hermitage) was planted and quickly became important – apparently as a table wine but especially as a sweet fortified.

Cabernet sauvignon was the first more serious red table wine to be made in the Cape, as I described here. In my admittedly not very deep research (I’m getting there, I hope!) I haven’t seen any indication of whether the commercially bottled “Cabernet de Sauvignon” made at Groot Constantia from the end of the century, and then at other estates, especially in the Constantia area, was blended, but there are certainly indications that blending cab, notably with cinsault, was important from an early date.

Witness an article by Raymond Dubois, the government’s Viticultural Expert, in the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope in January 1906. He’s reporting on the 1905 “Burgundy wine from the Government Wine Farm at Constantia, exhibited at the recent Wine Show, and so favourably commented on by the judges”. I’ll return to the curious obsession with “Burgundy” in characterising such wines. Dubois gives much detail about the making of the wine, from crushed and destemmed grapes, in three separate cement tanks. He doesn’t say that all the tanks were the same size, but if they were, the resultant blend would have been two-thirds cabernet and one-third “Hermitage”.

Interestingly, the tank of pure cab was analysed at 13.2% alcohol, with a total acidity of 7.6%, while the final blend (presumably to be bottled?) was much lower in those respects: 12.5% and 5.5% respectively. From which we can deduce the reason for the blending: to make the resulting wine more immediately approachable. And this is, of course, one motive we tend to adduce for the continued addition of cinsault to the great blends of the middle decades of the century – although another, more prosaic reason would have been the shortage of cabernet and the ubiquity of cinsault. (For analogous reasons, in Australia, even shorter of cabernet than South Africa, the characteristic high-end blend was with syrah.) The importance of “softening” cabernet can be gauged in reverse, as it were, by the famous pair of GS wines of the 1960s, which unprecedently asserted their 100% cabernet status on their labels: it seems that part of their “point” was to demonstrate the viability of unblended cab.

Probably the first Cape red table wine to achieve a measure of international success was a slightly different blend, from Alto. And here this curious Burgundy diversion comes in again, with Alto winning the “dry red wine, Burgundy-type” class at the Cape Wine show from 1924 to 1929 with its blend of cinsault, cab and shiraz, in the proportion 3:1:1 – the conscious aim of the vineyard planting in this proportion being to make a lighter, earlier-maturing wine than straight cab. Presumably, that’s what they meant by “Burgundy-style”. This wine was exported to Burgoyne’s of London from 1924 to 1962 but was first bottled for the South African market as Alto Rouge in 1933.

One of the delvers into South African wine’s past, Hennie Taljaard, regards this as “the essential Cape blend in the days even before Pinotage was born”. He pointed out to me that at least Alphen (Smooth Old Vintage) and Muratie (Claret) were also using this trio of varieties in the earlier 20th century. And that Perold in his 1926 book said that at the Cape shiraz was “sometimes blended with Hermitage and cabernet for producing good dry red wines” – that “sometimes” probably implying that the practice went wider than Alto. Nederburg in the 1970s made an auction wine from these varieties (Bin R103) – though with cabernet claimed to be dominant. The well informed Dave Hughes referred to it as “the traditional South African blend”.

It didn’t get well known as a “recipe’, however – though it is very possible that some other of the blends of the mid-century decades conformed to it. As I described in my previous article, the prestige of the traditional Bordeaux blend supervened from the end of the 1970s, while cinsault was increasingly associated with cheap bulk wine and shiraz would start becoming popular as a monovarietal wine. Later, on the basis of a kind of patriotism, blends with pinotage also helped to shoulder aside “the traditional South African blend”. And we know what happened to poor old Alto Rouge, as it became locked into a relationship with the big business that became Distell, and soon ended up as a discounted brand on the supermarket shelves. Incidentally, Rouge’s blend had fairly early changed – acquiring some Tinta Barroca, then cab franc and merlot.

There’s now a small-scale revival of using cinsault in blends with the Bordeaux varieties, and even a few toes being dipped into the cab-cinsault-syrah combo. One of the toes is that Alheit Vineyards, which released (just to their email list) a small volume of a wine called Wine Dark Sea, with cab, cinsault and syrah, in that order. Chris Alheit has been playing in a small way since 2014 with blends including cab and cinsault, inspired by the likes of Chateau Libertas and Zonnebloem from the mid-century. The syrah in this latest blend “just slipped into it”, says Chris – it was too good a wine to exclude. The proportions are also, of course, not those of the original Alto Rouge. But the essential return to that first famous Cape red-trio blend is a happy achievement, even if not consciously intended.

  • 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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