Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon

In a virtual tasting entitled, ‘Think world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, think Stellenbosch’, seven examples of premium Cabernet Sauvignon were tasted. All came from Stellenbosch, South Africa’s largest Wine of Origin region, and home to more than a third of the Cape’s wineries. It also has the largest vineyard area under Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa.

In recent years a lot of attention has been focused on other red varieties, specifically on Syrah from the trending Swartland and Pinot Noir from the cooler coasts of Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin. But I’m on record several times here on wine-pages reminding readers that the historic Wineland areas like Stellebosch, Paarl and Franschhoek have not been treading water: that winemakers there are using some of the country’s best and oldest vineyards to fashion some really interesting wines.

This tasting set out with the bold statement that the Cabernets of Stellenbosch are world-class. Certainly the terroir here suggests that’s entirely possible, enjoying a coastal-influenced climate that is generally Mediterranean, with sea breezes and the slopes of the region’s various mountains and hills introducing altitude and extra cooling influences. Soils are a mixture of granite, sandstone and shale, generally poor soils that are ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon.

All of the wines here are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. In Bordeaux and many other regions, the later-ripening and sometimes rather austere Cabernet is blended with a softening dollop of Merlot or another variety. I was struck not only by the full fruit ripeness of these wines, but a certain lift and fragrant character that many of them shared.

The Wines

(2022) From the decomposed granite of the Polkadraai Hills, a cooler pocket that often harvests three weeks later than the rest of Stellenbosch. Vines rise from 200 - 240 metres above sea level and are aged 31 to 33 years old. It spent 18 months in new and used French oak barrels. Somewhere between ruby and crimson in colour, there's lots of ripe, quite buoyant black and red fruit here; not so much cassis as blueberry and sweet plum, a touch of incense-like, floral lift. In the mouth it is dry and savoury, lots of structure here with grippy, sandy tannins and a keen line of acidity, the plummy and dark fruit re-asserting into a long, spicy and savoury finish.
(2022) From the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, Blue Lady is a selection of the best Cabernet Sauvignon from French oak barrels (25% new), where it has been aged for 27 months. Super-heavy statement bottle, the colour is a crimson-black. Again there's a ripe, buoyant feel to the fruit here, blueberry and blackcurrant, but a nice floral edge and slightly exotic spiciness. Ripe and mouth-filling fruit, there's a little more flesh and succulence, but again drying, fine tannins push through the finish, the extra year on this 2017 has perhaps helped to smooth the texture and finish, where acid, tannin and fruit are in very nice balance. Powerful.
(2022) From the dome-shaped Rondekop hill in the small, cool, elevated Ward of Banghoek, only 4,200 bottles of this wine were produced. It spent 18 months in 225l and 300l French oak barrels (40% new). Another dark and dense crimson wine, there is blackcurrant and firm cherry fruit, a little suggestion of graphite on the nose, the oak subtle and adding a touch of cedar. On the palate a very pure fruitiness here. Savoury and dry, the fine tannins really coat the mouth suggesting this will benefit from some time in the cellar. Spices and grippy acidity too, but that intense, pure fruit runs very nicely into a long finish.
(2022) Rust en Vrede specialise in Cabernet Sauvignon, which comprises 60% of their Helderberg vineyards. Soils are granite and Table Mountain sandstone. with small deposits of ironstone. The wine was matured in French oak 300-litre barrels (20% new) for 18 months. Quite a vibrant colour, and into the pure cassis fruit, a very nice quality of oak here adding a touch of coffee and cream, but there is a gravelly, lightly ashy quality in there too. On the palate there is a refined, bright edge to this, partly from its very crisp acidity and tight tannins, but the fruit quality and that fine oak quality gives a long, classy finish.
(2022) Also from the decomposed granite slopes of the Helderberg, at 270 to 300 metres above sea level. It aged 26 months in French oak barrels (70% new). Deep crimson edged with ruby, and what an attractive nose, there's an exotic Sandalwood and almost Lily-like touch of florality, over fruit that spans juicy red plum to firmer black fruits. Rounded, sweet and harmonious on the palate, there is loads of spice here, a depth of coffeeish oak, but the supple weight and concentration of fruit plays against crunchy tannins and acidity for a very impressive, powerful, ripe and vivid rendition of Cabernet. Please note price and stockist quoted are for a magnum (1.5l) and an earlier vintage.
(2022) A third wine from the Helderberg, mostly from estate fruit with a little contract fruit in the blend, it spent 19 months in French oak barrels (40% new). A lovely little whiff of peppery herbal character here, before copious black fruit that is firm and savoury, touched by olive and polished wood. In the mouth plenty of blackcurrant and spicy Asian dried plum giving more savouriness. A very firm edge to tannins and acidity on this one, just softened by a little mocha character from the barrel, and a long, fruit-dominated finish.
(2022) A wine from various sub-zones including the Helderberg Coast, Jonkershoek and Simonsberg, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon which was matured for 24 Months in 225L French oak barrels, 76% new. There's a complex mix of soils including decomposed granite, shale and clay, with vineyards rising from 100 to 325 metres. Vineyards between 10 and 24 years old. Vivid and dark in colour, a really intense, graphite-touched nose of concentrated and tightly-wound black fruit, a real Pauillac-like character here, but a blueberry density of fruit too. So sweet and plush on the palate, layers of blue-black fruit, creaminess and fabulously juicy character sit over ripe, chocolate-rich tannins and beautifully judged acidity. The smoky swirl of the barrels adds a layer beneath, in a fabulous wine of endless length.

4 comments

  1. Love South African Wines and WA Cabernet, tonight we had a Stellenrust Chenin Blanc and Warwick Professor Black Cabernet Sauvingon,
    Interestingly, you mention the Houghton vines link to great WA Cab Sauv.
    In the 1980s I lived in WA and Houghton’s also were famous for developing Houghton’s White Burgundy which was actually a Chenin Blanc.
    Houghton’s Jack Mann Cab Sauv is one of the best.
    Xanadu is very good Cab Sauv, as are Vasse Felix Heytesbury and Moss Wood

    1. Cheers David. Agree with all your reccos for WA, and yes: I used to buy the Houghton’s ‘HWB’ regularly from Oddbins in the 90s – that was the new name when the EU prohibited them from labelling it ‘Burgundy’ – excellent wine.

    1. Thanks John. I’m a big fan of South African wine, but Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t always spring to mind, so great to be reminded how good they can be.

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