Tasting Three Vintages of One of South Africa’s Greatest Icon Cabernet Sauvignons – Reviewing the New Release Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017…

In the words of winemaker Christo le Riche… “2017 was a great vintage!” The stand out factor that links it to 2015, and the possible reason these two vintages are putting up their hands as some of the greatest ever in modern South African winemaking history, is the moderate yet consistent weather the winelands experienced during ripening. Chatting to Christo, he feels confident that “…pre-veraison, the drought worked its magic, but it seems that having few to no heat waves and a long autumn was certainly the key to greatness even though evenings were slightly warmer on average.”

While many wineries are super proud of the final in-bottle quality of their wines, it was by no means an easy vintage. Christo explains… “In the winery it was a complete nightmare. All the Cabs, except one block, ripened within eight days. In 2020 we picked over 29 days in comparison. In 2017 we ran out of tank space, forcing me to become creative with fermentation vessels. But luckily, everything worked out in the end and the quality is exceptional. The IPT (total tannin levels) on the wines were the highest I have seen. It was also the year I met my wife!” In many ways, Christo reminded me of the comments from Bordeaux winemakers during both the 2009 and 2010 harvests, two of the greatest vintages in the region since the epic 1989-1990 duo. All that the winemakers could talk about was the highest IPT readings they had ever recorded, yet the wines were still silky, smooth and soft with delicious balancing ripeness and fabulous finesse.

So when it came to tasting and reviewing the exciting new Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, I thought I would do my tasting a little bit differently. Christo kindly sent me a bottle of the 2016, which I had not tasted yet either, along with the new 2017 which is only due for release towards the end of the year, and then I added one of my last 2015s to the line up. Finally, inspired by Christo’s comments about the wines IPTs, I decided to add a top bottle of Bordeaux red from a similar vintage into the line up to help calibrate all the scores. I chose the classic Leoville Barton 2016 because not only is it unquestionably a benchmark winery, but the wine has been scored 95+/100 from The Wine Advocate and 97/100 from the Wine Spectator magazine and was also crowned their Number 1 Wine of the Year in 2019! Big kudos indeed.

The Mini Le Riche Vertical Tasting

Wine 1:

Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Stellenbosch, 14.5% Abv.

The generosity of the epic 2015 vintage has without question of doubt produced a really beautiful expression of pure Cabernet Sauvignon… as well as possibly one of the greatest red wine vintages ever in South Africa. What is most striking about this wine is its incredible purity and perfume that rises out of the glass imperiously in multiple waves of fragrant cherry blossom, violets, potpourri and crushed rose petals. It possesses copious amounts of mocha, sweet tobacco leaf, dried herbs, cedar spice, black currant coulis and a delicious earthy, brambly, wild forest berry complexity. The palate continues to show such sophistication and textural seduction with classical Cabernet flavours filling every corner of the mouth. Still beautifully charming, but a little less open-knit and expressive than it was even last year as it starts to perhaps enter its slumber and shut down a little. Undoubtedly, this wine reveals the class of a truly great vintage with a full bodied fleshy weight, a finely delineated purity and the most charming harmonious balance and intensity. Start drinking this wine in 3-5 years time and over the next 25+ years. It’s a true thing of beauty.

(Wine Safari Score: 96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Wine 2:

Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Stellenbosch, 14% Abv.

The 2016 Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was always going to be a highly scrutinised creation following the incredible 2015. But hats off to Christo Le Riche, he has conjured up another exceptional effort. When you are talking about one of the leading proponents of Cabernet Sauvignon in the country, I guess there aren’t really “off vintages” in any real sense. Where the 2016 departs from the 2015 is in its plumper, rounder, fleshier texture and palate weight. Still fabulously pure fruited and approachable, the nose boasts wonderful overt aromatics of cedar spice, plumy richness, violets and vanilla pod, exotic blackberry preserve, sweet tobacco leaf and complexing mineral graphite notes. Full bodied, plump and showy, the palate has very attractive curves and stands out as an exceptional effort in a hot, dry vintage. The tannins are svelte, soft and silky and the mouthfeel fleshy, creamy but intense, with an admirable salinity and freshness on the long, pure black fruited finish. The wine is not as strict or linear as the 2015 but more generous already at this young age. It’s an exceptionally attractive pure Cabernet nevertheless. Drink now and over the next 10 to 15+ years. (Le Riche has created only 4,500 bottles of this particular reserve, marking their second smallest vintage to date.)

(Wine Safari Score: 94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Wine 3:

Chateau Leoville Barton 2016, Deuxieme Cru Classe Saint Julien, 13% Abv.

The Château Léoville Barton comprises 48 hectares of vines on the north side of Saint Julien, with south-facing hillsides with elevation. The 2016 is a classic blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest of the blend made up by Merlot. The result is a wine that displays all the classic Left Bank Bordeaux notes with a strong graphite core but also vivid notes of dried violets, rose petals and potpourri spice. Regarded as one of the top wines in a vintage that is now considered benchmark on the Left Bank, the palate is a little tight and subdued to start but once you warm up the engine, this wine reveals a lot of horse power of blue and blackberry fruit flavours, dusty graphite and liquid minerality, salty oyster shell nuances and an intense, saline, crème de cassis finish with just the finest hint of liquorice candy. The tannins are still bold and powerful as you would expect on a young Bordeaux of this quality, but the whole package is tight, compact and super impressive. Opened for the purpose of benchmarking the quality of the Le Riche Reserve Cabernets, but otherwise, its certainly not a wine I would anticipate drinking for another 10+ years at least. (Technically speaking, at 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, this could be labelled a varietal Cabernet.)

(Wine Safari Score: 96/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Wine 4:

Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Stellenbosch, 14% Abv.

Tasted alongside the 2015 and 2016 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for added perspective reveals a wine that is quite simply drop dead gorgeous. While 2017 is of course another excellent vintage for reds in the Cape and the quality of this icon was always expected to be high, I was not anticipating it being this good! The aromatics are super fragrant and exuberant, showing intricate perfumed notes of violets and lilacs, cinnamon stick, cedar and sandalwood, cigar box and wonderfully complex herbal hints of thyme, dried fennel seeds and Chinese five spice. There is an impressive elegance and gravitas to the silky, finely textured palate which boasts all the classical Cabernet notes of black currants and black plum, crème de cassis, graphite and savoury, earthy nuances of freshly tilled earth. A beautifully proportioned, multi-dimensional wine that shows such a harmonious balance and sophisticated composure reserved for only the finest red wines around the world. Medium bodied, super elegant and weightlessly intense, the fruit flavours are perfectly ripe and precise, growing in the mouth and energised by an exhilarating freshness that holds everything in place so effortlessly. Certainly one of the most ‘complete’ wines I have tasted from the 2017 vintage so far. Drink this beauty on release but be sure to hold back a couple of cases for long term cellaring of 10, 15 or 20+ years.

(Wine Safari Score: 97/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

The 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is scheduled for release at the end of 2020.

6 thoughts on “Tasting Three Vintages of One of South Africa’s Greatest Icon Cabernet Sauvignons – Reviewing the New Release Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017…

  1. Hi Greg,

    I really enjoyed this vertical approach as well as a ringer to add perspective. In terms of the 2015 shutting down and entering a slumber – could you please elaborate on this, it’s a concept I’m not familiar with.

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    1. Wines go through curves of being open and closed, especially Burgundy but also Bordeaux blends and Cabernet… Ports too. Just a phenomenon really. You can of course drink any young wine but they may not always be as expressive as they could be. The 2015 Le Riche was delicious but tighter since I had it last in Feb. The Barton too was very tight and closed compared to when I last had it in Oct 19. Then best to let them rest a few years with out bothering them, else they need a good long decant. I actually drank the last glass of the Barton last night, 3 days later. Still opening up. Big, dense wine.

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  2. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for this excellent blog, I’ve been following for a while and learnt a lot from it. First time posting though.
    South African wines has a special place in my heart ’cause thats where it all started for me after som fanrastic visits there in the years between 2003-2006. Of course a lot of things had happened since then, just as it should be… I buy newer stuff like Craven, Elemental Bob, Savage, Alheit, Thorne & Daughters, Mullineaux to name a few but still also want to grab bottles of the more classic wineries, Kanonkop, Meerlust, Thelema, Waterford, R&V, Boekenhoutskloof etc etc.
    I have bought some reds from the 2015 vintage but there’s still some I need to seek out and get my hands on and Le Riche CS Reserve have just been released here in Sweden (at 38€ approx) and I was about to order some bottles but some time back I read an note on Instagram that it was in a ‘strange’ phase, and didn’t do well against the other wines tasted at the same time (not only SA wine, it was a BYOB-event with a mixture of wines and varieties) but he didn’t wrote it was ‘closed’ or so, just strange. Maybe it’s in the phase that you’re refering to? I think I should buy some and let them rest for a while.

    Ps: I’m glad that I got hold of a case of Paul Sauer ’15, The Systembolaget (monopoly) got 600 btls and thats not much of this classic wine. It sold out in a few hours. A few months ago I tried to get hold of Tokaras Directors Red 2015 but missed out on this (only 240 btls here and sells for only 20 euro) which is a shame. I really want some of Thelemas Rabelais but I don’t think I will find it here, they don’t seem to have an agent anymore.

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    1. Rest assured Richard, the Le Riche CS Reserve 2015 is a stunner. But all top wines go through “dumb” phases or maybe close up a bit. They are always at close to their best after 10 to 12 years old where they show the perfect balance for fruit vibrancy but also mellow tertiary bottle development. 👍🏻

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  3. Thanks Greg, would my understanding be accurate that once matured (left for an appropriate number of years) these curves or fluctuations stop and you have a far better chance of enjoying the wine at it’s full potential? Or are these curves a phenomenon that continue indefinitely?

    Perhaps these curves could also be a factor in the often huge score variations.

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    1. Older more mature wines don’t seem to have these peaks and troughs.

      Score variation comes from a lot of factors none more so than international critics preconceptions about how good a wine is or could be without actually having the real experience. This is a problem when they judge SA wines for sure, though Neal Martin is pretty knowledgable about SA wines now and their true potential. Giving a wine the opportunity to open up and show it’s best with a bit of air is also important. Speed tasting doesn’t do a lot of wines justice.

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