Sameness vs somewhereness

It was depressing to hear from colleagues involved with the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show that this year’s international judges (maybe not all of them, I didn’t hear mention of specific names) commented that while our wines are getting better, they remain ‘international’ in character; in other words there’s little sense of South Africanness. While I can understand that remark in relation to our red wines, it apparently covered whites as well: so much for our highly-touted white blends!

What grounds could there be for such an all-encompassing and somewhat damning remark?

A timeous nota bene: of course, there are many highly-regarded producers who enter no competitions but there are equally many excellent ones who do.

Red wines have and in many cases still do suffer from being harvested at the wrong time: too soon and the full flavour spectrum hasn’t developed, nor have tannins ripened sufficiently. Such a wine is one-dimensional, short and with abrupt tannins. At the other end of the ripeness scale, overripe fruit muddies the flavours in an anonymous pool, often further wrecked by an alcoholic glow.

Then there is the question of oak, a component much better used these days, though there are still examples of gross overuse. The bigger problem now, as I see it is not the amount of new oak, but the wrong oak, where oak and fruit flavours just clash. It might be the wrong source, toasting or cooper but whichever, it’s just as important as age and size of barrel in allowing the fruit’s true character to evolve.

Whites? Well we know how boringly similar many sauvignon blancs can be; the few who are putting effort – semillon, skin, barrel and natural ferment – into creating something more interesting, even a reflection of their ‘somewhereness’, give clear evidence this is not a one-track pony. Employing the same cultured yeasts introduces a pervasive sameness whether the grape is sauvignon, chenin, chardonnay et al. Pity the poor taster who’s supposed to identify them.

If anything disturbs the positive vibe around our white blends, it could be viognier. A tricky customer at the best of times, it takes very little to be a tall poppy. Actually, it’s not often the quantity but quality of this grape in the blend; pick too ripe and even 2% or 3% can impart those heady honeysuckle/apricot scents and a textural oiliness, swamping its blend partners.

That’s a small selection of offenders who could contribute to the ‘sameness’ noted by the international contingent; there’s one more I doubt is often considered – the varieties themselves.

It’s a sobering thought that just four varieties – chenin blanc, colombard, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz – account for 52% of the +-99 500 ha under vine, and that doesn’t include sultana. These are SAWIS’s figures up to end November 2014; the latest for 2015 should be out shortly. One only has to look at the general index in Platter to see how this translates into labels (not for colombard, which is probably used mostly for distilling). They play important roles in blends as well: think of the Swartland-inspired, chenin-led white blends, Bordeaux-style and Rhône-style red blends. Again, these are numerous; just where is the sense of adventure?

Alright, try Calitzdorp and the Boplaas Nels (their cousins too at De Krans and others in this area recognised for its Port-style fortified dessert wines) who, for some years, have been experimenting with table wine blends based on Portuguese varieties such as tinta barocca, tinta francesca and touriga nacional, these backed in Gamka Family Reserve by some shiraz. The occasional Ring of Rocks mixes touriga francesca and tinta barocca. Fruit is sourced from Stellenbosch and Wellington as well as Calitzdorp, but the blends fuse well and with individuality.

Nel family (l) to (r): Jeanne, Margaux, Carel & Rozanne with silverware, something they regularly receive.
Nel family (l) to (r): Jeanne, Margaux, Carel & Rozanne with silverware, something they regularly receive.

The Nels en famille – Carel (cellarmaster), his wife, Jeanne with daughters Rozanne (marketing), Margaux (winemaker) and son Daniel – came to Cape Town last week to give us a taste of some wines on their extensive list, with the focus on the Portuguese connection.

Boplaas GamkaThe idea was to taste the red blend, Gamka (the name of the local river, meaning lion) alongside two Portuguese wines; initially these were to be the Prats & Symington Chryseia and Post Scriptum but due to their non-arrival, Quinta do Castro Vinha da Ponte and Old Vines Reserva both 2012s, were substituted.

Gamka 2012 is a big, sturdily structured wine, needing ageing and hearty winter fare; its present charm derives from touriga nacional’s distinctive spice and violet floral fragrance. The 2013, a four-way blend, is more complex and harmoniously approachable but can still benefit from around a further two or three years. Both have well-absorbed a year in new French oak, not something that the Castro Vinha da Ponte can claim. I found this supercharged with new oak, noticeably American, though French was the major partner during its 20 months’ sojourn. From a 90-year old, field blend vineyard, it commands a high price and ratings, but the oak spoilt it for me. The Reserva was altogether more agreeable with brighter fruit, complexity and integrated tannins.

What this comparison did afford was how the Boplaas team are on the right tracks to creating a blend of individuality and distinction, perhaps best epitomised in Carel Nel’s CWG Daniels Legacy 2013, in effect a barrel selection of Gamka. How much better would the already classy regular wine have been with their inclusion? It’s time the CWG stopped this practice.

Sweetness to end: Boplaas Ouma Cloete Straw Wine 2015 from Muscat de Frontignan and, a little, subtle, viognier and/or Boplaas The 1932 Block Hanepoot 2015 accompanied by apricots sautéed in straw wine with caramelised brioche and creamed goats’ cheese, proved an irresistible finale (to this infrequent-dessert eater!) to a fascinating tasting and lunch where chef, Stefan Marais’s intuitive flair really brought out the best in his dishes and Boplaas wines.

More South Africanness, more adventure – your Monday motto, winemakers!

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2 thoughts on “Sameness vs somewhereness

  1. “More South Africanness, more adventure – your Monday motto, winemakers!”
    “The occasional Ring of Rocks mixes touriga francesca and tinta barocca”- those well known South African grape varieties…

    What do you mean exactly by “more South Africanness” Angela? Should SA winemakers be pursuing the delights of Pinotage, Chenel or Nouvelle, grapes which you almost never write about or have been dismissive of. What precisely would you like to see SA winemakers doing differently?

    1. Pursuing the varieties you mention, Bachus, is a very simplistic view of ‘South Africanness’. Much more important is that winemakers understand the (South African) vineyards, the surroundings that influence them and the fruit they bear when making wine. In other words think of Stellenbosch/Simonsberg when producing cabernet from this area, rather than trying to create a Californian style by superficial means such as exaggerated ripeness, extraction & generous oak. I hope that clarifies matters.

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