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Consumers are hurting, and so is the Cape wine industry. With shrinking budgets, winelovers who don’t intend to give up their chenin or chard., shiraz or pinotage, are turning to cheaper labels, with mixed results.

While there are many enjoyable labels in the R50 – 70 range, there are others that may be perfectly drinkable, but are unremarkable, even insipid, leaving one feeling more than a little irritable by the time the bottle is empty.

Move up a few rand and the scene changes – in the field of white wines selling between R80 and R90 and reds between R100 and 110 it is possible to find real class, fabulous whites, reds and blends where nurtured berries are given careful but often minimal treatment, where integrity plays as big a role as talent and dedication.

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Here are two examples recently enjoyed:

Vriesenhof Grenache Shiraz Mourvèdre 2017 costs R100 and is described by winemaker Nicky Claasens as a nod to classic French winemaking. Yet this is no austere blend with tight tannins that should be cellared for a few years before opening – it is ready to drink now, with pizza, pasta, other Med-style fare, but will keep happily for a few years if kept in good conditions. The aromas, flavours and structure were all affected by the severe drought of that vintage, producing, as Claassens says, “not only the memory of terroir, but also the expression of place.” It’s quite rich, offers berry and dark chocolate flavours sprinkled with white pepper. It matured for nine months in 3rd and 4th fill French oak and is a great example of the new generation of wines flowing from the historic Stellenbosch cellar.

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Fat Bastard Chardonnay 2018 sells for about R90 and was the wine with the highest score in the inaugural Best Value Chardonnay Tasting convened by Winemag. co.za last year. It scored 90 points and was described by editor Christian Eedes as follows” “On the nose... seduces with ripe stone fruit, tropical melon too and suble hints of vanilla. There’s good mid-palate fruit intensity... an off-dry impression enhanced by vanilla cream, oak notes and a mere hint of burnt butter. Bold be well-rounded and balanced.” It’s hard to improve on that full description, and I am not going to try, but we enjoyed every sip and found it a chardonnay not only of high quality, but rich, round and well balanced. The range may have a fun name but the wines are serious in that they are made with care, made for enjoyment, and are consistent in quality – Robertson Winery has been making them successfully for the Franco-British pair Guy Anderson and Vigneron Thierry Boudinaud for 21 years.

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While a visit to Calitzdorp and its hospitable inhabitants is always enjoyable, and there’s much to see and do in every season, winter offers both peace and particular beauty in this Klein Karoo dorp: against a backdrop of the Outeniqua, Swartberg and Rooiberg mountains, probably snow-dusted, wandering around the old part of the village makes a great start to the day, working up an appetite to do justice to robust country fare washed down with a glass or two of the region’s fine wines and world-class ports.

Which brings us, of course to De Krans, on the village fringe, sprawled along the upper reaches of the Gamka river valley. The farm was founded in 1890 by MD Boets Nel’s great-grandfather although many decades passed before the first grapes were planted, mostly for sweet wine and raisin production. Fast forward to 1964 when the existing cellar was built and De Krans soon became known for its fine ports and dessert wines. Dry table wines were to follow.

Today visitors can taste the various ranges every day of the week, relish al fresco lunches at the bistro and contemplate the walking trail to work off the kilojoules. Friendly, enthusiastic staff add to the enjoyment while generosity is another ever-present characteristic.

In reviewing fine wines from three of the four De Krans ranges, we start by going back, way back to 1947 when De Krans planted a vineyard of Palomino (also known as Malvasia Rei) in Gamka river soils for brandy production. Some 70 years on they have survived, now bearing small, intensely flavoured berries: these are blended with verdelho (37%) into an unusual, fascinating golden wine that presents old vine legacy with Klein Karoo flavour. De Krans Tritonia 2017  wafts aromas of citrus and honey, while the palate offers exotic flavours, traces of a spicy Christmas pud balanced by acidity for freshness. I can imagine it enhancing a Cape Malay curry, and certain Portuguese classics, perhaps Arroz de Pato de Braga, that flavourful combo of roast duck with chorizo on ham-flavoured rice from the north. It sells for R150.

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Its red counterpart De Krans Tritonia Calitzdorp Blend 2016 is better known, having already won for itself an impressive list of awards – among these, Platter gives it 4 and half stars, NWC a double gold, the Six Nations Wine Challenge rated  it gold and the Old Mutual Trophy Wine show a trophy. Composed of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barocca it’s hardly surprising that its dark, tannic, and flavour-packed with berry and plums, but also smooth on the palate , a fine winter wine to pair with venison and beef. It costs  around R185 and also offers great ageing potential.

Then there’s De Krans Basket Press Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 which proves quite a contrast to the above: For R65 winelovers can enjoy an accessible cabernet that not only offers great value, but is an authentic  expression of the grape – the typical aromas of cedar and tobacco are there, as are the flavours of black cherry and plum. This is a comparatively light-bodied cab, with alcohol levels of 13,5% and ready to pair with pizza and pasta, the weekend braai and provide companionable fireside sipping.

When it comes to port, to use the traditional term, Calitzdorp is the local king, and De Krans – through a lucky mistake – was the first to plant the Portuguese varietal of Tinta Barocca, which flourished nicely in the valley. Today, the region is famed for its production of fine port wines, which – after negotiating with the EU in 2011 – are no longer named “port” but are labelled according to the style of port in the bottle, hence “Cape Ruby” or Cape Tawny”. De Krans marketing is also keen to get consumers to replace those teeny liqueur glasses that used to be used for port with decent wine glasses, something we did a while ago. (Most of these ports are just under 20% alcohol strength, so you are not sipping the equivalent of spirits at over 40% )

Their Ruby port can be classed as the entry level port, perhaps, less complex than its cousins, also more affordable, but nonetheless quality wine and a good way for newcomers to this fortified wine to begin their port journey...

The De Krans Cape Tawny Limited Release, a much awarded port wine, and my all-time favourite, is quite delicious, perfect with meatless and poultry dishes, complementing French onion soup and a superb partner to aged cheeses like mature cheddar, gruyere, and parmesan. Its glorious golden hue is the result, I was told, of small oak vats being used which influences the wine along with a greater degree of oxidation, but obviously there is far more to this process. 

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The flagship De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve - 2016 is the current vintage – is  deservedly five-star, rated 96 points in the Tim Atkin 2018 report, was judged SA Fortified Wine of the Year, sports Veritas Gold, Michelangelo platninum, and the brag  list goes on... It's comprised of 74% Touriga Nacional, 18% Tinta Barocca and finished with Tinta Roriz, yielding a  big, dark wine, offering aromas of berries, nuts and chocolate. It's complex and bold and deserves to be a fine finale to a special meal, perhaps with a cheese platter. While this is a Cape port that one could safely store unopened for three decades or more, once opened, do bring it out on chilly evenings and savour every delicious, complex sip. You are sampling the results of long and meticulous craftmanship practised by some dedicated and talented winemakers.

          

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What’s in a name? A lot, it seems, when it comes to wine as captivating titles pique the attention of consumers browsing the wine boutique shelves.

And a better example than those of Journey’s End Vineyards would be hard to find. Even the estate’s name attracts: if I was on a Helderberg wine tour, I would want to finish my journey at this mountainside farm with its panoramic views over False Bay. Hugging the Schapenberg slopes above Sir Lowry’s Pass village, the farm was founded by the Gabb family - a Shropshire import- - in 1995, and bottled their first harvest early in the new century.

Second generation Rollo Gabb has been at the helm since 2007, and has increased the vineyard plantings and built an ultra-modern cellar and a tasting centre, its glass walls leading to a terrace that presents a viewing site of note. Mount Rozier, which I remember visiting way back when three partners were intent on establishing a fine range from their small farm, has been taken over by Journey’s End. The viticultural team of cellarmaster Leon Esterhuizen and winemaker Mike Dawson practise the Gabb-approved philosophy of minimal intervention as Journey’s End launch the rebranding of their products.

Three ranges, or series, are now planned, with the first, Tales Series, already available and comprising four wines with expressive, allusive names.

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All housed in dark bottles with white labels and prominent lettering, under screwcap, the 2018 sauvignon blanc is called Weather Station after the Stellenbosch clone known as the Weerstasiekloon. Agreeably fresh and made for immediate enjoyment, with moderate alcohol levels and medium-bodied, the nose is typically sauvignon, the palate offers friskiness allied to winter stone fruit flavours of apple and pear. Well-balanced and makes both an aperitif and a mate for white meat and seafood.

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Haystack chardonnay 2018 alludes to the venerable practice of planting wheat between the vine rows to encourage pests to focus on that rather than the vines and the label sports an eagle owl which is one of a pair on the farm that helps with pest control. Characteristic citrus flavours are offset by backbone lent from a little oak and the alcohol levels are held at 13,5%. I enjoyed this chardonnay and found that it tasted even better the following day.

 

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To the reds: Two red blends, the first The Huntsman, a 2017 vintage that melds shiraz, mourvèdre and viognier in unknown proportions, but with shiraz dominant. Its name refers to the original buildings on the site used by the Cape Hunt, founded nearly 200 years ago. Susbstantial alcohol levels of 14,5% add to the richness of this full-bodied wine, which matured in 500 litre French oak barrels, the viognier separately in tank, then blended in to produce a dark, luscious, ready- to- enjoy wine.

 

 

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As is the Pastor’s Blend 2018, named after the local pastor who offers communion under the pines just below Journey’s End vineyards. He is also the connection between the farm and the local village, which enjoys support from the estate in terms of education and upliftment of living standards. Moderate alcohol levels characterise a classic blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cab franc fermented separately and matured in third-fill oak for 14 months. The result is juicy with berry flavours dusted with dried herbs, ready to take on all types of red meat dishes with panache.

The wines sells for between R89 and R99, adding affordability to their attractions. The next two ranges will take the quality to a higher level with prices to match.

The estate embraces sustainable and occasional biodynamic practices, but is not certified for the latter. Trendy winemaking such as the use of (once ancient) amphorae and concrete eggs add to the versatility while drones are employed to survey vineyard blocks, providing high-tech info for micro-management.

Appointments are required for visits and tastings, which can also include snacks while hikes, MTB and horse-riding are also on the menu. For more info see www.journeysend.co.za or call 021 858 1929.

 

                                

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Elgin Ridge 282 Pinot Noir 2016 

 

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Certified organic wines are thin on the ground in this country and those which go a step further – to be fully registered as biodynamic – are even more rare.

Having been involved (as a keen spectator) with an organic wine farm, seeing what has to be undertaken to reach this status, sitting through an international inspection by a tough team from Europe and South Africa as they toured vineyards and farm buildings, examining everything from implements to employees work apparel, then probing records and asking the most detailed questions, I greatly admire those who undertake the arduous and expensive process to get certified.

Brian and Marion Smith of Elgin Ridge state on their website that their vineyards have been free of chemical sprays for more than 10 years, while Maddox their gentle percheron ploughs between the vineyard rows to remove weeds and pest control is handled with enthusiasm by resident ducks. Currently on the website are photos of an appealing pair of lambs who, we are told, will soon join the rest of the little flock to help with cover crop management.

The 2016 vintage of their Elgin Ridge 282 pinot noir was recently released. Grapes were sourced from four vineyards between10 and 11 years old and were vinified separately. Natural malolactic fermentation took place in second- and third- fill oak for 10 months before blending and bottling took place.

This is a cultivar that benefits from organic viticulture partly because of its inherent earthiness. Elgin minerality complements, but these characteristics are balanced by the berry fruit on the nose, and a a juicy freshness. Tannins are integrated, and the whole offers medium-bodied well-balanced enjoyment, along with that purity that is usually discernible in organic wines.

Another plus is that fact organic wines contain little, if any, sulphur, a chemical which affects a number of winelovers – particularly senior consumers - adversely.

This pinot noir will make a fine companion to a variety of winter warmers,

including, of course any mushroom dish where the earthiness of both will complement nicely.

It sells for R250 from cellar door and some wine outlets.

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Stellenbosch Hills has long been known for value-for-money wines, and no range proves this better than the Polkadraai - which notches up a decade of success this year. The anniversary is marked with a young rosé, vintage 2019, produced from shiraz grapes that grow in the Polkadraai district of Stellenbosch.This is where the winery’s 16 member farms are situated, in that scenic region where the terroir offers a wide spectrum of soil and climate.

 

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The new addition to the range is crisp and fresh, offering a bouquet of fruit that is followed on the palate by very accessible fruit and medium alcohol levels of 13%.

As with all labels in this light-hearted range, a percentage of money from sales of the new label go to the Polka kids Community Project through which Stellenbosch Hills contribute to education at the Vlottenburg Primary school. This is where most of the younger children of the vineyards and winery’s employees attend school.

There are not that many well-made wines retailing for less than R50 these days, but this is one of them – priced at R48 from cellar door.

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