April 25th marked a night of tasting premium South African reds with our local chapter of the South World Wine Society. As usual, it was a gregarious group with a diverse range of opinions and no hesitation sharing them. Here’s a short review of the wines we sipped in the order we sampled.
2002 Mulderbosch Steen Op Hout, Stellenbosch
The evening began with a bit of a mystery as we attempted to identify the grape variety of our reception wine. Frank and another young man we later learned is also going through WSET training got it almost immediately – Chenin Blanc (for those who know, clearly identified on the label by its Afrikaans name of Steen). Although, I’ll boast on Frank’s behalf because he figured that one blind – unlike me, he hadn’t gone back to check out label. An overtone of burnt matches and a bit bitter at the back of the mouth, this is the first South African Chenin Blanc to have contact with oak.
2001 Walker Bay Pinot Noir, Hamilton Russell Vineyards
Descriptors from our assembled company included mineral, slate, just plain beautiful, and “a haunting perfume like night on the plains of Africa.” Typical old world style, this was Frank’s favourite of the evening, my second favourite. Denise, who claims to “really dislike Pinot Noirs,” said it turned into her top choice but only after she began pairing it with food.
2003 Reserve Cape Blend Simonsig Frans Malan, Stellenbosch
A blend of 45% each Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon rounded out with 10% Merlot. Designed as an attempt to create the definitive “Cape Blend” (which must, by law, include Pinotage) this wine prompted a true love/hate relationship. Most people loved it big time chatting happily about the spicy notes and rich vanilla. But those who didn’t like it, really didn’t – and were extremely vocal about it. Consensus was it needs food – as one woman said: give me laaamb, baaaah. (Photo of the dusty plains and mauve sunsets above courtesy of Simonsig)
2001 Rosendal, Stellenbosch
Not just organic but biodynamic we agreed this is what the British would call a “correct wine.” Dusty like the African desert, earthy, and with the bakery nose that comes from using only naturally occurring yeasts, Paul, our cellar master described this wine as “a convivial evening with good food and friends” – apparently perfectly aligned with the winemakers philosophy of getting right down to drinking and enjoying a wine rather than talking about it too much. (Rosendal barrels in the field shown left. Photo courtesy of the winery.)
2003 Saxenburg Cabernet Sauvignon Private Collection, Stellenbosch
Stalky green pepper and barnyard earned this wine the title of being “a young, angry teenager waiting to make a statement.” This is a winemaker who used to divide his time between France and South Africa, but now chooses to concentrate his talents only in the latter.
2002 Ruste en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch
Literally translated as “far enough,” this Ruste en Vrede Cab is the only South African wine to place in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines four times – although this particular vintage is not considered one of their stellar ones. Controversy raged as to whether it was leather or barnyard. In the end, opinion seemed split 50/50, but all agreed this is perfect for nights when the planned activities are throwing a steak or two on the barbie and watching mindless TV – like that would be hard to find on the tube these days?
2004 Syrah Glen Carlou, Paarl
Smooth, voluptuous, alluring, with perfect balance and tannic integration, this Syrah was named Wine of the Year in the 2006 John Platter South African Wine Guide – long acknowledged as the definitive authority on South African wines. “It’s really great, but it’s a bitch to find,” someone let us know from the far end of the room. But at an approximate cost of $30, it’s also one I’m betting a whole bunch of us will rush out to snap up whatever few remaining bottles we can find. Words of wisdom from cellar master Paul: This is the wine you pull out on the first date.
FYI: In the annual Platter Guide competition, wines are first tasted sighted. Subsequently, all five-star wines are tasted blind to determine the ultimate winner.
2003 Shiraz Radford Dale, Stellenbosch
This Shiraz could hang out with the Aussies undetected – hardly a surprise when you realize the winemaker harkens from Barossa. More about international style rather than terroir, we agreed this wine is designed to appeal to the North American palate. There were brief rumours this is the wine you open now you’re half way through the first date and have moved into the living room. Most, however, said it was the one to sip as you’re sitting around with “the gang” after work and telling jokes about your boss.
2002 Syrah Boekenhoutskloof Estate, Franschboek
Coffee, chocolate, and all those yummy flavours come together to create a slightly restrained but full wine that’s surprisingly different from its 2001 younger sister which was actually made from grapes grown closer to the Indian Ocean. (Note: this winery doesn’t appear to have an individual website but they are listed if you follow the link above.)
1996 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Klein Constantia
Amber poetry on the nose, it took us both a while to actually take a sip of this one as we savoured the distinctive aroma of Noble Rot. After great anticipation, however, we both felt let down when it hit the palate – a little flat and bordering on harsh – especially disappointing since only four or five vintages have been produced.