Radford Dale 1 February 2019

The wine industry attracts eccentrics the way cliffs attract lemmings. Nothing else explains the way that otherwise intelligent people throw themselves headlong into a space whose defining characteristic is free-fall. After all, even the most cursory examination of the ground immediately below shows a landscape littered with the parched bones and rotting carcasses of those who have gone before them.

For those who need the investment, persuading people of means (and besotted with wine) that they need to put it into a foundering wine business brings to mind the nonsensical expression “as easy as falling off a log.” Falling off a log is easy – avoiding injury while doing so requires a degree of skill.

But here’s the thing. Very few of these enterprises go to the wall. Just as surprisingly, many of the punters who’ve exchanged their hard-earned loot for equity in a wine farm would happily do it all over again, despite balance sheets painted in red, and good money turned into sometimes mediocre bottles.

Occasionally the wayward eccentrics, passionate about wine and persuasive enough to bring partners on board, confound the odds and create real businesses. Even more rarely, they do so by making the kind of wines they dreamed about in their idealistic geeky days. It’s fair to say that Alex Dale may be the perfect business school case study for this kind of outcome.

He came to South Africa almost immediately after Nelson Mandela became president. His vision was shaped by the time he had spent living and studying in Burgundy. The Cape offered a brave new world, its nascent independent sector an open space cleared by the sheer momentum of the era.

Initially he settled at Longridge, where he also imported – perhaps with more enthusiasm than the market at the time could comfortably absorb – some of the most exciting European wines South Africa had seen. However, he soon set up the enterprise known today as Radford Dale. His focus was always on the Cape’s strengths, but with an important limitation. Given his Burgundian roots, he hardly strays into the realms of cabernet and merlot.

I recently tasted across the range of wines currently available from Radford Dale. Very few are mainstream in the way that well-made commercial wine presents itself. They are generally more textural than fruit driven, none have been visibly worked, and oak does not form a discernible part of their flavour or aromatic profile. However, they are not austere, nor are they, like many edgy wines, parsimony dressed up as a virtue.

The Vinum Chenin 2017, made with fruit sourced from two Stellenbosch vineyards both around 40 years of age, is earthy and pithy, with lovely mid-palate intensity and a flinty freshness. At 12.5% alcohol, it’s certainly not over-ripe. The 2017 Renaissance Chenin – pretty much the top of the Radford Dale range and selling at over R350 per bottle – delivers density and concentration on the palate rather than on the nose (or even at this stage, on the finish). Harvested from a single 50 year old vineyard, it is so far off its peak that even the release date has yet to be announced.

The 2017 Chardonnay is also worth tracking down: naturally fermented, it’s not been racked, nor stirred, nor overtly oaked. It’s so unshowy that it’s probably five years off passing from the blueprint stage to the three dimensional product. Once again, the hallmarks are reticence (11.5% alcohol), linearity, purity. As a Burgundian companion, the 2016 Freedom Pinot Noir 2016 is the one to go for: packed with pure cherry fruit of great concentration, it’s the wine to drink while you’re waiting for the Chardonnay to evolve.

There are other wines – a delicious Gamay, an intense yet restrained Rhone blend, an organic, no sulphur-added Syrah. They all reflect the same craft, the same absence of distraction. They also require an element of patience: it’s taken Dale 25 years to get to this point: deferred gratification is part of their DNA.

Pinot Noir 8 February 2019

It’s easy to understand why pinot noir is called “the heartbreak grape.” It is deeply susceptible to the influence of climate, soil and viticultural management. Heat, sunlight hours, rainfall and the geology of vineyard subsoils all play a disproportionate role compared with other varieties – though exactly how and in what way is by no means as certain as some pundits would claim. Coupled to this is the massive weight of the benchmark of the Burgundy heartland bearing down on pinot winemakers elsewhere in the world, but especially in regions where the cultivar is widely planted.

All this might be less important than it now appears if the Cote d’Or – that 40 kilometre long and roughly two kilometre wide strip which is the source of the planet’s greatest examples of what the variety can produce – had remained a fashion backwater. Until 50 years ago, even the undisputed masterpieces from sites in Vosne-Romanee, Chambolle Musigny and Gevrey Chambertin traded for a fraction of the price achieved by the top Bordeaux properties. The region’s appellation controlée regulations were arcane to the point of mystifying all but the local authorities. Even today the most sought-after wines may not legally bear the cultivar name. It’s hard to imagine a less likely candidate for apex status in the world of fine wine.

Leon Coetzee is about as geeky as anyone in the Cape wine scene. Over the years he has tracked down, discovered or coaxed back to life any number of unusual vineyard blocks, along the way producing – under his Fledge & Company label – a series of limited bottlings made from the different varieties lurking in these sites. The parcels of vineyard he customarily farms range from the Karoo via Elgin and Stellenbosch to the Swartland. Nothing, not time, distance, inclement weather, dust, disease nor the state of the economy appears to have dampened his pioneering spirit, but pinot has come close.

“(It) hasn’t pushed us over the edge yet … you’re not allowed to have a less than perfect vintage … this grape is a fickle mistress … It’s also just the most vintage specific grape … creating a style/mark is almost futile, other than to play it all by ear & leave it to Nature.”

Coetzee hadn’t yet been born when the late Tim Hamilton Russell and his then-winemaker Peter Finlayson planted the first modern pinot vineyards in South Africa in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley outside Hermanus in the 1970s. Hamilton Russell’s vision spawned a new area of origin, a place where like-minded masochists could book a ride on the emotional rollercoaster of pinot production. This in turn produced an environment in which equally masochistic consumers could part with depressingly large sums of money to sample the fleeting summits-in-a-bottle and the far more frequent dog-depths of expensive vinous junk.

In forty years Cape wine has made up for centuries lost to isolation and ineptitude, but it has only been in the past decade that pinot has delivered a glimmer of hope. Battered followers could be forgiven for thinking this might be just another mirage, though evidence from the recent Pinot Celebration in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley suggests that this is not the flash of fool’s-gold in the pan.

Firstly there is a coherence to the wines – not all of them, because the role of the winemaker is significantly more important than the geography and the geology. Secondly, the very best wines from the 2017 vintage are all better than their counterparts from five years ago. The vineyards are older, the more nuanced skills sets of viticulturists and cellarmasters are increasingly evident in the bottle. In 2012 there were only a couple of wines worth even a fraction of their asking price. Today you can comfortably buy Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson, Storm, Newton Johnson, La Vierge, Ataraxia and Creation – as a future Business Day article hopes to attest. They are not all Burgundian but they are authentic. In time, a few of them could be hauntingly good.

Grenache 25 January 2019

For all its long lead times, the vineyard side of the wine industry is as prone to the vagaries of fashion as the catwalks of Paris and New York. In the mid-1970s, South Africa’s producers depended almost entirely on cinsaut for their red wines and chenin for their whites. Shiraz, merlot and pinot noir plantings represented less than 1 percent of the national vineyard; sauvignon blanc and chardonnay together accounted for less than 0,1%. Since then, the change has been extraordinary: today cinsaut is a sought-after rarity while there’s so much shiraz about it’s become a tough sell.

Initially this reversal was driven by international markets. It was easier to sell varieties whose names and styles were familiar to wine drinkers in far-flung places. The globalisation of the world’s wine market produced its own common vernacular of cultivars.

Now there is a swing against the “sameness” of it all. Ancient or heritage varieties have suddenly become a la mode as consumers have wearied of multiple renditions of oaked chardonnay or pyrazine-driven sauvignon blancs, produced to much the same formula in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Slovenia and Moldova. Malbec has seen something of a renaissance because it is an authentically antique cultivar from southwestern France. Cinsaut is staging a comeback in South Africa. Our Chenin is already back in vogue having all but vanished from premium wine labels by the late 1980s.

Switzerland, better known for its banking laws, chocolate and yodelling, has 200 native grape varieties it wishes to present to the international market. Given the disposable income of its domestic consumers, and the proximity of the growing areas to the greatest concentration of Michelin 3 star restaurants in the world, you can be sure that a few at least will find traction. Against all odds, Georgian wine, produced in large clay jars called Kvevri – a method which harks back to ancient times – and yields a more oxidative style of wine, has taken the geek world by storm.

In the wine-producing regions of South America, criolla (a generic name for planting material which dates back to the earliest days of the Spanish conquest) is back from a place so far below the radar it was almost subterranean. In its pure form the red pais is now to be found in bottle rather than jug wine. There are vineyards of considerable age, and winemakers willing to work them in the hope that they can coax more flavour and intensity from the grapes than the industrial wineries which have exploited them over the years.

In South Africa, our oldest heritage vineyards are Cinsaut (there’s one that’s now almost 120 years old) chenin blanc and semillon. The Old Vine project, championed by Rosa Kruger and Eben Sadie and funded by Johann Rupert, has catalogued where they are: wines made from certified old vine sites can be labelled accordingly. Of the three cultivars, semillon has the most fragile and persistent history. In the 19th century at least 70% of all vineyards in SA were planted to what was known as “groendruif” By the 20th century the older, lower yielding vineyards were grubbed up for more prolific varieties. The few survivors (and even fewer newer plantings) now comprise less than 1% of the national resource.

The same is pretty much true of grenache. Once the most prolific red grape in the world, its decline used to be even more exaggerated in South Africa. By 2010, at the time of the first international Grenache Symposium hosted in the south of France, only a few Cape plantings remained, mainly in the Piekenierskloof. Today it is very much back in fashion, with over 60 bottlings currently available (more than 10 times the number from a decade ago). There are countless fine examples, generally from the older sites. David & Nadia offer several cuvées. Vriesenhof’s very pale, but deliciously subtle Piekenierskloof 2016 is worth tracking down. So is The Foundry, Leeuwenkuil, Spice Route, DeMorgenzon, Thelema, Tierhoek, Neil Ellis, Spice Route, Welgegund and Zevenwacht.

Aggregated 18 January 2019

The pursuit of useful or valuable information – obtained in the least time and with greatest accuracy – appears to be the primary objective of internet usage. There are different ways of achieving this: some people assess suppliers, resources or contractors early on and stay with those they trust. Others take whatever their search engine delivers first. A third group look to aggregated information – metacritic.com is the obvious example – finding comfort in numbers. There’s no easy solution: if even the news can be a work of fiction delivered by a seemingly reputable publication, what chance is there for those who seek reliable advice in the subjective world of aesthetic taste?

When it comes to wine judgement the problem is compounded by issues around integrity and brand, themselves by-products of the sighted versus blind-tasted debate. If a wine really has been judged blind (label out of sight) it doesn’t matter how much has been spent building the reputation of the label (or soft-soaping the critic). The wine has to stand or fall on its merits. However, it’s not always this simple: a young wine is less likely to reveal its full potential, even to the most astute palate. The nuances which distinguish a Burgundy Grand Cru from its next door neighbour only emerge after the passage of time.

Information about wine is available in many pure and hybrid forms. There are critics – very few it seems – who taste blind and who don’t delegate their authority to any assistants. I think I’m the only person regularly producing scores for South African wines on this basis. There are many around the world who work in teams, but with a single taster processing a number of wines, all judged blind. They issue their scores in the name of the critic who first acquired the reputation: this is the inevitable result of trying to have the most complete list of up-to-date ratings while still optimising the brand value of the best known palate. There are also the blind-tasting competitions, where the score is already the aggregated result of all the palates on the panel.

Then there are the scores arrived at in a sighted environment: a surprising number of the best known international names proceed on this basis. This seems to have been Robert Parker’s modus operandi. (It would be hard to imagine otherwise: when you are at Chateau Lafite they’re unlikely to be showing you Mouton or Latour). While this has the advantage of including the pedigree of provenance, it does mean that assumptions about the property/terroir, recognition of brand, perhaps even the context of a winery tasting – play a role.

Mike Froud, formerly editor of Wine Magazine, has published a table of the best South African wines – the SA Wine and Cellar Classification www.topwinesa.com – since 2004. His methodology aggregates the scores of a number of competitions, local and international. It includes the Platter Guide (which is a hybrid of the sighted/blind model, and with multiple tasters) because it is the most complete resource, covering almost all the small boutique/elite/elitist cellars which have chosen not to enter wine shows. It differs in many ways from the SA Wine Index: it draws on fewer sources, none of them obscure. It demands an extended track record and doesn’t offer any scoring system. Instead it has the Top 10 and 20 wines in each division, and the Top 100 overall, highlighting those with the very best track records.

It would be difficult to fault its list of laureates – especially those which have been a constant presence in the Top 20 listing. Those who have followed the Twitter feed since its publication will have seen the squawks of a few producers and their agents who have discovered that their much vaunted (and high-priced) bottlings haven’t made the cut. A few are too new to have acquired the requisite track record. The other are probably discovering the truth of the old adage that you can run, but you can’t hide.

Research shows that, taken in moderation, wine is good for your health. RMB WineX supports responsible alcohol consumption. © 2019 WineX Pty Ltd

netoops blog
netoops blog