Amber Revolution

For publication of a book on wine to be fully crowdfunded, you must know the subject is of unusual interest. Nearly 400 people, myself included, find the subject of Orange, Amber or Skin-macerated whites and their history, of sufficient interest that our contributions have enabled Simon Woolf to produce this fascinating history and resurgence of the Amber Revolution.

Woolf’s ‘light-bulb’ moment with orange wine occurred in 2011, deep in the limestone cellar of Sandi Skerk in the little-known northern Italian Carso region (technically part of Friuli, but Woolf says is culturally quite separate to the rest of the region). He describes the wine Skerk hands him as ‘a luminous amber liquid, seemingly tinged with an electric pink afterglow. The aromas hit first – they’re as bright and vital as the surrounding are as dark and mysterious. A tiny sip is enough to release the life force within. Intense yet refreshing sensations crowd into the mouth with such force and complexity that the brain can scarcely process them in any meaningful fashion.’

So memorable was this occasion, Woolf determined to write about it and this ancient wine style. But searches through his wine library and the internet turned up little information. ‘There was categorically no book,’ he concludes.

His research led to awareness of Joško Gravner and Stanko Radikon in Oslavia but also to Georgia, where the ancient tradition of making wine in buried amphorae, known as qvevris, was still practised. Over the following three years, Woolf visited Georgia, Gravner and Radikon. Coincidentally, there was also renewed interest in orange wine, which had  become fashionable. Surely the time was right for a comprehensive book on the history – ancient and modern – of orange wine.

Amber Revolution with its truly revolutionary fist shake!
304 pages, full colour, hardback

‘My fate was sealed,’ Woolf acknowledges. Giving up his IT job proved easier than finding a publisher; ‘None were persuadable,’ but no matter, a year ago Amber Revolution was crowdfunded on Kickstarter by orange winelovers worldwide.

Woolf first tracks the political history of Friuli, Slovenia and Georgia, ‘ .. geographically volatile parts of the world’ for their 20th century populations. Apart from loss of identity, their history was buried. No wonder the story of orange wine was sketchy to say the least.

Chapters on each of these regions, their grape varieties, winemaking both ancient and new-wave and the making of qvevris are covered; evocative photographs of the winemakers (who look very much people of the soil; their cellars are likewise humble – no fancy modern constructions here!) and their winemaking traditions (the photographic sequence of  Joško Gravner punching down ribolla gialla grapes in qvevris is particularly illustrative) complement Woolf’s flowing story.

As with anything out of the ordinary in a modern wine world, where a few classic French varieties hold sway, orange wines from little known varieties and regions have been a strange anomaly. Thanks to their red-wine like texture, including tannins, they are much better appreciated with food.  Chapter 9, I am kurious oranj tracks some of America’s top sommeliers’ early experiences with and efforts to get orange wines onto wine lists and into customers’ glasses. Needless to say, it required much effort.

Many have still not come to terms with orange wine which is seen as being allied to the natural wine scene, as the Haters gonna hate chapter spells out. Hugh Johnson famously dismissed orange wines as ‘.. a sideshow and a waste of time’. A tasting with Woolf revealed Johnson didn’t have a clear idea of what orange wine is, rather had conflated it with natural wine. That he left with a better appreciation of skin-fermented whites shows there are many misconceptions and much education needed.

The final section concentrates on Woolf’s recommended producers worldwide, including contact details and some opinions. Craig Hawkins of Testalonga; Intellego’s Jurgen Gouws, who caught Hawkins’ enthusiasm when working with him at Lammershoek and Mick and Jeanine Craven of Craven Wines, who transformed clairette blanche from its Cinderella status via skin contact, represent South Africa.

When Woolf comes to update Amber Revolution, I dare say he’ll have a much larger choice of South African producers to consider. Two that come to mind are Richard Hilton with his new truly orange, The Ancient Viognier and the ever-innovative Charles Back, who has  experimented with skin-fermented grenache blanc (and noir), still lying in small French oak barrels. New qvevris are en route.  With winemakers’ technical expertise increasing, the wines are improving and getting more interesting. It is to be hoped the Wine and Spirit Board keeps pace with this movement.

When I decided to be part of crowdfunding Amber Revolution, beyond my enthusiasm for these wines, I had no idea how the book would turn out. I’m delighted I’ve helped in a small way in its realisation. Woolf’s writing is a pleasure to read, informative but also with personal touches. Throughout the chapters there are separate inserts on such issues as Challenges and faults in orange wines; Serving and food matching, The art of making qvevri and much more.

‘There was categorically no book,’ Woolf concluded seven years ago. Today thanks to him, there is. Whatever your opinions on orange wine, Amber Revolution will surely fill in many gaps in winelovers’ knowledge; it also does justice to the pioneering regions of Friuli, Slovenia and Georgia.

Amber Revolution may be ordered from Simon Woolf’s website http://www.themorningclaret.com/shop/ for 35 Euros.

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Beyond flavour

It strikes me as strange that we describe food in terms of flavour and texture yet in wine it’s entirely lop-sided, aromas and flavours capturing the majority of any description (‘adjectival confetti’ as Andrew Jefford so aptly describes them in Decanter). Often these are relevant only to the reviewer’s immediate audience. I associate hawthorn flowers with young, unoaked chardonnay, especially Chablis, but unless you’ve walked along an English hedgerow in spring, this will have little resonance for South Africans.

Texture and structure are the building blocks of wine, more important in many ways than simple flavour. They also make the wine more multi-dimensional and interesting, And I’m not thinking of red wines only. An increasing number of winemakers are experimenting with skin-fermented whites, whether as part of a blend, or full-on with post-fermentation maceration.  White grapes also have tannins and anthocyanins, so both structure and colour can be obtained from fermenting on the skins.  Craig Hawkins was one of the first to experiment with this method, nearly ten years’ ago now, when he was at Lammershoek. His first efforts now seem rather crude compared with what he and others are producing today.

Skin-fermented whites can often come across more vinous than fruity, as is the case with Francois Haasbroek’s Blackwater Blanc. The base is barrel-fermented chenin plus skin-fermented then barrel-aged clairette blanche and palomino, which give off a pale orange glow and suggestion of grip. Its dry, savoury nature suggest it’s better suited with food than as an aperitif.

Richard Hilton’s The Ancient Viognier adopts the full-on approach. Fermentation in open 500 litre foudres with two or three daily punch downs, followed by closing the lid and leaving the macerating wine for a month before pressing and a further few months in barrel. The result is truly orange in colour, the texture silky, full of ripe fruit all encased in freshening tannins. It’s brilliant with spicy dishes but also delicious solo.

 

 

 

In the above wines oak, only old, is nothing more than a container where the wine can evolve. These days, there’s interest to be found beyond oak and even skin contact: cement eggs, clay amphorae and terracotta pots also impart their own individual texture to whites, a resonating soundwave intensity is how I think of it.

Then we come to the sheer concentration of the grapes themselves which provide texture. This is very much the case in the Mullineux’s Old Vine White blend; old oak barrels are merely fermentation vessels, the concentration of old vine Swartland fruit provide layers of both flavour and texture with freshness lifting them into 3-D. At the recent ten-year vertical, it was interesting to discover how the wines changed not only with time but also with the addition of varieties other than the usual trio of chenin, clairette and viognier. Semillon gris joined the trio in 2014, grenache blanc a year later. These wines are still young; the mysteries of maturity as yet remain unknown but the oldest, 2008 resembles an old Rioja, deliciously oxidative and savoury, 2010 fresher, more elegant and creamy ‘more Burgundian’ opines Chris Mullineux;  all have what it takes to mature, 2017 probably best to date.

If freshness (not to be confused with acid) in whites is rather taken for granted,  freshness in reds needs more attention. This too would reveal the textural layers they also have, but so often are missing when the fruit is harvested overripe, some residual sugar is left after fermentation and acid has been clumsily added; the result is a monolith. The holy grail used to be physiological ripeness, nowadays many are chasing freshness, a goal which often provides greater flavour purity.

Newton Johnson Windansea vineyard

I have to agree with colleagues who criticise some of the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction selections for their high alcohol, sweet reds. Showy but ultimately shallow, lacking in freshness and, as a result, definition. It amazes me that wines like these can be selected alongside the likes of Newton Johnson Windansea Pinot Noir 2017 and 2016, Gottfried Mocke’s Pinot Noir 2017 (from Kaaimansgat), Jordan Sophia 2015 and Boschkloof Epilogue Syrah 2016. Apart from freshness, all these speak of the variety each is made from both in purity of flavour and texture: the pinots with supple flow, Gottfried’s with cool climate heady intensity; Sophia ripe, long-lived cab tannins, fleshed with merlot (there’s cab franc and petit verdot too), the oak flavours complementing the wine (too often not the case) and the Boschkloof Epilogue vibrant, spicy, supple but not lacking muscle nor fine grip and just enough oak.

These are wines that give pleasure to the bottom of the bottle.

There is much in wine beyond flavour.

Symbiotic relationships

There must be many reasons why South African wine has  found its sense of place, individuality and ever-improving quality; one, rarely discussed, but which deserves a closer look, is that of winemakers fulfilling this role with a producer but also making wines under their own label.

It’s nothing new; Beyers Truter was possibly the first in 1989, when he started Beyerskloof while still winemaker at Kanonkop. The forward-thinking Krige brothers, owners of Kanonkop, encouraged and supported Truter; he, in turn, mentored Abrie Beeslaar, who took over from him and now, in turn, has his own label, Beeslaar Wines; a pinotage, of course.

Another visionary, Fairview’s Charles Back, has done the same for both his winemakers, Anthony de Jager, who had Homtini Shiraz and more recently, Stephanie Wiid, a partner in Thistle and Weed.

Today, the number of similar relationships is growing. Three winemakers who work with other winemakers and have their own labels, relate their wine background, relationship with the winemaker they work with and their views on a relationship I see as symbiotic.

Jasper Wickens, winemaker with Adi Badenhorst, started his Swerver range in 2012 (since  his marriage, in partnership with his wife, Franziska). ‘I come from a family of wine lovers, grew up on Zevenwacht and, at 17, started working in the tasting room and continued working in the cellar whilst studying a BSc with Viticulture & Oenology at Stellenbosch,’ he recounts. ‘Before leaving for a harvest in Napa, I met Adi Badenhorst, who was regarded as ‘a complete cowboy character’ and whose suggestions were completely the opposite from what I’d been taught.  It was really challenging and I kind of idolized him as a rebel winemaker.’

On his return from Napa, Wickens requested to work the 2009 harvest with Badenhorst, a learning experience he describes as offering; ‘New ideas,  experiments, different terroir and grapes; it was such an enjoyable challenge and exciting atmosphere.’ Spells with Eben Sadie in Spain and Tom Lubbe in France added experience and knowledge, but Wickens always returned to work for Badenhorst: ‘He had his feet on the ground, but was always trying something new and growing.’

Wickens doesn’t hesitate to credit Badenhorst with encouraging him to develop his own wines: ‘“Make real quantities,’ he told me, ‘don’t play around with one barrel of this or that.” ‘  He also inspired me to develop my own ideas and make wines that I like. Aside from wine,  one can learn a lot of life skills from Adi.’

Photo courtesy of Jamie Goode

Jacques de Klerk, now a partner in The Winery of Good Hope with Alex Dale and others, and the man behind Reverie Chenin Blanc, found wine after dropping out of a law degree at Stellenbosch University; first via working at a big co-op, followed by a trip to Europe to discover real wine culture and enrolling at Elsenburg on his return. He met Alex Dale through Adam Mason when both he and Mason were at Klein Constantia. The Winery of Good Hope was looking for a winemaker and the rest is history.

Several factors attracted de Klerk to work with Dale:  seeking out special vineyards to produce terroir-driven, site specific wines; the opportunity to work with internationally-experienced people like him and Edouard Labeye and, not least, the chance to drink stunning international wines from their budding import business. The experience of exposure to so many regions, varieties and styles proved an inspiration and enabled de Klerk to form his own ideas for something uniquely South African; thanks to The Winery’s Black Rock Swartland blend, he found the ideal area to source fruit.

It was a project supported by Dale from the start; ‘In fact he suggested it to me over a bottle or two,’ de Klerk acknowledges . ‘He convinced the other Winery shareholders that it would be mutually beneficial.’ The early years of Reverie Chenin Blanc taught de Klerk a lot; ‘I had to prove that my ideas worked.’ The Winery’s Radford Dale range has benefitted from incorporation of many of those ideas and techniques de Klerk trialed. In turn, Radford Dale’s established brand lends credibility to his Reverie.

Photo courtesy of Winemag

Franco Lourens is the newest Young Gun on the block; his recently-launched Lourens Family Wines range includes two chenins described by his ‘boss’, Chris Alheit as; ‘a brilliant example of the effect of origin on wine – both extremely good and yet completely different.’ Not a bad endorsement from one at the top of his game.

Paarl born and raised, Lourens recalls the inspiration to learn the art of winemaking started as he cycled past vineyards to school and saw tractors pulling loads of grapes through town, their sticky juice spilling over the road. Studies at CPUT in Wellington and Elsenburg were followed by a spell at Schalk Burger & Sons and harvests at Tokara, Jordan, Vasse Felix in Margaret River and Ramey Wines in California; back home, he worked as assistant winemaker to David Finlayson at Edgebaston before joining the Alheits in 2016.

It took an evening’s chat at a Wine Cellar ‘Butch and Fin Show’ for Alheit to approach Lourens and ask if he’d be interested to help, as the workload was getting too much. With this came the offer to help Lourens build and grow his own business. He happily declares, ‘Chris and Suzaan are my number one supporters; without them there would be no Lourens Family Wines.’

‘We have the same winemaking philosophy; it gives me the opportunity to work with some of the best old South African vineyards, which I’m passionate about but more than that Chris and Suzaan are the kindest and most generous people I know.’ It seems the perfect match. The couple have inspired Lourens in many ways, ‘To make wines true to myself, as naturally as possible and not to follow trends,’ Lourens discloses.

It’s obvious this arrangement in these three cases works to the benefit of both parties but is this something that could work more generally?

All three believe it can be beneficial with provisos. Making your own wines can help others you work with see things from a different angle, give new ideas.  It also reflects well on the mentor winemaker if his charge is making waves and is successful. But they warn, it depends on the relationship and unique situation of winemaker and employer; both parties need to be honest from day one and have a clear plan for the future and remember the day job is a first priority.

Swerver, Reverie and the new Lourens Family Wines  are right up there in quality – the former two have scored Platter 5* ratings; Lourens are submitting for the first time this year, so watch this space – and Badenhorst, The Winery of Good Hope and Alheit are regarded among the country’s best producers, also with several Platter 5* to their names.

More important, the reputation and combined success of both parties in the market place is testament to an encouraging inclusive attitude, directed at promoting South African wine rather than competing with one’s neighbour. Indeed, a symbiotic relationship.

Thoughts from abroad

Travel broadens the mind; it also lends perspective to home-formed views.

Prague and Czech wines
My European sortie started in Prague, where, for five days I travelled with a group of singles. I guess the common attraction was the city itself, otherwise we were a motley group of 30 (just four men!); although several drank wine, that was the limit of their interest in it.

Prague has its own vineyard which grows below the castle

Even at this level, the Czech wine industry should learn a lesson of how to profitably engage with visitors. Constraints of the travel company’s budget meant meal-time drinks were limited to one glass (beer or soft drinks were the alternatives to wine), delivered to the table as is, with no way of knowing whose or what wine it was.

Most wines were dull but serviceable, a notable exception was a truly awful red wine so volatile, it was undrinkable. My complaint to the Tour Manager was met with ‘the others found nothing wrong’, but I was given another glass of something better.

 

 

My point is, the others, who had sufficient interest to ask for a glass of wine rather than beer or soft drink, might have had a more positive experience than ‘nothing wrong’ with better quality.

Czech wine & tapas at Vinograf wine bar

A brief visit to Vinograf, an excellent wine bar in Prague, proved that such quality exists. As far as I’m concerned, it was a lost opportunity to promote quality Czech wines, not only with our group, but any visitors to the country.

A lesson also for South Africa; always ensure the best wines within the budget are served, whatever the level of interest among the wine drinkers, especially bearing in mind the ever-growing tourism market.

England and English wine

I feel for anyone who attempts to create a wine route map of English wineries. There is never just one way to reach any of them, besides many are off the beaten track which involves driving down narrow, winding lanes. Experience getting to Breaky Bottom, Ridgeview, Wiston, Nyetimber, Camel Valley, Denbies and, recently Hattingley and Holmfirth, illustrates what a nightmare it would be.

Holmfirth vineyard with town in background

Holmfirth is interestingly different from the rest in that it produces no sparkling wine, grows only hybrids and is located between Sheffield and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. If the vines look a bit weather-beaten, it’s no surprise; the wind howls across the exposed vineyard; yields are commensurately low, ie tiny. Three wines are produced: a white from seyval and solaris, a rosé both a bit acidic but fruity and clean with an oaked rondo red the best of the trio – very

drinkable.

 

 

 

The English sparkling wines from the southern vineyards of Hattingley are in a totally different league, as those of the other vineyards I’ve visited.

The rapid rise in quality of English sparkling wine is well documented but it needs tasting to fully appreciate how good the wines have become in a relatively short time. Hattingley’s first vineyard was planted in 2008, just ten years ago. Today, this winery owned by lawyer, Simon Robinson, has 65 acres (26.3 ha), both owned and leased, roughly half near the cellar, the rest in the Test Valley.

Hattingley vineyard with plastic sheeting experiment

Local winelovers used to the monoculture of Stellenbosch would find strange the lack of vineyards around Hattingley cellar, a situation not unusual in England. The closest vineyard, a short drive away, is planted on a south-facing chalk slope to chardonnay, pinots noir, gris and meunier. Like many others, Hattingley carry out experiments in the vineyards; it is hoped improved growth will result from the clear plastic sheeting in the photo.

 

 

 

 

Diseases and pests are what one might expect; rabbits are a constant menace but winemaker, Emma Rice also mentioned badgers as fancing ripe grapes. As a protected species, various methods other than extermination have to be sought.

I first visited an English cellar back in 1976; then, Wootton Vineyard in Somerset run by the Gillespies was considered a pioneer in producing quality English wine in a cellar which now would look very artisanal. They also custom crushed grapes for other growers. Hattingley cellar, planned by Robinson and Rice, enjoys the benefits of equipment designed to help produce top quality bubbles. Oak is part of this, older barriques being used for roughly 25% of the wine.

Emma Rice, Hattingley winemaker

Emma Rice, a Plumpton graduate, has worked in Napa and Tasmania and twice won Winemaker of the Year in the UK. She also founded Custom Crush, a wine analysis laboratory and winemaking consultancy for English wine producers, now run from Hattingley. She has also worked in most fields associated with wine including retail.

Rice and the Hattingley team produce sparkling wines which show a serious understanding of what constitutes quality; I was particularly impressed by the Classic Reserve (£30) a 50% chardonnay, 30% pinot noir, 19% pinot meunier, 1% pinot gris blend with 15% oaked and 20% reserve wine for added complexity and richness. Dosage of 7 g/l balances the bright acidity to promote a dry finish.

A Rosé (£35) from pinots noir, meunier and precose (fruburgunder) is aimed at a fruity style; the addition of 10% barrel fermented wine and two years on lees adds extra dimension without masking the fruit. Again balance without losing juicy brightness is achieved with 8 g/l dosage.

There’s also an England first in the red sparkling pinot and I saw a Prestige Cuvée sold at retail for £80.

Hattingley is considered among the leading English producers of fizz; considering the quality level already reached, they and the others I’ve visited and/or tasted, the future looks very bright. I say this with some confidence after also drinking some very ordinary Champagnes during my stay in England.

Spotlight on site

An ever-shrinking pie is being cut into smaller and smaller segements. That’s the broad picture of South Africa’s area under vine and the number of producers making wine from those vines.

Figures just released show a decrease of 7601 ha since 2007, leaving an official 2017 total of 94 545 ha under wine vines; many believe the true figure is much lower.

Lack of profitability and drought are among reasons for this steady decline. Not all is doom and gloom; new vineyards are being planted, today with much more attention being paid to new areas and sites in the search for wines of distinction and a sense of place.

Stephanie Wiid, Johan Kruger and Arco Laarman are all names that are, in Wiid’s case, or were, in the others, associated with well-known producers: Fairview, Sterhuis and Glen Carlou respectively. Both Kruger and Laarman have started labels under their own names, while Wiid, in partnership with friends, has the Thistle and Weed brand. All focus on site and producing wines with a sense of place.

Wiid makes her Duwweltjie Chenin Blanc from a block of heritage bush vines planted in 1956. Named after the Duwweltjies or Devil’s thorns that grow in the vineyard and stick to the soles of one’s shoes, the wine itself is far more friendly and delightful – but then it is a 2017. Full of natural vibrancy and fresh, crunchy red apple flavours with the promise of more floral and wild herb complexity in store; the patient will be rewarded. For a wine of this quality, R185 isn’t exorbitant these days.

Both Kruger and Laarman have worked extensively with chardonnay; their love of the variety is now encouraging them to explore way beyond their original boundaries of Stellenbosch and Paarl respectively.

The family behind Kruger Family Wines.

Piekernierskloof is not a spot I’d associate with chardonnay; indeed, it yields a quite unusual wine, especially Kruger Family Wines Sans Chêne 2017 (R125) (unoaked but the term also means ‘no chains’, appropriate for this solo-flyer). A riot of spice, fynbos with a suggestion of eucalyptus aren’t traditional chardonnay descriptors, though it is well-structured and really dry. I think it’ll be a love it or hate it wine. The oaked version, from the same Klipkop vineyard (R275) has some of the unoaked version’s character but more typicity thanks to (well-judged) oak and a creamy texture. Perhaps a more acceptably distinctive style.

With Walker Bay Chardonnay 2017 (R225) we’re back in very familiar chardonnay territory; gentle lemony, nutty notes lifted by fresh, natural acid and supportive oaking, none new. An elegant wine, my pick of the chardonnays described here.

Should you wonder why Kruger chose to spend much time in his bakkie travelling between Piekenierskloof and Walker Bay (he also makes a smart pinot noir called Pearly Gates from Upper Hemel en Aarde (R175)), one reason is that they’re linked by granite soils. This offers an opportunity to learn how the same soils in different regions creates diverse wines.

Striking packaging on Arco Laarman new wines; each line represents facet of viti/viniculture culminating in Focal Point of wine’s distinction

Laarman’s Focal Point Chardonnay 2017 (R305) comes from further along the South coast, Vermaaklikheid to be tongue-twistingly precise (near Riversdale). I admit the new oak vanillins ring too loudly for me, but it also enjoys good vigour and underlying creaminess, so maybe time will forge greater harmony with the bright, citrusy fruit.

Cinsaut (cinsault in Laarman’s case) is another fashionable addition in each winemaker’s range; Kruger’s Old Vines 2017 from Piekernierskloof (R175), Laarman’s Focal Point 2017 from Bottelary Hills (R210). They share some whole bunch, spontaneous fermentation and ageing in French oak, but Laarman’s edges it as the more subtle and elegant. There’s much discussion on the profit of ageing cinsaut; frankly, these two are enjoyable now, perfect for warm weather, white fish and lightly spiced dishes.

On the subject of food, what to pair with sauvignon blanc is often a challenge, at least those examples with showy fruit and hint of residual sweetness, which is what most sauvignon drinkers expect.

Winemaker, Matt Day explaining details of his Metis Sauvignon Blanc

That’s not the goal of Matt Day, winemaker at highly-regarded sauvignon producer, Klein Constantia. A working visit to Sancerre’s Pascal Jolivet in 2012 inspired Day’s Metis. It was here he learned the importance of soil in the expression of place.

The Metis joint venture between KC and Jolivet began the following vintage, the fruit sourced from one of the highest blocks on decomposed granite; further blocks have been added since.

The winemaking approach is totally different from the sauvignon norm: oxidised juice, natural ferment, a year on lees in 500 litre neutral French oak and a little sulphur added prior to bottling. Pascal’s son, Clement, who was here to share the experience of a vertical of the first four vintages of Metis, advised ‘The best way to work with sauvignon blanc is to forget it’s sauvignon.’ Suggesting it can be much more interesting than just sauvage flavours.

Line up of Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, New Zealand & Klein Constantia Metis tasting

After re-tuning our palates with two Jolivet wines, an edgy Sancerre 2016 and broader Pouilly-Fumé 2014, Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2014 and completely atypical New Zealand sauvignon from Greywacke, we were ready for Metis 2013 – 2016.

The youngest and current release, suggests time is a requirement of this more structured, high acid style; 2013 confirms such recommendation. Still youthful, it showed outstanding evolution after an hour in the glass. Fruit? Yes, but delivered more with a sense of ripeness than overt tropical or green tones. Alcohol? Yes, there’s that too; over 14% in the youngest two, but never a niggling intrusion, mainly thanks to the wine being bone dry.

As this description might suggest, Metis is no aperitif wine, but has many possibilities as a food partner. So far, and it’s early days yet, Metis’ distinction by a similarity of style derived from site.

Sending a clear message

As winelovers know, the South African wine scene is a bewildering, crowded place. Scan the supermarket shelves or even those of small independent retailers and I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least half a dozen unfamiliar labels. If the competition for established producers is a challenge, imagine what’s it’s like for a newcomer; to be heard above the noise demands not only quality wines but focused, clear marketing and being out there. This applies as much to groups flying under a particular banner, as it does to individual producers.

Some get it right.

The Swartland Independents  start with a clear message in their name – Swartland wines made by independent producers. The Swartland Revolution, now replaced by the Swartland Heritage Festival, introduced winelovers to their wines and those of an international guest over a fun weekend of wine and food. Beyond the group, each member works hard to maintain and increase the value of the Swartland brand, whether via social media, tastings, wine dinners and shoe leather, both locally and abroad. Of course, it helps that many are regarded as among South Africa’s best winemakers producing some of its most desirable wines. Even if there is another generation of Young Guns now, the Swartland Independents are no naval gazers but always looking to be one step ahead of the game. The group isn’t all about fun and games (and wine), there are rules and regulations for membership too which lend credibility; these are set out under Values on their website, one it’s refreshing to see kept up to date.

The Old Vine Project  also projects a clear message, starting with the name. As I wrote after the recent launch of the Certified Heritage Certification Seal: ‘a wine from a vineyard a minimum of 35 years old, made by a member of OVP may carry the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal with the planting date.’ The process throughout is authenticated by the relevant authorities. Certified Heritage Vineyards plaques spread the message to visitors at members’ cellar doors.

Tastings of old vine wines both abroad and locally have received generous praise as has the project itself. Like the Swartland Independents, OVP members number some of the Cape’s most well-regarded and high-profile winemakers; a list may be found on the informative, easily-navigated website, a source worth using.

Less easy to get to grips with at first glance is Cape Vintner Classification, which recently presented the first wines gaining this accreditation. The concept has had an unusually long gestation, its initial intentions being announced some five years ago. The intervening silence led some to wonder whether it would ever get off the ground, especially as there were rumours of disagreements between members with some dropping out.

One needs to turn to the website’s Home page for some enlightenment on the name:
‘The Cape Vintner Classification (CVC) is an independent body committed to the accreditation, governance, representation and promotion of distinctive regional site specific Cape wines.’

Quite a mouthful.

‘Discover’, as the site suggests, leads to the group’s Vision as outlined under eight categories, followed by a potted history since 1659 (I’m not sure of the relevance of Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification to CVC) and finally CVC’s founders, all senior statesmen in the industry. And so it goes on through detailed criteria for membership and the Four Cornerstones as well as tiers of accreditation. As far as I can tell, this mass of information has remained unchanged since that 2013 launch.

More’s the pity now CVC is up and running. From chatting to Don Tooth, MD of Vergelegen, a member and host to the first tasting, I understand that the very important Estate requirement has been dropped; ‘As we wish to bring in younger members’. (The point being today’s youngsters lease rather than own vineyards or have their own farms.)
Whew, I wonder. CVC is clearly, heavy on bureaucracy and very much Establishment oriented in membership (There’s no actual list of members, just flags on a map, which, when highlighted, indicate the producer’s name). It’s difficult to imagine free-ranging youngsters, more attuned to groups like the Swartland Independents and Old Vine Project, becoming members of CVC.

To the nub and the wines. Around 50 made it through the qualification blind tasting which requires five vintages of the same wine to be assessed for consistency and quality. Michael Fridjhon, Cathy van Zyl MW and Neil Ellis are those I know were on the panel; maybe there were others – there was no official confirmation. There will be wines in a producer’s range which don’t carry the seal and those that do the first time, may not when the wines are next evaluated in five years’ time. What is the consumer to make of all this? I can’t help but think CVC could also stand for Consumer Very Confused.

On a more positive note, there are some cracker wines. A conversation-stopping Vergelegen Schaapenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2017, is probably the best ever; Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is all one could want from a restrained, classic style cab, while Delaire Graff’s Botmaskop 2015 is a fine, beautifully-crafted Bordeaux-style blend. I also particularly liked the fresh, more pinot-like Neethlingshof The Owl Post Pinotage 2015. Shiraz proved the only disappointing category.

Finally, a suggestion for CVC. Under the heading Communication Strategies, it is stressed; ‘communication with trade and press both local and international should be clear and effective’.  Such goal will require the website be brought up to date and they would do well to engage the services of a professional PR firm to clarify for media and consumer CVC’s currently complicated message.

New CVC seal attached to accredited wines

Hope rewarded

Is it important that our wines express vintage variation? Do the majority of winemakers encourage this?

There is still a commonly held belief that given the Cape’s generally temperate climate, vintage variation is limited and good wines can be made every year.

Of course there will be some good wines every year (that’s true of every wine producing country) and consistency is to be applauded, but consistency should be a reflection of quality rather than the forcing of wine into a style that the vintage doesn’t deliver. The result will likely not be very enjoyable but also lack authenticity.

Sebastian Beaumont holding the fresh & wonderful Chenin Blanc 2011

This was an issue raised by winemaker, Sebastian Beaumont at the recent vertical of Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc, Beaumont Family Wines’ star white. ‘It is what it is,’ he commented as 2013 was poured (the vertical covered 2010 to the newly-released 2017). The weather event making a tall poppy of the wine was 50mm of rain over five days in February, just what botrytis spores ordered. The regular spontaneous fermentation stopped with 8 grams/litre of residual sugar, the highest ever (>2 g/l is more usual), and a suggestion of honeyed botrytis.

Beaumont admits there were doubts about releasing this very different Hope under that label; ‘Will customers understand this vintage variation?’ As a Hope enthusiast, I wouldn’t have wanted the farm not to release 2013; yes, it’s sweeter, more luscious than other years but well balanced and should gain in interest over at least the next three to five years. Beaumont also produced a Demi-Sec chenin that year.

Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2010 – 2017.
The label change made in 2014

The story of Hope Marguerite begins in 1974 and 1978, when the two chenin blanc vineyards providing the fruit were planted as bush vines. They’ve since been lifted onto a low trellis. A prototype Hope under Chenin Blanc Barrel Reserve was made in 1996 by Niels Verburg; the first Hope Marguerite followed in 1997, the name honouring that of Sebastian Beaumont’s much-loved paternal grandmother, ‘an elegant lady’, much like her wine.

An unfussy vinification takes place in barrel, mainly around 13 years old with up to 25% new, depending on vintage; during its year in oak, the lees are stirred every two to three weeks with S02 added, as is acid when necessary but at the pre-ferment stage.

Elegance is a constant; alcohols, generally around 12.5%, Beaumont’s ideal, occasionally step up to 13.5%. But it’s more fruit evolution than alcohol which makes some vintages, notably drier ones, seem bigger: 2010 and 2012 fall into that category, although the latter has a lighter, more vivacious feel than the nose suggests.

Without doubt, the star of the older vintages is 2011. On arrival, we were served the unwooded Chenin Blanc 2011; still singing, it enjoys a wet wool (nicer than it sounds!), ripe red apple complexity lifted by crunchy, fruity acidity. Hope is more complex with a steely backbone and tasty, savoury length; still youthful. It seems a pity to drink it even now, as much more is promised in future.

It is extraordinary that South African chenin, grown in a much warmer climate than that of the Loire, has the ability to age, if not as long as its French counterpart, at least longer than one would think possible. Seven years is nothing for the 2011. I’ve found an 09 in the cellar; it will be interesting to see that as a 10-year-old.

Most vintages of Hope are serious, contemplative wines, very ready to show off their best with Asian food – and doubtless, other dishes – but Sebastian Beaumont had chosen South China Dim Sum Bar as a venue; this compact space has its priorities right, putting food first, fancy décor nowhere. As laid-back as Beaumont.  I hadn’t been too enamoured of Hope 2010; from a hot, dry vintage, it has developed, ripe flavours, the acid a little sharpish. Matched with prawn dumpling in broth, it took on a whole new life. Vintages exhibiting spice – 2015 and the more exotic 2016 – couldn’t be better served than with the range of Dim Sum at this popular restaurant.

Beaumont describes 2014 as a ‘wallflower vintage’; understated is perhaps a kinder description, as it reflects many of the positives associated with Hope but in more of a sip-and-chat style than demanding one’s undivided attention.

My enthusiasm for 2017 whites is again boosted by this latest Hope Marguerite release. Intensity, concentration and tension are the key elements; challenging at present, everything points to a magnificent maturity.

The creative genes that run through the Beaumont family across many endeavours fits perfectly with winemaker, Sebastian’s comment, ‘it is what it is’, an expression of the vintage; I can’t imagine him trying to make a wine that adheres to style only.

What happy coincidence Hope Marguerite celebrates its 20th vintage with a great wine, one not shying from a sense of site nor vintage variation.

New from old

The journey culminating in the official launch of The Old Vine Project Certified Heritage Certification Seal began some 18 years ago, when viticulture consultant, Rosa Kruger noticed many old vineyards in major wine producing countries through which she was travelling. Seeing them made her wonder, ‘but where are South Africa’s old vines?’

At the time, she was working for Johann Rupert at his Franschhoek winery, L’Ormarins. Thanks to his encouragement, together with help from the farm’s managers and Johan Viljoen then of Vinpro, a search for old vineyards (minimum of 35 years) across the Cape began; Kruger’s determination and enthusiasm for the project is as infectious now as it was then.

The quest had its own hurdles; not all farmers were keen to come forward with information and SAWIS, which held the list of registered vineyards and planting dates, was initially reluctant to release what was considered confidential information. When they did give Kruger access in 2014, it was on the understanding that she get the farmers’ permission before making details public.

Kruger had already started a wonderful website iamold, where details of each vineyard was published. A website that needed updating every year, as more vineyards came of ‘old’ age; it was also but a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Money for the foundation of a formal and secure project was required. By now, important international voices, including that of Jancis Robinson, started to taste and talk about the wines; it helped that many were made by already-acknowledged top producers in the Cape.

Certified Heritage Vineyard back label with detailed information

Quality of these old vine wines doesn’t come without challenges. Many of the farmers delivered their fruit to co-ops or to volume wholesalers, the old vine grapes being crushed into the fermentation tank along with others. Now they are being asked to farm for extreme quality: pruning, suckering, leaf plucking, green harvesting all require a change of mindset, as well as appropriate recompense to both the farmer and his workers. It costs around R45000/R50000 per year to farm a hectare and yields can be as low as 1.5/2 tons a hectare. Consider these figures when looking at the price of the wines.

Johann Rupert again stepped in to help pull together all the strings by sponsoring the now officially-named Old Vine Project. Ex-WOSA Communications Manager, André Morgenthal co-ordinates the OVP and, with SAWIS, drew up the new Certified Heritage Vineyard Seal, which carries the planting date. The first was awarded to Christa van Chevalliere’s Nuwedam Chenin Blanc 2016. Membership of OVP stands at 30 (details on www.oldvineproject.co.za), Chris and Andrea Mullineux leading the way with Mullineux Wines the first to sign up. There are more high-profile names yet to join.

While recognition via the seal lends formality to the project, it is yet another piece of information the consumer needs to get to grips with. Establishing consumer perception of old vine wines is already underway, a venture between the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, Winetech and University of Stellenbosch. Hopefully, this will also gauge consumers’ willingness to pay more for these wines, based on what it costs to produce them.

Given Kruger’s love of old vines and the effort she puts into training the vineyard workers in tending these special vineyards, it is no surprise they too receive official recognition from the OVP. Specialised pruning courses for OVP members’ vineyard workers are being sponsored by pruning shears manufacturer, Felco.

A move which I’m particularly happy about, is that Vititec has started massal selection on significant old blocks; this material will be cleaned up and propagated. I think it is Prof Alain Deloire who speaks of the memory of old vines which lends unique character; hopefully the same is transferred to their offspring.

Plaque OVP members can display at their cellars. Boekenhoutskloof the first to acquire one.

As ever, wine is a journey rather than a destination; this is just a start for the OVP. Two aspects particularly appeal to me; first, the concept is basically a simple one for the consumer to understand – a wine from a vineyard a minimum of 35 years old, made by a member of OVP may carry the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal with the planting date. The process is authenticated from start to finish; here, for once, is a welcome example of the wine industry working together.

The tasting at the launch was an embarrassment of riches; 17 producers participated, between them there was hardly a wine that didn’t impress. Among an unforgettable few: Reyneke Natural Chenin Blanc 2016, Hogan Chenin Blanc 2016, Metzer Maritime Chenin Blanc 2016, David & Nadia Semillon 2016, Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2015, Cape of Good Hope Laing Semillon 2015, Mullineux Old Vines White 2017, Naude Cinsaut 2016, Meerendal Pinotage 2015 and Cecilia Wines Pinotage 2016.

If there’s one aspect that would cause the OVP to fail, it’s lack of quality; on members’ current showing, that’s highly unlikely.

Beyond the price tag

A few nights prior to the launch of the latest Leeu Passant wines, I had a strange dream; by accident, the Mullineux range was poured instead. Like most dreams, it can have lasted only a few seconds and was a flash happening rather than an episodic story.

It also proved somewhat déja vu; on arrival at the actual Leeu Passant launch, a ‘preview’ glass of Mullineux Old Vine White 2017 was poured! Often, these ‘welcoming’ wines are sipped without much attention, as guests greet each other. Not on this occasion; this thrilling, chenin-based wine was given undivided attention by those around me. It’s tightly knit, spirited, flavourful beyond the varietal mix and just begs ageing; the best, if completely different from my (and Andrea’s) previous favourite, 2014. As I’ve already suggested, 2017 is a vintage to look out for, even if it is so far mainly white wines.

But on to Leeu Passant. The project was launched last year with three wines, two chardonnays and a Dry Red from 2015; its genesis was viticulturist, Rosa Kruger introducing old vineyards to the Mullineux’s and their business partner, Analjit Singh urging the pair to make something from these old vines. The wines are made in the Franschhoek cellar, so from this year, totally separate from the Mullineux’s Swartland wines now vinified on their Roundstone property. The name and packaging also paints a clear line between Leeu Passant and the Mullineux brand, although their signatures are on the label.

Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine 2016 – opened the day and 3 days before the launch

In the meantime, the Elandskloof Chardonnay has been dropped, leaving a two-wine range. Chris and Andrea Mullineux explained they wanted to focus on the Stellenbosch Chardonnay, finding this ‘doesn’t have to be forced into its style, which the Elandskloof did.’ From the high slopes, at the cooler, False Bay end of the Helderberg, there’s a bright, natural freshness and sustained, dry finish to balance ripe citrus flavours and oak. In other words generally warmer Stellenbosch in cooler mood.

 

 

First taste was from a just-opened bottle; later we had the opportunity to try bottles opened the day before and three days earlier. More evident richness on the last suggests plenty of potential and interest to come over – perhaps a conservative – eight years.

My entirely subjective view of Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine 2016 is that I without doubt prefer it to the maiden 2015, but then I am something of a grape tannin junkie. That shouldn’t be taken as any reflection on 2015’s quality, it’s a masterfully balanced wine reflective of a fine vintage. Varieties and vineyards are the same: 37-year old, bush-vine Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc from high on the Helderberg with very important third partner in cinsaut from South Africa’s oldest registered red wine vineyard in Wellington and second oldest in Franschhoek. Don’t underestimate cinsauts’ tannic contribution; tasted whilst still in the varietal stage last year was quite a mouth-puckering experience. But the vintage, as the drought began to take effect, has a major effect on the wine’s compact structure, a determined grip shielding the concentration of sweet fruit; very different from 15’s richer texture, caressing tannins that I noted last year.

South Africa’s oldest registered red wine vineyard, cinsaut planted 1900

As with the chardonnay, there were a further two bottles opened a day and three days’ earlier to taste, with very little difference in the red’s case. It’s a long-termer; a good one to invest in for children turning 21 in 2037; whenever, it will be magnificent.

The unambiguous name, Dry Red Wine, reflects the cabernet, cinsaut blends of the 1970s, something the Mullineux’s had in mind when they planned their own Dry Red, describing it as ‘a deconstruction and reconstruction’. For me, there are shades of those early blends in 2016, more so than 2015.

To give stylistic context to the Leeu Passant pair, they were poured alongside two well-regarded chardonnays (Au Bon Climat 2015, Santa Barbara; Henschke 2015 Croft, Adelaide Hills) and reds with cabernet (Tenuta San Guido 2012 Sassicaia, Bolgheri; Domaine de Trévallon 2014 Alpilles Rouge). If stylistic context was the intention, one could understand their inspiration; it was also evident they didn’t need to stand back for any of these quality international producers.

There’s been some discussion about pricing of these wines, specifically in the UK (ex-cellar the Chardonnay is R650, Dry Red R975, incidentally neither the most expensive in their respective category) where they’re going for £80 or thereabouts.

Pricing seems to be South Africa’s Achilles heel: we’re either too cheap, good value or raise eyebrows. As I see it, it’s the first two levels which cause the main problem for the third, the gap between them emphasising the disparity of the high end. What consumers will pay for a bottle of wine has as much to do with the producer’s reputation and track record as the consumer’s level of interest in wine and the price itself.

It’s 10 years since Chris and Andrea made their first wines under the Mullineux label, during which time they’ve become one of South Africa’s most trusted producers with an enviable track record. This plus consistent visibility in the market, several accolades – Platter’s Winery of the Year, Andrea’s Wine Enthusiast Winemaker of the Year – also generate confidence when the price tag is high. In the case of both seriously good Leeu Passant wines, I see no need for raised eyebrows.

Saving vineyards; telling stories

Where to start? Not so long ago. Just 2013 for Mick and Jeanine Craven, 2016 for Lukas and Roxanne van Loggerenberg; those years mark the maiden vintages of Craven Wines and van Loggerenberg Wines respectively.

In these few years, both couples have made their mark, through their individual winemaking philosophies and skill in realising such individuality in their wines. They have much else in common: neither own vineyards, rather forging relationships with the farmers; visitors won’t find packets of yeast, enzymes or new oak in either cellar – less is more being the general approach. Even so, Mick Craven noted early on that 2017 ‘was the laziest winemaking year in history’. Another great year, so soon after the hype of 2015?

That’s what the Craven’s suggest; Lukas van Loggerenberg, who focuses on capturing the difference in vintages, also commented that 2016 and 2017 ‘were like black and white’. Skill apart, the 13 wines, all 2017s, presented by these two producers at the launch, show it’s an excellent vintage. I can’t think when – or if – I’ve ever enjoyed so much every single wine in a winemaker’s range, or two, in this case.

Mick and Jeanine Craven with their range of wines

Of course, each has an individual style. Acid is crucial for the Cravens; their Stellenbosch vineyards, all single blocks but unregistered, are picked earlier than most to retain as much natural acid as possible. Time on the lees provides girth and balance. Alcohol levels, 12%-12.5%, are low in today’s terms but, quite frankly these wines have more vinosity and flavour than many bigger Stellenbosch wines; they are also bone dry. The area is no one-trick pony.

I’ve been fascinated by the clairette blanche since the first 2014. Determined to see what they could make of this humble and disappearing variety, the Craven’s experiments with blending skin- and tank-fermented portions have resulted in a particularly concentrated 50/50 partnership this year. A partnership with tannin grip, a variety of textures and vinosity, all a brilliant answer for a grape not well-endowed with obvious fruit.

Mainstream consumers would rightly think pinot gris (or probably pinot grigio) is also a boringly neutral, white wine. They’d also be rightly confused to see the glimmering ruby, smell and taste the redcurrant and fragrant florals of the Craven’s version. The answer lies in (this case, nine days on) the skins, as it does with most grapes. It’s more red than rosé thanks to flavour and breadth, but with the refreshment of a white. A must for those who diss the variety.

If only wine politics wouldn’t interfere, the Cravens believe Faure, where their cinsaut, pinot noir and one syrah come from, would make a cohesive Ward. Close to False Bay, the wines show fruit purity with depth and freshness. I hope pinot lovers are open-minded about where good South African pinot comes from; this is a charming example, all gentle waves of dark cherries and savoury undergrowth, balanced by the grape’s natural freshness.

If it were necessary to illustrate the cooling effects of False Bay in the wines, then compare the Craven’s still embryonic Faure Syrah with its bright, red fruit character to their Firs Syrah from Devon Valley, with its expressive dark spice and breadth of texture. My money’s on the Faure in a few years.

Lukas van Loggerenberg (Roxanne elsewhere) with his range of wines

I’m loathe to write about a wine that isn’t available here, but that’s a good excuse to badger local retailers to book Van Loggerenberg Break a Leg Blanc de Noir 2018; 2017 was snapped up in the UK by The Harrow’s Roger Jones. From a 32 year old block of Paarl cinsaut, the blush hue belies the wine’s expressive fruit, depth derived from natural fermentation in old oak and eight months’ lees enrichment. Just 12% alcohol completes a thoroughly attractive, refreshing drink.

The vineyard used to supply a co-op, the farmer receiving precious little in return; now, after van Loggerenberg’s viticultural directions, to farmer’s astonishment but much better recompense, the vineyard is saved with van Loggerenberg able to take more fruit in future. He also includes 40% of this vineyard in the red Geronimo Cinsaut, a complexity of spice, herbs and red fruits well highlighted by both flesh and structure.

I have wondered before, with the multitude of classy chenin blancs, whether it is still possible to stand out from the crowd. I shouldn’t have: Kameraderie Chenin Blanc from a 57-year-old Paarl vineyard, is outstanding. Precision, abundance of concentrated ripe flavours, tweek of viscosity, uplifting freshness, lingeringly memorable. I have a feeling 2017 will be an exceptional chenin vintage generally.

Breton, the old name for cabernet franc in the Loire, should give an idea of what to expect from this wine. Van Loggerenberg’s inspiration came from a 1988 he drank in the area; ‘I was sold’ he remembers. I’m sold on his. Earlier picked (from two Stellenbosch vineyards) than many of the fuller, still excellent, cab francs, Breton has vigour, fragrance (spice, wild herbs), flesh and a freshness balanced by fine tannins, and harmonised by 10 months in barrel. It might jolt those who know only the other style, but they should become converts in no time.

There isn’t one wine from Craven and van Loggerenberg I wouldn’t want to buy (I haven’t mentioned them all); the labels would be an initial temptation. The Craven’s colour, wrap-around labels depict their vineyards and surrounding vegetation; the van Loggerenberg’s are a collage, each item reflecting something of the name: Kameraderie – sharing moments with friends, cameraderie between farmers, workers and the vines; South African heritage is also mirrored. Both producers’ labels deserve a close look; needless to say, their wines do too.