It’s easy to be idealistic when your livelihood doesn’t depend on peddling wine to punters, but while I’m on my soapbox let me just ask:
Why does South African wine keep trying to hang its hat on Pinotage and other reds when we so clearly produce superlative and unique world-class whites?
In the early eighteen hundreds, more than ninety percent of Cape vineyards were planted to Semillon. Although I strongly doubt whether humble oom Koos had any ambitions of grandeur or any hope that their simple Cape grapes would ever be consumed alongside the Haut Cuisine of European courts and rather planted the pragmatically named “Groen Druif” because it was easy to grow and produced high yields, who knows, but perhaps they were onto something.
From proliferation to obscurity Groen Druif has since been ruthlessly uprooted and now barely clings on to the viticultural fringes. Although when ambitious winemakers turn their hand to this forgotten varietal it would seem they almost effortlessly make outstanding wine. A fact made evident by the remarkably high levels of five-star wines per category for almost a decade now!
Esoteric, near impossible to pronounce correctly by native Afrikaans speakers, perhaps why they renamed it, equally impossible to pronounce correctly without sounding pretentious and harder to sell than prosciutto in Palestine. Shy and reserved in its youth, Semillon refuses instant gratification and demands patience before showing its true potential.
Like Fairview‘s pet project from out in Darling, the Bloemcool Groendruif 2017: “Aromas of ripe melon, peach, and orchard blossoms give way to a delicate salinity on the palate and a near endless pithy, waxy, finish that belies what this wine is to become. It can be drunk now, but probably shouldn't be. Best served in 2 to 3 years, accompanied by an epic Sunday roast with lots of “Blomkool met Witsous”, the ultimate dinner table wine.”
After Darling, we head over to Franschhoek to taste three vintages of one of the most iconic Semillons produced in SA, Boekenhoutskloof. Fresh green and yellow apple dominate the nose on the 2016 followed by a touch of dried hay and a crisp slightly green finish. The 2010 vintage is just getting into its stride with a hint of chamomile, beeswax, and raw nuts while 2004 shows what this wine can truly achieve. Layer upon layer of fresh and dried fruit, baked quince, yellow apple, dried apricot, lavender, muesli, and honey with that beautiful mouth-coating viscosity. A fourteen-year-old white that shows freshness and elegance. Outstanding.
Moving up the Franschhoek Valley to the Dark Side of The Vine by Black Elephant Vintners & Co.’s 113-year-old block, planted back when Groen druif was king, on its own rootstock no less, ask a Somm if you don’t know, it’s a really big deal. Denser, more concentrated, richer and more expressive with dried herbs and loads of fresh orange.
Out on the outskirts of civilization, well past the Swartland, another wine from historic vines, part of the Cape of Good Hope range, Anthonij Rupert Wyne Kaap de Goede Hoop Laing Groendruif 2015 from Citrusdalberg shows the most incredible contrast of ripeness and zippy acidity thanks to warm days and mercifully cold nights. Perfumed white melon and vanilla, grippy with a slight hint of gingerbread.
Coming back inland our next stop is Elgin with the exquisite Botanica Wines Mary Delany Semillon 2017. Paying homage to its cool climate, the wine is delicately perfumed with bergamot and earl grey over yellow apple, fresh orange juice and lime before giving way to roasted nuts, a hint of sweet potato, toffee, butterscotch, and sweet spice all held together by the most incredibly textured waxy mouthfeel. Outstanding.
Going further up the South Coast Arcangeli Wines sources the grapes, for what is arguably the most drinkable wine in the flight, from the Hemel-en-Aarde-Ridge. Taking full advantage of Semillons natural acidity, affinity for a little skin contact and showing more than a little kinship with Swartland Chenin. The wine is partially skin fermented, mostly left to its own devices and allowed to develop into a nuanced bouquet of granny smith apples, baked pineapple and butter roasted button mushrooms over a blissfully dusty textured palate.
From a plethora of straight varietals, we move onto the lesser known, other Bordeaux style blend… Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. With mortgages to pay and kids to feed few winemakers are immune to market demands and too often a perfectly good Semillon harvest can be sullied by commercial pressure. Harvested too early Semillon for all its potential can easily be mistaken for thin insipid generic Sauvignon, albeit with a harder to punt title, easily remedied by blending in some common grape and slapping Sauv on the label. Sadly an all too common phenomenon, compounding the worst of both. But when these two noble grapes are coaxed to their highest potential the whole is very often much more than the sum of its parts.
Fast forward three weeks and it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. Sunday lunch with the family and I’ve brought the wine! Groot Constantia Gouverneurs Reserve White 2016 and Naudé Semillon 2016.
Not being ones for subtle nuance and delicate bouquets it knew it would be a struggle to relegate the Grand Cru Dooswyn and thus hastily scribbled a tasting note on a piece of paper. “These wines are so good even a child can pick up the basic flavour profile”, I proclaim grabbing a glass of the Gouverneurs Reserve and the nearest ten-year-old.
What does this smell like?
Confused and a little scared she brings the wine to her nose with two hands all the while making direct eye contact with granny. “It smells nice, like summer, like rolling on grass”, thanks Jen, just grass will do, “and a bit ew, like beans, like green beans, with fruit”. Enlightening, ew, and fruit, what fruit? “I don’t know, like a juice box”. Ehm… how about colour? What colour is the juice? “White, definitely white”. Peaches? “Yes, peaches, and a bit of braai”. Braaied juice box, nice. I don’t think the WSET would accept that but it does prove my point.
Very chuffed with herself I remove the wine from sticky fingers before she starts assessing the palate and smugly do so myself.
Delicate aromas of summer and ew give way to concentrated juice box with a touch freshly lit braai. The palate is uncannily both creamy, zippy and precise with a long savoury finish of roasted root vegetable and now I cannot get juice box out of my head.
We end off an epic Sunday roast with a little Naudé. Aromas of lemon, green cardamom, papaya, and potpourri give way to a delicately waxy palate, a full mouthfeel, just a bit of grip and enough zing to make this the perfect partner to food. Bust out the decanter, serve well chilled, not ice cold, in a big glass, with a lazy Sunday roast and lots of summer vegetables.