2005 revisited

It’s become a bit of a habit, when sufficient wines of a particular vintage remain in the cellar, to hold a 10 year tasting. This time span is more about a round figure than anything to do with real ageability of South African wines, both white and red.

The line-up can be a bit of a mish-mash but the one constant is that the wines have been in the cellar since they were released or I received them for Platter (two bottles are always requested in case there’s a problem with the first)

Few wines do hang around for those 10 years, seven or eight is more likely, Thelema Cab and Kanonkop Paul Sauer. For whites it’s more likely four or five years.

From our small cache of unopened 2005s I chose: Vergelegen flagship white, Boekenhoutskloof Semillon, Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay and Hartenberg Weisser Riesling, with reds Hartenberg Gravel Hill Shiraz, Quoin Rock Syrah (the Kentridge label), Kevin Arnold Waterford CWG Auction, Waterford The Jem, Vilafonté Series C, Vergelegen Cabernet Franc-Merlot, Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon and Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet, presented in that order.

2005 line up‘As for vintage notes, this is what I wrote for Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide:
The 2005 South African wine harvest has been described as the driest, wettest, earliest and hottest, depending on exactly where you are. Such was the difference, even within short distances, generalisations about the 2005 harvest are almost impossible. What all acknowledge is that the Cape is in the grip of a drought cycle; even with a burst of spring rain, those without irrigation will have struggled. After early heat, a December downpour in Robertson and an unusual, prolonged electric storm in the coastal areas at the end of January caused widespread rot among white varieties, decimating the crop by 15-25% but producing abundant botrytis dessert styles. Those who harvested before the rain or were ultra-selective have made fruity, fuller-bodied sauvignon blancs and chardonnays. The rain, however, benefited coastal reds; there should be some stars among all the major varieties.’

That last view notwithstanding, one encouraged by David Trafford’s enthusiasm for reds in particular, I believed the ‘stars’ would be few and far between. Big tannins and very ripe fruit were my biggest concerns.

Christian Eedes, Hennie Coetzee, Maggie Mostert, Ingrid Motteux, Tim James, James Pietersen (plenty of opinions among that lot!) joined Mark and me to find out how the wines had fared.

The Vergelegen, a 66%/33% semillon/sauvignon blend and Platters Wine of the Year in the 2007 guide was seen by some as having picked up green notes, but I thought it really showed the benefits of the partnership with semillon’s texture and sauvignon’s freshness, if a bit of vintage heat in the tail. It lasted well overnight too, so worth the 10 years. Less satisfying was Boekenhoutskloof Semillon (with a splash of unoaked sauvignon?); it lacked the wine’s usual silky viscosity, finished a bit short and didn’t improve.

HRV Chardonnay’s developed brownish gold colour was a giveaway; Ingrid Motteux summed it up as ‘shot’, I agreed. Some guessed it was chardonnay and gave it the benefit of the doubt but Christian said he’s had a much better bottle recently, so don’t write it off.

Most divisive of the whites was the riesling, liked by James, ‘complex with bottle age’, Christian ‘most detail’ and Ingrid, disliked by Tim ‘offensive oxidised sweetness’; Platter records 18 g/l. I liked the initial minty peppery notes and juiciness, but it all faded pretty quickly.

Hartenberg’s Gravel Hill wasn’t well liked; tasting it later that day, I felt it was oxidising, but that could’ve been a bottle thing, A few more of us, including me enjoyed Quoin Rock Syrah (the Kentridge label) with its expressive cured meat, smoky richness, sweet fruit and crushed velvet feel. Full bodied but well balanced. All right, the dissenters find it old fashioned and overly extracted. Christian ventured it was still reductive.

Cab franc, in its more Loire-like mode (leafy, spicy) did much to freshen and refine Waterford CWG, even though it constitutes on 10% of the blend (rest 80% cab with malbec). Tim and I both much liked it, but the ‘green police’ ie Christian and James were not having it. The Jem (mainly cab and shiraz with malbec, mourvèdre, sangiovese and barbera, a blend designed to illustrate this Helderberg farm’s terroir) caused some confusion, most finding it difficult to pin down what it was made from. There was less confusion about how it was hanging in there with good flesh, ripe flavours and freshness. It too held well over a day or so.

After a day, I changed my initial positive view about Vergelegen’s Cab franc-merlot, 05 the first since 2000, its evolved rich meaty (merlot) character and finishing succulence vanishing overnight; there was also a hint of bitterness. ‘Very ripe fruit’, ‘plush, seductive, aged but not evolved’, ‘big blockbuster style’, ‘international style’ were some of the views thrown at Vilafonté. It’s a style that one either likes or doesn’t, no middle ground and it needs food. I’ve followed this wine for a few years, hoping the tannins would eventually give in; not yet they haven’t.

So to the two cabernets. Although less to the fore than sometimes, Thelema’s minty notes and the wine was recognised. I felt it was a bit introverted but it really did blossom with time. Maggie found it elegant from the start, though she enjoyed the Boekenhoutskloof more. I also loved the Franschhoek cab, a classic style with time to go; Ingrid demured, finding it oxidised. Is all this oxidation a factor of over-ripeness?

Our overall conclusion from this small sample is that it’s not a great red wine vintage and any left in cellars are unlikely to benefit from further ageing.

Old bubbles

On cork maturation has taken on an unusual meaning in the bubbly section of our cellar. The problem is that it’s housed in a corner with other bottles and boxes in close proximity and at right angles. Extracting a bottle of fizz is thus extremely difficult; the result is the bubbly bottles tend to get neglected. A pity, as I love bubbles, the CO2 lifting the spirits at the end of the day.

Recently I decided this is no good; over the past couple of weeks I’ve conducted what promises to be quite a long purge of bottles from their sleeves. Loading two or three at a time in the fridge so there’s always one that’s chilled and a backup, should the first be over the hill. So far there’ve been some unexpected results.

First, my general thoughts about ageing Méthode Cap Classique, that’s ageing on the cork. The primary ageing – on lees and crown cap is important for the development of complexity – but once degorged, ie the lees removed, dosage, if any, added and both cork and muzzle applied, the ageing becomes more oxidative, the saturated CO2 diminishing and softening, but hopefully not totally transpired when so much effort has been made to create ‘the perfect bubble’, as Graham Beck’s cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira describes his goal.

Sadly and especially in the Non-vintage MCCs, such is their popularity, that time on the cork before release is too short. To my taste, these have too vigorous a bubble, one that detracts from the wine’s more intricate flavours. What time on the cork achieves is better assimilation between bubble, wine and whatever dosage has been added. I’d guess that period could be anything up to three years. But the bottles tucked away so soundly in our cellar were much older than that. My expectations weren’t high (and there have been a couple of duds) but there have been some very pleasant surprises.

BubblyTraditionFirst was this NV Villiera Grande Cuvée with its still strong, bright colour, richness and persistent, gentle bead. A most satisfying, calm fizz – if that’s possible. On querying its age with Jeff Grier, he asked about coloured dots under the punt; ‘If there’s an orange dot, it’ll be ’89, a gold dot means it’s a ’90 and if no dots, it’ll be a 1991 or 1992,’ he advised. This bottle was dotless, so one of the two last vintages: in other words either 23 or 24 years old!

Remarkable, but I see checking in Platter that this label was a 50/50 blend of chardonnay and pinot, which spent four years on the lees; the chardonnay was barrel fermented. What Jeff also told me is that the Grande Cuvée was the forerunner to Villiera’s much-lauded Monro Brut, introduced in 1993. So it had everything going for it.

Boschendal Brut 1990 still used the term Méthode Champenoise.. The Cap Classique Association was formed two years’ later, when it adopted the term Méthode Cap Classique to signify the wine was made in the traditional Champagne method.

Bubbly boschendalPlatter offers the information that the blend is 48% pinot noir to chardonnay’s 52% and the wine was bottled with just 6 grams/l dosage. It won a silver medal on the International Wine Challenge and was one of three finalists on the Snday Telegraph wine of the year.
Annoyingly, as the bottle has now gone to the recycling depot before I could look, it also noted the date of degorgement, apparently applied since 1988. It must’ve been one of the first to do so. It’s something the MCC Association is going to more generally introduce, I think initially on vintaged wines.

The colour was even more pristine and brilliant than Villiera’s, it tasted less rich too, possibly because of lower dosage or no oak, but like the Villiera, it was still very together with the finest, most persistent of beads. Another bottle of enjoyment!

So why did these two wines offer such a relative surprise: the corks. The best way to remove a bubbly cork (apart from sabrage) is to keep the muzzle in place, grab it with a cloth to preserve the skin on one’s hands, and slowly turn the bottle. The cork should be released with a gentle sigh of the trapped CO2. Not with this lot; they wouldn’t budge; eventually the top broke from the well-shrunken piece left in the bottle. Both were easily removed with a corkscrew and sorry little bits of cork they were, both as hard as bullets and thoroughly saturated. Even more amazing then that the wines were drinkable, let alone sufficiently pleasurable to finish the whole bottle.

Such lengthy ageing isn’t something I’d recommend, especially under less than ideal conditions, but certainly NV wines (as well as their grander siblings), released after all-too short a time on the cork can give greater drinking pleasure if left from a year or two.

Vintage variation

At the recent Steenberg Long Lunch, a colleague asked me if it’s possible to give a collective vintage description for South Africa’s white wines. Whew, that’s some task, considering it would encompass areas as diverse as Swartland and Elim and varieties spanning riesling to chenin blanc. Yet it’s something I attempt every year, along with red wines, when I write up the briefest of vintage reports for Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide.

Some vintages are much easier to gauge than others. For instance, 2009 is an acknowledged quality, ageworthy year for both white and red, balance perhaps being the overall positive (we’re talking about top-of-the-ladder quality, though the more commercial level should also reflect some of the general characteristics); 2010 is more difficult – there are some stupendous wines but many were picked too late, so are over-ripe; angularity is a problem in others – and so on.

But each vintage will always throw up exceptions. Vintages on that Long Lunch table were 2013 and 2012. The former has always struck me as enjoying a wealth of fruit but so far the jury’s out on ageing potential. The older vintage is the opposite: structure being the defining feature.

So do the new Steenberg vintages exemplify these generalisations? Steenberg BlackSwan 2012

Black Swan, which replaced the old Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, is a very different wine from its forbear in that it is drawn from three different vineyards; the remainder of the original Reserve block plus two younger ones and in 2013 includes 10% unwooded semillon. This is one serious sauvignon, deliberately styled to age, which the Reserve did so well. So it is much more contained than many, more obviously fruity wines but in its underlying richness, there is plenty of flavour, which will be revealed over the next – perhaps – two or three years and further. A lovely, elegant wine and good value for R165.

Dare I venture that thanks to the introduction of other vineyards, it’s better than the old, single vineyard, Reserve? For me it certainly is. Single vineyard wines have become quite the trend since they became a legal entity, but I often wonder how many actually deliver something sufficiently distinguished to warrant the label. The early harvest got in the way of the article I still intend writing on this subject.

Steenberg’s varietal Semillon 2013 (I’m so glad it’s still part of the range) does better fit my vintage description in its great fruit purity – fragrant tangerine, lemon grass, honey with a cool climate dusty overlay – but it also has the structure and concentration to age well. It says much for the benefits of larger (500 and 600 litre) oak, just 35% new; enrichment without dominance.

Magna Carta, the flagship blend of sauvignon (60%) and semillon (40%), clearly reflects the structure of 2012. Primary, tight and sturdy build are my first impressions; only after an hour or so do the familiar lemon grass, citrus peel and herby notes begin to break loose. It should benefit from a good many years (3-5) to get into its impressive stride. Context came from the maiden 2007, where part of the wine was barrel fermented but not aged, so it’s leaner with more exaggerated green pea features (that’s taking into account 2007 was anyway a cooler year), and a quite glorious 2011, an elegant, seamless flow of textured liquid.

Steenberg Magna Carta 2007 (l), 2012 (r) and 2015 in the sorbet!
Steenberg Magna Carta 2007 (l), 2012 (r) and 2015 in the sorbet!

It was gratifying to see the two 2013 reds – Catharina and Nebbiolo – live up to my fruit definition. For those who don’t like the mint which is a trademark of Steenberg’s merlot, Catharina shows not a whiff of it, despite that grape’s 61% contribution to the blend; cabernet and shiraz (5%) complete the varietal trio. ‘Water stress or gum pollen,’ are JD Pretorius’s suggestions for origin of that recognisable mint. Both are wines of charm and ready drinkability.

Pretorius did tell us that there’ll be no 2014 Magna Carta, which does confirm the challenges that vintage presented but it should make a notable return with the 2015 (although, interestingly, Pretorius rates 2009 as a vintage above 2015) Whatever, a case was again made for Steenberg’s real strength lying in its white wines.

Kerry Kilpin, new chef at Steenberg's Bistro 1685
Kerry Kilpin, new chef at Steenberg’s Bistro 1685

Except now, its other real strength lies in Kerry Kilpin, new chef at Bistro 1685 (after 12 years working with Franck Dangereux, so with excellent credentials), who kept our tastebuds singing with her dishes, along with Pretorius’s wines.

A damn fine 15 year old

A fine roast chicken deserves a fine red wine. My roast chook was damn fine. Fresh herbs, garlic and butter stuffed under the skin, lemon in the belly, streaky bacon draped on top and all surrounded by a ratatouille of veges.

So what red to choose?

It seems no Cape wine region has avoided the terror of fire this season. It’s been a long, dry summer, the fynbos and undergrowth tinder dry; fire was inevitable, necessary even to allow regeneration of the fynbos, a process which most profitably occurs every 15 years or so.

It is exactly 15 years since the last major fire along the southern part of the Peninsula and across the Simonsberg (one area spared this year, for which all on these slopes must be profoundly thankful, given the general excellence of the vintage). I covered these 2000 fires for the fledgling wine.co.za website; looking back at my reports I’m surprised by how much crop was lost and permanent damage done to vineyards: 20% crop loss at Delheim, 10ha burnt on Kanonkop, 22ha on Uitkyk, 12ha on Lievland; some of these vineyards were wiped out, others recovered. In one report, Kanonkop’s Johan Krige, wouldn’t commit himself to any predictions ‘I do know that we’ve permanently lost six of the ten hectares burnt; we’ll need another two to three months to find out how much of the rest has survived and another month to see the effect on the ripening of the vines that escaped unscathed.’ On one score, Krige is adamant; `There is nothing, but nothing we could have done different in the face of that wind; the fire was impossible to stop.’

It probably wasn’t pure coincidence that my eye was drawn to the Kanonkop bin when I went in the cellar. Perfect, there were two bottles of 2000 Paul Sauer; one removed for the chicken – the other, well let’s see how this first goes down.

Kanonkop PS2000 backlabelRemarkable; given the hot vintage – both thanks to weather and fire – this is a fine wine, a calm wine, its concentration of sweet fruit holding it together, the tannins being fully melded. Now just look at that back label, optimum drinking window extends just beyond 2014 (possibly because of space?) but it’s spot on. Yes, it’s drinking beautifully now, but I don’t see further improvement. But there won’t be so many Cape reds of that era that would give such pleasure after 15 years.

Game, lamb and pork? You can add a damn fine chook to that list, Kanonkop, a wonderful partner to your damn fine wine!

Tasting from a tea cup

A recent lunch with a friend at South China Dim Sum was a thoroughly delicious experience. The tasty pan fried and poached wheat dumplings with their various fillings were just some of the morsels that went down a treat. As has become our norm, one pays, the other brings the wine; my choice this

Our Prüm riesling was still delicious in this tumbler
Our Prüm riesling was still delicious in this tumbler

time was Joh Jos Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese 2004. Delicious in itself, it went perfectly with all the dishes we devoured, even though it was served from glass tumblers. I have to admit I was slightly thrown, given the restaurant has a decent wine list, that it has no proper wine glasses.

Glass tumblers were again suggested when via Twitter, I quizzed my friend and UK wine writer, Anthony Rose as what his guests would drink from, as there were only two Zalto glasses which he had won in a raffle; one for him, the other for his wife, Charmaine.

Elegant Zalto glass, similar to the pair Anthony Rose won.
Elegant Zalto glass, similar to the pair Anthony Rose won.

The Twitter conversation continued by my telling Anthony that tumblers had no adverse effect on the Prüm, at which point Alex Hunt MW claimed that tumblers are perfect for Beaujolais Nouveau and so the conversation moved to other receptacles out of which wine might or might not taste so good.

Masterglass
This all reminded me of a memorable exercise Jancis Robinson suggested in her 1983 book, Masterglass, and headed ‘Why you need glasses’. ‘Try drinking wine out of the following drinking vessels and note how ‘wrong’ it tastes.’ China teacup, pottery mug, pewter tankard, silver goblet, plastic beaker and paper cup. According to Robinson, the last of these is probably the best, ‘affecting the wine’s flavour least’.

Let’s have a go, I said to myself. I’ve done the exercise once before, with a group and probably shortly after the book was published, so I’ve long forgotten the results.

My motley line up of tasting vessels
My motley line up of tasting vessels

Assembling the various vessels plus a control glass (pictured) proved no problem; for wines, I chose Rupert and Rothschild Baroness Nadine Chardonnay 2011 and Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon 2009; both are consistent in style and I know them pretty well.

In the glass, the Baroness has generous oatmeal, nutty features with a freshening orange citrus thread. It’s ripe but there’s no compromising oiliness, the concentrated flavours are clean and long. Boekenhoutskloof cab is starting to move from primary to a more interesting secondary stage, the tannins to soften, both making it easier to appreciate the rich, ripe dark berry flavours and flesh.  Both wines were sufficiently expressive to show for better or worse in the motley selection of vessels.

Clumsiness in hand and mouth, competing flavours from some materials and difficulty in viewing colour were just some of the disadvantages encountered with every vessel other than the glass.

Getting any aromas from the chardonnay was difficult given the splayed rim or lack of inward tilt of the vessels. Taste was less detrimentally affected, though the pottery mug did infuse both wines with a suggestion of coffee, accentuating sweetness in the chardonnay and, strangely, bitterness in the cab. The plastic beaker had an unpleasant roughness and smell but beyond that, the actual drinking experience was more pleasant. Pewter killed everything in both wines. Shape rather than material dimmed aromas in the paper cup, though it proved the least offensive container for either wine. I also quite liked the chardonnay in the silver goblet, partly because of its cool feel but also its elegance (at least the pair were specifically made for wine). It was a different story with the cabernet, where the goblet gave full rein to some as yet unencountered grippy tannins.

As Robinson sums up ‘why you need glasses’ writing glass ‘is tasteless and doesn’t impose any temperature on the liquid inside .. [there’s] the anticipatory pleasure of looking at a wine’s colour.’ She concludes; ‘The best wine glasses therefore are tulip- or near-spherical-shaped and have a stem.’ Adding, ‘The best wine glasses are never the most expensive. Many off-licences sell glasses called Paris goblets for less than 50p each.’ Paris goblets?! Is any glass more vilified today!

If I’m not lucky enough to be offered wine from the Rose’s Zalto glasses, give me their tumblers any day over a Paris goblet!

The good, the bad & the ugly

As a member of the media I’m privileged to receive invitations to many tastings; these include trade events featuring wines from producers represented by the host agent. These are always useful, enabling one to catch up with current and often future releases; enjoyable as the wines are mostly at the upper end of quality.

Quality and interest were on show all round at the recent Ex Animo Wine Co’s event, providing one of the best tastings I’ve been to in a long while. An aside: name tags were hand-written stick-on labels; none of those plastic covered, safety-pin fixed jobs, which are not only environmentally unfriendly but what the hell do you do with them afterwards? They’re not re-useable, as the tag is branded too. Such a waste; please NB everyone.

Ex Animo (from the heart) was started just over a year ago by Aussie import and sommelier, David Clarke and his South African wife, Jeanette, also a sommelier. In that time they have amassed an impressive list of producers, all chosen because the Clarke’s believe they make wines ‘from the heart’; cutting-edge can be added too.

ThorneDaught_RockHrse13_lrgWhere to start? My stand-out and favourite of the afternoon seems a good place. The Seccombe’s Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse 2014 rises way above the sum of its chenin, roussanne, semillon, chardonnay and viognier parts, all fermented and raised in older oak. Breezily fresh scents of wild scrub and dried apples are enticing, while the texture engages the whole mouth; its freshness setting the tongue a-tingle, its firm pithy grip confirming its extra-ordinariness. It’s not a wine easily forgotten, as no wine of real character should be. When it’s released around May this year, the outlay of +-R240 will offer great value when compared with much more ambitiously priced whites of lesser interest. (All prices quoted here are approximate retail.)

Chenin in solo guise was also on great form. I loved both Jurgen Gouws’ savoury, oxidative Intellego 2013 (R107) and Johan Meyer’s Force Majeur 2014 (yet to be priced) in a fresher style but with all the concentration of fruit from 30-something year old vines. Gouws was Craig Hawkins’ assistant at Lammershoek, where the regime change has seen them both depart. (Hawkins’ Testalonga range is also part of the Ex Animo stable.) Being taken under the Ex Animo wing should see the Intellego label deservedly better known. Gouws is equally adept with reds. I could drink oceans of his Kedungu 2014, characterful in both name and make up: syrah, with 30% each mourvèdre and cinsaut. The light-handed touch is evident in its fresh, pure flavours and gentle yet telling support. A no-brainer at just under R90.

Chardonnay – too mainstream for these adventurers? Not at all and they’re up with the best. The Wessels’ Restless River Chardonnay 2013, ex Hemel en Aarde (a shout for their 2011 Cabernet (R300) too; I echo others’ applause), Johan Meyer’s 2014 ex Elgin (R140), Alsacien, Julian Schaal’s Evidence 2013 (R216) also Elgin fruit and Thorne and Daughters’ new Zoetrope 2014 from Bot River old bush vines: each makes its own statement. Elgin is stunningly Elgin, 2013 beautifully reflects that lovely chardonnay vintage and the Seccombe’s natural ferment in older oak is as subtly expressive, as the method allows. Incidentally, Zoetrope is a pre-film animation device that produces the illusion of motion, as in making the horse rock!

Just one more mention (where there could be many) for the whole range from Trizanne Barnard and her four-wine Signature range; the whites from Elim, reds from Swartland, all so graceful and understated and in the R90 to R170 range, excellent value.

Some perspective as to the quantity of wine these ‘column inches’ have covered. Production of Ex Animo’s portfolio of currently 11 producers totals 61 600 cases (x6) or 277,200 litres. The 2013 crop for wine alone was 915 451 775 litres (SAWIS figures); so this top quality level represents just a drop in the wine ocean.

What got me thinking about this was an article in Business Day by Bekezela Phakathi, who reported the Western Cape Government ‘mulls turning cheap wine into biofuel’. Phakathi wrote: ‘The Western Cape government is investigating alternative uses for cheap, low-quality wine, such as converting it into biofuel for tractors and generators as part of efforts to curb alcohol abuse.’

My immediate reaction was, why are we still producing wine of such low quality, but it seems reading through the whole article, the shift in attitude towards top quality hasn’t permeated throughout the industry. One would have to say this includes what SAWIS terms Producer Cellars (the old Co-operatives) and the producing wholesalers, who account for by far the majority of the annual wine crop. The Private Cellars, although much greater in number, account for that mostly impressive but thin layer of cream on top.

Also, I don’t like the idea of channelling this lesser wine for another purpose; it has echoes of the old KWV, which took excess wine from its members and distilled it. An action which encouraged laziness and bad use of land. In the immortal words of André van Rensburg: ‘Let them plant vegetables.’

Rosé on the rise

Pinot noir, grenache noir, cinsaut; there can be few more trendy red varieties in South Africa right now. As their popularity grows, so winemakers are adapting their methods (mental attitude?) of vinification: out go over-extraction and over-oaking, in come focus on purity, gentleness and freshness. Even alcohol levels are going down a beneficial notch or two. It would be wrong to say these attributes apply to every example – they don’t – but generally, this new genre of red wines is growing in number. They make most satisfying drinking without being at all facile.

If it’s not stretching the imagination too much, I don’t think I’d be entirely wrong to claim there’s been a concomitant improvement in the quality of rosé, especially those crafted from those three varieties. They are becoming imbued with more personality; colours, fruit profile and structure are more individual; there is an aura of seriousness about them, leaving behind that often vapid, sweet pink wine of yesterday.

It helps that rosé is fashionable and that there are many young vines which winemakers prefer to use for this style, which requires freshness rather than bolstering tannin. If not all are completely dry, the achieved balance better integrates any residual sugar, giving the impression of dryness.

Rose trioFew rosés see oak, though it can be successfully employed. I remember being very impressed by and enjoying the maiden Solms-Delta Lekkerwijn, an 04 made from mourvèdre, grenache noir and viognier, which was both fermented and aged in older French oak. It made a telling statement for serious rosé.

Somewhat sadly, to my mind, the latest Solms-Delta Rosé 2014 (Lekkerwijn has now been moved to the back label) is unwooded. I should hastily add, it remains a delightful individual, now a blend of mainly grenache noir with a splash of cinsaut. It retails for R54.99.

It was one of three dry rosés Tim James and I tasted recently, collectively drawing my attention to the stylistic improvements mentioned above.

Judging by this and the Thelema Sutherland Grenache Rosé, the variety really does suit the style. The Solms-Delta version has more of a robust spicy character, well-matched by its firm structure and freshness. No doubt a night on the skins and six months on the lees helped impart and develop both the flavour and firmness. Even with a moderate 12.5% alcohol, it is not so much an aperitif wine as one that will provide more satisfaction with a plate of charchuterie or tuna.

The Thelema wine, also a 2014, is 100% grenache from eight-year-old vines grown on their Sutherland property in Elgin. As one might expect from that cooler area, the spicy, cinnamon aromatics are pure and fragrant; but do not be lulled into thinking this is a delicate wine. Elgin can also produce alcohol; 14.2% in this case. It does show a little heat at the end, but there’s plenty of juicy, flavourful and well-sustained fruit to enjoy as well. Gyles Webb and Rudi Schultz suggest it’s ‘the perfect wine to sip while watching the sun set’. To cut that heat in the tail, I’d be inclined to have a pot of smoked trout or salmon pâté on the go as well.

So to the Fat Bastard Pinot Noir Rosé 2014, made at Robertson Cellar and what an attractive wine it is. More coppery pink than the brilliant ruby grenache wines, but that’s often the case with pinot. It’s so fragrant, like a cherry orchard in spring; pure flavours continue in the same vein; it’s even got a pinot-like suppleness. R80 is on the high side, but it’s worth giving it a try for the sheer enjoyment.

A word of advice to Robertson pinot producers; play to your strengths – bubbles and, it appears from this wine, rosé. You will be taken much more seriously than with red pinots that don’t hit the mark. (I await to pass judgement on the new Fist of Fancy from McGregor fruit.)

Another word on my latest hobbyhorse, packaging. It’s so important for any wine, but especially so for rosé. Fat Bastard wins hands down with its pinky-beige capsule and hippo on the label, an attractive match to the wine colour (visible thanks to the clear flint bottle, used for all three wines). The silver capsule with black and white photo of the Sutherland vineyards is also complementary to the wine and, whilst I like the design of the new Solms-Delta label, the baby pink theme does the wine no favours.

Importance of packaging

I hate shopping for household goods, a boring, if necessary pastime. I make a list but rely a) on the shelves being organised in an accustomed arrangement (dangerous, supermarkets’ management loves changing things around just as one has got used to a certain lay out!) and b) familiar packaging, in order to whip the item off the shelf without the need for close inspection. A change in those recognisable colours and/or script leads to much frustration. It’s much the same with wine labels; a few, of course, are more instantly recognisable than others; Boekenhoutskloof with its seven chairs comes to mind. But how to go about selecting a bottle from a shelf of unknown wines; likely when in some foreign land or even locally, where the plethora available inevitably means one can’t know them all. Faced with a line-up of unknown wines, if I like what I see with an initial glance at the label and all other features are to my liking, the label would be the final arbiter of choice. I sent a tweet to this effect on the day of the Wine Label Design Awards, only to receive a dissenting response from Jeremy Sampson, Mr ‘Brand’, who averred ‘I buy wines despite the labels. They invariably act as an identifier and not much more.’ Having seen the winning selection on the above Awards, I would again beg to differ with Sampson.

A selection of overall winner on Wine Label Design Awards, Peter Walser's BLANKbottle
A selection of overall winner on Wine Label Design Awards, Peter Walser’s BLANKbottle

Organised by online magazine, Winemag, the inaugural Wine Label Design Awards, sponsored by Rotolabel, attracted 92 entries; these were whittled down to 14 winners, some single labels, others as part of a range, by the judges. Photos of all winning labels may be seen here The overall winner, Peter Walser’s BLANKbottle (I love the irony of the name) range, shows great imagination of his own design; I’d certainly be tempted to try the wines in the belief that they also show the quality and imagination their packaging predicts. The other gold medal winner, Stellenbosch Vineyards’ Infiniti Noble Late Harvest anticipates a more modern classic style. The label’s emphasis on texture rather than colour does seem to becoming a trend and, in this case, complements the beautiful and unusual bottle; my eye would be drawn to and pleased by both. Winelabels Infiniti Information on wine labels – apart from the legal stuff – is so often meaningless and the same old blah, blah. Hats off then to Villiera, who get their environmental concerns across in an innovative and uncomplicated way. On the front label, the green theme is established via the green strip along the bottom, Villiera appearing to be growing from it; on the back label, an icon depicts one of their environmental conservation or sustainable farming projects, at the same time directing readers to a relevant story on their website. All sufficiently appealing to entice me to buy the wine, should I not know anything about Villiera or either of the above wines. Villiera new labels3

 

 

 

 

 

Villiera new back labelHopefully this year’s awards are the first of many and new trends will evolve over the years. Prettiness in a busy fashion was a feature common to many of the winners, in sharp contrast to the bolder, brightly coloured labels.

Babylonstoren rose2A few days later, a label of a very different character came up for discussion. A few of us were tasting Babylonstoren’s current range with winemakers Charl Coetzee and Klaas Stoffberg on the farm. As Christian Eedes, one of the people behind the Wine Label Design Awards, was part of the company, it was informative to hear his take on the ‘invisible’ label on the (very tasty) Mourvèdre Rosé (pictured here from the distance one would view it on a shelf and close up). The viognier and chenin blanc are similarly packaged. Eedes’ verdict: ‘It wouldn’t make the cut.’ A sentiment with which I agree, though both Coetzee and Stoffberg claim the bottle has attracted much attention. ‘Winelovers are intrigued by it,’ Coetzee says, maintaining there’s been no negative reaction. Babylonstoren rose1   The ‘positive’ of this ‘negative’ label, as pictured on the Babylonstoren barrel, features a pipe, for the farmer; bird for nature and flower for what’s grown on the farm. On the farm’s new flagship, Nebukadnezar (the Afrikaans spelling is used to avoid problems with the more traditional Nebuchadnezzar), as well as Chardonnay and Shiraz, this logo is in blue on a white background and entirely more legible. It is stark but strangely attractive and, in my humble opinion, more likely to get shoppers to take it down from the shelf. Information on the back label is displayed in English, Afrikaans and, unusually, Chinese (Mandarin).   Babylonstoren label design on barrel If wine quality is paramount, shabby or unimaginative packaging, including the bottle itself, is as important to portray the sort of image that will attract the winelover to study the wine more closely but also buy it.

The importance of telling a story

Competition in the wine world has never been fiercer. To be noticed takes an awful lot of effort; to be noticed on an ongoing basis requires imagination as well as effort and good planning.

View from Jordan Wine Estate across to Simonsberg & Stellenbosch mountains
View from Jordan Wine Estate across to Simonsberg & Stellenbosch mountains

When the Jordan family purchased their now eponymous farm in 1983, they took care to match variety to site, a practice they have followed when planting the additional land they’ve purchased over the years. Although no wine was released under the Jordan label until 10 years later, grapes were sold to other producers and Alphen, a Gilbeys brand (now the home of Kleine Zalze) gained an enviable reputation for their sauvignon blanc made from Jordan fruit.

It didn’t take long for Gary and Kathy Jordan to put their own wines on the map after they returned from California, crushing their first harvest in 1993. There’s a litany of awards that followed over the years, their consistency matched only by the wines’ quality. But today, quality alone doesn’t take you to the front of winelovers’ minds; there are too many wines as good as yours out there.

The Bakery & Deli on Jordan
The Bakery & Deli on Jordan

One of the smartest moves made by the Jordans was to associate their wines with dining. Firstly, by teaming up with fellow South African, Neleen Strauss and opening High Timber in London; this Thames-side restaurant has one of, if not the best range of South African wines in the UK. The Jordans and other wine producers frequently present wine dinners here, all well attended, so maintaining their own and South Africa’s wines in the spotlight. Back home, they enticed top chef, George Jardine, who ran his eponymous restaurant originally in Cape Town to their Stellenboschkloof farm. Today, as well as the restaurant, Jardine started The Bakery & Deli, where not only bread, but his home-cured meat and other delicacies are served either inside or on the deck, overlooking some of the winelands’ most spectacular views. The increased traffic has again helped to shine the spotlight on the wines and, subliminally focus on their quality.

Today, it’s also important that wines tell a story. Since their first 1993 vintage, the Jordans introduced a singularity to their labels by way of a title that had something to do with the farm; Chameleon in that first year – though the majority of the range carried just the varietal name. Like the range, so the names have increased: The Prospector Syrah, Cobblers Hill, Nine Yards Chardonnay, The Outlier Sauvignon Blanc and The Real McCoy Riesling among them.

Jordan Inspector Peringuey Chenin Blanc 2014At last to the nub of this piece, the new and, perhaps most intriguingly named wine of all, Inspector Péringuey Chenin Blanc.

Gary Jordan showed up the ignorance of the collective media present, when he asked: a) where was phylloxera first found in South Africa and b) who identified it? All round silence. ‘A vineyard in Mowbray,’ Jordan tells us. According to Tim James in his Wines of the New South Africa, it was noticed by the French Consul General; not unsurprising, given he’d have seen the same phenomenon in France. Péringuey, in his role as Inspector General of Vineyards, probably positively identified the disease. M. Péringuey was born in Bordeaux in 1855; he came to the Cape, via other African countries, in 1879 to teach French at both SACS and Bishops before taking up a position at the South African Museum, initially as a volunteer, then from 1884 permanently, working on Coleoptera (beetles). Shortly after, he was made Inspector of Vineyards. After identification of phylloxera, he supervised the importation of the louse-resistant American rootstock onto which the various varieties were grafted.

The Jordans decided on naming this chenin, which comes from their 32-year old and first plantings, after Inspector Péringuey ‘as one is a forgotten grape, the other a forgotten man.’ A great story that needed to be told and remembered.

It’s interesting that even though half the wine has been fermented in older, small oak barrels, it has a totally different profile to the other barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc. It’s much tighter, fresher, more vinous and less fruity, promising to mature well. It signals a positive shift in style – yet another talking point to keep Jordan Wines in the public eye.

Chenin – Elgin style

Say Elgin, think … well, I think chardonnay, but many would say sauvignon blanc and from the point of view of the dominant variety, they’re right. The last SAWIS statistics calculate there are 329.93 hectares of sauvignon blanc in the Elgin Ward, while chardonnay accounts for 101.31 ha. Both are far ahead of chenin blanc, which comes in with a measly 6.41 ha, yet I’ve heard several people comment on how well it should do in this cool climate.

If the two chenins I tasted recently from Spioenkop are representative of the quality Elgin can produce, then that measly 6.41 ha deserves a serious increase, For those who climb in now, there’s plenty of space to make your mark.

SpioenkopcheninMy first experience with the home-grown Spioenkop chenin 2013 was for Platter last year, where I noted it a ‘austere yet compelling’. Seven months on, not much has changed: the purity is there, the coiled tension, the full chenin experience waiting to unfold over time. As with all Koen Roose’s wines, it’s fermentation is spontaneous. Roose has also fermented a portion in wood, the effect is well concealed but will surely benefit the wine with ageing.

Similar in its structure to the best Elgin chardonnays, the Spioenkop Chenin Blanc says everything about the variety, yet giving so little now. Like the Alheit Magnetic North Mountain Makstok chenin and Capensis Chardonnay, it wouldn’t win on a beauty contest now – as Wine Cellar’s recent tasting of luxury whites proved, that’s more the realm of the more voluptuous style – but wait until these wines are a few years older and emerge from their cocoons. They are made to age, which Mr Laube might decry, but will offer the sort of pleasure the more voluptuous youngsters do now.

Named for the famous 1900 battle between the Boers and the English, fought on Spioenkop Hill in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The Roose's Spioenkop hill is similar to the KZN one in shape.
Named for the famous 1900 battle between the Boers and the English, fought on Spioenkop Hill in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The Roose’s Spioenkop hill is similar to the KZN one in shape.

The other chenin, 1900 – an alternative rather than second label, where Spioenkop appears under the name of the battle only (NB the actual date underneath the canon) – is a year older and includes bought in fruit from Stellenbosch. Again, some has been barrel fermented for structure. This wine I hadn’t tasted before (I had the younger but equally promising 2013 for Platter); it makes for interesting contrast with the Spioenkop. The fruit is more evident, providing delightful mellow, melon features balanced by still rivetting vibrancy. If it is the more accessible, it lacks for nothing in ageability.

Roose and his wife, Hannelore are uncompromising in their drive for quality and to express their dramatic Elgin vineyards. Eschewing all herbicides and pesticides, working the vineyards by hand and using only a gentle basket press in the cellar; all they believe helps them towards their goal.

Perhaps the best indicator that these are a formidable pair of chenins is that they survived a Cape summer’s day being carried around in David Clarke’s cool bag, being taken out and poured at various intervals and were still in fine form by late afternoon.

‘Who wants to drink monotonous wines without soul or character?’ queries Roose, ‘Great wine isn’t perfect.’ If the greatness is an ongoing process, the Spioenkop wines already have soul and character in loads.

They also convincingly suggest Elgin can do chenin as well as those other white varieties.