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Platter 2019

Another year, another edition of Platter’s Wine Guide launched this evening; 2019 recording the 39th for those keeping count.

Of special significance is the 21 years Philip van Zyl has occupied the editor’s seat.  For the first three years – 1999 to 2001 – Erica Platter is also acknowledged as Consulting Editor, an arrangement which allowed for a smooth handover as she and John sold and left the guide. There was always going to be concern about who could take over from Erica;  with perfect timing, Phil and Cathy van Zyl relocated to the Cape from Johannesburg, Phil seamlessly stepping into Erica’s shoes. With her organisational skills, Cathy has always provided strong and invaluable support, keeping tabs on tasks completed, those still to be done and chivying us tasters to meet deadlines and our other tasks.

Philip van Zyl, Platter’s editor since 1999 edition

Working with Phil throughout those 21 years, apart from being a technical whiz kid, I’ve found he’s meticulous in his attention to detail – nothing gets past him; woe betide any taster who forgets to insert a vintage or inserts the wrong one (or any other piece of vital information). He also has a commendable sense of fairness; try being too hard on a wine and a gentle query will pop into your inbox (often sent at some unearthly hour of the night!); ‘Perhaps you should get a second opinion on this.’  A blind tasting by one or more of the other tasters usually results in a defendable rating. After a personal visit at the beginning of the year to ascertain each taster’s participation in the next guide, Phil is rarely spotted; he’s happiest behind his computer, where he deals with the current 13 tasters, admin and technical people with unbelievable calmness. It takes a special sort of person to do this so successfully, let alone for 21 years.  How lucky we and the guide are to have such a talented and dedicated editor.

This year’s five star haul contains many regulars; it’s good to see Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017 back for a 9th time after strangely missing out last year; Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2017, Sadie Family Wines Skurfberg 2017  and Stellenrust 53 Chenin Blanc 2017 take away three consecutive five stars. Chenin Blanc yet again claims the greatest number of five stars; 18, one more than last year but inexplicably not including any of the Alheit wonderfully expressive 2017 individuals. As the lucky taster of Chris and Suzaan’s range, I was bowled over by all their wines but the five chenins in particular. I’m bemused none sufficiently impressed the panel but it doesn’t detract from their excellence. The same applies to Richard Kershaw MW who makes a fistful of clonal chardonnays and syrahs, both intelligently- and finely crafted; unfortunately, they too failed to sway the respective panels.

Just a reminder that each producer’s wines are initially tasted sighted and over a day or so, if necessary,  by the person responsible for the entry. The five-star tasting is blind, the tasters see only the glass of wine in front of them. This sort of result happens every year, which is why, whilst celebrating the five star awardees, the excellent wines that don’t make it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Some believe the five-star tasting should also be sighted, but every effort is made to keep it as fair as possible. One attempt has been to give the panel the home-taster’s score to double check against their own deliberations, this bearing in mind the home taster has longer to assess the wine.

There were also many fewer wines in the five-star line up this year thanks to a new selection method. Every wine now receives a score out of 100, as well as a star rating. All wines scored by the home taster between 90 and 92 are rated 4.5* but do not go into the five-star tasting; that’s reserved for wines rated 93 and above.

This method not only resulted in fewer wines in the five-star line up, but fewer five stars: 90 versus 111 last year. As a more manageable affair for both organisers and tasters, it still didn’t deny wines worthy of 4.5* their rating.

Those wines in the five-star tasting which didn’t make the grade are rated either 93 or, if the panel considered them Highly Recommended, 94. As usual, 95 was the magic score for five stars, but with the idea of awarding best wines per category (rather than Wines of the Year), the panels were asked to single out their best wine in each category with a higher score; hence a very few wines are rated 96 or even 97.

The advantage of this would give wineries with fewer wines in their range the chance of a significant Platter honour. This has been adopted this year and those wines are indicated with a * in the list below. There is also a Top Performing Winery of the Year, an Editor’s Award and Newcomer Winery of the Year. I have absolutely no quarrel with any of the recipients – Mullineux, Newton Johnson Vineyards and Erika Obermeyer respectively – all are thoroughly deserving of such accolades. But it’s also an improvement to see the honours spread wider.

That said, for many, Platter has lost relevance (‘too many four stars’ is still a frequent complaint). Platter isn’t and will never be perfect (wine is only perfect in the mind of the drinker at a moment in time), but it is a guide, way beyond stars and scores and deserves recognition for that.

Meantime, the question foremost of mind is: what colour is Platter’s 2019!

Chameleon colour – apparently changes depending on the light!

TOP PERFORMING WINERY OF THE YEAR

Mullineux

EDITOR’S AWARD

Newton Johnson Vineyards

NEWCOMER WINERY OF THE YEAR

Erika Obermeyer

FIVE STAR WINES

METHODE CAP CLASSIQUE

Colmant Cap Classique Absolu Zero Dosage NV

Villiera Wines Monro Brut 2012*

Woolworths Vintage Reserve Brut 2012

SAUVIGNON BLANC UNWOODED

Steenberg Vineyards The Black Swan 2017*

SAUVIGNON BLANC WOODED

Bartho Eksteen Houtskool 2017*

CHENIN BLANC

Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2017

Botanica Chenin Blanc 2017

Cederberg Five Generations Chenin Blanc 2016

City on a Hill Chenin Blanc 2017

David & Nadia Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc 2017

David & Nadia Chenin Blanc 2017

David & Nadia Skaliekop Chenin Blanc 2017

DeMorgenzon The Divas Chenin Blanc 2017*

DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc Reserve 2017

Metzer Family Wines Montane Chenin Blanc 2017

Rall Ava Chenin Blanc 2017

Sadie Family Wines Old Vine Series Skurfberg 2017

Savage Wines Never Been Asked to Dance 2017

Spier Organic Chenin Blanc 2016

Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2015

Spioenkop Wines Sarah Raal 2017

Stellenrust 53 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2017

Thistle & Weed Duwweltjie 2017

CHARDONNAY

Haskell Anvil Chardonnay 2017

Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Chardonnay 2016*

Oak Valley Groenlandberg Chardonnay 2017

Restless River Ava Marie Chardonnay 2016

Warwick Estate The White Lady 2017

SEMILLON

Alheit La Colline 2017

Benguela Cover Lagoon Wine Catalina Semillon 2017

Rickety Bridge Road to Santiago 2016*

WHITE BLENDS

B Vintners Vine Exploration Co Harlem to Hope 2017

Lourens Family Wines Lindi Carien 2017

Mullineux Old Vines White 2017

Rall Wines White 2017

Sadie Famiy Wines Palladius 2016

Savage Wines White 2017

Stark-Condé Wines The Field Blend 2017

Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse 2017*

BORDEAUX-STYLE WHITE BLENDS

Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2017

Shannon Vineyards Capall Bán 2015

Vergelegen GVB 2015*

Warwick Estate Professor Black 2017

PINOT NOIR

Crystallum Cuvée Cinema 2017*

Newton Johnson Vineyards Pinot Noir 2017

PINOTAGE

Beeslaar Wines Pinotage 2016

Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage 2016

Kanonkop Black Label 2016*

SHIRAZ

Dorrance Wines Syrah Cuvée Ameena 2016

Hartenberg CWG Auction Reserve 2015

Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah 2015*

Luddite Shiraz 2014

Mullineux Schist Syrah 2016

Mullineux Iron Syrah 2016

Porseleinberg Shiraz 2016

Rall Ava Syrah 2017

Rhebokskloof Wine Estate Black Marble Hill Syrah 2015

Rust en Vrede Single Vineyard Syrah 2015

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Erika Obermeyer Wines Erika O Cabernet sauvignon 2015

Le Riche Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015*

Reyneke Wines Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Stellenbosch Reserve Ou Hoofgebou Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Warwick Estate The Blue Lady 2015

MERLOT

Oldenburg Vineyards 2015

Shannon Vineyards The Shannon Black 2013*

Thelema Mountain Vineyards Reserve 2015

CABERNET FRANC

Raats Family Wines Cabernet Franc 2016

Raats Family Wines Dolomite Cabernet Franc 2016*

Van Loggerenberg Breton 2017

BORDEAUX BLENDS (RED)

Allée Bleue L’amour Toujours 2014

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2015

Muratie Wine Estate Ansela van de Caab 2015

Plaisir de Merle Signature Blend 2012*

Ridgeback Signature C 2016

RED BLENDS

Beyerskloof Faith 2014 (Red blend with Pinotage)*

Boekenhoutskloof Chocolate Block 2017 (Shiraz-led Red blend )

Erika Obermeyer Erika O Syrah Grenache Noir – Cinsaut 2016 (Shiraz-led Red blend)

Saronsberg Full Circle 2016 (Shiraz-led Red blend)

Ernie Els Proprietor’s Blend 2016 (Other red blend)*

Rust en Vrede Wine Estate Estate blend (Other red blend)

Waterford Estate The Jem 2014 (Other red blend)

OTHER REDS

Elemental Bob Graveyard Tinta Barocca 2017*

Sadie Family Wines Soldaat 2017 (Grenache Noir)

Thelema Mountain Vineyards Sutherland Petit Verdot 2015

DESSERT UNFORTIFIED

Klein Constantia Estate Vin de Constance 2014*

Mullineux Straw Wine 2017 (Vin de Paille)*

Paul Cluver Estate Wines Riesling Noble Late Harvest 2017*

PORT STYLE WINES

De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve 2016

Overgaauw Wine Estate Cape Vintage 1998*

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Colourful whites


Amber, Orange, Skin-macerated, Skin Contact,  even Alternative White; there are as many descriptions for white wines which have spent time on their skins, as there are colours in the wine themselves. Add a range of varieties, blends and degrees of tannin and the winelover has to pick an uncertain path through the maze to find a wine suited to his or her taste.

Three shades of orange, one of pink from pinot gris, usually white!

It will come as some reassurance that Cathy van Zyl MW, Christian Eedes, Tim James and I found the overall quality of the 29 skin-macerated white wines we recently tasted, is good. Those 29 represented 19 producers and, at the time I thought pretty well covered what is available; just two days later I discovered the Joostenberg, so will allow I may have missed more.

The one that got away. Joostenberg Kaalgat Steen 2016

Go back just ten years when interest for these wines among South African winemakers was just starting. Craig Hawkins, then at Lammershoek, (now at Testalonga, his and his wife, Carla’s own winery) was the first to experiment, his interest piqued after tasting the skin-macerated wines of an Italian producer. This inspired him to search for more, eventually coming across those from the heartland of the style in Fruili/Italy, Slovenia and Georgia (Simon Woolf’s Amber Revolution traces the history of these wines; I reviewed it here). Hawkins’ first attempt was a chenin blanc left for five weeks on the skins, but he acknowledges one has to ‘ .. determine the level of extraction which gives the most pleasure in the bottle.’

Pleasure is what we all seek in a bottle of wine; skin-macerated white wines are no different. If there were a few in the lineup which failed on the pleasure rating, it was, as Tim noted, from having too much dry tannin lending an unwelcome austerity, a feature intensified by the generally low alcohols (four came close to 14%; Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon, Richard Hilton The Ancient, Bosman Fides and Dragonridge Cygnus;  11%-13% was the norm). In notes he sent me, Craig concurs; ‘a lot of skin contact whites for me are too extracted now, which takes away too much of the fruit and purity of the vineyard and soil.’ While these wines are anything but fruity in the sense we think of traditional young white wines with their primary aromas, the successful ones have fruit to balance the tannins and freshness. Because of the lack of primary fruit, the aromatics in wines such as El Bandito Sweet Cheeks from Muscat d’Alexandrie, Richard Hilton’s The Ancient Viognier and Maanschijn Muscat de Frontignan Grenache Gris blend appear more concentrated and exotic. Something borne out by Craig, who loves the increased muscat aroma in his Sweet Cheeks from maceration. Christian noted the most successful examples are those offering such new aromatics and flavours without losing all varietal character. That said, chenin blanc once again shows its versatility with Jurgen Gouws’ Intellego Elementis 2016, Jasper Wickens Chenin Blanc 2017 and Johan (Stompie) Meyer’s Mother Rock Liquid SkinCheninBlanc 2017 getting general nods of approval.

It was no surprise when the subject turned to whether these wines reflect  terroir or their character is determined by winemaking. For Cathy, the latter seemed to dominate in some but in his notes, Craig claims the increased spectrum of flavours originate in the vineyard, so intensify the expression of terroir but agrees over-extraction can dim a sense of place.

At this early stage of skin-macerated whites, the curiosity factor is likely more of a drawcard than any particular thoughts of terroir, or of ageing, which we can’t imagine would be of measureable benefit.

A change of mindset with regard to the purpose of these wines would be helpful. White wines are often consumed as an aperitif, reds (with their tannins) reserved for the meal. But is there any reason why tannined whites shouldn’t make just as suitable partners with dinner? More to the point, both Jasper Wickens and John Seccombe (Thorne & Daughters) confirm how popular their wines are in Japan, where the umami factor make the wines and food  complementary partners. The Japs are such hipsters, they enjoy Jasper’s unfiltered chenin in its shook-up cloudy state! (He exports all these wines to Japan, where 600 bottles sold in two weeks!) ‘The Japanese work on a simple rule,’ Craig confirms; ‘either you like it or you don’t. You don’t find many huge, woody, alcoholic wines there, it just doesn’t suit their food.’

My own, more Western dish of roast chicken went particularly well with Jurgen’s Elementis, while Richard Hilton’s The Ancient with its intense flavour and structure is a good match for lightly spiced dishes and pork. Untried but I suspect the Mostert/Suddons Smiley Spesiale (chenin) with its nutty character find a match in mature hard cheese.

The biggest drawback currently for these wines is two-pronged. On the one hand, as is so often expressed by the producers, the Wine & Spirit Board is inconsistent when it comes to certification.

Craig Hawkins was instrumental in helping the Board draw up guidelines for Skin-macerated whites and Alternative White (and Red) Wines, classes which were introduced in 2015. The only difference between the two is that the skin-macerated whites have to remain on the skins for a minimum of four days. Full malo-lactic fermentation and a maximum S02 of 40ppm help avoid dodgy wine or one killed with sulphur. Even now, this hasn’t eliminated the problem of wines being failed, some on numerous occasions, which, apart from anything else, is costly for these small volume producers.

Craig: ‘For a few years it (certification) was quite simple, but what we’ve found is the wine producers remain constant but the Wine & Spirit Board and SAWIS tasters/panel are changing. For them it’s just a job to tick a box with what they believe is correct because that’s what the mandate says. Today, the people involved are completely different from those seven years ago, the result being we’re still having the same issues within the same categories we came up with because the education of the panels has not improved.’

That’s one side; the other lies with the producers. The list below shows very few indicate on the label, (where the wine is labelled), whether the wine is skin-macerated or Alternative White. If the wines are to be better understood and accepted, the relevant category should be declared on the label.

It was gratifying that the idea of this tasting was enthusiastically received by all the producers approached and I thank them all for participating. We found it an interesting experience, each of us finding pleasurable wines – even if we wouldn’t necessarily want to drink them every evening.

Perhaps an idea to see developments in these colourful whites in two or three years.

PARTIAL SKIN-MACERATED VARIETAL WINES

Rousseau Grace Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2018 CONTROL NO SKIN CONTACT

Craven Wines Clairette Blanche 2017

JH Meyer Mother Rock Force Celeste Semillon 2017

Skinny Legs Semillon 2016

PARTIAL SKIN-MACERATED BLENDS

Blackwater Blanc 2017 chenin palomino clairette (unlabelled & as yet uncertified)

Avondale Cyclus 2014  roussanne viognier chenin semillon chardonnay

Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon 2015 chenin pinotage chardonnay

Elemental Bob My Cosmic Hand White chenin semillon viognier roussanne verdelho

FULLY SKIN-MACERATED VARIETAL WINES

Springfontein Skins Agleam Daredevils’ Drums 2017 sauvignon blanc Skins macerated white

Dragonridge Cygnus 2015 chenin blanc

Dragonridge Aldebaran 2017 chenin blanc Alternative white

Intellego Elementis 2016 chenin blanc Skin contact

Jasper Wickens Chenin Blanc 2017 Natural skin-fermented

JH Meyer Mother Rock Liquid Skin Chenin Blanc 2017 Alternative white

Smiley Spesiale 2017 chenin blanc

Testalonga El Bandito Skin 2017 chenin blanc 10 days skin maceration

Baby Bandito Stay Brave 2017 chenin blanc Macerated for 11 days

Môrelig Skin Macerated Chenin Blanc 2018

Elemental Bob Retro Chenin Blanc 2016

Maanschijn Spin Cycle 2017 verdelho

Bosman Fides Grenache Blanc 2017 Skin macerated

Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier 2017 semillon gris Skin fermented

Jasper Wickens RooiGroen Semillon 2017

Raised by Wolves Rooi Groen Semillon 2016

Fram Grenache Gris 2017

Maanschijn Easy Tiger 2017 grenache gris

Richard Hilton The Ancient Viognier 2017 Skin macerated

Craven Pinot Gris 2017

El Bandito Sweet Cheeks 2017 Muscat d’Alexandrie 11 days skin contact

FULLY SKIN-MACERATED BLENDS

Maanschijn Muscat de Frontignan Grenache Gris 2018

Chardonnay controversial

A few months ago there were confused, even angry mumbles from South African chardonnay producers when not one local example made the cut to be included on an international line up of New World chardonnays vs Burgundy.

The genesis of this blind tasting was a remark passed by Keith Prothero, one-time partner in the Mullineux wines, great supporter of South African wines and generally knowledgeable oenophile, that most people would not be able to tell the difference between New and Old World chardonnay.

Several tastings to decide the final line up did include South African wines, pre-selected by Greg Sherwood MW, after a raft of suggestions from local winelovers and across the stylistic spectrum; even so, none made it through.

I was as mystified as anyone by this omission. South African chardonnays have been on a roll; holding their own on international competitions, accruing many Platter five stars and are generally agreed to be in a good space.

My mystification was joined by disappointment when, a short while later, a blind tasting of local chardonnays left me and my fellow tasters shaking our heads in disbelief at the struggle we had to find top wines. A handful of quality individuals did come through, but it was the general ordinariness that shook us. There are still oak problems, though less so than in the past. More troubling seems to be over-enthusiastic working of lees – rolled, stirred or even shaken (well, maybe not the last), which leaves the wines ‘muddy’ and devoid of precision. Chardonnay is recognised as a grape for winemakers’ moulding but it should still display a sense of place.This is a pretty ruthless overall assessment of a line up which likely contained many enjoyable wines. But then Greg and Keith were ruthless over the international chardonnays that were included.

Chardonnay is very much a focus at present; last week Tim James and I tasted three very different examples. Radio adverts can be annoyingly memorable; the one for Vriesenhof Unwooded Chardonnay 2017 falls into that category through its vulgarity and being totally out of character with this producer. The same agency could have had a hand in the back label which assures: ‘This is a wine style that highlights the playfulness of the varietal ..’, whatever playful chardonnay might be. The claims that it’s light and refreshing and bursting with fruit are more credible. Otherwise, there’s nothing terribly complex or interesting and a pricey R100 for what it offers.

There’s reason to take note when Tim Atkin scores a wine 92/100 (careful scrutiny of the sticker reveals a 2016 Report rating); it’s also a Sommeliers Selection for 2018. Take note too of the latter’s description on their gong, ‘Voluptuous and Rich’, as it accurately describes the Whalehaven Conservation Coast Chardonnay 2014. The back label enjoys some colourful imaginings: the mid-palate expressive of ‘croissant and baguette’, which somehow ‘evolves into a residing (sic) and persistent minerality ..’ Pretty much a meal in a bottle at a meal’s price of R360.

The idea behind releasing the wine with two years’ extra age is so that ‘connoisseurs and sommeliers can purchase wines where optimal bottle aging has contributed extra flavour development.’ In this case, advancing on the chewy, rich texture and toffee-like flavours, is oxidation. Neither Tim nor I give it much chance of further longevity. Are there still fans of this style? It does seem a world away from the real cool climate, terroir-driven wines as its Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley source is described.

Thelema’s Sutherland Chardonnay Reserve 2016 (R300) offers better value and authenticity in its Elgin origin. It has the area’s purity and acute freshness but is also nicely anchored by lees-generated weight; absolutely no muddiness of texture here. A further two or three years should show better integration and complexity.

A more important focus on Chardonnay falls under this year’s Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award. The five finalists are Arco Laarman of Laarman Family Wines, Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon, Murray Barlow of Rustenberg, Ronel Wiid of Bartinney and Clayton Reabow of Môreson; as credible a list as one would hope for.

Tomorrow sees the results of the Prescient Chardonnay Report, a competition run by Winemag with judges Christian Eedes, Roland Peens and James Pietersen. Will any of the DC finalists feature among the top scores? What will be the overall opinion of the wines entered? I have a feeling there’ll be surprises and controversy.

There’ll probably be the same reaction when the Platter five star wines are announced on 5th November.

Chardonnay offers a style for every taste, even if apparently not yet of a quality to stand up against the world’s best.

Amber Revolution

For publication of a book on wine to be fully crowdfunded, you must know the subject is of unusual interest. Nearly 400 people, myself included, find the subject of Orange, Amber or Skin-macerated whites and their history, of sufficient interest that our contributions have enabled Simon Woolf to produce this fascinating history and resurgence of the Amber Revolution.

Woolf’s ‘light-bulb’ moment with orange wine occurred in 2011, deep in the limestone cellar of Sandi Skerk in the little-known northern Italian Carso region (technically part of Friuli, but Woolf says is culturally quite separate to the rest of the region). He describes the wine Skerk hands him as ‘a luminous amber liquid, seemingly tinged with an electric pink afterglow. The aromas hit first – they’re as bright and vital as the surrounding are as dark and mysterious. A tiny sip is enough to release the life force within. Intense yet refreshing sensations crowd into the mouth with such force and complexity that the brain can scarcely process them in any meaningful fashion.’

So memorable was this occasion, Woolf determined to write about it and this ancient wine style. But searches through his wine library and the internet turned up little information. ‘There was categorically no book,’ he concludes.

His research led to awareness of Joško Gravner and Stanko Radikon in Oslavia but also to Georgia, where the ancient tradition of making wine in buried amphorae, known as qvevris, was still practised. Over the following three years, Woolf visited Georgia, Gravner and Radikon. Coincidentally, there was also renewed interest in orange wine, which had  become fashionable. Surely the time was right for a comprehensive book on the history – ancient and modern – of orange wine.

Amber Revolution with its truly revolutionary fist shake!
304 pages, full colour, hardback

‘My fate was sealed,’ Woolf acknowledges. Giving up his IT job proved easier than finding a publisher; ‘None were persuadable,’ but no matter, a year ago Amber Revolution was crowdfunded on Kickstarter by orange winelovers worldwide.

Woolf first tracks the political history of Friuli, Slovenia and Georgia, ‘ .. geographically volatile parts of the world’ for their 20th century populations. Apart from loss of identity, their history was buried. No wonder the story of orange wine was sketchy to say the least.

Chapters on each of these regions, their grape varieties, winemaking both ancient and new-wave and the making of qvevris are covered; evocative photographs of the winemakers (who look very much people of the soil; their cellars are likewise humble – no fancy modern constructions here!) and their winemaking traditions (the photographic sequence of  Joško Gravner punching down ribolla gialla grapes in qvevris is particularly illustrative) complement Woolf’s flowing story.

As with anything out of the ordinary in a modern wine world, where a few classic French varieties hold sway, orange wines from little known varieties and regions have been a strange anomaly. Thanks to their red-wine like texture, including tannins, they are much better appreciated with food.  Chapter 9, I am kurious oranj tracks some of America’s top sommeliers’ early experiences with and efforts to get orange wines onto wine lists and into customers’ glasses. Needless to say, it required much effort.

Many have still not come to terms with orange wine which is seen as being allied to the natural wine scene, as the Haters gonna hate chapter spells out. Hugh Johnson famously dismissed orange wines as ‘.. a sideshow and a waste of time’. A tasting with Woolf revealed Johnson didn’t have a clear idea of what orange wine is, rather had conflated it with natural wine. That he left with a better appreciation of skin-fermented whites shows there are many misconceptions and much education needed.

The final section concentrates on Woolf’s recommended producers worldwide, including contact details and some opinions. Craig Hawkins of Testalonga; Intellego’s Jurgen Gouws, who caught Hawkins’ enthusiasm when working with him at Lammershoek and Mick and Jeanine Craven of Craven Wines, who transformed clairette blanche from its Cinderella status via skin contact, represent South Africa.

When Woolf comes to update Amber Revolution, I dare say he’ll have a much larger choice of South African producers to consider. Two that come to mind are Richard Hilton with his new truly orange, The Ancient Viognier and the ever-innovative Charles Back, who has  experimented with skin-fermented grenache blanc (and noir), still lying in small French oak barrels. New qvevris are en route.  With winemakers’ technical expertise increasing, the wines are improving and getting more interesting. It is to be hoped the Wine and Spirit Board keeps pace with this movement.

When I decided to be part of crowdfunding Amber Revolution, beyond my enthusiasm for these wines, I had no idea how the book would turn out. I’m delighted I’ve helped in a small way in its realisation. Woolf’s writing is a pleasure to read, informative but also with personal touches. Throughout the chapters there are separate inserts on such issues as Challenges and faults in orange wines; Serving and food matching, The art of making qvevri and much more.

‘There was categorically no book,’ Woolf concluded seven years ago. Today thanks to him, there is. Whatever your opinions on orange wine, Amber Revolution will surely fill in many gaps in winelovers’ knowledge; it also does justice to the pioneering regions of Friuli, Slovenia and Georgia.

Amber Revolution may be ordered from Simon Woolf’s website http://www.themorningclaret.com/shop/ for 35 Euros.

Beyond flavour

It strikes me as strange that we describe food in terms of flavour and texture yet in wine it’s entirely lop-sided, aromas and flavours capturing the majority of any description (‘adjectival confetti’ as Andrew Jefford so aptly describes them in Decanter). Often these are relevant only to the reviewer’s immediate audience. I associate hawthorn flowers with young, unoaked chardonnay, especially Chablis, but unless you’ve walked along an English hedgerow in spring, this will have little resonance for South Africans.

Texture and structure are the building blocks of wine, more important in many ways than simple flavour. They also make the wine more multi-dimensional and interesting, And I’m not thinking of red wines only. An increasing number of winemakers are experimenting with skin-fermented whites, whether as part of a blend, or full-on with post-fermentation maceration.  White grapes also have tannins and anthocyanins, so both structure and colour can be obtained from fermenting on the skins.  Craig Hawkins was one of the first to experiment with this method, nearly ten years’ ago now, when he was at Lammershoek. His first efforts now seem rather crude compared with what he and others are producing today.

Skin-fermented whites can often come across more vinous than fruity, as is the case with Francois Haasbroek’s Blackwater Blanc. The base is barrel-fermented chenin plus skin-fermented then barrel-aged clairette blanche and palomino, which give off a pale orange glow and suggestion of grip. Its dry, savoury nature suggest it’s better suited with food than as an aperitif.

Richard Hilton’s The Ancient Viognier adopts the full-on approach. Fermentation in open 500 litre foudres with two or three daily punch downs, followed by closing the lid and leaving the macerating wine for a month before pressing and a further few months in barrel. The result is truly orange in colour, the texture silky, full of ripe fruit all encased in freshening tannins. It’s brilliant with spicy dishes but also delicious solo.

 

 

 

In the above wines oak, only old, is nothing more than a container where the wine can evolve. These days, there’s interest to be found beyond oak and even skin contact: cement eggs, clay amphorae and terracotta pots also impart their own individual texture to whites, a resonating soundwave intensity is how I think of it.

Then we come to the sheer concentration of the grapes themselves which provide texture. This is very much the case in the Mullineux’s Old Vine White blend; old oak barrels are merely fermentation vessels, the concentration of old vine Swartland fruit provide layers of both flavour and texture with freshness lifting them into 3-D. At the recent ten-year vertical, it was interesting to discover how the wines changed not only with time but also with the addition of varieties other than the usual trio of chenin, clairette and viognier. Semillon gris joined the trio in 2014, grenache blanc a year later. These wines are still young; the mysteries of maturity as yet remain unknown but the oldest, 2008 resembles an old Rioja, deliciously oxidative and savoury, 2010 fresher, more elegant and creamy ‘more Burgundian’ opines Chris Mullineux;  all have what it takes to mature, 2017 probably best to date.

If freshness (not to be confused with acid) in whites is rather taken for granted,  freshness in reds needs more attention. This too would reveal the textural layers they also have, but so often are missing when the fruit is harvested overripe, some residual sugar is left after fermentation and acid has been clumsily added; the result is a monolith. The holy grail used to be physiological ripeness, nowadays many are chasing freshness, a goal which often provides greater flavour purity.

Newton Johnson Windansea vineyard

I have to agree with colleagues who criticise some of the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction selections for their high alcohol, sweet reds. Showy but ultimately shallow, lacking in freshness and, as a result, definition. It amazes me that wines like these can be selected alongside the likes of Newton Johnson Windansea Pinot Noir 2017 and 2016, Gottfried Mocke’s Pinot Noir 2017 (from Kaaimansgat), Jordan Sophia 2015 and Boschkloof Epilogue Syrah 2016. Apart from freshness, all these speak of the variety each is made from both in purity of flavour and texture: the pinots with supple flow, Gottfried’s with cool climate heady intensity; Sophia ripe, long-lived cab tannins, fleshed with merlot (there’s cab franc and petit verdot too), the oak flavours complementing the wine (too often not the case) and the Boschkloof Epilogue vibrant, spicy, supple but not lacking muscle nor fine grip and just enough oak.

These are wines that give pleasure to the bottom of the bottle.

There is much in wine beyond flavour.

Symbiotic relationships

There must be many reasons why South African wine has  found its sense of place, individuality and ever-improving quality; one, rarely discussed, but which deserves a closer look, is that of winemakers fulfilling this role with a producer but also making wines under their own label.

It’s nothing new; Beyers Truter was possibly the first in 1989, when he started Beyerskloof while still winemaker at Kanonkop. The forward-thinking Krige brothers, owners of Kanonkop, encouraged and supported Truter; he, in turn, mentored Abrie Beeslaar, who took over from him and now, in turn, has his own label, Beeslaar Wines; a pinotage, of course.

Another visionary, Fairview’s Charles Back, has done the same for both his winemakers, Anthony de Jager, who had Homtini Shiraz and more recently, Stephanie Wiid, a partner in Thistle and Weed.

Today, the number of similar relationships is growing. Three winemakers who work with other winemakers and have their own labels, relate their wine background, relationship with the winemaker they work with and their views on a relationship I see as symbiotic.

Jasper Wickens, winemaker with Adi Badenhorst, started his Swerver range in 2012 (since  his marriage, in partnership with his wife, Franziska). ‘I come from a family of wine lovers, grew up on Zevenwacht and, at 17, started working in the tasting room and continued working in the cellar whilst studying a BSc with Viticulture & Oenology at Stellenbosch,’ he recounts. ‘Before leaving for a harvest in Napa, I met Adi Badenhorst, who was regarded as ‘a complete cowboy character’ and whose suggestions were completely the opposite from what I’d been taught.  It was really challenging and I kind of idolized him as a rebel winemaker.’

On his return from Napa, Wickens requested to work the 2009 harvest with Badenhorst, a learning experience he describes as offering; ‘New ideas,  experiments, different terroir and grapes; it was such an enjoyable challenge and exciting atmosphere.’ Spells with Eben Sadie in Spain and Tom Lubbe in France added experience and knowledge, but Wickens always returned to work for Badenhorst: ‘He had his feet on the ground, but was always trying something new and growing.’

Wickens doesn’t hesitate to credit Badenhorst with encouraging him to develop his own wines: ‘“Make real quantities,’ he told me, ‘don’t play around with one barrel of this or that.” ‘  He also inspired me to develop my own ideas and make wines that I like. Aside from wine,  one can learn a lot of life skills from Adi.’

Photo courtesy of Jamie Goode

Jacques de Klerk, now a partner in The Winery of Good Hope with Alex Dale and others, and the man behind Reverie Chenin Blanc, found wine after dropping out of a law degree at Stellenbosch University; first via working at a big co-op, followed by a trip to Europe to discover real wine culture and enrolling at Elsenburg on his return. He met Alex Dale through Adam Mason when both he and Mason were at Klein Constantia. The Winery of Good Hope was looking for a winemaker and the rest is history.

Several factors attracted de Klerk to work with Dale:  seeking out special vineyards to produce terroir-driven, site specific wines; the opportunity to work with internationally-experienced people like him and Edouard Labeye and, not least, the chance to drink stunning international wines from their budding import business. The experience of exposure to so many regions, varieties and styles proved an inspiration and enabled de Klerk to form his own ideas for something uniquely South African; thanks to The Winery’s Black Rock Swartland blend, he found the ideal area to source fruit.

It was a project supported by Dale from the start; ‘In fact he suggested it to me over a bottle or two,’ de Klerk acknowledges . ‘He convinced the other Winery shareholders that it would be mutually beneficial.’ The early years of Reverie Chenin Blanc taught de Klerk a lot; ‘I had to prove that my ideas worked.’ The Winery’s Radford Dale range has benefitted from incorporation of many of those ideas and techniques de Klerk trialed. In turn, Radford Dale’s established brand lends credibility to his Reverie.

Photo courtesy of Winemag

Franco Lourens is the newest Young Gun on the block; his recently-launched Lourens Family Wines range includes two chenins described by his ‘boss’, Chris Alheit as; ‘a brilliant example of the effect of origin on wine – both extremely good and yet completely different.’ Not a bad endorsement from one at the top of his game.

Paarl born and raised, Lourens recalls the inspiration to learn the art of winemaking started as he cycled past vineyards to school and saw tractors pulling loads of grapes through town, their sticky juice spilling over the road. Studies at CPUT in Wellington and Elsenburg were followed by a spell at Schalk Burger & Sons and harvests at Tokara, Jordan, Vasse Felix in Margaret River and Ramey Wines in California; back home, he worked as assistant winemaker to David Finlayson at Edgebaston before joining the Alheits in 2016.

It took an evening’s chat at a Wine Cellar ‘Butch and Fin Show’ for Alheit to approach Lourens and ask if he’d be interested to help, as the workload was getting too much. With this came the offer to help Lourens build and grow his own business. He happily declares, ‘Chris and Suzaan are my number one supporters; without them there would be no Lourens Family Wines.’

‘We have the same winemaking philosophy; it gives me the opportunity to work with some of the best old South African vineyards, which I’m passionate about but more than that Chris and Suzaan are the kindest and most generous people I know.’ It seems the perfect match. The couple have inspired Lourens in many ways, ‘To make wines true to myself, as naturally as possible and not to follow trends,’ Lourens discloses.

It’s obvious this arrangement in these three cases works to the benefit of both parties but is this something that could work more generally?

All three believe it can be beneficial with provisos. Making your own wines can help others you work with see things from a different angle, give new ideas.  It also reflects well on the mentor winemaker if his charge is making waves and is successful. But they warn, it depends on the relationship and unique situation of winemaker and employer; both parties need to be honest from day one and have a clear plan for the future and remember the day job is a first priority.

Swerver, Reverie and the new Lourens Family Wines  are right up there in quality – the former two have scored Platter 5* ratings; Lourens are submitting for the first time this year, so watch this space – and Badenhorst, The Winery of Good Hope and Alheit are regarded among the country’s best producers, also with several Platter 5* to their names.

More important, the reputation and combined success of both parties in the market place is testament to an encouraging inclusive attitude, directed at promoting South African wine rather than competing with one’s neighbour. Indeed, a symbiotic relationship.

Thoughts from abroad

Travel broadens the mind; it also lends perspective to home-formed views.

Prague and Czech wines
My European sortie started in Prague, where, for five days I travelled with a group of singles. I guess the common attraction was the city itself, otherwise we were a motley group of 30 (just four men!); although several drank wine, that was the limit of their interest in it.

Prague has its own vineyard which grows below the castle

Even at this level, the Czech wine industry should learn a lesson of how to profitably engage with visitors. Constraints of the travel company’s budget meant meal-time drinks were limited to one glass (beer or soft drinks were the alternatives to wine), delivered to the table as is, with no way of knowing whose or what wine it was.

Most wines were dull but serviceable, a notable exception was a truly awful red wine so volatile, it was undrinkable. My complaint to the Tour Manager was met with ‘the others found nothing wrong’, but I was given another glass of something better.

 

 

My point is, the others, who had sufficient interest to ask for a glass of wine rather than beer or soft drink, might have had a more positive experience than ‘nothing wrong’ with better quality.

Czech wine & tapas at Vinograf wine bar

A brief visit to Vinograf, an excellent wine bar in Prague, proved that such quality exists. As far as I’m concerned, it was a lost opportunity to promote quality Czech wines, not only with our group, but any visitors to the country.

A lesson also for South Africa; always ensure the best wines within the budget are served, whatever the level of interest among the wine drinkers, especially bearing in mind the ever-growing tourism market.

England and English wine

I feel for anyone who attempts to create a wine route map of English wineries. There is never just one way to reach any of them, besides many are off the beaten track which involves driving down narrow, winding lanes. Experience getting to Breaky Bottom, Ridgeview, Wiston, Nyetimber, Camel Valley, Denbies and, recently Hattingley and Holmfirth, illustrates what a nightmare it would be.

Holmfirth vineyard with town in background

Holmfirth is interestingly different from the rest in that it produces no sparkling wine, grows only hybrids and is located between Sheffield and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. If the vines look a bit weather-beaten, it’s no surprise; the wind howls across the exposed vineyard; yields are commensurately low, ie tiny. Three wines are produced: a white from seyval and solaris, a rosé both a bit acidic but fruity and clean with an oaked rondo red the best of the trio – very

drinkable.

 

 

 

The English sparkling wines from the southern vineyards of Hattingley are in a totally different league, as those of the other vineyards I’ve visited.

The rapid rise in quality of English sparkling wine is well documented but it needs tasting to fully appreciate how good the wines have become in a relatively short time. Hattingley’s first vineyard was planted in 2008, just ten years ago. Today, this winery owned by lawyer, Simon Robinson, has 65 acres (26.3 ha), both owned and leased, roughly half near the cellar, the rest in the Test Valley.

Hattingley vineyard with plastic sheeting experiment

Local winelovers used to the monoculture of Stellenbosch would find strange the lack of vineyards around Hattingley cellar, a situation not unusual in England. The closest vineyard, a short drive away, is planted on a south-facing chalk slope to chardonnay, pinots noir, gris and meunier. Like many others, Hattingley carry out experiments in the vineyards; it is hoped improved growth will result from the clear plastic sheeting in the photo.

 

 

 

 

Diseases and pests are what one might expect; rabbits are a constant menace but winemaker, Emma Rice also mentioned badgers as fancing ripe grapes. As a protected species, various methods other than extermination have to be sought.

I first visited an English cellar back in 1976; then, Wootton Vineyard in Somerset run by the Gillespies was considered a pioneer in producing quality English wine in a cellar which now would look very artisanal. They also custom crushed grapes for other growers. Hattingley cellar, planned by Robinson and Rice, enjoys the benefits of equipment designed to help produce top quality bubbles. Oak is part of this, older barriques being used for roughly 25% of the wine.

Emma Rice, Hattingley winemaker

Emma Rice, a Plumpton graduate, has worked in Napa and Tasmania and twice won Winemaker of the Year in the UK. She also founded Custom Crush, a wine analysis laboratory and winemaking consultancy for English wine producers, now run from Hattingley. She has also worked in most fields associated with wine including retail.

Rice and the Hattingley team produce sparkling wines which show a serious understanding of what constitutes quality; I was particularly impressed by the Classic Reserve (£30) a 50% chardonnay, 30% pinot noir, 19% pinot meunier, 1% pinot gris blend with 15% oaked and 20% reserve wine for added complexity and richness. Dosage of 7 g/l balances the bright acidity to promote a dry finish.

A Rosé (£35) from pinots noir, meunier and precose (fruburgunder) is aimed at a fruity style; the addition of 10% barrel fermented wine and two years on lees adds extra dimension without masking the fruit. Again balance without losing juicy brightness is achieved with 8 g/l dosage.

There’s also an England first in the red sparkling pinot and I saw a Prestige Cuvée sold at retail for £80.

Hattingley is considered among the leading English producers of fizz; considering the quality level already reached, they and the others I’ve visited and/or tasted, the future looks very bright. I say this with some confidence after also drinking some very ordinary Champagnes during my stay in England.

Spotlight on site

An ever-shrinking pie is being cut into smaller and smaller segements. That’s the broad picture of South Africa’s area under vine and the number of producers making wine from those vines.

Figures just released show a decrease of 7601 ha since 2007, leaving an official 2017 total of 94 545 ha under wine vines; many believe the true figure is much lower.

Lack of profitability and drought are among reasons for this steady decline. Not all is doom and gloom; new vineyards are being planted, today with much more attention being paid to new areas and sites in the search for wines of distinction and a sense of place.

Stephanie Wiid, Johan Kruger and Arco Laarman are all names that are, in Wiid’s case, or were, in the others, associated with well-known producers: Fairview, Sterhuis and Glen Carlou respectively. Both Kruger and Laarman have started labels under their own names, while Wiid, in partnership with friends, has the Thistle and Weed brand. All focus on site and producing wines with a sense of place.

Wiid makes her Duwweltjie Chenin Blanc from a block of heritage bush vines planted in 1956. Named after the Duwweltjies or Devil’s thorns that grow in the vineyard and stick to the soles of one’s shoes, the wine itself is far more friendly and delightful – but then it is a 2017. Full of natural vibrancy and fresh, crunchy red apple flavours with the promise of more floral and wild herb complexity in store; the patient will be rewarded. For a wine of this quality, R185 isn’t exorbitant these days.

Both Kruger and Laarman have worked extensively with chardonnay; their love of the variety is now encouraging them to explore way beyond their original boundaries of Stellenbosch and Paarl respectively.

The family behind Kruger Family Wines.

Piekernierskloof is not a spot I’d associate with chardonnay; indeed, it yields a quite unusual wine, especially Kruger Family Wines Sans Chêne 2017 (R125) (unoaked but the term also means ‘no chains’, appropriate for this solo-flyer). A riot of spice, fynbos with a suggestion of eucalyptus aren’t traditional chardonnay descriptors, though it is well-structured and really dry. I think it’ll be a love it or hate it wine. The oaked version, from the same Klipkop vineyard (R275) has some of the unoaked version’s character but more typicity thanks to (well-judged) oak and a creamy texture. Perhaps a more acceptably distinctive style.

With Walker Bay Chardonnay 2017 (R225) we’re back in very familiar chardonnay territory; gentle lemony, nutty notes lifted by fresh, natural acid and supportive oaking, none new. An elegant wine, my pick of the chardonnays described here.

Should you wonder why Kruger chose to spend much time in his bakkie travelling between Piekenierskloof and Walker Bay (he also makes a smart pinot noir called Pearly Gates from Upper Hemel en Aarde (R175)), one reason is that they’re linked by granite soils. This offers an opportunity to learn how the same soils in different regions creates diverse wines.

Striking packaging on Arco Laarman new wines; each line represents facet of viti/viniculture culminating in Focal Point of wine’s distinction

Laarman’s Focal Point Chardonnay 2017 (R305) comes from further along the South coast, Vermaaklikheid to be tongue-twistingly precise (near Riversdale). I admit the new oak vanillins ring too loudly for me, but it also enjoys good vigour and underlying creaminess, so maybe time will forge greater harmony with the bright, citrusy fruit.

Cinsaut (cinsault in Laarman’s case) is another fashionable addition in each winemaker’s range; Kruger’s Old Vines 2017 from Piekernierskloof (R175), Laarman’s Focal Point 2017 from Bottelary Hills (R210). They share some whole bunch, spontaneous fermentation and ageing in French oak, but Laarman’s edges it as the more subtle and elegant. There’s much discussion on the profit of ageing cinsaut; frankly, these two are enjoyable now, perfect for warm weather, white fish and lightly spiced dishes.

On the subject of food, what to pair with sauvignon blanc is often a challenge, at least those examples with showy fruit and hint of residual sweetness, which is what most sauvignon drinkers expect.

Winemaker, Matt Day explaining details of his Metis Sauvignon Blanc

That’s not the goal of Matt Day, winemaker at highly-regarded sauvignon producer, Klein Constantia. A working visit to Sancerre’s Pascal Jolivet in 2012 inspired Day’s Metis. It was here he learned the importance of soil in the expression of place.

The Metis joint venture between KC and Jolivet began the following vintage, the fruit sourced from one of the highest blocks on decomposed granite; further blocks have been added since.

The winemaking approach is totally different from the sauvignon norm: oxidised juice, natural ferment, a year on lees in 500 litre neutral French oak and a little sulphur added prior to bottling. Pascal’s son, Clement, who was here to share the experience of a vertical of the first four vintages of Metis, advised ‘The best way to work with sauvignon blanc is to forget it’s sauvignon.’ Suggesting it can be much more interesting than just sauvage flavours.

Line up of Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, New Zealand & Klein Constantia Metis tasting

After re-tuning our palates with two Jolivet wines, an edgy Sancerre 2016 and broader Pouilly-Fumé 2014, Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly 2014 and completely atypical New Zealand sauvignon from Greywacke, we were ready for Metis 2013 – 2016.

The youngest and current release, suggests time is a requirement of this more structured, high acid style; 2013 confirms such recommendation. Still youthful, it showed outstanding evolution after an hour in the glass. Fruit? Yes, but delivered more with a sense of ripeness than overt tropical or green tones. Alcohol? Yes, there’s that too; over 14% in the youngest two, but never a niggling intrusion, mainly thanks to the wine being bone dry.

As this description might suggest, Metis is no aperitif wine, but has many possibilities as a food partner. So far, and it’s early days yet, Metis’ distinction by a similarity of style derived from site.

Sending a clear message

As winelovers know, the South African wine scene is a bewildering, crowded place. Scan the supermarket shelves or even those of small independent retailers and I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least half a dozen unfamiliar labels. If the competition for established producers is a challenge, imagine what’s it’s like for a newcomer; to be heard above the noise demands not only quality wines but focused, clear marketing and being out there. This applies as much to groups flying under a particular banner, as it does to individual producers.

Some get it right.

The Swartland Independents  start with a clear message in their name – Swartland wines made by independent producers. The Swartland Revolution, now replaced by the Swartland Heritage Festival, introduced winelovers to their wines and those of an international guest over a fun weekend of wine and food. Beyond the group, each member works hard to maintain and increase the value of the Swartland brand, whether via social media, tastings, wine dinners and shoe leather, both locally and abroad. Of course, it helps that many are regarded as among South Africa’s best winemakers producing some of its most desirable wines. Even if there is another generation of Young Guns now, the Swartland Independents are no naval gazers but always looking to be one step ahead of the game. The group isn’t all about fun and games (and wine), there are rules and regulations for membership too which lend credibility; these are set out under Values on their website, one it’s refreshing to see kept up to date.

The Old Vine Project  also projects a clear message, starting with the name. As I wrote after the recent launch of the Certified Heritage Certification Seal: ‘a wine from a vineyard a minimum of 35 years old, made by a member of OVP may carry the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal with the planting date.’ The process throughout is authenticated by the relevant authorities. Certified Heritage Vineyards plaques spread the message to visitors at members’ cellar doors.

Tastings of old vine wines both abroad and locally have received generous praise as has the project itself. Like the Swartland Independents, OVP members number some of the Cape’s most well-regarded and high-profile winemakers; a list may be found on the informative, easily-navigated website, a source worth using.

Less easy to get to grips with at first glance is Cape Vintner Classification, which recently presented the first wines gaining this accreditation. The concept has had an unusually long gestation, its initial intentions being announced some five years ago. The intervening silence led some to wonder whether it would ever get off the ground, especially as there were rumours of disagreements between members with some dropping out.

One needs to turn to the website’s Home page for some enlightenment on the name:
‘The Cape Vintner Classification (CVC) is an independent body committed to the accreditation, governance, representation and promotion of distinctive regional site specific Cape wines.’

Quite a mouthful.

‘Discover’, as the site suggests, leads to the group’s Vision as outlined under eight categories, followed by a potted history since 1659 (I’m not sure of the relevance of Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification to CVC) and finally CVC’s founders, all senior statesmen in the industry. And so it goes on through detailed criteria for membership and the Four Cornerstones as well as tiers of accreditation. As far as I can tell, this mass of information has remained unchanged since that 2013 launch.

More’s the pity now CVC is up and running. From chatting to Don Tooth, MD of Vergelegen, a member and host to the first tasting, I understand that the very important Estate requirement has been dropped; ‘As we wish to bring in younger members’. (The point being today’s youngsters lease rather than own vineyards or have their own farms.)
Whew, I wonder. CVC is clearly, heavy on bureaucracy and very much Establishment oriented in membership (There’s no actual list of members, just flags on a map, which, when highlighted, indicate the producer’s name). It’s difficult to imagine free-ranging youngsters, more attuned to groups like the Swartland Independents and Old Vine Project, becoming members of CVC.

To the nub and the wines. Around 50 made it through the qualification blind tasting which requires five vintages of the same wine to be assessed for consistency and quality. Michael Fridjhon, Cathy van Zyl MW and Neil Ellis are those I know were on the panel; maybe there were others – there was no official confirmation. There will be wines in a producer’s range which don’t carry the seal and those that do the first time, may not when the wines are next evaluated in five years’ time. What is the consumer to make of all this? I can’t help but think CVC could also stand for Consumer Very Confused.

On a more positive note, there are some cracker wines. A conversation-stopping Vergelegen Schaapenberg Sauvignon Blanc 2017, is probably the best ever; Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is all one could want from a restrained, classic style cab, while Delaire Graff’s Botmaskop 2015 is a fine, beautifully-crafted Bordeaux-style blend. I also particularly liked the fresh, more pinot-like Neethlingshof The Owl Post Pinotage 2015. Shiraz proved the only disappointing category.

Finally, a suggestion for CVC. Under the heading Communication Strategies, it is stressed; ‘communication with trade and press both local and international should be clear and effective’.  Such goal will require the website be brought up to date and they would do well to engage the services of a professional PR firm to clarify for media and consumer CVC’s currently complicated message.

New CVC seal attached to accredited wines

Hope rewarded

Is it important that our wines express vintage variation? Do the majority of winemakers encourage this?

There is still a commonly held belief that given the Cape’s generally temperate climate, vintage variation is limited and good wines can be made every year.

Of course there will be some good wines every year (that’s true of every wine producing country) and consistency is to be applauded, but consistency should be a reflection of quality rather than the forcing of wine into a style that the vintage doesn’t deliver. The result will likely not be very enjoyable but also lack authenticity.

Sebastian Beaumont holding the fresh & wonderful Chenin Blanc 2011

This was an issue raised by winemaker, Sebastian Beaumont at the recent vertical of Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc, Beaumont Family Wines’ star white. ‘It is what it is,’ he commented as 2013 was poured (the vertical covered 2010 to the newly-released 2017). The weather event making a tall poppy of the wine was 50mm of rain over five days in February, just what botrytis spores ordered. The regular spontaneous fermentation stopped with 8 grams/litre of residual sugar, the highest ever (>2 g/l is more usual), and a suggestion of honeyed botrytis.

Beaumont admits there were doubts about releasing this very different Hope under that label; ‘Will customers understand this vintage variation?’ As a Hope enthusiast, I wouldn’t have wanted the farm not to release 2013; yes, it’s sweeter, more luscious than other years but well balanced and should gain in interest over at least the next three to five years. Beaumont also produced a Demi-Sec chenin that year.

Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2010 – 2017.
The label change made in 2014

The story of Hope Marguerite begins in 1974 and 1978, when the two chenin blanc vineyards providing the fruit were planted as bush vines. They’ve since been lifted onto a low trellis. A prototype Hope under Chenin Blanc Barrel Reserve was made in 1996 by Niels Verburg; the first Hope Marguerite followed in 1997, the name honouring that of Sebastian Beaumont’s much-loved paternal grandmother, ‘an elegant lady’, much like her wine.

An unfussy vinification takes place in barrel, mainly around 13 years old with up to 25% new, depending on vintage; during its year in oak, the lees are stirred every two to three weeks with S02 added, as is acid when necessary but at the pre-ferment stage.

Elegance is a constant; alcohols, generally around 12.5%, Beaumont’s ideal, occasionally step up to 13.5%. But it’s more fruit evolution than alcohol which makes some vintages, notably drier ones, seem bigger: 2010 and 2012 fall into that category, although the latter has a lighter, more vivacious feel than the nose suggests.

Without doubt, the star of the older vintages is 2011. On arrival, we were served the unwooded Chenin Blanc 2011; still singing, it enjoys a wet wool (nicer than it sounds!), ripe red apple complexity lifted by crunchy, fruity acidity. Hope is more complex with a steely backbone and tasty, savoury length; still youthful. It seems a pity to drink it even now, as much more is promised in future.

It is extraordinary that South African chenin, grown in a much warmer climate than that of the Loire, has the ability to age, if not as long as its French counterpart, at least longer than one would think possible. Seven years is nothing for the 2011. I’ve found an 09 in the cellar; it will be interesting to see that as a 10-year-old.

Most vintages of Hope are serious, contemplative wines, very ready to show off their best with Asian food – and doubtless, other dishes – but Sebastian Beaumont had chosen South China Dim Sum Bar as a venue; this compact space has its priorities right, putting food first, fancy décor nowhere. As laid-back as Beaumont.  I hadn’t been too enamoured of Hope 2010; from a hot, dry vintage, it has developed, ripe flavours, the acid a little sharpish. Matched with prawn dumpling in broth, it took on a whole new life. Vintages exhibiting spice – 2015 and the more exotic 2016 – couldn’t be better served than with the range of Dim Sum at this popular restaurant.

Beaumont describes 2014 as a ‘wallflower vintage’; understated is perhaps a kinder description, as it reflects many of the positives associated with Hope but in more of a sip-and-chat style than demanding one’s undivided attention.

My enthusiasm for 2017 whites is again boosted by this latest Hope Marguerite release. Intensity, concentration and tension are the key elements; challenging at present, everything points to a magnificent maturity.

The creative genes that run through the Beaumont family across many endeavours fits perfectly with winemaker, Sebastian’s comment, ‘it is what it is’, an expression of the vintage; I can’t imagine him trying to make a wine that adheres to style only.

What happy coincidence Hope Marguerite celebrates its 20th vintage with a great wine, one not shying from a sense of site nor vintage variation.