Long live the Kingdom of Cabernet

MALU LAMBERT visits Le Riche Wines and Taaibosch wineries to get the low-down on what makes Cabernet Sauvignon great and the 2023 harvest tricky.

THE LAST of the season’s grapes have been freed from their vines and lug boxes filled with Cabernet Sauvignon hauled off in the cool of dawn, the slate sky marbling gold. Weary winemakers, hands stained black from grape juice, take the utmost care with this most precious of harvests. This is, after all, King Cabernet, the crown jewel of the Stellenbosch wine region.

The first certified Cabernet in South Africa was the Rustenberg 1971, made by Etienne le Riche. Kanonkop followed in 1973 and the 2015 was the first South African wine to receive 100 points from an international critic.

The world’s best-travelled red grape, Cabernet has spread dominion across all wine regions from its Bordeaux home. And not because it grows easily; it doesn’t. Cabernet ripens late, making it susceptible to early autumn rain and with it the dreaded rot that could render those black pearls grey. It struggles to ripen in cooler climates, it’s susceptible to leafroll virus and other diseases. And the long growing season makes it all the more vulnerable to pests and climatic hazards.

The capricious nature of the grape is something Christo le Riche is well aware of. “The year 2023 has been a harvest with two faces,” says the generational Cabernet specialist at Le Riche Wines. “We started off with a dry winter and spring, which helped to bring good colour and tannin to the berries, essential for a high-quality vintage. Then the rain came. The season changed to autumn early and a series of storms slowed harvesting to a crawl.

“Making the call to pick was difficult,” he admits. Christo troubleshot this with fastidious sampling in the vineyard and ‘a direct line to the weatherman’. He says early indications are positive for the vintage.

Cabernet is like Goldilocks; it has to have conditions that are just right. The grape has landed deftly in places like Napa and Australia too, making wines of great acclaim. It’s newer to South Africa, where single varietal bottlings were uncommon until the 1970s – the mythical GS Cabernet 1966 notwithstanding. Before then, small parcels were blended with Cinsaut and Pinotage, as well as Portuguese varieties. These wines were then labelled simply ‘Dry Red’.

The first certified Cabernet in South Africa was the Rustenberg 1971, made by Christo’s father, Etienne le Riche. Kanonkop followed in 1973, then Meerlust in 1975. Since the successes of these earlier vintages the hectares of Cabernet have multiplied. It is now the second most planted grape overall, the majority of which is in Stellenbosch.

After the bustle of harvest – the snip of secateurs, the tractors, the conversations around early morning drumfires – the vineyards are quiet, the cordons bare of fruit. The activity is now in the cellars, the action in bubbling tanks of Cabernet must. Like looking into a fire at night, a silent motion picture roils within. In those wavy lines can be imagined the contours of the mountains as they dip towards the sea.

Christo le Riche and his dog.

“Stellenbosch’s terroir is defined by mountains and ocean,” explained Christo one day as we stood outside his family’s winery. A light breeze rippled across the summer canopies, carrying with it the cool of the Atlantic. The Helderberg arched around us, purple and imposing. From those peaks crumble the ancient, and infertile, soils – granite, sandstone, shale – that make the vines push deep in search of nutrients. That struggle concentrates the flavour in the berries, while the tilt of the mountain slopes aids in drainage; Cabernet does not like its feet to get wet.

Following the curve of the mountains through Stellenbosch, the varying ascents give rise to different styles of Cabernet. The Helderberg shapes wines of structure and finesse. The line shades darker into the gravelly tones of the Jonkershoek; and deeper still to the brooding, concentrated Cabernets of the Simonsberg. As the altitude soars, so does the perfume in Banhoek, pooling into the fruit-forward sunburst of the Bottelary Hills.

Cabernet is vintage dependant, which means that yields will differ from year to year.

In Bordeaux this variability all but invented the art of blending. Vignerons plump up wines with rich, easygoing Merlot, or soften with leafy, juicy Cabernet Franc. From necessity often comes greatness, and South Africa’s most prestigious red blends unequivocally contain Cabernet Sauvignon.

At the pinnacle is the Cabernet-led, Bordeaux-style blend, the Kanonkop Paul Sauer, from grapes grown on the slopes of the Simonsberg. The 2015 was the first South African wine to receive 100 points from an international critic (Tim Atkin MW). The wine continues to score highly.

On the flipside is The Crescendo from Taaibosch Wines in the Helderberg. The blend emulates a famous wine, the ‘Cordoba Crescendo’, sprung from the same terroir in the 1990s. Predominantly Cabernet Franc, the wine shows that Cabernet Sauvignon can also be important in a supporting role, its bones acting as scaffolding.

Taaibosch winemaker Schalk-Willem Joubert agrees with Christo that the 2023 harvest has been a challenging one, though he adds that sometimes the quieter vintages often last longer and are more elegant.

“In ideal vintages, winemakers tend to over-extract and use more new wood,” explains Schalk-Willem, “whereas in the so-called lesser vintages grapes are worked with more lightly and picked earlier, which can result in tension in the wine, persistence of flavour and freshness.” For The Crescendo, he says, the small proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon adds “mid-palate structure to the powdery, refined tannins I get from Cabernet Franc.”

As winter fires replace summer skies and this vintage of Stellenbosch Cabernet matures, go explore vintages past. Hewn from sky and soil – and in the case of 2023, storm – are the multi-faceted riches of the Kingdom of Cabernet, all waiting for you in the glass. V