A century of achievement

A former South African co-operative is making a name for itself for quality wines that offer value for money. For publication in week starting 13 November 2017. 

The year the Great War ended, in 1918, was also when Nelson Mandela was born. That same year a group of South African wine farmers founded the KWV co-operative.

Their aim was to support a young and struggling industry and they worked hard for decades. Until the early 1990s, when world markets opened to South African wine after the end of the apartheid era, KWV played a major role in regulating the domestic industry.

KWV has always been a commercial player, exporting award-winning wines from its main cellar in Paarl all over the world. It became a private company two decades ago. It has had an average of about 54 growers each year over the past half decade. In that time KWV, which stands for Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika (South African winegrowers’ co-operative), has worked hard to shed its early reputation as a maker of lower grade wines.

The focus in recent years under chief winemaker Wim Truter has been on innovation. The company produces several types of wine, but its two main lines are the Mentors and Classic ranges. The Mentors line offers the company’s winemakers a chance to innovate with trials of new grape varieties and wine styles. Lessons from there go into the Classic range, the company’s main breadwinner.

A tasting of both lines this month with Wim Truter provided a chance to appreciate the high quality of wines available from KWV.

An introduction to Laborie wines was also a pleasant surprise. In recent years this columnist has had the chance to taste sparkling wines made by South Africa’s Graham Beck and been pleasantly surprised by the quality. Beck’s cap classique (the term refers to traditional sparkling winemaking methods perfected in the Cape Town region of the country) have won awards around the world. Nelson Mandela drank the wine at his inauguration, which immediately made it an icon in the coiuntry. Michelle Obama chose this wine to mark her husband Barack’s inauguration in January 2009.

The 2010 Laborie “methode cap classique” blanc de blanc is a significant sparkling wine that would challenge some champagnes in terms of quality, yet is about half the price of equivalent-standard champagnes. As the name suggests, it is made from Chardonnay grapes. The wine spends three years on lees and the flavours of mature Chardonnay are multiplied in the glass. The only deficit in the wine is a slight lack of acid zing, a problem typical of hot climates like South Africa or Portugal or the Australian mainland. Local winemakers reliably inform me that the 2011 contains more acidity, and would be worth pursuing when released next year.

The Laborie estate has been producing fine wines since 1698, making it one of the oldest wine farms in South Africa. A French Huguenot, Isaac Taillefert, received the land that became Laborie in 1691. Within seven years Taillefert and his son Jean were producing drinkable wine. A Frenchman named M. Leguat, who visited the Cape in 1698, said their wine was “the best in the colony and similar to our small wines of Champagne”.

The Laborie 2017 Sauvignon Blanc is another impressive wine. Think fresh, zingy and balanced New Zealand savvy without the smell of cat’s urine I associate with Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. This is a wine to enjoy on a hot summer’s day (we must learn patience as winter settles in for the northern hemisphere).

One of my favourite HWV wines is their 2015 Mentors Grenache Blanc. Chief winemaker Wim Truter offered a sample of the recently-bottled 2017 and noted this wine has good acidity, similar to a young riesling. Both the bottle sample and the 2015 offered lashings of bright and fresh fruit making it a delight to drink now, yet with the potential to age like a Riesling.

The skill, Truter said, was in maturing the wine in large old barrels that gave a smoothness, even a form of creaminess, to the wine.

“Grenache Blanc is a good grape for South Africa,” he said, “because it copes well with extremes of heat and lack of rain.” Parts of the country have endured drought for some years, and water allocations will always be an issue in South Africa.

Vines in the KWV company produce about 100 tonnes of Grenache Blanc a year, close to two thirds of all this grape grown in the country. Truter, who trained at Stellenbosch University’s prestigious winemaking course, believes Grenache Blanc has great potential for producing quality wine in South Africa, a country where the dominant white grape is Chenin Blanc.

Having said that, the 2014 KWV Chenin Blanc is another tasty wine that is easy to drink yet would reward some years in the cellar. It has a pleasing complexity, the result of some months in new oak, and again lots of ripe fruit flavours. A feature of South African whites is the purity and freshness of the fruit flavours. These are wines that are easy to drink and punch well above their weight along the quality to price ratio.

Among red wines, Truter has an affection for the Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc grapes, based on bottle samples provided at our tasting. The 2016 Classic Collection Petit Verdot is a bargain wine given the lashings of fruit available in a relatively inexpensive bottle.

The 2012 Mentors Orchestra is one of KWV’s flagship wines, and shows the growing mastery of blending among the company’s winemakers. Indeed, South Africa’s winemakers, like their counterparts in Portugal, are demonstrating increasing skills in this area.

Generally about half of the Orchestra blend is Cabernet Franc with the balance an array of classic Bordeaux reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. This wine is precise, elegant and poised, yet with subdued tannins that render it approachable now. Again, in terms of the price:quality ratio it is a bargain compared with wines of similar quality from France. France should be starting to worry about the number of countries such as Portugal, Serbia and South Africa that are making excellent wine for a lot less than the French.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of England’s North-South Wines at a lunch in Brighton in November to showcase KWV wines.

Words: 1,021

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