Oak, viognier & other tricky subjects

There’s so much we take for granted with wine. I was reminded of this failing whilst tasting and chatting with Glenelly winemaker, Luke O’Cuinnegain last week. His own aesthetic matches that of his gracious owner, May Eliane de Lencquesaing (this amazing lady is 90 this year and as active as ever); elegance and moderation.

We’d covered alcohol levels: O’Cuinnegain believes these can be kept lower at Glenelly due to their virus-free vines which ripen fruit at lower sugars. That, in a previous life, these vineyards were a fruit orchard helps, the soils being ‘clean’, as does the fact that they are bordered by few other vineyards – believe it or not.

Then it was the turn of oak; again, the Glenelly sensitive, understanding approach allows the barrels to benefit the wine rather than dominate it. O’Cuinnegain goes for 300 or 500 litre in size, varying percentage of new, depending on wine and quality, with toasting either blond or medium. A bewildering array of combinations, but one only has to taste the Grand Vin Chardonnay 2013 (40% new 500 litre) and flagship Lady May 2010 (24 months 100% new Taransaud 300 litre) to taste how both complement the wine in style and quantity.

Even so, O’Cuinneagain isn’t entirely happy. ‘The Bordelais have such an advantage on us and other far flung wine producing regions,’ he sighs. ‘They can order barrels closer to harvest time, when the outcome is much clearer, so specify their requirements to the nearby coopers. We have to order at flowering to ensure they’ll arrive in time for harvest; much can change in that time.’

All the more important then that local producers have a close relationship with the coopers they work with – and that the coopers themselves are honest with the producers.

The impressive improvements that have been made in the use of oak are only emphasised by those with still a way to go; too much oak of the wrong sort remains a problem. There will always be those who like the taste of new oak, but what a waste of wine! Fortunately, their numbers are decreasing.

viognier grapesOne variety where the use of oak, as well as approach to the grape itself, has improved is viognier. Remember those oaky, blowsy, oily versions? They’ve slimmed down and freshened up. I don’t know how many Condrieu wines local viognier producers have tasted, but they’ve certainly learnt how to imbue the grape with more palate appeal and food friendliness.

When I met him at the Hemel en Aarde Pinot Celebration, UK wine writer, Tim Atkin MW, kindly offered my colleague, Tim James and me, the opportunity of tasting the same wines that he would be over the following weekend in one of his ‘mop up’ tastings – wines from producers he didn’t visit this time. Tim J was away, but I leapt at the opportunity, hoping to come across wines I didn’t know or those I hadn’t tasted for a while. My hopes were realised on both scores.

The wines were presented (sighted) in varietal or blend categories, making it possible to get an overall feeling for developments within each group. We tasted in silence – except for Tim’s iPod, which entertained with an eclectic selection (Tim J wouldn’t have approved) – but the one comment he did pass was to mention how viognier has improved. There were only eight in the line-up, but apart from a couple where the sweetness needed a little more acid for balance, there was freshness, judicious oak and varietal character that wasn’t in your face.

No surprises that I enjoyed the Tamboerskloof 2012 and Beau Constantia 2013 (though it needs a little more harmony that time will bring), but new to me were Backsberg Hillside 2013 and Flagstone Word of Mouth 2012, both have elegance and freshness as well as subtle yet pure varietal fragrance.

SB Viognier 2012Add one more to that list in the shape of Saronsberg Viognier 2012. Is it becoming the thing to have an official launch several years after release of your first wines? Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum did it last year, some six years after his maiden 2007 wines. Nic van Huysteen, owner and Dewaldt Heyns, winemaker of Saronsberg took it a few steps further, waiting until 10 years had expired. It’s an interesting concept, especially as some folk are in too much of a rush to launch; either their wines aren’t ready or they have yet to get to grips with a comfortable style.

If Heyns will forgive me, both he and his wines have matured well. At last week’s event, he spoke fluently and with authority, like a winemaker who knows his goals and understands how to get there – not rushing things being one.

What I particularly like about his viognier is that it combines the full body that suits the grape, ensuring expressive varietal character and rich satiny texture, set off by that all-important freshness. Power with restraint sums it up. I reckon for R90, it’s good value too.

The joy of viognier is that it complements our many Asian-inspired dishes. Perhaps we can edge towards feeling more confident, if not taking for granted, that South African viognier will fit that bill.

 

Probably the most-photographed statue on a Cape wine farm. The lady by the lake at Saronsberg.
Probably the most-photographed statue on a Cape wine farm. The lady by the lake at Saronsberg.
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