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© Cape Times Friday 20th May 2016 The older I get, the more I find myself becoming like my mother....

Cool wine from Elgin

© Cape Times Friday 20th May 2016

The older I get, the more I find myself becoming like my mother. I say the same things, my hair looks like hers and I am showing a worrying tendency to shop for comfortable clothes and shoes – flatties and elasticated waists are now order of the day. So I don’t think that the word ‘cool’ really applies to me anymore - indeed, I’m not sure if it ever did. My only redeeming feature is that I really like cool wines – not necessarily those made by hip and trendy young things with beards in which you could lose a badger (although many such are quite fabulous), but wines made in the cooler regions of this country, promoting elegance and delicacy above power and punch.

Grapes take longer to ripen in cooler climates, allowing the flavours to develop slowly and fully. These wines often have lower alcohol levels as well as higher natural acidity – something to be valued in a country where adding acidity is the norm in most regions. In recent years, Elgin has made being cool part of their USP and The Elgin Cool Country Festival showcased this a couple of weeks ago, with farms opening their doors to visitors and laying on a combination of tastings, events, food stalls and live music for their enjoyment. Elgin is fairly compact and easy to drive around and with most farms being family-friendly, it was a good day out for all.

I wanted to try and taste grapes which do best in cooler climates – things such as Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds. Although Elgin is mostly associated with Sauvignon, many people feel that it is Chardonnay which is going to be the top performer from this region. One of those is Joris van Almenkerk and he had 5 vintages of his Almenkerk Chardonnay open for a vertical tasting during the weekend. Over the years, he has reduced the oak influence and moved to wild yeast fermentation creating a rich, but elegant wine which has great ageing potential – something often the case in cool-climate wines. The 2014 is current vintage – drink now or keep for a further 8-10 years.

Apart from making his own wines, Joris is one of the band of superstar winemakers who create the wines for Elgin Vintners.  This brand contracts out winemaking to people such as Kevin Grant, Niels Verburg and Joris, utilising their individual talents to great advantage. Joris made one of the wines I most enjoyed this weekend, the Elgin Vintners Century white blend, which takes Sauvignon to another level of complexity and interest by combining it with 40% Semillon. The 2013 (which is the current release) is in exceptional nick – crisp and lively without being aggressive or overtly green. We need to drink older white wines……

One variety which certainly ages well is Riesling, and arguably the country’s finest examples come from the steep slopes of Elgin hills. A new one to me was the Stone and Steel Riesling 2015 from Oak Valley Wines which really epitomises everything great about this variety. Riesling has such high natural acidity, it needs either a long time for it to soften (as happens in Australian Rieslings) or a gentle tweak of sweetness to take the edge off it. This is what’s happened here, making the wine a little rounder and fatter whilst still retaining all the crispness and freshness you could want. At the farm’s Pool Room restaurant, Chef Gordon Manuel makes a mean pulled pork sandwich from Oak Valley’s own acorn-fed pigs and this was the perfect match for the rich meat.

On this occasion, I didn’t manage to taste the wines from one of my favourite Elgin winemakers, the always fabulous Catherine Marshall. But I did manage to taste her Clay Shales Pinot Noir a few weeks previously when it was matched by Aubergine’s sommelier Pawel Wagner to a sublime broccoli and mushroom creation. A cool combo from a cool lady – perhaps this is a lesson to me to drink more Pinot, stop the slide into old age and try and keep up with the cool kids from Elgin.

© Cape Times Friday 15th April 2016 I don’t think any grape variety shows the disconnect between people who drink...

Simply sip a Sauvignon

© Cape Times Friday 15th April 2016

I don’t think any grape variety shows the disconnect between people who drink wine and people who write about wine as much as Sauvignon Blanc. So many of the local wine-writing snifferati dismiss it as too simple, totally untrendy, utterly soul-less, commercial crap, yet the fact remains that for most restaurants, every second glass of wine sold is a glass of crisp, clean, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. I fear the fault lies with us wine journos and critics since we tend to paint all Sauvvies with the same easygoing, uncomplicated glugging brush but Sauvignon, if done well, can truly be a spectacular wine.

According to Klein Constantia’s winemaker, Matt Day, the answer lies in the variety’s ability to reflect the soil and site from whence it comes. The farm has registered six different single blocks around the famous Perdeblokke and this year produced ten different Sauvignon Blancs although not all of them will be released commercially. Instead, Matt is using them for educational purposes, experimenting with oak, spontaneous fermentation (something not often used on Sauvignon), lees contact and turbid fermentation, where the juice is allowed to oxidise (again, not something which is normally allowed on Sauvignon) leading to more interesting and complex flavours and aromas.

Matt’s made a barrel from each block and the wines are fascinating. I loved Block 371, full of citrus intensity with an earthy texture and weight and found a similar orange zest note to the wonderful 2015 Perdeblokke (released next year). He also makes an organic version as well as the French-styled Metis Sauvignon with Pascal Jolivet from Sancerre, and for every day pleasure, there is the normal Estate Sauvignon 2015 at R130, cellar door. Not that ‘normal’ is quite the word for Klein Constantia’s Sauvignon family, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Imagination is one of the keys to Lismore Estate Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc however, and owner and winemaker, Samantha O’Keefe, needed a hell of a lot of it when she started her wine career. She makes wine in Greyton, for a while operating as a monopole as the only producer in the region, and her vineyards reach a new level of extreme. “We lost 80% of our Syrah crop last year to baboons” she explains. “I think they must just like the taste of the grapes!” She has been widely-praised for her Viognier (justly so I might add), but if you sat me down with her whole range in front of me, it would be the Barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (R150) which would end up in my glass. She uses only older oak which is definitely one of the keys to its success – so many wooded Sauvignons end up being a combination of limes and smoke, whilst hers is infinitely more subtle with flavours of soft squishy pears, fresh nuts and marzipan with a lively citrus twist in the tail.

Samantha’s Sauvignon is from the 2014 vintage and this is another reason why I like it so much. Sauvignon isn’t the longest-lived wine in the world, it’s true, but that’s no excuse for selling it straight from the wine press either. Most of the top Sauvvies are released at least a year after they’re made, giving the wine time to sort itself out, the acid to settle down and the flavours to gain an additional dimension or two. With this in mind, I’ve been enjoying a whole raft of 2015s from producers such as Groote Post who’ve recently released not just their ‘normal’ one (retailing at around R85) but also their top of the range Kapokberg Sauvignon (R130). Using grapes harvested at different levels of ripeness to add complexity, both wines are tinglingly-crisp and refreshing without being at all green and aggressive. When it comes to wines such as these, I think it’s clear that it’s the drinking public, and not fashionista-journalists, who know best.

© Cape Times Friday 13th November 2015 I’ve been thinking a lot about friends and family these past weeks, partly...

Fruitful families

© Cape Times Friday 13th November 2015

I’ve been thinking a lot about friends and family these past weeks, partly from personal circumstances, but also because a couple of recent events have reinforced the importance of both within the SA wine industry. This industry (like every other industry) is all about money – we all know that – dictating what kinds of wines we can make, how we sell them and for how much, but the things it produces are social products, to be enjoyed at our leisure, drunk with our friends and family. So here’s to the link between the people who make it and we who drink it, as we relish the personalities and contributions from a few of the people involved in making our favourite tipple.

One family with a long and honourable place in the SA wine history is the Sperling family from Delheim. Spatz Sperling was one of the pioneers of wine tourism, setting up SA’s first ever wine route along with Spier and Simonsig and has been making wine in the Simonsberg for decades. The farm was originally started by his uncle and aunt in 1949 before he joined them fresh from his studies at Geisenheim in Germany. Nowadays, his children Victor and Nora are in charge of the farm along with the very able assistance of winemaker Reg Holder and viticulturist Etienne Terblanche.

Delheim’s flagship red, the Grand Reserve, is only released in stellar years and it was a cause for celebration when the latest 2013 version (R285 cellar door) was launched last week. It’s Reg’s first Grand Reserve and he’s crafted it in classic style using Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the cool slopes of Delheim’s Vera Cruz property. The wine is aged in small French oak barrels, all of them new, and is meant for the long term with firm but ripe tannins supporting concentrated black-berried fruit. At the launch, Reg also showed older Grand Reserves, with the stars of the show being the 2006 and 2007 – delicious wines, just beginning to open up. The 2013 is a worthy successor and should easily last another decade or more.

From one colourful character on the north side of Stellenbosch to another, equally-colourful, who made his name on the Helderberg and is now to be found in the town centre. Giorgio Dalla Cia was the man behind many decades of Meerlust excellence before he followed in his father’s footsteps and set up his own label producing wine and husk spirit (grappa now being a legally-protected term reserved for Italian spirits). The wines have done very well with the 2007 Giorgio red blend winning five stars from the Platter Guide in 2013, but it’s now the turn of their spirits to take centre stage.

Made by Giorgio’s son George (with more than a few robust, wine-fuelled discussions from his father no doubt!), the Dalla Cia 10 Year Old Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot Husk Spirit has just won the very first Platter Five star plaudit for a husk spirit. Most grappas are clear, but this one has been aged for a decade in small new French oak barrels, picking up a deep gold colour as well as plenty of aromas of toasted apricots, marzipan, orange peel and smoke. Handcrafted by George, it’s also been hand-bottled, hand labelled and each 500ml bottle is signed and numbered by him as well. Only 1,000 bottles have been made and at R2,325 each, it’s a pricy but very special present for a lucky someone this Christmas.

From families with long winemaking histories to new families forging the future – congratulations are in order to Chris and Andrea Mullineux for their thoroughly well-deserved success at the Platter launch the other week. Their wines won five 5 Star gongs, two of them also garnering Wine of the Year awards as well. All this meant that Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines is Platter Winery of the Year for the second time in three years. Wonderful wines lovingly handmade by passionate individuals – long live family winemaking in the Cape!

© Cape Times Friday 30th October 2015 I’ve had a very bubbly last few weeks.The Amorim MCC Challenge results came out...

Celebrating bubbles

© Cape Times Friday 30th October 2015

I’ve had a very bubbly last few weeks.The Amorim MCC Challenge results came out (congrats to all winners), the Nederburg Auction served one of my favourite fizzes, Scintilla, non-stop to very thirsty guests, Avondale’s Armilla won a major international award and two icons of the SA world of bubbles celebrated Silver Jubilees with two great events. For me – any excuse to celebrate with bubbly is a good excuse, but there’s no denying that these two events were slightly better than most.

First up was the celebration of Pieter Ferreira’s 25th vintage at Graham Beck Wines.  It’s hard to imagine the world of Cap Classique without thinking of Pieter and his passion for his wines, his cheeky sense of humour, his super-cool footwear and his genuine joie de vivre. When he first started out at Graham Beck Wines in 1990, Robertson was neither well-known for Chardonnay, nor MCC and there can be little doubt that Pieter’s efforts and achievements have helped put both on the map. MCC is such an important and growing category in SA and this is a lot to do with his enthusiastic chairmanship of the MCC association, which all makers of MCC are well-advised to join, offering guidance, advice and continually-driving standards upwards.

Graham Beck Wines is littered with accolades and testimonials of the great and the good around the world with the brand being chosen by royalty, presidents, film stars and more. They do three different tiers of wines, very much like most of the top Champagne houses in France, but at the recent celebration lunch they opened something which makes me think they should create a fourth tier of wine as well. My favourite wine from their stable has always been the Blanc de Blanc and for their celebrations, Pieter opened a 1992 which he had recently-disgorged. It reminded me of some of the finest P2 Dom Perignons which I was lucky enough to try earlier on this year – rich, savoury, salty, creamy – a wine to dream of over and over again. Graham Beck RD anyone? I’m right there.

Also celebrating 25 years in the business this year is an equally well-loved name – Pongrácz. Pongrácz winemaker, Elunda Basson, has a while to go to equal Pieter’s record but she is nevertheless one of the longest-serving winemakers for the brand. Created 25 years ago in honour of Desiderius Pongrácz, a Hungarian viticulturist responsible for many of the vineyard practices still used today. ‘Pongie’ as he was known, was a larger-than life character and the celebratory party was all about being bold, over-the-top and exciting, matching the three wines in the Pongrácz range to different tapas nibbles. The prestige Desiderius with its very distinctive bottle was launched in 2002 (the 2003 won Museum Class in this year’s MCC Challenge) and in 2009 the rosé Pongrácz was born.  The wine is now sold in 49 countries around the world with Africa being the fastest-growing region, making for a proudly South African story all round.

With new MCC’s being launched almost on a weekly basis, it can be easy to forget such stalwarts as Pongrácz and Graham Beck, but I think the importance of having a brand and a winemaker solely-dedicated to crafting fine MCC cannot be overstated. People tend to think that if they can make wine, they can make bubbles, but this really isn’t the case – sure you can have the odd flash in the pan, but to consistently top the awards lists around the world takes serious knowledge, concentration and effort. Staying put and getting really good seems to be the recipe for success in the world of MCC so happy anniversary Pieter and Pongie – may you continue to rock and rule the roost for many more years to come.