John Platter, the man himself, has been visiting the Cape. He and writer-editor wife Erica (latterly of Durban Curry cookbook fame) flew in from KwaZulu-Natal to meet their new grandchild and attend the launch of Simonsig Estate’s new premium cabernet sauvignon, The Garland 2008.
Far be it for us to imagine what grandfatherly words he shared with the newest member of the clan, but to the Stellenbosch producers gathered at Simonsig’s celebration, he spoke frankly.
“Sharpen your axes,” he said.
Having spent much of his visit exploring the Swartland, an area that has “revolutionised” itself since he sold the wine guide that bears his name, Platter is inspired by the exciting things happening there but he doesn’t see Swartland as a threat to Stellenbosch so much as an opportunity.
“Sharpen your axes,” he repeated, “and make cabernet your signature grape variety.”
Obviously cabernet was the star of the show at the Simonsig launch – The Garland makes a big, bold statement with its R1,375/bottle price tag (and all 1,500 bottles will sell, according to the retailer guests we spoke to informally on the night). It’s a luscious wine, and big (15% alcohol by volume) but balanced – and it has a backstory.
“It’s the story of a mountain, a vineyard and a family,” says Simonsig co-owner and third-generation winemaker Johan Malan, who played in the vineyards of Knorhoek on the slopes of the Simonsberg as a child. This was the farm where his mother, Eliza van Niekerk, grew up; where his grandfather grew grapes. ‘‘I was always fascinated by these vineyards that seem to cling to the mountain slopes,” he recalls.
After embarking on his winemaking career, Malan realised that one vineyard in particular stood out – planted on weathered red granite soils about 400m above sea level; cooled by sea breezes from both False Bay and Table Bay: “It truly yields some of the finest cabernet sauvignon grapes I have ever seen. Whenever I walked up there, literally in my grandfather’s footsteps, I felt excited. I knew I HAD to try and make an iconic wine from this vineyard.”
Has he done it with The Garland? “A winemaker is never entirely satisfied with his wine,’ says Malan with typical modesty. ‘But with this one it is as close as can be.”
As for John Platter’s call for Stellenbosch producers in general to make cabernet their signature variety, in fact it comes soon after a strong endorsement from one of the foreign judges at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.
NEXT GREAT CABERNET PRODUCING NATION
“South Africa is the next great cabernet sauvignon producing nation,” opined Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, editor-in-chief of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, after tasting “some real classics that also spoke very uniquely of South Africa”.
As an international wine reviewer (focusing in particular on Australia and New Zealand), Perrotti-Brown said it was exciting to find “a country, a region, a winery that can get cabernet fully ripe and expressive and make something great of it. This doesn’t happen very often. There are so few places on the planet where you can make really great cabernet. If you do have the terroir for it and you can do it, you should do it because the world wants that.”
The results of the Trophy Show will be announced on Wednesday (27 May) and Stellenbosch’s performance in the cab category will be watched with interest. So, of course, will the region’s showing in Platter’s 2016 five star rankings, to be unveiled in November.
Stellenbosch producers account for three of the five five-star cabernets, and nine of the twelve Highly Recommended (4½ star) cabernets in the current (2015) guide. Can they maintain, perhaps even improve, their stellar form in the new edition?