South African wines at the London International Wine Fair

LIWF2011 Stellenrust © J Horak-Druiff 2011


Walking into the London Wine Fair (LIWF) at the cavernous Excel Centre to explore the hundreds of exhibitors showcasing thousands of wines is always an exhilarating experience – and this year was no exception. Now in its 31st year the LIWF is one of the key events in the world wine calendar and is an ideal place for a wine producer or exporter wanting to launch new products, meet customers, look for agents, engage the press, or win new direct business. It’s also a pretty fabulous place for a wine lover like me to spend a day! In the past, I have visited the fair in the excellent company of Mr Spittoon himself, Andrew Barrow, but this year he was unavailable, so hubby Nick and I went along and found ourselves spending the entire day tasting South African wines and talking to South African winemakers.  It was like a little trip home!

As in past years, Wines of South Africa (WOSA) exhibited a large pavilion showcasing South African wines as well as providing a number of individual producer booths. However, for WOSA, 2011 marked a departure from the traditional set-up of one producer per booth, showcasing only his or her wines. Instead, WOSA launched the Great South African Variety Show concept whereby 240 wines were showcased together on a large stand and arranged into self-pour “pods” – circular tasting tables with wines arranged according to a theme. The themes ranged from the geographical (Swartland, Wellington), to the cultivar-based (Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz), to the more esoteric (Stars of Tomorrow, Black Owned Brands, Biodiversity Champions). Producers paid R3,000 (around £270) per wine to have them included in the pods (approximately one tenth the cost of a traditional booth), meaning that smaller wineries were offered a uniquely affordable opportunity to introduce their wines to an international audience. For visitors, it meant that you could pick a region or a style and spend a happy half hour tasting only that region/style, without having to make conversation with the winemaker.  Below each bottle was its “business card” containing all the wine’s vital statistics and contact details for the producer – such a practical idea!

LIWF Chenin
Having been blown away at LIWF 2010 by the quality of Vouvray-like wooded chenin blancs coming out of South Africa, I made a bee-line for the Champion Chenin pod, where I discovered a new favourite:  Reyneke 2008 Wooded Chenin Blanc.  It’s hard to describe the nose – my first reaction was that it smells… hot, like the country that gave birth to it.  But that first reaction soon gives way to sumptious peaches and apricots, with a minerally undertone. The palate is a lush feast of fruit and spices – a huge, mouth-filling wine with a long but surprisingly fresh and clean finish. I also tried its neighbour, the 2009 Wildekrans Osiris Barrel Select Chenin Blanc which was also quite sublime, with notes of honey and apricots both on the nose and palate – a creamy mouthfeel and a very long finish.  I have said it before and I will say it again:  I think these Vouvray-style wooded chenins are by far the best and most intresting that South Africa is producing at the moment, and we should be marketing ourselves as the home of Chenin, much in the same way as New Zealand’s Marlborough valley has marketed itself as the home of Sauvignon Blanc.  Just my ten cents worth…
From the pods, we moved to the more traditional booths to pay a visit to two of South Africa’s most famous and well-respected wineries:  Kanonkop and Beyerskloof (widely accepted to be the home of Pinotage).  We kicked off with the Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve 2005 which still had a deep, purply colour that belied its bottle age.  I don’t often get chocolate on the nose of a wine, but this time I definitely did – a whiff of dark, dark cocoa-laden chocolate. The palate lacked the “burnt” edge that many people accuse Pintage of and boasted deep red berries and very soft tannins.  It’s a very lovely, accessible wine and proof of this is that Denise (who professes to loathe Pinotage) even gave it her stamp of approval – she happened to be passing by when we tasted so I collared her for a Pinotage conversion :).  We also tried the Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage reserve 2008 (Diesel being one of the farm dogs, the Great Dane depicted on the label – the connection being between a huge dog and a huge wine).  This had a more restrained nose than the previous wine – definitely some savoury notes in among the vanilla and berries.  On the palate, the oak is beautiful integrated, leaving you whit a long finish and a mouthful of fruit.  From there we moved to the wines of Kanonkop, a fourth-generation famimly-run wine estate in the Stellenbosch region and widely acknowledged as one of the top red wine estates in South Africa.  We tried the flagship Kanonkop Paul Sauer (a traditional Bordeaux blend of approximately 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Merlot, matured in French oak for 22-26 months) – it has a vegetal nose (minty, grassy) and then sneaks up and surprises you on the palate with a big burst of dark fruit, chocolate, mint and a long finish – just wonderful.  Clearly they had taken a likng to us by then, because we were also treated to some bottles hiden at the back of the shelf:  a 1991 Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1995 Kanonkop Paul Sauer.  Both of these had aged remarkable well – surprisingy deep colour as well as berry fruit flavours still in evidence. Made me long for the days when winemakers made wines to lay down, not to drink after approxiately 5 minutes!

LIWF Stellenrust

From there, I had to go and visit one of my favourite South African winemakers:  the charming and irrepressible Tertius Boshoff from Stellenrust.  Stellenrust was established in 1928 and is today one of the oldest family-owned wineries in South Africa, and both Tertius and his brother are involved in the winemaking.  We started with the 2010 Stellenrust Chenin Blanc (made from 30-40 year old bush vines, 20% of the wine fermented in French oak for 5 months).  This was a lovely rounded wine with flavours of pear and tropical fruit, and a good, clean finish.  For comparison, we tried the just-released 2011 Stellenrust Chenin Blanc  – wow!  What a difference a year makes.  This was a crisp and zesty wine, packed with guava fruit falours and very little of the fuller, rounder flavours of the 2010 – amazing what a difference a year in the bottle can make.  From there we moved on to their premium chenin – the 2009 Stellenrust 45 Barrel Fermented Chenin (incidentally, the numbered plaque on the bottle indicates the age of the vines in the year that the wine was made).  I am still in love with this wine – a glass of spicy stewed apples flavours with notes of honey but alwys with enough acid to give it structure and balance, and a spectacularly long finish.  Glorious. (And if you are wondering why on earth Tertius is holding a beer at a wine fair, this photo was taken right at the end of the day when everyone on the South African stand was relaxing over beers and biltong!)



Another of my favourite South African wine makers, the lovely Jeanette Bruwer from Springfield was also on hand to tell me about an inspiring charitabe venture in which many of the Robertson wine estates (Springfield included) are involved. The Herberg children’s home in Robertson originated in 1918 under the auspices of the Dutch Reformed Church, to care for orphans of the flu–epidemic.  In 2002 friends of the Herberg suggested that it would be more profitable to do away with an aged, unproductive apricot orchard on the premises and rather plant a vineyard.  The imagination of the Robertson community was captured by this proposed project. Work was started with great enthusiasm and contributions in the form of fertilizer, soil preparation, plant material, irrigation and trellising, as well as labour, local wine farming knowledge, and cellar facilities were made available.  the aim was to set up the wine-making project and eventually to produce wine, without any costs to the chidren’s home.   Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot vines were planted in 2003 in equal amounts and the vineyard is now beautifully established. The first wine was sold in 2010, with all proceeds going to the children’s home – and you can buy it online at SA Wines Online.  The 2008 Thunderchild that we tasted had an impressive nose with some vegetal notes.  The palate is unusally smoky with ripe red berry flavours and nicely balanced tanins.



And last but not least came my surprises of the show for 2011. We had earlier met the charming and very amusing Guy Kedian from Holden Manz over at the WOSA pods – his immortal opening line being “hey, I follow you on Twitter!” :)  We got chatting and eventually he brought us over to give us some Holden Manz wines.  If you (like me) have never heard of the estate, that’s because it used to be called Kleingenot – and let me assure you that the wine we took home was spectacular!  I can’t find my tasting notes now, but I think it was a Bordeaux blend – a huge beast of a wine, packed with flavour but smooth as silk.  Hooked!  Guy also introduced us to The Bernard Series – a boutique range from behemoth Bellingham and the baby of winemaker Niel Groenewald. The Bernard Series is named after Bernard Podlushak, the colourful and legendary raconteur who took ownership of the Bellingham wine farm after moving to Franschhoek in 1943. Under this label Niel gets to experiment more than he necessarily might be abe to under the more staid Bellingham label.  Clearly, it’s working: two of the Bernard Series wines won gold medals at the 2009 Monde Selection International Wine Contest in Belgium: The Bernard Series Basket Press Syrah 2006 and The Bernard Series Small Barrel S.M.V. 2006. We loved both the wines we tried (the wooded Chenin Blanc and the Rousanne) – and the good news is that they are available through Majestic wines here in the UK!

And that, as they say, is all – till next year’s LIWF.  If you have not yet tried some of the South African wines I mentioned above, I urge you to do so soon.  You’re in for a wonderful surprise :)



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