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Jacky Blisson

Producers Reviews Wines

Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot: Extreme Winemaking in the Jura

Stéphane Tissot, Jura
Photo credit: Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot

I saw a great cartoon in France once, of a man sitting behind a desk burdened down by files, looking exasperated, with a dream bubble showing him happily working in the vineyards. The second image depicts him exhausted in the cellar, with tanks overflowing, dreaming of a quiet, orderly office life.

The idyllic notion of owning a vineyard – lovingly tending the vines by hand and crafting vibrant, terroir-driven wines in a neat little cellar – is the wistful reverie of many a wine lover. The reality is, of course, not nearly as romantic.

The work is back breaking (just spend one day harvesting the low lying grapes in Burgundy and you will know what I mean). There are countless pests and diseases that threaten the health of the plant on a daily basis. This is not to mention the uncontrollable variable of weather.

Wine-related social media posts are currently flooded with images of vineyards in Champagne and Chablis ablaze with smudge pots (oil-burning mini fires), in desperate attempts to ward off frost damage. In just one night, or a couple of minutes where hail is concerned, crops can be utterly devastated.

Wineries working on a small to moderate scale, without the luxury of large vineyard teams or fancy equipment to respond rapidly to such threats, are at particular risk. This is especially true for those based in marginal climates where rot, hail and frost are prevalent. Getting a palatable wine in bottle each year in these conditions represents nothing short of a feat of courage and skill.

Enter Bénédicte and Stéphane Tissot. Based in the tiny Jura appellation, The Tissots own some 35 hectares of vineyards, manned by a team of 15 hardy souls. The Jura region is made up of just 2000 hectares of vineyards, on a narrow strip running 60km north to south in eastern France. The climate is similar to the Côte d’Or (Burgundy), with damp, cool winters and warm, mainly dry summers. The vines are planted at an average altitude of 300 metres.

Domaine Tissot have not only made the bold choice of farming according to biodynamic principles, they are also adherents to the low interventionist movement (aka natural winemaking), fermenting with natural yeasts and limiting sulphur dioxide additions. The Tissot estate is that rare breed of winery that enjoys a cult-like following amongst the hipster sommelier set, but is equally well regarded by more traditional wine gatekeepers.

I met Stéphane Tissot on a grey, chilly day. I’ll admit that I went into the tasting feeling as uncertain as the weather. Would the wines be that breed of murky, sour natural wines that I have difficulty embracing? Or would they embody the standard to which (I feel) this wine category should be aiming?

While I can’t claim to have unabashedly loved all of the wines, I was impressed. There was a common theme of complexity, elegance and freshness running through the dozen or so cuvées we sampled. The savoury, earthy quality that makes Jura whites so intriguing was amply displayed. The reds, though beautifully textured and wonderfully vibrant, were less to my taste. The pretty fruit and floral tones felt a bit muted to me; overshadowed by volatile or bretty aromatics.

My top three white wine picks from the tasting include the following: (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Photo credit: www.saq.com

Domaine Tissot Les Graviers 2014 – 92pts. PW

100% Chardonnay from the Arbois appellation. Stony, limestone scree top soils, over clay sub-soils. Les Graviers is a blend of 7 vineyards planted between 1952 and 2002.

Moderately intense nose featuring chalky minerality and toasty aromas underscored by lemon and green apple. Brisk acidity is ably balanced by the faintly creamy, layered texture and well-integrated oak. Very precise, with concentrated citrus, earthy/savoury nuances and grilled, nutty flavours. A subtle bitterness on the finish adds interest without masking the fruit.

Where to buy: SAQ (38.25$)

Domaine Tissot Les Bruyères 2014 – 90pts. PW

100% Chardonnay from the Arbois appellation. Limestone-rich soils. 40 – 80 year old vines.

Somewhat muted, rustic white*, with savoury notes, honey, floral tones and subtle minerality developing upon aeration. Cleaner on the palate, with crisp acidity, medium body, concentrated orchard fruit and earthy flavours. While fermented and aged in (mainly used) French oak, the imprint is very subtle and harmonious. Long, layered finish with subtle hoppy sourness.

* I recommend decanting a couple of hours before serving to allow these reductive notes to blow off.

Where to buy: SAQ (46.50$)

Domaine Tissot Vin Jaune 2007 – 94pts. LW

Vin Jaune is a unique, oxidative wine style made only in the Jura; aged for over 6 years in untopped barrels (initially under a veil of yeast, much like in Sherry). The grape used is the local Savagnin Blanc (a crisp, firm white). It is an acquired taste, but nothing beats it with an aged Comté cheese!

Lovely old gold colour. Wonderfully complex aromatics featuring earthy, savoury notes, raw honey, baker’s yeast and ripe apple. The palate remains incredibly vibrant, with crisp acidity, a firm structure, yet smooth, integrated structure. Rich nutty, savoury flavours linger on the long, layered finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (75.00$)

Education Reviews Wines

BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO & THE 2012 VINTAGE

Brunello Vines - Consorzio
Photo credit: Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino

A villa in Tuscany…this notion conjures up romantic images of rolling hills dotted with vineyards and olive trees, warm sunshine, delicious, market-fresh food and, of course, incredible wine. For if there is one Italian region that even the least wine savvy among us has heard of, it is generally Tuscany.

Tuscany is the heart land and historic home of Italy’s most widely planted wine grape: Sangiovese. Said to be named after the latin term sanguis Jovis (blood of Jupiter), the Sangiovese grape produces wines that range stylistically from crisp, herbal, red fruited quaffers to complex, full-bodied, firmly tannic beauties, depending on where the grapes are planted.

Sangiovese is named after the latin term sanguis Jovis (blood of Jupiter).

Forty kilometres south of Siena (and its well-known, northern neighbour of Chianti), lies a series of sleepy hamlets and one lone hill rising to 564 metres in altitude. This is the municipality of Montalcino, where the storied Brunello di Montalcino red wine is crafted.

Montalcino spans over 24 000 hectares, with a mere 15% devoted to grape vines. The region is incredibly biodiverse, with a high proportion of forests, olive groves and seeded crop lands interspersed between the vineyards.

Sheltered from rain and hail by Mount Amiata to the south, Montalcino boasts a warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The lower lying vineyards tend to produce fuller, heartier, more deeply coloured wines. The plantings at higher elevations, where denser, limestone/ marl soils abound, are generally fresher, more firmly structured and tannic.

Montalcino is incredibly biodiverse, with a high proportion of forests, olive groves and seeded crop lands interspersed between the vineyards.

Whereas Chianti can blend in up to 30% of other, authorized red grapes, Montalcino reds are made solely of Sangiovese. Historically, one specific set of Sangiovese clones (informally called ‘Brunello’, or more specifically ‘Sangiovese Grosso’) was planted. This is no longer the case. Sangiovese Grosso grapes have a high pulp-to-skin ratio. Given that the highest concentration of phenolic (colour, tannins) and flavour compounds are found in the skin, a higher skin-to-pulp ratio is favourable for truly concentrated, complex wines. Nowadays, a large variety of clonal selections exist in Montalcino; a boon to both quality and stylistic diversity.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG wines are aged for 5 years before release (with a minimum of 2 years in oak casks). Even more premium, are the Brunello ‘Riserva’ wines which see a full 6 years’ maturation. In their youth, they feature ripe, dark fruit aromatics, underscored by notes of violets, spice and bright, red fruits. They tend to be fresh and full-bodied on the palate, with lovely depth of ripe, fruit flavours and firm tannins. Due to their complexity and structure, Brunello wines have great ageing potential, softening and developing attractive dried floral, fig and leather flavours over time.

The painstaking labour that goes into crafting each bottle comes at a certain price tag. Brunello di Montalcino wines tend to start at 40$ and rise steadily into the 100$ + category. Luckily for the more cash strapped among us, there is a more affordable alternative, namely Rosso di Montalcino DOC. These wines are matured in cellars for just one year, with oak ageing optional. They may not have quite the complexity, concentration or longevityy of their illustrious big brother, but are often pleasant, good value wines.

In their youth, Brunello di Montalcino wines tend to be fresh and full-bodied on the palate, with lovely depth of ripe, fruit flavours and firm tannins.

A month ago, I had the good fortune to attend a seminar and tasting presented by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino to showcase the much heralded 2012 vintage. Deemed ‘a return to finesse’ by the Wine Enthusiast and a ‘rockstar vintage’ by James Suckling, I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

Cool, wet weather marked the 2012 winter season, followed by a very dry, warm summer. Rains late in the ripening period brought necessary water for the vines, without diluting flavours unduly. On the contrary, many growers reported yields down from 14% to as much as 30% on the abundant 2011 harvest.

My overall feeling, after tasting through a wide sampling of the vintage, was that quality is indeed exceptional from many producers, but on the whole uneven. Beautifully ripe fruit was a common theme. However tannins were sometimes green and astringent, suggesting that the intense summer heat caused a gap between sugar and phenolic ripening in certain vineyards.

Here are a selection of my favourites (Rosso and Brunello). Note that the majority of the 2012 Brunellos have yet to be released at the LCBO or SAQ (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Altesino Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – 89pts. PW

Always good value for money, the Altesino Rosso di Montalcino features pretty red cherry, earthy, balsamic notes on the nose. The palate is lively and pleasantly fruity, with moderate concentration and fine-grained tannins.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25,85$)

Argiano Di Rosso Montalcino DOC 2015 – 90pts PW

Ripe and fresh, with vibrant red fruit, earthy notes and savoury undertones. The palate is dense and firmly structured, yet pleasingly smooth in texture. This moderately concentrated red offers great balance, and finishes on ripe, chewy tannins. Fantastic value for the price.

Where to Buy: LCBO & SAQ (circa 25$, 2015 not yet released)

Altesino Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 92pts. LW

Vibrant red currant and cherry notes are underscored by leafy nuances, subtle spice and leather. Crisp acidity gives way to a very firm, tightly knit structure and highly concentrated fruit on the mid-palate. 2 years’ ageing in traditional Slavonian oak casks give a rounded, earthy tone to the finish and a fine grained tannin profile. This cuvée offers a lot of finesse. It is worth hanging on to this lovely red for 5 – 7 years’ to let it soften and broaden out.

Argiano Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 94pts. PW

A very fine balance of elegance, power, structure and finesse. The nose is moderately intense and highly complex, with earthy, spiced, red cherry, ripe tomato and hints of balsamic. Fresh and lively on the palate, providing a perfect counterweight to the weighty, firmly structured yet fleshy style. Lovely depth of flavour defines the mid palate, with fruity and savoury notes lingering on the finish.

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – 94pts. LW

This is a fantastic example of the ageworthiness of the better 2012 Brunellos. Beautifully fresh red cherry, currant, spice, balsamic and talc notes feature on the nose. The palate is incredibly vibrant, full bodied, dense and tightly wound. The impressive depth of flavour and ripeness of the big, chewy tannins suggest superior ageability. Lay this down for at least 3 more years, or decant long before serving and pair with red meat.

Antinori Pian Delle Vigne Brunello Di Montalcino 2012 – 90pts. LW

Incredibly elegant, complex nose, featuring floral tones, tangy balsamic aromas, red cherry and blackberry. Upon aeration, deeper notes of leather and spice emmerge. Fresh and bright on the attack, with lovely, layered fruit that is somewhat marred by a drying sensation and a touch of phenolic bitterness that brought an otherwise very high score down a few pegs.

Pecci Celestino Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 92pts. LW

Very pretty nose, redolent with just ripe red cherries, potpourri, mixed spice and earthy notes. Upon aeration, intriguing leather notes develop. Very fresh and vibrant on the palate, with a firm, weighty structure and multiple layers of tangy fruit. The finish is long and lifted, marred only by the slightly drying nature of the firm, grainy tannins. Needs time.

Villa I Cipressi Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – 91pts. LW

Medium ruby, faded at rim. Vibrant and fruity on the nose, with fresh red cherry and currant notes, underscored by hints of violets, earthy tones and subtle spice. Crisp and firmly structured on the palate, with layers of tart red fruits and balsamic flavours. The tannins are firm, yet ripe. While already quite harmonious, this red would definitely benefit from additional cellaring.

 

Education Reviews Wines

THE EVOLUTION OF RIOJA

Rioja Vineyards
Photo credit: us.riojawine.com

The past twenty odd years has been an exciting time in the winemaking world. So-called ‘New World’ producers have resoundingly proven that they can compete on the global stage, and a new generation of ‘Old World’ growers have emerged. This latter group is travelling more and embracing modern technologies; refining the styles of their wines as they go.

The result is a blurring of the lines, whereby the clichéd characteristics of certain wines and regions no longer apply. Wines made oceans apart, in dramatically different climates and soil types, are surprisingly similar. While others, made two cellars down in the same village, bear little ressemblance.

This situation has many traditionalists shaking their heads, and looking back longingly to a time when Chablis was Chablis, and nothing else came close. I’ll admit that, when blind tasting, the lazy part of me secretly wishes that all regional wines fit their textbook descriptions. And yet, how boring life would be for winemakers were they all to make the same wines as their neighbours.

Rioja is a prime example of a region that has undergone significant stylistic changes in recent years. The stereotypical definition of ‘classic Rioja’ is a pale garnet coloured red, with soft red fruit, heavy American oak influence (vanilla, dill flavours) and a mellow, tertiary character from prolonged barrel maturation (soft tannins, leather and dried fruit nuances). The traditional whites are heavily oxidized; deep gold in colour with nutty, honeyed flavours.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘modern Rioja’ is often inky dark in colour, with fresh acidity, ripe black fruit aromatics, firm tannins and French oak flavours (spice, cedar). Tempranillo is still king, but Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano are bigger supporting players here. The whites now run the gamut from crisp, lean and unoaked through to full bodied, rich and lavishly oaked (the barrel maturation periods are shorter however, resulting in fresher, fruitier wines).

The shift in styles may seem fairly radical, and does tend to cause a certain amount of nostalgic muttering amongst traditionalists. Yet when we look at the evolution of Rioja wines over the regions’ long history, it becomes apparent that change is the constant and not a recent trend.

Prior to the 18th century, Rioja wines were not aged in oak. Barrels were used strictly as a means of transport for exported wines, and lined with resins that negatively impacted the flavour profile. It wasn’t until local vineyard owners began visiting cellars in Bordeaux and consulting with French oenologists in the mid 1800s, that barrel ageing came to Rioja. The practice quickly caught on, and increasing numbers of wineries began maturing their wines in French oak.

The move to American oak came about as a cost saving measure in the early 19th century, as it could be imported cheaply from Spain’s overseas colonies and coopered locally. The duration of oak ageing became a gauge of quality, with soft, sweet vanilla scented reds ruling the pack.

The ageing classifications of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva only came about some forty years ago. Prior to that, consumers had little way of knowing how long a Rioja had slumbered in barrel. Vibrantly fruit, Beaujolais-esque reds co-existed with pale, mellow wines of 20 or more years’ oak maturation.

If anything, this labeling legislation has been a boon in bringing greater transparency and consistency of style to Rioja wines, whereby (for reds):

Crianza: 2 years’ minimum ageing (at least 1 year in barrel)

Reserva: 3 years’ minimum ageing (at least 1 year in barrel)

Gran Reserva: 5 years’ minimum ageing (at least 2 years in barrel)

And while the fashion for denser, riper fruited, fuller-bodied Rioja continues to gain traction, there remain a large number of stalwarts who continue crafting their wines along fairly classical lines (López de Heredia, CVNE, Marqués de Murrieta, Muga, Marqués de Riscal, just to name a few).

These producers may not age wines in barrel for as long as they once did, and many now prefer a mix of American and French oak, but the mellow appeal and sweet fragrance are not lost. The wines have simply gained in freshness and vibrancy.

Here are a list of great classic and modern Riojas to try from a recently attended tasting (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Conde Valdemar, Finca Alto de Cantabria 2015 (white) – 93pts. VW

At just shy of 20$, this suave, beautifully balanced white offers fantastic value. Toasty, vanilla oak aromas are ably matched by attractive candied pear, honey and spiced notes. The palate is tangy and fresh, with a creamy, layered centre and bright fruit lingering on the finish.

Blend: 100% Viura

Where to buy: SAQ (19,85$)

Rioja Vega Tempranillo Blanco 2015 (white) – 89pts. PW

A mutation of the red Tempranillo grape, Tempranillo Blanco has only been approved for use in white Rioja wines since 2007. This lively example is laden with ripe, red apples, yellow pear and floral nuances. Medium bodied, smooth and moderately creamy, this easy drinking white boasts a long, delicately oaked finish.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo Blanco

Where to buy: LCBO (21,95$) SAQ (22,95$)

Dinastia Vivanco “Seleccion de Familia” Crianza 2012 (red) – 88pts. VW

Attractive, spiced strawberry and candied cherry notes are underscored by earthy nuances on the nose. The palate is dense and firm in structure, with brisk acidity. A moderately concentrated core of tart red fruits lifts the mid-palate. The finish is framed by ripe, grainy tannins and subtle cedar, vanilla oak.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: SAQ (19,95$)

Bodega Palacios Remondo “La Montesa” 2013 (red) – 90pts. VW

Breaking away from the traditional Tempranillo led style, this tempting red is predominantly Grenache-based. Intense aromas of stewed strawberries, mixed spices and fresh, herbal notes feature on the nose. The palate offers wonderful vibracy, with nice depth of flavour and firm, yet ripe tannins. Hints of vanilla linger on the finish.

Blend: 85% Garnacha, 15% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: LCBO (24,95$), SAQ (19,90$)

Muga Reserva 2012 (red) – 89pts. PW

Intense red cherry, strawberry and dark fruit aromas underscored by licorice and vanilla nuances. A fresh, lively attack leads into a broad, dry, grainy-textured palate of medium weight. Tart red and black fruits linger through to the medium length finish. American oak nuances (vanilla, dill) are tempered with hints of spicy, cedar scented French oak.

Blend: 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, 7% Mazuelo, 3% Graciano

Where to Buy: LCBO (23,95$), SAQ (23,35$)

Bodegas Palacio “Glorioso” Reserva 2012 (red) – 90pts. PW

Elegant, yet somewhat restrained nose featuring prunes, baking spice, cassis and dark cherries. Upon aeration hints of citrus and fresh strawberries emmerge. The palate offers brisk acidity, a powerful, tightly knit structure and firm tannins. The finish is lengthy and nuanced, with lingering cedar oak notes. Needs time in cellar to unwind, or several hours decanting before serving.

Blend: 100% Tempranillo

Where to Buy: SAQ (25,50$)

Marqués de Murrieta “Ygay” Reserva 2011 (red) – 91pts. PW

Pretty, fragrant nose featuring crushed strawberries, dark cherry and spice, underscored by earthy, leather nuances. Quite elegant on the palate, with fresh acidity ably balanced by the bright fruit. Slightly lean on the mid-palate, though finishes well, with fine grained tannins and nicely integrated toasty, vanilla oak.

Blend: 92% Tempranillo, 3% Mazuelo, 3% Garnacha, 2% Graciano

Where to Buy: SAQ (27,25$)

Cune Gran Reserva 2009 (red) – 92pts. PW

The elegant nose features ripe plum, blackberry, red cherry, vanilla and cedar notes, with hints of dried fruit, leather and spice developing upon aeration. Very silky and plush on the palate, with rounded acidity, full body and loads of ripe plum and vanilla flavours. The tannins are moderately firm, yet velvetty in texture framing the finish nicely. Only moderate concentration and intensity prevent an even higher rating for this, nevertheless, attractive Gran Reserva.

Blend: 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo

Where to Buy: LCBO (38,95$), SAQ – 2008 vintage (27,85$)

CVNE “Viña Real” Gran Reserva 2008 (red) – 92pts. PW

Heady aromas of stewed strawberries, licorice and morello cherries are nicely counterbalanced by attractive earthy notes. Fresh and full bodied on the palate, yet already quite mellow with wonderful depth of flavour and a long, harmonious finish. The tannins remain firm, but the oak is already well integrated.

Blend: 95% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano

Where to Buy: SAQ (35,50$), LCBO – 2008 vintage (37,00$)

CVNE “Imperial” Gran Reserva 2009 (red) – 94pts. LW

Intense, highly complex aromas of tar, tobacco, dark fruits and floral notes are underscored by spicy, vanilla nuances. The palate is fresh, full bodied and dense, yet reveals a pleasantly fleshy texture with time in glass. A highly concentrated core of ripe, dark fruits lifts the mid-palate. The finish is somewhat impenetrable at present, with muscular tannins and pronounved toasty, vanilla oak. Needs additional cellaring (4 – 5 years minimum) to harmonize further.

Blend: 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo

Where to Buy: SAQ (52,25$)

Life

BEWARE THE LITTLE WHITE VAN

Spices at the market
I bring you a final excerpt from my 2010 blog “The Rhône Canuck”, written during the 10-years’ I lived as an expat Canadian in France. This episode is all about culture shock, white vans and the pleasures of market day.

When I was a kid growing up in the ‘burbs of Montréal, the grownups were always warning us to beware of men driving around in white vans.  They were loathe to explain why, but something in their serious expressions made us, for once, heed their advice.

Since then, the white van has always been synonymous with kidnappers and paedophiles in my mind.  It was therefore somewhat disconcerting, upon arriving in France, to see the sheer quantity of them on the roads.  It seems to be an unwritten law here that all plumbers, electricians, construction workers, farmers, etc. can only drive this type of vehicule. They are literally everywhere, and have funny little brand names like “Jumpy” and “Kangoo”…which should lessen their intimidation factor, but somehow doesn’t. Perhaps it is their lack of side windows that re-inforces old fears of what could be concealed within.

White vans are the French equivalent to the pick up truck…though mono-colour, and with none of the rugged cowboy-esque charm. Today is market day in my little town of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, so the parking lots around the main square are crammed with (menacing) rows of these identical machines.  When the van doors slide back, they are found to hold nothing more terrifying than crate upon crate of fresh vegetables, cheeses, meats, spices and other such riches.

Market day is a glorious day in little Provençal towns.  Frustratingly they are often held in the middle of the week (Thursday for me) and only from 6am to lunchtime.  But if you do manage to pull a sicky, or drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours the experience is worth it.  The colours of all those courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, etc. is mind boggling.

There is always a little outdoor café next door with all the old men holding court, drinking thimbleful after thimbleful of sharp, white Côtes du Rhône or Picpoul-de-Pinet.  Everyone shouts across to one another and the vendors flirt shamelessly; especially if you have a ‘petit accent’. 

You generally end up buying far more than you really need and cursing yourself a week or so later when you find slimy lettuce hiding behind the camembert in the far reaches of the fridge, but what the hell…it beats the scary hyper marchés (giant wallmart-esque supermarkets).

The truly tricky part is finding the strength to exercise self-restraint.  After the marketing is done, the café is a terrible lure.  Why not just stop for a half hour and a nice, refreshing Picpoul?  The glasses are so small, maybe just another one for the road?  Oh, they have oysters & shrimp too?  And suddenly its 4pm and you find yourself wandering home…ready for the sieste.

Producers Reviews

PRODUCER PROFILE – LUDIVINE GRIVEAU, DOMAINE DES HOSPICES DE BEAUNE

Ludivine Griveau Jacky Blisson

The snow was coming down fast and furious but I trudged onwards, tightening the hood of my parka around my frozen cheeks. Had it been another day, I might have slunk back to the comforting warmth of my office. But today was different. I was headed for a tasting and lunch with Ludivine Griveau, the new managing director of the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune.

Luckily for me, the weather kept the majority of my less intrepid colleaugues away, allowing me a far cosier encounter than I had anticipated. Over a scrumptious magret de canard and a line up of beautifully precise Burgundies, we settled in for a nice, long chat.

The Hospices de Beaune (often referred to as the Hôtel Dieu) was founded in 1443 as a charitable hospital and refuge following the Hundred Years’ war. The good works of the almshouse attracted many generous benefactors who, over more than five centuries, have bequeathed substantial land holdings. Today, the estate consists of 60 hectares of mainly premier and grand cru vineyards dotted through out the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits.

The Hospices de Beaune was founded in 1443 as a charitable hospital and refuge.

In 1859 the tradition of a yearly wine auction was established, to sell the wines of the Hospices and raise money for the hospital. Since the construction of a new, modern hospital in the early 1970s, the Hôtel Dieu has become a museum, but the winemaking activities and charitable deeds of the Hospices de Beaune continue.

The wine trade elite gather from around the globe in Beaune every 3rd Sunday of November to attend the auction, and bid on barrels of storied appellations like Clos de la Roche and Corton Charlemagne. In the days leading up to the main event, the Hospices cellars are opened for public, barrel tastings to allow clients to select the cuvées they wish to purchase. No other Burgundian estate is so closely or widely scutinized, making the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune something of a standard bearer for the quality of the region.

No other Burgundian estate is so closely or widely scutinized, making the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune something of a standard bearer for the quality of the region.

The office of managing director of the Hospices involves overseeing the vineyards and winemaking for the estate. Given the international attention, this is a daunting task for even the most experienced vigneron. In 2014, long time director Roland Masse announced his retirement, and the search for a worthy successor was launched. The process took nine months, with over fifty candidates vetted, before a victor was named: Ludivine Griveau.

Not since co-founder Guigone de Salins ran the Hôtel Dieu in the 1400s (after the death of her husband, Nicolas Rolin) has there been a woman at the helm of the Hospices de Beaune. And certainly not in the role of head winemaker! Historically, women weren’t even allowed in the wineries during the fermentation period for fear that their “monthly visitor” would turn the wine sour. Thankfully those days are gone, and the number of celebrated female winemakers in Burgundy is growing steadily. However, old habits die hard and I definitely felt a lingering sense of machoism during my years in Beaune.

Not since Guigone de Salins ran the Hôtel Dieu in the 1400s has there been a woman at the helm of the Hospices de Beaune.

I therefore applauded the choice of the Hospices board of directors, and went into my meeting with Ludivine predisposed to champion her appointment. It quickly became clear however, that she doesn’t need the backing of female solidarity to legitimize her role. Engaging, articulate and incredibly passionate, Ludivine brings with her a solid foundation of education and experience. She spent 4 years working as a viticulturist for the famed Domaine Jacques Prieur, before heading up the winemaking team at Maison Corton-André for 10 years.

Over this period, she worked in almost every appellation where the Hospices owns vines. The varied terroir of each parcel hold no secrets for her, giving her an incredible advantage in running the Hospices estate. Today, she manages a team of 23 staff, who each tend to just over 2 hectares of vines. She also travels the world to promote the domaine’s wines and the charitable aim of the estate.

When asked what her objective for the estate is, 5 to 10 years down the road, she didn’t hesitate. ‘Perfection!’. Such a bold claim demanded further explanation, so she quickly expanded on her theme. The wines of the Hospices, once purchased in barrel mid-November, are transferred to selected wineries and négociant houses for the rest of their barrel maturation and bottling. The final wines will of course vary depending on the cellar master’s methods. The Domaine des Hospices’ role is to provide optimally ripe, healthy grapes that are vinified in such a way as to elicit wines of surpassing elegance and finesse. This is her aim.

The Domaine des Hospices’ role is to provide optimally ripe, healthy grapes … of surpassing elegance and finesse. This is her aim.

As any self-respecting French vigneron will tell you: ‘Les meilleurs vins sont fait dans les vignes’ (the best wines are made in the vineyards), meaning that it is the quality of the ripened grape that defines how good the wine will be.  All 60 hectares of the Hospices estate are farmed sustainably; a method generally called lutte raisonnée. Ludivine has injected a seemingly subtle, but important difference with her team; a practice she calls ‘lutte réfléchie’. Instead of simply tempering the use of non organic inputs, she insists that they really stop and think about each potential treatment and what possible alternatives could be employed.

It is this exacting attention to detail that sets her apart. She gives a wry chuckle and admits that she drives her team crazy sometimes with her exhaustive decision making process. This attitude does not falter in the winery. ‘Pinot Noir is an incredibly delicate grape, that requires careful attention and a soft touch in the cellar’ she asserts. She started her first harvest season by explaining the concept of gentle punch downs to her staff; the idea being to limit extraction to just the right tannic balance.

hospices wines

Over the course of our meal, we shared a steely, mineral-edged St. Romain blanc (cuvée Menault) 2014 and a silky, elegant Monthélie rouge 1er cru “les Duressesses” (cuvée Lebelin) 2011 both masterfully aged by J. Drouhin. The pièce de résistance followed, by way of a ripe, powerful, richly textured Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru (cuvée Madeleine Collignon) 2009. These wines ably represented the standard of quality for which the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune is renowned.

It will be a little while yet before the Hospices wines crafted by Ludivine are released. I await my first tasting with anticipation! Perhaps the fact that she began during the highly acclaimed Burgundy vintage of 2015 is an omen of good things to come…

Life

A MOST CURIOUS JOURNEY

Rover
Photo credit: www.classicandperformancecar.com

My grandfather Frank Egan was a wine merchant in London many years ago. It was a gentler time, so my mother would have me believe. A time where the answering of letters, dictating of future correspondence and tasting of wines would take place in the morning, thus leaving gentlemen free to enjoy a long lunch and retire to their clubs for the afternoon. Regular “breakage” would keep the house well stocked in vintage Champagne, which served nicely as a little apéritif to enjoy in the bath before supper.

The only wine regions that really mattered could be rattled off in short order: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, the Mosel Valley, Porto and Sherry. This narrow focus allowed educated tasters to become highly proficient in the myriad lieux-dits, individual producers and specific vintage traits of each area. Wines were assigned a personality rather than described with a laundry list of aromas. Frank liked to compare his wines to women or racehorses. To him, this visual imagery aptly conveyed the rounded, voluptuous charm of a warm vintage Vosne-Romanée or the taut, powerful muscle of a young Pauillac.

When visiting his growers, Frank would make two appointments a day, thus allowing for lunch with one and dinner with the other. He was driven by chauffeur so as to properly honour the excellent wines of his gracious hosts. Day time attire consisted of pin striped suits and a bowler hat when in the city, and evening events invariably called for black tie.

In today’s fast paced, global wine industry such a leisurely rhythm seems unfathomable. But what would Frank make of us were he suddenly catapulted sixty-odd years into the future?

Though I only knew him through stories and photos, I can imagine him sitting in some trendy wine bar, staring agape at the tattooed, beardy sommelier, repeating the words ‘Nerello Mascalese?’ with a puzzled air. I can just see him wandering the aisles of a big box store marvelling at the quantity of ‘SKUs’, at the labelling by grape variety, and the vast number of wine producing regions.  Fine wines in screw cap? From New Zealand?

The frenetic pace of wine retailing in this social media age would surely baffle him. And he might feel as though he had stepped into the pages of a sensationalist science fiction pulp, observing the use of GPS, sensors, probes and drones in the vineyards.

However, in terms of small-scale, fine winemaking, he would likely find himself back on familiar ground; much more so than if his time travelling Rover had dropped him in nineteen eighty. For the pendulum swung from tradition to innovation to such a violent degree with the embracing of mechanization, chemical weed and pesticide controls and so forth, that we are now seeing the inevitable counter movement.

Conscientious, quality-minded growers are increasingly organic (or in the process of conversion). They focus on canopy management techniques and decreasing irrigation frequency. In the cellar, spontaneous fermentation with indigenous yeasts, partial or whole cluster fermentation, and the absence of fining or filtration are all the rage for many a premium, artisanal winemaker. Were Frank to hear an estate manager proudly detail these exacting methods, he may scratch his head. He would likely think to himself, well yes, those are fairly standard procedures, what’s this chap so excited about?

If he were to taste the sought-after wines of today, fashioned in the post-Parker age of restraint, purity and freshness, he may not even find that his beloved Burgundies taste all that different. They are certainly a little riper and fleshier, potentially with silkier tannins, but recognizable all the same.

After the excitement of his incredible journey, it would be understandable if Frank hurried back to nineteen fifty to settle his nerves with a wee dram with his cronies. Yet perhaps I underestimate my progenitor… He may have been the kind of intrepid fellow that, once launched on the path of adventure, could not resist his curiosity. Turning the Rover’s dials to twenty eighty, what might he discover?

Touching down in Bordeaux mid-summer, he might feel the need to take off his blazer, and even roll up his sleeves. According to climate change focused researchers at the Institut de la science de la vigne et du vin, Bordeaux weather may more closely resemble that of coastal Portugal in as little as twenty to thirty years. Examining the back label of a fine claret, he might find the late ripening Tinto Cao grape listed along side Cabernet and Merlot.

Will Champagne make only red wines, and the finest bubblies hail from England and Tasmania? Will Frank find Napa and Barossa Valley vineyards all but abandoned? With the sheer size and massive ambition of China, the twenty eighty equivalent to supermarket shelves could well be dominated by the descendants of Great Wall and Changyu.

Perhaps he will stumble upon a post-apocalyptic scenario with massive swathes of vineyards lost to virulent parasite epidemics. By then, the disease resistant, cold hearty Regent hybrid and others of its ilk could conceivably be household names.

Alas, it is time to bring this time travel reverie to a close. Frank Egan must meekly step back into the black and white photos I cherish, nosing a selection of vintage Port. Though day dreams of him pushing on, increasingly poleward and higher in altitude, in search of the finest crus, will linger in my thoughts and drive me forward.

Frank Egan

Photo: Frank Egan & daughter Hazel, Guildhall tasting circa 1960.

 

Life

THE PURSUIT OF PURITY

Condrieu - glass & vineyard
Photo credit: Condrieu vineyards, Jasper Van Berkel

Purity. This simple six letter word conjures up profound connotations of flawless perfection. In recent years, it has become a buzzword for the natural wine movement. It is bandied about freely in winery literature, press articles and the like. In a recent Meininger’s article, Canberra-based natural winemaker Bryan Martin reckoned that his pét nat sparkling Riesling offers, ‘the most pure expression of Riesling that you can get’.  Isabelle Legeron asserts that, ‘natural wines have purer flavours…’ in the Basic Introduction to Natural Wine on her excellent website.

Let me start by saying that I am an enthusiastic supporter of growers that strive to create healthy, balanced vineyards free of chemical poisons. I actively seek out producers crafting singular wines that stand out from the crowd. I therefore applaud natural winemaking and its laudable principles. However, I take issue with the community’s appropriation of the notion of purity.  This act has tacit implications for other winemaking styles. It also calls into question the true motivation of its admirers.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, purity means ‘freedom from adulteration or contamination’. The majority of low interventionist wines are made without additives. In this sense, deeming them pure is a fair assessment. Wild yeasts are allowed to spur spontaneous fermentation, acid levels are not adjusted, commercial enzymes are eschewed and sulphur dioxide, if used at all, is kept to a strict minimum. In ideal conditions: impeccable winery hygiene, scrupulous oxygen management, precise temperature control from fermentation right through to the moment of consumption, these wines can be divine. The complexity, elegance and, indeed purity, of well-made natural wines is, to me, a given.

But ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life. Naturally occurring yeast colonies often struggle to complete fermentation as alcohol levels and temperatures rise. Stuck fermentations are common leaving the must at risk of exposure to all manners of yeasts and bacteria that can significantly alter aromatics and flavours. This isn’t always a bad thing. In certain cases, the result is a heightened complexity that gives the wine infinitely more appeal. Be this as it may, microbial infection is a form of contamination, rendering the affected wine impure if we are to take the dictionary definition literally.

…ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life.

This idea takes on additional significance if we consider the most common usage for this term. More often than not purity, as relates to wine, is a descriptor for the character of the fruit. In the glossary section of the Wine Cellar Insider, purity is likened to ‘tasting a sweet, ripe berry off the vine’. And yet, the heady raspberry bouquet of Grenache is muted in the presence of pungent Brettanomyces-induced barnyard aromas. The acrid pitch of high volatile acidity levels overshadows the fruity vibrancy of even the spriteliest Gamay. To me, wines protected from microbial and oxidative reactions, with precision and restraint, show far brighter, more expressive fruit.

The reputed natural wine advocate Pierre Jancou, speaking though his website MorethanOrganic.com, purports that natural wines have ‘purity and honesty of expression’, while wines made in a conventional way ‘taste of the same few manufactured flavours’. The term conventional is murky. For many adherents to the natural wine movement, any manipulation in the winery equates to conventional winemaking. Following that logic, the simple act of chaptalising, commonly practiced in most cool vintage for even top Burgundy estates, renders wines conventional. I don’t know of many fortunate enough to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Leflaive that would claim they lack complexity or a true sense of terroir.

The notion of honesty of expression is also troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines. The insinuation is anything but subtle. Wines made with any form of vinification aides or antioxidants are dishonest; those that imbibe are being duped. So does the practice of egg white fining at Château Margaux make their wines less sincere? With the softening of the tannins, does the pure expression of this storied wine lessen?

The notion of honesty of expression is troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines.

American writer Calvin Trillin once said, ‘the price of purity is purists’. Time and again, I have found myself staring down zealous sommeliers who swears only by natural wines. They have an almost religious fervour about them, blithely filling their wine lists with offerings that only a handful of customers will actually enjoy. They condemn other wine styles and patronize those that dare to offer a differing opinion.

The thought that intrigues me is, deep down, do enthusiasts truly love the wines, or is it the idea of experiencing so-called purity that has them hooked? Every field has its share of purists. My musician brother told me of audiophiles that go to insane lengths and spend upwards of 50 000$ on sound systems in the pursuit of ‘the perfect sound’. Where does one draw the line between passion and obsession? And what is the virtue of purity for purity’s sake?

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not. Applying a strict set of doctrines to winemaking seems a step backward. I often hear natural wine advocates claim that the wines hearken back to the days before industrialization. And yet, I am quite sure that if our forefathers, who watched in dismay when their wine turned vinegary, could have flipped a switch to cool their tanks, or restarted fermentation with cultured yeasts, they would have. The winemakers I admire most embrace both tradition and innovation. They step back when they can and step in (with a gentle touch) when necessary to preserve wine from spoilage.

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not.

For all the well-crafted natural wines out there that truly embody a notion of purity, there are as many top class conventionally made wines that can justly make the same claim. The term cannot simply be brandished by one camp as a distinguishing feature of style.  Firstly, because the assertion is often inaccurate. Secondly, as applying the word to a specific winemaking philosophy carries the insinuation that wines not made in this manner are impure and therefore less worthy. This powerful implication could well be the reason that many wine lovers have become such die-hard fans. Perhaps it is time for natural wines to lay down the banner of purity and let drinkers decide for themselves?

 

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 3

Hamilton Russell Daycare 2007
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards preschool kids, 2007 (Jacky Blisson)

It is no secret that South Africa has a decidedly chequered past when it comes to human rights. Driving through the vast shanty towns that surround major and even minor cities nation-wide, it is apparent that inequality is still rife today. And yet, as a Canadian descendent of European settlers, it would be hypocritical of me to point fingers. The racial segregation and abuses to which our own indigenous populations have long been subjected are equally disgraceful.

In 2011, Human Right’s Watch published a damning report on the conditions of South African farm workers, with particular emphasis on fruit and wine farms in the Western Cape. Unacceptable living conditions, illegal evictions, alcoholism, dangerous pesticide exposure and obstruction to joining unions were just some of the highlighted concerns. Further fuel was added to the fire last year, when an inflammatory Danish documentary surfaced depicting slavery-like situations on certain estates.

The national, promotional body: Wines of South Africa responded to the ensuing negative press with the following statement: ‘The South African wine industry has come a long way in recent years … to improve the sustainability of one of its biggest assets – the workers. Whilst we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done, there are numerous programmes that include social upliftment, housing, land reform, education, skills and medical care for farm workers and their families. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of bodies such as WIETA and Fairtrade, there are regular audits across the board… It will take time, but the reality is that change is taking place, even despite many wine farmers running their businesses on very tight margins.’

Chris Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines in the Swartland asserts ‘there is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of farmers are doing their best to uplift their workers lives and in many cases you can see they visibly are being improved’. And this, despite the many challenges the industry faces. He explains that the South African wine sector, unlike the majority of wine producing countries, does not receive any government subsidies, and is at the mercy of a volatile exchange rate and high rate of inflation. Roughly 50% of South African wine is sold in bulk at very low prices, with the wineries often operating at a loss.

‘There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of farmers are doing their best to uplift their workers lives…’

This cycle of unsustainably low purchase prices from major retailers is effectively slowing the pace of progress, according to US-based South African fine wine importer Pascal Schildt. ‘Quality has massively improved over the past decade, but prices have not risen apace. Consumers need to be encouraged to trade up a few dollars, thereby allowing retailers to adjust their buying habits’.

As in most industries, buying the cheapest quality available is (more often than not) tantamount to supporting labour exploitation. A marginal shift upwards can make a huge difference to a wine estate’s ability to adequately compensate workers, with the added bonus of providing significantly more pleasure in the glass.

Just as the conscience minded among us try to buy local and/ or sustainably produced goods, we as wine drinkers can initiate change by supporting South African wine producers that are making the necessary efforts to treat workers fairly. And, despite a murky track record and the obstacles outlined above, significant improvements are to be found on a vast number of wine farms.

Quality has massively improved over the past decade, but prices have not risen apace’.

One of the pioneers of this movement is highly respected Elgin estate Paul Cluver. Their Thandi brand of wines was the first agriculturally-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) project back in 1995. Thandi Wines went on to become the first Fair Trade certified wine brand in the world, funneling back profits to community upliftment projects like education, healthcare, housing improvements and so forth.

Top ranked Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay runs the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley pre-school on their property, accepting under priveledged children from through out the community, in the hopes that a strong early educational base will set them in good stead to succeed in their future schooling. Countless other such projects exist throughout the Cape winelands. See a list of great initiatives compiled by Wines of South Africa here.

Seeking out wines that hold the Fair Trade or WIETA (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association) accreditation is an increasingly sound way to ensure the purchase of equitably produced wines. South Africa is currently the largest producer of Fair Trade wine in the world, with over 76 certified farms employing over 3000 workers. Fair Trade products are labelled with a distinctive logo, making them easy to identify. WIETA is another standard bearer, working to ensure that fair wages and acceptable labour conditions are upheld in the South African wine trade. A large number of South African wineries are members (see full list here) and are regularly audited to ensure that they meet the required norms.

South Africa is currently the largest producer of Fair Trade wine in the world.

If there is one thing that struck me during my harvest work and travels through South Africa, it was the ardent desire of wineries to prove themselves on the world stage. On the whole, they are a passionate, enthusiastic community commited to throwing off the shackles of the past. While injustices are still rampant, significant efforts are being made by many wine farms to redress the situation. Our responsability as consumers is to champion the leaders of this movement.

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 2

Swartland vineyards
Photo Credit: Swartland vineyards, Wines of South Africa

In part 2 of my South Africa series, I look at some of the exciting Western Cape wine growing districts and wine producers cropping up on our liquor board shelfs. Click here for a map of the Cape winelands (courtesy of Wines of South Africa). 

The majority of South Africa’s vineyards are situated in the Western Cape, in proximity to the coast whose cooling influence tempers the otherwise baking hot growing season. This results in good acid retention and balanced wines.  Value priced offerings will often be labeled under this large, generic region or the sub-zone of the Coastal Region. These wines can be blended from across their delimited territories.

Smaller sub-divisions (named districts and wards) exist when we move up the ladder to mid-range and premium priced wines. Within these smaller vineyard areas, more specific styles emerge. The following are just a handful of the most exciting, high quality districts that we are starting to see in regular rotation here:

ELGIN: Attractively aromatic whites and vibrant light reds flourish here due to the combined cooling influence of southerly winds and moderate elevation (350 metres above sea level). Elgin lies in a basin of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, south-east of Stellenbosch.

Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc make up the bulk of white wine production, while Pinot Noir and Syrah account for much of the red wine. Paul Cluver is an excellent, mid-sized Elgin producer making consistently high quality, good value whites and reds.

STELLENBOSCH: Likely the best-known district of the Cape Winelands, wine production in Stellenbosch dates back to the 17th century. Less than one hour’s drive due east of Cape Town, the terrain here is mountainous with sufficient rainfall and well-drained soils. While a wide diversity of soil types and mesoclimates exist (owing to the varying exposition and altitude of plantings), many of the most prized vineyard sites lie on ancient decomposed granite or sandstone beds. The climate is generally hot and dry, with cooling afternoon breezes from the south-east.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king here, though Pinotage, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced in abundance. Over 170 wine producers call Stellenbosch home, and trade continues to flourish. Among the many excellent wineries, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Vergelegen produces good, mid-range to premium priced Bordeaux Blends, Waterkloof for fantastic, biodynamic Rhône style blends and Ken Forrester for clean, consistent, good value old vine Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

SWARTLAND: Traditionally a wheat-producing region, the Swartland (65km north of Cape Town) has been making waves on the international wine scene in recent years as the hot, new growing region of South Africa. Hot is indeed an apt descriptor, as well as dry, making hardy, drought resistant bush vines a common occurrence. The dominant soil type is shale, with pockets of granite and schist providing interesting alternative terroirs.

The Mediterranean climate makes for excellent Rhône style reds. Lovely Chenin Blanc is also grown here. The excitement generated by Swartland’s star producers is largely justified. Fantastic, affordable quality can be found from the Kloof Street (from the Mullineux Family Wines), A.A. Badenhorst and Leeuwenkuil (bright, juicy Cinsault). Exceptional, premium to luxury priced wines from: Mullineux Family Wines and The Sadie Family.

TULBAGH MOUNTAINS: A fairly secluded valley, inland from the Swartland, encircled by mountains to the west, north and east. Due to this unique topography, cool night time air becomes trapped in the vineyards making for chilly morning temperatures that gradually rise in the hot afternoons. Soils are quite varied making for a wide variety of styles. Only 13 wine producers reside here at present, but the acclaim of their wines speaks volumes.

Traditional method sparkling wines, called ‘Méthode Cap Classique’ are gaining traction here. Syrah and Rhône blend whites are also performing well. Krone produces easy drinking, competitively priced sparkling wines, while Fable Mountain Vineyards is garnering top accolades for their premium white and red Rhône blends.

WALKER BAY: This pretty district extends from the town of Hermanus on the south coast of the Western Cape, with the majority of top-rated vineyards lying in the aptly named Hemel-en-Aarde valley (meaning Heaven and Earth). The close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean brings cooling breezes that temper the otherwise hot climate. Clay-rich soils bring a firm structure to the wines. I spent many a happy month here, working harvest and sampling my way through the vibrant, juicy wines of the region.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the star grapes of the area, though Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinotage are also gaining in popularity. Hamilton-Russell Vineyards has a long-standing reputation for fine, premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard-Finlayson makes very precise, focused wines from ranging from attractively fruity mid-range whites to premium Pinot Noir. Crystallum Wines regularly impresses me with their beautifully creamy, complex wines.

 

Education

The Renaissance of South African Wine – Part 1

Hamilton Russell Estate
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards (by Jacky Blisson)

In Canada, we are often a little late to the party when it comes to new wine trends. So, if you still think South Africa is only good for inexpensive, nondescript white wines, you are forgiven. After all, that is pretty much all our liquor boards were stocking for years. Happily, all that is changing.

Read on for a three part series on the renaissance of the South African wine industry: why South Africa was typecast in a cheap ‘n cheerful role and how the industry has changed, what exciting regions to look for, and finally the people behind the wines.

South African wine producers often flinch when they see their wines lumped in to the ‘New World’ wine category. Indeed, the history of winemaking dates back to 1655, with the establishment of the country’s first vineyard by then governor Jan van Riebeeck. This may seem relatively recent when compared with the first Calabrian vines planted around 1500 B.C. And it may not appear to massively pre-date the Californian and Australian industries, which both originated in the late 1700s.

What makes South Africa stand apart from other New World regions in historical terms, is how quickly Cape wines rose to international prominence. While most other non-European wine producing nations saw little growth, and minimal export sales until the late 1900s, the sweet wines of Constantia were sought after by the European ruling class in the 1700s. According to the Oxford Wine Companion, Napoleon himself had the wine shipped in during his exile on St. Helena.

Despite this promising start, a series of misfortunes befell South African wine growers which slowly eroded the high quality image the famed Constantia wine or ‘Vin de Constance’ had brought. Pests in the form of voracious, grape eating birds meant that many estates picked too early resulting in thin, acidic wines. The Phylloxera epidemic followed, decimating over a quarter of the country’s plantings by 1890.

Partly in response to the variable wine quality and poor financial returns of so many wine farmers, a ‘super cooperative’ was formed in 1915 to bring unity and improve conditions. In short order, the KWV (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika) became a powerful, controlling force in the South African wine industry. They were responsible for setting grape and wine prices, as well as quotas for wine production. Growers were incentivized on quantity, leading to ever increasing yields.

The international sanctions imposed by the apartheid regime led to a period of isolation. South African producers were cut off from the latest innovations in viticultural and vinification techniques, and lost touch with changing international tastes and trends.

With Mandela’s liberation from prison in 1990 came a resurgence in international interest for South African wines. Sadly, by this point, most of the nation’s vineyards were in a poor state. Vineyard virus was rampant. The grape varieties planted were unfashionable; mainly Chenin Blanc, Sultana and Colombard. Wine quality was, on the whole, pretty dismal.

Given the often thin, reedy nature of the whites and astringency of the (under-ripe) reds, major market were only willing to buy in at very low rates, positioning the wines at rock bottom prices on shelf.  This set a precedent that has proved difficult for South Africa to shake off.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the situation is radically different. The number of individual estates has more than doubled, with a growing number of small, boutique wineries commanding widespread acclaim. Massive advancements have been made in eradicating vineyard virus, reducing yields, achieving optimal ripening conditions and planting grape varieties best suited to individual vineyard sites.

The European and American press have been effusive in their praise of the new wave of top quality South African wines. Neal Martin, of Robert Parker fame, has proclaimed South Africa ‘the most dynamic and exciting New World country’. Tim Atkin MW, echoes this view, calling the wines ‘world class’.

In 2007, I spent a few months working the harvest at the top-rated Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay, and touring the wineries of the Western Cape. I saw first hand the incredible strides in quality. Carefully managed vineyards and impeccably clean wineries gleaming with modern technology were the norm. The producers we met were literally bursting with enthusiasm as they eagerly detailed their winemaking techniques and proudly poured their wines. It was a far cry from the cool, superior attitude I had thus far encountered when dealing with French vignerons.

High quality South African wines now exists not only at the luxury end of the spectrum, but also in the every day, sub 15$ category. Chenin Blanc continues to dominate white wine plantings, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also enjoying high praise. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the two top seated reds, with increasing buzz generated by the bright, fruity old-vine Cinsault and elegant Pinot Noir. Gamey, smoky Pinotage (a South African created hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) provides a unique taste profile that further sets this exceptional wine region apart.

While I am loathe to place the wines of such a diverse, fast changing region into one mould, it is often true that South African wines seem to strike a stylistic balance between Old World and New. While bolder and fruitier than many European wines, they still tend to be more restrained, with greater intensity of savoury, earthy flavours than many of their American and Southern Hemisphere counterparts.