SASA Benchmark Series

Benchmark Series - Merlot Edition

On Monday 15 April James Downes from Shannon Vineyards in Elgin ventured across the mountain range to Somm’s home venue at The Woodmill Lifestyle Centre in Stellenbosch to bestow merlot wisdom on the members of the South African Sommelier Association. James presented statistics, explained the difficulties and possibilities in working with such a fickle yet potential grape and showcased the evolution in his own wines made from the grape in comparable vintages.

What is merlot and where does it come from? Why does it have a reputation of being soft, round and textured yet it makes some of the most expensive and age-worthy wines in the world, like the famed Château Petrus? Firstly, to set records straight, Merlot is a bastard, a little bit like Jon Snow from the Game of Thrones. One of the parents is Cabernet Franc, the other is an obscure and unnamed variety from Brittany in northern France. Nowadays, Merlot is the second most planted grape intended for winemaking in the world, coming shortly after its sibling Cabernet Sauvignon. The most prime examples are still thought to come from its home region, Bordeaux, more specifically from Pomerol on the right bank where about 80% of the plantings are made up by Merlot.

Merlot has for long been frowned upon for pleasing the mainstream market but providing little intellectual stimulation for the consumer. But like Pinot Noir, Merlot is difficult to work with from a viticultural perspective, and only just less fashionable than the former. It has a tendency to be too vigorous in fertile conditions, yet it tends to produce the best wines in soils that contain a good portion of clay which often equals vigour in South Africa. Managing the canopy and the crop levels are key to producing high-quality fruit without the highly disapproved green characters that can otherwise appear in the wine.

The first flight focused on maritime and cool climate expressions of single varietal merlot. Contextually the wines from Elgin showed great depth, yet brightness, but with low and fine fruit tannin. Constantia has a similarity to Elgin in the sense of low and fine levels of tannin but still possess a darker fruit profile than the comparative Elgin fruit. Durbanville showed a dark fruit profile with a naturally higher fruit tannin than the other regions. There is potential here, if the vinification changes from focusing on the classic fruit-forward and early drinking style of merlot to something a bit more daring.

The second flight explored warmer and more continental climate conditions as well as blends with a merlot dominance, together with some international examples for comparison. In this particular context, Stellenbosch fruit seemed to lack a bit in freshness unless the grapes were grown at altitude, one of the best performers happened to be Rainbow’s End Merlot 2017 high up in the Banghoek Valley. A very serious example was the Holden Manz Merlot Reserve 2015 with incredible structure from both fruit and wood with a classic savouriness that will only get better over the next 10-15 years. If anyone manages to keep any bottles back until then, they will most likely be rewarded.

The following tasting notes were done with the assistance of Coravin for the wines that were available at the time of the assessments.

Shannon Mount Bullet 2016
Such a smart wine. Seductive. Bright and complex red fruit notes with noticeable cranberry and underlying dark and broody notes, toasted oats, fresh ginger and roasted nuts. The wine is finely textured both from fruit and wood tannin with searing, refreshing acidity and a very well-judged wood type and toast to fit the fruit profile. This is overall a very complete wine and it really excels were many red wines from this vintage struggles to achieve greatness. This vintage of the Mount Bullet will only evolve for the better over the next 6-8 years.

Shannon Mount Bullet 2012
A very good comparison and vision for what 2016 might become. Deeper and darker fruit, spicier, yet with the same bright red fruit in the finish that freshness up the wine. The texture is rounder from age and the fine fruit tannin is polymerised. The wine shows earthier characters from evolution and a deeper spice from the toasting of the wood. Pretty perfect as it is with direct decantation and should be served at 14-15 degrees to retain its balance, otherwise the wood might become prominent. Although the wood to fruit ratio is rather high the 2012 vintage will still evolve into a more savoury direction for another 2-3 years, but it is drinking pretty perfect at this point in time!

Steenberg Merlot 2016
Dominated by a red fruit profile rather than the usual dark fruit, resulting in a brighter, rather refreshing, flavour profile. The wood shows prominence in this vintage due to the lightness and lower acid in the 2016 wines, with the wood profiles character and sweetness resulting in the wine seeming slightly confected. There is a good tannic grip, mostly provided from the wood rather than the fruit. The wine is smoothly textured and should be enjoyed early due to the low fruit structure and dominant wood but will still evolve positively for another 1-2 years. Should be consumed within the next 3-5 years though.

Groot Constantia Merlot 2015
Shows a deep, dark and broody fruit with a savoury, bready undertone from extended lees contact. The wine is very textured, both from a well-managed extraction of fine fruit tannin together with the lees contact and the structure provided from the wood. The ageability of the wine is contextually very good, it will benefit from another 4-6 years of evolution based on the overall structure but should be consumed within the next 10 years.

De Grendel Merlot 2017
Shows slightly more reductive notes but aside from that shows a clear similarity to the Durbanville Hills fruit profile with a dark fruit profile and a fine tannin at higher levels than the Constantia fruit. The wine is clearly youthful and due to its fruit extracted style it will only benefit from a short period of ageing of another 2-4 years and should be enjoyed relatively young.

Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve The Lighthouse Merlot 2016
Pretty linear and uniform dark fruit profile, bright cassis and blueberry with a clear eucalyptus note. High fruit tannin from well-managed extraction, more so than the Constantia fruit. Marginally higher acidity than the Constantia counterparts. Due to the extraction there is a good concentration but the ageability is related to the fruit forwardness of the cold soaking technique and it will probably not evolve positively for more than 2-3 years and should be enjoyed within the next 5 years.

Creation Reserve Merlot 2016
Ripe and dark fruit profile with slightly elevated notes. Gives all the textural sensation that is expected from merlot. Well judged wood profile that fits the dark and broody fruit but quite generous in wood impact. There is a clever blending of parcels involved with a small but vital core of bright, red fruit that lifts the wine and provides freshness to the finish. Drinks pretty good as is, but will evolve in texture to the benefit for another 2-3 years.

Hartenberg Merlot 2016
Dark, plummy and slightly sweetish, elevated fruit profile. Soft and fruity by Hartenberg standards, presumably due to the weaker vintage. Smart wood management with a subtle and elegant dry spice and toast from the oak influence, which provides most of the structure to the wine. The acidity is relatively mellow and with the structure of the wine in mind, this vintage is better enjoyed young although it might benefit from another 1-2 years of evolution.

Rainbow's End Merlot 2017
Ripe, dark, deep and broody with a savoury undertone. This is one of the highlights of the tasting, very compact and concentrated fruit and although the fruit profile is very much in the dark spectra there is a bright blue fruit character that lifts the wine. This wine has a serious fruit tannin but no notes of greenness, clearly from well-judged extraction well managed, small bunch, fruit in the vineyard. The potential is good, to say the least, positive evolution is expected to be between 5-8 years and the wine really deserves at least 2-3 years before being enjoyed.

De Toren Z (54% Merlot) 2016
The only South African merlot-dominant blend in the lineup and a slightly lighter vintage, due to the 2016’s vintage conditions, than what is usual for this wine. This resulted in the wooding being slightly more upfront and prominent with toasty dry and sweet spice notes followed by the black fruit with notes of blackberry and dark cherries. Due to the delicacy of the fruit in comparison to the wood, the equilibrium of evolution will be relatively narrow and the wine should benefit from developing further for another 2-3 years but should be consumed within 5-6 years before it goes wood dry.

Summary of Event and Thank You to Partners

Overall the Merlot category is promising and it seems like South Africa overall has learnt how to work with the grape. In order to create a single varietal, prime example, cool climates or altitude seems to be necessary or a very quality dedicated and thorough viticultural practice.

Thank you to Great Domaines and Coravin which allows us to access the wine in our own time to write thorough tasting notes as well as all the wine brands that participated in the tasting and making it possible, to begin with.

The South African Sommelier Association

Chenin Blanc Tasting

The workhorse that became a racehorse! Chenin Blanc, widely planted as the workhorse grape for brandy production and dry white wine – is now the trendiest kid on the block! Come and taste some of South Africa´s top Chenin benchmarked against the worlds best. Join Chair and Vice Chair, Barry Schofield and Spencer Fondaumiere alongside guest speaker Bruwer Raats on 20 May 2019 at SASA’s second benchmark series tasting.

Email to RSVP

Image result for chenin blanc grape

Platter 5 Star Tasting One Year On

Ever wondered how well a five star white stands up to the test of time? How well a five star red integrates with an extra year in bottle? Or will that shy and reserved delicate wine open up with a year of rest?

Join SASA board member Barry Scholfield for a very rare and  special tasting showcasing a third of all the Platters 2018 Five Star Wines. Sourced, cellared and kept back for this very special occasion.

Event details:

Wednesday 12 December 2018 @ 18:00
Somm HQ
Unit 3b
The Woodmill Lifestyle Centre

R250 Members
R500 Non Members

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Originally published in

The first Cape winery to offer a wine made solely from cabernet franc was Landskroon, it seems, with a 1983. The grape had been grown in a small way through much of the 20th century and became much more important from the 1980s, with the rise of the Bordeaux-style red blend where it is a widely used component of greater or lesser significance. A few other producers joined Landskroon with varietal versions, but even by the end of the century there were fewer than ten made. Expansion since then has been pretty spectacular, and the current Platter’s Guide lists something over 70 cab franc wines, reflecting the grape’s success in a range of conditions. In terms of hectares planted, the variety is still under one percent of the total, but this is double what it was at the turn of the century.

In France, there’s little Bordeaux made solely from cab franc (it contributes about 50% to famous Château Cheval Blanc), where, as in South Africa, it’s overshadowed by its progeny, cabernet sauvignon (sauvignon blanc is the other parent). But in parts of the Loire Valley it’s a different story, and in that cooler zone it tends to make a relatively light, earlier-maturing, more modestly oaked, fresher varietal wine than red Bordeaux – a style increasingly appreciated as the wine-drinking world thinks again about heavier, grander styles.

Lukas van Loggerenberg of Van Loggerenberg Wines.

That turn is happening in South Africa too, including with cab franc, and the shift was the focus of a tasting organised in Cape Town by sommelier and general wine-man Higgo Jacobs for SASA, the Somelliers Association of South Africa – sommeliers tend to love the lighter, fresher style of reds, for their great compatibility with food. Higgo worked with the notably well-informed Lukas van Loggerenberg in compiling the tasting – Lukas is the Cape’s great champion of what we could call Loire-style cab francs, and his Breton (named for a Loire synonym for the grape) has received much acclaim in the few years that it’s been made.

At the tasting, held at the Test Kitchen, we blind-tasted four flights of three wines, one in each flight being a foreigner. The first, Domaine de la Semellerie 2016 from Chinon on the Loire set the tone: a fairly simple, but beguiling wine, with red, raspberry-toned fruit, a leafy, herbal element – common in cab franc and part of its freshness – and a modest but informing tannic structure. It was not hard, in fact, to pick out the two locals in this flight – a little more extracted and ripely sweet-fruited: De Kleine Wijn Koop Knapse Kerel 2016 (herbal & floral notes predominating and quite fresh), and Waterkloof Circumstance Cabernet Franc 2015 (bigger, very grippy, darker cherry fruit, some meatiness).

The Van Loggerenberg Breton was in the next flight, following a very good Loire: Domaine Des Roches Neuves Saumur Champigny La Marginale 2013. Incidentally, this wine confirmed a point that Higgo had made – that Loire wines are not by any means always light and modest; many are getting riper and more powerful. What they do have to offer generally, however, is an acidity that complements riper fruit and allows the wine to retain freshness and elegance. Breton 2017 also fitted well into this pattern, however, more than any other local cab franc, being floral, a touch leafy, and fresh, refined and light – just a little sweetness hinting at its Stellenbosch origins. It deserves time in bottle. Hannay Cabernet Franc 2016, from Elgin, was appealing but more awkward, bigger, bolder and more extracted, with a little new oak showing.

It was starting to emerge more clearly what we should be looking for in this lighter style of cab franc: as Lukas suggested, a balance of the herbal, pyrazene note with ripeness of mostly red fruit. A purity of fruit, of course, unmuddied by excessive oak; finesse, definition and texture. These are the qualities that endear this style to sommeliers, as it does go refreshingly well with a range of foods.

The first of the two locals in the next flight was from the producer probably most associated with the variety in the Cape, Raats. The Dolomite 2016 was very fine, arguably more Bordeaux-like in structure, with plenty of tannin and power. The same applies to Eikendal’s Infused by Earth 2017 – also very youthful (some toasty oak evident), needing time for the tannins to integrate.

And then a few more yet-to-be-released Cape wines: Hermanuspietersfontein Swartskaap 2016: rich and fruity, deep, dry and serious, but fresh and pure. Gabriëlskloof Landscape Series Cab Franc 2017 is, to my palate, the best of the three that Peter-Allan Finlayson has bottled; it’s classically leafy (despite its ripeness and 14.2% alcohol), with a velvet, finely textured softness over a firm structure.

The tasting finished with a Chilean wine that came as a bit of a surprise even to Higgo, to whom it had been warmly recommended: Garage Wine Co Pirque Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2015. Very plush, fruity and showy, though well structured; about as far as one could get from the unpretentious charm of the Chinon, the first wine of the tasting. In that sense it served to remind us again that it’s not easy or even desirable to make generalisations about cab franc: it’s a grape variety and not a brand. The great thing in South Africa now is that with the Van Loggerenberg Breton we’ve got a benchmark of a style that hadn’t been seen and tasted here. Already it seems to be having an effect, encouraging more restraint and lightness in other cab francs. As for terroir – well, we must watch and taste and see where cab franc will do well, do best. I’ll venture just one guess: it won’t be the Swartland.

~Tim James

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

SASA Level 2 Examination – Johannesburg

Johannesburg – 29 October 2018

Venue to be confirmed

The examination covers theory, blind tasting and practical dining room work. The examination may include subjects not covered in the SASA Foundational Sommellerie Course and will change from time to time. The candidate is required to showcase the knowledge and expertise that is to be expected from a professional sommelier, and must successfully pass all three sections in order to be awarded the title of SASA Sommelier. It is recommended that the candidate has a theoretical level of understanding in line with WSET Level 3, the Cape Wine Academy Diploma or the Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier. The SASA Sommelier examination is open to all SASA members to sit without any prerequisites, under the condition that the member has, in his/her own opinion, accumulated enough experience to attempt the examination.

Please email for further information.

SASA Level 2 Examination – Cape Town

Cape Town – 22 October 2018

Venue to be confirmed

The examination covers theory, blind tasting and practical dining room work. The examination may include subjects not covered in the SASA Foundational Sommellerie Course and will change from time to time. The candidate is required to showcase the knowledge and expertise that is to be expected from a professional sommelier, and must successfully pass all three sections in order to be awarded the title of SASA Sommelier. It is recommended that the candidate has a theoretical level of understanding in line with WSET Level 3, the Cape Wine Academy Diploma or the Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier. The SASA Sommelier examination is open to all SASA members to sit without any prerequisites, under the condition that the member has, in his/her own opinion, accumulated enough experience to attempt the examination.

Please email for further information.

Biodynamic viticulture: A hands on experience

Put on your hiking shoes and join SASA for a morning in the vineyards with Johan Reyneke, proprietor of Reyneke Wines in Stellenbosch.

Johan is one of a handful of winemakers who manages his vineyards according to the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner. Come see how these principles are applied in a South African setting and get an understanding as to why so many of the world’s top producers are moving to this management strategy.

Cost: Member R 100
Non- Member R 250

SASA Tasting

Many local sommeliers are bottling their own hand-selected offerings. Join SASA board member, Tinashe Nyamudoka, as we explore some of these bottles created by sommeliers past and present.

Cost: R150 members, R300 non-members