Category Archives: News

A bit of a rant

It’s been quite a while since I last read through the background to the Wine of Origin system, but wanting to remind myself of some details, I turned to the Wine of Origin file in my SAWIS folder.

The ultimate paragraph in the Introduction reads: ‘Certain basic principles were taken into consideration when the system was formulated. It was for instance necessary to comply with EU regulations because a great deal of South African wine were (sic) exported to Europe. Principles such as honesty in business, factual terms, titles, adaptability, local, marketing truths and free participation were addressed.’

While acknowledging that South Africa still remains ahead of the rest of the wine world where origin hasn’t been as tightly defined as in the traditional world, it’s true that not all those principles outlined in the last sentence have always been rigorously followed.

It’s no surprise that like wine itself, so some areas enjoy a better (more sexy) image than others. Franschhoek immediately comes to mind. Originally, it was demarcated a Ward within the District of Paarl. Even today, Paarl sadly has an image problem; this led to many producers who fall under Simonsberg- Paarl WO, joining the Vignerons de Franschhoek for marketing purposes. Franschhoek itself also felt the need to divorce completely from Paarl and got itself re-demarcated as a District. Then there was all sorts of nonsense about wanting to extend its reach to the N1, but I think the message is clear, as I wrote above; some of the principles have not been as faithfully followed as they might have been.

What I see as a similar piece of cynical marketing was the demarcation of Cape Town as a district, promulgated on 26th May 2017. It embraces the Wards of Constantia, Durbanville, Hout Bay and Philadelphia. The opinion was that Cape Town would have greater resonance than these (than historic Constantia??), but much of the push came from Durbanville, which itself had been demarcated a Ward on 26th May 1989, 28 years earlier than upstart District Cape Town. Now, few Constantia producers can use WO Cape Town, as they have their own, proudly Constantia-labelled bottle mold; nor can all Durbanville producers use it, as Durbanville is part of their name.

But my real anger – no, sadness – is epitomised in a new wine from Meerendal Estate. This Durbanville farm, founded in 1702, with the first vineyards planted in 1714, was one of the first 14 farms to be awarded Estate status after the introduction of the Wine of Origin scheme in 1973 (not 1993, as on their website). Then there’s the Heritage Block of pinotage, planted in 1955, which wine now bears the Certified Heritage seal of the Old Vine Project.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first bottling of Meerendal wines in 1969, a new pinotage was introduced: ‘The Pinotage Vine’ 2016, as it’s labelled. A heavy bottle with a big punt, that in themselves send an image message, are matched by the back label which advises; ‘This unique wine, already 11 months in barrel, went through a third fermentation on the lightly pressed skins of wine made from our Pinotage vineyards that are more than 60 years old,’ indicating inclusion of the Heritage Block. Then: ‘A Wine grown, made and bottled at Meerendal Wine Estate – The home of Pinotage,’ firmly locates the wine’s origin.

The front label would seem to refute all that, showing the silhouette of Table Mountain with Cape Town printed across it (not one I’d be attracted to pick off the shelf). A total divorce from all the heritage of vines and land highlighted elsewhere.

This strikes me as not only bad marketing, but cynical marketing at its worst and not upholding the Wine of Origin principles. A pity, as the wine with its typical, bright red pinotage fruit, fresh leesy weight and medium body, makes for a pleasant, different interpretation of pinotage.

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An Elgin maverick

Every wine country has characters; every wine country needs characters. South Africa has its own original in Koen Roose, who decamped from Belgium in the early 2000s after encouragement from L’Avenir’s then winemaker, Francois Naudé. Originally studying to be an engineer, Roose soon realised this wasn’t a career for him; he went on to be a highly-regarded sommelier then an importer, his portfolio including many South African producers, including L’Avenir.

Koen Roose behind a large piece of Ferricrete rock, an important soil component on Spioenkop.

Roose’s training on the ground began at L’Avenir, ‘where Francois taught me everything about pinotage,’ then followed harvests at Tokara and several in Burgundy, where he worked in the vineyards rather than cellars.

During this period, he purchased 47 hectares of virgin land in Elgin that was to be Spioenkop. Just 10 hectares are planted to vines only; ‘No apples, I’m not a f…king apple farmer.’ Roose’s Flemish-accented English, littered with such colourful terms, is delivered at speed and length and with great enthusiasm.

If a lack of apple orchards is one area he differs from many of his Elgin colleagues, another is his approach to viticulture, specifically his pruning regime, which begins a month earlier than anyone else. Other Elgin farmers think he’s mad, as growth also starts a month earlier, with the risk of frost, but Roose defends his methods and his unirrigated vines with their low-growing canopy; these are spread out around the hill, composed mainly of ferricrete, a hard, erosion-resistant, sedimentary rock, brown-rust in colour. The vines roots struggle to get past this rock to find any moisture below. Stress makes the vines concentrate on producing and ripening fruit rather than ‘pretty canopies’.

Once we’re through the viticultural exposé (and I’ve not touched on half of Roose’s lesson), it’s on to the main purpose of the morning, tasting his latest releases. Bar one wine, all the grapes for both the 1900 and Spioenkop ranges come from the farm.

Spioenkop and newly-designed 1900 labels

Roose is no less a maverick in the cellar than in the vineyards; ‘I’m an alchemist, I love to do everything with feeling rather than by any book.’ The first glass contains 1900 Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (R160); he’s even sorry he’s had to release it so young! Texture and dimension are essentials in Roose’s wines. To achieve this in his sauvignon, he designed tanks with sieves, giving skin contact for 24/48 hours before drawing off the free-run juice, leaving the skins on the sieves then pressing them in a basket press. Naturally fermented, aged on gross lees with no additions, this is the antithesis of a simple, fruity, young sauvignon. But does a three-year-old sauvignon sell, I asked? Apparently, the good sommeliers understand and are willing to list it, but not so much the average winelover. The newly-named Sauvignon Blanc SA would do well to give the ageing aspect of sauvignon more attention, as an increasing number are made with this in mind. Roose’s 1900 illustrates the potential.

Newcomer, Queen Manthatisi Sauvignon Blanc 92% -Chenin Blanc 8% 2016 (R175) is a riper style with more general appeal, the sauvignon gaining richness from six months in 300 litre older oak. Queen Manthatisi, who llived during the 18th and 19th centuries was known as a brave and capable leader of her tribes, who ensured they stayed together during peace and war. Roose loves history, hence the variety of historical names.

The star of Roose’s white wines and for me, the whole range, is his Spioenkop Riesling, arguably the best in South Africa. ‘Everything I do for sauvignon and chenin, I don’t do for this queen of grapes,’ he asserts. The current 2017 (R263) is unusually expressive for so young a Spioenkop wine; fragrant spicy, flea powder aromas; elegant, lightish-bodied (12.5% alc), with rivetting fruity acids and zingy length. Well worth tucking away a few bottles.

That’s not to downplay the quality of Spioenkop Sarah Raal 2018 (R283) and Johanna Brandt 2017 (R263), a splendid pair of chenin blancs, quite a rarity in Elgin, where Roose was the first to plant the variety. They come from different elevations in two vineyards; Sarah from the upper part showing riper, red apple charm; Johanna from the lower with fresher green apple tones and a suggestion of oak spice, 10% new admits Roose almost under his breath; he says he hates the taste of new oak and doesn’t generally use it.

In honour of his pinotage guru, Francois Naudé, Roose goes against all his principles of making wine from only Elgin fruit. 1900 Pinotage 2018 (R263) comes from and has typical raspberry perfume, ripe fruity flavours and gentle tannins. A readily recognisable and enjoyable pinotage but Roose’s Elgin Spioenkop Pinotage 2018 (R425) takes the grape to a different level and style. More spice and liquorice than traditional aromas, there is also intense cool climate freshness more reflective of the area’s pinot noirs. Only the dark, crimson-rimmed colour gives a clue to its real varietal origin. For me, Roose’s 1900 Pinot Noir (R202) is unlike its Elgin counterparts being denser, more firmly structured with dark spice and a whiff of smoky oak. For something interesting and different, I’d opt for the Pinotage.

Nothing can replace visiting a wine farm to better understand the wines; a visit to Spioenkop with a tour led by Koen Roose gives one a better understanding not only of the wines but this individual, opinionated winemaker, a welcome addition to the Cape’s wine scene.

Classic cabernet

Nights are drawing in; there’s a chill in the air reminding winter’s coming, even if the winter rains are so far resolutely staying away. Time to return to exploring ten-year-olds from the cellar; this time red wines.

Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2009 is an appropriate first choice, given the recent release of two site-specific cabernets and Reserve cabernet from 2014.

Vergelegen is one of too few wine farms fortunate enough to have had the same winemaker for 20 or more years; in André van Rensburg’s case, 22 years. His involvement and interest has never been in the cellar only; he’s fanatical about healthy, virus-free vines.

Among the first cabernet vineyards was one with leaf-roll virus, its fruit was thought to add a touch of greenness, which consumers then associated (appreciated?) with Stellenbosch cab. Such character wasn’t on the van Rensburg list of positives; he persuaded the Board of Anglo-American, the company that owns Vergelegen, that a complete re-planting was required. Today, the 120 hectares under vine are 16-19 years old and virus-free, annual ELISA tests confirming if there’s any doubt.

If, when he joined Vergelegen, van Rensburg, viewed his position as a caretaker job for maybe five years, his first harvest showed him how special the place is. Replanting the vineyards ensured he would be there long term. ‘It’s only after eight to 10 years that one starts to know and understand vineyards,’ explains this perfectionist. By 2003 both vineyards and cellar fell under his control.

Cabernet sauvignon is inextricably association with Vergelegen; there are five or six varietal cabernets or blends including cabernet, throughout the range. Fruit for these is drawn from several cabernet vineyards comprising different soils, elevations, aspects and clones, each reflecting its own site expression in the wine.

Andre van Rensburg, Vergelegen’s winemaker since 1998

An apt segue into the two new cabernets (there’s also a merlot) from specific sites. All, from 2014, are the result of van Rensburg’s collaboration with renowned French consultant, Michel Rolland, his consultant of choice.

If there was some surprise that van Rensburg needed a consultant at all, or specifically M Rolland, he explains; ‘It’s good to get an outsider who is able to see the benefits of a vineyard when the winemaker can’t.’

The first releases of this collaboration – The First Thought Cabernet Sauvignon and the Last Word Cabernet Sauvignon (the Merlot has the moniker The Mistake) – are splendid and classic (perhaps more so without those names, which remind Vergelegen has cabernet covered from start to finish.)

The former cabernet is on a sheltered site and ripens around two weeks earlier than Last Word. While it has the more generous fragrance and open texture, there is no shortage of structure or freshness that benefits ageability. Like all van Rensburg’s cabernets, it has wonderfully dry yet ripe grape tannins, which help to counteract the 14.5% alcohol, there being no sense of heat or sweetness.

Last Word site is one of the oldest, planted in 1999 to a traditional local clone on high clay soil, which accounts for later ripening. More aromatically closed than First Thought, more a sense of ripeness than fruit, with layers of stern yet ripe grape tannins, which also lend freshness, this is perhaps the grander cabernet, demanding at least two or three years before broaching. Both wines received the same vinification and perfectly absorb their 18 months in all new Taransaud 225 litre oak barrels.

If 2014 isn’t regarded among the Cape’s great red wine vintages, these wines do not reflect that at all; surely the virus-free vines are an important factor. They will certainly age as well as my 2009 – yes, I’m there at last.

Vintage 2009 was a different story. Winter 2008 was very cold and wet, a mild spring followed with the traditional heatwave arriving in February, later than usual. Slower ripening resulted in a healthy crop with excellent analyses. Fires across the winelands were a sad negative. On Vergelegen, where around 5 hectares of vineyard was affected by heat, vines were marked where there were traces of ash or smoky smells in the canopies; berries were sampled, trial fermentations and finings carried out; all to no avail. ‘Nothing helped and in the end we had to dump about 20% of our total harvest,’ André van Rensburg’s despair can surely only be matched by his delight at the tremendous quality of unaffected fruit. In his notes on the wine, he declares 2009 as ‘one of the best SA vintages of the last 20 years.’

This Reserve comes from several vineyards (including the sites mentioned above). Vinification featured punch downs, as opposed to pump overs on ’14 but all received lengthy post-maceration and 18-22 months in new small French oak.

Vergelegen Cabernet Reserve 09

 

Cabernet franc and merlot, 3% of each, join cabernet in ‘09. Is it auto-suggestion that the former brings a note of leafy spice? Many cabernets with a similar 14.5% alcohol would taste lush and sweet, not this classic dry, tailored style, which also achieves pleasing complexity in its meaty, dark-fruited, savoury layers.

How would it have fared on Winemag’s Ten-year-old Awards? I would like to think very well, as that complexity is what was lacking in some of those top reds.

 

 

Vergelegen’s red wines’ track record suggest this delicious cabernet has many more years’ great drinking ahead. I have no concerns about keeping my remaining bottle for at least another five years.

Alternative varieties

Alternative has so many dubious connotations these days, some explanation is called for of what constitutes an alternative variety. I’d hasten to add, there’s nothing remotely dubious about its use in this context.

Some top-scoring whites on Winemag’s Alternative Varieties Awards

In this context it is specifically South African and refers to Winemag’s competition featuring wine grape varieties outside those that cover the majority of the South African vineyard.

Historically, the South African vineyard has been and still is a very lopsided affair: the ten most planted varieties cover 86% or 81 359 hectares, out of a total of 94 545ha (SAWIS 2017 figures). From top down, the ten are: Chenin blanc, colombar (mainly for brandy), cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, sauvignon blanc, pinotage, chardonnay, merlot, ruby cabernet (a useful blender) and cinsaut (climbing the ranks thanks to the current interest). Pinotage and ruby cabernet (a Californian cross of carignane and cabernet sauvignon) aside, the rest are all associated with major French wine-growing areas.

In a slight sidetrack, there was some social media discussion with a colleague in England, who commented that the term alternative variety is much used there for new world wines (sic), the classic varieties of Bordeaux or Burgundy wouldn’t be considered alternative. Grenache, rarely seen as a varietal wine, and petit verdot ‘for sheer obscurity even in Bordeaux and lack of varietal wines’ would be examples of his ‘new world’ alternatives.

Alternative or mainstream? Two frequently-awarded cab francs.

Classic or major French varieties indeed form the majority of the top-performing, alternative varieties on Winemag’s Awards: semillon, viognier, cabernet franc and grenache blanc (grenache as much associated with France, where it is widely planted, as its origin, Spain). Portuguese varieties, verdelho and tinta barroca added a little more of the unusual and interesting to the mix.

In view of some high-profile producers’ success with those first three varieties, it would be understandable to think of them as mainstream or at least, not alternative. Niche might be a better description.

Why alternative varieties matter is the more serious issue here. We need a greater number of varieties, which, planted in suitable sites and, no less important, made by winemakers who are fixated on reflecting site, elevate them among the country’s top performing wines.
Since the quota system was dropped in 1992, matching variety to site has increased in importance. Many wines from the abundant top ten are far too similar, the use of fruit-enhancing yeast or the grapes picked so ripe, the wine lacks any detail, are just two causes. They might be pleasant wines to drink but they are unlikely to set the pulse racing, nor will they further South Africa’s international standing. That will happen only with wines of quality and distinction.

Climate change will also affect choice of variety. Rhône and Southern French varieties such as marsanne, roussanne, clairette blanche, grenache and mourvèdre are growing in popularity, so it was disappointing only one grenache did well on the Winemag competition. Lack of numbers and experience could account for this to an extent, as well as absence of some of the better producers, but overall there’s plenty of room for improvement, which I’m sure there will be.

Looking beyond France, there are warmer parts of Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece where we should be looking for suitable varieties; Greek assyrtiko has already been identified, with a few vines already yielding fruit and more commercial-size vineyards being planted this year.

There is another hurdle for today’s youngsters to overcome. Few of them own vineyards; they lease or have other agreements with farmers who grow the fruit. With many farmers getting out of grape growing and not all being willing to follow winemakers’ wishes, establishing new varieties takes on a different challenge.

This year’s Alternative Varieties Awards was the just second (and hopefully not the last); if nothing else, it has helped to inform winelovers of some varieties they’ve never heard of and possibly encouraged them to try a few. But any novelty factor cannot be sustained without quality and, ultimately that often elusive ‘sense of somewhereness’.

Stellenbosch game changers

Ask international winelovers to name one wine region in South Africa and (provided identification of both Africa and South Africa is possible) the most likely answer will be Stellenbosch.

This, the second oldest wine producing area after Constantia, has a long-established reputation for producing high-quality wines, with its most-planted variety, cabernet sauvignon  lending the region a classic, traditional air.

This is not to say there’s a lack of innovation, either with less common varieties or individual styles, but Stellenbosch has built its name on a limited number of mainly classic varieties and especially generous, full-bodied reds with cabernet the jewel in the crown.

One might not be surprised if the good producers of the area became a little lulled into complacency. If they were, the introduction last year of the Cabernet Collective, among other initiatives, certainly stirred them to life.

The long & the short of it. Lukas van Loggerenberg (l), Jeanine & Mick Craven

But there are game changes of another type. Mick and Jeanine Craven, as well as Lukas van Loggerenberg, are both creating ranges (under their eponymous surnames) which reveal Stellenbosch from a totally different perspective.

They are both relative newcomers; the Cravens’ first commercial bottling was a pinot noir in 2013, while Lukas van Loggerenberg has just completed his fourth vintage. Their shared philosophy is freshness achieved via earlier picking with lower alcohols a beneficial result. Older oak also plays an important role. Their goal starts, as with all good wines, in the vineyards. Good relationships with the farmers (neither owns vines) ensure farming is equally positive for both farmer and producer. But grape security can be tenuous; there’s no guarantee a farmer will remain nor one taking over will uphold their similar sustainable standards; a situation which unfortunately led to the Craven Clairette Blanche being discontinued after 2018.

Lukas van Loggerenberg, Mick & eanine Craven with their distributor, David Clarke of Ex Animo Wine Co

It was this vintage of their respective ranges Mick and Jeanine, followed by Lukas, introduced to media and trade this week. These were two impressive line-ups; there wasn’t a wine I wouldn’t want to drink from either quality or distinction points of view and every year has shown improvements; ‘All due to the work we’ve put in to creating healthy, balanced vines.’

Summarising the vintage as ‘seeing the brunt of the drought and you know there’s a drought when you want rain in harvest’, Mick admitted not all was negative; the key was being in the vineyards, keeping an eye on the vines and soils. Picking early was imperative; although the vines took a beating, the grapes showed well once they were in barrel. Lukas offered much the same message: ‘Think on your feet, don’t follow a recipe and get out into the vineyards.’

One or two personal favourites include:
Craven Clairette Blanche 2018, sadly the last and the best they’ve made. An authentic yet accessible example of (a partially) skin-fermented white. Crisply dry, it’s a statement of what the variety can achieve. Approx. retail R195. For the same price, the Pinot Gris’s smoky pink hue and aromatic wild strawberries become more red-wine like with its light tannin grip. There was some discussion about where it should fit on a wine list – ‘definitely not a white wine’. Elegant, fresh and supple, The Firs Syrah (R265) from Devon Valley is full of fragrant red fruit, lilies and charm.

Charm and seduction fit Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Trust Your Gut Chenin Blanc (R370). Paardeberg as well as Stellenbosch contribute fruit to the swathe of sunny, yellow peach, pear and pineapple aromatic and flavour generosity. For those who prefer chenin in a more linear, tighter mode, you’ll have to be quick to get Kamaraderie (R405); 2018 yielded a meagre 880 bottles. Graft (R370) is 100% syrah (2017 included cinsaut) is a hedonistic mix of white spice, fennel and dark berries with fine, powdery tannins mothering the supple flesh.

Craven Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (l) Van Loggerenberg Breton 2018

And so to cabernet sauvignon. ‘If you’re from Stellenbosch, you need to make it,’ declared Mick Craven. ‘We like drinking it, so we decided to have some fun and experiment.’ Unorthodox according to Stellenbosch norms, the fruit was whole-bunch fermented, pressed before fermentation had finished which ended with 12.5% alcohol, ripe, dry grape tannins, fine vinosity and pure yet unshowy cab cassis and blackberries. What reaction from Stellenbosch? I enquired. ‘Some interesting facial expressions when I poured it at Cape Wine,’ Mick quipped; ‘and shock at the whole bunch, but many liked it.’ Apart from whole bunch, here’s a retro, authentic cabernet. Ageing? Yes, I guess it will, but nothing wrong with drinking it now. Working with an engaged farmer, the Cravens have picked ripe fruit even from these partially virused vines.

From cabernet sauvignon to cabernet franc and Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Breton (R370), the variety’s Loire name also Lukas’s inspiration. If 2018 has a little more textural breadth than 2017, there’s the freshness, purity and finesse that was rewarded in the older vintage’s Platter five stars. So what did Stellenbosch make of that? A broad grin crosses Lukas’s face. ‘I can’t count the number of winemakers who wanted to know more about picking early! ’ If he’s finished by beginning of February, most others harvest towards the end of the month. Like the Cravens’ cab, Breton will age while being delicious now.

Both the Cravens with their cabernet sauvignon and van Loggerenberg with his cabernet franc are small but important game changers. Whether more in Stellenbosch follow their ideas remains to be seen. I hope consumer support for the wines offers sufficient encouragement.

Aged or mature?

Put another way: old or better? Whichever, the conundrum remains about what is going on in a bottle of wine over the months or years before it is opened and which allows it either to merely taste a bit wrinkly or to have blossomed into something more beautiful and interesting with age.

Some of the top scoring wines on Winemag’s Ten-year-0ld Awards

 

This topic might appear irrelevant to most winelovers, given the perception that 98% of them open a bottle of wine within 24 hours of purchase. Unusually, this opinion was not corroborated by readers of Winemag during the recent User Survey. Responses revealed only 7% buy and drink so rapidly. In contrast, 14% prefer to age wine and for a significant 37%, ‘it varies’, which presumably suggests wines that will benefit from ageing are accorded at least a few years. Perhaps the topic isn’t so irrelevant.

 

 

 

My curiosity about the age vs maturity question was initially piqued (and not for the first time) at the recent lunch to celebrate the top scorers on Winemag’s Ten-year-old Awards, focusing on 2009s. Only wines scoring 93 or more out of 100 were poured, so there was no chance to taste the two Cap Classiques, but whites, reds, a dessert and fortified were.

The notion that our white wines can last ten years is fairly recent; I seem to remember (I may be wrong) that in the not too distant past, Winemag judged whites at five years, reds at ten. Tokara Director’s Reserve White, a sauvignon-semillon blend, Raats Chenin Blanc and Tokara Reserve Collection Stellenbosch Chardonnay did themselves and their screwcap closures proud; the chenin in particular has years of life ahead and the blend has perhaps achieved the most complexity of any of the top wines. But with each of the three, age has brought something of interest (Bruwer Raats wryly remarked; ‘A much better rating than the wine’s 2* on a long-ago Chenin Challenge!’).

On the subject of the ageing process and white wines, it’s apt to reflect on what Jancis Robinson had to say in her amazingly detailed Vintage Timecharts, published 30 years ago. ‘But if little is known about the precise ageing process of red wines, even less is understood about exactly what happens as a white wine matures (partly because the majority of long-living wines are red, partly because it must be quite different from what happens in red wines with their much higher level of phenolics).’

Only shiraz among top scoring wines was Rob Armstrong’s Haut Espoir, here with Winemag’s Jax Lahoud.

The reds are a different matter. All, bar the Haut Espoir Shiraz, feature varieties associated with Bordeaux, either in a blend as in Tokara Director’s Reserve Red and La Bri Affinity or in the varietal Remhoogte Merlot and Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon. They are big, ripe wines topping 14% alcohol, two over 15% and only one wine clocks in under 2 grams/litre residual sugar. Now, I know the same can be said of analyses as of statistics – there are analyses, analyses and damn lies – because a wine doesn’t always taste as its analysis suggests, but this quintet are of a stylistic family from the late 2000s in their bold, rich flavours and, frankly, apart from the shiraz, intense dark ruby colour. While the tannins have softened to a degree, there seems to be little flavour development. Should they be drunk now, kept in the hope of improvement, or, as I wondered aloud to the winning winemakers and other guests, would these red wines have tasted as they do now two or three years ago?

Jancis again in Vintage Timecharts: ‘One further frustrating aspect, is that, in a sense one never knows for sure when a wine has reached its peak until that peak has past and the wine begins to show signs of decline.’ Which returns us to: ‘One fundamental reason why so little information is given about what happens to individual wines in bottle because so little is known.’

My sense is that a properly balanced grape will produce a wine that can mature with complexity; fiddling in the cellar may do little more than to bring the wine into balance (sometimes), but over the years it’ll age rather than develop.

While virused vines struggle to ripen, especially late-ripening cabernet, new clean vine material has ripened all too easily, initially catching winemakers unawares with high sugars and consequent high alcohols. Much has changed in the past ten years, including a much better understanding of and attention to viticulture; a significant number of consumers are turning away from the big, ripe, sometimes jammy, oaky reds of yore and enjoying today’s fresher, more flavoursome wines. Yes, there are those who believe the momentum has swung too far in the other direction, that many wines are too light, insubstantial. But with the introduction of cement eggs, clay amphorae even qvevri, plus oak of all shapes and sizes but mainly older, even lighter wines have gained interesting textural dimension.

Winemag team & top scoring producers on 10-year-old awards

Can today’s wines mature rather than just age? That’s the $64000 question. Perhaps the best chance will come with 2015, as a generally lauded vintage, but if one takes 10 years as a measuring stick, we’ll have to wait until 2025.

A final thought. It’s infinitely more rewarding to drink a wine on the way up than when it’s on the decline and, as Jancis pointed out in the quote above, one never knows when a wine has reached a peak, until that peak has past.

Chardonnay challenge

The classic variety chardonnay has had something of a chequered history in South Africa. In the early 1980s the majority of the wines labelled chardonnay were in fact auxerrois; a mistake due to smuggling of vine material by producers frustrated with the delay of legal importation.  Auxerrois was subsequently and over-hastily removed from the permitted list of wine varieties. Chardonnay took another blow when the late Pamela van dyke Price famously announced that the Cape is not chardonnay country. Hardly an auspicious start to the variety which by 2017 was ranked 7th and accounted for 6746.22 ha or 7.14% of vineyard area.

For records’ sake, in 1983, under what was listed as chardonnay, it covered just 120.78 hectares, or roughly 0.12% of the total vineyard area.

Jordan Wine Estate’s vineyards

One of the most interesting  aspects of chardonnay’s journey in the Cape is the evolution of styles. In the early days – when, admittedly, winemakers were just starting a barrel progamme and most was new – there was often more oak than wine flavour from young vines. The softening effects of malo-lactic fermentation and stirring the lees were also enthusiastically employed. ‘Buttered toast’ became a common tasting note for the richly-textured, even oily and toastily oaked wine.

Nothing subtle about and little to gain from ageing these recipe wines. Some loved them, for others, it was this style that gave rise to the ABC movement (Anything But Chardonnay). There were exceptions; in 1986, Sydney Back won Diners Club Winemaker of the Year for Wooded White with his Backsberg 1985 Chardonnay – yes, it was the real thing – the wine was balanced and understated, unsurprisingly it aged well for many years.

Many cooler areas have opened up since quotas were dropped in 1992;  chardonnay has expanded with them. Winemakers’ confidence and knowledge of working with the grape today sees steelier wines with enticing purity as well as weight; much of this due to less or no malo-lactic. More mature vines have encouraged winemakers to try unoaked chardonnay. Sometimes referred to as ‘Chablis style’, wishful thinking if ever there was, today’s unoaked chardonnays are more characterful not only thanks to greater vine age but the introduction of concrete eggs and clay amphorae, both of which add textural interest to the fruit. (Still no resemblance to Chablis though!)

ABC nowadays stands for Always Buy Chardonnay.

High-lying vineyards on Chamonix

For an objective view of South African chardonnay, I asked Remington Norman for his thoughts. Remington knows Burgundy intimately, has written books on the area and led tours. But he’s also familiar with developments in South Africa, where he and his wife, Geraldine, live for part of the year.

He mentions better plant material, more careful, focused vineyard management and precision harvesting as producing better fruit.

In winemaking, he notes more subtle and adaptive use of new wood, coupled with less batonnage – stirring or rolling  of lees – and less acidification, which used to be noticeable, destroying the wines’ cohesion.

His most important observation is; ‘experience of great wines from elsewhere has given winemakers an idea of what they are aiming at – not to mimic, but in terms of depth and structure.’ Some excellent chardonnay is being made here he concludes.

Continuing an exploration of ten-year-old wines from my cellar, I chose two chardonnays different in style but both with excellent track records.

Jordan Chardonnay 2009

Both Jordan Chardonnay 2009 and Chamonix Reserve Chardonnay 2009 showed very well and are still full of life.

Jordan was as fresh as one might expect from a screwcap closure. This is now the Jordans’ closure of choice; when it was introduced, consumers were given the choice of cork as well to satisfy more conservative, traditional tastes.

The wine’s bright acidity focuses tropical and pickled lime aromas and provides a clean, linear thread to richer, leesy undertones. Full-bodied, well-balanced with a strong personality, it held well for several days.

Traditionally, the wine is fermented in small Burgundy-shaped barrels, equally shared between new and second fill. Aged on the lees for nine months, with occasional rolling of the barrels and blended with 8% tank-fermented wine to balance the citrus flavours. The only changes now are the addition of a new Burgundy cooper, Chassin and some new vineyards planted with a Burgundian clone.

Chamonix Chardonnay Reserve 2009

Chamonix is more oxidative and richer in texture, though just 13.7% alcohol, but also with a firm backbone of natural acid, which encourages flavour definition. This is essentially savoury with persistent oatmeally, hazelnut notes which embrace the mouth. The Chamonix also drank well for a good few days. All but 10% was naturally fermented in new oak, the rest in a concrete egg and aged for 14 months. Current winemaker, Thinus Neethling confirms he’s following the successful approach of his predecessor, Gottfried Mocke who made the 2009.

 

Both are interesting and pleasurable wines rather than set one’s heart racing with great complexity. Was it worth keeping them for ten years? From the point of view that they remained fresh but with the calming effect of age, yes. Would they have been as enjoyable two or three years earlier? Quite possibly.  What it did prove is that white wines can age as well as reds.

Harvest bounty

Fermentation is happening all around, those hungry yeasts feasting on sweet grape juice, creating heat, energy, increasing levels of alcohol and finally, having done their job, wine.

This is a process that has taken place for thousands of years one that has also generated other products associated with harvest. In Roman times, fermenting juice or must was used to make Mustaceum, a cake baked on laurel leaves and served at weddings.

South Africa has its own harvest traditions, which may or may not have been introduced by the French Huguenots. Bearing in mind the use of must dating back to Roman times, it’s likely Europeans who settled in the Cape before the Huguenots would have used must for other purposes.

Whatever the origins of our harvest delicacies being made from must, the long-time traditions are eagerly anticipated and welcomed during the wine harvest. They include moskonfyt or must jam, made from the fermenting grape juice, either strained or with skins and pips retained, and reduced by boiling.

La Motte mosbolletjies fresh out of the oven

Probably the best known and favourite of many are Mosbolletjies – small must buns, almost loaf-like in shape. Many wine farms bake them, but La Motte in Franschhoek kindly spreads the mosbolletjie love to guests on the farm and media, including lucky me.

I asked La Motte’s brand manager, Mareli Roux about the history of these harvest buns on the farm. ‘In 1752, Gabriël du Toit, (descendant of our first Huguenot owner, Pierre Joubert, who bought the estate from first owner, German Hans Hattingh in 1709), planted 4000 vines. I’m sure these early owners treated themselves to this seasonal delight.’ Roux suggests, continuing with more up-to-date history: ‘Dr Rupert bought the estate in 1970, replanted the vineyards with the first vintage released in 1985. Mosbolletjies were part of every harvest season then, but since our Pierneef à La Motte Restaurant and the Farm Shop opened at the end of 2010, mosbolletjies have become such an important part of what we do. From 2011 we’ve been baking them for the restaurant and the shop, where they’re popular with guests and staff!’

Ricardo Slawers, La Motte’s baker

La Motte’s baker, Ricardo Slawers has no preferred variety for his mosbolletjies and there’s no exact science behind the degree of fermentation in the must before it’s added; taste and texture are what matters. The farm’s recipe also suggests other uses for this seasonal ingredient.

Given the long history of the use of grape must beyond turning into wine, I thought surely other wine-producing countries have similar traditions.

Indeed they do. Along the French/German border of Alsace and Baden-Wurtternberg, as well as in the Rheinland-Pfalz, Flammkuchen is the dish of the day during harvest. Made from a thin bread dough, which may include must, rolled into a rectangle, covered with crème fraiche, shallots or thinly sliced onions and lardons before being cooked in a pizza or conventional oven. I discovered via asking friends on social media that this pizza-like fare is a favourite with our adopted American winemaker, Andrea Mullineux and, on the other side of the world, Judy Finn owner of high-regarded New Zealand winery, Neudorf.

Zwiebelkuchen is a savoury German onion pie made with a yeast dough (using federweisser, the young fermenting wine) and a filling of steamed onions, diced bacon, cream and caraway seeds. From Germany’s south-westen region of Swabia, but with versions in other regions, Zwiebelkuchen brings back happy memories of her time working there for Christa Von La Chevallerie, winemaker on the family property under Huis van Chevallerie label.

Greece also has a long wine-producing history; that country’s tradition at harvest time is Moustalveria Greek Grape must pudding (Moustos is must in Greek).

Going north, up the Adriatic coast to Croatia and in the vineyards around Dubrovnik, a dessert cake called Mantala is a local speciality made with must, preferably that of local variety plavac mali. The difference with this harvest produce is that it is ready for eating only around Christmas time. The story behind this now rarely made delicacy is related here.

Croatian, Marija Mrgudic, who still makes Mantala from her mother’s recipe, also told me about a dessert wine traditionally served with the cake. Prošek, from rukatac, the delightfully named grk, pošip or vugava in the white version with plavac mali or crljenak in the red wine, is made from sun-dried grapes; when around 60% are raisined, the juice undergoes a long, slow fermentation achieving anything between 13 and 16% alcohol with a residual sugar spanning 80 to 160 grams per litre.

I guess most mosbolletjies are shared with a cup of coffee or tea, but when transformed into rusks, I can imagine they too would happily be partnered with a glass of our own special sweet wine, Muscadel.

There are likely many more traditions worldwide connected to the sweet juice of the grape before it becomes wine, all celebrating harvest and the birth of a new vintage.

The last riesling

It’s a sad story, as the title suggests. There are many such sad stories about riesling. It was hounded to include the qualifier ‘Rhine’ or ‘Weisser’ to differentiate it from ‘Cape Riesling’, an imposter if ever there was one. Eventually, riesling producers and fans won the day, when real riesling was permitted to be labelled without any unnecessary qualifiers. Although no Cape Riesling (or synonym, crouchen) is listed in the Platter index*, Theuniskraal in Tulbagh still produces probably the only extant varietal, commercial example. (*correction; there are three Cape Rieslings listed in the Index: Osbloed & Hildenbrand as well as Theuniskraal).

Sad stories for riesling used to be good news for fans of the variety; the wines didn’t sell or at least not with any speed, meaning the currently available vintage could often be four or five years old; that little edge of maturity is what aficionados seek and riesling can deliver, thanks to its naturally high acid. A whiff or two of botrytis brings even more interest but back in the day, few went bone dry; a little residual sugar – 10-12 grams/litre – encouraged complexity and a better alcohol balance.

Buitenverwachting vineyards and Manor House

But when you love Mosel riesling, with its irresistible delicacy and low alcohol, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to attempt a similar style locally. Hermann Kirschbaum, long-time winemaker but now Estate Manager at beautiful Buitenverwachting in Constantia, was one Mosel fan who took on the challenge. Most of the farm’s Rhine Rieslings clocked in around 10% alcohol with thrilling acid tension and varying residual sugar levels, depending on the vintage, but drier rather than sweeter. Sadly, they were not appreciated by the wider wine-buying public. For them, Buitenverwachting is the source of some of South Africa’s best sauvignon blanc, a reputation secured since the first vintage.

Eventually, the decision had to be made of what to do with the riesling vineyard, which was on some of the farm’s best soils.

Hermann’s handwritten label. Love bottle colour.
Beautiful Mosel-style bottle

Lars Maack, co-owner of Buitenverwachting, explains the decision to uproot the vineyard. ‘The vines were actually getting better and better with advancing age, but unfortunately the demand and price we could achieve was not on the same level as with our sauvignon blanc. I also wanted to focus Buitenverwachting on a smaller range of wines and with the riesling sitting on one of our best soils, it was inevitable to replant the block with sauvignon blanc.’

Maack hastens to add they remain passionate about riesling; ‘but we are better off purchasing great rieslings from around d the world instead of producing it ourselves.’
The last riesling vintage was 2009; I had the pleasure of reviewing it, along with the rest of the Buitenverwachting range, in Platter 2011.

‘Rhine Riesling **** 09 ‘last vtge, sob!’ cries Hermann K, uneconomical vineyard uprooted. Departs on high note; zest, elegant lime, green apple nuances lifted by 3.9 g/l sugar ..’
Hermann has one of those faces which can look extremely sad when the occasion demands, so you can imagine this last riesling drew an extremely sorrowful look.

He might’ve been less sorrowful at how it performed ten years on. As pale and brilliant in colour as it is delicate and exhilarating. Will-o-the-wisp spiced lemon and lime flavours – now you see them, now you don’t – brushed by refreshing acid, race to a, literally, breathtaking finish.

 

Would I have guessed it’s ten year old? No; there was very little sense of development, despite the disappearance of those green apples. A great wine? No, but a delightful reminder of what is possible with riesling in the Cape.

Despite his sorrow at the loss of his beloved riesling, Hermann should be pleased others have taken up the challenge of drier, lower alcohol rieslings, with a positive response from a growing number of appreciative winelovers.

Celebrate the different

Not much has changed in Cape vineyards, yet much has changed. The ‘not much’ refers to a handful of varieties which small number traditionally make up the majority of the area under vine.

Currently (SAWIS 2017 figures) the top eight account for 82.5% of the 94 545 hectares of vineyard; 70.6% if one discounts colombard, mainly used for brandy. Of the remaining seven, six are classic French varieties; the other is pinotage.

Today we take this order of things as a given, yet as recently as 2000, shiraz and merlot weren’t in the top seven and hanepoot filled that seventh spot.

That’s as a by the by, for one only has to look down Platter’s index to see how those grapes dominate the local wine scene. I’ve always believed, and often voiced such belief, that we should be broadening the varietal spectrum, even more so now with the accruing information on climate change. I was once shouted down by an eminent English wine person, who would have none of it, saying we should get right what we already have. Perhaps it then didn’t occur there may be other varieties which could perform even better than those Frenchies, which are mainly from cooler climes of that country.

With the ‘discovery’ of the Swartland and the warmer reaches of the Olifants River up the West coast, so heat-loving varieties from the South of France are showing just how much they like it here too.

But, we’re still in France. Or we were. Changes are happening, even if new varieties sometimes have as much to do with the producer’s connections with the country as suitability. Italian and Portuguese grapes are popular partly for these reasons.

Climate change is also starting to influence thinking. After detailed exploration of the vines and the wine in Greece, Gary and Kathy Jordan are planning to make their first, major planting of Greek variety assyrtiko on their Stellenboschkloof farm this year.

I hope it adapts as well in the ground and the bottle as albariño appears to be doing so far. While albariño is the Spanish version of the grape, in Jancis Robinson et al’s Wine Grapes, it is discussed under its Portuguese name alvarinho. Just a border separates their respective homes in the northwest of Spain and north eastern border of Portugal.

 

‘Fresh acidity balances the full body and firm structure and there can often be a marine note, reminding the taster how well these wine go with seafood,’ writes Robinson of the variety.’

 

Love of seafood, both the catching and eating of it, inspired the Newton Johnsons to go through the lengthy procedure required in importing albariño vine material. Since the first miniscule 8 litres, the wine has displayed remarkably authentic varietal character (and affinity with seafood!), both making it a hit with consumers since the maiden, commercial release in 2015.

Jeanette Bruwer

 

The Springfield Bruwers also have the catching-and-eating seafood bug, but Abrie and his sister, Jeanette were drawn to albariño via a bottle shared in Uruguay (who knew there is Uruguyan albariño?). It obviously so impressed them that they considered importing the vine material – until they discovered the Newton-Johnsons had already done so. Being the delightful wine people both the N-Js and Bruwers are, albariño cuttings crossed the mountains from Hemel en Aarde to Robertson; two-and-a-half years later, Springfield Albariño 2018 proved at its launch that it too lives up to Jancis Robinson’s description and, of course, affinity with food from the sea. The eye-catching label, which leaves one in no doubt as to the grape’s origin (all the local labelling requirements are on the back (front)),should tempt further inspection.

Jenna Bruwer, Abrie & Michelle’s daughter with 2019 albarino grapes

In response to my photos from the launch, a UK friend tweeted a perfect reason for choosing Springfield Albariño: ‘Sometimes you don’t want head-thumping complexity, especially in the sunshine; just a good, refreshing wine.’ I couldn’t agree more: at a moderate (for today) 12.5% alc and with that racy acid, it’s a drinking rather than thinking wine. It’s also reasonably priced at R120 ex-cellar.

Those first vines yielded just 5000 bottles, but every year new cuttings are making new vines and so the number of bottles will increase in future vintages.

On the showing so far of both Springfield and Newton-Johnson’s Albariños (I haven’t tasted Nederburg’s, the only other one), I suggest they will add to the burgeoning reputation of South Africa’s white wine portfolio.

 

Success is important, as it will encourage others to experiment with more varieties suited to our climate.