Blends and single varietals 8 March 2019

It’s curious how few of the established blends in the world of wine are connected by name to a place. Those that there are enjoy their reputation (and implicit credibility) mainly on account of a French connection: Bordeaux blends and Rhone blends, both red and white. No one talks of chianti as a Tuscan blend or tempranillo, graciano and mazuelo as a Rioja blend: chianti is chianti and Rioja (the appellation) is a more important brand than the mention of the wine’s component parts.

For years the Cape’s pinotage producers wanted to extend the visibility of their wines (or perhaps, as some less sympathetic commentators have suggested, bury their surplus) in a blend where pinotage was the central component. They labelled the category “Cape blend” and waited patiently for it to take off. So far the rumours of its success – locally and internationally – have been greatly exaggerated.

Long-established blends have an economic as well as an organoleptic logic to them. In Bordeaux there are sound reasons for marrying merlot to cabernet: the former ripens a little earlier and delivers soft and accessible fruit. The cabernet, on the other hand, retains its green, more herbal notes late into the ripening season. There’s no point in harvesting it too soon, but longer hang times expose the grapes to late summer rains and the risk of dilution or rot. The blend is a hedged bet, but it also provides for early drinkability when the merlot is plush, and for long ageing, when the cabernet component does its job.

There will come a time when the Cape wine industry gives up its dream of a red Cape blend. It might then consider the merits of a white one which has been been around for a bit. In the early 1990s, when I was assembling wines for Vinfruco for the export market, I took to combining chenin with sauvignon blanc – for commercial as well as taste reasons. Most the chenin available at the requisite price point was fruity, but flat. The sauvignon on the other hand was bland, but with good acidity. Together they complemented each other rather well. The sauvignon also added sex appeal to the label at a time when the international market had yet to learn about the quality of Cape chenin.

Since then the combination of the two varieties has become increasingly popular: the Zonnebloem 2018 Blanc de Blanc delivers lovely fresh pear-drop aromas, delicate zestiness on the palate, fragrant flintiness on the finish – all for just over R40 per bottle. It stood out well in a line up of otherwise unusual white blends: fresher (though less complex) than the Sjinn, and not as herbal as the Giant Periwinkle “The Bard.” Of course, you shouldn’t ignore the winemaker’s intention: the Zonnebloem is well put together, but makes no attempt at complexity. The Sjinn – with chenin, viognier and roussanne – is meant to be textural, rather than tangy. The Bard – with semillon, nouvelle and sauvignon – was never going to be anything except crisp and herbaceous.

The long-established blends have stayed the course for a reason: they work and they are also familiar, which means wine drinkers are comfortable with the flavour profile. White Bordeaux blends (sauvignon blanc and semillon) have the same commercial logic as the red ones, but are less well-known. They’ve been a small but important category quality-wise in the Cape for almost 20 years.

The latest really good example I’ve tasted is the curiously named “The Tagram” 2017 made at Durbanville Hills. It is comfortably the best wine (red or white) coming out of that cellar, and it may even be the best white blend produced in South Africa at the moment. Intricate, concentrated, beautifully textured and constantly evolving, it should be opened early and decanted – it needs time to reveal its complexity. There are not many wines selling at over R300 a bottle which represent any kind of value, but this is certainly one of them.

 

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