Putting South Africa’s Finest Wine Offerings Into Perspective – Tasting Australia’s Penfold’s Bin 620 Cabernet Shiraz 2008….

I had a wonderful time in Cape Town at Cape Wine 2018 and before that at the Nederburg Auction of older South African wines. Of course Cape Wine 2018 will be remembered for Tim Atkin MW’s first personal 100 point SA wine score, an active debate surrounding scoring and score inflation both in South Africa and globally and also the prickly pear issue of where to price South Africa’s premium wines, many made from old vine heritage vineyards around the Western Cape that are super expensive to farm. Serious questions indeed.

Some of these questions were brought into a new perspective when I returned to my office to find a bottle of Penfold’s Bin 620 Cabernet Shiraz from Coonawarra freshly opened on a colleagues desk courtesy of a private client. This is a Wine Advocate 98/100 point wine as scored by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW and retails currently in the UK market for £850 per bottle inc taxes (R16,575 pb). So we are talking serious kit here… and amazingly a wine that makes even the Penfold’s Grange look positively cheap!

Tasting the wine, it is a blend that pays homage to the 1966 Bin 620, a legendary Penfold’s show wine from a great vintage. Crafted from the uniquely Australian Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz blend, this wine is considered to be the personification of the Penfold’s house style and worthy of a Special Bin status. The wine was bottled by Penfold’s Wines at Nuriootpa, South Australia in July 2009. The 2008 vintage was produced from the low yielding Coonawarra Blocks 5, 10 and 20 and is considered to be made in a very similar style to the famous 1966 vintage. The wine was barrel fermented in new French and America oak and is classically structured and considered worthy of extended cellar aging for several decades.

Penfold’s Bin 620 Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz 2008, Coonawarra, 14 Abv.

The wine has a wonderfully deep ruby garnet opaque core and is a blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon and 49% Shiraz. Rich, lifted and hedonistic, the nose is brimming with earthy black berry, freshly torn mint leaf, camphor leaves, wood spice, dried tree bark, cassis and black cherry kirsch liquor notes with nuances of milk chocolate, bruleed coffee beans and exotic botanical herbal spices. The palate is dense, creamy and unctuous but retains a certain poise and posture supported by gravelly mineral tannins, graphite spice, crème de cassis and a fine vein of palate refreshing acidity. The finish is super long and intense with just the faintest hints of cherry cola, salty liquorice, black berry confit and freshly baked raspberry crumble. The vinous adjectives and descriptives positively drip out of ones mouth with this complex offering. It is a big wine that walks a very neat, classical line and will impress most fine wine connoisseurs.

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

So how does this wine compare to some of South Africa’s finest? In wine terms, however delicious this wine is, it still  has the taste of a lot of sunshine on the fruit and the creamy unctuous glycerol mouthfeel is perhaps not as conducive to matching with food other than perhaps with meaty barbeques. This is a micro-cuvee of only 900 cases so merits attention to detail and probably a big price tag. But I would argue there are many equally impressive South African benchmark reds every bit as alluring and complex and which are much more classically proportioned and suitable for a true gourmands palate. As for the price, well, the mind boggles. R16,000 Rand can buy quite a lot of very fine wine.

As I questioned at the Cape Wine 2018 Old Vine Seminar, the problem with South Africa’s premium wine offering is not their quality and certainly not their styles but more the fact that the wines are more appreciated overseas than they are in the local home market. South Africa’s finest crown jewels are all being exported because the local market, unlike Australia, USA or New Zealand is not comfortable paying the prices that these fine wines inevitably will need to sell for. Locals shy away from buying wines over R250 Rand (£12.99) a bottle let alone R16,000 Rand a bottle. The result is a two speed market where all the best offerings are exported to an appreciative, thirsty European audience while the home market scrapes the barrel like a fishy bottom feeder in a muddy pond trying to find the last undiscovered bargains. This needs to change before we can set about bringing better profitability to the local wine industry. A healthy fine wine market inevitably has to be driven primarily by strong local demand… then the rest will follow… a la Penfold’s top cuvees.

Stop The Presses!!! – Tasting the First Ever 100 Point Wine From South Africa…

Today I had the great privilege to help chair the Whole Bunch tasting of The Wines That Raised Us – A Heritage Experience … at the Klein Welmoed Farm in Stellenbosch featuring great iconic old bottles from the Winshaw Cellar.

What a night and what profound, mind blowing wines. But sitting back and discussing the merits of the individual wines with the other producers and industry commentators in attendance, left me with no choice but to finally make my first 100 point South African wine score pronouncement!

The Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1957, another near 100 point expression!

Chateau Libertas 1957, 12 Abv.

An incredibly youthful, vibrant and aromatic expression, this red wine at 61 years old is the most distinguished stately gentleman of wines I have ever encountered. Loaded full of youthful creme de cassis, boiled black berry sweets, macerated black cherries, earthy ripe prunes, raisined cranberries, fynbos spice, dried mint leaf and a profoundly pure and balanced palate minerality that follows the fruit complexity of the nose. It’s not just the mellow concentration and regal balance that astounds the senses, but the sweet fruited glycerol texture, the vibrantly fresh palate and tightly packed sweet mellow tannins that seduce the senses and invite you in for more. This is the stuff of legends, a wine you will want to tell your kids you drank. It’s also a wine that not only brought tears to grown winemakers eyes, but also the first perfect score on the Fine Wine Safari and possibly the first ever de facto 100 point score for a South African still wine! 🤭 Yes!

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

It’s Cabernet Sauvignon But Not As You Know It – Tasting the Craven Wines Maiden Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 “En-primeur”…

I love it when wineries make varietal wines that you would least expect them to. This is exactly what Mick and Jeanine Craven have done with their new Cabernet Sauvignon 2018.

I know Mick and Jeanine are not massive fans of wine ratings per se but as a critic, I’d certainly be remiss not to write about this epic wine and sing it’s praises as there was next to nothing produced from the 1.2 tons of fruit. Only for release probably early next year, put it in your diary else you’ll miss out! 😭

Mick Craven, one half of this dynamic wine making duo at Craven Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, 12.5 Abv.

(Barrel Sample)

Sourced from a vineyard in the Polkadraai, Stellenbosch. Currently still in cask with an envisaged ageing in barrel of 10 to 12 months before bottling. First thing that strikes you about this wine is how ripe and juicy it is without being 14-15 degrees Abv. The nose boasts the most delicious, mouth-watering aromatics of red cherry, cranberry, crunchy cassis, rose petals and an almost Cinsault’esque kiss of Turkish delight. Palate is lean and lithe, wonderfully linear and precise with Parma violets, cherry bon bons and Victoria plums a la Mick’s Adelaide roots. Not a jot of greeness in sight. Vibrant, expressive and firmly a smashable vin de soif style but certainly no frivolity in evidence. So crystalline, pure, unadulterated Cabernet fruit at its very best.

(Wine Safari Score: 92-94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Mastering New Vintage Angst – Tasting the New Release MR de Compostella 2016 Red Blend…

I’m looking forward to writing up my summary of the best South African red wines of 2018 as the list should feature a tantalising tussle between the last few late release 2015 vintage red creations and some of the follow up 2016 new release challengers. One of the most iconic releases of 2017 was undoubtedly the 2015 MR de Compostella, still arguably the most sought after and collectable Bordeaux-styled fine wine produced in South Africa and one of the very few stalwarts that regularly trades on the Liv-ex International Fine Wine Exchange in London.

Bruwer Raats and his MR de Compostella partner Mzokhona Mvemve state that the “aim with the MR de Compostella wine is to take each of the five components and make a varietal wine in it’s own right. The wines are then tasted blind after one year in barrel. The wines that scored less than 90/100 points are then not considered for the final blend”. This is a very rigorous and ruthless process no doubt but also one which has assured that the final component blend release has never scored lower than 93/100 from international critics since the maiden vintage in 2004. So if you want a track record for your fine wine, there you have it!

The 2016 vintage was the second of the drought vintages and while 2015 was also very hot and dry, it did have the added benefit of plenty of ground water reserves after a wet 2014 winter. So an altogether more challenging set of conditions for the 2016 vintage that puts the achievements of Bruwer and Mzokhona into greater context with the magical new release of MR de Compostella.

MR de Compostella 2016 Bordeaux Blend, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

It happens in all fine classical regions… the angst and agony of a successor vintage following on from a block buster release like… 2015 Bordeaux, 2015 Super Tuscans or indeed 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon based blends in South Africa. Made from grapes from Stellenbosch grown on decomposed dolomite granitic soils, what immediately strikes you is the large percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon that makes up the final blend in 2016. So renowned for his exceptional Cabernet Franc creations, many of Bruwer Raats’ past MR de Compostella red blend releases have had a dominant percentage of Cabernet Franc which can leave a real signature imprint on the final wine.

The 2016 however is a blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon; 17% Cabernet Franc; 12% Malbec; 6% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot with a 14.5 Abv, 3.59 pH, and a 5.7 TA. The aromatics are cool, perfumed and spicy showing plenty of overt violet fragrance, cedar spice, cinnamon stick, pencil box and dried mint leaf with an overall tendency towards elegance and classism rather than overt decadence. There is no shortage of sultry black berry fruit complexity with seductive nuances of black currant, pithy black cherry and sun raisined cranberries but they do require a bit of coaxing out the glass. Medium bodied, the palate is wonderfully understated and elegant, quite feminine but very precise and slightly more linear than some of the bigger more opulent, masculine vintages from MR, but is equally beguiling and sophisticated, teasing the senses with delicious notes of blood orange, raspberry coulis, earthy red currant, salty cassis and a sumptuous milk chocolate harmony. A thoroughly enchanting and engaging wine, the 2016 is a little more elegant and light on its feet, more ballerina than gymnast, retaining a keen line of acidity and freshness, impressive subtlety and awesome textural finesse. This has all the markings of another truly great expression. In the end, the wine does not feel Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated at all … with the sum of the component parts greatly surpassed by the finished blend. Drink this beauty from release and over the next 15+ years. Well done boys!

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

Drinking An Iconic South African Red – Unravelling the Meerlust Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1976 and the South African Fine Wine Investment Market…

In the week that Wine Cellar South Africa launched (and sold out of) its first fine wine investment fund built around (physical) iconic South African wines from the 2015 vintage, I thought it was fitting to drink a wine that illustrates the true greatness of South Africa’s best red wines. In light of the Wine Cellar VIP 2015 offering, many international commentators less intimately connected to the fine wine market have stated that “few South African wines improve appreciably with extended ageing” and thus the fine wine investment model is built on a sandy foundation.

Firstly, one needs to clarify what extended ageing implies. From a wine trade / merchant point of view, one could reasonably expect the quality of wines included in the VIP 2015 Fund to age and certainly improve incrementally for easily 10+ years… and many on the list for certainly 20 years plus. Secondly, to say that there is no secondary market for aged South African fine wine is blatantly wrong. There is massive demand but merely little to no supply… and the older stock that does make it to market commercially is either small parcels kindly released by the wineries themselves from archive stocks as more of a marketing endeavour or the stock is from provenanced private collections. Either way, it is an insignificant, non commercial quantity unable to influence the market in any meaningful way and adds no liquidity.

I have been involved in the top end of the UK fine wine trade for 20 years now, many of which I have actively been promoting and selling the very best wines from South Africa to international collectors and connoisseurs. Admittedly, you need to sell the best names from the best vintages, but that is certainly no different anywhere else in the fine wine world. Many top South African red (and white) wines clearly age very very well and while you always need to be selective and take professional advise, this fact is now indisputable.

To many, the term or idea of investing in a wonderful agricultural product like wine is sacrilege, a dirty word, a dirty concept. But for time immemorial, the concept of “investing in wine” implied buying double your requirements, with money you did not always readily have, and then selling half the wine several years later when more scarce to finance the drinking of the other half. In essence, this is still the model many fine wine investors (drinkers) that I deal with on a day to day basis follow. Indeed, I cannot name one private client on my books who is tea total and who only invests in wine for the hard cold cash returns. They are all passionate about wine.

One thing is very clear to me however. For South African fine wine to gain a genuinely fluid and dynamic foothold in the fine wine investment market globally, there has to be a strong and confident “wine investment culture” locally in the home market of the wines in question. The demand for older vintages needs to begin at home and then ripple out to international markets. For far too long it has been international buyers piling into the Nederburg Auction wines, the Cape Wine Makers Guild Wines or the odd rare fine wine older vintage auction offering. This Wine Cellar VIP 2015 Fund marks the turning of a corner, where locals put their money where their mouths are and invest in iconic wines from possibly a once in a generation quality vintage. With over 12,000 bottles included in this fund, we should over the coming years, see stocks of these perfectly cellared older vintages released onto the market for local and international consumption at a premium that is commensurate to the quality and rarity of the given wine. Supply and demand will decide that premium.

For what it’s worth, I bought this wonderful Meerlust Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1976 from the winery in March 2018 and drank it recently at a South African themed fine wine lunch in London. Poured sighted, there wasn’t a taster on the table of seven that did not sit in awe of its youthful elegance. A true testament to the ageability and longevity of classical Cabernet Sauvignon produced by one of South Africa’s top estates. The message now disseminating out of the South African fine wine scene is not whether the country is able to produce age worthy wines of super premium quality, but whether the industry as a whole has the skills and knowhow to market these wines globally in a proper confident manner, for the correct premium price tag and importantly, to the correct target market segments? Time for everyone to up their game in the South African fine wine trade.

Meerlust Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, W.O. Stellenbosch

A beautiful mahogany colour, the nose is initially tight and cedary, spicy and quite restrained, but 20 minutes of air in a decanter after the cork is pulled allows this grand old wine to open its shoulders. Wonderfully mellow but still vibrantly youthful, beguilingly complex, fragrant and intriguing. The palate is loaded with lovely sweet raisined cranberries, violets, sweet tobacco, black tea and an earthy red currant sappy depth. Texturally this is so fine, initially quite piquant and spicy but also beautifully elegant. Incredible to think this wine is 42 years olds and still going strong. A bold, powerful and elegantly regal red showing the real potential of South Africa’s greatest terroirs and the true premium standing of great Cabernet Sauvignon. What a treat!

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

Tasting Margaret River Icon Estate Vasse Felix’s New Releases with Head Winemaker Virginia Willcock …

Vasse Felix has been one of the leading producers of premium Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Margaret River region of Western Australia for a very long time. Just last year they celebrated their 50th birthday as a winery with their first vines planted in 1967 by founder Tom Cullity. Their success undoubtedly lies in their wine’s supreme elegance and finesse married with concentration and power. Indeed, bigger bolder wine styles were made in the 1990’s but more recently the wines have become finer boned, prettier and more elegant without losing any of the innate power of quality Cabernet Sauvignon tannins.

I tasted through the new releases today in London at 67 Pall Mall private members club with head winemaker Virgina Willcock joining in the tasting via live satellite link from Margaret River. Ahhh… the joys of technology.

Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Margaret River, 14 Abv.

Blended with 13% Malbec, the Filius shows a soft sweet fruited nose full of violets, fresh spearmint, black berry and cassis lift with hints of dusty tobacco complexity, bruised black plum and wet earth. The palate is light footed and very elegant, full of polished tannins, subtle minerality and soft, fleshy accessible black berry fruits. Bright, super fresh, elegant and very accessible. Drink now to 2026+

(Wine Safari Score: 91/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Margaret River, 14.5 Abv.

Whole berry and 100% natural ferment with 8% Malbec added to the blended before 18 months of barrel ageing. Deeper and darker, packed with black berry, black cherry, eucalyptus, earthy mulberry, kelp and boiled black currant bon bons and a dusty limestone minerality. Plenty of piercing cassis intensity, suave polished pinpoint tannins, supple silky fruit texture and again, a very vibrant integrated seam of freshness and acidity. Beautifully perfumed, supremely pretty, impressively concentrated. Drink now to 2030+

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

The Vasse Felix flagship Heytesbury Bordeaux red blend had been produced since 1995. This wine saw its last edition in 2012 when the wine was transformed into the Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec cuvee in honour of this Margaret River pioneer who sadly died just before the first Tom Cullity 2013 blend was released.

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon – Malbec 2013, Margaret River, 14.5 Abv.

20% Malbec and around 4% Petit Verdot. A wonderfully complex intense expression with dusty limestone, violets, cherry blossom, graphite, black currant, black pithy cherry and a pronounced maritime saline kelp savoury note. Palate is ultra polished, beautifully focused and pure with incredible vivacity and soul. Super elegant, saline and bright and intense with a long, fine eucalyptus kissed finish. Very impressive indeed.

(Wine Safari Score: 95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon – Malbec 2014, Margaret River, 14.5 Abv.

Dense, savoury and earthy, there is a very fine depth and purity with notably greater concentration, tannin texture and power. Very classical and Bordeaux-like aromatics with cedar, violets, buttered brown toast, graphite dust and a crushed gravel minerality. The palate is full and deep, swallowing the 60-70% new oak with great ease. There is impressive fleshy depth, concentration but also noteworthy classical restraint. Suave and intense with powdery tannins and acid brightness melting into each other, complimenting each other in a superb synergistic marriage. A truly iconic, delicious, premium benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon expression from Margaret River.

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

Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2017, Margaret River, 12.5 Abv

Wild yeasts and 100% barrique fermented. Remarkable dusty, gravelly, cool climate Chardonnay feel with vibrance, brightness and linearity. Nose is full of lime peel, oat meal, brioche, ripe lemon and savoury buttery biscuit notes. Steely, taught, lemon and lime cordial notes are packed with layers of gravelly limestone minerality, bright acids and an incredibly youthful, saline, pineapple leesy finish. Very impressive for the price.

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2015, Margaret River, 13 Abv.

Deep, broad and powerful with wonderfully complex serious notes of lemon pie, lime peel, green apple and wet chalk minerality. Captivating richness and density but also wonderfully complex struck match flinty nuances. Tightly wound, power packed and deliciously fresh and saline with a textural, yellow grapefruit and pineapple finish.

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

Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2016, Margaret River, 13 Abv.

A wonderfully powerful, intense structured Chardonnay that incorporates all the great qualities of Chardonnay into one wine. Loaded with wet chalk, struck match, delineated texture and linearity, boasting incredible complexity of white citrus, lime marmalade, green apple, brioche and buttered brown toast. Amazing textural balance, sensorial intensity and a very long, mouth watering finish. Superbly impressive benchmark cool climate Chardonnay that will appeal to Burgundy lovers and general Chardonnay connoisseurs.

(Wine Safari Score: 95+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

“I want to drink the best wines money can buy… and if I can make wines similar to those wines, then I think that’s great… and I want to drink them!” – Virginia Willcock

What Future For South African Second Wines? Tasting Top Super Premium Vilafonte’s Seriously Old Dirt Cuvee…

South Africa is currently enjoying a very buoyant year for red wine releases at a time when the onslaught of big white wine reviews seems almost relentless. Much of this new found red success is undoubtedly down to the incredible “once in a generation” 2015 vintage that has produced some of the most lauded and iconic red wines in the modern era of the South African wine industry.

One of the questions that this new found success raises for me as prices push to new super premium levels is the potential role second wines currently play or could play in the future development of the South African fine wine market. They are not a new phenomenon. After all, anyone who loves top South African Bordeaux blends will remember the declassified Meerlust Rubicon 2011 blended away into the delicious Meerlust Red 2011, or the MR de Compostella 2010 that was “declassified” to create the new Red Jasper 2010, now an established brand on the market. Or even the De Toren Z, which started off life as an “off-cut” blend of Fusion V but which has now also established itself as a popular fine wine in its own right regularly scoring as high if not higher than the Fusion V from international wine critics.

On this blog, I have already been running a series of reviews on second wines from top Bordeaux Chateaux as I look to identify the over performers, the dark horses and the unexpectedly great second wines worthy of consumer attention. These wines after all serve an important role in the market, giving fine wine consumers a glimpse of the greatness they might encounter with the more expensive, more premium first wines. With a lower price tag comes an abundance of powerful premium branding, desirability but also affordability and of course a greater degree of earlier drinking accessibility.

In this vein, I cracked a bottle of premium brand Vilafonte’s Seriously Old Dirt 2014, a wine produced from unique ancient soils with quality assured for current enjoyment in a true second wine model. Made with a 6-7 day cold soak, partial natural fermentation with an extended fermentation period, the wine was aged in French oak barrels for 22 months. Vine age varies between 4 and 20 years old and the 2014 vintage surpasses both the 2012 and 2013 vintages that were released almost exclusively to the Vilafonte Wine Club and is a blend of Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Vilafonte Seriously Old Dirt 2014, WO Paarl, 13.5 Abv.

Lovely rich, opulent nuanced nose of cedar, vanilla pod, polished teak, creamy choc spice, mocha, black berry, black plum and crushed rose petals. The palate is medium-bodied with a truly plush, succulent mouthfeel, infused with brown sugar, cassis and leafy plum. Tannins are very fine grained and classical, sweet but retaining ample mineral, stony graphite grip. A seductive, enticing wine that definitely shows its aspiring pedigree and noble parentage. Drink now to 2028+

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)