Like Bordeaux’s Château Margaux, South Africa has blends, like Rubicon and Paul Sauer, whose single names say all that needs be said. EMILE JOUBERT explains what makes them so renowned along with tasting notes on some notable wines.
THE WORLD MIGHT be awash with tens of thousands of different wines from every country imaginable, but in essence there are only two types of vinous offerings: those made from single grape varieties and those that combine two or more cultivars, blended by the winemaker to present a whole that is deemed greater than the sum of its parts.
For the wine lover, the composing of a blended wine has two attractions. Firstly, the amalgamation can offer a palate-pleasing wine that provides not only all-encompassing drinking pleasure, but also immense complexity. Those imbibers, for example, who find a single-cultivar wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon a bit tannic and forceful in the mouth will experience a plusher and more agreeable wine once the Cabernet Sauvignon has been given a juicier veneer with the addition of a splash of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The same goes for a white wine, where the pungent grassiness of Sauvignon Blanc is toned down and fleshed out by dropping some fuller-bodied Sémillon into the mix during the winemaking process.
As to the second important factor of blended wines, think branding power, status and pure presence. Here some of the greatest international and South African wines are known simply by one name, a name that represents the combination of grapes used in creating this merging of cultivars. Like the great wines of Bordeaux.
The appeal and value of legendary wines like Château Margaux, Lafite and Mouton Rothschild rest on their Bordeaux origin, provenance and status – and quality, of course – far more than it does on the grape varieties used to create them. The same goes for California’s revered Opus One and the Australian hero that is Penfolds Grange – New World wines that have gained mythical status almost rivalling that of the Bordeaux luminaries. In each of these instances, the wine’s name and the brand are all-encompassing, commanding attention for the reputation for quality it has built over decades and representing the individuality and style of the bottle’s cherished contents.
In the South African context this feature is particularly relevant because it has largely been blended red wines that have staked their place at the forefront of the local industry’s reputation. I would challenge even the most knowledgeable vinophile to deny that KWV’s Roodeberg, a blended red, was the most famous Cape wine offering in the 1970s and early 1980s. No one really cared whether this wine was made by bringing together Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage or whatever else might have gone into those mysterious bottles. The fact of the name Roodeberg said enough.
And despite tremendous improvements in viticulture and winemaking that have seen exceptional single-variety Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc and Merlot wines made in South Africa today, our most famous red wines are still blends with big names: Meerlust Rubicon, Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Rust en Vrede Estate, Eben Sadie’s Columella. It must also be said, though, that some of the country’s most popular wines, on which many wine drinkers cut and stained their teeth, are blended. Think Nederburg Baronne, Chateau Libertas and that perennial favourite of students, Tassenberg.
PIONEEROf all the Cape’s esteemed blended red wines, Stellenbosch’s Alto Rouge must surely take pride of place in terms of pioneer status. The Alto Estate, on the Annandale Road outside Stellenbosch, has been making its blended Rouge since 1922 and to my mind deserves far greater recognition for its role in establishing a culture of multi-cultivar wines to a degree of consistent excellence than is currently the case.
It was here on the slopes of the Helderberg that then-owner Manie Malan became impatient with the time it took Alto’s Cabernet Sauvignon to soften while maturing in oak barrels. The four-year ageing period to rid the wine of its tannic thrust was not conducive to marketing sensibilities and the consumers’ need for an approachable, fruit-driven red wine.
Manie understood the plush nature of Shiraz and Cinsaut, the other two main varieties grown on Alto, and used these in blending with his Cabernet Sauvignon to create a wine that was accessible and fully drinkable two years after harvest.
By 1924 Alto was exporting this blend exclusively to Burgoyne’s wine shop in London, as the trader deemed this Cape stuff to be a spitting image of the red wines from the magical wine region of Burgundy in France – a fact that will no doubt have today’s wine buffs choking on their Pinot Noir.
The international popularity of this Alto Rouge saw it being released onto the South African market in 1933 – 90 years ago. The fact that this wine still has pride of place in today’s environment is truly a momentous achievement and recognition of the commitment to its legacy by those who followed in Manie’s footsteps.
Over the years and under the stewardship of various legendary cellar masters, the Alto Rouge blend has been adapted from that first vintage as the winemakers sought to improve the wine’s quality in reflecting the terroir of Alto and to use new developments in viticultural practices and the availability of different clones. The primary components in Alto Rouge today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc, with Petit Verdot and Merlot also incorporated to add complexity and depth.
History and nostalgia aside, under the wine-making prowess of current cellar master Bertho van der Westhuizen the Alto Rouge continues to be a superb red wine, punching way above its weight in terms of the price-to-value ratio and staking its claim as a true South African great of immortal status.
ABOVE: At Tokara, traditional methods are used alongside leading-edge technology to produce wines that express a unique sense of place. The farm lies between two beautiful valleys on the foothills of the Simonsberg and only grapes from the best blocks are used for their Bordeaux-style blends.
At Tokara, traditional methods are used alongside leading-edge technology to produce wines that express a unique sense of place. The farm lies between two beautiful valleys on the foothills of the Simonsberg and only grapes from the best blocks are used for their Bordeaux-style blends.
THE BORDEAUX CONNECTION
It was during the 1970s that the South African wine industry took the few earnest steps that would help it progress to becoming a more serious wine country that was dedicated to underscoring the principles of recognising terroir and defining its diversity of wine regions. This decade saw regulations passed to define areas of grape production officially through the Wine of Origin scheme, as well as allowing for the making of estate wines grown, made and bottled within the borders of individual wine farms. Before then the majority of the industry was used to carting grapes and wine from farm cellars to the major wine corporations, where the fruits of the farmers’ labour were thrown together into big brands, some of which were nondescript and soulless.
This more serious wine environment led to farm owners being able to now realise dreams and implement methods to express themselves and the individual nature
of their properties’ soils and climate in an attempt to bring a new degree of class and distinction to Cape wine. And like most other wine farmers around the world, they saw Bordeaux as the ultimate reference point.
Looking back to that time, it must be said that the South African wine industry has missed a beat by not bestowing enough honour on the late Billy Hofmeyr. It was he who made the country’s first Bordeaux-style red blend in 1979 on his Paarl wine estate Welgemeend, and it was he who believed that the Cape had terroirs capable of achieving greatness in classic red wines. It was also he who had influence on preeminent winemakers such as Jan Boland Coetzee, Walter Finlayson, Etienne le Riche and Kevin Arnold, making him as much a source of inspiration as a brother in South Africa’s vision of creating fine wine.
Billy was no trained winemaker, but a quantity surveyor. Yet he had an intuitive knack for wine-farming and winemaking that was complemented by a deep and convincing belief that great wine is as integral a part of civilisation as his other two great
loves, classical music and art. And he was an expert in both. He was, quite simply, a wine man in full, and I am not the only one who reckons that without his multi-layered contribution to Cape wine the local industry would be poorer today.
Fortunately, Billy’s legacy is intact, since it was he who created the first Bordeaux-style blended red wine in South Africa. His Welgemeend estate was planted to all five grape varieties that the Bordeaux region is famous for using in its blends: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The first Welgemeend wines were led by Cabernet Sauvignon, with the other four components used in varying degrees.
As a music man, I can imagine Billy acting as a symphony conductor bringing these different wines together to achieve the precise harmony his experienced palate was looking for.
Billy passed away in 2000, yet his legacy is alive in the wines he made throughout the 1980s; wines that, if you can get your hands on them, are still incredibly elegant, fresh and deeply classical.
Wine farms in the Helderberg Annandale area are well known for noble grape varieites. Uva Mira’s Cabernet Sauvignon vines are planted on the warmer, lower slopes of the estate.
Unfortunately, the greatness of Welgemeend now only survives in the few remaining older vintages of the 1980s and early 1990s, which have become collectors’ items. But the advent of the Cape’s Bordeaux wine blend was arguably one of the most important episodes in South African wine, as Billy’s original foray into this realm was followed by two wines that today stand at the pinnacle of the country’s offering.
CROSSING THE RUBICON AND MEETING PAUL SAUER
Recognised locally and internationally as representing two of the finest examples of South African wine, Meerlust Rubicon and Kanonkop Paul Sauer, both Stellenbosch wines initially produced from vintages 1980 and 1981 respectively, are Bordeaux-style red blends that have rightfully gained icon status. This is the result of consistent quality and the revered voice of name and brand, and it underscores the fact that the grape varieties required for delivering these styles of wine have found a home at the southern tip of Africa.
I’ll never forget the reverential tones in which those first vintages of the Meerlust Rubicon were discussed after the maiden 1980 rendition had hit the market in 1984. Even before the wine was seen or tasted, there was a lot to like about it.
There was Meerlust’s history going back to 1693 and the farm’s uninterrupted stewardship under the Myburgh family since 1756, factors that helped to wrap the wine brand in a cloak of alluring provenance. Proprietor Nico Myburgh, whose vision resulted in the Rubicon Bordeaux blend, was not only a pioneer, but a single- minded and legendary industry figure. A keen angler who fly-fished for trout in the Eerste River flowing through his Meerlust property, Nico apparently expressed a wish for his ashes one day to be strewn into the river’s gushing flow. “But Nico,” remarked one of his friends, “of course you know that they being yours, those ashes will flow up-stream, not down.”
With his Italian winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia, Nico bottled the wine blend led by Cabernet Sauvignon and offset with Merlot and Cabernet Franc under the evocative name of Rubicon, referring to the river Julius Caesar led his troops across on the way to capturing Rome in 49BC on the understanding that there was no turning back.
The combination of Meerlust’s legacy, the personalities of Nico and Giorgio, a dramatically classical name and a relatively new style of red wine of powerfully refined elegance made Rubicon an instant success. Even in the dark days of economic sanctions against South Africa during the 1980s, Meerlust Rubicon gained international recognition for its timeless regal branding and consistent wine quality.
Tasting recent vintages of Rubicon today alongside aged bottles from the past three decades, one cannot help but notice the Old World nuances in the wine, its tapestry of fine-grained tannins and harmonious balance from palate entry to finish. This is the beauty and the power of a great blended red wine. It is not Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc; it just is Rubicon.
Released from a vintage one year after Meerlust’s Rubicon, the Paul Sauer red Bordeaux blend from another famed Stellenbosch property, Kanonkop, has become accepted over the past two decades as South Africa’s greatest red wine.
Two aspects have always intrigued me about the Paul Sauer wine, besides its statuesque and consistent splendour. One is that, according to those more knowledgeable about soil, geology and such physical aspects, the vineyards grown for making this wine are on soil that had been used for livestock grazing in years past. Only after in-depth investigation and analysis was it decided to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc – and to great effect.
Then there is the making of the Paul Sau- er itself, the maiden 1981 vintage introduced by Kanonkop’s legendary winemaker Beyers Truter, who succeeded the formidable Jan Boland Coetzee.
When it comes to creating blended wines, the usual technique is to ferment and age each of the grape components separately, then give each batch of individual varietal wine time in oak barrels to allow character to develop. After a few months as separate components, the skill of the winemaking team conjures the final blend through copious tastings of all the different units. After this, the agreed blend is sent back to barrel for a year or so to mature further as a complete entity. Meerlust’s Rubicon, for example, is created in this manner.
Kanonkop blends its Paul Sauer in a different way. Conventionally comprising 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, each component is harvested separately in that cabbage-patch vineyard, then crushed and fermented. Once the process of malolactic fermentation is complete and before any contact with a wood barrel, the three raw wines are blended together in their virginal state by Kanonkop cellar master Abrie Beeslaar. The complete wine is then sent to barrel for two years without any further intervention or tinkering with the blend’s make-up.
The advantage here is that the Paul Sauer’s components spend the full maturation process as an integrated whole, which no doubt helps to give it that seamless and complete character. But it also underscores the Kanonkop team’s understanding of their vineyards and their grapes, as to take only one shot at getting it right could be deemed risky. Yet this ‘dare to dream’ approach has proved to be more than successful if one looks at the track record and status of Paul Sauer.
There is a tired adage in the world of wine that states ‘good wine is made in the vineyard’. This is undeniably true. But the fact that blended wines find themselves at the top of the pecking order in terms of status, class and superior quality implies that the vineyards’ good wines require a touch of skilled human interaction to become truly great. Both need each other, and we, the wine lovers, need them.
Without a variation in vintages, any wine aiming for renowned status would be pretty boring. The intriguing vintage differentiation of the Kanonkop Paul Sauer is one of the many reasons for it having attained cult status, and 2019 is a case in point. While still showing an edginess in its youth, this wine is destined to be a fascinating rendition of South Africa’s most famous Bordeaux-style blend, notably for the delicate framework restraining its energetic power.
Made from a challenging vintage, when the vineyards were struggling to overcome the Cape’s notorious dry period, and yields were meagre, but the small berries held concentrated flavours, Paul Sauer 2019 is still the classic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%), Merlot (15%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (15%). It was given two years’ ageing in new French oak barrels. Almost coy in its entrance on the mouth, the wine displays a balletic muscular body moving with much grace in its showing of dark fruit, cedar and dry lavender. Tannins are somewhat subdued in this vintage, which relies more on charm and lifeaffirming energy to assert itself than the dramatic broodiness found in some other vintages. An astounding wine.
The Legacy 2018 Bordering Stellenbosch close to the N1, Koelenhof has a reputation for excellence that is often overlooked, as much of this large winery’s reputation relies on its expansive offering of modestly priced wines – you can even get must for baking mosbolletjies in the harvest season. I for one am glad to see the effort Koelenhof is making to stake its claim as a producer of premium wines, and its flashily packaged The Legacy Bordeaux-style blend is a case in point.
The varietal mix is interestingly precise: half is Cabernet Sauvignon and the remaining Bordeaux quartet of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec come in at 12.5% apiece. That ambitions have been shown in this wine’s making, is underscored by the use of new wood barriques in which the wine lies for a full two years. And the commitment to precision and the obvious thought that went into The Legacy show in a fine red wine.
Having had five years after vintage to gain complexity and character, The Legacy 2018 is a class act. Tertiary prods of pine and lead pencil are showing, while dashes of discernible fruit notes hit the spot with confidence and precision. The wine is juicy and drinkable, but commands respect and attention thanks to the statuesque tannin structure and the immersive presence the wine has on the drinking experience.
This blend from the Glenelly Estate on the southern edge of Simonsberg honours the farm’s founder and proprietor, May de Lencquesaing, a French wine legend who also owned the prestigious Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse
de Lalande in the Pauillac part of Bordeaux. Her Bordeaux estate was a Second Growth producer, furthering the expectations of excellence one has of a wine from Lady May’s property – and one that bears her name.
And it delivers.
This wine is grounded in Cabernet Sauvignon, making up 90% of the blend, and the balance comprises a smattering of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The year 2017 was one of the Cape’s comet vintages where bud-break, flowering, berry-set and ripening flowed together like polished parts of a symphony orchestra, and Lady May 2017 certainly vindicates the year’s reputation for greatness. The wine has a commanding presence, from entry on the palate to the lasting finish, and carries Old World Cabernet Sauvignon characteristics of pine needle, graphite and dense autumnal berry, with a sunny stroke of fynbos so characteristic of wines made in this region.
Although it is only a splash in the mix, the Cabernet Franc adds minerality and freshness to a wine of immense structure and poise. The 24 months spent in new French oak barrels further polish the fruits of a tremendous vintage harnessed by the winemaker’s skill. A wine worth hoisting the Tricolore for.
Jordan Estate, across the valley from the lofty Helderberg, is
the kind of winery that you can be sure everything it offers is of true quality and that the wines taste like the labels say. This Bordeaux-style blend of just
on 70% Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Merlot and Cabernet Franc is a case in point. Named after the family’s shoemaking activities that preceded their pursuit of great wine, Cobblers Hill is blended from vineyards
set on Jordan’s magnificent decomposed granite soils facing south and east. Varieties are harvested and fermented separately before going into barrel for one year. The various cultivars are then selected and the blend composed before the final wine is returned to oak for six months to harmonise.
A relatively low alcohol of 13.5% is the result of using pump-overs during fermentation, which allows a portion of alcohol to drift off, adding to the alluring elegance and freshness of a truly great example of a Stellenbosch red wine. Plummy notes abound, centred on a core of cedar and graphite, with a bracing cherry juiciness to allow this wine to
be enjoyed in its current youth. But as previous vintages have shown, Cobblers Hill ages splendidly and for true followers of this regal wine style, having a few older bottles in the cellar is strongly advised.
Perched at eagle-flying level on the Helderberg, Uva Mira offers an example of the wonders to be found in the Cabernet Franc grape, which normally plays second fiddle in most of the country’s Bordeaux-style blends, if used at all. The O.T.V., named after owner Toby Venter’s father, Ockert Tobias, brings 59% Cabernet Franc together with 41% Cabernet Sauvignon and shows the kind of refinement obtainable from vineyards lying between 300m and 400m up the mountain and exposed to the Atlantic Ocean at False Bay, less than 10km away.
It’s the purity of this wine that stands out; focused and accurate and perfectly balanced between an invigorating red-sabre brightness and layers that provide complexity. The 18 months in French oak (65% new) does not dampen the alert sappy sparkle of Cabernet Franc fruit, while the Cabernet Sauvignon component adds a dramatic broodiness without the slightest hint of cloddy extraction or bristly tannins. There is a nostalgic touch of berry-flavoured Ribena providing a comforting sunniness to the wine, while a midpalate of potpourri, blackcurrant and fynbos gives a distinctive Cape Winelands feel to the wine. The overall experience
is one of polished sophistication and that indefinable feeling of drinking something quite special and unique.
If anyone were to ask how an iconic wine brand is created, Vilafonté would be worth looking to for answers. First made from the 2003 vintage, Vilafonté has leapt to the forefront of the Cape’s ultra-premium wine offerings, and here the term ‘cult wine’ is totally applicable. It is brilliantly positioned and marketed, beautifully packaged and comes with a heady price tag for both the Cabernet Sauvignon-driven Vilafonté Series C (R1 980) and the Merlot-led Series M (R1 100). Despite my love for the visceral power of Cabernet Sauvignon, the Vilafonté Series M gives a plusher, more luxurious drinking experience.
Series M is made from Merlot (43%), Malbec (37%), Cabernet Sauvignon (14%) and Cabernet Franc (6%), and the two Ms – Merlot and Malbec – bring a silky feel to the palate, while there is no shortage of a focused red wine core. Spending 22 months in French oak barriques (only 12% new wood) furthers the blend’s genteel sensory echoes. Intoxicating and gorgeous on the nose, with hints of ground coffee and mocha, cigar box and crushed grapes, with a pastoral earthiness. Presence in
the mouth is beguiling, firm yet pliable in texture, with layer upon layer of flavour: sun-dried prunes, dark cherry and a whisper of allspice. I know ageing will do good things to this, but right now I am living for the moment.
The Rust en Vrede Estate on Stellenbosch’s Helderberg is renowned for its pursuit of excellence in all aspects, a reputation it has earned with its fine red wines, impeccable dining facilities and an all-round glorious aesthetic. But for me, Rust en Vrede’s blended wine, one of the great wines of Stellenbosch, is at the core of the property’s value.
The wine is based on Cabernet Sauvignon, with the 2019 vintage containing a 61% component of this variety, the heartbeat of the Helderberg region. Some 9% Merlot joins the Cabernet to form a Bordeaux-blend core that is taken to another dimension with a hefty Shiraz component – 30% in this particular vintage.
The result is a stunning wine bearing the characteristic warm-blooded power of Helderberg Cabernet Sauvignon that’s given a velvet cloak by that formidable Shiraz element. Matured for 22 months in wood, of which 40% is new French oak, the Rust en Vrede Estate 2019 has a sturdy backbone, yet is sleekly muscled and very approachable, even in this stage of relative youth. The magic, for me, lies in the classic Cabernet and Merlot foundation being given a tasty spice and potpourri nuance that evolves into a delectable savouriness as the wine ages.
Despite its formidable reputation, gunpowder-dark label and name associated with armed Roman legions, the Rubicon’s ability to stop a wine-lover
in his or her tracks lies in a restrained, less-is-more almost picturesque beauty.
Today the grapes for this wine grow mostly on the farm’s granite soils, the 2018 Rubicon a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (67%), Merlot (19%), Cabernet Franc (10%) and Petit Verdot (4%). Meerlust is cool, exposed wine country lying on an open expanse only 5km from False Bay, so the effects of the hardy soils are complemented by a constant maritime air-flow.
The result is one of measured calmness, a coming together of four different grape compo- nents that seem destined to join in one superlative wine. It all begins with the aroma of fig- paste and petrichor, leading to tastes of prune, blackberry and just a slight stroke of fennel. But it is all about balance, the one feature that most good winemakers would like their wines to be known for.
Tannins are discernible, but fine and powdery, just enough to absorb excessive juiciness and keep the wine dry and elegant. And there is a cool freshness that gives vibrancy and voice without oppressing the astounding nobility of what is a world-class South African masterpiece.
Shunting objectivity aside, a large part of this wine’s allure for me is the historical significance and sheer splendour of Muratie Estate, a timepiece honouring the legacy of Stellenbosch’s central role in the world of wine. And this wine does justice to its address, a formidable Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot that is not shy to display the power of red wines originating in the Simonsberg region. It’s all in those slopes of ancient decomposed granite exposed to enormous vagaries of microclimate and air-flow.
The wine spends a mighty 30 months in French oak, half of which is new, ensuring the four varietals have enough time to rub shoulders, get to know each other and then to unite in a triumphant expression of great red wine. The aroma is intoxicating, with fynbos, tilled earth and broken rose petals leaping to the fore. Once in the mouth, the Ansela van de Caab – although the 2020 vintage is still in her youth – beguiles the senses with a range of tastes. Graphite and pine needle provide a taut line upon which to peg flavours of prune, fig paste and blackcurrant, all held together with solid meaty tannins and an accurately lasting finish. A true classic, worthy of further maturation.