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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 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 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!

© Cape Times Friday 30th November 2012 Unwooded chardonnays – good, but are they good enough? This is the...

Power of The Plank

© Cape Times Friday 30th November 2012
Unwooded chardonnays – good, but are they good enough? This is the question I found myself asking after the marvellous De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay the other week. Danie de Wet is generally considered the Father of Chardonnay in South Africa, being one of the very first people to plant it, to recognise that the chalky soils of Robertson suit it and that South Africa has great potential for making world-beating wines from the variety. In a bid to benchmark and to also keep pushing the envelope when it comes to Chardonnay, he organises a biennial event of local and overseas wines and generously invites a wonderful mix of winemakers, journalists, retailers and other wine-lovers to a tasting and lunch on the farm.

A scorchingly sunny day saw 150 Chardonnay-fans converging on Robertson to taste some fantastic wines. Local stars included Glen Carlou’s Quartz Stone 2010, Paul Cluver 2011, Hamilton Russell 2011 and De Wetshof’s own The Site 2009, whilst the outstanding overseas wines came from France’s Domaine de Montille Puligny-Montrachet Les Cailleret 2007 and Australia’s Cullen’s Kevin John Chardonnay 2010. Discussions of clones, oak and Nomblot eggs (What? I hear you cry! Large, concrete, fermentation vessels, that’s what!) abounded and then right at the end, someone asked ‘Why are there no unwooded chardonnays in this line-up of South Africa’s best?’

A very good question indeed – why are there no unwooded Chardonnays winning top accolades and awards. France manages to produce very successful unwooded Chardonnays in Chablis so why can’t we here in SA? The answer to that, I think, is that we do produce some delicious unwooded Chardonnays – it’s just that our wooded ones, these days, are even better. For many years, people have been ABC’ers – Anything But Chardonnay – and the main reason for that has been that people don’t like too much oak. Putting wine in an oak barrel, or adding creamy/toasty/buttery/oaky flavours by some other method, has not always been done with a light touch and the backlash against drinking wines which make you feel as if you are chewing a plank has rebounded on poor old Chardonnay, with people choosing unwooded Sauvignon Blancs instead.

Luckily, most people are moving away from plank-like Chardonnays in favour of wines with more elegance and balance – qualities which were present in abundance at the Celebration last week. For those that don’t like even the merest of woody whiffs, here are a few suggestions. The newly-launched Glen Carlou Unwooded is a zesty affair with a creamy undertone from lots of lees-stirring in the Nomblot egg. Or if you like it tangy, then Groote Post 2011 is full of refreshing citrus fruit whilst De Wetshof themselves do the delicious Bon Vallon 2012 which is packed with flowers and crisp, crunchy green apples.

My favourite wines are those which use oak with delicacy and discretion – so you hardly taste the wood, it just rounds out the wine and makes it more satisfying. Lightly wooded wines I’ve enjoyed recently include Zonnebloem’s Chardonnay 2011 which has only 10% of oak and Winter’s Drift Chardonnay 2011 which is a 50/50 wooded/unwooded wine, whilst elegant, full-wooded versions include Seven Springs Chardonnay 2011 which only uses older, larger barrels in their delicate, creamy wine and the Edgebaston Chardonnay 2011 made by David Finlayson and which balances first, second and third-fill wood with zesty acidity. Will an unwooded Chardonnay ever beat a wooded version in a competition? If we continue to make wooded wines like these, and as long as people can get over the badly-wooded wines of a decade ago, I’d say it’s probably a question we shouldn’t waste our time asking anymore. According to David Finlayson, the ABC of yester-year has now been replaced by “Always Buy Chardonnay” and whatever kind you buy, that sounds like very good advice to me.

© Cape Times Friday 16th November 2012 This year was the first time I’ve tasted for the Platter Wine...

Helping to fill the new Platter

© Cape Times Friday 16th November 2012
This year was the first time I’ve tasted for the Platter Wine Guide. This institution in the wine world (and not just the South African wine world either) celebrates its 33rd year this year – a far cry from something started on the dining room table of John and Erica Platter back in 1980. They took on the then Herculean-task of tasting 1,250 wines (as opposed to the more than 7,000 currently shared amongst 18 tasters) rating them, reviewing the farm and providing a fascinating snapshot of South Africa’s wine history. The oldest edition I have been able to find is 1985 and I love flicking through it, to see which winemaker started their career where, which farms are still going and which have changed hands and overall, to see the change in focus from a country still very much in awe of the Old World of European wines, to a more confident and assured wine industry today.

Some of the facts and stats are hilarious – in 1985 for example, there were only 5 Chardonnays made in South Africa - one of those was made by Chardonnay-gurus Hamilton Russell, but was labelled only as Grand Vin Blanc! On the other hand, 39 cellars made a Rhine Riesling (including Pinotage and red wine specialists Kanonkop) whilst a further 55 made a Cape Riesling. Interestingly enough, Cinsaut was made by more than 30 cellars, something which has sadly dwindled down to 6 in the current guide, and the number of Steens (aka Chenin Blanc) of all styles covers a full two pages of the listings, far too numerous to count.

As Platter has expanded over the years, so has the need for additional tasters and a mammoth web of people and technology in order to produce the guide on time. All tasters are asked to declare any interests in wineries allocated to them for tasting – I couldn’t taste for wineries who had sent students on my WSET wine courses, as well as ones who employ my husband as a consultant – and there are strict controls about getting second opinions if the rating you feel a wine deserves differs too widely from previous scores. Every time I sat down to taste, I had to ‘re-calibrate my palate’ using the little control sample bottles we were supplied with – a highly useful exercise to remind yourself where you are on the scale on any particular day – and all my notes and opinions had to be recorded in a huge amount of detail on an intranet database, something which was always going to be a struggle for Luddites like me.

Did I do a good job? It’s hard to tell because the Platter is a guide and not an absolute dictat as to taste and quality, so it is impossible to say if my ratings are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I certainly had a good strike rate of 5 star nominations with 5 out of my 8 suggestions getting the nod when blind-tasted by the rest of the tasters, but I am equally sure that there are plenty who will argue for and against lots of the other wines on my list. But here are a few of the things I’ve learnt from my first year tasting for Platter. Firstly, that you fixate on the Five Stars and ignore the value category at your peril – there are some stonkingly-good wines out there with smiley faces indicating ‘Exceptionally drinkable and well-priced.’ Secondly, that the team behind the scenes deserve huge respect for painstakingly recording every single skipped vintage, every screwcapped wine, every sustainable certification to help make the guide the comprehensive document that it is. And lastly that however comprehensive and painstaking it may be, it’s still just a guide. Read it, enjoy it, use it for phone numbers, wedge the back door open with it, smack a mozzie against the wall with it – whatever. Just remember that every time you slavishly treat it as a Bible and don’t trust your own taste in wine-drinking and wine-buying, you do yourself, and the Platter team, a huge disservice. Trust your tastebuds – they’re the best guide you’re ever going to get!

De Meye Unwooded Chardonnay 2009 – RRP R48 I loved it because – it’s crisp, dry and fruity without...

I’m Lovin’ it!! – what I’ve been drinking this week.

imlovinit_1

De Meye Unwooded Chardonnay 2009 – RRP R48

I loved it because it’s crisp, dry and fruity without being searingly acidic, it’s only 12.5% alcohol which makes it very easy to drink, it went FABULOUSLY with my sushi and the new label and screw-cap are cool and funky.

Buy it from – selected independent retailers and Spars or direct from the farm.

Boland Private Cellar Natural Ferment Chenin Blanc 2009 - RRP R50

I loved it because – the flavours of yellow fruit, apple strudel and herby honey were totally amazing, it’s organic so drinking it must be doing me good – right? and it was the ideal match for my experimental Seafood Lasagne (the sauce went pink, which was a little unexpected, but the taste was divine!).

Buy it from – www.cybercellar.co.za or from the cellar

Laibach The Ladybird Red 2007 RRP R80

I loved it because – it is organic so I felt as if I was saving the world with every sip, the fruit was ripe and juicy with lots of blackcurrants (my favourites) and the tannins were soft and gentle enough to make the whole bottle slip down with nary a murmur.

Buy it from - Ultra Liquors

Oude Dennenboom Grysbok Chenin Blanc 2009   RRP R38

I loved it because – the fruit was ripe, lush and lavish but still balanced out by bouncy acidity, I got to check out what a Grysbok is and they are soooo cute, it’s a screwcap and as it is only available from the farm, I now have a good excuse to go to the winelands at the weekend!

Buy it from - the farm or from the website www.oudedenneboom.co.za (they’ll deliver anywhere in SA).

Wednesday was a busy day in the wine world with different events happening all over town – lots of...

The wine’s a calling …

PeterFinlayson

Wednesday was a busy day in the wine world with different events happening all over town – lots of white wine, lots of green wine and lots of new wine on offer. I went for the ‘new wine’ lunch which was with Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson at Vanilla in the Cape Quarter to taste his new releases.  I must say that although Peter is always perfectly pleasant to me, I often wonder if he thinks I’m a total idiot – when he fixes his steely blue stare on me, it always causes me to gibber nervously and fiddle with the fish forks. Oh well – any excuse for another glass to steady the nerves!

Not that I needed any reason to down a glass or two of BF wines. The point of the lunch was to taste the old vintages of 4 of his bestsellers with the new ones. The thing I didn’t understand was the way the whole lunch was set up. If you want people to taste a particular wine with a particular dish, then don’t offer a choice of 3 different starters, 4 different mains and 2 different desserts. Or, if you want us to try all the wines with whichever food we have selected and make our own food and wine matches, then put them all on the table at once so we can do so. I felt like a total lush clutching my wine glasses to my bosom as the waiter tried to clear them away, and then asking for earlier wines to be re-poured. A tad confusing perhaps.

Still – it wasn’t quite as awkward as perhaps it sounds and anyway, the food and wine were both divine so who really cares?? Standout wine of the day was his new, debut Sauvignon Blanc Reserve made for the first time because 2009 was such an awesome year. He’s added 12% Semillon, some of which has seen the inside of an oak barrel, and the result was a seriously delicious Sauvignon with added depth and interest. Cracking food partner too for the Salt and Pepper Calamari with flat green parsley and citrus aioli. Keep an eye open for this wine – it’s an absolute winner.

BF_Chardonnay_smThe Pinots were also good – when did you ever get a BF Pinot that wasn’t? – but I actually preferred the Missionvale Chardonnay 09 with my Braised Pork Belly with Asian noodle salad – the tangy fish-saucy-dressing calmed the currently upfront oak into submission. But back to the Pinots – it is so lovely to hear someone like Peter holding forth about this fabulous but fickle grape variety, because making Pinot is a lot more to do with art than science - “You need to have a feeling for where the wine is going if you want to make charismatic wines.” He strongly believes that “A wine should call you back into the glass” and let me tell you, if that glass was full of his CWG Pinot Noir 2007 (a snip at R850 a bottle – where’s the credit card?!), it can call on my name anytime, anyplace, day or night, and I’ll be there!

Cheers!