Great Domaines Tasting 22 August 2019

The demand for small producer wines means that there are now distributors whose entire product ranges come from an assortment (perhaps a better collective noun would be “crush”) of boutique winemakers. It is now possible to go to a trade tasting and sample only wines made in accordance with the largely implicit guidelines of artisanal production. If they have a common style, its key elements should emerge in that environment. I’ve attended a few such events. It ought to be easy to see what should be different from a line-up of wines made in more commercial (but still relatively low volume) cellars, but the evidence remains elusive. Leaving aside what could only be described as hippy production methods, the visible wine qualities remain largely the same.

If you buy a pair of hand-made Ferragamo shoes, the finish is guaranteed to be immaculate. In some ways the artfulness is that you do not see the craft which went into their production. Except for the choice of the actual raw materials, and a host of almost invisible nuances, they will look similar to a pair of shoes sold in a decent high street store. The fit might feel different, and they’re likely to look better for longer. The difference between them (and even the pair of high street shoes) compared with handmade footwear offered for sale in a hippy market would be obvious to everyone.

For purposes of this discussion, the hippy alternatives are out. There is obviously a place and a demand for them. I am more concerned with whether and in what way the craft and artfulness of the most nuanced high-end production is immediately discernible in a line-up of young wines.

Ten years ago you might have been able to make this call without even tasting the wines. The choice of varieties and appellations would have been a dead give-away. Cinsaut, chenin, palamino, clairette blanche and grenache mostly from sites in the Swartland and Piketberg pretty much defined the movement. Forty years ago the opposite would have been true: these varieties and these appellations carried the message “co-op wine” writ large. Nowadays there are commercial cellars hand-crafting chenin, grenache and cinsaut. Their winemakers have learnt a great deal from the craft producers who brought these varieties back from the dead, often applying the same fermentation and maturation strategies.

So the evidence, to the extent that it’s there, is less obviously discernible: in the terms of the Ferragamo shoe analogy, it is in the selection of the raw materials and in the almost invisible craft which optimises what is extracted from them. This struck me most forcefully tasting the David and Nadia single site chenins. David Sadie is – I think rightly – obsessed with the nuances which he believes arise from the different soils in which his best vineyards are sited. The Skaliekop and Plat’Bos cuvées (which are on granitic soils) are palpably different (and in my view more interesting) than Hoë Steen and the cellar’s regular Chenin Blanc. The same detail and precision can be found in the Mullineux single site reds, most notably the Roundstone Schist Syrah and Iron Syrah. It’s equally evident in Eben Sadie’s Ouwingerdreeks wines, most notably Soldaat, Pofadder and Skurfberg.

It was also instantly discernible sampling the pinot noirs from Newton Johnson. The property’s standard (Family Vineyards) pinot noir is consistently one of the Cape’s best: the product of great fruit and thoughtful winemaking. For me the test lay in the the single site examples – Windandsea and Seadragon – where the craft of the winemaker involves coaxing from the grapes the purest expression of place. The Windandsea is a high altitude – and therefore more overtly maritime – vineyard in harder, stonier soils. The wine is unsurprisingly structured rather than angular, making up with perfume what it has been denied in flesh. The Seadragon on the other hand, is more seductive. Same winemaker, same cellar, no great distance between the two vineyards. Go figure, as the Americans would say.

Brand message 14 August 2019

Wine brands (as opposed to wine labels) create expectations about what is in the bottle – which is why it behoves critics to form their judgements in a blind tasting. When you approach a wine in a sighted environment you are expected to have preconceptions, otherwise the marketing people have failed in their task. Since the aesthetics of taste are far more subjective than most of our other judgements, we are all more susceptible to the subliminal messaging associated with a brand’s attributes.

Once a product is firmly established in the market place, the brand owner wants to rake in as much revenue as possible in order to secure a return on the initial investment. In no time there are brand and range extensions: listings and shelf facings from retailers are more easily secured once you can prove the punters trust your product. However, this can often lead to confusion over the brand’s “message.”

Consider the Bellingham range. At its entry level it offers well-made varietal wines. Most of the examples I’ve tasted over-deliver at their price point. The Homestead Shiraz 2017 is completely delicious, with real fruit intensity, plush but not overly tannic textures, good length and balance. It’s hard to beat that in a sub-R100 wine.

At the top of the Bellingham range however is the Bernard Series – so named to honour the founder of the brand, Bernard Podlashuk. Previously called “The Maverick” it has been the source of a number of quite special bottlings over the years. When Graham Weerts (who subsequently went to California and now heads Kendall Jackson’s vineyard operations) made the first examples, he set a new benchmark for hand-made wine production in a big commercial cellar. His successors have maintained the principle, crafting small batches of sometimes quite exceptional creations. The latest Old Vine Chenin Blanc, the 2017, is a little like dry, liquid Seville orange marmalade. Its spectrum of flavours covers apricot compote, grapefruit zest and pear-drops. In short it is as fine a chenin as you’re likely to lay your hands on.

The problem is that Bellingham is seen as a commercial not craft cellar, and while the Bernard series doesn’t scream “Bellingham” it also can’t (and shouldn’t) hide its provenance. Small batch wine can be made in big wineries, but it’s very difficult to convey a sense of artisanal in the midst of the industrial. Ideally you need different production sites, different personnel, and a different engagement with wine enthusiasts.

There’s some tolerance for a price spread within a range, as long as the message is consistent, and the branding contributes an explanation to the rationale. Consider Kleine Zalze: there are three main tiers to the brand, each named to explain (subliminally) the price point: Cellar Selection, Vineyard Selection and Family Reserve. As you go up the price pyramid you expect the fruit to come from the better vineyards (Vineyard Selection) until at the top, it’s single site, and (presumably) limited quality.

The pricing reflects and corroborates the message. Cellar Selection reds sell for around R100, Vineyard Selection for R170, and Family Reserve R400. When you taste the ranges alongside each other you are aware of the differences: the Cellar Selection wines are easy and accessible, the Family Reserve bottlings have more richness, more obvious signs of barrel maturation – in short they taste expensive.

Using a motor car brand as a comparison, you go from an Audi A1 via the A4 to the Q8. The range works because the consistent message is about brand and engineering, and the differential is about size, performance and sense of luxury. It’s not about German engineering for a couple of the cars, and Afghani design and execution for the others.

Wine drinkers are no more willing to be conned than car buyers. They need the intrinsics to add up to a coherent and credible message. Commercial and craft production do not make comfortable bed-partners. Nor do German hand-knotted carpets, or high-tech cars designed and assembled in Kabul.

 

 

 

Brand and Price 7 August 2019

7 August 2019

How predictable is brand when it comes to determining wine quality? Put another way, should the better known brands readily submit their wines to the potentially more objective world of blind tasting? I say “objective” because the reality is that wine is performance art, and even the best made examples don’t always perform as they should on the day. For that matter, neither do the best palates, or the best panels. When brand image is at risk, there’s a temptation to preserve the investment in brand-building and risk the absence of an independent endorsement.

I looked through my last two blind tastings with a view to determining whether the scores tallied in any way to the brand seedings. Partly this involves an analysis of price: what a wine costs should reflect the optimum revenue, given the perception of its value. In that sense it balances how the product is perceived, with how much of it is about.

Take sauvignon blanc for example: R135 retail is about as premium as you get (unless you are pursuing the tiny volume “icons” made more to position the top-end of a range than actually to sell any wine.) This is the price point of two wines, both tasted blind recently, and both of which scored within a point of each other. The first up is the Jordan Cold Fact 2018, scoring 88 on my system – which equates to about 91 on the more generous calibration used by wine publications. It’s a good score, and certainly vindicates the brand: you buy Jordan wines because you know they are well made, and expect each of the different varietal bottlings to finish in the top 15% of a serious line-up.

It was pipped (admittedly only by a point) by the 2016 Elgin Ridge 282 – a less well-known wine, and therefore, given the pricing, under some pressure to over-deliver at the price point. This is exactly what it did: it’s a bigger, more muscular sort of sauvignon, and its aromatic profile reflects its appellation. There are notes of capsicum and blackcurrant leaf, whiffs of mown hay. It’s not showing any age, although the extra two years in bottle have helped the integration.

The same slight difference separated two benchmark Pinotages, the Beyerskloof 2017 Reserve and the newly released Kanonkop 2017. The former scored 89 (equal to a magazine/Platter score of 92) and it had clearly been made in a more accessible style. It costs half as much as the Kanonkop, which serves partly to acknowledge that although Beyers Truter used to make Kanonkop’s wines before setting up his own very successful Pinotage-focussed cellar, the Kanonkop brand has greater appeal.

The Kanonkop, at 90 (equal to 93), offers more reasons for cellaring it, especially once you know what it is. At present it’s way too oaky, without the integration you would expect of a wine destined for relatively immediate consumption. On the other hand, it has fabulous and intense fruit, so it is safe to predict that over time the wood will not dominate the vinosity. You might well ask why it hasn’t garnered a higher score. The answer is that the oak doesn’t need to have been this robust to achieve the same result once it’s properly aged. When you have the strength and fire-power of Kanonkop Pinotage, you don’t have to shy away from a little polish.

These readily available examples confirm that several of the better known, highly branded, players are not resting on their laurels: they are making wines which live up to their marketing pretensions. What isn’t fully explained however is the marginal score differential, compared with the gaping price gap. The Kanonkop is better than the Beyerskloof, but it’s not twice as good. That’s where shortage, and long term brand value, both play a role: great vintages, produced over several decades, make the Kanonkop, of which only a finite amount is available, that much more desirable. It’s what producers aspire to, and what consumers indulge.

 

 

desirable. It’s what producers aspire to, and what consumers indulge.

Lurton, Morgenster et al 31 July 2019

Famous (flying) foreign winemakers were a big deal in the world of wine a few decades back. It was a natural progression from the not-so-famous flying winemakers – mostly Australian – who exported skills acquired at Roseworthy in Adelaide. In very little time they brought an apparently alien culture of clean cellars, clean fruit and clean wine to the Old World. The major purchasers of these services were the UK supermarkets, primarily through intermediaries. The major suppliers were the cooperatives dotted across the southwest of France, where vast swathes of vineyards were being “upgraded” with plantings of more saleable cabernet, merlot, shiraz and chardonnay.

I worked with several who did stints in South Africa for UK supermarkets. More than their competence and technical abilities, what struck me was their grasp of the economics of efficient winemaking and their ability to manage relationships in the cellars in which they worked. The two extremes of the trade – artisanal and industrial – may appear to inhabit opposite sides of a spectrum, but their relationship is symbiotic. Fine wine producers try to distance themselves from the world of commercial winemaking but they are co-dependents. Putting high-end commodity producers under the same roof as pre-modern Cape winemakers who really thought they were making world-class wines wasn’t necessarily a formula for success. Fortunately the visitors has been schooled in managing dinosaurs.

Nothwithstanding the winery politics, the flying winemakers who came to South Africa contributed to the skills upgrade which followed the end of isolation. The more junior members of the winemaking teams were willing to learn from them, and went with them to international technical conferences. The competence gap narrowed remarkably quickly, at least insofar as the next generation was concerned.

So is there a role left for the famous foreign winemakers? How useful is their knowledge, compared with those whose expertise is grounded in the same place as the vines grow? It’s a fair question, and one which requires an examination of the wines produced at the Cape cellars which benefit from their input. Michel Rolland – a high profile international consultant who works with over 100 estates in 13 countries, has been involved at Vergelegen since 2013. He instantly made a positive and discernible impact on blends the base wines of which had already been made before he became involved.

Hubert de Bouard, who took Chateau Angelus from a solid but uninspiring St Emilion to one of the top three estates in the appellation, has been directly involved in the transformation of Klein Constantia. True, there’s also been a new winemaker and a new general manager. While it’s impossible to separate the part he played from those who are involved full-time, it cannot be discounted: De Bouard runs a full-time consultancy, addressing technical issues at a number of leading estates, mainly in France.

Pierre Lurton, who heads up Chateaux Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem in Bordeaux, and directs Cheval des Andes in Argentina, serves as an advisor to Morgenster. He has overseen the estate’s Bordeaux blend from even before the vineyards were in full production.

All three of them are highly qualified oenologists at the top of their game. In terms of sheer depth of knowledge as well as practical experience, they are pretty much unmatched in the world of wine. Lurton has had the longest direct involvement with a Cape property. The fact that the earliest Morgenster vintages – most notably the 2000, 2001 and 2004 – which are still available have aged so well, and now sit comfortably alongside Lurton’s French wines from the same era (as a recent tasting in Johannesburg showed), confirms the value he has brought to the cellar

For these relationships to work, and to be worth what they cost, international consulting oenologists must be more than specialists in the cosmetics of wine. They must be what Federer’s or Djokovic’s coach is to a great tennis player – able to get the very best out of a property which is already at the top of its game.

Good tasting 24 July 2019

Not every day in the life of a wine taster is as perfect as it sounds: a line-up of a hundred sauvignon blancs is not necessarily what you feel like first thing in the morning, nor is the discovery (which really did happen to me at an Australian Capital Show), that the day’s work is a close encounter with over 200 shiraz samples, none more than three years old. However, for every one of those “I wish I were somewhere else” moments there are countless others which make up for the oral abuse. Such a day occurred recently: it began with a presentation of polished and impressive high-end Italian wines and finished with a line-up of finely crafted, suitably edgy examples from the Cape.

The unifying element of the Italian selection was that all the wines were produced on estates owned by iconic families in the Italian fashion industry: Massimo Ferragamo’s Castiglion del Bosco, Paolo and Giovani Bulgari’s Podernuovo a Palazzone and Guido Fendi’s Idillio Maremmano. Our view of Italian wine in South Africa is tainted by the fact that at least 80% of what is available is made in large, industrial cellars. The trick is to find the hand-crafted examples at prices which are still vaguely affordable, and there were several such examples at this tasting.

The Castiglion del Bosco Chardonnay 2018 delivered intense citrus and pomelo notes from aroma through to the finish. Without any oak to lift the fruit, it depended entirely on the quality of the grapes harvested from the site near the town of Montalcino. I was equally impressed with the two Brunellos. The standard release 2013 was finely delineated with a faintly smoky red fruit and mushroom note, suggesting it was as ready for drinking as it needed to be. The more prestigious “1100” Riserva 2011 was a little silkier, a little more elusive, a little more persistent.

All of the wines are already available in South Africa, unsurprisingly only at high-end outlets such as Norman Goodfellows, The Saxon, The Houghton. Ranging in price from around R500 for the chardonnay and touching the R3000 per bottle mark for the Brunello Riserva, they are clearly not intended for the pizza-pasta trade.

Though these Tuscan wines were stylistically very different from the Cape tasting which followed in the afternoon, both line-ups shared in common a focus on craft. The Cape selection included the 2015 release of the Dainty Bess MCC produced by Jane Eedes, one of the very few Rosé bottle-fermented bubblies delivering the bready notes and creamy textures associated with this style of winemaking. There were also a couple of really impressive wines from Jocelyn Hogan – her finely crafted 2017 Chenin Blanc (in my view her best to date and a real benchmark example of that near-impossible achievement of fruit intensity balanced out with finesse) and the Divergent red blend. The latter is an unusual assemblage of equal amounts of carignan, cabernet sauvignon and cinsaut: in 2017 it worked beautifully.

Meerlust’s Chris Williams has been making his own wines under The Foundry name for many years. His 2017 Roussanne is fabulous, as is his 2017 Grenache Noir. Properly sited Rhone varieties are really showing well in the Cape, as Jeremy Borg proved when he bagged the Best Producer award at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. The Foundry selection confirms the potential of both these less familiar cultivars.

JH Meyer and Lucas van Loggerenberg are both leading lights in the world of hipster wines. The former’s Palmiet Chardonnay 2017 delivers great concentration and purity, as does his Elands Rivier Pinot. Van Loggerenberg’s 2018 Breton Cabernet Franc is a classic, but in a Loire rather than Bordeaux style. Finally the Luddite Shiraz, always a cult wine with its own personality, shows how good 2014 reds can be, if you just choose the right winemaker. Not all these Cape wines are easily found in Gauteng, though many appear on the winelist at La Boqueria, where the tasting took place.

Old names 17 July 2019

Forty or fifty years ago there were very few independent wine producers in South Africa. Most wine farmers were really grape farmers, selling in bulk to the wholesale merchants. Consumer interest in fine wine was negligible. It was only in the late 1960s that some of what became the founding families started bottling a little of their own production for sale under the farm labels. Three of them – Simonsig, Spier and Delheim – launched the Stellenbosch wine route – which brought them into direct conflict with their bulk clients, who threatened a boycott to bring an end to this initiative.

Others signed up for the death star known as The Bergkelder – a partnership deal from whose orbit very few escaped unscathed. Those who did manage to get away – Meerlust, De Wetshof, Zandvliet, Meerendal to name the obvious ones – paid dearly for it at the time, but remained independent, bringing critical mass to the segment.

There were others who avoided the trap of the “cooperative marketing arrangements,” going it alone from the outset: Rustenberg, Kanonkop, Simonsig, Overgaauw, Spier, Backsberg, Fairview and Delheim come to mind. Mostly they’ve done better than survive, they’ve flourished – though none would claim it’s been plain sailing along the way. When the wine of origin legislation was introduced in 1973, they were among the first properties to seek estate certification. Today, without exception, they are still owned by the same families who made the break half a century ago.

David van Velden hadn’t been born when his grandfather and father launched the fine wine business of Overgaauw almost half a century ago. Now that he has taken over the management from his father Braam, he’s discovered his own challenges. These mostly relate to the difficulties of modernising the cellar and upgrading the vineyards with only the capital which comes from surplus cash flow. “On paper it seemed so much easier to bring in an outside shareholder,” he said. “You can do it all in much less time. Of course, then you’re no longer a family business. There’s another advantage of doing things more slowly though: you spend much longer planning the changes, so you’re forced to be more thoughtful.”

May de Lencquesaing, who inherited an insolvent Chateau Pichon Lalande in Bordeaux in 1978, would agree. “The first ten years were unbelievably hard. During the freezing winters there was no money for any form of heating. I shut off as much of the huge and unrenovated chateau as I could and did my work wrapped in coats and blankets. You couldn’t do everything you knew had to be done to improve the wine all at once. You had to work from the ground up, one stage at a time.”

Van Velden talks about the long slow business of building up his virus-free vineyard blocks, driving the forklift, visiting the export customers, making the wine, and coming home at night and doing the books. But he also glows with satisfaction when he tastes the results, and he shows the latest release of the 2015 DC Classic with something much more than simple pride.

It’s the first of his wines from virus-free vineyards, from older blocks painstakingly saved and newer vineyards acquiring some maturity. Dominated by merlot, but with very fine cabernet franc to give it lift and freshness, it’s a thoroughly modern interpretation of a wine his father first made for the Cape (Independent) Winemakers Guild more than 30 years ago. It conveys a sense of crafted, seamless but not overly polished perfection.

It’s no less than you would expect from a man who walks his vineyards all the time, but also studies satellite imaging to track the relative rate of ripening within single blocks. Any serious producer will repeat, almost as a mantra, the truth which drives this kind of unrelenting focus: you only have one chance a year to get it right, so only a very finite number of chances in a lifetime.

Tokara 10 July 2019

It’s easy for hipster winemakers and their followers to dismiss high-end estate wine. Petrol heads feel the same way about the latest model Aston Martins, reflecting – with a traditionalist’s nostalgia – on the somewhat romanticised era of the great British motor industry, when the marque was rescued by David Brown and Ian Fleming gifted James Bond a seriously modified DB5 to go with his Bollinger. No doubt they hanker after the smell of the Connolly leather interior, and the unmistakeable whiff of fuel and oil that was part of the cockpit ambience. They probably don’t remember that less iconic cars were measurably faster, and they don’t want to know that most other vehicles were significantly more reliable.

The past always looks better through the rose-tinted vision created by the elapse of time. Upper-class Edwardian England makes for great movie sets – as long as the protagonists don’t find themselves in need of surgery, or even a decent painkiller. The same is true of many of the small production cult wines, the labels of which imbue those who serve them – and those who consume them – with an element of superiority. This presents in how they are described: notes which might seem jarring to some are treated as virtues. Fining a wine to buff away the rough edges gets denigrated as the simplistic pursuit of photographic reality. Artfulness, we are told, does not lie in chocolate box perfection.

“Arresting textures” can mean a thoughtful decision not to over-polish the tannins, but it can also indicate unnecessary grippiness. Implicit in this observation is that the elimination of imperfections comes at the price of authenticity. A favourite analogy is Cindy Crawford’s birthmark, a tacit acknowledgement that human imperfection counts for more than idealised beauty. Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 is a paean to flesh-and-blood love. (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) Barbie and Ken do not inhabit the same reality.

All this would be academic if it didn’t offer a useful analogy for the distinguishing differences separating what the French would call “Grand Vin” from what has come to be seen as “craft,” “artisanal,” or “authentic” wine. To be clear, these broad categories have innumerable subsets and the discussion doesn’t need to deal with all of them. There are hand-made wines which are rustic, left unpolished either because of lack of skill or an inability to see the coarseness as a defect – like a perfectly serviceable table held together with brackets rather than finely crafted joints. There are also industrial wines which are so over-engineered that they’ve been stripped of any personality.

But what about an estate like Tokara, where nothing is left to chance and no expense has been spared in pursuit of vinous perfection. Back to the petrol head analogy, its wines – particularly its reserve wines – are the bottled equivalent of a modern era Bentley Continental. They are immaculately assembled, the fruit selected from the best sites, the vineyards themselves monitored using Normalised Difference Vegetation Index maps so that the microclimates of different sections determine the harvest decisions. After the pickers have made several separate passages through the rows, the grapes are hand-sorted and individual (imperfect) berries removed before fermentation. Only the best barrels are selected for the final blend.

Looking at the latest releases you can see the result of this effort in every wine in the reserve range. The Chardonnay is sumptuous, but still not overdone, with a full spectrum of entirely appropriate notes and textures, citrus and tropical fruit, fresh but not overly zesty. The Syrah is almost creamy, with dense powdery tannins, oak perfectly integrated, hints of pepper and nutmeg melding with crushed raspberries. The Telos – at the very top of the range (and priced accordingly at R4k per bottle) – is faultless, but in a Cindy Crawford rather than a Barbie doll kind of way. And as with Ms Crawford, rather than Barbie, you would be happy to have it ageing alongside you.

Price and Value 3 July 2019

It’s not difficult to understand the problem the average wine drinker faces in trying to discern value when it comes to wine buying. There are no obvious clues or guidelines: buying wine is not like buying eggs (free range/jumbo/packed in dozens) or bacon (streaky/back, priced per kilo). There are delicious and inexpensive wines selling for R50 or so per bottle with perfect varietal characteristics (Porcupine Ridge Cabernet or Shiraz), so fruit definition alone is not a sufficient criterion. Even the use of barrels – once a clear indication of a premium offering (or at least the intention of conveying that impression) – no longer counts for much: oak notes can be cheaply acquired using wood chips, staves or even tannin additives. (Anyway, nowadays geeky consumers want to drink fruit, not the forests of France.)

Taste being largely subjective, it’s easier to persuade consumers by offering them the guideline of price. That’s why a whole field of wine marketing functions with the seemingly irrefutable logic that if the price tag is higher, the product must be better. There’s no one to gainsay it – not even the professional wine critics (most of whom do their tasting sighted, label in front of them, rather than “blind.”) It’s much easier to be convinced that a wine is great if the winery’s brand manager has done a decent job, generating a general consensus that brand A is better than brand B.

Average wine quality has improved dramatically in the past half century. About fifteen years ago I attended a course on yeasts in Bordeaux. One of the lecturers produced a list of technical faults which were common until the 1980s and which had pretty much vanished since then. By way of an example, he said a whole generation of younger experts had literally never encountered a wine which was “ropey.” (For those brave enough to want to know more, “ropiness” is caused by bacteria which exude a mucilaginous jelly-like substance giving the wine the appearance of thick goo: it flows from the bottle like a rope). With ample good quality wine now readily available, you can’t say that wine is cheap because it’s bad, or that wine is good because it’s fault-free.

The fair cost price for most South African wines (assuming you are not trying to amortize a massive vineyard investment) lies somewhere between R60 and R120 per bottle for young white wines and slightly more (say R150) for reds. At the upper point a producer could buy in the grapes at over R50k per ton – more than anyone is paying growers in South Africa (as far as I know), hand-sort the berries and use the best barrels. From these numbers alone it is clear that there’s no connection between the on-shelf price of a bottle of wine and its input costs.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone selling wine for more than R200 per bottle is getting rich. Those who grow their own fruit may well under-recover on their farming costs, those who have a large sales and marketing infrastructure may not yet be able to achieve sufficient volumes to amortise the expense. Then there’s cost of distribution, wholesaler and retailer margins, and the cut that goes to the taxman. However, no matter which way you look at it, there comes a point (perhaps R400, perhaps R450) where either you are being asked to pay for the producer’s stupidity, or else for his cupidity.

There’s an important lesson here from relatively recent history: the generation which bought wine in the 1960s was brought up on a value system honed by the Great Depression and the Second World War. They knew how to hang onto their cash: their anxiety about money ensured they had a well-grounded concept of value which kept their propensity for self-delusion at bay. It’s no surprise to discover that the price of luxury wines today (in hard currency terms) has diverged from good drinking wine by a factor of at least ten.

 

BD Kaaimansgat 26 June 2019

Origin is a seriously mis-used word in the world of wine. It can be so loosely applied that it becomes meaningless in the context of the connection between place and taste, or so narrowly applied that it’s impossible to obtain the product which expresses it. Most Cape wine is sold with the broadest of appellations on the label. Producers – especially the major wholesalers (whose customers don’t appear to care much about it) – don’t want to be at the mercy of those who own the key sites.

When did you last look at the claim to place of the well-known premium brands? The Rupert and Rothschild winery is on the Franschhoek side of Paarl-Simonsberg, but its biggest selling wine (“Classique”) is sold under the “Wine of Western Cape” origin. That means that fruit can be sourced from pretty much anywhere except along the Orange River. When you buy Classique you are buying a style, and a guarantee of quality.

There are ways of playing the origin game: an increasing number of producers are making wine from sites certified by the Old Vine Project – single blocks of vines at least 35 years old. Of course, simply because the fruit was harvested from clearly identifiable ancient vineyards doesn’t mean that it has been made in a way that respects origin over wine-making technique.

Andrea and Chris Mullineux (Mullineux and Leeu Passant) play both games. They are manic about seeking out the best sites, based on geology and climate. Where there’s a proven benefit to ancient vines, they’ll add them to the mix. The Leeu Passant red includes fruit from a cinsaut vineyard near Wellington planted at the end of the Boer War. But their vision sees components as building blocks, not museum pieces. Where they require something – like cabernet franc for example – where the best fruit can only come from younger vines, quality takes precedence over antiquity.

If you seek single site precision, you could consider La Romanée, a vineyard – and appellation – under single ownership in the heart of Burgundy. It’s less than a hectare and current releases sell for over R100k per bottle. Even if you have that kind of money and the patience to wait for it to be mature enough to express its origin, you might battle to find a genuine bottle. Great site-specific wine comes with its own burdens.

On the other hand, you could buy a bottle of the recently released Krone 2016 Blanc de Blancs. Harvested from the 30 year old Kaaimansgat chardonnay vineyard near Villiersdorp, it has been made with an obsessive refusal to let extraneous factors affect its sense of place. The primary fermentation (which took place in wooden foudre specially selected to minimise the intrusion of oak flavours into the wine) was spontaneous – so free of the influence of non-native yeast. No sulphur was added at any stage. Instead, the yeast used for the second (bottle) fermentation was chosen because it contributed the barest minimum of natural SO2 as a pretty much natural preservative. Only the fractional sugar adjustment that comes with the topping of the bottle after disgorgement, and which still leaves it drier than most Brut Champagnes, did not come from the site. It’s impossible to imagine a Cap Classique designed to better express a single origin.

Why would the country’s largest MCC producer go to all this trouble over a few hundred cases of Blanc de Blancs? It’s a fair question to ask especially since, at around R300 per bottle, the wine has not been priced in proportion to the effort which went into its production. The answer is probably that projects of this kind satisfy the creative needs of winemakers whose day job is a little like making VW Polos in the same factory which turns out Audis and Porsches. It also serves to remind consumers dismissive of big brand technology that behind even a R100 bottle of fizz is a winemaker still working at upping his game.

 

 

his game.

Show samplings 19 June 2019

A surge of creativity from the country’s wine producers over the past fifteen years has seen forgotten vineyards and neglected appellations brought back into the limelight. Inevitably one region’s (or style’s) gain is another’s loss, at least in terms of media interest, though not necessarily in terms of volumes consumed.

Cap Classiques (bottle-fermented sparkling wines made in accordance with the rules established in Champagne for Champagne) are selling well enough, averaging around R120 per bottle – they’re just not getting much attention. Generally they represent great value, considering they cost more to produce than most other wine styles and attract higher excise duties. They also require better, healthier fruit and more technically correct winemaking. As Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira points out, the bubble serves to magnify everything, including the faults, so it’s almost impossible to conceal production defects. Once the wine goes to bottle ahead of the second fermentation, the die is cast. Only the final tweak of the liqueur d’expedition, the 25ml addition to replace the fluid lost at disgorging, offers any prospect of adjustment.

Two recent tastings come to mind – one sampled blind, the other at a wine show in Pretoria. The former turned out to be the maiden release of Ferreira’s own MCC – under his own label. Though he continues to be cellarmaster at Graham Beck, Ferreira has finally produced his own fizz – after more than three decades in the bubbly business. It’s a 2012 Blanc de Blanc and it’s set to become something of benchmark in the category. For a start, it is really very fine, very considered, very compressed and very restrained. The chardonnay imbues it with an almost sprung-steel edginess: pure citrus, intense and precise and still way off its peak.

This much was clear looking at the Krone 2001 RD – a late release from the Tulbagh cellar, 18 years old and only now approaching its peak. There are many differences: the Krone is not all chardonnay, and it’s been on its yeast lees from when it went to bottle in 2001 until its recent disgorgement. At present the Pieter Ferreira cannot deliver the same baked bread aromas, just as the Krone RD will never express the same linearity. Both however bear all the hallmarks of the fizz-maker’s art, and should be treated as seriously as many of the brands produced in the cellars of Epernay and Reims – despite their significantly more attractive retail prices.

The same truth – fabulous quality at a perfect value nexus – is evident in the unwooded chardonnay category. Ten years ago you could hardly give the stuff away: it seemed that most chardonnay drinkers were attracted to the flavour elements contributed by the oak rather than the intrinsic notes of the fruit. Tasting descriptions included terms such as “marzipan/almond,” “caramel/fudge” or “charry vanilla.” All these, together with textural clues such as “creamy” were evidence of the role played by the cooper in the final flavour profile of the wines.

Nowadays it’s the purity of the varietal character which is being sought, and this means minimising – or preferably eliminating entirely – the extraneous oak notes. Since chardonnay’s taste spectrum is largely about citrus characters – lemon or lime, grapefruit or even pomelo/pineapple – its appeal without oak has been largely to that segment of the market that enjoyed the freshness of sauvignon blanc but found itself increasingly bored with the lack of complexity of most of the readily available examples.

Not that many unwooded chardonnays (especially those fresh to bottle) offer more nuance or detail – though at least they deliver a different taste experience, at much the same price as a decent sauvignon blanc. There are several worth tracking down. All are youthful (in some cases the 2019s are already in the market), precision-made, expressive and refined. Dewetshof’s Bon Vaillon, Jordan and Vriesenhof have the longest track records, though they now share shelf space with some worthy competitors, of which the Glenelly and the Diemersdal most deserve discovery.

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

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