Rosé on the rise

Pinot noir, grenache noir, cinsaut; there can be few more trendy red varieties in South Africa right now. As their popularity grows, so winemakers are adapting their methods (mental attitude?) of vinification: out go over-extraction and over-oaking, in come focus on purity, gentleness and freshness. Even alcohol levels are going down a beneficial notch or two. It would be wrong to say these attributes apply to every example – they don’t – but generally, this new genre of red wines is growing in number. They make most satisfying drinking without being at all facile.

If it’s not stretching the imagination too much, I don’t think I’d be entirely wrong to claim there’s been a concomitant improvement in the quality of rosé, especially those crafted from those three varieties. They are becoming imbued with more personality; colours, fruit profile and structure are more individual; there is an aura of seriousness about them, leaving behind that often vapid, sweet pink wine of yesterday.

It helps that rosé is fashionable and that there are many young vines which winemakers prefer to use for this style, which requires freshness rather than bolstering tannin. If not all are completely dry, the achieved balance better integrates any residual sugar, giving the impression of dryness.

Rose trioFew rosés see oak, though it can be successfully employed. I remember being very impressed by and enjoying the maiden Solms-Delta Lekkerwijn, an 04 made from mourvèdre, grenache noir and viognier, which was both fermented and aged in older French oak. It made a telling statement for serious rosé.

Somewhat sadly, to my mind, the latest Solms-Delta Rosé 2014 (Lekkerwijn has now been moved to the back label) is unwooded. I should hastily add, it remains a delightful individual, now a blend of mainly grenache noir with a splash of cinsaut. It retails for R54.99.

It was one of three dry rosés Tim James and I tasted recently, collectively drawing my attention to the stylistic improvements mentioned above.

Judging by this and the Thelema Sutherland Grenache Rosé, the variety really does suit the style. The Solms-Delta version has more of a robust spicy character, well-matched by its firm structure and freshness. No doubt a night on the skins and six months on the lees helped impart and develop both the flavour and firmness. Even with a moderate 12.5% alcohol, it is not so much an aperitif wine as one that will provide more satisfaction with a plate of charchuterie or tuna.

The Thelema wine, also a 2014, is 100% grenache from eight-year-old vines grown on their Sutherland property in Elgin. As one might expect from that cooler area, the spicy, cinnamon aromatics are pure and fragrant; but do not be lulled into thinking this is a delicate wine. Elgin can also produce alcohol; 14.2% in this case. It does show a little heat at the end, but there’s plenty of juicy, flavourful and well-sustained fruit to enjoy as well. Gyles Webb and Rudi Schultz suggest it’s ‘the perfect wine to sip while watching the sun set’. To cut that heat in the tail, I’d be inclined to have a pot of smoked trout or salmon pâté on the go as well.

So to the Fat Bastard Pinot Noir Rosé 2014, made at Robertson Cellar and what an attractive wine it is. More coppery pink than the brilliant ruby grenache wines, but that’s often the case with pinot. It’s so fragrant, like a cherry orchard in spring; pure flavours continue in the same vein; it’s even got a pinot-like suppleness. R80 is on the high side, but it’s worth giving it a try for the sheer enjoyment.

A word of advice to Robertson pinot producers; play to your strengths – bubbles and, it appears from this wine, rosé. You will be taken much more seriously than with red pinots that don’t hit the mark. (I await to pass judgement on the new Fist of Fancy from McGregor fruit.)

Another word on my latest hobbyhorse, packaging. It’s so important for any wine, but especially so for rosé. Fat Bastard wins hands down with its pinky-beige capsule and hippo on the label, an attractive match to the wine colour (visible thanks to the clear flint bottle, used for all three wines). The silver capsule with black and white photo of the Sutherland vineyards is also complementary to the wine and, whilst I like the design of the new Solms-Delta label, the baby pink theme does the wine no favours.

Importance of packaging

I hate shopping for household goods, a boring, if necessary pastime. I make a list but rely a) on the shelves being organised in an accustomed arrangement (dangerous, supermarkets’ management loves changing things around just as one has got used to a certain lay out!) and b) familiar packaging, in order to whip the item off the shelf without the need for close inspection. A change in those recognisable colours and/or script leads to much frustration. It’s much the same with wine labels; a few, of course, are more instantly recognisable than others; Boekenhoutskloof with its seven chairs comes to mind. But how to go about selecting a bottle from a shelf of unknown wines; likely when in some foreign land or even locally, where the plethora available inevitably means one can’t know them all. Faced with a line-up of unknown wines, if I like what I see with an initial glance at the label and all other features are to my liking, the label would be the final arbiter of choice. I sent a tweet to this effect on the day of the Wine Label Design Awards, only to receive a dissenting response from Jeremy Sampson, Mr ‘Brand’, who averred ‘I buy wines despite the labels. They invariably act as an identifier and not much more.’ Having seen the winning selection on the above Awards, I would again beg to differ with Sampson.

A selection of overall winner on Wine Label Design Awards, Peter Walser's BLANKbottle
A selection of overall winner on Wine Label Design Awards, Peter Walser’s BLANKbottle

Organised by online magazine, Winemag, the inaugural Wine Label Design Awards, sponsored by Rotolabel, attracted 92 entries; these were whittled down to 14 winners, some single labels, others as part of a range, by the judges. Photos of all winning labels may be seen here The overall winner, Peter Walser’s BLANKbottle (I love the irony of the name) range, shows great imagination of his own design; I’d certainly be tempted to try the wines in the belief that they also show the quality and imagination their packaging predicts. The other gold medal winner, Stellenbosch Vineyards’ Infiniti Noble Late Harvest anticipates a more modern classic style. The label’s emphasis on texture rather than colour does seem to becoming a trend and, in this case, complements the beautiful and unusual bottle; my eye would be drawn to and pleased by both. Winelabels Infiniti Information on wine labels – apart from the legal stuff – is so often meaningless and the same old blah, blah. Hats off then to Villiera, who get their environmental concerns across in an innovative and uncomplicated way. On the front label, the green theme is established via the green strip along the bottom, Villiera appearing to be growing from it; on the back label, an icon depicts one of their environmental conservation or sustainable farming projects, at the same time directing readers to a relevant story on their website. All sufficiently appealing to entice me to buy the wine, should I not know anything about Villiera or either of the above wines. Villiera new labels3

 

 

 

 

 

Villiera new back labelHopefully this year’s awards are the first of many and new trends will evolve over the years. Prettiness in a busy fashion was a feature common to many of the winners, in sharp contrast to the bolder, brightly coloured labels.

Babylonstoren rose2A few days later, a label of a very different character came up for discussion. A few of us were tasting Babylonstoren’s current range with winemakers Charl Coetzee and Klaas Stoffberg on the farm. As Christian Eedes, one of the people behind the Wine Label Design Awards, was part of the company, it was informative to hear his take on the ‘invisible’ label on the (very tasty) Mourvèdre Rosé (pictured here from the distance one would view it on a shelf and close up). The viognier and chenin blanc are similarly packaged. Eedes’ verdict: ‘It wouldn’t make the cut.’ A sentiment with which I agree, though both Coetzee and Stoffberg claim the bottle has attracted much attention. ‘Winelovers are intrigued by it,’ Coetzee says, maintaining there’s been no negative reaction. Babylonstoren rose1   The ‘positive’ of this ‘negative’ label, as pictured on the Babylonstoren barrel, features a pipe, for the farmer; bird for nature and flower for what’s grown on the farm. On the farm’s new flagship, Nebukadnezar (the Afrikaans spelling is used to avoid problems with the more traditional Nebuchadnezzar), as well as Chardonnay and Shiraz, this logo is in blue on a white background and entirely more legible. It is stark but strangely attractive and, in my humble opinion, more likely to get shoppers to take it down from the shelf. Information on the back label is displayed in English, Afrikaans and, unusually, Chinese (Mandarin).   Babylonstoren label design on barrel If wine quality is paramount, shabby or unimaginative packaging, including the bottle itself, is as important to portray the sort of image that will attract the winelover to study the wine more closely but also buy it.

The importance of telling a story

Competition in the wine world has never been fiercer. To be noticed takes an awful lot of effort; to be noticed on an ongoing basis requires imagination as well as effort and good planning.

View from Jordan Wine Estate across to Simonsberg & Stellenbosch mountains
View from Jordan Wine Estate across to Simonsberg & Stellenbosch mountains

When the Jordan family purchased their now eponymous farm in 1983, they took care to match variety to site, a practice they have followed when planting the additional land they’ve purchased over the years. Although no wine was released under the Jordan label until 10 years later, grapes were sold to other producers and Alphen, a Gilbeys brand (now the home of Kleine Zalze) gained an enviable reputation for their sauvignon blanc made from Jordan fruit.

It didn’t take long for Gary and Kathy Jordan to put their own wines on the map after they returned from California, crushing their first harvest in 1993. There’s a litany of awards that followed over the years, their consistency matched only by the wines’ quality. But today, quality alone doesn’t take you to the front of winelovers’ minds; there are too many wines as good as yours out there.

The Bakery & Deli on Jordan
The Bakery & Deli on Jordan

One of the smartest moves made by the Jordans was to associate their wines with dining. Firstly, by teaming up with fellow South African, Neleen Strauss and opening High Timber in London; this Thames-side restaurant has one of, if not the best range of South African wines in the UK. The Jordans and other wine producers frequently present wine dinners here, all well attended, so maintaining their own and South Africa’s wines in the spotlight. Back home, they enticed top chef, George Jardine, who ran his eponymous restaurant originally in Cape Town to their Stellenboschkloof farm. Today, as well as the restaurant, Jardine started The Bakery & Deli, where not only bread, but his home-cured meat and other delicacies are served either inside or on the deck, overlooking some of the winelands’ most spectacular views. The increased traffic has again helped to shine the spotlight on the wines and, subliminally focus on their quality.

Today, it’s also important that wines tell a story. Since their first 1993 vintage, the Jordans introduced a singularity to their labels by way of a title that had something to do with the farm; Chameleon in that first year – though the majority of the range carried just the varietal name. Like the range, so the names have increased: The Prospector Syrah, Cobblers Hill, Nine Yards Chardonnay, The Outlier Sauvignon Blanc and The Real McCoy Riesling among them.

Jordan Inspector Peringuey Chenin Blanc 2014At last to the nub of this piece, the new and, perhaps most intriguingly named wine of all, Inspector Péringuey Chenin Blanc.

Gary Jordan showed up the ignorance of the collective media present, when he asked: a) where was phylloxera first found in South Africa and b) who identified it? All round silence. ‘A vineyard in Mowbray,’ Jordan tells us. According to Tim James in his Wines of the New South Africa, it was noticed by the French Consul General; not unsurprising, given he’d have seen the same phenomenon in France. Péringuey, in his role as Inspector General of Vineyards, probably positively identified the disease. M. Péringuey was born in Bordeaux in 1855; he came to the Cape, via other African countries, in 1879 to teach French at both SACS and Bishops before taking up a position at the South African Museum, initially as a volunteer, then from 1884 permanently, working on Coleoptera (beetles). Shortly after, he was made Inspector of Vineyards. After identification of phylloxera, he supervised the importation of the louse-resistant American rootstock onto which the various varieties were grafted.

The Jordans decided on naming this chenin, which comes from their 32-year old and first plantings, after Inspector Péringuey ‘as one is a forgotten grape, the other a forgotten man.’ A great story that needed to be told and remembered.

It’s interesting that even though half the wine has been fermented in older, small oak barrels, it has a totally different profile to the other barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc. It’s much tighter, fresher, more vinous and less fruity, promising to mature well. It signals a positive shift in style – yet another talking point to keep Jordan Wines in the public eye.

Chenin – Elgin style

Say Elgin, think … well, I think chardonnay, but many would say sauvignon blanc and from the point of view of the dominant variety, they’re right. The last SAWIS statistics calculate there are 329.93 hectares of sauvignon blanc in the Elgin Ward, while chardonnay accounts for 101.31 ha. Both are far ahead of chenin blanc, which comes in with a measly 6.41 ha, yet I’ve heard several people comment on how well it should do in this cool climate.

If the two chenins I tasted recently from Spioenkop are representative of the quality Elgin can produce, then that measly 6.41 ha deserves a serious increase, For those who climb in now, there’s plenty of space to make your mark.

SpioenkopcheninMy first experience with the home-grown Spioenkop chenin 2013 was for Platter last year, where I noted it a ‘austere yet compelling’. Seven months on, not much has changed: the purity is there, the coiled tension, the full chenin experience waiting to unfold over time. As with all Koen Roose’s wines, it’s fermentation is spontaneous. Roose has also fermented a portion in wood, the effect is well concealed but will surely benefit the wine with ageing.

Similar in its structure to the best Elgin chardonnays, the Spioenkop Chenin Blanc says everything about the variety, yet giving so little now. Like the Alheit Magnetic North Mountain Makstok chenin and Capensis Chardonnay, it wouldn’t win on a beauty contest now – as Wine Cellar’s recent tasting of luxury whites proved, that’s more the realm of the more voluptuous style – but wait until these wines are a few years older and emerge from their cocoons. They are made to age, which Mr Laube might decry, but will offer the sort of pleasure the more voluptuous youngsters do now.

Named for the famous 1900 battle between the Boers and the English, fought on Spioenkop Hill in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The Roose's Spioenkop hill is similar to the KZN one in shape.
Named for the famous 1900 battle between the Boers and the English, fought on Spioenkop Hill in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The Roose’s Spioenkop hill is similar to the KZN one in shape.

The other chenin, 1900 – an alternative rather than second label, where Spioenkop appears under the name of the battle only (NB the actual date underneath the canon) – is a year older and includes bought in fruit from Stellenbosch. Again, some has been barrel fermented for structure. This wine I hadn’t tasted before (I had the younger but equally promising 2013 for Platter); it makes for interesting contrast with the Spioenkop. The fruit is more evident, providing delightful mellow, melon features balanced by still rivetting vibrancy. If it is the more accessible, it lacks for nothing in ageability.

Roose and his wife, Hannelore are uncompromising in their drive for quality and to express their dramatic Elgin vineyards. Eschewing all herbicides and pesticides, working the vineyards by hand and using only a gentle basket press in the cellar; all they believe helps them towards their goal.

Perhaps the best indicator that these are a formidable pair of chenins is that they survived a Cape summer’s day being carried around in David Clarke’s cool bag, being taken out and poured at various intervals and were still in fine form by late afternoon.

‘Who wants to drink monotonous wines without soul or character?’ queries Roose, ‘Great wine isn’t perfect.’ If the greatness is an ongoing process, the Spioenkop wines already have soul and character in loads.

They also convincingly suggest Elgin can do chenin as well as those other white varieties.

Pinot paradise

Pinot lovers all! The Hemel en Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration 2015
Pinot lovers all! The Hemel en Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration 2015

After this past weekend of perusing pinot noir from all corners of the planet in the Hemel en Aarde valley, I’m again reminded of the truth behind Bruce Jack’s evocatively titled The Drift Pinot Noir, ‘There are still mysteries’. There are indeed.

Pinots from the rest of the world are given a clarity of perspective when some excellent Burgundies are thrown into the mix. Along that roughly 50km hilly strip known as the Cote d’Or, reference would be to site rather than variety, pinot being a given. ‘Tell them not to think they’re drinking pinot noir but Chassagne-Montrachet, Volnay and so on,’ Remington Norman had urged Ataraxia’s Kevin Grant before our small, select group got to grips with the six beautifully illustrative Burgundies he’d gathered (just – the wines arrived the day before) for our enlightenment. This sextet acted as a core reference for the global web of pinots I tasted over the two days of the second Hemel en Aarde Pinot Celebration.

Setting the scene were 15 of the valley’s 2013 pinots, representing each of the three Wards. The vintage was a tricky one, dogged by intermittent rain, as each winemaker was at pains to inform participants. A thoroughly amused guest speaker, the bonhomous Canadian winemaker, Norman Hardie, whose eponymous winery lies close to Lake Ontario, pointed out these winemakers needed to work a vintage in Canada to experience really difficult conditions. Hardie knows the Hemel en Aarde valley well, having worked with Peter Finlayson at Bouchard Finlayson during the late 1990s.

The collective spirit generates incremental improvement in the valley’s wines, not least driven by young vines getting older. A better understanding of vineyards and cellar techniques adds to the overall enjoyment and diversity of styles. But a sense of place is frustratingly elusive; sometimes I find the wines from the lowest Ward, Hemel en Aarde Valley, do reflect the slightly warmer conditions, whereas Hemel en Aarde Ridge wines, the highest Ward, are notable for their freshness. This the latter group did with remarkable consistency.

Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley, the Ward sandwiched between the two, is more difficult to pinpoint but my thoughts on similarity in the other Wards is generalised; what Hardie emphasised is that site is the most influential factor; it trumps clones but rootstock plays an important role, affecting yield per vine.

The to-and-fro of the discussion only served to highlight how far we still have to travel. Someone mentioned we’ve currently spent 1/65th of the time Burgundy has had to define and refine its wines.

(l - r) Anthony Hamilton Russell, Roland Peens, Norman Hardie & Gordon Newton Johnson discussing the Northern American pinots
(l – r) Anthony Hamilton Russell, Roland Peens, Norman Hardie & Gordon Newton Johnson discussing the Northern American pinots

It should be of some consolation that we’re not alone. The rest of the world’s pinots on show at the celebration all gave evidence, to some degree or another, of a voyage in the early stages. Those which for me spoke most eloquently were Hardie’s King Edward Country 2012, Westrey Oracle 2011 Willamette Oregon, Au Bon Climat 2012 Santa Ynez, California, Burn Cottage 2012 Central Otago (which I was pleased about; the last time I had this wine, the bottle was a shocker), Stonier Merron’s Vineyard 2012 Mornington Peninsula and Yabby Lake Single Vineyard 2012 from the same area. Each was unequivocally pinot, though stylistically they were as different as chalk and cheese.

I enjoyed them and many of our own, I’d be happy to drink a bottle of any of them but I’d be left with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction were I able to afford and indulge in Burgundy, even some at village level.

Burgundy bottlesThe line-up Kevin Grant presented, with my briefest comments, ran from south to north: Philippe Colin Premier Cru Morgeot 2011 Chassagne Montrachet (a white wine in a red wine skin); Domaine Henri DeLagrange PC Clos des Chênes 2011 Volnay (charm, fragrance, with supple, velvety texture); Domaine Fernand et Laurent Pillot PC Les Charmots 2011 Pommard (austere, noticeable grainy tannins, underlying silkiness, bone dry); Domaine Arnoux Lachaux PC Les Chaumes 2011 Vosne Romanée (stately, deeply scented, viscous and muscular); Domaine Denis Mortet PC Lavaux Saint Jacques 2011 Gevrey Chambertin (quiet meaty features, sinewy, fine tannins, explosion of flavour at end) and finally, back south to Domaine de la Vougeraie Grand Cru Les Bonnes Mares 2011 Chambolle Musigny (precise, complex, great freshness and huge concentration).

The first 3 Burgundies. NB the lovely translucent colours.
The first 3 Burgundies. NB the lovely translucent colours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apologies if my notes are unsatisfactory, but I hope they do indicate the marked differences between each site. A line up of the same site interpreted by several producers would also be fascinating, if add to confusion for Burgundy novices!

Burgundies from Cotes de Nuits of darker but still translucent hue.
Burgundies from Cotes de Nuits of darker but still translucent hue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dissatisfaction several of these wines aroused stemmed from their profundity, a level beyond their charm, distinction or overall quality.

Not one of the other pinots from the rest of the world delivered this sense of wonder. ‘What’s the fuss about?’ was Kevin Grant’s question; this is an important answer and remains something of a mystery for all pinots outside the golden slopes.

Capensis – of the Cape

It was bound to happen and less than 24 hours after the launch of Capensis, social media was alive with comment, not so much about the wine itself but – surprise, surprise – the price: around R935 retail.

Love the label; ultra heavy bottle less so.
Love the label; ultra heavy bottle less so.

Frankly, even with maiden vintages, we should be over this sort of reaction now. I well remember the gasps of horror at the first wine to be given a three-figure price tag (but I can’t remember whether it was from Rustenberg or Hamilton-Russell; can anyone help?). Today, in many instances, R100 is considered good value. Capensis might be the highest priced chardonnay, but it’s certainly not the most expensive South African wine on the local market.

Value is a very movable and personal opinion, not related to price alone. With the right sort of marketing, which I’m sure it’ll receive, Capensis will be the chardonnay to be seen drinking. Of course, with its high price tag, it also announces ‘I can afford it.’

But this discourse does no favour to the wine itself and the people behind it, who are serious about the project and approaching it professionally.

This is a joint venture between Barbara Banke of California-based Jackson Family Wines and Antony Beck, son of the late Graham Beck and the eponymous South African winery. Their friendship, although linked through their love of wine, is cemented via thoroughbred racehorses, which they own and breed in Kentucky, home to Beck and his family. Breeding thoroughbreds is an expensive business, demanding attention to detail: they bring their enthusiasm and success in that field to this latest venture.

Rosa Kruger
Rosa Kruger

Responsibility for the wine is in the hands of Rosa Kruger as consulting vineyard manager and Graham Weerts, winemaker. Many may not remember Weerts, who left South Africa 11 years ago, after being head-hunted by Jess Jackson (Banke’s late husband). At the time, he worked for Douglas Green at Bellingham; I met him long before that when he was assistant winemaker to Mike Dobrovic at Mulderbosch. For me, he was the original Young Gun and I’d earmarked him as a winemaker to watch in future. I didn’t anticipate then that the watching would stretch all the way to California, but he hasn’t disappointed.

Capensis winemaker, Graham Weerts (well, just part of his face!)
Capensis winemaker, Graham Weerts (well, just part of his face!)

The wine was vinified in the Beck Robertson cellar, the fruit – this vintage – being drawn from three different sites and regions. The majority, 60%, came from Fijnbosch, the Banghoek, Stellenbosch farm now owned by Banke and Beck. It’s interesting how these slopes (Bartinney and Oldenburg are neighbours) are now attracting more attention; altitude is again the attraction, the vineyards sitting at 500-plus metres with great exposure and clay soils.

Kaaimansgat – put on the map by Bouchard Finlayson and Newton Johnson – even higher and cooler at 757 metres, accounts for 20% of the final blend, while the lime-rich soils of Ernst Bruwer’s Robertson farm make up the balance

Will this mix-‘n-match of fruit, rather than single vineyard, be a deterrent to those purists who seek a sense of place in wine? It shouldn’t; after all the name Capensis means ‘of the Cape’ but of more importance is that, apart from Fijnbosch, fruit for future vintages may be sourced from other vineyards, the idea being to make the best wine possible. This also means not all the barrels will make the final cut; what doesn’t is channelled into a Graham Beck wine.

Confidence in their wine saw the team put it up, blind, against Olivier Leflaive GC Corton Charlemagne 2012 – its class suppressed by its still angular, reductive youth. Corton for me is the slowest to get out of the blocks of any white Burgundy. I liked the Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay 2011 more, although it too was unevolved, intense but less awkward. I think we all recognised the Capensis 2013 as being South African with its slightly riper colour and flavours. But coming from this great chardonnay vintage, with its terrific balance and structure, this wine has the legs to mature as well as any more established chardonnay. I kept going back to my glass and finding more. I shall be cellaring for quite a few years the bottle I was kindly given.

Expectations can be overly high for a new wine; big impact is anticipated, especially when a high price tag is involved. In many cases, such impact is all up front but drops off in the glass and with age. That is not the case with Capensis; I do hope some bottles will be given the chance to show with age just what a classy wine it is.

With Margot Janse's excellent lunch we enjoyed Capensis & these two pinots; Beck's Oregon Angela Estate, named for his wife & the best Oregon pinot I've had,  & Jackson Family Wines Cambria Estate Barbara's Clone 667 from Santa Maria
With Margot Janse’s excellent lunch we enjoyed Capensis & these two pinots; Beck’s Oregon Angela Estate, named for his wife & the best Oregon pinot I’ve had, & Jackson Family Wines Cambria Estate Barbara’s Clone 667 from Santa Maria

Dimming the WOW switch

Change can arrive gradually, at a measured pace, or in a flash with suitable fanfare. Evolution of wine styles would, I suggest, be far more likely to happen in the former manner, wild swings being likely to alienate customers and likely not lead to better wine in any event.

Sometimes change is so gradual and undertaken by a relatively small section of the industry that it takes a particular event to focus it in the conscious mind.

Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013 the favourite choice with Kingklip, chorizo & vine tomatoes
Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013 the favourite choice with Kingklip, chorizo & vine tomatoes

Much has been written about the improvement in South African wines over the past ten to fifteen years. In that time, our wines have performed very well on international tastings; while this adds positively to our image, I believe the real test of ongoing popularity with winelovers is how well they go with food. Wines with the WOW factor might brush aside competitors on the show table but don’t necessarily go down as well on the dinner table, nor can they indefinitely hold one’s interest; they are both too loud and without sufficient nuance.

By the same token, the elegance needed in wines that complement a meal also requires presence or authority. Elegance with authority isn’t easily achieved but it is a goal to be aimed for.

Progress was illustrated at a dinner prepared by Michelin star chef, Roger Jones of The Harrow in the UK and held at The Vineyard in Newlands last Friday. The wine side of the event pitted South African wines against Australian counterparts, one pairing for each of the six courses served.

Paringa Estate Peninsula Pinot Noir 2012
Paringa Estate Peninsula Pinot Noir 2012

Sparkling wine started things off, followed by riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz and dessert wine. Guests voted, via numbered cards on their glasses, for their favourite wine from each pairing – not as easy as it may sound as one could like one wine but the other went better with the food.

Much to my surprise, South Africa won the encounter 5-1, losing out only to the Australian bubbly. It was more the margin of the win than the win itself which surprised. One might say the result was due to a South African palate, although many guests present have experience of international wines, but I divert.

The two wines which alerted me as to progress in capturing that elusive elegance with authority combination, were the Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013 and Eagles’ Nest Shiraz 2011; yes two red wines. The pinot was paired with grilled kingklip with chorizo and vine tomatoes, the shiraz with duck bon bon, parsnip puree and duck tea. The core intensity, even from still relatively young vines, coupled with sensitive vinification and oaking allowed both to shine and complement those dishes.

Eagles Nest Shiraz 2011 the preferred wine with duck bon bon, parsnip puree, duck tea
Eagles Nest Shiraz 2011 the preferred wine with duck bon bon, parsnip puree, duck tea

With a wider spread of red varieties starting to grab winemakers’

Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2012
Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2012

attention, this positive move should gather momentum. I say that as grenache noir, cinsault, carignan, even sangiovese, as well as pinot noir, varieties gaining traction with winemakers, don’t benefit from the same treatment as cabernet.

Fortunately, those leading the pack are setting an excellent example by taking their foot off the accelerator and producing wines with purity and freshness. That major favourite, shiraz, in the past has suffered from cabernet-syndrome; today many winemakers are taking a much gentler approach with less new oak.

So that I’m not accused of ignoring white wines altogether, look what’s happened to chardonnay. At the dinner, I was convinced the tight, citrusy fresh wine was from Elgin (it was in fact a smashing M3 Shaw & Smith 2012 from the Adelaide Hills) but that is the style many are striving for, especially in cooler regions like Elgin.

South African wines are receiving much more attention on the international scene, mainly through much improved quality; now is the time for their elegance and authority to receive acclaim.

Now is the time to see more dimming of  the WOW switch.

Grilled Kingklip,, chorizo & vine tomatoes
Grilled Kingklip,, chorizo & vine tomatoes
Duck bon bon, parsnip puree, duck tea
Duck bon bon, parsnip puree, duck tea

Ten year test

As a new year rolls in, so predictably, I delve in the cellar for ten year old wines. The time span is arbitrary though it does feel like a neat circle and good test of South African wines’ – both white and red – ageability. Despite this motive, we usually drink most ageworthy white wines between four and six years, reds around eight years.

Smart packaging to match Vergelegen's very smart flagship white, now labelled GVB. 05 carries the former badge, on the right.
Smart packaging to match Vergelegen’s very smart flagship white, now labelled GVB. 05 carries the former badge, on the right.

The first 2005 was more a spontaneous than planned withdrawal from the cellar. Friends had kindly given us two crayfish, which immediately suggested a Bordeaux-style, dry white with some age and a good dollop of semillon: Vergelegen 2005 caught my eye and was dispatched to the fridge for short chilling. This isn’t the sort of wine and age that should be served too cold, which would destroy its texture and mature flavours.

For those who don’t remember, 2005 was notable for an incredibly hot summer; the Cape was also still pretty much in a drought cycle, as I recorded in the vintage summary I wrote for Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide:

‘The 2005 South African wine harvest has been described as the driest, wettest, earliest and hottest, depending on exactly where you are. Such was the difference, even within short distances, generalisations about the 2005 harvest are almost impossible. What all acknowledge is that the Cape is in the grip of a drought cycle; even with a burst of spring rain, those without irrigation will have struggled.’

Not a review to inspire great enthusiasm; I remember remarking within earshot of David Trafford that it wasn’t going to be a vintage year, so was more than surprised when he disagreed, saying how good his red wines were. Indeed, there is a marked quality difference between the two colours, but, as always, the meticulous and experienced made some very smart white wines as well. Naturally, André van Rensburg was among them, as confirmed by our comments at the 11 year vertical of his flagship white, held at Vergelegen in October 2012:

`2005 – 67% semillon/33% sauvignon blanc
A delightful surprise in such a hot vintage. The pale but strong lemony green hue suggests a youth found in the fragrant melody combining both varieties. Juicy rather than viscous with lively freshness, full body but concluding with confident firmness. Charming.’

Two and a quarter years later, that charm has dimmed a little; the wine still holds a remarkable colour (surely due to a good dose of free S02?), the flavours, especially semillon’s waxy, truffly notes, are still enjoyably present but the juiciness and lively freshness are dimming, leaving a residual suggestion of heat.

Casting analysis aside (anyway made on the left-overs the following day), the wine made a suitably grand accompaniment to the crays.

With further improvement unlikely, I’d recommend opening and enjoying any remaining bottles.

Reds, I hope will be another matter. I plan in due course to blind taste a selection with some friends. Reports will, of course, follow.

Empty memories

It’s not something I’ve ever thought to write about, imagining few others would find keeping empty wine bottles as compulsive a habit as I do.

Then I read PR and fellow wine lover, Nicolette Waterford’s tweet: ‘Trying to declutter. Why oh why can I not throw away certain empty wine bottles. Is there a term for this type of insanity?’ ‘Don’t worry – you’re not alone in this. #memories.’ I responded. And memories is what we both decided inspires such insanity; our reasoning was shortly given credibility by none other than a Master of Wine, John Downes, who joined our tweetersation, insisting ‘you HAVE to keep the memories ..’ So I no longer need hide my shady habit. In

Wish they were full ...
Wish they were full …

fact, here’s a photo to illustrate just how compulsive it is – it spreads further around the cellar too. And it’s about to be joined by another bottle with happy and sad memories.

It was around 1997, when I was writing for the excellent Sunday Life magazine, that the editor passed on an email from a gentleman in Australia, who had several queries about South African wine after his recent visit, including why did South Africa have so much chenin. Little did I know that my response would lead to an active and robust ongoing correspondence. It turned out Patrick was South African but had emigrated to Australia in 1961. His interests ranged far and wide, including sport – we had much friendly banter about our respective cricket teams – but wine was one very close to his heart. Our correspondence grew both in length and regularity; I learned a lot about Australian wine from him and I think he did likewise about South African wine from me.

The opportunity to meet in person rather than over the ether arrived in 1999, when Mark and I visited and travelled through Australia; Patrick and his wife, Elizabeth invited us to stay with them during our stay in Melbourne. They treated us royally with visits to wineries as far afield as Heathcote and Mornington Peninsula, wines as varied as Grange (from the 1970s) to Chambers fabulous Rutherglen Muscats. We met twice more, once in Melbourne again, another when they stayed with us in Cape Town.

That was to be the last time we met, though our interest and enjoyment in each other’s wines continued; with little possibility of buying them, we started the slow but thankfully successful system of posting a selection to each other via seamail. Whilst I sent Patrick wines which I hoped would convince him of our progress with the classic varieties ( lots of chenin!) and innovative wines such as white blends, he educated me with some of the many ‘alternative varieties’ which have become such a success in Australia. As a resident of Victoria state, he did favour local producers (although in one notable package, Margaret River, Barossa, Adelaide Hills and Langhorne Creek were represented), but there’s such a wealth of talent and wide range of interesting varieties and wines in that state, that opening the latest parcel was always filled with anticipation.

The eight wines making up that multi-regional parcel included a lagrein, a variety from the north-eastern Italian region of the Alto Adige, but this was from the more temperate Murray Darling area in Victoria’s north west. It disappointed Patrick and he determined to send me one he’d tasted and enjoyed from the cooler Macedon Ranges. His February 2013

Cobaw Ridge Lagrein & Max Allen's Victoria wine map which helped us place the winery
Cobaw Ridge Lagrein & Max Allen’s Victoria wine map which helped us place the winery

letter informed me he’d eventually found a bottle of Cobaw Ridge Lagrein 2008, which he was posting together with a Chateau Tahbilk Marsanne 2003 from 1927 vines. Sadly, it was the last letter he managed to write; cancer and other painful complications led to his death that October.

I wanted to share those last two wines with friends; two opportunities, a year apart, presented themselves. Once a year in January, our monthly tasting group holds a bring your own international wine and a plate of food event. The tasting’s blind, as always.
The Tahbilk went down very well last year; yesterday evening it was the turn of Cobaw Ridge Lagrein. Without exception, including Aussie and ex-Melbourne sommelier, David Clarke, all were somewhere in a cool climate region of the northern hemisphere. All were fooled too by the still vivid youthful purple hue, three years the average guess at age.
Though none of us are that familiar with lagrein, the wine grabbed everyone’s interest in its freshness, clarity and texture, certainly individual.

I’ve drunk the last drop – shared with Mark – this evening; it lingers, as will the empty bottle in our cellar.

2014 a year of exciting wines

With 2014 about to depart into history, there’s just time to record some of the wines that excited me most during the past 364 days . This is definitely not a ‘best of’ list, though some are.

The box in which Alheit Magnetic North was delivered. They pay as much attention to packaging as to the wine.
The box in which Alheit Magnetic North was delivered. They pay as much attention to packaging as to the wine.

I’ve tasted the Alheit’s Magnetic North Mountain Makstok 2013 only once but that was enough to make a lasting memory. A ‘take no prisoners’ wine, it induces a large gulp on first sip, such is its intensity, doubtless from the old, ungrafted, dryland chenin vines.

The Mullineux’s maiden Quartz Chenin, a tight, grainy youngster but one that shows poise and flow too, should also raise the excitement level for chenin. This 2013, the latest in the couple’s single soil wines, is from a single, +-25 year old vineyard; it’s gratifying how the range so well informs about the difference a soil makes.

2014 has shone the spotlight on semillon gris, a variety that’s not even on the list of permitted varieties for wine! With semillon blanc it’s been part of Eben Sadie’s Old Vine Series Kokerboom since the first vintage, but Andrea Mullineux’s CWG 2013 varietal offering, called The Gris, drew attention to this red mutation of semillon blanc, even if it’s more greeny straw than pinky beige. Earthy notes from natural ferment, spice, dried herbs, pithy grip and savoury length are all in the mix of this most interesting individual.

On the other hand, the Seccombe’s Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier Semillon 2013, a 50/50 blend of semillons blanc and gris, is coppery pink (from 4 weeks on skins); other than that it carries white semillon’s distinguishing silky swish, especially from old Franschhoek vines. Semillon’s profile is set to be raised further under this new and instantly successful label.

Meantime, the Wine & Spirit Board can confer official status for wine to semillon gris.

Landau du Val 2012Okay, one last semillon (I do so enjoy this variety), again from Franschhoek. Basil and Jane Landau’s vineyard will celebrate its 109th birthday in 2015. The wine’s had a parade of winemakers over the years, so hopefully the incumbent since 2012, Wynand Grobler of Rickety Bridge, will remain and continue to do justice to these great old vines. Grobler says 2013 is even better than 2012; watch out for its release in early 2015.

Clairette blanche, another variety that’s been around in Cape vineyards for many years, is also enjoying some renewed attention. Mick Craven (winemaker with Adam Mason at Mulderbosch) and his wife, Jeanine (winemaker at Dornier) launched their own Craven Wines label this year (they were previously known as Antipodean); it’s a label to watch. The latest release is Craven Clairette 2013; the fruit from a farm in Polkadraai was vinified half on skins, half in tank via natural ferment, some old oak also employed. The pair are showing not only Swartland has movers and shakers.

Chardonnay and Elgin = a perfect marriage.
Chardonnay and Elgin = a perfect marriage.

One last white, a bit more mainstream – Iona Chardonnay 2013, one of my best wines of the year, a Platter five star and the epitome of chardonnay from this cool climate. I believe Elgin has the potential to become chardonnay capital of South Africa.

What I like about all these whites is their focus on structure and texture rather than obvious fruit; something which makes them both more interesting and food friendly.

Pinot noir, Pofadder and Porseleinberg are three reds high on my excitement chart. The pinot is Bruce Jack’s maiden The Drift 2012 from their remote farm on the Akkedisberg halfway between Bredasdorp and Caledon. Despite the familiarity of the three clones – 115, 777 and 665 – the wine, although true to pinot, is an individual, reflecting its fynbos environment and mix of ancient soils in which it grows. Its evocative name ‘There are still Mysteries’ reminds of pinot sites yet to be uncovered.

Pofadder 2013, for those lucky enough to have laid hands on some, is the loveliest incarnation of Eben Sadie’s Old Vines cinsaut yet. Cinsaut and grenache are the antithesis of big, beefy reds; both will be on my shopping list in 2015.

View from Porseleinberg towards Wellington
View from Porseleinberg towards Wellington

Porseleinberg is set to shake up syrah, taking it into a new, wilder and wider direction. The amazing fact about Callie Louw’s Platter five star 2012 is that it’s not seen a splinter of wood, which adds to its defining edginess. It’s a truly thrilling wine. The fruit also plays an important 50% role in Marc Kent’s CWG Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2102.

From P to S for Sijnn Touriga Nacional 2012 and Swerwer red 2013.The de Trafford’s vineyard and cellar near the mouth of the Breede River is proving yet another remote gem, rewarding in handfuls their search for excellence outside the more traditional winelands. This touriga is particularly beguiling in fruit and form but I anticipate some exceptional blends incorporating the variety in future.

Swerwer red 2013 backAnd talking of blends, many red blends look interesting on paper, but deliver a smudgy nothingness in the bottle. Jasper Wickens Swerwer 2013 is different; each variety plays an identifiable role but the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Happy New Year to you all. May harvest 2015 deliver many more gems like the above and others omitted.