Going around the blend

There are very few stand-alone examples – Boekenhoutskloof, Fairview, Constantia Uitsig, Steenberg, Anthonij Rupert, Fleur du Cap and David Nieuwoudt spring to mind – and Semillon tends to be the “lesser” partner in most Bordeaux style blends, although it definitely contributes a herbal edge to Sauvignon Blanc. Of the best known Bordeaux style blends, Newton Johnson Resonance has 16%, Cape Point Isleidh has 25% Semillon, Tokara Director’s Reserve 26%, Constantia Glen Two 29% and Chamonix Reserve White and Steenberg Magna Carta 40% each. Ever the maverick, André van Rensburg takes a different tack, using 56% Semillon in his Vergelegen GVB White. Why?

Andre van Rensburg

Andre van Rensburg

“Paradoxically, it makes my wine more accessible at an earlier stage, but it also keeps well because it has a low pH. And it’s a bit less Sauvignon.”

HEADING TO THE MED

Mediterranean white blends are a much more diverse category. The pool of grapes that goes into them includes Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Verdelho, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Palomino, Muscat, Chardonnay and (a little confusingly) Semillon, which is also used for Bordeaux blends. Chenin, as I’ve mentioned, is at the core of many of these wines, partly because there is so much of it. Like Semillon, it is an old Cape grape, but it has fared rather better in terms of its survival. There is only 51ha of Roussanne in South Africa for example, and a more meager 9.53ha of Marsanne.

BLENDING BIRTHPLACE

The heart of the Mediterranean white blend movement lies in the Swartland – an area that was rediscovered by Charles Back of Fairview, who released his first wines under the Spice Route label in 1998, using the then-unknown Eben Sadie as his winemaker. The irony here was that Back was originally alerted to the potential of the region by the quality of a Sauvignon Blanc he tasted from a local Swartland co-operative, rather than a Mediterranean grape.

Chris Alheit

Chris Alheit

Sadie himself, a passionate, almost obsessive winemaker, remains the most important figure in the world of Mediterranean white blends. He makes a couple of varietal old vine Chenin Blancs, Mev Kirsten and Skurfberg, but his other whites are all blends of one type or another: Kokerboem (Semillon and Semillon Gris), ‘T Voetpad (Chenin, Semillon, Muscat and Palomino), Skerpioen (Palomino and Chenin Blanc) and Palladius (Chenin Blanc with nine other grapes). Despite his love of Semillon – as much for its history as its role in Bordeaux blends with Sauvignon Blanc – Sadie thinks that Mediterranean grapes are the way forward for the Cape’s warmer regions.

“South Africa’s conditions are generally much closer to those of Spain, Portugal or southern Italy than they are to those of France. Rabat is further from the Equator than Stellenbosch is, so why aren’t we looking at the grapes they grow in Morocco? The Cape has suffered from Bordeaux-itis for too long, and it’s a very severe virus. You need to plant what really belongs in any given area, not what others tell you.” Sadie has inspired a generation of younger winemakers to produce Mediterranean blends, both white and red. These include Donovan Rall, David Sadie (no relation), Chris and Andrea Mullineux, John Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters, Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon, Paul Nicholls and Rebecca Tanner of Fable Mountain Vineyards, Alex Starey of Keermont, Niël Groenewald of Bellingham and, of course, Chris Alheit from Alheit Vineyards.

Duncan Savage

Duncan Savage

Tellingly, Alheit describes Sadie as the person who “changed the game completely in South Africa. He’s the most important ever winemaker in the Cape.” Some would argue that for a man who is still in his early thirties, he’s not done so badly himself. Now in its third vintage, Cartology continues to deliver the goods, as do many South African white blends.

• All winemaker photographs in this article courtesy of Tim Atkin MW

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