Sweet wine is a strange category. Many of the wines are universally admired but what relationship do we have with them? Do we interrogate a sweet wine in the same way as we would a chardonnay or cabernet and, if not, why not? Surely they have the potential to develop in the same way as other wines? Vertical tastings of that chardonnay and cabernet would undoubtedly be well attended but how many vertical events are held for sweet wines. They are few and far between, as are tastings of sweet wines generally; perhaps that’s why so little is written about them.
I was going to say that there’s not even a competition devoted to sweet and/or fortified wines, but then Winemag announced its tasting programme for 2020, which include a Report for the pair.
This lack of attention is undeserved; many producers have pioneered new styles or local styles of classics with fascinating background stories.
How many know the origins of Vin de Constance, the modern-day recreation of the famed 18th and 19th century Constantia? It began when previous owner of Klein Constantia, Duggie Jooste, purchased the farm in 1980. One evening, Duggie was standing overlooking the vineyards with the late Professor Orffer, renowned authority on wine varieties, when the Professor revealed Constantia, the one great wine made in the southern hemisphere, came from vineyards now part of Klein Constantia. Thus, the dream was born to re-create that luscious, sweet wine.
Of the several varieties used in the original wine, Muscat de Frontignan was chosen, matching as closely as possible the clone (possibly from original stock from van der Stel’s time). The vines, planted in 1982, yielded the maiden Vin de Constance in 1986, along with other maiden vintage wines of restored Klein Constantia. Like Constantia, Vin de Constance is an unfortified, natural sweet wine, more oxidative in style in the early years. Today, in a dedicated cellar, each picking is vinified separately, blending taking up to six months before ageing for around three-and-a-half years in a mix of new and used oak. Today, Vin de Constance has greater freshness and definition, one entirely worthy of the elevated position it holds worldwide.
Muscat de Frontignan is also known as muscadel, under which label are found South Africa’s traditional fortified wines, many from the Breede River Valley. Unfermented grape juice is fortified with neutral grape spirit and usually unoaked, they are immensely sweet and often fiery when young but can develop more interest with age; Nuy Wine Cellar has a wonderful history of picking up Museum Class trophies with their old Muscadels.
A whole new level is reached when muscadel is aged in oak; few are, thanks to little consumer enthusiasm for muscadels generally. A situation not helped by less than active promotion by Muscadel South Africa, whose quoted mission is ‘to establish and promote the image of Muscat de Frontignan’.
It’s left to individuals, like Thelema, to raise its image. Thelema Gargantua Muscadel 2000 should change more than a few minds. Fascinated by Nederburg’s sweet Muscat de Frontignan, Gyles Webb planted his vineyard in 1986; it’s still going strong, producing what Gyles calls his ‘swimming pool’ wine, a fresh, light white. In 2000, the team tried something different; the grapes were left to raisin, fermented on the skins for 24 hours, pressed and fortified with neutral grape spirit before being left to slumber in an old French oak barrel for 19 years (yes, 19!). This transformed the wine into a luscious, creamy mouthful reminiscent of toffee, molasses and nuts, its huge 324 grams of residual sugar invigorated by an arresting acid. Packaging and price – R1400 for 500ml – projects an image of something very special, which indeed the wine is. If any muscadel can capture consumers’ imagination, Thelema’s should.
One can’t talk about sweet wines without mentioning chenin blanc. Nederburg’s Edelkeur pioneered Noble Late Harvest, prior to which, such residual sugar levels weren’t permitted; it was also a driver for the Nederburg Auction.
David Trafford was another pioneer employing chenin to make the first local Straw wine or Vin de Paille – bunches air-dried which concentrates the juice. The first 25 litre glass jar made in 1995, lead to a 225 litre barrel the following year; by 1997 regulations had been changed and the wine was certified. Earlier regulations allowed for wine to be made only from ‘fresh’ grapes, no older than three days, (a period which allowed for the Co-ops to harvest on a Friday and deliver to the cellar on a Monday). David had come across awed mention of Vin de Paille whilst researching syrah in the Rhône. His interest led him to experiment with chenin blanc, which he knew from the Loire made exceptional sweet wine while holding its acidity. Trials with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay proved chenin’s strength. Just over 20 years later, around 30 producers make a Straw wine or Vin de Paille.
Among those producers are Chris and Andrea Mullineux, who, as far as I know, have come up with an original. In 2015, they blended some of their straw wine from every year, starting with their first 2008 through to 2014; this fractional blending echoes Sherry’s solera system. As each vintage is unique, so is the final blend. With just 11% alcohol, a soaring 260 grams residual sugar, the wine struck me as ‘exhilarating and incredibly fresh considering the older wine included’. The original bottling (in 375ml) of Olerasay (a play on solera) has long sold out, but recent hints from the Mullineux cellar suggests another tranche could soon be on its way.
There are many others which demonstrate South Africa’s amazing versatility with wines that go beyond sweetness. They all deserve more attention.