The trend to vertical tastings of single varieties was one of the highlights of 2015. The year that was saw a focus on focus white and red varieties in wine regions from Robertson to Stellenbosch - and on tastings which showcased the emergence of cool climate viticulture in emerging new maritime wine routes from Plettenberg to Elim and Stanford. While Chenin Blanc was the undisputed queen of white varietal tastings on the circuit in 2015, followed closely by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, the renaissance of Cabernet Sauvignon as king was the hottest trend - led by some of the oldest first wine families in Stellenbosch who showed off their pedigree in style.
At the annual benchmark tasting of new releases at Tokara, winemaker Miles Mossop commented, “Cabernet Sauvignon performs the best in Stellenbosch. We get a great diversity of Cabernet in different styles here from the perfumed red fruit of the Simonsberg to Bottelary Hills and Polkadraai. Cabernet is a signature grape for us.”
Gone are the shotgun launches of a fruit salad of new vintage releases from individual wine farms. You’re never too old to learn a new trick - and the best wine tastings I’ve attend over the last twelve months have had a clear focus on signature varieties and the evolution of house styles. Winemakers, like celebrity chefs, have come out of the cellar. These days winemakers and viticulturists lead tastings which demonstrate the role of newer clones and plantings, soils/terroir, yeast (commercial vs native), thiols versus pyrazine, fermentation styles, vintage variations and complex wood regimes.
I’ve enjoyed tasting my way across the winelands but ten wine tastings of Cabernet and Cabernet based blends stand out this year - listed in alphabetical order below:
* Alto: Taking over the reins in 2015, seasoned winemaker Bertho van der Westhuizen became the fifth winemaker at Alto since 1921, joining the illustrious ranks of his father Schalk van der Westhuizen and Hempies du Toit. Over a vertical tasting of Alto Cabernet from 1998 to 2003, Bertho declared “Cabernet will always be king of the Helderberg. These high-lying, dryland vineyards produce classic Cabernet with great longevity. There’s a line that runs through Alto Cabernet. The odd years were the great ones”. One of the first producers of varietal Cabernet in the Cape in the 1970s, Alto showcased the elegant tannins and classic styling of its signature variety.
* Delheim: The Sperling family launched the 2013 vintage of their Grand Reserve, a Cabernet Sauvignon-led flagship first made in 1981, over an illuminating tasting of the eight best vintages from 1984 to 2013. The event held in the iconic family cellar showcased the legacy of legendary winemakers who have worked at Delheim over the years, from Kevin Arnold and Philip Costandius to Conrad Vlok. Current winemaker Reg Holder and viticulturist Etienne Terblanche took us on a journey into the farm’s past, demonstrating the staying power of one of South Africa’s finest Cabernet Sauvignons - a wine which expresses the unique terroir (“sense of place”), the classic varietal fruit (of mostly bushvine Cabernet), the vintage and the subtlety of old oak.
* Eikendal: Winemaker Nico Grobler had waited six years to lead a vertical tasting of the first five vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 - 2013 he has made at this Helderberg cellar renowned for its elegant red wines. Over a tasting at this Swiss-owned family farm which released its first wines thirty years ago, he commented on his “journey” learning about “the bone structure” of Eikendal Cabernet Sauvignon. “These wines tell the story of each vintage and our great terroir. You have to create energy in wine - they are like a 3000 metre athlete which can run for long, on small, defined muscles. I want these wines to be in good shape in ten years time”. The tasting expressed the three F’s of his philosophy (finesse, freshness and purity of fruit), the use of untoasted oak, the concentration of new clones and reduced IBMPs.
* Kleine Zalze: New cellar master Alastair Rimmer led a vertical tasting of three tiers of Cabernet Sauvignon, one of this Stellenbosch cellar’s signature varieties. Made by stellar winemaker RJ Botha, the cellar selection, vineyard selection and family reserve range of Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2007, 2010 and 2013 vintages demonstrated his assertions that “The most important things Kleine Zalze looks for are elegance, depth of flavour and balance in wines that express our terroir. Our weathered old granite soils produce very concentrated wines. We blend in Cabernet from other vineyards to add complexity. Elegant light to medium-bodied wines are coming back. We try to explore the more elegant, feminine side of Bordeaux in our Cabernet”.
* Meerlust: One of the oldest family-owned wine estates in South Africa (1693) celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its iconic wine label and the first release of the cellar’s Cabernet Sauvignon in 1975 with a special tasting hosted by owner Hannes Myburgh in the grand old manor-house of this Stellenbosch farm. Cellar master Chris Williams (since 2004) and predecessor Giorgio Dalla Cia (1978-2003) led a dizzying vertical flight of Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon and Rubicon, one of the first Bordeaux red blends in the Cape (1980), over select vintages from 1975 to 2009. Chris Williams spoke about the allure of Meerlust, “Cabernet has found a home here. Every year it makes wines of great character. This is a very special place to make wine”. Hannes Myburgh, the eighth generation family custodian, hosted a fabulous home-cooked lunch of lamb bredie, bread and soet patat with all the wine dogs in the kitchen.
* Nederburg: Razvan Macici, Distell’s chief winemaker, led a rare vertical tasting of Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon over five decades, offering wine writers the rare privilege of tasting the best years of 1966 (made by Gunter Brozel), 1975, 1987, 1997, 2010 and 2012. Over sublime vintages of 1975, 1987 and 1997 (Newald Marais) which demonstrated the finesse and staying power of old Cape Cabernet, Razvan commented, “Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of reds in South Africa. We make great Cabernet. Cabernet is one of our foundations”. He discussed prime Cabernet sources, the evolution of winemaking technique, oak regimes and stylistic changes in the modern era. Today Nederburg makes six different expressions of Cabernet - including the flagship II Centuries made from 35 year old vines, released only five years later.
* Simonsig: A vertical tasting of Tiara, the Bordeaux-style flagship first made in 1990, was another highlight of the winelands tasting circuit in 2015. Cellar master Johan Malan and winemaker Debbie Thompson also selected the odd years - 1995 (“the vintage of the decade”), 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011 - to show the best vintages from their vineyards. Identifying Cabernet as the king of Stellenbosch, Simonsig also released The Garland, a maiden single vineyard, super-premium Cabernet. The tasting demonstrated the evolution of Tiara from a Cabernet/Merlot blend into a complex five-way blend, adding Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and occasionally Malbec. Malan gave a fascinating address on the family tree of Cabernet - “the backbone of the blend with its structure and tannin” - tracing its parenage.
* Uitkyk: Winemaker Estelle Lourens led a vertical tasting of Carlonet, the heritage cellar’s flagship wine made from mostly Cabernet Sauvignon since the first vintage of 1982. The grand manor house built by French architect Louie Thibault in 1788 provided a classical backdrop for a tasting of the 1987, 2001, 2007 and 2011 vintages. Uitkyk’s original Cabernet/Cinsaut based blends go back to 1957. Estelle said, “Carlonet has staying power - a wine to last thirty years. The soil only comes through after six to seven years. We get great tannin structure in our grapes”. As with other tastings, the earlier decades up to the early 1980s produced velvety rich wines of astonishing low alcohols (12% upwards) and high acidity, which, Estelle concludes explain their longevity. She creates complexity using different clones from the key Bordeaux block, a Cabernet bush vine component and first, second and third fill oak.
* Vrede en Lust: At a vertical tasting of Boet Erasmus, the cellar’s flagship four-way Bordeaux blend, winemaker Susan Erasmus highlighted the six vintages she has made between 2007 - 2012 at this cellar on the Paarl/Simondium border. Cabernet Sauvignon is the elegant thread and backbone of this benchmark new-world blend with its poised balance of cassis fruit, fresh acidity and smooth fine tannin. “Susan declares, “We get great Cabernet Sauvignon on the slopes of the Simonsberg. You have to respect the fruit. Don’t over -extract the vineyard and don’t over-oak.”
* Cabernet Kingdom: Last but not least, the benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon showcase on the eve of Cape Wine 2015 led by Greg Sherman MW at The One&Only surely marked the renaissance of the great red grape. At the event billed as Stellenbosch: Kingdom of Cabernet, an A-Z of twenty leading producers - Alto, De Trafford, Delaire Graff, Ernie Els, Glenelly, Kanonkop, Le Riche, Meerlust, Neil Ellis, Oldenburg, Rust en Vrede, Rustenberg, Stark-Conde, Thelema, Uitkyk, Vergelegen, Vriesenhof, Waterford and Zonnebloem - showcased vintages from 2000 to 2009 to local and foreign trade/media. 2015 was the year of Cabernet on the tasting circuit.