Back to the Future

The oldest Cape wine region is also the newest

The Cape wine industry turns 350 years old this year. While the first vines were planted in what are today known as the Company Gardens, the first commercial plantings were further down the peninsula, around Wynberg (Wine Mountain) and on Van der Stel’s farm, Groot Constantia, which was proclaimed in 1685. Later, in the hands of Hendrik Cloete (from 1778), Groot Constantia became world famous for its natural sweet-style wine made from Muscat grapes. This wine, made from very ripe, but not botrytised grapes, is now replicated in the Vin de Constance of Klein Constantia and Groot Constantia’s Grand Constance.
Today, Constantia symbolises both Cape wine’s history – and its future. Those early farmers knew what they were doing. Choosing gently-sloping land with good soils and a view of the ocean, the cool sea-breezes mitigated the heat of summer and helped them make balanced wines. Another influential factor has always been the Constantiaberg itself, which casts long shadows over the vineyards in the afternoons, as the sun sets on the other side of the mountain. By the late 20th century, Constantia’s reputation was built on its white wines, as many of the newer clones of the red varieties need more sunlight to ripen ideally.
The local wine industry has changed in a number of important ways since our re-admission to global markets. Technologies are better, clones are improving, and wine-makers travel to make wine and learn from international peers. At home, there is a spirit of discovery – and no more crucial than the establishment of new areas for the planting of vines. Previously farmers mainly worked in the traditional areas of Constantia, Stellenbosch and Paarl and on the flatlands or gentle slopes where it was easiest; now new regions are being farmed – and the vineyards are climbing higher.
The winery Constantia Glen is a great example of the new in the old. Here the vines are planted high on the Constantiaberg slopes, just before the spill over onto the Hout Bay side. The height and access to a few more aspects allow some of Constantia Glen’s vineyards a couple of hours more late afternoon sun – perfect for the ripening of red varieties. So whereas the white to red ratio down the valley is dominated by white; here red is king. Altitude has other benefits like different soil profiles – they are often more rocky (compared to the finer weathered soils down slope). These stonier soils undoubtedly give the wines a different dimension.
350 years on, and Cape wine is still evolving. For all our successes, it’s worth reminding ourselves that three and a half centuries is not a long time in the world of wine. Even constant Constantia is changing.


The Original Icon – Klein Constantia Vin de Constance
Made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes which have not been botrytised, this is a powerful wine of undeniable sweetness but also rich in complexity. They age famously: bottles from the late 18th century can still be enjoyed! First made during the long reign of the Cloete family, the wine became famous in Europe but then disappeared towards the end of the 19th century when the Cape wine industry was crippled by the phylloxera louse. The current owners of Klein Constantia, the Joostes, re-introduced it in 1986.
The New Icon-in-Waiting – Constantia Glen 2007 Bordeaux Blend
Since their first bottling of Sauvignon Blanc in 2005, the property’s wine has caught world-wide attention, winning numerous awards. But with 80% of the farm planted to red varieties, it is this red blend that will now become Constantia Glen’s calling card. This is a wine of excellent balance and fantastic elegance, made by Karl Lambour in consultation with Bordeaux’s Dominique Hébrard of Cheval Blanc fame. If you thought fine red wine starts clumsy and tannic, you will be stunned by the feather-soft tannins of this still-young wine. Certainly a label to watch closely.

Golfing wine

Of all the sportsmen that seem to love buying wine farms or making wine, none seem keener than golfers. Historically, rugby players were the sportsmen you could count on to be involved in this business, and this is still the case, but of late golfers have made a serious effort to lead the category (which probably says more about earnings in golf than anything else).

Of our local star golfers engaged in this 19th hole activity, we can list Ernie Els, David Frost, Retief Goosen and recently Gary Player. Cleary, these men don’t spend much time picking grapes, hauling pipes or rolling barrels. What they do is to find experts to collaborate with, to make the wine for them. These wines, with the famous name imprimatur, sell pretty well (and have captive markets in clubhouses).

Interestingly, all the wines made under the names of these golfers are red wines. I can only imagine this is because the bywords here are luxury and premium. The first of these wines I encountered was the Ernie Els, made by the team behind the Rust en Vrede and Guardian Peak wines. It’s been made since 2000, so now has something of a track record. This wine is rich and modern, but always made from the traditional Bordeaux varieties so that it retains a classical style. You can count on it to impress.
For some reason, I have only recently tried the David Frost, from his own farm in the Voor Paardeberg. A former Rust en Vrede winemaker is in charge of the wine making, interestingly, and of the four red wines in the range, I most enjoyed the “Par Excellence,” despite its name. It’s also made from the five Bordeaux stalwart varieties and is bold in style and tends towards the over-ripe. The other wines, single variety Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, took this too far and were far too big and alcoholic for my taste.

Recently, the Gary Player “Muirfield 1959” 2003 was released, made by the Quoin Rock winery. This is the most probing wine of the lot, since it’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinotage. It’s very rich, both on the nose and palate, where it is remarkably dense – and has an intriguing savoury dimension. Certainly a masculine wine, it continues to roll powerfully over your tongue, perhaps too forcefully, but I have great confidence in the Quoin Rock team so will be intrigued to track its development. Only nine future vintages are planned (to commemorate his nine Majors).

Delaire

It’s a bit of a “watch this space” – the re-launch of wine estate Delaire – but I was reminded of the winery again because SABC3 are rebroadcasting their mini-series on the life of mining legend Barney Barnato. Diamonds have been the vector in a number of rags-to-riches life stories (as they have unfortunately caused worlds of pain) and the more notable the diamond, the bigger the story. The new owner of Delaire, Laurence Graff, is known as the King of Diamonds, so this is one big story.
Graff began as a teenage apprentice in a London diamond workshop and wheeled and dealed his way to the top. He now sells rocks to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and David and Victoria Beckham, along with your usual Saudi prince or two, who buy them like candy. Much of his business is done on private yachts and cities like Monte Carlo and Cannes. He’s the kind of guy that understands the world that James Bond inhabits.

So when he bought this piece of Helshoogte real estate, you knew there would be action and that the action would be worth a look. It’s a corner of the Cape with some pedigree. Thelema and Tokara are immediate neighbours, and Zorgvliet is another rich man’s plaything with a state-of-the-art cellar. Today there’s a lot going on at Delaire, from a total revamp of the cellar and vineyards to the building of a luxury hotel and restaurant. It’s a building site at the moment, but there are no flies on this project. Chris Kelly has been appointed as winemaker, and he’s been told in no uncertain terms that his goal is to make a wine that ranks among the world’s best. Kelly has settled on a very ambitious time-frame of ten years to achieve this.

One expects the new Delaire range to be frightfully expensive. Kelly, who was one of the first Cape winemakers to explore the idea of the flagship white blend with the Kumkani VVS (Viognier, Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc) will be heartened by the range of whites he has on the farm – and the prices that flagship white wines are being put into the market at these days. For example, Steenberg have just launched their Magna Carta at R395. Steenberg is backed by the deep pockets of mining magnate Graham Beck, so taking these risks with the market is mitigated. Delaire will be in much the same position to make a few statements, and word has it Graff is not shy to make a few.

Wine training and Project Laduma

Blessed with wonderful (and wonderfully visitor-friendly) wine regions, the Cape is a fabulous proposition for wine lovers. Our setting can’t be beaten, and as our wines improve in quality there are very few wine regions in the world that can compete on our total package, with the good value of our wines being a certain trump card.

Yet, the one place outside the wineries where our wines could be introduced and enjoyed by locals and visitors – but has historically been neglected or treated very carelessly – is the South African restaurant. I have written before about the ruthless mark-ups imposed on wine by restaurants. These margins come with precious little value added to the bottle. All we can do about over-priced lists is vote with our feet, or complain. 300 percent mark-ups still amaze me, since friendlier wine prices always result in higher turn-around and happier customers.

On another front, restaurants have generally not invested in the training of wait-staff in the nuances and details of the wine that they are serving. Again, it seems a no-brainer: you will certainly sell more if the waiter charmingly explains a wine you may not be familiar with. However, in a competitive industry, where part-time staff come and go, the restaurateur’s argument is that this may well be time and money wasted.

Wines of South Africa, the non-profit international marketing arm of the industry, have come up with an ingenious solution. Spurred by 2010, and to enhance the foreign visitor experience (but with the clear spin-off of making our experience better too), they have launched Project Laduma – the training of 2010 restaurant wine stewards by 2010.

It’s certainly ambitious, but what a great idea. Half of this number represents waiters and waitresses already in the industry and the other half will be a fresh crop drawn from the currently unemployed. Project Laduma is being launched this weekend and you can contribute by buying the Project Laduma wine.

The Laduma wine range has been selected through a blind tasting by the Cape Wine Makers’ Guild and will be sold in restaurants and retail outlets across the country for a limited period at approximately R120 (retail) and R150 in restaurants. Proceeds of all the wine sales will contribute toward the SETA accredited training programme. A total of 17 500 cases will be available for sale, with the hope of raising R4, 5 million for Project Laduma.

Old reds

The winery at Chamonix has a new restaurant, run by a French couple who used to have Mon Plaisir at the bottom of the Hartenberg Road. The new place is also called Mon Plaisir, and all pleasures are heightened by their list of French wines which augments the small list of Chamonix wines. In recent years, the Chamonix wines have really improved, led by their Pinot noir and Chardonnay reserve wines.
On a boeuf Bourguignon day a pinot was calling and the winery list featured the 2007 Chamonix Reserve Pinot Noir at R160. The French wine list featured a “village” Burgundy at R220. (Broadly, “village” is a term that refers to the basic level of Burgundy quality, before you get the “crus” where the individual vineyard is specified). Not that French wine is always better (though French pinot is usually truer to itself than our oaky versions), it is always interesting to taste, so we asked for the “village”.

The bottle that arrived was vintage 2001. Faced with the choice of drinking a fresh 2007 vintage red or a 2001, I will always choose the older. A red wine needs a few years to settle. Tannins knit, polymers join up, acids integrate. Some secondary flavours, called “bottle age,” often develop which add to the complexity of the drink. Besides all that, here in the Cape we so often drink only the young stuff that it is a treat to get older wine to drink.

Wasn’t always like this of course. When cellar maturation was the norm, reds were designed to age – they were pretty tough to drink before a few years had elapsed. Today, the approach to wine-making and style of wine has swung 180 degrees. Reds are built to drink now. Both for rapid commercial turn-over and because the perception is that the market does not like tannin, it likes easy-drinking.
Hence, nowadays, many of our red wines do not age (in the sense of continuing to improve) for much over five years. These wines are less tannic, softer and more approachable in youth, and the corollary is that they do not mature and improve for long. In the old style of wine-making (still practised in many parts of Europe), a red wine is hard and unapproachable in its youth, tannic and leathery. After five years it’s beginning to be drinkable, but it’s only soft and smooth after 10.

“Modern” wines are “pre-integrated” through riper fruit and soft handling and age is often not a prerequisite to further pleasure. The flip is that they will not go the same distance. In many ways, the red that really needs a decade to reach optimal drinking is now a relic of another era. This column salutes the 1975 Zonnebloem Shiraz. A month ago, still a wine to enjoy.