I’ve visited South Africa twice so far, and while the two trips had very little in common, they were both awesome in their own way. The more recent was for the World Cup in 2010 and I was based around Johannesburg. While I did carry home a mixed case and a half of some excellent wines (including the Ross Gower Pinor Noir Brut 2007, as well as this one), I didn’t visit any wineries. However, on the first trip, my honeymoon in fact, my wife and I had the pleasure of a tour of the producer of this Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2009.
I’ve been wanting to write about Haute Cabrière for a while, and have mentioned the producer a few times, either by name as with the Louis Bouillot Crémant de Bourgogne Perle d’Ivoire post, or just by reference as with my Christmas Recap, because it was there that I saw a sabrage demonstration and have been fascinated by the practice ever since.
Haute Cabrière is a producer of still, sparkling, and fortified wines, as well as a potstill brandy. Established in Franschhoek in 1694 by a Pierre Jourdan, a French Huguenot farmer, it was completely replanted in 1982 in the style of Champagne with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines. The company is led by Archim von Arnim, who is something of a character. I remember him very clearly from the tour, when a foreign tourist asked if he could call his sparkling wine Champagne. He replied “No, but the Champenois can’t call their wine Pierre Jourdan”, implying that he got the better end of the deal. He personally gave the sabrage demonstration at the end of the tour, which involved picking three volunteers to join him on stage who were, coincidentally, the three prettiest women on the tour. (Yes, my bride was one of them.) His personality is as the forefront of the brand, with his name on the front label of the bottle and his poetry on the back. Since I’ve been there however, Takuan von Arnim seems to be stepping up to his role as heir, if the tasting videos are anything to go by. I’ve enjoyed their sparkling wines, but today I’m writing about another wine style that they produces that is very interesting.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, classic grapes of both Burgundy and Champagne, enjoy cool climates and even in the New World are often found planted in close proximity. However, while it’s not unknown for red and white grapes to be combined in the same wine, particularly in the Rhône, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir combine to form some of the best sparkling wine of Champagne, they are rarely found together in still wine. This wine is one of those rarities.
The first reaction among winemakers when I poured it for some last year was “oh, a sparkling base.” Yes and no. Yes, in a still, white wine, these two grapes are most typically a blend destined to go through another fermentation. However, in more important ways this is very much not a sparkling base. Grapes for sparkling wine are typically picked earlier than grapes for still wine. That way they will have higher acidity and lower sugar levels, resulting in that particular crispness required of sparkling wines, and can allow for an increase in alcohol and/or sweetness through dossage or a softening through malolactic fermentation and/or extended ageing on lees, depending on the house style. The resulting sparkling base is often thin and overly tart by the standards of still wine. That is absolutely not the case for this wine.
But before I talk about this wine in more detail, a word or two about Franschhoek, which I will try desperately not to misspell throughout the course of this post. It’s one of the oldest towns in South Africa, established in 1688, which makes Pierre Jourdan one of its early settlers. Its name means French Corner in some flavour of Dutch, and it was essentially an enclave for Huguenots who fled France after their right to practice their religion was revoked in 1685.
I tend to clump Franschhoek together with Paarl and Stellenbosch, as they form a small triangle of wine production, but the official structuring of overlapping wine Geographical Units, Regions, Districts and Wards in South Africa is more than a little complicated. Franschhoek is officially in the Paarl region, but a popular choice of indicators on the label if nothing more specific is used is Coastal Region, which includes the above, as well as Constantia, Durbanville, Cape Point, Swartland, and Tulbagh. The climate is Mediterranean, though the intense sunshine is a big factor. Fortunately, so is proximity to False Bay to the south, and a wind known as the Cape Doctor which clears the air, reducing disease pressure and humidity. The soil types vary greatly, though decomposed granite is often found on the hillsides with alluvial and sandy plains below. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are not the most commonly found varieties in Franschhoek, but the area is home to some soaring hills, and the Haute Cabrière vines are planted at either end of the valley to take advantage of the cooler temperatures afforded by the altitude.
This wine is clear, bright, and a pale lemon/gold colour. When the glass is swirled, it shows a quick thin film on the inside of the glass that doesn’t turn to legs before it settles back into the wine. The nose is clean, with medium plus intensity, and a developing character, with notes of butter, lemon, sunflowers, and some oak. On the palate, this wine is dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus body, and showing some signs of oak and/or development. It has medium alcohol levels with medium plus flavour intensity, and flavours of lemon curd, toast, honeycomb. With 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, I want to say I can taste the Pinot Noir, and so there’s a bit of sour cherry on the finish, but I can’t say if it’s in the glass or in my head. Also, the notes suggest there may be some residual sugar, though I think with the acidity it came through for me more as palate weight than sweetness.
This is wine of very good quality, though not expensive (roughly $10). Unfortunately for me, they only ship within South Africa, so I consider it nearly priceless as I have to factor the price of an airline ticket into the cost. As I mentioned earlier, this is absolutely not a base wine. It is more full bodied and rounded, with more alcohol and less acid. As a 2009, it has flavour development that sparkling wine will only get after many more years on lees. It’s a shame that this wine is nigh impossible to obtain in Australia, as it’s both enjoyable and very affordable. However, I look forward to having another bottle the next time I’m in a country in which it’s available.
However, there is one issue with this wine which I hope will be addressed soon – do you serve it in a Pinot Noir glass, or a Chardonnay glass? I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until Riedel comes out with a special glass just for this blend.