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A vineyard in Stellenbosch with a view of the Simonsberg mountain. Picture: 123RF/hpbfotos
A vineyard in Stellenbosch with a view of the Simonsberg mountain. Picture: 123RF/hpbfotos

The idea of origin — at least in matters of food and wine — is very much an Old World concept.

Centuries of agriculture connected to high-end cuisine taught the French and Italians which places produced the finest potatoes, the best cheese, the most succulent apples, the most opulent foie gras. They also learnt which regions could be relied upon to make the most consistently sophisticated wines, and which varieties performed best in those appellations.

In the New World — at least until the last few decades — brand was more important than place. In the case of wine, variety was almost as important as brand (and sometimes even considered a brand in itself). SA was never entirely a comfortable fit in the New World paradigm. In the first half of the 20th century our biggest-selling wines were generally blended brands. The exception in terms of variety, was cabernet, and in terms of origin, Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch — as an area of origin — is vastly bigger than the environs of the town: each of its wards could justly be an appellation in its own right. Various varieties also perform in more nuanced and different ways, depending on whether they are farmed on the Helderberg, or Jonkershoek, along the north side of the Simonsberg, or along the Polkadraai hills.

Coincidentally three producers — each from different parts of Stellenbosch — recently made their way to Gauteng to show their wines: Danie Steytler from Kaapzicht (Bottelary), Rudger van Wyk from Starke-Conde (Jonkershoek) and Dirk Coetzee from L’Avenir (Simonsberg-Muldersvlei).

Steytler is the fourth generation of his family to work the sometimes brutal northern slopes of the Bottelary. Like many of his generation he is breaking with the strategy of having as many wines as possible in the range. This takes some courage: theoretically the more options on your price list, the more litres of wine you can sell. Instead, he has halved the ranged and narrowed the focus to pinotage and chenin blanc, though not exclusively so.

Given the heritage assets — ancient chenin vineyards and perfect pinotage sites — the merits of this approach are obvious. There are few finer chenin blocks than the “1947” (planted by his great grandfather a year after acquiring the property and now the second-oldest chenin vineyard in the Cape) and the Kliprug, dating from 1982. The 2022 vintages of both these wines are worth chasing down, the former is superfine, intense and luminous, the latter tighter, more linear and limey, and extraordinary value at R220 per bottle.

When it comes to pinotage there’s a choice of several, from the ultra-premium Steytler made in the more traditional style, intense, blockbustery and opulent, through to the Rooiland, which comes from a vineyard planted in the 1990s on koffieklip soils. The latter is more fruit forward, delivering spicy sweet aromatics and gentler textures.

Stark-Conde, situated in the more mountainous Jonkershoek, offers winemaker Van Wyk great diversity of sites. The potential for high-quality sauvignon blanc is evident in the freshness and succulence of the wooded Round Mountain. The latest release (2022) is eminently drinkable now, though tasting it alongside the 2017 it clearly has years of life ahead of it. The same is true of the estate’s Field Blend sourced from a single vineyard planted to roussanne, chenin, verdelho and viognier. Here the fruit was harvested at the same time and co-fermented to ensure a completely harmonious and seamless marriage.

Jonkershoek has always been a source of fabulous cabernet: Stark-Conde unsurprisingly offers several different cuvées, from the standard Stellenbosch release via the Three Pines to the ultra-premium Oude Nektar, the last-mentioned sourced from a high-altitude site and made for serious cellaring. All three are old-fashioned in the best sense of the word: savoury, with evident tannins, and thoughtfully assembled.

The L’Avenir property, which lies just beyond the lower slopes of the Simonsberg, is now owned by the French Advini group. While Advini has since bought several more properties in and around Stellenbosch, it has made chenin and pinotage its focus varieties at L’Avenir.

It’s not difficult to understand why: it has some exceptional blocks of vines, including a single vineyard pinotage planted in 1994 and a fabulous chenin vineyard which is now 50 years old. L’Avenir’s pinotage is well known and has won its fair share of awards. My discovery at the recent vertical tasting of both varieties was the ageing potential of the chenin from Block 30.

The current 2021 release is almost too young, the 2020 is just getting into its stride and the 2019 is ambling gracefully to its plateau of maturity. That the 2016 is still delicately seductive says everything you need to know about its age-worthiness — and the importance of giving the best Stellenbosch old vine chenin enough time to reveal its full complexity.

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