During my week in South Africa, I had a lot of educational experiences that involved serious spates of tasting, but perhaps one of the most insightful involved my attendance at the Cape Winemakers Guild pre-auction tasting.
South Africa sports (to my knowledge) a rather unique organization known as the Cape Winemakers Guild. Started 25 years ago by eight South African winemakers, this association has been, and continues to be, the “who’s who” of the country’s winemaking talent.
The CWG has as its mission to simply advance South African winemaking to the highest possible levels of quality and international recognition. Membership is by invitation only (to be approved by a two-thirds margin) and all members must have been making “outstanding” wine for 5 years. Interestingly, membership resides with the individual winemaker, not with their current employer or estate.
For the past 23 years, the organization has been holding an auction of wines made by members as a promotional event, as well as to raise money for charity. These wines are not just ordinary releases, however. They are special lots of wine made exclusively for the auction, often in small quantities, and are generally assumed to be the very best effort of the winemaker in a given year.
The wines for each year’s auction are selected by the members of the Guild in a completely blind tasting, and must meet a minimum level of quality (as judged by the tasters) in order to be included.
Every year the Guild holds a limited-seating tasting the day before the public auction to give journalists, prospective bidders, and other members of the South African wine industry the opportunity to taste the wines.
This tasting itself is quite impressive, as the wines are poured for all 200 or so attendees by the winemakers themselves, and each is given a minute or two to speak about their wine. The wines are poured expertly and with a ruthless efficiency that would make even the strictest of restaurant sommeliers proud.
Here are my tasting notes for all 37 of the auction wines presented in 2008. My commentary on the wines as a group follows after the notes.
2004 Simonsig “Cuvee Chene” Methode Cap Classique Brut, Stellenbosch
Pale gold in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine has a nose of freshly baked brioche. In the mouth the wine has great acid balance and flavors of tasty lemon zest, pears, and a general zippy juicyness. A smooth velvety mousse and a nice finish add to the package. 100% Chardonnay. 9
2008 Hidden Valley Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, Stellenbosch
Pale, nearly colorless in the glass with green highlights, this wine has a bright nose of passionfruit, star fruit, and green apples. In the mouth it is smooth and herbal, with a nice body, but perhaps a little lacking in acidity for me. Pleasant passion fruit flavors and a nice tangerine finish rescue it from utter flabbiness. Between 8.5 and 9
2008 Land’s End Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, Cape Agulhas, Elim
Palest gold in the glass, this wine has a nice nose of mineral green apple and rainwater. In the mouth it is cool and glassy with herbal, cut grass, cucumber, and green apple flavors. Nicely balanced, with a good mouthfeel, but perhaps slightly less acid than I would like. Between 8.5 and 9
2008 Steenberg “The White Savage” White Blend, Constantia
Pale green-gold in the glass, this wine smells of fried lotus root and green herbs. Yes it’s a little odd, but that’s what it smelled like. In the mouth it is smooth, delicious, with waxy qualities, and primary flavors of tangerine, pear, and daikon radish. Moderate finish. 9
2008 Nitida “Decorus” Sauvignon Blanc, Durbanville
Palest green-gold in the glass, this wine smells of cut green grass, rainwater, and star fruit. In the mouth it is bright with acidity, and offers gorgeous star fruit and gooseberry flavors. Classic in profile with a long finish, there’s nothing not to love. Between 9 and 9.5
2007 Teddy Hall Chenin Blanc Auction Reserve, Stellenbosch
Light gold in color, this wine has a nose of bright poached pear and butter pastry aromas. In the mouth it is fresh and bright in the mouth with buttered pastry, poached pear, and delicate honeysuckle flavors. Nice long finish. Slightly overwrought, but delicious. 9
2007 Hartenberg Estate Auction Weisser Riesling, Stellenbosch
Light green gold in the glass, the wine has a bright nose of lemon juice and pineapple aromas. In the mouth it offers pineapple flavors, a nice body that has a fresh, clear quality, and a hint of waxiness on the long finish. Between 8.5 and 9
2007 De Grendel “Koetshuis” Semillon, Durbanville
Palest gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of old paper, dried kelp, and cashews. In the mouth it is bright and fresh, with very tart crabapple and unripe pear flavors. Very fresh, bright, and delicious. 9
2007 Cederberg Private Cellar Semillon, Cederberg
Pale green-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of green nettles, brazil nuts, and balsa wood. In the mouth it is fresh and bright with lemon and grapefruit flavors and a balsa wood finish, long, bright, refreshing. Unusual and very nice. Between 9 and 9.5
2006 Flagstone “Weather Girl” White Blend, Western Cape
Near colorless in the glass with a hint of green, this wine has a nose of star fruit and unripe pears. In the mouth it is thick and smooth with nice green apple flavors and a hint of herbs. Has a delicious juiciness and texture that is compelling. Between 9 and 9.5
2007 Ataraxia Chardonnay, Elgin
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine has a nose of cold cream and buttered white toast. In the mouth it is beautifully mineral, with buttery flavors that do not overwhelm a core of lemon curd, bright acidity and grapefruit juice on the finish. Lovely. Between 9 and 9.5
2007 Jordan Chardonnay Reserve, Stellenbosch
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of sarsaparilla, lemon juice and cold cream aromas. In the mouth it is quite mineral in quality, underneath gorgeous, thick juicy, cold cream, rainwater, and lemon zest flavors. There’s a unique quality to this wine that is hard to put a finger on. Excellent. Between 9 and 9.5
2005 Vriesenhof Pinot Noir, Stellenbosch
Light ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of smoked meats and cranberry aromas. In the mouth it has caramel, oregano dried cranberries, umami, and a loamy quality. The body of the wine has great acid balance, poise and redcurrant on the finish. Somehow wine ends up being even juicier after the swallow. Definitely the best South African Pinot Noir I have had. 9.5
2007 De Grendel “Op Die Berg” Pinot Noir, Durbanville
Light ruby in color, this wine has a nose of fresh raspberries and cut raspberry leaves. In the mouth it is bright with raspberry and black raspberry flavors, hints of herbs on the finish, great acid and a beautiful texture. 9
2005 De Trafford “Perspective” Red Wine, Stellenbosch
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of cherry with a hint of nuts and green bell pepper. In the mouth it is bright, and gorgeous with great acids. It possesses a very Loire-like, Cabernet Franc focused quality, and gorgeous explosive flavors of mulberry, cherry, cola, and a long, long finish. Between 9 and 9.5
2005 A.A. Badenhorst Auction Blend Red Wine, Stellenbosch
Dark ruby in color, this wine has a nose of chocolate and black cherries. In the mouth it is slightly green in the tannins, with black cherry, hints of old wood, and a nice long finish. Between 8.5 and 9
2006 Jordan “Sophia” Bordeaux Blend, Stellenbosch
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of hazelnut skins, and forest floor aromas. In the mouth it is nutty, with earthy, cherry flavors, nice dusty tannins, and a pleasant nutty quality on the finish. 9.
2006 Thelema Auction Reserve Bordeaux Blend, Simonsberg Ward
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nice nose of cedar, eucalyptus, and cherry aromas. In the mouth the eucalyptus quality continues with cherry, soft velvet tannins, plum and hints of cocoa powder on the finish. Nice. 9.
2006 Glen Carlou CWG Auction Reserve Red Wine (1.5 Liter), Paarl
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cassis and black cherry aromas. In the mouth it is smooth with leathery tannins and nice acids supporting primary flavors of cassis and black cherries. While it gets off to a great start, the wine leaves me wanting a little something more. 8.5
2004 Waterford Estate Auction Reserve Red Wine, Stellenbosch
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of spicy meats and blackberries. In the mouth it is juicy with black and blue fruits, and tacky tannins that creep up on the finish carrying flavors of orange peel and teriyaki sauce. A blend of Shiraz and Mourvedre. Between 8.5 and 9
2005 Solo “The Guildsman” Cabernet / Shiraz, Stellenbosch
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of wet felt and forest floor. In the mouth it has a flavor of wet leaves, nuts, and dried black cherries. The wine has a dried fruit character with a bit of bitter earthiness – more than I’d want. — which lasts into the finish. 8.5
2006 Engelbrecht Els CWG Cabernet / Shiraz / Merlot, Stellenbosch
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberry and cassis – dark and inviting. In the mouth it is juicy with cherry and boysenberry flavors supported by leathery tannins. Nicely balanced with lovely fruit and a nice finish make this an excellent wine. Between 9 and 9.5
2006 Kaapzicht Cape Blend Auction Reserve, Bottelary
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of chocolate and cherry and coffee aromas. In the mouth it is oaky with sawdust and cherry flavors surrounded by leathery drying tannins. The wine has a long finish but overall seems a bit parched, like it is missing some juice. 8.5
2006 Beyerskloof Cape Blend, Stellenbosch
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of pound cake and hints of molasses. In the mouth it is lightly tannic with flavors of cherry, mulberry, and plum, and a somewhat abrasive finish that tastes like chewing on a plum pit. Between 8.5 and 9
2005 Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Auction Reserve, Stellenbosch
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of vanilla, oak, and bright cherry flavors. In the mouth it offers bright cherry fruit with a lot of oak (too much for my taste) plus cedar and vanilla flavors. The bright cherry fruit manages to supersede the oak, but not enough. Between 8.5 and 9
2005 Kumkani “Cradle Hill” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a deep nose of forest floor, black cherry, and tobacco aromas. In the mouth it is lean and clean with primary flavors of tobacco, espresso, and cherry, all of which meld and linger with faint tannins in a nice finish. 9.
2006 Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Auction Reserve, Stellenbosch
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of green bell pepper, cherry, and toasted oak. In the mouth it is smoky, with espresso, cherry, and oak flavors that linger into the finish with aromas of warm felt blankets. Quite distinctive. Between 8.5 and 9.
2005 Boekenhoutskloof Auction Reserve Syrah, Coastal Region
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright blackberry aromas. In the mouth it is all bright blackberry juice explosion, all the time. Super juicy, delicious, with a long juicy finish. Uncomplicated but incredibly yummy without being simplistic or uni-dimensional. Between 9 and 9.5
2005 Graham Beck “The Catalyst” Syrah, Robertson
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of smoked meats and cassis. In the mouth it is high toned and a bit alcohol driven, with a driven, bitter finish that has suggestions of Brettanomyces taint. Wouldn’t drink again. Not Rated.
2006 Saronsberg “Dewaldt Heys” Shiraz/Viognier, Coastal Region
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a sweet blackberry and cassis nose with hints of the floral. In the mouth it is glassy and slick and beautifully juicy sweet. Primary flavors of cassis, blackberry and black plum fruit dominate, and the wine feels long, linear and smooth going down. Super juicy. Between 9 and 9.5
NV Luddite Wild Hoar Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, Coastal Region
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of black licorice and black pepper aromas. In the mouth it has very pretty velvet tannins, nice blackberry, blueberry, and hints of black cherry flavors. Spicy black peppery and licorice on the finish. The winemaker accidentally used slightly more of a previous vintage to blend than he though, which forced the wine to be labeled as a Non Vintage. Between 9 and 9.5
2006 Cederberg “Teen Die Hoog” Shiraz, Cederberg
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of salty air and blackberry aromas that is mysterious and compelling. In the mouth it is spicy and big and round, with lovely, bright blackberry and black pepper flavors, velvet tannins and a long finish. Likely the best South African Shiraz I have had. 9.5
2006 Saronsberg “Die Erf” Shiraz, Coastal Region
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of sweet oak and blackberry pie. In the mouth it is bright juicy blackberry explosion with some heat on the finish, silky, slippery body, and zippy fruit. It’s hard not to love. Between 9 and 9.5
2006 Beyerskloof Pinotage, Stellenbosch
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a bright, pungent nose of cherry, cinnamon, and spice. In the mouth it is juicy, spicy, and beautifully textured with high toned notes of cinnamon and cherry. The wine has great acidity, long length in the mouth and a lovely finish that brings in notes of redcurrant. Likely the best Pinotage I have ever had. Between 9 and 9.5
2002 Graham Beck “1001 Nights” Muscat de Frontignan, Robertson
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of molasses and honey and apricots. In the mouth it is thick like the love child of lava and a Victoria’s Secret teddy, with flavors of honey, apricots, and an unbelievably loooong finish of coffee. Gorgeous. 9.5.
2006 Boplaas Auction Cape Vintage Reserve Port, Western Cape
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of tea, brandy, and blackberry. In the mouth it is blackberry pie, blueberry, and some odd tea flavor than runs through the finish. Not to my taste. Between 7.5 and 8
1996 Boplaas 12-Year-Old Potstill Brandy Auction Reserve, Calitzdorp
100% Colombard brandy. Aged in the barrel of 12 years. What can I say, I’m not a brandy fan. The nose is bitter and astringent with a heavy note of alcohol and leather. In the mouth it is sharp and unpleasant to my taste buds, but the finish is effortless and long with bright creamy vanilla flavors. Brandy lovers swooned for this, but I’m a philistine in their crowd. Don’t pay any attention to what I think about it. I’m only writing a tasting note because I want every wine to have a tasting note. Not Rated.
THOUGHTS ON THE BEST WINES IN SOUTH AFRICA
It’s hard to argue that these wines represent anything other than the very best that South Africa has to offer. Apart from a couple dozen specific producers, these wines are the only ones that have gotten any recent critical acclaim (the Spectator’s James Molesworth and Stephen Tanzer both reviewed these wines in advance of the auction). The CWG ostensibly represents the best winemakers in the country (even if they do say so themselves) and the auction should provide a window into the height of their talents.
Assuming this is true, then what can I say about South African wine? Well, I’ll tell you what a friend of mine will surely say if I don’t say it first. If these are supposed to be the very very best wines in the country from its best producers, then it’s quite telling that my scores aren’t above 9.5. This particular friend would say something along the lines of “damn disappointing.” And he’d partially be right.
If South Africa is trying to compete at the top level of the global wine market, then it’s hard not to admit that a similar exercise (the top winemakers in the country making the best wines) in most other wine regions around the world would most likely have yielded a few scores closer to 10 on my scale.
But as true as that is, I still have a lot of enthusiasm for South African wines, and in particular for a number of the wines above, which were truly excellent. These wines represented a top level of quality compared to hundreds of other wines I tasted last week, and deserve the recognition and pride that they generate. And should you take price into account, they are unbelievable values compared to almost any other wine region around the world.
As a teaser for more to come, however, I will say that this particular group of wines did not contain what I consider to be the very best South African wines that I tasted on my trip. You’ll have to come back over the next few days to see what those were.