A spectacle of characterful South African wines await

Words: Samarie Smith, WSETDip

I clearly remember my first Nedbank CWG pre-auction tasting 15 years ago; the anticipation building as guests arrive in the tasting hall and the chattering growing louder as the room fills up with key role players in the wine industry. And then, as everyone took their seats, the room turned silent for the tasting to commence.

Regretfully, this popular annual event was hijacked by the pandemic in 2020. Still, the show had to go on, and South African winemakers persevered in staying committed to their craft despite numerous alcohol bans. Looking back, Covid fast-tracked a new direction for the Auction. Despite a much-reduced scale, the first online Auction resulted in record average prices per case achieved across the board, raising a staggering R5.15 million.

With a more extensive offering awaiting buyers this year, the Auction remains online, preceded by a two-week online Charity Auction raising funds for the CWG Protégé Programme. While public tastings sadly remain suspended for 2021, a small group of local journalists and sommeliers tasted the wines to offer buyers a preview of what to expect. 

Here are my thoughts:

South African winemakers are by no means sitting on the fence when it comes to wine styles. On the contrary, proudly stilted between the old and the new world, a medley of wine regions and versatility among members of the Guild ensures a spectacle of wines made for different tastes and preferences. One will always be able to taste the abundant sunshine captured in plusher fruit aromas. At the same time, the advancement in technology and knowledge has empowered winemakers to follow a classic winemaking route with plenty of room to colour outside the lines and exert a style that honours origin. As two big oceans collide at the tip of Africa, so did the wisdom of the old world and the daring nature of the new world mesh to create an intriguing playground for South African winemakers in terms of wine styles.

Everybody has preferences, and this article offers a mere impression of what to expect. Consistently applauded for exceptional white wines and somewhat knocked for overly oaked and extracted red wines in the past, the finest South African red wines are now challenging such scrutiny. A hallmark 2021 Auction line-up is a quintessential example of that.

Cap Classique lovers can expect a consistent line-up of elegant, vibrant and fresher styles. Whilst the Graham Beck is more austere, romancing you with brioche, green citrus and a delicate, chalky finish, Silverthorn is more voluminous and generous. The ageing of the Villiera in a magnum bottle is noteworthy, resulting in a wine with a fine mousse and lovely intensity and with 2021 being Jeff Grier's swansong year, this is a superb fizz to be remembered by.

Being the only Sauvignon Blanc in the line-up, De Grendel's is made for buyers seeking a Sauvignon Blanc with more palate weight and exuding intense aromas of kiwi, nettle and lemon thyme with a tart, salty finish adding length.

The two attractive white blends are vastly different; Lismore is driven by charming floral aromatics and a tingly, almost pithy mouthfeel. On the other hand, Miles Mossop's wine is more savoury and citrus inclined, with a welcoming spicy perfume adding to its layers.

Chenin lovers can choose between a youthful and mouth-watering Raats, a quirky Simonsig Chenin for those pursuing something different and characterful, or a more classic Rijk’s Chenin Blanc noted for its peach pastry and marzipan richness.

A quartet of stellar Chardonnays will make it very hard to choose for the discerning Chardonnay drinker. They portray a subtle elegance reminiscent of the old world yet embracing the exuberant fruit of a warmer country like South Africa. Commended for the judicious use of oak, each Chardonnay follows the trajectory of the producer's success with this cultivar, embracing fruit purity while attaining its vitality with natural acidity.

Charming Pinot Noirs await: De Grendel being light-footed and floral; Gottfried Mocke's wine emanating more earthy nuances of truffle and wild berries, and Bouchard Finlayson deliberately follows a bold and more exotic style.

Pinotage will allure bidders with seductive fruit, polished tannins, and a classic execution mastered by Kanonkop and Rijk’s. 

More unusual reds, as represented by Beaumont (Mourvèdre) and Neil Ellis Wines (Tempranillo) should be on the radar if you love eccentric and characterful wines. Mourvèdre has this untamed nature that chefs embrace, and Tempranillo's structure and magnitude of fruit demand attention.

Blending Roobernet with Pinotage delivers on the expectation of fruit, adding a cool, blackcurrant leaf appeal to the Grangehurst Heritage. Luddite's blend has a similar coolness, entangled with the somewhat unruly nature of Mourvèdre and aligned with the spicy character of Shiraz. All the fun one can have with blending! 

Saronsberg's Inner Circle delivers another staunch example of this wine with a melange of charcuterie, florals and black fruit. Finally, the Portuguese varietals in Boplaas's Daniel's Legacy should allure a solid following with its sweet yet complex fruit display on the nose and the palate.  

Shiraz/Syrah is a showstopper this year, and stylistic preferences and brand loyalty will be a defining factor for buyers. Hartenberg is beautifully layered, Simonsig boasts intense fruit, Saronsberg is more savoury, Savage is more perfumed, and Cederberg performs a balancing act of plum, spice and dried herbs paying homage to its terroir. Boschkloof (with Jacques Borman presenting his final auction wine) remains consistent with a pink peppercorn, sandalwood and blue floral aroma. 

Hartenberg's standalone Merlot is a shining star among the bold Bordeaux-style wines, cool and calculated in its execution. Sided by a Cabernet Franc from Raats, buyers can be assured to buy into a classic example of this cultivar. On the other hand, the timeless Maximilian from Miles Mossop is still an infant waiting to blossom with time.

Having two vintages of the Rust en Vrede CWG Auction Estate, 2016 and 2017, is an ideal opportunity for its followers to investigate the small nuances yet enormous impact a vintage can have. Both wines exude elegance with a similar appeal in character as its neighbour Ernie Els, who delivers on the freshness expected from 2018.

The well-judged treatment of oak across the board is noteworthy. Honouring fruit with mitigated intervention also makes for beautifully intense, structured and age-worthy wines, especially as far as the Bordeaux-style reds are concerned. These wines are true ambassadors of South African wines despite the Bordeaux prefix for the sake of its enormity. The usual suspects in this category, Kanonkop, Delaire Graff, Groot Constantia, Jordan and Spier, deliver on the expectation of finely sculpted and outstanding wines made in this style. Finally, Jeremy Walker bids the CWG farewell with his Grangehurst Au Revoir 2017 – a powerful wine that exudes longevity.

And of course, no CWG Auction is complete without a classic Cape Vintage from Boplaas with little to fault, if anything at all.