The Rise of Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon | Wine Enthusiast
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The Rise of Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon

Think Cabernet Sauvignon, and your mind likely takes you to Bordeaux, Napa or maybe even Australia. Chances are, South Africa is not even on your Cab radar.

But it should be.

While South Africa has a long history with Cabernet Sauvignon, both as a varietal and blended wine, it’s never been highlighted as a star grape of the country. Highly rated examples abound, especially Stellenbosch-based bottlings like those from Le Riche, Rust en Vrede, Rustenberg and Waterford. However, South African Cabernet Sauvignon was never firmly identified as a consistent exemplar on the international wine stage.

Four pairs of Stellenbosch Cab Sauvs bottles on shelves
Image courtesy of Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective

The newly formed Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective (SCC) is on a mission to change that. Working closely with the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, the SCC seeks to globally promote the region’s Cabernet Sauvignons made from at least 85% of the variety.

It makes sense that such an initiative would come from the Stellenbosch appellation. South Africa’s largest Wine of Origin (WO) area, the region is home to more than a third of the Cape’s wineries, and it enjoys a reputation as a producer of high-quality bottlings.

“Stellenbosch has been producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon for generations, but sadly, it has lacked a collective voice,” says Christo le Riche, winemaker and director at Le Riche Wines and chairman of the SCC. “Our goal is to be the voice of the industry and relay a singular message, one which speaks to the quality and legacy of Stellenbosch Cabernet.

“I believe our mountains, well-drained soils with low vigor and oceanic proximity all play a significant role in this success, producing a style that is unique and expressive of the variety.”

Beyond the caliber of Cabernet Sauvignon produced in Stellenbosch, the wines also represent tremendous value. Though not necessarily cheap, the wines are typically offered at a fraction of the price of other comparable international bottlings.

Man pouring Cabernet Sauvignon into a glass at a wine tasting
Photo courtesy of Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective

The SCC launched during Wines of South Africa’s Cape Wine show in September 2018. The group’s 30 members will work to define the region’s identity by formalizing Stellenbosch’s flagship variety.

“Cabernet is a standard-bearer for Stellenbosch, more so than for any other South African region,” says Alastair Rimmer, cellar master at Kleine Zalze, a member of the SCC. “The wines are relevant to a global quality discussion. If you consider Bordeaux and Napa the poles, Stellenbosch is right in the middle, offering something for everyone, including lovers of both ends of the spectrum.”

The SCC plans to use marketing within South Africa and abroad to promote the region’s varietal wines.

The group’s first major public event will be a 2017 Cabernet Vintage Preview, scheduled for October 19–20 at the historic Lanzerac Estate in Stellenbosch. There, attendees can taste through 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon barrel samples from 25 member estates, as well as attend an international Cabernet Sauvignon masterclass.

White men pouring Cabernet Sauvignon into glasses at a wine tasting
Photo courtesy of Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective

How Stellenbosch’s 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage is showing

Though many of the vintage’s wines have yet to be released, the 2017 vintage is already regaled as one of South Africa’s best, even on the heels of the widely successful 2015 vintage.

Many winemakers were at first apprehensive, as 2016 was difficult in the aftermath of the 2015 drought. Following some light rain in late 2016, conditions were warm and dry through mid-February 2017, and then cooled down through mid-March, with no real extended heat spikes. This led to very even ripening conditions in Stellenbosch.

“The ‘17s have got the ripeness of the vintage, which I believe is to do with the dry conditions, but the tannins are a bit grainy, so they’re not as svelte or sexy as the ‘15s,” says Rimmer. “There’s a real edge to these wines that, as young Cabernets, are super exciting.”

Le Riche agrees. “[The 2017 vintage] fashioned wines that express their origin in its purest form,” he says. “Fine, ripe tannins with pure, expressive fruit, freshness and length. The drought caused the vines to produce lower yields and small berries, giving the natural concentration one would expect from a great vintage.”

Wine Enthusiast had the opportunity to blind taste and review 2017 barrel samples from SCC members. The wines showed remarkably well, with superb structures and surprising balance given their youth, thanks to vibrant, assertive and ripe fruit profiles. Few bottlings exhibited overripe fruit, assertive green notes or pyrazine characteristics.

For a glimpse of what’s likely to come once the wines start to be released over the next 12 months, read our reviews for the top wines tasted below. As is our policy for barrel-sample wine reviews not yet finalized and/or released, scores are expressed in point ranges.

93–95 Kleine Zalze 2017 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This is intensely herbal and vibrant on the nose, with prominent notes of cigar tobacco, mint, black licorice, chicory and heavily steeped black tea atop a tight fruit core of cassis and black plum. It’s dense, dark, firm and brooding in character, as the palate follows suit from the bouquet in a seamless fashion. Super tense and direct at the moment, it boasts abundant black fruit and plentiful spice characteristics that are supported by bright black-currant acidity and a framework of supporting yet not overly gripping tannins. Despite its power, it’s quite sexy in feel, well balanced among all its strong elements with an endless finish. A powerhouse for long-term enjoyment that will continue to evolve and impress.

92–94 Bartinney 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. Fresh herbal tones are upfront on the bouquet of this wine, with waves of bay and thyme as well as crushed violets atop the ripe cassis, blackberry and plum core. Lovely notes of licorice and mentholated fynbos reminiscent of rooibos tea are fresh and inviting. It’s full in weight and structure, but with great focus and precision. Gorgeous, bountiful ripe black fruit floods the palate, with structured yet not overbearing tannins and ample acidity to balance. Well integrated and harmonious, this is big yet not overblown, and it will age well over the long term.

92–94 Kanonkop 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. Medium-intense aromas of black plum and cherry are at the core of this wine’s bouquet, with top notes of crushed violet, mint and bittersweet cocoa. The palate is quite bold and mouthfilling, with firm tannins that lend a serious, gripping structure. The fruit returns to carry the initial close, followed closely by secondary hints of sweet spice, cigar box and tilled earth. Everything is there, though you can tell it’s still reserved and not quite as expressive as it wants to be, or will be with time. This will be one for medium- to long-term aging.

92–94 Simonsig 2017 The Garland Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lovely char and smoky, toasty oak tones atop the dense black-fruit core of this wine, with some notes of singed herbs and black tea as well. Black berry and plum preside over all, with a vibrant dried-orange-peel accent on the back of the nose. Bold tannins provide a firm, gripping structure to the ripe and abundantly plush black fruit flavors of plum, cassis, boysenberry and blackberry that flood the palate. Ample oak influence lends additional spice and woody structure, though not in an overly aggressive or overpowering manor. This should continue to mature and evolve well over the long term.

92–94 Thelema 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine already shows good balance and integration, with direct, medium-intense dark fruit aromas partnered with beautiful aspects of crushed violets, iris and lavender. Those earthy characteristics are joined by notes of licorice, whole baking spice and black tea on the palate, grounded by just-ripe black cherry and plum fruit. It’s medium-plus in weight, with a plush, velvety texture that’s surprisingly harmonious and attractive at present. Overall, it’s a beautiful package that should show its real stuffing in a few more years’ time and through the long term, though it will be hard to resist in its youth.

91–93 Alto 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. This opens with super-bright fruit expression, offering waves of black cherry, currant and mashed blackberry. The oak is there, with plenty of vanilla and cigar-box spice, but it’s well-integrated into the package. A lovely crushed-violet character complements the ripe, vibrant black-fruit tones. It’s medium-plus in weight, with ample acidity and elegantly structured tannins that perfectly frame the fruit core. With superb balance and length, this is ideal for medium-term aging.

Two bottles of Rust en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon on a table
Photo courtesy of Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective

91–93 Rust en Vrede 2017 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. A lovely elegance and refinement is already noticeable in this wine. It opens with just-ripe notes of spiced red cherry, brambly berry and boysenberry. Those tones carry through to the palate, showing good freshness and restraint of any overt jamminess, with a pleasant overlay of judicious wood spice, zippy cinnamon and whole clove. It’s medium-plus in weight, with a seductive crushed-velvet texture that is already integrated and harmonious. Ample fruit intensity carries the abundant spice on the palate and through the lingering finish. While it will be hard to resist while young, it should age well over the medium term.

91–93 Rustenberg 2017 Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine shows nice concentration and aromatic depth on the nose, with abundant scents of crushed violet, brambly berry, plum and cherry, with a cigar-box accent in the background. Plush and generous in feel, the palate is quite expressive and bold in nature, with a dense, concentrated black-fruit character and a touch of spicy warmth, all framed by medium-plus tannins that lend good grip and framing to the ripe fruit core. It should continue to harmonize and coalesce well over the medium- to long-term, to more uniformly express itself across nose and mouth, and develop further complexity.

91–93 Stark-Condé 2017 Oude Nektar Cabernet Sauvignon. Plush and ripe-fruited, this seductive wine already boasts a fair amount of lush black-cherry and plum characters, with additional glimmers of chocolate-cherry cake, boysenberry and fresh, snappy blackberry. In the back, soft sweet spice and herbal tones of tree bark, chicory and cigar-box mingle harmoniously with the fruit core, yet nothing is too flashy or overpowering. It’s ripe and fruity, but balanced by solid earthy and herbal lifts of blackcurrant leaf and purple flowers. The plush, creamy mouthfeel is balanced by ample acidity and a velvety tannic structure. Thanks to its balance, power and already present harmony, this shows a ton of potential for great evolution and added complexity over the long term.

90–92 Delaire Graff 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Currently a bit shy and reserved on the nose, this offers hints of tobacco leaf and leather atop abundant dark-fruit scents. The fruit is more skin-driven than fleshy in nature, like black cherry and plum skins. Bold and structured, it shows good spice and ripe fruit on the medium-plus palate, though again, not in a flashy or fleshy aspect. The rich oak notes are still quite pronounced, but should mellow and integrate further into the fruity core with time.

90–92 Ernie Els 2017 Proprietor’s Cabernet Sauvignon. This is currently very fresh and primary, with lifted blackberry, plum and cherry fruit at the fore. There’s a pronounced purple-floral aspect, with hints of earth, mint and baking spice in the background. The palate is a beast, with an aggressive structure and firm tannins that have yet to resolve and harmonize, but it also shows a powerful fruit core of ripe black fruit that will complement and ground the wine’s strength. It closes with similar intensity, as notes of plum skin, currant and Thin Mint linger long.

90–92 Glenelly 2017 Glass Collection Cabernet Sauvignon. This is herbal, minty and earthy upfront, with forward notes of fresh herbs, fynbos and eucalyptus that ride atop plenty of crunchy black-currant and boysenberry fruit. Medium-plus in weight, it boasts a smooth midpalate and abundant, structured tannins that lend grip and length through the close. It’s a well-balanced, layered wine with a pronounced freshness to the finish, thanks to the herbal inflections despite the dry, structured grip. This should age well over the medium term.

Line of four wine glasses at a wine tasting, each with deep red wine
Photo courtesy of Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective

90–92 Kaapzicht 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. Plush and dense in character, this offers bold, muddled blackberry and currant fruit currently with prominent herbal tones of licorice, mentholated herbs and sweet spice. There are also hints of black tea and burnt sage in the background. It’s seductive and rich in feel, with a crushed velvet texture that comes across as suave and sexy. Suave tannins frame the ripe fruits, while lingering notes of pepper, cocoa and woodspice carry on long through the finish, with a lick of graphite.

90–92 Lanzerac 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. This is like a spiced German chocolate cake at the moment, with assertive woodspice and dusty cocoa tones that sit atop a dense black-fruit core. Rich black raspberry and cherry are at the fore, slightly lifted and warm, but not obnoxious. Plush in feel, it offers a texture like crushed velvet with overt richness and a bit of warmth on the palate, again with the oak tones currently at the front of the experience. Bold and powerful, it needs time to further coalesce and let the fruit and subtler earthy tones rise to the toasty oak influence.

90–92 Le Riche 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. At the moment, this wine is quiet and reserved in aroma, with subtle notes of crushed African violet and tight, crunchy black-currant fruit at the center. Delicate earthy notes of tree bark, cherry stem and baking spice unfold in the background with time. It’s medium in weight, with initially overt spicy tones that settle well into the fruity core that unfolds on the palate. The finish is surprisingly juicy and vibrant, with well-integrated tannins and a satiny texture. For medium-term aging.

90–92 Neil Ellis 2017 Jonkershoek Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s a pronounced herbal character to the nose of this wine, with notes of fresh tobacco, cherry stem and tomato and black currant leaf atop the black fruit-skin core. It’s bold and firm in both weight and structure. It exhibits more fleshiness on the palate, highlighted in concentrated waves of rich black plum, currant and berry flavors. Seductive tones of sweet oak, cocoa powder and licorice root hang on to the finish. Lingering notes of cigar box and earthy spice grace through close. This should hold well for medium-term aging.

90–92 Waterford 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. This is very quiet and shy at the moment, as it doesn’t offer any overly aggressive or overt fruit tones. Instead, more subtle blackberry and cassis tones have an herbal, licorice-like lift, with touches of oak and Asian spice on top. Crunchy, fresh blackberry and plum flavors unfold on the medium-weight palate with some lingering notes of cigar box, leather and licorice root on the enduring finish. It’s surprisingly accessible and harmonized right now, though again, it’s still quite shy in nature. It will round out and express more depth and complexity with additional time in the cellar.

89–91 Neethlingshof 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Pretty floral tones are upfront here, expressed in layers of crushed violet petals and baby’s breath atop plush raspberry, boysenberry and black cherry fruit. Notes of sweet spice dance in the back, with a brambly character that’s so likeable and produces a suave and seductive bouquet overall. This boasts a medium-weight palate, with well-integrated tannins and ample acidity that yields a harmonious package that’s smooth yet structured and refined in nature. A pronounced sweet-oak, vanilla-bean character leads the finish, though it doesn’t overpower the fruit and structure. Hold for medium-term aging.

Line of wine glasses with deep red wine in them
Photo courtesy of Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective

89–91 Warwick 2017 Blue Lady Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s a typicity to the nose of this Cabernet, with pure, crisp cassis and black plum characteristics at the fore. It’s still quite reserved and closed, but you can tell that the stuffing is just waiting to shine with a bit more age and maturation. A lovely overlay of delicate woodspice, cigar tobacco and earthy licorice adds depth to the palate and through the close. It’s medium in weight, with plush tannins and a solid structure.

88–90 Mooiplaas 2017 Tabakland Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is currently on the riper, richer end of the spectrum, with plush, ripe and somewhat jammy dark fruit aromas—raspberry, boysenberry and blackberry—married to seductive sweet spice, cocoa and spice cake tones. The palate is a touch lifted and dried in character, with a hint of licorice in the background. Medium-plus in weight, the tannins are fairly pronounced at this point, though they don’t linger too aggressively on the finish. There’s just enough acidity to lift the dense fruit flavors, with a solid licorice and stemmy, herbal presence that graces the medium-length close.

88–90 Spier 2017 21 Gables Cabernet Sauvignon. A slightly dry, fruit skin-like quality is upfront on the bouquet, with additional scents of minty herbs. thyme and blackcurrant leaf atop the core of just-ripe blackberry and cherry tones. The medium-weight mouthfeel offers gripping tannins that still need time to integrate harmoniously, which will allow the fruit to shine a bit more abundantly over the firm structure and oak-spice tones.

88–90 Webersburg 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon. Currently flashy, woody and spicy upfront, this opens with a pronounced oak character and waves of licorice and sweet spice that dominate the jammy notes of cherry sauce and plum preserves. Medium-plus in weight, the black berry and plum fruit shows more of its soul on the palate, though it’s also still overshadowed by the assertive wood aging. Medium acidity and firm tannins provide ample structure to the ripe fruit characteristics, while decadent notes of toasted oak and caramel carry the close. This is for near- to medium-term enjoyment.

87–89 Muratie 2017 Martin Melck Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This shows a pronounced acetone and green, herbal characteristic on the nose. It’s warm and slightly sharp in feel, with scents of dried cherry, red plum and a touch of tomato leaf in the background. The medium-weight palate offers good vibrancy and feels surprisingly light on its feet, though it’s countered by a raw, green wood character that remains on the close.

87–89 Oldenburg 2017 Rondekop Per Se Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine’s bouquet starts off a touch lifted, with pronounced tones of dried blackberry, black raspberry and cherry all dusted with bittersweet cocoa powder. It’s a bit warm and overly woody right now. The huge, firmly structured palate boasts prominent tones of toasty oak and pencil shavings that remain through the finish and overshadow the fruit flavors.

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