BD Two decades 11.04.2014

We’re going to have any number of “two decades of democracy” stories over the next few weeks. Between the anger over Nkandla, the outrage over e-tolling, the frustration over failed service delivery and fury about corruption, it’s easy to feel that the celebrations ought to be muted. On the other hand, the Cape wine industry should be on its knees in gratitude. Where it is today is so vastly better than where was in the early 1990s that it is almost impossible to imagine, or even remember, the bygone era.

Some of the story is told by figures alone: exports have increased twenty fold. There are four times the number of wineries. While the area under vine has remained fairly constant, the number of grape growers has declined by almost 30%. In the early 1990s wine production in South Africa was dominated by cooperatives and the wholesalers to whom they supplied their wines in bulk. Today there are virtually no true cooperatives left, and almost half of the country’s wineries crush less than 100 tons.

The composition of our vineyards has also changed dramatically. Twenty years ago almost two thirds of the country’s vines yielded white grapes, with chenin blanc, colombard and hanepoot comprising nearly half of the total plantings. Today the surface area for red varieties is almost the same as for whites and chenin and colombard represent a little less than 30% of the national vineyard. The so-called ‘noble varieties’ – cabernet, merlot, shiraz, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay – now account for over 50% of total plantings.

What is less easily quantified is the change in mindset that came with the end of isolation. Winemakers now in their 40s cannot imagine a time when they were not welcome abroad to talk about their wine, or to attend trade shows. Colleagues of the same age on the sales and management side of the business can hardly conceive of a market made up solely of domestic consumers. Today more than 50% of all wine production is exported. As recently as the late 1980s this portion would have been treated as surplus and would have been subject to minimum wine prices and surplus removal strategies.

What is even more striking is the number of new regions and appellations which have been opened up in this period. Quality wines are being made from fruit grown as far north (on the West Coast) as Koekenaap and Bamboesbaai; along a line from Elgin to Hemel-en-Aarde and then to Elim. Along the Cape South Coast inland in the Outeniqua Mountains and Prince Albert and in coastal sites around Plettenberg Bay; eastwards and northwards in KwaZulu Natal.

With this has come a complete change in the skills and competences of producers. In the early 1990s the country’s winemakers exuded the supreme self-confidence that comes from having no way to calibrate yourself against the competition. It was against this background that John Platter and I set up a wine ‘test match’ against Australia – mainly to shock the industry out of its complacency. Unsurprisingly producers were naïve enough to play along. The result – at 78-21 drubbing – shocked even the realists (and made the Cape a fairly hostile place for both of us for a while). It did however galvanise the younger winemakers in particular to fast-track a learning curve that would ordinarily have taken a generation. Within a few years South Africa exacted some revenge by winning the Cowra Chardonnay Challenge (beating Australia and New Zealand in a three-way tie).

More important than ‘test matches’ and challenges is the change in the mindset of our winemakers. Imbued with a new spirit of discovery, the post-1994 generation combines technical savvy with a passion to identify unique sites, and to make wines which fully express their origin. Herein lies the real change: in the past twenty years our winemakers have gone from being the Armish of the wine world to its new frontier.

BD Thinking on your feet 25.04.2014

When it comes to developing a wine property, it’s not always easy to stick to your original vision. It takes at least ten years to put a new project in place (usually twice as long) and in this time fashions change, costs rise and sometimes the ability to deviate from your original course is all that stands between you and bankruptcy. The number of upbeat producers who have told me – as the first clod was being turned for yet another “state-of-the-art winery,” or the first vintage (from young vines) was being released – “we will bottle no more than one red and one white, the rest we’ll sell in bulk.”

None – as far as I can remember – have remained true to the original plan. It takes too long to find out what a property is best suited to produce, and along the way, you have to sell what you’ve grown and made. Even Hamilton Russell, in many respects the most focused of the Cape’s more established producers, and with a consistently Burgundian vision, early on offered a Bordeaux blend as part of its range.

The long lead time between planting and harvesting fruit from properly established vineyards presents producers with a problem: what to do with the first crops from the very young vines? Vergelegen came to market with its second label first – “Les Enfants” (the children) of Vergelegen – and discovered that the punters weren’t queuing to buy something the winery had already damned with faint praise.

Morgenster’s Giulio Bertrand handled exactly the same problem more adeptly, creating a brand that wasn’t obviously a second label – Lourens River Valley. With a couple of vintages in the market before the launch of the Morgenster Grand Vin, it could gain a little traction in its own right. When he released Morgenster, Bertrand made sure that it had a separate identity – a strategy which has allowed both to flourish alongside each other.

In the meantime, the model of only one wine from the cellar has been superseded, even in Bordeaux, the appellation which wrote the original “rules.” Almost every Cru Classé property now has a second label, partly to ensure that only the best fruit goes into the Grand Vin, partly to enable the producer to manage pricing stability by shorting the volumes of the Estate Wine in difficult times. (In fact, some of the top properties now have three tiers: their second labels have acquired brand status in their own right, necessitating the option of an additional disposal mechanism to allow for further price/volume manipulation).

Back to Bertrand: assisted from the outset by Chateau Cheval Blanc’s Pierre Lurton, he now has at least 10 vintages of both Morgenster and Lourens River Valley in the market. A recent opportunity to taste a vertical of both from the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010 vintages was as instructive as it was satisfying. Firstly it’s clear that the wines are evolving in much the way that one would expect fine Bordeaux to develop. The 2001s are at their peak, the 2003s (from better established vineyards) are more youthful than the two year age difference would suggest, with the Morgenster almost St Julien-like in its elegance and purity. The 2005 Morgenster was equally impressive, though given its higher merlot content, it seemed more a Pomerol than a Medoc lookalike. The 2006s (Morgenster and Lourens River Valley) were both fabulous, and showed where the equally impressive 2010s were likely to go.

Lurton – widely regarded as one of Bordeaux’s true stars (rather than a celebrity flying winemaker) – is rightly obsessed with freshness and tannin management. Henry Kotze, who has been making the wines under his direction since 2009, has taken the lesson to heart. Even the youngest examples have cashmere-like tannins while the old ones remain nuanced and bright. They may not be the Cape’s showiest wines, but they are comfortably amongst the classiest.

BD Doran Swartland 02.05.2014

It’s no secret that I’m some distance from being a Swartland groupie. While there are some very good wines from this recently re-discovered treasure trove of generally older vines, and many of the country’s most adventurous young winemakers have made the region a home base, the appellation alone provides no guarantee of great wine.

The Swartland (which, for purposes of this discussion, includes the Voor-Paardeberg) owes much of its current status to Eben Sadie. He began his career in 1998 at the newly established Spice Route winery (owned at the time by Charles Back, John Platter, Gyles Webb and Jabulani Ntshangase) near Malmesbury. When he moved on a few years later to start what in time became Sadie Family Vineyards (now widely regarded as one of the country’s top 5 cellars), he made the region the focus of his grape sourcing. As his fame spread, so the reputation of the Swartland grew.

Other new generation winemakers, struck as much by the wines he was making as the visibility he was achieving, arrived to seek out their own blocks of old vines. Their commitment to fruit authenticity and minimal intervention winemaking added altitude to the region’s profile and momentum to their ‘natural wine’ movement. When Steven Spurrier (of Judgement of Paris fame) and Jancis Robinson came to South Africa to judge the 2007 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, the one area they earmarked for a visit was this new frontier.

Adi Badenhorst migrated from Stellenbosch to Kalmoesfontein in about 2005. When the Chris and Andrea Mullineux left Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards to start their own venture, the Swartland became their natural destination  – and their winning the Platter Guide Winery of the Year Award last November continued to add to its already substantial cachet. Perhaps  more so than any other appellation in South Africa, the region is dependent on the profile and the personalities of its front-runners.

Still, there is no doubt that the reason that some the Cape’s most independent-minded and creative cellar-masters settled on the area was the ready access to long-established dry-land vineyards. Unirrigated bush-vines, thirty to forty years old, were in relatively abundant supply – a unique situation, considering also the proximity to Cape Town. The value of old vine fruit is that it can deliver greater flavour intensity, especially when the vines have been forced – through the absence of irrigation – to develop deep root systems.

Before Sadie made the region his home, most Swartland farmers sold their grapes to the local co-op or to a couple of the wholesalers. They were paid such derisory amounts that they could hardly afford to replant their vineyards. They were obviously willing to consider any better offer. For many of these start-ups, ready sellers of concentrated small berry fruit obviated the need to invest in land or to establish vineyards. It’s not difficult to see the attraction.

But some – admittedly better capitalised – players have also begun to plant vines and to develop real wine estates. Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof has been doing this at Porseleinberg since 2009, followed in 2010 by Irishman Edwin Doran (in partnership with Adi Badenhorst’s father Andre – the man who played a key role in the renaissance of Constantia.) Whereas Kent is intent on creating a site-specific single vineyard wine pretty much from scratch, Doran is making use of existing vineyards while establishing his new plantings.

So far he seems to be doing most things right. He has a delicious 2012 old vine Chenin Blanc, one of the most exciting new release Shirazes (from the 2012 vintage) I’ve tasted this year and a Bordeaux blend (The Romy D 2012) which delivers balance and freshness instead of the more customary mule-kick. Of course it’s early days – but with three thoughtfully-made wines from one vintage at a new venture, even the most cynical among us would have to concede there’s more to this than the luck of the Irish.

BD Doran 02.05.2014

It’s no secret that I’m some distance from being a Swartland groupie. While there are some very good wines from this recently re-discovered treasure trove of generally older vines, and many of the country’s most adventurous young winemakers have made the region a home base, the appellation alone provides no guarantee of great wine.

The Swartland (which, for purposes of this discussion, includes the Voor-Paardeberg) owes much of its current status to Eben Sadie. He began his career in 1998 at the newly established Spice Route winery (owned at the time by Charles Back, John Platter, Gyles Webb and Jabulani Ntshangase) near Malmesbury. When he moved on a few years later to start what in time became Sadie Family Vineyards (now widely regarded as one of the country’s top 5 cellars), he made the region the focus of his grape sourcing. As his fame spread, so the reputation of the Swartland grew.

Other new generation winemakers, struck as much by the wines he was making as the visibility he was achieving, arrived to seek out their own blocks of old vines. Their commitment to fruit authenticity and minimal intervention winemaking added altitude to the region’s profile and momentum to their ‘natural wine’ movement. When Steven Spurrier (of Judgement of Paris fame) and Jancis Robinson came to South Africa to judge the 2007 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, the one area they earmarked for a visit was this new frontier.

Adi Badenhorst migrated from Stellenbosch to Kalmoesfontein in about 2005. When the Chris and Andrea Mullineux left Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards to start their own venture, the Swartland became their natural destination  – and their winning the Platter Guide Winery of the Year Award last November continued to add to its already substantial cachet. Perhaps  more so than any other appellation in South Africa, the region is dependent on the profile and the personalities of its front-runners.

Still, there is no doubt that the reason that some the Cape’s most independent-minded and creative cellar-masters settled on the area was the ready access to long-established dry-land vineyards. Unirrigated bush-vines, thirty to forty years old, were in relatively abundant supply – a unique situation, considering also the proximity to Cape Town. The value of old vine fruit is that it can deliver greater flavour intensity, especially when the vines have been forced – through the absence of irrigation – to develop deep root systems.

Before Sadie made the region his home, most Swartland farmers sold their grapes to the local co-op or to a couple of the wholesalers. They were paid such derisory amounts that they could hardly afford to replant their vineyards. They were obviously willing to consider any better offer. For many of these start-ups, ready sellers of concentrated small berry fruit obviated the need to invest in land or to establish vineyards. It’s not difficult to see the attraction.

But some – admittedly better capitalised – players have also begun to plant vines and to develop real wine estates. Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof has been doing this at Porseleinberg since 2009, followed in 2010 by Irishman Edwin Doran (in partnership with Adi Badenhorst’s father Andre – the man who played a key role in the renaissance of Constantia.) Whereas Kent is intent on creating a site-specific single vineyard wine pretty much from scratch, Doran is making use of existing vineyards while establishing his new plantings.

So far he seems to be doing most things right. He has a delicious 2012 old vine Chenin Blanc, one of the most exciting new release Shirazes (from the 2012 vintage) I’ve tasted this year and a Bordeaux blend (The Romy D 2012) which delivers balance and freshness instead of the more customary mule-kick. Of course it’s early days – but with three thoughtfully-made wines from one vintage at a new venture, even the most cynical among us would have to concede there’s more to this than the luck of the Irish.

BD Cultivar Changes 07.05.2014

In the spirit of the twenty year reviews prompted by a sense of nostalgia for 1994, I have been reflecting on what a wine-literate Rip van Winkle (who went to sleep two decades ago) should be shopping for if he needed to renew his cellar today.

Before he began his long snooze, he would have depended mainly on cabernet as the backbone for his quality reds, on cinsaut to fill out the less expensive red blends, on chardonnay as his premium white, and on chenin as the fruit source for table whites. He would also probably have bought a lot of wine labelled as “riesling” which was actually crouchen blanc

If he was one of those lucky people with a tungsten-lined esophagus he might have laid in a little sauvignon blanc as an alternative to the charry oak notes which contaminated most of his chardonnays. By the same token, to avoid boredom from a surfeit of cabernet and Bordeaux blends, he might have added a shiraz or two to his collection, and perhaps some pinotage – but that would depend on his tolerance of the smoky, animal notes contributed by virus-infected vineyards and clumsy cellar hygiene.

Today he would be spoilt for choice – in fact, he might have difficulty believing the cornucopia of riches laid out along the racks of his favourite wine merchant. There is now a vastly more substantial red wine selection. Shiraz plantings, for example, are up by over 1200% and the number of different bottlings have increased by a similar amount. He would certainly be disappointed by those which are patently too alcoholic and too oaky. That said, if 10% of what is now being produced shows balance and restraint, he would still have 30 more great sources of shiraz than were available in 1994.

He would be surprised at how cinsaut has almost vanished off the face of the Cape winelands (a fate much like that suffered by riesling/crouchen blanc, though with less justice). While plantings had been declining since the 1980s, much of what has been available in the 1990s produced wines of surprising delicacy. There are the beginnings of a renaissance today but I suspect it won’t be meaningful: there’s no justification in planting a cultivar that needs many years in dryland vineyards to yield a wine whose primary charm is that it is intrinsically unshowy.

No doubt he would be disappointed that while the number of merlots on the market has increased – pretty much in line with the whole evolution of the industry – quality is uneven, and choice limited as a result. There would be some compensation in discovering that cabernet franc has become a useful partner in many of our best Bordeaux blends. The vast increase in drinkable pinot noirs should cheer him up (though he might be grumpy that the prices have remained so intransigently high). He would also be delighted at how good Pinotage has become, earthy yes, but no longer inevitably rustic.

The Sauvignon blanc selection would lift his spirits. Whereas most of the wines in the market in the early 1990s were harsh and charmless, the choice today is simply staggering. Ranging from the lime-blossom and fern-leaf aromas reminiscent of wine from the Loire Valley in France to the more pungent, almost sweaty, asparagus style made famous in New Zealand, they offer a flavour profile for every occasion.

He would also discover the emergence of a wholly new class of white Bordeaux blends – the sauvignon blanc-semillon combos – several of which have become benchmarks in their own right. Finer, less oaky Chardonnays and the extraordinary range of world class chenins would surprise and delight him

There can’t be much to compensate for twenty years spent sleeping while the wines you cellared up to 1994 collapsed into decrepitude, but finding out how easy it is to replace them should soften the blow.

BD Boutiques 16.05.2014

Almost imperceptibly the average size of Cape wineries has diminished over the past two decades, and the number of cellars has increased, almost in direct proportion. Right into the late 1990s there were fewer than 200 cellars, and they crushed a national crop of about a billion litres, harvested off just over 100000 hectares of vineyard. Today the vineyard area and yields are much the same, but there are three times the number of wineries processing the fruit.

In short, there has been a swing from high volume bulk-type co-op cellars to smaller, boutique operations. Just under 50% of all the wineries in South Africa process a crop of under 100 tons – an average yield of roughly 7000 cases. Most of the new name producers are positioned in this no-man’s land: just a little too big to sell their production to relatives, friends and close business associates, and a little too small to justify a sales force.

I’m unable to establish accurate statistics on the 259 cellars (out of a total of 582) that fall into this category. No doubt they could be further divided into the ultra tiny and the mid-size, the mid-size and the almost-at-the-100-ton-threshold. I suspect the distribution is fairly polarised. If you’re commercial, even on a small scale, you need to be at 5000 cases as a minimum – so I imagine that a significant number within this bracket are at the higher end. By the same token, the numbers of the ultra-boutique have been swelling, and there would be a concentration of producers making less than 500 cases.

In this latter segment, representing producers so small they need their day jobs simply to survive, resides much of the creativity of Cape wine. These are the cellarmasters whose passion drives them to seek out tiny blocks of old vines, or to risk their annual winemaking effort over an unlikely vineyard which has survived against all odds in Piketberg or Piekenierskloof.

The past couple of years has seen a flowering of these ultra-boutique winemakers, known as garagistes (on account of the fact that their early French counterparts were described as making their wine in their garages). Many started by producing a single barrel, learning the hard way what happens when you miscalculate sulphur additions. Over time their practical expertise has started to align to their theoretical knowledge. They’ve also formed a small association, which functions as much as a support group as a potential lobbying force.

How many of them are there today? Hard to say – there are obviously a whole bunch of home vintners making a barrel or two for domestic consumption. They are probably right off the radar screen. If you ask the more organised players, their estimate runs to somewhere between 10 and 20, with a further 10 or so who have grown too big to be called garagistes.

But here’s the thing: despite the fact that the garagiste environment has added an important dynamic to our wine industry, as a training ground/kindergarten for edgy producers, as a geiger counter helping to identify unique sites, and as a contributor to its overall profile, it has been stifled – almost to death – by red tape applied by the DA-led Western Cape government. Accordingly its numbers are shrinking

Each province generates its own regional liquor legislation. The DA – for reasons which presumably relate to the ambivalence about alcohol within key electoral groups – has systematically adopted a draconian prohibitionist position. Applying regulations around producer and business licences, the Western Cape government has decimated the ranks of the garagistes. Unlike the craft beer brewers, they cannot move to another province: they have to operate where grapes are grown.

If you want to know why the Masterchefs of the wine industry battle to match MacDonalds, for once don’t blame the ANC – or even the law of unintended consequences. The DA in the Western Cape has been told many times – sadly, the truth is it just couldn’t care.

BD Edgy Winemakers 27.06.2014

Winemakers – especially those who are not simply managing a factory which transforms grapes into an alcoholic beverage – live lives somewhat reminiscent of combat troops (“long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of excitement”). For large stretches of the year they have time on their hands, even if they are also viticulturists and spend time managing their vineyards. There are no real pressures while the vines are in dormancy, and while there is much to be done over the growing season, it’s no more than a properly directed, reasonably efficient team could be expected to achieve.

Come the vintage however, the nature of their activities changes dramatically. Many live at their wineries, setting up a camp bed so they can be available all night to monitor the fermentations. Most confess to losing several kilograms over the period, a combination of stress, no time to eat – and possibly no interest in food.

For many the harvest season is relatively short. If you’re working with only a few varieties and you are not making a range of styles, the crunch time may be no more than a few weeks. If you are employed at one of those cellars which produces everything from Cap Classique (where the fruit must be harvested very early to have the appropriate acidity) to dessert wine, you could have a five month vintage. True, not all of this will be high-stress time at the office. Nevertheless much of it can be, especially if varieties which don’t always ripen at the same time suddenly do, and arrive at the cellar when there are no tanks available to process the fruit.

Beyond these obvious constraints and points of stress however, the real pressure on serious winemakers is the simple fact that each vintage is different, and every producer only has a finite number of harvests in his lifetime. Since the vintage only comes round once a year, every opportunity not taken to the limit is a chance lost forever.

In this sense winemakers are like golfers – they perform in an ever-changing natural environment at a particular moment in time. Although nominally they are up against everyone else in the game, they really compete against themselves, asking the question “could I have done it better?” And like golfers, they know that better is always possible. You can go round 18 holes and get 17 holes-in-one, but that simply means that, on another occasion, you might have made it a round of 18.

I have yet to meet a winemaker who is entirely satisfied with every litre produced in a vintage. However sure he was at the time that he could not have done a better job, a year or two later, when the wine has aged and his own experience has been enhanced by what he has learnt since then, he knows how he might have handled things differently. But unlike the golfer, who can go out the next morning and give it a bash, he has must wait a full twelve months for his next chance to out-perform himself.

There are probably fifty winemakers in South Africa who think like this, and who have the opportunity of applying this kind of reflective strategy to the vineyards they work with, and the fruit that comes into their cellars. By definition they are operating in small to medium volume wineries. They may be cherry-picking their best fruit to make their statement wines, and doing the best they can with the rest.

Not everything they make is worth drinking, because, like even the best golfers, they bogey a few. Generally their wines are not cheap: there has been too much emotional investment (and generally not enough volume through the cellar) for this to be otherwise. But we need them to maintain their quest for perfection, even at the expense of over-paying for their failed experiments: that’s how we get better wines, often from the least likely places.

BD Industrial or Art 04.07.2014

Wine is everything from an industrial beverage, a cultural artefact, a work of creative genius and an object of artisanal craft. Not unsurprising it cannot be all these things at the same time. What is produced in highly mechanised wineries from grapes sourced across a number of appellations is always going to be different from the rustic, but honestly made, craft wine from an almost forgotten valley in the south of Italy. The finely honed and brilliantly calculated masterpiece from a single site within a Grand Cru Burgundy appellation has little in common with a Georgian wine made from saperavi grapes and fermented in clay qvevri.

The idea that there could be a one-size-fits-all regulatory environment around wine production is the kind of fantasy that only bureaucrats could conceive. The Georgians used to bury the fruit from the harvest in clay receptacles and leave it underground through the long cold winter, excavating the fermented juice the following spring. Even today some of the elements of this ancient form of winemaking are still applied by the descendants of the tribesmen who stumbled across the early art of winemaking. It is simply not realistic to expect that the legislation in place today and which has largely been developed around large-scale industrial winemaking can accommodate traditional vinification methods.

In the days before massive commercial winemaking, regulations in the established  producing regions were based on what seemed fair and reasonable to the community. The French prohibition on irrigation recognised that without restrictions growers would increase yields at the expense of quality. The same consideration prohibits the addition to water to the grape must, or to the finished wine. (Curiously California now authorises ‘re-hydration’ at the crush, arguing that this is nothing more than replacing what global warming has taken out of the grapes – as if the sunshine never did this to the fruit until the last decade of the 20th century.)

But adding water is not necessarily a bad thing, providing this is fully disclosed. Right now an astonishing amount of high volume branded wine is sold in South Africa with declared alcohols which are simply too low to be believable. When the ripeness levels suggest that the alcoholic content should be at least 14% and the strength is a mere 12.5% the only credible explanation is that some of the contents are from the reservoir and not the vineyard.

The basic quality of the wine has not been adversely affected by this illegal sleight of hand – in fact the lower alcohol levels have probably improved the mouthfeel. However, it’s near impossible in South Africa to make wines with the taste of fully ripened fruit at 12.5% alcohol unless you’ve used expensive alcohol removal equipment (unlikely for cheap wine) or you’ve topped the tank with water. This must be obvious to the authorities.

There are two issues here: one is a regulation which only serves the consumer interest if it stops the production of an inferior beverage, the other is the illicit benefit enjoyed by the producer who has down-sized the product without declaring the deceit. Perhaps it’s time the authorities recognised that much of what is permitted (and quite a lot of what is presently banned) is only appropriate for certain kinds of wine. Imposing an obligation to declare what has been done would remove the deceit and leave it to consumers to decide.

I would have no problem knowing that water has been added to a wine which has been fermented with wood chips (for oakiness) and to which grape juice concentrate has been added (so that the almost imperceptible sweetness can conceal the tannic roughness). I simply wish to be informed. Right now only the water addition is illegal. While no one buying craft wine would accept any of these ‘techniques’, few if any consumers purchasing a commercial brand would even care. However, everyone has a right to know, if only so that they can price the product correctly in their own minds.

BD Sommeliers 18.07.2014

In an ideal world, there would be no reason for restaurateurs to employ sommeliers. The wine list selection at quality dining establishments would be broad and transparent, making wine choice as easy as selecting your meal. Doubts about the suitability of a particular item could be disposed of by way of a tasting from stocks kept open for wine sales by the glass. In this utopia, all restaurants would list a broad and representative range of quality wines. Everyone, from the proprietors of these extraordinary establishments to even the most occasional customers would share comparable levels of product wisdom. After all, we know that Tournadoes Rossini are filet steaks served with a slab of foie gras – how hard is it to have a class of diners who can instantly envisage the taste and texture of any one of five thousand bottles of wine?

Except we know this is absurd. There are vastly more wines available for sale than even the most assiduous wine buff can hope to commit to memory, just as there are more ways of serving beef than the so-called classical cuisine options that dominated fine dining establishment menus until the 1980s. The success of “cutting edge” restaurants is the originality of what they offer. This unpredictability is one of the many features which distinguish them from steak-houses and family diners. If you expect the waiter who takes your order to know everything about the dishes on the menu, how they are prepared, what goes into them, how they look, taste and feel, why should you not want the person serving the wine to be able to engage on a similar plane?

You expect the chef to source the best possible ingredients, obtaining beef from one farmer, lamb from another, butter and dairy products from a third, potatoes from Ile de Re, cured ham from a long-established producer in San Daniele and truffles from Perigord. It’s not unreasonable to anticipate the same commitment to quality in the wine selection, how the bottles are stored and, as importantly, how they are served.

Except that we don’t. We look at wine lists which have clearly been put together by the representative of one of several wine distributors, where 80% of the items come from a single wholesaler’s stock, and uncomplainingly accept that this is the way of the world. (If you go to a chain of so-called family diners – a Steers or Ocean Basket kind of establishment – there probably won’t even be an attempt to conceal the fact that only one supplier has been involved in sourcing the wines.) In an age of desk-top publishing we patiently live with the absence of vintage information, with the perennial out-of-stocks, with the sheepishly announced product substitutions.

We accept the “cost-of-wine-service” myth and tolerate the 150% – 250% mark-ups when the “wine waiter” wrestles with the closure, thumbing the lip of the bottle as he or she battles to remove the capsule, and then looks at us blankly when we taste the clumsily poured sample and pronounce the wine “corked.” We raise no objection to the tot-sized ‘Paris’ goblets or the Irish coffee glasses into which these service industry professionals pour the R100 bottles which the establishment sells for R295. No wonder there’s no real impetus for change at the level of management.

Happily there are wine enthusiasts who want to become sommeliers, organisations which are available to train them, international producers like Champagne Bollinger willing to sponsor competitions between them and a few enlightened proprietors who have worked out that correctly used, sommeliers can bring in more than enough additional revenue to justify their employment. Increasingly it is clear that the bottle-neck is consumers themselves. There are more sommeliers in the Western Cape – with its international tourism industry – than in Gauteng. In Johannesburg we are simply too passive and pusillanimous – we’d rather not make a fuss. We get the wine service we deserve.

BD Villiera 25.07.2014

I dropped into the tasting room at Villiera recently, on a quiet day in the dead of winter. The space was surprisingly inviting – especially considering the cold front and the generally inhospitable atmosphere which prevails in what the Cape euphemistically calls the “green season.” (At nearby Joostenberg it was clear that neither the deli nor the restaurant were geared for the visitors who were at the farm: not enough serving staff, not enough cashiers, not enough management).

Predictably – given Villiera’s reputation – bottles of fizz were being opened: Villiera makes several wines very well, and sells most of them at remarkably restrained prices. However, if you had to choose a single style most closely associated with the Grier family, it would be bubbly. Amongst the country’s first methode traditionelle producers (initially in a joint venture with Jean-Louis Denois, with whom they made “Tradition de Charles de Fere” back in the 1980s), they have come to master Methode Cap Classique in almost all of its manifestations. In the Charles de Fere days the basic varieties in the base wine were Pinotage and Chenin Blanc. Later the winemaking team came to focus on the traditional Champagne cultivars of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. However, they never gave up on innovation – and from no-sulphur-added to a light (low alcohol) fizz called Starlight – they’ve done pretty much everything you can with the category.

Along the way they’ve garnered their fair share of awards – a couple of Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show trophies, the overall best Fizz at the Tri-Nations Challenge in Sydney a few years back – avoiding at the same time the insane price points of some of their competitors. In fact, if there is a single identifying feature about Villiera, it is that every wine over-delivers, relative to its selling price. The Tradition Brut – the entry level MCC – sells off the farm for less than R90 per bottle. The Chenin Blanc selection starts at R43.

Domaine Grier wines (from their French property) appear to have defied the collapse of the Rand. The Grenache still costs R80 and a couple of classically styled blends (more Rhone than Cotes du Roussillon) start at R89. The Grier Brut, produced in this Southern French site, is strikingly different, finely delineated and worth tracking down. The cuvee includes Macabeu, used in Northern Spain to make cava. In Grier’s wine, it shows greater concentration, contributing to the freshness and finesse of this quite unchampagne-like, champagne method sparkling wine.

The Griers have been making wines like this for over 30 years. In many respects they have come to bridge the space between the old-style wine industry (a wide range of mainly varietal wines churned out at often ludicrously low prices just to keep the business afloat) and its modern incarnation, where purity of fruit and careful site selection both play a role. Their range is big, but it is littered with wines which express nuance. Nothing very flash, but most things done thoughtfully and always with a sense of the consumer, rather than the marketing department, determining the style.

I suspect that their success is derives, at least in part, from it still being a family-run operation. Jeff, his sister Cathy, and cousin Simon have been hands-on managers, viticulturists and winemakers since they took over from their parents who bought the property in 1983. Unlike many of their contemporaries (the notable exception being Charles Back who has just been received a lifetime achievement award from the International Wine Challenge) they never treated the estate as a cash cow. They understood that ownership of a wine farm comes with an obligation to be a pro-active force. From wine styles, marketing strategies and most importantly, social responsibilities, they were pioneers. It’s easy to forget how good they are at what they do, and how easy it is to enjoy the wines they make. It’s no surprise their tasting room was so hospitable while the rest of the winelands hibernated.

Research shows that, taken in moderation, wine is good for your health. RMB WineX supports responsible alcohol consumption. © 2020 WineX Pty Ltd

netoops blog
netoops blog