The bearable lightness of wine

Recently, I’ve been tasting and, more fortunately drinking, several wines with around 11% to 12% alcohol. You can’t believe what a pleasure this is and reminds me of the early 1980s when those levels were much more the norm.

The extra +-3% alcohol (it sounds little but the impact is, in many cases, immense) now reflected on labels, arrived with new, clean vine material. From this, grapes picked up sugar with an ease unknown in the old, virus-infected vines. By now, winemakers were more aware of harvesting when both pips and tannins were ripe, rather than making decisions on sugar levels alone. Unfortunately, by the time this happened, sugars had soared, reaching potential alcohol levels of 14% and over. At such levels, it happens that some fermentations wouldn’t complete to full dryness.

It didn’t take long for winemakers to discover winelovers enjoyed these lush, dense wines, their sweetness, acquired both from alcohol and residual sugar dimming the tannins (often highly extracted) that leave young reds so unpalatable. It was, as it still is, very much the time of buy now, drink now.

My colleague, Tim James, has covered here the negative issue of high alcohols and residual sugar, particularly in reds.

Ambitious producers then saw the opportunity of charging more, especially as more new small oak barrels became the maturation vessel of choice (remember one wine boasted – I think it was – 500% new oak). Many probably also believed, often correctly, that these blockbusters would do well on international competitions, thus raising both their own and South Africa’s profile abroad. Performing well on competitions and carrying all the attendant bling on the bottle is one thing, actually drinking the wine is another. The term ‘show wine’ is apt; drinking more than half a glass is an exercise in self-exhaustion; at least that’s my view and that of many friends and colleagues.

It was while chatting to Mick Craven and Jeanine Faure, who together make what, for the moment, are labelled Antipodean wines, that he wondered if winelovers would ever accept the more transparent, lower alcohol wines he and Jeanine favour and be willing to pay the sort of premium price that goes hand-in-hand with many of those blockbusters.

It would demand an enormous leap and change of attitude, but as more of the young guns with enquiring minds, explore, work in different wine areas of the world and taste as widely as they do, so South Africa is going to see the benefit in better wines.

Craig Hawkins winemaker at Lammershoek
Craig Hawkins winemaker at Lammershoek

I know when I first tasted Craig Hawkins’ Lammershoek wines, I found it difficult to describe them. My initial reaction was they seemed simple, not in a negative sense, but just the antithesis of those blockbusters – themselves are often decidedly one-dimensional. But once I sat with them, with a palate unsullied by those bigger wines, they really came to life.

Life through their freshness, bone dry finish and unexhausting alcohol, but not a level where the wine could be deemed insipid. In fact, they have wonderful flavour, layers of it with great purity; this is probably more difficult to discern when one has been used to the exaggerated fruit (and oak) flavours of those bigger wines, where more is more. Thanks in part to natural ferment and lack of new oak (neither Hawkins nor the Craven/Faure duo use any), flavours are more subtle. What you might imagine, correctly, is that these wines are far more compatible with food and lend themselves to finishing a bottle without tiring the palate.

Unfortunately, these wines are not made in any quantity, so are difficult to come by, though they are very reasonably priced as compared with some of those blockbusters. Maybe with time, as other winemakers and winelovers discover the pleasures of drinking wine without feeling exhausted after a sip or two, the wines will receive the recognition and prices they deserve.
Corder Sauvignon Blanc 2012In lieu of the above-mentioned, Corder Sauvignon Blanc 2012 R80 ex-cellar fulfils their criteria except for natural ferment. This is by some way the best Elgin sauvignon I’ve tasted in a long time; Tim James, who tasted with me, was also enthusiastic. Its freshness belies its age, the flavours are agreeably restrained – more so thanks to a vibrancy beyond acidity – which makes it more food-friendly than many sauvignons. A moderate 12.5% alcohol helps on that score as well. The cherry on the top is the ex-cellar price of R80; excellent value for money.
Strangely, the Corder Chardonnay 2012 R90, failed to fire as Elgin chardonnays usually do, seeming a little confected and lacking harmony.

Making lists

The agony of indecision is matched only by the relief of finishing my selection of wineries and wines for two lists I’ve recently been asked to compile.

The more difficult of the pair was that requested by my colleague, Tim James, who regularly every two years, conducts a poll among various industry people about their top wineries and wines.

Participants have to list – according to any criteria they wish to use and in any order, their top five wineries, a further 15 to make up the top 20, then three re-invented or up-and-coming. As for individual best wines, of whites and reds, five of each are required, with just three each for sparkling and dessert or fortified wines.

Quality, as it should be, is my immediate criteria; a subjective judgement, of course, so one can expect to find outliers in the top five and twenty. Consistency would follow; a one or even two year wonder won’t crack it. Knowing and understanding the winemaker’s inherent philosophy, as well as the wines themselves, provide confidence of choice. But as satisfyingly logical as such critera are, it’s easier to look for readier solutions: who’s being talked or written about, who’s winning medals, who’s just up there. Plucking names from out of your head is so much easier than the confusion that arises from a trawl through Platter or old tasting notes.

When the results are announced, take into account the instant re-call factor.
If the best winery limit is difficult, James has created even more of a hornet’s nest with the up-and-coming category; the competition is so hot out there, which of course is good news. Many more wineries have focus and a plan, but making good wine isn’t enough; getting noticed via today’s vibrant social media is vital, for all sizes of winery; more should learn how to use it effectively.

Sadly, my up-and-coming selections over the last two polls have born very little fruit. Just one I nominated last time has made it to my top 20 list now. Some are slower to show their true potential than others, so I live in hope for those still around (there’s at least one that no longer exists!).

Top whites and reds? No vintage required, so consistency rules, but with only five candidates, who to leave out causes painful head-scratching. One can argue, as I do, that it is a useful outlet for stand out wines in a large range, where the other members don’t allow for the producer to be a top 20 nomination. The good news arising from this situation is the exponential growth, in both shades, of choice in varietal wines or blends.
The same is true of sparkling wines – read Méthode Cap Classique – I can’t imagine anyone nominating any other style. The specialists tend to take this category, partly because they have at least one wine which isn’t rushed on to the market and with such a technical style, the upward learning curve is necessarily long.

Dessert wines have always been one of South Africa’s strengths; here James has teamed them with fortified. On the whole, there are more and better dessert wines, so I had little hesitation in giving them the lion’s share.

The agony was eventually ended with a sigh of resignation that I’d never be entirely happy. I’m rather hoping my fellow pollsters make good my omissions.

Michael Fridjhon’s request for suggestions across 16 categories for this year’s Six Nations allows for more liberal choice: up to 10 wines for each. In such categories as white varieties (other than sauvignon, chardonnay or riesling), sauvignon and chardonnay themselves, white blends, shiraz, cabernet, other red varieties, Bordeaux-style blends, other Red Blends and dessert wines, the difficulty is to limit the selection to 10 – in fact they could make up the whole show.

Of more interest is that in selecting riesling, aromatics other than riesling (gewürztraminer and viognier), pinot noir and other red varieties (think grenache, cinsaut), there are, if not 10, many more likely candidates than in the past.

What this indicates is that, at last, South Africa is gaining some depth of quality across the board, a strength that has seen the Aussies usually taking country of show on the (now) six nations (it started as three) South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, now joined by Chile, Argentina and, last year, the United States.

My feeling that we’re gaining depth is borne out by something Fridjhon wrote when asking for our help: ‘Last year – while we didn’t win the majority of the trophies – we came within a whisker of winning the whole event.’ In other words, we did well in each category.
The competition is held somewhere around end July, early August with the results announced a couple of months later.

Results of James’ Grape poll will be revealed somewhat sooner; the value of either will undoubtedly be open to debate.

But what isn’t in dispute is that thanks to an ever enthusiastic and inquisitive bunch of youngsters and not-so-youngsters, the South African wine scene has now reached a stage of exciting evolution.

Constantia

Constantia, the name resonates with history and the beginnings of South African wine. It was here, in 1685, Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel was granted a very large piece of land but only a small portion, below Constantiaberg, was planted to vines. Much of the rest was grazing land, corn fields and gardens.

Fame for Constantia, the great sweet wine mentioned by both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and beloved by Napoleon, came in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Over the following hundred years, Constantia, as a wine area, fell into neglect with urbanisation an ever-present threat, which it remains to this day. In his book, Wines of the New South Africa, Tradition and Revolution, Tim James suggests several reasons why Constantia survived as a wine region, siting as a crucial element ‘state ownership of Groot Constantia. Without the continuation of this large estate at the centre of the area, strengthened against demand for profitable returns or windfall gains, it would have been virtually impossible to prevent more land being swallowed up in difficult times by the luxurious suburb that presses hard against the vineyards.’

Looking down Constantia valley with Constantia Glen vineyards in foreground
Looking down Constantia valley with Constantia Glen vineyards in foreground

Fast forward to the 1980s, when Duggie Jooste purchased Klein Constantia, the Muellers Buitenverwachting, Dave McCay Constantia Uitsig and JCI Steenberg, that Constantia began its vinous rejuvenation and rapid rise among the Cape’s quality wine areas.
Klein Constantia’s maiden 1986 sauvignon blanc ensured the area’s name was made for this variety; Steenberg’s Sauvignon Blanc Reserve and Buitenverwachting’s Husseys Vlei provided further confirmation. These and whites generally stole the show; the elegant, decidedly medium-bodied reds Neil Ellis created at Groot Constantia in the 1970s, which occasioned Wednesday queues for a one case per customer limit, somehow didn’t manage the transition to the new era. A proviso to that would be ‘with the exception of Buitenverwachting’s Grand Vin’, the Bordeaux-style blend which morphed into Christine in 1991. The problems elsewhere in the valley were of leaf-roll virus, less than ideal vineyard positioning and the less savvy viticulture of the time.

Steenberg changed Constantia’s red wine image, especially with its merlot (admittedly a love-it or hate-it wine with its strong eucalyptus/mint character) but other reds in the range, including unusually nebbiolo, are also good, if with a more New World timbre than colleagues further north in the valley. Better ripeness here has to do, in part, with the vineyards’ lying lower down the slopes, so receiving longer sunlight.

It took a tragedy for Constantia’s red wines to gain greater recognition. One of the great fires of 2000 raced along the top and upper slopes of Constantiaberg, leaving blackened stumps of the pine trees and bare, scorched earth, especially at the northern end of the valley, near Constantia Nek.

The Phoenixes that arose from this sad sight were Eagles’ Nest, Constantia Glen and Beau Constantia. Lying on the lofty and sometimes north facing heights at the north end of Constantiaberg, each of the trio enjoys the late rays of the afternoon sun; ideal for ripening red grapes.

The proof has been seen in Eagles’ Nest Syrah and Merlot, two wines which reflect both modern features of ripe tannins and freshness with the elegant restraint of those old Groot Constantia reds and Buitenverwachting’s Christine.

Three vintages of Constantia Glen Five tasted at the launch of 2009 with bunch of petit verdot.
Three vintages of Constantia Glen Five tasted at the launch of 2009 with bunch of petit verdot.

Now there’s Constantia Glen, neighbour to both Eagles’ Nest and Beau Constantia. I say ‘now’, as after a less than certain start, with pricing, name and release-date changes, the team has found a course that most comfortably fits them and their wines. The first flagship Bordeaux-style blend, merlot-led 2007, labelled Constantia Glen was released as a too young, two-year-old. The latest vintage, 2009, released last week under the Constantia Glen Five label (for the five varieties in the blend), is far more settled as a five-year-old and good value for its R270. Significantly, petit verdot is the major player, making up 40% of the blend, merlot 25%, cab franc and malbec nearly equal, with just a 3% splash of cabernet sauvignon; the whole balanced and harmonious; restraint still evident even with its great breadth of flavour woven into its silky flesh. Freshness and that finishing clip of fine resistance provide the sort of precision French consultant, Dominique Hebrard told me is his end goal, when I tasted the components and potential blend with him some years ago. Whether that blend made it through the demanding scrutiny of the Constantia Glen team, (including our hosts at the launch, co-owner Gus Allen and winemaker, Justin van Wyk), I can do no better than sum it up as I did after that initial tasting: a wine of classic elegance that is pure Constantia.

It’s a pity that, as good as the area’s white wines are, the reds don’t receive as much publicity. Here’s a marketing opportunity for a winter show along the lines of Constantia Fresh, the summer show held at Buitenverwachting, but confined to Constantia red wines of origin. Surely something that would benefit winelovers and Constantia alike.

French lessons

I’ve already written about the well-known Loire winery, Domaine Huet, barring two English journalists from tasting its wines at a public event; now my attention has been turned to two producers who have fallen foul of the French authorities.

One of M Gibulot's vineyards. Pic courtesy of Decanter
One of M Gibulot’s vineyards. Pic courtesy of Decanter

M. Emmanuel Giboulot of the eponymous Domaine in Burgundy, is facing a fine of up to €30 000 and a possible spell in prison, for failing to spray his vines! He was ordered by a local authority to use insecticide to protect against flavescence doree, one of a group of diseases in which tiny organisms kill young vines and render older ones uneconomical. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, there’s no known control for it, although leafhoppers, a vector, are presumably what the local authority wanted farmers to spray against.

But M. Giboulot farms biodynamically, as has his family for the past 40 years; not only would spraying be counteractive to that practice, but kill bees and other insects that are crucial to the diversity of the eco-system.

A verdict is due 7th April.

Given the particular ownership set up of Burgundy, where a single vineyard may have several producers owning a couple of rows, I’ve always wondered how credible organic or biodynamic farming is, when your neighbour a metre away chooses to use pesticides. But that’s another matter.

I seem to remember reading one comment M Giboulot made in his defence at the hearing which alluded to vines farmed biodynamically being stronger and more naturally resistant to disease than those grown conventionally. An interesting point that I checked with Johan Reyneke.

Reyneke referred to information given to him by Dr Uwe Hoffman from Geisenheim University. Apparently by building humus levels in the soil to 5%, vines’ natural resistance against disease increases three fold. Because organic and biodynamic practices encourages microbial activity with plenty of organic matter for the microbes to convert to humus, such humus build up is more likely than on land farmed conventionally. Greater diversity in the eco-system is also a stabiliser. There are other pointers which Reyneke doesn’t mention but he concludes ‘I think one could deduce that vineyards farmed organically and/or biodynamically are indeed more stable and resistant to disease than those farmed conventionally.’

From this end of Africa, I find it very odd that a wine farmer is prosecuted for refusing to spray his vines. A few years ago a farmer, somewhere in the Swartland, was, if not prosecuted, severely criticised for spraying too enthusiastically.

But the main point for me here is that the French have an authority which can order how a farmer should treat his vines, at least in regard to preventative sprays.

What we know very much better is that the French AOC system has strict rules about which vines can be planted where, pruning, yield and even start of harvest.

So it’s less surprising that M Olivier Cousin (both bearded and biodynamic) is feeling the might of the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) for using the Loire AOC term ‘Anjou’ on his labels, even though he quit the appellation, believing it no longer reflected a guarantee of quality; M Cousin also claims it contributes to polluting the environment through, according to a local newspaper, giving permission for the use of around 134 chemicals.

AnjoupurBretonNot only has he illegally used the Anjou name on his cabernet franc, labelling it Anjou Pur Breton (Breton is a synonym for cab franc in his part of the Loire), but he has poked fun at the appellation system by putting ‘Appellation Olivier Cousin’ on his cases.

M Cousin appears on the label in all his hirsute glory, sitting astride an anchor bunches of grapes strategically placed and a raised goblet of wine that could be interpreted as ‘santé’ or something a little less polite to the INAO!

In this case, according to Decanter’s website, M Cousin is facing a potential fine of €5000, somewhat less than M Giboulot, which tells you something about the different levels of misdemeanour in the INAO’s eyes.

I should point out both gentlemen have enthusiastic bands of supporters.

My feelings, not on just these cases but more generally, are as follows: since the first appellation rules were first introduced in Chateauneuf-du-Pape in 1936, much has changed, including today’s younger generation that is much less parochial than their grandparents or parents; they travel and work in other parts of the wine world, where they experience far fewer restrictions. One can understand rising tensions between them and an inflexible INAO. Inflexibility and apparently not listening to those with whom they should enjoy a symbiotic relationship to promote quality from their region would seem ill-advised given a changing and falling customer base and climate. Adapt or die and survival of the fittest are appropriate phrases for the authorities to consider.

That sentiment doesn’t apply only to traditional wine-producing countries. Even with our less restrictive regulations here, we also need to be aware of changes that will help drive our wines forward in quality and customer appreciation.

The Wine and Spirit Board did succumb to pressure from Riesling producers, via their Just Riesling group, and others, including journalists, to allow that name on labels without the qualifiers Rhine or Weisser, but we’re still stuck with Cape Riesling – no doubt due to Distell’s own vested interests.

The various producer interest groups, such as Just Riesling, offer a good, influential body when lobbying is necessary, but it’s really up to all of us who love wine and have a stake in South Africa’s ongoing success that occurrences such as have happened in France do not take place here.

Improving chardonnays, difficult vintages

Unoaked chardonnays have been regarded by many as wimpish when compared with their, more serious, oaked big brothers.

They have rarely enjoyed good press, or much press of any sort. But quietly, as the vines (and the winemakers) have matured, so have these unoaked chardonnays. For any who struggle to think of international benchmarks, Chablis is home to the style; not all Chablis is unoaked, but the best of those wines that are has the knack of developing from a fresh, slightly citrusy youngster into deep, nutty maturity. Blanc de Blancs Champagne, also 100% chardonnay, develops in a similar curve.

I don’t think we’re anywhere close to reaching the same standard of Chablis, but there is a growing number of wines that are interesting enough to be worth wider attention than they currently enjoy.

Delheim - Chardonnay 2013 new look LRBoth Tim James and I agreed the Delheim Chardonnay Unwooded 2013, from 15 year old vines, is one of them. For a youngster it is very expressive with ripe, almost tropical lemon zest aromas. Zest there is too in its fruity acids but time on the lees has balanced these with enriching substance. I – but not Tim – find a slightly edgy finish, but nothing that a few months won’t round out. Anticipate pleasurable drinking, with or without food, over the next year or two – but probably not longer; your R77 won’t have been badly spent.

From the point of view of vine age, three vintages of Seven Springs Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay (2011, 12 and 13), provided insight as to what happens with young vines. Owners, Tim and Vaughan Pearson kindly gave us the three wines in the interests of tracking development. The trio are in a more elegant, less forceful style than the Delheim; not surprising given the vineyards enjoy similar conditions to wineries in Hemel en Aarde Ridge but lies outside that Ward in the WO Overberg. The youngest, to be released in three or four months (for R75), has noticeable citrus, white flower, cream notes, great freshness and lightness of touch, if less intensity than the wine from the warmer region. A year older and the freshness is still here with similar but more intense and lengthy fruit. Even the maiden crop 2011, has acquired more than just bottle age.

Unwooded chardonnays might be gaining in character, but oaked versions – especially SevenSprings Chardonnay 2011they’re now much more sensitively treated – remain the popular favourite. Maybe it’s the youth of Seven Springs vines, but their oaked Chardonnay 2011 (R114), although with easy balance, appears less interesting than the unoaked; maybe it will benefit from a further year or two.

Nothing could illustrate the difference between the cooler climate Seven Springs enjoys and the warmer one of Voor-Paardeberg than Vondeling Chardonnay, also from 2011.You can just taste the sun in this wine, but in no way is it overripe or flabby; rather it brims with mouthfilling vibrancy and richness in the elegant style associated with the whole range. If it doesn’t elicit a smile, the R85 price tag will; what excellent value! But both these chardonnays deserve to find fans.

Winelovers might struggle a little more with some 2010 red wines. I see from a report I wrote that an extreme heat wave in the early part of March was detrimental to fruit still hanging, which presumably much cabernet on virused vines was. My maxim is always follow the winemaker rather than an area or vintage; it’s once again born out here.

The struggle shows in Neethlingshof Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (R76) which lacks any real substance and has a tell-tale jammy yet hard finish. Even the usually reliably consistent

The animal ploughs at Waterkloof
The animal ploughs at Waterkloof

Plaisir de Merle Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (R150) is more evolved and lacking depth; it’s a good candidate for drinking before the more ageworthy 2009. Of the three cabernets we tasted, Waterkloof came off the best: harmony between its juicy ripe fruit, flesh and structure provide satisfying drinking now, though neither Tim nor I believe ageing it will bring further improvements.

Merlot, as is so regularly recorded, is a difficult customer at the best of times; a vintage such as 2010 didn’t help. Without the requisite flesh but a little too much extraction, Waterkloof’s seems rather ordinary.

Addendum to the same farm’s Syrah that Tim James wrote about here: I also tasted the second bottle the day after he’d opened it; thankfully, it was a totally different proposition to, what I described as the oxidised state of the one we’d shared at our tasting.

A final thought. I really believe that to be fair to a wine and to winelovers basing shopping decisions on others’ tasting notes, a second bottle (if available) should be opened when there’s doubt about the first, and, importantly, the producer is normally reliable.

Harvest time

Harvest time means early mornings for harvesters, late nights for winemakers, truck loads of grapes rolling into the cellars, filling barrels to empty tanks (and vice versa) to make space for the new crop … in other words, a hive of activity.

High-lying Pinot Noir nearly ready for picking
High-lying Pinot Noir nearly ready for picking

But not every day is the same; much depends on the weather. It was rain that left Andries Burger and his Paul Cluver Estate Wines’ team without any grapes to process the morning I visited this week. They’ve instituted a new regime this year: harvesting starts at midnight and ends at 6am so when the winemaking team arrive at 6.30, the grapes are ready and waiting. The harvesting team like this arrangement, as it’s cooler at night and presumably they’re not plagued by heat-loving insects. But even with headlamps, nighttime harvesting requires extra care, especially on the slopes where the Cluver team were due to pick but it was deemed too dangerous.

Things might have been quiet on the grape front, but that didn’t mean there was nothing

Even the kitchen whisk is useful in the cellar to stir up the yeast.
Even the kitchen whisk is useful in the cellar to stir up the yeast.

going on. A young German intern was energetically rolling barrels down a slipway, emptying them of a pre-juice filling treatment and adroitly manoeuvring each down the length of the cellar. Paul, a French intern, was filling small barrels with Oak Valley shiraz from a tank (neighbour, Oak Valley hires winemaking space at Cluver; this year, due to Peter Visser’s ill health, Burger will be in charge of vinifying all their wines). To avoid over-spill, he was using a nifty piece of equipment with two pins, which are inserted into the bung hole, and a battery-run light on top, which turns green once the wine hits the pins, thus warning the person filling the barrel that it’s nearly full. Anyone who’s peered into a barrel through those small bung holes will appreciate it’s not easy to see how full or empty it is.  It’s a great idea in theory, but one has to look very sharpish to warn the pump controller to turn it off once the green light is activated, otherwise the wine gushes out, as Paul discovered at his first try!

A German Stück, oak barrel which Andries Burger intends using for riesling.

Further down the cellar, Burger’s assistant, Drew, and a cellarhand, were paying detailed attention to bunches of grapes in several lug boxes. They removed 40 berries from each bunch, weighed then crushed them before taking a sugar reading. This is all part of annual harvest data keeping that may provide valuable information down the line. Burger pulled out a bunch of riesling, which looked perfect to me, until he removed a few berries to reveal the telltale signs of botrytis in the middle of the tightly packed bunch. This is not something wanted in the regular Dry Encounter Riesling (previously labelled Riesling) but it is an indication that 2014 is likely to be a good year for the Cluver’s fabulous Noble Late Harvest riesling.

Vines are only a small part of the Cluver’s 2400 hectare property; both apples and pears are substantial income earners and are harvested around the same time as grapes. And they need to be treated just as gently. After a drive around the farm with Liesl Rust (née Cluver), we pass a slow-moving tractor pulling three large bins full of apples. ‘Appearance is an important part of selling an apple,’ Rust tells me, ‘so the drivers know not to do anything which could bruise them.’

Cluverbarreltrack25214As a Biodiversity & Wine Initiative Champion, the Cluvers are naturally enthusiastic about eradicating aliens and preserving the fynbos. Aliens are put to good use, rather than just burned. Many have been incorporated into the wooden bridges such as those in the photos. And the familiar looking slats are nothing less than staves from old wine barrels. Despite the rather large gaps between the staves, it all feels gratifyingly stable, though I wouldn’t like to be riding hell for leather over them on a mountain bike, which riders in the Cape Epic will be doing shortly. Next to the amphitheatre – yet another string to the creative Cluver bow, where popular concerts are held during summer – Dr Cluver has built yet more mountain bike obstacles. Here, the old barrel heads have been put to good use.

The benefit of an occasional fynbos burn is evident in the re-appearance of lush growth where a fierce fire destroyed hectares, and damaged Dr Paul Cluver’s hand, some two or three years ago. Even in mid-summer, a wide spectrum of beautiful Ericas are there to admire.

Lunch with Burger, the interns and Burgundian, Martin Prieur, who has been consulting on the Cluver chardonnay and pinot for the past few years, is followed by a quick tasting of some of the currently available wines. A superb 2013 Gewurztraminer, 2102 Pinot Noir and Close Encounter Riesling 2012 more than uphold the Cluver name as one of the Cape’s top Cape. Look out too for the new Village Pinot Noir 2013, a fruity, easy-drinking pinot, which responds positively to chilling and costs a reasonable R80.

Cluver Village Pinot

Banned

Do wine writers have an incontrovertible right to taste a producer’s wines? I doubt it’s something the media, let alone wine lovers, have cause to think about often, if at all.

But recently two British journalists were told by legendary Loire producer, Domaine Huet, at the annual local wine exhibition, that they may not taste the wines. I don’t want to dwell on this specific case; although I’ve read some background, further enquiries suggest there’s more to the story.

It’s as a general principle that’s given me food for thought.Banned

Phrased as it is, my immediate answer to that question would be no. No producer is under any obligation to offer wine writers, critics, call us what you will, the opportunity to taste their wines whether by invitation to the property, private tastings elsewhere or when sending out samples. Locally, producers, or maybe it’s their PR companies, pick and choose which media they will interact with, which doesn’t mean they don’t want the others to taste and review their wines.  They presumably target those from whom they believe they’ll gain maximum publicity; though I do sometimes think it’s all a bit random.  That said, there’s nothing to prevent the rest from buying the wines for that purpose.

In a world of true independence, there should be no freebies of any sort. But we don’t live in such a world; the relationship between producer and writer is often symbiotic, which doesn’t necessarily result in biased reviews and at least allows for reviews. Wine media are notoriously badly paid; having to fork out for bottles of wine, especially the more expensive, would leave many blank spaces.

But I divert.

If a producer privately refuses to let a member or members of the media to taste his or her wines, that’s one matter, one that would probably remain something between them, though I can think of a few members of the local media who would make a meal of it.

It’s a different matter if such refusal is at a tasting where others are present, as it was in the Huet case. However civil the exchange, the refusal would surely be so unusual as to raise eyebrows, wherever the event, whoever is involved.

The point is, once a producer’s wines are out in the market, he or she can’t stop any member of the media (or indeed the public in this day and age of the blogger) from buying and reviewing them.

Negative reviews, whatever has brought them about, including the producer refusing to let the reviewer taste the wines, is something most winemakers have to endure.

There can be few incidents too big to be worth more than bad PR, which is what a recalcitrant producer is likely to receive, especially turning away a writer in public.

So, while wine writers don’t have an incontrovertible right to taste any producers’ wines, I’d think very carefully before banning a writer from doing so.

Oak, viognier & other tricky subjects

There’s so much we take for granted with wine. I was reminded of this failing whilst tasting and chatting with Glenelly winemaker, Luke O’Cuinnegain last week. His own aesthetic matches that of his gracious owner, May Eliane de Lencquesaing (this amazing lady is 90 this year and as active as ever); elegance and moderation.

We’d covered alcohol levels: O’Cuinnegain believes these can be kept lower at Glenelly due to their virus-free vines which ripen fruit at lower sugars. That, in a previous life, these vineyards were a fruit orchard helps, the soils being ‘clean’, as does the fact that they are bordered by few other vineyards – believe it or not.

Then it was the turn of oak; again, the Glenelly sensitive, understanding approach allows the barrels to benefit the wine rather than dominate it. O’Cuinnegain goes for 300 or 500 litre in size, varying percentage of new, depending on wine and quality, with toasting either blond or medium. A bewildering array of combinations, but one only has to taste the Grand Vin Chardonnay 2013 (40% new 500 litre) and flagship Lady May 2010 (24 months 100% new Taransaud 300 litre) to taste how both complement the wine in style and quantity.

Even so, O’Cuinneagain isn’t entirely happy. ‘The Bordelais have such an advantage on us and other far flung wine producing regions,’ he sighs. ‘They can order barrels closer to harvest time, when the outcome is much clearer, so specify their requirements to the nearby coopers. We have to order at flowering to ensure they’ll arrive in time for harvest; much can change in that time.’

All the more important then that local producers have a close relationship with the coopers they work with – and that the coopers themselves are honest with the producers.

The impressive improvements that have been made in the use of oak are only emphasised by those with still a way to go; too much oak of the wrong sort remains a problem. There will always be those who like the taste of new oak, but what a waste of wine! Fortunately, their numbers are decreasing.

viognier grapesOne variety where the use of oak, as well as approach to the grape itself, has improved is viognier. Remember those oaky, blowsy, oily versions? They’ve slimmed down and freshened up. I don’t know how many Condrieu wines local viognier producers have tasted, but they’ve certainly learnt how to imbue the grape with more palate appeal and food friendliness.

When I met him at the Hemel en Aarde Pinot Celebration, UK wine writer, Tim Atkin MW, kindly offered my colleague, Tim James and me, the opportunity of tasting the same wines that he would be over the following weekend in one of his ‘mop up’ tastings – wines from producers he didn’t visit this time. Tim J was away, but I leapt at the opportunity, hoping to come across wines I didn’t know or those I hadn’t tasted for a while. My hopes were realised on both scores.

The wines were presented (sighted) in varietal or blend categories, making it possible to get an overall feeling for developments within each group. We tasted in silence – except for Tim’s iPod, which entertained with an eclectic selection (Tim J wouldn’t have approved) – but the one comment he did pass was to mention how viognier has improved. There were only eight in the line-up, but apart from a couple where the sweetness needed a little more acid for balance, there was freshness, judicious oak and varietal character that wasn’t in your face.

No surprises that I enjoyed the Tamboerskloof 2012 and Beau Constantia 2013 (though it needs a little more harmony that time will bring), but new to me were Backsberg Hillside 2013 and Flagstone Word of Mouth 2012, both have elegance and freshness as well as subtle yet pure varietal fragrance.

SB Viognier 2012Add one more to that list in the shape of Saronsberg Viognier 2012. Is it becoming the thing to have an official launch several years after release of your first wines? Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum did it last year, some six years after his maiden 2007 wines. Nic van Huysteen, owner and Dewaldt Heyns, winemaker of Saronsberg took it a few steps further, waiting until 10 years had expired. It’s an interesting concept, especially as some folk are in too much of a rush to launch; either their wines aren’t ready or they have yet to get to grips with a comfortable style.

If Heyns will forgive me, both he and his wines have matured well. At last week’s event, he spoke fluently and with authority, like a winemaker who knows his goals and understands how to get there – not rushing things being one.

What I particularly like about his viognier is that it combines the full body that suits the grape, ensuring expressive varietal character and rich satiny texture, set off by that all-important freshness. Power with restraint sums it up. I reckon for R90, it’s good value too.

The joy of viognier is that it complements our many Asian-inspired dishes. Perhaps we can edge towards feeling more confident, if not taking for granted, that South African viognier will fit that bill.

 

Probably the most-photographed statue on a Cape wine farm. The lady by the lake at Saronsberg.
Probably the most-photographed statue on a Cape wine farm. The lady by the lake at Saronsberg.

Catching up

I cannot believe the disruption caused by a corrupted Outlook, leading to the purchase of a new laptop (due anyway), and all the associated brain scratching when pressing a button fails the automatic recognition of the old machine.

Hence the somewhat prolonged silence here.

In the meantime, the Hemel and Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration has come and gone and I’ve enjoyed some wines totally new to me.

A few comments on the Pinot celebration. The lasting overall memory is one of quality, especially the food – or at least that served at events I managed to attend. It made such an impression because at many wine events, the food is not given the same attention as the wine. As Pinot is so food friendly, doing duty with dishes that can partner white wine as well as red, the Hemel en Aarde producers’ efforts was much appreciated and should pay positive dividends.

Martinborough Pinot Noirs presented by La Vierge winemaker Gerhard Smith
Martinborough Pinot Noirs presented by La Vierge winemaker Gerhard Smith

If I have one complaint it was that the programme was finalised far too late; this saw a rush for some individual events with winelovers often unable to get in or having to re-jig their programme. Indeed, the biggest problem was deciding which of the Saturday events to attend. I opted for La Vierge, where winemaker, Gerhard Smith presented all three vintages of the farm’s Pinot, followed by six Pinots from the Martinborough region of New Zealand, where he worked for nine years. With these we were given ‘breakfast’ – tasting-size bacon and mushroom bites, smoked salmon and even scrambled egg. I was more interested in the Martinborough wines themselves, so they went down solo, but the home grown wines seemed happy to be partnered with breakfast.

Martinborough is the northernmost area in New Zealand recognised for Pinot Noir (it’s just north-west of Wellington at the south of the North Island) with the majority of producers making make one or more versions. Although styles vary – none could have been at more extreme ends of the spectrum than the ethereal Kusuda 2011 and more rustic, extracted Cambridge Road 2011 (though it did enjoy recognisable pinot flavours) – I believe the area has been able to establish its reputation for quality pinot, at least in part, through it being the focus for the majority of producers.

The Hemel en Aarders might have less experience and still young vines, but I don’t think their communal goal of making great pinot noir should be underestimated. They might not see eye to eye over everything, but that doesn’t include the Holy Grail of pinot!

It is more difficult to pinpoint differences between the three Wards than I imagined; on the day, the five wines from Hemel en Aarde Ridge appeared the most homogenous, though Hannes Storm, winemaker at Hamilton Russell, as well as his own, rather impressive pinots under the Storm label, did talk about structure as a common feature in the lowest Ward of Hemel en Aarde Valley.

Looking down Hemel en Aarde valley towards Walker Bay
Looking down Hemel en Aarde valley towards Walker Bay

Unfortunately, many couldn’t make it to this, most valuable of tastings, due to the early Friday afternoon start. Perhaps next year, a re-arrangement of the programme would allow many more to attend. The idea is even to change the time of year. Whatever, this, like the Swartland Revolution, seems destined to become an annual event. In many ways, the Hemel en Aarders more structured approach yields the better value with so many possibilities of tastings, wine and food pairings at individual wineries. I say this without having attended the Revolution. Both have their place.

Overall verdict – book early for the next one; a stimulating and happy event.

I love Italy and its wines, so it was a great pleasure to taste the Bastianich range, a name that’s new to me (though I understand it’s well known on Masterchef); the family produce wines in the Friuli district of north-east Italy, a region I don’t know that well, apart from its close and arguably derided association with pinot grigio.

There is a pinot grigio in the range, which is pleasant if unremarkable. For the same price, R159.99, Vigne Orsone Friulano 2012 enjoys more persuasive character. Originally known as Tocai Friulano, that descriptor had to be dropped as it did in Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris due to pressure from Hungary.  The Bastianich example has subtle vinosity rather than obvious fruit, refreshing acidity and overall elegance. Typically good with food, I noted – the usual comment about Italian wines. More rustic, but none the worse for that is the Refosco 2011; at the same price, this offers excellent value because it’s individual and unpretentious. Long associated with Friuli, the wine – or this one anyway – was characterised by solid dark, sour cherry and earthy tones, chunky but unintimidating tannins which gave it an unpretentious, easy drinking profile.

For those who enjoy Amarone, and have a deeper pocket (though you shouldn’t begrudge the R565.50 outlay), there’s the Bastianich Calabrone 2009, a blend with refosco. It has authentic dried grape character but is not overly raisiny, which can destroy individuality. Rich and silky, it’s also seamless and elegant.

The wines are imported by Fratelli Foods or contact julie@fratellifoods.co.za to find out where they are available.

With the way the Rand has disappeared off the radar, anyone even vaguely interested in experiencing flavours beyond South African borders should not miss this opportunity; imports are going to be like hen’s teeth very soon.

Enough for now, some more local finds shortly – promise!

Pinot on my mind

I was quite taken aback when I saw on Twitter recently a conversation between some of my UK colleagues along the lines of ‘how to love nebbiolo’ with specific reference to Barolo and Barbaresco. The inference was that it takes time. Not something that bothered me, I was hooked after tasting my first bottle; whether it was a Barolo, Barbaresco or nebbiolo from one of the other designated areas in the Piedmont area, I can’t remember, but it was addiction at first taste – tannins and all. But then I do love tannins, succulent grape tannins that is, wine plastered with oak tannins is too much like chewing splinters.

Of course, the one drawback with Barbaresco or Barolo is the price; good ones don’t come cheap, but from other parts of Piedmont, a Langhe nebbiolo for instance, from a quality producer, can offer a good alternative and good value.

The holy grail, pinot noir
The holy grail, pinot noir

There’s also a case for steps in ‘how to love pinot noir, although the intimidating factor is unlikely to be tannins, but could be all to do with price. Leaving aside Burgundy itself, which is now priced in the stratosphere – in £s, let alone Rands – local pinot noirs also have a price drawback for the average punter. Most cost well over the three figure mark, which doesn’t tempt novices. The trouble is pinot doesn’t do ordinary, which in less than understanding hands, it too often can be, especially when made in the manner of cabernet or other more tannic red varieties.

On the other hand, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz can produce perfectly drinkable, if not particularly complex wines, often well under R100.

It is very difficult to find pinots under R100. A bit of research among twitter friends drew a short list at this level; of those, I’m familiar with the Newton Johnson’s Felicité, Haute Cabrière Unwooded, De Bos, Elgin Vintners and De Morgenzon for Woolworths. Depending on your taste, these would all pass muster. I cannot vouch for Peter Falke, Katvis, Quando, van Loveren Blue Velvet or Rietvallei, none of which I’m familiar with. By far the majority of South African pinot noirs fall into the R100 plus price range.

The Hemel en Aarde valley
The Hemel en Aarde valley

I’m happy to say, it would be a pity, given the steep upward curve of quality, if winelovers didn’t venture a little deeper into their pockets. Yes, South African pinot noir has come a long way since Tim Hamilton Russell started his eponymous winery in the Hemel en Aarde valley back in the late 1970s. I think the valley itself is now synonymous with pinot (and chardonnay for that matter), so it’s appropriate that the valley’s producers have got together for this weekend’s Hemel en Aarde Pinot Celebration. I’m very much looking forward to it, especially the comprehensive tasting of the valley’s pinots, which I already feel show differences depending on where they are grown. Those from the lower part of the valley appear to be denser with more tannic structure, whereas further up, there’s a cooler, purer fruited profile. But let’s see if that’s repeated at Friday’s horizontal tasting. Given what I’ve said about Burgundy prices, the red Burgundy tasting which follows the local one, will be a real bonus.

I see from what my colleague, Tim James, wrote in his latest blog, word of this celebration doesn’t appear to have spread to beyond the wheat curtain, though I believe it is sold out.

Hopefully it will become an annual event as, on paper, this year’s programme sounds well thought out and good value – an excellent introduction for any timidly dipping a toe into pinot.

Of course, the Hemel en Aarde valley isn’t the only area producing good pinot. I was recently directed (by one half of the winemaking team) to a new one from a vineyard close to Faure in Stellenbosch. Coincidentally, the other half of the winemaking team is of the same name; Jeanine Faure, by day, winemaker at Dornier; out of hours, producer, with her other half (Aussie, Mick Craven, – who insists she’s his ‘better half!’ – by day, himself part of the Mulderbosch winemaking team) of Antipodean wines. So far the range is limited to this pinot, but there’s a syrah, clairette blanche and an ‘orange’ pinot gris potentially on the cards this year.

AntipodeanpinotlabelTheir philosophy of ‘less is more’ means the only addition was a little sulphur and, while the wine did spend time in oak, ‘not a barrel was newer than 3 years old was used,’ insists Craven. He’s a ‘huge believer’ in whole-bunch ferments, which provides a greater level of freshness and purity. Attributes which I also very much like in pinot and find in this wine, which clocks in at a reasonable 13.5% alcohol. What really appeals even now is the dark (as opposed to strawberry red) fruit and, behind the sparky freshness, pinot’s seductive silkiness.

As usual, I savoured the wine over two or three evenings, so can safely say patience over the next few (3 to 4 years?) will be rewarded. And you get all this for R129.50 (well, at Wine Concepts, where I bought the wine).

Frankly, I’d much prefer spending that little bit more and getting much more in the bottle. Though I can’t see any reason why that holy grail winemakers talk of when thinking about pinot, shouldn’t be sought in delicious, unpretentious pinots under R100.

The Faure farm and vineyard (in red), source of this pinot noir
The Faure farm and vineyard (in red), source of this pinot noir

Oh, the attractive Antipodean label, which is in fashionable wrap-around form. As you might guess from the photo, the scene depicts the Faure farm with the little red patch, the pinot noir vineyard from which the wine is made. The plan is to continue this theme with the other single vineyard wines.

May your love affair with pinot noir arrive with joy, give much pleasure and long endure.