Keeping sweet with the rich

In the good old bad old days of the 1980s, the Cape Independent Winemakers’ Guild was all about modest (but ambitious) practitioners learning and experimenting. The small auction they started was intended to draw attention to their success.

By the time there was no longer a need to be independent of the big boys in the industry, and the word was dropped from the name, wine­makers knew everything. They’d learnt mostly from Australia so, in particular, they knew it was necessary to pick grapes very ripe and whack them with oak.

That depressing wisdom, rather than experimentation, was flaunted in the bigger and brighter annual auction.

Now it seems that they’re trying to pull back a little in some directions and urging themselves (43 mostly well-known, mostly talented wine­makers) to offer a bit more than special selections of their standard wines.

Let’s hope it becomes a strong tendency, even if it is unlikely to overcome the unsurprising wish to please a conservative, rich market that likes flashy stuff.

Boring blockbusters
One obvious indication of that wish, reflected in this year’s line-up, is the predominance of red wines (about 70%) when, as more and more people are realising, the Cape’s white wines are generally superior. But auction buyers want red wines.

A more unfortunate feature is how many of the reds are still blockbusters: opaquely dark, they progress from oaky, fruity aromas to intense flavours and soft, sweet-fruited (occasionally sugar sweet too) conclusions — such as most of the pinotages this year.

They came towards the end of a recent blind tasting of most of the auction wines and I confess my modest powers of discernment were already diminished. But there was little subtlety demanding respect. All I could bring myself to note for one of these pinotages was a despairing “Unbearable. Sweet, thick, ghastly.”

For the others much the same. Only Kanonkop offered an element of grace, with a balance between flesh and infrastructure. The Spier, Simonsig, Rijk’s and Kaapzicht examples — not for me.

Pinotage seemed to bring out the most exaggerated expressions of this style — Spier’s merlot and Kaapzicht’s cabernet-merlot were preferable to their pinotages, though clearly of the same tendency. (And Rijk’s chenin blanc was almost my favourite wine of the whole ­line-up.)

Louis Nel’s Rebel Rebel also fell into the utterly excessive category for me — I preferred the other Louis Wines offering, Turtles All the Way Down (despite my dour attitude to wines with silly names).

Keeping it classic
Few of the reds, in fact, were not sweet-seeming and notably ripe. Some of this type were good, such as the Ernie Els and De Trafford Perspective. Even Etienne le Riche, formerly a bastion of elegance in the Cape, seems to have slipped in 2008. I do hope he’s not moving definitively in this direction.

I’ve previously criticised Boschkloof for overdoing things, so I should mention that I was impressed by the Conclusion 2007.

Thank heavens for the few classically oriented wines. The Grangehurst Cabernet Reserve 2006 was fine and serious — almost austere in this context. I hope it does well at the auction on October 1. The same goes for Waterford’s BB (standing for Bordeaux blend) 2009 but it needs time to show its best.

Paul Cluver Pinot Noir (by far the best of the pinots) and the two wines from Luddite were the other reds that I most admired.

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