Tasting the Spectrum 13 November

Tasting my way through only a small selection of the 800 mainly current release wines at WineX in Sandton last month, I was treated to something of a bird’s-eye view of the country’s indisputably dynamic wine industry. Allowing that only about 250 of the country’s producers are big enough to justify attending a consumer wine show, the presence of 60% of them means that the line-up really reflected an important overview of the country’s production. There was very little of the high volume industrial wine (a fair amount of which is either exported in bulk, or sold locally mainly in the vicinity of the winelands.) There was also only a very small representation from the ultra-boutique and garagiste end of the spectrum. The 1 – 5 barrel batches produced by the more adventurous winemakers contribute excitement to the debate (and provide fodder for the bloggers). The finest examples are pre-sold on allocation or within weeks of release.

National pride rather than statistical analysis drives the generally held South African belief that the Springboks face the All Blacks on almost equal terms. Anyone who actually counts the number of times the men in green-and-gold have beaten the Kiwis will recognise that the default winners are not from the African continent. The wine industry has its own sustaining myth – the idea that our red wines are better than our whites, and are worth more money (and more emotional energy). Most critics and wine writers do not agree. Where there are competitive judging environments (the Six Nations Challenge comes to mind) there is more objective evidence to support the strangely unfashionable view that the whites are significantly better than the reds.

That was certainly my impression from my WineX tastings. The 2014 vintage of the Vondeling Babiana is probably the best ever produced by the cellar, and while the 2012 Erica Shiraz bagged a Platter 5 star, I’d rather be drinking the beautifully textured, delicately aromatic white blend. (I’d also happily destroy a platter of oysters with the cellar’s 2015 Sauvignon Blanc – crisp, zesty and with distinct passion-fruit aromas giving the bouquet a perfect lift.)

The 2014 Viognier from Lynx was another standout wine. Fresh (13.5%) and fragrant, but with lovely savoury textures on the palate, it was completely different from the oily, rich examples which have turned wine drinkers off the cultivar. The Oak Valley Mountain Reserve 2010 was a splendid Sauvignon-semillon blend – the kind of wine of which a producers in the Graves region of Bordeaux might easily be proud. The Oak Valley Chardonnay – which has a Veritas Double Gold to its name – was showing rather too much oak at present, but should be fabulous in a few years time.

Reyneke’s extraordinarily well priced (R55) sauvignon-semillon 2015 blend was simply delicious, though the more expensive R85) wooded Sauvignon offered more complexity. For those seeking something more adventurous, the Leeuwenkuil Marsanne 2014 (the first varietal bottling of this Rhone cultivar) is delicious, quite refined, with almost tangy mid-palate textures. The vines are still young, so it’s not a wine for long cellaring but it makes a brilliant summer food-friendly white.

A new range of hand-crafted wines produced by BLANKBottle for Woolworths – exotic cultivars, exotic blends and off-the-wall names – includes one called “Nothing to Declare.” It too contains some Marsanne, together with Roussanne, Grenache blanc, Viognier and Clairette blanche. Unshowy, but with real weight and texture in the mouth, it’s worth the effort of tracking down.

There were also several chardonnays which impressed: the first was the 2013 Richard Kershaw, fabulous fruit weight and lovely intensity, with the oak perfectly in balance. The second was the Meerlust. Chris Williams – who has been cellarmaster since 2004 – aims for a less oaky, less oxidative style than his predecessor. The 2014 is lighter, more citrus-like, less chunky. Finally, the 2014 Paul Cluver is beautifully expressive and has all the attributes of the 2009, which collected bags full of medals from around the world.

Michael Fridjhon is the Show Director of WineX

Platter 5 Stars and Veritas 6 November

The final wave of the Cape wine industry’s 2015 results are now out. In early October the Veritas awards (now in their 25th year) were announced to much fanfare. Shortly after that, the Prescient Chardonnay report was published. Finally, at the launch of the Guide’s 2016 edition, details of the Platter Five Star award winners were released.

Not many wine buffs seriously expect a perfect results overlap across all competitions. They recognise that not all judges are equally skilled, working environments differ, the composition and size of the panels plays a part, as do the contents of the bottles themselves. Wine is performance art: not every bottle from the same batch tastes the same and some wines taste better on some days than on others. (Bio-dynamicists believe that there are fruit days, leaf days, flower days and root days, influenced by cosmic factors, and affecting the performance of the product – and presumably the perception of it by the taster.)

However, you also wouldn’t expect a complete disconnect either.  From a total entry of over 1700 wines, the Veritas judges found a mere three Chardonnays worthy of a double gold. None of the them featured among the Platter Five Star laureates, nor did any of them make it to the Top 10 of the Chardonnay Report. There’s a slightly stronger correlation between Platter and the Prescient report: Sumaridge 2013 and Paul Cluver Seven Flags 2014 are both in the top ten and Newton Johnson and the Oak Valley are just outside the bracket. (But Platter’s White Wine of the Year, the Warwick White Lady Chardonnay 2014, is absent from both other lists.) Chardonnay is widely acknowledged to be one of the Cape’s strongest categories. Surely it’s not too much to hope for a broader consensus across all three tastings?

The closer you look at things, the harder it is to believe that these lists share so little in common with each other (and in the case of the Veritas double golds, with any other competition. The notable exceptions were the Rustenberg Five Soldiers Chardonnay 2012 and the Peter Barlow 2009, both Trophy Winners at the Old Mutual.) At least insofar as the Platter line-up is concerned, it’s fair to observe that since the wines being judged are due for sale in the trade over the next 12 months, there may be have been vintage differences between what the Platter judges had on their tasting benches, and the wines up for consideration on the competition circuit. This offers a partial explanation. Earlier vintages of the Five Star wines have done well elsewhere: the Delaire-Graff Botmaskop and the Laurence Graff Reserve, the De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve (Port), and the Rijk’s Reserve Pinotage all come to mind.

Then there’s the fact that many of strongest performers in the Platter line-up don’t enter competitions: you won’t find the Mullineux wines (an extraordinary 5 x Five Star winners) in any show. However, if you apply this logic, you also have to ask about the wines which used to adorn the Platter list before the new Five Star tasting arrangements were implemented. Sadie Family Vineyards (last year’s winery of the year) down to only one Five Star winner, and none for Chris and Suzaan Alheit – it hardly seems conceivable.

You can use these discrepancies to rubbish the various tastings and the awards upon which the industry depends to bring some order to the 7000+ wines on offer in any one year. On the other hand, you could as easily argue that most of the top wines are so good that those which missed the cut could just as easily replace those which made it this year without any dilution of standard. That’s certainly my take: make a list of the top 150 wines (red and white) using any credible selection process and you’ll find a surprising consensus: it’s when you try to separate the so-called superstars from the other celestial novae that the outcome acquires a slightly arbitrary feel.
Michael Fridjhon was a co-Chairman at the Platter Five Star Tasting and is Chairman of the Judges at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show

Meerlust 30 October

The first vintage in South Africa took place in February 1659 – a date which coincides roughly with the first harvests of the Bordeaux First Growths. A mere 34 years later the Meerlust estate was granted to Henning Husing. In 1757 the property came into the hands of the Myburgh family, with whom it has remained to this day. It is an arresting thought that the Myburghs acquired Meerlust roughly 100 years after Van Riebeeck set up the Dutch colony at the Cape, when slavery was the primary source of labour in South Africa and America, before James Cook landed in Australia and when viticulture was also in its infancy in the Medoc. I can think of no other Cape estate – or, for that matter, any Bordeaux property – which could make a comparable claim to longevity and continuity.

Meerlust burst onto the modern South African wine scene in the second half of the 1970s. Nico Myburgh, father of the present owner Hannes, had been a grape grower rather than a wine producer for most of his life. With the growing fashion for red wine (which followed the promulgation of the wine of origin legislation in 1973) a small portion of his grape harvest was designated for estate wine production in 1975. Within a few years – and with a great deal of fanfare – the first 20th century vintage of Meerlust came to market. It was a single varietal Cabernet and it was an instant success.

Distributed through the trade on an “allocation only” basis, it sold out swiftly. At the time I did not think of it as a striking example of Cape cabernet: it was elegant and refined, but lacked the intensity and fruit sweetness of the traditional “dikvoet” examples which came from warmer bush-vine sites in the more inland parts of Stellenbosch and Paarl. This is not to say I didn’t like it – but it was a wine to admire, rather than to be seduced by. Well stored bottles have aged rather well. I had one a few weeks back which was as polished and precise as the first bottles I tasted in the 1970s.

Nico Myburgh – working at the time quite closely with The Bergkelder’s Julius Laszlo – continued as an innovator and pioneer. The next year he launched what turned out to be the only vintage ever of Meerlust Pinotage – a wine which has aged as well as the cabernet harvested the year before. From 1977 no wine was sold under the Meerlust label. It was an egregious vintage and it didn’t take much judgement to decide that no good would come from bottling anything from that most miserable of harvests. 1978 saw another very fine Meerlust Cabernet and it seemed that this was where the future of the brand lay. But Myburgh had also been one of the first to plant merlot in South Africa and in 1980 Meerlust became only the second South African winery to release a Bordeaux blend. Rubicon (celebrating the wine’s revolutionary role) was an instant success and it has remained the flagship of the range ever since.

In the past 40 years only three winemakers have been in control of Meerlust’s cellars (in effect really only two, because by 1978 Giorgio dalla Cia took charge and remained in that position until he handed over to Chris Williams, the present incumbent, in 2004. It has had only two members of the Myburgh family directing it – Nico until his death in 1988 and Hannes since then. In every sense of the word, it is a monument and a national treasure. This does not mean that all its wines are world class – or even extraordinary. For that matter, nor is everything that has come from Chateau Latour or Mouton Rothschild. But together with the great properties of Bordeaux, Meerlust is an icon. In an age when the celebration of the new and untested takes precedence over the long-established, this is worth remembering.

Grapes and Site 23 October

When cellarmasters in the 1980s spoke of themselves as “wine-growers” rather than as “wine-makers” there seemed a refreshing modesty to their “wines are grown not made” mantra. It was easy to slip into the trap of assuming they were little more than mid-wives, pulling out the baby at due date but entirely detached from its DNA.

Non-interventionist wine-making is largely a fiction: someone must decide when to harvest, when to crush, when to draw the wine off the skins, in what receptacles and for how long to age it, when to bottle it and how to manage the packaging process. But in fact, if you take a step back, when the vineyard was laid out someone had to decide what varieties and what clones to plant, what rootstocks to use, how to prepare the soil, whether to trellis or not and what pruning system to apply. Often these decisions are made by grape growers without even a thought about the wine which may eventually be produced.

Quality winemaking is always the result of an intention. Phil Freese, a partner in Vilafonte and the man who laid out the Rothschild-Mondavi Opus One vineyards more than three decades ago, puts it very succinctly. “I know that it is currently popular for people to talk about and say with great authority that ‘wine is made in the vineyards.’ While I agree with the words, I fear that most of the speakers are talking about what I call the ‘tactical’ sense of management – the ‘what did I do this year to respond to the vineyard needs.’

“In fact the statement to have any real meaning must first of all start as a ‘strategic’ statement – getting the vineyard design correct from site selection, clone and rootstocks, soil preparation, vine spacing, etc. etc. To get the strategic design and decisions correct it means one has to have clear and well developed vision of the wine outcome being sought and then work with the characteristics of the site to provide a vineyard that does not require a lot of ‘tactical’ fiddling to get it right year-on-year.”

A recent wine industry event hosted by Cape Point Vineyards and De Toeren provided a perfect opportunity to see the proprietor’s intention in action – not necessarily in the same rigorous way Freese is talking about – but certainly in terms of achieving desired outcomes. Cape Point was the first serious vineyard venture in Noordhoek. The simple selection of that chilly, windblown western slope of the Constantia/Silvermine range, followed by the (inevitable) decision to plant cool climate varieties like sauvignon blanc and semillon, defined Sybrand van der Spuy’s vision for the estate. Choosing a talented cool climate winemaker like Duncan Savage vastly increased his chances of obtaining strikingly fresh, intense and zesty white wines. Given the site, had he been thinking of rich, full bodied reds no winemaker on earth could have implemented his intention.

By the same token, if what you want to bring to market are rich, polished, opulent cabernet-based red wines, you would seek out an area with a track record of yielding appropriate fruit, and then make sure you have a winemaker willing to push ripeness to the limit (without tipping over into the slippery slope of “porty.”) Emil den Dulk’s De Toren operation has always been entirely consistent with this vision. It has been  bringing premium reds (mainly, but not exclusively Bordeaux blends) to the market since the release of its first vintage almost two decades ago. None of its wines have ever been lean or green: all have been relatively high in alcohol, all have delivered tannins as smooth as teflon-coated velvet, all have been instantly drinkable, all have been packaged and presented to the highest expectations of the international market.

You cannot separate the hands-on, clear-thinking and visionary proprietor from what lands up in the bottle. Sure, wines are grown not made, but, even before the wine, comes the conception.

Cape Wine 25 September

The 2015 edition of Cape Wine – a bi-annual event organised by Wines of South Africa as a showcase for buyers, commentators and critics from around the world – has come and gone. It saw more than two hundred influential international visitors descend on the Western Cape to sample the latest vintages and to talk to growers, producers and marketing folk – all with a view to recalibrating their impression of Cape wine.

It could not have come at a more important time for the country’s wine farmers. The wine industry has been on a roll: never before has international recognition been this extensive and this positive. South African wine seems to have found its identity. The media-savvy rock star boutique producers have made the roadshows which are an essential part of the international wine business strikingly newsworthy. At the same time the increasingly wine-savvy large wholesalers are delivering well-branded quality wines in large volumes to key international markets. While the two component parts of the production sector make no attempt to dovetail their efforts, this happy coincidence has added considerably to the country’s international appeal. So has the present currency weakness, which ensures that whatever leaves our shores over-delivers in terms of value.

Despite the generally upbeat mood, some exhibitors at Cape Wine lamented the seemingly low room attendance: with over 350 producers showing their wares over three days – to a total purchasing audience of roughly the same number, there was (inevitably) a sense of a beautifully decorated party venue that needed a bigger crowd to justify the investment. This is almost always what happens at trade shows – it’s not about numbers, it’s about the depth of the buyers’ pockets, the reach of the writers’ publications and the opportunity to transform sceptics into fans.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is often (rightly) criticised for not doing enough for the country’s wine producers. This was certainly not the case at Cape Wine 2015. Government money brought a significant number of international buyers to the show. After that, it’s up to the producers to show their wares and provide the all-important hospitality. Judging from the programme (as well as my own experience) this was done on a scale that could only enhance the country’s standing, even in markets where buyers are accustomed to the most sumptuous treatment.

Some of the bigger producers hosted dinners at The Test Kitchen, not only the country’s most highly rated restaurant, but ranked 28th in the world by the authoritative San Pellegrino guide. Others booked the Ellerman House Wine Gallery, something of a temple to all things vinous and perhaps the most original wine space in the world. Meantime the industry’s lunatic fringe persisted in doing things their way. Under the banner of The Zoo Biscuits they presented their idiosyncratic creations in a uniquely South African format.

Events like Cape Wine also enable the country to showcase its technological competence. Buyers expect that whatever they purchase will be clean, stable and fit to ship anywhere in the world. However, when the whole industry is on show, and it’s clear that you can take its professionalism as a given, confidence in dealing with wine producers at the southern tip of the continent is substantially enhanced. European brokers would probably also have been delighted to discover South Africa’s unique solution to sulphite-free wine. Trevor Strydom at Audacia has patented a technology that uses Rooibos instead of sulphur dioxide and has made it available free of charge to the country’s producers. It’s not everyone’s cup to tea, so to speak. The rooibos flavour is at least as evident as the wood aromas which come from barrel-ageing. But the appeal to the growing community of consumers who want their wines with minimal chemical intervention is significant. Add to this South Africa’s status as the world’s largest Fairtrade wine producer and suddenly it becomes clear that our producers are filling most of the important gaps on the spectrum.

Platter’s new format 11 September

Amongst the awards with a long and established history in the Cape wine industry, a Five Star score in the Platter Guide is probably the most coveted. In bygone days, when John Platter alone made this decision, this was simply the highest rating in the guide, his own idiosyncratic selection of the best wines of that particular year. Given that all his tastings were sighted, the five star accolade was as much a reflection of the quality the current release as it was a statement about the cellar, the site, the overall provenance of the wine.

Things have moved on since then. Even before John sold the Guide he took on a small team of tasters to assist in working through the ever-increasing number of wines which followed the post-1994 boom in Cape wine. The group contributed to this final selection – so that when the Guide became a kind of collegiate exercise there was something of a structure in place to determine which were the top performers of the vintage.

Fast forward a few more years and the Five Star tasting becomes an exercise in itself, a line-up of those wines which the individual tasters believe should receive the highest rating. These examples are submitted to the group as a whole – and for the first time they are tasted blind. The process has evolved over the years. Statisticians were called in to ensure the methodology was appropriate. The size of the panels, together with their tasting load, changed as the line-up became bigger. What used to be a manageable morning commitment for a dozen or so judges finally became a task requiring considerable logistical support.

By last year a new format was required, one involving seven panels each with three tasters and a couple of roving chairmen to resolve disagreements between the panelists. It worked well enough, arresting the ever-burgeoning numbers of five star wines and achieving its results more by way of a consensus than an arithmetical tally. Accordingly it was decided to extend the system this year for the 2016 guide and include in this tasting all wines which had been awarded 4.5 stars by the initial taster.

This is a major modification: it effectively minimises the gate-keeper role of the primary judge. No longer does the person who considers a wine worthy of 4.5 stars in a sighted tasting have the discretion to cap its upward mobility. If it’s good enough to garner the next best thing to five stars, it gets to be judged blind by a three person panel and enjoys an equal chance of obtaining the ultimate accolade.

Those who have been campaigning for the Platter tasting to be conducted without the advantage (to the taster) of the label – at least as a guideline – cannot be unhappy with this decision. While prejudice (for or against) a wine can still affect its access to this forum, it’s a fair assumption that most, if not all, of the serious players will be represented in a line-up which this year accounted for almost 700 wines.

Following the five star tasting which was held in late August, initial indications suggest that the merits of this approach far outweigh any disadvantages – real or imaginary. The tasting ran over two full days, with panels dealing with around 50 – 70 wines on the first day, and probably half that number on the second. Palate fatigue was therefore kept to a minimum. Panels were generally made up of specialists in that particular class, ensuring a level of coherence to which the older system could never lay claim.

Insofar as the outcome is concerned, the world will have to wait (breathlessly, of course) for the appearance of the 2016 edition in late October. Word on the street suggests that the long established cellars – those where site and pedigree are readily discernible – have clawed back some lost ground, but whether this has been at the expense of the rockstar/fashionista/young-gun brands remains to be seen.

Michael Fridjhon was a co-Chairman of the Platter Five Star Tasting

Drinking Value 14 August

Last week’s focus on the inherent personality of coherently produced wines provoked a further serious of reflections: if there’s such a thing as a “house personality” – one which transcends site – then what happens when the same producer owns vineyards in two vastly different appellations. The Griers of Villiera have their original farm on the Paarl side of Stellenbosch. They also own an estate in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. Despite the fact that the equator separates the two properties, the personality of the Griers is evident on all the wines.

For almost 25 years David Trafford has been making New World-style wines from his high altitude Stellenbosch vineyards. In their time the best of the these wines have won widespread recognition (De Trafford tied for the Producer of the Show award at the inaugural Old Mutual competition in 2002. Last year the cellar yielded the Platter red wine of the year). Almost all of them are readily identifiable from their opulence, their fruit intensity, the polish and texture of their tannins. If you had to choose one Cape producer capable of beating the Californians at their own game, you’d have to consider offering the slot to David Trafford.

But then about ten years ago he began a new vineyard project at Malgas at the estuary of the Breede River. The Sijnn wines have their own personality, an earthier, austere and more nuanced style, a function of the varieties he chose to plant there as well as the kind of fruit the stony landscape is destined to produce. Make no mistake, Sjinn is as much the outcome of intention as it is of terroir. When you find such a place, fall in love with it, choose to develop vineyards there, select varieties that will take root in those soils and yield fruit which reflects the environment in which it is grown, you are imbuing the process with aesthetic choice. The winemaking fraternity might have regarded his initial decision with more than a raised eyebrow – but no one could seriously have been surprised by the result.

The same is equally true Gyles Webb’s two wholly different sites, one in Stellenbosch (home of the Thelema wines) the other in Elgin, source of his cooler climate Sutherland wines. In both cases he developed the vineyards from scratch, Stellenbosch in the 1980s from an old fruit farm at the top of the Helshoogte Pass and Sutherland more than 20 years later. Both properties are a reflection of intention – in how the soils were prepared, what varieties were selected, what rootstocks were used, what wines were envisaged. True, technology has moved on, and the experience the Webbs acquired in Stellenbosch enabled them to approach Sutherland with greater understanding and perhaps with even greater dimension to their vision.

It’s hardly surprising that both sites yield wholly different wines, though everything which comes from Webb’s cellar also has a common aesthetic. Unshowy and precise, the Stellenbosch reds are linear and restrained. They might always have been a little like this, given the altitude of the vineyards, but they have been crafted to express the site and its potential, as well as the vision of the proprietor. The Rabelais blend (for several years a Platter five star laureate) will disappoint anyone looking for a blockbuster – but then so will any of Gyles Webb’s other wines. The Sutherland wines are equally nuanced, with refreshment and detail more important than palate weight on the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc and the extraordinarily spicy 2015 Riesling.

That said, it’s not a simple equation, a formula allowed to run without any adjustment. The Sutherland white Rhone blend (which in its time has won both a gold medal and a trophy at the OMTWS) has been allowed to fill out – not in a way which suggests an ounce of surplus weight, but more by way of muscle and tone. When it comes to the Webb’s wines, finesse is not a euphemism for scrawny.

Graham Beck 7 August

The Graham Beck winery celebrated its 25th anniversary in suitably splendid style. When your primary business – at least from a visibility perspective – is fizz, it’s fit and proper to make a song-and-dance whenever an appropriate occasion arises. While 25 years in the world of wine is hardly an eternity, in the modern South African wine industry it’s the span separating the era of institutional management from the free-for-all of today.

Graham Beck established his Robertson winery South Africa in the days of sanctions and isolation. There was no formal export trade to speak of: the KWV, as the buyer of last resort, acquired the not-inconsiderable surpluses of the country’s wine producers and dumped them onto the European markets via traders operating out of Rotterdam. These brokers miraculously transformed the provenance of the Cape bulk to wines of Eastern European origin, taking the lion’s share of the revenue to cover the costs of this bureaucratic sleight of hand. The net income accruing to growers didn’t cover the running expenses of their farms.

Even the most prestigious wineries in the best-known appellations – Stellenbosch, Constantia and Paarl – were battling to keep afloat. The less well known areas were left with the crumbs. With depressed land prices everywhere, there was no need in invest in any but the best known areas of origin. Graham Beck, who had made his fortune in the coal business, was passionate about horse-racing and owned a stud in Robertson. He knew the areas well and decided that the calcium rich soils of the less fashionable, over-the-mountain location trumped the snob-value of the Coastal Region – at least insofar as the fizz business was concerned.

It was a prescient decision: today the difference in status between the inland and the coastal appellations has largely dissipated. However, the quality benefits of the lime-rich soil and the massive diurnal temperature changes are irreplaceable from a fruit quality perspective. Of course, to make fine fizz it’s usually necessary to source grapes from a number of sites. The Beck Blanc de Blancs uses chardonnay from Stellenbosch as well as Robertson and draws on a variety of clones. There are other distinguishing features: the base wines depend on a regime of subtle oak-ageing, and, more than most of its competitors, the Graham Beck bubblies profit from the elapse of time.

Rich men (who aren’t accountable to shareholders) are free to write the rule book as they please. Beck decided that a decent pre-release maturation period is more important than optimising the yield on his funds. He died in 2010, but this principle has been enshrined at the winery. The fact that the 1993 Blanc de Blancs is still very much alive, and the 2002 is on the plateau of perfection, confirms the founder’s vision has survived the transience of his flesh. The 2009 vintage of the Cuvée Clive – cellar’s prestige cuvée which celebrates the life of Beck’s son, who predeceased him in 1995 – is another example of the long-term percipience required to construct a monumental sparkling wine.

Since the winery’s first release its reputation for high quality bubbly has grown – adding to the overall credibility of the region. Today no serious Cape wine enthusiast would question its status as a Cap Classique Grande Marque. In the early days, its branding – under its proprietor’s name – lacked the vinous ring of some of the other properties. The passage of time has effectively disposed of that. No doubt there were consumers of Champagne in France in the 19th century who wondered why M. Mumm or M. Krug had put their not-very-French names on their products. For punters today, the name of Graham Beck is synonymous with fine fizz. More people care about this than know about about his fortunes made in the coal industry or his long-forgotten triumphs in the world of horse-flesh. The great man may not be as well-known as Tutankhamen, but a fizz palace in Robertson beats a sepulchre in the desert any day.

Style 24 July 2015

Aesthetic judgements are a fertile environment for conflict, partly because there are no absolutes, partly because they are usually located in the realm of deep emotions. One man’s masterpiece is another man’s chocolate box: harmonious or cacophonous, fresh or hackneyed, elegant or clunky – there are no broadly agreed guidelines.

At a wine writers’ conference held in the United States last year Jon Bonné, who champions the less showy style of Californian wine, took issue with Robert Parker (indisputably the world’s most influential wine critic) over an article Parker had written which pilloried many of the fresher, lighter new generation wines. Parker described those promoting the style as “Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists” and defended his position by saying he had not been against lower alcohol wines per se, but against those whose preoccupation with lower alcohols came at the expense of flavour. “What I’m railing about there is that if you intentionally go out and say, well, I’ve got to make a lower alcohol wine so I’m just going to pick earlier, you’re really just picking under-ripe fruit that isn’t going to give the full expression of terroir.”

The discussion which ensued highlighted the absence of aesthetic agreement between the two positions. Bonné’s “over-ripe” could be Parker’s “opulent and concentrated”  while Parker’s “flavourless and too acidic” might satisfy Bonné’s criteria for elegance and freshness. Bonné is by no means the sole spokesman for the “refined wine” position. Rajat Parr, a San Francisco sommelier who is now a winemaker, has long championed an alternative, less plush style for his native Californian wines. In 2008 he and Hirsch Vineyards’ Jasmine Hirsch founded a group which they have called “In Pursuit of Balance” and which has attracted a significant number of new wave Californian wine-makers.

We’re seeing a similar pattern on the fringe of the Cape wine industry (fringe only because many of the wines are not easily obtained, and nor are all of them readily understood by mainstream consumers.) Associated initially with the “young Turks” of the Swartland, the numbers have grown significantly in the past few years. Many of the wines are less easily obtained in Gauteng than the Cape, and very few appear on local restaurant wine lists. In part this is because many producers manage their own sales via their mailing lists, minimising the loss of margin they would have to share with distributors, and partly because none of them would pay the listing fees which have become a feature of the on-consumption trade.

Volumes are also restricted because of shortages in working capital, the focus on single site (usually old vine) plantings and because marketing strategies create no new customer berths on the cellar mailing lists. In the typical commercial model of these (seemingly uncommercial) operations, supply can only grow if the winemaker finds another vineyard site whose fruit he can contract to his cellar, and if he has sufficient funds to take on this commitment. Until then, volume fluctuation is vintage driven and the variances are usually mopped up by the existing customer base. A mailer is sent out to those who have supported the project from the outset and since they generally commit to their annual allocations, there’s little chance for newcomers to secure any stock.

Arguably, little turns on this – the Irish have a proverb which says “there are more fish in the sea than have ever been caught.” There’s enough good wine around that obsessing about what you might not have been able to secure from these minuscule operations is a largely fruitless exercise. However, if I had to establish a list of producers/wines that justify the extra effort it would include Ginny Povall’s Botanica Mary Delany Chenin Blanc, Chris Alheit’s Magnetic North Mountain Makstok, Saffraan from Mount Abora, The Fledge & Company’s Klipspringer Steen and David Sadie’s Aristargos. There are also many I haven’t tasted, of which John Seccombe’s Thorne & Daughters Zoetrope currently heads my wish list.

Maturing wine 17 July 2015

Age and wine go together, a bit like luxury cars and motorplans (the one pre-supposes the other). Literature is packed with aphorisms extolling the virtues of mature wine (“old wood is best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust…”). Luke’s Gospel observes that “no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.’” When the EU’s nanny police one day decide that all wines destined for sale in Europe must have a “sell by” date on the bottle, you can expect a more vociferous-than-usual outcry.

People sometimes age faster than their cellars (and sometimes die with a cellar full of mature but lively wine.) They (or their heirs) then try to do a little tidying up, only to find that it would be easier to sell a Jag without a motorplan than a stash of properly stored old wine. Ten years of bottle age – the minimum for a decent red – is suddenly an overwhelming impediment. Add another decade (which is when most cabernets are just setting out on the plateau of maturity) and the pool of potential buyers is as dry as a salt pan in the Karoo. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the old wine tastings hosted every year ahead of the Trophy Wine Show (and widely reported in the media), the mature wine selection at the Nederburg auction, anecdotal accounts from vertical tastings going back a decade or more, the secondary market is non-existent. If, for a suitably mature wine, you get half the price of a current vintage, you should count yourself lucky.

This is not a uniquely South African issue. Relatively recent release top European wines are generally more expensive than those with a couple of decades of bottle age. The 2000 vintage of Chateau Latour trades at a 50% premium to the 1990. The 2000 Chateau Lafite at double the price of the older wine. Both vintages enjoy equally good reputations. Common sense suggests that this obsession with the new verges on the insane. Older wines are harder to find, there are fewer bottles around, they are closer to their peak of maturity (but still way off being dangerously old). Insofar as the European classics are concerned, there’s less chance of the older bottles turning out to be fakes: the market hardly justified producing counterfeits in the 1980s and 1990s, and now that the more easily-reproduced younger wines fetch more money, there’s less incentive to do so.

The argument – in South Africa and possibly in Europe – is that technology and climate change have conspired to make younger wines potentially better than their older counterparts. This is certainly true of if you’re talking about Bordeaux and Burgundy of the 1970s, but less certain from the 1990s onwards. South Africa’s big leap forward in terms of wine-making and vineyard management was five to ten years ago, though some long-established producers have been making great wines for several decades.

It’s probable that palates have changed, with many of the younger buyers in the market less inclined to find the more nuanced charms of old wine as attractive as the opulence, primary fruit, and in-your-face oak of recent vintages. In addition, it’s become increasingly clear that the pricing strategies of the high profile producers are designed to create a feeding frenzy around limited release volumes. Offers like “2010 Damilano Barolo Cerequio – 95 points – 208 cases made” or “’this is a supremely well-crafted wine, one to go out and grab now before it’s too late’ (NM) – 2010 La Fleur Petrus” say it all.

This pattern isn’t going to change any time soon. In the UK over 90% of all wine sold is consumed within 24 hours of purchase. Deferred gratification does not appear to be a 21st century concept. This may make it tough for those with a parcel of older wine to sell. However, buyers with an appreciation for its charms are unlikely to complain.

Research shows that, taken in moderation, wine is good for your health. RMB WineX supports responsible alcohol consumption. © 2020 WineX Pty Ltd

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