Simonsig – Family, Cabernet Sauvignon and more
18 July 2016
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Jenny Crwys-Williams: Well, I’m absolutely thrilled that I’m sitting with Johan Malan. We have been drinking Simonsig wine for the last two hours, we all love each other at this stage. But it’s a very special event that brought you to Johannesburg, tell us what it was.
Johan Malan: Jenny, it’s the release of our Simonsig, the Garland Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon of the 2009 vintage.
JCW: Why is that wine so special, why has it taken so long to come to the market?
JM: Well, because it comes from one of the prime growing areas in Stellenbosch. I think Stellenbosch is one of the prime growing regions for Cabernet in the world. This is a single vineyard that produces truly impeccable quality Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet is a bit of a slow starter.
It’s not a wine that’s in its prime when it’s two or three years old. So we’re trying to make something that’s got the ability to mature and to last for a very long time. So it is currently seven years old and it’s only starting to show its true potential. Fortunately, too is that the 2009 vintage was one of the top vintages in the last 15 years or so. A vintage that’s got structure and tannin that will enable it to mature for a very long time.
JCW: It does have a predecessor though, it’s got 2008 cab, doesn’t it?
JM: Yes, when I got the idea to do this wine, the very first vintage was 2008 and that was released last year very successfully. We did a very small production of only 1 500 bottles. But 2008 was one of the vintages that made wines that would probably be seen as more accessible at an early age. Maybe not as age worthy as the 2009.
But because you’re working with a single vineyard, I think the effect of the vintage and the climatic conditions of that year. It is important that it is reflected in the wine so it’s only natural that 2008 was a vintage where the wines are not as big in structure. With so much tannin that you can drink them now. Whereas the 2009 would be something that would last for many more years.
The beauty of the single vineyard
JCW: Johan, tell us a little bit about the single vineyard, it’s high up, isn’t it?
JM: Yes, as you know from the name of our estate, Simonsig, it means a view of Simon. Simonsberg is the mountain on the northern side of Stellenbosch. This vineyard is high up on the slopes of Simonsberg, about 400 meters in altitude. From there you can really see both oceans.
You can see not both oceans but almost two sides of the Cape Peninsula. Table Bay on the right-hand side and False Bay on the more south-westerly side. So very good location and aspect where the maritime influence has a huge impact on the quality of the grapes.
JCW: I thought that on the nose I could smell kelp, I don’t know, that almost iodine smell. Maybe I was just being fanciful.
JM: Well, I think the wine has got a lot of complexity and many different flavours, definitely in Stellenbosch we claim that it has a huge maritime influence. The vineyard’s not further than 20km away from the ocean. So whether you call it kelp or you call it blackberries or you can call it cigar box, there are many different flavours in a good Cabernet which people interpret differently. But I’d take that any time because it shows a good complexity.
JCW: Is it Simonsig’s premium range when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon?
JM: Yes, absolutely. We’ve got a range of wines that covers quite a wide spectrum. But this is something really at a much higher level because it is so individualistic. In the sense that it’s only sourced from one vineyard. We make a very small quantity. I see this as our icon wine.
Then we also have the Malan Family Selection which includes very well-known wines like the Redhill Pinotage, the Tiara, Frans Malan Reserve as well as the Merindol Syrah. There’s a white wine too called the Chenin Avec Chêne, which is our wooded Chenin. But the Garland is something that represents the best of the best from where it comes from, a wine that really reflects its sense of place and its providence.
The link between The Garland and Tiara
JCW: You were saying a little bit earlier on in the speech that you gave to everybody before we started eating and tracking the history of the Cabernet Sauvignon. The Garland, that it’s linked somehow or other to the Tiara. Just explain that to me.
JM: When the Tiara was first made and my first vintage was 1990. I asked my father, we wanted to have a name that represents something with royalty or something like a crown. Because it’s like the top end of our range at the time. He came up with the name Tiara, which is a diamond encrusted crown as is worn by royalty or a princess.
I thought it was really a good choice. It also works in Afrikaans as well as English. Then when the name of the Garland came about it was almost by coincidence that I realised that a garland is also a crown made out of flowers that’s worn by somebody as a distinction or a prize or something. So there’s a nice connection between the two wines.
JCW: Talk to me a little bit about the Malan’s of Simonsig because it’s an old family line, isn’t it?
JM: Yes, my father is the one that started the Simonsig label and the winery, or to bottle his own wine in 1968. He came from a wine growing family in Wellington originally and the first Malan that came to South Africa was a French Huguenot. Who came here in 1968.
So we’ve been around in the wine industry for a very long time. Because the Huguenots all were granted land in the Franschhoek valley and Jacques Malan was granted a farm called La Motte, which is not the current La Motte.
So through three centuries and a little bit we’ve been involved in wine growing. Currently it’s myself and my two brothers who are the owners of the estate. We are very proud to be involved in the wine industry with such a long heritage, even going back to its French roots.
We are about more than our Reds
JCW: I think it’s something that’s very special, so what is your vision for the wines of Simonsig, because we tasted three wines today. One is obviously the Garland which is just gorgeous and heavy and fireplaces, guinea fowl steak, steak and kidney pudding, everything that you can think of is going to go with that. It’s a very elegant wine as well, it’s lovely. But we also had that astonishing Chenin Blanc. I thought was just lovely and it kind of climbed out of the glass at you, it was so scrumptious.
JM: The interesting thing is that the very first wine my father released was a Simonsig Steen in 1968, then called Steen. Only later on when the name Chenin Blanc was chosen as more popular, in two years’ time we’ll be celebrating our 50 years of, half a century of Chenin Blanc. It is a variety that has not only a long track record, but also something that I believe really does well in our terroir.
We get consistent quality and that to me is an indication that you don’t really have to be a magician in the cellar. But if the vines are happy in the swells you get the quality that comes out of the vineyard. It’s easy to repeat because it’s not a manmade thing, it’s something that’s made by nature.
JCW: And that lovely dessert wine, you just put your head in it and it smells wonderful.
JM: Yes, that’s called Vin de Liza which is named after my mother. I think the wine is a very personal thing because I think it pays respect to her influence. She has had, in many cases sort of behind the scenes but also as a mother of the three brothers. Also as somebody that’s taught me a lot about good food, good wine, she was an excellent chef. Also about the finer things in life, which I think was a great gift that I got from her.
Where do you see the Garland going?
JCW: So let’s go back to the reason that you’re up here in Johannesburg. You haven’t even launched this wine in Cape Town so we are the first people here in Johannesburg to taste it. It was an overwhelming yes, it is absolutely fabulous because in the light that I was sitting in, it’s almost purple, it’s so gorgeous. What do you want this wine to do?
JM: If you look at wine all over the world, I think the South African wine industry needs to break through the ceilings that have been limiting us over the years. In terms of producing wines or getting the recognition internationally. In general, I think in comparison our wines are very cheap in relation to the great wines of France or California and Australia.
I think it’s important that we shift the boundaries to increase the awareness of the top end South African wines. Currently I think media wise South African wines are doing incredibly well all over the world. But it’s almost as if people don’t take it too seriously. Because we are price wise a quarter of the prices you would pay for a top end Napa Valley Cabernet or even the top end wines from Australia. Not even thinking of wines from great regions of France.
South Africa has got a long history going back 350 years so we are almost an old-world wine producing country. But in terms of our offering to the international market there’s a lot of room for the top end. Which I think is what we are trying to do with the Garland.
JCW: And maybe for Simonsig, I mean your wines are so broad you can afford to have a less expensive wine and a more rapidly produced wine perhaps?
JM: Yes, I think we come historically from a position where we were not able to export because of political reasons. Then we were focussing on the domestic market. So we produce a wider range of wines to cater for all the different niches and segments of the market.
All of that changed with the democracy in 1994. Currently we are doing about 60% of our sales internationally. I always think in the next generation, which we have got our children involved in Simonsig Estate already. For them it will be an issue of becoming more specialised, more focused on the wines that we do well. The wines that do well in our land and vineyard, so to focus more on specialisation and doing that better.
What you can expect from the Garland
JCW: Let’s end off with the nose of this gorgeous wine so that people have got an idea of what lies ahead of them and then that mouth feel.
JM: I always think that Simonsberg produces Cabernet with a lot of complexity. But the one characteristic that I always associate with that is the smell of violets. In a good vintage like 2009 I definitely pick up flavours like lead pencils. You know when you sharpen a pencil it almost has that sort of a graphite characteristic. Some people call it cigar box, tealeaf.
Then on the fruity side black currants, sort of a sweet fruit pastel kind of flavour, so many different layers which – you referred earlier to iodine or to almost something from the sea. That’s the great thing about a wine like this, it’s usually concentrated. As it spends time in the glass it opens up and it brings out different layers of flavour.
On the palate it is a Cabernet. So Cabernet is always something, a variety that gives you a bit more masculinity, that the tannins are bigger than all the other varieties. That’s why it’s often blended with things like Merlot, almost just to tone it down. But Cabernet is supposed to have those big tannins.
So it has a certain sense of dryness on the palate and that to me is what is makes it ideally suited to enjoy with food. Like we had beautiful steak today or the guinea fowl. A wine and food are synonymous. I always think wine is part of the meal as much as the meat and the vegetables. So it should work together as a whole.
JCW: And if you had to choose one person in the world that you want them to try this particular Simonsig, the Simonsig Cabernet Sauvignon Garland, who would it be?
JM: Mohammed Ali because he died earlier this year. I think he’s always been one of my greatest heroes, not only as a sportsman but as a human being. I’m not sure if he drank wine because he was Mohammed Ali but I can think of a lot more people who I would like to share a glass of this wine with. Because I’m really excited and very pleased to get to the point where we’re finally releasing it to the market.
JCW: If people go into the stores next week they’re going to find this bottle of wine?
JM: Yes, that’s right. It is something at the premium end of the market. So if you can’t find it maybe just ask the retailer to get it for you. Because it is available through our distribution business called Meridian Wines, so it should be available in the retail side.
JCW: Johan, it’s been such a pleasure, thank you very much indeed for joining me.
JM: It’s a big pleasure Jenny, thanks for interviewing me.