New Year resolutions be damned; rather have wishes, which attract no shame if they don’t come true, though hope is always there.
First wish then is for greater appreciation of cool climate wines, reds in particular. South African wine lovers are used to and enjoy gutsy reds; plush with a few grams of residual sugar are also currently favoured. That said, many producers are reining in on alcohol, extraction, oak and sugar, earlier picking also achieving greater freshness. But even these reds are from warmer areas; Stellenbosch, Swartland, Paarl. What about cool areas like Elgin, Elim, Hemel en Aarde?
Pinot noir is of course, the signature red for both Elgin and Hemel en Aarde but it is recognised as having a different structure from cabernet, shiraz or pinotage; it helps that pinot producers are focused on making pinot rather than any other red.
But the varieties associated with those warmer areas are also grown in the cooler ones. So how to approach shiraz, for instance, in Elgin to reflect its cool origin? I have an answer to that, thanks to Richard Kershaw MW, who enlightened me a few years ago.
Leaving aside Elgin’s climatic details and the given of Kershaw selecting best clones for the various soils and sites and most favourable planting orientation, all meticulously explained, he maintains the human element is important in authentic expression of terroir. ‘The elegant, medium-weight style Elgin dictates comes down to the winemaker’s approach,’ Kershaw advises, noting there’s more of a tendency in South Africa to aim for a heavyweight Barossa style than an elegant, subtle one. ‘No doubt driven by South African consumers’ preferences,’ he concludes.
If any red variety lends itself to a cool climate, it’s pinotage, thanks to its pinot parentage. Apart from offering a fresher, livelier take on the grape, cool climate styles could appeal to those who don’t care for the bigger wines, which dominate show awards. An engaging example of cool climate pinotage is The Giant Periwinkle Sun Spider 2018 from vineyards near Cape Agulhas. It’s fresh, fragrant and just 12% alcohol. More of that ilk would benefit everyone.
Cabernet sauvignon might seem a less likely cool climate candidate but Tasmania’s Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon and the classic styles of New Zealand’s Te Mata Coleraine and Craggy Range Sophia, to name but three, should convince of the possibilities. Locally, the possibility of not just perfectly ripe, but classic-style cabernet, is already realised by Restless River and the Wessels’ Main Road and Dignity Cabernet Sauvignon. Unlike Stellenbosch cabernets, there’s none of their youthful, ingratiating plushness, in fact it’s quite stern and seriously dry, yet there’s no sense of unripeness in fruit or tannins. In my humble opinion, it’s deserving of Platter’s five star award (declaration, I’m RR’s taster) but has yet to receive the nod at the blind tasting, I guess because of those plush Stellenbosch cabs surrounding it rather than its own shortcomings.
Blind tasting. What a hornet’s nest! ‘Blind tasting is the only way to rate wine fairly’ declares the headline to a Wine Enthusiast article. The author reasons the method ‘removes many opportunities for bias and levels the playing field for all wines to receive the same analysis without any preexisting expectations. .. it removes all preconceived notions, good, bad or in between.’
I beg to differ; firstly, as truly blind tastings are few and far between. Most are blind only in that the producer is unknown; variety, style and vintage are usually given. Yet, don’t judges have preconceptions about these as well? To return to the Restless River cab, it doesn’t fit the South African cabernet profile, so is less likely to be rewarded. Yet when I tasted it sighted for the guide and over a few days, I was convinced it was worthy of five stars. There are many other worthy wines which meet the same fate. In this case, it’s local judges tasting local wines but I think there’s a case to be made for the Platter five star tasting to be sighted. A topic that has been discussed many times and will no doubt be discussed many more.
Reviews are a different matter from competitions. Giving context to the wines of whatever variety or style is helpful for consumers. Where the fruit comes from, the winemaker’s approach, goal and aesthetic all inform about what to expect in the wine.
White wines in particular have undergone major advances in recent years; going from one- to three-dimensional thanks to cement eggs, amphorae, a diversity of shape of oak barrels not to mention innovative blends and new varieties. There’s a confusion of possibilities at this stage and still a great deal to understand; it would be unhelpful to both consumer and producer to blind taste these wines for review. Needless to say, an objective review of the wine itself is essential for the taster’s credibility. Of course, any conflict of interest or bias should be declared.
So, please everyone understand the purpose of the tasting before criticising.
Let’s see how 2020’s wishes progress.