Single varietal tastings were one of the big trends on the wine circuit in 2018, from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay, highlighting the hero varieties of the Cape winelands.
A good single varietal tasting showcases the different styles, clones, terroir, winemaker techniques and regional variations of a specific cultivar, whether Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay. The opportunity to explore the many dimensions of one variety at awards events – and the evolution of a single variety across vintages – is a privilege and a learning curve for wine writers. Annual top ten events for Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage benchmark the evolution and improvement of a specific variety. I go out of my way to make these events on a crowded tasting calendar where it’s impossible for a single wine scribe to make every event.
Such were my thoughts while I tasted my way through some of the finest examples of South African Chardonnay recently at the superb setting of the new Norval Foundation art gallery in Constantia. This variety has come a long way over the last decade from ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) to All about Chardonnay. At the release of the Prescient Chardonnay Report 2018, convenor Christian Eedes commented on the excellent performance of the variety. He declared, “Local Chardonnay is going from strength to strength. The next step forward for Chardonnay is to identify vineyards best suited for the variety”. The top five wines – from Delaire, La Bri, Le Riche, Meerlust and Paul Cluver Seven Flags – all scored 94 while the average score across the 117 entries was 89,9 out of 100.
I enjoyed tasting many of the 24 top Chardonnay wines – inter alia frequent top performers on the show such as Creation, DeMorgenzon, Domaine des Dieux, Eikendal, Elgin Vintners, Groot Constantia, Groote Post, La Motte, Richard Kershaw and Tokara – spread across six different wine regions (Stellenbosch led the way with ten out of the top 24 top – while Elgin won six places).
Chenin Blanc was the top performing variety among all white, red and fortified categories in Platter’s South African Wine Guide 2019, winning some eighteen five-star ratings. (Chardonnay won five five-star ratings). The top performers in the Chenin category include Beaumont, Botanica, Cederberg, David & Nadia (with three five-star wines), DeMorgenzon, Sadie, Savage, Spier and Stellenrust.
I enjoyed tasting the top Chenin producers at Chenin on the Beach at the Grand Café in September – a prelude to Cape Wine 2018. This celebration of Chenin – as well as the Top Ten Chenin Blanc competition – have become highlights on the wine tasting calendar. This is an opportunity to talk and taste Chenin with leading winemakers who specialise in South Africa’s hero white variety. At this year’s benchmark, I was treated to a tasting of Riana Hall’s superb Rudera trio of wooded Chenin Blanc – De Tradisie, Robusto and platinum – which showcase the many facets of old dryland bush vines and natural winemaking techniques. And owner Shelley Sandell and winemaker Roger Burton seriously impressed with their Tierhoek Chenin labels, including standard, reserve and straw vine expressions made with grapes from old bushvines in the Piekenierskloof up the west coast. Jeff Grier and Ken Forrester, the Chenin kings shared their infectious passion for Chenin Blanc.
At Cape Wine 2018, the spotlight was placed on twelve single varietals in free pour line-ups in the theme tasting zone, ranging from Chenin, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz – as well as traditional Cape varietals such as Cinsault and Semillon, newer Italian and Portuguese varietals, and alternate varietals such as Viognier and Verdelho.
Talking of award-winning Chardonnay and Chenin, a recent tasting of Malanot Wines of Stellenbosch with winemaker Marius Malan was another highlight on this year’s tasting circuit. I attended the release of his premium Malanot Asiel (meaning Asylum) Chenin Blanc (R280 per numbered bottle), a spontaneous ferment 12 months in barrel, at Table Seven, a great new cheffy venue in Salt River. On the inspiration for the label, which carries a miniature Victorian straight jacket leather buckle, he says, “Asiel has found refuge in the wooden holds of its barrels, and now looks forward to being released. But we think it’s still insane. This is a brand where I can just do what I want in winemaking, small volumes, but radical wines”. We also loved the superb Malanot Chardonnay, an elegant blend of Elgin and Franschhoek grapes, awarded 93 points on the Prescient Chardonnay Report 2018. Marius adds that Malanot is a portmanteau of his surname and genot – not mal Malan as in crazy!
The bright star of Sauvignon Blanc shone at an annual tasting at Diemersdal led by family winemaker Thys Louw who has reinvented this sixth-generation farm in Durbanville into a specialist Sauvignon cellar. I asked why they make so many different styles of Sauvignon (nine at the last count, including eight rows, single vineyard, reserve, skin-ferment, a new innovative winter ferment, noble late harvest and rose versions). He explains, “We like the challenge. Sauvignon Blanc is the most popular category of wine in South Africa, the UK and the USA. South Africa enjoys a fantastic, dry cool climate perfect for Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa’s most exported category in the bottle – and earns the most value”. At a tasting of five styles of Diemersdal’s Sauvignon Blanc, Thys showed, “I don’t like the greener styles of Sauvignon Blanc. I try to avoid all pyrazines in my wine”.
One of the most interesting single varietal tastings of 2018 took place at Org de Rac in Piketberg in the Swartland. Cellarmaster Frank Meaker, a veteran of forty vintages in the Cape, makes organically certified wine in the vineyards and in the cellar. On a tasting in situ among the vines, he spoke about the different flavour profile of all the Merlot clones planted in South Africa. He says the average grape grower can’t tell one Merlot clone from the next – and planted high volume clones. Walking among the Merlot, a keystone variety at Org de Rac, numbered by clone, we taste the essence of their six Italian clones: the raspberry clone, the depth and bite of another, the spanspek/fruit roll character of yet another – and the spice/blueberry clone which lies at the core of their Merlot blend. “Merlot is very fussy” he warns. ”It likes a specific spot on a hill. We’ve won many awards for Merlot.”