Merlot 2005 roundup

As chardonnay is to sauvignon blanc, so merlot is to shiraz. The former is often considered the Cinderella to the striking (and very popular) sister. We are undoubtedly in the thrall of a sauvignon blanc craze, and when it comes to reds, we crave shiraz. In terms of new plantings and media attention, they are indisputably the darlings.

Nevertheless, on dinner tables and at those times when a variety of wines are standing about, waiting to be drunk, chardonnay and merlot don’t do too badly for themselves. Perhaps it’s their flavour, it almost certainly has something to do with their image – as being smooth easy-drinkers.

Merlot, according to many wine commentators, is our weakest red wine category. It is accused of being thin and tart, lacking intensity and generally forgettable. The worst accusation is that it shows green, overly vegetal, notes. But often I suspect that this is because we are expecting a naturally lighter, leaner red to be a blockbuster like shiraz and cabernet. What can be surprising about merlot is that, although it’s regarded as easy-drinking, it’s often quite tannic and unyielding in its youth.

Here are some thoughts on recent merlots I’ve tried:
Villiera Merlot 2005 is just what a medium-bodied red should be, fresh and perky, with mineral notes and a little earthiness – in other words far from the big berries of, say, many cabs. This wine drinks well, especially with food. Another real winner is the regular Blaauwklippen 2005, with wonderful elegance and fruit. De Grendel’s 2005 is on the other end of the spectrum, a big, bold and very extracted wine that seems to miss the earthy, mineral merlot zone by going for generosity. It divided the table, many loved it, and others thought it was a rather generic modern red wine.

Kloovenburg Merlot 2005 is an even riper version of the grape, packed with deep cherry fruit and charry oak. It features an incredibly dense palate but one that has surprisingly little length – the wine has sacrificed elegance and acidity for alcohol and power. Again right on the other end of the scale is the Glenwood Merlot 2005 which weighs in at a far more respectable alcohol level of around 13,5%. This wine is very fresh, with taut acids that make the wine more and more austere as you drink it. Wines like these really depend on food.

Then one of the unluckiest merlots of 2005 is the Durbanville Hills Rhinofields, with such intense menthol, herbal notes I could only say it must be good for you because it tasted like medicine. Conclusions? This quick sampling of recent merlots really bears out the notion that you have to choose carefully if you want all-round pleasure – something that merlot blends usually offer.

Madagascan (?) pleasures

The company of wine people, who make Versus wines, have made a good bit of money off me and my friends recently. They may even think there is a sudden surge in the Madagascan market ever since we challenged our holiday hotel’s stock of Versus.

Pronounced “ver-soos” by the Malagasy locals, this wine became our unexpected ally after we checked the selection of local and French wines. Madagascar makes a few wines, and in John and Erica Platter’s book, Africa Uncorked, they suggest that the local bubbly is your best bet. We never got to try this wine, unfortunately, but did valiantly try the local still wines. These show a scant disregard for the beneficial effects of sulphur as a preservative. This is either because they want to be organic in style or because they don’t know better, but the result is that the wines taste like sherry, and are brown and oxidised. We opened and checked three, and then abandoned the quest.

To be fair, the state of the wine may have been due to transportation from the winery to our remote beach hotel, or it may have been the result of how long the wine had stood on the (not quite optimum temperature) shelf. These are real obstacles to finding good drinking wine in Africa, where cool temperatures and controlled transportation are as rare as leaders who aren’t paranoid.

The French wine on the shelf, Castel, was a known rot-gut agent and out of contention at the price. That left the selection of South African wines, which pretty much consisted of “ver-soos” red and white. Like most of the wines of South Africa, they had in their favour the benefit of clean, modern wine-making which ensures a decent, if not breath-taking, drink. They also came in one litre bottles, which was a big plus, since we were shelling out R160 per bottle.

The experience got me thinking about the current debate around carbon miles, where the argument runs that people should be drinking the wine from the region that lies closest. The idea, aside from its potential ecological benefit, works for wine in the sense that wine is not a good traveller. It doesn’t like temperature fluctuation or vibration, and it generally comes housed in heavy glass bottles that let in too much light and shatter easily. Local wine also tends to taste best with the local food and in the local setting.

All of which is old news, and the reason why fortified wine, like port and madeira, came to be – they evolved to withstand the rigours of travel. Along with rum, which Madagascar makes some great examples of!

Sweet and sticky

The great thing about winter is the chance to dive into more red wines and also a few stickies, that most grossly overlooked category. Always the modern question: when do you drink them? It is a good thing that these wines age well, they usually do so by default!

The one time I happily imbibe is at dinners where the food and wine is paired, and a glass duly arrives. But order off the wine list? Rarely. Plus you have the concern of how the wine was kept if served by the glass. These wines aren’t being ordered as often as a light sauvignon blanc.

And then at home, a rich white wine or a red wine will typically carry all the way through dinner, and even hide in waiting to present itself again once the initial sweetness of the dessert on the tongue is gone. Barring a large table, opening a sticky is usually going to mean some of the bottle is wasted through oxidation unless you diligently drink a glass a night – but then it sounds like medicine!

The trick, of course, is to drink the sticky instead of dessert, not with it. Another trick is to serve it earlier in the evening as an aperitif, but then you have to make sure that it’s bright enough, what I mean is with enough acidity to wake the taste buds. Clearly port won’t work so well in this capacity, but many of our noble late harvests will be fantastic, like the Paul Cluver Weisser Riesling NLH 2005 with its fresh riesling thrill.

Later in the evening, or on a particularly gloomy day, you want something fuller in body. Monis have recently launched a wooded red Muscadel (vintage 2000) that sips very smoothly and comes packaged in a pretty and tall 500ml bottle, a welcome change in image to the usually-squat and stumpy muscadel incarnations. The wooded part of its make-up is great, because it mellows the drink, also the intense sweetness that these wines can lug about. Just don’t drink it chilled (as the belligerent necktag suggests).

With these wines, it does boil down to the question of having a sweet tooth or not; but then again, in this category like any other, a good wine is marked by its balance. There is no reason why a sticky shouldn’t also have enough acid and tannin to offset the sugar. Take as an example the Peter Bayly Cape Vintage Port 2004 – its smooth sipping and versatile because it’s lighter in girth and all in balance.

Vintage, winemaker, chardonnay

The question of whether vintage is important in South African wine comes up every so often. My standard answer is yes, vintage is important, but arguably not as vitally important as it is in Europe.

The preceding winter plays its role in allowing the vine to rest (so much the better when the weather is cold and wet), the growing season dictates the ripening curve and influences quality in endless ways – and of course weather is reliably inconstant. We do have better and worse seasons, for example 2002 is now considered a lesser vintage. That being said, the Cape certainly has more reliable sunshine than Europe has (though this may be historic with climate change) and it is generally true that our ripening season, and wine, is more consistent in style.

One factor that is crucial, yet often forgotten, is the hand of the maker. Although most wine farms now preach the gospel of terroir, the influence of the people who make the wine – and no more so than the winemaker – is vital. Estates with the most consistent style often down-play the personality of the winemaker in order to let the estate personality shine, because, after all, a wine farm can live for centuries but not the maker.

But the hand of the maker is powerful. I was reminded of this the other night when I ordered a bottle of 2005 Meerlust Chardonnay to show to some American guests. They had previously professed a deep love for rich chardonnay, so I thought a few of the Cape’s icons were in order. I can now tell you with certainty that Chris Williams, since taking the reins from Giorgio Dalla Cia, has modulated the Meerlust Chardonnay style quite firmly away from the rich and wood-driven to a fresher, fruit-driven position. He had explained this was his intention, and there it was: not the perfect wine for my oak-loving friends (but very agreeable to me).

By the way, if you like your chardonnay well-wooded and seriously rich, Longridge still specialise in this approach and judging by the award stickers on the bottle, this is still a universally loved style. Another goodie in a soft but less wooded guise is De Wetshof’s Finesse, while my favourite from this stable is the Limestone Hill Chardonnay which is actually unwooded but gets oodles of richness from concentrated fruit flavours.

Speaking of vintage, with many 2005 reds now already appearing on the shelves, the jury is poking its head out over 2004 (famously, every vintage is great until the wine is safely sold). Turns out that 2004 is uneven in quality, and I suspect it will not be a famed vintage in years to come. But if you stick to producers with good track records, you’re doing fine.

Groote Post

Groote Post is a farm out in the Darling hills. The Pentz family, that own it, used to be leading dairy farmers. Peter, the “Old Man” of a wine that is named in his honour, is a big, stern looking man with a trimmed beard. He would fit right in at the start of a trek. But looks can be deceiving.

Having sold the prize herds, the family embarked on a different trek, into the wilds of wine, encouraged by the success of certain sauvignon blancs that came from the farms in Darling, like the “Groenekloof” that Neil Ellis makes. And being urbane fellows, Peter and son Nick had no trouble heading into the jungles of international marketing, especially after their first vintage in 1999 got good notices.

Darling is fortunate to preserve good natural acids in the wines, and a tasting of their older sauvignons reveals that the 2003 is still drinking beautifully, and although it now has prominent bottle age characteristics, the signature pea notes are still bold, along with floral, almost Turkish Delight tones. Which is pretty yummy. The taste, as in the later vintages, reveals softness and a slightly sweet flavour with good freshness.

So, with a good “regular” sauvignon, they have now launched a Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2006, bottled with a Vino-Lok. At R90 from Woolworths, it’s a good R30 more than the first and you get a wine with more: palate weight, richness and flavour. Plus an interesting closure that’s sure to get people talking.

To my palate, their Chardonnay 2006 is bold, wooded and rather anonymous in style; while the Pinot Noir is a fruit-driven wine that’s charming in an eager-to-please way. Both are now also under Vino-Lok. The other reds, a shiraz and a merlot, are also fruit-forward, while the “Old Man’s Blend Red” is a generous winner at R40.

As if their current range was not Catholic enough, they are experimenting with semillon, riesling and a sparkling wine. While I am unsure why producers tend towards multiplicity instead of simplicity, a sneak preview of the bubbly, made from early-picked merlot, is very promising.

As with most things in life, for the full effect, you have to go there, something I regrettably have not managed in a while. It is a pretty part of the Cape, and they have a restaurant that’s also open on Sundays. The Pentz family are very urbane Afrikaners, but they certainly have not lost touch with the heart of a country home, the generous kitchen.

Cork and Plastic

As the debate over how we’re going to keep our precious wine inside the bottle continues, a very curious story recently ran in a New Zealand news magazine called The Listener. It claimed, without any evidence adduced, that screwcaps are linked to higher incidences of breast and prostate cancers – caused, said the piece, by the plastic seal inside the cap.

The story was rapidly exposed as lacking any scientific validity and the author as an anti-screwcap lobbyist. At the same time, the expectable ripple of paranoia raced through the nation. Continue reading “Cork and Plastic”

What wine is to be

The latest climate change predictions are dire news for the Western Cape. Suggesting drier and warmer conditions, the egg-heads reckon that any non-irrigated crop is doomed. The wheat industry is singled out to be hardest hit, but vines will also face a trial by solar fire, critically in those areas where unirrigated vineyards still exist.

Warmer conditions also mean that the current trend towards fuller and more alcoholic wines is not going to end anytime soon. But with more and more people blanching at wine with 15 to 16 degrees alcohol, the producers need to get creative. Revised root stocks for slower fruit growth, new grape varieties more suited to warm climates, yeasts that are less productive – all these partial solutions are being investigated.

Arguably the most invasive solution is the use of technology to remove alcohol from the finished wine. Continue reading “What wine is to be”

Michel Laroche and L’Avenir

One of the most pleasant wines I have drunk recently (note drunk, not tasted, the difference is in the pleasure over the course of a whole bottle) is the L’Avenir Chenin Blanc 2006.

L’Avenir’s Chenin has always been a good wine, as has their Pinotage. When the estate underwent a change of ownership and Michel Laroche, of the French wine family with Chablis roots, bought it two years ago, there was a wait-and-see period. That ended with the release, now in the international Laroche bottle, of the new L’Avenir vintage. Continue reading “Michel Laroche and L’Avenir”

Russian roulette

I’ve been told it’s a Russian thing. From the red carpet with its classical ensemble and roses where vintage Dom Perignon flowed to the bountiful glasses of some of the world’s great wines – there was a palpable tang of excess in the air. This was wine bling, there was as much as you desired, and the next incredible wine arriving even before you’d had the chance to really get to know the last. This was the launch of Haskell Vineyards, a new winery on the Annandale Road in Stellenbosch.

In the spirit of the day, here are the wines we were poured: Continue reading “Russian roulette”

Harvest at Luddite

As I moved through the rows of shiraz, clipping bunches and lugging the crates about on a wintry Sunday, I had ample time to have a close look at the variety and individuality of the grapes that end up as wine. All the fancy bottles and pretty or not labels, and all the variation that wine offers begins with plants in a row, dangling perfect and not so perfect bunches of grapes.

Luddite is only one wine, a shiraz. It is a powerful wine, but at the same time it remains pure-fruited and balanced – and above all inviting the next mouthful. Walking through the rows of grapes in 2007 that will be released as wine in 2009, it’s amazing to see the variation in the quantity and state of the bunches: from the ends of the rows where the wind eats at them, to the sheltered middle, to the patches where the soil offers more or less nurture. Continue reading “Harvest at Luddite”

Chenin Shake-down

The judges of the 2007 FNB Private Clients Wine Magazine Chenin Blanc Challenge (or FNBPCWMCBC) encountered an interesting dilemma. The dilemma was born out of the fact that, of the 125 entries, there were so many good wines that the final eight had to be separated into winners and near winners by the judges scoring these from one to eight in order of personal preference. Continue reading “Chenin Shake-down”

Hamilton Russell Ashbourne 2004

The remarkable is generally found in the edges. It’s also so much easier to stand out on the edges, where the competition is less slavering. The edge doesn’t mean that everyone will like what you do, but it is very likely that they will notice it.

My very first wine launch for the year was a pinotage gig. Hamilton Russell, who usually launch their new vintage chardonnay in early January, this year kicked the calendar off with the new 2004 Ashbourne, a wine that is pinotage but doesn’t use its genetics as a selling point. Presented in a handsome, heavy bottle, the label a clear allusion to France, Ashbourne presents itself as, simply, a serious wine. Continue reading “Hamilton Russell Ashbourne 2004”

Good tastes

It’s the first column for the new year, so why not a recap of some of the memorable wines of 2006? Sauvignon blanc is slowly finding a route to my palate now that the freakishly racy examples are being replaced with delicious nettly, full-bodied wines – that still retain enough freshness for anyone’s desire. The fruit expression is better, and these are standouts: Diemersdal Single Vineyard 2006 and Cape Point 2006 (and sauvignon nuts owe it to themselves to also try the Cape Point Isliedh 2005, with some barrel notes).

Chenin blanc is becoming a stronger and stronger category, at the top end Continue reading “Good tastes”

John Platter Wine Guide 2007

Always one of the memorable events on the wine writer’s calendar is the launch of the new John Platter Wine Guide, not only for seeing the who’s who in the industry at the function, but more importantly for the opportunity to taste the wines that have been awarded the full five star bonanza.

As ever, the guide has grown, with an incredible 800-odd new wines racked up on customers’ shelves in the last year. If you or I become acquainted with 100 of these that will be a remarkable feat, as for the other 700… Continue reading “John Platter Wine Guide 2007”

De Grendel wines

Standing on the terrace of the new De Grendel wine cellar, your view of Cape Town and its celebrated rock is remarkable. It’s even better with a glass of champagne in hand. A rondawel could have been built here and people would have been raving. But Sir David Graaff wanted to go all out to make sure that this building harmonised with the surrounds and consulted Ying-Chung Tsai, a Chinese geomancer, on the feng shui of the space.

Whether Charles Hopkins, the burly wine-maker, took some of this advice for the wines I do not know, but Continue reading “De Grendel wines”