Is the fall of Cape Tawny the rise of Muscadel?

South African Tawny Port (Cape Tawny to be legal) is much loved despite being a niche product. It sells well. Not surprising to those of us who love it. Portuguese grape varieties, more interesting Brandy spirit as well as neutral spirit, at least seven years maturation in oak before release, and therein lies its demise.
There are changes coming for Cape Tawny. According to Boplaas’ Margaux Nel buy your Tawny now because its few remaining makers are being forced to reconsider its position. Boplaas will soon be releasing it in half bottles, but the price will remain the same as a 75cl bottle – on the face of it a 100% price increase.

KWV have more stock so they may be buffeted and the only other significant producer, De Krans will no doubt be watching the reaction carefully. Margaux was as upset as her customers will be, but the wine is expensive to make, takes up room in the cellars for a long time and is sorely undervalued. Getting a better price for it will allow producers to make even more improvements, such as restricting yields further and releasing more single vintage Tawnys. What a mouth watering prospect seeing ‘Colheita’ (grapes from the same vintage) Tawny’s on the shelves will be.

Nevertheless, such changes will make a difference and sales may suffer. Enter the Muscat grape in its various dessert wine guises. The fortified grape juice style of Jerepigo, based on Muscat d’Alexandrie, its brother Hanepoot (fermented Alexandrie this time) and its classier cousin Muscadel from Muscat de Frontignan may be about to undergo a renaissance. At least, that was the drive of a recent gathering at Cabrierés in Montagu of industry professionals at the behest of Ellen Marais of the Klein Karoo Wine Route.

Guest chef Hetta van Deventer said, ‘The problem was not what will I pair with Muscadel, but how to restrict the pairings to just a few dishes; I easily came up with more than a dozen perfect food and Muscadel matches’. There is no doubt that the lightly sweet Karusa Muscat Blanc 2011 went well with roasted sweet peppers and the 2010 De Krans Reserve Muscat stood up to the Karoo Foie Gras (Ostrich liver). Indeed, the plate of Pork Roulade and Cranberry filling accompanied by the Grundheim Red Muscadel was quickly emptied. There were generous nods of approval during the Karoo lamb with plum and chocolate sauce together with the Calitzdorp Cellar White Muscadel 2010. Adulation for Muscadel’s versatility flowed and not only from winemakers.

Christelle Reade-Jahn from the SA Brandy Foundation was pleased with the role fortifying spirits play in the Muscadel style and how they can influence quality; “Brandy and Muscadel go hand in hand – fortified Muscadel needs a good brandy to complement the wine and to emphasise the elegance of the product.” There is a need to refresh the image of these dessert wines, especially as demand – and plantings – are down. Boets Nel gave the call to arms, “We are passionate about Muscadel and want to get the public just as excited about the fantastic Muscadels from the Klein Karoo.” One change is the increase in drier Muscats soon to be evident, ‘the taste of the future’, says Boets Nel. Winemakers are responding to trends in Europe which is seeking less sweet, less alcoholic, more fragrant styles and wines like the Karusa Muscat Rosé are aimed at the following that rosé wines are attracting.

So, while Cape Tawny may be about to face a pricing challenge just at a time when the consumer has become even more price sensitive, Muscadel is about to receive ‘positive action to enhance its image’ according to Muscadel SA’s Henri Swiegers. Muscadel is more flexible than you might think and isn’t always sticky sweet. The Karusa Rosé, for example, has just 9.5 g/l of residual sugar and the Muscat Blanc 19g/l. Both offer lower alcohol too, at around 12%. Of course, if you want sweet then the White Muscadel from Montagu Wine and Spirits Company as well as the lovely Excelsior ‘His Master’s Choice’ pack a luscious 236 g/l. Alcohol in these dessert wines is nearly always lower than Cape Tawny at around 15.5%, just a little more than some red wines, an important consideration when eating out.

So will the consumer be facing a dilemma now between limited visibility Cape Tawny and the sexed up Muscadels? I doubt it. Both have a somewhat limited following and will probably remain after dinner drinks for the majority (I can hear the august meeting above already screaming, ‘‘no, no!’’). Muscadel may not have it all its own way anyway, Marguax Nel defends Tawny as a food wine also, ‘try it with pork crackling or Duck!’

Whether Muscadel can convert the consumer to what is still a fortified sweet wine on the eve of another summer remains to be seen. To me the dichotomy is simple, drink both, chilled if necessary.