Reunions, reverence & a little rowdiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stylistic diversity

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

King cab
King cab

Cabernet Report 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough for now. Rejoice in diversity!

WO shenanigans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new bubbly star in the making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becks bubbles

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

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

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















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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

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!