A wander around the Douro

It’s one of life’s little (or perhaps that should be ‘big’) ironies that our fortified wines receive high praise, praise that unfortunately isn’t reflected in sales. We all love to talk them up but few are drunk.

Weather plays a role in this: a warmer and drier winter than usual, as we’ve experienced in the Cape, doesn’t help especially our Port-styled fortifieds.

A few years’ ago, the good wine producers of Calitzdorp, the self-styled ‘Port’ capital of South Africa, decided to take a leaf out of their Douro colleagues and embark on using Port varieties in table wines.

The Portuguese took this route back in the 1980s, when they started to establish vineyards according to variety rather than the field blend of sometimes up to 40 different varieties. Although this allows them to produce varietal wines, blends still predominate, given the region’s challenging climate.

Among the raft of varieties present in Douro vineyards, we have many of the more popular ones: tinta roriz, tinta barocca, touriga franca, touriga nacional, trincadeira and souzão.
It’s not surprising to learn the Nel cousins – Boets at De Krans and Carel at Boplaas – were in the vanguard of experimenting with table wines incorporating varieties also used in their Port-styled wines. Red Stone Reserve, a touriga, cab blend and Kuip and Clay, a touriga, merlot, cab blend were respectively their early efforts. I remember one of the Nel’s – I can’t remember which – telling me that a blend purely of Portuguese varieties didn’t work, which is why they fell back on cabernet.

Things are quite different today. De Krans Tritonia blends touriga, tinta barocca & tinta roriz (aka tempranillo); Boplaas Ring of Rocks mixes tinta franca with tinta barocca. They aren’t the only ‘dorpers to have broadened and shored up their portfolio with the addition of table wines: among others joining them are Axe Hill, Calitzdorp Cellar, Peter Bayly Wines and Fledge & Co.

Partners in this last ‘Co’ are Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel, daughter of Carel & Jeanne, who is also winemaker at Boplaas. Together, they are cutting-edge Calitzdorpers, experimenting along with the Cape’s best. Their pair of unoaked chenins, HoekSteen from Stellenbosch and Klipspringer from old vines in the Paardeberg, are full of character, showing chenin doesn’t always need an oak crutch. But it’s their Big Red Blend 2012 that’s the focus here. A blend of two 300 litre older barrels each of souzão and touriga franca with one of touriga nacional (fruit source isn’t disclosed, but all the vineyards were at least 30 years old). Coetzee says it’s the first time in 30 years that this particular varietal trio have ripened sufficiently to make a blend. Yeast and sulphur were the only additions and the wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Coetzee and Nel kindly agreed to let me include a bottle in my presentation of six Douro reds, as per the list below. They also added a Boplaas Touriga Nacional 2012 and the Boplaas Portuguese White 2015 (tasted blind beforehand).

Despite its youth, this last proved quite an eye-opener. A blend of all Calitzdorp fruit led by verdelho and sauvignon blanc with viognier and chardonnay, it has good density with lots of greengage and citrus freshness. Straightforward but not facile and thoroughly moreish, especially with its R40 price tag.

Portuguese reds 1015We usually have a test to keep everyone on their toes; this time I asked them to identify the three wines made by one producer and the two wines not from the Douro (I made no mention of them being South African).

The line-up was tasted blind, as usual, in random order but coincidentally, The Fledge and Boplaas Touriga were numbers one and two.

The former proved divisive; some were in the over-ripe, dull camp, others, myself included agreed about the ripeness (alcohol is 13.88%) but found good balancing freshness, gentle tannins, silky texture and complexity in its fragrant spicy, pot pourri, violets features. However, it did suffer coming back to it after tasting through the other wines. Strangely, things were better when it was paired with food and the following day.

The real surprise of the evening was Boplaas Touriga, which no one picked out as not a Douro, whereas four had nominated The Fledge. Perhaps there was more obvious tannin than the Portuguese wines, but no imbalance; it just needs time. We were genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how well this wine showed; it offers much encouragement for the future.

The Douro wines too were most pleasurable and all-round of very good quality. These are wines at ease with themselves, there’s nothing forced, no over-oaking or extraction and even though alcohols are around 14.5% (typically, the Niepoorts are 13% or 13.5%), all enjoy a sense of natural freshness. Only Quinta do Crasto was felt to be drying out a little.
Few of us had tasted many Douro table wines before; the experience left us feeling positive about the potential here for blends built around the major Port varieties we already have, some vineyards with good age.

It’s a category that needs, even deserves, more attention; not at the expense of Port-styles but as well as. Not only could these blends add interest to our Port-style producers’ portfolio but buttress them against slack sales of their fortifieds.

For anyone interested in reading more about the Douro, in fact Portugal in general, UK journalist, Sarah Ahmed specialises in the country’s wines. Her website www.thewinedectective.co.uk is a useful source of information.

Fledge & Co Big Red Blend 2012 R200; Boplaas Touriga Nacional 2012 R150; Quinta Vale D Maria 2012 R605; Roquette & Cazes 2012 R295; Niepoort Batuta 2010 R735; Niepoort Redoma 2010 R425; Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2012 R305; Niepoort Vertente 2012 R230

The two favourite wines of the tasting.
The two favourite wines of the tasting.

Old new & new new

In my last post, I failed to mention so many more excellent wines I tasted at Cape Wine, let me rectify that now.

Bellingham is a name, for those of us with long memories, associated with Bernard and Frieda Podlashuk, their beautiful property in the Franschhoek Valley and its own railway station. It’s also associated with the first Premier Grand Cru and commercial shiraz. For those slightly younger, Bellingham was part of the Graham Beck portfolio and where he built a modern cellar and tasting room, until the brand was sold back to Douglas Green Bellingham (yes, that’s what the B stands for!). More recently, the whole property has passed into the hands of neighbour, Anthonij Rupert Wines, leaving Bellingham but a name on a bottle.

wine-roussanneThe Bernard Series (named after ‘Pod’, as he was affectionately known) sits at the top of the Bellingham range and regularly carries off bits of silverware at shows, but I hadn’t had a serious taste through the wines for a long time. Cape Wine offered the perfect opportunity. The wines, sensitively crafted by Niel Groenewald, are individual and easily equal to many of the more fashionable names around. My stand-out is the 2015 Whole Bunch Roussanne from Voor Paardeberg. The fruit purity – white floral notes – is enhanced by lack of oak, but this vessel’s usual benefits – richness, structure and firmness – are imparted by lees ageing and, I guess, a great vintage. One of SA’s first two varietal marsannes is also drawn from Voor Paardeberg. Again crafted to highlight the slightly more exuberant white peach fruit only a portion was in (old) oak. I was also privy to a preview of a splendid new white blend, including, if I remember rightly, this pair among other varieties. It should most certainly be regarded among the top tier of this much spoken-about genre.

As for the reds, the Basket Press Syrah has varietal clarity, gentle tannins (as one might expect from the name) all harmonised & polished by subtle oaking.

The Bernard Series range may be tasted at the re-furbished Franschhoek Cellar, on the right just before entering the town. Do so; there should be no disappointments.

Of the five ranges under Anthonij Rupert Wine, I tasted the Cape of Good Hope and flagship, Anthonij Rupert wines with Marketing Manager, Gareth Robertson. One could hardly find two more stylistically different line ups.

Cape of Good Hope SemillonCape of Good Hope is home to some of the old vineyards from where Eben Sadie also sources his Ouwingerds range: Van Lill & Visser Chenin Blanc and Laing Semillon, while much younger vineyards in Elandskloof, near Villiersdorp are channelled into Altima Sauvignon Blanc and Serruria Chardonnay. Paardeberg provides fruit for Basson Pinotage. Freshness, moderate alcohols and a sense of hands-off winemaking lends each of these interest and the desire for another sip to discover more.

By contrast, the all-red Anthonij Rupert wines, current vintages around 2008 – 2010, are in the increasingly old-fashioned ultra-ripe, over-oaked, heavy style, though Robertson assures me younger vintages are heading in a fresher, less oaky direction. One can only be thankful for that.

David and Jeanette Clarke’s Ex Animo trade tastings are never to be missed; the wines shown earlier this week were all most definitely at the cutting-edge of current trends.

For those under the illusion that winemakers work only during harvest, bear in mind the recent schedule of many pouring their wines at this event. Two weeks’ ago was Cape Wine, three days of the show itself but with many satellite events before and after; hardly was that over, than many hopped on airplanes to the UK for the New Wave tastings in London; some have gone on elsewhere, others returned home with several on stage again, pouring and discussing their wines at the Clarke’s event on Monday. And every time, answering many of the same questions; I don’t envy them. Perhaps this explains the soubriquet ‘lunatic fringe’ that’s been tagged to them!

Kyle Dunn works with Adi Badenhorst and, like his other co-worker, Jasper Wickens, has now done his own bit of moonlighting. Skinny Legs is presumably a play on Dunn’s curiosity about skin contact (his own legs being unknown to me!) as his Semillon 2014 and Grenache Gris 2014 from the Swartland and Voor Paardeberg respectively have undergone two weeks on skins. A year in 300 litre oak, followed by six months settling in bottle has delivered a brilliant semillon, pale gold in hue with an incredible intensity of orange blossom and orange peel aromatics. The flesh is sweet, the tannins dry and a reminder that white wines do not lack in this structural element. Alcohol at just 11% follows what is becoming the modern norm. I love this wine, which should retail around R140. As should Skinny Legs Grenache Gris 2014, which is more austere, its acid and tannin lacking amelioration of the semillon’s sweet fruit. A challenge alone, it will show at it’s best with food.

Craven ClairetteI’m glad Mick and Jeanine Craven of the eponymous label have decided to use only a portion of skin contact wine on their clairette, 65% in 2015, with just 35% fermented in older oak. Jeanine says the 100% skin contact version wasn’t so popular, but both they and I prefer the blend, the latest combining delicacy with terrific length of flavour, a tug of tannin and just 11.5% alcohol. Versatile and individual.

It would be difficult to beat Trizanne Barnard’s Syrah Grenache for value and deliciousness. Retailing for +-R100, 2014’s spicy savouriness is full of lightness and life. ‘Open and drink,’ Barnard advises; I’d add have a second bottle handy. Her skills are clearly evident in her Elim Syrah 2014, which she describes as a very difficult year with disease drastically lowering quantities. Due for February 2016 release, it’s a wine of quiet pleasure, probably peaking before the 2013.

I tasted nearly all Craig Hawkins’ new Testalonga range last; all nine were unbottled samples of this year’s crop, but it’s clear that not only do they confirm the quality of the harvest, but that they benefit from Hawkins’ full attention since he left Lammershoek. His management of skin contact now allows for much better balance between fruit and tannin, but there’s still plenty of distinction. The reds too are also on a par with the whites; Baby Bandito ‘Follow Your Dreams’ Carignan, +-R115 retail, is a dream and, for any who don’t know the variety, a valuable experience.

So much to excite and harvest 2016 isn’t that far off.

Cape Wine 2015 – some reflections

Last week, thousands of trade and media from all over the world converged on the Cape Town Convention Centre for the three days of the now triennial showcase, Cape Wine.
Listening to and reading comments after the event, it appears pretty much everyone was impressed by what was deemed a world-class show.

It was a wise decision to change the gap between these exhibitions from two to three years (there were four between 2008 and 2012 because of the World Cup). As was correctly suggested after 2012, there is much more that’s new with a three year break.

Bearing in mind that only about a third of all producers participated, it’s clear the winelands are abuzz with activity.

For myself, I went with a plan, one I inevitably didn’t complete. ‘You must taste this or meet so-and-so’ frequently diverted my plan, but it’s good to have time to chat to new producers when their stalls aren’t inundated by others.

One where I did just that was Olifantsberg and its Dutch owner, ex tax-accountant, Paul Leeuwerik. ‘Turn right 5 kms off the Worcester/Ceres road, another 2 kms on a dirt track and you’ve reached us.’ I shall be following his directions once we’ve decided on a suitable date for my visit. When someone successfully crafts a serious Blanc de Noir, you know they’re worth taking notice of. Fermented in large oak, lees-aged in tanks, Olifantsberg’s salmon-hued, flavoursome ‘noir’ from shiraz just begs tuna. Oliftantsberg arrived on the radar when its Silhouette shiraz-based red blend won a trophy on this year’s Trophy Wine Show, but my Cape Wine experience confirmed all the wines have similar purity and interest. The vines are still young; I anticipate much greater things as they age. Definitely a winery to watch.

Jocelyn Wilson Hogan with her excellent Swartland old vine chenin.
Jocelyn Wilson Hogan with her excellent Swartland old vine chenin.

As is Hogan. Jocelyn Wilson Hogan worked at several international and local wineries including La Bri, before starting her own label with an impressive chenin blanc from Swartland old vines, vinified as naturally as possible in old oak. She had both the maiden 2014 and as yet unbottled 2015 for tasting. While the latter is the more complex wine, living up to the vintage hype, 2014 will certainly help put Hogan on the map.

As will the B Vintners Vine Exploration Co’s whole range. I couldn’t make the launch of Gavin Bruwer Slabbert & cousin, Bruwer Raats’ new venture, but didn’t miss this opportunity. What a great range! Like the Cravens, B Vintners are showing Stellenbosch can also do character and concentration without a new oak crutch and 15% alcohol. Harlem to Hope, a blend of chenin, semillon with a whiff of muscat; De Alexandria straight Muscat d’A both inspired, but the wine which pleased me most is Strandwolf Chardonnay, with its purity of dainty lemon, lime freshness, persistence and just 12.5% alcohol. Talk about shaking up Stellenbosch!

Much of the buzz focused on chenin and cinsaut. Standouts were Ryan Mostert’s Silverwis and Smiley labels; the chenins more vinous than fruity, with lowish alcohols but lees-aging giving them dimension, so very much in today’s mode; the cinsaut rejoicing in its wild strawberry fruit and freshness. Ian Naudé’s Old Vine Cinsaut, with slightly more silky sophistication, again has that delicious, fresh wild strawberry fruit and ready drinkability. Cinsaut is absolutely the answer to a summer lunchtime red wine.

Naudé’s Old Vine semillon packs an awful lot that’s flavoursome into 11% alcohol. Wynand Grobler (Rickety Bridge winemaker) also gave me a preview of his own Road to Santiago semillon from the Landau’s 100-year plus vineyard. Both will further shine with age and especially with food. If you prefer your semillon with sauvignon blanc, the new One Man Band from Iona only adds lustre to the genre with its polish and personality. Look out for big successes next year (it wasn’t submitted for Platter this year).

Pinot noir is another lunchtime red. Johan ‘Stompie’ Meyer might be better known for his Mount Abora wines, but under his own label he produces, among other wines, three pinots from different regions: Elgin, Elandskloof and, my favourite the complex Outeniqua. Meyer was part of the fabulous, fun Zoo Biscuits stand, a group of 15 ‘young and restless’ producers who showed the benefit of working together. They certainly gave the Swartland Independent Producers (motto: S.I.P or Swallow!) a run in the popularity stakes.

Shorts and flip-flops set the fashion at the Zoo Biscuits' stand. This didn't stop the queues to taste the wines.
Shorts and flip-flops set the fashion at the Zoo Biscuits’ stand. This didn’t stop the queues to taste the wines.

There was so much more to excite (at last I tasted through the whole of Sam O’Keefe’s Lismore range; the raves are all justified) but readers are going to end up as exhausted as I was at the end of Day one.

But I cannot resist two standout events:
Standout tasting: South African Greats – decades of terroir, where ten vintages of Warwick Trilogy, Eben Sadie’s Columella, Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, Vilafonté Series C, Hartenberg Gravel Hill Shiraz and Klein Constantia Vin de Constance were presented. I completed the first four, plus a couple of Gravel Hill before giving up (it was the end of Day one).

Two memories: Trilogy 1989, the oldest red, is still singing; 2006 as a vintage is faring much better than the more highly rated 2005. I tasted the latest, 2011 Vin de Constance the following day. Fresher, more zingy and boasting gorgeous fruit, this is the best for many vintages.

Standout seminar: (okay, I attended only one) Rosa Kruger’s Listening to the Landscape – the typicity of our terroir, which attracted standing-room only (including, as Rosa told me, a handful of real boere grape farmers!). Memorable quotes: ‘We don’t always know from science; there are amazing vineyards that defy where they grow and produce great wine.’ Rosa Kruger. ‘Thanks to reliable French sources, new varieties and clones require only one year in quarantine.’ Nico Spreeth, CEO of Vititec. ‘We’ve got to plant what belongs, not what sells.’ Eben Sadie.

(l - r) Newton Johnson Albarino, Sadie Family Verdellho, Assyrtiko, Mencia and Agiorgitiko, Bosman Wines Nero d'Avola. New varieties tasted at Rosa Kruger's seminar.
(l – r) Newton Johnson Albarino, Sadie Family Verdellho, Assyrtiko, Mencia and Agiorgitiko, Bosman Wines Nero d’Avola. New varieties tasted at Rosa Kruger’s seminar.

Remember the names: Albarino, Assyrtiko, Mencia and Agiorgitiko. They are Spanish and Greek varieties that could be adding much further excitement to the Cape’s wine spectrum.

Roll on Cape Wine 2018!

Leon Coetzee of Fledge & Co, Calitzdorp & Gavin Brand of Cape Rock , Vredendal, showing great wines from either end of the Cape winelands.
Leon Coetzee of Fledge & Co, Calitzdorp & Gavin Brand of Cape Rock , Vredendal, showing great wines from either end of the Cape winelands.

Soil – where the answer lies

‘Our idea was to make a white a syrah and a sweet wine.’ That was Chris and Andrea Mullineux’s intention when they left what was then Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (now Fable Mountain Vineyards) and in 2007, started their own business with Keith Prothero as a partner. After he sold his share a couple of years’ ago, Indian businessman Analjit Singh took his place, since when developments have been moving apace.


Chris and Andrea Mullineux with Analjit Singh

Chris and Andrea Mullineux with Analjit Singh

We can all be very happy their curiosity got the better of them and, while they do make all three of those wines, the range has expanded mainly with an exploration of wines from specific soil types.

These are not single vineyard wines; some fruit comes from two or more sites but what’s common to each is the soil. Quartz, Schist and now Granite for chenin blanc; Schist, Iron and Granite for syrah.

If proof is needed how soil and its various water-retention qualities, make a difference in the structure and taste of wine, the Mullineux Terroir series for both varieties offers more than adequate evidence.

Last week, Chris – Andrea was globe-trotting – presented at Wine Cellar, a selection the Terroir series sandwiched by the white blend 2013 and the new Olerasay with a spread of the syrah in between.

The new Granite chenin 2014 introduced the theme and was my favourite of the five poured. ‘Granite has deep soils, the vines don’t stress and the wine holds its acidity,’ Mullineux enlightened us. This wine trembles with acid, but because it’s natural, there’s no sense of imbalance. It’s grippy and bone dry too, which makes for a better partnership with food. I’ll be fascinated to taste it five or ten years’ time; everything points to wonderful evolution.

We move onto the Quartz Chenin 2014 and 2013, the latter my preferred between Quartz and Schist last year. Again I opt for the Quartz 2014 over the Schist from the same vintage. Richer, more aromatic, compact but with layers of texture, whereas the Schist 2014 shows more power and a richer, creamy texture.

Mullineux tells us quartz is the rarest soil in the Swartland; it reflects the sunlight back into the canopy, providing that greater richness.

Schist soils, on the other hand, are the shallowest; this chenin is distinguished by its power; the acid is less noticeable.

On to the syrahs, the blended 2013 leading into the Schists 2013 and 2012, the five-star spicy/red fruit fragrance of the former proving the more popular of the two, while the older Iron vintage was the preferred of that pair.

At this tasting, the younger wine did seem very closed, its darker fruit tones and wrap-around tannins needing time to relax Granite Syrah is an occasional release and there’s no 2013, but looking Rhônewards, Schist seems more in the fleshy mould of the Côte Rôtie, while Granite is in Hermitage’s sterner form. So too is the Iron, a denser more brooding style with notable firm tannins but with an overall elegance. My preference was for the 2012 but only because of its greater integration and distinctive expression now; no doubt 2013’s current reticence will fade with time.

Two things struck me when tasting these wines: 1) how individual they are, despite coming from different sites but the same soil; 2) what an interesting experience it would be to taste these against single vineyard wines including the above soils (single vineyards aren’t necessarily grown on a single soil type).

The attractive Olerasay bottle; the wine and spicy cookies make pretty good partners.
The attractive Olerasay bottle; the wine and spicy cookies make pretty good partners.

It’s not uncommon to hear a comment along the lines of ‘this wine tastes as though it was made of all the leftovers in the tank.’ A not particularly complimentary comment, but in the case of the Mullineux’s new Olerasay straw wine, it is made up of ‘leftovers’ from their regular Straw Wine. Every year there has been a barrel or two that hasn’t made the cut because it disturbs the balance. As the barrels mounted up, so the Mullineux’s wondered what to do with them: some lighter, some richer and sweeter.

So further blending started, taking wine from these leftover barrels dating from 2008 to 2014, in a system reminiscent of a solera. The unusual shape of the box also reflects the stacked barrels of a solera, while the attractive bottle is Italian.*

Olerasay box with one end removed. The shape is the closest to that of a solera without a cumbersome size. Empty, it makes a nice little mouse house!
Olerasay box with one end removed. The shape is the closest to that of a solera without a cumbersome size. Empty, it makes a nice little mouse house!

The wine is exhilarating and incredibly fresh considering the older wine included. The sweetness, all 260 grams of residual sugar, is off-set by cleansing acid and just 11% alcohol; a pity then that the wine comes in 375ml bottles only, as it disappears very quickly.

As indicated early in this piece, under the new partnership with
Analjit Singh, things are moving apace. The Mullineux’s are now installed on Roundstone, their farm on the Malmesbury side of Kasteelberg and next harvest they’ll be making a completely new range in Franschhoek, where Mr Singh is building, among much else, a new cellar.

A Mullineux sauvignon blanc is awaited with interest!

*Addendum. Andrea has corrected something I obviously misunderstood. She says the Olerasay was always an intentional wine chosen from specific barrels (the same way as they choose barrels for Quartz or Schist Chenin separate from the White blend.)

It’s a great wine, so my choice of words was perhaps unfortunate but there was no intention to negatively reflect on its obvious quality.



Beneficial competitions

That title might sound like an oxymoron for whenever a new competition is announced, there’s a collective sigh of despondency among the media. Do we really need another one, inevitably promoted as ‘the best’? Who’s it going to benefit, except the organisers? Wouldn’t producers be better off using entrance money on a better – or any – marketing strategy?

Immediately contradicting myself, I admit there are competitions which can be helpful to consumers, even if generally rather than specifically and without slavishly following the results.

I write that with a little uncertainty, as who knows what consumers find useful about show results, except perhaps to show off a big bling bottle on their dinner table.

Wine shows have traditionally featured the whole range of wine styles and varieties: from bubbles to fortified desserts. The results, of necessity, tend to focus on individual winners rather than trends within a sector. This though is starting to happen with some of the newer, more varietally or stylistically specific awards.

I’ve recently attended both the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Challenge Top Ten and Riscura Hot White Awards, the latter celebrating the best of our sauvignon blanc/semillon blends (read the full results with Chairman, Christian Eedes’ report here). Semillon as the dominant partner is less common though not in this instance: on checking the blends of the 11 wines scoring over 90/100, seven are led by semillon.

Of more interest is that the declared wine of origin on each of these and virtually all of the 30 entries, focuses on the Cape’s coastal and therefore cooler vineyards. Site and soil are of prime importance for sauvignon to grow successfully but in too warm a climate the grape loses that delicious vibrancy which lends such a refreshing edge. Semillon too responds well in the cooler climes, especially as it’s a lower acid variety to begin with. Its role in the blend is to add weight and breadth, its presence becoming more evident with time thanks to sauvignon’s lively support.

There’s likely to be little disappointment when heading for any of the Wines of Origin on these entrants, except the vague ‘Western Cape’.

(l - r) Albrecht Gantz/Riscura, Trizanne Barnard, Christian Eedes/Panel Chair, Editor Winemag, Jacqueline Lahoud/Winemag
(l – r) Albrecht Gantz/Riscura, Trizanne Barnard, Christian Eedes/Panel Chair, Editor Winemag, Jacqueline Lahoud/Winemag

I have found some of the blends (as well as the varieties vinified separately) from Elim enjoy rather too exaggerated a fruit profile, whether of the green pea/bean or orange citrus/lemon grass/honey type but was pleased to note much more subtlety in the two Strandveld Adamastors 2012 and 2013 as well as Trizanne Barnard’s Signature Series 2014.
Bearing in mind some of the big names didn’t make the 90/100 cut-off mark (probably indicative of their youth rather than lesser quality and certainly the case with the French wine), of those that did, the two that best represented what I look for in these blends are Vergelegen GVB 2013 (62% semillon/38% sauvignon blanc) and Tokara Director’s Reserve 2014 (69% sauvignon blanc/31% semillon).

Both Andre van Rensburg and Miles Mossop have very specific vinification regimes. Both use larger oak barrels to ferment sauvignon blanc, smaller 225l for semillon with around 25% new. Their wines are seamless, polished, structured to age with the savoury whole greater than the sum of their parts. Some of the others are still edgy, maybe through blending oak- and tank-fermented portions, but on the whole all are enjoyable, food-friendly wines.

DeMorgenzon's Car v d Merwe receiving his Top Ten Chenin certificate from Willie du Plessis/Standard Bank with Panel chair, Christian Eedes & Ken Forrester/Chenin Association.
DeMorgenzon’s Carl v d Merwe receiving his Top Ten Chenin certificate from Willie du Plessis/Standard Bank with Panel chair, Christian Eedes & Ken Forrester/Chenin Association.

The chenins aren’t quite so straightforward. The Standard Bank Challenge Top 10 are drawn from several origins: Swartland, Paarl, Stellenbosch, Piekernierskloof but the feature common to all is oak with old (35 years+) or mature vines also a strong feature. Thank goodness, that oak is rarely in evidence; Simonsig’s Chenin avec Chêne 2014 typifies how this component is being toned down. I remember the first vintage as very oaky, more Chêne avec Chenin than in their Top 10 2014, where it merely adds shoulder to the freshness and spicy, ripe flavours; already lovely drink. Winemaker, Hannes Meyer confirms only older barrels were used.

Having written ‘freshness’, it strikes me that’s another thread running through all the Top 10, lending approachability and life to Simonsig’s Chêne while ensuring the denser, more closed DeMorgenzon Reserve 2014 will evolve over the coming years.

Others that particularly impressed were Perdeberg’s elegant The Dry Land Collection Barrel Femented 2014, L’Avenir Single Block 2014, Stellenrust 49 Barrel Fermented 2013 and Aeternitas Wines 2010, a must-buy for any who want to experience how chenin can evolve here.

But the message this competition really pushes home is what great value there’s to be had among top-class chenins. DeMorgenzon is the most expensive at R210 – a red of this quality would cost twice as much! – the Perdeberg is priced at a ridiculous R77, while Leopard’s Leap Culinara Selection 2014 brings up the price tail end at R70 and most of the rest cost around R130.

Keeping an eye on results from competitions like these two could bring worthwhile benefits to winelovers in the form of both trends and quality.

Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Challenge 2015. Top Ten winners
Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Challenge 2015. Top Ten winners

Platter 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind & blind tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 sauvignon blanc,
2015 sauvignon blanc,

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red whites addendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Red whites

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

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

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

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

Testalonga El Bandito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It leaves me wondering is white the new red?

Searching for identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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