Wine extraordinaire, Emile Joubert, with over 30 years’ experience, shares his top picks for the coming autumn months.
These days we rarely have time to reconfigure our corkscrews without another wine region popping up in South Africa. This is good, as it displays our wine industries pioneering nature with old industry hands as well as new blood-seeking, far-flung pockets of soil and different climate in which to plant vines and contribute to the exciting diversity of brand South Africa. The outer regions of the Swartland, the snow-capped peaks of Ceres and the desolate spaces of Sutherland in the Karoo are cases in point.
With autumn setting in and the first rains blowing in from the north-west, I always like to remind myself that the true home of the Cape wine story starts in Constantia. Dating back to 1685 when Simon van der Stel began to develop this magnificent stretch of land into a wine farm, and through the 1800’s when its sweet wines were the toast of European nobility enjoyed by an exiled but thirsty Napoleon Bonaparte, and often referred back to in English classics today, Groot Constantia has taken its place as the ancestral home of the South African wine industry.
In February this year wine maker Danie de Wet from De Wetshof received the Groot Constantia 1659 Honorary Award, annually presented to an industry legend. Upon receiving this award his first words were aimed at Groot Constantia: “This is where it all began. This is where South Africa’s wine makers have always taken their inspiration, and you must know that Groot Constantia is the PO Box 1 for the SA Wine Industry.”
Today the estate is freely accessible with the glorious old Cloete Cellar, enigmatic Manor House and other historic buildings in superb nick. Groot Constantia is still at the forefront and amongst the best in terms of quality wine making.
The autumnal chill doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy white wine, especially if it is a full and complex Chardonnay just like the Groot Constantia 2014 (R175). Cellarmaster Boela Gerber has shown that while the cooler Constantia region might be known as the Sauvignon Blanc region, the royal white Burgundian Chardonnay grape is more than at home here too.
“This is where it all began. This is where South Africa’s wine makers have always taken their inspiration, and you must know that Groot Constantia is the PO Box 1 for the SA Wine Industry.”
This Chardonnay is aged in oak, as required by this extremely multi-dimensional grape, the wood is there to provide structure and depth instead of overpowering the wine with splinters and cuttings. Flavours of citrus, lemon curd and flowers abound and give the wine a fresh, uplifting taste while subtle hints of spice and grilled nuts offer the comfort and sustenance a great Chardonnay has to offer.
No mention of Constantia is complete, however, without incorporating the nectar known as Grand Constance (R490). If you never drink sweet wine, for some or other strange reason, then allow Grand Constance to break those barriers. This wine is made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, the same variety that the famous old Constantia’s were made from. Picked when wrinkled and shrivelled, and packed with natural sugar, the juice is fermented in old barrels to preserve the full whack of the natural sweet grape flavours as well as show what time and ferment does to them.
What a stupendous wine. Despite the large sugar content, this is no cloying, tongue-cementing mouth of sweet nothing. A fresh acidic breeze keeps the wine perky and alive, with tastes of apricot, orange peel and cloves making this a heady, thoroughly enjoyable wine. A world-beater.
Of course, autumn is also time for inspired cooking and good eating with hearty beef and lamb casseroles simmering away in spacious ovens. Red wine has a place here, and I personally enjoy a smooth Shiraz.
Whilst not in the legendary class of Groot Constantia, Paarl’s Backsberg Estate Cellars have been around for 100 years this year. So while in mode nostalgia, I gave the Backsberg Pumphouse Shiraz 2011 (R95) a ‘going over’ while preparing my legendary Normandy lamb stew.
Shiraz ripens perfectly on the slopes of Simonsberg where Backsberg is situated and you can taste this in the elegant, refined structure of the wine. While not shy to show opulent fruit – think plums and mulberries, this Shiraz has a sour-cherry crunch to it as well as an enticing hint of white pepper. No, I would not rate this as a non-stop glugging wine, but though expansive and defined, it does have a very more-ish freshness.
Here in the winelands we have become awfully civilised, eschewing stodgy desserts for a cheese platter (hold the lost grapes, walnuts and Provita, please). And with cheese, one turns, again, to the sweet stuff where it must be said that South Africa makes some of the best Noble Late Harvest wines in the world.
I am very partial to the Neethlingshof The Maria 2014 (R160), a cool, energetic sweet wine made from Weisser Riesling grapes. These were, as the name ‘Noble Late’ implies, late in the season when sugar levels are loaded. The trick is to allow enough acidity to counter the sweetness so as to maintain the life and verve in the wine. Neethlingshof winemaker De Wet Viljoen gets it right, delivering a wine of true grace and beauty. Flowers, honey and rose-petals lie on the surface, while flavours of sliced papaya, pears and red apples make a wine of delicious drinkability. Serve this wine chilled and reminisce about another passing summer as the winter sets in.