Searching for identity

One of the major moans of wine writers – South African ones at least, though I’ve heard the same from UK colleagues – concerns the ubiquitous number of what are known as ‘international’ wines, those which could come from pretty well anywhere. Identifying them in a blind tasting can come down to a thumb suck. While many are well-made, they are formulaic rather than wines of personality, the latter revealing more about where they come from than the winemaker’s own handiwork in the cellar. Once one has experienced wines with real personality and a sense of origin, it’s difficult to get excited about the others.

That doesn’t mean wines with a sense of place are always easy to nail in a blind tasting; it takes experience to get a grip on their distinctive features. It’s one thing to be able to correctly say this pinot is from Burgundy, Côtes de Nuits, quite another to add it’s a Dujac Bonnes Mares (perhaps incidental to its sheer beauty!).

The pinots we tasted last Sunday, courtesy of Rosa Kruger, were somewhat more modest as compared with Bonnes Mares though well-regarded (and highly priced) in their home region of the Sonoma Coast. This Californian West Coast, cool-climate area is apparently now the ‘in’ area for pinot, having taken over that mantle from Oregon.

The vineyards, mostly tiny and planted in the middle of forests, lie at high altitude and in view of the sea, where cooling fog blows in from the Pacific. The soils, much younger than ours, are stony, volcanic, friable and vigorous. The pinot clones grown are the familiar 115, 667 and 777 as well as the less-known to us, 828. Apart from vines, Rosa says marijuana is another popular crop!

Although the wines were unknown to us, we tasted blind. It would be interesting to know whether any are familiar to readers. Having discussed each and unveiled them, Kruger asked each of us to describe in one sentence the region’s overall distinguishing features that we’d noted from this small sample; it proved an interesting exercise (not least for those who find a single sentence problematic!)

Ingrid Motteux offered: ripe, dense, ambitious. Adding, Aussie and New Zealand pinots are pretty but less ambitious. Gottfried Mocke: their style is the result of a cool climate area. ‘Well crafted’, was Francois Haasbroek’s succinct input . Chris Williams’s view slightly disagreed with Ingrid’s, describing the wines as ‘not glossy but happy in their own skins.’ David Clarke couldn’t resist comparison with Burgundy, suggesting these Sonoma Coast pinots are riper, more muscular Gevrey type; Côtes de Nuits rather than Côtes de Beaune. Adding they’re well thought through. Our MW, Cathy van Zyl felt they reflect too long a hang time, something she had experienced at a pinot tasting in Californian ten years ago. My own impressions are that the wines are ripe but soundly dry (unlike South African reds which might be technically dry, but still have a residual sweetness), dense but with a fine inherent and balanced freshness.

On paper (screen?) this might not sound as though we agreed much with each other but overall we did feel there’s a common thread linking the five wines, despite varying quality.
Would I next time recognise a Sonoma Coast pinot tasted blind? I’d like to think I have sufficient pointers to get as far as cool climate California (I’m covering my bets here), but more to the point as vines age and winemakers become more understanding of the fruit they’re dealing with, the wines will gain further distinction both in difference and excellence. Such attributes will surely lend value to the region and indicate a bright future.

There’s a lesson here for South African wine producers. If a variety or style has proved its aptitude in your region, it might be easier to make commercially popular wines, but in the longer term those with points of difference, points which become more marked over the years, will prove the more profitable route.

A not-very-sharp photo of our Sonoma Coast pinots
A not-very-sharp photo of our Sonoma Coast pinots

The Californian pinots tasted: Gros Ventre, Campbell Branch Vineyard 2012; Camp Meeting Ridge, Flowers Vineyard 2012; Rivers Marie, Gioa Vineyard 2013 (the overall favourite); Vivier, Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2012; Sojourn, Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2013

Personality – an important marketing tool

Let’s face it, marketing never has been and, mainly, still isn’t a strong point of the South African wine industry.

But even with smart marketing people, who do everything as it should be, not all have the personality to lift their wines from the depths of the vast array of just South African wines available today and place them in the forefront of consumers’ minds when they choose wines from the retail shelves. I believe the value of personality is under-rated within the marketing sphere.

If asked to think of the personalities within the industry, I guess most would head to the younger set, those who are always out there and creating a storm in person or on social media.

But they’re not the only ones with the ability to engage an audience, as was proved earlier this week at the launch of Basil and Jane Landau’s Landau du Val Semillon. Basil, for those who aren’t well-versed in the business world, has held such positions as CE of Toyota and Gencor, was a partner in a Japanese Consultancy firm, as well as being Chairman or on the board of many other companies – and so on. The right personality as well as capability is surely required for such success in business.

He and Jane purchased La Brie in 1986 and undertook restoration of the beautiful homestead and vineyards. The Landau du Val name was adopted for the wines due to the late Michael Trull then owner of nearby La Bri taking that name for his wines.

In the early years both a sauvignon blanc and a semillon were produced. Today, just semillon takes centre stage. No ordinary semillon either but one produced from a five-hectare vineyard planted in 1905 on its own roots. The accompanying photo, taken around three years ago, shows off well the character of these venerable vines.

If the wine has been off the general radar, it’s because there’s so little of it; the yield never exceeds 1.5 tons/hectare and, until 2012 there were several changes in winemaker: the late John Goschen, Jean-Luc Sweerts, Karl Lambour, Jean Daneel and Anina Guelpa have been followed since 2012 by Wynand Grobler, winemaker at Rickety Bridge, himself a lover of semillon and well-versed in cajoling the best out of it.

The Landau du Val team left - right: Jane Landau, Wynand Grobler, Basil Landau
The Landau du Val team left – right: Jane Landau, Wynand Grobler, Basil Landau

The semillon we had come to taste, enjoy with Chris Erasmus’s perfectly paired dishes at Foliage (simply a must-visit restaurant if you’re in Franschhoek and looking for a spectacular meal), and to send off into the world, was Grobler’s second vintage, 2013.

Harvested in two tranches to capture freshness and the variety’s trademark silky spread, the grapes were pressed as whole bunches, the juice allowed to undergo spontaneous fermentation in small French oak, just 25% new, whereafter it spent a year in barrel with occasional lees-stirring before a dose of sulphur was added before bottling. It couldn’t get much more straightforward a process, with the result that the wine sings of old vine concentration, with its citrusy joie de vivre and just a peep of the silky viscosity that will emerge with time. Anyone who insists on opening it now, Yellow Fin Tuna tartar à la Foliage will do it justice.

To ensure we understood just how the wine does transform with time, the Landaus kindly brought along older vintages: 2012, more evolved in colour and texture, but still with plenty of life left and a magic match with Erasmus’s Dukkah-crusted Karoo lamb shank; a fabulously elegant 2009 still way off its best, a stage the 2003 was reaching in its luminous greeny gold colour, mushroomy-toned bouquet, silky waves and extensive savoury tail. Sadly the bottle of 2002 was shot, but we’d had sufficient evidence of the calibre of vineyard and wine in the others.

To complete the marketing/personality circle. We were a very small group at the lunch, just six media plus the Landaus, Grobler and three others. This allowed for shared conversation across the table and there was no escaping when Basil Landau, in his always charming but determined manner (he’s a businessman, remember), requested each of us to offer an honest comment about where the wine could be improved; to date we’d been politely but honestly, complimentary. Now, how many hosts would dare to do that, expecting each guest to put their thoughts on the line?

There was talk of making more of the vineyard’s heritage, while my point was that due to the limited quantity of the Landaus’ wine, and as there are other semillons from old vineyards in Franschhoek, there should be a joint effort to promote these wines. Price is also an issue; only Boekenhoutskloof (R333 in the mixed case of 12) and Landau du Val (R250 ex-farm) are anywhere near properly priced. Both might appear high and leave the wines well outside the possibility of every-day drinking, but given the quality as well as rarity, the Landau du Val especially deserves more.

Landau du Val's semillon vineyard, now 105 years old.
Landau du Val’s semillon vineyard, now 105 years old.

 

I hope the others got the same impression as I did that our comments were taken to heart, will be considered by both Basil and Jane, re-jigged where necessary and enacted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, and, by appointment, the Landaus welcome visitors to their farm and to see the famous old semillon vineyard. It’s something I’d urge anyone visiting Franschhoek to do; they’ll doubtless come away with Landau du Val Semillon very much to the front of mind when a special bottle of wine is required.

Basil Landau doesn't forget his time as a 'car salesman'!
Basil Landau doesn’t forget his time as a ‘car salesman’!

Authenticity

Should your soul require nourishment, there can be little more inspiring than a drive to the Swartland on a crystal clear, windless winter’s day (my photo should give some idea just how inspirational an experience this can be ).

Swartland in mid-winter
Swartland in mid-winter

The expansive views, gentle silhouette of the distant mountains contrasted by the vivid green of the rolling wheatlands, interrupted here and there by a few farm buildings; all are breathtaking but at the same time they have a calming sense of harmony. All has an aura of authenticity.

 

 

 

Of course, neither the wheat fields nor vineyards are authentic in terms of history; the original landscape then boasted a great deal more renosterveld. But let’s allow for a little historical licence, as authenticity in wine is something that deserves more consideration than it’s currently being given.

The reason for my visit to the Swartland was the launch of David and Nadia Sadie’s new vintages as well as an introduction to their cellar’s new home on Paardebosch. The farm, just down the berg from Adi Badenhorst, was purchased by lawyer, Des Kruger and South African wine exporter, Wiggo Anderson in 2011.

Paardebosch farm with the Perdeberg behind.
Paardebosch farm with the Perdeberg behind.

Sadie is also responsible for making the Paardebosch wines. Paardebosch is an authentic ‘plaas’ with dogs, horses (of course), white-washed walls and is reached via an obligatory bumpy dirt track. The bucolic setting and Sadie’s perpetual laid-back manner when presenting the wines perfectly complemented the venue.

 

 

DNSadiePaardeboschrose

 

Welcoming us on arrival was a delightful , seriously-priced Paardebosch Rosé (R120 ex cellar), a blend of syrah, carignan, grenache, pinotage and cinsaut, naturally fermented in old oak and with a moderate alcohol and freshness that felt so right with the sparkling sunny day. It’s a delight to drink solo or with any number of suitable dishes.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed it, though some of my colleagues were a tad dismissive, either because it’s rosé or because it lacks in profundity, as they put it. A view they and others have taken on the growing number of varietal cinsauts on the market. ‘Nice, but not profound.’ ‘No one in the world has made a profound cinsaut.’ And so on.

It was the same when David Sadie’s 2014 Grenache (R280) was poured, but who would not be charmed by its glinting ruby clarity, expressive warm raspberry and spice fragrance, fullsome ripe flavours, harmonious freshness and it’s so satisfyingly dry. I much prefer it to the 2013, which I did find a little light. But again, like the Paardebosch Rosé, its real appeal lies in its charming authenticity. It’s no Chateau Rayas, but it has no pretentions to that level.

 

David Sadie presenting his wines. Our lunch table was where the old road used to run through the farm.
David Sadie presenting his wines. Our lunch table was where the old road used to run through the farm.

I don’t disagree with their assessment but think we need to realise that what these new-wave cinsauts and grenaches like David Sadie’s are creating is at different level of quality. They are neither at the simple, commercial and sometimes contrived lower end of the scale, nor at the ambitious – sometime over-ambitious – top end, often lacking in profundity themselves; if they lack great depth, they’re not facile or dishonest. Call them what you will: genuine, legitimate or authentic, they are wines of purity and naturalness, the best with moderate alcohols, freshness and with no unnecessary residual sugar cover up. For those who score, this is an incredibly difficult task; one that deserves a written note rather than a number.

There’s no doubt the Sadie’s flagship white Aristagos (R260), a chenin, roussanne, clairette, viognier and semillon blend from 12 different blocks, and flagship red, Elpidios (R305), a syrah, carignan, grenache, cinsaut and pinotage ensemble from seven different blocks have the potential to mature with more complexity than the varietal grenache – as such a wide selection of sites and David’s increasing understanding of them and their vinification – should suggest, but that’s no reason not to appreciate the positive charms and quality of his grenache, or others equally legitimate cinsauts.

Let’s enjoy them for what they are, not for what they are not.

Judging the judges

It’s been deliciously liberating to be away from my laptop, emails and social media for two weeks.

The downside of such a luxury was facing the backlog once I lifted the lid and logged on! But I still so thoroughly enjoy what I do that I could look to the end of this tiresome task with eagerness.

For someone who writes about wine, it’s important to keep up to date with news, trends and generally how wine is faring out there in the world for one’s own scribbles to remain relevant. This is much more demanding than it used to be, but thanks to social media such as Twitter (yes, it can be an incredibly useful source), Facebook, the odd newsletter and chat among friends, the wheat is not so difficult to separate from the chaff.

Relevance cannot rely on the written word alone; tasting is equally important. How can you write about wine credibly without having some idea of what it tastes like? This is particularly so here in South Africa, given the roller-coaster developments in styles and ‘renaissance’ of old neglected varieties.

In his 11th May Decanter column, highly-regarded UK wine writer, Andrew Jefford expresses some wise thoughts. ‘Experience in wine tasting is vital, since most of wine’s interest is predicated on difference, but it is not acquired mathematically, by gross accumulation. It is, rather, the use you make of your experiences that counts. … It’s how your tasting faculties are wired to your brain which makes experience valuable …’
In other words, it’s important to taste as widely as possible, but at the same time learn from the experience; it doesn’t necessarily lead to being a better taster. I agree.

I like the further advice Jefford offers, lest one thinks wine is the only thing from which you can learn about smell and taste: ‘Don’t just taste wine; taste everything in exactly the same sort of way in which you taste wine. Smell the air, the flowers, the washing, your children’s hair. Taste different teas, coffees, sauces or soups as if they were wine. Take a break from wine, but never switch your palate off; exercise slows the loss of every faculty.’

Nothing lasts for ever, including taste and smell. Whatever our level of palate acuity, or insight – and it’s different for each of us – maximum level is reached around 11 years old; I doubt many of us would be deep into wine tasting at that age, more likely still pushing spinach to the side of our plate! Our sense of smell also diminishes with age, though at the opposite end of the age spectrum, as this especially happens after reaching 70.

Turning from the theory to the practical in the local context; are local competition organisers getting the balance right between experience and age of judges?

The composition of local judging panels frequently features people who’ve been involved with wine for many decades, and so with years’ of experience. But how much of that experience involves current trends? Are these judges familiar with Orange wines for example, the growing number and styles of cinsaut solo and in blends or Verdelho? This, of course, applies to all judges, not just the older generation.

Veritas bannerI’m not aware of criteria applied when judges are selected for the majority of the numerous local shows but to qualify ad infinitum as a judge on Veritas requires passing a single test. In theory, this means I could still judge on that show, having passed in 1991. Whether I (who don’t participate), or the tens of others, from all backgrounds in the industry, who do form the panels, are still competent to do so, is another matter.

Michael Fridjhon takes a progressive and strict approach to judges on the Trophy Wine Show, selecting top tasters from his annual Wine Academy to serve initially as associate judges, with the goal of eventually elevating the deserving to full judge status.

OMTWSlogoWithin his policy of rotating his core of local judges, he keeps a balance of experience and youth/new blood. And this leads to another point I believe needs to be borne in mind.

The profile of today’s wine drinkers is changing; there are many younger people now interested in and drinking wine. Educators such as Cathy Marston with her WSET courses and the SA Sommeliers Association are attracting younger people to learn about wine and not be intimidated by it. The young, hip winemakers are also very much drawcards in themselves.

If all these shows (not to mention other, individual opinions) are to be relevant to these younger, new and informed winelovers, surely the judges will need to be equally, if not more informed and on the ball.

Taking a break

It’s two years since I last had a holiday; it’s now time to re-fuel and refresh – I’m taking a much needed break for a couple of weeks.

I look forward to reading – books rather than wine magazines, possibly seeing some films, exploring some new food shops, and generally doing things I don’t get the chance to do during my usual daily routine.

Normal (erratic!) service will be resumed thereafter.

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Reunions, reverence & a little rowdiness

Get together with a few folk you haven’t seen in years and it’s amazing how everyone looks the same and it feels like yesterday you saw each other!

Some of the well-known old-timers at the tasting. Gary Baumgarten (l), Dave Hughes (r)
Some of the well-known old-timers at the tasting. Gary Baumgarten (l), Dave Hughes (r)

It’s just as pleasant a surprise when the wines – the youngest a 40 year old 1975 KWV Muscadel Jerepigo – still taste sprightly and full of life.

Both were happy experiences at a tasting of old (and I mean old) KWV Port styles, Muscadels and Hanepoots, kindly arranged by Kanonkop’s Johann Krige; the wines those he’d purchased during his time as Marketing Manager for KWV.

Fortified wines are hardly the flavour of the month, Muscadels even less so than Port styles, the latter recognised as some of the best in the world after those from the Douro Valley. How sad can this be, especially when many are readily available – 2004 Wood Matured Muscadel and 1996 Tawny from Monis are two examples. KWV themselves possibly also have some of their older gems for sale.

Krige told his guests that according to the late Fanie Malan of Allesverloren, air conditioners and TV accounted for the decline in consumption. I can think of many other reasons today: the preference for lighter, fresher wines and drink/driving issues. It’s also true these wines tend to be poured at the end of the meal, when everyone’s had sufficient white and red wines.

But marketing is an issue too; the Muscadel Association keeps its annual competition so low-key to be almost a non-event. More song and dance generally, please producers!

Old & comforting KWV Port-styles & a 20 year old Grahams Tawny
Old & comforting KWV Port-styles & a 20 year old Grahams Tawny

Background info to the Port-styles – seven with one Port, Grahams 20 year old Tawny, a good sighter for the locals – was provided by Charl Theron (Gary Baumgarten did the same for the Muscadels; both men had worked at the KWV from 1980 to 1995, so are pretty well informed about these wines).

Actual vinification, according to a strict recipe, took place on farms such as Allesverloren and Bredells. The main varieties, souzão, tinta roriz, tinta francisca and cinsaut, were harvested around 24 to 28 Balling, had a good dose of sulphur added, fermented down to 13 Balling when the maximum colour had been extracted, before being fortified with brandy spirits or eau de vie. Residual sugar would be around 120 to 130 grams/litre.
It’s only since 1985, when South African producers visited Portugal, that we’ve seen drier wines with higher alcohols.

Four wines labelled Crusted Vintage were poured first: 1966, 1965, 1964 and 1963, all would have been aged in bottle. The oldest and youngest were still very much alive; deep, dark walnut in colour with high-toned nutty, dried fruit, earthy notes; rich in texture but also having good spirit attack.

Colours in these oldies are a thing of wonder: brilliant mahogany with a halo of glowing green, especially on the 1956 Tawny. Just as invigorating was a note of boot polish (not unpleasant!) on that and the vintage 1960. Can you believe the Tawny sold for R17 a bottle on release, something that was in doubt as Baumgarten sat down to blend it.

An off-spin of the last wine up cost a great deal more than R17. What didn’t make the KWV 1948 bottling was, so Theron told us, sold in bulk to then Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, making its way into the famous Monis Collectors Port. On the 2011 Nederburg Auction, six bottles sold for R68 000! Our KWV now is rich, viscous and comforting. Comforting is, I think, a good description for these wines: they suggest a happy state of mind when accompanied by a good book and good music.

After some reverential sipping – with not much spitting involved – we took a break before turning to the Muscadels – actually five of those plus two Hanepoots.

Seven great KWV Muscadels & Hanepoots
Seven great KWV Muscadels & Hanepoots

The muscadels, Baumgarten informed us, were all made from the red version of muscat blanc a petit grains, while both muscats were harvested between 24 – 28 Balling, sulphur and tartaric acid (160 grams/ton) added and just six hours of skin contact from crush to fortification with 96% brandy spirits.

Of course, muscadels have a history of prompting stories; Baumgarten didn’t disappoint with one that featured a ‘dry’ matric dance and a handy bootful of samples! Cue much laughter.

How gorgeous was that whispy muscat fragrance, freshness, intensity and harmony in the pair of 1975 Muscadels, one WO Robertson, the other WO Breederivier Valley, but both aged in 10 000 litre stukvats (like those in the Cathedral Cellar). The hanepoot seemed quiet by comparison.

The wine I was longing to try again was the famous 1953 Muscadel Jerepigo, voted the best South African entry on the infamous 1995 SAA Shield (more about that later this year). It was made in a different way from other muscadels being left overnight to ferment on the skins, which made it less sweet, though more viscous and complex with more structure than the others. It’ll last for ever!

If asked to choose between the 1953 and 1930 Muscadel Late Bottled, the last wine in our line up and made by Prof Perold of pinotage fame, I couldn’t. ‘It was like syrup when removed from the stukvat,’ commented Baumgarten, ‘and was freshened with some of that 1975.’

By now we were into the really naughty tales Duimpie Bayly relating how one of the shorter guys on the Wine & Spirit Board tasting panel always pressed the blue button indicating ‘superior’, simply because that was the only one he could reach!

This memorable treat was followed by a traditional Kanonkop snoek braai, some of their older wines and, no doubt, many more rowdy-inducing stories!

Spotted in the Kanonkop fermentation cellar. NB day before the Stormers played the Rebels!
Spotted in the Kanonkop fermentation cellar. NB day before the Stormers played the Rebels!

Stylistic diversity

My favourite food? Tuna would rate high on the list, but as much as I love this tasty fish, I wouldn’t want to eat it every day, nor prepared in just one way. So it is with wine; just imagine how boring it would be if wine were limited to one style – or variety. Diversity is the spice of life and it was certainly in evidence among the winners of Christian Eedes

King cab
King cab

Cabernet Report 2015.

As in past events, Eedes chose 60 of the Cape’s top cabs with a track record before sitting down to taste with his colleagues, Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens and James Pietersen. The format changed a little this year: ratings were out of 100 rather than 20 and there was no top 10; instead, all wines scoring more than 90/100 were deemed winners. This could have been embarrassing should only a handful have made the cut, but as Eedes pointed out, the majority entered were from the excellent 2012 vintage and this provided 10 of the 13 scoring 90/100 or more. (The less than stellar 2014s will be awaited with bated breath!)

In his report, Eedes writes: ‘The best wine, or at least the wines this panel is inclined to reward, combine luscious fruit and textual (sic) generosity without sacrificing freshness .’ After tasting through all the wines, I find that aesthetic is rather widely interpreted, although not always with negative results. The full report can be read here.

My own taste is for a classic style in cabernet and in wine generally, so the three cabernets that most pleased me were Waterford 2012, Le Riche 2012 and Stark-Conde 2012, all with under 40% new oak and only Le Riche a straight cabernet (this is the Regular, the Reserve, with presumably more new oak scored 84). They, the Stark-Condé in particular, are what I’d call ‘proper cabernets’. While both Waterford and Le Riche were the top two rated wines, Stark-Condé was number 12 on the list, something I found puzzling, given the very different styles that filled the other spots. But I guess that’s the way it goes with competitions, so if your taste is also for a more restrained, classic style, don’t be put off by that number 12 rating.

As for those in between, there was over-ripeness, notably in Oldenburg 2012 with its porty tail and the Spier Woolworths Reserve 2012, just under 14% declared alcohol, but with jammy sweet fruit.

Before you deem my judgement too subjective, let me hasten to say how much I admire Rust en Vrede’s Single Vineyard 2012, 100% cabernet and new oak. Yes, it’s big, but it’s also balanced, the fruit well able to handle the oak and of a ripeness to ensure varietal recognition rather than a soupy mess. Anyone willing and able to fork out its R850 asking price, who is out to impress or who enjoys that more modern style, will not be disappointed. Personally, I couldn’t do more than fiddle with a glass, but that doesn’t stop me recognising it’s a really good wine.

The following day, Tim James and I held one of our regular tastings of new releases and other wines submitted for our opinion. We were coincidentally faced with the same situation: a wine whose style neither of us particularly care for but which we recognise for its quality. Impressive is the word that most readily comes to mind about Spier or rather Frans K Smit’s 2009, as it should for the R745 price tag. Cabernet-based with merlot, shiraz and pinotage, this is a mouthful of luxurious vinosity. So seamless – after 31 months in all new French oak – that if a wrinkle were to be found, you’d imagine it’s been photo shopped out. And that’s part of the problem, it’s one dimensional, without nuance. Like the Rust en Vrede I’d soon get bored and exhausted by even half a glass – even if its 15.12% alcohol isn’t apparent on first sip, the effects would soon make themselves known.

Quickly on to a couple of wines that offered much more enjoyment and would tempt opening more than one bottle.

At last Basil and Jane Landau’s fabulous, now 110 year old semillon vineyard, has found a sympathetic and understanding winemaker to reveal its concentrated glory. Wynand Grobler, Rickety Bridge winemaker, is well-versed in coaxing the best from Franschhoek semillon, producing some under the Rickety Bridge label. Since 2012, the Landau’s have entrusted him with their fruit. The results are encouragingly authentic; the latest 2013 immediately engages with a waxy note, so evocative of Franschhoek, but lifted out of dourness by a subtle lemon balm freshness. Suavely silky, concentrated yet unshowy, it holds all the promise of growing with age, as delicious as it is now. Worth every cent of R225 asking price.

Dramatic label for the red 2014 Sequillo, the last ever.
Dramatic label for the red 2014 Sequillo, the last ever.

Of the two new 2014 and last Sequillo’s, both Tim and I find the red more exciting than the white, with layers of flavour and a suppleness that leaves it readily enjoyable now and probably for a further a year or two. Both sell for around R169.

The latest Mullineux Syrah 2013 (R275) will need time, though it’s not as sturdy as the previous vintage. Tasting it over a day or so brought out more of the red earth character I associate with so many Swartland red wines and flesh with that sense of being alive that for me equates to minerality.

Enough for now. Rejoice in diversity!

WO shenanigans

As appellation systems go, our Wine of Origin has pretty good, if not perfect credibility.  How a recent review left Tulbagh in the Coastal Region beggars belief. As well as the legalities which dictate the system there are Wine Routes which do the job of marketing the various demarcated areas, mainly Districts, some Wards which are not part of a District and even some Regions.

Some of these areas are viewed as being more sexy than others but there’s plenty of competition between them. Paarl, or poor old Paarl as some say, is one of the less sexy; it’s never had the image of Stellenbosch, Constantia, Robertson or Franschhoek.
Franschhoek was originally a Ward within Paarl, but eventually escaped the association by being re-demarcated as a District. It was sometime around then that Allée Bleue and Solms-Delta squeezed their way into Franschhoek WO when the boundaries were extended. Wellington too has been elevated from a Paarl Ward to a District, which leaves just Voor-Paardeberg and Simonsberg-Paarl as official enclaves within the Paarl District (Am I correct in thinking Voor-Paardeberg is probably viewed more as an extension of Swartland than Paarl?).

Long ago the good wine farmers of Simonsberg-Paarl (then many fewer than now) realised that Franschhoek had a much sexier image than Paarl and so approached Franschhoek’s marketing body, the Vignerons de Franschhoek with a view to falling under their marketing umbrella. This probably suited Franschhoek from a commercial point of view, as it brought in much-needed revenue from the Simonsberg-Paarl producers, who sold more wine than the guys down the valley.

Then some young guns from the genuine Franschhoek Valley WO determined to show that their area could grow grapes that made distinctive wines. So was born Appellation Grande Prestige – a less silly name would have lent greater gravitas – with semillon, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon chosen as three varieties historically producing such distinctive wines; in other words it’s an exercise in terroir. The first of an annual competition to find the best wines from each of these three was held last year, all entries, of course, had to carry WO Franschhoek Valley.

I know the initiative wasn’t universally popular with Franschhoekers, particularly among owners but it did focus on Franschhoek fruit rather than the valley’s image of gaining ‘terroir by truck’ as bringing in fruit from other areas is called.

What the good wine producers of Simonsberg-Paarl WO think of AGP and this competition remains un-noted but they surely recognise it can grow into a positive marketing move.
Given Franschhoek producers’ apparent need for more financial help and the Simonsberg-Paarl producers fervent wish to cast unsexy Paarl out of their name, there must’ve been a fairly easy meeting of minds when the decision was made to apply for yet another extension to Franschhoek Valley WO boundaries.

I should point out that all I’ve heard officially, from Hugo van der Merwe, Secretary of the Wine & Spirit Board, is that Jacques Roux, on behalf of the Vignerons de Franschhoek made application on 23rd April 2015 to increase the boundaries of the Franschhoek district. No mention was made of exactly where they wish those boundaries to be re-set, but it’s not rocket science to believe they take in the Paarl side of the Simonsberg.

Does marketing supersede terroir? Can you buy terroir in this way? Does Franschhoek really need to do this at all? There are an increasing number of wineries using home-grown fruit receiving acclaim: apart from high-profile Chamonix and Boekenhoutskloof, there’s Rickety Bridge, Landau du Val (the Landau’s old, old vine semillon now made by Rickety’s Wynand Grobler), Moreson, La Motte, Stonybrook and Grande Provence (this last producer’s chenin, viognier blend a 5* rating in the latest Decanter). All make wines from at least some Franschhoek fruit.

If the application for extended boundaries does include Simonsberg-Paarl WO, one only has to look at this Ward to recognise it’s emphatically a stand-alone area with its own terroir. For the least knowledgeable consumer, the Helshoogte Road clearly divides it from Franschhoek.

How are the Franschhoek Vignerons going to justify increasing their boundaries, which are already stretched to the limit and wherever they intend setting them?
I find this move desperately cynical; it makes a mockery of the Wine of Origin system and frankly will make Franschhoek something of a laughing stock.

I sincerely hope the Demarcation Board makes them see sense and turns down the application. If not, I shall be one who raises an official objection.

A new bubbly star in the making

You have to know when a winemaker speaks about research into bubble burst rate, you’re in for a geekful of a tasting.

It, nonetheless, fascinated me to hear Paul Gerber expand on this theme when explaining the higher burst rate gives a more aggressive C02, whereas in a smaller bubble there is less aggression.’The aim is for the perfect ratio,’ Gerber further clarified, going on to recall Picasso’s six sketches of a bird, where in each the ratio grows more perfect.

Plenty of geek speak, yes, but also intriguing insights into creating the perfect bubble (rub off from Pieter Ferreira there; he also shows enthusiasm for this new venture) from a mathematician who so obviously enjoys his new career.

Back to basics. Le Lude, just the Franschhoek Pass side of the monument, was purchased by Nic and Ferda Barrow in 2010; they gave it the name Le Lude after a village in the Loire they particularly liked. The Barrows are from Oudtshoorn, Nic is an attorney by profession, but the pair have also owned and run several hotels and property developments. They are also environmentalists, philanthropists and keen supporters of the arts: Nic initiated the KKNK and the KKK art festival. Franschhoek will be the benefit of Le Lude sponsorship of classical music events. Their love of Cap Classique and Franschhoek were the driving forces behind them buying the farm and establishing this specialist cellar.

Paul Gerber, Le Lude's winemaker
Paul Gerber, Le Lude’s winemaker

I’ve already mentioned winemaker, Paul Gerber , is a mathematician. His BSc in maths and chemistry led him to teach maths at SACS, so following in the footsteps of that other fizz fanatic, Allan Mullins. Wine resonated with him after his mother-in-law sent him on a Cape Wine Academy course; he then returned to University to study Oenology and Viticulture. It was here bottle fermented sparkling wine stirred his imagination. He subsequently worked a harvest at Neethlingshof with De Wet Viljoen, a friend from rugby-playing days (although I asked out of politeness, I had little doubt he played prop!); he also worked in Franciacorta, Northern Italy, Germany and Champagne, where he returns annually to hone his skills.

Although Le Lude has 3 hectares planted to chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, all the fruit is currently bought in from a wide range of origins. ‘Classic bubbly is all about blending,’ Gerber rationalises. Elgin, Robertson, Bonnievale should not surprise as fruit sources; Plettenberg Bay and Sutherland probably do. Gerber likes Plett fruit, despite its higher rainfall, as it ripens later. ‘We picked on 8th March, a date unheard of in other areas which harvest well over a month earlier, but still with an acidity of 9 grams/litre,’ he notes. The Sutherland vineyards are due to come on stream in 2016. ‘I’m trying to get the sheep farmers there to grow pinot meunier because it’s much closer to 100 days of ripening; down here there’s too much sun.’

To the nub of my visit; tasting a few 2015 base wines followed by the embryonic NV Brut and NV Rosé, both still on the lees with dosage under consideration, but due for release in October.

During fermentation, the cork is held firmly in place by the Agarfe, which looks similar to a large staple.
During fermentation, the cork is held firmly in place by the Agarfe, which looks similar to a large staple.

There have been experiments with ageing these NVs on both crown cap and cork (the latter known as Agarfé; the full story is on the Le Lude website); I was tasked to tell which was which. I chose correctly with the Brut, a 60/40 chardonnay, pinot noir blend, preferring the cork sample for its freshness, greater expression and completeness, but was less lucky with the rosé, which, under cork, seems more adolescently awkward. Under crown cap, the wine has soft strawberry aromas and flavours, gentle waves of creamy mousse and an incisively clean finish. The blend here reverses the Brut, its pearly pink blush deriving from the addition of red wine rather than skin contact.

Gerber is an enthusiastic believer in magnums – he claims they make the perfect start to the day, something he demonstrated by opening one under crown cap. It proved richer, more vinous, complex and integrated than the 750ml bottle.

A mock-up of Le Lude bottle, with its back-to-back embossed Ls. The packaging follows the less is more approach with minimal fancy foil.
A mock-up of Le Lude bottle, with its back-to-back embossed Ls. The packaging follows the less is more approach with minimal fancy foil.

Dosage, as already mentioned, is still under debate but I was lucky enough to be offered trial samples of both NVs.As discovered at the Graham Beck function, dosage has more to do with the drinking experience than any figure.

The trial comprises three different levels, one with zero dosage. My preference in both was for the highest dosage, though ‘highest’ is relative: the rosés had 3.5 and 4.5 g/l respectively, the latter creamy, integrated and subtly fruited, winning by a nose. Dosage on NV Brut is being trialled at 4 and 6 g/l; gratifyingly, Gerber agrees with me that the latter is more interesting.

Zero dosage held little appeal in either wine but maybe that would change with longer on the lees, something Gerber admits makes less change necessary. ‘I prefer creaminess from lees than sugar, which can leave a unpleasant “wet sticky” impression,’ he explains.

It wasn’t surprising the best type of glass for bubbly was raised. The traditional flute has come in for criticism, but Gerber believes it’s better to show off younger bubblies, while a white Burgundy glass captures the aroma intensity in older ones.

You will note I’ve made no comment about quality of the Le Lude MCCs; that’s only partly because there’s as yet no finished wine. More importantly, I wanted to end this piece with my view that their elegance, refinement and personality will surely see them settle among the Cape’s top echelon of MCCs very quickly.

Close up of Le Lude label and embossed bottle.
Close up of Le Lude label and embossed bottle.

Becks bubbles

Bubbly, fizz, Méthode Cap Classique, sparkling wine (in the UK), Méthode Traditionelle, Champagne – whatever the name of the wine which gains its effervescence from a second fermentation in the bottle and is poured to mark every occasion from birth to death, it remains something of an enigma. In this day and age, when all the talk is of a sense of place and minimal intervention, here we have a wine which is one of the most manipulated of any style, of which blending across sites, even regions, is part.

So, if you’re not buying a vin de terroir or one that falls into trendy ‘hands-off’ genre, what is it that makes this style of bubbly such a premium product?

Maiden 91 Blanc de Blancs. The style nearly didn't make it beyond 3 vintages!
Maiden 91 Blanc de Blancs. The style nearly didn’t make it beyond 3 vintages!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was thinking about this at what will surely be one of if not the media event of 2015: Graham Beck Wines 25th anniversary celebrations, held at their Robertson cellar, hub of Cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira and his long-serving team’s search for the perfect bubble.

Ferreira is one of a rare breed outside of family-owned farms, a winemaker who’s been at the same cellar since day one and 25 years is no small achievement. But, as he reminded us, in the greater scheme of things, 25 years is a very short time in wine.

Cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira tasting vertical of Blanc de Blancs
Cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira tasting vertical of Blanc de Blancs

This was best illustrated in the mini-vertical of the GB Blanc de Blancs, covering the years 1997, 2002, 2007, 08, 09 and the current 10. A greater and innate freshness was evident from 08 on, not just because they were younger, that year marked the introduction of newer chardonnay clones.

We were privy to several of the experiments that have been ongoing since that first vintage during an instructive and well-illustrated walk-around, starting with 2015 base wines (Ferreira had 72 (!) components to juggle with this year, mainly but not exclusively from their own Robertson and Firgrove vineyards) and ending with the still sparkling 1991 Blanc de Blancs. The effect of dosage might sound quite straight forward, but tasting Graham Beck NV Brut with 18 months on lees, at four different levels: no dosage, 7.5 g/l (the standard level in the market), 3 g/l and 5 g/l, it was surprising how the 5 g/l was the most lacking in expression, whereas 7.5 g/l dosage provides the perfect balance.

The GB team with an impressive number of years at the cellar under their collective belts.
The GB team with an impressive number of years at the cellar under their collective belts.

Then would you imagine that, post-disgorging, storing the wine on cork vertically and horizontally  would make much difference? It most certainly does. The same 2012 bottling under the same producer’s cork (Trafinos) stored vertically had rich aromatics and a creamy mousse, whereas the horizontal version was much less aromatic, fresher but with a less persistent bubble. Fascinating.

Pieter Ferreira has carried out many cork experiments; different producers, time on cork & even storing wine vertically as opposed to horizontally.
Pieter Ferreira has carried out many cork experiments; different producers, time on cork & even storing wine vertically as opposed to horizontally.

How about the difference between a wine left 17 years on cork as opposed to the same time on crown cap and lees? Again, a dramatically different pair: 1993 Blanc de Blancs aged on cork was all toasty honeycomb; on lees the wine was much fresher and less developed.

This exercise culminated in two versions of that maiden 1991 ‘made under the stars’, as Ferreira told us (wrong if you thought it was a romantic notion – the cellar building wasn’t finished!) One, six years on lees, 19 on cork had delicious toasty development energised by a fine, lazy but persistent bead; the second, disgorged the day before our visit, was much more vigorous but also a creaminess and length which placed it on a different quality level from the RD ’93.

Those six years on lees nearly resulted in Blanc de Blancs being a three vintage wonder. Ever the businessman, Graham Beck couldn’t live with the idea of sitting on the wine for that time without any sales, so you won’t find any 1994 or 1995 Blanc de Blancs. On release, the 1991 sold so well, Beck asked Ferreira why he’d stopped making it for those two years! Not exactly the same story, but shades of Max Schubert and Grange!

This thoroughly enjoyable travel through 25 years of Beck bubbly and the valuable insights it gave was followed by insights of a different kind. Rarely does one hear or read about MCC or others of that ilk, with food, let alone a whole meal.

Our starter Foie Gras Brûlée & Karoo-plaashoender, Klein River Grana Padana
Our starter Foie Gras Brûlée & Karoo-plaashoender, Klein River Grana Padana

The brilliant Margo Janse of Le Quartier Francais took on that challenge for all four courses of our lunch and the preceding Canapés. It was no surprise she more than rose to the occasion with great imagination, even when the wines she was asked to match were by no means the current vintage: Brut NV Magnum (1994), Cuvée Clive 2009, Bruz Zero 2005, Brut 1991 (maiden vintage) – degorged  à la volée by some brave souls after the second course – and Brut Rosé 2006 to finish. Bubbly, young or especially older has far more going for it with food than as an aperitif.

To return to my question about what is it that makes MCC and others in this style such a premium product. Branding, marketing – both play important roles in creating the luxury image, but what Pieter Ferreira and his team showed us is that with their dedication and attention to detail, the wine can age beautifully and with complexity; their search for the perfect bubble becomes more exciting every year. Roll on the next 25 years!

An excellent painting of the late Graham Beck, founder of the eponymous winery. We celebrated his life  with many glasses of bubbly at the silver jubilee.
An excellent painting of the late Graham Beck, founder of the eponymous winery. We celebrated his life with many glasses of bubbly at the silver jubilee.