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!

Winemakers – their role today

Over the past week or so, I’ve been reminded frequently of the winemaker’s role.

The following might seem a little tangential but should show its relevance further on. It refers to a post on the Women in Wine Exchange group on Facebook, where Nomonde Kubheka requests a cellar to host for a day the Pinotage Youth Development Academy’s Wine Tourism class on a learning/working winery tour. ‘The end goal is that they will become well-rounded ambassadors to the wine tourism industry.’

Then, the latest newsletter from The Wine Tasters’ Guild of South Africa, of which I’m an honorary member, advises their next tasting will be at Voor Paardeberg winery, Vondeling. After a few words about Matthew Copeland and his awards, the Secretary writes; ‘Crossed fingers should ensure that Matt does the presentation (it’s also harvest time…).’

One of the most relevant reminders was the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration, held over the last weekend of January (27th and 28th this year) as it has been since its inception in 2014. I do remember a few of us noting that the timing was nerve-wrackingly close to harvest and there was talk of moving it. That didn’t happen but the following year delivered an early harvest; several winemakers had to juggle with picking grapes, being in the cellar and attending to present their wines. A far from ideal situation.

I’ve also been reading on Twitter how some of the smaller-scale winemakers have travelled abroad recently to market their wines, due to their agents having trade shows or similar.

Then there are pressures at home from the many tourists, either in a tour group or individually; a visit to a wine farm is a must and everyone wants to meet and speak to the winemaker. The international media also like to travel here in summer and I don’t blame them!

Andrea Mullineux at Wine Enthusiast Awards where she received Winemaker of the Year Award. The glamorous side of winemaking.
Andrea Mullineux at Wine Enthusiast Awards where she received Winemaker of the Year Award. The glamorous side of winemaking.

In the ‘old days’ the winemaker’s role was just that, winemaker. He (few female winemakers in those times) stood at the cellar door to receive the grapes, probably the first time he’d have seen them, his main job in the cellar until the wine was bottled.
Today, winemakers are much more involved in the vineyards, whether their own or leased, throughout the year. With the cult of the winemaker still a strong drawcard, they have to travel the world to meet their customers, sell their wines, attend and/or speak at seminars and do a certain amount of admin (Andrea Mullineux has just posted a screen shot of her email situation; inbox 6360, drafts 43, due no doubt to her being awarded Winemaker of the Year by the American Wine Enthusiast); I’m sure there are other obligations. The world is such a vast market that it’s often not enough to have a dedicated sales or marketing person.

Vergelegen's winemaker, Andre van Rensburg, working in the cellar.
Vergelegen’s winemaker, Andre van Rensburg, working in the cellar.

Being a winemaker and all that this entails today is just one side of the coin; many are married with families. How to squeeze in a family life too, when the job is hardly 9 to 5 and can extend to seven days a week?

Returning to Nomonde’s post on Facebook, we do need more people thoroughly versed in the journey of grapes from vine to bottle and the winery at which they work, who can take the load off the winemaker, especially at harvest time. The importance of such a person in a position which can enhance a winery’s image as well should not be under-estimated.

Think big – or specific

When the fourth edition of an event, like the previous three, is a sell out and there’s probably a sizeable waiting list too, such event is surely considered a winner by the organisers. The reality is even a winner needs change and evolution to keep the momentum going.

handa-pinot-celebration-2017-bookletDuring last weekend’s Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration a general theme was how greater vine age is needed to clearly reflect the sense of place in each producer’s wine. There has been ongoing planting and re-planting in the valley since the first, old, Swiss BK5 clone, was established in the 1970s. The current clonal mix allows for much purer and more interesting expression of pinot from bottom to top of the valley, but the vines are young; I noted 2006 and 2009 as planting dates for two of the 2015 pinots tasted, the vintage focused on this year. Each new vintage also brings greater understanding as well as a new challenge to viticulturists and winemakers; to expect an recognisable winery fingerprint is still unrealistic. Anyway, with the same line up on another occasions, opinions would likely change.

Michael Fridjhon and guest speaker, James Dicey discussing 2015 Hemel-en-Aarde pinots
Michael Fridjhon and guest speaker, James Dicey discussing 2015 Hemel-en-Aarde pinots

Let’s take that fingerprint up a notch or two to those sub-divisions or Wards: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, the bottom to top of the valley order in which the three flights were poured. This is another sore spot, which was re-opened in discussion, when guest speaker, James Dicey, viticulturist at his family’s winery Mt Difficulty in Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand (but born in Worcester, Cape) urged wineries to think big, ie promote Hemel-en-Aarde as a  whole, or specific sites. He, Michael Fridjhon among others believe there’s too little similarity within each Ward to highlight them.

 

The valley does indeed have many different altitudes, aspects, slopes and soils; choice of each affects the final wine. Newton Johnson, La Vierge and Storm have already explored individual sites. Hannes Storm’s three wines, Vrede, Ignis (from granite soils got my vote as most interesting) and Ridge, originate from different slopes, aspects and elevations. These and Hamilton Russell Vineyards impressed me most on the day. Another day, other favourites and views on the level of distinction between each Ward.

Pinot noir comes in many shades of red
Pinot noir comes in many shades of red

I was a little underwhelmed by the lineup, given the vintage, many of the 2015s do need and will benefit from age, so don’t be in a hurry to open them. I often wonder why pinot noir is released younger than many other red varieties; HRV is already on 2016 (economic reasons and demand?). Thankfully, La Vierge is on a more serene 2013.

 

 

In his introduction, Michael Fridjhon noted that back in the 1970s, pinot was viewed as an arcane, inaccessible variety. I’d argue it’s still a bit arcane, partly due to limited production (2015 figures show of Hemel-en-Aarde’s nearly 400ha, pinot accounts for around 100ha) and that proper pinot is the antithesis of the densely-hued, big, oaky, tannic, sweet reds that many consumers prefer.

How is the audience to be broadened, when attendance at this Pinot Celebration is limited, many of the same people attending every year? ‘How do I get on the list?’ friends have asked me. A dilemma the organisers need to address.

The format too has changed little; a tasting of the valley’s pinots, always two years’ old (surely older vintages should now be presented to show how the wines do age); a guest international speaker involved with pinot; this year, viticulturist James Dicey, (why was he urged by the organisers to ‘be controversial’ he spoke sincerely?), who presented his family’s intense, expressive, single site Mt Difficulty range as well as his own Ceres (Central Otago) pinot, followed the next day by individual wineries hosting a variety of tastings, usually of international pinots (plenty of competition between them on that score). Of course, there’s good food and socialising in the mix too.

This format might not pall for the 150 odd who do regularly attend but in the end you’re preaching to the converted. Having invited a viticulturist this year, did it occur to anyone that visiting vineyards and tasting the wine from them in situ could be of interest to some (my hand’s up), especially with Dicey’s emphasis on site? Alright, it rained, but something to think about for 2018.

As the local pinot celebration drew to a close, Pinot Noir NZ 2017 was about to kick off in Wellington, with ‘600 of the most influential wine writers, industry experts and imbibers from twenty countries ..’ including Jancis Robinson, Jamie Goode, Roger Jones, Michel-star chef, writer and good friend of South African wine, among many others. It’s a four-yearly sell-out event. Central Otago holds its own pinot festival every two years, something Hemel-en-Aarde should think about to prevent it suffering the fate of the Swartland Revolution.

‘Think big’; a South African pinot celebration, held every three or four years, might not have been what Michael Fridjhon and James Dicey had in mind when they urged us all to do that, but good pinot is now being made far beyond the borders of Hemel-en-Aarde; think Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Southern Coast, Robertson and Elgin. A greater number of winelovers than those able to get on the Hemel-en-Aarde Celebration list should be given the opportunity to appreciate a wine which, at its best beguiles rather than slays the palate. Who knows, maybe it could help producers realise higher prices for their pinots.

Pinot noir has come sufficiently of age in South Africa for it no longer to be regarded as a sideline variety to the big daddies, cabernet and syrah.

Over to you, Hemel-en-Aarde and all other pinot producers.

Mt Difficulty Target Gully Pinot Noir 2013, Central Otago, one of four single site wines presented by James Dicey. From ungrafted vines. All the wines closed under screwcap.
Mt Difficulty Target Gully Pinot Noir 2013, Central Otago, one of four single site wines presented by James Dicey. From ungrafted vines. All the wines closed under screwcap.

The relevance of vintage

Some South African vintages stick in the mind, usually when they yield brilliant or underwhelming wines. Unsurprisingly, 2015 immediately comes to mind as a great year, even though many of the premium wines have yet to be released; 2009 and 2003 also received general acclaim, the cream in the latter standing the test of time (there’s no point in hanging on to wines meant for immediate or early pleasure). At the other end of the scale, 2014, 2008 and 2002 have yielded some indifferent wines; there are always exceptions.

Exceptions along either scale would be the whites. Even now, with all the praise heaped on our white wines, talk of ‘vintage quality’ invariably centres on reds. It really is time this perception changes. Whites deserve their own vintage recognition; 2002 produced its own crop of excellent whites, while enthusiasm for 2011 grows among several of my colleagues and I; it is rarely spoken of as a top red vintage. I’d also suggest on the whole whites mature, ie gain in interest and complexity, better than reds, which hang in there, their tannins softening without much else changing. I very much doubt contemporary high alcohol, sweet-finishing reds will become silk purses.

Ageing wine and its relevance is a topic currently under the spotlight of several articles. Matt Walls has written a realistic, if concerning article on Tim Atkin’s website about the decline in the number of establishments/individuals ageing wine and shift in styles to earlier drinking. He concludes: ‘But we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater’, suggesting winelovers will be impoverished without the experience of drinking older, mature wines. Consumer taste, cash flow, suitable storage conditions, lack of sufficient properly trained staff; all play a role in this shift. Yet every year at the Old Wine tasting prior to the Trophy Wine Show, so many youngsters’ (and international judges’) eyes are opened by the excellence of the 15 to 50 or 60 year old whites and reds poured. Surely every producer can and should keep a library of at least a few cases of their top wines for future reference.

klein-constantia-rhine-riesling-2007-labeVintage, rather than ageing, specifically referring to white wines is my topic here. I had to think about 2007, as I had no cast-in-stone opinion; a quick dip into the cellar turned up a handful of whites and just one red (a topic for cooler weather, later in the year). Checking a vintage report I wrote, there was a 40C heatwave in some areas, lasting for up to a week, followed by cooler weather and rain. The conclusion was there’d be some very good whites from cooler areas with many reds having good fruit, soft tannins and early accessibility (probably why they are virtually absent in my cellar), though top reds would be keepers.

klein-constantia-riesling-2007It was hot, riesling called; Klein Constantia Rhine Riesling 2007 was the answer. (Only from 2010 vintage were producers allowed to use riesling without the Rhine or Weisser qualifier.) It got off to a magnificent start – just look at that gorgeous brilliant yellow gold colour. I was then quite surprised to sniff a whiff of kerosene or petrol, having anticipated a more honeyed bouquet from the usual input of botrytis. Dipping into Platter 2009, taster, Roland Peens wrote ‘Steely 07 … shows arresting bone-dry minerality. Shd benefit from few yrs cellaring.’

Roland’s note does tie in with what I’m tasting, with toasty/leesy enrichment developing as I sip it over several days. A tense, vigorous acid ensures a lingering but clean finish. No, there’s no botrytis and it does appear to be bone dry, which is unusual.

Without much thought of success in being able to confirm this, I went into the Klein Constantia website, where to my surprise and delight, I find under the Estate Wine section not only details of the current Riesling (2015) but all those going back to 1997. Bravo, KC, what an invaluable source; I wish more producers would provide similar useful information. That info confirms 2007 was an early harvest, healthy riesling with no rot and very good acidity, taken off end February. Looking at that analysis (and screwcap), I’m not surprised ten years has taken no toll on this riesling, just the opposite.

I do prefer the vintages with a touch of botrytis and residual sugar as an aperitif; with 2007, my thoughts turn to oily fish, pork, fennel, anise and other spices.

Consider yourself lucky if you or any wine-friendly restaurant you visit have a bottle of Klein Constantia Rhine Riesling 2007; you’re in for a treat.

If our white wines receive so much acclaim, surely the white wine vintage should receive proper recognition too.

klein-constantia-rhine-riesling-2007

Beyond celebration

I know I’ve written at some length about bubblies recently but a subsequent and unusual (for South Africa) tasting of sparkling wines made in the same way as Champagne and, in most cases from chardonnay and/or pinot noir, deserves attention.

packagingThe event elaborated on one held last year, where local MCCs were tasted blind against English and Welsh bubblies. This year, the range was extended to include highly-respected wines from Australia, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, France and the UK: a total of 37 wines, all tasted blind by a mix of South African and English palates.

This considerable effort was put together by Roger and Sue Jones, owners of Michelin-star restaurant, The Harrow in the UK. In the four years they’ve been visiting South Africa, they’ve become great ambassadors for our wines, also buying significant quantities, including MCCs, to offer on The Harrow’s excellent wine list.

If the tasting itself wasn’t held under the strict competitive conditions that, say, the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show or Decanter Awards are, it was still a good test of the several experienced local tasters, including Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira, Le Lude’s Paul Gerber, MW Cathy van Zyl (UK-based Lynne Sherriff, MW was also there), Allan Mullins, as well as others (myself included) who have judged both locally and internationally.

Lynne Sherriff MW & Allan Mullins CWM discussing 'how good is that?'
Lynne Sherriff MW & Allan Mullins CWM discussing ‘how good is that?’

The styles were separated, with Rosés coming first, then blends and Blanc de Blanks.
Just a few of the main points that struck me. Read the results as you will, South African MCC can mix positively with top wines from the rest of the world. I don’t have prices for all the local wines, just Cuvée Clive 2011, five years on lees, which sells for R620, Le Lude Brut NV (but these first releases based on 2012 and three and a half years on lees) R195 and Rosé R199. It is more difficult for the consumer to gauge value when an MCC is Non Vintage and many might query why five years’ on lees is beneficial to a wine such as Cuvée Clive, but this is all part of the marketing MCCs deserve. They are, as I’ve written before, the most technical of wines to produce. That Pieter Ferreira and Paul Gerber are focused on MCC alone shows in the quality of their wines: both Le Ludes scored were among my highest ratings, while the Beck Blanc de Blancs 2012 – always a favourite which develops so well in that style – proved a favourite yet again.

The rosés revealed
The rosés revealed

I was much more impressed with the English sparkling wines than last year; they were better balanced and more interesting, though clearly older vines and wines will increase this. They were also clearly from a cool climate, with green apple aromas, flavours and marked acid. Denbies, a large property in Surrey and one of the earliest to produce sparkling wine, was particularly impressive, as was Dermot Sugrue’s Sugrue Pierre South Downs 2010. The word ‘delicacy’ often crops up in my notes both for the English sparkling and the Australian quintet, all from Tasmania, fast establishing itself as this country’s premium area for sparkling wine. They differed from the English examples in greater breadth of flavour.

Roger Jones (L) owner & Michellin-star chef of The Harrow, celebrating Graham Beck's Cuvée Clive 2011 win with Cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira
Roger Jones (L) owner & Michellin-star chef of The Harrow, celebrating Graham Beck’s Cuvée Clive 2011 win with Cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira

For those doubtful about the potential of rosé beyond looking pretty, Arras 2006 (current release!) is utterly convincing. Strangely, I was very much less enamoured by the Arras Late Disgorged 2003 but was well out of line with the other tasters. As I was with the New Zealand Nautilus NV, which I’ve enjoyed on previous occasions. I was obviously wrong on those two but it’s a good stage to remember that every bottle of bubbly made in the same method as Champagne has the potential to taste different.

The German wine from riesling and made by Bollinger’s former winemaker as well as the Spanish Cava selection including the traditional Cava varieties kept our taste buds alert. Apart from the Juve y Camps Reservation de la Familia, the rest of the Spanish contingent didn’t excite.

Something that can’t be said of the tasting as a whole, a fantastic experience for those of us who don’t get such an opportunity to taste such range of international bubblies and compare with our own. Just to re-iterate, our best can and do mix with top wines from other countries; what more incentive to better promote MCC as a serious rather than just celebratory style.

Pieter Ferreira, Paul Gerber (Le Lude Cellarmaster) presenting Roger Jones of The Harrow with a SA rugby tie.
Pieter Ferreira, Paul Gerber (Le Lude Cellarmaster) presenting Roger Jones of The Harrow with a SA rugby tie.

Below is the list of wines tasted with the ranking of the top 11 (the last two sharing the same rating).

MCC – South Africa
Pongracz Brut NV
Pongracz Rose NV
Desiderius 2009
Plaisir De Merle Brut
Durbanville Hills Sparkling (3)
Durbanville Hills Blanc de Blancs
Avondale Armilla Blanc de Blanc 2009 (9)
Klein Constantia Brut
Kleine Zalze Chardonnay/Pinot Noir MCC 2011
Simonsig Cuvée Royale
Delaire Graff Sunrise
Ken Forrester Sparklehorse (10)
Klein Constanta Brut
Stellenrust Clement de Lure NV
Graham Beck Brut Rose NV
Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2012
Graham Beck Vintage Rose 2011
Graham Beck Brut Zero 2010
Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2011 (1)
Le Lude Brut NV (7)
Le Lude Rosé NV

France

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve (2)

Australia
Arras Rosé 2006
Arras Late Disgorged 2003 (5)
Josef Chromy Tasmania NV
Pipers Brook 2009 Chardonnay/Pinot (8)
Jansz Premium Cuvée (6)

New Zealand
Nautilus NV Brut

Spain CAVA
Juve y Camps Reservation de la Familia
Gran Juve y Camps
Juve y Camps Rose

UK
Britagne Coates & Seely Brut Reserve NV
Wiston Rose 2011
Sugrue Pierre South Downs 2010 (10)
Denbies Sparkling NV