If you happened to be in Stellenbosch two weekends ago and wondered why the wind was whipping through empty streets and the town felt empty and desolate, then here’s your explanation: for three days Stellenbosch went north, decamping en masse to The Wanderers, as the Stellenbosch Wine Festival went one step beyond the takeover of The V&A Waterfront earlier this year and launched a cheerful invasion of Johannesburg.
And invasion is the right word. 50 of the big-name estates – Alto, Le Riche, Middelvlei, Overgauw, Muratie, Beyerskloof, Lanzerac, Neethlingshof and 42 others – combined for a show of winemaking force, emphasised by the presence of rock star winemakers. From Waterford’s Kevin Arnold, looking as always like Ralph Lauren’s younger brother, to the smiling barrel of winemaking brilliance that is Danie Steytler from Kaapzicht, this was a wine festival with an important edge: not just some of South Africa’s best wine but, for the most part, the chance to meet the people who make it.
Unsurprisingly, then, The Wanderers had a full house; not uncomfortably so, but enough to give a buzz and an energy to the assembled wine lovers. Groups to taste the wine on show, but also to meet the people behind it, adding a richly personal level to the festival’s interaction. There’s a genius to winemaking that I’m not sure I’ll ever totally understand: the ability to take a parcel of grapes and work the alchemy that somehow gives us that perfect glass.
There were many of those perfect glasses poured over the weekend. With 250-odd wines to taste, there was only so much one could get through, no matter how dedicated to the tasting cause – but there was a smattering of highlights. Kaapzicht’s Kliprug chenin blanc matched the sunshine of the weekend: crisp, fresh mouthfuls of fruit with a lovely balance. Then there was Middelvlei’s Momberg, a rich Cape blend with a touch of smoke that still manages a lightness of touch, paying tribute to a family stalwart. With the Bellevue pinotage, the heritage of the vines translates to a polished example of the grape.
Dozens more examples clamour for attention, but I’ll leave you with one more – and not just for the wine. The Three Pines cabernet sauvignon has long been a favourite of mine, the corner of the Jonkershoek Valley that is Stark Condé consistently producing an outstanding wine that mostly ends up abroad. Tasting it in South Africa is a treat; doing so with Mahalia Kotjane made it even more memorable. Just 29, Mahalia is part of a much-needed new generation of South African winemakers. Mahalia has spent time across the Winelands (and in France), served as part of the Cape Winemakers Guild protégé program, and is now assistant winemaker at Stark Condé.
We’ll hear a lot more from Mahalia in the coming years, I have no doubt – as we will see a lot more Stellenbosch beyond the boundaries of the Winelands. The Stellenbosch Wine Route has its 50th anniversary on the horizon, and with a nomination as International Wine Region of the Year highlighting the rise of Stellenbosch on the global wine radar, the heartbeat of the South African industry is in a good place. And it has a new army of supporters in Johannesburg, based on last weekend – having been spoilt by great food, fantastic music and some exceptional wine at the festival, it’s not hard to see why.
What I’m drinking this week: I hosted the Michelangelo Awards for the first time two weeks ago, a huge celebration of wine and spirits overseen by a large panel of international judges. Many winners had cause to celebrate through the night, but take particular note of the Sauvignon Blanc Trophy winner: the 2019 offering from Arabella in Robertson. The point to make here is the price: depending on where you’re buying it, you’re unlikely to pay more than R60 for a bottle that the judges collectively decided was the best sauvignon blanc from amongst the entries – and this was the biggest class to vote on. It’s not always the most expensive wine that’s the best…