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Out-of-fashion cabernet still has a place in the cellar

| Wine and liquor

Until recently there was pretty much general consensus that the Cape’s best chance at a world-class red wine would be cabernet-based.

Up to the 1980s, cabernet sauvignon was the country’s only real so-called noble cultivar. There were small plantings of shiraz, but almost all of the vineyards were badly virused and the wines emerged leathery, rather bright-fruited or peppery. Cabernet, on the other hand, while no less virused, managed to produce much purer wine.

SA’s first modern merlot vineyards came into production at the end of the 1970s and the variety was expected to perform the same role in our wine as it did in Bordeaux.

Meerlust Merlot and Meerlust Rubicon swiftly became the Cape’s most sought-after red wines. Other properties launched ultra-premium blends, initially with a merlot addition to their cabernet sauvignon, but later with some — or all — of other Bordeaux varieties.

Whereas the top wine from Kanonkop, for example, had been a cabernet sauvignon, in time the estate’s highest-priced red was the Paul Sauer proprietary blend.

Within a decade, as plantings of cabernet franc and petit verdot (and more recently malbec) came on stream, the Cape’s Bordeaux blends came to ape their Medoc models even more completely.

But then a funny thing happened: with the end of SA’s political isolation we discovered that our much-vaunted cabernets were not as much admired in export markets as they were at home.

Critics berated them for being too herbal, not plush and rich as Californian or Australian examples, nor as overtly intense as the finest Bordeaux reds. Very few achieved significant export volumes at decent prices.

At the same time the domestic market was discovering alternatives: availability of pinot noir increased and the quality producers of the great Burgundian cultivar conspired to keep prices high enough to imbue the variety with cachet in its own right.

Then, as the Swartland became fashionable, red Rhone cultivars — shiraz, grenache, and mourvedre — attracted a following.

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