Staying in place

Reflecting on the piece I wrote last week about the winemaker’s role today, I realise I left out an important point; the time the winemaker has worked in the same cellar.

This is hardly an issue with family-owned and run farms, except I suppose when siblings, with children themselves, fall out when everyone wants to be the winemaker!

I’ve written before about winemaker musical chairs, which happens far too often, especially when the winemaker is an employee and the owner possibly not so conversant with wine. Rapid changes of winemaker does no service to the consistency of the wines nor image of the brand.

A rather hazy photo of Rianie Strydom, winemaker & GM at Haskell Vineyards
A rather hazy photo of Rianie Strydom, winemaker & GM at Haskell Vineyards

There are always exceptions of employee winemakers staying long-term at a winery; Rianie Strydom and Haskell Vineyards is one. It’s a partnership that’s perhaps further under the radar than it deserves to be. Strydom’s involvement in the cellar stretches back to 2005; her tenure also covers establishment of several of the vineyards, beneficial to a better understanding of the vines’ development and the fruit they produce.

The first Pillars Syrah 2007 (and Haskell label) caught the eye (nose) of Strydom and Grant Dodd, Haskell’s Managing Partner, when it was still in barrel. It stirred the idea of single vineyard wines. It also vindicated their idea, when it took the 2009 Wine of the Show, and other awards, against Australia and New Zealand, in that year’s Trinations.

The fourth single vineyard and third syrah, Hades 2014, recently joined the range. The name reflects the hellishly difficult conditions under which the vineyard was established: removal of 180 tons of rock, hammering in iron poles to support the vines and finally re-planting a portion of the vineyard in 2009, when some of those original, 2008, vines didn’t survive. ‘Syrah needs a harsh place,’ Strydom told us, with some understatement, at the launch.

haskell-hades-2014I’m an unequivocal fan of Strydom’s style; her intuition and skill results in precise, elegant wines with layers of flavour and a finish that tastes digestibly dry. If this is the house style, Strydom doesn’t impose character, that is left to the wines themselves.

When single vineyard wines were legalised, around the mid-2000s, many felt they had blocks that fitted the regulations (under six hectares and planted to a single variety being two of the major ones) and produced sufficiently distinctive wine to register them; trendiness undoubtedly also played a role. As of March 2016 there were around 990 registered single vineyards; of course not all produce commercially available wines. Some have proved their worth over the years, others have yet to do so.

The Haskell syrah trio are gratifyingly individual; Hades (R320 ex-cellar) especially has a freshness and greater restraint than Pillars (R415) or Aeon (R320) but it is a year younger and was aged in older wood only; the other two had a small percentage of new oak. Aeon 2013 is a wine of dominant structure, feeling firm rather than harsh, though finishes with a great fantail of richness. Pillars 2013 is the ripest, lushest and with the softest tannins. Will it mature in the same way as that complex, delicious 2007 we were also lucky enough to try? I don’t know but when I come across a wine like that, I reflect on the first time a group of us tasted Chave Hermitage from the very hot 2003 vintage and found it horribly ripe. A second tasting a few years later saw a remarkable change for the better. The Chave family have been making wine in the Northern Rhône since 1481, so know a bit about what they’re doing. Be cautious on first pronouncements: lesson learned.

A story Grant Dodd told at the launch, to conclude. In the early days of his enjoyment of and learning about wine, Dodd was fortunate enough to attend a tasting with that great and sadly now late, wine man, Len Evans. ‘What is a great wine?’ Dodd enquired of his host. After a sip of Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet, Evans asked Dodd, ‘Can you still taste it?’ Dodd confirmed he could and did so in answer to that same question a further 14 times after that sip. ‘That’s what makes a great wine; that and ageability,’ Evans told him.

Great wines are the goal of the Haskell team; patience and faith are the watchwords!

Winemakers – their role today

Over the past week or so, I’ve been reminded frequently of the winemaker’s role.

The following might seem a little tangential but should show its relevance further on. It refers to a post on the Women in Wine Exchange group on Facebook, where Nomonde Kubheka requests a cellar to host for a day the Pinotage Youth Development Academy’s Wine Tourism class on a learning/working winery tour. ‘The end goal is that they will become well-rounded ambassadors to the wine tourism industry.’

Then, the latest newsletter from The Wine Tasters’ Guild of South Africa, of which I’m an honorary member, advises their next tasting will be at Voor Paardeberg winery, Vondeling. After a few words about Matthew Copeland and his awards, the Secretary writes; ‘Crossed fingers should ensure that Matt does the presentation (it’s also harvest time…).’

One of the most relevant reminders was the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration, held over the last weekend of January (27th and 28th this year) as it has been since its inception in 2014. I do remember a few of us noting that the timing was nerve-wrackingly close to harvest and there was talk of moving it. That didn’t happen but the following year delivered an early harvest; several winemakers had to juggle with picking grapes, being in the cellar and attending to present their wines. A far from ideal situation.

I’ve also been reading on Twitter how some of the smaller-scale winemakers have travelled abroad recently to market their wines, due to their agents having trade shows or similar.

Then there are pressures at home from the many tourists, either in a tour group or individually; a visit to a wine farm is a must and everyone wants to meet and speak to the winemaker. The international media also like to travel here in summer and I don’t blame them!

Andrea Mullineux at Wine Enthusiast Awards where she received Winemaker of the Year Award. The glamorous side of winemaking.
Andrea Mullineux at Wine Enthusiast Awards where she received Winemaker of the Year Award. The glamorous side of winemaking.

In the ‘old days’ the winemaker’s role was just that, winemaker. He (few female winemakers in those times) stood at the cellar door to receive the grapes, probably the first time he’d have seen them, his main job in the cellar until the wine was bottled.
Today, winemakers are much more involved in the vineyards, whether their own or leased, throughout the year. With the cult of the winemaker still a strong drawcard, they have to travel the world to meet their customers, sell their wines, attend and/or speak at seminars and do a certain amount of admin (Andrea Mullineux has just posted a screen shot of her email situation; inbox 6360, drafts 43, due no doubt to her being awarded Winemaker of the Year by the American Wine Enthusiast); I’m sure there are other obligations. The world is such a vast market that it’s often not enough to have a dedicated sales or marketing person.

Vergelegen's winemaker, Andre van Rensburg, working in the cellar.
Vergelegen’s winemaker, Andre van Rensburg, working in the cellar.

Being a winemaker and all that this entails today is just one side of the coin; many are married with families. How to squeeze in a family life too, when the job is hardly 9 to 5 and can extend to seven days a week?

Returning to Nomonde’s post on Facebook, we do need more people thoroughly versed in the journey of grapes from vine to bottle and the winery at which they work, who can take the load off the winemaker, especially at harvest time. The importance of such a person in a position which can enhance a winery’s image as well should not be under-estimated.

Think big – or specific

When the fourth edition of an event, like the previous three, is a sell out and there’s probably a sizeable waiting list too, such event is surely considered a winner by the organisers. The reality is even a winner needs change and evolution to keep the momentum going.

handa-pinot-celebration-2017-bookletDuring last weekend’s Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration a general theme was how greater vine age is needed to clearly reflect the sense of place in each producer’s wine. There has been ongoing planting and re-planting in the valley since the first, old, Swiss BK5 clone, was established in the 1970s. The current clonal mix allows for much purer and more interesting expression of pinot from bottom to top of the valley, but the vines are young; I noted 2006 and 2009 as planting dates for two of the 2015 pinots tasted, the vintage focused on this year. Each new vintage also brings greater understanding as well as a new challenge to viticulturists and winemakers; to expect an recognisable winery fingerprint is still unrealistic. Anyway, with the same line up on another occasions, opinions would likely change.

Michael Fridjhon and guest speaker, James Dicey discussing 2015 Hemel-en-Aarde pinots
Michael Fridjhon and guest speaker, James Dicey discussing 2015 Hemel-en-Aarde pinots

Let’s take that fingerprint up a notch or two to those sub-divisions or Wards: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, the bottom to top of the valley order in which the three flights were poured. This is another sore spot, which was re-opened in discussion, when guest speaker, James Dicey, viticulturist at his family’s winery Mt Difficulty in Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand (but born in Worcester, Cape) urged wineries to think big, ie promote Hemel-en-Aarde as a  whole, or specific sites. He, Michael Fridjhon among others believe there’s too little similarity within each Ward to highlight them.

 

The valley does indeed have many different altitudes, aspects, slopes and soils; choice of each affects the final wine. Newton Johnson, La Vierge and Storm have already explored individual sites. Hannes Storm’s three wines, Vrede, Ignis (from granite soils got my vote as most interesting) and Ridge, originate from different slopes, aspects and elevations. These and Hamilton Russell Vineyards impressed me most on the day. Another day, other favourites and views on the level of distinction between each Ward.

Pinot noir comes in many shades of red
Pinot noir comes in many shades of red

I was a little underwhelmed by the lineup, given the vintage, many of the 2015s do need and will benefit from age, so don’t be in a hurry to open them. I often wonder why pinot noir is released younger than many other red varieties; HRV is already on 2016 (economic reasons and demand?). Thankfully, La Vierge is on a more serene 2013.

 

 

In his introduction, Michael Fridjhon noted that back in the 1970s, pinot was viewed as an arcane, inaccessible variety. I’d argue it’s still a bit arcane, partly due to limited production (2015 figures show of Hemel-en-Aarde’s nearly 400ha, pinot accounts for around 100ha) and that proper pinot is the antithesis of the densely-hued, big, oaky, tannic, sweet reds that many consumers prefer.

How is the audience to be broadened, when attendance at this Pinot Celebration is limited, many of the same people attending every year? ‘How do I get on the list?’ friends have asked me. A dilemma the organisers need to address.

The format too has changed little; a tasting of the valley’s pinots, always two years’ old (surely older vintages should now be presented to show how the wines do age); a guest international speaker involved with pinot; this year, viticulturist James Dicey, (why was he urged by the organisers to ‘be controversial’ he spoke sincerely?), who presented his family’s intense, expressive, single site Mt Difficulty range as well as his own Ceres (Central Otago) pinot, followed the next day by individual wineries hosting a variety of tastings, usually of international pinots (plenty of competition between them on that score). Of course, there’s good food and socialising in the mix too.

This format might not pall for the 150 odd who do regularly attend but in the end you’re preaching to the converted. Having invited a viticulturist this year, did it occur to anyone that visiting vineyards and tasting the wine from them in situ could be of interest to some (my hand’s up), especially with Dicey’s emphasis on site? Alright, it rained, but something to think about for 2018.

As the local pinot celebration drew to a close, Pinot Noir NZ 2017 was about to kick off in Wellington, with ‘600 of the most influential wine writers, industry experts and imbibers from twenty countries ..’ including Jancis Robinson, Jamie Goode, Roger Jones, Michel-star chef, writer and good friend of South African wine, among many others. It’s a four-yearly sell-out event. Central Otago holds its own pinot festival every two years, something Hemel-en-Aarde should think about to prevent it suffering the fate of the Swartland Revolution.

‘Think big’; a South African pinot celebration, held every three or four years, might not have been what Michael Fridjhon and James Dicey had in mind when they urged us all to do that, but good pinot is now being made far beyond the borders of Hemel-en-Aarde; think Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Southern Coast, Robertson and Elgin. A greater number of winelovers than those able to get on the Hemel-en-Aarde Celebration list should be given the opportunity to appreciate a wine which, at its best beguiles rather than slays the palate. Who knows, maybe it could help producers realise higher prices for their pinots.

Pinot noir has come sufficiently of age in South Africa for it no longer to be regarded as a sideline variety to the big daddies, cabernet and syrah.

Over to you, Hemel-en-Aarde and all other pinot producers.

Mt Difficulty Target Gully Pinot Noir 2013, Central Otago, one of four single site wines presented by James Dicey. From ungrafted vines. All the wines closed under screwcap.
Mt Difficulty Target Gully Pinot Noir 2013, Central Otago, one of four single site wines presented by James Dicey. From ungrafted vines. All the wines closed under screwcap.

The relevance of vintage

Some South African vintages stick in the mind, usually when they yield brilliant or underwhelming wines. Unsurprisingly, 2015 immediately comes to mind as a great year, even though many of the premium wines have yet to be released; 2009 and 2003 also received general acclaim, the cream in the latter standing the test of time (there’s no point in hanging on to wines meant for immediate or early pleasure). At the other end of the scale, 2014, 2008 and 2002 have yielded some indifferent wines; there are always exceptions.

Exceptions along either scale would be the whites. Even now, with all the praise heaped on our white wines, talk of ‘vintage quality’ invariably centres on reds. It really is time this perception changes. Whites deserve their own vintage recognition; 2002 produced its own crop of excellent whites, while enthusiasm for 2011 grows among several of my colleagues and I; it is rarely spoken of as a top red vintage. I’d also suggest on the whole whites mature, ie gain in interest and complexity, better than reds, which hang in there, their tannins softening without much else changing. I very much doubt contemporary high alcohol, sweet-finishing reds will become silk purses.

Ageing wine and its relevance is a topic currently under the spotlight of several articles. Matt Walls has written a realistic, if concerning article on Tim Atkin’s website about the decline in the number of establishments/individuals ageing wine and shift in styles to earlier drinking. He concludes: ‘But we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater’, suggesting winelovers will be impoverished without the experience of drinking older, mature wines. Consumer taste, cash flow, suitable storage conditions, lack of sufficient properly trained staff; all play a role in this shift. Yet every year at the Old Wine tasting prior to the Trophy Wine Show, so many youngsters’ (and international judges’) eyes are opened by the excellence of the 15 to 50 or 60 year old whites and reds poured. Surely every producer can and should keep a library of at least a few cases of their top wines for future reference.

klein-constantia-rhine-riesling-2007-labeVintage, rather than ageing, specifically referring to white wines is my topic here. I had to think about 2007, as I had no cast-in-stone opinion; a quick dip into the cellar turned up a handful of whites and just one red (a topic for cooler weather, later in the year). Checking a vintage report I wrote, there was a 40C heatwave in some areas, lasting for up to a week, followed by cooler weather and rain. The conclusion was there’d be some very good whites from cooler areas with many reds having good fruit, soft tannins and early accessibility (probably why they are virtually absent in my cellar), though top reds would be keepers.

klein-constantia-riesling-2007It was hot, riesling called; Klein Constantia Rhine Riesling 2007 was the answer. (Only from 2010 vintage were producers allowed to use riesling without the Rhine or Weisser qualifier.) It got off to a magnificent start – just look at that gorgeous brilliant yellow gold colour. I was then quite surprised to sniff a whiff of kerosene or petrol, having anticipated a more honeyed bouquet from the usual input of botrytis. Dipping into Platter 2009, taster, Roland Peens wrote ‘Steely 07 … shows arresting bone-dry minerality. Shd benefit from few yrs cellaring.’

Roland’s note does tie in with what I’m tasting, with toasty/leesy enrichment developing as I sip it over several days. A tense, vigorous acid ensures a lingering but clean finish. No, there’s no botrytis and it does appear to be bone dry, which is unusual.

Without much thought of success in being able to confirm this, I went into the Klein Constantia website, where to my surprise and delight, I find under the Estate Wine section not only details of the current Riesling (2015) but all those going back to 1997. Bravo, KC, what an invaluable source; I wish more producers would provide similar useful information. That info confirms 2007 was an early harvest, healthy riesling with no rot and very good acidity, taken off end February. Looking at that analysis (and screwcap), I’m not surprised ten years has taken no toll on this riesling, just the opposite.

I do prefer the vintages with a touch of botrytis and residual sugar as an aperitif; with 2007, my thoughts turn to oily fish, pork, fennel, anise and other spices.

Consider yourself lucky if you or any wine-friendly restaurant you visit have a bottle of Klein Constantia Rhine Riesling 2007; you’re in for a treat.

If our white wines receive so much acclaim, surely the white wine vintage should receive proper recognition too.

klein-constantia-rhine-riesling-2007

Beyond celebration

I know I’ve written at some length about bubblies recently but a subsequent and unusual (for South Africa) tasting of sparkling wines made in the same way as Champagne and, in most cases from chardonnay and/or pinot noir, deserves attention.

packagingThe event elaborated on one held last year, where local MCCs were tasted blind against English and Welsh bubblies. This year, the range was extended to include highly-respected wines from Australia, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, France and the UK: a total of 37 wines, all tasted blind by a mix of South African and English palates.

This considerable effort was put together by Roger and Sue Jones, owners of Michelin-star restaurant, The Harrow in the UK. In the four years they’ve been visiting South Africa, they’ve become great ambassadors for our wines, also buying significant quantities, including MCCs, to offer on The Harrow’s excellent wine list.

If the tasting itself wasn’t held under the strict competitive conditions that, say, the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show or Decanter Awards are, it was still a good test of the several experienced local tasters, including Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira, Le Lude’s Paul Gerber, MW Cathy van Zyl (UK-based Lynne Sherriff, MW was also there), Allan Mullins, as well as others (myself included) who have judged both locally and internationally.

Lynne Sherriff MW & Allan Mullins CWM discussing 'how good is that?'
Lynne Sherriff MW & Allan Mullins CWM discussing ‘how good is that?’

The styles were separated, with Rosés coming first, then blends and Blanc de Blanks.
Just a few of the main points that struck me. Read the results as you will, South African MCC can mix positively with top wines from the rest of the world. I don’t have prices for all the local wines, just Cuvée Clive 2011, five years on lees, which sells for R620, Le Lude Brut NV (but these first releases based on 2012 and three and a half years on lees) R195 and Rosé R199. It is more difficult for the consumer to gauge value when an MCC is Non Vintage and many might query why five years’ on lees is beneficial to a wine such as Cuvée Clive, but this is all part of the marketing MCCs deserve. They are, as I’ve written before, the most technical of wines to produce. That Pieter Ferreira and Paul Gerber are focused on MCC alone shows in the quality of their wines: both Le Ludes scored were among my highest ratings, while the Beck Blanc de Blancs 2012 – always a favourite which develops so well in that style – proved a favourite yet again.

The rosés revealed
The rosés revealed

I was much more impressed with the English sparkling wines than last year; they were better balanced and more interesting, though clearly older vines and wines will increase this. They were also clearly from a cool climate, with green apple aromas, flavours and marked acid. Denbies, a large property in Surrey and one of the earliest to produce sparkling wine, was particularly impressive, as was Dermot Sugrue’s Sugrue Pierre South Downs 2010. The word ‘delicacy’ often crops up in my notes both for the English sparkling and the Australian quintet, all from Tasmania, fast establishing itself as this country’s premium area for sparkling wine. They differed from the English examples in greater breadth of flavour.

Roger Jones (L) owner & Michellin-star chef of The Harrow, celebrating Graham Beck's Cuvée Clive 2011 win with Cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira
Roger Jones (L) owner & Michellin-star chef of The Harrow, celebrating Graham Beck’s Cuvée Clive 2011 win with Cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira

For those doubtful about the potential of rosé beyond looking pretty, Arras 2006 (current release!) is utterly convincing. Strangely, I was very much less enamoured by the Arras Late Disgorged 2003 but was well out of line with the other tasters. As I was with the New Zealand Nautilus NV, which I’ve enjoyed on previous occasions. I was obviously wrong on those two but it’s a good stage to remember that every bottle of bubbly made in the same method as Champagne has the potential to taste different.

The German wine from riesling and made by Bollinger’s former winemaker as well as the Spanish Cava selection including the traditional Cava varieties kept our taste buds alert. Apart from the Juve y Camps Reservation de la Familia, the rest of the Spanish contingent didn’t excite.

Something that can’t be said of the tasting as a whole, a fantastic experience for those of us who don’t get such an opportunity to taste such range of international bubblies and compare with our own. Just to re-iterate, our best can and do mix with top wines from other countries; what more incentive to better promote MCC as a serious rather than just celebratory style.

Pieter Ferreira, Paul Gerber (Le Lude Cellarmaster) presenting Roger Jones of The Harrow with a SA rugby tie.
Pieter Ferreira, Paul Gerber (Le Lude Cellarmaster) presenting Roger Jones of The Harrow with a SA rugby tie.

Below is the list of wines tasted with the ranking of the top 11 (the last two sharing the same rating).

MCC – South Africa
Pongracz Brut NV
Pongracz Rose NV
Desiderius 2009
Plaisir De Merle Brut
Durbanville Hills Sparkling (3)
Durbanville Hills Blanc de Blancs
Avondale Armilla Blanc de Blanc 2009 (9)
Klein Constantia Brut
Kleine Zalze Chardonnay/Pinot Noir MCC 2011
Simonsig Cuvée Royale
Delaire Graff Sunrise
Ken Forrester Sparklehorse (10)
Klein Constanta Brut
Stellenrust Clement de Lure NV
Graham Beck Brut Rose NV
Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2012
Graham Beck Vintage Rose 2011
Graham Beck Brut Zero 2010
Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2011 (1)
Le Lude Brut NV (7)
Le Lude Rosé NV

France

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve (2)

Australia
Arras Rosé 2006
Arras Late Disgorged 2003 (5)
Josef Chromy Tasmania NV
Pipers Brook 2009 Chardonnay/Pinot (8)
Jansz Premium Cuvée (6)

New Zealand
Nautilus NV Brut

Spain CAVA
Juve y Camps Reservation de la Familia
Gran Juve y Camps
Juve y Camps Rose

UK
Britagne Coates & Seely Brut Reserve NV
Wiston Rose 2011
Sugrue Pierre South Downs 2010 (10)
Denbies Sparkling NV

2017 – we’re off!

It’s always encouraging to start a new year on a positive note; my 2017 has got off to a rollicking start thanks to some really pleasurable new wines from two producers. There’s a link between them, though it might not seem immediately obvious. Aside from that, both hover somewhat further under the radar that either deserves.

Jurgen Gouws, owner and winemaker of Intellego wines, worked with Craig Hawkins during his Lammershoek days, before going solo in 2014. He, like many others, is a Swartland devotee, drawing fruit from both Abbotsdale, south of Malmesbury and the better-known Paardeberg.

Jurgen Gouws's colourful Intellego range
Jurgen Gouws’s colourful Intellego range

Falling under the attentive umbrella of Ex Animo’s David Clarke, I was one of those fortunate enough to taste some of Gouws’s latest releases, all from the important 2015 vintage. It is a year where the intelligent winemaker, even those who do very little to start with, will have known not to fiddle with the fruit, but rather let its perfect state of health and ripeness express those benefits.

Gouws makes two chenins. Intellego Chenin Blanc 2015 is delightful now; the experience of a few years’ age will add greater interest. There’s all the lightly honeyed florality of young chenin fermented on its own yeasts and, dexterously weighted by 11 months on lees in old oak barrels. Texture, freshness and energy complete this elegant 13% alcohol, dry wine.

What more could Gouws want to do? ‘Get the vineyards in good condition.’ Watch out for future, even better vintages, if that’s possible. Retailing for around R150, the meagre 2500 bottles should soon be snapped up.

Gouws’ Elementis Skin Contact chenin 2015 deserves lifting off the shelf for the label alone (designed by a friend, he told me) but the wine too is an individual. Bright, golden orange in colour from three weeks on the skins, it has tension and grip, all achieved without losing old-vine chenin’s fragrance and flavour. Just 1000 bottles produced sell for around R225.

I love Kolbroek, Gouws’ take on Swartland shiraz, not least because it follows the recent trend to lower alcohol, 12% (there will be some who’ll remember that as the norm). The red fruit, spice and clean leather flavours are pure, intense and backed by vibrant freshness and appropriate tannins. I really hope more winelovers appreciate this digestible, flavour-rich style. Excellent value around R175.

Aslina's label depicts a calabash, traditional Zululand drinking vessel, filled with bunch of grapes.
Aslina’s label depicts a calabash, traditional Zululand drinking vessel, filled with bunch of grapes.

Ntiski Biyela’s Aslina range, already available on international markets, will soon be available locally. Biyela made her own quiet mark not only as Stellekaya winemaker from 2004 until this year but also as an invitee by Chateau D’Arsac in Bordeaux to make her own wine under the Winemakers’ Collection, a prestigious undertaking she shares with Zelma Long, among others. Read more on Biyela’s story on my http://www.wosa.co.za article due for posting next week (18th January).

Red wines and those from Bordeaux in particular are her first love, so no surprise cabernet and Bordeaux-style blends are her focus. There’s also a 2015 sauvignon blanc; an eminently drinkable, gently tropical toned wine with an easy plumpness and lively, dry finish. Biyela is eyeing chenin rather than sauvignon in future. To date cabernet comes from Stellenbosch, though she’s excited about Tulbagh cabernet she’s getting in this year.

Her modestly oaked 2014 is a savoury varietal wine; nicely styled but the star of the range (at least of the three she kindly gave me to try), is the 2015 cabernet-based, cab franc and petit verdot blend. It’s beautifully, carefully assembled, oaking an enhancement and alcohol 13.5%; it’ll give pleasure over several years. She has certainly benefited from her Bordeaux experience. Expect Aslina prices to range between R95 and R140.

What is so heartening about Gouws and Biyela is that there’s no fudging of focus, no stylistic jumping around, following trends. They are honest to their fruit and goals; I know Biyela has only just started her own label, but her experience fuels my confidence. Let’s hope more winemakers follow their example.

Just how good is good?

I guess all who enjoy a glass of wine like to think they’re drinking something good. But how to qualify such a quality? ‘Good’ has many stages.

I was initially thinking about this issue after tasting the new van Loggerenberg wines, which have received glowing plaudits as a debut range, but last week Tim James and I had our final tasting of the year of a group of wines generally characterised as new releases, though some were less new than others. The line-up of 21 wines from nine producers was, we agreed, one of the better ones we’ve had in quite a while and took us on a journey through several shades of good.

There’s no reason why, even at a basic level, a wine shouldn’t be good. It should give pleasure without being challenging and slip down without detracting attention from anything else you might be doing – having a conversation with a friend, reading a complicated recipe or listening to absorbing music. Two wines which perfectly fit the bill are One Formation Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier 2016 and its red counterpart, One Formation Pinotage, Shiraz, Grenache 2015. Both offer value at R55 and R75 ex cellar, the cellar being Boland, the winemaker Johan Joubert (remember the awards he piled up when winemaker at Kleine Zalze?). They have been competently assembled, each variety playing a role in flavour and structure. The red seems roundly firm and nicely dry, which enhances the fruit. I know many like a bit of tannin-easing sweetness, but it’s that very sweetness which diminishes flavour, making the wine seem heavy and lacking freshness.

Interestingly different flavour shines in the new De Krans duo. The interest factor is as important to good wine as anything else. On seeing Tritonia Malvasia Rei – Verdelho 2015 you might be excited at the thought of trying a new variety in the malvasia; in fact it’s a synonym for palomino, the Sherry grape, or perhaps some know it better as fransdruif. Except, I doubt few have experienced the dried fruit – peach, mango, currants that also resembles the brandy-infused mincemeat in mince pies – plus a splash of liquorice and spice I find in this wine. Maybe the 69 year old malvasia vineyard makes an important contribution, as do the enrichment factors of ageing on the lees and subtle oak-fermentation/ageing. The Twist of Fate red is named for the two varieties – tinta barocca and tinta amarella – which were planted in the belief they were shiraz and tinta roriz. Co-fermented, with a year in older French oak, the result is a generously spicy, floral wine in a glenelly-estate-reserve-2011well-managed, rustic style. Difficult to beat at R65. With Louis van der Riet in the cellar (Tim and I were also enthusiastic about his own chenin blanc) the future looks promising; at this stage improvement in quality with consistency is a vital combination to lift these and the Tritonia Calitzdorp Blend from good/interesting to the next level.

 

 
As these form just part of a range, so do Gabrielskloof The Blend 2015 (great value for R85) – a Bordeaux blend, proving Peter-Allan Finlayson is more than just handy at chardonnay and pinot noir – and Glenelly Estate Red 2011 (around R140), a masterful shiraz, cabernet, merlot and petit verdot mix. Again, these are dry, have gentle tannins and combine real quality with drinkability and are well-priced too. More would be welcome indeed.

Just how good can the wine be is something to ponder when planting in a virgin-vine area. sijnn-redDavid Trafford and his partners in Sijnn vineyards, near the beautiful if isolated mouth of the Breede River, have been more than vindicated in their choice. Although production stands just over 5000 cases, those who do know the wines appreciate the level of excellence already reached, elegance a common thread throughout the range. Logistics must be a good deal easier now the wines are vinified in the on-site cellar, sensitively designed to meld with the surroundings. The 2015 chenin-based White (the first vintage made in the new cellar) and 2012 shiraz-based Red (vinified at De Trafford in Stellenbosch), which blossomed over the five days I sipped on it, offer such value and distinction at R180 and R200. Quantities will never be huge, but the varietal spread in the ground is being expanded by petit manseng, a white variety from South West France and the Greek white, assyrtiko. Sijnn is destined to become one of the Cape’s top-league wineries.

So will Lukas van Loggerenberg’s eponymous range do likewise? I can’t remember a debut range receiving such positive reviews in many a year; possibly the Alheits were the last. Lukas’s four wines astound with their intensity and purity; there is no chance of concentrating on a book or conversation, they demand one’s full attention. If I have any regret, it’s that they have been released so young. But money needs to be made to look after the vines. Stand-outs for me are Kamaraderie 2016 from 56 year old chenin bush vines: it manages to be bone dry yet unharsh, resonatingly rich yet unheavy with lengthy savouriness. As convincing as any top Cape chenin I’ve had this year. Then there’s the Breton, with all the freshness and vigour of Loire cabernet francs but none of the greenness found in some examples; just graphite, red fruit and a lift of spice. It’s captivating.

(l - r) Breton (cab franc), Geronimo (cinsaut), Kameraderie (chenin blanc),  Break a Leg (cinsaut blanc de noir)
(l – r) Breton (cab franc), Geronimo (cinsaut), Kameraderie (chenin blanc), Break a Leg (cinsaut blanc de noir)

I can’t help but agree with many of my international colleagues who confirm South Africa continues to be one of the most exciting wine producing countries.

May the goodness in all continue to spread in 2017.

The bubbles of Cap Classique & Champagne

Were I to ask which category of South African wine is most in need of some smart marketing, how many would suggest Méthode Cap Classique? Many would express a sense of disbelief: ‘Bubbly? Everyone loves bubbly, surely there’s no image difficulty there?

But that MCC does need some effective generic marketing was the concern Joaquim Sá, MD of Amorim Cork in South Africa, confided to me prior to a tasting of the top MCCs at the Amorim-sponsored Méthode Cap Classique Challenge. Of course, this traditionally-made fizz is popular, but oddly, that’s part of the problem. It’s a category that grows exponentially; my guess is there are currently around 200 producers of MCC, some making more than one style, some every conceivable style. So, every year, the number of MCC producers increases as does the spectrum of their bubbly range, simply because of supply and demand. A few are specialists, more make MCC an add-on to their range.

For anyone who’s been lucky enough to attend an MCC tasting where specialists such as Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck, Jeff Grier of Villiera, Johan Malan of Simonsig or Paul Gerber of newcomer, Le Lude, among others, have presented, it’s clear there’s much more to MCC than getting a few thousand bubbles into the bottle. Technical expertise is – I was about to say ‘all’ but that usual edge of unbridled enthusiasm is equally important. Technically, MCC is one of the most demanding styles, the search for the perfect bubble always the ultimate goal.

Some of the Méthode Cap Classique Wines Villiera make for Woolworths
Some of the Méthode Cap Classique Wines Villiera make for Woolworths

Villiera and Simonsig are notable exceptions to a list of MCC specialists and a quality range of still wines. Villiera is particularly notable as bubbly supplier to Woolworths from the start and, with this retailer, have moved with the times: catering for the calorie and sugar-conscious, there’s a new MCC Light (under 10% alcohol), Brut Nature (no dosage added, so bone dry) and, daringly, a new NV Demi-Sec with 33 grams of residual sugar. Don’t think of Demi-Sec as cheap and cheerful; in Woolies’ case, it’s rich rather than sweet, with enough acid to lend good verve and a quality wine like the other MCCs. Another plus is that it is the perfect style to partner with food; Asian or spicy dishes or fresh fruit.

In a recent article on the UK website, http://www.drinksbusiness.com, Anne Malassagne, co-owner of Champagne producer, AR Leonble, affirms; ‘In order to make an interesting demi-sec the sugars need to be well integrate into the wine – if you don’t give it enough time after disgorgement then the sugar stands out. Our 1996 was rested for a further four years after disgorgement before release.’

Apart from broadening the style spectrum to meet the change in consumer tastes, Woolies and Villiera, as well as the other long-time top specialist producers have remained remarkably consistent. Not so all of the other 200-odd producers and neither are many members of the MCC Association, founded in 1992, which is a pity as members get together annually to taste and discuss their base wines before they undergo their second fermentation in bottle. This is a valuable exercise focusing on one of the most important parts of making a quality MCC, where balance and finesse are so necessary. Finesse means a lack of phenolics or bitterness/tannins, one source of which can be too hard a pressing of the grapes. As our grapes will be riper than those harvested in Champagne (the MCCs taste that much fruitier too), a gentle pressing is even more necessary.

Moët et Chandon 2006, the vintage imitating the board in the cellar indicating the identity of the unlabelled wines stacked there.
Moët et Chandon 2006, the vintage imitating the board in the cellar indicating the identity of the unlabelled wines stacked there.

No wonder I was puzzled when I discerned a distinct bitterness on the aftertaste of the latest Moët et Chandon vintage, 2006 during a recent (and informative) presentation by Chef de Cave, Benoit Gouez. He cheerfully admitted this unusual element was deliberate, using the comparison of ice skating figures, those for vintage being freestyle and non vintage, compulsory. An appealing analogy, the ‘freestyle’ of the vintage extending to the entirely non-classic label, the design based on painted boards recording the place of each vintage in the cellar.

Non vintage, which Gouez likens to the ‘compulsory’ figures in ice skating, establishes the overall house style and quality, for MCC too. Consider that Moët NV accounts 90% of production – no actual figures divulged – with the company’s own 1200 ha of vineyards supplying a quarter of their needs – admiration for quality and consistency is matched by quantity.

It’s a good starting point for all local MCC producers, also I’d suggest is becoming part of the Producers’ Association. Maybe such a united body would also raise the image and appreciation of the style generally.

Many shades of colour

For someone writing a tasting exam, colour is the first port of call. But generally, how many of us bother to really study the colour of a wine, bar noting whether it’s white, rosé or red? We head straight for the aroma and taste; these primarily determine what we think of the wine.

That’s a pity since colour, of both white and red wines, are changing so much, they deserve more consideration.

Three  shades of cinsaut ;  SFW 1974 right
Three shades of cinsaut ; SFW 1974 right

We’ve got so used to red wines being like Homer’s ‘wine dark sea’; impenetrable, black ruby from centre to the edge of the rim; no layers, just solid colour. With that impenetrability often comes over-ripeness and extraction, possibly too much new oak as well, lavished on the wine that’s intended to show ambition. Not all dark wines are heavy and dull; the best ones have a degree of freshness, gently extracted tannins and no new wood.

But once grenache and cinsaut began their run of popularity, the colour spectrum changed. It became possible to actually see the range of colours of and within each variety, as the cinsauts pictured show. More translucence does not rule out vivid brilliance. Craig Hawkins’ new Testalonga vintages have plenty of that with their eye-catching purple stain hue; the photo is of the new El Bandito Monkey Gone to Heaven 2016, a mourvèdre, while the carignan, named Follow Your Dreams’ brilliance is more ruby.

Testalonga Follow Your Dreams Carignan 2016
Testalonga Follow Your Dreams Carignan 2016

History shows that red wines, as they age, get paler, their ruby hue taking on garnet light.
Colour and its change with age in white wines is of far more interest to me, something I re-discovered at the recent bi-annual De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay.

This is a celebration I always look forward to as each one has its own new touch, though essentially it features a tasting of different chardonnays, an international speaker (Jay McInerney this year), and The Golden Vine Award, made to a chef who has made an exceptional contribution to fine culinary art; South African and incredibly young Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, owner/chef of the Nice restaurant Jan, and the first South African to be awarded a Michelin star, received the Golden Vine Award from Johan de Wet.

De Wetshof Finesse 1993, Thelema Chardonnay 1997, Neil Ellis Chardonnay 2005
De Wetshof Finesse 1993, Thelema Chardonnay 1997, Neil Ellis Chardonnay 2005

But back to the wines. The new feature this year was a flight of older wines: De Wetshof Finesse 1993, Thelema 1997, Neil Ellis 2005 and Hamilton Russell 2005. I don’t know why I missed a photo including the HRV but it did have the richness of colour similar to Thelema’s, though not quite as dark.

This was a quartet which really made one think about colour, what it suggests the wine will taste like and which has the most appeal. I enthused about the De Wetshof at the pre-Nederburg Auction tasting, writing: ‘Brilliant and youthful in colour, Robertson’s typical limey character remains clear and well-sustained. The area’s limestone soils really do help to preserve good acidity and low pH levels.’ For the technically minded, the wine’s pH level is 3.17 and acidity 6.8 g/l. This time, I did note some bottle age but the flavours remain fresh.

Thelema’s deep gold colour is reflected in its rich, slightly honeyed nose; the flavours though are fresher with balanced leesy weight. Of the four, Neil Ellis’s Elgin wine had the most eye appeal with its green halo lighting up the deepening yellow hue. From sandstone and shale soils, the analysis again proved beneficial to such ageing: 3.2 pH and a TA of 5.8 g/l. My notes: ‘Brilliant hellow. So fresh, creamy, elegant and dry’ were a most positive record. Despite the Hamilton Russell’s deep yellow gold, though less so than Thelema’s, it remains very tight, focused and with savoury length.

To be completely honest, a little more colour development in the De Wetshof and less in Thelema and Hamilton Russell to correspond with the state of development in the flavours and texture wouldn’t be a bad thing. But this is perhaps nit-picking; all four are interesting and enjoyable in their own right, especially as alcohol levels top out at 13.5%.

cape-point-vineyards-isleidh-2009This tasting of older chardonnays, one I hope the De Wets will repeat at the next Chardonnay Celebration, inspired me a few days’ later to open not an older chardonnay but Cape Point Vineyards Isleidh 2009, probably the most celebrated vintage after 2015. At seven years of age, this wine struck the perfect balance between colour, nose and taste. The deepening yellow is still shot with brilliant green, secondary notes are evident with semillon taking a lead role, backed by sauvignon’s freshness. A heart-stopping wine! The colour playing no small role in my appreciation.

Colour is under-appreciated; I know we all want a quick sniff before the main pleasure of tasting the wine, but colour can give great pleasure too.

Platter 2017

It’s the chenin and chardonnay show! This pair has outshone all other varieties and blends in the five stars awarded in Platter’s 2017 South African Wine Guide, launched this evening at the Table Bay Hotel, Cape Town. Each achieved 17 five star wines, with a chenin awarded the ultimate prize – White Wine of the Year: take a bow, Tertius Boshoff and Stellenrust 51 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2015! Chenin also starred in the Dessert Wine of the Year, the Mullineux Straw Wine 2015. A newcomer to Wine of the Year is The Winery of Good Hope, whose shiraz-based Black Rock 2014, was voted Red Wine of the Year. Full results follow below.

alheitTo go back a step or so; 94 wines emerged with the guide’s highest and much-valued five star rating after two exhausting days of rigorous blind tasting over the +- 700 wines which their individual taster deemed worthy of 4.5 stars and so went forward to the five star tasting. These 700 were shared between eight teams of three tasters; large categories, such as chenin, chardonnay and shiraz were divided over both days but interspersed by red or fortified wines, so palates didn’t become saturated with acid, tannin or alcohol.

 

 

It was my good fortune to chair the chenin panel, a task that was more fun than anything else, though we were rigorous and demanding of the +- 70 chenins in the line-up, especially as they were of such a high standard.

Our subsequent discussions revealed we were impressed by the divergence of style, each equally well interpreted, and the many wines with long potential. All the chenins meeting our scrupulous five star demands were re-tasted on day two; a couple reverted to 4.5*. At the same time, a select few were singled out to go forward to the Wine of the Year tasting.
Between the chenins we tasted pinotage, red blends with pinotage and Port styles. I did say it was an exhausting two days, didn’t I? The system is as fair to each wine as is possible, a view I’m pretty sure most of us are in agreement about.

seccombeThe only award that’s not the responsibility of the tasters is the nomination of Winery of the Year; that’s a decision left to the editor, Philip van Zyl. But the format has always been the winery with the most number of five star wines, luckily there’s never been a tie. This year, Nederburg, for the second time, led the pack with a quartet of five stars.

But the time has come to change this format. If I were the Newton-Johnsons, I’d be wondering what I have to do to claim Winery of the Year title. They might not have achieved the most five star wines – each of the past two years they’ve had three – but they have their own, unique record: Platter five stars for eight consecutive vintages, since the maiden one, of their Family Vineyards Pinot Noir – 2008 to 2015. No other wine has achieved that.

As well as their other five stars, the rest of the range has consistent high ratings . these are the sort of considerations the editor should take into account when selecting Winery of the Year.

To return to Nederburg; it’s an interesting body. What sort of an image does it have? Does it have an image? Does it have too many and are they too diverse? At one end it’s seen as providing sound but uninspiring commercial wines; at the other, there’s exciting experimentation, as well as wines that aspire to be considered among South Africas best. Between those two ends, and if my reckoning skills are correct, there are 55 wines under the Nederburg label (or were in the 2016 guide); it’s no wonder for many, Nederburg is neither one thing nor another.

hrvPerhaps a more major problem lies in ownership; it’s a division of a corporate body, Distell, rather than autonomous; nothing illustrates this better than a press release sent out after this year’s Veritas awards. It was headed ‘Distell triumphs at Veritas Awards’, continuing; ‘Distell stole the show at the 2016 Veritas Awards …’ What a piece of knavery! I wonder who okayed that? The only acknowledgement that the success belonged to Nederburg – and Fleur du Cap, was when listing the actual medals.

Talking of Fleur du Cap, it’s good to see their Noble Late Harvest getting five stars again. But for a couple of vintages when it missed out, it would have topped the Newton Johnsons for the most consecutive five stars for the same wine.

It’s easy to forget that South African wines currently garnering such loud plaudits internationally are but a tiny drop in the ocean of what is made locally. What we need is more of the same quality in larger quantities. Producers like Nederburg and Fleur du Cap surely have the resources to enable them to make even better wines and fill the quality/quantity gap, but could Distell ever be ambitious enough in its wine portfolio to see these two entities become the Penfolds of South Africa?

Time to let both have wings, more autonomy and fly high, Distell. You would be doing South African wine great service.

In the meantime, congratulations to all concerned at Nederburg, Fleur du Cap and all the other five star winners; your success is much deserved.

WINERY OF THE YEAR
Nederburg Wines

RED WINE OF THE YEAR
The Winery of Good Hope Black Rock 2014

WHITE WINE OF THE YEAR
Stellenrust 51 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2015

DESSERT WINE OF THE YEAR
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Straw Wine 2015

FIVE STAR WINES

AA Badenhorst Dassiekop Steen 2015

Alheit Vineyards Hemelrand Vine Garden 2015
Alheit Vineyards Radio Lazarus 2015

Artisanal Boutique Winery JJ Handmade Eight Pillars 2013

Bartinney Private Cellar Chardonnay 2015

Beaumont Family Wines New Baby 2015
Beaumont Family Wines Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2015

Beeslaar Wines Pinotage 2013

Bellingham Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2015

Bloemendal Estate Suider Terras Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Bosman Family Vineyards Twyfeling 2015

Botanica Wines Chenin Blanc 2015
Botanica Wines Semillon 2015

Cape Chamonix Wine Farm Chardonnay 2015
Cape Chamonix Wine Farm Chardonnay Reserve 2015
Cape Chamonix Wine Farm Troika 2014

David & Nadia Chenin Blanc 2015
David & Nadia Sadie Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc 2015
David & Nadia Sadie Aristargos 2015

Delaire Graff Estate Chardonnay Banghoek Reserve 2015
Delaire Graff Estate Laurence Graff Reserve 2013

Delheim Wines Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest 2015

DeMorgenzon Chardonnay Reserve 2015

Diemersdal Estate MM Louw Sauvignon Blanc 2015
Diemersdal Estate 8 Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Donkiesbaai Hooiwijn 2015

Edgebaston David Finlayson Chenin Blanc 2015

Fable Mountain Vineyards Syrah 2014

Flagstone Winery Time Manner Place Pinotage 2014

Fleur du Cap Sauvignon Blanc Unfiltered 2015
Fleur du Cap Noble Late Harvest 2015

Fram Wines Chenin Blanc 2015

GlenWood Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Groot Constantia Estate Chardonnay 2015
Groot Constantia Estate Gouverneurs Reserve Red 2013

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2015
Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015

Haskell Vineyards Anvil Chardonnay 2015

Hermanuspietersfontein Nr 5 Kat met die Houtbeen 2014

Iona Vineyards Chardonnay 2015
Iona Vineyards Solace Syrah 2014

Jordan Wine Estate Chardonnay Barrel Fermented 2015
Jordan Wine Estate CWG Auction Reserve Chardonnay 2015

Kaapzicht Wine Estate Skuinsberg Cinsaut 2015

Keermont Vineyards Topside Syrah 2014

Klein Constantia Estate Vin de Constance 2012

Kleine Zalze Wines Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2015
Kleine Zalze Wines Family Reserve Chenin Blanc 2015
Kleine Zalze Wines Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

La Motte Syrah-Viognier 2014

La Vierge Private Cellar Apogée Chardonnay 2015

Laibach Vineyards Claypot Merlot 2014

Meerlust Estate Chardonnay 2015

Moreson Mercator Premium Chardonnay 2014

Mount Abora Vineyards Koggelbos 2014

Mulderbosch Vineyards 1000 Miles Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines Straw Wine 2015

Mvemve Raats MR de Compostella 2014

Nederburg Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Private Bin R163 2013
Nederburg Wines The Brew Master 2014
Nederburg Wines Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin D234 2015
Nederburg Wines Noble Late Harvest 2015

Newton Johnson Vineyards Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2015
Newton Johnson Vineyards Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015
Newton Johnson Vineyards CWG Auction Reserve Seadragon Pinot Noir 2015

Olifantsberg Family Vineyards Silhouette 2014

Opstal Estate Carl Everson Chenin Blanc 2015
Opstal Estate The Barber Semillon 2015

Perdeberg Winery Natural Sweet Chenin Blanc 2014

Porseleinberg Porseleinberg 2014

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2014

Reyneke Wines Reserve Red 2014

Richard Kershaw Lake District Bokkeveld Shales CY95 Chardonnay 2015
Richard Kershaw Wines Elgin Syrah 2014

Ronnie B Wines Patatsfontein Steen 2015
Ronnie B Wines Sons of Sugarland Syrah 2015

Sadie Family Wines Skurfberg 2015
Sadie Family Wines Kokerboom 2015
Sadie Family Wines Palladius 2014

Shannon Vineyards Semillon 2015
Shannon Vineyards Mount Bullet Merlot 2013

Skaap Wines Sauvignon Blanc 44 2015

Spice Route Winery Grenache 2014

Spioenkop Wines Chenin Blanc 1900 2015

Stellar Winery Natural Sweet NV

Stellenbosch Vineyards Grenache 2015

Stellenrust 51 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2015

The Winery of Good Hope Black Rock 2014

Thorne & Daughters Wines Rocking Horse 2015

Tokara Director’s Reserve White 2015
Tokara Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Trizanne Signature Wines Reserve Syrah 2015

Vondeling Babiana 2015

Warwick Estate Cabernet Franc 2013