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.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

An Interview with David Powell of Torbreck

When a winemaker slams Lafite as "not being as good as half the second growths", you know that you are talking with someone who speaks his mind. That someone is David Powell, winemaker and owner of Torbreck. Mr Powell is no stranger to controversial opinions. Last September he released Australia's most expensive wine, the Torbreck 2005 The Laird at AUD700 a bottle. By comparison, Penfolds Grange, a wine with a rich heritage and proven track record sells for AUD600 a bottle. The pricing is a bold effort to raise the image of Australian wines, which over the years has cultivated a "cheap and good" image. All 400 cases of The Laird have already sold out, proving that money is not a consideration for those looking to get Laird.

I had the opportunity to speak to David while he was in Singapore last week. An energetic and forthright man, he gives a clear direction for where he wants Torbreck to be positioned in the hierarchy of Australian wines, which is at the very top. His winemaking approach is highly focused on what happens in the vineyard and he says that "During harvest, I don't spend much time in the winery. I spend more time in the vineyards, tasting fruit, talking to growers, stuff like that... I don't want to have to start manipulating things to make up for deficiencies in the vineyard". David is adamant about making the growers part of the winemaking process. To this end, Torbreck holds an annual Growers' Night six months after the vintage (but before the blending process) where all the wines from individual vineyards are laid out and labelled with the grower's name. Each grower is also provided with a dozen bottles of wine made from single varietals from his vineyard. This allows the grower to judge the quality of their fruit and to compare it with other growers.

Torbreck produces 60000 cases of wines yearly, about half of which is the Woodcutter Shiraz. The higher end range is comprised of the Runrig, Descendant, and Factor labels made from ancient, dry-grown (non-irrigated) Shiraz vines. The wines tend to be big and rich, coming as they do from from the Barossa which has a warm, Mediterranean climate. In several aspects though, David's winemaking differs from what is traditionally practiced in the Barossa. For example, he uses French oak instead of American oak, because "French oak pulls the wine back a little and gives it more finesse". He also uses open-top fermenters, which help dissipate the volatile alcohols during fermentation. In essence, this means that he can pick the fruit when it is riper and not end up with excessive alcohol levels.

Each label in the Torbreck range tells a story. Many of them, like The Pict, The Laird and The Struie have Celtic origins that can be traced back to the period where David worked as a lumberjack in Scotland. Of particular interest is the Grenache-based Les Amis, made in collaboration with Ignatius Chan as a house wine for the Singapore restaurant of the same name. Dave says, "Everywhere else in the world the wine sells like hot cakes, but in Singapore no other restaurant will carry it because it bears the name of a competitor!" A lot of consideration has gone into the design of the bottle, right down to the type of closure used. David prefers screwcaps, because "Every cork is different. They're like fingerprints, and so every bottle of wine is going to age slightly differently." He notes though, that market perception (particularly in Asia) is that screwcaps mean cheap wine and so a proportion of the higher end wines will still be bottled under cork. The iconic logo, comprising of three trees set against a forest backdrop, was designed in-house by his mother.

In 2009, David embarked on the Natural Wine project, making a wine from organically farmed vineyards and refraining from adding yeast, acids or sulphur during winemaking. Representing a new trend in winemaking, proponents of natural wines argue that they taste better, contain less harmful chemicals and reflect the vineyard properties more closely. But because the wine does not contain any preservatives, it tends to be less stable. David doesn't even sell the wine at the cellar door, only at restaurants because he doesn't want people storing it for years (the wine actually has a use-by date printed on the label) and then complaining that the wine doesn't taste good. "In Australia, it's still a bit of an education process with people." He draws a distinction between natural wines and simply bad winemaking. "It's become such a trend, that there is a lot of natural wine made around the world that is absolutely crap."

We also talk a little about the challenges facing Australian wine. David believes that the Australian dollar is going to remain high for some time, hurting exports of Australian wine. He also takes a strong stand against the involvement of public companies in the Australian wine industry, as they are all about "10% growth,10% profit". He says that their financial models do not take into account agricultural risk, and that "There is no guarantee that you are going to get a certain amount of fruit every year off your vineyard." David took a bold step this year when decided to declassify his entire range of higher-end wines due to a rainy 2011 vintage. "If I was answering to a public company, there is no way they would let me do that," says David.

This focus on quality has cemented Torbreck's reputation as a producer of outstanding wines. Langton's 2010 Classification of Australian Wine included the Runrig Shiraz under the top Exceptional category, calling it "gorgeously opulent, perfumed and densely concentrated." Even the Woodcutter Shiraz and GSM wines display a delicious drinkability that serves as an introduction to the rest of the Torbreck range. 

Many thanks to Geslyn Ngiam of Culina and Sarah Mayo of The Local Nose for setting up the meeting with David. Culina is the local distributor for Torbreck wines.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Wine Tasting: Poderi Aldo Conterno

In an issue of the popular Japanese manga about wine, Kami no Shizuku, the protaganist is seen comparing French and Italian wine. "French wine", he declares, "is superior over Italian wines because of the wide variety of flavours and aromas they have". This is due to the wide variety of French cuisine, which requires pairing with different styles of wine. Imagine a dense red Bordeaux, packed with blackcurrant and cedar notes, paired with delicious grass-fed lamb, or a layered, creamy Grand Cru Burgundy with sweet, delicate river crab. Is your mouth watering yet?

Likewise, the range of Italian food (think tomatoes, pork, pasta and pizza) is well suited with Italian wines. While the variety present in French cuisine may be lacking, the pairing of Italian food and wine is simple due to their great affinity for one another. Try tasting an Italian wine by itself, and notice how tart, light bodied and tannic it seems, then try it with some Italian food and notice how the acidity and tannin now complement the olive oil and tomatoes in the dish.

Beam Global Asia organised a wine tasting with famed Italian producer Poderi Aldo Conterno recently, represented by Andrea Carelli. With 20 wine regions and numerous indigenous varietals I was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about Italian wines, especially from a producer that has five generations of winemaking tradition. Aldo Conterno is currently run by three members of the Conterno family; Franco, Giacomo and Stefano. Respectively, they handle the marketing, viticultural and vinification aspects of the business.

The vineyards comprise 25 hectares of land situated in Bussia in the village of Monforte d'Alba within Piedmont in the north west corner of Italy. The land is hilly with layers of sand alternating with calcerous marl. The most prized sites, named Cicala, Colonello and Romarisco are used in the production of long lived and intense Barolos. Aldo Conterno is known for their draconian approach to fruit selection, sometimes discarding as much as 50% of the grapes. This has led to their production gradually declining from as much as 200,000 bottles in 2000 to around 80,000 bottles a year currently. In recent years, they have also introduced the use of rotofermenters and temperature controlled fermentation to produce wines that are more approachable and less tannic. Interestingly, Andrea mentioned that the rotofermenter is an innovation of chocolate maker Ferrero SpA which makes Ferrero Rocher.

Tasting notes:
Aldo Conterno Chardonnay Bussiador Langhe D.O.C. 2006 - Aged in 100% new oak. A fresh, almost modern style of Chardonnay with notes of lemon peel, citrus fruits and fresh vanilla seeds. Slightly creamy. A long finish.

Aldo Conterno Masante Langhe Dolcetto D.O.C. 2009 - The workhorse wine, designed for everday drinking. Deep purple robe. Primary fruit characters of blueberries, red cherries and vanilla. Slightly warm on the finish.

Aldo Conterno Conca tre Pile Barbera d’Alba D.O.C. 2006 - Aged in 100% new oak. Rather closed on the nose, with notes of licorice and wood. Juicy acidity. Palate has notes of sour cherry and dark chocolate. Medium+ length.

Aldo Conterno Bussia Barolo 2004 - 100% Nebbiolo. No tar here,  but an exotic, floral nose with minty notes. Quite enticing. Body has good structure, firm acidity and fine tannins.

Aldo Conterno Romirasco Barolo D.O.C.G. 2004 - 100% Nebbiolo. Opinions around the room were divided. I found the wine slightly closed with tart acidity. Sweet red cherry on the palate.

Aldo Conterno Granbussia Barolo Riserva D.O.C.G. 2001 - 100% Nebbiolo. The flagship wine, consisting of 70% fruit from Romarisco, 15% Cicala and 15% Colonello. The Romarisco fruit provides body and character, while the Cicala and Colonello fruit contribute spice and elegance in that order. The wine was aged Medium ruby appearance with fine sediment. A mélange of scents including roses, black cherry and soy sauce. The tannins have integrated well. Medium length.

One thing I noted about these wines were that even though they were 14% alcohol or higher, they did not taste overtly warm.

Aldo Conterno is distributed in Singapore by Beam Global Asia Pte Ltd.