Wine lists encouraging adventure

It would seem self-evident that when one goes to a restaurant it is with the intention of eating, whether it’s a burger at the Spur or a tasting menu at a Michelin star establishment.
For some, a wine list or, to broaden the scope, a beverage list, is an adjunct to the food menu, rather than an essential part of it. While it’s likely the fine diner will be more interested in the beverage/wine list, it’s not a given. Nor is it certain that the burger eater isn’t keen on picking an interesting bottle of wine, craft beer or even tot of spirits to partner it.

Yet, as social media has shown yet again recently, there has been an outcry about restaurants charging to list wines, most of which are supplied by larger producers (smaller producers quite rightly don’t and won’t participate in this sort of practice.) This often results in a boring list, one which doesn’t encourage customers to be more adventurous in their choices or even drink wine at all. How to change this?

(I’m not so naïve as to think there can be a wholesale move away from demanding listing fees, but one only has to think of Ocean Basket, which stopped the practice last year, to realise the message can be heard and re-acted to.)

Mouthwatering wine lists I’ve visited; these in Southern France.

Enthusiasm and even basic knowledge from the sommelier or wine steward would be my starting point, but I thought it better to get views from those on the restaurant floor. Few come more enthusiastic and knowledgeable than Tinashe Nyamudoka, Sommelier at renowned The Test Kitchen or Fortunato (Forti) Mazzone, who opened Forti Grill and Bar earlier this year, and before that owned Ritrovo, both in Pretoria. Forti also co-owns the brand Nick and Forti’s Wines with his friend, Nick van Huysteen, owner of Saronsberg, where Dewaldt Heyns makes the wines.

A pair with equal enthusiasm for wine but very different restaurants; nonetheless, food is a driving factor when the wine list is being compiled. There’s also a personal element to Mazzone’s selection; ‘Wines I enjoy, from wine farms I’ve developed partnerships and friendships with over the years.’

Nyamudoka notes that as 90% of diners choose the menu and wine pairing option (a choice of two wines for each of the eight courses), this strongly influences selections, though inspiration derives from unique wines and those drinking well. The wine list itself is a succinct, five pages.

It would be foolish and self-defeating not to include popular favourites; they are anyway more likely to have continuity on the list, given limited availability of many top wines; they feature to greater (60%) or lesser (30%) on Mazzone’s and Nyamudoka’s lists respectively.

Mouthwatering wine lists I’ve visited: Southern Rhône and UK

At the same time, it’s all too easy for guests to head for familiar names, especially if they’re shy of asking about wines they’ve never heard of. I know what it’s like staring at a wine list where I have little or no idea what I’d be drinking. A short description and vintage for each wine can be an encouragement, which both gentlemen’s lists offer; physically, the lists are easily updated when a new wine or vintage is introduced. I wonder how many other restaurateurs can or bother to do that?

That aside, I can’t think of a better way than their own interaction and that of the other wine staff to encourage guests to venture outside their comfort zone. Many wine staff, not just sommeliers, attend courses on wine and service these days to ensure at least a basic level of knowledge. Two of Mazzone’s staff have WSET Level 3 accreditation, but with his own Cape Wine Academy Diploma II and years of experience, he passes on knowledge to all his long-serving staff. Nyamudoka explains Test Kitchen wine staff need to be able to taste and explain a wine in their own words.

Good choice of wine by the glass, mature wines and degustation menus paired with select wines are other ways these wine enthusiasts encourage guests to try something new. As Nyamudoka has already mentioned, the majority of diners at Test Kitchen select the food and wine pairing menu. ‘They are guaranteed to taste a wine they’ve never had before and never thought they’d like until partnered with a good meal.’

It takes more than enthusiasm to create a really good and interesting wine list, one that spans the great and good the Cape has to offer as well as the more popular favourites.
Mazzone admits; ‘Differentiating yourself from the herd,’ is the most difficult part. ‘We do this by printing maps, information, interesting quotes and by making our menu an A3 document that is exceptionally easy to read.’ ‘In my case,’ offers Nyamudoka, ‘ it’s find the balance, ie depth of mature vintages, compatibility with an ever changing food menu and wines that best showcase a specific region.’

Difficult but not impossible. Encouraging diners to be more adventurous in their wine or beverage selection can be rewarding from many points of view; requiring payment to get on the list isn’t one of them.

Squaring the cabernet circle

Out shopping for a cabernet? I guess front of mind for the average wine drinker would be one that’s good to drink now. Is this such an unrealistic wish?

The late Paul Pontallier, Cellarmaster at Bordeaux First Growth, Chateau Margaux, once told me: ‘A great wine should taste good when it’s young as well as being able to age.’ Local wine writer and colleague, Christian Eedes sees things in a slightly different light, as he writes in his 2017 Prescient Cabernet Sauvignon Report: ‘There seems to be preoccupation with flattening out cabernet’s tannins … some tannic grip is precisely what has always made the variety so well suited to food as well as providing it with maturation potential, which remains the mark of great wine ..’

Just how does one square the circle that cabernet as a variety presents?

This & other photos, some of my favourite winning cabernets

Before delving further, Eedes’ remarks come not only on the back of tasting 65 handpicked cabernets for the above report, but also the obviously exciting experience, at the old wine tasting prior to the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, of a 1978 Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon. He expresses doubts that many of today’s cabernets will have the same staying power; I didn’t check whether that included any among the 15 Prescient winners, but my feeling is many have the pre-requisites for, if not 40 years, then enough of that maturation potential to give label them more than impressive.

A quick further detour; in his original John Platter’s Book of South African Wines, the man himself opined on Nederburg Paarl Cabernet Sauvignon, which he awarded three stars!: ‘Richly-flavoured dry red with great depth and excellent keeping qualities. An elegant wine, not too heavy on the palate.’ Strangely, I find no mention of 1978 in this or follow-up guides, but he does confirm: ’74 best recent vintage’, a vintage I remember very well as likely best of that decade and which I saw via a recent voice on Twitter, was still giving pleasure.

As I tasted through the 15 wines which met Eedes and his co-panel members’ (Roland Peens and James Pietersen of Wine Cellar), criteria of scoring at least 90/100, it’s clear winemakers are getting to grips with what makes a quality cabernet; one that shouldn’t deter pulling the cork, or, as is increasingly the case, unscrewing the cap, on a young wine.

 

That said, we’re still grappling with issues familiar to Gunter Brozel, Nederburg’s celebrated Cellarmaster during the 1970/80s, such as leafroll virus and acidification. On the other hand, those were pre-new, small oak years, which arrived at the end of the 1970s but its widespread use took off only in the 1980s. Brozel’s cabernets evolved in 4000/5000 litre old oak. Long, post-fermentation on the skins was also a thing of the future, as was over-extraction, oh, and high alcohols. Nederburg cabs in the 70s clocked in around 11-12%.

Virus-free (initially) vines changed all that: with sugars easily soaring, we soon reached the age of 14%+ alcohol, then a little residual sugar to temper these giants and a generosity of new, small oak – often not the best until winemakers learned the coopers’ ruses.

I don’t need to continue through the litany of misguided fashions, just be thankful that travel, drinking of the world’s wines and, most importantly, paying more attention to good viticulture – among other necessities – today’s crop of young and slightly less young, winemakers are realising what it does take to produce a great wine, and cabernet as the subject of discussion.

To me this is emphasised by the number of wines from that difficult vintage, 2014, which came through to the very top (I think it’s proving better than 2013). It was apparent that winemakers hadn’t tried too hard; they’ve let the fruit express itself without trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, producing some delicious, pure, well-formed cabernets in the process. Important too is that they’ve then released only after three years, if yet in Neil Ellis’s case; bar Groot Constantia, the others benefitted from an even later release date.

Perhaps squaring the cabernet circle, producing a wine that’s both good young and benefits from lengthy maturation, lies not only in starting with good fruit but also in the approach of Brozel and others of his era – don’t over-complicate the winemaking process. I have a feeling it’s a lesson our winemakers are learning.

PRESCIENT CABERNET SAUVIGNON REPORT 2017 WINNERS

92
Neil Ellis Jonkershoek Valley Stellenbosch 2014
Price: Not yet released.

Strydom Rex 2014
Price: R220

91
Bartinney 2014
Price: R179

Jordan The Long Fuse 2014
Price: R160

Kleine Zalze Family Reserve 2013
Price: R335

Le Riche Reserve 2014
Price: R500

Peter Falke 2013
Price: R140

Rustenberg Peter Barlow 2012
Price: R400

Tokara Reserve Collection 2013
Approximate retail price: R315

Waterford Estate 2014
Price: R295

Warwick Blue Lady 2014
Price: R275

90
Groot Constantia 2015
Price: R201

Neil Ellis Stellenbosch 2014
Price: Not yet released

Spier 21 Gables 2014
Price: R260

Vergelegen V 2012
Price: R1 300

Does bottle size alone matter?

A magnum offers many benefits, but the reason most often advanced, according to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, is; ‘It is widely regarded as being the ideal size for bottle ageing fine wine, being large enough to slow the ageing process, but not so big as to be unwieldy, or unthinkably expensive (unlike some other large formats).’

Thanks to the greater volume of wine to container, a magnum should age more slowly than in a regular 750ml bottle. This was the theory put to the test at the recent SA Sommeliers Association tasting presented by Tinashe Nyamudoka, SASA member and Head Sommelier at The Test Kitchen. All the wines had been sourced from the producers; there were some surprising results.

Nyamudoka had us tripping over our own tongues with the first pairing, a white wine (apologies for lack of photos; my attention was on tasting and taking notes): one, a brilliant green-infused lemon gold; evolving but eye-catching; the other, a deeper shade of orange/gold, not nearly as brilliant and suggesting a much older wine. The appearance of each is confirmed in the glass. Generous floral, honeyed maturity, a richness of ripe, concentrated fruit, lengthened by fine, natural acid; everything in that first glass gives maximum pleasure. Chenin 2007 I wager with time still on its side.

The other showing some oxidation, a little honey and definite sweetness; still chenin, but less harmonious than the first wine. Surely this is bottle, the first a magnum?

Wrong on both counts! Number one is from a regular bottle, but closed with a screwcap, a combination no one thought of; number two is the magnum with a cork closure! The wine: Ken Forrester’s FMC 2007.

The cork was still in good shape, so I’m not sure why the magnum is so advanced. That said, wines under screwcap are recognised as ageing more slowly, in an ageworthy white wine vintage like 2007 especially so.

With the next pair, both garnet-toned ruby, one somewhat denser than the other, there are no tricks, it’s down to bottle size. Clearly in pinot territory, the first immediately exudes ripe red cherry, raspberry aromas; forthright flavours too, fresh, quite viscous and a sweet-fruited tail; not very harmonious at this stage. The other is more reticent, though its black cherry fragrance remains a true varietal indicator. An excellent balance between tannins and freshness match that of pure pinot fruit. What’s more, it finishes totally dry. Bigger format and younger wine go the majority guesses.

As we adduce, the order is first regular bottle, second magnum. Both are Peter-Allan Finlayson’s Crystallum Cuvée Cinema from the rain-affected, lighter 2014 vintage.
I was glad I kept both to try again later, as both changed to their advantage. The bottle gained in harmony with less apparent sweetness, while the magnum opened to reveal its elegance and charm; the latter would certainly benefit from decanting now and I believe has a better future.

David Trafford’s De Trafford Elevation 393 is traditionally cabernet-led with merlot, shiraz and cabernet franc. Don’t be surprised at 15%+ alcohol levels, usually a part of the balanced package, which also includes all new French oak. This combination worked much better for me in the 2001 magnum, a more mature looking, subtle and savoury wine than the rather green spikiness and sweet/acid discord of 2007 from the regular bottle.
Of the many interesting lessons learnt at this tasting, the one I came away thinking about for the umpteenth time is that a specific vintage is not the same for every producer; some will do better than others, even with the same variety or blends.

The 750ml Warwick Trilogy 2007 is a timely reminder. Cabernet-led partnered by the farm’s renowned cabernet franc and merlot, this 10-year-old flagship still boasts a strong ruby red hue, an array of ripe red fruits and spice broadened by harmonious oak. Good energy, suppleness as well as rounded tannin suggest it has plenty of time to go. Weirdly, 2009 ex magnum looks older; there’s complexity but less detail in the rich flavours; a big wine from many points of view, maybe it’s still going through the struggles of youth; given the wine’s track record, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Sommeliers and tasters at the SASA tasting

Two other magnums were poured without regular bottle partners: Klein Constantia Perdeblokke Sauvignon Blanc 2004. Evidently a cool climate sauvignon, I guess before the reveal, with eye-catching brilliance, ageing green bean characters but still plenty of fruit richness.

The magnum of Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 induces a sense of wistful longing for reds that are neither over-ripe nor sweet. It’s ripe with good flesh, freshness, great supportive structure and length. A classically styled cabernet of yesteryear.

For younger tasters and sommeliers generally unversed in these different formats, closures and vintages, such an event offers an invaluable experience. It all goes towards building better wine service and understanding of our wines. Well done, SASA.

Decoration in the Ellerman House Wine Gallery, where SASA tasting was held

Quiet innovator

Many innovative South African winemakers are familiar names to winelovers; Eben Sadie leading that pack with plenty of young guns following him. Not every innovator receives the wider public recognition he or she deserves, not because of less talent, a lack of opinions or even wine sales; maybe they are of a quieter disposition or us writers forget to seek them out.

Super Single Vineyards’ Daniel de Waal is one of them. Back in the 1990s, I remember being impressed with his classic-styled reds from the family farm, Uiterwyk (now DeWaal Wines), an approach he still admirably follows. He holds strong opinions too, as I learned from a recent lengthy chat with him on his Cannettevallei farm in Stellenboschkloof.

The business, started in 2004, now has two distinct ranges. The ‘local’ one, Pella, focuses on small batches, roughly 900 bottles per label, from good, older vineyards around Stellenbosch, Paarl and the Swartland. Reds are without doubt De Waal’s forte, the Pella range includes a classic, cab-led Family Reserve blend, as well as equally splendid varietal wines, each named for the individual vineyard: Granietbult Cabernet Sauvignon, Oukliprant Malbec and Koueveld Petit Verdot with just one white, Kanniedood Chenin Blanc. None, however, are registered as single vineyards – yet. It is the current legislation for single vineyards that is a cause of annoyance to De Waal and I’m in complete agreement with him.

The regulations stipulate, inter alia, that the vineyard shouldn’t exceed six hectares in size and be planted to one variety, but, as De Waal explains, other factors which influence any sense of place in the wine, such a soil, altitude, aspect etc, are not taken into account and can vary even in a block smaller than that maximum. Thus, De Waal takes care to ensure his rows are homogenous in the above respects.

A break of at least seven metres around a block is required for single vineyard registration; ‘A deterrent to any farmer who needs to remove an income-earning row of vines to comply,’ notes De Waal.

As the smallest Wine of Origin, where a sense of place should be front of mind, the single vineyard needs much more rigorous interrogation by the authorities prior to registration. Regrettably, marketing is often argued over place.

Mount Sutherland vineyards under snow. One of several photos in the Cannettevallei tasting room.

It’s De Waal’s other range, Mount Sutherland, where he’s being daringly innovative. Sutherland, a four-hour drive from Stellenbosch, lies at an elevation of 1500 metres, is prone to frost, both white and black, snow and between 200-300mm rain in winter. Precisely the sort of continental climate, with schist soil – ‘not too rich, almost perfect’, De Waal was seeking when he planted the first vines in 2004. The grapes are brought to Stellenbosch for vinification.

It was a trip to the northern Rhône, where he encountered growers speaking of their continental climate, that made him wonder why nobody mentioned it here. A friend in Sutherland introduced him to the area; 2009 produced the maiden vintage.

It’s a brave (some might say foolhardy) wine producer who knowingly introduces vines where spring frosts are a regular occurrence. As I write this, it seems Bordeaux, the Right Bank especially, is being badly hit by frost; this along with areas stretching from Champagne to the Languedoc.

De Waal is pragmatic about the problem. ‘We manage white frost, which usually happens in October, by spraying the vines with water, which freezes and protects them from damage.’ Black frost, a danger in the drier, windy conditions from end October into November, burns the vine from the top down. ‘An upside is that the vine can go through a second budding after a black frost,’ says De Waal, relating with a smile that the Old Mutual Trophy winning Syrah 2012 was made from second-budding fruit.

Light intensity ensures ripening is no problem, ‘We’ve harvested shiraz at 12% potential alcohol with perfectly ripe tannins and even though daytime temperatures can climb as high as 30C, nighttime they’ll drop to 9C, which is good for pH levels.’

Shiraz bunches from Sutherland (top) & Stellenbosch (thanks to Super Single Vineyards Facebook page)

It also seems the diurnal differences, high altitude and dry, south-easterly winds account for the much smaller berries in Sutherland shiraz. ‘Even with small berries, the skins aren’t so thick and the tannins soft.’ De Waal describes some of Sutherland’s benefits but maintains Mount Sutherland wines are very much a work in progress. ‘We planted cabernet, but it needs more humidity and didn’t work out. Sauvignon blanc proved too acidic, so we’ve dropped that too.’ Until it’s seen how the current crop of wines develop, they don’t intend to introduce other new varieties.

That said, both ranges are selling well in the US, online, in restaurants and from the pretty little tasting room on Cannettevallei.

Daniel de Waal might be one of the less high-profile innovators but he’s certainly among those with the most vision and talent.

Poor pinot – a no-no

Many red varieties can get away with offering nothing more than decent red wine in your glass. Not pinot noir.

This isn’t the first time (nor the last) I and others vent such a view.

Shiraz, cabernet, grenache, pinotage: I’ve enjoyed many less than stellar wines from these varieties but a poor pinot is plain unpleasant.

After attending The Vineyard Hotel’s Pinot Noir Festival last Sunday, I also wonder how popular pinot is; there didn’t seem to be nearly as many winelovers as had attended Wine Concepts Chenin and Pinotage Celebration a few weeks before. Too different from other red varieties; too many poor examples; limited quantity of top wines; cost – what is it about pinot that fails to capture wider appreciation?  I know the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration sells out in the blink of an eye, but that is limited to around 150 winelovers or should I say pinot aficionados; if pinot flows through the veins of some, for others, there are the other reds.

There was little to dissuade me from my opening views about pinot on Sunday. Even though only 20 of the well over 100 producers were represented, they came from many areas with top wineries such as Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Newton Johnson and Paul Cluver present.

Ryan Mostert of Terracura recently noted about a Burgundy he tasted while in the area that it had; ‘weightlessness with wild power’. I’m not sure about the wild bit in all pinots but certainly the best at the festival gave a sense of weightlessness and power. Perfume too: is it a characteristic of 2016, I wonder? Certainly both Hamilton Russell and Newton Johnson Family Vineyards are aromatically beguiling, if tighter and less voluptuous than 2015. The latter showed extremely well considering it had only recently been bottled; the consistency the Newton Johnson’s have maintained since the maiden 2008 is amazing and with greater vine age comes greater complexity in the wine. Emul Ross’s first two vintages at HRV are also noteworthy; the pinots seem to have a new energy to them. Now that Kevin Grant has finally decided he’s sufficiently satisfied with his pinot to ‘classify’ it under the Ataraxia label, his Hemel en Aarde Ridge 2015 adds to the positive reputation of the valley as a whole. It has a generosity of ripe dark fruit with a hint of forest floor complexity, a well-integrated freshness and a blessedly dry finish. Sweetness, evident in too many, is a clumsy extra.

These and a few others on show highlighted just how well Hemel en Aarde producers are doing with pinot. That’s not to neglect Elgin, which does have an individual thumbprint, perhaps summed up by a cool freshness of feel, some wines capturing greater fruit richness than others. Paul Cluver, Iona and Shannon (the last made by Gordon and Nadia Newton Johnson and not on the festival) most consistently reflect the region, but chardonnay’s your grape, Elgin!

So to Stellenbosch. If I came away from the Pinot Noir Festival wowed by any wine, it was the Meerlust 2016; Chris Williams’ wine has aromatic purity with subtlety, rich yet delicate flesh in an harmonious whole; an absolute delight. Remember the years when this wine was earthy and organic thanks to the then predominant BK5 clone? Newer and better vines as well as earlier harvesting surely now account for such lovely fruit.

 

 

 
Meerlust is not alone; just down the road is Mick and Jeanine Craven’s Faure pinot noir. Their flavoursome 2016 shares Meerlust’s pure pinot perfume and freshness, just in a lighter mode (their alcohols rarely top 13%). It wasn’t on the festival and is probably like hens’ teeth at retailers, but snap up any bottles spotted.

Again, success is due producer rather than exclusively area, and, in pinot’s case, those producers who drink and understand pinot from Burgundy and around the world.

Where great wines are born

Put me in a vineyard and I’m happy. Put me in an old vineyard and I’m even happier. Put an old vineyard in a bottle and we should all be happy.

Andrea & Chris Mullineux, Rosa Kruger in 117-year old cinsaut vineyard. NB road in background.

Standing among 117-year old vines is an inspiring and humbling experience; an experience which becomes that much more tangible when tasting the wine those wrinkled but sturdy old plants have produced. To passing traffic, including myself many times, this Wellington cinsaut centenarian is just another vineyard, but for the past four years or so, it has become a special place for viticulturist, Rosa Kruger and winemaking team, Chris and Andrea Mullineux. It is now an integral and important contributor to their new Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine.

 

 

 

To divert a minute, Leeu Passant is the Mullineux’s project that’s caused much speculation and anticipation over the past few years; the idea was sparked when Kruger showed the couple old vineyards she found. It became reality when Analjit Singh, the Mullineux’s business partner, urged them to make something from these vineyards. I suspect few speculated correctly but here we now have two chardonnays – as different as only high, cool Elandskloof and lower, warmer Stellenbosch fruit, plus Andrea Mullineux’s sensitivity to site, can produce – and a Dry Red Wine whose cabernet sauvignon, cinsaut components hark back to the Rustenberg Dry Reds, Chateau Libertases and similar others of yore; a spicing of cabernet franc lends a modern touch (or as the Mullineux’s put it; ‘We’ve deconstructed and reconstructed’). It’s a near equal partnership where each variety plays so harmoniously with yet individually off the others. Truly a wine with soul.

General view of 117-year old cinsaut vineyard in Wellington.
To compare, old Wellington cinsaut vineyard’s neighbour, +- 40 years old

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As is that Wellington vineyard. Here there’s no neat trellising; each vine is self-supporting, has its own way of growing and rejuvenating and has to be tended as an individual. Dead branches are allowed to fall as and when they will to avoid risk of infection by removing them with a saw.

A thick layer of straw mulch keeps the soil cool around the vines but underneath that scrappy, sandy surface (a carpet of cover-crop green adds colour in spring) is moisture-retentive clay; both allow this dryland vineyard to survive even 2017’s long hot summer.
Beyond surviving, four years down the road the vines are starting to thrive, but not without regular fortnightly visits from the vineyard team. The mere 500 kgs harvested in 2014 increased to just under two tons (or around six tons per hectare) by 2017.

One only has to look at the younger, but neglected, neighbouring vineyard, to gauge the work and care that has gone into producing the beautiful, healthy fruit which plays an important role in the Leeu Passant Dry Red Wine. All this at a cost; R100 000 last year. For just one vineyard.

Franschhoek cinsaut 91 years old. Leeu Passant cellar, left of centre, other side of the valley.

The slightly-younger, Franschhoek cinsaut vineyard (a sprightly 91 and overlooking the Mullineux’s cellar the other side of the valley), yields around half of its Wellington counterpart (three tons/ha). For the real viticultural geeks, the red leaves indicate virus, but it’s not leafroll; there’s no problem with photosynthesis (brace yourselves – this year’s wine, spontaneously fermented, clocks in at just over 16% alcohol; less noticeable than one might think, thanks in part to being bone dry and with a firmness of tannin from fruit Andrea Mullineux describes as having ‘skins as thick as cabernet’.)

These are but two of 14 scattered vineyards currently providing fruit for the Leeu Passant wines. There have been others, but once vinified, the wine was deemed ‘not compatible with what we’re looking for’ and so dropped.

To produce wines of this calibre requires attention to detail (in the vineyard and cellar), understanding, good organisation and stamina. When their Swartland Roundstone cellar is in operation next harvest, the Mullineux’s, Andrea especially, will be doing much driving back and forth between the Swartland and Franschhoek; fortuitously, their two children go to school en route in Wellington. The search will soon be on for someone to assist at Roundstone.

If this has been more about vines than wines, it’s mainly because vines are rarely the focus of attention but also hopefully to give some context to the price of the wines (R625 for the chardonnays, R975 for the Dry Red), which, have unfairly raised eyebrows; they’re certainly not the first at this level and the Mullineux’s already have an established reputation for quality.

Tasting Leeu Passant wines with Andrea & Chris Mullineux.

 

Rosa Kruger enjoying the fruits of the team’s labours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Generally, rather than too specifically, texture is important in all three: shot-silk, a ripe peach-skin bite and refreshing natural acid in the Elandskloof, the flavours bright, tropical lemon flesh. It is more pleasurable now than the intense, austere and vibrant Stellenbosch version, which will, undoubtedly, blossom with time. I’d like to think anyone willing to pay these prices will give the wines time. The Dry Red – ah the red! – gently perfumed soft berries, leafy spice; a graceful glide across the palate, shaped by caressing tannins. Distinctive and full of soul, it will reward in many ways for years to come.

Each wine is beautifully interpreted, but ultimately the vineyards are where these great wines are born.

Leeu Passant, an heraldic term meaning Walking Lion

Old style, new style

Wine is constantly evolving, whether it’s the ageing process in a single bottle or, more generically, in style.

Since not many winelovers hang around waiting for evolution in the bottle, the focus here is on style. What is viewed as old style today was once new style, itself taking over from a previous style and so the cycle continues.

Think of those big, lusciously buttery chardonnays, slathered with new oak; they are now mostly considered old-style. Thanks to cooler climates, such as Elgin, leading the way, today’s chardonnays have less new oak and undergo little, if any, malo-lactic fermentation; both yield brighter fruit, more freshness and wines that become more interesting with time.

When Tim James and I got together recently to try a few fairly new wines, we were taken back in time by La Petite Ferme’s Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2016. If not big in alcohol, it’s under 13%, it is certainly buxom and buttery, bearing those tell-tale notes of charry new oak and regular lees-stirring. Less obvious, for now, are the equally shared fruit sources of Franschhoek and Elim. There are some who still like this style; whether they’re willing to fork out R200 is another matter.


Villiera’s new Bush Vine Blanc Fumé 2016 lies at the other end of the spectrum: there’s restraint yet also interest evading so many sauvignon blancs. Partial skin-fermentation in an egg-shape tank, then into barrel (50% new), places it firmly in the new-style camp; it adds grip and freshness to balance the weight gleaned from oak and lees. I’m willing to wager its R144 price tag on a more interesting maturity than the above chardonnay, or probably the full in-your-face, passion fruit Constantia Royale Sauvignon Blanc 2016 we also tried; a few months should calm the more overt edges. There are others of similar ilk, if not the R100 price tag.

 

 

Few are taking the new, lower alcohol, fresh and minimalist approach further than Mick and Janine Craven; their seven-member WO Stellenbosch range has alcohols between 11% and 12% with just one tipping 13%. In his guide, John Platter would have referred to that last figure as ‘full-bodied’ in the early 1980s, whereas the lower levels were the norm. Tasting through the range at the recent launch, I can safely say the wines will please palates with such preferences, who have the patience to let these still youthfully unevolved wines to fill out and pockets to accommodate prices which relate to the limited quantity (roughly R150 to R250). The pinot noir, a black cherry-fragrance charmer, supple, delicate and with the daintiest of freshening tannins, as well as the more spicily perfumed and structured cinsaut (both around R200) give an idea now of the flavour concentration in the range but also promise to deliver more with time.

Each vintage has achieved noticeable improvements, 2016 in particular: ‘It’s 150% about farming,’ a telling comment from Mick.

Not all the wines Tim and I taste are as ambitious as the above; some are modest, unchallenging and bear a lesser price tag, there’s nothing wrong with that. But what some seems to miss is that this level too demands as much care and attention as the big guns.

There was a thought-provoking article in the New York Times last week about how Treasury Wine Estates crafts wines that sell in the sub-US$40/R501.20 bracket (US drinkers pay an average of US$9.89/R123.92 per bottle), starting with consumer preferences and work backwards. It’s worth a read.

The ‘engineering’ via ‘technological revolution has democratized decent wine. Thanks to pumps and powders, drinkers who can’t splurge no longer have to settle for plonk.’ Quality might have risen, but the reporter still describes the wines as ‘rich, syrupy and heavy.’ They, nevertheless match ‘the tastes of many newbie wine drinkers, who tend to prefer sweet wines that are low in astringency, bitterness and complexity.’ Or, ‘pretty much the antithesis of what the cognoscenti consider “good.”

No, not my style, but I acknowledge that when well-executed, it can attract new wine drinkers, who might or might not move on to more challenging, complex styles.

So how well do local wineries cater for the new, less-involved and/or wallet-pinched wine drinker?

Disappointingly, in the case of The Ploughman Sauvignon Blanc-Chenin Blanc 2016 and Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, both R80; more’s the pity as the story behind them is a heartening one. Dawid Diederiks, who used to be a labourer on the Swartland farm, Klein Môrewag, source of the grapes, now has farming rights, as do other workers. The main problem is a lack of balance; a finishing, unpalatable whoosh of acid in the red and a rather tired, fruitless sweetness in the white. All rather surprising, given vinification is at Perdeberg, a winery with a reputation for producing many delicious entry-level (as well as premium) wines.

Glenwood Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2016, for just R10 more than The Ploughman, is more successful and better value at this level; it’s drier, but 50% semillon lends a desirable lusciousness, sauvignon adding a refreshing moreishness.

I should add these are not the cheapest, or more significantly, the best value at the lower end of the price scale.

 

 

 

Whether a newcomer to wine or someone who tastes widely and seriously (but at neither stage of wine enjoyment being a snob or, equally objectionable, a reverse-snob), I believe we all want something that tastes delicious. That will always be new style.

Changing fortunes

Anyone involved with wine over the past 35 years has experienced a fast-moving and wondrous era – there’s no slowing down yet.

In the Cape, many varieties were ripped out in the 1980s and 90s to make way for sauvignon, chardonnay, shiraz, merlot and cabernet; today, any few remaining blocks are eagerly sought after. Even Simonsig’s Johan Malan, whose father grew and made clairette blanche, is considering re-planting a little.

This brought a smile to my face; in my very early days of wine tasting, I won a blind-tasting at Simonsig. My prize were six bottles including their Clairette Blanche, Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Riesling (Crouchen) – I can’t remember the other two, but all were white.

Palomino is another ‘old’ variety receiving renewed attention; colombard, too, has benefitted from better viticultural practices and imagination in the cellar. But all are surpassed by chenin blanc, the Cape’s dominant variety that has really grabbed the attention of winemakers and the public alike – both locally and internationally.


I was more than a little surprised then to read in Richard Siddle’s latest Grapevine (Richard is editor of The Buyer, UK on-trade magazine; Grapevine is an informative fortnightly on-line publication.): ‘Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s biggest exported varietal (sic) with 52.9 million litres, worth SAR845m, up 20.5%, but is second to Sauvignon Blanc in terms of value sales worth SAR1027, up 16%, on the back of 45.4m litres.’

With a bit of digging, I discovered these figures are from SAWIS’s export report for 2016, so cover all SA’s international markets and all quality levels. But could it be sauvignon commands higher prices than chenin?

Time for some of my own research.

A poll attracting 30 respondents is hardly going to yield conclusive evidence, but when 93% say they’d pay more for premium chenin blanc than sauvignon blanc, it’s not a figure without meaning.

Do retailers agree? From quizzing a handful of our most influential – Jo’burg-based Corlien Morris/WineMenu and from the Cape, Roland Peens/Wine Cellar, Caroline Rillema/Caroline’s Fine Wines and Mike Bampfield Duggan/Wine Concepts – it would seem so.

Duggan emphasises the trend, adding; ‘Previously unheard of producers’ chenins might initially be a hand sell, but once customers have tried the wines, they come back to try and buy more and so it gathers momentum.

Morris does make a telling point about sauvignon blanc; ‘It remains the single variety where we sell the most as far as quantity is concerned,’ before offering, ‘your real wine lover is more likely to choose a really good chenin over its equivalent sauvignon.’

Yes, but at what price? Is there a ceiling for both varieties beyond which winelovers won’t go?

Rillema reminds that chenin is not just one style, separating it into Fresh and Fruity with a ceiling of R100 and premium R195, the latter a good deal lower than the others, who suggest around R350 to R400. There are always the ‘must haves’ Duggan admits, who will pay more, such as Alheit single vineyards, ‘which sell out in a jiffy at R700,’ says Peens, though this is driven by there being so little to go around. According to Morris, a few well-heeled winelovers will pay as much as R800-R1000 (but that’s Jo’burg for you). There’s a marked contrast with sauvignon blanc, capped at R190 to R250. That said, there are some great value, top quality sauvignons within that bracket.

This is a huge turn-around for chenin, which even six years ago was trying hard but battling to get its message across. Just think that the first Sadie Mev Kirsten was 2007 and the Alheit’s Cartology 2011; chenin’s changed fortunes seem so much longer ago than that (alright Ken Forrester’s maiden FMC was 2001)

The international market has been important in giving it a leg up; the old vine story has seen winemakers concentrating on translating their fruit into wine, rather than making it in the cellar; the variety’s food-friendly nature, ability to mature and stylistic versatility. All of these, the retailers reckon, account for at least part of chenin’s current success. I’d add the indefatigable Ina Smith, who permanently drives the Chenin Blanc Association in fifth gear, her ‘side-kick’, Ken Forrester and each and every producer mad about the variety.

Chenin-based blends also attract international approval but I suppose because they are sold under names such as Mullineux Old Vines or Vondeling Babiana, it is more difficult for winelovers to get a grip on styles. A clever idea from Morris is helping to overcome this situation: she positions chenins and their blends together, which enables her to point out a similar style of blend to varietal chenin her customers prefer. Don’t discount the positive effect of the Chenin Blanc Association on these blends either; it’s by far and away the most effective so-called interest group in generating enthusiasm for the variety or style which falls under its umbrella.

White Bordeaux-style blends (sauvignon and semillon) are another, sadder story (particularly for me, who loves both semillon and these blends); ‘They’re impossible to sell, along with straight semillon,’ admits Peens. There are even producers who’ve dropped semillon from the label to fit into the more popular sauvignon category (there would have to be under 15% semillon for this to be legal). The obvious question, at least to me, is where is the group, like the CBA, championing these blends?

A final, positive thought, reverting to my earlier comments. While chenin has proved the standout variety in terms of re-invention and consumer appreciation, it’s not alone. Others experiencing changing fortunes might be more niche but all add diversity and interest to South African wine; winelovers everywhere are the beneficiaries.

Sauvignon country

Standing rather forlornly in the photo below are the still-upright skeletons of bluegum trees (look – apologies, needs a magnifying glass – towards the apex of vineyards just right of centre). This was taken from the entrance to Klein Constantia just last week; if I had taken the photo in 1980, there would have been far more bluegums in that area.

View from Klein Constantia entrance
View from Klein Constantia entrance

I well remember at the time, walking down the hillside with my husband, past a thick regiment of these aliens. A short while later, we were intrigued to find the trees being cleared and learn vineyards were being planted on that property (we were on Groot Constantia), purchased by Duggie Jooste in 1980. Klein Constantia’s renaissance was realised in its first wine, the legendary 1986 Sauvignon Blanc. The year before, 1985, neighbour Buitenverwachting, crushed its maiden vintage of the modern era after undergoing a makeover of the vineyards, manor house and completion of a cellar. It also became synonymous with sauvignon blanc, though arguably, Christine, the cabernet-based Bordeaux-style blend, is the flagship.

Sauvignon blanc and Constantia WO have grown and evolved over the past 30-plus years. Each of the 11 wineries along the valley vinifies the variety, though a few choose to blend it with semillon and sell under a proprietary name. It took a visit to remind me what excellent sauvignon can be produced in the right place and in the right hands.

Sauvignon remains the ‘go-to’ white among winelovers, is grown all over the winelands and accounts for just under 10% of vineyard area. Among many media though, it has fallen out of favour (I admit to drinking a lot more chenin these days). Part of the problem lies with those producers who want to be first out of the vintage starting blocks, releasing sauvignons snatched from the womb, tasting yeasty, raw and little of the fruit from the vine. Sure, sauvignon has an edge, as its name suggests, but an edge that lights up its flavours and stimulates the palate rather than acting like paint stripper.

I was to remind myself on last week’s visit that with patience it can offer sophisticated loveliness and deliciousness.

The old cellar at Buitenverwachting transformed into the handsome, new tasting room
The old cellar at Buitenverwachting transformed into the handsome, new tasting room

Buitenverwachting produces two sauvignons; one simply labelled Sauvignon Blanc, the other, from a specific, more elevated part of the farm, labelled Hussey’s Vlei. Both 2016s, like previous vintages, are as different as chalk and cheese. The former is a fruity extrovert, unusually tropical, as invigorating as one would want, with prolonged flavour. It will reward with a little more time. Hussey’s Vlei, on the other hand, is all restraint, bone dry with flinty austerity accentuating its zest; just a final hint of richness suggests how it’ll be even better in four or five years (I might be erring on the conservative side here). A classic style, that’s more about texture than overt fruit, Hussey’s Vlei is one of the Cape’s best and most consistent of sauvignons.

Map of Buitenverwachting vineyards. Hussey's Vlei towards bottom left.
Map of Buitenverwachting vineyards. Hussey’s Vlei towards bottom left.

Next door, Klein Constantia, of course, also has its fair share of star sauvignons; seven according to Platter, many under single block labels. The Sauvignon Blanc represents what the farm as a whole offers from the variety; 2015 delivers a stunning result. Like its neighbour’s Hussey’s Vlei, texture and concentration without overt fruit, guide this wine. With the benefit of an extra year, it has engaging breadth anchored by seven months’ enrichment on the lees but also energy. Metis, a collaboration with Pascal Jolivet from Sancerre, comes from vineyards higher on the farm, yielding a natural high acid. Youthfully taut, 2015 has a veil I associate with natural ferments, subduing its already quiet blackcurrant aromatic undertones. Currently more savoury than fruity, I’d expect it to blossom over three to five years, especially with 12 months on the lees.

Up and down the valley there are other sauvignons of similar quality and distinction. Constantia is rightly heralded as sauvignon country.

Reds? With the exception of the northern trio of Constantia Glen, Beau Constantia, Eagles’ Nest and Buitenverwachting’s Christine (but I don’t care for the current 2011) mentioned above, reds are patchily good rather than great.

Sauvignon blanc is the main armory in brand Constantia; the producers need to ensure things stay that way.

A familiar, old sight at Klein Constantia
A familiar, old sight at Klein Constantia

All those years ago, when bluegums were a familiar sight on our walks, the drive from our home was through populated suburbs until the start of Spaanschemat River Road, where the terrain turned far more rural, with fewer houses and bouncy country roads with just a green verge either side.

This time, as I drove past the always-busy Constantia Village shopping centre, roadworks were underway, with a more formal edge being built up. Houses too have leapt and are still leaping up everywhere; Constantia’s landscape is slowly but surely changing; its bucolic air still there, but taking longer to reach.

The changes remind one that the wineries are part of Cape Town, paying rates and taxes like the rest of us – probably much more than the rest of us.

After the recent uproar about sand mining in the Paardeberg and the damage it would cause to the wineries in the area, it’s as well to remember other areas have their own problems to contend with. Constantia has pressures of its dues to the City but also the pressure of land. Every winery needs to be on top of its quality game both in its wine and tourism offerings.

New Vin de Constance cellar at Klein Constantia
New Vin de Constance cellar at Klein Constantia

Staying in place

Reflecting on the piece I wrote last week about the winemaker’s role today, I realise I left out an important point; the time the winemaker has worked in the same cellar.

This is hardly an issue with family-owned and run farms, except I suppose when siblings, with children themselves, fall out when everyone wants to be the winemaker!

I’ve written before about winemaker musical chairs, which happens far too often, especially when the winemaker is an employee and the owner possibly not so conversant with wine. Rapid changes of winemaker does no service to the consistency of the wines nor image of the brand.

A rather hazy photo of Rianie Strydom, winemaker & GM at Haskell Vineyards
A rather hazy photo of Rianie Strydom, winemaker & GM at Haskell Vineyards

There are always exceptions of employee winemakers staying long-term at a winery; Rianie Strydom and Haskell Vineyards is one. It’s a partnership that’s perhaps further under the radar than it deserves to be. Strydom’s involvement in the cellar stretches back to 2005; her tenure also covers establishment of several of the vineyards, beneficial to a better understanding of the vines’ development and the fruit they produce.

The first Pillars Syrah 2007 (and Haskell label) caught the eye (nose) of Strydom and Grant Dodd, Haskell’s Managing Partner, when it was still in barrel. It stirred the idea of single vineyard wines. It also vindicated their idea, when it took the 2009 Wine of the Show, and other awards, against Australia and New Zealand, in that year’s Trinations.

The fourth single vineyard and third syrah, Hades 2014, recently joined the range. The name reflects the hellishly difficult conditions under which the vineyard was established: removal of 180 tons of rock, hammering in iron poles to support the vines and finally re-planting a portion of the vineyard in 2009, when some of those original, 2008, vines didn’t survive. ‘Syrah needs a harsh place,’ Strydom told us, with some understatement, at the launch.

haskell-hades-2014I’m an unequivocal fan of Strydom’s style; her intuition and skill results in precise, elegant wines with layers of flavour and a finish that tastes digestibly dry. If this is the house style, Strydom doesn’t impose character, that is left to the wines themselves.

When single vineyard wines were legalised, around the mid-2000s, many felt they had blocks that fitted the regulations (under six hectares and planted to a single variety being two of the major ones) and produced sufficiently distinctive wine to register them; trendiness undoubtedly also played a role. As of March 2016 there were around 990 registered single vineyards; of course not all produce commercially available wines. Some have proved their worth over the years, others have yet to do so.

The Haskell syrah trio are gratifyingly individual; Hades (R320 ex-cellar) especially has a freshness and greater restraint than Pillars (R415) or Aeon (R320) but it is a year younger and was aged in older wood only; the other two had a small percentage of new oak. Aeon 2013 is a wine of dominant structure, feeling firm rather than harsh, though finishes with a great fantail of richness. Pillars 2013 is the ripest, lushest and with the softest tannins. Will it mature in the same way as that complex, delicious 2007 we were also lucky enough to try? I don’t know but when I come across a wine like that, I reflect on the first time a group of us tasted Chave Hermitage from the very hot 2003 vintage and found it horribly ripe. A second tasting a few years later saw a remarkable change for the better. The Chave family have been making wine in the Northern Rhône since 1481, so know a bit about what they’re doing. Be cautious on first pronouncements: lesson learned.

A story Grant Dodd told at the launch, to conclude. In the early days of his enjoyment of and learning about wine, Dodd was fortunate enough to attend a tasting with that great and sadly now late, wine man, Len Evans. ‘What is a great wine?’ Dodd enquired of his host. After a sip of Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet, Evans asked Dodd, ‘Can you still taste it?’ Dodd confirmed he could and did so in answer to that same question a further 14 times after that sip. ‘That’s what makes a great wine; that and ageability,’ Evans told him.

Great wines are the goal of the Haskell team; patience and faith are the watchwords!