Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

IN THE past, I have been more diffident than enthusiastic about the wines of the Cape Winemakers Guild. In the very early days of the guild, in the 1980s, we were all excited about the advent of craft winemaking in the Cape.

However, as the guild came of age and prices at the annual auction started to move upwards drastically, the question of what was really attracting the premium became an issue. Suddenly it was important to question if these "rare" wines were all they were cracked up to be.

From the mid-1990s onwards the primary point of difference between the producers’ standard offering and what was consigned to the guild auction was an extra dollop of oak. Then more recently, the extra oak came with a sense of even more "pushing-the-envelope" ripeness — in other words, playing chicken with the balance to squeeze ever greater opulence into the offering.

It worked as a strategy. Prices have risen year on year and the smaller-volume sale now achieves turnovers that dwarf the longer-established Nederburg auction.

In the past year or two, there has been a marked improvement in the overall quality, with fewer faults, more savoury fruit, less visible oak. There also emerged a more palpable qualitative difference between the auction wine, and the cellar’s regular bottling — and this was reflected in the prices achieved at the annual sale.

Clearly the premium was both a function of enhanced product quality and the special release sales environment.

A few weeks ago, the guild hosted the pre-auction tasting for the 2016 sale — which will take place in Stellenbosch on October 1. This time I was blown away by the quality of the line-up.

For the first time, we are seeing a seismic shift in what is being produced at the pinnacle of the real (rather than the rockstar) wine market. Sure, the whites have benefited from the extraordinary quality of the 2015 harvest (Vriesenhof’s Jan Boland Coetzee observed that he has waited 43 years for such a vintage). The 2016s — when they come to the market a year from now — will prove a better test of the winemakers’ skills.

The line-up in this year’s catalogue is so significantly better than anything we have seen in the past that it is safe to say a threshold has been crossed.

In an array of just fewer than 40 wines, I scored more over 90 than in the sum total of all my tastings (probably 3,500 wines) all year. Many of the wines that finished in the high 80s might, in less illustrious company, have made it into the magical past decade. There were almost no ordinary wines — a sign the selection process is now as rigorous as the guild claims — and certainly no junk. The pre-auction tasting for the guild’s 2016 sale was unlike any presentation of Cape wine I’ve ever attended.

It’s impossible in the available space to do anything except list the highlights (a full set of my tasting notes is available here). So here are the details of the 90 points (and higher) laureates.

Silverthorn Big Dog II Cap Classique 2011, Nicky Versfeld Double Barrel Semillon, Kaapzicht 1947 Auction Selection Chenin Blanc 2015, Ataraxia Under the Gavel Chardonnay 2015, Newton Johnson Seadragon Pinot Noir 2015, Cederberg Teen die Hoog Shiraz 2014, Sijnn awa 2014, Rijk’s CWG Pinotage 2013, Beyerskloof Traildust Pinotage 2014 and Boplaas Cape Vintage Reserve (Port) 2009.

These wines will achieve staggering prices — but for the first time, they may at least be worth it.