As someone whose handicap is the game of golf, it has taken me a while to take serious note of the Ernie Els winery in Stellenbosch. Yes, the vineyards and cellar are set in a spectacular location in the Helderberg and, yes, since opening in 2005, the wines have achieved commendable ratings. But somehow, the connection between a great South African golfer and great wine went astray, and I’ll admit to having been much the poorer for it.
Over the past year or three, the name Ernie Els has, however, comfortably fallen into my list of top 10 Cape wineries, most notably for what the property is doing in terms of Cabernet Sauvignon, arguably the finest red wine offering out of South Africa and a variety Stellenbosch is embracing as its calling card.
The slopes of the Helderberg to the south of the town provide ideal conditions for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. Soils of decomposed granite and clay, elevation running to over 400m above sea level, and exposure to the Atlantic air flows off nearby False Bay make for stunning viticulture real estate. Add to this, winemakers obsessed with Cabernet Sauvignon – such as Ernie Els’s Louis Strydom – the path to great wine is as assured as a scratch golfer’s languid swing on an easy par 4.
Strydom has been making Cabernet Sauvignon on the Helderberg for 23 years, heading up the blue-chip Rust en Vrede cellar before starting with Ernie Els’s maiden vintage. At Ernie Els, he has zoned in on the variety with a professorial-like focus, planting the farm to Cabernet Sauvignon clones selected to the differing pockets of soils and aspects found on the property. The approach continues to the winery, where at harvest-time, the parcels of terroir diversity are fermented, blended and aged according to the wants of each of the Ernie Els wines.
My current selection is the Ernie Els Proprietor’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, a wine embodying the image of Ernie Els, namely it being a modern classic. This means wine made from a variety integral to Stellenbosch’s vinous provenance in terms of culture and terroir, made with a skilled and modern approach.
Purity is the watchword here. From aroma to the flavour profile, Proprietor’s Cabernet Sauvignon displays the finesse and polite elegance that is as much a part of this variety’s character as its supple robustness and brooding power.
The aromas of fennel, autumn fruit orchards and cigar box lead to a delicious array of tastes. If one is after descriptors, fall for plum and blackberries backed by a secondary level of cedar, dried figs, and fynbos. But as is the case of any excellent wine, it is the sum of the parts that count. Here the fruit is enveloped in brightness and energy with easy tannins and a cool freshness that cloak the overall impression of magisterial excellence.
From Paarl, an appellation much in need of some verve and imagination, comes an extraordinary white wine wrapped in a cloak stitched from mystery and ambition. Brookdale is the name, a relatively new property owned by British businessman Tim Rudd lying on Paarl’s eastern slopes adjacent to where the Du Toitskloof tunnel draws in the N1.
Known for Chenin Blanc until now, Brookdale this year released its maiden Sixteen Field Blend 2021, a white wine made from 16 different varieties planted in a vineyard of two hectares. We hear it correctly: 16 different white grape cultivars planted – I was going to say thrown together – in one patch of soil. Come harvest time, the grapes are harvested and fermented simultaneously to create a single wine from this diverse, dare we say, bastardised offering.
This strategy is no gimmick, however, as a field blend is a well-known style in old Europe from the days before science-minded winemakers began obsessing over wines made from single varieties. The Brookdale Sixteen Field Blend class underscores the fact that this is no mere attempt to capture a sexy narrative as the wine exudes, ironically, a pedigreed completeness and surprising maturity.
Aged in 500-litre oak vessels, part of the wine’s attractiveness lies in the texture in the mouth, which varies between an exhilarating grip on the palate and a delectable creaminess. There are no woody flavours here, these overshadowed by tinkling chimes of quince, apricot and green citrus, with an evocative brush of spice that is one of the enviable characteristics of Cape wines made from Mediterranean white grape varieties, which must surely dominate this mysterious blend.
Watch out for this wine – as the interplanted, diversely populated vineyard ages, greatness will follow.
Although the weather has not quite reached the state of frigidity that calls for a Port, my thirst is beginning to itch for some sweet stuff. Noble Late Harvest wines, the elixirs sometimes go by the terrible name of “stickies”, are some of the best glasses coming out of South Africa. Yet, the world’s obsession with decrying anything admitting to being sweet has not allowed this category to reach the status of splendour they deserve.
Paul Cluver’s Noble Late Harvest 2020, made from Riesling, is a case in point.
Although more famous for its magnificent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Elgin-based Paul Cluver has become known for fine wines made from the Riesling grape, a variety particularly suited to the making of a sweet wine from grapes that are allowed to hang well beyond the standard ripening regimes of summer.
The beauty of this wine lies in the balance between the sugars of overripe fruit and the grapes’ inherent acidity, which is required to offer zest and life instead of a dead cloying sweetness that a lack of acids cause. Here, it is all pitch-perfect.
Drifting on the palate with its glycerol mouthfeel, Paul Cluver Noble Late Harvest seduces with those irresistible flavours of apricot, lemon meringue and marmalade, underscored by an intriguing floral note of nectar. Which makes drinking this wine worthy of an Evelyn Waugh line from Brideshead Revisited, namely, “I was drowning in honey, stingless.”