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15 Great South African Wine Values

Photos and text by David Lawrason
with notes from John Szabo and Steve Thurlow

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

In a recent Newsletter called the New World Order (VINTAGES Jan 10) I made the statement that South Africa currently heads the list of the best sources of wine value in the world; followed by Argentina and Chile. I stand by that statement and want to elaborate, then to point out 15 South African wines currently at the LCBO or VINTAGES Stores that stand as evidence. The WineAlign team recently had an opportunity to taste the entire South African General List category, plus some recent VINTAGES releases.

First, I want to define value. It doesn’t solely mean wines that are the lowest price. Value juxtaposes quality and cost, at any price level. Quality I define as true, balanced, complex and generous expression of grape and place. The problem for South Africa – and in the end for consumers – is that so many of the wines bought by the LCBO are based on low price only. They will claim we consumers won’t pay more for South African wine. I contend that we will gladly pay more once exposed to the right wines. I spent three weeks in South Africa last year, and was stunned by how many “more expensive” wines showed great quality, and were still good value. And I tasted hundreds.

This is of course the age-old problem with the LCBO one-buyer monopoly system. They simply don’t have shelf space for more than a token representation from any one country and to be fair to all they must list wines from all countries. South Africa has suffered most from this because their supply and quality was interrupted when in 1987 Canada stopped buying to protest racist Apartheid policies. To regain market share after the sanctions were lifted in 1994 the LCBO bought the cheapest and often least good quality wines – which left a poor impression. The industry was stuck in a quality rut during the sanctions period, which I witnessed on my first visit just after Nelson Mandela was elected president.

South Africa

Fynbos, a collective term for the varied native vegetation of the Cape, can lend its wild aromas to the wines.

But those days are history, and since then quality has improved dramatically, particularly in the last five years. I noticed it during a visit in 2011, and by the time I visited again last March it was crystal clear. The same conclusions have been reached by all WineAlign colleagues who have also recently been to South Africa – John Szabo, Anthony Gismondi, Steve Thurlow and Janet Dorozynski. Each of them has come back writing about how South Africa has turned the corner. You can scan our archives for their articles.

The current situation is that the LCBO selection is still ridiculously small given what is available to the buyers; and the selection is still governed to a large degree by low prices, with some loyalty being shown to brands that have just always been around, which makes entry more difficult for new brands that are upping their game. Even VINTAGES, with its average bottle price of $18.95, lists few South African wines that are over $20. But, the good news is that quality within that price band has increased a great deal. To me the average $15 Cape wine is on a quality level of the average $30 French or California wine.

The complex terrain of Stellenbosch creates many sub-appellations

The complex terrain of Stellenbosch creates many sub-appellations

The quality surge has everything to do with better, often more natural grape growing. I was impressed by the level of ecological awareness in South Africa. It is also a result of better winemaking, with far fewer faulted “meaty and rubbery” wines. And there is also much more attention being paid to better location of specific varieties in the right climatic zones. I could go on and on about the latter in particular – the emergence of well-defined wine regions and regional styles – but that has already been covered before by our correspondents. And I will shortly be posting a detailed essay on pinotage which, by example, demonstrates these themes.

For now, I simply want to encourage those of you who have not tried South African wines to do so. To dip into our list of the best values on the shelf today. If you want an opportunity to sample first, some LCBO stores will be doing that on Saturday, Feb 14; and LCBOs with event kitchens will be staging mini-South African fairs.

And if you really want to dig into this subject by flying to South Africa itself, Wines of South Africa has a contest running until March 3rd that will send two people to the Cape with airfare, accommodation, meals and wine tours included. Enter at

The Whites

Goats Do Roam White 2013

The Wolftrap 2013 WhiteThe Wolftrap White 2013, Western Cape ($13.95)
Steve Thurlow – This is an amazing white for the money with its intensely flavoured palate and pure complex nose. Expect aromas of melon and baked pear fruit with lemongrass and floral heather plus some typical South African minerality. The palate is intense and very solid with some bitter tones nicely closing the finish. It’s a bit chunky and does not have the elegance of the 2012 vintage. Very good to excellent length. Match with sautéed pork chops.
David Lawrason – Totally agree on the value quotient of this intriguing white blend that is built around viognier (60%),  chenin blanc (21%) and less seldom seen grenache blanc (19%). It’s a combination of warmer climate (Rhone)varieties that provide opulence anchored in chenin blanc acidity. Partial fermentation and ageing in French oak adds even ore layers.  The emergence of Rhone varieties grown in inland areas is one of the great stories of the new South Africa

Goats do Roam 2013 White, Western Cape ($11.95)
John Szabo
– The first vintage of this whimsically-named, Rhône-inspired blend was 1998, and the quality has steadily risen. And now that the vines are over 15 years old, there’s more than enough complexity to put this into the sharp value category. It’s about 2/3rds viognier with roussanne and grenache blanc, mainly from the Fairview property in Paarl with a small percentage from Swartland, delivering pleasant citrus-pear-apple fruit, savoury herbs and light floral-blossom aromatics on a mid-weight, essentially dry and fleshy frame. This will please widely.
Steve Thurlow – This is a consistently great value white. I love the pureness and the vibrancy of the 2013 vintage. It is an aromatic blend of three white grapes with lifted floral fruity aromas and an intensely flavoured palate. The nose shows apple and custard with pasty, floral orange and white peach fruit. It is medium-full bodied with firm balancing acidity and a long firm finish. Very good length. Enjoy as an aperitif with pastry nibbles or try with mildly spicy Asian cuisine.

Fleur du Cap 2013 Chardonnay, Western Cape ($12.85)
Steve Thurlow – This wine has been sadly absent from our market for a few years and it is a welcome return to the LCBO list. It is an oaked chardonnay with just enough oak to add complexity to the nose and palate. Expect aromas of baked apple with vanilla, caramel, with lemon and cinnamon notes. The palate is rich and very smooth with intense flavours and very good length. It is old school but well done. Try with fish and chips.

Mulderbosch 2012 Chenin Blanc, Western Cape  ($14.95)
John Szabo
– Mulderbosch is happy to pay a premium price for this fruit, sourced almost exclusively from bush vines, many over 30 years old and all dry farmed (Swartland, Malmesbury). The extra concentration shows through on the palate with its rich, succulent texture and very good to excellent length. 20% gets barrel treatment, though wood is not a player in the profile, and this is virtually bone dry. A wine with genuine depth and character, drinking now, but better in a year or two.

Boschendal The Pavillion 2014 Chenin Blanc, Western Cape, ($10.95)
John Szabo
– Here’s a lovely little value from Boschendal, one of South Africa’s oldest farms founded in 1685 and set in the dramatic Drakenstein Valley surrounded by the Cape’s staggeringly beautiful landscape. There’s genuine substance on the palate and plenty of ripe citrus, pineapple and melon flavours bolstered by a welcome impression of sweetness. I’d happily sip this, a wine to keep around the house to pull out on those ‘whenever’ occasions.

Fleur Du Cap Chardonnay 2013 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc 2012 Boschendal The Pavillion Chenin Blanc 2014 Simonsig Chenin Avec Chêne Chenin Blanc 2012 K W V Contemporary Collection Chenin Blanc 2014

Simonsig Chenin 2012 Avec Chêne Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch  ($25.95)
David Lawrason – This is a fine example of Cape chenin, a quite full bodied, fleshy yet balanced example with classic green pear/honeydew melon fruit sewn with subtle fine French oak spice  and vanilla in the background. With chenin’s growing popularity, different styles are also proliferating, with varying levels of oak involvent. So check out labels before you buy. VINTAGES Feb 7.

K W V Contemporary Collection 2014 Chenin Blanc, Western Cape ($9.45)
Steve Thurlow – This is a delicious amazingly well priced alternative for pinot grigio lovers. The 2014 vintage of this wine shows that South Africa can make good inexpensive chenin with a good depth of flavour and well structured. The nose shows fresh melon pear fruit with grapefruit and mineral notes. The palate is midweight with ripe fruit balanced by lemony acidity. Very good length with a nice bitter tone to the finish. Try with seafood or white meats.

The Reds

The Wolftrap Syrah Mourvedre Viognier 2013

Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2013Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2013, Swartland, Swartland ($14.95)
John Szabo
– Mark Kent of Boekenhootskloof settled in the Franschhoek Valley, but has slowly come to terms with the fact that it’s a difficult region in which to grow grapes. Slowly but surely he’s pulled out vineyards (with the exception of some exquisite, old vine semillon) and replanted in other regions, especially Swartland, which he believes has enormous potential. And this all-Swartland syrah is a very strong argument in his favour, a wine that delivers all one could want at the price and more. The palate is rich and mouth filling, ripe but still grippy, with substantial flavour intensity and depth, as well as length. You won’t go wrong here.
David Lawrason – Not much to add here except “a high five”, especially if you are one who likes your syrah meaty, big and bouncy. This has been going strong since WineAlign first went on the air – scoring 87 points or better in every vintage since 2007.

The Wolftrap 2013 Syrah Mourvedre Viognier, Western Cape ($13.95)
John Szabo – Although a small step below Boekenhootskloof’s Porcupine Ridge range in terms of depth and complexity (and price), this is a thoroughly delicious, savoury-fruity, well-balanced blend that hits all of the right notes. It’s also less oak-influenced, and as such will appeal to fans of classic Mediterranean blends (i.e. Côtes du Rhône). Infinitely drinkable all in all, especially with a light chill.
Steve Thurlow – This wine captures in each vintage the essence of a Rhone red and this is probably the best yet. It is made mostly from syrah with about 30% mouverdre and a splash of viognier. There are no jammy tones and the palate is firm with acid and tannin for balance. The tannins are ripe which gives it structure for food balance. Expect earthy black cherry and bramble fruit aromas with some smoke and black pepper spice and hints of dark chocolate. The palate is full-bodied yet it feels lighter and the length is very good to excellent. Try with BBQ meats.

Thelema 2012 Mountain Red, Stellensbosch ($12.95)
Steve Thurlow – This delightful blend of shiraz and 5 other grapes comes from high mountain vineyards above Stellenbosch. The lifted nose shows ripe blackberry and blueberry fruit with black pepper, mild oak spice and floral complexity. It is very smooth and quite dense with a degree of elegance. Very good length. Try with pizza or burgers.
David Lawrason – Excellent value, once again from a leading producer that was among the first to upgrade its style and quality in the post-Apartheid era. (I first tasted and was thoroughly impressed by their wines at a trade tasting in Toronto in 1995 – I believe). The blending of several grapes is very much in vogue in South Africa and this a good example.

Goats do Roam 2013 Red, Western Cape  ($11.95)
Steve Thurlow – Fantastic value here. The 2013 is another excellent vintage with its lifted aromas of plum and black cherry, dark chocolate, mild oak spice, and smokey blackberry jam. It is midweight and well balanced with lively acidity and spicy black fruit and soft tannin. Very good to excellent length. It is a great food wine to be enjoyed with a wide variety of meat and cheese dishes.

Thelema Mountain Red 2012 Goats Do Roam Red 2013 Boschendal The Pavillion Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Avondale Jonty's Ducks Pekin Red 2011

Boschendal The Pavillion 2013 Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch ($11.95)
Steve Thurlow – I love the zippy juicy vibrant palate to this exuberant red. It is midweight with aromas of red cherry with white pepper spice, and modest oak treatment, so the fruit shines through. The fruity palate is well balanced by soft tannin and some racy acidity makes it feel quite light. Good focus and very good length. Try with grilled meats.

Avondale Jonty’s Ducks 2011 Pekin Red, Paarl ($14.95)
John Szabo -
Well, this is quite a wine for $15. John and Ginny Grieve, owners of Vital Health Foods, bought the 300 year-old Avondale farm in 1997 and set about converting it to organic/biodynamic culture (actually, they’ve invented their own system called BioLogic). The same balanced approach is taken in the winery. And the results? Well, everything I’ve tasted from Avondale has been worth a look. Jonty’s Ducks is a second label of sorts, which blends about 2/3 Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest of the Bordeaux grapes. It’s wholly satisfying and highly drinkable, either on its own for contemplation or with roasted meat preparations.

K W V Roodeberg 2012

Rustenberg 2011 ShirazRustenberg Shiraz 2011, Stellenbosch ($19.95)
David Lawrason – This is from of the oldest wine estates in Stellenbosch that first bottled wine in 1892!  It is also the site of one of the finest restaurants and tasting facilities in South Africa (I was stunned by the sophistication of the hospitality scene in and around Stellenbosch.) Because Rustenberg is a classic old-school estate expect leaner, very Euro and very complex reds. VINTAGES Feb 7.

K W V 2012 Roodeberg, Western Cape ($12.45)
Steve Thurlow – This is a medium bodied Cape classic that as usual offers good value with the 2012 vintage. It is well balanced and quite complex. It is styled like a French southern Rhône red with red and black cherry fruit, white pepper, with herbal and mineral tones. Good to very good length, try with rack of lamb.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

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WOSA Canada Competition

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South Africa in The Spotlight Part Two: Getting Cooler

South Africa in The Spotlight: Part TwoAugust 21, 2014

by John Szabo, MS

Part one of the series last week makes the pitch for South Africa as one of the most exciting countries in the world of wine, and examines the Swartland region and its top producers. This entry covers the cool Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.Regions to Watch: The Hemel-en-Aarde ValleyThe Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (“heaven and earth”) is technically three separate wards within the district of Walker Bay: there’s the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley itself as well as the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, as you move inland from the seaside town of Hermanus. There are currently eleven wineries in the valley and 14 grape growers, and growing.

The coast by Hermanus, Walker Bay

The coast by Hermanus, Walker Bay

This is pinot noir and chardonnay territory par excellence, cooled by breezes off the Atlantic Ocean, which in turn are chilled by the icy Benguela current that surges up from Antarctica and bounces off the Cape. Soils vary greatly, but follow the general South African pattern of variations on shale, sandstone and granite. The clay content, however, heavier at either end of the valley but lower in the middle, regulates the relative weight of pinot noirs, Anthony Hamilton Russell tells me. “The middle part of the valley [the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde] will always make lighter and delicate pinots”, he says, while more clay equates to fuller bodied and more structured examples.

Anthony’s father Tim Hamilton Russell was the first to plant vines in Walker Bay, although it wasn’t known then as Walker Bay. Travelling frequently to his holiday home in the old seaside fishing town of Hermanus, he was struck by the possibility of winegrowing in this cool maritime region. At the time it was outside of any official demarcated wine growing areas, and the pinot, chardonnay and sauvignon that Hamilton Russell made in the mid-eighties was labeled simply as “Western Cape Red/White Wine” without mention of region or grape.

Eventually the government would create the Walker Bay District, but it is a very large area with vastly different soils and micro climates, and so without logical coherence. It was then broken up five years ago into five wards: the Standford Valley, Bot River Valley, and the three Hemel-en-Aarde wards. “It’s been a commercially difficult transition, as the appellation is a mouthful to be sure, whereas Walker Bay is known and easy” says Hamilton Russell.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley with the Atlantic in the distance, seen from Newton Johnson Vineyards

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley with the Atlantic in the distance, seen from Newton Johnson Vineyards

Early challenges in the region included a lack of good plant material. The first clone of pinot noir available in South Africa was the Swiss Wadenswill clone, better suited to sparkling wine production in cool climates, and evidently not ideal for the Cape. “One of the frustrations for pinot noir producers in this country is that we’re in the minority” laments Bevan Newton Johnson of Newton Johnson Vineyards. “Nurseries are much better equipped to respond to the demands of cabernet, merlot and shiraz producers. We’d send in orders but there was no incentive to offer quality clones. They knew we’d have to take what was available”.

Better clonal material such as the Dijon clones would eventually arrive, but another ongoing problem is endemic leaf roll virus. Most vineyards have to be replanted every dozen or so years, meaning that many vines may never reach their maximum quality potential.

Yet challenges aside, the wines from the Hemel-en-Aarde have a finesse and elegance unknown elsewhere in South Africa, and I suspect this little piece of heaven and earth will soon be much better-known both domestically and internationally.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Producers to Know 

Anthony Hamilton Russell in his beautiful Canadian beaver pelt fedora

Anthony Hamilton Russell in his beautiful Canadian beaver pelt fedora

Hamilton-Russell. Little intro is needed here; Hamilton Russell is the original and still the gold standard for the region. The wines are all class, like Anthony Hamilton Russell himself, an English aristocrat who happens to be South African. Watch out for the turtles roaming the gardens in front of Braemar, the home of Anthony & Olive Hamilton Russell. The very good Southern Right and Asbourne labels are also produced by the Hamilton Russell team.

Newton Johnson Vineyards. This is a gorgeous spot in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde with a view to the coast down the Valley. It’s very much a family affair, with father Dave Newton Johnson a Cape Wine Master with thirty years experience in the business, and sons Gordon (winemaking) and Bevan (Managing Director, marketing).

Prior to settingling in the valley, Dave worked at Distell, South Africa’s largest wine company. But pinot noir was always his passion, and he used to drag his kids up to Walker Bay to see Peter Finlayson (former winemaker at Hamilton Russell before launching his own winery, Bouchard Finlayson, with a group of 18 investors including Paul Bouchard from Burgundy) to taste pinot. Pinot noir was, after all, Dave’s dissertation topic in the 1980s for his Master’s degree, a time when very little was known about the grape in South Africa.

Bevan (left) and Gordon Newton Johnson

Bevan (left) and Gordon Newton Johnson

He eventually purchased land in the area in the late 1990s and was joined by his sons; the purpose was clear: to focus on pinot noir. They started from scratch and have since planted sixteen hectares over the years 2002-2004. Chardonnay, sauvignon and the Rhône varieties play supporting roles.

Lunch at Newton Johnson (pork belly is all the rage in South Africa, too)

Lunch at Newton Johnson (pork belly is all the rage in South Africa, too)

Overall, the wines at Newton Johnson are pristine and perfumed, finely crafted, elegant, with a minimum of extraction and emphasis on elegance, precisely what the lighter soils in this middle section of the valley are best suited to produce. Research and experimentation continues. “Nobody has more than 30 years experience growing pinot in South Africa. We have so much to learn”, Bevan reveals.

As an aside, the restaurant at Newton Johnson is one of the finest in the Cape and certainly Michelin star-quality. Don’t miss a chance to dine here if you find yourself in the area.

Creation Wines. Husband and wife team Jean-Claude (JC) and Carolyn Martin run this tidy operation in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ward. The couple started from the ground up, converting a sheep farm under the imposing Babylon Mountain peak to vineyards in 2002, and following that with a cellar and restaurant in 2007. This part of the valley is about ten kilometers from the sea and at 300m elevation. And the climate is notably more continental: “midnight is always 12ºC cooler than the daytime high” JC tells me, and “harvest is two weeks later than the lower part of the Valley”.

Jean-Claude Martin, Creation Wines

Jean-Claude Martin, Creation Wines

More clay surfaces here amidst the 450 million-year-old Bokkersfeld shale soils, as it does lower down, favouring more structured wines. The Martins have forty hectares planted principally to pinot noir, with a mix of other varieties including chardonnay, syrah and grenache. 

Over lunch we’re treated to a first hand dose of Ridge weather. From calm, hot and sunny on arrival, within a matter of minutes a large front moves in from the north. Weather events hit here about a day after they move through Stellenbosch and Paarl as fronts curl around the cape and head up the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The wind picks up and guest quickly scurry inside as the restaurant staff scrambles to lower umbrellas and close the sliding doors. Rain is imminent. The weather can change here in five minutes.

Carolyn Martin, Creation Wines, with her fancy double decanting device

Carolyn Martin, Creation Wines, with her fancy double decanting device

Safely inside, we sit down to a well-orchestrated wine and food pairing. Correctly speaking, Creation doesn’t have a restaurant, I’m told, but rather a “degustation room”. Carolyn is emphatic about ensuring that everything works to highlight the wines. On the menu, every dish is accompanied by a wine – in fact ordering food without wine is frowned upon (there’s a separate playroom for children – a brilliant idea that should be emulated the world over in my view – so that the adults can play in peace). Carolyn works daily with the chef, fine tuning dishes to pair with Creation wines, and everything is expertly done with love and care, down to proper serving temperature (reds are served cool) and double decanting wines when necessary. We have an excellent experience.

JC, who is of Swiss-French origin, is no less precise on the winemaking side. These are skillfully crafted and widely appealing wines, to the point that one almost wishes for a hair to be out of place. But there isn’t – every bottle is neatly coloured within the lines, a reasonable feat considering a production of 200,000 bottles under the Creation label, and another 150,000 bottles under the Whale Pod, made mostly from purchased fruit “and bits and pieces” of estate fruit. There are three tiers: Creation Estate, Creation Reserve, and the two top wines labeled “The Art of Chardonnay” and “The Art of Pinot Noir”. And JC tells me that his clones of pinot noir are virus-free, unlike the majority in the valley, meaning that as they age the full potential of Hemel-en-Aarde terroir may be revealed.

Also Noteworthy:

Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson

Sumaridge. A quality producer in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, owned by the Bellingham Turner family. Chardonnays here are a little denser and riper than the average in the region. Look also for the excellent “Epitome” cuvée, a shiraz-pinotage blend reminiscent of the southern Rhône.

Bouchard Finlayson. Although quality is highly variable from wine to wine and vintage to vintage, the estate is worth a mention as one of the longest-established in the region after Hamilton Russell, where Peter Finlayson was winemaker until the early 1990s. The 2007 and 2011 Galpin Peak pinot noir are among the best I’ve tasted from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, while the Overberg unoaked chardonnay is also worth a look.

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Part One: Revolution in the Swartland; Buyer’s guide to South African Wines

Bad cop, good cop - Québec journalist Jessica harnois and Laurel Keenan of Wines of South Africa

Bad cop, good cop – Québec journalist Jessica Harnois and Laurel Keenan of Wines of South Africa

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South Africa in the spotlight: Excitement & Revolution

South Africa in The Spotlight: Part OneAugust 12, 2014


Is South Africa One of the World’s Most Vibrant Wine Countries? 
by John Szabo MS

Part One: Revolution in the Swartland, South Africa’s hottest region; Buyer’s guide to South African Wines (Watch for Part Two next week: The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley) Cause for Excitement

Though 354 years old, the modern South African wine industry is barely celebrating its twentieth birthday. It’s only been a couple dozen years since Nelson Mandela walked to freedom, and twenty years since the first multiracial elections in the country, which effectively ended decades of international embargos and sanctions. The number of cellars crushing grapes has nearly tripled since 1991 (from 212 to 564 in 2013, with a high of 604 cellars in 2009). What was before an entirely insular industry has grown in the last two decades into one of the most vibrant and exciting wine scenes in the world.

Night falling over Table Mountain, view from Durbanville Hills

Night falling over Table Mountain, view from Durbanville Hills

Change of course hasn’t been easy. When the Cape opened up in the early nineties, the lure of chasing seemingly limitless international wine markets (and a very limited domestic one) was irresistible. Since the fashion of the time dictated red wine, many growers were motivated to rip out old vineyards of white grapes destined mainly for brandy and replant them with fashionable jet-setting grapes like cabernet, merlot and shiraz, which were minor players under the old winemaking regime. In 1990 cabernet represented just 4% of total acreage, and merlot and shiraz just 1% each. In 2012, the proportions had shifted massively, with those grapes representing 12%, 6% and 11% respectively. In the same period, chardonnay quadrupled to 8% of plantings, and sauvignon blanc moved from 2% to 10%, while at the same time, chenin blanc acreage was nearly cut in half from 32% to 18%.

New Plantings In Paarl

New Plantings In Paarl

The strategy at the time appeared reasonable enough, were it not for the reality that South Africans were a couple of decades behind the rest of the world. Revamping a vineyard is not like switching from corn to barley or cotton to sugarcane; it takes many years to establish a new variety. And there’s a truism in the world of wine: if you chase what’s fashionable, by the time you get there fashion will have moved on.

It’s not hard to see why in the rush to join the rest of the world, mistakes were unavoidable. In many cases, grapes and places didn’t match up. Although South Africa is blessed with a variety of climates and soils, many regions are simply too warm to make fine cabernet and merlot, or interesting chardonnay, while the regions that are suited were still being discovered. Not to say that there aren’t fine cabernets and blends – there are, particularly in Stellenbosch, but exceptions always prove the rule.

Many bet heavily on sauvignon blanc, made fashionable in the nineties by New Zealand, but it has proven over time, with rare exceptions, to make mildly interesting wine at best – nothing to shake the world or cause anxiety in Kiwi land. The hope that pinotage – a grape virtually unique to (and created in) South Africa – might one day become the country’s flagship grape were all but dashed by planting it in areas that are patently too warm for a variety that ripens earlier than pinot noir. The lamentable solution: mask the shortcomings with mocha-chocolate-coffee flavours. And there are other examples.

It’s easy in hindsight to say that the South African wine industry should have stuck with what it was already doing well, but that of course would never have happened. Often in this business you have to take a step forward in order to be able to take two steps back. And this is where I see South Africa today: the early leap forward into an uncertain future has allowed the industry to look back into the past with clarity and renewed purpose. Today it is so much clearer which regions and grapes, and their combinations, work, and yield wine that can truly be called distinctive. It would have taken a mighty visionary surveying the wine scene circa 1994 to see the future as it is today.

Fine-tuning the complex matrix of cultivar, climate and soil is well and truly underway, guided by both the important hand of history as well as hyper-acute technological tools. What used to take centuries and multiple generations has been accomplished in a mere couple of decades.

Always with us: Nelson Mandela still watches over vines at Fairview Cellars

Always with us: Nelson Mandela still watches over vines at Fairview Cellars

And the technical proficiency and open-mindedness that comes from travel and exchange of knowledge, unavailable to the previous generation of South African winegrowers, is widely enjoyed by today’s cohort. It has given the necessary confidence to both neglect fashion and be lazy in the winery, letting grape and place speak more loudly than technique. Such an attitude is possible only with self-assurance and a belief that one’s patch of dirt and distinct variety can make something of worth, and something that can finally and truly be called South African. And that attitude is spreading like wildflowers across the Cape’s astonishingly beautiful and incredibly bio diverse landscape.

That’s what makes South Africa one of the most exciting and vibrant winegrowing countries in the world, with so much more great wine to come. And when you throw all-important value into the mix, driven in part by the country’s weak rand, the story is even more exciting.

A full report on the SA wine scene would require far more words than even internet publications accept (not to mention time more time to read than anyone has), so I’ve written up mini profiles on two diametrically opposed but equally exciting regions that give a flavour for the overall South African wine scene. Part one covers the Swartland, along with the producers whose wines you’ll want to find, and drink, and part two next week looks at the Hemel-En-Aarde Valley. I wrap up each with a buyer’s guide of South African wines currently available in Canada.

Part One Places to Watch: Revolution in The Swartland

We drive down a dusty, unpaved bumpy road passing parched fields of grass and wheat, grazing cattle, and vineyards scattered here and there with gnarled old vines spread like shrubs across the dry and stony ground. This is the land that was forgotten: The Swartland. The name means literally ‘the black land’, from the now endangered indigenous renosterbos (rhino bush) which once coloured the landscape dark. But it too has been forgotten.

Swartland Landscape - the land that time forgot (or at least the 1990s wine industry boom)

Swartland Landscape – the land that time forgot (or at least the 1990s wine industry boom)

When the wine industry upheaval came in the nineties, excitement was focused on Stellenbosch. Swartland wasn’t part of the boom. But recently it’s been Swartland’s turn for an all-out revolution, and it has become South Africa’s hottest zone for prospectors, punters and winegrowers fuelled by passion but with bank accounts running on empty. But some larger companies are already moving in and/or sourcing fruit in the region (Fairview, Mulderbosch, Boekenhoutskloof), and it’s only a matter of time before everyone is saying “Sf-var-t-lande” in proper Afrikaans.

The cause of the excitement is in plain sight, for anyone who takes the three-hour car ride up from Cape Town: old bush vines of unfashionable grapes. Land prices are still cheap (at least relative to areas like Stellenbosch where creeping urbanization is putting immense pressure on vineyard land, driving up values to unsustainable levels), I’m told about $5,000 per hectare (although most properties are large and can’t be subdivided), which in turn draws an anti-corporate, post-modern collection of young maveric winemakers seeking to make a unique artistic statement rather than simply collect a pay check. And voilà – you have a quality revolution. It’s more or less the same set of circumstances that have made places like Italy’s Mt. Etna or Spain’s Bierzo and Priorat (and what might make Southern Chile’s old vine pais and carignan) the sin-qua-nons of any cutting edge wine list over the last decade.

As a result of being spared participation in the first phase of the industry revamp, a disproportionate number of old vineyards in the Swartland were left untouched, farmed without fanfare by anonymous cooperatives churning out anonymous wines from grapes nobody had heard of or cared much about. But now in the ongoing worldwide search for distinctive regional authenticity, these ancient vines, perfectly adapted to their surroundings, have moved up to the order of national treasures. South Africa is simply identifying and acknowledging its own national viticultural treasures. Today Swartland has the highest percentage of old vines in South Africa, and South Africa has the greatest acreage of old white vines in the new world – that’s cause for excitement.

Grapes that were once thought useful only for distillation or jug wine, like chenin blanc and cinsault are proving otherwise. And they’ve been joined more recently by varieties that fit the region, like grenache, syrah, mourvedre, roussanne and viognier. Considering the scarce rainfall (300-500mm per year) and a heat summation equivalent to region IV – that’s like scorching southern Spain – Mediterranean varieties are logical. And the palette of soils ranging from decomposed granites to shales, schists and iron-rich red soils called Koffieklip provide for diverse expressions and intriguing blending possibilities.

Still, there are many old vineyards whose grapes are pumped into bulk tanks or cheap bag-in-box, so there’s ample opportunity for fine Swartland wine to grow. For now it’s believed that the market is not yet ready to absorb a massive influx of high end wines from this as-yet little known region, which is undoubtedly true. As consumers, we’d be smart to get in and buy what’s currently available before the rest of the world finds out how good these wines can be.

The Swartland Producers To Know

Sadie Family Wines

Eben Sadie

Eben Sadie

Winemaker Eben Sadie is one of South Africa’s most reflective and philosophical characters. On arrival I’m treated to a well-rehearsed one-hour discourse on his beliefs including, for example, the logic of blending grapes in the Swartland, as is done in other warm climates around the world (single variety wines are the domain of cool regions – think about it: Loire, Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, northern Italy, vs. southern France and Spain), or the dangers of dogmatic idealism (he’s on the minimal intervention side of the spectrum, but if the wine needs a touch of sulphur, he’ll add it), or the need to evolve over time (there used to be lots of new wood in the cellar, which has slowly given way to old barrels, large old wooden vats and more recently concrete eggs and clay amphora).

Sadie has one of the best collections of empty wine bottles in his office I’ve ever seen – all of the world’s greats are there – which I find highly comforting. He clearly knows what fine wine is. His passion for wine is matched only by his passion for surfing “I love it like you have no idea. It’s what I do”. He pours his wines in Zalto Burgundy glasses – in my view some of the best vessels in the world out of which to experience wine, and what Sadie describes as being like “flying to the moon”. It’s also reassuring: here wine is treated with care and respect. I later find out that he acquired his large and expensive glassware fleet by trading bottles of his top wine, Columella, with the owner of Zalto glassware in Austria “one for one”. I’m tempted to say that Herr Karner got the better deal, given the finite scarcity of Sadie’s wines; only 4000 cases in total (all labels) are made annually, with no intention to grow.

Sadie and his latest clay amphora

Sadie and his latest clay amphora

I appreciate Sadie’s confidence and thoughtfulness, almost as much as his wines. These are among South Africa’s best wines without question, hitting the right spot on the continuum of naturalness, with depth, precision, genuine complexity, purity and clarity. The multi-cépage blends Columella (red) and Palladius (white) sit at the top of the estate’s hierarchy; they’re also among the South Africa’s most expensive (approximately $130 and $70 respectively), but in an international context, are worth every penny and more.

He has recently introduced a range of single vineyard wines that should expose more consumers to his wines, if not in quantity, than at least in price, at around $40-$50 per bottle. These wines are the result of an obsessive search for old vine parcels that can produce at the highest quality levels. Starting from literally hundreds of potential sites, Sadie has slowly whittled the options down to a mere handful. The collection includes an astoundingly good chenin blanc ‘Skurfberg’ made from vines planted in 1888, a lovely, fine and firm cinsault ‘Pofadder’ (a grape Sadie describes as being “like your brother in jail – you love him but you can’t talk about him”), a floral and powerful, whole bunch-fermented grenache ‘Soldaat’, and a rare and arresting tinta barroca ‘Treinspoor’,  which he describes as being like “syrah married to nebbiolo”.

Sadie Family's latest single vineyard range. No concessions made to international markets - these labels are unapologetically South African

Sadie Family’s latest single vineyard range. No concessions made to international markets – these labels are unapologetically South African

The second label of sorts is called Sequillo (a red and white blend are made) and offer tremendous value. Sadie describes Sequillo as his R&D company. The wines change every year, and “all of the freak stuff goes into it”. But since even the freaky here is freakishly good, these are wines you’ll want to drink.

Mullineux Family Wines

Chris Mullineux

Chris Mullineux

In many ways Chris Mullineux and his wife Andrea are emblematic of the Swartland revolution. Chris has both an accounting degree (useful in the wine business) and a winemaking degree from Stellenbosch, so he is technically well-prepared. Andrea is from a winemaking background in California, and the couple met in the south of France while she was making wine in Chateauneuf and he in Bandol – so both are well traveled and experienced (and they continue to make a little bit of wine together in Napa from fruit grown in the Sierra Foothills). Chris made wine for five years at Fable Vineyards (formerly Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards), where he worked with purchased fruit from all over South Africa, including the Swartland, so he’s familiar with multiple regions.

When it was time for the Mullineux to strike out on their own, the choice of region was easy. Chris already knew that fruit from the Swartland was “the easiest to make into interesting wine without much manipulation”, and the grapes are suited to wine styles they both like to drink. The dry climate makes it easy to farm organically, yields are naturally low, and diverse soils and growing conditions provide lots of possibilities. Plus, Chris already knew all of the top growers and best sites in the region, grapes were available and inexpensive, and it was possible to set up a functional operation with minimal overhead, which would have been impossible in Stellenbosch. The pair moved in 2007 and crushed their first harvest in 2008.

Today they lease 42 different parcels, about 25 hectares in total. Emphasis is on blending, as Chris says “it’s tough to find a single site that has the full balance”. The Mullineux, like all of the avant-garde in the Swartland, are minimalist winemakers, a luxury made possible in part by working with old vines which tend to come into the winery already in balance. There are no additions to any of the wines, Chris tells me, but he’s not “dogmatic or fundamentalist”. He’ll filter if necessary, and bounce out bretty barrels. “It’s not a philosophy. It’s to make the most authentic expressions possible”, he says.

The spartan tasting bar at Mullineux, though outfitted with vineyard rock samples (left to right: schist, koffieklip, sandstone), always a reassuring sign

The spartan tasting bar at Mullineux, though outfitted with vineyard rock samples (left to right: schist, koffieklip, sandstone), always a reassuring sign

The Mullineux Family White, a blend of about 3/4 Chenin, 35-65 years old, clairette blanche and viognier, fermented and aged in mostly old foudre is rich and expressive, layered and textured with intriguing nutty/almond/marzipan flavours. The syrah, blended from parcels grown on granite, schist and koffieklip soils and fermented with 50% whole bunches offers lovely perfume in the violet spectrum, with pure dark fruit, blackberry, a touch of leafiness and lively acidity. “Weight and bigness happen naturally here”, says Mullineux, “it’s the freshness that we focus on, and what takes the most effort”. Mission accomplished, I’d say.

A second label called Kloofstreet has evolved over time from leftover wine that didn’t fit into the main range to a fully fledged brand. From two barrels in the first year that they didn’t want to sell in bulk, the Kloofstreet wines are now purpose-made from earlier picked, younger vines. The chenin blanc, from the ‘young’ 35 year old vines is crunchy and fresh, while the Kloofstreet Rouge, mostly syrah, is pure, spicy and peppery. Both are highly drinkable and fine value at about $20/bottle.


Lammershoek winemaker Craig hawkins, old vines and Swartland landscape

Lammershoek winemaker Craig Hawkins, old vines and Swartland landscape

Craig Hawkins, winemaker since 2010, got doubly lucky when he met Carla Kretzel, the sales and marketing manager for Lammershoek. In one shot he scored a lovely girlfriend and a job in one of the most beautiful corners in the country (Carla’s father owns the property). It’s a relatively small operation, producing 150,000 bottles annually, and it’s fair to say the style has changed dramatically since Hawkins’ arrival. The wines have lightened up in every sense except character and quality, and the blazes here now mark out unbridled experimentation and rigorous non-interventionist winemaking.

Craig admits to being inspired by his brother, who makes and sells natural wines, and the painted words over the cellar door, “Made From Grapes” sums it up succinctly. Novelties under the “Cellar Foot” range, like the “Underwater Wine”, a carignan-grenache-mourvedre blend aged for a year in barrels stored underwater, the Hárslevelú, one of the only examples of the grape I’ve ever scene outside of Hungary, are just some of the ongoing tasty experiments.

Lammershoek-ageing wine underwater

Lammershoek: ageing wine underwater in a concrete vat

Not everything is successful, mind you, – cidery notes and oxidation creep in here and there – but by and large these are pure, fine, fresh, low alcohol, infinitely drinkable wines. The Lam rosé is one of the most delicious I’ve tasted: pale, 11% alcohol, bone dry and savoury beyond, while the Roulette Blanc, a blend of chenin, viognier, chardonnay and clairette, manages an impossible balance of richness and depth on a lithe 12.5% alcohol frame. The predominance of sandy, decomposed granite soils on the farm tend to yield lighter wines for early drinking, but then again, most are so delicious they wouldn’t last in my cellar anyway.

Lammershoek crest and credo: "Therefore, we drink wine"

Lammershoek crest and credo: “Therefore, we drink wine”


Porseleinberg Syrah, Boekenhoutskloof

Porseleinberg Syrah, Boekenhoutskloof

Boekenhoutskloof. Mark Kent’s celebrated operation is based in Franshhoek, but recognizing the potential of the Swartland and the need to secure a reliable grape supply from the region, he recently purchased land on the Porseleinberg. The original parcels were planted in the late 1980s, while others are recent – Kent’s plan is to expand. The fruit finds its way in the excellent value Wolftrap and Porcupine Ridge labels, among others, but the real gem is the Porseleinberg Syrah, a wine of spectacular aromatics and massive depth and structure, made from 100% whole bunch fruit and aged in foudre and concrete eggs. The 2010 is years away still from prime drinking. And check out the beautiful label hand-pressed on a nineteenth century printing press.

Also noteworthy:

AA Badenhorst Family Wines. Although I haven’t visited the estate and their 28 hectares of old bush vines in the Paardeberg Mountain, what I’ve tasted from here has been enough to cause excitement.

If you wish to join the Swartland Revolution, plan to be in the region November 7-8th of this year, where you’ll get to taste what all the excitement is about.



Buyers’ Guide: South Africa

The following recommended wines show inventory in the LCBO, SAQ or BC Liquors stores at time of publishing:

Sequillo Cellars Red 2009, Wo Swartland

Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc 2012, Stellenbosch (231282) $17.95

Fairview Petite Sirah 2011, Wo Paarl (366252) $23.95

Avondale Cyclus 2010, Wo Paarl (295220) $24.75

Bosman Adama White 2010, Wo Western Cape (282764) $15.60

Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2012, Coastal Region (12724) $22.95

Waterkloof Circle Of Life 2011, Stellenbosch (284588) $24.95

Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2012, Wo Upper Hemel En Aarde Valley, Walker Bay, (660878) $26.95

Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Wo Cape Point (285221) $15.95

Bayton Chardonnay 2012, Wo Constantia (269084) $17.95


That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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Join Award winning Cape winemakers for an Exclusive Dinner, Tasting and Discussion

WineAlign is delighted to present a three-course, eight-wine pairing dinner on Monday, June 9th with four award winning South African wine makers. 

Join WineAlign host David Lawrason and Cape winemakers from Boekenhoutskloof, Fleur du Cap, Ken Forrester and Nederburg, for an exclusive, up close and personal tasting, dinner and discussion that will explore where South African wine has been and where it is headed.

These four award-winning properties and their purveyors are in Toronto for one night only. They bring exciting news from the Cape – the revival of chenin blanc, the ascent of new regions like Swartland, and the enduring success of wines from Stellenbosch. Each winemaker will have the floor for a few minutes and will rotate seating throughout the night to ensure you get time spent with each throughout the three course meal. An informal reception will kick off the event with passed canapés.


Marc Kent – Natasha Williams – Ken Forrester – Pieter Badenhorst

The Winemakers:

Marc Kent – Boekenhoutskloof

Natasha Williams – Nederburg

Ken Forrester – Ken Forrester Wines

Pieter Badenhorst – Fleur du Cap

WOSA LOGO 19.06Click here to Purchase tickets

Event Details:

Date: Monday, June 9th, 2014
Parts & Labour (1566 Queen West)
6:30 – 7:00pm
7:00pm – 10:00pm
$75.00 (includes all fees & taxes)

Please note tickets are limited to 60. Our events sell out quickly so please book early to avoid disappointment.

About Parts & Labour

Established in 2010 to major acclaim as the new cultural hub of Parkdale, this design infused space boasts an haute cuisine restaurant/bar, and a live-music venue on the lower level. The menu is overseen by Executive Chef Matthew (Matty) Matheson, who rose quickly through the culinary ranks in Toronto. He completed chef training and culinary management at Humber College in 2003 and from there took a job at Le Select Bistro. In three short years Matheson made it to junior sous chef, leaving in 2007 to helm La Palette in Kensington Market. Both Le Select and La Palette’s proper French training and Matheson’s own rogue Canadiana cooking skills have garnered an impressive following for Parts & Labour.

Click here to Purchase tickets



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VINTAGES Preview: April 26 Release (Part Two)

Four Fine Spanish Reds, A Smart Cape Cab & Sara’s Spring State of Mind
by David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo and Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

You may have sensed in last week’s preview that we found tasting VINTAGES release of “Great Value Bordeaux” to be a bit of a chore. Yes, we were collectively underwhelmed, and I must say there were several other wines on this release, particularly from California, that I found troubling too – or just not worth spending your dollars on. Were we in a bad mood, or perhaps tasting on a “root” day on the biodynamic calendar? It’s hard to say; but for my part some of the lower scores, as well as the higher scores, are part of an effort to battle “creeping scoring condensation” – that tendency to lodge the vast majority wines in a “safe” zone between 86 to 91 points.

The great advantage of the 100-point scale (which is really an 80 to 100 pinot scale) is the wider bandwidth on which to peg a numerical opinion. In my world – and I would argue in the world of WineAlign and 100-point wine scoring globally – an 80-point wine should still be drinkable even if notably compromised. And by the way, an 80-point rating is where the WineAlign “grape bunch” begins to be coloured in, our attempt to provide a quick visual representation of quality. On the flip side, many of the world’s top calibre wines should easily be scoring close to perfection above 95 points. Using the full range of 20 points provides a much clearer barometer of quality, and is thus much more helpful to shoppers.

As for why I pick certain wines to highlight in this report, value within any price range becomes the main criteria. There will be many other wines not mentioned that are also very much worth your consideration – so spend some time browsing the selections by all three of us.

The Stars Align
(wines independently recommended by two or more critics)

Domaine Du Tremblay Cuvée Vin Noble Quincy 2012Pepin Condé Cabernet Sauvignon 2012Pepin Condé 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coastal Region, South Africa ($15.95). John Szabo – Pepin is the entry-level range from respected estate Stark-Condé established by American José Condé in Stellenbosch, named after his grandfather. It offers an authentically herbal, iodine-tinged, spicy range of aromatics on a mid-weight, light tannin and juicy acid frame, nicely balanced, stylish and savoury overall. Great price, too. David Lawrason – Both John and I have recently visited this estate in the fantastic, primordial Jonkershoek Valley, although at different times. I actually visited twice, and I was very impressed by the modern, vibrant wines, and their value. I brought their pinot home to Canada in my luggage. Hands down this beats virtually any cabernet you will find at VINTAGES or the LCBO under $20.

Lawrason’s Take

Domaine Du Tremblay 2012 Cuvée Vin Noble Quincy, Loire Valley, France ($20.95). There are many who find sauvignon blancs boringly similar. And I understand that position. So if you do like sauvignon you have to dig deeper – beyond the green – to the nuances that different terroirs offer. This little known appellation of Quincy in the Loire Valley near Sancerre is one more take, and I like its lighter, compact, shimmering appeal.

Yalumba Viognier Eden Valley 2012Oldenburg Chardonnay 2011Camelback Shiraz 2008Yalumba 2012 Viognier Eden Valley, South Australia ($24.95). On its website Yalumba trumpets that “it is the one of the most influential producers of viognier in the world”. A sweeping but carefully couched statement. And I happen to believe it’s true based on the work committed and the result in the bottle.  This is a difficult grape to grow, and to make into a widely acceptable style. I am not a personal viognier fan and would rarely buy it for myself because it’s either too blowsy or too restrained. This comes right up the middle with poise, complexity and honesty. Like it or leave it, but try this viognier if only to gauge your own tastes.

Oldenburg 2011 Chardonnay, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($22.95). The better wines of South Africa are currently offering huge value based on the weakness of the South African Rand against the Canadian dollar. Plus the fact that modern viticulture and winemaking are now as comfortable in the Cape as anywhere in the world. This bright, sleek, vibrant chardonnay picks up some of the green/herbal character of the local vegetation – called fynbos – making it just a bit different from most chardonnay peers around the world. This is a Flagship Store Exclusive.

Camelback 2008 Shiraz Sunbury, Victoria, Australia ($24.95). I was not expecting to be impressed by this wine – another critter brand on the face of it, even though camels are not indigenous to Australia (they were imported from India in the 19th C). But the combination of its age and origin in this less well-known, cooler region of Victoria (not far from Melbourne’s airport) have delivered a quite savoury, peppery yet full flavoured shiraz with Aussie weight and Euro flavours.

Viña Arana Reserva 2005Elias Mora Crianza 2009Ascheri Pisapola Barolo 2010Ascheri 2010 Pisapola Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($44.95). If you are a Barolo fan you might want to go to Ascheri’s website ( to comprehend the new regime that has led this house to make four different Barolo starting in this 2010 vintage. It’s a reaction to a complex new regulation involving Additional Geographic Designations in Barolo. Pisapola of the Verduno region will be made every vintage. I am sure it all makes some kind of local sense – but more importantly and broadly, this is excellent wine from a very good producer of modern nebbiolos that still respect their origin.

Elias Mora 2009 Crianza Toro, Spain ($22.95). Toro is an almost other-worldly enclave in north central Spain. Perched on a cliff above the Duero River the town was once the seat of Spanish authority to which Christopher Columbus came to seek financing for his voyages to America. Out on the river plain below and into the hills beyond the tempranillo grape (locally called tinta de toro) grows in heavily gravelled and limestone soils. The arid climate builds in serious muscle yet finesse. This crianza has spent 12 months in French and American oak barrels, which just seems to sponge up the fruit without really altering it.

La Rioja Alta 2005 Viña Arana Reserva, Rioja, Spain ($39.95). Spain offers several good wines in this release. There is the Faustino 1 Gran Reserva that someone has rated 97 points, but I was not in agreement that it is that superlative. I have given a higher rating to this mature classic from one of the great traditional houses of Rioja. The 2005 vintage was fantastic, and this has matured beautifully into prime time. This is a Flagship Store Exclusive.

Szabo’s Smart Buys

Maison Roche De Bellene 2011 Montagny 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($26.95). Nicolas Potel’s negociant range, what he describes as “haute couture” Burgundy, finds its way regularly into my smart buys, achieving what so few Burgundies can: fine quality at prices well below the average for their respective appellations. The Côte Châlonnaise south of the Côte d’Or has long been a source of value red and white Burgundy (and Crémant), and applied to Potel’s formula, it’s as safe a bet as you can find. I love the green nut and mineral character of this Montagny; lovely stuff, ready to pour.

Ilocki Podrumi 2011 Premium Grasevina, Syrmia, Croatia ($23.95 ). If you like full-bodied aromatic whites in the style of, say, Alsatian pinot gris, (dry) gewürztraminer or viognier, this will fit the bill. It’s a premium-priced Croatian Grasevina (aka Welschriesling), but also very characterful, evidently concentrated, with loads of beguiling acacia and almond blossoms, ripe orchard, pear and orange flavours. Ready to enjoy.

Alvaro Palacios 2011 Velles Vinyes Les Terrasses Priorat, Spain ($46.95). Palacios’ old vines (though entry-level Priorat) has explosive wild violet and rock-rose tinged aromatics reminiscent of great Douro reds, with masses of fruit and superior extract/concentration, yet still retains a sense of proportion and grace. It’s the magic of the ancient schistous terroir of Priorat. Give this another 2-4 years in the cellar, or hold into the mid-twenties and beyond – it’s well worth the money.

Maison Roche De Bellene Montagny 1er Cru 2011Ilocki Podrumi Premium Grasevina 2011Alvaro Palacios Velles Vinyes Les Terrasses 2011Maetierra Dominum Qp 2006Château Puech Haut Prestige Saint Drézéry 2011

Maetierra 2006 Dominum QP Rioja, Spain ($22.95). The “QP” stands for quatro pagos, or four vineyards, as this is a blend of tempranillo, graciano and garnacha from four different estates in the Rioja appellation. A year and a half in new French oak gives this a spicy, heavily wood-influenced profile, but I appreciate the underlying tart red berry fruit. Ideally I’d revisit this in 3-5 years, at which point I’d expect the wonderfully savoury-herbal and spicy profile of mature Rioja to come out of its shell.

Château Puech-Haut 2011 Prestige Saint-Drézéry, Languedoc, France ($29.95). Fans of serious Rhône Valley reds should venture further west to the Languedoc, where similar conditions and essentially the same grapes, coupled with relative obscurity, often add up to great value. This is intense and concentrated, with impressive depth, and a generous helping of southern French-style scorched earth, garrigue, black fruit and licorice-spice flavours. Try again in 2-4 years to benefit from added complexity and better integration or hold till the early ‘20s.

Sara’s Sommelier Selections

Malivoire Riesling 2012Malivoire Musqué Spritz 2013Poderi Elia Moscato D'asti 2012Poderi Elia 2012 Moscato d’Asti, Piedmont, Italy ($15.95). A bouquet of fresh spring flowers is authentically presented in this affable and characteristically sweet Moscato with a great deal of charm. Winemaker Federico Stella’s strict attention to detail, sustainable practices and small lot production often make for head-turning wines.

Malivoire 2013 Musqué Spritz, Beamsville Bench, Ontario ($19.95). In a spring state of mind, I have chosen yet another floral, juicy and engaging selection that is bursting with flavour. There is a certain air of whimsy about this delightfully effervescent gem that will have you feeling carefree in no time.

Malivoire 2012 Riesling, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($15.95). Winemaker Shiraz Mottiar has rocked this riesling – a varietal that has not been the winery’s forte. Despite the untraditional bottle shape, the wine delivers a classic nervy and zesty mouthfeel, loaded with an abundance of mineral and saline.

Dürnberg Rabenstein Grüner Veltliner 2011Cascina Del Pozzo Roero Arneis 2012Dürnberg RabensteManoir Du Carra Fleurie 2010in 2011 Grüner Veltliner, Weinviertel, Austria ($24.95). Produced from 50-year-old vines perched on the high slopes of the village of Falkenstein, this delightful grüner spends a year in large barriques with fine lees gaining extra body and complexity. Traditional and very typical of the varietal with lovely peppery notes along with cool stone and juicy grapefruit. The packaging makes this an attractive host gift or a centerpiece at the table.

Cascina Del Pozzo 2012 Roero Arneis, Piedmont, Italy  ($18.95). With the warm weather finally upon us, I’m delighted to have discovered so many interesting white wines in this release. Arneis, although difficult to cultivate due to its low acid, susceptibility to mildew and its “rascally” nature, can prove a real delight when properly treated and offers notes of wildflower, fresh herbs and pear. This is truly a fresh breath of spring air.

Manoir Du Carra 2010 Fleurie, Beaujolais, France ($24.95). This cru Beaujolais really caught my eye or should I say tongue offering seductive flavours and textures while putting forth a great deal of complexity. Fleurie is often touted as the “Queen of Crus” in Beaujolais and is the most widely exported of the crus. Although this version may be light on the characteristic floral nature of Fleurie, it is certainly chalk full of flavour and energy. Ideal for short-term cellaring or immediate consumption.

Winemaker’s dinner with Inniskillin’s Bruce Nicholson in Ottawa – May 1st

Bruce Nicholson

Bruce Nicholson

Inniskillin’s Bruce Nicholson is one of Canada’s most respected and awarded winemakers, lifting Inniskillin into a 5th place finish in the 2013 National Wine Awards ‘Top Wineries’ category. He, along with the Ottawa Citizen’s Rod Phillips, will be hosting a winemaker’s dinner at Graffiti’s Italian Eatery in Kanata on May 1st, exclusively for WineAlign members. Bruce will guide you through a select offering of Inniskillin wines, each paired with a specially prepared dish. He will speak about the unique viticulture and terroir of the Niagara region and talk about the history behind the winery that brought modern Ontario wine to life. (Click here for more details)

And that’s a wrap for this edition. Watch next week as we look at VINTAGES May 10 release feature themes on South America and Germany.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the April 26, 2014 VINTAGES release:

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Picks
All Reviews
April 26 – Part One – Champagne & Bordeaux

Editors Note: You can find our Critic’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for June 22, 2013

South Africa Re-examined; Seductive Southern Rhônes; and More Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Like a high-yielding grapevine, this week’s report is over-loaded with smart buys and top picks. I cover the two VINTAGES features for June 22, namely South Africa, including top picks from the consignment/private order world, and the unstoppable southern Rhône Valley. The Rhône continues to issue forth as many smart buys as Rob Ford’s office issues explanations, and it’s clear what I’d rather swallow. There’s also another half-dozen smart buys for you to consider. Read on for all of the details.

South Africa: Redefining Impressions

I suspect consumers without any special connection to South Africa rarely consider Cape wines when it’s time to go shopping. And it’s my feeling that this is because South African wines suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, there are the ever-popular confected pinotages that are little more than commercial recipes and plenty of cheap but unexciting big brand wines that could be from anywhere, and on the other, an increasing range of serious, regionally unique, authentic wines that have a deserving place in the world of serious wines. Most are familiar with the former, but it’s the latter category that should be much better known and which has the potential to capture some consumer mind-space.

You’ll often hear South African wines being described as mid way between old world and new world in style, and I think the cliché is true. The best have the structure of European wines – firm tannins, bright acids and earthy-herbal flavours – along with the fruit ripeness and generosity of warm new world regions. Think of a blend between Bordeaux and Napa cabernet, malbec from Mendoza with Cahors in Southwest France, or Barossa shiraz with northern Rhône syrah and you get the picture. South African wines satisfy a broad range of personal preferences, and there’s more than enough terroir talk of granites, shales and sandstones, breezes and elevations, and old, unirrigated bush vines to keep the punters engaged. There’s also plenty of value to be found in the low to mid-range, $12-$30 bottle, with many delivering pleasure far above their price category, just to sweeten the deal.

Following are a couple of recommended wines from the June 22nd release, and digging a little deeper into the market, some worthwhile picks from a recent tasting hosted by Wines Of South Africa featuring some fine consignment/private order wines. You’ll have to work a little to get these, but it’s a worthwhile journey and a great way to start re-shaping your image of South African wines.

Sijnn Red 2009Sijnn White 2011A pair of wines from a former Ostrich farm in the hamlet of Malagas, Swellendam, 40kms from the nearest vineyards, were the most striking of the lot at the WOSA tasting: 2009 Sijnn Red ($32.50) and 2011 Sijnn White ($29.80). Sijnn (pronounced “sane”) is a joint venture established in 2004 between winemaker David Trafford, who has his own highly regarded winery in Stellenbosch, South African environmental businessman Quentin Hurt, and Simon Farr of UK importers Bibendum. The attraction was a stony plateau littered with pudding stones over fractured shale reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, along with a warm dry Mediterranean climate moderated by breezes from the sea 15kms away.

The focus is logically on Mediterranean varieties: Sijnn red is a wild blend of 46% syrah, 29% mourvèdre, 13% touriga nacional, and 6% each of trincadeira and cabernet sauvignon. The profile is all black and blue fruit with lots of floral-violet character, gentle spice, ripe and suave tannins and very good to excellent length. This is classy, quality wine made with care, minimal intervention and maximum passion.

Sijnn White is equally compelling, a blend of about 3/4 chenin blanc and 1/4 viognier barrel fermented in 225L and 700L French oak barrels, about 20% new, and bottled unfiltered. The result is a rich and full, succulent, openly inviting style with plenty of depth and length. Wood is of course noted, but the fruit concentration is more than enough to balance. Acids, too, are balanced, and 14.5% alcohol integrated. Availability: Private Order, Gradwell Wine Agency.

Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet FrancLemberg Spencer PinotageIf you’ve given up on pinotage because so many examples today taste like they’ve been blended with Tia Maria, the 2011 Lemberg Spencer Pinotage Tulbagh ($35.55) might just change your mind. It’s from a single site in the southern end of the Swartland, with 20+-year-old vines, unfined, unfiltered, with authentic varietal character, generous but balanced wood influence, and thick, rich, medium-full palate. There’s a backbone of acidity that rides through the finish and freshens up the profile. Best 2015-2020. Availability: Private Order, Gradwell Wine Agency.

Cabernet Franc is not particularly widely planted in South Africa, but the 2009 Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Franc Banghoek, Stellenbosch  $36.95 91 is a reason to plant more. It’s grown on the highest part of the property at around 400m elevation, yielding a lovely and floral, ripe but finessed version of the grape. Availability: Private Order, WineMoves.

Lammershoek LAM RoseI’m a big fan of Lammershoek in Paardeberg, Swartland, an organically farmed vineyard with a collection of unusual grapes like harslevelü and tinta barroca, along with more familiar Mediterranean grapes, produced with nothing added other than a minimal amount of SO2, and sometimes not even that. I fell immediately in love with the 2011 Lammershoek LAM Rosé ($20.00) when I first tasted it. It’s a fantastically savoury and drinkable, pale salmon pink-coloured, bone-dry rosé made from 100% syrah. At just 11.5% alcohol one would expect either some green character or residual sugar, but there’s none of that here. It’s all about succulent acids and umami-rich, saliva inducing red berry and floral character with no small measure of garrigue-like resinous herbal notes. Marvelously lean, delicate and vibrant. Availability: Consignment, Bokke Wine.

Rooiberg Sauvignon BlancRooiberg ShirazAnd finally value seekers (and restaurateurs), will be pleased and the quality/value proposition of a pair of wines from a cooperative outfit called Rooiberg in the Breede River Valley: 2012 Rooiberg Shiraz and 2012 Rooiberg Sauvignon Blanc. These are both impressive $12 wines ($10.50 licensee), perfect as a house/by the glass/party options. The shiraz spends one year in old wood and delivers a nice mix of fruity-spicy, very pleasant aromatics and lightly grippy palate fleshed out by solid fruit extract. The sauvignon blanc is as good as many examples in the high teens, with plush tree fruit flavours and no greenness. Availability: Consignment, Lamprecht International.

From the selection on offer at VINTAGES, head straight for the 2010 Avondale Cyclus, $29.95. Here is yet another example of a wine that I’ve tried for the first time without any prior knowledge of the winery, been mightily impressed, and then only after doing some research discovered that it’s a certified organic operation practicing biodynamic winegrowing. Is it yet another coincidence of biodynamic wines rising to the top? It seems less and less likely as anecdotal evidence mounts.

Avondale Cyclus 2010Graham Beck Brut Sparkling WineAvondale’s website begins: “Our ethos, Terra Est Vita meaning ‘Soil is Life’ encapsulates our view of Avondale Estate as a dynamic living system where soil, water and energy; plants, animals and people; even our buildings, are part of a complex web of relationships and networks, interconnected and interdependent.” I suggest you join in the relationship by buying this blend of 60% viognier, along with chenin blanc, chardonnay and semillon. A little more than half was fermented in 500l barrels and the rest in stainless steel, and the result is a rich, intensely flavoured, very ripe and plush textured white from Paarl, with fruit wavering between ripe orchard-peach and fully tropical-pineapple, honeydew melon. Wood is not a major factor, outside of its creamy, textural influence. Fans of plush, new world style whites with more than a touch of earthy old world minerality should especially take note.

Sparkling wine lovers should grab a bottle of the always reliable Graham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine, $18.95. Beck is somewhat of a sparkling wine specialist, and the Brut non-vintage is an all-round pleasing traditional method (aka “Cap Classique”) blend of chardonnay and pinot noir with about 18 months on the lees. It delivers a solid dose of toasty-biscuity flavour, with bright underlying citrus fruit and sharp acids, fine on it’s own or at highly versatile at the table.

Southern Rhône: More Beautiful ‘09s, ‘10s, and ‘11s

Domaine Saint Gayan GigondasDOMAINE DE LA CHARBONNIÈRE CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPEChâteau La Nerthe Châteauneuf Du PapeThe Southern Rhône is thrust once again into the spotlight on June 22nd. It seems every release has at least a handful from the region and it’s not hard to figure out why, especially if the LCBO’s mandate really is to offer good deals from time to time. At this point, reporting on the quality and value emerging from the southern Rhône valley is a bit like reporting on the shenanigans plaguing Rob Ford’s mayoralty: the whole world already knows what’s going on, nothing surprises, and more and more juicy stories just keep coming out.

But on a much more positive, note, the continuous stream of superb wines – both quality and value – especially from 2009, 2010 and now some 2011s coming out of the southern Rhône should cause nothing more serious than the first world problems of lineups or stock outages at the LCBO.

At the top end, the wines worth jostling elbows for are the 2010 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($43.95), a beautifully composed and balanced, finessed wine; the more dense and massive 2010 Domaine De La Charbonnière Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($39.95); and another fine wine from Domaine Saint Gayan The 2009 Gigondas ($30.95), which drinks with the texture of pinot noir and the weight and flavour profile of grenache.

CHÂTEAU SIGNAC CUVÉE TERRA AMATAOrtas L'estellan GigondasLe Ferme Du Mont Le Ponnant Côtes Du Rhône VillagesFor wines closer to the everyday end of the price scale (pretty good days), I recommend the 2009 Château Signac Cuvée Terra Amata ($22.95) with masses of dark berry fruit and savoury-smoky-earthy character; the 2011 Ortas L’estellan Gigondas ($19.95) and its silkier, grenache-based flavour profile of baked red berry, garrigue and scorched earth; and finally, the smart value 2011 La Ferme Du Mont Le Ponnant Côtes Du Rhône-Villages ($17.00) a well-balanced, succulent and savoury wine with well above average complexity, depth and length for the money.

More Smart Buys

Outside of South Africa and the southern Rhône, my list below includes another half-dozen smart picks from Spain, Chile, Portugal, France and Georgia (the republic, not the state).

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links to find all of John Szabo’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

From the June 22, 2013 Vintages release:

John’s Top Smart Buys
Seductive Southern Rhône
All New Releases


Penfolds Thomas Hyland Chardonnay 2012

Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake

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South African Wine Update by Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

Rod Phillips

South African wines have made great strides in the last decade but, even though sales in Canada are steadily climbing, they’re not making the impact on the Canadian market that they should. South Africa is still way under the radar of many Canadian wine-lovers.

Why? Older consumers might remember the South African wines that arrived after the racist regime fell in 1994 and international trade sanctions were lifted. South African winemakers had been cut off from much of the wine world since the 1980s, a time when the New World wine was revolutionized. (Think of Ontario, New Zealand, and Chile.) When the long-awaited South African wines started to flow into the LCBO in the mid-1990s, they were generally disappointing and out of touch with international expectations.

But South Africa’s producers caught up amazingly quickly. They sorted out problems in the vineyards, began to plant a bigger range of varieties, opened up new regions and sites, and improved winemaking practices. It has all paid off, and now South African wines are competitive, in quality terms, at all levels. They are more than competitive in price: they are generally undervalued, and there are many very good-to-excellent values, whether you want to spend $10, $20, $30 or more.

Some really exciting wines are now coming out of South Africa. Chenin blanc is the country’s signature white, and I tasted some masterful examples recently. These are quite different from the chenin blancs of the Loire Valley and Ontario. The best South African chenins are often fruit-forward, and sometimes creamy textured, but they don’t surrender any structure and acidity. Among the best are Spice Route, Morgenhof and Ken Forrester.

The country’s signature red variety is pinotage (a pinot noir-cinsaut cross carried out in South Africa in the 1920s) and it’s had a rough ride. Until recently, many had unpleasant burnt rubber flavours, but they’ve figured out the problem (in the vineyards) and most of the new generation of pinotages are clean, fruity and well balanced. Some of the great pinotage producers, like Kanonkop, continue to make stellar wines with long cellaring potential (I tasted a 1998, which is still going strong), and others to look for are Bellingham, Tulbagh, Beyerskloof, and Spier.

But syrah is making a stronger play right now, and syrahs were among the best wines I tasted on my recent trip to South Africa. Growers capture optimal ripeness in the fruit, and plant them in conditions that moderate the summer heat and allow for the development of natural acidity. Producers to look for include Cederberg, Hartenberg, Bellingham and Tamboerskloof.

Let’s not forget the other varieties. There are many excellent wines made from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and the red Bordeaux varieties, and there are many winning white and red blends.

Ken Forrester Petit Chenin BlancJulien Schaal ‘Mountain Vineyards’ Chardonnay 2011Some South African Wines to Try

Julien Schaal ‘Mountain Vineyards’ Chardonnay 2011 ($19.95)

This chardonnay is made by an Alsatian winemaker in Elgin, South Africa’s coolest region; a chardonnay from Alsace might taste like this. The fruit is really pure, with broad complexity and a linear texture. The acidity comes through bright and clean, and contributes food-versatile juiciness. It’s a real gem. (Vintages Nov 10, 2012)

Petit Chenin Blanc 2011 ($13.95)

Made by Ken Forrester, this is an entry-level chenin blanc that’s well made and provides a good sense of many South African chenins. The fruit has a sweet core and is persistent from start to finish. It’s harnessed to bright, clean acidity, and makes for a fruit-driven but well-balanced wine.

The Chocolate Block 2010($39.95)

Made by the highly regarded Boekenhoutskloof winery, this is a blend that’s mostly syrah, with varying contributions of grenache, cabernet sauvignon, and cinsault, with a dash of viognier – all from a variety of regions. The result is impressive: a fairly big-bodied and full-flavoured red that retains balance, complexity and freshess. The tannins are easy-going, and this is drinking well now and over the next four or five years. (Vintages Nov 10, 2012)

Bellingham Shiraz/Viognier 2009 ($14.95)

This is a really attractive shiraz (with a dash of viognier). The fruit-sweet flavours are rich and focused, consistent right through the palate, and well defined. They’re supported by fresh acidity and framed with sleek, ripe tannins. The texture of the wine is full and slightly taut. It’s simply a pleasure to drink.

The Wolftrap Syrah/Mourvèdre/Viognier 2009 ($13.95)

This Rhône blend delivers value right across the board. The syrah, which is two-thirds of the blend, is from Swartland, and it provides a solid core of flavour and balance. The texture is quite rich and smooth, and the tannins are drying and easy-going. It’s a versatile red for the table.

The Chocolate Block 2010Bellingham Shiraz/Viognier 2009The Wolftrap Syrah-Mourvèdre-Viognier 2009

South African Regionality

Like many wine-producing countries, South Africa is stressing regionality in wines, to highlight the different styles and varieties produced in different regions. The best-known – like Stellenbosch, Constantia and Franschhoek – continue to earn their status, but a few up-and-coming regions are attracting attention.

One that’s creating a real buzz is Swartland, a warm region to the north of Cape Town, where a number of small producers have launched “The Swartland Wine Revolution.” There’s no varietal or stylistic theme, but these wineries (including Lammershoek, which is often in our market) are innovating in blends and varieties. Try anything that comes from Swartland.

Finally, some of the newer southern regions, like Elgin and Walker Bay are also well worth watching. They are cooler and are producing high-toned and structured wines from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir.

But it’s easy to become fixated on innovations. Established producers in the established regions have upped their game, and many turn out terrific wines that represent great value. In short, South Africa has a dynamic wine industry, well attuned to the international market at all price-levels.

Re-calibrate your radar so that you notice these wines when they appear in Vintages releases and elsewhere.


Rod Phillips

Rod’s Wine Reviews

Finding the Value at the LCBO

WineAlign critic, Rod Phillips is the only person to taste right through the LCBO’s permanent inventory of 1600 wines in a short period of time – he does it in five weeks – and this approach gives him a unique take on the wines. Rod’s reviews are then condensed into a selection of the 500 best-values, rated by quality for price.

The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO 2013The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO 2013

By Rod Phillips

Rod rates each wine on a five-star, value-for-money scale, and gives a concise, no-nonsense description. There’s also space to add your own notes for each wine. With currently updated information and carefully researched reviews, this book is the most comprehensive LCBO wine guide there is.

The current edition of this best-selling guide is on sale now. Buy it Here

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Margaret Swaine’s Wine Picks: South Africa

The LCBO has launched a four-week focus on South African wines, the first on this country in seven years. Find these value-priced picks via

Boekenhoutskloof Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2010
$14.95 (88 Points)
Boekenhoutskloof was established in 1776 in the Franschhoek valley. In 1993, new vineyards were planted. Grapes for this wine were sourced exclusively from Malmesbury in the Swartland. This deep purple red is velvety smooth with slightly smoky, black pepper notes along with meaty, ripe berry flavours and subtle oak. Perfect for barbecue meals.

Six Hats Chenin Blanc 2011
$10.95 (86 Points)
From Citrusdal Wines cellar, approximately 170 kilometres from Cape Town. Grapes are sourced from Fairtrade certified vineyards. This is a simple fresh white just perfect for the summer months. Clean and light with a zippy acidity and some tropical notes, it’s good with seafood or as an aperitif.

Durbanville Hills 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
$11.95 (88 Points)
From grapes sourced from Durbanville Hills member farms, some high-altitude vineyards on the slopes of the Hooge Bergs Valley, this is a nice combo of tropical fruit and citrus. Papaya, pineapple and guava flavours are punched up with notes of lime and melon. Nicely concentrated, medium full and textural, it finishes fresh and crisp.

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John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 17th 2012: Spanish Styles; Fine Value from the Rhône and South Africa; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The week’s report focuses on Spain, the main wine theme of the March 17th Vintages release, highlights two pairs of fine value wines from the Rhône and South Africa, and delivers the Top Ten Smart Buys.

España- Buy on the Label

Spain continues to be an enigmatic country for wine lovers, a developing nation with wild variations in style even within the same appellations. The fifteen selections included in the March 17th release offer a view on the good and the bad, the old and the new.

On the one hand there are the traditional styles, at the other extreme, plenty of polished, modern renditions. This is not news, of course, to anyone who has been following Spain – the rumblings of political and stylistic revolution began not long after the death of Generalisimo Franco in the mid-seventies – and are part of a necessary and inevitable evolution. This generational conflict is playing out across the country in all of the traditional appellations, as Spain remains in search of a 21st century identity. So how is one to know which style to expect – traditional or modern – without having tasted the wine (or consulting WineAlign)?

Vega Sauco Adoremus Tinta De ToroBaron De Ley Gran ReservaThe answer, though it may be heretical for a wine critic to say, is to go on the label. Hey, you have to start somewhere. It’s not a perfect solution, of course, but Spain’s distinctive labels remain surprisingly faithful to the wine style therein.  Consider these two very good reds:2004 Vega Sauco Adoremus Tinta de Toro DO Toro $19.95 and 2001 Baron de Ley Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja $29.95. Both are top notch in my books, though the Adoremus Toro, as evinced by the modernist label, has an appealing international leaning. I describe it as a: “Super value with wide appeal, if not distinctive regional style.” The Baron de Ley Rioja with the classicists’ label (some of their wines still come clad in wire mesh, an old measure to protect against fraud) on the other hand, is described thus: “Old school to say the least… but lots else going on as well…. A fine pick for traditionalists.” The latter is immediately identifiable, recognizable, unmistakable – a welcome sniff on a sommelier’s blind tasting test, while the former, although very good, would be less easy to identify as Spanish. With nothing else to go on, start with the style of the label as a guide to wine style.

Another fine old style white Rioja is the 2009 Señorio de P. Peciña Chobeo de Peciña DOCa Rioja $17.95. It’s still a bit gangly and awkward for the moment, but cocoon it in the cellar for a half-decade or longer and you’ll be shocked by the butterfly that emerges. Such wines, with vivid acid and marked oak character take time to integrate, but develop into wonderfully complex, earthy, mushroom, saltwater taffy and dried fruit flavoured treats, with a lightness and ethereal quality that would be hard to believe if you’ve never experienced it. Naturally, if you prefer fresh, fruity wines, this is not for you, either now or later.
Chobeo De Peciña

A Spanish Love Affair with Wood

Excellent traditional style wines aside, the reason why Spanish wine has lost territory in today’s international markets is, in my view, because of the country’s torrid, centuries-old love affair with wood. Though the above-mentioned Chobeo de Peciña is oaky to be sure, it’s balanced, with sufficient stuffing to see it through. Other arch-traditionalists Rioja estates like Lopéz de Heredia or La Rioja Alta also make wines that are markedly oaky in youth, yet have an amazing capacity to be transformed into wondrous wines over time. In fact, both of these estates wait years, sometimes decades before releasing their wines, well beyond the minimum cellaring time required by law – one of the advantages of many traditional Spanish wines for those without the space, or patience, to age the wines themselves. And check out those marvelous labels straight out of the 19thC.

But oak alone does not make age worthy wines. It requires depth and concentration born in the vineyard and a deft, minimal-interventionist hand in the cellar. Spain’s enthusiastic use of American oak dates literally to the Conquista and the access to vast virgin tracks of American white oak stands that the new territories afforded. Yet today, so many of these unbalanced and oaky wines seem desperately anachronistic, relics of the past, as though they were clad in a conquistador’s suit of heavy armor:  the heavy Bodega Del Abad Dom Buenometal protection as useful today as the dripping caramel, butterscotch and treacly oak flavours are fashionable (while the fruit suffers the same fate as the Incas and the Aztecs). For an example of this style of Spanish wine, taste the 2001 Señorio del Águila Gran Reserva DO Cariñena $19.95. It’s not mature, just old and dried out, the vestiges of excessive oak remaining like the ghostly burnt out hull of an ancient Spanish Galleon run aground in the storm.

There are a handful of Spanish regions that have never known the ghosts of the past, principally because they weren’t on the map a couple of decades ago. Relatively new DOs like Bierzo and Rías Baixas, stepped from oblivion straight into the current era of modern wine. An excellent example of the former, and in fact my top value choice this week is the 2001 Bodega del Abad Dom Bueno Crianza DO Bierzo $14.95. I could scarcely believe the range of flavours and depth in this wine, what must be the very first release from this bodega whose doors didn’t open until 2003. If you enjoy the umami-driven flavours of perfectly mature wine, do not miss this extraordinary value.

A Pair from The Rhône

Outside of Spain but not too far away, I’d draw your attention to another pair of fine value 2009 southern Rhône reds, delivering on the promise of this excellent vintage: 2009 Jean-Marie Arnoux Vieux Clocher Vacqueyras AC $21.95 and 2009 Foncalieu la Réserve du Crouzau St. Gervais Côtes du Rhône-Villages AC $14.95.  The Vacqueyras is a typical blend dominated by Grenache, from some of the oldest vines on the Arnoux property. It’s marked by minerality and scorched earth, with intriguing cherry blossom and orange peel aromas. The CDR-Villages is dense and ripe and characterful, delivering all that one could hope for at this price.
Jean Marie Arnoux Vieux Clocher Vacqueyras La Réserve Du Crouzau St. Gervais

A Pair from South Africa

And finally, worthy of mention are two excellent wines from South Africa: 2009 Spice Route Shiraz WO Swartland $24.95 and NV Graham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine WO Western Cape, South Africa, Méthode Cap Classique $18.95. Spice Route is a label produced by the irrepressible Charles Back, creator of the highly successful Goats do Roam range, who visited Toronto for the first time in January of this year. Made from dry-farmed vines in Swartland, this is a thick, dense, intense shiraz with generous black pepper and ripe black fruit flavours.
Spice Route ShirazGraham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine

Graham Beck is a leader of Method Cap Classique (traditional method) sparkling wines. Fruit is grown in the Breed River Valley in Robertson, quite far inland from the Cape. The climate here is warm and dry, in fact quite the opposite of what one would intuitively seek out for quality sparkling wine, but the secret is the fossil-rich limestone soils that are imminently well suited to chardonnay and pinot noir. Proper farming delivers ripe but mineral and acid-rich grapes to the cellar, where they are transformed into full flavoured, toasty bubbly after 24 months on the lees. The Brut NV is superb value at $18.95.

From the March 17, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Spain Picks
All Reviews


John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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South Africa Ten Years Later: My Voyage Back to the Future – by Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

I was recently in South Africa, tasting, visiting wineries, as well as drinking a fair bit of wine, after not having been back for a decade. I was fortunate to have spent the better part of my year in 2000, living in South Africa and working for Wines of South Africa (WOSA) in Stellenbosch but had not been back since.

As a result of my time in South Africa, as well as several previous visits, I have always had a strong, inexplicably visceral attachment to all things South African. Even though I’ve been working with the Canadian wine industry since my return to Canada, through judging, reviewing and teaching, I have closely followed the wines and industry progress over the past decade.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to provide an update on several facets of the South African wine scene:  New Wineries and New InvestmentNew Grapes and New Wines, New Regions, New Initiatives for a New Industry, and The Shift from Grape Farming to Wine Growing.

An Overview of the Progress

South Africa Wineland

South Africa’s winelands are widely acknowledged as the most stunning in the world, surrounded by two oceans, crisscrossed by dramatic mountain ranges and valleys and dotted with picturesque, centuries-old wine farms. I was working in the country ten years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and able to have an insider’s look at the players and an industry that had been undergoing profound and rapid changes. This allowed me to become very familiar with many of the great wines and producers that never did, and still never do, make their way to Canada. (Some of those that do are linked to WineAlign reviews below.)

It was fascinating to see how much had changed since I left in late December 2000, from the structure and growth of the industry, to the changes in pricing, style and quality of wines produced. As well, I was able to meet new producers and catch up with familiar faces from the past.  Just before I arrived in 2000, wine exporters had transitioned from a voluntary, membership-based industry association to an inclusive model, which represents all exporters and is funded through a statutory levy on table and sparkling wines exports. Though not without challenges and detractors, this model has been a positive change for the industry and South African wine exports in general, making it possible for all exporters, under the helm of Su Birch, the dynamic CEO of WOSA, to work collaboratively on innovative international initiatives to advance exports in a few key markets over the past decade.

With the end of Apartheid and the international boycott on South African wines in the 1990s, winemakers and the industry were anxious to re-connect with the international arena and catch up after a period of economic isolation. South African wine exports represented 26% of total wine production in 2000 and almost doubled to 48.5% in 2010.  Along with the move back into traditional export markets of the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, the new millennium saw the expansion to markets in Japan, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada. More recently, South African wines are being sold in new and emerging markets such as Russia, Asia, in particular China, and in other countries within the African continent.

South African wine exports to Canada have increased five-fold since 2000 (1.5 million liters in 2000 compared to 7.5 in 2011), however the selection seems to come in waves, going from periods dominated by high-volume, value-priced wines to times dotted with more listings of lesser-known, higher quality wines from smaller, quality-driven producers.

So what has changed since I was last in South Africa in 2000?

New Wineries, New Investment

There were just under 400 wine farms in 2000 and this number has grown to 573 in 2010. Then as now, the industry has a significant concentration of big wineries, brand owners and cooperatives, which has altered somewhat through a series of mergers, acquisitions and consolidation. The KWV (Cathedral Cellars, Café Culture Pinotage and Roodeberg), the former cooperative that once regulated production quotas and pricing for the industry), no longer holds the power and prominence it once had. However, along with Distell (Obikwa, Drostdy-Hof, Two Oceans, Stellenzicht, Durbanville Hills, Fleur du Cap) and Douglas Green Bellingham (Boschendal, The Beachhouse and others), these companies make up between a quarter and third of all South African wine exports. Smaller producers (60,000 cases or less) remain an important force in the industry and account for approximately 46% of the country’s production.

Looking back at some of the wineries I visited recently, Tokara had just finished construction in late 2000 but had yet to produce any wine, Waterkloof did not even exist and Delaire Graff was simply Delaire, producing some good wine under Bruwer Ratts (who now produces under his own label) in a spectacular location.

Delaire Graff

Following a forty million pound renovation by English diamond magnet Laurence Graff, Delaire Graff is a must see and stay destination for wine tourists who crave luxury and pampering.  The Estate has two top restaurants, a clothing boutique and Graff diamond shop on the premises, as well as well-appointed guest cottages and a spa, which were listed by Conde Nast Traveller and Travel and Leisure Magazine as among the best new hotels in the world.  The focus is on Bordeaux  varieties with winemaker Morne Very making a powerful yet elegant Bordeaux  Blend with Shiraz called Botmaskop (the nearby mountain peak which he has climbed), as well as rich Chardonnay, minerally Sauvignon Blanc and a layered, complex Cape Vintage fortified wine from traditional Portuguese grape varieties.


Tokara Estate is the neighbor to well-known Thelema  and located on the crest of the dramatic Helshoogte pass between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.  A state of the art wine making facility, olive farm and restaurant, winemaking is overseen by Miles Mossop, who was just starting out in 2000 and one of South Africa’s new generation of winemakers. Although the wine production facility was completed at the end of the 2000, the premium range Tokara labels were not released until 2006. The fruit is sourced from vineyards on the estate, as well as properties owned in cooler Hemel-en-Arde and Elgin.

The Tokara Director’s Reserve White is among the Cape’s finest white blends, the 2010 being an exquisite blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc (unoaked) and 30% Sémillon (aged in French oak) that is stylistically similar to a fine white Bordeaux. There is also an impressive Director’s Reserve Red that blends ripe, New World fruit with Old World structure and elegance.   I also tasted the 2009 Shiraz, containing 12% Mourvedre and well put together, which could benefit from a few years in the cellar. See here for notes on the 2007 Zondernamm Shiraz and Tokara 2007 White.

Waterkloof Wines

One of the newest wineries to open in the Cape is Waterkloof Wines, situated in the Helderberg sub-region of the Stellenbosch District. The winery and vineyards are mere kilometers from False Bay, which is one of South Africa’s cooler growing areas. UK wine importer Paul Boutinot is the owner, or custodian as he calls himself, who has invested in South Africa with a commitment to produce sustainable, fine wines. Werner Engelbrecht is the accomplished viticulturalist and winemaker, who practices sustainable and biodynamic farming practices. The winery building is modern and simple, perched high atop Schapenberg Hill, with spectacular views of False Bay from the tasting room and restaurant.

Waterkloof is represented by Family Wine Merchants in Ontario and the winery produces several tiers of wine. The False Bay series contains very good value and well-made red, white and rose while the Waterkloof range includes the Circle of Life 2010 White, a complex, textured  blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 35% Chenin Blanc and 5% Semillon to be released in July 2012. Other outstanding wines include the racy and concentrated Waterkloof 2009 Sauvignon Blanc as well as the Circle of Life 2009 Red, a full-bodied, refined blend of Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Like well-made South African red blends, it combines purity and richness of fruit, fine-grained tannins and real finesse.

Other South African wineries that were barely in existence in 2000, but worth seeking out, include Sadie Family Wines, Ataraxia, Mullineux  and Badenhorst, some of whose wines we see in Canada.

New Grapes, New Wines

Over the past decade, the industry has latched on to fads and gone through phases, similar to all New World regions in search of renovation or reinvention.  South Africa wineries have experimented with critter labels, focused on Sauvignon Blanc for whites, and most recently, with Pinotage (a native South African crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) as “coffee” wine, which seems to have captured the imagination of Canadians, and those in other export markets, in a way that Pinotage alone was never able to.

The fascination with single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines was starting to wind down a decade ago, while the interest for all things Shiraz/ Syrah was heating up. Very good producers include Boekenhoutskloof, Mullineux and Spice Route. Plantings of Shiraz/Syrah have increased from 6% to 10% of total vineyard area in the last ten years, although Cabernet Sauvignon also increased from to 9% to 12%. Both are currently the top red grapes and while you still see a fair amount of single varietal wines, there has been the shift to blends – Rhone blends, more Bordeaux blends, Syrah blended with Cabernet, or into Cape Blends, South Africa’s red blend containing a significant proportion of Pinotage.  Some budget-priced red blends worth trying are Thelema Mountain Red, Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap Red, and Post House Blueish Black.

While the share of white grape production had dropped from 64% to 56% by 2010, the whites I tasted were extremely impressive, perhaps overall better than the reds. Chenin Blanc and Columbar (used mainly for bulk or boxed wines) are the main grapes for white wines, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.  Recommended whites include: Ataraxia Chardonnay, Iona Chardonnay and Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap White.

Chenin Blanc, known as Steen in South Africa, is believed to be one of the original grape varieties brought to the Cape colony in 1655 and is incredibly versatile for dry, sweet and sparkling wines and ages very well. Producers like Ken Forrester FMC and Petit Chenin have shown that South African Chenin is capable of producing luscious, crisp and concentrated wines that can rival the best of the Loire any day. Sadly, and despite the efforts of groups like the Chenin Blanc Association to increase the profile and instances of quality South African Chenin Blanc, plantings of Chenin have gone down the past decade, the slack being taken over by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

New Regions

Just as Shiraz was beginning to make a name for itself a decade ago, the Swartland district was just starting to generate the buzz that is much louder today. This region reportedly clocks in some of the country’s hottest day time temperatures and is among South Africa’s driest growing area, with cool evenings and cooling breezes from the frigid Atlantic Ocean, making for ideal growing conditions.  Historically home to Chenin Blanc and other commercially unfashionable grape varieties (i.e. not a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc here), the “Swartland Revolution” was a movement afoot over the past decade, led by Eden Sadie, among others, who “rediscovered” the region while making wine at Spice Route Wines in Malmesbury.

The exodus of winemakers like Sadie and Adi Badenhorst from Stellenbosch to Swartland was accompanied by an influx of newcomers like Mullineux and Lammershoek who share a commitment to winemaking and viticultural practices that respect and celebrate low yields, old bush vine vineyards, dry land farming, manipulation free wine making and a lighter use of oak.  The Swartland Revolution, part manifesto and part marketing, is also an annual celebration that has taken place over the past two years, with the next event set for November 9-10, 2012.  For more information of the event, the Revolution and winemakers check out The Swartland Revolution.

The search for cooler growing areas has also resulted in the creation of new regions and districts under the Wine of Origin (appellation) scheme.  Elgin had started to be recognized as a cool growing area (literally and figuratively) and is home to Sauvignon Blanc producer Oak Bay. Other new areas that came into existence that we see from time to time on bottles include Bot River, Elin and Cape Point, home to the highly rated white blend (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon) Islied from Cape Point Vineyards.

New Initiatives for a New Industry:

Wine has been made in South Africa for centuries (the first harvest dates back to 1659) and it is surely the world’s oldest New World wine region. The South African wine industry has also been inextricably linked to colonialism and apartheid, as well as the resulting socio-political conditions and their impact on some of the people who have worked in the industry.  Although much of the abuse and poor working conditions historically existed on grape farms as opposed to wine estates, the aftermath on the rural communities of the Cape has been far reaching and long lasting on South Africa’s black workers.

While no other wine industry has had to account for its labour practices or living conditions of its workers, not to mention the distribution of land-ownership, wealth or power within their wine industries, the South African wine industry has acknowledged the history and risen to the challenge to redress past wrongs by investing in a series of comprehensive initiatives for black workers.

South Africa Wineland

Stemming from a government country-wide initiative called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), designed to promote economic growth, develop skills and create greater equality and opportunities for disadvantaged communities, the wine industry adopted a Wine Industry Transformation Charter in 2007.  This plan, complete with scorecard and broad-based measures, recognizes the need for and implements increased training and education opportunities, ethical trading practices, preferential procurement, and the transition to ownership and management control, among others.

Still a work in progress with challenges ahead, the past fifteen years have resulted in noticeable changes in the number of black winemakers, black-owned wine ventures, a myriad of joint ventures, along with so named Black-owned Brands.  Tukulu is an early venture between Distell, a group of black entrepreneurs and a community trust whose workers work and live on the farm.  Many of these wines often find their way to export markets since it is easy to find shelf space and funding for export activities.

Other initiatives which came into existence over the past decade include programs and measures focused biodiversity and sustainability (mandated for all products exported). Sustainability measures had already been underway when I arrived in 2000, with independent sustainability certification for producers who minimize chemical use, protect biodiversity, clean up waste water and ensure people, as well as environmentally friendly practices.  By 2011, 85% of wine labels will sport the Sustainability seal. Similarly, the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative is partnership between the wine industry and conservation sector to protect threatened wildlife habitat and contribute to sustainable wine production, so as to preserve the floral splendor of the Cape winelands.

The Shift from Grape Farming to Wine Growing

Overall, I would say that one of the biggest changes I saw was the improvement in the quality of the wines. The upgrading of vineyards, improvements in viticulture techniques, investment and retooling of wineries and the education of a new generation of winemakers, who travel and work outside the country, has begun to pay off in spades.  Plant diseases, like leaf roll virus, which some say are responsible for off, burnt flavours in red wines, are now kept in check through elimination of water stress on the vines and earlier picking, as Boschendel winemaker Lizelle Gerber explained. Todays red wines are cleaner, more balanced and have less oak treatment than in the past.

South Africa Wineland

The most notable change in quality was in the white wines, with Chenin Blanc from Beaumont, the aromatic white blends from producers like Mullineux and Sauvignon Blanc from Waterkloof standing out, with fresh acidity and pure flavours and concentration, as more as more producers seek out cooler growing areas, higher elevation vineyards and learning more about optimal picking times. In essence, what has really been happening in South Africa over the past decade or two has been the shift from grape farming to wine growing, which has had a tremendous impact on quality and bodes well for the future.

We still don’t see many of the really interesting South African wines in Canada, with current offerings not reflective of the breadth and quality of wines produced in South Africa today. This is partly because producers have focused their efforts on the UK, a challenging market which nonetheless accounts for 30% of total exports, or on markets like the US, the Holy Grail for many South African producers.  I recall hearing from a South African producer who had travelled to Canada in the fall of 2000 and remarked that there was “greater demand and interest in South African wines than the industry realized and a distinct level of boredom in the wines that were available and offered to buyers”. To some extent, this might explain what is still at work today and why South African wines have yet reach their potential in our market.

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