By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 27 November 2021
If you asked someone to name a wine region in South Africa, odds are they might well say Stellenbosch, the largest wine region in the Cape and one of the most visited.
This stunningly beautiful region nestled around an attractive university town, surrounded by the majestic Helderberg and Simonsberg mountain ranges, with vineyards spread across its various slopes and aspects, is a natural draw for wine tourists.
As the second oldest region, after Constantia, it is considered Cape’s ‘historic’ region – and perhaps its most traditional too, compared to younger ‘new wave’ regions like Swartland to the north or Walker Bay to the southeast.
Now a group of proud Stellenbosch winemakers have joined forces hoping to show that whilst their region has history – it is dynamic too. Their focus is on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, as Stellenbosch has the largest plantings in the Cape, grown by many of its 170 wineries.
“We believe that Cabernet Sauvignon is what our region should be known for as it can provide both volume and high quality”, says winemaker Christo Le Riche, Chairman of Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Collective (pictured with his father Etienne).
“In the past, wineries used to plant a mix of white and red grapes including Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Shiraz, but now we are learning to focus”, says Le Riche. “One of the beauties of Stellenbosch is the diversity of microclimates – we just need to dig into what our region allows us to do”.
With a temperate mediterranean climate, cool sea breezes from the Atlantic and False Bay, endless sun-filled days, as well as ancient decomposed granite soils intermingled with sandstone and shale on an endless series of mountain slopes and valleys – Stellenbosch is a natural home for Cabernet – now with 2,500 hectares planted.
Since the 1900’s Stellenbosch wineries have created Cabernet blends, initially with Cinsault, then Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinotage and even Shiraz – or some focus on 100% varietal wines.
“Our reference for Cape Cabernet has always been Bordeaux, rather than Napa”, explains Spier’s winemaker Johan Jordaan. ”We realise that if we want to make a difference and put Stellenbosch Cabernet on the map, we need to focus on our diverse terroirs, with the right clones and the right sites, as we don’t celebrate them enough”.
Cabernet is not an easy grape to be innovative with and not a simple grape to work with in the cellar. You need expensive equipment and it needs lots of attention, but winemakers returning from abroad are now wanting to put South Africa on the map focusing on elevating the quality of Cabernet. The recent leaf roll virus has meant many plantings are still relatively young, but now planted in the right places.
In Stellenbosch’s various microclimates, Polkadraai Hills can give freshness and purity, Simonsberg a beautiful linearity and fine tannins, whilst Helderberg give rich mouthfilling boldness. Some wineries like Rust en Vrede or Oldenburg focus on highlighting their terroirs, whilst others like Le Riche like to blend subzones together.
“Stellenbosch Cabernets straddle both the Old World and New World styles”, says Le Riche. “Some have more savoury herby fynbos character, others have bolder heavier styles with powerful tannins. With the variety of our mountain slope micro-terroirs we can offer such incredible diversity and quality in Cabernet”.
STELLENBOSCH CABERNET TASTE TEST:
Polkadraai Hills: THE LONG FUSE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018 Jordan
£16.50-£19.99 Slurp, Fareham Cellars, Ex Cellar
Windy granite-based site just 14km from the ocean gives cooler savoury style with dense pure fruits, vibrant acidity, grainy tannins, slightly minty notes and good ageing potential.
Simonsberg: BLUE LADY 2017 Warwick
£24.50 Wines Direct; Raeburn Wines
Rich duplex clay with granite on their warm Simonsberg site gives big bold robust style, almost Napa-like, with rich dense blackberry fruits and big powerful tannins.
Banghoek: RONDEKOP PER SE 2019 Oldenburg ***STAR BUY***
Very elegant with soft smooth rounded palate. Great finesse with racy acidity promising long ageing potential, from the small high altitude Banghoek commune.
Helderberg: ESTATE VINEYARDS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2019 Rust en Vrede ***STAR BUY***
£20-£22.95 Frontier Fine Wines; Great Grog; The Drink Shop
My favourite of the tasting – restrained stylish beautiful pure fruit, well managed oak, silky soft savoury hinting to the Old World style.
Helderberg: 21 GABLES CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018 Spier
Initially herby notes, rich dense very ripe fruits and mouthfilling richness – made in a modern New World style.
Helderberg: VINEYARD SELECTION CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2019 Kleine Zalze
£16.49 Flagship Wines; Luvians; SA House of Wine; Vinvm; Matthew Clark
Meaty gamey aromas, less intensity, initially approachable, soft textured – but some bitterness to finish.
Helderberg Coastal, Jonkershoek & Simonsberg: RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018 Le Riche ***STAR BUY***
£36.50 Kwoff; Field & Fawcett; Woodwinters; Blasarfwyd; ND John; Connollys Wines
A clever blend of micro terroirs create this big rich succulent style with leafy aromas, fine grained tannins, lush textured palate dusted with cocoa chocolate notes.
Join Rose’s Stellenbosch v Swartland wine tasting in Edinburgh on 9 June 2022 www.rosemurraybrown.com