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.

Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2004

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Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2004

Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2004

As anyone who has read more than one of my posts will know, I don’t have a copy editor.  I do my best, but it seems every time I go back and read an old post I find a letter or word out of place.  Alas, with over 150 wines reviewed, I’m unlikely to ever find all the typos.  So it may seem like I’m just asking for trouble reviewing this wine, but it is such a favourite of mine that I’m willing to risk spelling the producer’s name five different ways through the course of this post in order to bring you the Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2004.

With a name like that, Boekenhoutskloof can only be from South Africa (or the Netherlands, I suppose).  The label gives some hint as to the origin – the seven chairs represent traditional styles of 18th and 19th century furniture making, and in South Africa these chairs would ideally have been fashioned from native Cape Beech, also known as Boekenhout.  A kloof is a ravine, and the full name dates to the founding of the original farm in 1776 near Franschhoek.  It took its most recent form in 1993 when the property was purchased by a group of partners and vines replanted.  The first vintage was produced in 1997.

When my wife and I visited South Africa in 2007, we managed to swing by the Boekenhoutskloof cellar door but unfortunately they were sold out entirely of their eponymous line of wines.  It turns out their winemaker, Marc Kent who joined as a partner in 1994, had just won Diners Club Winemaker of the Year.  (He is a finalist for the 2012 award as well, to be announced on November 3rd.)  We were able to enjoy a bottle subsequently at a restaurant, though we were assured it was the last one to be found.  Fortunately though, it turns out to be one of the few fine wines of South Africa imported into Australia, and since news of the award didn’t make the front page in Adelaide, I was able to pick up this bottle and the rest that our local wine merchant had on hand.

Boekenhoutskloof is the name of the company as a whole, as well as their flagship line of wines, which includes Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and this Syrah.  It’s produced in very limited quantities – less than 1000 cases of each of the reds and much less of the Semillon.  Their second brand consists of a single wine, the Chocolate Block, which is a Rhône style blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Viognier, with some Cabernet Sauvignon thrown in as well.  Their Porcupine Ridge and Wolftrap ranges are everyday drinking wines, and constitute the bulk of production.

Before I get to the wine itself, a quick word about the production.  While some brands are somewhat coy regarding what happens in their winery, Boekenhoutskloof actually lists some of the specific equipment they use, from mechanized berry selection tables, to the specific destemmer, press, pump, and even the trendy egg-shaped fermenter from Nomblot, all of which appeal to me for having worked a few vintages.  Winemakers like their toys as much as anyone, and it’s nice that Boekenhoutskloof is willing to share those details.

Likewise, this Syrah has had a number of winemaking techniques applied across the different parcels sourced from a single vineyard that made up the final wine, including some whole bunches, carbonic maceration, and some stalks.  Fermentation was with natural yeast in a combination of open top oak and concrete vessels, and after some maceration the wine was put into used French oak for over two years.  Fining was done twice with egg whites, but it was bottled without filtration.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a dark garnet colour and quick thin legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developed, with medium intensity and notes of sweet spice, red fruit, raspberries, pumpkin, and red cherries.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus integrated tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium body, medium plus intensity, and medium plus length.  There are notes of green peppercorns, sweet spice, brambles, blackberries, and liquorice.

This is a very good wine.  It’s clearly a Syrah on the nose, but it took a while to show that typicity on the palate.  It’s nicely balanced, and really driving – the combination of length and intensity makes the wine stand out.  I especially liked the contrast of the relatively sweet nose with the more savoury notes on the palate.  I don’t know exactly how many bottles of Boekenhoutskloof I have in the cellar, but I look forward to drinking the rest over several years.

Kumkani Pinotage 2009

Kumkani Pinotage 2009

Kumkani Pinotage 2009

Since the last month has been dominated by North America, along with the usual European and Australian influences, it’s time to have a look at another wine of South Africa.  As a continent, Africa is not as well represented as I would like in this blog.  However, as a country I’ve covered as many wines of South Africa as I have from the United States, so I don’t feel so bad, particularly given how thin on the ground they are here in Australia.  From the Xhosa word for king, I give you the Kumkani Pinotage 2009.

This is not our first Pinotage, so for a description of the variety itself it might be worth reading my write up of the Warwick Estate I had back in June.  That wine turned out to be a blend, so this is the first varietal Pinotage, and I have a couple more tidbits to share.  First, I’ve actually had some Australian Pinotage from Oak Works which was very interesting, though as a clearskin so I can’t really write it up.  Second, in addition to the experimental plantings of Pinotage outside of South Africa in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, I spotted a Canadian Pinotage while I was visiting, though sadly I didn’t get a chance to try it.

This is a wine of Stellenbosch, within the Coastal Region of the Western Cape, located between Cape Town and Franschhoek and to the south/southwest of Paarl.  The climate is Mediterranean, with hot summers and cool, rainy winters.  Soils are generally divided into the light, sandy soils on the plains and heavier soils in the hills, along with some decomposed granite found at the base of eastern mountains.  The eponymous town has long been a centre for the industry in South Africa, both as the heart of one of the original wine regions and as the home of viticultural research at the University of Stellenbosch.

Kumkani is something of a rarity as far as wine producers.  First, it has been a black owned business since January of this past year.  Wine production and consumption in South Africa has long been of a European tradition.  However, lately there has been an increase in both the percentage of black owned wine producers and interest in wine among black South Africans, particularly the growing middle class.

Second, Kumkani is co-owned by winemaker Allison S. Adams-Witbooi.  A graduate of the University of Stellenbosch and a veteran of wineries in northern Italy, southern France and throughout South Africa, she is both the brand ambassador and actively involved in the winemaking.  While the sex of the owner or winemaker is not something normally requiring a comment, female winemakers are still uncommon in South Africa.  The work of Ms. Adams-Witbooi and others such as Ntsiki Biyela of Stellekaya is paving the way to erasing stereotypes about South African winemakers.

Kumkani produces ten or so wines, including three blends of paired varieties, a trio of varietals in the form of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and this Pinotage, and single vineyard varietal expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, as well as a Méthode Cap Classique sparkler.

Kumkani is one of four brands of “the company of wine people” which is South Africa’s fifth largest exporter of packaged wines (as opposed to bulk).  The other labels include Arniston Bay which is branded as a New World lifestyle set of wines, Welmoed which draws on European heritage and traditions dating back to its origins in 1690, and Versus which is a set of “unconventional” wines in dry and sweet formats without any varietal indicators.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright with a dark ruby colour and thick legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium intensity and notes of blackberries, some tar, black pepper, and sweet spice.  On the palate it’s dry with medium acidity, medium plus intensity, medium plus alcohol, medium fine tannins, medium plus body and a medium finish.  There are notes of cedar, blackberries, blackcurrants, some pencil lead, and sweet spice on the finish.

This is a good wine – it’s friendly on the palate with some sweet fruit but also some developed notes which give it complexity.  While I think it’s made in a style suited to drinking young, it’s possible this would actually continue to improve with a few more years.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2005

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2005

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2005

I’ve only been to South Africa twice, but each trip was so memorable that I can’t help but continue to write about their wines whenever I get the chance.  Sadly, with so few of the wines of South Africa turning up in Australia, my opportunities are diminishing as I work my way through my cellar.  However, there are a few gems remaining, and even a Jem, as well as a handful more bottles of this Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2005.

This is a wine of Walker Bay district, which is within the Cape South Coast region, which is in turn within the Western Cape geographical unit.  South African wine region hierarchies make sense, but I can never keep them straight without looking them up.  The region is roughly 100KM southeast of Cape Town and based around the town of Hermanus, which looks out over the bay that gives the district its name.  The bay is often a stopover point for migrating whales, particularly the Southern Right.

The climate of Walker Bay is often portrayed as cool, but it’s more accurately described as cool as South Africa gets, which is still fairly warm by world standards.  At 34° south, it’s as far from the Equator as North Africa is, but its maritime climate is influenced by the cold Atlantic as opposed to the milder Mediterranean.  The region as a whole is penned in by mountains, which often trap clouds and fog as well.  Soils in the region are a shallow layer of stone and clay over decomposed shale.  Baboons can be pests in the vineyards, which sounds as weird to me as kangaroos being pests probably would to anyone outside of Australia.

Pinot Noir is a favourite grape of this blog, and it has featured in both a still white wine and a rosé sparkler from South Africa, but this is the first we’ve seen it as a still, varietal red.  It’s not a natural fit for most of the country, but it has certainly found a home in Walker Bay.  Hamilton Russell and the neighbouring Bouchard-Finlayson winery in particular have established its reputation over the last few decades.  Early vintages were seen as more Burgundian than New World, though more recent vintages have expressed a unique character specific to the Walker Bay terroir.

Tim Hamilton Russell founded the company in 1975 with the purchase of the property as an undeveloped 170HA plot and set out to establish a cool climate vineyard and winery.  He was succeeded in 1991 by his son, Anthony Hamilton Russell, who, after graduate school at Oxford and Wharton and work abroad in finance and management consultancy, returned to South Africa and set about to focus production.  He redefined the business to only use grapes grown on the property, he surveyed the soils and restricted plantings to 52HA of particularly expressive shale derived clay-rich parcels, and in those areas limited varieties to exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

While it’s natural to ascribe the focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as a result of the relatively cool climate of Walker Bay, it is driven by the soil rather than climate.  Anthony Hamilton Russell believes that clay is the secret to the success of great Burgundian varieties, and points to the Pinot Noir grown in Sancerre as a counterpoint to the argument that limestone is the key.

There is a notion, taken to heart at Hamilton Russell, that the best grapes are produced by vines that are stressed, with many of the great wine regions having struggling vines as a result of poor fertility in the soil, limited access to water, or conditions under which they cannot reliably ripen.  In Walker Bay, grapes ripen consistently and irrigation is permitted.  The stress instead is a result of the soil structure, where the fine root system can only have shallow penetration before it is stopped by shale.  This topsoil of gravel and clay is very marginal for viticulture, resulting in very small vines and low yields.

An interesting note about Hamilton Russell Vineyards is that they produce only two wines – no reserve wines, no second label.  That said, in addition to the Hamilton Russell wines, Anthony Hamilton Russell founded Southern Right Cellars in 1994 which produces cool climate Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc.  He also founded Ashbourne with a 2001 Pinotage based wine of exceedingly limited release.  Ashbourne has only been made in roughly half the years since then, and represents an experiment in redefining Pinotage as a grape with potential to make fine wine at the highest level of quality.

In the glass this wine is clean and bright with a medium plus garnet colour, and very slow legs.  On the nose it is clean but has typical Pinot Noir funkiness.  It has medium minus intensity and a developing character, with notes of raspberry, fresh herbs, green pepper, and a little blood/red meat.  On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium alcohol, medium tannins that coat the mouth with a thin film, medium minus body, and medium plus intensity.  There are notes of fresh and dried herbs, tobacco, liquorice, and graphite, with a black pepper finish of medium plus length.

This is a very good wine.  Lots going on, especially on the palate, and spot on typicity for Pinot Noir.  While there is still a bit of fruit on the nose, it’s very Burgundian on the palate as far as savoury and developed characters.  There is a certain fullness to the wine, but it is balanced, in that no one aspect is especially prominent.  I’m glad I have more in the cellar.

Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2007

I buy far too much wine, and lacking a decent place in my house to keep it properly cellared, I have a climate controlled storage unit where most of it ends up.  That’s a good thing for at least two reasons, in that first the wine is kept in good condition and second when I visit to dig out a bottle, it’s often a pleasant surprise when I come across something long forgotten.  The downside is that since I don’t have a proper inventory (yet), some things can sit too long and I don’t find them until they’re past their prime.  I was pleasantly surprised both to find this bottle hiding away, and that it was not the case that it had sat for too long.  And so the wine for today is a five year old bottle of Graham Beck Pheasants’ Run Sauvignon Blanc 2007.

It took me a while in this blog to get to a Sauvignon Blanc, and when I did, I went with a Saint-Bris which was a bit of a rarity.  Since then I’ve written about a few others, including the recent Bannockburn creation.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy the grape, but rather that it’s been so ubiquitous since I started studying wine that I largely ignored it, instead preferring the more obscure grapes.  I’ve helped make two styles of Sauvignon Blanc in the Adelaide Hills, one in the classic modern style of fresh fruit fermented in stainless steel and bottled almost immediately, and another fermented in oak and matured somewhat before bottling.  The former is for drinking immediately, the latter improves with time.  Between expanding my horizons by tasting Sauvignon Blanc from around the world, and being involved in its production, I’ve deepened my appreciation of the grape, and look forward to having some more when the weather warms up a bit.  (It’s the middle of a cold, wet winter here.)  For details about the grape itself, have a look at the Astrolabe write-up from last month.

As regular readers will know, I often lament the availability of other New World wines here in Australia.  The reason I had this five year old bottle of wine from South Africa in my cellar  is that I had it shipped here after a trip to the Cape, when I had the pleasure of visiting the Graham Beck facilities in Franschhoek (now relocated to Robertson).  It was an impressive set-up, from the very fancy cellar door through to the ultra-modern bottling line, visible through a large window from the bar.

The company was founded eponymously by self-made billionaire Graham Beck in 1983, much of it funded through his success as a businessman in the mining industry.  The first vintage was in 1991, and though Beck passed away in 2010, his company continues from strength to strength.  It is a leader in the production of Cap Classique (a uniquely South African sparkling wine), with the Brut NV having been the drink of choice for the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela in 1994.  In addition to over a half dozen different sparklers, the company produces two dozen still wines, reds, whites and rosés, varietals and blends, table and sweet.  They have plantings (or access to fruit) of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Ruby Cabernet, Mourvedre, Malbec, and Muscat de Frontignan.

Since I’ve had a few Sauvignon Blancs recently, just a quick note about how this was made (or at least how more recent vintages have been made – I can’t find a 2007 technical note).  Pheasants’ Run is made with skin contact, though it only 18 hours worth.  It is fermented slowly at low temperatures, which suggest refrigerated steel instead of barrels, though no specific mention of the vessel is given.  Post fermentation there is some amount of time on lees, on the order of five to six months, with stirring shortly before bottling.  So it’s somewhere between the non-interventionist style of Astrolabe and the every trick in the book approach of Bannockburn.

As I mentioned, when I visited their cellar door was in Franschhoek, which I described at least briefly when I wrote about Haute Cabrière.  Strictly speaking, this is a wine of Coastal Region, which includes not only Franschhoek (strictly speaking, the Paarl region) but also Constantia, Durbanville, Cape Point, Swartland, and Tulbagh.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a pale lemon green colour and some legs.  On the nose it’s clean and still developing, with medium plus intensity and notes of green bell pepper, peas, asparagus, and lemon.  It started with a bit of that yoghurt culture/mushroom note that I sometimes get, but as I’ve not been able to convince anyone else that I can actually smell such an aroma, I should either find a more commonly accepted descriptor or just stop mentioning it altogether.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus intensity, and medium plus alcohol.  It has notes of lemon, green pea, bell pepper, and a bit of cream.  It is fairly rich, and opened up extremely well with a hint of bacon.  It has medium length with a bell pepper and white pepper finish.

I’m happy giving this wine a very good rating.  It has a complex range of flavours, strong intensity and concentration on the nose and palate, and it’s developed very nicely.  Unless it’s a very special bottle that you know will mature with time, I do not generally recommend cellaring Sauvignon Blanc for five years, but this bottle managed the task handily.  The next bottle I encounter I hope to have a bit younger to compare and contrast.

Warwick Estate Old Bush Vines Pinotage 2010

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Warwick Estate Old Bush Vines Pinotage 2010

Warwick Estate Old Bush Vines Pinotage 2010

I know my tastes often run contrary to both the mainstream and to the tastes of people who know wine.  I like wines from out of the way places, or from lesser known varieties.  I’m not a huge fan of Bordeaux, or Burgundy for that matter, but not because I don’t like their wines. I’m just more interested in what else is out there, like forgotten parts of France or emerging areas in the New World.  This wine is indulging my contrarian tastes, in that the grape is fairly well know, just not widely loved.  I give you the Warwick Estate Old Bush Vines Pinotage 2010.

Now let me first clarify that last statement in that it’s the grape, Pinotage, which is held in less that illustrious esteem, irrespective of producer, and secondly, that statement is largely true outside of South Africa, where the grape is a local icon.  Those disclaimers firmly in place, let me tell you about Pinotage, and why I think people should give it a chance.

Pinotage is a modern grape, one of the rare varieties that can be traced to a very specific birthdate.  It was created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, a professor at Stellenbosch University, by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault (which was known as Hermitage locally).  The notion was to try to combine the fine wine character of Pinot Noir with the reliability in the vineyard of Cinsault.  The resulting vine is relatively easy to grow, both as bush vines or trained.  It ripens early, and can give consistently high yields.  It was first commerically planted at Kanonkop Estate in 1941 and the name Pinotage first appeared on a wine label twenty years later on the Lanzerac brand from the Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery.

There are a few things to know about Pinotage which are not strictly about the vine.  First, it is completely New World.  While it is a cross between classic grapes of Burgundy and the Rhône, it is identified uniquely with South Africa, though there are some experimental plantings in places such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

Second, this means that as a variety, it is often burdened by whatever people generally think of South Africa and/or South African wine.  While I think most people who have been there in the last ten years will agree that it is a progressive, emerging country with some innovative winemakers, many people still associate South Africa with the oppressive system of government that made it an international pariah, and the cheap and nasty wine that characterized that era.  I believe this can be seen as recently as the burnt rubber criticisms levelled at South African wines over the last few years, despite such character being found in wines from around the world.

And finally, Pinotage, like all varieties, has a unique flavour profile which some people enjoy and some people don’t.  At its best it can produce an intense, long-lasting wine with black fruit and rich tannins, which develops notes of brambles, chocolate and earthiness.  However, it can also develop excessive amounts of isoamyl acetate which can give it flavours ranging from bananas to nail varnish and paint.  And as with every variety, how the grapes are grown and how they are made into wine has at least as much influence as the variety itself, and there are examples of both great and rubbish wine made from Pinotage.

Right, so that’s my take on Pinotage, and there’s scarcely space left to talk about the producer and the region.  Fortunately, we’ve covered this region before, when I took a look at Haute Cabrière, so have a look there for a recap, and now it’s down to talking about Warwick Estate.

The farm on which they’re based, just north of Stellenbosch, was established in 1771, though it only picked up the current name in 1902 when it was purchased by a British officer and renamed in honour of the regiment he commanded in the Anglo Boer war.  Stan and Norma Ratcliffe purchased the property in 1964 and grew Cabernet Sauvignon which they sold to local wineries for twenty years before taking the plunge into making their own wine.  Their first proper vintage was 1984, and two years later they first released Warwick Trilogy, their flagship Bordeaux blend.  To this day the company is still family owned and run, and funnily enough Mike, son of Stan and Norma, attended the University of Adelaide and received a Graduate Diploma in Wine Marketing.  (Small world.)

In addition to Trilogy, the company produces a trio of varietal wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage branded the Three Cape Ladies, varietal Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and a reserve Bordeaux blend.

For me, this wine was meant to be another ticked box in terms of advancing toward 100 varietal wines from different grapes, and one I which I expected to find most satisfying as Pinotage is somewhat thin on the ground here in Australia. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I discovered that in fact this wine is a blend, with 12% Cabernet Sauvignon.  I have nothing against blends, and certainly nothing against Cabernet Sauvignon, but really, I was after a varietal wine.  This is not the first time it’s happened to me – a certain Gamay and Carignan spring to mind.  I know, there’s no need to mention minor blending partners if they constitute less than 15% of a blend, but still, it means I’m going to have to dig up another Pinotage sometime soon.  There are actually a few Australian producers, so perhaps a compare and contrast is in order.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, medium plus ruby, quick thin legs with some colour to them.  On the nose it’s clean and youthful, with medium plus intensity, black cherries, sweet spice, liquorice, and a hint of tar.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus green tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium plus intensity, and medium plus length.  It has notes of sour cherry, a bit of funk, some stem/stalk, cedar, chocolate, and more liquorice.

This is a very good wine – strong fruit, but a certain underlying richness.  It will certainly get better over the short term, though I don’t think it’s destined for decades of ageing.  While young and fresh, it does have a bit of complexity on the palate.  It shows no unfavourable aspects that people commonly (and sometimes wrongly) ascribe to Pinotage, and I’d love to serve this blind to the next person who speaks ill of the variety.

Sadie Family Columella 2007

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Sadie Family Columella 2007

Sadie Family Columella 2007

While they’re certainly thin on the ground here in Australia, I’m a big fan of the wines of South Africa.  I started this blog by writing about an entry level white, Goats Do Roam, and now as I approach my hundredth wine, I have one that is at the other end of the price spectrum, The Sadie Family Columella 2007.

In researching this wine, I think I’ve come across yet another iconic winemaker about whom I knew almost nothing, a bit like when I went to the Stephen Pannell tasting, and that despite having personally carried some of his wines back with me from South Africa almost two years ago.

When I was last in South Africa, the trip was all about the World Cup and hardly at all about wine.  However, I did manage to swing by a wine shop and picked up a mixed case, largely consisting of wines I had enjoyed on my previous visit.  However, the Chenin Blanc I wanted from Ken Forrester was unavailable.  The merchant suggested instead that I try an unfamiliar wine, Palladius, which was a white blend.  I picked up two bottles, brought them back to Australia, put them in the cellar, and never bothered to investigate what I had brought home.  It turns out they are wines of The Sadie Family, made by Eben Sadie who I now know as the first celebrity winemaker of South Africa.

Eben Sadie worked throughout the world in the wine industry, before returning to South Africa in 1998 to work with Charles Back, who is best known for producing wines of The Spice Route and Fairview, makers of Goats Do Roam.  (See what I did there?  It’s all connected!)  After very quickly making a reputation for himself, he started his own winery in 1999, initially using the Spice Route facilities, and produced the first vintage of Columella in 2000.  He co-founded a vineyard in Priorat, Spain in 2001 where he produces a wine in partnership with Dominik Huber, a restauranteur from Munich.  In 2002 he produced his first vintage of Palladius, and in 2003 branched out to produce Sequillo wines which are something of a more affordable second label.

I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do justice to Eben Sadie, having covered the dates and dry facts.  Apparently he is something of a personality, and I think he’s relatively young, turning 40 this year.  He’s considered a wine guru, having seen how wine is made both throughout Europe and in Oregon and then deciding he was going to apply that in South Africa.  He’s been described as an enfant terrible by Tim Atkin MW in Decanter, a prophet by Jancis Robinson, and an artisan by Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof (who I’ve always thought of as an artisan, so he would know).  He eschews the term winemaker, preferring the wine to be an expression of terroir, and therefore his job is to stay out of the way so that can happen, rather than trying to make that happen.

This is not a unique profile – many winemakers spend their early years working vintages around the world to return to their homelands and apply their learning.  Likewise many winemakers have similar ideas as to non-intervention in winemaking and expression of terroir.  It’s actually a pretty easy formula, but it really doesn’t explain anything, because there’s clearly something unique about Eben Sadie and his approach that isn’t evident in any of the articles about him that I’ve read or the documents released related to his wine.  But there is absolutely something that sets him and his wines apart, and if I could pin it down I might like to follow in his footsteps.  But experiencing winemaking in different parts of the world isn’t enough, nor is having the best intentions and practices.  There’s something else, and I don’t know what it is, but he has it.

Columella, the wine, is named for Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who Sadie describes as the first wine writer.  A first century agriculturalist, he authored De Re Rustica, a twelve volume work on all aspects of agriculture.  The wine as a tribute to him is reflected in the entirety of the label being in Latin.  This includes place names, which means Swartland from Dutch/Afrikaans turns into Nigra in Terra in Latin, then into something along the lines of Black Country in English, apparently to do with a native plant with a dark appearance after rains.  The wine itself is a blend, with 80% Syrah being the core, along with 20% Mourvèdre.

Swartland is something of a new wine region for me, though having now just found it on a map, I drove right through it while I was on honeymoon.  (I hope I can be forgiven for having had other things on my mind.)  It’s north of Cape Town on the west coast of the country as part of the Western Cape Geographical Unit, and within that the Coastal Region.  The climate is warm though mitigated by proximity to the Atlantic and very stable.  It is a traditional breadbasket for grain production in its flat, open plains, with vineyards on foothills or along the river Berg.  The area had been known for production of bulk and fortified wine, and it is home to the largest co-operative in the country, but there has been a recent trend toward high quality wine from smaller producers.

As to the particulars of The Sadie Family vines, they lease seven vineyards throughout Swartland.  They do not irrigate, and roughly half their vines are trellised, with the remainder being bush vines.  They have very low yields generally, and thin their crop further in dry years.  Their soils are a mix of decomposed slate, decomposed granite, and sandstone and slate / clay mixtures.  They hand pick into baskets, and then hand sort the grapes.  After destemming, half are crushed, and then left to cold soak for two to four days.  Fermentation is by natural yeast in open top wooden fermenters over three to four week with controlled temperatures, followed by additional maceration on skins for up to three weeks.  After pressing, the wine is transferred into barrels using buckets rather than pumped, and gravity is used for other transfers.  The parcels are eventually blended and mature in oak for up to two years, then bottled without fining or filtering.

In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with a medium plus purple colour and slow legs with a bit of colour to them.  The nose is clean and intense, but took ages to get this way – decanted four hours ago and was very closed at that point.  It has notes of perfume, blueberry and chocolate.  On the palate, it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium plus body, medium plus alcohol, medium minus soft tannins, and medium plus flavour intensity.  It’s a rich wine with notes of chocolate, green peppercorns, blueberry, cherry, cola, and coffee.  It has a bit of fruit sweetness to it – not to do with residual sugar, just fruit.  It has long length with a herby finish.

This is an exceptional wine.  It’s intense, long lasting, and well balanced – not overly tannic or alcoholic (though there’s enough), but with a solid punch of flavour and supporting cast. It has a very solid structure, but not one based exclusively on tannins.  Yet it’s graceful – it allows appreciation if you stop to consider it in your mouth, but not overly obvious.  It’s not exactly subtle, but somewhere in between – you’ll think it’s nice, but only when you stop will you appreciate it does it really reveal itself.

Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2009

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Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2009

Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2009

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.

 

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.

 

Fairview Goats Do Roam White 2008

Fairview Goats Do Roam White 2008

Fairview Goats Do Roam White 2008

So the wine for tonight is not expensive but is relatively rare in this part of the world – it’s a Goats Do Roam White 2008.  It’s produced by Fairview in the general vicinity of Paarl in South Africa, less than an hour from Capetown.  I first heard of their brand before I knew anything at all about wine, but even then I got the joke.

This is an entry level wine, but a good value for the price.  What makes it special for me is the scarcity of South African wines around here, combined with the nostalgia of having been to their cellar door and having seen the goat tower (and goats) in person whilst on honeymoon some years ago.  As you can see from the tasting notes on their website it’s an uncommon blend, and I really wish I could pick out the Crouchen Blanc but I don’t think I’ve ever had that as a straight varietal (unless one of those old bottles of Clare Riesling wasn’t actually Riesling).  The blend is:  Viognier 64%, Crouchen Blanc 18%, Chenin Blanc 13%, Pinot Gris 45, Muscat 1%.

Also, this bottle sports the classic label, which in some ways perhaps mimics French labels of the appropriate area.  There is a new goat logo, based on a Mesopotamian image, that I think they have been using in some markets since 2009.  I don’t think the new label is bad, but I do enjoy the classic.

I’m tasting it now, and while it might have been better two or three years ago, it did not disappoint.  Here’s my student grade tasting note.

Appearance

Bright and clear, medium-minus intensity of a lemon-green colour with thick, slow legs when given a swirl.

Nose

Clean, with medium-plus intensity, and developing.  Aromas of pear, peach, almond, and some baked apple and custard.

Palate

Dry to off-dry, with medium-plus acidity, medium alcohol, medium-plus body, and medium-plus flavour intensity.  Flavours present include pear, lime, stone fruit, honey, almond, and some melon.  The finish is medium but clean and crisp.

Conclusions

The quality is good – solid acidity and flavour intensity (both medium-plus) give it a balanced intensity, and while the nose and palate weren’t overwhelmingly complex there was enough there if you took the time to look for it.  The length could have been better, and I think there would likely have been more crispness had I enjoy this at its peak, but it was a good wine and a solid performer for its price.

I would not have been able to guess the variety had I been served it blind, especially given I am unfamiliar with Crouchen Blanc which makes up the second largest component.  I might have put it in the New World given the how forward the fruit was, even after a few years, but I would not have been able to have been more specific than that.

It was under $10.00 which I would not have guessed (I would have thought more expensive), and 3 years old which I might have.

Readiness to drink – slightly past its prime, but not suffering overwhelmingly.