12 Wines of Christmas: South Africa

In the latest instalment in his “12 Wines of Christmas” series, Peter Ranscombe looks at KWV’s top wines from South Africa.

QUANTITY and quality don’t necessarily have to sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.

As we saw with Paul Mas’ operations in the south of France, it’s possible to produce quality wines in large quantities.

Equally, having a few jewels in the crown doesn’t hurt either – Penfolds Grange, arguably Australia’s most famous wine, is underpinned by maker Treasury Wine Estate’s expertise in popular labels like Lindeman’s, Rawson’s Retreat, and Wolf Blass.

KWV, the former state-mandated monopoly that once controlled South Africa’s wine industry, took a step down that road in 2006 when it launched “The Mentors”, a range of wines made using grapes from top vineyards.

The company set up a separate winery to handle the smaller batches of grapes and began exporting the label in 2009.

Each year, the company holds a tasting to demonstrate the progress being made under the watchful eye of winemaker Izele van Blerk and – in keeping with just about every other event – last year’s unveiling took place online.

The tasting featured five wines from The Mentors core range, plus this year’s limited edition bottling, a petite sirah.

What linked all the wines was their superb value for money – you could add an extra £10 onto the price tags to get similar levels of quality from Australia or New Zealand, and perhaps a few more Hamiltons or even Jacksons for a bottle from California.

The Mentors Chenin Blanc Coastal Region 2019 (£14.95, Slurp)
The coastal region chenin is an ideal introduction to van Blerk’s winemaking philosophy – she’s experimented again and again to find the right combination of techniques for each variety from each plot. This bottle is made from a blend of grapes from the Paarl and Swartland regions, fermented in barrels, with 40% of the mix sparked off using natural yeast. There are wood smoke and cheesy notes in amongst the lemon rind, red apple skin, and apricot aromas, before the wine launches into a much fruiter mix of guava, lime, apricot, and red apple on the palate, with lots of concentrated fruit to balance the crisp acidity, which remains fresh enough to slice through cheesy scallops, like those in The Seafood Shack’s recipe for the Wine to Dine column in the main Scottish Field magazine.

The Mentors Pinotage 2018 (£16.95, Pernold Wine Cellar)
It’s rare for me to find a pinotage – especially a young one – that wins my heart, but The Mentors has done just that. It’s a really sophisticated version of what can often be a rough and ready wine. There are no burnt rubber aromas or burnt meat flavours on show here; instead, there are really attractive blackcurrant, damson, chocolate, and light wood smoke notes on the nose, and then well-integrated vanilla alongside the juicy blackberry and blackcurrant on the palate. Another complex assembly took place to create the wine, which spent 18 months in a mix of French and American oak, 70% of which was new.

The Mentors Petit Verdot 2018 (arriving next month)
“The stress of making petit verdot made me grey,” joked van Blerk – but her efforts were well worth it. It takes 45 minutes to sort 500kg of petit verdot, compared to just 15 minutes for other varieties, but it was time well spent, as there are no green aromas or flavours in the finished wine, with unripe berries having been removed on the sorting table. On the nose, there’s blackcurrant, a touch of liquorice, and a tiny hint of mint. On the palate, those flavours are joined by a lick of lusher vanilla, making it a sweeter ensemble than the pinotage.

The Mentors Canvas 2018 (£18, Cape Wine & Food)
A blend of 39% shiraz, 19% grenache, 12.5% petit sirah, 12.5% tempranillo, 12% carignan, 3% mourvèdre, and 3% tannat, made by selecting the best barrels of each variety. Van Blerk describes the wine as a Mediterranean-style blend – hence the heavy influence of Rhone favourites shiraz-syrah, grenache, carignan, and mourvèdre – and the result would certainly please Cotes du Rhone fans, with warm red cherry, blackberry, and red plum aromas and flavours, cradled in sweeter spun sugar. The tannins are meatier than in the single variety reds, but still ripe and well-integrated.

The Mentors Orchestra 2018 (arriving next month)
A winner year after year for me. Bordeaux aficionados will enjoy the blend of 33% cabernet sauvignon, 30% petit verdot, 11% cabernet franc, 10% merlot, 10% malbec, and 6% carménère – getting the whole red band back together. It has Bordeaux’s herbaceous notes on the nose, along with pencil lead, cassis, mint, and blackcurrant. On the palate, there’s a twist of fresh acidity, a graveliness to the tannins, and then a whack of the ripe black fruit flavours.

The Mentors Limited Edition Petite Sirah 2018 (£39.95, Slurp)
Following 2017’s limted edition carménère, it’s petite sirah that takes centre-stage for the 2018 release. A cross between syrah and peloursin created around 1880 by botanist Francois Durif – whose name is attached to the grape when it’s grown in Australia – petite sirah is a variety that can age for decades in a bottle, and so this first taste is simply a snapshot of its progress to date. Pronounced, extra-sweet red plum, red cherry, raspberry jam, and minty aromas bely the drier tannins waiting beneath. They’re balanced at the moment by sweet vanilla – from its eight months in French oak, 70% of which was new – but there’s also a bit of tooth clawing acidity that perhaps needs longer to calm down. What’s not in question is the concentrate black fruit flavour, hinting at its longevity. It’ll need a ribeye to show at its best just now – but that’s a great excuse to fire up the braai.

Tomorrow: the 12 wines of Christmas continue with matching tapas to Spanish wines.

In the meantime, catch up on yesterday’s article about Great British Classic Method wines, and then read more of Peter’s vinous adventures on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.