All posts by outofthepress

Reflections

The speed with which new wineries have opened over the past twenty years has been breathtaking. Hardly has one become conscious of a new name, let alone tasted the wines, than the next steps into the fray.

In a rush of enthusiasm, I’ve been digging into my archives to remind myself – and now you – of the journey from there to here of well-known wineries that in some ways have been pushed aside by the onrush of newcomers.

My Vergelegen archives are thankfully detailed, especially from 1987, when Anglo American purchased the property. Their communication with the media from the building of the new cellar, restoration of the buildings, planting of new vineyards was detailed and a great resource for the future, like now. Today, Twitter and Facebook are channels of choice; many evocative photos and videos remind of the farm’s beauty, wildlife and wines.

Vergelegen cellar under construction

But I jump ahead of myself. We think of Vergelegen as a wine farm, in fact vines account for a tiny portion of its sprawling 3000 hectares. After their purchase, Anglo undertook studies of all possible crops that could grow and be financially viable. The outcome of these deliberations saw just 100 ha of vines, with orchards, pastures and some other formal developments, but by far the majority of those 3000 ha has been left unfarmed. On one media visit, each of us planted an indigenous tree; I can’t remember where, nor have I seen it again. I really hope it has thrived.

One of the Cape Mountain Leopards captured on Vergelegen’s camera

In 2004 the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative was introduced to the media on the farm; Vergelegen was the first BWI Champion. Initially, there was confusion about what it would achieve as the spread of vineyards caused the loss of biodiversity. Over the years, Vergelegen addressed with a vengeance the issue of alien vegetation; streams again began to run with clear mountain water, indigenous fynbos regenerated and birdlife and fauna, notably the Cape Leopard, increased. Alongside, the vineyards flourished. It was a positive demonstration of BWI at work.

Patrick Dillon architect

The cellar had to fit in with this majestic environment; the site was a matter of great discussion. Three sites were selected, with the one on Rondekop eventually chosen. What one can see above ground of the finished cellar is impressive and has presence but also blends in with its surroundings.

Via a local architect, the Vergelegen team, including their first winemaker, Martin Meinert, were put in touch with Paris-based Architectes Associés. Chateau Lafite’s barrel cellar, reconstruction of Chateau Pichon Longueville and the winery design for renowned chef Michel Guérard were just some of the firm’s notable credentials. They soon received their first commission outside France; to design Vergelegen’s cellar.

 

 

I love the beautiful calligraphy on the invitations.

Tuesday 30th April 1991, was one of those windless, 30C-degree days which regularly happen just prior to winter setting in. I was among a group of media assembled at the homestead to meet Patrick Dillon, a Partner in Architectes Associés, here to talk about the design of the new winery, with a site visit slated later that morning. I see from my notes what impressed me most was that Dillon could pronounce Vergelegen (I still struggle!). An American, born in Panama, educated in the US and Paris based, he said coming to Vergelegen was like coming to another country because of its size and scenery. There was no brief for the cellar design, but Dillon knew it had to be an interesting place, the architecture projected into the landscape. The octagonal shape reflects the historic garden near the Homestead; the pathway leading to the cellar is also lined with plants.

 

Baron de Rothschild & President de Klerk planting a tree at cellar opening.

The winery was opened by Baron Eric de Rothschild on Tuesday, 31st March 1992, when, cruelly, the heavens opened – so different from that site visit nearly a year earlier. Guests in their finery were driven in relays up to the cellar, where muddy puddles were dodged before climbing down stairs to the barrel cellar for dinner. I don’t remember how then President de Klerk and Baron de Rothschild managed to undertake the tree-planting ceremony without getting soaked, but here’s the proof.

 

 

 

 

As for the wines, I’m sure many remember Vin de Florence (R6.27/750ml), named after a previous owner, Lady Florence Phillips but probably fewer (myself included) Les Enfants 1992 vintage, also made from bought in fruit. The following year, cab and merlot from three and four-year-old home vineyards plus bought in pinot noir became Mill Race Red (remember that?) (R7.86/750ml) and Vergelegen’s first red wine. By 1994, the blend which included cab franc, was all home grown. That vintage also produced the first varietal red wine from Vergelegen’s vineyards; I still have that bottle of Merlot 1994, a kind gift at a function I don’t remember.

Andre van Rensburg winemaker since 1998

Martin Meinert left at the end of 1997, making way for André van Rensburg to complete the 1998 harvest, since when he has taken the wines to ever new heights. What André deserves to be best-known for is ensuring virus-free vineyards. Many had to be re-planted; today, any vine showing signs of virus is tagged and removed. The whites, headed by Schapenberg Sauvignon Blanc, which André introduced in ’98, GVB sauvignon-semillon blend 2001 (one I buy every year), have always been terrific; from 2014, when Michel Rolland came on board as a consultant, the reds, particularly Bordeaux varieties which are the farm’s forte, have reached another level. The 2015’s from that excellent vintage should generate huge excitement.

It’s a very special privilege to have seen the farm, buildings, gardens and wines grow into what they are today.

Conversations with wine

Mindful that at a time of forced solitary living, one should show solidarity with, not only friends, fellow countrymen and women, but people worldwide, I’ve been delving into the cellar for bottles from countries hit badly by the Corona virus.

It’s clear I’m not the only one; social media is awash with comments about and photos of special bottles offering solace and some bravado. Suddenly, we’re realizing that it’s better to enjoy what we have whilst we’re still able to, instead of keeping them for that indeterminate special occasion.

The added attraction of my international wine tour is that I have visited each area, so can picture the scenery as I sip each wine. So far travels have taken me to Barbaresco, Rioja, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the Rheingau.

I hadn’t held out too much hope before pulling the cork on Abbona Vigna Faset Barbaresco 1997, only later I learnt it was described as ‘a year in which it was hard to produce grapes of less than very high quality.’ Even at 23 years old, the wine improved over the three nights it took me to finish the bottle (that’s an average drinking pace these days). Nebbiolo is resilient; it feels resilient, especially when young with its intricate web of energetic tannins. They were still supporting the mature truffle savouriness. Autumn and truffles are synonymous with Piedmont, but Nebbiolo (nebbia = fog) likely refers to a thick bloom that covers the berries rather than the fogs which do hang low at that time of year.

Another vintage, 2004, but also, top 5/5-rated in Rioja; ‘high alcohol and concentrated colour and aromas ideal for ageing’, fitted to a tee my Tondonia Reserva. This tempranillo-based wine tastes riper than the declared 13% alc with a little less freshness than I associate with red Riojas. Tondonia’s base of Haro is forever linked to a remarkable lamb meal we had there, not least through having to wait until 9pm when everyone has woken from the daily mid-afternoon siesta, finished work and – presumably – feels famished. Then, lamb and Rioja are worth the wait, as they say.

I’ve introduced Le Vieux Donjon to many knowledgeable, well-travelled wine-loving friends, familiar with many Chateauneuf properties; ‘that’s a new one on me’, ‘gosh, it’s good’, and other remarks in that vein are invariably voiced. It hasn’t been a secret everywhere; it became a favourite of Robert Parker and therefore the Americans in the early 2000s.

Unlike many other producers, just one red (and one white) wine is made, a typical blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre with a splash of cinsaut. It is wonderfully descriptive of such a blend and the appellation, in a quiet yet convincing manner; a comforting, soul-food wine that doesn’t need long ageing but can age with benefit. My 2000, described as a beautiful vintage, proved that.

Chateauneuf isn’t the prettiest area in the Southern Rhone (try Gigondas for picturesque); if the mistral wind is blowing, it can be positively miserable, but it’s an ill wind … the vines remain healthy.

Riesling is ingrained in my tastebuds, I can’t imagine life without readily available bottles in the cellar. German Riesling is first choice, though Aussie versions from Clare and Eden Valleys also thrill. My lasting memory of our first night in Germany at a hotel in Hattenheim on the Rhine, is of new-season white asparagus and a bottle of Karl Joh Molitor Hattenheimer Riesling Qualitatswein Feinherb 1996 (I had to check in the diary for that!), it’s slight sweetness and fruit was a perfect match for the asparagus.

Ten years on, 2006 produced a mixed bag, some classic, others dilute depending on when the grapes were harvested, but current advice is to drink soon. The Leitz is definitely at the classic end and was awarded a Decanter gold in 2007. It made a delicious aperitif, full of fleshy, juicy peach, possibly a hint of botrytis marshaled by necessary acid. I’m not in a hurry to drink the remaining bottles.

There had to be a home-grown special bottle. Kanonkop has been an annual winelands’ stop since the farm’s first bottling in 1973; when the Krige brothers started selling Wine Futures (en primeur), we bought both Cabernet and Paul Sauer. My 1991 Paul Sauer was the last bottle of 12 from one of those purchases. I know we bought 12, as I have the original application form with cost – R320 for ALL 12; six bottles of Cabernet, R145. Sigh! Bottle #12 of Paul Sauer 1991 was captivating, true to its origin, and full of life and sweet fruit, sustained long beyond that back-label drifting optimum drinking line.

 

Such a journey through winelands visited and wines a reflection of them.

A sound reason not to wait for times of Corona virus to open special bottles and stir happy memories.

Loyalty

Remember when wine buying decisions were so easy? In the 1970s and ‘80s there were relatively few private, independent wineries where one could taste and buy. Purchases of two cases (12 bottle cases in those days) of the same wine was our norm, except for Groot Constantia, where, because of the red wine shortage, customers, who queued in orderly fashion on a Wednesday morning, were allowed one case only. A limit which ensured the wines were for special occasions only. For us, that meant a bottle each year with the Christmas meal. Some are still tucked away in the cellar, offering even more of a special treat when opened. For everyday drinking, Perdeberg Chenin Blanc and Paarl Vallei Rouge were among the wines which satisfied our needs.

I was thinking about loyalty buying recently, when my annual purchase of Newton Johnson Pinot Noir arrived. I’ve bought this wine since the maiden 2008, never more than six bottles, just three this year with three of their Albariño – and there’s the problem, a problem rampant across the winelands. So many great and interesting wines from a limitless succession of producers sees this loyalty issue become a headache.

The issues aren’t complicated. There are only so many wines one can and can afford to buy but people who love wine, including myself, like to explore and perhaps follow new trends. Something has to give.

Very rarely has that involved wines I no longer like, a sad frustration. There are other individual wines I buy annually apart from the N-J’s pinot, and many other producers where I pick and choose from their range.

Doubting I’m alone with this dilemma of an embarrassment of riches, I checked with friends who are serious, regular wine buyers.

It transpires Johan Smuts, Tim James, partners Maggie Mostert and Hennie Coetzee, as well as Leeds UK-based Lisa Harlow, a huge South African wine fan, are a pretty loyal group in regard to the producers and even specific wines they purchase annually. If many of the New Wave producers feature strongly among all lists, long-established names, such as Kanonkop, Bouchard Finlayson, Springfield, Iona and De Trafford are also mentioned; I’d add Vergelegen. Length of loyalty often depends on how long the producer has been around, as well as how long these enthusiasts have been buying wine (it strikes me they are all younger, some much younger than me!), so their constancy stretches anything from two to 15 years.

I hadn’t stipulated South African wines only and, being the involved winelovers we are, all do buy foreign wines with varying degrees of loyalty to particular producers.
Surely, with such a spread of producers and an even greater number of wines (a rough guess would be anything from 15 to 37), even the most ardent and wealthy of wine lovers would have to limit purchases. Six or, more usually three bottles are the norm with the odd case or odder two cases, of 12. Increased competition and the wish to explore accounts for a decrease in purchases.

The question of how one decides what to buy in the first place, beyond quality, which is a given, is now more complicated. As I suggested early on, there was so little choice compared with today. Factors offered by the others include visiting the winery, word of mouth from trustworthy friends, stylistic appeal, value for money, the Swartland hipster movement, icon brands, investment and age worthiness, not yet proven in many of the more recent South African producers.

Having taken that first dip into a new producer or wine, what persuades one to become a loyal customer? Apart from continuity of quality, it can be as simple as liking the wine, supporting the smaller guys, monitoring maturation – I find it fascinating how Newton-Johnson’s pinot has developed from vintage to vintage as the vines age, as well as how more recent vintages are ageing better than earlier ones. On the other hand, two of my other annual buys, Vergelegen GVB (sauvignon-semillon) and Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc from more mature vines, become more interesting with age.

Loyalty remains only so long as …… When quality drops, cost: quality ratio makes the wines too pricey, especially when there are many other equally good ones around; a bad experience at the winery, tastes change, one forgets about the producer’s existence – all fair reasons to stop buying.

Do producers have any excuse to be forgotten in this social media age? Far too few manage it to their best advantage but people still like the personal interaction with winemakers and those beyond the grape curtain believe winemakers could show themselves more often. At the coal face in the tasting room, there’s always room for improvement; staff need to remember they are the face of the brand. A personal memory-jogger was the set release date. Come 1st September, there used to be a rush to Thelema where the latest vintage of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet went on sale and it wasn’t long before the sold-out signs went up. The only winery I can think of where this continuity remains is Kanonkop, where Paul Sauer is available from 1st July.

As winelovers, the wine world is our oyster; loyalty obviously means something to me and my fellow enthusiasts, but winemakers shouldn’t take it for granted and need to think broadly and with imagination beyond quality to retain our custom.

Safe, sad, superb

An anomaly of the South African wine landscape is that, generally, consumers believe our top-tier red wines are far more ageworthy than the whites; so, while the former are deemed better at ten years, the latter are considered to lose interest after four or five.

 

Yet again, Winemag’s 10-year-old Report for 2020 has proved the lie. In a year described by Editor, Christian Eedes, as: ‘a testing vintage due to the constant fluctuations in weather conditions throughout – a cool, wet spring caused uneven budding in many regions while summer months were exceptionally dry and windy, the heat wave at the beginning of March 2010 which lasted longer than a week going down in the annals’, it wasn’t surprising entries were down on those in the heralded 2009 of last year.

 

One might have thought with 53 red wine entries, 13 whites, (as well as three Noble Late Harvests and five fortifieds), that reds would dominate the top of the rankings; not a bit of it. Seven whites scored 90 or more, a much better hit rate than 17 reds. The full results and tasting report can be downloaded here.

But are either white or red wines really standing the 10-year test? This year, like last, the top scoring wine  is a fortified, Morné Vrey’s Delaire Graff Cape Vintage.  For this achievement, he won the coveted bottle of GS 1966 Cabernet Sauvignon, kindly donated by Amorim. Are fortified wines the best we can do; are our whites and reds just not up to scratch? Given vintage conditions, it puzzles me less that 2010 delivered a fortified winner than 2009.

 

 

The winelands have seen many, very important changes in the last ten years, but before touching on a few of those, how do the top-scoring wines stand up to scrutiny?
Winning producers (at least those not hard at work on vintage 2020) and guests were given the opportunity to taste and drink a selection at the lunch, held at Viande, Pete Goffe Wood’s newish restaurant in the Grande Roche.

(L-R) Amorim’s Joaquim Sa, Morné Vrey & Winemag Editor, Christian Eedes

As someone who doesn’t score, I grouped them according to the following levels of enjoyment: safe (drinkable but without all the benefits 10 years should bring), sad (past best – as one might hope, there were none) and superb (wines with developed complexity). Sadly, there were none in the last grouping either; to compensate, I added the qualification ‘appealing’ to ‘safe’. The few deserving of this latter accolade, are: Tokara Director’s Reserve White (sauvignon/semillon blend), Iona Sauvignon Blanc, Nederburg Private Bin Eminence and Delaire Graff Cape Vintage. I would drink all these with pleasure, if without being rendered speechless with wonder.

White Bordeaux-style blends are among my favourite, sauvignon and Semillon are each other’s ying and yang, having the ability to grow with interest and ten years is certainly achieveable. I was much more surprised by Iona Sauvignon Blanc; not only is it still so fresh and elegant (it’s from Elgin, remember!) but there’s no hint of green peas or beans, which often over take older sauvignons. I look forward to the promised 20 year vertical later this year.

Eminence remains full of live and ripe flavours; Morné’s Cape Vintage is in the drier style I prefer, not too heavy and with clean, warming spirit. We really do this style well but no one should think it’s easy compared with others, therefore achieving higher scores more readily.

Pete Goffe Wood’s menu with top scoring wines served

When the lowest alcohol among the top reds (all cabernet or cabernet blends) is 14.7%, two consequences are givens. The wines will be bruisers and half a glass will be more than enough. Balance being more important than actual alcohol tipped the scales for me in favour of Ernie Els Signature Red (cabernet, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec, a medley which has some truth in the taste), as opposed to Christo le Riche’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which has a noticeable afterglow.

Apart from tiring levels of alcohol, these 2010 reds (and I’m sure many others) are four-square, blockish wines that could have been consumed around three years ago; I doubt they’ve changed that much in that time.

We are moving on from this big, brutish style. I chatted to Aidan Morton, viticulturist at Tokara since 2000, and Christo le Riche about changes they’ve made in the past ten years. It all centres on viticulture; getting rid of virused vines, undertaking multispectral imagery which helps determine when certain parts of the vineyard are ripe; matching this up with vintage conditions creates a great resource for future vintages. Le Riche cabernet now includes some different vineyards from those in 2010, which Christo believes provide better balance, but he’s also picking earlier – another trend across the winelands to capture freshness with ripeness.

Whatever the results, whether or not the wines warrant ten years,  and whoever enters – or doesn’t – in Winemag’s 10-year-old Report, they offer an informative general insight into a particular vintage, as well as a reminder how far we’ve come since then.

Sweet endings

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.

De Trafford’s Straw Wine label designed by Rita Trafford

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.

Chenin blanc air-drying for de Trafford’s Straw Wine

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.

Be bold!

It’s summer, it’s hot but never mind, we’ll still drink red wines with our meals. I suspect, whatever the weather, the default colour for most wine lovers’ evening meal at least, is red. Being the meat-eating nation we are, I can understand why, but it also shows a lack of adventure and experimentation.

I’ve spent the year so far being both adventurous and experimenting by drinking white wines only; I assure you there is success and much enjoyment to be found beyond red wines, even with meat on the menu.

South African white wines are regularly singled out as being innovative and singular, not only for their varietal make up but increasingly for their structure and ability to benefit from age. As I’ve already mentioned, the many different vessels used for fermentation and ageing are influential but there’s also the possibility of making white wine in the same way as reds, with skin contact.

It’s nothing new, Georgia, Slovenia and Friuli are well-known for their Orange wines, those made with skin maceration. The story is recorded in Simon Woolf’s book Amber Revolution, which has also given energy to growing international enthusiasm for skin-macerated white wines.

Locally, it was around 2008-2010 when a few winemakers started experimenting; by 2018 there were more than enough to hold a tasting dedicated to a wide range. Our opinions and results are available here.

I’ve found that success depends to a large extent on the winemaker’s experience; those who have a regular source of fruit and several vintages under their belt, are making excellent wines.

Jurgen Gouws with his Pink Moustache Alternative Red

Jurgen Gouws is one of them. He started his Intellego label in 2009, though I first came across him when he worked at Lammershoek with Craig Hawkins in 2011. Craig was already trialing skin-maceration on white wines and Jurgen caught the bug.

He’s now based on the Paardeberg in the old Observatory Cellars and takes in fruit from organic vineyards across the Swartland.

His labels are a delight, each has a story to tell, all suggest the wines are something different. They are indeed. The latest vintage, 2019 apart from the 2018 and 2017 syrahs, were introduced to a group of media and sommeliers by Jurgen this week.

Wine is celebration of the vineyards it comes from, runs Jurgen’s philosophy; in the cellar, the wine’s journey is unhurried and not forced into any predetermined style. It says much for Jurgen’s now assured hand that the results are invariably excellent.

There are a pair of chenins; the one labelled Chenin Blanc didn’t receive skin maceration, was naturally fermented in old oak (used as a container rather than flavourant) with 11 months lees enrichment. The colour is as one might expect from such vinification: bright, pale lemony straw. Think flavour – spice, ginger – rather than fruit– but overall more weight and texture.

For any cautious about white wines with tannins (they’re accepted on reds, so why not whites?), Elementis Skin Contact is a perfect introduction. Colourwise, it’s darker buttery lemon rather than amber or orange, even after 13 days on the skins, a flexible period depending on vintage. There is tannic firmness but in no way intimidating and never outpaces the fragrance, freshness and concentrated flavour. Like all Jurgen’s wines, it is totally dry, adding a note of firmness. Of course, everything is in place for ageing. I recently drank, with great pleasure, a 2016.

A greater sense of adventure is required for The Sleeping Co-pilot, a viognier, again 13 days on skins, here producing a dark gold hue and much more austere wine with an earthiness dimming the rather vague dried peach aromas. Not endearing in a tasting format, but probably more amenable with food, maybe even red meat. The name recalls a scary time when an intern from Switzerland was driving Jurgen to collect grapes; Jurgen himself was aroused from drowzing to find his Co-pilot asleep at the wheel! All was well that ended well.

Selection of Jurgen Gouws’s colourful, fun labels

Whole bunch plays a role in the reds as well as whites, helping to give Pink Moustache, a 70% syrah no skin contact, 30 cinsaut three days on skins as whole bunches, freshness and energy in its wild berry and spice flavours. Classed as Alternative Red, there’s no need to be alternative to enjoy it.

Halagasha takes a refreshing new look at pinotage, a variety Jurgen also worked on with Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek. The only reason this would require a sense of adventure is if there’s disbelief that pinotage can be anything other than big, thick and jammy. Bursting with energy, ripe cranberry fruit and freshness that has much to do with the fine tannins, it does pinotage great service which deserves to receive wide recognition.

If reds are mandatory on the menu, Halagasha as well as the Rhône style blend, Kedungu, lighter, fragrant and flavoursome Syrah 2018 and Kolbroek (Syrah) 2017 are perfect on a warm summer’s evening.

Jurgen deservedly has a following, ; both Pink Moustache and Halagasha are already sold out but the strength of these wines, the whites in particular, is when partnered with food. Restaurateurs, sommeliers and wine stewards can do much to encourage more timid wine lovers to enjoy these wines. There’s a good tip in Richard Siddle’s article in The Buyer,
‘A humble suggestion here is that more experimentation, more risk taking and being more open to change is the way forward.’ As applicable here as it is to buyers in the UK.

Go forth; be bold and aventurous!

2020

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?

Hemel en Aarde valley looking towards Walker Bay

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.

Hero vineyards post script

When the idea came to me of writing about honouring our South African vineyards, I vaguely remembered an interesting story about one of the most highly-regarded pinot noir vineyards in California, Pisoni Vineyards, which belongs to the eponymous family. Several producers buy their pinot, each acknowledging the vineyard on the label. I recalled there were certain conditions under which these producers could purchase the fruit but, unable to remember all the detail, I wrote to the Pisonis asking for further information.

Pisoni Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands, California

A friendly note from Jeff Pisoni, ‘a huge fan of South Africa and the wine regions,’ filled in the background.
‘My father, Gary, is a wonderfully passionate (and entertaining!) individual. We grew up in a conservative farming town, and he always wanted to follow his own path and vision. This is where the “purchase agreements” come in. All other farmers in the area have signed contracts, and he never wanted to do so. He loved our vineyard and grapes so much that he didn’t want it to feel like a contractual negotiation. Instead, he wanted all his fruit sales (then and still today) to be based on handshake agreements—to respect each other and the fruit.
His requirements to our grape buyers are:
1. You have to make great wine.
2. You have to be my friend.
3. And you have to pay the bill! (and always being very witty, he would joke about the last one being the hard part!)’

I like that idea very much. By reputation, producers of Pisoni Vineyard pinot noir, are making great wine and honouring the vineyard. Is there is a vineyard here where a group of wine producers all source their fruit and bottle it without blending from other vineyards? Jeff’s dad’s requirements would go a way to honouring a great vineyard.

Coincidentally, Jeff told me he’s been here a few times for harvest and, seeing my article on Iona, remarked he’s tasted with Andrew Gunn ‘and really love his wines’. Jeff’s wife was at one time assistant winemaker at Saronsberg, while on another South African-related note, he tells me; ‘in addition to the wines I make for my family, I also make wines for Fort Ross Vineyard, where the owners are South African. And as a result, they grow (and I make) a small amount of Pinotage here in California. Fun stuff.’

Small world!

Hero vineyards

We’ve honoured winemakers (too much), we’ve started to honour viticulturists (not before time), now we need to honour vineyards.

South African vineyards have had a rough ride. The scourge of leafroll virus is still rife; a few, with rigour, dedication and general sanitary practices, have eradicated it; Vergelegen is a notable example. Sadly, a newly planted, virus-free vineyard can soon turn: virus-free vines doesn’t equal virus-resistant.

Until 2006, individual vineyards were spoken of only in whispers and behind locked doors; they certainly didn’t receive official recognition. The Cape Estate Wine Producers Association saw to that; they enjoyed and protected their status as the smallest unit under the Wine of Origin scheme. With changes to the Estate legislation, so the single vineyard designation became legal. Such vineyard has to be registered, planted to a single variety, be no larger than six hectares and ‘single vineyard wine’ has to appear on the label (whether or not it’s accompanied by a particular name of the vineyard), as does the designated Wine of Origin.

Judging by the numerous responses to my request for designated single vineyard wines, even among knowledgeable wine friends, there is confusion – I received dozens of proprietary names, few of which are labelled ‘single vineyard wine’.

So how many registered single vineyards are there? According to the latest SAWIS figures – 1711; many producers register multiple blocks, some the whole farm; these are often listed as Block 5 or similar, only a few have a name. It might look a large number but not when one considers the extent of South African vineyards.

An interesting recent proposal suggests ‘in addition to the other stated objects (sic) (I think they mean objectives), in the case of single vineyard wine, the objects are “to express the distinctive characteristics of a small specific site as determined by soil, cultivar, rootstock, clone, meso-climate, exposure and viticultural and winemaking purposes.’ One might have thought such details would have been top of mind when the legislation was first passed.
It is relevant not only to the wine’s distinctive characteristics but its consistency. The old Vine Project has increased awareness of not just old, but quality vineyards. This recognition now needs to spread more generally; top vineyards need to be recognised alongside the top wines produced from their fruit. The chain shouldn’t stop at the winemaker nor viticulturist.

Of course, not all single vineyards are capable of producing stellar quality; nor are single vineyards the be-all-and-end-all, but the single vineyard does focus on the issue of matching variety and site for the purpose of revealing a sense of place in the wine.

Iona vineyards

This doesn’t happen overnight or it shouldn’t; it requires experience and understanding.
It was while reflecting on the issue of honouring vineyards that serendipity offered a hand. Andrew Gunn of Iona Vineyards invited me and my colleague, Tim James, to taste and discuss new wines, including the maiden single vineyard wines.

The single vineyards, Kloof, Kroon and Fynbos, are defined by both aspect and soil. North facing Kloof (both chardonnay and pinot noir) is on silica quartz with clay; Kroon (pinot noir) comprises alluvial gravel, sandstone and Ferrocrete underpinned by clay and faces south; north-facing Fynbos (chardonnay) lies on alluvial gravel, sandstone with underlying clay.

The Burgundian ‘Monopole’ indicates vineyard is owned by Iona

An important self-imposed restriction is that the vineyards have to be at least 10 years old before they’ll be considered for the single vineyard label; a period during which the vineyard can prove its quality credentials and the winemaker his understanding of it.

While waiting for ten years to elapse, these and some older chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards are channeled into Iona Chardonnay 10 Barrel and Iona Pinot Noir 10 Barrel, currently both 2018 and sold exclusively through Woolworths, where they offer terrific value for R250. There’s no dumbing down, no new oak, pure flavours and freshness that offer ready pleasure but are soundly built for a good few years.

Next level up incorporates the former Iona Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both 2018 and now indicated by Elgin Highlands on the label. A gentle introduction to perhaps a future new Ward, from which Elgin would benefit. Selling for just R40 more than the 10 Barrel pair, they are drawn from blocks of older vines, evident in their increased concentration which is well able to handle 30% of larger format new oak. The fragrant pinot is particularly charming; very Elgin in its lively freshness, with a delicacy matched by concentration.

Kloof Chardonnay (single vineyard from 2018)

The single vineyard quartet, all 2017s, selling for R500, are labelled ‘Limited edition’ as the official single vineyard wine label will come into effect with the 2018s. I think of them as unadorned, essentially holding up a mirror to each vineyard. The Kloof chardonnay and pinot pair are firmly built, their full flavours needing time to develop. The pinot stony, dark-fruited with a suggestion of truffles; concentrated and prolonged but again, with lightness and delicacy. There’s stony quality to the chardonnay too, complemented by a grainy texture and a sound acid backbone: it might sound unlikely but this is a graceful wine.
Kroon pinot and Fynbos chardonnay are more forthcoming; seductive, juicy and luscious .. but plenty of support to benefit from ageing.

Much of the wines’ freshness, purity and alcohols around 13.5% can be attributed to long, slow ripening with harvest taking place in mid-March, a full two weeks later than the rest of Elgin.

The approach Andrew and Rosy Gunn with winemaker Werner Muller are taking shows first and foremost they are respecting their vineyards; at every step doing all they can to ensure each vineyard’s voice is heard loud and clear.

We may be far off a vineyard classification but it’s a goal that would duly honour our vineyards.

A Swartland white

Palladius, Eben Sadie’s white blend, is a reflection of the evolution of the Swartland. As with any wine, its development remains a journey rather than destination, but last Saturday’s vertical of the first 15 vintages fascinatingly revealed achievements along the route from 2002 to 2016 .

Paardeberg in the Swartland from Eben’s house

 

It was never Sadie’s intention to make a white wine; his focus was on a single red, Columella but while exploring vineyards for this, his attention was caught by the many old chenin and chardonnay vines. At the time, sauvignon blanc-chardonnay blends were popular, which encouraged him to experiment with not just a new blend, but a new category, which even until today defies categorisation. As Sadie noted, his Platter White Blend of the Year, Palladius 2017 is described on the award certificate as ‘White blends, other’.

 

 

 

As much as our white blends receive high praise from international commentators, winelovers don’t understand what they are about, so these blends are difficult sells. We are still a varietally-driven wine-drinking nation; such a pity as many blends, Palladius a star among them, offer something unique.

2002 – a cool vintage, 2003 – one of the warmest vintages, 2004 – cooler vintage
The blend in these years was chenin, chardonnay and viognier, with grenache added in 2004. Fermentation in very old Burgundian barrels obtained from Gyles Webb, occurred naturally. A mistake saw a few grams of residual sugar in 2002, which, due being unfined and unfiltered, started to re-ferment in the bottle leaving a slight spritz, which the Japanese enjoyed and complained when there was none in 2003.
Bottles of 2002 can be hit and miss; here the mellowness of age is accompanied by some sweetness, fruit richness and 14.8% alcohol with the spritz introducing an unusual but welcome freshness. Not unpleasant but without great distinction.
2003 is dry, again very ripe and big – 14.9% on label, actually 15.5%. Eye-catching bright yellow gold colour; viscous, creamy and rich delivering an immediate impact; it received big scores outside South Africa. It would appear old style now. Lower acid but still flavorsome.
2004 One of Eben’s favourites and mine of the older wines. I had a bottle in London earlier this year; this one too showed similar complexity, vitality and tension. Grenache blanc adds to the flavour dimension. Delicious now, though unlikely to head downhill anytime soon.

2005 – great vintage here and in Europe, 2006, 2007 – Sadie’s most perfect vintage of early years
Start of a major change with grenache blanc playing a more important role (up to 40%) and viognier reduced to 10%. Larger, 500 L barrels introduced ‘for greater stability’. Chardonnay was dropped in 2006 when Sadie realised ‘Swartland isn’t chardonnay country’. Clairette blanche, picked fully ripe at 11.5% alcohol, filled the gap and brought alcohol under 14.3%. Roussanne, which ‘gives volume’, joined the blend in 2007.
2005 has a glowing yellow gold colour. Impact here is from the firm structure, freshness and grainy grip, as opposed to richness of earlier vintages. Grenache’s thatchy, dry hay character adds a new flavour dimension.
2006 more developed, strong reddish gold and suggestion of oxidation. Follows 2005’s style but unlikely to gain further interest
2007 speaks of sunny climes and the Swartland but also has great energy and a saline edge in its subtle complexity. Lovely wine with real personality and plenty in store.

Palladius old and new (right) bottles

2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
Changes beyond the blend itself in this trio of vintages. In 2008, the bottle changed from Bordeaux shape to one with a sloped shoulder, indicative of the wine going its own way and reaching a stature similar to Columella. Picking was earlier for greater freshness. 2009 was a reference year for Sadie; Palladius became a blend of specific vineyards rather than varieties. Viognier and roussanne were dropped, being replaced by semillon blanc and gris and palomino. A dream vintage, as everything was harvested prior to the heatwaves. 2010 an easy year, the only problem being it came after 2009. The blend settled at 11 varieties, each of which has a place in the Swartland though not all liked by Sadie. 2011 identical weather pattern to 2009. Verdelho added to the blend.
2008 – Platter’s White Wine of the Year. Underwent an extended 18 months’ fermentation with a vigorous burst to dryness in October 2009. Deep yellow gold, quiet and developed with a touch of sweetness. Offers some pleasure without vitality and dimension of 2007.
2009 extraordinarily youthful, pale lemony, green; compact build with a silky undercurrent. More a sense of flavour – savouriness, herbaceousness – than anything specific. Elegant and ageworthy.
2010 youthful, pale colour contrasted by broad, mouthfilling richness with some oxidation. Lacks freshness and complexity, maybe an unrepresentative bottle if not, drink up.
2011 semillon’s beeswaxy character and satiny texture plus undertone of verdelho’s smoky, tropical melon add distinction to the freshness and precise finish. Needs good few more years to show at best.

2012, 2013
A moderate vintage that went well, 2012 is notable for the first Palladius under 14% alc. 2013 is marked by Paul Jordaan joining the team in the cellar, sales of Palladius taking off and the style settled.
2012 more open, expressive than 2011; Sadie believes it’s a vintage that would better fit now on a restaurant wine list. Balance between freshness, weight and smooth flow. Doesn’t demand introspection, so good partner to conversation.
2013 the best from the old cellar regime. Multi-dimensional both in flavour – fynbos, wild herbs, dried grass – and texture – lots of energy, silky weight and grainy grip. Great precision and potential.

2014, 2015, 2016
A key change in 2014 was a new cellar, concrete eggs and clay vessels. Sadie’s thoughts on the purpose of each vessel is instructive. ‘Introvert grapes go into concrete eggs, where they are in contact with lots of lees. Louder grapes ferment in the amphorae which have a small base and less lees contact.’ After a year in these vessels, the wine’s blended and spends a further year in large, old foudres. No other oak is involved.
Colombar joined the mix in 2015. Sadie discusses psychological maturity, a term coined by Adi Badenhorst and meaning when the winemaker wants the wine to mature. Ripe and smooth reds for drinking in the year of release or tighter and structured for ageing. In relation to Palladius, Sadie believes the wine can’t get any leaner and still be a reflection of the Swartland.
2016 confirms a growth in complexity and confidence started with 2013’s stylistic change and 2014’s vinification modification.
2014 with alcohol under 14%, energy, a spring-like fragrance of fynbos and hay, juicy flavours held by a tightly-wound core, this is a charmer with plenty finesse.
2015 less exuberant than 2014, a more serious, complex and complete blend; still closed and very firm. I guess it needs at least three or four years to start showing its best.
2016 aromatically expressive, ripe but just 13.4% alc, prolonged concentration, brimming with vitality and refreshingly dry. For the long haul.