Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006

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Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006

Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006

Some friends who run a local wine bar have been in South Africa on holiday over the last few weeks.  While I’m jealous, I’m also glad they took the trip because I have high hopes they’ll bring back with them tales of interesting wines and with any luck they will have arranged for some to feature in their establishment.  So while I was in Adelaide over the holidays, I was thinking of South Africa and drinking this Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006.

As much as I would love to cover a new grape and a new region with every post, my access to the world of wine is limited by what I can readily source.  For wines of South Australia, most everything just requires a trip to a bottle shop or a cellar door, but for the rest of the world I am limited by what is imported.  Those wines tend to be European and from the most sought after regions / producers, which means if I want a First Growth Bordeaux I just need to find the money, but if I want a Pinot Gris from Oregon I’m out of luck.  Fortunately I’ve been able to bring back a few bottles from my travels, though they only cover the areas I’ve visited.  This is just a roundabout way of saying that instead of some new grape variety and unexplored area of the world, it’s another Pinot Noir from Elgin, not so unlike the Ross Gower Cap Classique I wrote about this time last year.

Obviously this is not the same producer nor the same style of wine, but since it’s been a year some recap of Elgin probably wouldn’t go amiss.  It’s a region of the Western Cape roughly 70km east by south east from Cape Town, midway between the wine centres of Stellenbosch and Hermanus.  It’s among the coolest regions of South Africa, a plateau at 300m bordered by mountains.  The climate is cool, with both altitude and relative proximity to the ocean (approximately 20km to the west and south) being factors.  Winters are cold and harvests can be more than a month after warmer regions of the Cape.  I originally described the soil as shale, which does serve as a base for the region as a whole.  More specifically it’s often covered with a layer of sandstone gravel or clay, sometimes both.  And as I’ve said before, baboons are a hazard in the vineyard, particularly when grapes are ripe or nearly so.

As of this post, four out of the ten wines of South Africa I’ve covered have been made in whole or part of Pinot Noir, and so one could be forgiven for concluding that it’s a popular grape in the country.  However, while the plantings have almost doubled between 2000 and 2010 to nearly 1000HA, it’s still a relative drop in the bucket compared to the 18,000HA of Chenin Blanc, 12,000HA of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 12,000HA of Colombar.  In fact, Pinot Noir ranks 13th in the league table of plantings, though its percentage growth over that period is rivalled only by Syrah which saw a near doubling of plantings from 5,600HA to just over 10,000HA.  So while Pinot Noir is an increasingly important grape for South Africa’s cooler regions, it is perhaps over-represented on these pages because of my personal preferences.

The Oak Valley Estate was founded in 1898 by Antonie Viljoen.  He was likely one of the descendants of François Villion, a French Huguenot, who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1671 and married Cornelia Campenaar of Middelburg, Holland.  Viljoen studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and was a medical officer in the Boer army, but was captured by the British and detained at Oak Valley for the duration of the Second Boer War.  He was subsequently knighted for his work at post-war reconciliation.  He oversaw the planting of the first commercial orchards in the region, the precursor of the apple industry which is now the foundation of the region’s economy.  He also started the first winery in 1908, though it was only in use through the 1940s.  The estate is now managed by Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen.

Oak Valley is unique among the producers we’ve covered in that wine is not their only business.  Wineries which also distil spirits, press olive oil, or sell branded merchandise are not uncommon, but Oak Valley as a business is at least as concerned with apple and pear orchards, greenhouse flowers and beef cattle as it is with wine.  The vineyards as they stand today date back only to 1985, and their first vintage was 2003.  The lion’s share of their plantings are Sauvignon Blanc, with much smaller amounts of Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and fewer still plantings of another half dozen varieties.  While grapes are estate grown, space is currently rented at a neighbouring winery for production.  Wines currently produced include varietal Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and this Pinot Noir, as well as a Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blend and a Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon Blend.

As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright with medium minus garnet colour and quick, thin legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium intensity and notes of sweet red cherries, pomegranate, dark chocolate and sweet spice, along with a little Pinot funk.  On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus flavour intensity, medium fine tannins, medium plus alcohol and medium plus length.  There are notes of red cherries, cranberries, pomegranate, dark chocolate, a hint of iodine, and some saltiness or blood on the finish.  (Either that or my mouth is bleeding from something completely unrelated.)

This is an excellent wine.  I don’t break out the excellent rating often, despite trying to drink the best wines I can afford, but this one certainly earns it.  The flavour profile shines  - the fruit, while distinct and still fresh, does not constitute a bomb by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s fairly soft in its fruit intensity, allowing the chocolate to come through, rounded out with the interesting finish.  Everything is supremely well balanced.  What I find even more surprising, and which I didn’t know when I wrote my tasting note and quality assessment, is that this is a relatively recent venture.  Even though the estate has over a hundred years of agricultural history, I believe this is only the second Pinot Noir they produced, from vines that were only five years old at the time.  I can only hope that my friends managed to bring more Oak Valley wine back with them from their trip.

Ross Gower Pinot Noir Brut 2007

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Ross Gower Pinot Noir Brut 2007

Ross Gower Pinot Noir Brut 2007

At the tasting the other night, we tried 19 wines in total, all sparkling, and generally all very good to excellent.  With 19 wines though, I hope I can be forgiven for not writing up a detailed note about each region, the grapes used, the producer and the wine itself.  I love drinking and writing, but I have my limits.  So instead, I’m going to go into a bit more detail on one of the wines.

I think Ross Gower Pinot Noir Brut 2007 is worthy of a bit more attention.  It gets to my love of the novel and obscure, which is also why I brought it to the tasting.  The Champagnes are popular and well distributed enough that they’re likely available anywhere in the world, and I just recently wrote about an Australian sparkler, so that leaves me to choose between the English sparkling wines from Nytimber or this Cap Classique.  I hope to write about Nytimber at some point, as English sparklers are an interesting and relatively new phenomenon, but Cap Classique is at least as rare in these parts, and since I was the one who brought it to the tasting, having carried it here from South Africa, I can’t let this opportunity go to waste.

So, this is a wine of South Africa.  The very first post of this blog was about a South African wine, and while I’ve only been to South Africa a couple of times, I’m very fond of it as a country and as a country of origin for some very interesting wines.  Unfortunately, while they’re very easy to find in places where locals consume more wine than they produce, such as London, South African wines aren’t as common around here, and in fact there are precious few that make it to our fair shores.  South Africa is generally considered a New World wine region, but it’s a bit more complicated than that in that wine has been produced there since the 17th century, with a dessert wine from near Cape Town,  Vin de Constance, internationally regarded as a particularly fine wine at that time.

The complete history of wine in South Africa is beyond the scope of this simple blog, but suffice it to say that in recent history the wine was not internationally widely available nor well regarded during the Apartheid era.  However, over the last twenty years things have been changing rapidly for the better.  International markets opened, investments were made in viticultural and oenological technology, and flying winemakers brought international expertise into the local industry.  South Africa has much in common with Chile and Argentina, in that land and labour costs are relatively low, certainly compared with Europe.  French barrels and European presses cost the same pretty much everywhere, so South Africa enjoys the competitive advantage found in much of the New World.  However, generally speaking they don’t have the history/prestige that can command the high prices of their Old World rivals, so their wines, particularly their quality wines, can often be very good value.

Elgin is a region within South Africa I have not visited, but looking at the map I’m fairly certain I drove through parts of it while travelling between Franschhoek where I was staying and Hermanus where I visited a few Walker Bay wineries.  I’ve seen it described as the coolest wine region of South Africa, and for those people who haven’t been there and who think of South Africa as a warm country, I have one word:  penguins.  OK, so not in Elgin, but not far.  Elgin is more properly known as Elgin Valley, and it’s a plateau bordered by mountains, about 10km from the ocean.  It has an altitude of 300 metres, with cold, wet winters, and cool sea breezes in the summer.  Shale is the soil type most often referenced with regard to the region.

Pinot Noir is the sole grape in this wine, and it has a long history in sparkling wine.  As one of the three cornerstone grapes of Champagne (along with a few other minor grapes often overlooked), it does well in cool climates, and like most red grapes has pale flesh and clear juice (unlike the Saperavi I recently tried).  I’ve written about Pinot Noir enough that there isn’t a whole lot more I can say, other than that there are a few excellent Pinot Noirs from South Africa, with two neighbours just outside of Elgin toward Hermanus, Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson, producing two of the best.

A quick note about the winemaking – this is a Méthode Cap Classique.  If something is Champagne, it means it is from Champagne and conforms to a certain set of requirements in terms of which grapes are used, how they are grown, harvested, what yields are permitted, how the grapes are pressed, fermented, aged, bottled, what have you.  It’s much more than just a region – it’s a whole set of rules, but with the name Champagne comes a great brand and expectations of a certain quality level from the product.  The winemaking method used is termed méthode traditionnelle, and while no one outside of Champagne can call their wine Champagne, they are free to use that term if they conform to the required techniques.

South Africa went one step better, in my humble opinion, in that they came up with their own term to describe sparkling wine from South Africa which conforms to the méthode traditionnelle, and have branded it Méthode Cap Classique.  Many other countries fumble with saying sparkling wine and then having to also specify which country, but Cap Classique speaks to both country and method.

Ross Gower, the producer, passed away in 2010 between when this wine was made and when it was enjoyed, but the business is still in the family and his two sons are carrying on in his place.  He was educated in winemaking in South Africa, but worked in the wine trade in Germany and New Zealand.  He returned to South Africa and was recruited to recreate the Vin de Constance I mentioned at the top, which had disappeared as a product.  He set up his own company in 2003 and Ross Gower the company has a range of seven wines, with this sparkler, two reds, a rosé and three whites.

As to this wine, I must apologize for the photo.  This wine has a beautiful color, but I didn’t get around to the photographs until after it had been poured to everyone at the tasting.  It’s a very pale rosé, but not pink.  It’s in the salmon to onion skin range, which the winery describes as “eye of the partridge”.  I have not been eye to eye with a partridge, but it’s quite lovely.

On the nose were classic yeasty and biscuity notes, but underpinned with some citrus and a hint of strawberry.  I have to admit though that I tend to pick up red fruit characters from rosé and from Pinot Noir based wines even when they’re not there.  On the palate the citrus character came to the fore, with zingy acidity.  While this is a sparkling wine with no dosage, the fruit was still strong enough to balance out the acidity without requiring sweetening.  A very nice wine, and I wish I had another few bottles.