A problem facing many wine-producing countries is the lack of depth to their portfolio. Argentina and New Zealand are the most easily quotable examples with their wine industries heavily reliant on the continued popularity of Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc that account for approximately 33% and 72% of their total production respectively.
South Africa is less singularly in thrall to one specific variety with Chenin Blanc accounting for just 18% of total plantings and this leaves plenty of room for another cultivar to stake a claim as the quintessential vinous expression of South Africa. Some (I’m afraid the deluded amongst you) will say that South Africa already has this in the form of Pinotage but for every excellent example from the likes of David & Nadia Sadie’s Paardebosch label, Bellingham’s Bernard Series or Meerendal’s Heritage Block; there are tens of others that will do nothing except cause consternation to the majority of consumer’s palates world wide. A far more profitable exercise is for South Africa to continue to focus on the expansion of varieties that are evidently well suited to this country’s principally Mediterranean climate. In the coolest areas, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon can thrive but this ability to perform well is not unique to South Africa ensuring stiff competition for those wines as they enter the export market. Arguably more interesting are varieties like Grenache and particularly the unheralded Cinsaut.
Wines of South Africa (WOSA) state on their website that Cinsaut used to be the most widely planted red variety (a supremacy usurped by Cabernet Sauvignon as recently as 1993) but it has been slowly ‘replaced by more noble varieties.’ This is a great shame as I was not moved by a single example of the ‘noble’ Cabernet Sauvignon when visiting in September but was genuinely enlivened by the quality of some of the Cinsaut. The likes of Natte Valleij and Donovan Rall are crafting wines of real juiciness and red-fruit perfume. These traits provide Cinsaut with a calling card that is difficult to resist yet it has enough tannin, especially when fermented with some of the stalks, to produce wine that is far from prosaic. But the real beauty is that this émigré from southern France, like Malbec, is not really appreciated on its home turf, certainly not as a named variety, leaving the door ajar for this bridesmaid of the grape world to establish itself as a worthy contender for the title of South Africa’s signature red.
When I met Bevan Newton Johnson, the man in charge of marketing for the eponymously named estate, he was smiling even though his right hand bore the marks of a previous evening’s mugging. Bevan was mildly annoyed at himself, rather than his assailant, suggesting that he had not helped himself by walking alone, carrying his lap top through Cape Town at midnight. His first experience of such an occurrence appeared not to have dented his easy charm and as he talked me through his wines it became clear that they reflected, at least in part, some of Bevan’s engaging personality.
The wines that particularly moved me were the reds and specifically those in their ‘Family Vineyards’ range. Like many in Hemel-en-Aarde, Bevan’s family specialise in the Burgundian varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, whilst also having some deliciously expressive Shiraz. Pinot Noir for a variety so lauded spends the majority of its existence producing wines that flatter to deceive. Too often they are fruity but gutless with hot tasting high alcohol and a price-tag that reflects the intention of the winemaker rather than the quality of the juice inside the bottle. In Hemel-en-Aarde this is generally less true than in most New World regions I could mention, and at Newton Johnson they have managed to make Pinot of real perfumed purity with just enough mid-palate grunt to suggest that these wines will only get better as the vines mature and their experience of this area deepens. The price is less than most village level Burgundies but the pleasure quotient the opposite.
‘Granum’ is a blend of three quarters Shiraz with the remainder Mourvedre. This has Newton Johnson’s hallmark purity with ripe cherry fruit supported by a clove-like spiciness that makes me want to dig out a thick jumper and warm my toes in front of a fire, even here in the midst of an abnormally warm autumnal Taiwan. Don’t be fooled by the grape being called Shiraz, normally this has come to mean a more intense style of wine, more akin to those made famous in South Australia, but this is more ‘Syrah’ like, hardly angular but certainly elegant.
The beginning of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley lies some five km west of the whale watching town of Hermanus. Being only an hour and a half by road from Stellenbosch, there really is no excuse to exclude this from any wine related itinerary and doing so would leave you with an incomplete picture of the vinous possibilities available in this topographically diverse and arrestingly beautiful country. Having travelled via the N2 as it contours its way eastward, peering down on the magnificent False Bay, a right turn at Bot River begins the gradual descent to sea-level before arriving at the turn-off for the prosaically named R320; the gateway to the valley.
‘Heaven on Earth’ is the literal translation and whilst I cannot speak with any authority about how closely this part of the western Cape resembles God’s home, the scale and splendour certainly verges on the transcendental. For those amongst you lucky enough to have visited the Highlands of Scotland (my favourite place on Earth) there is a similarity that even the coughing of leopards as opposed to the roaring of red deer cannot undo. The sky, however, is uncommonly blue, an observation rarely experienced by the inhabitants of Scotland’s west coast, but the wind that chases up the valley having originated from the cold southern ocean, would remind many a northern European of home.
As the valley winds its way skywards three different appellations or wards are traversed. The first is Hemel en Aarde, home to this region’s inaugural producer, Hamilton Russell, whose pioneering former owner, Tim Hamilton Russell, saw the potential in both the soil and climate to produce quality wines, particularly from Burgundy’s gift to the world: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Next is the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde where Newton Johnson, amongst others, has made a name for itself for not only the aforementioned varieties but also for some of those that originate in the Rhone. Lastly the road reaches the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, unsurprisingly the coolest and youngest of the three that sees a climate capable of producing nervy Sauvignon Blancs as well as perfumed Pinots.
Our next post will examine some of the properties in more detail.
The Cape wine-lands may have been producing wine since the middle of the 17th century, but the modern industry really began some 21 years ago, a culmination of the release of Mandela in 1990, the end of Apartheid a year later and the arrival of democracy in 1994. Coming of age is never achieved without significant growing pains and as South Africa enters its third decade since the previous, peculiarly distasteful regime drew its last breath, her outlook as a young adult is coloured by the still perniciously pervasive socio-economic disparity between the haves and the have nots. Leaving the airport one is immediately faced with the sprawling townships (slums) that line the N2 highway en route to the city. As the short ride to Cape Town nears its end, the high rise buildings, convention centre, five star-hotels and boutique and restaurant lined waterfront, provide the traveller with a stark and uncomfortable reminder of the privileged lives that many of us are so fortunate to lead.
Similarly in 1990, South Africa’s wine industry, set free from the stifling effect of the governing KWV monopoly, was forced to contend with its own set of systemic problems that the re-introduction to the realities of the international wine-market, so glaringly revealed. The fundamental problem was that the tastes and palates of those in the wider world had moved on. Where the New World, particularly Australia, had introduced easy and fruit forward style wines to the market that had engaged a new generation of wine drinkers, South Africa was plagued by reds afflicted by green, herbaceous flavours and an earthy rusticity that was rarely an aid to complexity or pleasure. These flavours, a result of both high yields and virus riddled vines, meant that the painful and costly re-planting of vineyards en mass, was necessary to bring the quality level to one that enabled South Africa to compete in markets interested in more than simple bulk wine.
What Cape Wine 2015 has so amply demonstrated is that whilst much remains to be done within the industry before it can consider itself both robust and sustainable, there is a palpable air of excitement and rejuvenation. South Africa now produces not just one or two great wines but many. The rise of a younger generation determined to fashion wines that are not simply facsimiles of those produced in other regions of the world but rather wines shamelessly South African is a determination that needs to be applauded. Even better is that many of these wines are excellent with varietal definition and a sense of place that left me feeling that in Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Verdelho, Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Pinot Noir, South Africa has the necessary range to communicate its own particular and unique message to the wine-drinking world. Any serious wine-lover can no longer ignore the best that South Africa has to offer and the future promises a country that may come to occupy a position of being the most individual and dynamic of the New World wine producing nations.
Wine is great because of its almost limitless ability to surprise. When I began my MW studies a couple of years ago I thought that I knew something about wine (based on the logic that I’d made some, imported a bit, loved tasting etc). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on whether you consider the status of my ego important) I have spent the last two years proving that I actually knew bugger all and that the more I tread my vinous path the more I feel dwarfed by the scale of what is revealed. Yet this is wine’s gift to us all. Being of the land means that changes of region, country and grape variety coupled with the producer’s ideology will result in difference. Some view difference as something to be tolerated, at best accepted, but those who know, know that difference should be cherished.
This brings me to Swartland in South Africa. Over the festive period I had a couple of bottles from Sequillo, a product of the revered Eben Sadie, one of the Southern Hemisphere’s great winemakers. They only produce two wines; the white based on Chenin Blanc and the red on Syrah. The ‘surprise’ experienced by me was a result of their finesse. These wines – the product of dry-grown, low yielding vines – ‘feel’ Rhone-like. I was expecting something concentrated but more blowsy than the taut (if still generous) nature of the fruit on show; they put many of the more expensive bottles of wine I had over Christmas to shame. There is no moral to this story other than a gentle reminder to keep your tongue turned on. Make 2015 the year you challenge your default choices.
Sequillo White, W.O Swartland 2012, 14%
Grape: 40% Chenin Blanc with the balance made up from Clairette, Viognier, Verdelho, Semillion Blanc & Gris
Wine-making: Matured in old oak and has a year on the lees
Note: Concentrated and with bright acidity that helps bring the apple, pear and quince fruit to life. Full but fine; a wine to savour.
Price: Approximately 25-30 USD
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan
Sequillo Red, W.O Swartland 2011, 14%
Grape: Syrah, Cinsault, Mouvedre, Grenache, Tinta Barocca & Carignan
Wine-making: Matured in old oak for 24 months
Note: Spiced red fruit, plum and some earthy savouriness. Persistent on the palate and with supple tannins that make this appropriate with or without food.
Price: 25-30 USD
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan
Joseph Phelps, Insignia (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Napa Valley, USA, 2010. (I really like this vintage of Insignia) 19/20
Rich, fine and engaging. Insignia at its majestic best.
Catena Alta, Historic Rows Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, 2009. 18.5/20
This was just about perfect when opened a couple of months ago. Vibrant, pure yet profound.
Ridge, Lytton Springs (predominantly Zinfandel), Sonoma County, USA, 2009. 18/20
Zinfandel that is more than a one trick pony.
Pontet Canet, Pauillac (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Bordeaux, France, 2011. 18/20
I would happily drink this now. Forget the 2009s and 10’s and focus on the more ‘classic’ vintages of the last ten years (04, 06, 08, 11) to accompany the big bird.
Poderi Aldo Conterno, Barolo (Nebbiolo), Piedmont, Italy, 2004 (drinking very well now). 18/20
Jamet, Cote Rotie (Syrah), Northern Rhone, France, 2008. 17/20
I wish I could drink this kind of wine everyday, fresh, delicate and so very elegant.
La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904 (predominantly Tempranillo), Rioja, Spain, 1998. 18/20
This or the 2001 make for perfect drinking now.
Yarra Yering, Dry Red Number 1 (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Yarra Valley, Australia. 18.5/20
The only Australian on the list this year, speaks more of the choice available in Taiwan than the quality coming from Oz.
Duemani, CiFRA (Cabernet Franc), Tuscany, Italy, 2011. 17/20
Like the Jamet, this is very much my kind of wine. Juicy, grippy but charming.
Groot Constantia, Gouverneur’s Reserve (predominantly Cabernet Franc), Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2011. 18/20
South Africa gives you some fruit that has clearly benefited from some warmth but also tannins that remind you of Europe, a winning combination.
Logodaj, Melnik 55 (100% Melnik). Struma Valley, Bulgaria, 2012. 17/20
This really opened my eyes to Bulgaria, I would be more than happy to drink this with my goose.
Chateau de la Font du Loup, Chateauneuf du Pape (predominantly Grenache), Southern Rhone, France, 2012. 18/20
This provides what I want from CNdP, pretty fruit, perfume but with some underlying grunt. Lovely.
Mas Amiel, A Alt 433M (predominantly Grenache), Maury Sec, Roussillon, France. 17/20
Wild, untamed and very good.
Marquis d’Angerville, 1er Cru les Champans, Volnay (Pinot Noir), Burgundy, France, 2008. 18/20
A lesson in what Volnay is meant to be about, delicacy, elegance and that ethereal Pinot charm.
Pieve Santa Restituta, Renina, Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese),
Tuscany, Italy, 2007 (delicious vintage from here). 18.5/20
Powerful but beautifully balanced, I loved this.
Clos Mogador (predominantly Garnacha and Carinena), Priorat, Spain, 2008. 18.5/20
Great wine from great people often tastes…well, great.
Chateau Pichon Baron, Pauillac (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Bordeaux, France, 2008. 17.5/20
I really like the 2008 vintage, sleek and ripe enough and with grainy tannins that help this wine persist on the palate.
If someone asks me what I want for Christmas I hesitate to say wine because I know that people fear getting it ‘wrong’. The problem is that the amateur cannot look at a label and derive much needed information about the quality in the bottle. If, on the other hand, I want to buy my beloved a handbag, whether I know the relative merits of Fendi vs. Fiorelli is immaterial, my judgement on the suitability of the aesthetic is alone, the deciding factor (not that I am pretending that this purchasing decision is free of danger).
What follows therefore is a brief list of some of the wines that I have particularly enjoyed over the last year. I have not listed the wines by price (as typing the name of each into Google will give you a more accurate idea of their cost in your local market) and if you would like more detailed information, many have been reviewed on Sniff in the last few months. It is far from exhaustive and the criteria for appearing on this list was less about the score (I have left out many with similar ratings) and more about those wines that have forced me to engage with them, either as a result of their sheer gustatory pleasure or because of some beguiling complexity. These are, therefore, wines that should make any wine-lover happy (be it your Mum, manager or man-friend) and if you are lucky they may even share their gift with you, ensuring a happy Christmas for all concerned.
One last point – don’t fret too much about the vintage, I state if the vintage is hugely influential to the choice.
Ken Forrester, The FMC (100% Chenin Blanc) Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2010. 17.5/20
Rich and intense but with a seam of supporting acidity. Chenin at its South African best.
Hans Herzog, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ‘Sur lie’, New Zealand, 2009. 17/20
Quince, pineapple, marzipan and nettle form just part of this complex, very un-Marlborough like, Sauvignon.
Millton, Riverpoint Viognier, Gisborne, New Zealand, 2011. 17.5/20
Warm peach, lemon oil and honey. Vibrant for Viognier and with great length.
Henri Bourgeois, La Bourgeoise, Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc), Loire France, 2010. 18.5/20
My favourite Sauvignon of the year, as elegant as it gets.
Eric Morgat, Cuvee l’Enclos, Savennieres (Chenin Blanc), Loire, France, 2009. 18/20
Weighty but with that special mineral and salty line running through it which separates the great from the good.
Von Buhl, Forster Ungeheuer GG (‘Grosses Gewachs’ meaning a dry wine produced from the best vineyards), Riesling trocken, Pfalz, Germany, 2011. 18/20
Full of tension and vitality.
Cantina Terlan, Winkl, Sauvignon Blanc, Alto Adige/Sudtirol, Italy, 2013. 17.5/20
The best producers of Italian Sauvignon?
Nik Weis, St. Urbans Hof, Laurentiuslay GG, Riesling trocken, Mosel, Germany, 2012 (I love this vintage here). 19/20
Stunning, the most arresting white I tried this year.
Domaine Labet, Fleur de Savagnin ‘en Chalasse’, (100% Savagnin), Jura, France, 2012. 17.5/20
No need to chill this as the driving acidity and persistence make this feel like it is already chilled. Brilliant.
Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon, Clos du Four, (100% Chardonnay) Macon-Milly-Lamartine, Burgundy, France, 2011. (I love this vintage here) 18/20
Delicious, approachable and most importantly, highly affordable Burgundy.
Domaine Ramonet, 1er cru ‘les Caillerets’, Chassagne Montrachet, Burgundy, France, 2008. 18/20
Delicious and approachable but you’ll pay a bit more for this classic than for the Macon.
Jean Bourdy, Chateau Chalon, (100% Savagnin), Jura, France, 2005. 19/20
Flor influenced brilliance. Gob-smackingly fine with an intensity, complexity and persistence rarely found in any other white wine. Outstanding.
Sweet & Sparkling
Rolly Gassmann, Rotleibel de Rorschwihr, Pinot Gris, Alsace, France, 2008. 18/20
A little chubby but only in the most alluring way, I could drink a glass of this every day.
Grahams, The Stone Terraces, Vintage Port, Douro, Portugal, 2011, (special vintage). 19/20
From the spectacular 2011 vintage, this is Graham’s newest addition to their line-up.
Dow’s, Vintage Port, Douro, Portugal, 1994. 18/20
Perfect drinking now.
Chateau Pajzos, Tokaji Essencia, Hungary, 1999. 19.5/20
I had tears in my eyes on tasting this. The most mesmeric wine I tasted this year.
Bruno Paillard, NPU 1999, Champagne, France. 18.5/20
Very complex sparkler that deserves your full attention. Don’t waste this on a celebration, drink with your nearest and dearest.
Camel Valley, Pinot Noir Rose Brut, Cornwall, England, 2012. 17/20
Charles Heidsieck, Brut Reserve NV, Champagne, France. 18/20
Surely the best value Champagne on the market.
It was in a previous post (Something for the Weekend 5, October 3rd) that I spoke of the under-appreciated joys of Chenin Blanc. That was in relation to the Loire, Chenin’s place of birth but it also has a second home (doesn’t everyone?) in South Africa. Here it has a mixed reputation with some producers all too happy to pull it out and convert to ‘easier’ sells such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon (boring) Blanc. Yet in more recent times, some seem set on securing Chenin’s status as South Africa’s signature white variety, a very sensible move in a world already soaked with the aforementioned varieties. Producers to look out for include Alheit, Beaumont, Ken Forrester, Raat’s, the Sadie Family and Mullineux to name but a few. Fortunately I was in town this week to taste Bellingham’s best as they enter the fray here in Taipei. Their wines, particularly the Old Vine Chenin reviewed below had the requisite ‘drive’ to be admired and when coupled with the aromas of custard apple…well that’s a winning formula as far as I’m concerned.
If your idea of fun is to dress your beloved in a gimp mask and ask them to eat a banana whilst you restore their toes to their pre-painted state, then Pinotage is the grape for you. No variety is so negatively associated with the smells of rubber, banana and acetone as South Africa’s indigenous gift to the world. Yet good Pinotage does exist and although, as of yet, it is still not quite on my list of go to grapes, examples as engaging as Bellingham’s below are more than worthy of your attention and promise a much less malodorous future.
Bellingham, Ancient Earth, Chenin Blanc, Coastal Region, 2013, 13.5%
Grape: Chenin Blanc
Wine-making: A little oak just to add some custard/ vanilla aroma
Note: Fresh and full with Chenin’s typically appley character dominating. A little creamy on the palate but it has the requisite acidity to prevent any blowsiness. Good value Chenin!
Available from: Finesse
Bellingham, Bernard Series, Old Vine Chenin Blanc, Coastal Region, 2013, 14%
Grape: Chenin Blanc
Wine-making: 12 months in 50% new French oak
Note: Smells very enticing with bruised, spiced apple, custard and little stone-fruit. Creamy, mouth-filling palate but in no way heavy with a good line of acidity holding things together. Will be even better in another 18 months when the oak is more fully integrated.
Available from: Finesse
Bellingham, Bernard Series, Pinotage, Stellenbosch, 2013, 14%
Wine-making: 50% new French Oak for 12 months
Note: Smoky with an industrial twang (that is not pejorative, I often find Syrah with this same industrial/machine oil/earthy/mineral thing). Plenty of black fruit both fresh and baked/scorched alongside some dried flowers. Supple tannins but with enough grip to keep you interested and with a subtle dose of vanilla and spice from the oak. Very enjoyable and one for Syrah lovers to try.
Available from: Finesse
There is a reason why Bordeaux is so revered and much of the secret lies in the blend of grapes used. Cabernet Sauvignon may be the grape variety most famously associated and exported from its home on the left bank of the Gironde but Cabernet without the help of its friends (Merlot, Cabernet Franc etc) can feel hollow, edgy and overly herbaceous. Whilst at the Hong Kong wine fair last week I decided to avoid Bordeaux and taste my way through some examples from regions in the new world where Bordeaux blends thrive. It came as no surprise that many of the best were from the ‘cooler’ parts of their respective countries of origin. These wines offered a richness of fruit only found in Bordeaux in the warmest of years but the best were balanced by restraint, elegance, freshness and a textural sophistication that marked these out as fine by anybody’s standard. Cabernet Sauvignon frequently took the lead in these wines but as can be seen below the likes of Cabernet Franc or Merlot provided more than ample support.
When it comes to straight Cabernet Sauvignon I usually prefer wines from a warmer climate such as Napa Valley. This helps plump up the middle of the wine, softening some of the ‘square-ness’ from which this variety can suffer. Yarran, using fruit from Heathcote, produce wines with this added generosity.
So if there is a lesson in any of this it is not to ignore blends in the pursuit of a single varietal; skilful blending adds complexity. Don’t assume that Bordeaux is the only region capable of producing fine quality blended wine featuring the varieties discussed. And don’t dismiss varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from warmer, more Mediterranean climates. Below are two wines that express the sophistication and age-ability possible outside of Bordeaux and from Yarran, a Cabernet Sauvignon that is both plush and a pleasure to drink now.
Yarra Yering, Dry Red Number 1, Yarra Valley, 2008, 13.5%
Grape: 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot
Wine-making: 100% new oak
Note: Delicate and restrained nose of blackberry, smoke and some red fruit. A touch balsamic, spicy but not overly and there is a brightness on the palate that makes this both persistent and harmonious. This reminded me less of Bordeaux and more of top quality, classic Rioja from the likes of Rioja alta. Truly fine stuff. Anyone who thinks that Australia is all about full-bodied fruit bombs needs to try this.
Price: 2005 is 2970NT in Taiwan. Globally approx. $80USD
Score: 18.5/20, Magnificent
Available from: icheers.com.tw have the 2005 for 2970NT
Yarran Wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Heathcote, 2013, 14.2%
Grape: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine-making: Some French oak
Note: Soft, spicy with chocolate and mocha, sweet licorice and dark fruit. Very nicely judged oak (much better than the 2012) and with a persistent finish. Brilliant value.
Price: In Australia this is priced at approx. $12USD
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan but should be.
Groot Constantia, Gouverners Reserve, Constantia, 2011, 14%
Grape: 54% Cabernet Franc, 36% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine-making: Matured for 18 months in predominantly new French oak
Note: Hailing from Constantia means that this is about as cool a climate as one can experience in South Africa. This provides a wine that is fresh and vibrant but also deep and satisfying. On the nose this could be from Bordeaux with pencil shavings, coffee grounds and both sweet and savoury fruit. Generous in body and again excellent persistence, a bargain that will reward cellaring for another ten years.
Price: Globally available at approximately $40USD
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan but should be.