Wine is constantly evolving, whether it’s the ageing process in a single bottle or, more generically, in style.
Since not many winelovers hang around waiting for evolution in the bottle, the focus here is on style. What is viewed as old style today was once new style, itself taking over from a previous style and so the cycle continues.
Think of those big, lusciously buttery chardonnays, slathered with new oak; they are now mostly considered old-style. Thanks to cooler climates, such as Elgin, leading the way, today’s chardonnays have less new oak and undergo little, if any, malo-lactic fermentation; both yield brighter fruit, more freshness and wines that become more interesting with time.
When Tim James and I got together recently to try a few fairly new wines, we were taken back in time by La Petite Ferme’s Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2016. If not big in alcohol, it’s under 13%, it is certainly buxom and buttery, bearing those tell-tale notes of charry new oak and regular lees-stirring. Less obvious, for now, are the equally shared fruit sources of Franschhoek and Elim. There are some who still like this style; whether they’re willing to fork out R200 is another matter.
Villiera’s new Bush Vine Blanc Fumé 2016 lies at the other end of the spectrum: there’s restraint yet also interest evading so many sauvignon blancs. Partial skin-fermentation in an egg-shape tank, then into barrel (50% new), places it firmly in the new-style camp; it adds grip and freshness to balance the weight gleaned from oak and lees. I’m willing to wager its R144 price tag on a more interesting maturity than the above chardonnay, or probably the full in-your-face, passion fruit Constantia Royale Sauvignon Blanc 2016 we also tried; a few months should calm the more overt edges. There are others of similar ilk, if not the R100 price tag.
Few are taking the new, lower alcohol, fresh and minimalist approach further than Mick and Janine Craven; their seven-member WO Stellenbosch range has alcohols between 11% and 12% with just one tipping 13%. In his guide, John Platter would have referred to that last figure as ‘full-bodied’ in the early 1980s, whereas the lower levels were the norm. Tasting through the range at the recent launch, I can safely say the wines will please palates with such preferences, who have the patience to let these still youthfully unevolved wines to fill out and pockets to accommodate prices which relate to the limited quantity (roughly R150 to R250). The pinot noir, a black cherry-fragrance charmer, supple, delicate and with the daintiest of freshening tannins, as well as the more spicily perfumed and structured cinsaut (both around R200) give an idea now of the flavour concentration in the range but also promise to deliver more with time.
Each vintage has achieved noticeable improvements, 2016 in particular: ‘It’s 150% about farming,’ a telling comment from Mick.
Not all the wines Tim and I taste are as ambitious as the above; some are modest, unchallenging and bear a lesser price tag, there’s nothing wrong with that. But what some seems to miss is that this level too demands as much care and attention as the big guns.
There was a thought-provoking article in the New York Times last week about how Treasury Wine Estates crafts wines that sell in the sub-US$40/R501.20 bracket (US drinkers pay an average of US$9.89/R123.92 per bottle), starting with consumer preferences and work backwards. It’s worth a read.
The ‘engineering’ via ‘technological revolution has democratized decent wine. Thanks to pumps and powders, drinkers who can’t splurge no longer have to settle for plonk.’ Quality might have risen, but the reporter still describes the wines as ‘rich, syrupy and heavy.’ They, nevertheless match ‘the tastes of many newbie wine drinkers, who tend to prefer sweet wines that are low in astringency, bitterness and complexity.’ Or, ‘pretty much the antithesis of what the cognoscenti consider “good.”
No, not my style, but I acknowledge that when well-executed, it can attract new wine drinkers, who might or might not move on to more challenging, complex styles.
So how well do local wineries cater for the new, less-involved and/or wallet-pinched wine drinker?
Disappointingly, in the case of The Ploughman Sauvignon Blanc-Chenin Blanc 2016 and Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, both R80; more’s the pity as the story behind them is a heartening one. Dawid Diederiks, who used to be a labourer on the Swartland farm, Klein Môrewag, source of the grapes, now has farming rights, as do other workers. The main problem is a lack of balance; a finishing, unpalatable whoosh of acid in the red and a rather tired, fruitless sweetness in the white. All rather surprising, given vinification is at Perdeberg, a winery with a reputation for producing many delicious entry-level (as well as premium) wines.
Glenwood Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2016, for just R10 more than The Ploughman, is more successful and better value at this level; it’s drier, but 50% semillon lends a desirable lusciousness, sauvignon adding a refreshing moreishness.
I should add these are not the cheapest, or more significantly, the best value at the lower end of the price scale.
Whether a newcomer to wine or someone who tastes widely and seriously (but at neither stage of wine enjoyment being a snob or, equally objectionable, a reverse-snob), I believe we all want something that tastes delicious. That will always be new style.