Altitudes with Wine!
Friday 3 November 2017
An injured toe prevented me from taking part in the middle training day of the National Rescue Meet in the Cederberg. I turned that misfortune to advantage since I was camping at the Sanddrift Holiday Resort. My toe was well enough to make the 20 minute walk to Cederberg Wines. Indeed, I did even better for I was given a lift to the vineyard. My rescue friends even took my purchases back in their car and so I was able to enjoy the return amble to take photos of the vines.
It was an unfortunate albeit fortunate stroke of luck as I have hiked many times in the Cederberg without having been able to visit Cederberg Wines. The temptation from being just 20 minutes walk away rather than 4 hours distant by car from Cape Town proved too much. The gravel public road passes through the vines amid the most spectacular mountain views. There’s the Cederberg Brewery on site too.
The Cederberg farm must be one of the largest in South Africa – covering 5500 hectares – and has 60 hectares under vine. Five grape varieties are grown: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and the very rare Bukketraube. Bukketraube is a semi-sweet grape of German origin that has just 77 hectares left in the world. Cederberg Wines is just one of 3 South African vineyards to grow the cultivar, covering 11 hectares. I did not know beforehand that it is said to be the `oldest new variety’ of grape in the world, with the first seedling being selected in 1864.
Cederberg Wines has other unique distinctions too. It is the highest vineyard in the Western Cape, at 1063 metres above sea level. It does not have the distinction of being the highest vineyard in South Africa. Little known Abingdon Wines in the Midlands of KZN is higher at 1140 metres above sea level.
The terroir is harsh. The climate is cool Mediterranean in character. Winter and summer average temperatures differ widely: from 12-18°C in winter to 30-40°C in summer. Snow is not unusual in the winter, with daytime temperatures at or close to freezing and reaching as low as -20°C. Late frost is a significant risk (as it is in the Champagne region in France, the Napa Valley in California and Southern England vineyards). Sixty percent of the crop was damaged in 2016. Rain falls in winter and, as I learned to my surprise, is at 450-800 millimetres per year close to double the average for the West Coast. Soils differ widely within a small area. Mountain slopes of weathered shale/slate aid drainage and suit the red cultivar. The white grape varieties favour sandstone soils and the duplex soils of sand on clay.
Another distinction, and a technical but interesting one, is that the Cederberg (like Lamberts Bay, Prince Albert Valley and Swartberg) is a Ward unto itself. A Ward is the small production region and usually denotes a small demarcated viticultural area. Wards are generally grouped into Districts which, in turn, form Regions and (at the highest wine production area) Geographical Units. Estates more usually fit into the production area hierarchy. The Elim Ward, for example, is in the Cape Agulhas District in the Cape South Coast Region in the Western Cape Geographical unit.
I digress. Cederberg Wines sell wine in 4 ranges: Cederberg Wines (60% red wines), Five Generations, Ghost Corner and Longavi. The Five Generations label proudly celebrates the history of the Dwarsrivier farm. Owner David Nieuwoudt is the 5th generation farmer in the Cederberg with the first Nieuwoudts having arrived in South Africa in the 1700s. The first vines were planted in 1973. Cederberg Wines and the Sanddrift Holiday Resort remains very much a family business today. Many of the 120 farm workers, vineyard workers and resort staff who live on the farm are 5th and 6th generation too.
The Ghost Corner Range stems from Elim where some Sauvignon Blanc, the Sémillon and Viognier are grown. Also available, but I did not taste, were wines from Chile sold under the Longavi label. It reflects collaboration between David and a Chilean producer who teamed up in 2012.
The modern yet functional Tasting Room is housed where the Cellar used to be and was opened earlier in 2017. It was bright and airy with the barrels in the Cellar visible at the rear. The Tasting sequence cost R40 and my capable tasting host was Alfred. He was clearly enjoying his job despite having worked only 4 months in the Tasting Room.
The tasting began with 2 Sauvignons Blanc, one from Cederberg Wines and the other from Ghost Corner (the grapes are brought from Elim in cooled trucks for the 8 hour journey). It was good to compare them. I preferred the Cederberg one as it had more complexity on the nose. I expected grassy, green aromas and so was surprised by the extent of tropical notes – guava, pineapple, fruit salad – as well as lemon and lime citrus and some herbaceousness. It was youthful nut nonetheless showed decent acidity and length. The Elim cousin showed more grassy notes and was delicate on the palate.
The next 2 wines were even better. I liked the Cederberg Chenin Blanc with its warm citrus and honey fruit flavours that followed through well onto the palate. Four months contact on the lees, combined with high acidity, gave an excellent mouthfeel. The Ghost Corner Bowline – a Sauvignon Blanc-led Bordeaux white blend with Sémillon – was equally good. The name reflects the bowline ‘king of knots’ to symbolise a union between the 2 cultivars. Matured for 11 months in 2nd/3rd fill French oak, the wine showed great complexity of aroma of lemon, lime, guava and vanilla. The acidity was good and some slight creamy pineapple emerged on the palate. It was not hard to see that this wine was a multi-award winner.
Alfred poured 2 more wines, both from Ghost Corner. Fermentation with natural yeasts is a risky business as the winemaker has much less control than when using commercial yeast. The Wild Ferment Sauvignon Blanc was my favourite Sauvignon Blanc. It was more typically cool climate with green asparagus and citrus aromas. The wine was matured for 10 months in 2nd/3rd fill barrels – oaked Sauvignons Blanc are also technically difficult to make, unusual too but growing in popularity – to give a full, rounded mouthfeel with great acidity. The Sémillon, also not always easy to find and also very slightly wooded, showed an inviting complexity of flavour: lime, apple, fig and white honey. It did not disappoint in the mouth with a positive follow through for a clean mouthfeel.
Alfred was looking after me exceptionally well as he offered the only wines from the Five Generations Range for tasting. These were 2 wooded Chenins Blanc (11 months) and made from selected barrels but from different vintages. I rated them the same but they not identical. The younger 2015 wine was very drinkable with a good intensity of lemon, lime, honey, blue gum and vanilla notes. These followed through to a clean mouthfeel. The 2011 vintage – priced at just R100 compared with R220 for the 2015 wine due to a large cancelled order – was a much deeper straw colour. The melon, lime and honey aromas and flavours were deliciously smooth and rounded. I wish I had bought a bottle now.
The final white wine was the Bukketraube. I had tasted once before during Cape Wine Academy training when one student picked it out in a heartbeat during blind tasting. This rare cultivar is not easy to grow as it is prevalent to fungus. The growing conditions in the Cederberg reduce the risk as there are no vineyards nearby and the mountains enclose. The semi-sweet wine has a Muscat feel and combines warm, tropical fruit (guava, pineapple, melon) with honeysuckle floral and herbaceous/citrus flavours.
The sole Rosé, made from Shiraz, was refreshing and pleasantly drinkable, as any Rosé should be. It was excellent value for money too (just R60). I enjoyed the lighter, sweeter and more floral Shiraz flavours with strawberry and ripe raspberry and its slightly off-dry sweetness.
This was turning out to be much more extensive tasting than I had expected – and there was still more. The first of the red wines was a silky Pinot Noir, the last wine from Ghost Corner. Light bodied but deeper in medium ruby red colour than many, it combined warm cherry and cranberry fruitiness with white peppercorn spiciness on the nose. I would have liked greater firmness and tannin structure on the palate for this otherwise well made wine.
The final 3 wines were from Cederberg. The first was my favourite and favourite of the tasting: the Merlot-Shiraz. I scored it well for every criterion: appearance – medium ruby red and medium-bodied; nose – sweet red plum, ripe cassis and soft spiciness, with forwards intensity and great complexity; and palate – dry, elegant, refined with rounded and well structured tannins. The wine was already good, despite its 2016 youth, and this bodes extremely well for ageing.
The Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from the same vintage were less balanced and showed their young exuberance. The wines were tannic with a green astringency that will likely mellow with ageing. They overpowered the Shiraz blackberry, cassis and black peppercorn flavours which showed good intensity on the nose. The concentrated dark blackberry, blackcurrant and mulberry flavours of the Cabernet Sauvignon stood up to the tannins a little better to make a better wine.
The visit to the Cederberg Wines was unexpected in both timing and experience. In truth, I did not know exactly what to expect as I had little tasted wines from the region nor read about before. The tasting was as extensive as comprehensive and it was a struggle not to buy more than 4 wines. The Cederberg Range in particular offered excellent value for money. Fortunately for the farm and the wine lover, the extensive fynbos fires of 2016 passed by on the opposite side of the valley and the vines were not harmed nor damaged by the smoke. The Wolfberg Cracks and to the Wolfberg Arch beyond remain closed to the public for regeneration of the vegetation. Indeed, it was due to the generosity of the Nieuwoudt and various agencies that the annual National Mountain Rescue Meet was able to go ahead at all. I shall definitely not pass by again without a tasting visit. The Cederberg Wines branding, shown on every bottle label together with a nice print of the cedar tree, is ‘Wines with Altitude’. Today, and for me as I learned advanced rope rescue techniques high above Sanddrift, it was ‘Altitudes with Wine’!
Wines tasted (bought *):
2017 Cederberg Sauvignon Blanc – R195
2017 Ghost Corner Sauvignon Blanc – R190
2017 Cederberg Chenin Blanc – R85*
2015 Ghost Corner Bowline (70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sémillon) – R210
2016 Ghost Corner Wild Ferment Sauvignon Blanc – R220
2015 Ghost Corner Sémillon – R190
2015 Five Generations Chenin Blanc – R220
2011 Five Generations Chenin Blanc – R100
2017 Cederberg Bukketraube – R80*
2017 Cederberg Shiraz Rosé – R60*
2016 Ghost Corner Pinot Noir – R220
2016 Cederberg Merlot Shiraz (70% Merlot, 30% Shiraz) – R90* FAVOURITE WINE
2016 Cederberg Cabernet Sauvignon – R180
2016 Cederberg Shiraz – R210