When wine and fashion meet

As a wine journalist, I am spoilt. Leisurely launches at beautiful estates, conversation with leading wine experts, lunches at fine restaurants.

Changes to the tried and tested – a tasting followed by lunch – are welcome after a while, so when I got an invitation to a fashion show linked to the launch of a wine (Long Neck) and a cellular phone, off I went to see how it can be done “otherwise”.

Refreshing as it was that the crowd was big, packed with beautiful people (only in the shallowest sense, my fellow local wine writers) and that the air tingled with excitement; I began to grow uneasy when nothing had happened 45 minutes after the advertised starting time. The Long Neck wines did flow, but with the exception of the chenin blanc the whites were better than the water at the bar only because the water cost R8. The reds were remarkable in that I would be hard pressed to tell the varieties apart in a blind tasting – they were all “light red” in colour and flavour.

The fashion show saved the day, for an hour, then it was back to the nebulous and non-directed meanderings of trays of vague wines… “Why am I here?” was not existential, for once.

When awards reward

So often, wine awards seem disconnected to the pleasures of actually drinking a bottle of the stuff. This is simply the result of the “monster-bias” that happens in line-up tastings, where the big wines overshadow and overpower the wines of supple charms and delicate flavours.

Over the weekend, I tried the Fairview Solitude Shiraz 2004, which is a John Platter five star wine. It deserves the accolade, one of many others for this wine. Bountiful fruit, a medium body (though packed with dense layers) and good length make this a shiraz that drinks in a most balanced and satisfying way.

A glass left standing just so even tasted great the next day at lunch time. If only more SA shiraz displayed this restraint and delicacy, instead of opting for the raging power/big alcohol model that’s preferred. The best shirazes are medium and soft, instead of heavy and jammy.

Fino, local

Moni’s have just launched a Fino sherry in a becoming 500ml bottle that chills down good and fast. I’ve always been a big fino fan, the fresh, salty, racy drink that goes so damn well with seafood or as a sundowner, is hard to resist. Moni’s are well known for the medium cream and sweet styles, so it’s wonderful that they have finally bottled this one. I wonder if it’s their “dry” sherry in a better bottle?

Anyway, although not as good as a Spanish bottle (at R120 or so for 750ml of Tio Pepe), this fino at R45 is a pleasant alternative.

The “romance” of cork

On Friday, three bottles of wine compromised by cork:
Bottle one – a corked wine, spoilt by TCA in the cork.
Bottle two – an oxidised wine, compromised by a leaking cork.
Bottle three – a dry cork that broke in the neck, so that the cork had to be pushed through – not the most elegant action at a restaurant table.

L’Ormarins Shiraz 1987

Courtesy of a friend who finished school with me in 1987, this bottle shared on the weekend. Interestingly, although shiraz is now the variety that most producers are hot to bottle, L’Ormarins no longer have a shiraz in their line-up. Then again, in those days L’Ormarins also had riesling and bukettraube bottled! They first bottled shiraz in 1983, when the John Platter guide judged it a “very wooded” wine in a “medium to lighter style”.

The 1987 is also in the medium style, with pure white pepper notes on the nose and a satisfying palate weight even after 20 years. The 12,5% alcohol no doubt accounts for its structure – in the 1980s alcohols over 13% were considered pretty heady. Interesting how the tolerable alcohol level “band” has grown – with anything from 13 to 16 now on the table, and 13 considered light by its peer review.

Platter editions from the 1980s talk the Rupert-owned L’Ormarins up as a winery to take on the world, matching flash Californian spreads in majesty and wine quality. While that promise hasn’t quite materialised, it remains a quality producer, now with far fewer wines in the range.

Tribute to SA Chenin Blanc

It’s not particularly thrilling reading, but Eric Asimov has recently written a very positive article on SA chenins in the New York Times. Turns out that chenin is a variety that he is personally fond of.

He does make the point that SA wines are generally priced very low in the States, an indication of the esteem they are held in. The quality is there, but not the image. In fact, his article begins with a “hey, would you believe there is great chenin in SA?” tone. He also suggests, hopefully, that growers will not turn away from chenin simply because it is associated with the past, in favour of the “new” darlings of sauvignon and chardonnay, and all the reds that people have planted and still are, even though there is a glut of red on the market.

Amen to that, and good to see our chenin praised.

Anwilka Redux

The high-profile collaboration between Klein Constantia’s Jooste and Bruno Prats and de Bouard – Anwilka – saw its second vintage release last Friday night. It was a very missable affair, unfortunately, stiff with Bordeaux negotiants. Which was also the reason that they were launching the 2006 already, it’s the en primeur concept. So, not having great experience with tasting wines that are far too young, all I can say is that it is a serious wine, while not being overly-laboured with oak.

A group of us escaped to dinner. Pastis in Constantia, which used to be reasonable and is now a comedy of slow service and average food: “We don’t serve the mussels anymore. Too many people were getting sick and dying.” I was tempted to ask whether these unfortunate diners got to their cars or died in their seats.

Pity, since the location is superb and the outside courtyard a winner. Our saviour came in the form of the Cape Point Isliedh 2005 which was well priced. It’s a subtle wine, keeps coming at you but with a whispering insistence. Delicately wooded, fresh and tangy.

Optimal ripeness

“Optimal ripeness is an extremely relative term”. How much truth is not contained in these words from Chris Mullineux? I’ve written about this before, and it’s very refreshing to get some honesty from a winemaker, not the sense that “optimal ripeness” is some clear point of a graph. In fact, it is subjective, and Chris harvesting on taste is a welcome change from the dreaded “physiological ripeness” chimera.

Malcolm Gluck’s Brave New World

Malcolm Gluck is best known as the wine critic behind the UK’s “Superplonk” a guide to the cheaper wines on the market. Now he’s in the process of re-inventing himself as a broader wine commentator, with a special interest in debunking certain “myths” (as he puts it) and, in Malcolm Gluck’s Brave New World, celebrating the New World wines of Australia, California, New Zealand and South Africa.

What of other new areas in the wine world like South America? They don’t fit into a very curious theory he espouses – that it is in English-speaking countries that true innovation occurs. “People who speak English … are … like the language itself, open to ideas… and sceptical of hard and fast rules.” Which is clearly an illogical proposition at best, at worst outright xenophobic. Continue reading “Malcolm Gluck’s Brave New World”


Busy reading Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked and it has so far sparked two thoughts. The first is that it remains a challenge to write about wine or wine-life without sounding like a prat, which he strays into (between entertaining rambles through wine country) when he lists famous-wines-I-have-drunk (and-who-with). Very clubby.

The second and more positive is a sudden urge to drink more chablis – Johnson evokes a stony refreshness in a gradually revealing wine that appeals to my sense of good stuff. For this reason I look forward to a launch I’m attending on Thursday of the “new” L’Avenir, now under the ownership of Chablis-maestro Michel Laroche.

I did drink some chablis last week at the surreal and bling-laden launch of Haskell vineyards, but a fuller report on this coming soon. In the meanwhile, if you are in the mood to debate the ethics of wine journalism, its subjectivity and the use of critics, check this out (thanks to Pieter de Waal for pointing me there).

The theatre of food and wine

Last week had me singing for my supper again as a presenter of wine at a food and wine evening. Ideally, you know what the food is going to taste like through a preceding session with the chef, but this is not always possible – and to be honest not all chefs seem to think it necessary, overly-confident of their powers against the capricious nature of wine.

Problem is when the food doesn’t go with the wine… and you are standing there caught between telling it like it is and turning it into a chance to discuss the principles of matching; or pretending everything is just swell – in fact the most perfect match ever, (which is regrettably what you hear at most of these affairs).

Food and wine matching is something of a parlour game, a pastime of our BBC Food age. “Eat what you like and drink by the same rule” is a principle to ward off the anti-snob brigade. At the same time there are better and worse pairings, and when you are asked to present a table you assume that the people want to know a bit more about this pastime, and you engage – turning it into a chance to bring wine to life in its most ideal setting, the social table.

So this time the food and wine were, after all, well matched, and I could be truthful without having to choose my words diplomatically.

Up close

Five hours of my day spent picking grapes today – one of the few day that I “honestly” get involved in the wine business, in the strange way that we seem to value physical labour above all else in our society.

Five hours picking grapes is a good workout, another way to look at it. It allows you to have the lamb and Luddite shiraz by the tumbler afterwards with a sense of great satisfaction. It was Niels and Penny Verburg’s shiraz that we picked, in weather that was more European than South African, cool, with intermittent showers.

What you see up close are the details that seem to mean a great deal, but often swept up in the cliches of wine marketing. The slope of the hill and the way the grapes look different here, on this end, than they do on the other. The ends, with their wind-bitten paucity of bunches, and the middle, where the bunches hang resplendent. The bottom of the block, planted to another clone, where the bunches are thicker even, though the leaves are light on the plant. The families picking together.

And what I like, even though any talk of vintage and place-specific wines is washed away in the everyday and over-used banalities that producers use: that the block is unirrigated, so the vines have to react to the season as natural plants do, unaided by a refreshing drenching. The old fashioned way.

But then again, it is Luddite Syrah.

Invisible dangers

On Sunday morning I went surfing with a slight hangover. It’s not something I do too often these days, with wine so much a part of my life I tend to be careful with my consumption – but the significance of Sunday (and cause of my surprise) was that I had only consumed a half bottle of sauvignon blanc, with food, the night before.

As I sat in the chilly waters and the occasional wipe-out cleared my head, I began to suspect sulphur as the culprit, not alcohol. My headache had set in on Sunday night already and persisted in the night, so it wasn’t like the morning after ache. Some reading into sulphur additions in wine led to the interesting observation that wines of a lower pH, in other words the more acidic ones (like sauvignon) tend to show their free sulphur more explicitly and the side effects are more noticeable. I checked my wine on their website and it claims a free sulphur of 40mg per litre which is well within the allowable limit of up to 150. But apparently individuals who are sensitive can have adverse reactions at around 45mg… could this be me? A serious handicap indeed.

The wine’s identity shall remain secret, since sulphur use is standard it would be unfair to single it out. As for my relationship with it, I have to admit there has been a blow.