Monday, 25 July 2011

Top 100 South African Wines Tasting

South Africa is one of those places that stuns with its beauty. Lush greenery, exotic animals and exquisite handicrafts offer unique propositions for a holiday getaway. The successful 2010 Fifa World Cup introduced millions of tourists to the South African culture and provided a major boost to the nation's image. 

Image is important in the world of wines as well, and it is interesting to see what connotations come up when thinking of wine from a particular place. For better or worse, Australia has a reputation for affordable, fruity wines, while to think of Napa is to recall high alcohol, expensive Cabernets. But what comes to mind when thinking of South African wines? 

The South African wine industry has undergone a renaissance since democracy took hold in 1994. Deregulation, access to international markets and the ending of government subsidies provided the impetus for growers to improve quality and explore new viticultural areas. Major export markets are the UK, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. Promotion and marketing is handled by WOSA (Wines of South Africa), while the Wine of Origin system, similar to France's Appellation Contrôlée, is handled by SAWIS (the unwieldly named SA Wine Industry Information and Systems). The former has come up with the tagline "Variety Is In Our Nature" to describe the appeal of South African wines.

I was able to see this theme in action during a recent tasting held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Johannesburg this month. Organised by Top 100 SA Wines, the wines on display were the result of a competition held in mid-April. The panel of judges include well-known names such as Tim Atkin and Jamie Goode, both UK-based wine writers.  

Being an inaugural event, there were bound to be some hiccups. The wines were grouped by type instead of by producer, leading to the awkward situation where winery representatives were pouring wines other than their own. It was slightly frustrating wanting to learn more about a wine but being unable to because the representative was two tables down pouring a different wine from the same winery.

The wines were mostly from the Coastal Region, a large area that makes most of South Africa's fine wines. Particular districts of importance include Paarl, Stellenbosch and Constantia. There was a good mix of varietals including Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux-style blends and Rhone-style blends. Conspiciously underrepresented was Pinotage, of which only four examples could be seen.

I started off by tasting the sparkling wines, made using the Méthode Cap Classique which, like Champagne, creates the bubbles through secondary fermentation in bottle. The wines spend less time on the lees (dead yeast) compared to Champagne though, and correspondingly the wines exhibit more lemon notes than biscuit and toast. For the still wines, I found the whites more interesting than the reds, many of which had a jammy note and high alcohol levels. What doesn't work for the reds does for the fortifieds, and my favourite section of the tasting was probably the South African ports.

Wines from cooler climate regions such as Elim, Walker Bay and Elgin were interesting. They displayed less overt alcohol and more delicate aromas compared to wine from regions such as Stellenbosch and Paarl. Winemaking skill is crucial, as South Africa suffers from myriad adverse growing conditions such as mildew and excessively acidic soils (which inhibits root growth but has no effect on wine acidity). Perhaps the most serious problem is viral infections, including Fanleaf and Leafroll viruses. This reduces yield, and wines made from affected vineyards are lighter in body, colour and flavour. There is even speculation that viruses are responsible for the odd note of burnt rubber in many South African wines, although I have tasted wines from other countries that displayed this aroma.

Selected tasting notes:

Ken Forrester Stellenbosch Reserve Chenin Blanc Reserve 2010 - According to the winery representative, this wine was hand harvested from pesticide-free vineyards. A clean, fresh nose. Medium bodied with notes of ripe melon and honey. Ken Forrester is known for producing good-value, high-quality Chenin Blancs, and this is a typical example.

Paul Cluver Elgin Sauvignon Blanc 2010 - Elgin is a cool, high-altitude region located east of Cape Town. The climate enables Paul Cluver to make wines from varietals that are less common in South Africa such as Riesling and Pinot Noir. The Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc displayed notes of ripe passionfruit and lime aromas, backed by nervy acidity. Medium+ length with a peppery finish.

Paul Cluver Elgin Chardonnay 2009 - Quite lush on the palate with toasted hazelnuts and apricot notes. Displays some complexity and richness.

Bouchard Finlayson Overberg Limited Edition Kaaimasgat Chardonnay 2009 - From bottle design to the palate, this wine displays evidence of Burgundian influence. A blend of 60% Chardonnay barrel-fermented in new oak with the remainder being unwooded. Very elegant, with lemon and stony aromas. A deft touch of oak underlines the ripe tropical fruit on the palate. Above average length.

Tokara Director's Stellenbosch Reserve White 2009 - A blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon. Lemon and gooseberry aromas. The Semillon provides some attractive fleshiness to the body. Refined, quite similar in style to a white Bordeaux.

Quoin Rock Winery Simonsberg Oculus 2007 - One of the more unusual wines at the tasting. 85% Sauvignon Blanc blended with 15% Viognier. Barrel fermented and aged on lees for 12 months. Vanilla and cream with some citrus notes. Lacking in identity. Seems like a rather experimental wine that exemplifies the South African motto of embracing variety.

Groot Constantia Shiraz 2008 - Have consistently been impressed by this wine. White pepper and gamey notes on the nose, followed with black cherry and sour plums on the palate. Nice chewy tannins. Dense and layered.

AA Badenhorst Rhone Blend 2007 - 80% Shiraz, 10% Mourvedre, 7% Cinsault and 3% Grenache. Black pepper and garrigue aromas. Medium+ tannins and medium+ alcohol. A powerful wine, but fresh and balanced. Red fruits and black pepper on the palate.

Creation Wines Walker Bay Syrah Grenache 2009 - A relatively new winery that started operations in 2002 in the cool coastal region of Walker Bay. A structured wine with notes of ripe red cherries and pepper.

De Grendel Rubaiyat 2007 - A blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 6% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot from the Cape of Good Hope. The winemaker, Charles Hopkins, uses satellite imagery to detect which plots are ripe enough to be picked. The label contains a poem by Persian poet Omar Khayyam which changes with each vintage. Blackcurrant leaf and dark chocolate on the nose with hints of tree bark. Ripe rich blackcurrant fruit on the palate, with medium body and ripe tannins. Medium length.

De Krans Cape Tawny Port NV - Made from traditional Port varietals. Raisins, caramel and nutty flavours. A little sherry-like. Very drinkable.

De Krans Cape Vintage Reserve Port 2008 - Dried game and spice on the nose. Full bodied with notes of candied lemon, raisin and fruitcake. Medium+ length.

Overgaauw Cape Vintage Port 1998 - Sour plum aromas. Warm and opulent texture. Complex layers of fruitcake and tea leaf. Still able to keep for several more years.

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