Platter 2016

That’s it, Platter wrapped for another year, the 30th for me. For a while, there’s a strange void; I keep looking around for a battalion of bottles waiting to be assessed!

Working backwards through the past few months, last week, eight teams of three spent two days pouring over the 600-odd wines rated 4.5* to wheedle out the ultimate 5* winners. This is a change from previous years, when only wines nominated for five stars went forward.

Is this new approach a good thing? Yes and no. A wine not nominated for 5* by one taster might be deemed worthy for that rating by the panel but the system akso encourages laziness and indecision.

The panel I chaired tasted cabernet and noble late harvests the first day, followed by Cape white blends the second. Believing we should all start on the same page, we first discussed what constitutes a 5* wine. Cabernets have to be ageworthy so well-structured but not over-extracted or with too much oak for the fruit, which should be fresh but ripe and not so ripe that one is left with an alcohol glow. As most of the cabs tasted were young, we ensured each got a fair ‘hearing’ by each taster starting at different points of the line up: first to last, last to first and from the middle. This is about as fair a way as possible to judge a large number of wines.

Pin point sugar/acid balance and enough botrytis for the classification but not so much that it swamps the fruit were our agreed requirements for Noble Lates. It’s actually a category less easy to get right than one may think.

The line up of Cape White Blends waiting to  be assessed for 5*
The line up of Cape White Blends waiting to be assessed for 5*

I was paticularly looking forward to the Cape White Blends (ie anything that’s not a sauvignon blanc/semillon blend), many chenin-based. Viognier too is often included and can easily become a tall poppy; it needs an experienced hand to get it right. Blowsy and oily are out; subtle, in tune with the other varieties, and fresh are what we looked for. Given not only the often eclectic mix of varieties involved, but many varying vinification methods, including skin contact, texture too plays an important role. As may oak, but without grabbing the spotlight.

Beyond these specifics, I’m conscious of a difference between intensity and concentration; the former more associated with power, which tends to have an immediate impact on the palate but little length, the latter with nuance and a long finish.

Beyond these details, we were looking for killer wines! I hope our pre-tasting discussions have borne plenty of good fruit!

Wines of the year – white, red and, for the first time in years, dessert – were decided by the team as a whole and selected from those in the 5* line up that scored 97 or 98. Bearing in mind all the different varieties and styles being judged, it’ll be fascinating to see which has proved the most popular; there was definitely more than one contender in each category.

My overall impression is that we’re doing better generally with whites than reds, with the proviso that 2014 has thrown a spanner in the works, especially but not contained to sauvignon blanc and affecting even the best of producers. Some of the more serious 2014 reds from that vintage should start appearing next year; I’ll be watching them with interest.

Thanks to editor, Phil van Zyl’s policy of assigning a range of producers to each taster, I got to open many different containers; from a 1 litre with a screwtop and peel off tab underneath, bag-in-boxes from 1 to 5 litres, screwcaps and a variety of corks (but no synthetics). My conclusion is that there is no perfect closure.

I was particularly frustrated by the boxes: piercing the perforated outside often required more than finger pressure; then extracting the tap and securing it safely was also a mission. On one occasion, the whole tap came off, spraying me with (thankfully, white) wine. Surely b-in-b technology has advanced sufficiently to give us containers that are safe but less of a struggle to open? Those 1 litre screwtop with peel off tab also require some sort of degree to open and pour without dousing oneself.

Screwcaps have their own problems when the thread refuses to break, leaving no option but to remove the whole capsule.

Diam represented by far the majority of cork closures. I thought they had overcome the problem of the cork’s inflexibility, which made it a devil to replace in the bottle, but that was exactly the problem I found with one producer’s entire range.

Natural cork – hurrah – performed well for me; just one corked table wine and one fortified (closed with what I’ve read is called a T-bar – a cork with an attachment on top, which one twists and pulls to open).

Of course, it’s not always the closure that’s at fault; the other day I heard a scary story about the varying diameter of the top of screwcap bottles, which according to the producer’s specs can vary as much as 5mm. It might not sound a lot, but can play havoc at bottling.

The ‘closure’ of Platter – the guide’s launch in a few months, with announcement of the 5* wines, wines of the year and winery of the year – will hopefully be a lot less problematic!

Blind & blind tasting

For those who have wondered about my lengthy absence from these pages, my sight has been severely compromised by a cold virus in my eye (the other responding in sympathy). It was like a normal cold affecting throat, chest, nose etc, but contained to an eye. On several occasions, I couldn’t drive. This impediment considerably slowed my Platter work – tastings and indexing; I had no option but to abandon thoughts of other writing.

Thankfully I’m on the mend, but my sight issues did get me thinking how little attention is paid to wines’ colour. It can reveal so much – health, age, style, yet too often gets no more than a cursory glance. So the photos accompanying this article give you some colour to look at: all are of the CWG auction wines.

The blind tasting of CWG Auction wines started some years ago and is a particularly useful exercise, in part due to the high profile of Guild members.

In his introduction to the tasting, Chairman, Andries Burger, cellarmaster at Paul Cluver, told us the 53 wines offered much more stylistic diversity. This is true, though the more worrisome one of quality is also evident.

Until a few years ago, auction wines were selected at a blind tasting, the members voting for or against each one. The problem here was if a member failed to get a wine on the auction three years’ running, he or she (I doubt there were lady members in those days) was out of the Guild. Some strategic resignations avoided this actually happening but it did lead to a change in the method of selection. A blind tasting is still held, recommendations made, but if they are to withdraw the wine, the member isn’t obliged to do so.

Have Guild members become over confident with the success of the auction? Does the vibe get to bidders? It’s easy to get carried away in the atmosphere of the auction and over the past few years prices and overall income have risen considerably. Then there’s a faithful core of buyers, notably Alan Pick of The Butcher Shop & Grill, but others too see the wines as something special; there’s often a scramble to get the relatively small lots on offer. High ratings from international commentators too hasn’t dissuaded punters from raising their bid paddles.

2015 sauvignon blanc,
2015 sauvignon blanc,

Will there be a reality wakeup call this year? I hope for the Guild’s sake there will be.
It’s widely acknowledged 2014 wasn’t kind to sauvignon blanc in particular, as witnessed by the auction pair. Of course, 2015 is a different story, but who submits raw 2015 sauvignons, one pinking (not even as good as some I’ve tasted for Platter) on an auction of this stature? Colour was also an issue with a chardonnay, when two bottles of a 2014 looked more like 2004, it tasted dull too.

 

 

 

Three pinots of very different colour
Three pinots of very different colour

Among reds, the pinot noirs generally do a disservice to the strides made with the variety. Can winemakers really not smell when a wine has a problem and not take the advice of their colleagues who do? And are the bigger, the oakier really still better?

 

Burger’s confirmation of stylistic diversity is borne out though, much of super quality.

Adi's 'turbid & hazy' muscat (l); Carel Nel's Straw wine (r)
Adi’s ‘turbid & hazy’ muscat (l); Carel Nel’s Straw wine (r)

One can always rely on Adi Badenhorst to attack from left-field, never more so than with his Geel-Kapel Muscat de Frontignan, whole bunch fermented, aged in an old cask for 18 months and bottled without fining, filtration or sulphur addition. To quote Adi: ‘Yes, SAWIS approved. They commented the wine is turbid, hazy, tannic and astringent. I can’t agree more.’ Yes, but it also has wonderful texture, grainy and rustic. Rustic? Well, it’s not supposed to be highly polished and just another wine. Attention-grabbing, clearly from muscat, thoroughly intriguing and enjoyable. I hope there’s a bidder who pushes it to a really decent price.

Less whacky but, in terms of the usual conservative line up, interestingly different and top-class quality, stand up Mullineux The Gris 2014 even more distinctive than last year’s wine; textured, firm and with flavours of delicious ripe red apples. Andrea Mullineux is spot on the money too with her Trifecta Chenin Blanc 2013, a wine positively influenced by oak and lees without either shadowing chenin’s pure fruit. A gem. Miles Mossop’s Saskia-Jo 2014 is the only other chenin, different from Mullineux’s but demonstrating the grape’s versatility and also delicious. So, given the grape’s growing popularity, why only two chenins?

Boekenhoutskloof Syrah, brilliant & layered
Boekenhoutskloof Syrah, brilliant & layered

My favourite red by a country mile is Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Auction Reserve 2013, clearly including fruit from Porseleinberg, Wild, exhilarating, bursting with energy, wind-swept garrigue and everlasting. Fabulous.

Barely a few yards behind Marc Kent’s wine comes Duncan Savage’s ‘Follow the Line’ 2013, an equal partnership between cinsaut, grenache and syrah. It’s all that’s great about new-wave (or should that be retro-) reds: fresh, flavoursome, circa 13% alcohol with clay amphora and older large oak the only vessels used. I’m not sure how it differs from his commercially available label (which I bought) but it’s equally enticing.

Other favourites, some falling within the Guild’s more traditional vein, are: Silverthorn Big Dog MCC 2010, Ataraxia Under the Gavel Chardonnay 2014, Strydom Family Vineyards Paradigm 2012 (a Bordeaux-style red, which I thought highly of when I tasted it for Platter; this confirmation was pleasing!), Jordan Sophia 2012, Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2012 and Boschkloof Epilogue Syrah 2013,

How the wines are received on the auction and what prices are achieved will be known only on 3rd October, when the event will again be held at Spier Conference Centre.

If I were asked for advice on buying this year, it would be buy the WINE not the GUILD.

Red whites addendum

When I was writing the previous article on tannins in white varieties, one aspect I couldn’t track down with any ease is the relative thickness of the skins and the quality of tannin in each variety.

It was a question I went back and asked Thorne & Daughters’ John Seccombe, to which he gave me the following interesting answer:

‘I think it’s a great question about the grape skins. One of my original motivations in producing the 2013 Tin Soldier was the quality of tannin in the semillon skins that we were looking at picking. Semillon in particular (and the semillon blanc especially) has a very thick skin, and as the tannins ripen, I can only describe them as ‘fine and creamy’ in texture. It’s precisely this character that I was looking to extract in the wine.

I’ve played around with chardonnay fermented on skins in my previous jobs, but I must admit that the tannin character is rather neutral. It lends great texture to the wine, but it is not particularly characterful. I’ve been quite taken with the character of Clairette blanche’s tannins, something that I saw on the Craven wines early on in tank. They have a wonderful texture that I describe as ‘talcum powder’ and this will start to form part of the Rocking Horse 2015 wine along with the semillon.

So going back to thickness of skins, I don’t think it is the sole criterion for choosing a grape variety that will work well with skin contact. Another factor to consider is leaf-roll virus which does have an impact on grape berry development. Andrea Mullineux made the comment that we are not always sure what the manifestation of virus will be for a given variety. All of the semillon blocks that I buy from are heavily virused, so it may be this is where this particular character of tannin is derived. I’m basing this on an article I read by an Italian vigneron (I can’t remember who), who said that we are not always sure how these viruses express themselves, so we cannot be certain that they always have a negative influence. Certainly all of the red semillon I have seen is virused.

I think that what I am trying to say is that there is no clear answer, and we are really on the doorstep of all these discoveries. For me, it has been extremely gratifying to find so many die-hard fans of more texturally rich wines, and I think that is a great start in being able to produce these wines.

I place a lot of importance in tasting the raw ingredients (a chef friend of mine taught me this), and using this sensorial library to build into a vision of what can be produced. I think much of the industrial winemaking we are looking to move away from sought to shoe-horn grapes into products. It’s always been my intention to respond to the produce of the vineyard, and use my skills (such as they are) to show these characteristics to best effect.’

This is an intriguing subject that will undoubtedly receive more attention as our adventurous winemakers experiment further with our excellent white wines.

ThorneDaught_RockHrse13_lrg

Red whites

Tannin in white wines. I guess this isn’t something many of us consider often if at all. Tannins are a red wine issue, the thinking goes; yet white grapes also have tannins and more wines are being made to reveal their grippy little teeth. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised as many winemakers are now focusing more on texture – a welcome trend if ever there was.

Every wine has texture, of course, but in the main, everyday unwooded whites, still in the majority, offer little more than fresh, fruity acids. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a straightforward style to be enjoyed in youth rather than aged, dissected and contemplated.

Texture doesn’t derive just from grape tannins: lees contact, malo-lactic fermentation and oak are other sources, maybe there are more.

Where the tannins in white grapes differ from those in red is in the absence or lesser amounts of anthocyanins, which provide the red colour, although skin contact on varieties including pinot gris, semillon gris and gewürztraminer can leave a pinkish-beige hue. This is certainly true of Mick & Janine Craven’s Pinot Gris 2015. This spent between eight and 10 days on skins, subsequently being transferred to older oak. Tasting it a while ago, I noted it is almost light pinot noir in colour, gently fragrant but much more emphatic when it comes to flavour and dry, grippy finish. Elegant – yes; wimpish, like most local pinot gris – most definitely not.

Testalonga El Bandito

Not all skin contact whites take on a distinctive colour. Craig Hawkins’ Testalonga El Bandito 2015 from chenin spent even longer on the skins – four weeks, but this is water white with a green tinge. Pretty much like a white that’s been immediately removed from its skins, as is the fruit which shines through with great purity and freshness. Despite its great delicacy, the tannic grip is evident.

As with tannic reds, skin contact whites show at their best with food, especially those where the fruit is less obvious.

John & Natasha Seccombe’s Tin Soldier is a good example. Made from semillons blanc and gris, the fruit sourced from both Franschhoek and the Swartland, the 2015, which I tasted as a barrel sample recently, has a definite orange hue. In this unfinished state, I found it savoury, densely textured and bone dry. It may gain more aromatics once bottled.

Currently, neither skin-contact whites nor orange wines are official categories, so have yet to be defined. That doesn’t stop them finding their way onto labels; for instance, Bosman Family Vineyards Fides from grenache blanc has the possibly confusing Orange white wine on the front label. Delicious it is too.

LavenircheninsnglblockOlder vines too seem to produce more structured wines even without skin contact. The latest L’Avenir Single Block Chenin Blanc 2014 draws fruit from a vineyard planted in 1972. Partially fermented in French and Acacia oak, which does impart some tannin, there’s a textural density from the concentrated fruit but also delightful chenin purity.

So far so much tannin, but lees contact also adds to texture, enchancing flavour at the same time. Weight, mouthfeel, richness – take your pick – these all accrue from time on the lees. With too much stirring or battonage, the wine can become soupy, spoiling the fruit.

This is certainly not the problem with the Seccombe’s Thorne and Daughters Rocking Horse 2014. A multi-regional blend of chenin, roussanne, semillon and chardonnay, it has it all in the texture department: freshness, lees richness and tannic grip (only the semillon was fermented on skins), each beautifully harmonised with the others. A wine well worth putting aside for a few years.

ThorneDaught_RockHrse13_lrgWe tasted the previous vintage as well; it was blended from the same varieties but in different proportions with roussanne taking the lead. Much more oxidative and richly savoury, for me it lacks the textural layers of the currently available 2014. I was left feeling that this white wine is much more like a red wine in structure.

A colleague told me about a recent red wine tasting in which all the most expensive labels were lined up; his face told me before he did that the tasting proved a disappointment. Over ripe fruit, over oaking, lack of complexity and little likelihood of the wines ageing were among his comments.

We put so much store and high price tags on our red wines, only to be so often disappointed for these very exaggerations.

It leaves me wondering is white the new red?

Searching for identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personality – an important marketing tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Authenticity

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

Swartland in mid-winter
Swartland in mid-winter

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

DNSadiePaardeboschrose

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Judging the judges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a break

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

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

Normal (erratic!) service will be resumed thereafter.

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Reunions, reverence & a little rowdiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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