Tim James: Zorgvliet in lovely Banghoek

By , 23 October 2023



Bernard le Roux of Zorgvliet.

The Banghoek (or Banhoek) valley is not amongst the best known winegrowing parts of Stellenbosch, but it is certainly among the loveliest – as anyone who’s looked out from Delaire Graff at the crest of the Helshoogte Pass can attest. Bernard le Roux, winemaker at Zorgvliet Wines, halfway down the steep road with Boschendal at its foot, suggests ruefully that people whizzing down – perhaps on their way to Franschhoek, or even slightly labouring uphill if they’re in a car like mine – don’t always notice the vineyards and wineries on either side.

Incidentally, the Zorgvliet website gives a good account of the origins of the name “Banghoek” – Frightening Corner. The area, it says, “was originally known as ‘De Bange Hoek’ which is how it was indicated on a transport map of Zeven Rivieren in the year 1704.  Not only was it dangerously steep but there were gangs, escaped slaves, lions, leopards and other wild animals in the dense forest area. Travelers were wary of this area because many were attacked by these animals and slaves that escaped from prison and thrown into the river.” It’s not so scary these days.

As to wine, in fact it’s for not much more than a decade or so that there have been more than a few Banghoek wineries attracting serious attention and making it a significantly plausible vinous destination. The undoubtedly famous Thelema and Tokara, up near Delaire Graff on the watershed that forms an appellation boundary, opted to be part of Simonsberg-Stellenbosch when given the choice. Two of that lofty trio were established well before the turn of the century, with Tokara starting slowly to establish itself then, and so was Camberley. Then came some small operations: Zorgvliet (also making the wines for Le Pommier), Rainbow’s End, Vuurberg, and Clouds. Two of today’s more prestigious Banghoek producers, Oldenburg and Bartinney, bottled their first vintages only in 2007 and 2008 respectively. A grand newcomer, US-owned Capensis, established its home farm in the valley even more recently.

For the first time in over ten years, I visited Zorgvliet last week, ignoring the wedding and function centre, the Country Lodge and the restaurants – well, not all of the restaurants, as I had a good lunch at De Herenhuis in the historic old manor house, after tasting through the current releases with Bernard.

There was a good Cabernet Franc Rosé 2023 to start with, fragrant, quite intense, dry and fashionably pale. Zorgvliet Sauvignon Blanc has a high reputation in competitions and I understand why, as it stands out from the enormous pack with points of difference: the 2022 has a charming fragrance rather than being overpoweringly aromatic, there’s scarcely a granadilla within sniffing distance – rather, gooseberry and a little blackcurrant, with a greengage bite to the palate. All very deft, beautifully balanced. A part old-oaked Semillon 2022 (a tiny bottling) is also a touch different from the mainstream, with what Bernard describes as “buchu” in addition to the lemony notes. Also a substantial wine, though textured, racy and succulent.

Those wines are all around R150; the flagship white, Simoné 2021, is R250 ex-farm. It blends sauvignon and semillon equally (the juice for this wine going straight to barrel) and, given the quality of the varietal wines, the blend is unsurprisingly good. Suavely but forwardly aromatic, with juicy acidity and a phenolic touch making for a fine grippiness that balances the creamy texture.

Nonetheless, I feel that the heart of Zorgvliet is its red wines, all from Bordeaux varieties. They always were somewhat on the ripe, bolder side of typical Stellenbosch reds, but Bernard has brought a refinement to them – one remembers that he was for some years the winemaker alongside Zelma Long at Vilafonté, so it isn’t surprising. The 2020s I tasted are still big and ripe, but less blockbusterish in aim: the oaking is restrained, the tannins are all beautifully managed and there is a pleasing balance to them.

At one end of the gradation in this aesthetic is the Merlot, which is just what most people want from Stellenbosch merlot: deep colour, big, round and rich, no greenness, friendly and approachable early. The Cabernet Franc comes across as at the other end of the aesthetic. Bernard has deliberately pulled back from ultra-ripeness, partly through work in the vineyard. So he’s embraced the dry-leaf, herbal element inherent to the variety, but without any green vegetalness, and it remains firmly in the Bordeaux style rather than the lighter Loire-ish style that is cropping up more frequently in South Africa these days. Just 20% new oak, a good grip from the fine tannins, sweet fruit but the finish dry enough; the 14.5% alcohol perhaps only obvious in that sweet touch (all Bernard’s wines are properly dry). It’s quite fresh, and rather delicious already, though it will certainly age pretty well.

I found it interesting to compare the Franc with the Cabernet Sauvignon, which has rather similar statistics (though it does have more new oak: 40% rather than 20%), and yet comes across as bolder, riper and richer, though not as powerful as some warm-country cabs.

There’s also a varietal Petit Verdot – just 10% new oak, underlining its pure-fruit – indeed quite fruity – charm. Lengthened a bit by cab sauvignon, this is far from the showiness the wine used to offer, and is in fact rather refinedly delicious, though certainly not escaping traditional richness and bold presence. It should be noted, by the way, that these reds are extremely good value in today’s market: they are line-priced at R190 ex-farm, which would be hard to match for this quality in Stellenbosch reds.

Richelle, the flagship blend of all those varieties (the two cabs always in the lead, especially sauvignon, though the blend is responsive to what the harvest delivers) is R450 for the current 2019, also not a bad price as these things go. It adds some elegance and subtlety to the package, the tannins firm but dry. I tasted four vintages – the happily cruising, beautifully fruited and succulent 2015, with tannins starting to resolve convincingly; the particularly good, intense but subtler 2017; a rather lighter 2018, nicely quieter in character, but maybe less well balanced and certainly less intense. The 2019 coming onto the market now is also a clearly very good year, delivering clean, pure and fresh, though sweetly ripe, fruit. A very recommendable Stellenbosch Bordeax-style blend.

Talking of blockbusterish power and otherwise, a footnote: I was delighted to see that in the past few years Bernard has abandoned that vulgarly ostentatious, over-big, specially moulded “Stellenbosch” bottle. He did say, however, that he thinks the move initially at least cost them some customers, which is depressing to note. But the customers do appreciate Richelle’s waxed top rather than the standard capsule he experimented with, so that is now a permanent fixture.

  • 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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