Fresh, fresher, refreshing – dammit, I love refreshing wines.
You know the feeling when you plunge into water that’s just cold enough to cause a sharp intake of breath but there’s no question of getting out because five seconds later, it’s so pleasant and – um – refreshing? That’s like refreshing wines.
More practically, it may be easier to eliminate what freshness isn’t. It’s not found merely in young wines; older ones may also still show great freshness (for instance, that Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2003, winner of the RE.CM 10 year old red wine awards earlier this year). Neither is acid necessarily an indicator of freshness; when added inappropriately it often leaves a gravelly whoooosh to scrape off the tongue. You wouldn’t expect to find it lurking behind those over-ripe, over-oaked wines, though it might have been attempted via that awkward, added acid. That said, ripeness (alcohol) in itself isn’t necessarily a deterrent to freshness, nor, and this may seem surprising, need it be where the grapes are grown.
What is becoming evident, even if it’s only at the tip of the winemaking iceberg, is a change in attitude.
Pulling back on oak, less new and larger formats; pulling back on fruit ripeness – ripe rather than over-ripe; more gentle extraction and even lower alcohol are all recent trends.
Three wines that have particularly struck me with their freshness are, coincidentally, all shirazes, though from very different areas.
The Lammershoek LAM range is notable for the wines’ sense of ‘aliveness’. The 2012 Syrah is an excellent example of how Craig Hawkins turns warm climate fruit into a delicate, refreshing wine but one also with plenty of flavour and structure. This starts in the vineyard but his mantra in the cellar is that less is more, including gentle (basket) pressing and not a new oak barrel in sight.
La Motte’s Edmund Terblanche has long been acknowledged master of the shiraz-viognier blend, a combination where it’s too easy for the latter grape to add vulgarity from its ripe scents and high alcohol. His ‘secret’ of harvesting the viognier when it’s ready and storing the grapes in a cold room until the shiraz is ripe, again proves a winning recipe in 2011. Thanks to Terblanche’s sensitivity towards any over-ripeness, careful extraction and oaking – the new portion of the 300 litre barrels used is entirely complementary to the wine – this is a blend of real individuality and complexity, its freshness playing a major role in this achievement.
Elgin we’ve already discovered is a very cool climate, so freshness shouldn’t be a problem, but like everywhere else success comes down to the winemaker’s attention to detail and knowledge. The van Almenkerk’s Almenkerk Syrah 2010 is most encouraging maiden vintage, displaying that attractive lifted spice associated with cooler areas. They too eschew any new oak and the gentlest of pressing results in tannins and fruit to meld in a crushed velvet feel. Even at 14.5% alcohol, there is no sense of heat, rather elegance and freshness.
The sense of aliveness, of new flavours, complexities and deliciousness at every sip, don’t they make wine so much more enjoyable? Can’t we banish for good all those ponderous, monotonous, over alcoholic, oaky numbers? It would be so refreshing.