Splendour of South Africa

The Michelangelo Awards competition attracted a truly international field, says Christine Austin.

The stunning new winery at Dornier

Just a few weeks ago I swapped our gorgeous UK summer weather for a week in a very wintry South Africa. Having completely forgotten what winter is like, I failed to pack properly and so spent most of the week wearing my coat, which helped keep off the incessant rain, but that really didn’t matter. Whatever the weather South Africa is a gorgeous place and its wines are terrific.

The purpose of my visit was to judge the Michelangelo Awards, a competition which attracts entries not just from South African wine producers but increasingly from other countries keen to have their wines recognised in international competition. I joined an equally international panel of judges from Australia, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, New Zealand, Philippines and several other places to work our way through around 1,500 wines, selecting only the best in this taste-off.

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The process was simple. Divided into five panels we blind-judged wines in varietal categories, tasting first in silence, then we were allowed to discuss our marks within our panel, working towards a consensus of opinion. Eventually, once the organisers had collated the results, and taken out the duplicates which they slipped in from time to time to test the consistency of our judging, we categorised the top wines into trophies. The results are on the website www.michelangeloawards.com

But it wasn’t all work and after a late lunch each day we headed off to various properties to taste even more wine and meet the people who make them. Delightfully, these visits included many producers which I had not visited before. Here are some of them.

The estate name, Kaapzicht translates into Cape View which is an apt description for a property in the Bottelary Hills to the west of Cape Town. Here the breeze comes straight off the Cape Bay blowing through the vineyards, keeping summer temperatures down and extending ripening times to allow flavours to develop. If it is cool in summer, can you imagine just how cold this windy hill is in winter? As we bounced up the track to the top of the hill with rain lashing down, my coat was totally inadequate to stop my teeth from chattering. Even so, as the sun briefly appeared from behind the grey clouds it was easy to see why this was a good place to grow grapes. On a perfectly drained site, the un-irrigated vines spread across the hillside, each variety selected for its aspect to the sun and shade. Most notable were the old Chenin vines, planted in the 1940s and still producing small quantities of concentrated juice. After a glass of Kaapzicht sparkling wine, which despite the biting cold tasted very good, we headed back down the hill to the warmth of a roaring fire to taste the wines in comfort.

Kaapzicht is family owned and run by the Steytler brothers Danie and George with their respective wives working the export market and Danie’s son, also called Danie, as winemaker. Their 162 hectares contains the usual range of grape varieties, with particular focus on Cabernet, Merlot and South Africa’s own grape, Pinotage. It is almost bad manners to mention one competition when judging for another, but Kaapzicht has done extremely well in the UK-based Decanter Wine Awards winning top trophy for its Pinotage. If you have previously tried Pinotage and found it somewhat heavy and reminiscent of newly tarmac-ed roads, then it is time to try it again. Kaapzicht Pinotage is packed with sweet, red berry fruit, concentrated and elegant with ripe, structuring tannins and a long finish. I tried the 2010 Kaapzicht Pinotage and loved its flavours. Martinez in Ilkley (01943 600000) has the 2009 at £13.99 but for a real experience trade up to Steytler Pinotage made from older vines and lower yields. It is aged for two years in tight-grained Alliers oak barrels which retains the wine’s fruit character and this shows in its sheer, smooth, power-packed style. Harrogate Fine Wine (01423 522270) has the 2008 Steytler Kaapzicht at £26.99 which might seem expensive, but it is excellent in style and provides a classic taste of this occasionally maligned grape. With our own winter approaching, I can also verify to its central heating qualities.

Morgenhof Estate is also family owned but this time it is the French liqueur Cointreau family who invested in this historic South African property 20 years ago. With their cash and definite French style they have restored the cluster of thatched white Cape Dutch buildings at the heart of the estate and built a new cellar. More importantly they have invested in vineyards which were easy to see as I chatted to winemaker Andries de Klerk. On one of the few non-rainy evenings of the trip we stood outside while he pointed out steep hillside vineyards which have been selected for their specific soil and coolness to bring out the best flavours in the grapes.

Sauvignon Blanc vines, planted close to the tops of the hills are used in the crisp, pineapple-edged Morgenhof Sauvignon Blanc (2009 vintage available at York Wines, 01347 878716, £11.45). The old Chenin vines have been saved and now make a honeysuckle-scented, lime-charged wine (Calder Wine Appreciation, 01924 247602, £12.20) while Merlot and Cabernet provide the backbone of the range. Head to Harrogate Fine Wine in The Ginnel to find the concentrated, blackcurrant-packed, smooth-structured Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (£16.99) the chocolate-tinged, brambly Merlot 2009 (£16.99) and the dense, spice-sprinkled, cassis and coffee flavours in Morgenhof Estate 2005 (£23.99).

Dornier Estate still has to make some impact on the UK market but the wines are good with unusual grapes such as Tempranillo and Malbec in the range. Their new winemaker Janine Faure has got into her stride and is making some excellent blends under the Donatus range. I particularly enjoyed Donatus Red, essentially Cabernet Sauvignon with Cab Franc and Malbec in the mix. If you are heading down to the Cape to avoid a Yorkshire winter visit Dornier for the stunningly designed new winery and for their excellent Bodega restaurant.

As for the Michelangelo competition, many of the winners were from producers such as Boschkloof, Laibach and Topaz who are now trying to elbow their way into the UK market and thence to Yorkshire. I hope to see them on the shelves soon.