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pinotnoir

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.

Life

FROM BEAUNE CANUCK TO RHONE CANUCK

Dentelles de Montmirail
Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre

Hi folks. Here is the second installment in the “Throwback Thursdays” republication of my 2010 Rhône Canuck blog. This brief post details my move from Burgundy to the Rhône Valley. Enjoy!

So here I am happily ensconced in the foothills of the majestic Dentelles de Montmirail (the range of craggy mountains that towers over the sleepy hamlet of Gigondas).  My new job? To sing the praises of the noble marriage of Grenache & Syrah.

Please don’t think that I have forsaken my first loves, Pinot & Chardonnay.  They still stand mightily on their pedestals and I make the pilgrimage back to the motherland regularly!  But somewhere around my 3rd winter in Beaune the endless winter fog got the better of me.  The locals scoffed at a Canadian complaining about the cold, but these people don’t heat their lofty 17th century homes. The damp seeps in every corner and you can only put on so many sweaters before you start feeling like the Michelan man.  Sure the vin chaud helps, but what with the glass or so of petit Chablis at lunch, a kir or three for the apéro, a nice bottle of Pommard with dinner and maybe a Poire Williams for the digéstif…Beaune was definitely having a wee effect on my young liver!

So what’s a wine-loving Canuck to do?  Go home and work for one of our beloved monopolies, scheming up ways to bring the next Fuzion to Canada?  Certainly not! A stint in South Africa as a lowly winemaking assistant for Hamilton Russell Vineyards, that was the solution.  What an incredible place…the endless blue skies, the breathtaking sunsets, the generosity of spirit!  Almost, but unfortunately not quite, makes you forget the endless shantytowns, the breathtaking inequality…

A few months and a pair of callused, purple hands later, I realised what a great job sales is!  So off back to France, to start anew, in the sunny and WINDY southern Rhône as a proud footsoldier for the maison Gabriel Meffre.

Reviews Wines

The fickle finesse of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir Tasting Line Up

While Pinot Noir is often cited as one of the most popular grape varieties in North America, it only accounts for a measly 2% of marketshare (according to a 2014 study by the University of Adelaide).  It is no match for the heavy hitters Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with over 3 times as many plantings world-wide. Why is this? Well, Pinot Noir is a notoriously hard grape to grow. Just like Goldilocks and her porridge, Pinot Noir does not like it too hot or too cold. It is suceptible to frost, prone to rot and a host of other diseases and viruses, and often suffers problems at flowering leading to crop loss and uneven ripening. It is also a fairly low yielding grape. So why, you may be asking yourself, do so many top class wine producers bother to grow it?

At its best, Pinot Noir is the most ethereal of wines, possessing an elegance and finesse that no other red variety even comes close to matching. It is a thin skinned grape, leading to wines of fairly pale colour, vibrant acidity, light to medium body and low tannins.  Aromas range from earthy notes, red berries, game and floral tones in cooler climates to black cherry, cola and baking spices in hotter vineyards. Though the origin of the grape is unknown, Pinot Noir’s adopted home is, undisputedly, the famed region of Burgundy. Nowadays, Pinot Noir is grown around the world; through out France, Italy, Germany, Australia, New Zeland, USA, Chile, South Africa and many other countries.

At its best, Pinot Noir is the most ethereal of wines, possessing an elegance and finesse that no other red variety even comes close to matching.

If you have read my tasting style page, you will know that I am a wholehearted Burgundy lover. It is an incredible place. Evidence of grape growing dates back to the 2nd century AD. The vineyards are a patchwork of small, individual plots lining a gentle, eastern facing limestone slope. Basic red Pinot Noir from across the region is labelled Bourgogne, whereas superior wines carry the names of the single village or vineyard sitings where they are grown, like Chambolle Musigny or Corton. Burgundy is a cool place, with a heavy fog that seems to descend in November and lift at the end of March. Summers are hit and miss, and in poor vintages, many wines can be acidic, thin and reedy. Yet, in the years when the vines get enough sunshine, Burgundy produces the most incrediblely complex, elegant, nuanced and long lasting Pinot Noirs on earth.

New Zealand is a relatively new player in the Pinot game. Growers started focussing on the grape in earnest in the late 1970s. Today, it is the most planted red grape variety in the country. The majority of plantings can be found on the South Island, in Marlborough and the Central Otago region. Marlborough Pinot Noir from the right producers (Mt. Riley and Vavasour come to mind) is gulpably good, with aromas of dark cherry, plums and spice, medium body and fine, rounded tannins. The Central Otago is developing a reputation as the best New Zealand terroir for serious Pinot Noir. The cool, mountaneous terrain yields wines of great intensity and finesse.  High toned, fragrant reds are made here with bright red and black berry fruit, a firm structure yet silky texture. Alcohol levels are surprisingly high, but generally well integrated lending weight and roundness.

You may assume that Australia is too hot of a country for balanced Pinot Noir, but the state of Victoria and island of Tasmania offer several interesting cooler climate vineyard sites. In Victoria, the best known region for Pinot Noir is the Yarra Valley. Rolling hills and valleys from 50m to 400m in altitude make for a huge range of temperatures and soil compositions, hence a wide diversity of wine styles. The best Yarra Pinot Noirs display pretty red fruits, spice, wood smoke and sometimes a meaty undertone.

In California, the sunny climate shines through on Pinot Noir. It is much sweeter and sappier, with bright, almost candied fruit, cola notes and often a healthy dollop of vanilla from oak ageing. Cooler climates do exist in areas through out Sonoma, the Central Coast and Carneros, thanks to the maritime influence. However, the wines still display more overt fruitiness and softer acidity for the most part, than any other major Pinot Noir producing country.

Though this title is hotly disputed among New World vineyards, Oregon is often cited as having the most Burgundian of Pinot Noir styles. The Oregon Wine Board’s website has a great tagline…”if you were a wine grape, you’d want to be planted in Oregon”. They boast a long, sunny growing season with crisp, cool nights giving wines with excellent balance of fresh acidity and ripe, juicy fruit. While many regions can (and do) make the same claim, the best Pinot Noirs from Oregon are living proof of the promised brightness and vibrancy. AVAs like the Willamette Valley and Yamhill-Carlton are home to some stunning examples.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers: (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

La Pousse d’Or Volnay 1er Cru “En Caillerets” 2010 – 93pts LW

A testament to the expression that “patience is a virtue”. At first glance, a restrained, tightly woven offering with a firm structure and seemingly simple earthy, red berry aromas. Upon aeration, the development in glass was superb. The nose showed great elegance, with cassis bud, floral notes and vibrant strawberry aromas. The racy acidity was solidly balanced by a velvetty texture and firm, yet finely grained tannins. The oak is very well integrated, adding lovely textural elements without overpowering the moderate length finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (the 2010 is sold out, but the 2011 & 2012 – albeit lesser vintages – are available for 94$ and 114$ respectively)

Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2012 – 91pts LW

Headed up by a fantastic female winemaker, this organic estate makes bold, stylish Gevrey Chambertin. The 2012 old vines cuvée displays enticing mixed black fruits, mocha and forest floor notes. Crisp and juicy on the palate, with lots of body and and good depth through the mid-palate. Big, velvetty tannins frame the finish nicely.

Where to Buy: Not currently sold in Ontario or Quebec

Cloudline Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013 – 90pts. PW

This highly drinkable red offers great value for the price. A pretty, pale ruby colour, offering vibrant red cherry, cranberry and strawberry fruit, with underlying early grey notes. The tart acidity is backed by a fresh, linear structure, subtle rounded tannins and moderate, 13% alcohol.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.55$)

Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2012 – 87pts. PW

A bigger, bolder wine with a deeper ruby colour, full body and big, chewy tannins. Intense aromas of macerated red fruits, herbal notes and a certain meatiness. Fresh acidity frames the broad, fleshy structure. The oak is just a touch too prominent for my liking, adding toasty, spiced, mocha notes to the finish. The alcohol, though a reasonable 13.5%, feels a little hot.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$)

Wooing Tree “Beetle Juice” Pinot Noir Central Otago 2012 – 89pts. PW

If one can get passed the unattractive label, this Central Otago Pinot has a lot to offer. Deep ruby in colour, with pretty, ripe black berry, black cherry, floral and spiced aromas. The high toned acidity leads into a lifted, juicy core and a toasty oaked finish. The tannins are firm and grippy; potentially needing a couple of years to unwind. The alcohol is a slightly overpowering 14.5%.

Where to Buy: LCBO (39.95$), SAQ (31.50$)

La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013 – 86pts. PW

Though I am sure this easy drinking, intensely fruit style would have many admirers, it is not the style of Pinot Noir I personally enjoy. Medium ruby in colour, with overt stewed strawberry, cola and spiced notes. Moderate acidity, with a firm yet velvetty structure, jammy fruit on the palate and vanilla and custard cream oak flavours on the fairly short finish.

Where to Buy: LCBO (31.95$), SAQ (34.00$)