Tim James: Wine shopping again!

By , 5 June 2020



Earlier this week I saw Chris Mullineux, undoubtedly one of Cape wine’s grandees (despite his hard work and his pleasing modesty of mien), acting as deliveryman, dropping off some online-ordered Mullineux wine a few houses down my road. All hands on deck, it seems, in these strange times…. 

It’s undoubtedly been an atypical week in the life of South African drinkers as well as producers, all of us released after a few months of semi-prohibition. I must assume and hope that for readers of this website it has not involved some of the wild excesses of over-indulgence, domestic and public violence, and dangerous driving that has inevitably been reported. And not too much crowding – I believe there was significant congestion in parts of Soweto resulting from the newly permitted liquor-shopping.

We respectable wine lovers, though, have all been excited in a much more decorous way, haven’t we? Many will have been, like me, restocking (and some will have been doing so into desperately empty wineracks). I have this week done the following in this regard, and I suspect many of you will have had rather similar experiences:

Wine retailers face significant logistical challenges as lockdown regulations are eased.

(1) I’ve been to collect from an online retailer some wine I’d ordered – and found the parking ground half occupied by piles of cases that had been delivered by suppliers, and more cases ready to be dispatched to customers eagerly awaiting delivery. Fortunately, the moderate autumnal sunshine was not wreaking damage for the wines’ hopefully short time in the open. A plethora of masked workers bustled about, one of whom efficiently penetrated the mayhem and found my case of modest Bordeaux.

(2) I’ve been to a newly-reopened bottle-store. Actually, all I wanted was some brandy – but I really wanted it, and had been hankering after some really strong drink (something more powerful that your effete wine) for weeks. There wasn’t a lot of choices available where I went, but there was KWV Ten Year Old at under R300 per bottle – one of many great buys in local brandy. (Incidentally, a friend emailed me today, mentioning that he’d considered a bottle of “real Cognac” at Checkers for R250. To which I replied with vehement conviction that there was no cognac below the level of the best that could begin to compete against the quality:price ratio of the local stuff. It makes me angry that many cultural-cringers don’t recognise this truth!) I’ve been enjoying a post-dinner tot or two of brandy this week, and much enjoying it. Them.

(3) I happily took delivery just today (not as much sanitising involved as I believe there should have been, but still) of wines ordered online. Four 12-bottle cases! One of them was from Stellenbosch (Reenen Borman’s wonderful Sons of Sugarland Syrah, and his fairly wonderful Patatsfontein Chenin). Unfortunately, I’m still not allowed to travel to the Winelands and have the pleasure of collecting for myself.

The other cases delivered were all of international wines that I’d ordered when it became clear that the rand was dropping inexorably in value, and I’d better get what I could afford while I could still afford something. The excitement of opening the boxes was increased because it had been so long since I’d placed the order that I’d partly forgotten what I’d asked for. (And, crucially, what I’d paid for them – actually a mix of modest and medium-pricey wines.) Bordeaux, Mosel (the largest portion of this bunch), Jura, Chianti, Vaucluse – magical wine names to conjure with and lustfully anticipate…. Wines to give comfort and sensual delight in the midst of some future calamity (let’s hope not that).

  • 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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16 comment(s)

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    Duncan | 9 June 2020

    Tim, I would also like to beg your indulgence: which brandies do you think offer the best value for money? You’ve mentioned the KWV 10 before, which is always satisfying. Would you suggest spending the extra R100 for the KWV 12?

    Any other midrange potstills you like? (The Van Ryn’s 12 is probably my favourite brandy, but while still offering extraordinary value, it’s hardly cheap.)

      Tim James | 9 June 2020

      The thing about KWV 10 YO is that it is so widely available and such extraordinary value. The big producers have got huge stocks enabling this sort of thing. And what’s truly wonderful about buying a bottle of brandy (or lesser spirits!) is that you don’t need to hurry to drink it as you do with wine – so spending an extra R100 to discover if you prefer the 12 YO is not really such a big deal, I’d venture to suggest. You will surely like it at least as much, and spread it over 10 or 20 evenings and what then is R100?

      There are dozens of good brandies in nearly the top flight and about the same price as a good bottle of cabernet. Including many of the estate versions. Boplaas has the best range, no doubt because they’ve been doing it for a long time and have a more substantial volume or stocks than most estates, so they can make more rigorous selection. ((The Carel Nel Reserve 5 YO is not the best, but very good and good value.) It’s interesting to note how, eg, the Backsberg brandies are improving as their stocks grow. So, look out for the estate versions (not easily available in bottle stores) and experiment a bit. But I don’t think you will often find the sort of value for money as you get from the KWV and Distell labels – and often not the same quality as those giants give at the top level, though some special Boplaas bottlings compete. (Brandy is very different from wine in these cases!) Oude Molen is another very good producer, with a range at different price levels that’s well worth exploring

      There are also some slightly less excellent versions, from private producers and the big guys. I have a great fondness for Flight of the Fish Eagle, which is light-feeling and modern; Withington Voorkamer is also more elegant and refined than many. I could go on and on, but I’ll just repeat that you can more easily experiment with brandies, and should do so. It’s hard to go wrong, if you like brandy. As you should.

    Stewart Prentice | 9 June 2020

    My wine cellar purchases arrived safely yesterday (sherries a few other bottles for keeping). Brandy last night Sydney Back. Also great value.

    Another idea to explore is collectors who need to clear some cellar space. Put a few cases together and offer them at a reasonable markup, not a speculative one.

    Stewart Prentice | 7 June 2020

    I bought a lovely 2013, I think, Bordeaux from Checkers last week. About R175 and about 12% alcohol. Absolutely lovely. I shall buy more tomorrow.

    While I like primary fruit on my first glass of evening wine and also (as an aside) read a fascinating short article on ft.com by the brilliant Jancis Robinson on why high alcohol wines are so much more palatable these days. But a 12 or so percent less fruity and generally interesting wine is always better for me).

    I wish the retailers mentioned would put together mixed cases much like Tim’s purchases for we less knowledgable and experienced drinkers. Heaven knows I support them more than my discretionary budget should permit!

    For tonight though, a 2015 Pinot from Edgebaston is doing the trick.

      Tim James | 7 June 2020

      Stewart: Good question. I’m going to ask them why they don’t do as you suggest, as well as why they don’t explore the more affordable end. Watch this space.
      Kevin: There’s definitely a gradual shift – locally a bit slower than internationally, especially in the cab-based wines – away from the blockbuster, fruity, powerful style. Local palates, even really interested ones and even those of winemakers, are generally less exposed to international developments – but look how they’ve responded to the changes in, say, chardonnay and syrah, where SA has even been in the vanguard. Stellenbosch has been slow (with some honourable exceptions) with its signature red variety, but it is getting there, alongside its domestic consumer base!

    Kevin R | 7 June 2020

    Hi Tim,
    As an aside,
    ‘ my general preference for Bordeaux is because it tends to be drier, more savoury and less fruit-rich, often less alcoholic and oaky’

    It seems, to me at least, that most South African wine commentators praise very fruity wines here, but like you (and hopefully others!) I find full on fruit to be unplesant and a negative.
    Do you have any guess why there’s still favour for big fruit?
    Thank you.

    Jeremy | 7 June 2020

    I was not denying the quality of our brandy. Rather was questioning the purchase of imported wine when ours is so good.

    Seemed a contradiction.

    GillesP | 7 June 2020

    I have to agree with Tim on the superb quality and value of SA brandy. At the price point of R300 you can’t beat it. I have worked for Martell and Remy Martin in the past so I think I know a thing or two about Cognac. So have to spend R700 here now to start accessing quality VSOP cognacs.

    Jacques | 6 June 2020

    Tim.. I am intrigued as to your response to Roland

    Jeremy | 6 June 2020

    Not quite a satisfactory explanation really.

    Except a rather verbose justification of believing or drnking what one likes.
    But entirely a personal preference.

    Fair enough

    Jeremy | 6 June 2020

    So admonishing somebody about purchasing cognac versus SA brandy is OK.

    But in the next paragraph you write about an order of overseas wine. Why not South African on a cost value analysis.

    Please explain

      Tim James | 6 June 2020

      Well, Jeremy, it’s very easy to explain. SA brandy is remarkably good value for money at most levels – hard to tell apart from cognacs at twice their price (as has been shown in various tastings), though the very best, very old cognac is irreplaceable, and unaffordable to me. As for my order – well, you’ll see there’s no syrah there, for example; I’ve given up buying Rhône syrah because of what I can get here at half or quarter the price. The Jura trousseau – there’s no local equivalent. Chianti – there’s certainly no local sangiovese that can compare. And Italian wines are marvellously … different, anyway. Bordeaux – I bought two chateaux, one for about R200, the other about R350. There are only a few local red blends or cab that I enjoy as much as actual bordeaux, and nothing this good at prices like this. (I think that Bordeaux at its more modest levels offers some of the best value for money in the world – like Cape chenin, for example.) Vaucluse – an easygoing grenache-based blend that I probably could find here for not much more (and do, and buy it sometimes). Mosel riesling – there is very little locally available to begin to match the quality of the lower-priced wines I got (and I do also buy Oak Valley’s excellent and fine value Stone and Steel, for example). And at the higher quality, site-specific end of traditional JJ Prüm Mosel riesling, there is simply no Cape (or anywhere else) equivalent, and I love it more than most things. I should have bought more!

        Roland | 6 June 2020

        Tim, please indulge me: if you were held at gunpoint with a demand that you name three bordeaux to compete with our local examples (say, in the range of r200-400)?

        Happily, all of my lockdown orders are slowly trickling and I’ve been reveling in the luxury of tasting something new every night of this week!

          Tim James | 7 June 2020

          Some initial points, Roland. 1. I should point out that my general preference for Bordeaux is because it tends to be drier, more savoury and less fruit-rich, often less alcoholic and oaky (especially at more modest levels. 2. Bordeaux in SA is generally very expensive compared with the rest of the world (I explored this in a previous column, and couldn’t get an answer that satisfied me as to why this should be. 3. Our importers tend to stick to well-known, bluechip, expensive wines, apparently too lazy to search out good value – Carolineswine.com an honourable exception, especially WRT Italian, but she has also brought in some parcels of good value, cheaper Bordeaux – seems to have few of them at present, however.

          The three bordeaux I took hold of this week fit into your category. Ch Bernadotte from winecellar.co.za cost just R275 pb and is brilliant value for quite a serious wine, ideally needing a few more years at least, really. Unfortunately I can’t see it on their website now – though it is on reciprocal.co.za – but for R445! (Even then not bad value.) Reciprocal have lots of high-priced Bordeaux and very little cheaper stuff, though they’ve had some good value Schroder and Schyler Special Selections under R400 – I’m not sure about the few on offer now.

          Great Domaines does usually have some cheaper bordeaux (though they are terribly culpable for not finding us better-value burgundy to accompany the top-level stuff they bring in, especially given that I believe they travel there tasting just about every year). From them I bought Pierre Lurton’s Ch Marjosse 2016 for R220. Always a very pleasing wine at a pleasing price. Also Ch Fourcas Borie 2014, which I haven’t tasted yet but bought on the strength of some reviews I find. I can’t check the greatdomaines.co.za website now, as it has been “taking stock” for a few days now.

          I must say that I have, when experiment, also bought some cheap bordeaux that was a bit hard and thin. Generally there’s not a lot brought in, as I said, despite how much is made, but I do always look out for it; it’s usually in small quantities and doesn’t stay long on the shelf.

            Roland | 8 June 2020

            Thanks for the details, Tim. As your comments imply, it’s prohibitively expensive to experiment with imported wines, so I’m glad for some low-risk suggestions to explore (its the closest thing to tourism/holiday that I can envision at the moment!).

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