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.

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.

Friday, February 15, 2013

South Africa 1: Organics and Oddities

The Chef and I spent a lovely two weeks with our good friends Harry & Susan, who eschew winter in the Perigord for three months in Gordon's Bay, a beach town about 45 minutes east of Cape Town, South Africa. When the four of us are together, the conversation tends to be about what we ate and drank the day before, what we are eating and drinking now, and what we'll eat and drink next.

Harry racked up many kilometers on his white Hyundai (I would conservatively estimate that more than 60% of the automobiles in the Western Cape are white) taking us around the Winelands. We visited Vergelegen, Thelema, Jordan, and Waterkloof in Stellenbosch; Groot Constantia and Klein Constantia on the Cape Peninsula; and Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Findlayson out east in the Overberg appellation. The wineries range from the grand (Vergelegen is where Nelson Mandela has been known to entertain foreign dignitaries) to the functional (Hamilton Russell's tasting room is refreshingly modest).

Wine reviews will appear as my lousy work habits permit. These first three are definitely not typical South African wines (well, the Pinotage is, but it's an odd version). Next time there will be a discussion of a few bottles that were real knockouts. Two of them are rieslings. Yes!

Reyneke  was on my list of places to visit; in the end we never quite got there (Jordan is a near neighbor), but we did manage to open a bottle. I learned of Johan Reyneke from reading Monty Waldin's Biodyamic Wine. Reyneke, who in 1998 took over his family's hundred-acre farm just outside the town of Stellenbosch, is one of a very few South African winemakers to rigorously follow biodynamic precepts. Click here for pictures and a brief story about how he works.

Reyneke Reserve White: We drank the 2011, a blend of chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay. The chenin definitely leads off, with aromas of melon and yellow fruits; after a bit you start to pick up notes of lime and oak. The palate follows with more yellow and tropical fruit, with a zing of grapefruit pith at the back end, along with some chalky mineral notes. The chardonnay seems to be more for texture than flavor. The 2010 got 93 points from the Wine Spectator; Johan Reyneke says the wine improves with a few years of bottle age, which may explain why we found it to be a good-not-great wine. These wines recently became available in the U.S., but as best I can determine, only in the New York/New Jersey metro area. In Cape Town, the wine sells for 167 rand, equivalent to about $18.50. A quick search showed prices at around $23 online.

Da Capo Idiom Zinfandel 2007: This was strange. Zinfandel with the aroma and flavor of chocolate mint. It is made by Bottega Family Wines, which holds an annual “La Vendemmia” festival to celebrate its Italian heritage. I presume therefore that winemaker Reino Thiart knows what he's doing, but this did not resemble any zinfandel or primitivo I've ever had before, whether from Sonoma or Sicily or anywhere else, for that matter.

Diemersfontein Pinotage 2009: Another oddity. As the label indicates, the phenomenon of vinifying Pinotage so it comes with aromas and flavors of coffee and chocolate is now going into it's twelfth year. It provoked a brief discussion of the meaning of "torrefaction," and it was pleasant enough, I guess. I found myself wondering what foods it would pair with. I'm still wondering.