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As part of a research and development exercise, a tasting of 15 big-name South African Sauvignon Blancs was recently presented by managing director of Klein Constantia Hans Astrom. What made the exercise unusual was that Pascal Jolivet, a leading Sancerre producer, was in attendance and he was particularly hard on some of the wines, adjudging the likes of De Grendel 2012, Hermanuspietersfontein No. 5 2012, Springfield Life from Stone 2012 , Steenberg Reserve 2011 and Vergelegen Reserve 2012 border-line faulty on account of how pungently green they appeared.
“It’s not necessary to focus too much on aromatics when it comes to Sauvignon,” said Jolivet. “Fruit purity and balance are much more important.”
This caused Duncan Savage, known for very fine Sauvignon Blanc under the Cape Point Vineyards label, to observe as follows: “Green-ness is controversial. The tolerance level for this character is much higher in South Africa but we are at an interesting stage in the development of the category. I would suggest only 25% of production is overtly green down from 80% even five years ago – there’s a realisation that we need to make a more international style.”
Contrast this with Oz Clarke, UK wine writer and broadcaster, and one of the international judges at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. “The anti-green movement is a curse. Producers are getting into a terrible tizz about how much pyrazine or thiol character their wines should show and are forgetting the pleasure measure.”
Clarke’s point is that South Africa has the ability to make many different styles of Sauvignon Blanc on account of it being grown in many different places. “You’ve got vineyards from Bamboes Bay to Elim, inland as well as coastal, which means a wider array of special places than France, Chile or New Zealand. Don’t listen to the critics who want you to homogenise.”
For Clarke, it’s about producers having a “vision of flavour” and the courage to pursue it regardless of how the resulting wines are received by the pundits or the mass market seeking easy-to-drink wines. “Elim has the last vineyards in Africa before the Antarctic and the resulting wines must surely be made to taste like this.”
What to take out of the above? Jolivet is surely right that some local Sauvignon Blanc could afford to show more natural balance and less contrived character, which comes about due to human intervention in both the vineyard and cellar aimed at arriving at the most flamboyant expression of the variety possible. Clarke, however, is no doubt also correct in insisting that producers stay true to site, the market not being monolithic, but rather there being as many different consumers as there are different styles of Sauvignon.
By Christian Eedes
While Europe is struggling to believe that summer has arrived with unseasonal snow falls and low temperatures still being felt, the Cape is already having its fair share of misty mornings and chilly nights where the thermometer is registering single digits.
Having just spent four weeks judging variously at the International Wine Challenge, Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) – both in London – and finally Concours Mondial, which was held in the charming city of Bratislava, Slovakia, it’s a pleasure to be back in the cool Cape.
But it was also a rare treat to field positive comments and observations from fellow wine judges about South African wines. Even the usual whipping boys of Pinotage and ‘green’ Cabernet Sauvignon were hardly mentioned. What the judging cognoscenti had to say was that Pinotage was providing real drinking pleasure with no mention of tar, rusty nails or burned rubber being made. When ‘that typically green South African Cabernet character’ came up in conversation it was almost with nostalgia… “Because winemakers have really got to grips with the ripeness and virus issues and it’s not nearly so easy to spot South African wines in a lineup of reds any more!” one Master of Wine said. There is genuine respect for the strides local winemakers have taken in the past few years and an appreciation for the tangible jump in quality. Chenin Blanc and white blends really excite those in the wine game in the UK while the toning down of the overtly vegetal nature of Sauvignon Blanc came in for praise too.
It was also obvious on the final day of assessment at the Decanter World Wine Awards when we sat in judgement of all the South African wines awarded gold medals that Shiraz is still a category which excites winemakers. It was the largest single chunk of entries vying for the Rhône variety trophy – with nine wines fighting it out. De Trafford got the silverware but it was an extremely close-run thing!
Interesting to note that Shiraz not only dominated the ratings at Decanter but at Concours Mondial as well. Both Grand Gold medals and 10 of the 24 Gold medals South African won in that competition went to Shiraz.
The awards season floodgates have opened with the highly anticipated Decanter results announced at the London Wine Trade Fair this week and Concours Mondial having released theirs on May 17. South Africa improved on last year’s DWWA performance when its wines were awarded 11 regional trophies and 15 gold medals by claiming 14 regional trophies and 27 gold medals. International trophies – such as the two won last year by Bellingham’s Bernard Series Bush Vine Pinotage 2010 (Best Red Single Varietal over £10) and Jordan’s Nine Yards Chardonnay 2010 (Best Chardonnay over £10) will be announced later in the year at the gala awards ceremony.
At the start of the 10th staging of the DWWA in London in mid-April Decanter publishing director Sarah Kemp said she was staggered that once again there had been a significant jump in the number of entries received – well in excess of 14 000 in 2013.
The South African trophy winners were: Boschendal Reserve Collection Shiraz 2011, Cape Point Vineyards Isleidh 2012, Constantia Glen 3 2009, David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner Sauvignon Blanc 2012, De Trafford Syrah 393 2010, DeMorgenzon Maestro 2012, Fleur du Cap Noble Late Harvest Bergkelder Selection 2011, Hidden Valley Hidden Secret 2010, KWV Cathedral Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2012, KWV The Mentors Cabernet Franc 2010, KWV The Mentors Chardonnay 2012, Nederburg Private Bin Eminence Noble Late Harvest Muscadel 2009, Oak Valley Chardonnay 2011 and Paul Cluver Gewurztraminer 2012.
Gold medals went to: Andreas Shiraz 2010, Beyerskloof Faith 2009, Bouchard Finlayson Hannibal 2009 , Bouchard Finlayson Tete de Cuvee Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2010, Cirrus Syrah 2010, Constantia Glen 2 2011, Delaire-Graff Botmaskop 2009, Hartenberg Shiraz 2009, Jordan Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2011, Jordan Cobblers Hill 2009, Jordan Nine Yards Chardonnay 2011, Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2007, KWV Classic Cape Tawny NV, KWV The Mentors Grenache Blanc 2011, KWV The Mentors Shiraz 2011, Lomond Cat’s Tail Syrah 2011, Lourensford Noble Late Harvest 2009, Nico van der Merwe Syrah 2007, Plaisir de Merle Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Rustenburg Buzzard Kloof Syrah 2010, Rustenburg Straw Wine 2011, Saronsberg Shiraz 2011, Spier Creative Block 3 2010, Sumaridge Chardonnay 2010, Uitkyk Carlonet Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Wildekrans Pinotage Barrel Select Reserve 2010, Zonnebloem Laureat 2010.
The Concours Mondial results were as follows: KWV Mentors Shiraz 2011, Saronsberg Provenance Shiraz 2011 both won Grand Gold medals.
Gold went to the following: Almenkerk Syrah 2010, Alvi’s Drift CVC 2011, Asara Shiraz 2010, Cathedral Cellar Triptych 2011, Cirrus Syrah 2010, Escapades Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Malbec 2011, Escapades Semillon 2012, Fleur du Cap Cabernet Sauvignon unfiltered 2010, Franschhoek Femme de Statue Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Gabrielskloof Shiraz 2010, Kasteelberg Shiraz 2011, KWV Classic Cape Tawny, KWV The Mentors Petit Verdot 2011, KWV The Mentors Pinotage 2011, La Motte Shiraz 2010, Laborie Jean Taillefert 2011, Rustenburg Buzzard Kloof Syrah 2010, Saronsberg Provenance Rooi 2010, Saronsberg Full Circle 2010, Simonsig Tiara 2009, Stellenzicht Golden Triangle Pinotage 2011, Stellenzicht Golden Triangle Shiraz 2009, Doolhof The Minotaur 2009, Whalehaven Pinot Noir 2012.
The launch of the Franschhoek Artisan Food Route, which is first of its kind in the Cape winelands, was a brilliant way to sidestep the Monday workload. First stop on this balmy blue-skied autumn day was Babylonstoren for a garden tour (held at 10am daily), led by garden curator Liesl van der Walt, which included picking and eating biologically grown fruit en route to the tasting centre to sample freshly baked bread, made in the wood-fired oven by Karen Pretorius, who starts her baking shift at 5am each morning. These were served with the farm’s own extra virgin olive oil and various jams, including one made from shiraz grapes, which apparently works well with the Babylonstoren Shiraz, although this time it was paired with a refreshing cordial. Delicious herbed yogurt cheese and charcuterie, also made by Karen, completed the tasting. Interestingly, she’s making porcini mushroom biltong suitable for vegetarians. The garden provides constant inspiration with what’s in season, from pumpkins for pickling and roasting to olives for curing and pressing.
Then it was off to The Jam Jar where most of Jill Pienaar’s products are made from organic fruit and include an unusual berry and lavender jam as well as a yummy roasted chilli jam. Cotage Fromage Deli & Restaurant at Vrede en Lust Wine Farm was the next destination and chef Willie Mostert provided olive oils, including a stand-out smoked version, cheese, homemade free-range duck liver pate and spicy condiments, which paired well with the farm’s Artisan Chenin Blanc 2012, to taste.
Then it was back down the Simondium Road (R45) to Dalewood Fromage, owned and run by Rob and Petrina Visser. She thoughtfully partnered a selection of their pasture-to-product cheese with Villiera Starlight, a low-alcohol MCC. The tasting started with their unique Winelands camembert and culminated in a sampling of the six-month-matured Huguenot, South Africa’s Dairy Championships Product of the Year for 2013, as well as a complex and nutty version aged for 12 months. (The estate cheese shop is open Monday to Friday 9am–4pm and in season on Saturdays too, 9am–3pm.)
Last stop was American family-owned Noble Hill for a visit to their chilli garden, where a variety of peppers, from habanero to Serrano, tabasco and Thai are grown for use in the Latin-American inspired Cosecha Restaurant, and an olive oil tasting in the wine tasting room, from the grassy green-tinged unfiltered extra virgin olive oil to ones flavoured with chilli, curry and peri-peri. The day ended with a late picnic lunch at the dam which included a tasty black bean and grilled corn salad, fresh chunky avocado guacamole (with homemade tortilla chips) and a seasonal garden salad, all attractively presented in glass bottles, and a charcuterie board.
An enjoyable day spent sampling handcrafted food and tasting wine, and we’d only covered a third of the route. There are 22 producers in total featured on the map, which ends at the top of the Franschhoek Valley. You can pop in to taste what’s on offer on the day but if you want a specialised tasting it’s best to phone ahead, find out what’s available and book in advance. For more info, visit www.franschhoek.org.za.
Lindsaye Mc Gregor
If the artistic endeavour involved in winemaking was ever in doubt, then consider Francois Haasbroek’s motivation for leaving his position at high-profile Waterford in Stellenbosch to go it alone. “I wanted 100% creative control. From conception through to execution. For better or for worse,” he says. His wines appear under the Blackwater label and the business is sole-owned. “Silent partners would certainly help with cash flow but unfortunately silent partners are never completely silent.”
Perhaps his most successful effort to date is Noir 2010. From Walker Bay grapes, it’s a blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache, matured in old, large-format barrels for some 20 months. “I want to avoid new oak but then you need patience for the process of micro-oxygenation to do its thing,” he says.
It shows red and black berries, fynbos, spice and some liquorice. Medium bodied with clean, pure fruit, really lively acidity and a dry, almost salty finish. The wine sells locally for R125 a bottle, and Haasbroek says “A fair price is very important. My wine’s not churned out and hopefully consumers will recognise that they’re getting something special.”
Haasbroek’s new endeavour intrigues but really he’s just one of a whole bunch of young winemakers who are shaking up the South African wine scene. Others to watch include Chris and Suzaan Alheit (Alheit Vineyards), Donovan Rall (Rall Wines and Vuurberg) and David Sadie (Lemberg and David) to single out but a few. These guys and girls are typically in their 20s or 30s, are well travelled and not afraid to work with lesser known varieties in some of the more uncelebrated parts of the winelands.
Duncan Savage will be familiar to many wine enthusiasts as the winemaker behind the excellent Cape Point Vineyards portfolio but he has now also launched his own label simply called Savage Wines. Maiden releases includes a White 2012 consisting of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon plus a Red 2011 from 72% Shiraz, 21% Grenache and 7% Cinsaut.
“My target was to have my own wines in bottle before I was 35 and I turned 35 in January so I just about made it,” he says. Apart from saying that grapes are sourced from “a number of altitude and maritime vineyards around the Western Cape”, he’s reluctant to go into more detail – lots of tiny parcels and these set to change from year to year. “I’m using a shotgun approach to sourcing grapes,” he says. “I can’t afford a farm and I don’t know if I want to afford a farm.”
The origins of these wines might be more complicated than most, but their excellence is not in question. The White is wonderfully focused and tight and needs at least another 12 months to open up while the red has remarkable flavour intensity despite its relatively low alcohol by volume of under 13%. The Savage wines are sure to attract cult status and evidence once again that South African wine is going through a particularly dynamic and exciting phase.
Hess Family Wine Estate’s Glen Carlou recently celebrated 25 years of Chardonnay which prompted some reflection as I recalled an American’s enticement years ago to try his Sauvignon as it was “made in a Chardonnay style”. His urging now has an ironic truth about it as Sauvignon – and to a lesser extent Riesling – have paved the path for modern Chardonnay.
Chardonnay has emerged from many misadventures, one was outliving the ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ or ‘ABC’ catchphrase – its catchiness probably one of the reasons it gained traction – another was too much richness, the latter more among trade than consumers.
While never far from vogue in its various incarnations, Chardonnay has in fact always been under attack, and its again making a strong comeback with some surprising side effects – white Burgundy is wavering* and no longer producing the most interesting Chardonnay but rather in the new world including the Cape, Australia and Chile.
Glen Carlou’s first winemaker Walter Finlayson became one of theCape’s Chardonnay pioneers along with De Wetshof, Simonsig, Backsberg and Blaauwklippen. Walter travelled toCaliforniaafter winning the Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year in the early 80s and was inspired by the ripe, generously oaked Californian Chardonnays like Far Niente.
Information on the Cape’s early clones is fuzzy, but by the mid 80s the focus appears to be onDavis(Californian) clones which could make richer, riper styles with an affinity for new oak. The trend toward less ripeness and restrained oaking saw more lower-yieldingDijon(Burgundian) clones being planted.
While Glen Carlou’s mid-range Chardonnay – a riper, oaked style – has grown steadily over the years from a few thousand litres to 14 000 cases, their new unoaked Chardonnay is generating lots of excitement. This is where my American colleague might have said ‘taste my Chardonnay, it’s made in a Sauvignon style’ and has joined producers like Jordan, De Wetshof and Groote Post sans barrique.
In one of the purest expressions of site possible, winemaker Arco Laarman has made the unoaked Chardonnay in egg-shaped Nomblot concrete fermenters. While this could be regarded as a manipulation – Chardonnay is after all one of the most malleable grapes – one has to have the courage to do nothing as Burgundian René Lafon said some 30 years ago.
This food-friendly wine was launched with little fanfare in their restaurant and cellar door and it quickly found a following. More Nomblot eggs were ordered to accommodate the consumer demand and new listings. Like Sauvignon, it has primary fruit aromas, lively acidity, no oak and a leaner palate – the traditional image no longer holds true.
CapeChardonnayplantings (2011) stood at 8092ha yielding around 76 000t. Since 1984, 9 555ha were planted and 3 171 uprooted which suggests that some 1700ha was replanted to Chardonnay with a recent preference for CY55.
*The premature oxidation crisis combined with fewer age worthy wines and little or no progress Vs redBurgundyhas led an argument that whiteBurgundyis suffering an identity crisis.
Jonathan Snashall 7 May 2013
Not only are today’s young a smart bunch of winemakers, they’re also imbued with a strong spirit of innovation.
The latest idea, borrowed from the French, is a sparkling wine which undergoes a single fermentation and is known there as méthode ancestrale, méthode artisanale or méthode rurale. It’s hardly mainstream and generally not found in mainstream areas of France, except for theLoire, from where the small group of South African producers have drawn their inspiration.
The group trying their collective hand include Matthew Copeland of Vondeling and Willie and Tania de Waal of Scali both from the Voor Paardeberg, while on top of the ‘berg’ in the Swartland those honing their skills are Craig Hawkins of Lammershoek, Adi Badenhorst of the eponymous family winery and Chris and Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux wines. Their proximity is no coincidence; the hope is that this fizz could become a regional calling card.
It is, however, very early days for all: some are making their second vintage, others only their first. So enthusiasm is tempered with caution; “It’s more difficult than Méthode Cap Classique,” says Hawkins, while Copeland pulls no punches, describing it “as a pain in the butt”.
Taking no chances, experienced help has been called upon: Pascal Potaire from the Loire, who Hawkins describes as “the unofficial champion of this style”, taught him how to make a natural sparkling wine as opposed to “mini glass bombs”. Another Loire guru, Vincent Careme, has advised Adi Badenhorst and the de Waals.
Hawkins’ approach is to rack the fermenting juice several times prior to bottling to prevent too much lees sediment and residual sugar once the crown cap has been put on. This leads to too vigorous a fermentation in the bottle and the obvious explosions.
Willie and Tania de Waal follow a natural method of cold settling the juice before racking it to tank for a spontaneous ferment until sugar levels of around 30 to 40 g/l, then chilling the wine as cold as possible prior to bottling. This allows for a very slow ferment in the bottle with less likelihood of explosions.
The Mullineux’s winemaking is usually non-interventionist; not in this case, where the juice from the whole-bunch pressed grapes is settled, then cold stabilised and protein fined. After a natural fermentation, the wine is bottled with around 35 g/l of residual sugar.
Copeland is even more cautious, bottling only when the sugar is around 25 g/l. As this is only his first attempt, the final analysis isn’t yet known, but he should take heart from Adi Badenhorst, who bottled with a similar sugar level. “We didn’t think it would ferment dry but it did, even when kept at 12 C; it’s really tasty,” claims the delighted winemaker, who guesses all 1 000 bottles will be drunk in house!
If each of the winemakers have a slightly different approach before getting the wine in the bottle (all though are following the French tradition of leaving it on the lees for between nine months and a year), they are also using several different varieties; anything from chardonnay (Copeland), chenin blanc and/or hárslevelü (Hawkins), viognier and/or chenin (De Waal), muscat de frontignan, chenin and verdelho (Badenhorst), and clairette blanche (Mullineux).
And yes, despite limited quantities, some will be sold commercially; the Mullineux’s for instance will go into their wine club pack.
Here’s another case of ‘semper aliquid novi ex Africa’.
Burgundy,Bordeaux, Barolo: all are names that conjure up classic red wines – and in the case of the first two, whites also.
But like the lengthy history behind each of these areas, so do their wines benefit from years of maturation; years, during which, time does its magic of developing more intriguing flavours, while calming the exuberance of youth and softening the tannins.
Tasting South African red wines of a bygone era, the 1940s through to the 1960s, which I’ve been privileged to do on several occasions, these too have provided some wonderfully mature pleasures. Like their European counterparts, they too would have required time to reach this mellow state.
In today’s world of instant gratification, most wines are bought today and consumed tonight, so does the rest of the world need to or indeed, can they make wines that also benefit from age? I would argue that the best wines can and do benefit from age, even a few years.
But, whether designed for early drinking or maturing, well-made modern wines are drinkable on release. For, as Chateau Margaux’s Paul Pontallier reminds us, for a wine to taste good when it’s aged, it has to taste good when it’s young.
Personally, I believe there are few South African reds that need more than six to eight years and fewer still that benefit from longer.
So I’d anticipate a line up of 10-year-old South African reds would offer a mixed experience. Why 10 years? I guess because it’s a nice, round figure. And by starting a competition for 10-year-old reds, 2003 would be as good a vintage as one could want.
One might also ask why red wines? It’s ironic that South African white wines are generally considered more interesting and often better than reds but the status quo still dictates they are the ones that deserve maturation. Also, how many producers would have stocks of 10-year-old white wines? Many fewer than those with reds.
So red wines it was that fell under the spotlight at the inaugural RE:CM (an acronym for Regarding Capital Management, an asset management company) 10-year-old Red Wine Awards. In effect they continue, with embellishments, a theme, started by the now defunct Wine magazine.
With sponsors RE:CM, celebrating its own 10th anniversary, and Christian Eedes, former editor and tasting panel chairman of Wine magazine, organising, the event drew 73 entries representing 39 wineries. Required stock was two bottles for tasting with a further 22 for the awards dinner. Not an overly demanding figure, but for some of the Cape’s arguably best wineries with a noteworthy track record, their 2003 cupboard was bare.
Thankfully, Boekenhoutskloof, one of South Africa’s most renowned wineries, does keep a library and Marc Kent’s equally celebrated Syrah topped the list of winners with the sole five-star rating from the three judges – Eedes, internationally trained sommelier, Jorg Pfutzner, and wine educator, Nkuli Mkhwanazi. This wine’s solid track record stems from its fruit source – the same Wellington vineyard since 1998 – and cellar techniques, notably no new oak. After 10 years, it is an infinitely more interesting wine yet, according to those at our table at the awards dinner, it still has plenty of life in it.
Rudera Shiraz and Remhoogte Estate Wine, a merlot-cabernet-pinotage blend, which filled the balance of the top three spots, were less anticipated winners but they and the balance of the 51 wines that gained 3 or more stars, just go to show South Africa is more than a one-trick pony.
As matching variety to site, vine age (the majority of vineyards are still between four and 15 years), vinification techniques and oak ageing are all better understood, South African winemakers, especially the talented new generation, will undoubtedly turn out many more wines worthy of and benefiting from long maturation. Among them, maybe some that will challenge those classics above.
The Nederburg auction is approaching its 40th anniversary and ahead of that milestone the organisers are keen to change the mix of things slightly. There’s renewed energy and a keen desire to restore the auction to its place as one of the country’s most significant annual wine events.
When it was started in 1975 its primary aim was to showcase older South African wine and to convince the country’s wine drinkers that local wines could age, gain in complexity and benefit from cellaring.
Last month a tasting panel, which included renowned UK wine blogger Jamie Goode (www.wineanorak.com) and South African born Master of Wine Greg Sherwood, tasted a range of older wines which have been stored in ideal conditions in the Tabernacle, Distell’s ‘holy of holies’ for the past few decades.
The panel was charged with tasting a range of wines to assess whether they should be added to the catalogue for the 2013 Nederburg Auction which takes place during the first weekend in September.
Lined up before us were Oude Libertas Pinot Noir, Cinsaut, Tinta Barocca and Cabernet Sauvignon – vintages from 1971 to 1979; Lanzerac Pinotage – select vintages from 1963 to 1975, some in half bottles; Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1963, 1973 and 1980; and Chateau Libertas 1940, 1965 and 1982.
Even as a wordsmith I found myself unable to do the wines justice. It was a genuinely rare pleasure to taste these wines and sample South African vinous history. They were all impressive. Some had aged a little less spectacularly than others but the panel was genuinely impressed by the quality of what would have been quite humble wines.
And that ostensible modesty of the 1940 Chateau Libertas which is now touching on greatness is even more remarkable when one thinks of how it would have been made. There would have been no fancy whole bunch pressings, no cold soakings or extended macerations, no special first-, second- and third-fill large or small volume barrels earmarked for its maturation… Even the grapes which went into making it were not all noble or destined for greatness.
This is a wine which would have been made as simply as possible – picked around 20 or 21 degrees Balling, made in large volumes, containing a significant proportion of Cinsaut (next to Chenin Blanc, the other workhorse of the South African wine industry…) and having probably had acid added and not too much attention given to the oak it received, probably ancient stukvate or 1000ℓ vats which had more than a few vintages under their belts!
I had a moment where I paused and thought about all the headaches winemakers have nowadays – about ripeness levels, different blocks of different clones of grapes, noting the varied soils the vines are grown in, different harvest dates, the yeasts and various enzymes used to aid colour extraction and fermentation, the smorgasbord of ageing vessels available to them – from 225ℓ to 500ℓ or more and even French, American, Hungarian or Russian oak… And what about Nomblot eggs which are the winemaker’s foefie du jour?
Things were so much simpler in the 40s – and the wine is triumphant 70 years later. Can – and will – the same be said about the wines from our decade when they’ve aged the same length of time? Only time will tell – but fans of wine history will have a fantastic opportunity to bid on some very rare bottles come Nederburg Auction 2013!
“Staves are to good barrels what Nescafé is to properly made espresso – you’re reminded of the real thing but it’s not nearly as good,” says Giorgio Dalla Cia, at Meerlust in Stellenbosch from 1978 to 2003 and subsequently making wine under his own label.
Dalla Cia was famously involved in pioneering the Bordeaux-style red blend in the Cape, the maiden vintage Meerlust Rubicon 1980 appearing the year after Paarl property Welgemeend produced the first ever. He’d studied at the Scuola Enologica di Conegliano just north of Venice but spent holidays in France to broaden his wine knowledge and was particularly taken with the wines of Bordeaux.
“It became clear to me that high-quality barrique was a crucial determinant of wine quality. Bordeaux had long been drunk by the English and the use of barrique originally came around for practical reasons as it made shipping easier. In Italy, meanwhile, most consumption was domestic and wine tended to be vinified in large-format vats which did not impart the same complexity,” he says.
When Dalla Cia arrived in South Africa in the 1970s, Cabernet Sauvignon was relatively widely available and along with the late Nico Myburgh, father of current Meerlust owner Hannes, the two set out to make a wine inspired by Bordeaux.
“Lafite was the reference – I loved the wine and we needed a target to aim for.” He relates showing the 1984 to the Lafite team at a later stage and taking great satisfaction at their disbelief that South Africa was capable of such high quality. “They called it ‘the best French wine outside of France’”.
According to Dalla Cia, South Africa’s sunshine is both the greatest asset and liability of the wine industry. “We get better ripeness but also higher alcohols than Bordeaux,” he says. “As soon as I arrived here, I could recognise the potential to make a great Bordeaux-style blend – no frost, no rain, no hailstorms. You get a good vintage here 80% of the time.”
Now 72 years old, Dalla Cia’s winemaking skills seem far from waning with his current release Giorgio having been rated 5 Stars in the current edition of Platter’s. It’s a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Petit Verdot, all grapes sourced from the Helderberg area of Stellenbosch. His approach to oak maturation, as you might guess, is none too cautious, the wine having spent 18 months in barrel, 80% new. “You must allow the wine and oak to interact. It stabilises colour, enriches the bouquet, adds intricacy.”
‘Cape Townis quite a drawcard; the eyes of the world are on you with your excellent wines and food.’ This compliment, paid by English MW, Nancy Gilchrist, came at the end of an exploration of a selection of Backsberg Black Label wines and how they react with a variety of ingredients.
This was the second such event, the first a week earlier having proved so popular that Simon Back, in charge of marketing at the family farm, decided to hold another.
It was certainly an eye-opener to all there; mainly, of course, wine stewards, sommeliers and restaurateurs, the people with whom all those international and local visitors rely on to help with a wine choice to accompany their meal.
Faced with trays bearing everything from lemon grass, soy sauce and brie to nectarine, lemon and salt, Gilchrist described our event as ‘playing with fundamentals’; we would progress from tasting and analysing a wine to trying an ingredient (usually three or four per wine), then re-tasting the same wine to assess how the ingredient affected taste and structure.
The goal, says Gilchrist, is to attempt ‘to achieve a balance in the combined structural characteristics – acidity, saltiness, sweetness and bitterness/tannin – and also in their effect on perceived alcohol.’
This we did with ten different wines, including three-vintage verticals of Pumphouse Shiraz and the Bordeaux-style blend, Klein Babylonstoren; there were many levels of success or failure and not the same for everyone.
Backsberg John Martin 2012, a partially wooded sauvignon blanc faced up to green apple, salt and coriander leaves, on the basis that acid decreases the perceived acid in wine, as can salt, while coriander is a complementary flavour. There was no difference with the salt, the coriander flavour swamped the wine; only the apple worked for me, not for others.
The Klein Babylonstoren vertical threw up interesting differences: fruit in 2007 was enhanced by brie but mint highlighted tannins; not so in 2005, where mint lifted the fruit but the brie didn’t. So it’s not only down to which wine but which vintage. Confusing?
The good news, Gilchrist pointed out in her notes, is: ‘Firstly, there are no rules; only tried and tested observations and generalisations.’ In other words, if it doesn’t do it for you, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but it was encouraging when the partnership did work and gave the anticipated effect. As in pepper emphasising alcohol in 2007 Klein Babylonstoren and lemongrass lifting fruit in the subtle, fresh Hillside Viognier 2009; the latter a grape often paired with Thai food.
Talking of rules, it appeared there were none for the wines; both Back and Gilchrist were bemused by how different they tasted from the previous week; ‘quite a bit less expressive’ according to Back. ‘It’s a leaf day,’ Gilchrist suggested, referring to the biodynamic calendar, where ‘fruit’ and ‘flower’ are considered best days for tasting.
Even with no conclusions, there was plenty of discussion and everyone discovered how ingredients can affect wine’s structure and taste profile, for better or worse.