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Make winter magical with Stellenbosch’s famous red wines

There’s no better season to curl up with a bottle of warming red wine than winter – and no better place than Stellenbosch. With wine writer EMILE JOUBERT’s recommendations, you couldn’t be better served.

Red wines for winter

Of all the 50-something winters I have spent in various countries, the ones in Stellenbosch have been the best. Shards of mist drift in overnight from the ocean and hang in the valleys like silver samurai sword blades. The rain falls relentlessly in icy curtains, and afterwards the black tarred streets between the old white buildings shimmer under a purple-grey sky. The rain also fills the Eerste River as it rumbles through the town and when all else is quiet, you hear the round, football-sized rocks clacking against one another in its current.

It’s a winter wonderland, made even better by the presence of Stellenbosch’s famous red wines. Of these, there are plenty of good ones and many that are great. I’ve made a cursory – and purely personal – selection of them for guidance and list them in no particular order.

L’Avenir Single Block Pinotage 2018 

L’Avenir Single Block Pinotage 2018

This estate on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg is one of the modern legends when talk turns to Pinotage. Great terroir comes in spades and through the 1990s and early 2000s, the legendary winemaker Francois Naudé helped cement the farm’s reputation for good Pinotage. This wine is now in the hands of L’Avenir’s very skilled winemaker Dirk Coetzee, who has polished this liquid expression of earth, air and soil into something truly marvellous. Maturation of this vintage was done in 300L barrels of French oak, 15% of which were new.

L’Avenir Single Block is opulent in aroma, exuding cedarwood and crushed mulberry with a hint of cigar box. It’s the kind of wine you fall in love with from the first sip as that silky juice slips between the lips. From here it is pure seduction, an exotic sweetness holding together tastes of Dutch liquorice, purple-ripe plums, cherry and fresh fennel. Pure and linear, the wine has not even a hint of a rough edge and the tannins are beautifully integrated, with the complexity of tastes leading to the drinker becoming exhilarated by the wonder of it all. Gob-smacking tasty, it’s proud to be called a Pinotage.

Meerlust Red 2019

Meerlust Red 2019

The surliness of the 2019 vintage made for the late ripening of red varieties, thus withholding the sun-spurred energy and power many wine farms seek. In this troubled cool year, Meerlust Estate proclaimed the character of 2019 by omitting to make its legendary Rubicon Bordeaux-style blend and offering instead a Meerlust Red 2019. The harvest’s grapes had clearly failed to achieve the commanding presence and graceful power a wine requires before it qualifies to don that familiar black Rubicon label. Despite this talk of a lesser vintage, the Red is in a stand-out class of its own. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates (43%) and is joined by 31% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.

The wine is shy on the nose, but not without presence. Beneath the gentle aroma of dry oak and pressed grape skins, a fine thread of Provençal herbs and violet awakens the senses. Cabernet Sauvignon’s passive beauty is enhanced by some red fruit sappiness, thanks to the Merlot component, while Cabernet Franc plays a supporting role with a crafted presence of pine needles and a hint of pencil shavings.

This is a brilliant example of a whole wine, honed and toned by the ethos of excellence sought by those behind Meerlust, an ethos that has been passed on to the vineyard, where the DNA of Meerlust’s human capital and the legacy of centuries have joined nature to provide something quite special and quite beautiful

Taaibosch Crescendo 2018

Taaibosch Crescendo 2018

The highly anticipated first vintage from this new, French-owned Helderberg property exceeds the hype that started spreading a few years ago when the Oddo family added the old Cordoba wine farm to its international portfolio. Managed by the dynamic Schalk-Willem Joubert, a classically schooled winemaker with get-it-done energy, Taaibosch is set to become one of the great names in Stellenbosch wine.

Excellence and focus are core values, along with a commitment to expressing the spectacular geography of the vineyards’ site. Only one wine, Crescendo, is made and its base is Cabernet Franc which, according to Schalk, reaches magical degrees of ripeness in the farm’s vineyards set 360m above sea level. The maiden Taaibosch Crescendo 2018 shows a 65% component of Cabernet Franc, with Merlot (30%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (5%) making up the balance. This wine underscores the elegance of the 2018 vintage, which in combination with Schalk’s time-honoured approach has created a polished, refined and stunning red blend that exudes true class. Cherry and plum flavours will appeal to those seeking fruit, but for me the shy, careful palate weight and the purity of the wine’s length from lips to finish elevate it to instant classic status.

Vriesenhof Pinot Noir 2018

Vriesenhof Pinot Noir 2018

One of my Stellenbosch dreams is to see Pinot Noir joining the acclaimed vinous offerings contributing to the region’s reputation. These offerings of wines made from the ‘heartbreak grape’ are few and far between, with Vriesenhof being the major player in town. Of course, one can to a degree trust any wine made by Jan Boland Coetzee, who has had a life-long obsession with Pinot Noir, having gone to work in Burgundy 40 years ago in an attempt to understand the source of the variety that – some- where, at some time – placed a spell on him.

The decomposed granite and clay soils of Vriesenhof’s spread on the Stellenboschberg provide the foundation, supporting Jan’s belief that there is a distinct correlation between wine quality and the clay component of vineyard soil. The wine is fermented in wood and matured for 12 months in French oak; 30% new and 70% second-fill.

The Pinot Noir 2018 confidently displays the revered features of this grape variety, also underscoring the fact that Pinot is made for drinking and enjoying. Slightly chilled with a plate of cheese or a hearty stew, few wines create the feeling of camaraderie and love of wine that a bottle of good Pinot Noir does. Vriesenhof’s version offers classic tastes of cherry and allspice, with a slight glimpse of mushroom and forest floor, the earthiness of which will grow as the wine ages in the bottle.

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2017

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2017

Not only destined for line-ups of great South African wines, this vintage of Kanonkop’s iconic Bordeaux-style blend can comfortably assume its place on the list of best Cabernet Sauvignon-based red wines outside France. The blend is usually a marriage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc in a ratio of 60/15/15. But with the brilliant 2017 vintage offering powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon and a gorgeous spread of perfumed Cabernet Franc, the Paul Sauer from this year comprises 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot.

For me, the magic of Paul Sauer is in the way cellar-master Abrie Beeslaar brings the different components together. Instead of vinifying and maturing each variety separately and then building the blend, the wine is put together just after harvest and the process of malolactic fermentation. This allows the wine to spend 24 months in new French oak barrels as one true whole, allowing complete integration of the three components. The result represents the magnificence one is used to getting from Paul Sauer, but the complexity and visceral expression of the 2017 vintage is incredible.

The wine is foreboding with its intense colour of garnet, mauve and black. A heady aroma wafts from the glass and dense dark fruit, with tense lines of acidity, is drawn deeper into wine wonderland with notes of fynbos, cigar box and pine needles. The result is statuesque, muscular and just beautiful.

Reyneke Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Reyneke Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

An international reputation as a wine-grower who lives the ethos of organic farming, biodynamics and sustainability has made Johan Reyneke one of the most important voices in the South African wine industry. And if there is a more important agenda in the world of wine than this, I would like to know.

One of Johan’s major contributions to wine, too, is that he has broken some naive perceptions that organic and biodynamic winemaking is limited to lentil-eating practitioners of bhakti yoga who have a thing for the music of Leonard Cohen. To make great wine, he farms as naturally as possible to allow the vines to grow in pure, healthy soils. This has resulted in brightly expressive and deliciously polished wines, of which the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 is a masterpiece.

Situated on the Polkadraai Hills, the vineyards are exposed to False Bay and its energetic air flow. The Cabernet Sauvignon is aged for 20 months in French oak and spends another year calming in the bottle, resulting in yet more robust evidence that Stellenbosch is Cabernet country. This wine has a certain clarity, its assertive palate weight complemented by darts of delicious tastes: fig paste, sun-dried pine cone and a lovely juiciness recalling plum, mulberry and crunchy blueberries.

Alto Rouge 2018

Alto Rouge 2018

If it’s reliability you want, Alto Rouge is your wine. Provenance, craftsmanship and that superb Helderberg terroir have for more than seven decades given Alto a level of consistency that is rare in the South African wine world. Much of this has been the result of Alto Rouge, a five-way blend of Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. 

Wood maturation obviously plays a huge role in the final expression and here current cellar-master Bertho van der Westhuizen insists on using 300L French and American barrels, with the Alto Rouge always incorporating a portion of new wood along with second- and third-fill. Components are aged separately for 14 to 16 months before being blended. And it is here I am assuming this signature Alto taste is imparted. Part of this character is richness, a muscle presented to the vines by the late afternoon sun as it makes its way west. 

The 2018 is a wonderful version of this ubiquitous brand: a clean, healthy nose with fynbos and mulberry leaves and a hint of fresh dough. The attack is deft and polite, calm and unrushed, the first impression being one of light and grace before the flavours of sour cherry, wet clay and ironed linen take over. On the mid-palate the flavours open up, allowing a gush of breezy plum, fresh blackcurrant and pine needles to command attention. The finish is full and firm, yet clean and memorable.

Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The luxury Leeu Passant outfit based in Franschhoek under the auspices of wine couple extraordinaire Chris and Andrea Mullineux and Indian business mogul Analjit Singh is, to my mind, making some of the finest wines in the country. Included in the range is a Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon that is so thrilling and audaciously exceptional that it sends shivers down the spine. Well, Andrea does hail from the Napa Valley, Ground Zero for Cabernet Sauvignon. But unlike the over-extracted fruit missiles bottled under Napa Cabernet, the Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 is more restrained in its showiness – more Liza Minnelli than Lady Gaga.

Fruit from Firgrove, Helderberg and those Polkadraai Hills is used and a 20-month maturation occurs in 500L barrels of French oak, 30% of which are new. The grapes are worked gently during fermentation, while the exposure to older oak allows the essence and aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon and of vineyard sites to drive this wine.

It feels plush and confident on the palate with lots of freshness, and there’s quite a bit of tannin presence that carries the flavours well and true. Think blackberry, cedar and violets, with a discernible brush of dry fynbos. Refined and elegant, yes, but with a charming bit of wild-child vivaciousness. A super Cabernet Sauvignon.

WATCH: Inside the winter issue of Stellenbosch Visio