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]

Country eating

You know the type: a country restaurant with all the Biggie Best-ish frills and the menu filled with salad and quiche. Well I am pleased to tell you about Madré’s in Stanford. It does have the salads and the quiches, but it also has lunch specials that are well above the usual cut. I lunched there yesterday and had a pea and bacon soup that was as thick as porridge and delicious in its “pea-ness”. Followed by a risotto of pea (a phase) and mint with prawns. The prawns were probably the best restaurant prawn I’ve had, and the risotto was capable, and at R50 it was a bargain. The chocolate torte was fine, the coffee ok, making this a great all-rounder. Set on a working farm, the whole thing is rather charming, and there’s a pétanque piste right there.
Robert Stanford Estate on R43
Fri-Mon lunch.
(028)341-0647

Headache in the bottle

Perhaps it’s because its self-evident, but wine reporting hardly ever discusses the after-effects of indulgence. Of course, it’s clearly not in the interests of an industry that’s promoting the elegance and enhanced life style of wine consumption to focus on the deleterious side of the noble liquid. Usually, this “dark side” relates to alcohol, that sly old joker in the pack.

Alcohol gives, for a while, and then it takes away, for a much longer while. But its dangers are well-known, and people habitually play with its fire – we’ve been drinking alcoholic beverages of some description for millennia. But there are other perils, some of them potentially new, in wine.

Over the summer season, I tend to drink more white wines and especially the fresh whites like Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc and blended whites. On more than one occasion, after having had a half bottle of a fresh white, I wake up the next morning with a sore head and the irritation that the dull ache is a gross mismatch to the relatively moderate amount of wine consumed.
Some white wines do it; others don’t, so clearly some have been made in a way that affronts my system, while others haven’t. First off, it’s notable that this is a problem with fresh, unwooded and newly-released wines, not in wood-matured wines. Since I know that all wines get a sulphur dose prior to bottling, which dose is then absorbed in the wine over time, my first suspicion would be the levels of sulphur in the wines, which can vary significantly.

Sulphur has been used in wine-making for centuries, all the way back to the Romans. It’s a preservative, an anti-oxidant, preventing oxygen from robbing the wine’s flavours. I have never been a sulphur alarmist. I know that products that are high in sulphur can be terrible for asthmatics, but I also know that wine is much lower in sulphur than fruit juices or dried fruit, and no-one talks of a prune headache. Studies show that less than one percent of people actually have a physical intolerance to sulphur.
So that’s probably not it. Another suggestion made to me by a winemaker is that the cause is the histamine level in some wines. As he explained, when the flavours of white wines are “artificially” enhanced through processes like reverse osmosis (yes, it happens here in our wine lands), the histamine levels spike and can cause nasty allergic side effects.

I now think I should keep a diary of offenders. Wouldn’t it be interesting to collate hundreds of drinker’s lists and see whether common culprits begin to emerge?

*There’s a fascinating evening planned at Aubergine restaurant on 9th February. The wines of Loosen, Niepoort and Sadie with a 7 course dinner. Contact [email protected] for more.

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.

Mon Plaisir

For those of you who still eat, or read about eating, you will have noticed a great haitus in this column. It’s not that Andre has stopped eating, or myself for that matter. If anything, the pace is relentless. I am eating for the upcoming Rossouw’s Restaurants, and Andre is eating to fulfil his life’s destiny.

But it is fitting that our lunch today warrants a new entry – because this restaurant was unusual in the Cape scene for its casual achievement.

It’s called Mon Plaisir and it’s at the bottom of the Hartenberg Road, of the Bottelary Road, Stellenbosch. Run by David and Celine, both Francophiles who previously moved around Africa and had a restaurant in Burkina Faso, they have now quietly opened this spot in the winelands.

It’s well worth a drive. From Bloemfontein. Just to see what a country restaurant could be. Clear flavours, good ingredients and a fine wine list (helped by a stellar selection of French wines). The menu is small and helped by a menu du jour: duck liver terrine, calamari salad, lamb noisette and flageolet, sirloin in a red wine reduction – this was our lunch, along with some Burgundy. The ingredients are fresh, the dishes are lovingly prepared, the place is neat and wonderfully tranquil (on a pond with a deck to enjoy) and the owners are on hand in the peaceful way of people who love food, and understand the dining experience.

You can’t buy this reality in food. You can’t train it. Get there.

021 865 2456. Wed-Sun lunch and dinner, but only lunch Sun.

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.

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!