There are South African wines which, on first taste, impress with their character and quality. Happily this is happening with increasing frequency, which improves the image of both the industry as a whole and smiles on the faces of wine lovers.
Not all advances occur at the same pace; some varieties and styles take a quantum leap forward while others struggle to find the way forward.
I’m sure the previous ABCers would agree chardonnay has improved immeasurably over the past few years; today’s subtly oaked, citrusy fresh examples are a far cry from those earlier, over-oaked, buttery wines. Chenin Blanc is also heading forward via a variety of valid routes, encompassing everything from site specific wines through to skin contact (or orange) wines; what we have moved away from is the sweet, heavily oaked style.
White blends too are finding good direction with clear definition between the Bordeaux-style sauvignon-semillons and generally chenin-based styles, incorporating any or all of chardonnay, viognier, roussanne, grenache blanc and clairette.
I do feel, though that red blends have some catching up to do. Often, the blend looks interesting on paper but just lacks it in the glass. At last week’s South African tasting held by Handford Wines in celebration of their 25th anniversary, I believe there was some disappointment with the Bordeaux blends, though I can’t remember which were presented.
For me, blends using Rhône varieties are often less interesting, something I hope is due to young vines.
The point about older vines, especially with a variety like grenache, was clearly illustrated in this recently-enjoyed, delicious Domaine du Caillou 2006 Chateauneuf; the grenache vines, which make up 85% of the blend, are between 56 to 58 years old and planted on the famous pudding stones of the area. The other 15% is syrah from 35 year old vines in sandy soil. It’s an unashamedly big wine (so perfect for the current icy weather), dense, yet full of energy and freshness (so there’s no question of not hitting the bottom of the bottle!). Together, the two varieties make something more satisfying, complete than I can imagine they would alone.
If we’re not hitting that level here yet, there are a few wines showing a glimpse of what should be possible as the vines age and winemakers become more experienced.
Beaumont in Bot River must have some of the oldest mourvèdre vines in the Cape; Sebastian Beaumont crafts two wines using this variety. My usual tasting partner, Tim James and I recently tried both the varietal Beaumont Mourvèdre 2011 which sells for R185 from the farm and the blended Shiraz-Mourvèdre 2011 (R130). I doubt many wine lovers here are familiar with Bandol, the spiritual southern French home of mourvèdre. It’s a puzzler of a wine as a youngster, demanding several years’ patience before revealing what I find to be an appealing gamey character (nothing to do with Brett this time) from behind its gruff tannin exterior.
Beaumont’s version is not as impenetrably tannic as its French counterpart, but will benefit from a further three to four years’ evolution when the clean leather, violet-toned dark berries should provide more complexity to its comfortable density. The blend is entirely more approachable with shiraz lifting both the aromas and drinkability. I don’t think it’s a question of 1 + 1 = 3 here, but the partnership is entirely compatible and the wine may well become more interesting over the same time span as the varietal mourvèdre.
Tim commented that he finds a rustic quality in the wines – I remember him making a similar remark when we previously tasted Beaumont reds. I know what he means; it’s not a negative stemming from Sebastian’s winemaking, more an inherent character in the wines.
Ken Forrester might be known as ‘Mr Chenin’ but it would do him and his other wines a disservice to not recognise especially the reds blended from Rhône varieties (there are no fewer than three in his numerous range). We tasted both the Renegade 2010 and Platter five star Three Halves 2009 during 21st anniversary celebrations for the Ken Forrester label. Both include grenache (some from that ubiquitous, old Piekernierskloof vineyard), mourvèdre and shiraz, Renegade (R105) is based on the first of the trio, is light of texture which highlights the freshness and full, spice-laden flavours. Older, 400 litre oak barrels do no more than they should in harmonising the wine. Mourvèdre accounts for half of the Three Halves; ‘the other two halves are grenache and shiraz,’ is Forrester’s way of explaining the logic behind the name! An assortment of liquorice, raw meat, minerals and yet more flavours, it’s the much richer though well-balanced wine; from experience, this sipped alongside a venison casserole make a sublime partnership. The R195 price tag shouldn’t bring on indigestion either; there are wines providing far less satisfaction costing far more.
As I said, these few give a glimpse of what is possible and even they can offer more with vintages to come.