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”

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.

Wine lists at restaurants

It’s interesting how often wine lists in restaurants give the lie to the suggestions of quality that the eateries are trying to convince you of. Money spent on fine fittings, enormous rentals to hold beautiful positions, a menu that boasts fresh this and the best that – and a wine list that is not only founded utterly on commercial wines but usually littered with errors in spelling. Continue reading “Wine lists at restaurants”

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.

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”

Up the Garden Path

Travelling the Cape’s magnificent garden route to visit some restaurants for my guide. Along the way, have come across a few good ones that happen to be in guest houses. There is a trend for upmarket guest houses to bring a “name” chef in and to create a semi-stand alone restaurant, but I am not convinced that this always translates into a success for the outside visitor.

At Daniela’s on Leisure Isle, Knysna, for example, a place that is highly regarded by foodies, the lunch visit was not one that I would rush to repeat. The deck and views were great, but there was no-one else there. Wait, the guys fixing the roof were there, and so were the guys delivering the umbrellas. The chef rushed off, and the front of house was vague.

Dinner is when it happens, I guess, and this is the nub of the problem: places like this don’t feel the need to be “switched-on” all the time. They have other concerns, like the rooms, and the restaurant is always ancillary. A restaurant, on the other hand, needs to be the constant fly-trap – if you are open, you need to allure. You can be open and vague, but you certainly won’t last.

So I am thinking of dropping these “in-house” restaurants from the guide. Of course, there is always space for a restaurant that happens to have rooms… but there are few of these in the Cape, or South Africa. It’s more a European thing.

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.