Peak Performance

Words by: Amanda Barnes

An aerial view of Delaire Graff Estate
A portrait of winemaker Morne Vrey

Some legendary wines are centuries in the making, whereas other wine legends appear to be born in the blink of an eye.

The latter would seem to be the case for Delaire’s Laurence Graff Reserve, which, within just a few years on the market, has been hailed as South Africa’s best Cabernet Sauvignon by respected wine critic Tim Atkin MW. In his annual report, published in September 2019, the British Master of Wine gave the 2012 vintage an outstanding 97 points, making it the top-scoring Cabernet Sauvignon and one of the highest-rated wines out of the thousands he tasted in South Africa throughout the year. 

The Laurence Graff Reserve has been iconic since its first release seven years ago, setting the benchmark for South African Cabernet Sauvignon. Its debut price of over $200 USD a bottle instantly made it South Africa’s most expensive wine. A bold move, one might say, for an inaugural vintage, but Delaire believed that the quality of the Laurence Graff Reserve was superlative and deserved to be positioned as such.

Within a week of its release, the wine had received the coveted, perfect five-star rating from South Africa’s leading wine guide, Platters, and great critical acclaim has followed ever since. Today, it is one of the New World’s most sought-after wines and sells out en primeur each year on a strict allocation basis. Its critical and commercial success doesn’t only validate the quality of Delaire Graff Estate wines but proves that Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon rivals the best in the world.

Cabernet finds its feet in Stellenbosch

The fertile valleys of the Cape are a natural refugium for plant life. Known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, this is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, where over 9,600 flower and plant species thrive.

From the 17th century onwards, grapevines, too, found their kingdom in the Cape, where the Mediterranean climate proved ideal for vine growing. In particular, the rolling hillsides of Stellenbosch at the foot of the Cape Fold mountain range offered an oasis for viticulture, and within a century it had become Africa’s premier wine region.

 Spanning over 15,000 hectares, Stellenbosch is home to over 160 wine producers, and the manifold different mesoclimates in the folds of the hills and valleys allow for an exciting range of grape varieties and wine styles, from fresh and mineral Chardonnay and spicy, floral Syrah to lusciously sweet and exotic dessert wines. The combination of mountain and maritime influences means that many grape varieties are viable, but one that particularly shines in Stellenbosch is its Cabernet Sauvignon.

A highly desirable variety, Cabernet Sauvignon forms the backbone of the most legendary Bordeaux wines and is responsible for the best wines of California’s Napa Valley. Now, the world-class Cabernet Sauvignons of Stellenbosch are on the cusp of reaching global recognition.


The Cape’s warm and sunny days are ideal for ripening the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to their full aromatic potential, while the coastal breezes in the afternoon and cool evenings help to retain acidity, freshness and tension in the grapes. The poor, well-draining granitic soils also mean that the grape vines in Stellenbosch have to work harder to search for underground water sources, and this internal struggle in the vine means that it naturally concentrates its production into fewer bunches of more intensely flavoured and richer grapes. 

This natural affinity between the place and grape variety is what led 27 of the region’s most renowned producers to come together to create the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective in 2018. The association aims to elevate the perception of Stellenbosch Cabernet worldwide and get wine producers and growers the market price they deserve for their quality wines and grapes.

While a tonne of Cabernet grapes from Napa might run into the price range of $20,000 USD or more, Cabernet grapes in Stellenbosch still only achieve a market rate of the equivalent of $8,000 USD. As a spokesperson for the Collective explains: “Our mission is to publicise the unique African legacy of the region’s Cabernet, which has, until now, been largely underrated on an international level.” It is the new generation of game-changing Cabernet wines from Stellenbosch, such as those of Delaire, that are leading the way.

A row of vines at Delaire Graff Estate vineyard

A star is born

When you compare Delaire Graff Estate to the 200-year-old estates of neighbouring properties in Stellenbosch, or the 500-year-old legacies of chateaux in Bordeaux, the recognition achieved by the Laurence Graff Reserve happened at a supersonic rate. But this wine legend was in fact a long time in the making.

Originally planted in the 1980s, when Laurence Graff purchased the vineyard in 2003 it was a diamond in the rough. Although there was great potential underground – in the bowels of its ancient decomposed granite and clay soils – and great potential above ground, where the high elevation slopes of Botmaskop Peak offered a cooler climate, the whole vineyard estate had to be reconfigured. 

Following a seven-year transformation, using the height of modern viticulture wisdom with extensive soil studies and thermal mapping, precision viticulture is at the heart of Delaire’s 20 hectare estate today, with each vineyard block planted with selected clones and grape varieties based on its individual climate and soil characteristics.

Over 70% of the estate was replanted, but there was one remarkable block of Cabernet that was preserved. “This particular block sits at an elevation of 380m above sea level, with exposure to the cool sea breezes, making for a longer ripening period,” explains winemaker Morné Vrey. “It is planted with a particular feminine clone of Cabernet, a classically Bordeaux clone that offers more elegant red fruit, and Delaire was the first site in South Africa to plant this clone — it is the Mother Block. The feminine clone and cooler temperatures produce Cabernet with soft structure and elegant tannins.”

Delaire’s Cabernet, and indeed the best Stellenbosch Cabernets, can often be distinguished by this elegance and a freshness with minty aromas, influenced not only by the mountainous vineyard locations but also by the fragrance of the native fynbos plants of the Floral Kingdom.

These unique characteristics are what led Morné to isolate this block to make Delaire’s Cabernet Reserve, harvesting approximately 40 barrels-worth of wine each vintage. As the vines got older and their roots grew deeper, the wines continued to improve and an outstanding vintage in 2009 – which many recognise as the vintage of the century – convinced Morné that there was an even more brilliant jewel hidden among the barrels.

As he carefully tasted through each of the 40 barrels of Cabernet from this block, he discovered five barrels that were transcendent in their quality. Blending these five barrels together, he created a wine that was so special it was worthy of carrying the name of the proprietor, and so the Laurence Graff Reserve was born.

“There’s a wonderful combination of power, balance, freshness and intensity in Delaire’s Cabernet,” reflects wine critic Tim Atkin MW, who awarded Morné as his Young Winemaker of the Year in 2015. Morné Vrey is one of those winemakers who can turn his hand to any style, but he seems to have a special affinity with Cabernet Sauvignon, especially Banghoek Cabernet Sauvignon. The vines on the Estate aren’t the oldest in Stellenbosch by any means, but the combination of aspect, altitude and soil type produces something very special here. These are some of the Cape’s finest Bordeaux style reds.

Although the Laurence Graff Reserve might have appeared to become a wine legend overnight, this wine is the culmination of not only expertise and precision in the cellar and vineyard, but a combination of the unique conditions of the climate, soil and plant. Through Delaire’s quest for perfection and sensitive interpretation of nature’s assets, wines like the Laurence Graff Reserve show just how extraordinary Stellenbosch Cabernet really can be. The world is now beginning to take notice, and quite deservedly so.

Two people raising a toast with wine glasses

Delaire Cabernet on the table

The rich fruit, peppery spice, minty freshness and earthy depth to Delaire’s Cabernet wines makes these multidimensional wines excellent companions at a dinner party. Delaire Graff Restaurant sommelier Elias Luvera shares his favourite pairings for both wines.

For the more flamboyant fruit and powerful spice of the Delaire Graff Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2017, Elias recommends pairing it with rich meat dishes such as fillet of beef or lamb steak: “A signature pairing for our Cabernet Reserve in the restaurant is beef fillet with bone marrow croquettes and sautéed mushrooms with baby carrots, parsley and a parmesan crumb.”

The more elegant and nuanced earthy and mineral aromas in the Laurence Graff Reserve work particularly well with fresh pasta dishes, and Elias recommends “homemade tagliatelle with sautéed mushrooms, truffle shavings, brocolli, boernkas cheese and a mushroom and truffle sauce”.


Portrait of Amanda Barnes wine writer

About Amanda

Amanda Barnes is an award-winning British journalist and editor who specialises in wine and travel writing. She is an expert in South American wine and regions and a regular correspondent international wine and travel publications (including Decanter, Fodor’s, SevenFifty, The Guardian & The Telegraph). She is currently studying to become a Master of Wine.


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