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© Cape Times Friday 18th November 2016 As I write this in the wake of the American elections, I can...

Exploring Cape Blends

© Cape Times Friday 18th November 2016

As I write this in the wake of the American elections, I can think of no more fitting wine style to talk about than a Cape Blend. The world is still processing the implications of a Trump and Republican victory which has divided the US and polarised the rest of us. So it is with something of relief that I turn to wine, the beverage which unites and cheers, to Cape Blends which truly reflect the melting pot of society which is South Africa and to white Cape Blends in particular which are, like many other African ideas, leading the world in innovation, excitement and potential for the future.

So what is a white Cape Blend I hear you ask? We’ve all kind of got used to the idea of a red Cape Blend which involves a generous helping of our local grape, Pinotage, but the backbone of a white Cape Blend isn’t an indigenous African grape (I tried a new one from Stellenbosch Vineyards the other day called Therona – unusual and not bad at all so go and try it!), instead it’s Chenin Blanc. At the moment, there is no legislation as to what constitutes a Cape Blend of either colour but a goodly dollop of Chenin Blanc seems to be the way to go when it comes to these exciting white wines. Add in Chardonnay, Viognier, Semillon, Roussanne, Marsanne and more and you have something very special indeed.

I think by now most people have got over the idea that a blend is a way to hide inferior wines or unpopular grape varieties and are fairly cognisant of the fact that most top wines of the world are combinations of different grape varieties – as I say to my wine courses, the essence of a good blend is that 1 + 1 = 3 so the result is greater than the sum of its parts. And what makes white Cape Blends so exciting is that South Africa is able to combine grape varieties which no-one else can. Unhampered by restrictive European appellation laws, we can blend the grape varieties of the Loire Valley, the Rhône, Burgundy, Bordeaux and more into truly individual wines which are given even more distinction by containing our heritage grape of Chenin Blanc. Often using old, dry-farmed vines, giving incredibly low yields of ultra-concentrated and utterly-delicious fruit, a white Cape Blend is a celebration of the very best South Africa can make.

Well I think so anyway and I am pleased to see that I am not alone. Winemag.co.za is the only specialised South African wine magazine and editor Christian Eedes has been running a series of report-style competitions for the past few years. Generally focussing on single grape varieties – as do most competitions in SA – the reports now include a red blend one, a white Bordeaux blend one and finally, what I think will become the flagship category, the Cape White Blend report which was announced earlier this week. This is the first year of the competition and I would dearly love to see this grow and overtake all the others – by the way, they are looking for a sponsor for the next one so if your company wants to be associated with all that is innovative, exciting and proudly South African, you should drop Christian a line.

In the meantime, try the winning wines. The Lammershoek Terravinum Reserve White 2015 was overall winner with an excellent 95 points, closely followed by two personal favourites, the DeMorgenzon Maestro White 2014 and the Muratie Laurens Campher Blended White 2015, both on 94. Other favourites in the top winners include Thorne and Daughters Rocking Horse 2015, The Fledge & Co. Vagabond 2015 and Springfontein Limestone Rocks Dark Side of The Moon 2014, but overall, the standard of wines was incredibly high and there was nothing I wouldn’t have happily drunk a bottle (or more) of on any given occasion. As this is my last column for the Cape Times, I don’t think I could end up on a much higher note if I tried.

© Cape Times Friday 21st October 2016 Is the glass half-empty or half-full? As we all know by now,...

Ranges of glasses matched to varieties

© Cape Times Friday 21st October 2016

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? As we all know by now, the answer is ‘Who cares? There’s clearly room for more wine whichever way you look at it.’ Is the glass nothing more than a vessel for conveying a liquid into our mouths or is it so much more than a mere vessel, instead having the ability to actually change the taste and feel of a wine? Or is this yet another wine myth perpetuated by wine snobs intent on ridding us all of our Paris goblets and champagne coupes?

Weighing in on the ‘a glass doesn’t make any difference to the wine at all’ side would be every single beach trattoria, restaurant and bar the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. Here, wine is as likely to be drunk from a tumbler as a wine glass and I’ve had some memorable times sipping wine in sunny beach resorts, even if I can’t remember the quality of said wine! Here, I would argue, it is the occasion, the company and often the view which makes the difference to how the wine tastes.

In the other corner sits glassmakers such as Riedel, Spiegelau and Zalto who offer ranges of glasses supposedly perfectly-matched to certain varieties. I know of people whose palates I would trust implicitly, assuring me that the exact same wine tastes differently in different glasses and so when I was sent a bottle of Leopards Leap Culinaria Pinot Noir 2014 and two Riedel Pinot Noir glasses recently, I had to give this a go myself.

So much of me wanted this not to work, to be able to say to you ‘the wine was the same whichever glass I drank it from’ but the truth is, that this is simply not the truth. The wine WAS different – more perfumed and fragrant in the Riedel Pinot Noir, more earthy in my Riedel Brunello di Montalcino glass and much less fruity in a nondescript not-quite Paris goblet. Was it better in the correct Riedel? Yes, I guess it probably was as long as you appreciate perfume over power (which I do and the wine was delicious). It was a really interesting exercise and I commend it to you all to give it a go if you possibly can.

Someone who’s gone into this in a big way is Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck Wines. The days of the coupe, allegedly-based on Marie Antoinette’s breast (not true, sorry guys), are long gone and now it would seem that the champagne flute is heading in that direction as well. The flute is a great glass to preserve bubbles because it has a small surface area from which they can escape but the narrow neck is not so good at encouraging flavour – which is a problem for Pieter and Graham Beck.

In a recent tasting, we tasted three wines, each in two different glasses – the normal flute and another version, striving to find the perfect combination of flavour, bubbles and (has to be considered) cost. Following extensive experimentation by both Pieter and a team of scientists at Reims University in France, the normal non vintage will now be served in an entry-level Riedel  Champagne glass at the Graham Beck tasting room, whilst the company’s flagship wine, the Cuvée Clive, will come in a hand-blown Lehmann Jamesse Prestige tulip-shaped glass.

The difference between flavours and bubbles from the flutes to the speciality glasses was mindblowing, but the best example was to try the Blanc de Blancs (always my favourite GB wine) in the premium Riedel Veritas Champagne glass. Pronounced salty aromas, persistent bubbles courtesy of small indentations at the base of the glass and creamy, citrus lemon flavours which grew and developed over the course of almost an hour, this was a winning combination. As Graham Beck Wines bids to become the world’s leading MCC producer, it makes absolute sense that each wine is showcased appropriately. And on that note, watch out for a Graham Beck bubbly bar and tasting venue in Cape Town in the near future and in the meantime – drink your bubbles out of bigger, tulip-shaped glasses. So that there’s ALWAYS room for more wine!

© Cape Times Friday 17th April 2015 Recently, I’ve been musing on Malbec, one of the ‘also-ran’ grapes in...

Malbec Musings

© Cape Times Friday 17th April 2015

Recently, I’ve been musing on Malbec, one of the ‘also-ran’ grapes in a red Bordeaux blend. Yes, I said red Bordeaux and I bet a few of you thought that that stopped at Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot didn’t you? Actually, there are six black grape varieties permitted in Bordeaux with Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc being the next best-known, whilst the recent success of Carmenère in Chile is leading to new plantings back in the old country of France as well. Chile is now regarded as the ‘home’ of Carmenère and South Africa has been consistently building up a reputation for world-class Cabernet Franc for many years, but in my view, the grape which has travelled with the most success to date is undoubtedly Malbec.

At some time in the mid nineteenth century, some bright spark decided to take cuttings of Malbec from its home in Bordeaux and South-west France to Argentina. Planted there at high altitude, on poor, sandy soils, Malbec makes arguably the finest expressions of the grape in the world. Not long after the cuttings were taken, a little louse called phylloxera started to attack the vineyards in France causing the vines to die, and when they were eventually replanted, it is thought that a different clone of Malbec was used. It’s certainly true that the bunches of Malbec grapes look different in the two countries and the flavours also differ massively, with the wines made in France being rather chunky and rustic as opposed to the sleek, velvety, plushy and sweetly-fruited versions from the Southern Hemisphere.

Malbec is being planted here in SA as well and for the most part, it’s used in Bordeaux blends, most notably the Vilafonte ‘M’ which is mostly Malbec with Merlot and a tweak of Cabernet Sauvignon. But increasingly, people are making it as a single variety wine, offering something a little bit different from the norm. I find the best Malbecs always have a lovely violet or perfumed note to them along with a rich palate and a lovely inky-purple colour. All of which was deliciously in evidence at a lunch last week with Plaisir de Merle. In accordance with their name, they had given us the pleasure of lunching at The Test Kitchen to show off their recent vintages, all of which are well-made, well-priced, very pleasant drinking wines. Except for the Malbec.

As soon as I sniffed that wine, I knew I’d found my story. Winemaker Niel Bester has been at Plaisir de Merle since the cellar was built in 1993 and freely confesses to a strong love of Bordeaux varieties. He doesn’t like to overwhelm them with too much new oak, preferring to let the sweet, ripe fruit and the soft tannins shine “What I taste in the grape is what I want to taste in the wine” he says. The 2012 Malbec (R260 cellar door) is only an occasional wine with most of it going into the flagship blends. But, as Niel says with a wry smile, when you are working for a big company (Plaisir de Merle is part of Distell’s boutique portfolio, Cape Legends), it’s a lot of trouble to launch a new wine, so he tries to take every opportunity he can to keep the existing wines in the portfolio.

He’s onto a winner with this Malbec – perfumed and aromatic black berries giving way to succulent, juicy ripe plums with layers of liquorice spice and an earthy texture. It was a conversation-stopper, but for all the right reasons as most of us around the table took a sip and gave an appreciative and collective ‘ooooh.’ It’s probably only going to be available from the farm and release is scheduled in about a month’s time, but I’d advise you to take a trip out and find it as soon as you can. Is it the best Malbec in SA? I can’t say without trying some others, but with a surname like Niel’s, and a wine like this, I wouldn’t be surprised.

© Cape Times Friday 20th March 2015 As our retail shelves become busier and busier with more choices of...

Attention grabbers

© Cape Times Friday 20th March 2015

As our retail shelves become busier and busier with more choices of wines, labels, closures and brands cropping up every day, you really need a USP or Unique Selling Point to stand out. Sometimes it’s consistency and quality over a number of years, sometimes it’s a name calculated to make you stop and look (I tasted some Fat Bastard wines the other day – certainly good for a giggle) and sometimes it’s a grape variety that you are so tied up and involved with that it is hard to ever mention without including your winery name. De Wetshof has this, with its strong link with Chardonnay, Ken Forrester has it with Chenin Blanc and when it comes to Zinfandel, there is only one contender in the Cape and that’s Blaauwklippen.

Quite why the estate decided to plant Zinfandel is a bit of a mystery. This is a grape which is more closely-linked to a country as opposed to any single farm, and DNA-tracking of the grape’s ancestry firstly to Italy and now Croatia, hasn’t stopped the Americans from claiming it as their own invention. According to Rolf Zeitvogel, cellarmaster of Blaauwklippen, it’s a grape which needs a firm hand, because left to its own devices it will produce too many leaves, too many berries and far too much sugar in those berries as well – something I’ve witnessed on American and Australian versions which can reach 16 or 17% abv and still have residual sugar in them.

Most American Zins are made in one of two styles – either a semi-sweet ‘white’ version which is actually pink, or a big, bold, robust version with a full body and lots of oomph. Blaauwklippen takes this a couple of steps further and at an event last week, they launched the first MCC from Zinfandel in the country. Rolf believes that there are only two others in the world so this is a fairly unusual product and I have to say that it works nicely – crisp and fresh with a hint of yeastiness to it. Called ‘Diva’ and with the 2013 retailing at R135, the packaging looks as if it should be a rosé (which I believe was the original intention) but the wine remains resolutely white – I suppose if the Yanks can call their pink Zin ‘white’, there’s definitely a precedent for putting our white Zins in pinkly-packaged bottles! If you prefer red, I can highly recommend their 2011 (R92) which is one of their best vintages to date.

It’s not exactly a grape variety but there’s no denying that when you mention Boplaas, you immediately think of ‘port’. Of course, we can’t call it port anymore, but this Calitzdorp farm makes some of the best fortified wines in the country whatever the labels say. What you may not know about them is that they also make still wines from these port grape varieties and their Cape Portuguese Collection boasts such unusual names as Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barocca and Verdelho. Often these are blended with more familiar grapes such as Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay, but the results are always refreshing and interesting. I’m a big fan of the Cape Portuguese White 2014 (R40) which not only comes at a ridiculously good price point but offers something genuinely different but not so weird and wacky as to scare you off. A blend of Chardonnay, Semillon and Verdelho, it’s peachy, lemony and lively – the perfect partner for the last braais of summer.

© Cape Times Friday 16th January 2015 I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a bit Chardonnay-ed out...

Restless, in need of change

Hartenburg Riesling© Cape Times Friday 16th January 2015
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a bit Chardonnay-ed out at the moment. Also, a bit over-Chenin-ed and even a teensy bit sick of Sauvvies as well. Not that I don’t want to drink wine – can’t ever see that happening if truth be told – but I’m just feeling a bit restless and in need of a change. According to Jancis Robinson’s mega-tome ‘Wine Grapes’ there are 1,368 varieties used to make wine around the world, yet I (and many of you too, I’m sure) still mostly stick to the same 3 or 4 every single time. It’s quite a mission to get new grapes approved by the authorities and to be honest, when they do, many of us treat them with suspicion, winemakers become discouraged and we all retreat back to boring old Chenin/Chardonnay.

It’s very different in Australia where there are entire shows and competitions devoted to unusual grape varieties and now it seems that something similar will be running in a couple of weeks’ time with the Riesling & Rarities event at Hartenberg Wine Estate which will showcase lots of wines which are genuinely food-friendly (and however much I love Sauvignon, it really doesn’t go well with most food) and which actually work brilliantly in our hot climate. This latter is the main reason for introducing most of the new and more obscure varieties because if we can find white grapes which manage to retain natural acidity even when it’s very warm, it not only saves money (you don’t have to add acid) but it also makes for a much better-integrated wine over all.

It was for these very reasons that the Newton Johnsons decided to plant Albariño (Al-ba-reen-yo) on their Hemel-en-Aarde farm – they wanted something which would retain fresh, natural acidity and this native Spanish grape seemed to fit the bill. They are still engaged in a little hoop-jumping with the Wine & Spirit Board, but the first commercial release should hopefully come later on this year although quantities will still be small. Another grape variety entering its second year on the market is Grüner Veltliner (Groo-ner Velt-linner) as made by Durbanville producer, Diemersdal. This fresh and appetising wine is better-known in Austria but is doing very nicely in the cool Durbanville hills, making clean, zesty wines with a slight peachy/pear finish.

The Rhône Valley in France is home to quite a few interesting grape varieties, at least as far as SA is concerned. We’ve had Roussanne (Roo-sann) for several years now – best examples coming from The Foundry, Ken Forrester Wines and Simonsig – but last year saw its partner Marsanne (Mar-sann) licenced for production in SA as well. So far no-one appears to be ready to release one on its own although Swartland’s Adi Badenhorst has been making a Chenin/Marsanne blend called Papegaai and apparently his neighbours Leeuwenkuil have also been using some too. Expect to see blends of these two, possibly with the addition of Viognier, appearing soon.

Another couple of unusual grape varieties have actually been in the country for a while but only now are they getting attention in their own right. Verdelho (Vur-dell-o) is a Portuguese grape which probably came to SA when we were bringing in other port varieties. It has a great natural acidity and although several people use it in blends (notably port-specialists, Boplaas) if you want to try a full-on Verdelho, look to Feiteras Vineyards in Bot Rivier or Flagstone’s Stumble Vineyards range. Similarly, Southern French grape Clairette Blanche (Clare-ett Blonsh) has been around for many years, generally contributing to dry whites as well as being used to make brandy. This year it is finding a new lease of life as two of SA’s Young Gun winemaking outfits – the Mullineuxs and the Cravens – make a version, both coming from patches of old vines, one in the Swartland and one in the Polkadraai Hills. These are just a few interesting things coming onto the market and if you want to try a few slightly more offbeat wines, get yourself to Hartenberg on the 31st January for the Riesling & Rarities Rock Festival. Tickets are R120 from www.webtickets.co.za

© Cape Times Wednesday 24th December 2014 There is such a variation of different bubblies available on the shelves...

Best of the bubblies

Vondeling© Cape Times Wednesday 24th December 2014

There is such a variation of different bubblies available on the shelves at the moment. Different styles, prices, grapes used, amount of time spent on lees, no time on lees whatsoever, sugar levels etc etc – so many options that it is getting very confusing for consumers to work out the differences. So where do you start when it comes to choosing something to celebrate Christmas and pop open at your New Year’s party? Well, here’s a few of my suggestions as to what you should try - hopefully they will make this festive minefield a bit easier to negotiate this year.
Classically, Champagne is made from a combination of two black grape varieties and one white so it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many fizzes are pink. It can be quite tricky to get the colour right, hence the normally slightly-elevated prices of rosé MCC. However, L’Ormarins have managed to keep the prices the same for both the 2012 Rosé and the white NV (R185) which means that it’s the pink you should go for this year – made mainly from Pinot Noir with delicious berries and cherries. Another wine which bucks the ‘pricier-pink’ trend is the Allée Bleue Brut Rosé 2012 (R110) which is made in a fresher, fruitier style than the more serious and savoury Brut 2011 (R130).

If you prefer your bubbles white, then try a Blanc de Blancs – literally, a white wine made from white grapes. Mostly that means Chardonnay, although in SA, we can often add in some Chenin Blanc as well. Môreson make several sparklers including their entry-level Miss Molly, but it is the Solitaire NV (R110) made from 100% Chardonnay and aged for 2 years which is floating my boat this year. Lipsmackingly-savoury yet still refreshing and lively, this is a great drink with oysters. Equally good value this year is the Laborie Blanc de Blancs 2010 (R100) which has swept all the awards this year, including top prize at the Amorim Cap Classique Challenge, beating many fizzes twice the price and more.

But if you’re a bit blasé about Blanc de Blanc, how about trying something really unusual? Vondeling launched their maiden ‘Methode Ancestrale’ this year, meaning a single fermentation took place, mainly in the tank but also a crucial part in bottle, giving it the signature yeastiness of an MCC and, of course, the bubbles. The Vondeling Rurale 2013 (R220) is the first wine made in this method in SA and is well worth seeking out, not just for novelty but also because it’s darned tasty as well – a lovely balance between the zesty, lemony fruit and the tangy richness of the yeast. And whilst we’re on the weird – do you know what a Crémant is? No? Well, it’s a French wine made in the Champagne method but outside the Champagne region, using whichever grape varieties are licenced for that particular area. So Delaire Graff has created its own version of a Crémant de Loire from Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. Christened ‘Sunrise’ and costing R275 from the estate, it’s equally good when the sun goes down as well.

Finally, non-drinkers don’t need to feel left out when it comes to celebrations this year. Great value, non-alcoholic bubblies are widely available these days from producers such as JC le Roux or Robertson Winery, all of them in smart, modern packaging as befits today’s sophisticated drinker, although the snazziest and smartest packaging this year comes from a Robertson Winery wine which does have alcohol, albeit not a huge amount. The new Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (R50) is exactly that – lightly-sparkling, lowish alcohol (12%) with all the crisp tropical Sauvvie flavours you’d expect. A fun fizz for a festive summer.

© Cape Times Friday 17th October 2014 Is food and wine matching a real art or a load of...

It’s a match

© Cape Times Friday 17th October 2014

Is food and wine matching a real art or a load of rubbish? It’s a fair question with every hotel and restaurant offering wine-matching dinners and events, every recipe site suggesting the best tipple to suit the food and every back label on every bottle giving droolicious ideas of exotic-sounding dishes which will complement the wine. In my opinion, the best wine with food is generally the one you enjoy, but where do you start when you want to make a great food-match? Do you decide what food you want to cook and then try and think which wine might work? Or do you start with a special bottle and match the food flavours accordingly? I’ve been to a couple of events recently, which have tried both these ways, so here is what the chefs and sommeliers have to say.

Makaron at Majeka House is an Eat Out Top Ten contender this year, offering delicious and unusual food concocted by Tanja Kruger. A member of the Culinary Olympics team, Tanja has been lucky enough to complete several stages at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and the fruits of her experience can be seen at an exclusive Kitchen Table for only 2 guests at any one time. Seating is limited because this is an actual table in the kitchen where you get served a range of dishes chosen and served by the chefs themselves.

In Tanja’s opinion, the food should always be the shining star of the meal and so faced with the tough job of matching these dishes is WSET-trained sommelier Esmé Groenwald. According to Tanja, “I don’t always make it easy for her (Esmé) but I don’t think any dish is unpairable!” My husband does some work for Majeka House so we were lucky enough to experience the Kitchen Table for ourselves, and probably the best pairing of the night was the little-known Vendome ‘Sans Barrique’ white blend which had both the depth and the delicacy to match the visual knock-out Ancient Grains with Cauliflower Velouté – a dish so beautiful, we didn’t know whether to eat it or frame it on the wall. Esmé says she chose this pairing because “it’s funky, as is the dish!” with the Semillon enhancing the nuttiness of the grains and the Sauvignon balancing out the creaminess of the cauliflower.

Starting the other way round is the task facing chef Carl van Rooyen, executive chef, and restaurant manager David Wibberley from The Square at The Vineyard Hotel. They run a series of wine-matching dinners with top wineries and I joined them for the Thelema dinner a few weeks ago. Carl says he often gets asked how they match the food to the wine and at The Vineyard “it’s a democratic (well, mostly) process with a partnership between chefs and managers, food and wine!” And indeed, the process does seem to be a source of much debate all round. Each winemaker provides wines which he or she would like to show so here, the wine is the starting point. The chefs line up an array of seasonal dishes, then they, plus a few lucky others, get to try as many combinations as possible in search of the perfect match.
Carl says “The first rule of the pairing process is that there are no rules. We leave all of our preconceived notions at the door - in fact we have a naughty corner for those who dare to break this rule!” and when you see some of the interesting matches they came up with, you’ll realise that they stick to this. The first course of ‘Bangers ‘n’ Mash’ featuring a rooibos, honey, fennel and smoked pork belly sausage is as far away from a likely pairing with Thelema Sutherland Sauvignon Blanc as I can imagine, yet the dish carried it off with aplomb. Two different ways of matching food and wine but both deliver the same end result – an enjoyable evening of eating and drinking. Surely that’s the goal however you go about it?

© Cape Times Friday 29th August 2014 Several years ago, I was a judge on a competition for South...

Why praise women?

© Cape Times Friday 29th August 2014

Several years ago, I was a judge on a competition for South African women winemakers which, even at the time, I found a little confusing because I can’t really see that a wine made by a woman is going to be any better or worse than one made by a man. The theory behind the competition was that the wine industry lacked female role models and the award was given, not just for the wine, but also for contributions to the wine world. I’m not going to get into arguments about whether positive discrimination is a good or a bad thing, but just as a segway, I will say that I still find it a little surprising that the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild has only two winemaking women members out of 45. Having said that, what I don’t find surprising, in any way at all, is that this list of arguably the best 45 winemakers in SA includes both Rianie Strydom and Andrea Mullineux.

I first met Rianie many years ago when she was winemaker at Morgenhof, turning out excellent Merlot and Chenin as well as a great value Cab Franc blend. From there, she moved to Haskell Vineyards when they first began making wine on the slopes of the Helderberg and, although not as hands-on there as previously, she has still been involved in each of the ten vintages made so far. There are two ranges made on the farm – the excellent and over-delivering Dombeya range which is made in a forthright and fruity style, and the more elegant ‘keeping’ range of Haskell itself.

At a recent tasting, Rianie and viticulturist Wikus Pretorius took lucky tasters through the last three vintages of their Anvil Chardonnay, as well as new releases of their Bordeaux-style blend the IV, the Pillars Shiraz and a terrific Cab/Shiraz blend, the II. They are trying to keep the alcohols in check on the chardonnay and reduce the amount of malolactic fermentation which takes place, both with a view to making a fresher wine but one which will still age well. The stars of the day however were the two red blends, the II 2010 (R160) and the IV 2009 (R290) which show elegant tannins and concentrated powerful fruit. If you can keep these for another decade, I think you’ll be a very happy drinker when the time comes.

Andrea Mullineux practices her art in the slightly warmer climes of the Swartland where she and viticulturist husband Chris concentrate on a range of syrahs (shirazes) from soil-specific sites. When I first tasted them, I didn’t like the individual Schist and Granite wines, thinking them over-the-top, far too perfumed for enjoyment and much preferring the Family Wines Syrah, a blend of the different soils, which I thought was harmonious and just utterly delicious. So it was with a wry smile that I tasted them again recently and realised that either time or vintage had altered my opinion completely and the full-bodied yet elegant Schist Syrah 2012 (R685) is the star of the show for me now. If you can get your hands on some (although it’s rarer than hens’ teeth), you’ve got a treat in store.

Both women have had wines selected for this year’s Cape Winemakers Guild Auction which will take place in October. This is the 30th Auction so it’s a chance to reflect on the last 30 years and celebrate the new wave of younger winemakers taking the industry to even greater heights. Both Rianie and Andrea have something a little out of the box to offer – Rianie will be continuing her love affair with Burgundian varieties and offering her first ever Pinot Noir whilst Andrea has possibly the most interesting wine on the auction, a very rare and unusual bottling of Semillon Gris. Coming from 55 year old vines which need 30 years to develop the ‘gris’ characteristics, this is going to be a special treat indeed.

© Cape Times Friday 16th May 2014 South Africa has one of the most regulated wine industries in the...

When is a dry wine not a dry wine?

© Cape Times Friday 16th May 2014

South Africa has one of the most regulated wine industries in the world – which is great for consumers because it means that we can enjoy the wines we drink, safe in the knowledge that they contain only what the label says they contain and that their provenance is minutely-recorded at every stage. If you want to know more about any wine, check out the little ‘bus ticket’ which adorns the neck of every bottle, enter the number you see on the ticket on The Wine & Spirit Board website (www.swsa.co.za) and you can find out chapter and verse about that wine, easily and freely available to all.

That’s the plus side of The Wine & Spirit Board. If you talk to winemakers, particularly those who are who are pushing the boundaries of winemaking, you may hear another story altogether. For a wine to be certified, it needs to pass a tasting panel which will decide (amongst other things) whether the wine is typical of the particular style category. Woebetide anyone wanting to do something kooky or interesting with their wine, because tales of top wines being rejected because they don’t conform to the recognised norms are legion. What’s on the label has to be what’s in the bottle, down to the last drop and to date, there has been little flexibility for any innovative winemaker, no matter how good his or her wine.

Or so I thought. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited out to lunch at Paul Cluver Wines high in the hills of Elgin. They have converted an old lodge on the historic wagon trail running through the farm into a function room and launched the venue with a tasting of their Rieslings at a stellar lunch by Bertus Basson of Overture-fame. Paul Cluver Wines is the biggest producer of Riesling in SA with nearly 25% of the country’s plantings going into their different ranges. That’s still a rather meagre 15 hectares, but all of it comes from the lovely cool climate of Elgin, something so important at maintaining acidity and freshness in the wines. Most people think that Riesling is sweet, so it was good to see the Cluvers tackling this perception head-on with their ‘Dry Encounter’ Riesling. And then I looked at the technical details and realised that the ‘Dry’ wine actually contained 8.7g of residual sugar – almost 75% more than the legal limit for a wine to be labelled ‘dry’! How was this possible? Could the Cluvers have found a sneaky way round the mighty, unbending Wine & Spirit Board at last?!

“The key to being able to label the wine as ‘dry’ lies in the acidity” explains Andries Burger, winemaker at Paul Cluver Wines. Because the wine is so high in acidity, it actually needs a little sugar to help round and soften the flavours and if Andries had stuck to the legal limit of under 5g, the wine may have seemed tart and harsh. So they approached the Wine & Spirit Board and explained their dilemma, requesting that they be allowed to label their wine according to European standards, not South African ones. In certain areas of Europe, wines are judged not on their sugar levels, but on the ratio of sugar to acidity, allowing for wines with particularly high acids to have additional sweetness. After some deliberation, the board granted provisional approval to use the word ‘dry’ on this wine’s label and the final decision will be made by the Minister of Agriculture soon. Should it be approved, Andries believes there are some fantastic opportunities for other producers and not just for Rieslings – many top Chenin producers would be able to take advantage of this ruling as well.

It’s a great victory for common sense, enabling the Cluvers to label their wine in a way which is helpful to the consumer, because the wine certainly didn’t taste sweet, just full of fresh, crunchy green apples with a hint of flowers. At the moment, we are awaiting the release of the 2014 Dry Encounter but if you want to try a Riesling in the meantime, check out the Cluver’s Close Encounter Riesling – a wine which is officially off-dry but I bet you many people would neither notice or mind. Retailing at R80 a bottle from the tasting room, and full of lemongrass and lime cordial with an orange blossom finish, it’s one of the best food wines you’ll buy this year.

© Cape Times Friday 21st February 2014 I seem to be going through a bit of a Chardonnay craze...

Finding the key to Chardonnay

© Cape Times Friday 21st February 2014
I seem to be going through a bit of a Chardonnay craze at the moment. I began the year with an interesting clonal tasting of Richard Kershaw’s 5 star chardonnay from Elgin which was re-tasted again in a well-organised Elgin Wine Valley ‘tweet-up’ last week at Caroline’s Fine Wines. And now here is another wine farm doing something interesting, unusual and ultimately (the most important factor) delicious with the world’s favourite grape.

Eikendal in the Helderberg has been on an upwards curve for the past few years now, in no small part due to winemaker and vine-lover Nico Grobler. Realising a few years ago that the big-volume, inexpensive branded wine market was not for them, he and the farm’s owners took the wise decision to invest for top-end success instead. For Nico this has meant an extensive re-planting programme, digging up his previously rigid vineyard layout and replacing it with a variety of different planting and training treatments, each one suited each particular vineyard. “I had a heck of a shock when I showed a French vigneron my vineyards some years ago” he remembers. “ I was really proud of them because they all looked so neat and uniform, but he took one look and just asked ‘How can you plant them all the same when they’re all different?’ From that day, my way of looking at growing grapes has completely changed.”
So for starters, he’s uprooted more than half the original vineyards, some of which he’s replanted according to the different soils and aspects. Each block has its own plan from start to finish, breaking up a homogenous estate into a mishmash of different row directions, trellising options and canopy management strategies. But it’s when it gets to the winery that the really interesting stuff begins to happen. Following his Burgundian mentor, Bruno Lorenzon, each block of Chardonnay has its own set of barrels – some 1 year old, others 2 or 3 years and each set gets supplemented by a few new barrels each year.

What Nico does then is something I’ve never heard of before in SA. When a wine goes through fermentation, the dead yeast cells or ‘lees’ normally fall to the bottom of the tank or barrel and, after a time, the wine gets drawn off and the barrel cleaned ready for the next year’s wine. Nico doesn’t do this – he removes the wine for bottling as normal, but then puts the new vintage straight into the barrel, mixing the previous year’s lees with the new vintage wine. The results? A much fresher, livelier, more complex chardonnay and one that is definitely beginning to turn heads both at home and overseas, if the recent rash of gongs and medals is anything to go by.

This is an incredibly risky practice as Nico would be the first to admit, but he also believes that “you have to just follow your wine.” His attention to detail and passion for excellence make for wines that are already incredibly pure and fresh but he isn’t stopping there. His focus now is on canopy-management as he believes that deciding how much foliage to leave on his vines and when best to prune is the secret to increasing that sought-after hallmark of Burgundian Chardonnay – minerality. “I’m not growing grapes, leaves or canopies – I’m growing flavour” he claims. With Eikendal’s first ever Platter 5 Star award this year for their red plus Nico’s passion for Chardonnay flavours, nobody should doubt that a partner plaudit must surely be coming soon.
If you want to see what I’m on about for yourself, then join Eikendal for their annual ‘Weintaufe’ on 2nd March. There you can taste the 2014 Chardonnay which I, in my role as ‘Godmother of the Vintage’ will then ‘christen’ before we all enjoy a lovely, relaxed family day out of good food, live music, fine wines and other entertainment. Tickets are on sale for R30 (kids go free) from www.eikendal.com - see you there!

The first two candidates for the Jordan Wine Estate Women in Wine Initiative, launched in October 2012 in London...

First Jordan Wine Estate Women in Wine Interns arrive in Stellenbosch

The first two candidates for the Jordan Wine Estate Women in Wine Initiative, launched in October 2012 in London by Kathy Jordan, have arrived in South Africa to experience and participate in the 2014 vintage at Jordan Wine Estate.

The response to the invitation to apply for this experience was overwhelming with candidates applying from all over the world and from different fields of the wine industry.
Two candidates were selected, Regine Lee, an American national, living in the UK and working for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and Laura Atkinson, a UK national, working at Berry Bros & Rudd. Both have recently received their Certificates for the WSET Diploma.

Regine and Laura recently arrived in Cape Town, just in time to familiarise themselves with the Jordan Estate cellar before the start of the 2014 Harvest which is due to begin by the second week of February.

“Growing conditions during the build-up to the 2014 vintage have been challenging, with the highest rainfall in 150 years experienced during winter and spring. This harvest we will have our work really cut out for us,” commented Kathy.

During their 6-7 week experience both Laura and Regine will be working together with the Jordan Harvest team, actively experiencing and participating in all aspects of the winemaking process from grape sampling and harvesting to all red and white wine cellar work that occurs during the harvest period. They will also learn how to adjust the winemaking techniques for the different varieties that are harvested at Jordan, from the grape, through fermentation and finally to barrel. “I am really looking forward to this incredible hands-on experience – a once in a lifetime opportunity”, stated Laura.

“We are very excited to have these two very qualified women join our cellar team and experience the 2014 vintage with us,” said Kathy Jordan. “Lungiswa Sithole, our South Africa Women in Wine Candidate, will also be joining us to spend some time in the cellar during the vintage to gain further knowledge of a vintage at Jordan.” Lungiswa, who works in the hospitality industry in Cape Town has already successfully completed her WSET Level 1 course sponsored by Jordan Estate and is preparing for the Level 2 course later this year.

Other than experiencing the vintage at Jordan, the two interns will also be visiting cellars in other regions to better understand the South African wine industry and the diversity of the different winegrowing regions. Regine commented, “In addition to advancing our careers in the wine trade this will be a way for us to give something back to other women in the wine trade in the future, after we return from our experience”.

© Cape Times Friday 17th January 2014 In the world of wine, the biggest globetrotting grape varieties are all...

Future tastes of Albarino

© Cape Times Friday 17th January 2014
In the world of wine, the biggest globetrotting grape varieties are all French. The French vignerons got themselves organised a lot earlier than any other European country in terms of knowing what grapes go best where and how to make the best wines from them, so when it came to new plantings in the New World, people felt secure and confident with French grapes and chose those for their new vineyards. Here in South Africa, Huguenot refugees brought over their native grapes in the seventeenth century and most of the grapes we have growing here today are French in origin.

But Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece have an abundance of indigenous grapes and, following investment from the EU, they now have good plant material and a solid depth of knowledge of the different varieties. All of which makes Southern European grapes some of the most interesting and exciting – particularly for farseeing New World winemakers, always on the look-out for hardy, water-wise varieties which can withstand lots of heat and retain their natural acidity.

One person who’s looking to the future is Dave Johnson. His Newton Johnson vineyards and winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley have made their name with French grapes, in particular Pinot Noir. This year sees the first release of single block wines from this variety to much acclaim, 2 Platter 5 Star gongs and a Platter Red Wine of the Year award, but Dave is getting himself fired up about another variety instead – Albariño. This grape hails from the north-western part of the Iberian Peninsula and is grown in the Rias Baixas region in Spain as well as the Minhõ in Portugal – an area better known for Vinhõ Verde.

Dave was one of the first people to brave the rigours of the Wine & Spirits Board and introduce the variety to SA, bringing in new plant material from California (he tried Spain but apparently there are no rootstocks available. He then tried Australia, but they’ve recently discovered that someone had made a mistake and what they thought was Albariño was actually a different grape called Savagnin!). After the plants had passed quarantine last year, a tiny number were grafted onto ½ a hectare of Shiraz rootstocks, which Dave believes will work well as they are planted in Albariño’s favourite granite soils. The result is a miniscule harvest of 15kg of grapes which yielded a mere 8 litres of wine this year – talk about small beginnings! Dave’s winemaking son and daughter-in-law, Gordon and Nadia, reckon they will have a commercial crop next year (albeit still a fairly small one) and the big question now is in what style they’re going to make it?

At a tasting before Christmas, Gordon gathered together 6 Albariños from Spain, made in a range of styles – some blended with other varieties, some with lees contact, some with fairly high residual sugar, some with delicious botrytis character – for me and a few other lucky journalists to try. Albariño is a perfumed grape variety, with flavours and aromas not unlike a Riesling or a Viognier – peaches, almonds, blossom, and soft yellow fruits – and the Spanish versions confirmed our feelings that this was not a wine to overwhelm with too much oak. The lees contact worked well and the wines were generally lively and lingering. Most of the Spanish wines came in at around 12.5% abv, and Gordon and Nadia are confident they can keep their alcohol, something which can often get out of hand in warmer climates, in check at around 13%.

The really good and exciting news for the Newton Johnson’s and SA wine is that their tiny, experimental 8 litres is nevertheless distinctively Albariño and actually very nice indeed. It has a lovely high acidity – a hallmark of the variety – and was a really pretty wine with lots of pineapples and litchis. It’s also known as a great food partner, particularly with fish and I bet that Eric Bulpitt, new owner/chef at The Restaurant at Newton Johnson is itching to get his hands on some to see what he can come up with. I hope my return invite is in the post for when he does!

© Cape Times Friday 20th December 2013 Whenever I talk to winemakers about their jobs, I always become rapidly...

Over the barrel

© Cape Times Friday 20th December 2013
Whenever I talk to winemakers about their jobs, I always become rapidly bewildered at the incredible number of choices which face them at every turn. On the surface, winemaking is pretty easy - pick grapes, squash grapes, add yeast, watch it bubble, filter it, bottle it, sell it for huge amounts of cash – that’s it, right? No of course it isn’t, and it doesn’t take too much time spent with winemakers to realise that they actually face a myriad of different choices every day. From growing the grapes, knowing when to pick them, what to do in the winery, what kind of yeast/oak/bottles to use - winemakers have to be constantly on their toes, reacting and anticipating, ready to change and adapt at every stage. The good news for winemakers is that nowadays they have access to a massive amount of information which helps them decide what to do. They can get minute by minute weather forecasts, detailed soil analyses, plenty of support and back up from the various science labs around the country. But doesn’t it take the romance and art out of winemaking or is it flying in the face of progress to ignore this wealth of information which can help to make better wine?

One person who not only sucks up all the information available, but goes out of his way to consider additional factors that others might ignore, is Richard Kershaw MW. One of only two MW’s (Master of Wine) in South Africa, and one of a mere 312 worldwide, Richard left his day job as winemaker at Kanu a few years ago to fly solo in Elgin, an area he believes has incredible potential for two varieties in particular – Chardonnay and Syrah (aka Shiraz). As with many start-up businesses, he is yet to own his own vineyards and in the meantime, is buying in grapes from local growers – it seems there is some kudos in selling your grapes to an MW because the queue to do so is very long, giving Richard access to some amazing grapes from different growers, all within a 10 minute tractor drive of his cellar.

With so much good fruit to choose from, one of the factors which Richard considers before buying is which clone the grapes are. Like lots of other agricultural products, grapes can be ‘bred’ for particular purposes – this strain might be particularly fruity, that one might be especially good in cooler climates etc – and he uses his very technical background and experience to treat each clone appropriately and thus make better wine. The clones he has chosen are all Burgundian in origin and each brings something different to the blend. Clone CY96 give finely-balanced wines with a distinct citrus edge to them, CY95 is particularly peachy and aromatic whilst CY76 has a lovely nutty/almond character and the wines age rather well. How do we know all this? Because Richard brought some of his 2013 chardonnays, the separate clonal components of which are all still in barrels waiting to be blended, into a fascinating tasting for the launch of his new, Platter 5 Star-winning Chardonnay 2012.

It’s not often that you get to taste the building blocks of a wine in this way – most winemakers are keener to show off their finished product and keep their blending secrets to themselves – but Richard wants to produce wines which really reflect their terroir in terms of the clone, climate and specific site, so understanding all the different components is important. But to my mind, none of this detailed, scientific analysis is as important as the fact that, delicious though the individual clones were, the wine that sang the loudest and brightest was the blend of them all, the 2012 Chardonnay. Science is great at explaining the explainable, but it’s the winemaker’s art of blending which changes this wine from a mere science project into a triumphant masterpiece. Try it at www.richardkershawwines.co.za where you can join the ‘Clonehead Club’ and receive great discounts on all the wines.

© Cape Times Friday 15th November 2013 Parents out there – the countdown has begun! Yes, it’s now a...

Family time, sans whine.

© Cape Times Friday 15th November 2013
Parents out there – the countdown has begun! Yes, it’s now a mere three weeks until the school holidays with all that that entails. In my house, it means a long nightmare of organising playdates, fetching and carrying, arguments about playing on the Wii and the Xbox and grizzles of “I’m bored!” appearing at regular intervals. So it was good timing on the part of the canny Robertson Wine Valley folk to invite me to jol around there last weekend and see what sort of non-electronic family-friendly things you can get up to which will please young and old alike.

For several years now we have spent part of our Christmas holidays in Montagu, living in the swimming pool and only venturing forth to restock the wine cabinet. Which is a shame as there are plenty of things you can get up to if you try. It’s a richly diverse valley, as famed for racehorses, apricots and wildlife as it is for wine. First up on our family-friendly itinerary was a visit to Farmer Redbeard. This is a new venture by ninth-generation farmer Albertus van Zyl and his wife Patrizia – and yes, he does indeed have a red beard! Located right in the heart of the stunning Langeberg mountain, they have opened their farm to a whole range of hands-on farming experiences for all us city-slickers who think that milk comes from plastic bags in Pick n Pay. You can pick fruit, ride in a tractor, make honey, play ball with the smiling and friendly dogs, learn to cook traditional preserves or do what I did – taste Albertus’s hopefully-soon-to-be released range of witblits and fruit spirits. I’m becoming increasingly interested in spirits and distilling and from the marked increase of boutique spirits and handcrafted sips coming my way, it’s clear that I’m not alone.

You need to book all the activities at Farmer Redbeard’s in case they’ve disappeared off up the mountains to their latest project – the newly-refurbished ‘braai bus’ – so contact them on www.farmerredbeard.co.za. But if you can’t get organised in time, then head for the place that’s always open, always friendly and always stocked with great wine – Van Loveren wines. If you haven’t been recently, you may be in for a bit of a shock because the slightly-ramshackle tasting tables have been replaced by an uber-larney modern barn and water feature. But fear not, the Van Loveren warmth and charm is still very much in place and over a bottle of their MCC, marketing manager Bonita Malherbe shared all their news. The aim of all the changes was to encourage visitors to linger longer at the farm and it seems to be working as they have experienced a massive 45% increase in spend per head since the tasting centre opened! Apart from the fabulous children’s grape juice and jelly-tot tasting, they have a whole range of different pairing options matching their large range of wines to meat, cheese and chocolates. The mountain bike and hiking trails are now fully-open and Christina’s Bistro is cranking out excellent, thin-crust pizzas to many of the 500 guests a day in season. What I like about Van Loveren is that there is something for everyone and they are open 7 days a week, 362 days a year – admirable business-sense in my opinion.

If you want more family-friendly wine farms, there is Viljoensdrift with its boat rides, jungle gyms at Bon Courage, Bon Cap and Ashton Kelder, large lawns and a lake at Springfield and the lovely grounds and stoep of De Wetshof (a place forever etched on my brain as it was against the wall of which my son once pulled down his pants and had a wee in front of amused visitors). Non-wine farm activities include the animals at the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary in McGregor, crocodiles at Birds Paradise, horse-riding at Nerina Guest Farm and if beer is your thing, head outside to the Saggy Stone Brewery at Agtervinkrivier where there’s lots of space and jungle gyms for the kids whilst you taste some of the Robinson brothers’ fine ales. Witblits, wine, beer and peace and quiet in which to try them all – Robertson Wine Valley is a family-paradise over the holiday season, go and spend a day or two amidst its many charms.

© Cape Times Friday 18th October 2013 Over the years, winemaking has become increasingly scientific, and what started out...

Pinot Noir reaches new heights.

© Cape Times Friday 18th October 2013
Over the years, winemaking has become increasingly scientific, and what started out as an unexpectedly-frothing bucket of split grapes by the side of the field in Ancient Greece, has turned into an industry dominated by computers, machinery and technology. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this has improved the quality of our wines indescribably (the idea of Chateau Bucket never having appealed to me at all!) but sometimes I wonder if we haven’t forgotten that mingled in with all the scientific rigours and strictures is quite a lot of stuff that we cannot control such as the weather, the terroir and ultimately, the person behind the wine. If we can’t control and predict it, it can’t be science, so does that actually make winemaking an art or is it something different altogether?

Cathy Marshall has been making wine for most of her life, and making it under her own name ever since she and a group of friends had a riotous party and a foot-stomp on Muizenberg beach. She’s made Platter 5 Star wines for a number of different wineries and is generally considered one of the Cape’s leading Pinot-philes, known for her love and devotion to the Pinot Noir grape. But as with every relationship, sometimes it’s time for a freshen-up and when she turned 50 this year, she decided she needed a new injection of energy into her winemaking. “Making Pinot Noir is a very internalised thing – it requires a lot of intuition and questioning” she says. So her wine journey became a spiritual one, involving a return to her family’s ancestral home of Scotland and ending at the very top of the world at Mount Everest Base Camp as she re-constructed her winemaking philosophy to better reflect her life’s experiences and lessons. “You have to be a Pinot Thinker to make good Pinot” she claims. “More than with any other grape, you need to personally have harmony and sincerity in order to create balance and equilibrium in the wine.”

During a wonderful lunch last week, Cathy shared pictures of her visits to Scotland, Burgundy (the home of Pinot Noir, in France) and Tibet and we drank Pinots both from France and from her own previous vintages. Now settled in Elgin (although she still describes herself as ‘a gypsy’ and doesn’t actually own any vineyards), it is clear that not only has she found great fruit which suits her style, but she’s also find the style that suits her. One of the most modest and likeable winemakers around she says that she “believes the wines are getting better because I am now better. I don’t like to say that too loudly, but I feel that now I am a bit older and have more experience, I have the confidence to say ‘less is more’ and to hold back on things a bit and let them take their time.”

There was a great progression from the 2009 Reserve to the magnificent 2011 Reserve, with the latter showing wonderful density of fruit, elegance and spice. Cathy is going to hold onto the 2012 for just a little longer before releasing it – again reflecting her own new confidence in her wines in a market which usually prefers continuity over quality – and when it’s released, as it should be soon, I think it will be a wine worth waiting for. “Pinot reflects everything that’s about me. It’s been in my life so long and has taken me onto such amazing journeys to meet such incredible people.” How can you not want to drink a wine made by this woman, when it’s not just a wine, but a lifetime’s experience in a bottle?

© Cape Times Friday 20th September 2013 Everyone’s got a dream of something they would like to achieve before...

Ntsiki full force

Ntsiki Biyela© Cape Times Friday 20th September 2013

Everyone’s got a dream of something they would like to achieve before they die. It could be the holiday of a lifetime, somewhere we really want to visit or an amazing band we want to see live. Perhaps it’s a bottle of wine we want to taste or some restaurant we really want to eat at – those things would definitely be high on my list. And I guess if you’re a winemaker, particularly if you’re a winemaker who specialises in Bordeaux varieties, you’d want to visit Bordeaux, taste a few wines, soak up the atmosphere – that kind of thing. As for actually making wine there? Well, that’s surely beyond anyone’s bucket list dreams and right up there with meeting George Clooney and winning the Lotto.

Welcome to Dream World Ntsiki Biyela! The winemaker from Stellekaya Winery in Stellenbosch has just been catapulted into the world of unreality and will be heading to France later this month for the chance of a lifetime, making wine in Bordeaux with her name on the label and a free hand as to what goes inside the bottle. Every year Château d’Arsac in the Médoc invites a guest winemaker to join them for the vintage. The château has earmarked a particular vineyard, which is the same one every year, and each guest winemaker then gets to decide when it should be picked, how it should be picked, methods of sorting, maceration, winemaking and maturation to create a wine which will bear their name as part of The Winemakers’ Collection.

This is actually a surprisingly humble and forward-thinking initiative on the part of Philippe Raoux, owner of Château d’Arsac. Whilst many French wine folk still seem to be resting on their laurels and relying on tradition, snobbishness and the French mystique to sell their wines, he realised that the New Worlds of Australasia, South America and South Africa are posing very real threats which cannot be ignored. So he’s chosen to embrace this challenge by introducing the Winemakers Collection and bringing it down to what each winemaker does that makes them different from the rest. Letting the wine be represented by the name of the winemaker as opposed to the chateau or region it’s grown in, is a very radical idea for Bordeaux, but luckily for M. Raoux, he has managed to entice some pretty big names over the past few years.

So Ntsiki will be following the likes of Bordeaux gurus Michel Rolland, Denis Dubourdieu and Eric Boissenot as well as a name not unfamiliar to South Africans – Vilafonte’s Zelma Long – all of whom have put their signature on a previous vintage. She says she would like to bring a South African influence to bear on the final product, but at the end of the day, “I’m just going to make the wine the way I know how, back to basics and not too much fiddling around.” Her task is already looking even more challenging as the Merlot has been adversely-affected by bad weather and they are expecting a much reduced crop this year. In addition, any plans to learn to speak French before heading north have gone sadly awry “I know food and wine words so hopefully I won’t starve, but that’s about it!” she confesses with a grin. But Ntsiki isn’t at all deterred by these obstacles, merely reiterating that the challenge, the knowledge and the friendships she is sure she will make are what this adventure is all about - “I’m going to experience everything full force!” she promises. And this is from one of the most energetic winemakers around who has never let any kind of challenge or difficulty get her down or get the best of her. Bordeaux had better watch out for itself, is all I can say!

© Cape Times Friday 19th July 2013 “Wine doesn’t like change, especially not with people.” That’s the opinion of...

Hard work pays off

© Cape Times Friday 19th July 2013

“Wine doesn’t like change, especially not with people.” That’s the opinion of Carl Schultz, now celebrating his twentieth year making wine at Hartenberg Wine Estate. Some cynics might think “well, he would say that wouldn’t he?” but Carl is not a person who says things without thinking them through. Hartenberg director, James Browne likens him to Haut Brion winemaking legend, Jean-Bernard Delmas and quotes David Peppercorn MW’s opinion, relating it to Carl “He is careful but confident in his opinions and judgements, is unflappable and has a steely determination to succeed.” A recent tasting at the farm revealed two decades of steady, but sure, hard work, continuous improvement and now an assured familiarity with his vineyards and wines that many a winemaker starting out in his or her career would do well to aspire to.

Hartenberg isn’t one of your flashy wine estates with modern artworks lining the driveway, a headline chef offering award-winning cuisine or a spangly tasting ‘experience’ proffered by soulless robots with name badges. If truth be told, it isn’t the most picturesque farm to visit, with its long speed-bumped drive and unimposing entrance – down the steps and with no signage to speak of. But this is a farm that has never forgotten that first and foremost it is there to make wine, and over the last twenty years, that and that alone has been Carl’s focus. When he first arrived at the estate in 1993, Hartenberg made 17 different wines from a wide variety of grapes. Since then, Carl has refined that down to a mere eight varieties, the ones which suit Hartenberg best, building a cellar and replanting the entire farm on the way.

Right from the beginning, it was clear that Hartenberg’s best variety was Shiraz. Carl reckons it normally takes a winemaker 2-3 years to work out which vineyards are special, but in the case of the Gravel Hill vineyard, the quality of the fruit and resulting wine was outstanding from the start. The flagship Gravel Hill Shiraz (current vintage 2008, R672 cellar door) is the pinnacle of a quartet of shirazes at Hartenberg, which starts with the everyday, good value drinking of the Doorkeeper Shiraz as well as the estate Shiraz (R73.50 & R130 respectively). Gravel Hill is picked over a period of 2-3 weeks because Carl says he is long past the days of wanting homogeneity in a vineyard, instead appreciating the differences caused by aspect and soil-type. He reacts to these differences accordingly, picking at exactly the right time for each small block “If you get the picking decision absolutely right, most of your winemaking challenges are sorted.” The result is a wine of longevity, power, elegance and grace as our vertical tasting going back to 1997 confirmed.

Sticking with the same winemaker, eschewing glamorous additions to the farm, making more than a third of your wines using the same variety – these are all deeply unfashionable tenets in the fast-paced wine world, where most people are always on the look-out for the next big thing or the newest kid on the block. If you want flash-in-the-pan, then go elsewhere, because that’s not Hartenberg’s thing. Good wine needs time and thought, it’s not just something which can be whisked out of thin air and put in a bottle in an instant. When you drink a glass of Hartenberg Shiraz, you’re drinking something momentous, the product of a lifetime’s work, energy and toil. These are wines to last and as Carl says, “I have no doubt that when my life is said and done, the wine will continue on its merry way without me.” It probably will, but I’m sure it will be glad to have known him and spent twenty years with him on its way.

© Cape Times Friday 14th June 2013 When it comes to South Africa’s signature grape, it’s very easy to...

Super Chenin

© Cape Times Friday 14th June 2013

When it comes to South Africa’s signature grape, it’s very easy to paraphrase Pliny and say ‘Ex Chenin semper aliquid novi’ – there is always something new from this amazing, versatile variety. Maybe it’s because the people who make Chenin are a particularly enthusiastic bunch who get excited about every latest incarnation of their favourite grape. Or perhaps it’s because the Chenin Blanc Association is wo-manned so well by the proactive and dynamic Ina Smith, so anytime anything happens, she makes sure we ALL know about it. Either way, I’ve been to a few events recently which showcased new examples taking the variety to even dizzier heights.

Ken Forrester is in charge of the Chenin Blanc Association and lives, breathes, drinks and thinks about the stuff all the time. A tasting of ‘7 Deadly Chenins’ aimed to illustrate the versatility of the variety and he started with a less-expected version – a cap classique Chenin. This is a very common occurrence in France where Cremants and sparkling Vouvrays are the toast of the Loire Valley, but here in SA, very few MCC’s use Chenin. The new ‘Sparklehorse’ 2011 (R120 from the tasting room) comes from an old block of chenin which slopes down in the centre making the soils very damp and ill-drained. This was affecting how well the grapes were able to ripen, so Ken decided to stop beating his head against a brick wall and simply harvest them early and turn them into fizz. Apart from winning my vote for best name and label of 2013, the Sparklehorse is a salty, tangy, frothy number with plenty of character and oomph. Bit like its maker really.

Most of Ken’s top Chenin vineyards are planted with bushvines – a style of planting which can be expensive because it produces much lower yields than a trellised vine, but the fruit produced is often highly-prized for its intense flavours. Over the last 3 years, 82ha of bushvines have been uprooted in Stellenbosch because the farmers can’t make enough money from them. Leading producers like Ken and Kleine Zalze’s Johan Joubert are doing all they can to stem the tide and make good quality Chenin a viable financial proposition for Stellenbosch farmers, but it’s not always an easy ride. Johan has been on a three year mission to find the best Chenin sites in Stellenbosch, believing that the right combination of soils can offer the qualities he looks for in a Kleine Zalze Family Reserve wine – consistency, longevity, pure expression of the site. He finally found the right combination of old bushvines on the Groot Zalze farm and launched the new Family Reserve Chenin 2012 (R130 from the farm) last week. Right now, the wine is quivering on the edge of being awesome and all its going to take to push it over, is a little time – buy it now and stash it away for a year and see what I mean.

The final two Chenins I’ve tasted are really as much to do with food as they are with wine. The first comes from a cellar which can’t put a foot wrong at the moment – KWV. The Mentors Range is cleaning up at every competition going and they’ve just released a new Chenin Blanc 2012 (R180 from the tasting room), the first Chenin in the range for 4 years and one of the most food-friendly wines I’ve had in a while. Matthew Gordon is the chef at Laborie’s Harvest restaurant (also owned by KWV) and he matched it with a Malay Curried Crayfish Samoosa, melding pineapple, fresh ginger, sweet crayfish and a sappy freshness in the craziest, most wonderful mouthful. As for my final Chenin, it’s back to Ken Forrester, who’s just released a new and amazing semi-sweet ‘moelleux’ Chenin, specially made for London restaurant, High Timber. This wine just cries out for food – I immediately thought of Asian pork belly with its aromatic spices and rich crackling - but I bet it goes with everything. It’s on the pricy side at R500 from the tasting room, but I promise you, it’s worth it! There certainly is always, always something new and exciting from Chenin Blanc.

© Cape Times Friday 19th April 2013 When Miles completely rubbished Merlot in the movie ‘Sideways’, he opened the...

Reputation Rescue for Merlot

© Cape Times Friday 19th April 2013
When Miles completely rubbished Merlot in the movie ‘Sideways’, he opened the door to a whole host of bandwagon-jumpers who have so far failed to change their view that the grape is either blowsy and over-ripe or lean, green and under-ripe. Poor Merlot – it seems it just can‘t win either way and whereas most of the drinking public like the former style, the critics dismiss both as equally inferior. Here in SA, that has been very much the case – hang around any public gathering of wine cognoscenti and you are bound to hear “Oh I don’t think there IS such a thing as a good South African Merlot” crop up in conversation at some point or another. Is this true? Can we really not make good Merlot in South Africa? Or do we just need to try a little bit harder.

One person who knows how hard you have to try to make great Merlot is Peter de Wet from De Wetshof Wines. It was never going to be easy taking over the winemaking from his father Danie, one of the people who’ve helped shape the SA wine industry over the years, but Peter has no intentions of sitting back on his laurels and merely recreating his father’s wines year after year. He’s already persuaded him to add a bubbly to the portfolio (the 2008 Pinot Noir is deliciously savoury and more-ish at R190 a bottle) and his newest project is a red wine made from mainly Merlot.

After working vintages in St Emilion, Peter had plenty of experience with the variety, specifically where it should and should not be grown. Accordingly he felt sure he could improve the quality of a particular Merlot vineyard and with the help of American viticulturist Phil Freese, he was finally given carte blanche by Danie (“Everything new generally starts with an argument between me and my dad!”) to make the necessary changes in the way the vineyard was managed. The vineyard is still young – only 8 years old when the first vintage of this wine was made – and Peter feels they have already made improvements since then.

The site has deep, clay soils which are perfect for Merlot and throughout the journey, Peter has striven to capture the site in the wine – the essential quality that is ‘terroir’. The new wine is called Thibault after the legendary architect of the Koopmans de Wet House in Cape Town, on which the De Wetshof winery building is based, and is 94% Merlot with just a little Cabernet Sauvignon added for backbone. The 2009 is for sale from the farm for R250 and will hopefully shut a lot of Merlot nay-sayers up with its dark berry fruit, hints of coffee and chocolate and long smoky finish.

Because it isn’t Chardonnay, the wine won’t be labelled as ‘De Wetshof’, emphasising the fact that this is somewhat of a departure from the norm both for the farm and the Robertson valley where Chardonnay is indisputably the white grape of choice. Another area better known for Chardonnay is the Hemel en Aarde valley and interestingly enough, the only Bordeaux blend currently made there is also mainly Merlot. It comes from Creation Wines and is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot 2011 (R144 from the farm). The secret to its success (apart from the pristine, cool-climate vines) is actually the addition of 15% Petit Verdot, adding a perfumed, aromatic quality to the wine which lifts it out of any line-up, but it is the 50% Merlot adding richness and generosity which leaves the final impression. Two fine examples of why the maligning of Merlot must cease – bring on the blends!

© Cape Times Friday 15th February 2013 When is champagne not champagne? When it’s an MCC of course. If...

Cape Sparkle

© Cape Times Friday 15th February 2013
When is champagne not champagne? When it’s an MCC of course. If you have no idea what I’m talking about – not to worry, it’s a subject that often confuses a lot of people. Champagne is a region in France and the term ‘Champagne’ can only be applied to wines made there. Here in South Africa, we make sparkling wines in exactly the same way as they do in Champagne, but legally, we have to refer to them as Methode Cap Classique – ie, made in the classical way in the Cape. So now we’ve got that confusion cleared up, onto the wines themselves which can also confuse and bemuse! Take one of our foremost MCC producers, Graham Beck Wines, for example. Currently they have seven MCC’s on the market, covering a bewildering gamut of different styles and tastes. A recent visit to the farm in Robertson threw up a few new favourites, and since my fizz-drinking is never confined to just one day a year, this is what I shall be drinking post-Valentines this year.

Unlike most still wines, the least expensive sparklers are often the ones which involve the most work. Pieter Ferreira, cellarmaster of Graham Beck, has been making MCCs there for over 20 years and his entry-level non-vintage MCC, which comes in both white and pink versions (R105 for both), is the one most people buy – production is now at a staggering 90,000 cases per year. Unlike a lot of other styles of wine, Pieter’s job here is to ensure that when you buy a bottle of this wine, it tastes exactly the same as the last bottle of it you bought. Consistency is the key – after all, MCC often denotes a special occasion and the last thing you want is yours ruined by your celebration fizz – and Pieter must bring all his years of experience to bear to keep it tasting the same, year in, year out. He does this by a process called ‘back-blending’ which means that every year he keeps some wine in reserve and he adds this in differing proportions to tinker with the next year’s blend and make the final wine taste the same as all the others.

It’s a tough job – which I know people never believe when you say that about anything in the wine industry – and can seem almost prescriptive for a winemaker, in that they don’t have the chance to put their own stamp on the house style. That privilege is reserved for the vintage wines and prestige cuvées which is where Pieter is able to pick and choose the most interesting parcels of wines and turn them into something spectacular. His current drinking favourites (and mine too, I must say) are the 2008 Blanc de Blancs and the 2006 Brut Zero – more confusing terms! A Blanc de Blancs simply means ‘a white wine made from white grapes’ which seems rather obvious, until you remember you can make a white wine from black grapes. The 2008 is 100% Chardonnay and has been in the bottle for more than 3 years. It’s a rich savoury wine with flavours of toasted almond croissant and a lemon meringue pie finish. Costing R205 from the farm, it is well worth splashing out on.

Pieter’s other favourite of the moment is the Brut Zero 2006, where the ‘zero’ bit refers to the fact that there has been no sugar added to the wine, something which commonly happens with most styles of MCC or champagne. This means that it is a delicious, tangy, yeasty, bready mouthful which cries out for a salty oyster and which lasts forever in your mouth. Also costing R205 from the farm, this is something to savour slowly with someone special. Who cares if Valentine’s Day was yesterday – I refuse to pander to the dictates of petty commercialism and shall be drinking this tonight and any other night I feel it’s appropriate. And I think that might be pretty often…..