Stellenbosch Red Blends – Decades of historic greatness

 

 

Stellenbosch red blends, let's hang our hat on that

Looking back over time, Stellenbosch red blends have always excelled as quality examples of this style.  This region, especially the diversity of sites stretching from Simonsberg, across the Stellenbosch Hills, Stellenbosch Mountain and the Helderberg precinct, clearly has the elements to produce world class red wines. But the blends most often attract favourable attention, not only Cabernet-Sauvignon-driven but alternative varietal combinations as well.

  

It is indeed Cabernet-Sauvignon which champions these blends, with both older vintages from wineries like Meerlust, Muratie and Vriesenhof as well as more recent vintages from the same wineries, along with newer names like De Toren and Tokara.  De Toren is one of these more recent brands with their first vintage of the “V” released in 1999.

When Emil den Dulk decided to make a lifestyle change in the mid-90’s by moving from Johannesburg to Stellenbosch, his vision to live on a wine farm included wine.  One wine: a blend of all 5 classic Bordeaux varieties.  At that stage De Toren would be one of the first to use all five in one blend.  After careful research, the 20-ha farm was replanted accordingly, including the planned proportions for the final blend with Cabernet as the backbone. De Toren has recently converted entirely to organic farming practices.

The decision to produce such a precise wine came through very careful consideration, looking back historically at which varieties performed well over time in Stellenbosch.  “History is an exact science”, says Cellarmaster and CEO, Albie Koch.

Jan Boland Coetzee’s opening line echoes this as well: “Cabernet-Sauvignon is quite at home in Stellenbosch, along with its blending partners”.  Jan is a Stellenbosch wine veteran and acquired Vriesenhof, on the West-facing foothills of Stellenbosch Mountain, almost 3 decades ago. “Cabernet tends to ripen early Autumn which creates a typically Mediterranean climate and translates to a longer ripening season”, he continues.  The days are shorter, nights longer, with cooling dew settling on the canopies.  The season is changing with scattered rain promoting proper colouring resulting in an ideal ratio between water and solids in the berries.

The lower lying sites on the slopes of the Simonsberg, Stellenbosch and Helderberg ranges are well suited for these varieties, where these sites offer clay-rich, granitic soils, retaining valuable moisture for the ripening season during the warm afternoons.  Despite the fairly dry conditions, the 2018 vintage was the coolest since 1997 in terms of daily average temperatures.  In general, the quality is looking very good, with an average drop in volumes of 15%.

 

Jan Boland Coetzee, Vriesenhof's owner

Back in the day

The early 80’s saw the advent of red blends.  Interestingly, Cinsault played an important role in blending, by at least 10%. Jan Boland relates how Cinsault was planted in between the Cabernet rows and harvested as such.  Cabernet could not be handled on its own in the cellar, the pulp / pomace was too dense for the machinery (mainly the pumps) to push through and the Cinsault component added juice and lubrication.

Initially only Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc were used for blends, while Petit Verdot only arrived in the late 80’s when plant improvement started.  No new plant material was released during Apartheid years.  Availability post-Apartheid encouraged plantings and a wider range of varieties became available.  For example, Petit Verdot was only planted at Meerlust in 2004, where a strong sense of place as an Estate concept is considered important to ensure individuality and quality. Estate wines in South Africa are grown and bottled on a designated parcel of land, in other words no grapes are bought in from other farms. Very similar to a Bordeaux Chateau and dissimilar to Burgundy.

But it was around the late 60’s when Nico Myburgh of Meerlust travelled to Bordeaux to explore red blends and returned with inspiration to recreate what he experienced. Not only did he recognize the soil and climate similarities between the two regions, but he also noticed the use of smaller format, new oak barrels.  Wines were generally matured in 2,400 – 4,000L Foudres, so the idea of the new 225L barrique intervention intrigued him.  However, there were reasons for not having barriques: trade embargos linked to Apartheid and the expense.  He visited his bank manager, who responded: “Nico, if you believe in this, we can approve finances, but this is like crossing the Rubicon, there is no turning back and it better work”.  They never looked back.  Giorgio dalla Cia, then cellar master, crafted some of the most iconic South African red blends. More recently, then assistant and now current cellar master, Chris Williams is at the helm and mentions with pride the super-premium prices the 1978 experimental Rubicons reached at the 2017 Nederburg Auction, at R16000 per bottle. Some of the early wines matured in Foudres have aged incredibly well, to the extent that Chris re-introduced 12 Foudres (2400-4000L) for maturation to be used as a component in the Rubicon, together with the barrique component. 

One of the reasons Meerlust introduced blends, and single varieties of Merlot and Cab, is the diversity of soil types and aspects on the Estate, offering a huge variety of characterful wines to assemble the final blend, which is 4 varieties, including Cabernet Franc, but 25 different vineyards and about 100 individual separate cuvees making up the final blend.

One of the most historic wine estates in Stellenbosch has also been planning a red blend over decades.  The Muratie Ansela van de Caab was initiated as a blend referencing the first owner, Lourens Campher, who brought Ansela from Cape Town where she lived as a slave.

Current owners are the Melck family, with Rijk Melck on the operational side.  His late father, Ronnie Melck was a raconteur, loving life, art and wine.  Long lunches turned into art, currently on display in the tasting room. He was a leading figure in the South African wine industry over several decades from the 50’s to the 80’s, shaping wine styles and revolutionising brand positioning.  For example, in the early 1960’s the largely made from Chenin blanc white blend, Lieberstein, was the biggest selling white wine in the world. His palate was legendary and he so impressed the Martell family who still owned the brand in those days, and their famous blender, Monsieur Chapeau, that South Africa was the country they gave permission for their name to be used on a brandy.

Almost on a parallel latitude and just East of Muratie on the Simonsberg, former banker GT Ferreira and his family had a similar goal with Tokara - to make a wine exquisite enough to rival the best in the world.  After 20 years of dedication and most importantly developing the understanding of the incredible Tokara terroir, they launched their pinnacle wine, the 2015 Telos – only 1,000 bottles produced at a super premium price point. TELOS is Greek meaning the end result of a goal-driven process and is a blend of 92 % Cabernet-Sauvignon, 5% Malbec and 3% Merlot.

 

Waterford Estate - Davis VanSchalkwyk (viticulturist, right) and Mark Le Roux (winemaker, left)

Alternative varietal combinations

The “Cape Blends” moniker has different meanings. Cape blends have been manifesting themselves in red and white versions, the former when Shiraz was blended with Cabernet-Sauvignon, older vintages from Uitkyk being benchmarks as well as Rust en Vrede’s Estate Wine. Pinotage blends started a trend and the Cape Blend category set off to create a new and interesting style, with Kaapzicht arguably one of the leaders here, along with Warwick.

However, one of the most interesting blends out of Stellenbosch is The Jem, produced at Waterford Estate, situated on the foothills of the Helderberg range.  Managing director and cellar master, Kevin Arnold, has ample experience with vintages at Delheim (11 vintages), where he introduced the famous Delheim Grande Reserve and then Rust en Vrede (10 vintages).  Waterford is a relatively young estate, established in 1998 with a very strong focus on being leaders and not followers, not only in wine, but wine tourism as well.  The Jem is innovation and patience personified, another result of trials over decades.  It straddles wine regions across Europe, with a blend of 42% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 20% Shiraz, 14% Merlot, 11% Cabernet franc, 4% Mourvedre, 3% Petit Verdot, 3% Barbera, 3% Sangiovese.  Cabernet being the backbone again, the rest all add flavour and complexity.

Stellenbosch arguably forms part of the most beautiful wine regions in the world and given the history of particularly the red blends, tradition and innovation reside comfortably together in a dynamic symbiosis within a world class wine region.

 

André Morgenthal