Get into the spirit with the A-Z of festive drinks
A is for anticipation, B is for bottoms up—and T is for tanked. Tim James guides you through the best of the season.
- A is for Alto Rouge 2008. One of the great old names of Cape wine, degraded by its big-business owners, but a serious-minded cabernet-shiraz blend that offers classic styling, good value and a scent of history when available, as it usually is, at a discount price of about R50 at the supermarket.
- B is for bubbles, billions of them lurking in wait for a party, released with the discreet sigh of an elegantly opened bottle (holding the cork and gently twisting the bottle is easiest), or with a happily vulgar loud pop and the cork shooting across the room into someone’s food, but hopefully not into someone’s eye.
There are plenty of decent bottles of local sparkling wine around, not to mention genuine Champagne, not all of which is splendid. It must be the world’s most opportunistically overpriced wine category.
Look out for the word “brut” if you want the local stuff to be dry or dryish, whereas “methode cap classique” or MCC will appear on the better bottlings, indicating that the wine was made according to the traditional Champagne method, with the bubbles coming from a secondary fermentation in the bottle.
One of many worth trying at just less than R100 is Sterhuis Blanc de Blanc 2008, which is made from chardonnay grapes and is genuinely dry with forward apple and citrus flavours made more complex by a little yeasty development.
Steenberg 1682 is a favourite of wine and food blogger Clare Mack and comes as either gleaming-white Chardonnay or rosé Pinot Noir, the former tending to be rich, the latter rather more austere.
At the prestige end of the sparklers—much more complex because they have spent five years or so maturing in bottle on the sediment of those enlivening yeasts—are Simonsig Cuvée Royale, from the producer of the local pioneer and still good-enough Kaapse Vonkel Brut, and Graham Beck Cuvée Clive. Both are made mostly from chardonnay, both have 2005 as the vintage and both are rather profound.
And at the frivolous but not contemptible end of the business—and more spritzy than full-on bubbly—is Solms-Astor Cape Jazz Shiraz: off-dry, cheap, red, unpretentious. It is a joke, but a good one.
- C is for Creation Syrah-Grenache 2010 (R140), the most generous and charming of the wines from this dynamic producer in the Hemel-en-Aarde district running inland from the holiday town of Hermanus. Herbs, spice, succulent fruit and intelligent oaking combine in an early approachable treat.
- D is for drinking and driving: don’t do it! Also for Driehoek Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (R90), a handsome, citrusy and incisive version grown up high in the Cederberg mountains.
- E is for Elim, which has the country’s only memorial to slavery and the continent’s most southerly vineyards—windswept and cool. No wonder that Strandveld Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (R95) is just one of many fresh, lively but substantial sauvignons originating there.
More surprising is how well shiraz does. Strandveld Syrah 2009 (R150) is restrained and elegant, with pepper and scrub notes, invisibly supportive oaking, a finely firm structure and good, dry conclusion.
- F is for Fryer’s Cove—where the winery, in a converted crayfish packing shed at Doring Bay harbour, is literally splashed by the Atlantic (but the water doesn’t get into the wine). Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (R100), from vineyards not far off, is lipsmackingly fresh, with green and tropical flavours and a crisp mineral finish.
- G is for Glenelly, the Stellenbosch property of the grande dame of Bordeaux, Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing. The excellent Lady May 2009 (mostly cabernet sauvignon) is justly praised by British guru Jancis Robinson for its “brave level of tannins and dryness”. Buy it as a present (R250) for someone to put away for five years and meanwhile drink the good wines in Glenelly’s Glass Collection range (R70).
- H is for Hannukah, holidays and husk spirit. The last of these might be G for grappa, but for European Union protectionism. Joseph Barry Husk Spirit, from Barrydale Cellar, is another fine example of Klein Karoo distillation skills—this time of the grape skins and mulch left over from wine-making.
Grappa is a crude peasant drink that has now become a sophisticated digestivo. Full of spirit, grape and flavour, the Joseph Barry is superbly packaged (R190 for 500ml). Shiraz husk spirit also finds its perceptible way, in place of neutral spirits or brandy, into Solms-Delta Gemoedsrus 2010 (R220), an inventive, richly fruity and well-balanced twist on traditional port-style wine.
- I is for Iona, the top-notch Elgin winery with one of the country’s coolest grape-growing spots, best known for its refined, vibrantly steely Sauvig-non Blanc (the latest is 2011, needing a year or so to start showing its best). But Iona Chardonnay 2009 (R145) is also impressive, drawing elegance from the Atlantic breezes. Plenty of quiet citrus flavour with nutty notes, supported by subtle oaking, dry, focused but discreetly generous.
- J is for Journey’s End Chardonnay 2010 (R125). A serious-minded, unflamboyant but approachable wine from vines that look down from the Schaapenberg over False Bay, which in turn delivers cooling breezes that end up as a certain citrusy freshness in the wine. No hurry to drink it, however, because it can only improve over a few years. A less ambitious version is named Haystack, a little more obviously fruity and easy-going at half the price.
- K is for Kloof Street, the second-tier label from Chris and Andrea Mullineux, the new stars of the Swartland. There is no dumbing down here: Kloof Street Rouge 2009 is a blend of shiraz, mourvèdre and a few other varieties and typical of the ripe, bright, fresh wines coming out of this fashionable and exciting area, unspoilt by cellar manipulation and egregious oak influence. A good buy at R75.
No less drinkable (R10 less) is the full-flavoured, richly textured Chenin Blanc 2009, coming partly from the older bushvines that are the real treasure house of the Swartland.
- L is for Les Coteaux Selection 2007, an unbeatable bargain from the Mont du Toit cellar in Wellington. For R70 you get a mature, classically styled, Bordeaux-style blend based on cabernet sauvignon, with a serious structure supporting its fragrant charm.
- M is for Migliarina Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. It is full of bright fruit intensity in a style combining dry finishing and well-structured classicism with friendliness. Former sommelier Carsten Migliarina makes limited bottlings of just two wines packed with characterful individuality—this blend (R160) and a straight shiraz that is a bit cheaper and nearly as good.
- N is for Newton Johnson Resonance 2010 (R120). From the Hemel-en-Aarde winery best known for its pinot noirs and chardonnays comes a floral, tropical blackcurrant-scented blend of organically home-grown sauvignon blanc and oaked Elgin semillon. Altogether silky and seductive.
- O is for old vines. In recent years some serious producers have rediscovered old vineyards and made ambitious wines from them, chenin blanc in particular. Old vines, with their deep roots and low yields, can give a unique concentration, finesse and beauty to a wine—qualities that get lost when the grapes are tipped into the general vat at a big co-operative. Leading the campaign to save these endangered old vineyards (not economic unless expensive wines are made from them) has been viticulturist Rosa Kruger, working for Anton Rupert. Anthonij Rupert Wines has released a few wines from these vineyards in the Cape of Good Hope range, including the growers’ names on the labels. The 2010 examples are well worth seeking out, but quantities are necessarily limited.
Van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc 2010 is from two wonderful vineyards situated on the slopes of the Skurfberg in the Olifants River area near Citrusdal. It has good peachy, earthy notes. Though not really a refined wine, it has masterly structure and lingering flavours. Even lovelier (and about R30 more expensive at R125 a bottle) is the Cape of Good Hope Laing Semillon 2010, from another very old Skurfberg vineyard. It is a little lighter-footed than the chenin, with finely balanced lemony grace. Great to sip or with food.
The Ouwingerdreeks-Old Vine Series from the famous Sadie Family includes wines from these vineyards as well as others. The second vintage (2010) has just been released. It will be hard to find, but it is fascinating and worth the premium price if you manage to do so.
- P is for pinotage, and you will not do better than the Kanonkop Pinotage 2009 (R250). It was a great vintage for this renowned producer and the wine is fragrant and fresh, with pure red and black berry flavours and a firm structure that gives it a basis to develop excitingly for many years. It is a lesson to all the overripe, too alcoholic and too oaky versions that abound at the ambitious end. It is rather a waste to drink it young, but a delicious waste at least. Less well known, a little cheaper but also excellent, with restrained, elegant styling, is Spioenkop “1900” Pinotage 2010. It is a newcomer made by Koen Roose, a “crazy Belgian guy”, in Elgin, but it mostly comes from Stellenbosch grapes while Roose’s are growing.
- Q is for Quoin Rock. The winery has just been sold by the South African Revenue Service to help it claw back some money from controversial businessman Dave King, who has partially redeemed himself over the years by some excellent wines both from the Stellenbosch property and a satellite farm down near Agulhas.
From the Simonsberg vineyards comes a mature white—ignored by many who wrongly think that these wines do not benefit hugely from time in bottle—the Quoin Rock Oculus 2007 (R160). From sauvignon blanc, oaked, with a nervy acidity, it has some viognier grapes admixed for textural richness and some winning hints of peach.
- R is for rosé. Ignore all those huge-selling sweet and silly off-dry pinks and go for something a bit more sophisticated to have wine in your glass to match the sunset while you sip. Jordan Chameleon Rosé 2011, for example, from the renowned Stellenbosch producer’s entry-level range, is tasty and light-hearted, but dry and not negligible. The same goes for Hermanuspietersfontein Bloos (“blush”) 2011, which has a tangy quality from well-judged oak influence.
- S is for Scali, where Willie and Tania de Waal caught a serious case of ambition more than a decade ago and turned from providing grapes to the local co-op to leading the quality revolution on the Paarl side of the Perdeberg (where quaggas used to roam until shot to extinction by settlers). Now they are certified organic too. Scali Syrah 2008 has depth and complexity and is deeply serious without losing its sense of pure-fruited yet savoury joie de vivre, rich and ripe without losing poise. It needs decanting aeration in youth. Surely one of the Cape’s most characterful shirazes and not unreasonably priced towards R200.
- T is for turkey—what else? The great sacrificial victim of our traditional colonial Christmas festivities has earnest food-and-wine matchmakers puzzled, because it combines both brown and white meat and then there are all the vegetables and sauces—often cranberry these days as we turn our colonial allegiance towards the United States—to consider. The reformed Scrooge, you might remember, sent Bob Cratchitt a turkey in A Christmas Carol, but he tactfully refrained from recommending a wine.
One eminently sensible option is to choose any special wine to match the mood rather than this dry bird. Another would be to go with either of the great Burgundian grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay, preferably the former. Good local pinot noirs are less rare than they used to be, but tend to be pricey. An unprecedented three of them got five stars in Platter’s South African Wines 2011 guide (Newton Johnson Family Vineyards 2010, Oak Valley 2009, Chamonix 2010), eclipsing cabernet sauvignon for a change.
Another impressive example is Radford Dale Freedom Pinot Noir 2010, probably its best vintage yet. Raspberry fragrance and something softly dark lead you on to pure-fruited but deliciously just-funky flavours (which will be even better in a few Christmasses’ time, but still), all supported by a subtly firm structure with invisible oaking. It costs about R240, but for well less than half of that you can get a less distinguished but pretty decent version from the same producer: Winery of Good Hope Pinot Noir 2010. And if you are pining for pinot but are poor or just plain mean, there is one from big brand Two Oceans for about R40. It is a pleasant dry red that offers distant echoes of the true character of this noble variety.
- U is for Uva Mira, which produces wines from the loftiest vineyards on Stellenbosch’s famous Helderberg. Uva Mira Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (R190) continues the great tradition of this wine in spite of a difficult vintage. It has lime and peach notes that are untrammelled by subtle oaking and is gently rich, but with a nervy core.
- V is for Voor-Paardeberg, a ward in the north of the Paarl district, and for Vondeling, one of a few exciting wineries there. Vondeling Erica Shiraz 2007 (R105-ish), with a welcome few years’ maturity, includes dashes of other varieties, so it is really a blend. From its perfumed red-fruit aromas and dense strong flavours to a velvety conclusion, it is rich and characterful, but not too showy.
- W is for Waterkloof Circle of Life Red 2009, a smart, suave and subtle but easily approachable merlot-based blend from the fairly youthful and very promising Somerset West winery owned by British wine importer Paul Boutinot. Also unassertively delicious is the Circle of Life White 2010, which blends sauvignon blanc with semillon and chenin. The name hints at the natural approach taken by Waterkloof in its organic viticulture and unintrusive practices in the cellar, and the wines show the virtues of such an approach. Both R140.
- X is for Xmas pudding. Perhaps a problem, with all that rich sweetness topped by brandy butter, though you might be cheerfully beyond fine discrimination at this point of the festivities. Try a Noble Late Harvest. Anything with the name Nederburg on it will be good, for example, with the most obvious bargain the luscious but brilliantly poised Nederburg Winemaster’s Reserve NLH 2010 at R80 for the half-bottle. Anyone who cannot face the pud itself might well settle for a sip of this instead. A viable alternative to a natural dessert wine would be a fortified wine: a muscadel or jerepigo, or one of the glorious Cape Tawnies from Boplaas.
- Y is for year-end sorrows to be drowned and year-beginning hopes to be saluted.
- Z is for Zonnebloem Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (R45)—grassy, perky and easy. Or perhaps it is for zzzzzzz ...