Cabernet Sauvignon. The finest examples are produced in Bordeaux, Napa… Stellenbosch. Emile Joubert explains the nuances of geography that make some of our own Cabernets among the best of the best.
At the announcement that the next wine is a Cabernet Sauvignon, the staccato chattering and ambient noise dim, the surrounding temperature drops a degree or two. It is a wine that, when you hear its name, draws you in, forcing you to forget what’s going on around you, to focus on the main event.
Sure, like all other red wines, all Cabernet Sauvignons are not created equal. But more than any other of the world’s wine grape varieties, the two words ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ have the best chance of offering a wine that places you in the presence of greatness.
There are, of course, the mythical wines of Bordeaux’s Left Bank in the region where
Cabernet Sauvignon began three centuries ago as a natural mutation between the varieties Cabernet Franc (red) and Sauvignon Blanc (white). Then there is Napa, California, where Cabernet is king and the wines share the revered space of cult and icon with some of Bordeaux’s best. Chile. Italy. Australia… The potential for making good and great wine from Cabernet Sauvignon has led to it being planted in all four corners of the wine globe. And consumers find the experience of drinking it ranges from deliciously fruity, firm and classical to earth-moving and life-changing.
For winemakers and viticulturists, it’s a grape variety that throws down the gauntlet. Cabernet Sauvignon offers these tenders of the vine and creators of the wine an opportunity to showcase their winelands’ respective geographical features through a red grape of proven potential from which a winery and a wine region can be set on the path to vinous glory.
Over the past decade the Stellenbosch wine region has stepped up to the plate by encouraging the rest of the world to realise what South African wine producers, marketers and media commentators (some of them) have known for a whole lot longer. And this is that here, too, is a region capable of producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the world.
The history of Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa and Stellenbosch is, as much of the history of premium grape varieties at the Cape tends to be, a recent one.
The Cape has not always been concerned about wine quality. At the beginning of the previous century, the country’s vineyard space was dedicated to grape varieties for distilling brandy and producing sweet fortified elixirs and mass-produced bulk wines. The thirst for making and consuming classy wines from single noble varieties was practically non-existent.
Groot Constantia, the mother ship of South African wine, did document the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon on those hallowed soils in 1894, although it would be decades before the variety was to be bottled under its varietal name.
In a search for the origins of Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa – and specifically Stellenbosch – the name Abraham Izak Perold will pop up, albeit in a less dramatic sense than it does when there is talk of his status as the creator of the Pinotage grape. In Perold’s seminal Handboek oor Wynbou, published in 1926, the legendary viticulturist and oenologist made it clear that as a variety, Cabernet Sauvignon held the potential to unlock immense value to the South African wine scene. He had made a thorough study of the cultivar, the growing conditions and its wines while visiting Bordeaux.
Although Cabernet Sauvignon did not offer the vigorous growth and higher yields of Cinsaut, which was by far the Cape’s most planted red grape at the time, Perold was convinced the Bordeaux variety’s potential to contribute to South African wine quality was non-negotiable. Perold, always in sync with economic realities, was also aware that Cabernet Sauvignon was not suited to offering the heavy and economically enticing yields Cinsaut is known for. He wrote: “Cabernet might offer two-thirds of the yields of Cinsaut, but the quality of this grape is superior. Looking at the vineyard growing conditions here, our wine-farmers should be planting Cabernet in Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Cape.”
Perold’s word was pretty much gospel back then. It is thus generally accepted he paved the way for the proliferation of Cabernet Sauvignon plantings. In fact, Perold was physically involved with establishing the variety in Stellenbosch, where in 1919,
he helped Manie Malan plant these vines on Malan’s Alto Estate on the slopes of the Helderberg.
Simonsig Labyrinth Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
The vineyards are not on the heady slopes of Simonsberg, lying instead on the sun-drenched spread of the mountain’s foothills. This gives the wine a great taste of ripeness that is neither cloying nor alcoholic: pure lushness and fruit core harnessed in just enough tannin wrapping to make the drinking of this Cabernet as fresh and life-affirming as it is gorgeously delicious. Most of the maturation is in older oak for a broadness and depth that is comforting and all very tasty. I have cassis and plums with, believe it or not, the taste of a lovely sun-warmed tomato on the edge of fleshy over-ripeness. A beautiful wine.
Other early Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in Stellenbosch included Delheim on the
Simonsberg. The variety was established there in the 1930s by the first owner, Hans Hoheisen, who made wine under his own label. The maiden Cabernet Sauvignon under the Delheim label goes back to 1958.
Despite the fact that wines from early plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Stellenbosch were getting the recognition for quality Perold had anticipated, the progression of the vineyard space accorded this variety was slow. Until the mid-1970s only a handful of wine estates were making and bottling their own wine with a commitment to the kind of premium quality the Cabernet Sauvignon variety was known to offer. Most of the region’s vineyards were planted to mass-volume, bulk-wine varieties such as Cinsaut, Chenin Blanc and Palomino that were destined for use by the local corporations in big, non-descript wine brands. Out of the total vineyard plantings of 120 000ha in 1974, only 2% constituted Cabernet Sauvignon, underscoring the nature and priorities of the wine industry back then.
With the passing of legislation permitting estate wine production and the implementation of the Wine of Origin Scheme in 1972 to guarantee regional authenticity, an increasing number of Stellenbosch wine farmers looked at quality grape varieties with which to express the terroir of their estates and lead their commercial ventures.
Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
One of the New World’s best Cabernet Sauvignon wines from a winery recognised as South Africa’s finest. Kanonkop released its first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1973 from vines that were at the time only four years old. The more modern rendition sees 24 months’ maturation in French oak barriques: 50% new fill, the rest second fill. Fermentation still takes place in open concrete tanks with regular manual punch-downs. The Simonsberg slopes, the varying aspects on which the Kanonkop vines are set, the gravel soils and surrounding wilderness speak to you through a Cabernet Sauvignon of statuesque power and commanding presence, but there is also a generosity that unleashes graceful flavours and supple tannins. This is the kind of wine that is experienced rather than consumed or tasted.
Ernie Els Proprietor’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
This property is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the Cape’s great modern classic wineries, with the focus now being on Cabernet Sauvignon and wines driven by this variety that is such an integral part of the Helderberg. Vineyards are from clones specially selected to match Ernie Els’ varied aspects, soil types and climate pockets, with CEO-winemaker Louis Strydom employing batch fermentations and ageing from which to craft a final blend of spectacular Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine drives off the tee with purity and finesse in bright, clean fruit. Structure is formed by integrated tannins that alert the palate to the presence of fine blackberry, damson and fig paste, with a petrichor-like dustiness creating width and calm. The latter is an example of the maritime influence on the Helderberg, adding to the many incredible natural features that typify Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon.
And many of these farmers knew whenever great red wine is talked about, it is
Cabernet Sauvignon that commands much of the conversation.
With the introduction of single-varietal bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon from renowned Stellenbosch wine estates such as Alto (1965), Rustenberg (1971), Kanonkop (1973), Meerlust (1975) and Simonsig (1976), the awareness of great red wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon on wine farms of unbridled classical pedigree came to the fore. The leap to making this grape one of the signature varieties of Stellenbosch had begun.
The Roman viticulturist Columella (4 to 70 AD) wrote that the vineyard ‘likes rocks and hills’ and on this front Stellenbosch wins. Helderberg and Simonsberg provide the mountains, Bottelary and Polkadraai the hills. And the rocks – 700 million years old – well, these are all over the place.
Climate-wise, Stellenbosch is in a global league of its own for a wine farmer committed to Cabernet Sauvignon. The region is influenced by the restless maritime air flow from the Atlantic Ocean in False Bay as well as the northerly drift from the north-western coastline. And being in Africa, there is no shortage here of that vital cog in the wheel of growing wine grapes: sunlight. The soils of decomposed granite, shale and clay allow the roots to cool and warm at the right time during the plant’s annual growing cycle and provide good drainage in the rainy season and water retention in the dry summers.
Glenelly Glass Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
This property, with its regal roots in the winelands of Bordeaux, is fast becoming a major Stellenbosch player with a reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon. As can be expected from Glenelly’s origins, its Cabernet Sauvignon has an unashamedly blue-blooded classical air about it in the precise linearity in structure and understated presentation of blue and black fruit. The 13.5% alcohol level states the aim here, which is to provide a wine that asserts itself from entry through palate right to the echoing finish. Cedar wood and pine needle add to cassis, sour cherry and plums. Integrated tannins and a cool, calm structure make this an extremely thoughtful wine worth betting on for future greatness.
These features see Cabernet Sauvignon thriving in terms of producing grapes that exude the muscular tannins and refined flavour spectrums that make the wines the captivating masterpieces they are. As Johan Malan from Simonsig, one of the legendary Stellenbosch estates, says: “Stellenbosch did not find Cabernet Sauvignon – Cabernet found Stellenbosch.”
Louis Strydom, CEO and winemaker at modern classic Cabernet Sauvignon producer Ernie Els Wines, situated on the Helderberg, has been making wine from this variety and growing it for 23 years. He is, it seems, an eternal student of this grape.
“Cabernet Sauvignon might be part of Stellenbosch DNA, but there have been some interesting phases the grape went through in getting to the current recognition we have for the overall regional quality of the wine,” he says. “In the 1990s there was a shortage of Cabernet plant material owing to the industry’s greater focus on red varieties.
“And in this scurrying for material, a lot of virus-infected matter was put into the soil that greatly affected the area’s general health. Leafroll virus plays havoc on a late-ripening variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Then the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the monster Cabs. “Many producers went the Californian route, making wines of big alcohol levels in the region of 15% and the profile thick and dense because of the excessive use of new oak barrels.”
Today, Louis says, Stellenbosch’s Cabernet Sauvignon is characterised by a focus on expression of the region’s unique terroir with wines of elegance and refinement, but with a brooding muscular power that makes the variety own such a unique space among all wine offerings.
Muratie Martin Melck Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
A brilliant and visceral expression of Simonsberg aspect, soil and climate from a farm with provenance and legacy adding to its fine wine offering. The wine is given 22 months in new French oak, demonstrating that great Cabernet Sauvignon fruit can stand up to solid oaking regimes. A fynbos herbaceousness, heady and intoxicating, drifts on broad pools of black-fruited wine pleasure. Tannins, that all-important component in this variety, are broad and just dry enough to add energy, air and freedom to the juicy dark fruit embedded in this brilliant wine. Like the aforementioned Kanonkop, this is the kind of Cabernet Sauvignon that will age with grace for a decade and more.
“It goes back to the vineyard, as in everything wine,” he explains. “As generous with its heady fruit profile as it can be, Cabernet Sauvignon can show a green, weedy character due to the methoxypyrazine presence in the grape’s physiology. Remember, Cabernet Sauvignon is a crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, two varieties known for showing an under-ripe side even when harvested at phenolic ripeness. Canopy management is crucial to ensure the levels of sunlight and exposure to air movement required to coax the grape into a stage of balanced ripeness. Only then can you begin to think about making good wine.”
Set on the Helderberg, Ernie Els and neighbouring estates such as Alto, Rust en Vrede and Uva Mira have north and westerly faces that warm in the glow of the afternoon sun while being wooed by the cooling breezes off False Bay. Simonsberg’s north-facing slopes are often shrouded in mist, and being further from the ocean, this region experiences dramatic variation in day-night temperatures. Despite having similar soils, the differences in Cabernet Sauvignon expression between Simonsberg and Helderberg are tangible.
“Simonsberg tends to show bigger tannins in its Cabernet Sauvignon, with a bit of edgi-
ness,” says Rijk Melck, CEO of Muratie, the legendary wine estate that has a history going back to 1685, making it the oldest wine farm in Stellenbosch.
When Rijk’s father, South African wine icon Ronnie Melck, bought Muratie in 1987 there was no Cabernet Sauvignon planted on the farm. “A desire to make Cabernet Sauvignon showing the class this variety can attain in Simonsberg, Stellenbosch, was one of the primary reasons my father purchased the farm,” says Rijk. “Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of Muratie’s foundations, both as a single variety and in our Bordeaux blend, Ansela.”
West of the Simonsberg-Helderberg strip, on Jordan Estate in Stellenbosch Valley,
Cabernet Sauvignon vines face north and east. Soils differ here, says Gary Jordan. “Some 600-million-year-old, coarse porphyritic granite soils, farmed by successive generations, slowly release nutrients that sustain old and young Cabernet Sauvignon vines alike,” he adds. “Feldspar soil breaks down into deep, red, moisture-retaining clay-loam soil, allowing the grapes to develop cassis and blackberry flavours even in the driest of years. Large quartz fragments ensure good drainage and elevated, cool, north- and east-facing vineyards lead to a velvet-like texture and seamless, integrated tannin structure.”
Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
Region: Stellenbosch Mountain
Walter Finlayson, one of the old guard of South African winemaking – who was once cellar master at Blaauwklippen, across the road from Kleine Zalze – reckons Kleine Zalze has the best soils for Cabernet in Stellenbosch. Decomposed granite and clay on gentle slopes provide Kleine Zalze winemaker RJ Botha with superb fruit for the crafting of a Cabernet Sauvignon, underscoring Stellenbosch’s stylistic variation. A complex set of fermentation stages aimed at obtaining pinpoint extraction of colour, tannin and depth from the red skins is followed by 18 months’ barrel-rest in 300-litre oak vessels, 70% new. The result is marvellous New World Cabernet Sauvignon coaxing the palate with sunny, breezy energy while at the same time overrunning the senses with draughts of blackcurrant, dark figs, cigar box and an exotic sliver of nutmeg shavings. When Mick Jagger sang he can’t get no satisfaction, he was definitely not talking about this impressive Cabernet Sauvignon from Kleine Zalze.
Then there is the lower-lying flatland, a part of Helderberg but only approximately 80m above sea-level, which is home to Le Riche Wines, a name synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon excellence.
“This diversity of terroir pockets found in Stellenbosch plays a huge role in creating a formidable category of regional Cabernet Sauvignon wines,” says Christo le Riche, who is also chairman of the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, a body committed to creating an international and local awareness of Stellenbosch’s offering of this variety.
“You have the dramatic differences in Helderberg and Simonsberg where vineyards go up to 500m, the rolling hills of Polkadraai, Bottelary and Stellenbosch Valley and then the Lower Helderberg, where we are,” says Christo.
“In all this, soils differ, as do climatic influences. Add to this the viticulturists and winemakers committed to ensuring Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon can claim its spot on the world stage and this sector is an unashamed leading light of Cape wine.”
Despite this geographical diversity, he says Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon has managed to capture the imagination with a specific style that sets it on its own trajectory away from the world’s other offerings.
“There’s a juiciness and a charming fruit profile, combined with good acids and alert tannins,” he points out. “Tannins are one of Cabernet Sauvignon’s pronounced features as they give the wine freshness, life, length and the ability to age and grow in the bottle. Here Stellenbosch straddles the tight tannins of Bordeaux and the exuberant juiciness of California with a slight fynbos character no other region can offer.”
But it is this other dimension, the one behind aroma and taste, that makes a good Cabernet Sauvignon such a gloriously intriguing great wine. As the acclaimed wine writer Terry Theise says, a complex wine is not pushy or demanding. Exceptional wines show a quiet calm and grace; they shine with an inner light that does not depend on the spotlight. “Many wines let you taste the noise,” he says. “But only the very best wines let you taste the silence.”
And they leave you speechless.
Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
If Ernie Els is a modern classic, Alto is an old and established one and a vital chapter in the Stellenbosch wine narrative. Cabernet Sauvignon vines have adorned the estate’s lofty slopes for more than 100 years and the maiden wine from this variety was bottled in 1965. Alto Cabernet Sauvignon is like meeting an old friend of the worldly, respect-inducing kind. It is pedigreed Cabernet Sauvignon with stern, imposing tannins leading an array of dark fruit and pine needle, with a smack of savoury charcuterie-like flavour. Dry as an Irish joke in Lent, the muscular tannin structure and the assertive expressions of fruit, wine and rock make Alto a Cabernet Sauvignon worthy of a place in any mention of Cabernet from a terrific terroir that is as mighty as it is high.