But how does feel?

If you think about it, the term ‘wine tasting’ is rather limiting, after all the experience is much more than taste – or it should be. I often wonder how many bother to actually look at a wine and try to glean some information from its colour or smell beyond fruits, vegetation or oak detected on the nose.

The diagnosis goes pretty much via the same flavour route once the wine’s in the mouth; rarely is texture – what impression it has on the tongue, lips and cheeks – given the attention it deserves.

Some wines are fruity juicy with a bouncy liveliness, leaving the mouth feeling zingy and fresh. High alcohol wines, especially when the alcohol is out of balance, can feel heavy and lifeless with a residual alcoholic glow. And so it goes.

In recent years, new classes of wine have been developed and met with the success that has led to formal recognition. Last August, amendments to regulations of the Liquor Products Act added six new classes, including Skin-macerated white, Extended Barrel-aged white/gris, Méthode Ancestrale and Sun wine. I’ve already written about Méthode Ancestrale and skin-macerated whites but last week I experienced my first skin-macerated sauvignon blanc, not the usual grape selected for this style; what made the experience even more interesting was trying it alongside other, very different sauvignons from the same producer.

Diemersdal Wild Horseshoe label
Diemersdal Wild Horseshoe label

Thys Louw is one of the brightest stars in the sauvignon blanc galaxy, and one of the most productive; at the launch of his latest Diemersdal take on the variety, we worked out he’s currently responsible for 10 wines from this grape!

Working up to the Wild Horseshoe 2015, we started with the regular Sauvignon Blanc 2016, which carries its pure, ripe flavours with poise but no aggression; one of those wines which just feels comfortable and right if without great dimension. Those extra layers of texture and complexity but still with the focus on fruit, comes with the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2015 which also reflects all that’s great about the vintage. Next step up the ladder of richness and viscosity arrives with top of the range M M Louw Sauvignon Blanc; there’s a sense of ripeness rather than fruit in 2015 (and still an oaky note which will assimilate with time) but also a keen and driving line of acid which culminates in a mouth-tinglingly clean, up-beat finish.

The original horseshoes, which inspired the wine label; this design was made and framed  by Thys Louw's wife
The original horseshoes, which inspired the wine label; this design was made and framed by Thys Louw’s wife

Now, clear your mind – and palate – of what’s gone before; Wild Horseshoe 2015 (named for all the horseshoes found on Diemersdal) provides a completely different experience. It was inspired by a trip to New Zealand, where Louw found so many skin-fermented sauvignons in that sauvignon-crazy country. Many wouldn’t even guess the variety after natural fermentation on the skins over four days, followed by 11 months in oak barrels; a vinification that hardly follows the usual sauvignon route. Having expected fireworks after the unusual vinification, Louw admits it ‘Did very little for six months and I was ready to give up on it.’ Thank goodness he didn’t.

Forget fruit as you know it in sauvignon here, this wine is all about texture with a chalky, grainy feel, good presence but not over-heavy and a light grip in its dry finish. This is a style that demands food to show at its best; the pork belly served at lunch set it off perfectly. It’ll be fascinating to see how it develops with age.

I can’t think of a better exercise to learn about texture than taste the above Diemersdal sauvignons side by side (and maybe throw in the 8 Rows as well for a tighter, more flinty experience).

Coincidentally, a few days’ later, a couple of reds presented an equally informative textural difference: the newly-released 2012 Estate wine and Lourens River Valley from Morgenster are completely different from each other, much more so than in previous vintages.

The blends themselves should give an idea how much: Lourens River Valley is 71% cabernet franc, 24% merlot with 5% cabernet sauvignon; Morgenster blends 72% merlot, 16% petit verdot and 12% cabernet sauvignon. The former’s franc flourishes its spicy, leafy fragrance but the leaf is more spring green than ripe autumnal gold, leaving the wine dissonant, the fruit dropping abruptly, exposing a bit of an alcohol afterglow. To me it feels unharmoniously edgy but it is controversial; my colleague, Christian Eedes agrees with me, while Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens doesn’t. Let’s see what effect a few years’ ageing achieves.

On the other hand, Eedes and I much preferred Morgenster, reckoning it has a much better future; Peens disagreed! Can this be the best Morgenster to date? I think so; it’s a complete wine, sophisticated in its subtle, complex flavours, plush yet perfectly reined in body and the sort of tannins that allow for current enjoyment but indicate the worth of ageing. This is merlot at its best and given all the right backing, aromatic lift and freshness from petit verdot. Morgenster 2012 feels expansive and grand – but do feel free to disagree and side with Peens!

Ken Forrester Dirty Little SecretSadly, I didn’t find Ken Forrester’s new baby, Dirty Little Secret (I wonder who would want to pay R950 for a wine with that name?) felt as grand. It’s chenin, of course, (Forrester’s passion with this grape easily matches Louw’s with sauvignon blanc!), from a Piekernierskloof bushvine vineyard planted in 1965. It went through the whole ‘natural’ process (which means different things to different people) plus two weeks as whole bunches prior to wild ferment in old 400 litre French oak and malo-lactic; this latter has brought about a soft buttery texture and an accented sweetness from just 4 grams of residual sugar.

If the texture at present doesn’t appeal – and who knows what’ll happen in future (it is from 2015, though labelled ‘One’, so is backed by that excellent vintage) – the concentration of old-vine chenin shines through with radiance. I’m hoping it all comes together with time.

Soil vs site Part 2

For complexity and confusion it would be hard to beat the map of Burgundy; some vineyards are impossibly tiny, most have several owners tending a few rows each. Being able to identify origin, then the individual producer from that same origin takes years of experience and a bottomless bank balance. It is thanks to dedicated tasting by Cistercian monks who tended the vines centuries ago, and when those bottomless bank balances weren’t necessary, that the Burgundian map is so well defined.

We in South Africa have many years to go before we get anywhere near such detailed vineyard demarcations. It’s a task further complicated by winemakers’ musical chairs (do viticulturists, if the producer has a person dedicated to this important role, show similar itinerant tendencies?); it takes many years to understand the minutiae of detail of a vineyard, its reaction to the soil in which it’s grown and the space around and above it.

That acknowledged, certain sites were identified as producing wines of distinctive character way before the 2003 Single Vineyard legislation; it was no surprise that producers crafting wines from these adopted this new, smallest WO once it was written into the laws.

The regulations they had to comply with in order for their wine to carry the Single Vineyard WO read: ‘The term “single vineyard wine” may only be used in respect of wine produced from grapes derived from a production unit which is registered with the production of single vineyard wine in mind. Such a production unit must consist of a single variety and the area may not exceed 6 hectares.’ Not particularly onerous demands.

Remhoogte HoneybunchI asked two winemakers whose single vineyard wines I’d tasted for Platter about the background to these vineyards, why they’d decided to go this route and their thoughts on the legislation. Chris Boustred is winemaker on his family’s farm, Remhoogte, while Alex Starey is in charge of the cellar at Keermont .

Remhoogte Honeybunch Chenin Blanc vineyard was planted in 1987, so will celebrate its 30th year in 2017; it was registered as a Single Vineyard in 2007. Boustred reveals it’s a two hectare block on the same soil type and aspect with a 20 metre gain in altitude over the block but with a constant gradient.

The first bottling of Honeybunch was 2010, after Boustred had identified a particular texture to the wine, ‘Unlike anything I have tasted on other chenins.’ One unusual feature, maybe unique in South Africa, of this particular wine is that the grapes are harvested from the morning side only; fruit from the other side is channeled into the farm’s excellent-value Chenin Blanc. Honeybunch vinification includes a natural ferment in French oak, around 20% new, followed by nearly a year on the lees.

Keermont Steepside SyrahThe Keermont single vineyards of Steepside and Topside, both planted to syrah, are much younger; Steepside was planted on the Helderberg in 2005, Topside, a year later, on Stellenbosch Mountain slopes. The former is a 1.3ha separate section of a 5ha block, with ‘fairly uniform soil, mostly north-facing aspect and 300m altitude,’ Starey outlines. ‘Soil on Topside’s 1.74ha varies from partially to well broken-down sandstone; the aspect is mostly west and altitude rises between 350 to 400m.’

Both wines were introduced under the Single Vineyard label with 2012: ‘The block produced its best wine thus far, so we decided to bottle a couple of our favourite barrels separately,’ Starey explains. Prior to 2012, the grapes went into Keermont Syrah, still the destination for the majority of the fruit. Somewhat predictably, Starey believes the wines’ distinction derives from the terroir.

Well, that will have to be proved down the line, via a vertical, as it will with Remhoogte’s Honeybunch. There is no doubt the Keermont pair are individuals.

I also asked Boustred and Starey for their thoughts on criteria for single vineyard status and whether a six hectare maximum is too big. Neither think so, but Boustred qualifies this with ‘Provided aspect, slope gradient and soil type are the same.’ He does think conditions for registration should include being ‘awarded by a board and motivated by winemaker or viticulturist.’ Starey’s thoughts focus on; ‘One undisturbed block of uniform age and which is handled by the same vineyard manager.’

So, is the Single Vineyard WO something that will advance the quality image of South African wine, or just another marketing play; yet another piece of information that will confuse the consumer?

For Boustred; ‘Single vineyards may add value by saving older vineyards that may be lost in blends.’ White Starey considers; ‘Good single vineyard wines serve as benchmarks for something that works well somewhere.’ Both believe these single vineyard wines are likely to appeal to the involved consumer, who loves wine.

For the past 43 years, South Africa has led the non-traditional, ‘New World’ in demarcating origin; I read these days about New Zealand just starting to get to grips with such mapping. What a waste it would be to use the Single Vineyard WO as a marketing tool only. As I wrote in Part 1, ‘What is the point of registering a single vineyard if the wine has no distinguishing characteristics, if it’s just a name on a label?’

I think it’s incumbent on the producer to have at least a few years’ experience of how a vineyard performs before venturing into Single Vineyard WO status, especially when soils, aspect and altitude vary, and I am with Gordy Newton Johnson in believing that the demarcation committee should have added a few more strictures to the legislation. I’d like to think this would be reviewed when the Wine of Origin regulations are again discussed.

Soil vs site Part 1

The Single Vineyard Wine of Origin was promulgated as recently as 2003, thus overtaking Estates as the smallest Wine of Origin. It might sound crazy but prior to that, as SAWIS puts it: ‘The word ‘vineyard’ may only be used in general descriptive terms and may not create the impression that the wine concerned comes from a specific vineyard or vineyards. (What were they smoking?) (Tim James’ Dissertation submitted for his Cape Wine Masters Diploma explains why the ‘Estates’ clung on to their smallest Wine of Origin status.)

Today, there are around 1100 sites registered as single vineyards, though only a fraction of that number produce wine under such status.

As with other Wines of Origin, the demarcation committee, headed by Duimpie Bayly investigated and drew up the required rules and regulations; included among these was a maximum size of six hectares. Bayly explains this thus: ‘When the first single vineyard appellation began there were a few applicants whose vineyards exceeded the initial 5 hectare standard … but less than 6. Those applicants requested that they be accommodated. As all vineyard blocks are registered with SAWIS it was evident that over 80% of the blocks were 6 hectare or less, hence the 6 hectare maximum.’

It struck me at the time that the maximum of six hectares but even smaller areas delimited as single vineyards could well be made up of not one but many of our heterogeneous soils. As soil is regarded an important influence on terroir, I wondered whether the wine from a single vineyard composed of more than one soil type could have a less distinctive character than that from one or more vineyards composed of a single soil type.

Here lies the crux of WO Single Vineyard, What is the point of registering a single vineyard if the wine has no distinguishing characteristics, if it’s just a name on a label?

Mullineux Schist SyrahMy curiosity was further piqued when tasting the Mullineux’s Iron, Schist, Granite and Quartz wines – each highlighting the importance of the soil on which the vines are grown rather than site. Each of these wines does indeed have its own distinctive characteristics.
I realised it was unlikely my ponderings would deliver a definitive answer, but considered a discussion among a few knowledgeable wine people could lead to some interesting opinions on the subject.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux were my first port of call, but before revealing their thoughts, I was interested to read what Gordon Newton Johnson had to say about registration of vineyards. ‘I think soil type is very much valid towards the whole terroir debate and I find it very surprising that it is nowhere mentioned in SAWIS application forms when registering a new vineyard for production or even a single vineyard itself.’ He expounds: ‘A suggested soil type should at least give an indication to the style of wine expected from a single vineyard. It should also be the basis for defining the vineyard site.’

As a Swartland producer, Chris Mullineux debates whether there is such a difference in soil over as small an area of even the largest single vineyard: ‘.. the Paardeberg is mostly deep decomposed granite (with some slate bedrock lower down); Kasteelberg is mostly schist bedrock underneath a layer of varying thickness of topsoil of eroded material from the mountain above ..’ and so on, leaving Mullineux to conclude; ‘So, there is relative uniformity within an area the size of most vineyards.’ That said the Schist Syrah is from a single vineyard on their Roundstone farm, the rest mainly blends from similar soils. Mullineux suggests they may bottle more single sites in future, but wants to establish a track record for consistency before doing so. For the record, he details that their vineyard aspects vary greatly and altitudes run between 200 and 450 metres.

 

Jordan vineyards, Stellenbosch
Jordan vineyards, Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch claims a quite different situation, as Gary Jordan explains: ‘While Stellenbosch vineyards may be predominantly on 570-600 million year old, coarse porphyritic granite, the differences over metres or hundreds of metres is what makes viticulture both challenging and exciting.’ The goal of uniform ripening leads Jordan to separate as much as possible vineyard blocks based on different soil types derived from differing bedrock geology.

There is one block covering seven hectares composed of exactly the same soil and slope direction, but due to height differences, this has been divided into three separate vineyards. ‘This,’ Jordan explains, ‘results in a natural lowering of the air temperature for every 100 metres rise above sea level; in addition other geographical influences such as greater exposure to wind play a further role.’
NewtonJohnsonPNOver to Gordon Newton Johnson in the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley, who speculates; ‘Producing a wine of distinct character and quality from a vineyard six hectares or more is likely improbable, but not impossible.’ After pointing out that Corton in Burgundy is 95ha, Newton Johnson relates; ‘We make three different cuvées from a 1.1ha vineyard, largely due to different slope gradients and the movement of water in the soil.’ Even in that small area, he knows parts are unlikely to even produce quality required for the top tier, so will be channelled into a lower one.

These three producers work in their own specific area; I turned to Rosa Kruger for a broader perspective. She opened with, ‘The question has many answers,’ which rather confirmed my suspicion that there would be no definitive answer. Kruger emphasised that her following views are borne out by her experience of different sites; ‘I have no academic background.’

‘Proximity to the ocean and altitude dominate the effects of everything else – soil, aspect, clone, rootstock, canopy structure, radiation, day length … or anything else,’ she expounds. ‘The further you go inland and the hotter the climate, the more the soil type dominates.’ By example, Kruger maintains; ‘I think Kaaimansgat chardonnay will reflect Kaaimansgat even if it was planted on schist, clay, sand or granite; it’s altitude that dictates style. On the other hand, in the Swartland wines from schist or granite soil will reflect that soil (which validates the approach in the Mullineux’s Terroir range – AL) with aspect also an influencing factor.’

It is helpful to conclude Part one of this discussion with the views of my helpful respondents as to what they consider directs the distinctive character in a specific site or single vineyard. The Mullineux’s sum up terroir as; ‘The sum of different factors in and around the vineyard with certain factors more influential in some regions than others. The soil has a massive role to play in the warm Swartland; in California, fog off the Pacific is, in many parts, more influential than the soil. Both still produce terroir wines because they express their relationship with the climate.’

For Gary Jordan: ‘One has the greatest sense of place when one can identify subtle characteristics consistently in the wines produced from a single site, despite the winemaker’s influence or even the climatic conditions pertaining in a particular growing season.’

Gordon Newton Johnson reflects on the role of the winemaker/grower: ‘Whatever site/terroir characteristics we see in the bottle are nonetheless seen through the lens of this person. They make the decisions to select the vineyard site, train it in a certain way, affect its exposure to light, manage yields, extract flavour and so forth.’ He tentatively suggests the answer to the true expression of a site lies partly how it was done in Burgundy many hundreds of years ago, by tasting. ‘Perhaps single vineyard wines should be approved by, and I hate to say this, a panel of tasters from and experienced in the soils, conditions and styles produced in the area.’

Rosa Kruger follows Newton Johnson’s train of thought with a little more detail: ‘Soil is one factor, others such as altitude, aspect, drainage, steepness of slope, radiation, as well as farming method – organic, biodynamic or conventional – irrigation, way of pruning all influence the outcome.’

Part Two will consider the views of two winemakers who produce well-reputed single vineyard wines and my summary.

Our MCCs – needing a better image & price

One can’t help but feel for our specialist Méthode Cap Classique producers. The local bubbly market is so crowded and, I’m afraid, there are more than a few Johnny-come-latelys, all of which diverts focus away from the dedicated few, who are making wines as good and even better than others outside of Champagne.
Nyetimber & othersIt’s easy to forget how good until the opportunity arises of tasting some international bubblies made in the same way; an opportunity which came my way earlier this week.
Roger Jones, Michelin-star chef at The Harrow in the UK, had kindly given me a bottle of Nyetimber Tillington Single Vineyard 2009; I suggested sharing it with Paul Gerber, winemaker at MCC specialist, Le Lude and Pieter Ferreira (no credentials necessary!); an offer that was snapped up.

Nathalie Stanley, assistant to Gerber, Ann Ferreira, PR for Le Lude and Debi van Flymen who runs Wine Cellar in Jo’burg* joined us and brought along another English bubbly, Coates & Seely Brut Reserve, a pair of Italian wines – Astoria Valdobbiadene Prosecco 2012 DOCG and Bellavista Brut Rosé 2008 – with Champagne represented by Perrier Jouet Brut NV and, as it sadly turned out, a corked Ayala Cuvée Perle 2001.

Our palates were tuned by the 70/30 chardonnay/pinot noir Le Lude Prestige Cuvée in magnum (chilled) and, for comparison in 750ml (we suggested the comparison, so this was off the rack and unchilled). Due for release later this year, these were degorged as we sat down, so as brut as they come. The comparison was telling. I love the linear tension in the magnum and, with longer on the lees, could drink it without any dosage (this will be added after trials to determine the sweet spot). The bottle was more rounded, richer (the oak fermented portion here more evident), its brioche notes more evolved.
NyetimberTillington
The purity and lack of oxidative characters lend wines like Le Lude so much more of interest and it is this route Gerber and Ferreira would like to see local producers follow.
The maiden vintage of Nyetimber Tillington Single Vineyard 2009, a 79% pinot noir/21% chardonnay blend from their Sussex greensand vineyards (they also have vines on Hampshire chalk) enjoys the same purity, a creamy weight and mousse with citrusy lift. The dosage, composed of the same wine, at 10 g/l was felt by Gerber and Ferreira, to be a little on the high side, hiding full expression of the wine. That aside, it has evidently benefited from time: bottled in October 2010, it was disgorged in August 2013. More remarkable is that this was from three year old vines.

A visit to the farm three years ago, when I tasted through the range with winemaker, Cherie Spriggs, confirmed the high quality all round of Nyetimber bubblies. One point Spriggs made is that Nyetimber is dedicated to giving longer time on the lees than many producers, but they also believe in time on the cork before release. This was demonstrated by the current releases we tasted that June 2013; Blanc de Blancs 2007 and Rosé 2009. I was also very impressed with the Demi-Sec from 100% chardonnay and apparently, then, the first in England. Even with a dosage of 45 g/l, it seemed more rich than sweet with delicious baked apple flavours.

The Coates and Seely, a dour, earthy, short wine, couldn’t have been more different, either from Nyetimber or from the same label’s Blanc de Blancs, which came second to Beck’s Cuvée Clive on the English/Welsh vs South African Méthode Cap Classique taste off back in January. Roger Jones has told me subsequent releases are more similar to the Blanc de Blancs in quality.

English sparkling wine’s image is such that it’s not unusual for UK producers to receive between £25 and £50 a bottle, whereas Ferreira says our MCCs struggle to go above £15.

I see less written about Franciacorta, Italy’s major area for bubblies made in the traditional method from traditional Champagne grapes. Yet even when I visited back in 1989, several of the producers modelled their marketing on Champagne and its glamourous image. The Bellavista Rosé certainly reflects the fine quality from this area bordering Lake Garda in northern Italy. It’s a pretty beige/pink hue with biscuity, rich red fruit bouquet and a vigour that gives expression to layers of flavour and length. Elegant, classy and in the £44 range. Don’t bother looking for details on the website, it’s just a lot of PR puffery. Elsewhere one finds it’s a 68/32 chardonnay/pinot noir blend, the chardonnay spending in small white oak and the wine aged for five years prior to release.

Prosecco currently receives much more written attention and is hugely popular but it’s no replacement for wines made in the traditional method. The point here is that van Flymen observes they sell for £18 at the high end with an average price of £10. Pretty much in the same range as our more complex MCCs.

Ultimately, Perrier Jouet Grand Brut took the cake – er, brioche – exemplifying everything that Champagne strives for and can be about (but isn’t always): elegant, harmonious with subtle brioche, a creamy mousse and perfectly balanced dosage – a classic.

I’m delighted Graham Beck are going to phase out all wines in their range other than the bubblies; this will allow growth in this category to match demand and the necessary time on lees/cork to enhance quality.

A better image and prices for our MCCs need support not only from dedicated players and members of the MCC Association, such as Beck, Le Lude, Simonsig and Villiera but all producers of MCC.

Le Lude Brut NV & GlassA final word about the wonderful Le Lude tasting area and restaurant. A building site when I saw it last May, it’s now transformed into a relaxing space of green and white, a setting worthy to enjoy Nicolene Barrow’s perfectly prepared and delicious dishes.

 

  • I have subsequently learned that Debi left Wine Cellar learlier this year and now has her own distribution company, DvF Wine Distributors and a Wine Events company, GrapeSlave. Apologies for the error.

Perceptions

There’s an impossibility of criteria when deciding on a list of South Africa’s top 20 wine producers. I’m sure each of the 25 wine writers, commentators, retailers and sommeliers invited by my colleague, Tim James to undertake this task for his website, Grape, did employ a variety of yardsticks to arrive at their list. Yardsticks might even have differed between those for the Top 5, which we were requested to rank and the other 15, which needed only alphabetical order.

For myself, I start with quality, but quality across the whole range, not just the flagship. That’s one reason none of the volume producers would get a look in from me. KWV Mentors, Nederburg Ingenuity, DGB Bellingham Bernard Series: these are all quality wines, but they represent a tiny proportion of the whole range. Most of the rest is commercial – good, but still commercial and, therefore, precludes the producer as a whole from being worthy of consideration for the Top 20.

Then it’s no good having a one-vintage wonder, a track record needs to be established. This is not a stage maintained once one is at the top of the ladder, it’s also a reflection of improvement every year as that ladder is climbed.

Alright, these are two fairly easily measurable qualities, even though each judge will apply them to different producers. Much then depends on each judge’s familiarity with the wines.

Because there are way more than 20 producers who fulfil both those demands and more than 700 producers in the Cape, this is where other indeterminate factors come into play. Perceptions might seem irrelevant, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who takes them into account.

What do I mean by perception? Visibility of the producer, how it stands out from the crowd and whether it is viewed in a positive light.

Sadie Family Old Vineyard range
Sadie Family Old Vineyard range

My list goes as follows:
1.Sadie Family
2.Alheit
3 Mullineux
4 Kanonkop
5.Vergelegen

Boekenhoutskloof
Cape Point Vineyards
Chamonix
David & Nadia Sadie
Delaire Graff
DeMorgenzon
Eagles Nest
Eikendal
Haskell
Jordan
Newton Johnson
Paul Cluver
Reyneke
Thelema
Waterford

Of those that made it, Badenhorst, Crystallum, Klein Constantia and Savage were on my Reserve list, as were Lismore, Raats and Sijnn.

So, why these and not others? Vergelegen had to be in my top five because I believe the wines are among the country’s best, they’re consistent and distinctive. Perception is possibly its downfall. When Andre van Rensburg has something to say, we all know about it, otherwise, apart from a few surges, Vergelegen is pretty quiet on social media, of late, in the awards’ medals too and little seems to be written about the wines.

Much the same situation applies to Eagles’ Nest, though they do seem to regularly pick up awards locally and internationally, but there’s little public relations on the local market. Haskell and Eikendal both make really good wines, but, Eikendal especially, has no image in the media stratosphere. In fact, if I hadn’t tasted their wines for Platter for the past two years, they wouldn’t be in my list either. Waterford enters no competitions, and, like Eagles’ Nest interacts very little with the media, which doesn’t help their awareness, but I’ve always liked their classic style and consistency. It’s quite possible we hear little of these producers as they sell out without making a song and dance of their existence.
The dropping of Thelema is the one that really puzzles me. I’ve been a loyal customer since the start and remained a fan, buying the cabernet virtually every year and other wines from both farms less regularly.
Thelema CabIf the non-appearance of Thelema is a surprise, think of other, highly visible producers who haven’t made it: inter many alia Steenberg, Beaumont, Ernie Els, Rust en Vrede, Ken Forrester, Morgenster, Fairview, Villiera, Glen Carlou, Graham Beck, De Toren, Neil Ellis, Rustenberg, Vilafonte, Warwick, Saronsberg, Rijks. I’m sure many if not most of them got a vote or two but the results just go to show how easy it is to make a list like this one year and be dropped two or four years’ later.

I don’t imagine Grape’s Top 20 2018 will be any easier to compile or less controversial.

Stellenbosch vs Franschhoek

Boekenhoutskloof hit the path of fame running from the start; I guess many, if asked, would say the first wine was that legend of a syrah, the 1997. Its place in history is cemented not only by its extraordinary authentic expression of syrah but that the vineyard supplying the fruit was grubbed up after that vintage to make way for an industrial park – for heaven’s sake!

In fact, the first wine from this renowned stable was a 1996 cabernet (I still have a bottle) from a Franschhoek vineyard; it still supplies the fruit today though in recent years a little cabernet franc has been blended in. This cabernet along with a 97 semillon were the first two wines rated in the farm’s inaugural Platter entry (earning a bunch of grapes each, when that, thankfully short-lived, practice pertained). The famous syrah received a mention in the intro, before receiving a five-star rating two years later; the first of many for this label.

The cabernet has been no slouch either, cellarmaster and co-owner of Boekenhoutskloof, Marc Kent, confirming no fewer than nine Platter five-star ratings have been awarded since that maiden ’96.

Consistency has been a hallmark, not only of quality, but the range itself. The original threesome – cabernet, syrah and semillon – have been joined by a Noble Late Harvest and, since Kent became a member of the Cape Winemakers’ Guild, an occasional Syrah Reserve. (Although The Chocolate Block is listed under Boekenhoutskloof in Platter, the label suggests it’s more of a stand-alone brand, though under the Boekenhoutskloof umbrella.)

Boekenhoutskloof Stellenbosch Cabernet 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The announcement then of a new wine under the famous label with its ‘seven Cape chairs’ is likely to cause a stir. Even more so when it’s a cabernet from Stellenbosch. This development arose after the Boekenhoutskloof team acquired the historic Helderberg Winery (formerly Co-operative, founded in 1906) in 2009.

The innate association Stellenbosch has with cabernet, the Helderberg being one of the prime slopes, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the search was soon on to produce a Stellenbosch Boekenhoutskloof cabernet; ‘Our duty was clear,’ says Kent, declaring that ‘the Helderberg is to Stellenbosch what the Médoc is to Bordeaux.’

What did surprise me when I first glanced at the familiar label was the vintage: 2014. Not the easiest of years, nor the kindest to late-ripening cabernet. Sandwiched between drenching spring downpours and winter-like March rainfall, harvest took place under fairly mild conditions with just a couple of heat spikes.

Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet 2007A comparison was necessary – and what better excuse to open an older bottle of Boekenhoutskloof cab. I chose 2007, another difficult year; the lead up to and towards the end of harvest also wet and cool but with a longer, extreme heatwave. Patience was all for cabernet producers unused to conditions more akin to Europe towards the end of the season. Those who had it were well-rewarded, including Kent; 2007 records one of Boekenhoutskloof’s nine cabernet five-star ratings.

And what a magnificent wine it is; in a word, striking and seemingly still youthful with plenty of guts for many more years. Two years in new French oak (Sylvain and Saury are the preferred coopers) has only added classy dimension to the ripe cassis fragrance, also fleshing out the flavours within the precise, firm frame. Truly impressive.

The youngster, which includes a splash of cabernet franc, faltered a little at first; Helderberg cab is known to be a more elegant style, coming from the cooler end of the area, closer to the ocean. Given a while, there came a gentle red-berried perfume, clearly from cabernet, oak much less apparent, though it has spent time in barriques from the same coopers as the Franschhoek model. Similarly, that first evening, shyness overcame nearly all but a tense withdrawnness, just a glimmer of sweet fruit.

As I do with all serious wines (R420 a bottle from Wine Cellar is its most evident claim to seriousness), the bottles were stoppered after a glass with supper and returned to the cellar for further contemplation the following evening.

The 07 continued on song at perfect pitch; its Stellenbosch cousin had settled a bit, giving a clearer picture of its dainty, sweet fruit but in a noticeably light-weight style. Thank goodness, Kent & Co haven’t tried to wring everything out of it; there is balance which should achieve harmony in the short to medium term. I somehow feel, even then, that it will remain a pleasant rather than fully satisfying drink

I was left wishing perhaps the team had waited until 2015, which surely would have delivered more worthy a wine from that sterling vintage. Oh well, it’ll be something to look forward to next year.

Boekenhoutskloof Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 – Alc 13.9%, rs 2.5, TA 5.8 g/l

Hemel en Aarde pinot pioneer

A big sadness for me earlier this year was, due to an unfortunate car accident en route, missing the third Hemel en Aarde Pinot Celebration. Both previous years provided a great learning experience (as well as much fun – no wine event is lacking that!); on the first day with the tasting of all the valley’s pinots from the previous vintage, then the international wines during dinner and the various events the following day.

Peter Finlayson chatting about his 37 years in the Hemel en Aarde valley
Peter Finlayson chatting about his 37 years in the Hemel en Aarde valley

I wonder whether Peter Finlayson, the pioneer pinot man in the valley, who made the very first pinot there in 1981, would have imagined such a Celebration taking place some 32 years later? Let alone that Hemel en Aarde has become synonymous with pinot, though other varieties have also proved their quality credentials.

I didn’t ask Finlayson that question at lunch yesterday, during a catch up session with him and a few of his wines. So I give you this quote from an article I wrote in the first issue of Wine magazine in October 1993,: ‘My first vintage, the 1981, at Hamilton Russell was fermenting: I drew a sample to taste and knew immediately this was it!’

Well, that was then and the old Swiss bubbly clone, BK5, which accounted for pretty well all the pinots in those days. Its organic character was liked by some, but today’s pinots, from a more suitable selection of clones, are far more interesting and graceful.

I should also mention at the time of the first HRV pinots, where they were grown had no quota, so they were technically illegal, hence subterfuge names – Grand Vin Noir – and vintages – P4 etc.

Finlayson didn’t have similar immediate affinity with Chardonnay; that came ‘.. after a run of successes with early Hamilton Russell Vineyards – a 1987 tasting to evaluate South African chardonnays, when HRV headed every category.’

But what made pioneer Peter head to the Hemel en Aarde valley in the first place, apart from the invitation from Tim Hamilton Russell to help him set up his recently purchased property? (Finlayson actually arrived in the valley in 1979.)

His confidence in the area, even though it falls within the summer rainfall area, stemmed from a year in Germany; ‘If you can grow grapes there, they can be grown in Hermanus’. His confidence, as pioneer in this un-charted wine territory, has been well-realised over the past 35 years.

It was confirmed 10 years after he arrived in the valley, when he left Hamilton Russell Vineyards to start up his own winery just up the valley. As winner of the 1989 Diner’s Club Award for Pinot Noir, he met with international judge, Paul Bouchard of that family’s negociant business, Bouchard Ainé et fils. Showing his own pioneering spirit, Bouchard went into partnership with Finlayson, making it the first investment by a leading French wine family in the Cape. The first Bouchard-Finlayson wines came from 1991. First too was Finlayson’s high-density planting of pinot at 9000 vines per hectare, ‘Which creates competition between the vines, a smaller and more efficient canopy. It wa a good move,’ he concludes.

What, I wondered would Finlayson say are the major changes in the valley since those early days? ‘All the new investors,’ is his instantaneous response. Over the years, the valley has become a magnet for all serious pinot and chardonnay producers. ‘A unique aspect,’ Finlayson continues, ‘is that every producer has planted every vine with the object of making fine wine.’ This surely has had a positive effect on the swift rise in the quality of the wines and good image of the valley.

But it’s not been without its own controversy; the division into three separate Wards being one issue with the sub-plot of whether the Hemel en Aarde Ridge, the highest of the Wards, should even be regarded as part of the valley.

What’s your view, do you think the three Wards are justified? I challenged Finlayson. ‘The three Wards are an excellent move’. Again no hesitation in his answer and I have to say I support him; I do believe pinot within each Ward does have overall similarities.

BouchardFinlayson TetedeCuveeIn his own Ward of Hemel en Aarde Valley (NB upper case in Valley), Finlayson maintains the pinots enjoy more tannin and a more French classic profile. I agree re tannin. Both grape and oak tannin used to be over done in his pinots but with time has come learning. We enjoyd Bouchard-Finlayson Tête de Cuvée 2009 and 2012 with lunch; 09 in particular is a perfect balance of rich fruit, enlivening natural acid and forming tannins. It’s strange that at .5% lower alcohol, the 12 tastes riper, more luscious but still oak and tannins are judged with an understanding hand.

Missionvale Chardonnay from home-grown fruit has shown good consistency down the years and, judging by the 2005 Finlayson opened, mature very well. Given the less than positive things I’ve had to say about 2005, this nutty, savoury wine was a most enjoyable exception to the rule. The much younger 2013 follows the equally welcome trend of a less oaky, more vibrant profile with a juicy citrus filling. An enjoy- now-or-more-mellow sort of wine. Lovely!

I opened that Wine article written so long ago with the words: Have you ever looked at a winemaker and thought: ‘How well your personality complements your style of wine’?
I concluded then, as I do now that Peter Finlayson, this gentle giant of a man, is much more attuned to the rural, natural environment of both Burgundy and Hemel en Aarde, yet he has the single-mindedness to produce pinots and chardonnays, especially of focus and individuality.

A quiet Virgin landing

A farm is sold. There are new beginnings. There is perhaps a little initial interest from the media, which might or might not fizzle out. Such interest is greatly piqued when the new buyer is an international business celebrity, perhaps even more especially when there’s no great subsequent fanfare as has been the case with Sir Richard Branson and his purchase of Franschhoek farm, Mont Rochelle Hotel & Vineyards in May 2014.

An invitation to the launch of the first vintages under his regime and to hear future plans was accepted with alacrity.

Mont Rochelle, on the north-facing slopes above Franschhoek town (with spectacular 180°  views over the valley), was founded in 1994 by Johannesburg advertising man, Graham de Villiers. The sauvignon blanc and chardonnay vines he planted that year are still bearing; the two newly released 2015 whites are from their fruit.

View from Mont Rochelle's picnic spot by the dam with spectacular view over Franschhoek Valley
View from Mont Rochelle’s picnic spot by the dam with spectacular view over Franschhoek Valley

In the early 2000s the farm was purchased by Congolese telecommunications entrepreneur and first black African to own a winery in South Africa, Miko Rwayitare; he sadly didn’t live to see all his dreams for the farm come to fruition. With permission from his family, who sold the farm to Branson, Rwayitare’s name lives on at Mont Rochelle under the flagship Miko label.

Winemakers too, have come and gone – and in Dustin Osborne’s case, returned. He ran the cellar from 2007 to 2011; after a brief two year spell at Aaldering, he came back to Mont Rochelle in 2014.

This isn’t the full narrative of Mont Rochelle’s modern history, but it’s enough to suggest the lack of consistency in personnel has hardly allowed for stability of range, style or image. This may in part account for the lack of song and dance about the new owner (Franschhoek may be quietly glad about that given the very public sweeping changes Mr Singh is making to his acquisitions in the valley). It’s a sensible approach on Branson and Virgin’s part; start fairly quietly and build. Our introduction suggests the changes and new wines herald a positive future.

Very often launches are unimaginative affairs; the Mont Rochelle team showed some pleasing creativity, taking our small group to different spots on the farm, where each wine was introduced and accompanied by a small, complementary dish from their Country Kitchen restaurant. It was in the shade of the trees outside the restaurant that we sat down to lunch proper.

Don’t expect the earth to move with these new wines; rather bask in the pleasure of their calm yet interesting honesty and decent prices. The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc (R85) includes a little semillon and splash of viognier; this last and a tiny portion of the sauvignon barrel-fermented in older barriques, which enhances suppleness and texture, as does lees ageing. Franschhoek sauvignon is typically understated; this fits the regional bill perfectly. Its versatility ensures both excellent aperitif and food wine.

The same positives apply to Chardonnay 2015, also split between tank and barrel fermentation (55/45%), although here 10% new oak was introduced. Plump and supple, the ripe citrus flavours are lifted by a cleansing, natural thread of acid. It’s so nice not to have to moan about too much oak, something which is increasingly happening, I’m happy to report. Enjoyable now and for at least a further two or three years.

Reds are a little different, as they are part of the previous regime. There are currently two available; at entry level there’s Little Rock Rouge 2014, named for a rocky outcrop at the top of the farm; it’s an eclectic blend of 41% merlot and cabernet with the rest split between mourvèdre and petit verdot, the blend aged on staves for three months. Much to its credit is the absence of the often rather confected taste staves and, hallelujah, it’s dry. A good, dense mouthful of dark brambly fruit and crunchy tannins in a style I’d call country red. For R72 it’s yours.

Mont Rochelle Miko 032016At the other end of the scale is the premium label, Miko. As disclosed above, it honours the farm’s previous owner. The current release, an 09 syrah, was made by Dustin before he left the farm. Like the whites, there’s a focus on elegance (a natural Franschhoek characteristic) the silky, supple flow gripped within a gentle yet persuasive frame. Despite its ripe profile, there’s plenty of flavour dimension. This refined seven year old wine (don’t forget that) sells for R450. Osborne is very keen to show Franschhoek has more strings to its bow than cabernet, which this clearly does. But cabernet it is that makes up the following 2010 Miko, while 2012 is cabernet, merlot and syrah. There’s then a gap until 2015, its composition as yet undecided, but it’ll be what the team believe is the best red from the cellar.

Over lunch, Osborne treated those of us who had the stamina to taste through 13 Mont Rochelle cabernets, a vertical of this variety straddling vintages from 1996 to 2009 (99 couldn’t be found among the cache uncovered in the Manor House). Cabernet, the red grape selected by the producers behind Appellation Grand Prestige as historically producing some of the District’s best wines. This line up was pretty mixed; early vintages suffered the mintiness of vine stress, vintage difference itself played a role – 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2009 all performed as well as one might expect of these top vintages; ditto poor wines from 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008, some dismal years from the start, others after too long ageing.

It is planned to release decent older wines under a museum programme; the first from 2009.

In case you’re wondering, no, Sir Richard wasn’t there and the team say they never know when he’s going to visit. But I can’t see they’d need to worry; their first step up the ladder looks likely to continue in an onwards-upwards trajectory.

It’s very good to see another Franschhoek farm, using home-grown fruit further enhance the wine credentials of this town already famed for its gastronomy.

Grandees at grand prices (mainly)

There is a genre of wine that does not fit neatly into a producer’s more formal range should he or she be mindful of creating such a wine. I’m not sure how to term it, maybe an idiosyncratic indulgence (if that doesn’t sound too rude!), made to honour or please an owner. Because it stands apart from the main range, a more free-flying approach is possible (that includes pricing as you’ll understand from the two below), though quality is of prime importance.

Two such wines were among the line-up of new(ish) releases, my colleague, Tim James and I tasted yesterday.

The first, an MCC from Elgin Ridge, labelled MV 2011. The story goes that Marion Smith, wife of Brian, they being owners of this property, requested her husband to make her an MCC. Marion’s quite understandable logic was, ‘what’s the point of a girl owning a vineyard if she can’t have her own bubbly.’

Elgin Ridge's vineyards are certified organic. Cows, ducks and a handsome Percheron are all part of Brian and Marion Smith's family.
Elgin Ridge’s vineyards are certified organic. Cows, ducks and a handsome Percheron are all part of Brian and Marion Smith’s family.

Brian obliged, with the proviso that the wine would not be released for five years. During that time, this 83% pinot noir, 17% chardonnay spent two years in old French barrels, followed by three in bottle.

Idiosyncratic fits this wine perfectly, starting with its pinky-gold apricot colour. A note of maturity is evident in the warm bready aromas, but it is the texture that really surprises – it’s extremely rich (much gained from time in oak) but also the red grape influence. Offsetting the richness is its really fine, bright bead and whistle clean dry finish; not a drop of dosage was added. A delicious aperitif, I can just imagine how well it would partner either of the Duck curries in Erica Platter’s Durban Curry. Classic, MV 2011 (Marion’s Vineyards), is not but it is well-made and delicious. Ex this organic farm, you’ll be paying R100 for each year between harvest and release (R500).

Edmund Terblanche, Cellarmaster at La Motte holding a bottle of Hanneli R
Edmund Terblanche, Cellarmaster at La Motte holding a bottle of Hanneli R

Our other individual also honours an owner, specifically Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg of La Motte. Hanneli R aims for supreme quality, so is not made in every vintage: 2005, 07, 09 and the most recent 11 are the only years to date. Shiraz is the constant variety joined by whatever other varieties will provide the quality required. In 2011 that’s the interesting duo of petit syrah and tempranillo (09 was the more traditional grenache, carignan and cinsaut). Origin is also mixed: in 2011, Elim and Bot River provided the shiraz, Franschhoek the other two, so by no means is this a vin de terroir, although each will add its own character to the end result. There is definitely a sense of coolness to the wine.

And a 2011 is a grand and beautiful one. La Motte cellarmaster, Edmund Terblanche has a sensitive, understanding touch, as I’ve found each year I’ve tasted his wines for Platter’s. Everything about the wine speaks of polish but also personality. Rousing scents of spice, red cherries, liquorice & even a hint of tar maintain an elegance found in the intense, lively flavours. It’s hard to believe it’s been in 300 litre oak barrels for 40 (yes, 40) months. The ripe tannins are appropriate for a wine intended to mature; indeed the overall balance should allow for many years’ improvement. The other big plus for me is the declared 13.5% alcohol and really dry finish.

It is quite delicious and drinking it makes one feel rather special. Well, except for that ultra-heavy bottle and outrageously deep punt.

I spoke of perfection earlier. Hanneli R comes in its own finely crafted wooden box with dovetail joints and perfectly fitted loose lid. Not the sort of item one would want to discard.

Alright price – it’s the sort of wine that if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. R980.

From top of Eagles' Nest with their vineyards & False Bay in distance.
From top of Eagles’ Nest with their vineyards & False Bay in distance.

Whilst I’m on a rave trip, I’ll slip in a stunner for R825 less, Eagles’ Nest Viognier 2015, a snip at R155. Quite simply this would give a top Condrieu a run for its money; I can confidently say it’s the best South African viognier I’ve had to date. This is how viognier should be: intense but not blowsy, more spice than apricot with nutty kernel tones, a subtle natural acid propelling the wonderful heavy silk texture, all concluding with an unending crescendo of that spice. An elegant, grand wine. It’s going places, including a swift departure from the cellar door. Get in quickly!

More on the other wines we tasted to follow.

Alcohol

Yes, it’s an emotive word; stark even when used as an injunction: ‘not for sale to persons under 18’; ‘alcohol is a killer; don’t drink and drive’. But without alcohol, brandy, whisky, tequila, rum, all number of other spirits and, of course, wine, wouldn’t be what they are; alcohol is integral to their being. It’s even found in some medications and mouthwashes! If we are of a legal age to consume alcohol, we’re urged to use it in moderation, when it’s mentioned on radio (and I guess TV) but despite alcohol being .. well, alcohol in whatever liquid it is found, it is a strange substance, providing diverse reactions at the same volume percent in different drinks.

With my lunch yesterday, I enjoyed two smallish glasses of a very fine, mouthwateringly dry Lustau Puerto Fino Sherry at 15% alcohol. It was brisk, bright, nothing heavy or tiring, nor did I feel any after effects. It was also the perfect complement to my Salmajero.Fino Salmarejo
Yet three red wines I’ve opened the past few evenings to go with our evening meal, two of which claimed on the label 14% and 14.5% (the third bore only a sticky sample label) had a very different impact.

It’s with the reds that this whole train of thought started. Well, to go back to the very beginning, which was at last year’s tasting of ten year old whites and reds, ie 2005. We were all pretty disappointed with the reds in particular, which were heavy and alcohol-dominant, even when they had obviously been vinified with care. It was, like this year, hot and dry though with one or two ill-timed downpours. Sugars were high, but good ferments also ensured high alcohols, many out of synch with the rest of the wine.

We fell to pondering what 2006 would be like 10 years on, my colleague, Christian Eedes, one of the tasters present, said he felt it was an underrated vintage. It was the year of the infamous power cuts, which caught many on the hop and generator sales were humming. We were still in a drought cycle, but irrigation had become much more sophisticated and, aided by cool night-time temperatures, the wines were notable for pure flavours, freshness and ‘many claim, slightly lower alcohol than in recent years.’ I wrote in a harvest report.
It wasn’t a year I bought into very widely but I did find a Kanonkop Paul Sauer (surprise, surprise!), which was a delight, reflecting the flavour, freshness and lower alcohol mentioned above – just 13% on the label. Ten years on it had the dimension that develops with tertiary flavours and plenty more in store.

The evening before I’d opened a Constantia Glen Five 2009 (all five Bordeaux varieties and a highly touted vintage); beautifully crafted … but its 14.5% alc (as per the label, which could mean as high as 15% or as low as 14%) put a damper on what promised to be an excellent wine, the power of that alcohol simply didn’t allow full expression of the flavours. I find it difficult to imagine further ageing being of benefit.

The same was true for a pair of 05s I subsequently tried: Vergelegen flagship red and Thelema Cabernet. You’ll appreciate this pair are among the top echelon of Cape producers. The Vergelegen bore just a sticky label (as a leftover from a Platter tasting) so no note of alcohol but probably in the same area as Thelema’s 14%. If neither was over the hill, neither gave as much pleasure as they do in a less extreme year. I seem to remember the Thelema came out as the best of our 2005 bunch last year; those extra 12 months haven’t done it much favour.

Two things this little exercise has reminded me. First, that balance is all, whatever the alcohol level, though I’m sure 13% has more to offer than 14%-plus, all else being equal. Then alcohol needs to be appropriate to the style of wine. That delicious Fino is perfect at 15%, a lower strength than used to be the norm for the style and all the better for it. It is beautifully integrated in this perfectly balanced wine. Whereas I was quite able to work after a glass with lunch. I know for sure a glass of those 14-14.5% reds would have seen me taking 40 winks.

As with the call for ‘Moderation in consumption’, so should we be encouraging more winemakers to achieve moderation in alcohol strength.