Non mon ami, we do not make Pinot Noir, we simply use it to translate the message of the Terroir! That’s the kind of thing you would expect to hear from an ageing, bare chested, vigneron with a Gauloise Filter loosely hanging from the corner of his mouth under the shade of an old beret perched jauntily on his head. It’s the kind of thing that causes hipsters to swoon, punters to roll their eyes and, if nothing else, cause an argument amongst sommeliers.
It’s with little excitement then that I find myself late one Sunday afternoon with 22 bottles of young, tannic, current vintage, Stellenbosch Cabernets in front of me. The kitchen looks like somebody tried to catch a squirrel inside it, I have about 8 miniature pizzas going simultaneously, trying to craft something that will not only compliment the flavours of these monster wines but hopefully absorb some of that youthful tannin. I would much rather be outside, soaking up the last of the summer sun, sipping some Chenin, than trying to find regional characteristics in New World Cab.
It had gone dark outside by the time I realised how captivated I had become. We genuinely have a Kingdom of Cab on our doorstep. And if anybody was to tell you that there is no diversity in new world wine, then they’ve never been to Stellenbosch before: Starting of in Devonvallei and Stellenbosch Kloof behind the Polkadraai Hills the wines show a distinct, atypical Cabernet character of raspberry and plum, with herbaceous edge and tight stalky tannins, poised and elegant but demanding of age. Over the hill in Bottelary the juicy red fruit is replaced by more predictable dark-red berries with a hint of black fruit and more subdued herbaceous edge.
Things change dramatically as we head over to Simonsberg-Stellenbosch. The wines are bigger, bolder and more concentrated, perhaps leaning more towards dark fruit but without losing any complexity. The Laibach Reserve Widows Block Cabernet Sauvignon stops you dead in your tracks and demands that you pay attention. Poised and balanced with red currant, blackberry, dried fynbos, cedar and graphite held together by perfectly ripe tannin, smart oaking and just enough acidity. From there we head up the valley to Banhoek and a whole new world awaits. Firmly back in the red fruit spectrum, this time with dense, fully ripe tannin and a unmistakable menthol edge, famously highlighted with Thelema The Mint. After that we head back down to Jonkershoek where Neil Ellis perfectly captures the character of both worlds.
Lastly we edge our way closer to the ocean, first to the Helderberg, where ocean facing vineyards like that of Uva Mira showcase that unmistakable fynbos, red currant and cigar box Stellenbosch is known for, while towards the Blaauwklippen Valley long lazy summer days allows Rust en Vrede to coax incredible concentration of blackberry and cassis from slow ripening grapes.
As the crowd slowly make their way around Stellenbosch, one region at a time, you can see the same realisation dawn on them as on me the day before; There is a lot more here than we sometimes think. From classic examples with restraint red fruit to modern, fruit forward showstoppers. Stellenbosch has something for every palate.
What was the best wine of the day? Couldn’t tell you. But I did grab the last of the Laibach and judging by the pizza and vino, Uva Mira, Rust & Vrede and Le Riche were the definitely the first wines to run out.
A big thank you to all the producers that helped make this happen as well as Matt and Heather from Gavin Withers Photography and Eben “The Sommelier” Bezuidenhoud for pouring and imparting wisdom on the day.