RICHARD ESLING: New wines from the old New World

Wim Truter, KWV chief winemaker, at the tasting lunch
Wim Truter, KWV chief winemaker, at the tasting lunch

The South African wines from KWV have been around for a long time – nearly 100 years in fact.

The company was formed in 1918, and is now one of the leading wines and spirits producers of South Africa.

It started off life as a co-operative, with the aim of organising and improving wine production in the country.

The name KWV is actually short for the Afrikaans name of Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika and the founder was a Dr Kohler. 1918 was the year in which Nelson Mandela was born, and the idea of the company was to stabilise a struggling wine industry and introduce regulation to improve quality.

Up until the 1990s wine production was controlled by KWV and much was for the local market, with the brand kept for export. The wines that were exported were closely controlled by the State and the level of quality, though always acceptable never reached the heights.

Consumers who remember the days up until 1994, probably may still think of KWV wines as ‘drinkable but not exceptional’.

However, much has changed in the past 20 or so years, and with a huge change in the political situation, export markets opened and wineries were able to develop in different ways to meet these new challenges and opportunities.

The organisation converted from a co-operative to a company in 1997 and became a publicly traded share company in 2003.

Since then, various investors have continued to build the company and its brands, so that now the quality and variety of wines (and spirits) produced is outstanding, quite different to the lacklustre days 25 years ago.

The company owns some vineyards and buys grapes from about 53 different producers.

Since the late 1990s, a range of mainly single vineyard wines has been produced under the ‘Mentors’ label. These are world class wines, which have tremendous expression of both the terroir and the grape variety. The company is continually experimenting and innovating with the production of its wines, striving for even greater quality, character and balance. The reactions of different types of oak on different varieties, length of maturation in new or old oak, all are analysed and compared.

The new, young and dynamic chief wine-maker, Wim Truter, is now leading this pursuit of excellence, bringing both a wealth of experience and knowledge, together with a new and innovative approach. Wines are being developed with no addition of sulphites, by using other natural products, which help to preserve the wines from oxidation and bacterial spoilage.

The other legacy of the KWV brand, is that South Africa only has two grape varieties – Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. While these are still grown in substantial quality, nothing could be further from the truth. A whole host of grape varieties are grown with great success, matched carefully to the climate and terrois of the different regions.

I recently had the opportunity to taste some of these great wines at a lunch in Sussex with the winemaker Wim Truter. The Mentors Grenache Blanc 2015 (£14.95 from Ocado and independents) had great depth of flavour, fruit, body and complexity, with the ability to age and develop even greater complexity over several more years. Another revelation was the Mentors Orchestra 2012, a stunning red wine from a classic Bordeaux blend of varieties. Tremendous balance of ripe fruit flavours with acidity, structure and complexity – £14.95 from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton. An amazingly good value red was the KWV Classic Collection Petit Verdot 2016, available at NISA for £7.55 and Walker Bay Shiraz 2017, £8.50 from Morrisons.

KWV has well and truly come of age.

Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.

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