KWV 6 November 2019

The KWV has come a long way in the past two decades. For most of the 20th century it served the interests of politicians and producers, rather than wine drinkers. As the national wine cooperative, it enjoyed untrammelled statutory powers, partly because it was obliged to act as the buyer of last resort. Deregulation enabled it to convert to a commercial enterprise, but (obviously) shackled it to the rules of the market-place. Like a long-term prisoner released from the routine of institutional incarceration, it wandered around in something of a daze for several years.

It battled to obtain commercial traction for its brands in the local market. Management had assumed that since “KWV” was a household name, people would flock to buy anything which came from its cellars. They did not understand that route to market counted for more than brand recognition. They also failed to recognise that big blends produced from surpluses and designed for dumping in export markets would not find instant appeal amongst local consumers spoilt for choice as a result of a fragmented production sector.

It took time to identify why it wasn’t succeeding, and even longer to make the necessary structural changes. Since 1918 the KWV had operated in an artificial world in which the laws of (commercial) gravity did not apply. In many ways, the discovery roughly fifteen years ago that the winemaking team had been applying illegal solutions to the problem of defective quality proved the first step towards fixing the whole organisation. In the purges that followed, fresh expertise (and finally new shareholders) came on board.

The KWV is now operationally a leaner and more focused business. The winemaking team which replaced the crooks and charlatans is alert to smart production strategies and the expectations of the market. Nowhere is this more visible than in the latest releases in The Mentor’s range.

The brand itself initially tracked the same problems experienced by the long-established KWV ranges. It was conceived by Richard Rowe, the Australian consultant brought in to clean up the winemaking operations, and named (presumably) in celebration of how the new winemaking competence was being built from the ground up. Unsurprisingly, the market simply didn’t get it. The labels still bore the KWV name (they don’t anymore) but the look was clean and classy. The wines however could not be ignored. They won medals – serious medals – wherever they were entered into shows.

In the decade or so since their first release they have become more refined – a reflection of what has been happening at the winemaker level, and a better directed relationship between fruit sources and and the cellar. When The Mentors was launched, Richard Rowe was the hands-on presence in the winery. He passed the baton to Johann Fourie and their protege Izele van Blerk. Fourie left in 2016. At that point, the original mentee became the mentor.

Van Blerk’s latest bottlings are all very good. The 2018 Grenache Blanc is fresh, textured, and precise, its maturation potential confirmed by the aged release of the 2015, a richer and more complete version of the same wine. At R125 per bottle, it’s hard to imagine a better buy. The 2018 Chenin is also very fine, but will also need a little time in bottle to reveal its full potential.

Among the reds (priced from R280 up to R600), there are several wines worth tracking down. The 2017 Cabernet Franc, the 2017 Petit Verdot and the 2017 Orchestra (Bordeaux blend) were my preferred wines in the standard range. A step up (so R530) will take you to the Perold, a Cape blend comprising mainly a third each pinotage, cabernet and shiraz. Finally, if you’ve just won the lotto, you could do worse than buy the Limited Release Carmenere (one of only a few single bottlings of this almost unknown Bordeaux variety in South Africa). The purchase will relieve you of R650, but in return it will give you a wine that is bright, savoury and beautifully refined.

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