Back to the Future

The oldest Cape wine region is also the newest

The Cape wine industry turns 350 years old this year. While the first vines were planted in what are today known as the Company Gardens, the first commercial plantings were further down the peninsula, around Wynberg (Wine Mountain) and on Van der Stel’s farm, Groot Constantia, which was proclaimed in 1685. Later, in the hands of Hendrik Cloete (from 1778), Groot Constantia became world famous for its natural sweet-style wine made from Muscat grapes. This wine, made from very ripe, but not botrytised grapes, is now replicated in the Vin de Constance of Klein Constantia and Groot Constantia’s Grand Constance.
Today, Constantia symbolises both Cape wine’s history – and its future. Those early farmers knew what they were doing. Choosing gently-sloping land with good soils and a view of the ocean, the cool sea-breezes mitigated the heat of summer and helped them make balanced wines. Another influential factor has always been the Constantiaberg itself, which casts long shadows over the vineyards in the afternoons, as the sun sets on the other side of the mountain. By the late 20th century, Constantia’s reputation was built on its white wines, as many of the newer clones of the red varieties need more sunlight to ripen ideally.
The local wine industry has changed in a number of important ways since our re-admission to global markets. Technologies are better, clones are improving, and wine-makers travel to make wine and learn from international peers. At home, there is a spirit of discovery – and no more crucial than the establishment of new areas for the planting of vines. Previously farmers mainly worked in the traditional areas of Constantia, Stellenbosch and Paarl and on the flatlands or gentle slopes where it was easiest; now new regions are being farmed – and the vineyards are climbing higher.
The winery Constantia Glen is a great example of the new in the old. Here the vines are planted high on the Constantiaberg slopes, just before the spill over onto the Hout Bay side. The height and access to a few more aspects allow some of Constantia Glen’s vineyards a couple of hours more late afternoon sun – perfect for the ripening of red varieties. So whereas the white to red ratio down the valley is dominated by white; here red is king. Altitude has other benefits like different soil profiles – they are often more rocky (compared to the finer weathered soils down slope). These stonier soils undoubtedly give the wines a different dimension.
350 years on, and Cape wine is still evolving. For all our successes, it’s worth reminding ourselves that three and a half centuries is not a long time in the world of wine. Even constant Constantia is changing.


The Original Icon – Klein Constantia Vin de Constance
Made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes which have not been botrytised, this is a powerful wine of undeniable sweetness but also rich in complexity. They age famously: bottles from the late 18th century can still be enjoyed! First made during the long reign of the Cloete family, the wine became famous in Europe but then disappeared towards the end of the 19th century when the Cape wine industry was crippled by the phylloxera louse. The current owners of Klein Constantia, the Joostes, re-introduced it in 1986.
The New Icon-in-Waiting – Constantia Glen 2007 Bordeaux Blend
Since their first bottling of Sauvignon Blanc in 2005, the property’s wine has caught world-wide attention, winning numerous awards. But with 80% of the farm planted to red varieties, it is this red blend that will now become Constantia Glen’s calling card. This is a wine of excellent balance and fantastic elegance, made by Karl Lambour in consultation with Bordeaux’s Dominique Hébrard of Cheval Blanc fame. If you thought fine red wine starts clumsy and tannic, you will be stunned by the feather-soft tannins of this still-young wine. Certainly a label to watch closely.

Golfing wine

Of all the sportsmen that seem to love buying wine farms or making wine, none seem keener than golfers. Historically, rugby players were the sportsmen you could count on to be involved in this business, and this is still the case, but of late golfers have made a serious effort to lead the category (which probably says more about earnings in golf than anything else).

Of our local star golfers engaged in this 19th hole activity, we can list Ernie Els, David Frost, Retief Goosen and recently Gary Player. Cleary, these men don’t spend much time picking grapes, hauling pipes or rolling barrels. What they do is to find experts to collaborate with, to make the wine for them. These wines, with the famous name imprimatur, sell pretty well (and have captive markets in clubhouses).

Interestingly, all the wines made under the names of these golfers are red wines. I can only imagine this is because the bywords here are luxury and premium. The first of these wines I encountered was the Ernie Els, made by the team behind the Rust en Vrede and Guardian Peak wines. It’s been made since 2000, so now has something of a track record. This wine is rich and modern, but always made from the traditional Bordeaux varieties so that it retains a classical style. You can count on it to impress.
For some reason, I have only recently tried the David Frost, from his own farm in the Voor Paardeberg. A former Rust en Vrede winemaker is in charge of the wine making, interestingly, and of the four red wines in the range, I most enjoyed the “Par Excellence,” despite its name. It’s also made from the five Bordeaux stalwart varieties and is bold in style and tends towards the over-ripe. The other wines, single variety Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz, took this too far and were far too big and alcoholic for my taste.

Recently, the Gary Player “Muirfield 1959” 2003 was released, made by the Quoin Rock winery. This is the most probing wine of the lot, since it’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinotage. It’s very rich, both on the nose and palate, where it is remarkably dense – and has an intriguing savoury dimension. Certainly a masculine wine, it continues to roll powerfully over your tongue, perhaps too forcefully, but I have great confidence in the Quoin Rock team so will be intrigued to track its development. Only nine future vintages are planned (to commemorate his nine Majors).

Old reds

The winery at Chamonix has a new restaurant, run by a French couple who used to have Mon Plaisir at the bottom of the Hartenberg Road. The new place is also called Mon Plaisir, and all pleasures are heightened by their list of French wines which augments the small list of Chamonix wines. In recent years, the Chamonix wines have really improved, led by their Pinot noir and Chardonnay reserve wines.
On a boeuf Bourguignon day a pinot was calling and the winery list featured the 2007 Chamonix Reserve Pinot Noir at R160. The French wine list featured a “village” Burgundy at R220. (Broadly, “village” is a term that refers to the basic level of Burgundy quality, before you get the “crus” where the individual vineyard is specified). Not that French wine is always better (though French pinot is usually truer to itself than our oaky versions), it is always interesting to taste, so we asked for the “village”.

The bottle that arrived was vintage 2001. Faced with the choice of drinking a fresh 2007 vintage red or a 2001, I will always choose the older. A red wine needs a few years to settle. Tannins knit, polymers join up, acids integrate. Some secondary flavours, called “bottle age,” often develop which add to the complexity of the drink. Besides all that, here in the Cape we so often drink only the young stuff that it is a treat to get older wine to drink.

Wasn’t always like this of course. When cellar maturation was the norm, reds were designed to age – they were pretty tough to drink before a few years had elapsed. Today, the approach to wine-making and style of wine has swung 180 degrees. Reds are built to drink now. Both for rapid commercial turn-over and because the perception is that the market does not like tannin, it likes easy-drinking.
Hence, nowadays, many of our red wines do not age (in the sense of continuing to improve) for much over five years. These wines are less tannic, softer and more approachable in youth, and the corollary is that they do not mature and improve for long. In the old style of wine-making (still practised in many parts of Europe), a red wine is hard and unapproachable in its youth, tannic and leathery. After five years it’s beginning to be drinkable, but it’s only soft and smooth after 10.

“Modern” wines are “pre-integrated” through riper fruit and soft handling and age is often not a prerequisite to further pleasure. The flip is that they will not go the same distance. In many ways, the red that really needs a decade to reach optimal drinking is now a relic of another era. This column salutes the 1975 Zonnebloem Shiraz. A month ago, still a wine to enjoy.

Do our reds age?

No theme to this column today, but a wandering through some of the wine experiences I’ve recently had. Always been a fan of Solms Delta for their idiosyncratic approach (you may recall the vine-dried or “desiccated” wines they make) and the fact that they have a fantastic on-site museum that explains the human side of our wine heritage. Now they are establishing a museum of music, a collaborative project with Richard Astor, whose farm is next door.

They’ve also started a harvest festival in the roots sense, where music and merriment replace commerce, uptight music and desultory picnic baskets. At the first one, the new Solms-Astor wines were launched. There’s a white blend, a red blend and a curious pétillant Shiraz. The blends are great table wines, easy-drinking but not simple, and lovely for the fact that they are dry wines without residual sweetness. They also have great names, the white called Vastrap, the red Langarm, and the 2007 vintages sell for R46 each. And if you are generally bored with clichéd back label blurb, check these out.

Another wine that makes good, lively drinking without being OTT is the Elgin Vintners Shiraz 2006. It’s got good spice notes, lots of fruit but also a tangy quality that refreshes. Only problem for me is the R78 price tag, I think this is more of a R60 wine.

Been launching into some older wines recently, opened the 2001 Delheim Vera Cruz Shiraz alongside their 2001 Grand Reserve. 2001 was a good vintage, and seven years should show these wines in a great light. This was true for the delicious Grand Reserve which has integrated beautifully and is really a polished wine – but less for the Vera Cruz which is tired and somewhat flabby. It’s still my opinion that the modern Cape makes Cabernets and Cab blends that age well, but have not yet cracked the code on Shiraz.

Of course, I say modern Cape because we now make wines that are easier to drink in their youth, and are less likely to age as well as the Cape reds made in the 1970s and 1980s. When you taste a 1974 Fairview Pinotage that’s still a lively, delightful wine today, you really appreciate this. In its youth, I heard from current winemaker Anthony de Jager, it was an austere, rather forbidding wine, with firm tannins. When last have you tasted a Cape wine that sounds at all like this today?

So I said no theme, but I have come back to a recurring feeling I have that our modern reds, for all the back label promises, are ill-equipped to mature (in the sense of improving) for longer than six to eight years. Whether this is actually a bad thing is debatable.

Burgundy

The other day I was invited by a wine import company called Great Domaines to a tasting of the Burgundies of Jean-Marie Fourrier, a fourth generation wine-maker from this favourite wine region of mine. Mr Fourrier is an engaging man, with lovely wines to boot, but since the 2005 vintages that we tasted are completely unavailable to purchase from Great Domaines (you could aim for the acclaimed 2006 vintage if you contact www.greatdomaines.co.za), I won’t bother to write about them.

Fourrier is returning to his roots. For a region that is already pretty fixed on tradition, this is something. He grows his vines without the use of any chemical fertilisers, and never uses vine stock treated for disease resistance or high yield. It’s about respect for the natural order. He waits until a vine is 30 years old before he uses its grapes to make Domaine Fourrier wine, until then he considers them immature. Aside from the fact that plant virus wrecks many of our vines within 20 years, our growers also have little tolerance for a plant with the small yields of an older vine. For most of them, it’s about quantity more than quality.

Fourrier then makes his wines using as little new wood as possible – no more than 20%. He has a number of reasons for this. In terms of wine quality, he states that “oak is for the slow breathing of the wine, not for taste.” He is after fruit purity, not barrel flavour. Again, consider the local model. Almost every producer chasing high quality “treats” the wine to 80-100% new wood. “Treats” means both an indulgence and a treatment, for the powerful flavour that oak imparts is one that we, the consumer, now think is the taste of fine wine.

But consider the other meaning of “treat”. New French oak, or any oak, is a dwindling global commodity. To use new oak, the prime staves from an old, slow-growing tree, primarily to flavour a wine, and then next year to ship another few hundred new ones in, for their flavour, is supremely wasteful – even arrogant. As supply dwindles, the luxury will dissolve anyway, so expect the oak flavour you are accustomed to to soon come from flavourants.

Fourrier also has a great deal to say about cork. For a Frenchman, he is unusually critical. Though he does love their place in wine tradition, their failure rate has led him to revert to the old practise of sealing all his bottles with wax. 50,000 bottles are all hand sealed. Wax is the perfect substance to prevent the exchange of gas, and the subsequent oxidation of the wine, that a poor cork allows. Cork, too, is a natural product under threat from commercial expansion. Did you know that men with guns patrol prime forests to prevent theft of bark?

Meerlust Rubicon

Meerlust recently released the 2004 Rubicon – the 25th vintage of this famous Cape wine. The first vintage to see the market was the 1980, making it one of the first “Bordeaux blends” from the Cape. Today, winemaker Chris Williams is less inclined to call it a Bordeaux blend, preferring the idea of a flagship Meerlust wine made with Bordeaux grape varieties.

The distinction is one of philosophy. Williams, an articulate and thoughtful wine-maker, wants to capture the soul of the Meerlust property in the wines, not follow a template that has been set in Bordeaux. Therefore, to take these grapes, native to Bordeaux, and to make a wine that tastes rather of this corner of the Cape than of that corner of France.

Tasting back over older vintages of Rubicon, it is clear that the philosophy in the past was to mimic the French model quite closely. Vintages 1986, 1991 and 1994 all show a lean and tannic character, with rather strappy acidity. But from 1998 onwards, the wine first becomes more “new world” – riper and richer and more handsomely wooded – and then gradually more refined until we reach the elegant 2004.
Williams says that his marketers rein him when he starts talking about soil. Before eyes glaze over, he relates how Meerlust has ten soil types and, within this, 50 different forms. This diversity is the puzzle that the winemaking team have to unravel in order to create wines that are both excellent and unique to this property.

If this sounds like a daunting task, it is, and Williams is the first to be humbled by the immensity of the challenge – one that is unlikely to be completed in his lifetime. Fortunately he is working with a family, the Myburghs, that understand the meaning of long term – they have been farming here (and making wine) since 1756; which is beginning to look like a term that can compare to Bordeaux!

Talk also turned to the price of the recent release. At R230 there is ample evidence that this is a very fair price, probably even a good price. Take the heritage factor of this property. If ever there was a farm and a wine that suggests iconic status, this is it. With so many Johnnie-come-lately producers charging more than R500 per bottle, you have to respect a more “honest” price. If you don’t really buy into that stuff, consider that the farm only releases Rubicon after four years of maturation (as opposed to most others at two years) and that the wine from this point on has a proven track record of maturation potential. Your R230 spent now will look trifling in ten years. And we all know that’s guaranteed.

Reserve wines

You may have noticed how many wineries are launching “reserve” wines, aka “flagship” wines. These generally come in much bigger and heavier bottles and naturally carry higher prices. There are broadly two motivations for this phenomenon. The first is that a given winery has reached new heights through fine-tuning its wine to a point where they believe the standard offering has been exceeded in quality and this better wine deserves to be given its own home.
Any winery that has aspirations is constantly driving for improvement. Add to this that we are learning more and more about the “science” of vines and wine, which should improve the breed. One could argue that this improvement be contained in the regular bottling, and I think this is often the case. But perhaps a winery has a new block of very fine Merlot that has come of age, and the resultant wine is in a different quality league. We consumers are very price sensitive, so the regular offering can’t spike in price. The alternative is to launch a reserve wine, at a higher price. This intrinsic improvement in the wine merits special treatment.
So has the Cape wine scene has suddenly “come of age” with the many vines and wines reaching new heights? Most of us would resist such an idea, it’s too facile. So enter the second driver for the birth of the reserve wine. It’s no secret that the wine industry is going through some tough times with global surpluses and a short-term past that saw the rand strengthen, impacting negatively on our export drive. So it makes commercial sense (it could even be desperately vital) to sell your wine at a higher price point if you are to survive.
The reserve bottling allows you to raise the price of your wine by presenting a new entity, one with a more refined story and a more sophisticated look. Often, in this instance, the wine is a selection from the inventory, like a new blend of varieties or the selection of a top performer to be re-dressed in fancier livery. With reds it is almost always a barrel selection, either the crème de la crème, or barrels that express a certain style of wine.
But it is in the packaging that the wine works hardest to add to its value in the eyes of the consumer – and most of us drink with our eyes. That heavier bottle, that designer label, that higher price. It has to be a better wine. Conspicuous consumption also helps, you know you’ll be warmly welcomed at dinner parties when you carry this bottle in.
Are these wines “worth it”? In a country where our top wines, wines with pedigree, sell at relatively low international values these bottles often are – but there are at least an equal number of pretenders in ponderous bottles out there.

Winelists

What makes a good restaurant wine list? Do I hear you say “when it’s cheap?”. I am sorry to say that I think the practise of subsidising the menu through the wine list is here to stay. With very few exceptions, restaurants mark wines up 300% or more and offer comparatively little in exchange – not even storage or maturation, as they order only a few bottles at a time.

Is a good wine list a long one? No, although it is more likely to be better than a short one by sheer number of chances to hit the sweet spot, a wine you really want. Shorter lists can have these sweet-spots if they are well-chosen and/or interesting. Well-chosen can mean different things, depending on the style of the restaurant. Broadly, for a fish spot, a predominance of whites makes sense – and the reverse for a steakhouse. Not just plugging in the same generic list.

Well-chosen also means more particular attention to the wines on the list, and in my books that means wines that have been chosen to suit the menu and the place and that show some imagination. Interestingly, you may not always find this “well-chosen” attribute in a big list. A restaurant may have a bible of a list, but be populated by all (and that’s no exaggeration) of the usual and “fashionable” suspects, but very few very unusual or quirky suspects.

A good list shows depth of knowledge. The start of a good list is the turn away from one that is dominated by the big players, or generated by them. Any list with a producer’s logo on the cover is most often the sign that this will be an average to poor list. Depth of knowledge means that the proprietor has chosen to look into wine and to come up with some personal options, and not only the rep’s “choice”.

For example, in the bible list I referred to, there was a “garagiste” section, where “hand-crafted” (as opposed to machine-engineered?) wines were listed. While this is welcome, I also want my garagiste wines to be good wines, not just to fill this category, which was the unfortunate case here. Knowing that their garagiste picks were duds made me uncomfortable about the rest of the list and the minds behind it and although it was big enough to offer joy, it did not make me rate it a good list.
It’s better in my eyes not to have all the categories but to offer interesting wines, than to strive to offer each variety. Lord knows we have many hundreds of producers, and a little exploration will easily create a personal list, where focus and story is more important than comprehensiveness.

Real Riesling

Although I tend to be generally sceptical of winemakers’ claims to terroir (the unique soil and microclimatic factors that form the specific character of a wine) as being expedient marketing hype, some wines are so clearly the product of their environment that the term truly comes alive.

The wines of Dr Loosen, made around the town of Bernkastel in Germany’s Mosel valley are a case in point. In many respects, these wines are extreme. Planted on vertiginous slopes that pickers have to traverse carrying 50kg baskets, many of his vines are over 100 years old. The marginal topsoil lies over a rocky slate substrate, and every year the challenge is to accumulate enough heat to ripen the grapes. These vines typically have “hang-times” (the time the bunch stays on the vine before harvest) of 170 days – compared to our average of 110 days.

The Rieslings produced in these conditions are remarkable. From the non-estate “Dr L Riesling” made from grapes sourced from around the area in general to the single vineyard wines, they all share delicacy matched to complexity, and an incredible freshness that comes from what Loosen calls the “mineral-driven acidity”.

This natural acidity is a marvel. It’s lively, and while it is intense, it is never harsh. For Loosen, this natural acidity is the core of the wine, along with their low alcohols – his are all around 8 percent. While this means that there is also a moderate level of residual sugar, the wines are bright and never cloying as a result of to these appley acids.

While the Mosel climate with its gentle summer heat plays a part in achieving this acidity, the chief reason is the slate soil with its high potassium content. Put this together with centenarian vines, and you have a unique set of influences that can be described as terroir without striking a false note.

Can South Africa make Riesling like this? Simply put, no. We do not have these conditions or these vines. We do make a few adequate Rieslings, but the difference lies in that acid line and the alcohol levels. Our acidities tend to be hard and sharp, and not supple and refreshing; and our lowest alcohols sit at 11 percent, which would be super ripe for the Mosel. And we’re nowhere close on the hang-time calendar, which is where the grape develops flavour and complexity.

But, like any grape, Riesling is adaptable. Riesling is also good at retaining a sense of self, of varietal typicity, no matter where grown, so our local examples are a very welcome antidote to yet another Sauvignon Blanc.

Loosen visited as part of a series of tastings organised by Jörg Pfützner. For more information on the wines: [email protected]

Three Chardonnays

The physical diversity of our wine regions is fantastic. From steep mountain slopes with the endless views beloved by coffee table book photographers, to semi-desert swathes or vineyards at the sea, the small band of land where vines thrive plus the rugged terrain makes for a visually exciting match.
Apart from this boon, a number of wine outings also offer an interesting trip through time and the history of South African winemaking (not forgetting Nederburg’s museum where you can explore this journey through their displays). On a recent wine tasting day, we set off for the morning and it was only later that I realised we had moved, in sequence, from the earliest moments of Cape winemaking, represented by Meerlust, to the start of our “new” industry in the late 1980s/early 1990s at Thelema, and into the 21st century at Tokara. For all the differences between these wineries, there is, interestingly, one commonality: Chardonnay.
Meerlust’s many generations of Myburgh “curators” have, over the painstaking course of time, created a Cape icon wine estate. The farm is beautiful in the honest way that only time and sensitive human intervention can achieve. The world-class wines are still led by the Bordeaux blend, Rubicon, and there are many fans for their great Merlot, so it’s easy to forget the fleshy and delicious 2003 Pinot Noir that’s available. Then there’s the famous yellow-label Chardonnay, which has recently changed its style from the buttery-wooded richness of yore to be fresher with good mineral textures.
At Thelema, the 2003 Merlot Reserve is exquisite. Fruit density married to elegant tannin – if wine could always achieve this, we wine writers would have little to comment on. A curious wine to try here is “The Mint” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Palpably scented with this herb, the jury is still out where this scent comes from. Some suggest it’s the particular grape clone, others say that eucalyptus trees impart a residue that flavours the grapes. At Thelema, a painstaking study is now underway to get to the bottom of this debate. Their Chardonnay is elegant (something of a house style) with less new wood used to avoid too much “toast and cream”.
Tokara, a worthy new Cape showpiece, makes a flotilla of wines, and makes all of them very well. A Sauvignon Blanc specialist, you can compare their Walker Bay edition to their Elgin to their easier-priced Zondernaam. The Walker Bay is classy and well-rounded, while Elgin takes no prisoners – for lovers of powerful, zingy Sauvignon. And then the ubiquitous Chardonnay. The 2006 is well-bred, pure fruited, and again restrained in its alliance with the French oak barrel, which is clearly the modern direction for this variety.

Wine 2008

Some predictions for 2008.

The rapid rise of rosé continues. After landmark wines like Lanzerac Rosé slaked thirsts for decades and then bombed out dramatically, rosé is now back and it seems to be getting bigger by the month. Perhaps most of the output goes to the UK shelves where this category has remained a favourite, but there is also a sense that we’re realising the joys of a pink wine, especially when not made too sweet. Some winning examples I’ve tasted include Beyerskloof, De Grendel, Jordan and De Morgenzon – and if you want something with a little more sweetness at a really friendly price, try Darling Cellars “Zantsi” Natural Sweet Rosé. It’s been known to convert non-rosé drinkers, especially when served over ice at the poolside.

The slow rise of the screwcap continues. Although it patently is the better closure in many technical respects (a lower “failure” rate, less spoilage through “corked” wine, easier to get to your wine), it still suffers from an image problem. It’s going to be a while before the majority our better wines are closed under screwcap, if ever. It is true that many very good Sauvignon Blancs are now bottled this way, but as many, and then some, are not. And once you leave the fresh white wine realm, it remains the entry level wines that get the screwcap treatment, keeping its image pretty low. Add to this that there is growing evidence that screwcaps may actually be a worse proposition for the environment than cork, and this closure may never realise its potential. Being a metal and plastics item, its manufacture is raw material and energy intensive, plus it’s not bio-degradable like cork, which is also a naturally “manufactured” – and renewable – product.

The moderate wine prices continue. Sin taxes aside, wine in South Africa remains a very cheap pleasure in world terms. It’s quite a feat to find a half-decent bottle of wine at $10 in the USA – and at a basic exchange rate exercise, you have to admit that there is a good choice if you want to spend R68 to R70. South Africa is still under pressure to move the volume of wine that’s produced (largely due to our moribund local consumption) so there is pressure to keep the prices moderate. And more good news is that the relatively strong position that the Rand holds means that imported wine is again worth a look-see, which is wonderful for comparative purposes. The grass is certainly not always greener, nor the vine more voluptuous, on the other side.

Our “new” regions continue to impress. Look out for whites from the West Coast (the Olifants River region and Lambert’s Bay) as well as Elim on the other coast – and keep particularly close watch on the wines coming out of the Voor Paardeberg.

Viognier

Viognier. Hard to pronounce and hard to like. Yet it’s become a darling of much of the Cape winemaking industry over the last few years; on its own as a floral and usually flabby white, but also as an addition to Shiraz. All of a sudden, if you want to make a serious Cape Shiraz, you seem to need to add a dollop of Viognier.

This is the practise in the Rhone region of France, where they use a small percentage of this white variety to lift the fruit of their Shiraz and also to soften the hard tannins of the red. But by small percentage we are talking five or less. As the Viognier fad has gripped the Cape, this additive has been employed in far higher percentages, often resulting in red wines with a distinctly unsatisfying mid-palate. A kind of middle-aged spread at late adolescence.

But there are some examples of the intelligent and astute use of Viognier. At Fairview, where the variety was first made into wine commercially, the idea was to use Viognier as a blending partner with not Shiraz but Pinotage. “Why re-invent the wheel?” asks Charles Back, who examined the reason why Viognier was used with Shiraz in the Rhone, not just the fact that it is used with Shiraz.

Softening some harsh tannins? It sounds like Viognier has a natural place with Pinotage reasoned Back, and their Pinotage-Viognier blend was born. Pinotage is famous for having quite pronounced and chewy tannins in its youth – which is also the reason why it ages well. But a little softening in the early years, like what’s needed with French Shiraz, is just the ticket.

And it works a treat. The hard edge is tickled, and the natural fruit of the Pinotage shines. Fairview also uses the Viognier in their take of the regional Rhone-style red wine, the “Goat-Roti”; as well as their riff on white Rhone blends, “Goats-do-Roam in Villages,” which is fantastic.

Plus Fairview, and the sister winery, Spice Route, indulge in single variety Viognier. At Fairview, the single-variety wine shows as a floral, ripe melon flavoured wine with a surprisingly elegant and lean palate. The Spice Route incarnation is richer, floral and distinctly broad and opulent in structure. Says Back: “It has a mid-palate texture and weight that works well with the type of food that we enjoy in South Africa”. Some suggestions that were floated were crayfish and mild curries, and I can’t argue with that.

While Viognier is certainly not going to jump to the top of my white variety hit list, I am certainly better disposed to it now that I have seen it in bed with Pinotage. It takes birds of a gamey feather to flock together.

World Pinot comparison

In matters of taste, it is easy to become parochial. Eat your mother’s macaroni cheese for a few decades and you think it’s the best in the world. Drink only South African wines, and you also “calibrate” your palate to their style.

Wines from different parts of the world certainly have styles of their own. These stylistic fingerprints are formed through multiple influences, climate and soil being two of the most powerful. The human factor is also strong, however. The Burgundian wine maker may have a very different approach to his counterpart in Paarl.

Another influence that dominates is age of vine. For a host of reasons, our vineyards tend to be very youthful and tend to be re-planted every couple of decades. Vines that are 30 years old are still considered young in some parts of France, like Burgundy.
Gordon Newton Johnson recently held a tasting of Pinot Noir to explore the soul of this grape, as expressed through the lens of a few different Pinot-producing countries. He asked: “Is the New World only about pure fruit expression?” The best Pinot, the experts agree, is identified by textures and flavours that go far beyond the basic fruit flavours that are associated with the grape: strawberry, cherry, some earthiness. The Pinots of the New World (SA, New Zealand, Australia, etc), when compared to Burgundies, are often identified as having fantastic fruit expression, but little of the mystical depth and texture of the French examples.

The line up was stellar, with leading wines from each country, including: Tuck’s Ridge (Aus), Ata Rangi (NZ), Domaine Drouhin (USA), Bouchard Finlayson, Newton Johnson and Hamilton Russell from SA. In the French corner were some notable first growths: Domaines Dujac, Comte Georges de Vogüé, and Henri Gouges. Vintages varied slightly, but since the exercise was more about stylistics, this was less important.

And it turned out to be true, certainly in the case of the New Zealand wines, that fruit expression was wonderful. These wines are piercing in their intensity, the fruit almost strident in its clarion call. The wines from America tended to be very chunky and well-wooded in style, with the South African wines somewhere between these two: rich in personality, with good fruit and well-made, though tending to be a little too enthusiastically oaked. And the fruit on these wines was certainly of the cherry and berry type.

For texture and a perfume that demanded much more time to explore, the Burgundies were in another league. They had something we cannot buy (though we clearly are spending on French coopers) – vine age. In the words of Remington Norman, noted French wine specialist: “Burgundy has specialised in vineyard selection for centuries and you cannot forget the age of the vines they are working with. Here, we need to refine our selection of site, and make sure our vines age.” True for Pinot, true for all wines.

Franschhoek update

They made their bed, and they made it very well. Now Franschhoek has a stellar reputation for its dining establishments, a reputation that overshadows that of its many wineries and has become the main reason for people to visit. But the Franschhoek vignerons are fighting back, and the recent “Franschhoek Uncorked” festival was designed to draw visitors to the many wineries in the greater valley. They plan to make this an annual event.

What do you think of when you think Franschhoek wine? Whites? Very likely bubbly? Perhaps semillon? Interestingly, a media tasting was held where 26 current and new releases were showcased, and red wines made up the meat of the line-up, chosen by a panel to represent the best that the valley has to offer. The varietal mix was surprisingly light on white, with chardonnay the largest category here, and only one semillon in attendance (Landau du Val, where the vines are now 102 years old!).

Of the five chardonnays, the best was Chamonix’s Reserve 2006, and winemaker Gottfried Mocke showed consistency with another three of his wines in the line-up: his Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2007, Pinot Noir Reserve 2006 and his red blend, Troika 2005. It’s no secret, but if you haven’t tasted these wines yet, or if the name Chamonix is unfamiliar, take a trip out to visit their traditional farm. They have a pretty good restaurant too!

There were no bubblies at the tasting, but Cabrière was represented by its Pinot Noir 2005 which is an honest and appealing pinot in the fruity style. Of the other reds, shiraz was well represented, as were cabernets, but the largest category was reserved for red blends. To my palate, the cabs showed better than the shiraz, with my favourites being the Boekenhoutskloof 2005 which is a pure-fruited and dry red wine. La Petite Ferme’s Cabernet 2005 is also good in a modern style, with lovely soft tannins. If you want a glimpse of the true meaning of “boutique” cellar, visit La Petite Ferme – who of course also have a great restaurant… their merlot is good too.

In the red blend line-up, Boekenhoutskloof debuted a cabernet franc, sauvignon and merlot blend called The Journeyman 2005 which is wonderfully elegant and integrated, and my wine of the evening. Winemaker Marc Kent introduced the name as the title given on an official document to one of his forebears – a title that he feels apt for the “all-sorts” nature of being a winemaker.

And if you don’t get out there before December, you can always make a plan for the 1st and 2nd December when Franschhoek hosts the Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, sure to send the town into fits of merriment.

Zinfandel

There are hundreds of grape varieties that can be made into wine – and many dozens across the world that are – but here in South Africa we deal in only a handful. The reasons for this are manifold; we didn’t start with much choice in indigenous varieties, the ones we use now were shipped in by boat by the colonialists, and in the modern age when they could arrive swiftly we are wary of plant disease and new varieties spend years in quarantine.

Even though our grape gene pool is pretty small to begin with, some are disappearing from the scene. Like zinfandel. It was never a variety that was planted in swathes, but it certainly had a place in the line-up. Today, the John Platter Guide lists four producers who make zinfandel in South Africa: Zevenwacht, Blaauwklippen, Glen Carlou and Idiom. Glen Carlou made one for the Cape Winemaker’s Guild and not as a regular range wine, so we can discount them, which leaves us with only three wineries that make zin.

Walter Finlayson is credited as being the champion of zinfandel in South Africa. Working at Blaauwklippen in the late 1970s, he proposed it as a blending partner but it soon took on a life of its own, and Finlayson won the first ever Diner’s Club award in 1982 with a 1980 Blaauwklippen Zinfandel.

“Taking a life of its own” carries more than a metaphoric meaning when it comes to zin, for it’s a wine with a savage side – often described as having an “animale” quality. It has a meaty, savoury dimension under its abundant red fruits, like a beast hiding beneath a berry bush. Put this with a red grape that’s got gentle tannins and high natural acidity and you have a variety that you either love or leave.

Zinfandel ages remarkably well because of this firm acidity, and at Blaauwklippen, where they never stopped making it, the older vintages (even a 1987) are still lively, while the current release 2005 is a wine of multiple dimensions (spice, sun-dried tomato, blackberries) and certain acidity. This characteristic also lends the wine to successful food pairing, of course, and it’s a natural for meats.

Blaauwklippen see a prominent place for zinfandel in their future, aside from its regular spot as a red wine, they have released a White Zinfandel 2007 and a Noble Late Harvest Zinfandel 2007. White zin is no stranger to the American palate, but there it’s often a dreary white. Blaauwklippen’s is perfumed and fresh with “Turkish Delight” nuances. I enjoyed it. Their Noble Late is more challenging to my palate, rich and very savoury, with a little too much of the animale for me to tame.