Stel­len­bosch Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon

An in­trin­sic part of the South African wine scene, Stel­len­bosch Caber­net dis­plays a greater di­ver­sity than is cur­rently cel­e­brated by its generic im­age, says Tim Atkin MW

Decanter - - CONTENTS - Tim Atkin MW is an award-win­ning wine writer and broad­caster. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to De­can­ter

64 wines tasted Not as stel­lar as ex­pected, but Stel­len­bosch still of­fers good-value choices for Caber­net lovers

SYRAH MAY BE trendier, Cin­sault more his­toric, Pino­tage more dis­tinc­tive, but most in­formed ob­servers would agree that Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon is the Cape’s most dis­tin­guished red grape. It’s also the most planted, oc­cu­py­ing 11% of the coun­try’s vine­yards, be­hind Chenin Blanc and Colom­bard, but ahead of all the other reds.

The va­ri­ety is grown all over South Africa, but one re­gion stands out for the qual­ity and range of its Caber­net Sau­vi­gnons and Bordeaux style blends: Stel­len­bosch. The coun­try’s sec­ond-old­est wine re­gion grows plenty of other grapes too, but Caber­net is its flag­ship, partly thanks to its as­so­ci­a­tion with fa­mous es­tates such as Kanonkop, Meer­lust, Rusten­berg and Vergele­gen, but also be­cause of the qual­ity and di­ver­sity of what it pro­duces in this painterly, moun­tain­ous area.

In this way, Stel­len­bosch is South Africa’s equiv­a­lent of the Napa or Maipo Val­leys. With­out Caber­net, Stel­len­bosch wouldn’t be Stel­len­bosch. And with­out Stel­len­bosch, South Africa wouldn’t be South Africa.

Mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties

Stel­len­bosch likes to present a generic im­age, not least where Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon is con­cerned – there’s even a self-ap­pointed group called the Stel­len­bosch Caber­net Col­lec­tive – but it’s a big re­gion, with 15,252ha in to­tal, and 3,002ha of that planted to Caber­net, not all of which is equally well suited to the va­ri­ety. In other words, there is more than one Stel­len­bosch, and there is more than one Stel­len­bosch Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon. It’s not just a ques­tion of house style – De Toren and Reyneke are next door to each other, but pro­duce very dif­fer­ent red wines – it’s also a ques­tion of soil, al­ti­tude, as­pect and prox­im­ity to the cool breezes of False Bay.

Other cru­cial fac­tors are blend­ing – Caber­net is paired with the other four Bordeaux va­ri­eties (Mer­lot, Caber­net Franc, Petit Ver­dot and Mal­bec) as well as Pino­tage and Cin­sault – pick­ing dates, the age of a vine­yard (most are young) and the amount of leafroll dis­ease they con­tain. Late-sea­son va­ri­eties like Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon are much more af­fected by the virus than early-ripen­ing ones.

Of­fi­cially, Stel­len­bosch is a district made up of seven wards (see box, right) but the leg­is­la­tion doesn’t re­flect re­al­ity. The Helder­berg makes some of the re­gion’s best Caber­nets, as does Stel­len­bosch Kloof, but nei­ther is a ward. To do jus­tice to Stel­len­bosch’s sub-re­gions, Faure, Fir­grove and Som­er­set West should also be in­cluded.

That’s ar­guably the next stage for Stel­len­bosch: to move be­yond a generic mes­sage to one that names its best vine­yards. When it does, you can be sure that a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age will be planted with Caber­net.

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