Friday, February 22, 2013

South Africa 3: Refined Reds

People in Stellenbosch will tell you that their region could be "as big as the Napa Valley" in terms of its potential impact on the international market. I have no predictions to offer, but there certainly are similarities of style. Most of the South African reds I tasted were big, bold, and pretty alcoholic. And then there was the Diemersfontein Pinotage which was simply bizarre (although Terry Fox came up with a great pairing idea: Chicken mole). But there are some truly refined, elegant wines made there as well; here are notes on two of them. (You don't really need to read anything more about Groot Constantia, do you? Wait, you do? Okay.)

The Cloof Farm, where the grapes for Duckitt wines are grown, has been around for two centuries. The town of Darling is located just north of the Cape Town metro area. Vineyards were first planted at Cloof in 1966, with additional plantings in 1976 and 1987. A cellar was completed in time for the 1998 harvest, and the first Cloof wines were released 1999. Today, there are a total of nearly 360 acres. Vines are mostly trained as gobelets, or bush vines; they need less water, grow their roots deeper, have a leaf canopy to protect grapes from sunlight, and produce smaller crops of small, thick-skinned berries (N.B.: The merlot grapes for this wine were trellised). Yield is around 1.6 tons/acre, which is quite low compared to typical South African yields of around 3.8 tons/acre. The name commemorates William Duckitt, who settled in Darling in the early 1800s, and taught agriculture. Today, Peter Duckitt is the viticulturalist responsible for the vineyards at Cloof.

Duckitt Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Darling 2007: Winemaker Christopher van Dieren went for full malolactic fermentation in stainless tanks, then created a blend of 76% merlot and 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, and transferred to barrels (43% new French oak) for 15 months. After fining and a light filtration the wine was bottled. Cloof does not advertise itself as organic, but it is a participant in something called the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, a South African nature conservation group. Among other things, the winery has stopped using pesticides, and minimized the use of fertilizers and herbicides.

On the nose, cedar, pencil lead, deep plum, and a hint of gravel; on the palate dark red fruit, rich in texture but not excessively so, and just enough acidity to brighten the finish. I thought it hit a nice balance between Napa-like opulence and St. Emilion-like restraint. It's pretty alcoholic at 14.38%, but not at all hot. The wine is distributed in the UK by Winesulike; it sells there for the equivalent of about $13.50, which seems an incredible bargain.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux are young, attractive, and very smart winemakers. You can read all about them here.

Mullineux Syrah Swartland 2010: The grapes were sourced from six vineyards in Swartland; some grapes were grown on shale and schist, some on decomposed granite, and some in iron-rich soils. Vines were 15-20 years old. The Mullineux family has long term leases on these vineyards, and is directly involved with viticultural management. As with Cloof, yields are unusually low for the region. A portion of the grapes were crushed and destemmed, and then up to 50% whole bunches were added. Indigenous yeasts were used, and there was a daily punch-down; sometimes twice a day depending on fermentation. After completion of malolactic, the wines from each parcel were racked, blended, and aged 11 months in barrels and foudres, using about 15% new oak. The wine was bottled unfiltered and unfined.

My previous experience of South African Syrah/Shiraz was limited; the most memorable was the Porcupine Ridge, a second label of Boekenhoutskloof; it was a cheap and cheerful wine with lots of fruit, lots of pepper, and a wonderful aroma of hard salami. The Mullineux is in a different category altogether, with some of the same black fruit, only with far more elegance, and peppery notes enhanced with some smokey, herbal character. In the mouth, the wine was full-bodied with complex red and black fruit flavors. It was more like a Crozes-Hermitage than some wines I've tasted that actually were from Crozes-Hermitage. No wonder the Platter Wine Guide named it “Red Wine Of The Year.” In Cape Town, the wine was priced at the equivalent of $27.27. Kysela imports it into the U.S. This may or may not be available through Bordeaux Fine and Rare; I've never seen it on a shelf in Asheville.

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