Monday, February 18, 2013

South Africa 2: Riesling!

The happiest surprise of our visit to South Africa, for me, anyway, was discovering the local rieslings. We tasted three, one each from Jordan, Klein Constantia, and Thelema, and each was impressive.   Our admiration grew as we learned more about the history of the grape in the region. Here's a quick backgrounder, courtesy of Mike Froud of the Top Wine SA blog. He presents a sorry history of misleading labeling, and explains why Jordan calls its riesling “The Real McCoy.”

  Jordan “The Real McCoy” Stellenbosch Riesling 2011: This was made from dry-farmed 25-year-old vines grown on decomposed granite, at an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet. Were it from the Pfalz, it might qualify as a dry Spätlese, given its 7.7 grams/liter of residual sugar and a relatively hefty 13% alcohol. It had a lovely green/gold color, a nose suggesting lime, sweet spice, and mineralic character, and a palate of lemon, lime, and peach, all in a richly textured frame. The finish was refreshingly tart, with citrus and mineralic notes. It paired beautifully with gembok tartare (see below).

Kleine Constantia Riesling 2011: According to the winery, 2011 was a tough year for riesling; yields were unusually low, and the grapes ripened early with lower than normal sugar content. The wine was fermented in large (132 gallon) barrels and stainless tanks, and left on its lees for six months. The style is more like a kabinett: 2.6 grams/liter of RS, and 11.6% alcohol. It had an intense nose of citrus and sweet spice, with some petrol notes. On the palate, it seemed unformed; the fruit, acidity, and mineralic character were jostling each other rather than working in harmony. I'd love to taste this again in about five years! That doesn't seem likely, though, given the low yield, scant acreage planted, and the lack of availability in the U.S. (Cape Classics is the importer, and they bring in only the Vin de Constance, which will be the subject of some future review.)

Thelema Stellenbosch Riesling 2010: Thelema has some of the highest, and hence coolest, vineyards in the Stellenbosch region—up to 3,000 feet above sea level. The vines are 26 years old and planted on a variety of decomposed granite called red Hutton. (Click here for a more thorough discussion of South African vineyard soils.) For this wine, grapes were destemmed, crushed, and left on their skins for 12 hours prior to fermentation in stainless. At just under 12% alcohol and 9.4 grams/liter RS, this reminded me—as did the Jordan—of a Pfalz dry  Spätlese, showing a lot of fruit balanced by firm acidity, and a rich texture. There's a pronounced aroma of lime and petrol followed by lovely flavors of peach, citrus, and mineralic notes on the palate, with a clean, pure-tasting finish. In fact, “pure” is a good one-word descriptor of the wine. I really liked this a lot, and am pleased to report that Cape Classics does bring this wine into the U.S., priced at around $13. I don't think anyone in Asheville carries the stuff; in theory, at least, it is distributed by The Country Vintner. I'll have to check with Anne Kaufmann...

The Mule with The Real McCoy and a plate of gembok tartare at the excellent Jordan Restaurant, at the vineyard, found at the end of a very long one-lane road, out to the west of the town of Stellenbosch.


Thelema Mountain Vineyards said...

Thanks for the lovely mention of the Thelema Mountain Vineyard Riesling 2010 in your blog. Our owner, Gyles Webb opened up some '95 and '93 vintages in February that we showing incredibly well. So if you have the patience to cellar a couple of bottles, it will certainly be rewarded.

The Wusman said...

I'm a massive fan of our local SA Rieslings, although lately very few are dry enough in the traditional Rhine style. Today will be the first time tasting the Thelema 2012 Riesling, and after reading this page I'm really looking forward to it! My traditntal favourites are the Jordan and Hartenberg.