Many shades of colour

For someone writing a tasting exam, colour is the first port of call. But generally, how many of us bother to really study the colour of a wine, bar noting whether it’s white, rosé or red? We head straight for the aroma and taste; these primarily determine what we think of the wine.

That’s a pity since colour, of both white and red wines, are changing so much, they deserve more consideration.

Three  shades of cinsaut ;  SFW 1974 right
Three shades of cinsaut ; SFW 1974 right

We’ve got so used to red wines being like Homer’s ‘wine dark sea’; impenetrable, black ruby from centre to the edge of the rim; no layers, just solid colour. With that impenetrability often comes over-ripeness and extraction, possibly too much new oak as well, lavished on the wine that’s intended to show ambition. Not all dark wines are heavy and dull; the best ones have a degree of freshness, gently extracted tannins and no new wood.

But once grenache and cinsaut began their run of popularity, the colour spectrum changed. It became possible to actually see the range of colours of and within each variety, as the cinsauts pictured show. More translucence does not rule out vivid brilliance. Craig Hawkins’ new Testalonga vintages have plenty of that with their eye-catching purple stain hue; the photo is of the new El Bandito Monkey Gone to Heaven 2016, a mourvèdre, while the carignan, named Follow Your Dreams’ brilliance is more ruby.

Testalonga Follow Your Dreams Carignan 2016
Testalonga Follow Your Dreams Carignan 2016

History shows that red wines, as they age, get paler, their ruby hue taking on garnet light.
Colour and its change with age in white wines is of far more interest to me, something I re-discovered at the recent bi-annual De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay.

This is a celebration I always look forward to as each one has its own new touch, though essentially it features a tasting of different chardonnays, an international speaker (Jay McInerney this year), and The Golden Vine Award, made to a chef who has made an exceptional contribution to fine culinary art; South African and incredibly young Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, owner/chef of the Nice restaurant Jan, and the first South African to be awarded a Michelin star, received the Golden Vine Award from Johan de Wet.

De Wetshof Finesse 1993, Thelema Chardonnay 1997, Neil Ellis Chardonnay 2005
De Wetshof Finesse 1993, Thelema Chardonnay 1997, Neil Ellis Chardonnay 2005

But back to the wines. The new feature this year was a flight of older wines: De Wetshof Finesse 1993, Thelema 1997, Neil Ellis 2005 and Hamilton Russell 2005. I don’t know why I missed a photo including the HRV but it did have the richness of colour similar to Thelema’s, though not quite as dark.

This was a quartet which really made one think about colour, what it suggests the wine will taste like and which has the most appeal. I enthused about the De Wetshof at the pre-Nederburg Auction tasting, writing: ‘Brilliant and youthful in colour, Robertson’s typical limey character remains clear and well-sustained. The area’s limestone soils really do help to preserve good acidity and low pH levels.’ For the technically minded, the wine’s pH level is 3.17 and acidity 6.8 g/l. This time, I did note some bottle age but the flavours remain fresh.

Thelema’s deep gold colour is reflected in its rich, slightly honeyed nose; the flavours though are fresher with balanced leesy weight. Of the four, Neil Ellis’s Elgin wine had the most eye appeal with its green halo lighting up the deepening yellow hue. From sandstone and shale soils, the analysis again proved beneficial to such ageing: 3.2 pH and a TA of 5.8 g/l. My notes: ‘Brilliant hellow. So fresh, creamy, elegant and dry’ were a most positive record. Despite the Hamilton Russell’s deep yellow gold, though less so than Thelema’s, it remains very tight, focused and with savoury length.

To be completely honest, a little more colour development in the De Wetshof and less in Thelema and Hamilton Russell to correspond with the state of development in the flavours and texture wouldn’t be a bad thing. But this is perhaps nit-picking; all four are interesting and enjoyable in their own right, especially as alcohol levels top out at 13.5%.

cape-point-vineyards-isleidh-2009This tasting of older chardonnays, one I hope the De Wets will repeat at the next Chardonnay Celebration, inspired me a few days’ later to open not an older chardonnay but Cape Point Vineyards Isleidh 2009, probably the most celebrated vintage after 2015. At seven years of age, this wine struck the perfect balance between colour, nose and taste. The deepening yellow is still shot with brilliant green, secondary notes are evident with semillon taking a lead role, backed by sauvignon’s freshness. A heart-stopping wine! The colour playing no small role in my appreciation.

Colour is under-appreciated; I know we all want a quick sniff before the main pleasure of tasting the wine, but colour can give great pleasure too.

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