Wine of the Week – a Delicious Petit Verdot from South Africa

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I have become very keen on South African wine. The country delivers high quality and great value in my opinion and to continue with this gross generalisation, it also makes wines that are less definitively New World in style than the likes of Australia and California. There is always something drier and more savoury about South African than most other New World wines, and they also have more fruit than the traditional leaner and drier French wines.

Another wonderful thing about South African wine is that they use an eclectic palate of grape varieties and so produce an amazing array of wine styles. I would also add that it is a great wine producing country to visit from the UK as the time difference is only an hour, so there’s no chance of jet-lag, and the wine regions are so compact. Almost all South African wine is produced in the Western Cape and the majority of producers are within a couple of hours of Cape Town Airport. What’s more they are superbly geared up for wine tourism with restaurants and bars, as well as some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Anyway, I recently tasted some wines made by the KWV and I thought they were all pretty good. KWV wines were widely available when I first started in wine. Their Roodeberg blend, Pinotage and Steen (aka Chenin Blanc) were to be found in pretty much every wine shop, offered great value for money and were very popular.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

The KWV – Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Suid-Afrika – was originally created in 1918 as a wine producing cooperative. From the 1920s onwards it became an official organisation that regulated wine and brandy production in the Cape as an official arm of the government. After the introduction of democracy KWV became a private company and for a while the wines lost their way rather – however the brandies and fortified wines did not. For quite a few years I have been convinced that they are back on form with an impressive line up of wines. Recently I have tried quite a few of their wines and have been seriously impressed.

Wine map South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view.

Their 2016 Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc – available from Morrison’s for £8.50 – is from a cool coastal zone of South Africa (Walker Bay) and is crisp, elegant and very drinkable with lovely citrus freshness and something mineral about it too (88/100 points). Their 2016 Grenache Blanc – available from the Co-op for £7.99 – is a bit more me actually with a textured richness and herbal quality. It feels broad a soft where the Sauvignon is lean and fresh and it is a little creamy too making it a nice introduction to this delicious grape (87/100 points).

In particular though I have been impressed by their The Mentors range which are very good wines indeed. I have enjoyed quite a few from this range including the Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and The Orchestra Bordeaux Blend. However recently I tasted their Petit Verdot and I loved it, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

2014 KWV The Mentors Petit Verdot
W.O. Stellenbosch
South Africa

Petit Verdot is a Bordeaux grape variety, but is historically hard to ripen in France – which is how it got the name Little Green, as it could be under ripe with green tannins – so has been relegated to a blending role in Red Bordeaux. Many winemakers believe that a little Petit Verdot adds some elegance and class to a Claret, especially on the Left Bank. So, in order to fulfil the grape’s potential, it has been taken up by producers in hot countries, especially California, Spain, in Jumilla especially, and South Africa. All of these have a Mediterranean climate and that long hot summer help ripe the shy Petit Verdot to perfection.

This is basically a single vineyard wine grown in low vigour shale soils. The heat is tempered by the south-easterly winds, which slows the growing season down and ensures the grapes have a slow build up of sugars and a lot of flavour. The yields are very low too – 8 tons per hectare – which ensures good concentration and also helps the flavour profile. Added to that, this wine is made from a careful selection of the best fruit. There is a cold maceration to extract flavour and colour before the fermentation. It was fermented in stainless steel tanks with pump overs for good colour extraction and then sent to barrel – 60% new – where malolactic took place and the wine was aged for 18 months.

The wine has a dense, opaque black cherry colour that is bright and inviting.
The nose is rich with black cherry and plum together sith a dusting of tobacco, cocoa, pencil shavings and spice.
The palate is smooth, velvety, succulent, rounded and juicy with barrowloads of ripe dark fruit, red and black, giving lovely primary fruit sweetness, and there is a balancing fresh acidity and lovely fine grain tannins giving just a little edge to the wine.
The oak gives a spiciness while the ripe fruit makes it a hedonists delight. It still has its soft, juicy pupy fat but there is some good structure and complexity underneath all that primary pleasure and I would love to taste it again in 5 years or so – 93/100 points.
Frankly right now this wine will go with anything. It is even supple enough to be drunk on its own if that is your thing, but would be absolutely perfect with steaks and venison and roast beef.
Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Ocado, Slurp, SH Jones, Perold Wine Cellars & Amazon.

Wine of the Week 49 – South African succulence

Recently I tasted the new vintage of a wine that I have enjoyed for many years and it was so drinkable that I have made it my new Wine of the Week.

Vines at Kleine Zalze.

Vines at Kleine Zalze.

The wine comes from Kleine Zalze, which is a beautiful estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Indeed it’s one of my favourite South African producers, and – like the country as a whole – their wines just seem to get better and better. What’s more, this is true whether the wines are at the lower end of their range like this delicious Sangiovese, or more upmarket examples like their stunning Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Family Reserve Shiraz,  Family Reserve Pinotage – one of the very best examples of this difficult grape that I have ever tasted – and the wonderful Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.

South Africa map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine map of South Africa – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

 

The wine is an intriguing blend of Shiraz (Syah) with Mourvèdre and a little Viognier to add aromatics and complexity.

Vines at Kleine Zalze.

Vines at Kleine Zalze.

Zalze2013 Zalze Shiraz-Mourvèdre-Viognier
Wine of Origin / W.O. Western Cape
Kleine Zalze Vineyards
Stellenbosch, South Africa

80% is Shiraz from Kleine Zalze’s own vineyards in Stellenbosch together with 15% Mourvèdre from the cooler Durbanville area and then 5% Viognier from Tulbagh in the mountains. They were fermented separately, Kleine Zalze mainly use wild yeasts for this, the 2 reds in stainless steel and the Vignier on 4th fill barrels, this old wood ensures the oak influence is very subtle. All 3 components are aged in 3rd and 4th fill barrels for 14 months before being blended together.

The aroma gives lifted notes of ripe blackberry, raspberry and peach with a little touch of freshly turned earth and truffle (very Mourvèdre), spice and even some chocolate, espresso and cigar.
The palate is richly fruity and succulent with deliciously juicy ripe blackberry, black cherry, redcurrant and even some plum and some lovely savoury herbs like the French garrigue. The tannins are sweet, ripe and smooth, the oak lends some nice spice and a touch of mocha, whole a touch of refreshing acidity balances it all nicely. I really enjoyed this, it is very drinkable, beautifully made and not dull. There is enough complexity to make it interesting and the blend brings a freshness that Shiraz on its own seldom delivers.
Really attractive wine that goes with all sorts of things including barbecue, pizza and pasta, be warned though, it is moreish – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for £8.29 a bottle from Waitrose and Ocado – £5.99 a bottle from Waitrose if you get in quick and £6.21 from Ocado if you grab it by 12/-05/15!

If you have let South African wines pass you by, then this might be a very good starting point, enjoyable to drink and great value to boot.

 

Wine of the Week 44 – a classy and classic Bordeaux-like blend from South Africa

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

I have been visiting South Africa semi regularly now for well over 10 years and over that time the wines have continued to improve and become even more exciting. Very few places can touch South Africa’s Western Cape – the main centre of wine production – for sheer diversity, whether it is in soils, altitude or aspect. This allows them to grow an extraordinary array of different grape varieties and they put this to good use by producing an incredible variety of wines, often from quite a small area.

The Cape is very beautiful too, which makes it a real joy to visit. What’s more the wine regions are all pretty compact and most of the estates are within an hour or 2 of Cape Town airport. I love visiting the place, the beauty of the place never fails to get to me. Many of the wineries are old with the charming Cape Dutch architecture. Even the modern ones are lovely places to visit, as they are usually very well geared up to receive visitors and most have good restaurants too, like the excellent Terroir at Kleine Zalze. But even if they don’t it doesn’t matter as Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Paarl and Franschhoek are all full of lovely places to eat excellent food and drink good wine.

As far as wine is concerned, the place produces such variety that it is hard to say what is best, but I have been seriously impressed with many South African Sauvignon Blancs recently, especially this one and this one, they really are world class and can often give great value for money too – like this one here.

As for reds I am struggling to single out trends, as so many styles from the Cape are good. I still admire this Cabernet Franc from KWV, which was a former Wine of the Week. The Chocolate Box blend from Boekenhoutskloof is also hugely impressive and enjoyable and there is much else to enjoy, including some superb and enjoyable examples of Pinotage and this lovely Sangiovese.

However, last night I showed a very exciting South African Bordeaux-blend at a tasting. I have tasted the wine many times before from previous vintages and it never fails to impress, as well as to offer great value for mine, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

South Africa map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine map of South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Bordeaux blends, wines made from a blend of the grapes that are famously used in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec (Cot) are a very traditional South African style and something of a speciality of the Stellenbosch area, so are well worth trying. This one is from the venerable Meerlust Estate, which has belonged to the Myburgh family since 1756, but was actually founded in 1693. Situated very near the sea in False Bay, southern Stellenbosch, the site benefits from cool ocean breezes and mists that temper the extreme heat of summer and must have made the place a logical place to build.

The name Meerlust apparently means ‘pleasure of the sea’, but I do not know in what language – as far as I can detect it is neither German, the original owner was German, Dutch or Afrikaans. I can get sea in the meer bit (mer), but cannot help feeling that lust implies something more than pleasure!

Whatever the name means though, it was a fortunate site to choose for wine too, as the cool conditions allow Meerlust to produce excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay too. However their main focus has always been their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends – Meerlust Rubicon is their Grand Vin – as well as some single varietal wines. My Wine of the Week is in effect their second wine made from younger vines and declassified vats, but it is still very good indeed.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust-Red2012 Meerlust Red
W.O. Stellenbosch
Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc and 9% Petit Verdot aged in 55% new French oak.

Frankly this is more like a classic Claret from my youth than most Claret nowadays. The nose is fragrant and scented with very attractive leafy herbaceous notes, not green though. Just behind this there is plenty of vibrant fruit too, cassis, plums and a touch of blackberry. However the fruit is delicate and more European in style, rather than lifted, rich and sweetly ripe, as drinkers often expect from the new world. There is also a little touch of leather, cedar, pencil shavings, mocha and espresso bean, that all give a nice feeling of complexity and elegant sophistication.
The palate is medium-bodied and fresh tasting with some nice cleansing acidity balancing the succulent ripe fruit that gives cassis, dried and fresh, a touch of creamy vanilla, mocha again and some attractive leather too. The tannins are lovely and ripe, with a nice fine-grain texture giving just a little touch of astringency to the finish, which gives the wine some nice focus and definition – structure is the official word. The freshness really dominates the finish, which adds to that sense of focus and poise in the wine, while the finish is extraordinarily long. I love this wine and think it would happily grace a dinner party table as well as being great value for more frequent drinking. Perfect with Sunday roast, game, meat and semi-hard cheese – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from The Wine Society, WinerackN.D.John, Lea and Sandeman, South African Wines Online, Slurp and Exel Wines – more stockist information is here.
Meerlust wines are distributed in the US through Maisons Marques & Domaines.

If you like classic Bordeaux wines you will certainly enjoy this, but even if you have never tried a Claret it is still a delicious wine that will find favour with almost anyone who enjoys Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Wine of the Week 30 – a great Cabernet Franc from South Africa

Stellenbosch vineyard with Table Mountain in the distance.

Stellenbosch vineyard with Table Mountain in the distance.

Cabernet Franc is a grape whose charms have seduced me more and more over the years. When I was younger I usually found it green, hard and dusty, but growers seem to really know how to manage this tricky grape nowadays to produce wines that are smooth, rich and ripe. Of course Cabernet Franc originates in France’s Loire Valley region where it makes the lovely red wines of Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Anjou Rouge, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, but it is increasingly grown all around the world and superb examples are starting to emerge from many new world countries, notably this lovely wine from Valdivieso in Chile, or this one from Lagarde in Argentina. It is also one of the parents of the more widely seen Cabernet Sauvignon grape, the other parent being Sauvignon Blanc.

Well the other day I presented a tasting of wines to Verulam Wine Tasting Club, which is a wine society in St Albans that I love visiting. The theme was wines that I had found on my travels that would be great for Christmas.  I showed them all sorts of delights, most of which I will write about soon, but 2 of the red wines seem to have gone down especially well – as did the sparkling, the 3 amazing white wines and the sumptuous sweet wine too. One of the reds was the Domaine Lupier El Terroir, which was my second Wine of the Week all those months ago. The other wine was KWV The Mentors Cabernet Franc.

This is a wine that means quite a lot to me. I first tasted it – the 2010 vintage anyway – in South Africa while judging in the Michelangelo International Wine Awards. Obviously we tasted it blind, but it totally thrilled the whole panel and we gave it a Grand Gold Medal and because I loved it so much I took note of the sample number so that I could find out what the wine was once the results had been released. And blow me down if it didn’t turn out to be a Cabernet Franc from KWV.

The KWV is very famous in the context of South African wine. It was a cooperative created by the government in 1918 to regulate the production of South African wine and many UK wine drinkers remembers their Roodeberg and Pinotages from the late 1970s with affection. In addition to table wines they have always produced excellent brandy and delicious fortified wines – this superb KWV Tawny from Marks & Spencer is well worth trying. In truth after democracy came to South Africa, KWV lost its way somewhat and the wines were a shadow of their former selves for quite a while. So, this tasting was my first inkling that things had begun to turn around. The second chance I had to see how KWV had changed was when I enjoyed a memorable tasting and dinner there hosted by Richard Rowe, their head wine maker, at the Laborie Wine Farm in Paarl.

It was a great experience with superb food – including my first taste of Bunny Chow – and a wonderful setting, but it was the wines that thrilled me the most. We tasted a wide range of their new Mentors range which was created from 2006 onwards with its own purpose built cellar and winery to create small production wines from parcels of outstanding fruit. As a consequence the Mentors range comes from different appellations and locations and the range varies from year to year, for instance there was no Cabernet Franc in 2011, all of which helps to make it really interesting.

The KWV Mentors range includes one of my favourite Pinotages, excellent Shiraz, superb Grenache Blanc and a first rate Petit Verdot, as well as a couple of fascinating blends; The Orchestra is a classic Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec blend, while the Canvas is a more unusual blend of Shiraz, Tempranillo, Mourvèdre and Grenache Noir.

It was the KWV Mentors Cabernet Franc that first wowed me though and it was what I showed at the tasting and so I have made it my new Wine of the Week.

P1050024

KWV’s Laborie Wine Farm in Paarl.

 

KWV The Mentors Cabernet Franc 20122012 KWV Mentors Cabernet Franc
W.O. Stellenbosch
South Africa
The 2012 comes from Stellenbosch, whereas the 2010 was from W.O. Coastal Region and certainly the difference shows, as there is much more fruit intensity here. The wine is all about fruit selection, choosing the best parcels and blocks in their best vineyards, fruit that shows optimum ripeness and expression. After the initial selection, there is a further hand selection in the winery to ensure only perfect grapes get in. The wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks with regular pump overs to extract colour, flavour and tannins from the skins. Malolactic took place in barrel before 18 months ageing in French oak barrels, of which 70% were new.
The colour is intense, opaque, vivid and youthful – it looks like a blackcurrant coulis.
The nose is aromatic, earthy and vibrantly fruity with raspberry, cherry, truffles, cedar and cinnamon.
The palate is lusciously textured with creamy ripe fruit, coffee and cocoa. There are firm, fine grippy tannins balanced by the wonderfully rich fruit and a nice refreshing cut of acidity.
This is deeply impressive, rich, intensely concentrated and quite delicious. If you prefer less tannin or less obvious fruit then age it  for a few years, as the oak is certainly dominating to some degree at the moment, but it works really well and the fruit is big enough to just about hold its own. Age it for 4-5 years, or open it early and serve with something hearty like a casserole or rib of beef – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15.49 a bottle from SAWines onlineFoods 4U, and Edgmond Wines.

This wine is tremendously good and deserves a wider audience, so do try it if you get the chance. It would certainly impress your guests over the festive season and grace any dinner party perfectly. It really would be superb with a casserole or a pie, shepherd’s pie – anything meaty really and it goes superbly with hard cheeses too.

 

Wine of the week 4 – Zalze Sangiovese

Beautiful vineyards at the Kleine Zalze Estate, South Africa.

Beautiful vineyards at the Kleine Zalze Estate, South Africa.

Finding the unexpected in wine is always such a delight for me that I can get really quite excited, especially when the wine involved is a total bargain as well.

I love Kleine Zalze. It’s a beautiful estate in South Africa’s Stellenbosch region and not only is it wonderful to visit – they have a superb restaurant – but they make some fabulous wines too, including some of the very best Pinotages that I have ever tasted.

Everything they do smacks of quality from their inexpensive Cellar Selection range to their stunning Family Reserve wines – do try the Sauvignon Blanc from this range, it is very different and very fine. The presiding genius is winemaker Johan Joubert who is a lovely, engaging chap whose passion is infectious and even makes the technical stuff and science of wine seem very interesting indeed.

Johan Joubert, chief winemaker at Kleine Zalze and Zalze.

Johan Joubert, chief winemaker at Kleine Zalze and Zalze.

It always seems to me that they never sit on their laurels at Kleine Zalze and this was borne out at a wonderful tasting and dinner that Johan hosted in London recently. All the wines were very good, but however good the other wines were, and they really were, for fun, generosity of fruit, drinkability and sheer value for money, my standout wine was:

Zalze2013 Zalze Sangiovese
W.O. Stellenbosch, South Africa
South African Sangiovese was a new one for me, but if they can all be as good as this then it really should catch on and be more widely grown. The Sangiovese grape has only been in the county for ten years apparently, but these results are impressive.

The nose is rich with red fruit, floral aromas and spice, while the palate is attractively soft and juicy with fresh herbs, bright plum fruit, morello cherries, rich raspberry and smooth tannins. All in all this wine is a lovely, easy drinking fruit-packed wine, but it does not fall into the normal fruit-bomb trap of being simple and cloying, there is freshness, balance and a smack of complexity here, a lovely wine – 89/100 points, it earns high marks for being such great value for money.

The equally good 2012 vintage is available in the UK from the Co-op at £7.99 per bottle.

In praise of sparkling wine

I have been musing quite a bit about Sparkling wine over the festive period which seems so long ago now – where does time go?

I love Champagne, it is one of the greatest wine styles and wine regions in the world, but sadly I cannot often afford to drink it. Nor do I always want it as many other sparkling wines are wonderful wines that give a great deal of pleasure in their own right.

Which brings me on to my theme here – sparkling wine in restaurants. Very few eateries seem to want to sell me a bottle of sparkling wine, while they all want to sell me a bottle of Champagne, but of course never from the affordable end of the spectrum. It’s always big names and famous brands, which is all very nice, but a bit beyond most of us except for a special occasion. But here’s the thing – restauranteurs take note – my finances will not stretch to Champagne at restaurant prices very often, so on the very few occasions that I order Champagne I almost never order another bottle as well. If the restaurant listed a good quality sparkling wine at a fair price though I would almost certainly start with a bottle of that AND have a bottle of wine afterwards – surely I cannot be alone in that?

Few other sparkling wines quite reach that level of finesse or complexity that Champagne can reach. Few have that sensation of tension and utter purity that the chalky soils and cold climate of Champagne can achieve – even some very good value Champagnes, but there are many very good sparkling wines around that deliver all sorts of other pleasures and they deserve a fair hearing and not just to be dismissed as something ‘lesser’. In truth a good sparkling wine is different, not inferior and can make a lovely aperitif or partner the starter, fish dishes or Chinese and Thai food beautifully as well as many other dishes.

In recent months I have tried many excellent sparkling wines and I often wonder why so few of them are available on restaurant wine lists. I have tasted lovely examples from France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, New York, Chile, California, South Africa and Spain amongst many others, here are a few that really stand out, whether for sheer quality, drinkability or value for money, they are all are non vintage unless specified and all made by the traditional – or Champagne – method, so Prosecco will be covered another day:

prod_370121Perle Noire Crémant d’Alsace
Arthur MetzLes Grands Chais de France, Alsace, France

I am always drawn to Crémant d’Alsace, it seems to me that the region makes very good fizz, albeit very different from Champagne. Mostly I favour the ones made from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Chardonnay is allowed too, this super example is made from 100% Auxerrois, which being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir shares the same parents as Chardonnay, but originates in Lorraine and is widely used in Alsace where it is normally blended into wine labelled as Pinot Blanc.
This wine has a lovely apricotty nose with the merest touch of richer raspberry and some brioche notes too. The palate is soft and the mousse slightly creamy and has nice orchard fruit characters. The wine is delicate and delicious and soft, rather than being elegant and poised, but is a very enjoyable bottle of fizz. I wish I could find this in the UK, I would love to buy it and order it in restaurants too – 87/100 points

B052241Benanti Brut Noblesse
Azienda Vinicola Benanti, Etna, Sicily, Italy
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

This pure Chardonnay sparkler is an easy and affordable way to try something from the tiny Jura region of eastern France and it is very good, much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. It is pure Chardonnay and crisp with a lean apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat – 85/100 points
An amazing bargain from Aldi @ £6.99

bw_26661_49bec9c1be734a9e6e6be89610319ec0

Arestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain

I know nothing about this producer at all except that they appear to be a proper Cava House, not just a label and they supply Lidl with their Cava and it seems really very good for anything like the asking price, certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity! It is soft, dry and apply  in flavour with a touch of pear too, but has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made.
Another amazing bargain this time from Lidl @ £4.79

brutMiguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley, Chile
I am always amazed by how little sparkling wine there is in Chile, most of the fizz drunk down there comes from Argentina, but there are a couple of stars, Cono Sur‘s delightful tank method sparkler and this beauty from Miguel Torres. This is a lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

rmc_255x4542011 Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs Brut
Bodegas Codorníu, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain
I have long been a fan of Codorníu, small bottles of their Cava – their Benjamin – were my first drink as a teenager in the discos of Spain. They invented Cava in 1872 and continue to make a wide range of delicious and high quality Cavas, but this is in a different league from most caves available in the UK. Recent vintages of this impressive wine have been pure Pinot Noir and it is that which gives the red fruit richness and depth to the palate, while floral freshness dominates the aromas. 15 months on the lees lend a touch of brioche and creaminess to the wine. If you have only tried cheap Cava in the past you owe it to yourself to give this a go – 91/100 points.
Great value for money from Majestic @ £14.99 – sometimes £9.99 when you buy 2

Sparkling-Pinot-Noir-Chardonnay-nv-150x464Grant Burge Pinot-Noir Chardonnay
Barossa Valley, Australia
I love showing this wine at tastings as it is really very good indeed, full of character and fruit, but also elegant. The fruit comes from vineyards in the cool Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, so there is plenty of fresh acidity, while the ripeness and the 70% of Pinot Noir – there is even a dash of Pinot Meunier – gives it a lovely deep colour with hints of red fruit. Then 30 months or so on the lees gives a richness and biscuity character that is quite delicious. Not a cheap fizz by any means, but fine, tasty, elegant and drinkable too  – 90/100 points.

26548-250x600-bouteille-domaine-vincent-careme-ancestrale-blanc--vouvray2011 Vouvray L’Ancestrale
Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray, Loire Valley
In truth I am not often an admirer of Vouvray’s charms and Chenin is far from a favourite of mine, but this is stunning, which is quite a feat given that Vincent created his domaine from nothing in 1999. He now farms 14 hectares of organically grown Chenin and his wines are always interesting and often delicious, and this might well be my favourite. It is from older vines and the second fermentation takes place without the addition of any sugar or yeast, so takes a long time – 18-24 months apparently, so the flavours build slowly. The palate is rich and appley, even apple pie at times and the finish has a touch of sweetness that blanches the acidity beautifully and adds to the feeling of richness. A real hedonists wine – 91/100 points.

domaine-saint-just-domaine-saint-just-cremant-de-loire-blanc-blanc-2056-994Crémant de Loire Brut
Domaine Saint Just, Saumur, Loire Valley
Wouldn’t you know it, in one breath I tell you how little I like Chenin Blanc and here I am telling you about another superb wine made from it – hey ho that is the beauty of wine I suppose – although in this case 40% Chardonnay adds more elegance I think. This wine is beautiful too, poised, elegant and refined with rich fruit, zesty citrus acidity and some delicately honeyed, biscuity, richness on the long classy finish. If we could prise some of this away from the French and Chinese I think it would prove very popular in the UK – 92/100 points.

IDShot_150x300Tesco Finest Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée 1531
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon
It isn’t always easy to try this wine in the UK, which is a shame as it can be very good indeed. Limoux is in cathar country near Carcassonne and claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne has. This Chardonnay, Chenin and Mauzac – aka Blanquette – blend is pretty classy and elegant with a herbaceous character, from the Mauzac and lovely citrus acidity, apply fruit and yes a bit of toast too. This example is just off-dry – 87/100 points.

0003BB761E64012008 Loridos Bruto
Bacalhoa Vinhos, Portugal
Portugal isn’t often seen as a good fizz producer, but really should be, the few I have tried have been very good indeed. Bacalhoa produce some very good examples at the beautiful Quinta de Loridos near the fabulous town of Obidos near Lisbon. The Chardonnay  Brut is very good too, but my favourite is this Castelão and Arinto blend. Castelao is a red grape, while Arinto is a superb high acid white grape and together they give a lovely taut red apple character and real depth. A very good wine – 90/100 points.

ImageWine.aspx2010 Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay
Villiera, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a wine very dear to my heart, my good friends Dave and Lorna Hughes live right next to the vineyard these Chardonnay grapes come from and I have often enjoyed a few glasses with them while in Stellenbosch. It is very good, very elegant, very refined, delicate, mineral and crisp apple fruit. Again the second fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast or sugar and the wine is aged for  3 years on the lees – 91/100 points.
Superb value for money from Marks & Spencer @ £10.99

In Conclusion
Of course I could carry on, but you get the picture, there are lovely sparkling wines produced everywhere, so don’t get stuck in a rut, it does not have to be Champagne every time – restauranteurs take note, sommeliers please listen – nor does every alternative have to be Prosecco. Be adventurous, find something new and exciting.

South Africa – a beautiful land of wonderful wine

Table Mountain from Stellenbosch

Table Mountain from Stellenbosch

My relationship with South Africa has taken off quite dramatically in recent years. For a long time I had reservations about the quality of many of the wines coming out of the country. To me there seemed to be flashes of brilliance amidst a sea of unreliability and perhaps I unfairly focussed on the latter.

My first visit to the Cape, in 2005, reinforced that view – luckily I mainly visited the brilliant producers and was able to see for myself how ambitious and capable many of the winemakers were – something that might not have been apparent from the general supermarket offerings of South African wines in the UK at the time. What I had not expected though was to be quite so bowled over by the place. The Western Cape of South Africa is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and a wonderful part of the world to visit and I fell in love with it.

The dramatic landscape of Stellenbosch at Kleine Zalze Vineyards.

The dramatic landscape of Stellenbosch at Kleine Zalze Vineyards

So much so that when I was invited to become a judge at the excellent Michelangelo International Wine Awards I leapt at the chance. This is one of the leading South African wine competitions and is run by the wonderful Lorraine Immelman and Sue van Wyk. I am so glad that they invited me as my trips down there to taste and judge hundreds of wines – overwhelmingly, but not exclusively from South Africa – has allowed me to experience the wines of the region in a way that I would otherwise not have been able to do. It means that I have been able to really see what is going on in South Africa and to notice the amazing development over a very short period of time. It has also allowed me to make friends with many of my fellow judges from around the world and to get to know Stellenbosch very well indeed. In fact nowadays the place really does feel a little like home when I arrive at Cape Town.

Another benefit is the wonderful visits we judges get to make to a an array of wineries who sometimes mark the occasion by giving us some of their prized bottles to taste:

1937 KWV fortified Muscadelle, it was outstanding and a real privilege to taste it - especially as there were only 168 bottles ever made!

1937 KWV fortified Muscadelle – ‘Likeurwyn’ in Afrikaans, it was outstanding & a real privilege to taste it – especially as there were only 168 bottles ever made!

Charles Back spoilt us with one of Fairview's earliest vintages of Pinotage. It had a savoury fragility that showed up the Pinot Noir side of its parentage.

Charles Back spoilt us with one of Fairview’s earliest vintages of Pinotage. It was the 1976, look carefully at the bottom left of the label, & it had a savoury fragility that showed up the Pinot Noir side of its parentage.

In my visits there I have come to know and greatly admire a range of stunning wine estates that are producing wines that are at least the equal of anywhere else – Springfield and Diemersdal for instance never fail to impress me. For quite a few years now I have been a judge in the Michelangelo – with perhaps a year or 2 gap between each visit – and the progress South African wines have made in such a short time is remarkable. On my first visit the style of South African red wines was overwhelmingly not mine. It seemed to me, for quite a long time that there was over extraction, over oaking, over working – just too much of everything really, which resulted in many bitter and tarry wines – which I do not enjoy.

I have seen this fading for a while now, but my visit in 2012 saw pretty much all the wines that I tasted had emerged from this old style and were now triumphantly almost all tasting bright, fresh, fruity and balanced. The entire experience pleased me immensely and I gained an even keener love for South Africa and her wines. The trip was one of my many highlights of 2012 – but for some reason I failed to mention it in my round up of the year.

Sunset in the vineyards at Kaapzicht

Sunset in the vineyards at Kaapzicht

Sauvignon Blanc
The first thing I noticed last summer was just how good the white wines have become. Drop in anywhere around Cape Town and the winelands – the bars and restaurants are spectacular – and you can order a Sauvignon Blanc with confidence – even at the lower price points. Because it has such wide distribution over there I drank a good few bottles of Durbanville Hills Sauvignon Blanc and not only was it pretty cheap, but it was also pretty good – just the thing with the stunning seafood in Cape Town. Lourensford, Klein Constantia, Kaapzicht and Allée Bleue Sauvignon Blancs also all hit the spot with some of the wonderful calamari they serve down there too – as does Springfield‘s Life From Stone and Special Cuvée, Dornier‘s Cocoa Hill and the lovely Sauvignon from Southern Right and those from the Diemersdal Estate – including the rosé version.

It is crude to generalise, but broadly speaking I reckon that South African Sauvignons lean towards a French style – dry, mineral and crisp, but with more ripe fruit, without ever becoming quite as aromatic or upfront as classic New Zealand examples. As a style I like it very much – of course that is an oversimplification as there is huge variety, but there is enough of a truth in it to make it a reliable guide for the average drinker.

The seafood in Cape Town is amazing - strangely the calamari is always what excites me there - it really is superb

The seafood in Cape Town is amazing – strangely the calamari is always what excites me most – it’s superb there

Chenin Blanc
Good though South Africa’s Sauvignons are – and they are. The traditional white grape here is that other Loire Valley white grape – Chenin Blanc. For me these really come into their own when some richness is involved and I love drinking the tropical (ripe guava flavours), delicately honeyed and concentrated examples from Kleine Zalze, Oldenburg and Stellenrust – and Stellenrust’s Sauvignon Blanc is pretty good too by the way. These are wonderful with fish pie and rich pork or chicken dishes – even asian flavours.

Red Wines
All of these were lovely and a delight to taste in the competition or enjoy during our time off, but what really amazed me last year were the red wines. I tasted hundreds of red wines from the Cape and flight after flight showed balance, fruit and careful tannin management.

Some of the Merlots that we judged at the Michelangelo Awards were especially impressive – Lourensford‘s 2011 Winemaker’s Selection Merlot and uniWines Fairtrade Palesa Merlot 2011 were both superb, with lovely fruit and supple tannins.

I have also been very impressed by Cabernet Sauvignons from Springfield – their Whole Berry Cabernet 2008 is a seductive marvel – while the magnificent Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve 2008 is layered, complex and fine, as was the Oldenburg Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 that I tasted recently.

Lourensford Estate - looking south to False bay

Lourensford Estate – looking south to False Bay & Somerset West

Pinotage
All these were very good, but I personally became very excited by Pinotage – of all things. Pinotage gets a very bad press, or at best seems to divide people, much like Marmite. Well I love Marmite, but until last year I would not even remotely have considered myself to be a fan of Pinotage. I had enjoyed a few in my time – Flagstone‘s wittily named The Writer’s Block Pinotage always impresses me and the 2011 rightly won a Gold Medal at the 2012 Michelangelo – but something has usually held me back from enjoying most of the Pinotages that had come my way until recently. Well it seems that something about the wines – or me – has changed, because during my time in South Africa in 2012 I started to really enjoy Pinotage – so much so that I ordered Pinotage twice while I was last in South Africa and even requested a refill during a dinner at KWV / Laborie.

This unusual grape is South Africa’s speciality and it originated here as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut / Cinsault (historically known as Hermitage in South Africa). Like most things that appear traditional though it isn’t actually as old as you might think. The cross does go back to the 1920s, but commercially it has only really been around since the 1960s. In the past people have said that Pinotage smelled and tasted of rusty nails and bananas, which may be true, but it no longer seems to be the case in the ones that I have tasted of late. Rich fruit and supple tannins seem to be the hallmark, together with a spicy quality.

I have tasted a few different vintages now of the Diemersdal Pinotage Reserve and their 2011 vintage walked with the Pinotage Trophy (Sue van Wyk Pinotage Trophy) at the 2012 Michelangelo and it was well deserved – grab a bottle if you can find one. It was this wine more than any other that started my change of mind about the grape, but Deetlefs Estate Pinotage 2011 was very nearly as impressive and for sheer drinkability I also greatly enjoyed the spicy and juicily fruity KWV Mentors Pinotage 2010 – indeed it was this one that I requested more of during a rather fine dinner!

I have also tried and enjoyed the following Pinotages over the last few months – Wine of Origin / W.O. is the South African appellation system and guarantees the source of the grapes:

DVHP2010 Durbanville Hills Pinotage
W.O. Durbanville, South Africa
Medium-bodied, supple and juicy with very soft tannins and a gentle touch of spice. This is easy drinking, but very enjoyable and well made and would go with almost anything meaty – 86/100 points.

Durbanville Hills is a big brand, but they seem to be very reliable – their Sauvignon Blanc is very good for the price – and as they are well distributed in South Africa they are quite hard to miss, most of the umbrellas outside restaurants in Cape Town seem to be theirs.

£8.50 a bottle in the UK from SA Wines On Line.
Distributed in the US by Aveniu Brands.

southern-right-pinotage-nv2010 Southern Right Pinotage 
W.O. Hemel-en-Aarde, Hermanus, South Africa
This concentrated example is made by Anthony Hamilton-Russell, who is normally thought of as a Pinot Noir specialist, but here he shows that he can coax wonderful flavours and mouthfeel out of Pinotage, albeit with tiny amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Syrah blended in.
The palate is rich, smooth and silky with ripe damson and blackberry fruit and soft spice notes as well as cocoa from the oak ageing. This is beautifully made and very elegant – 89/100 points.

£13.50 a bottle in the UK from Waitrosedirect.com.
Distributed in the US by Vineyard Brands.

KZ Pin2009 Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Pinotage  
W.O. Coastal Region, South Africa
Wow this is an amazingly concentrated wine, deep, opaque blue-black. The nose delivers damson, espresso coffee, liquorice, dark chocolate and aromatic spices. The palate is towards full-bodied and is very supple with velvety tannins and some nice refreshing acidity too and rich dark fruit, leather, coffee and beautifully integrated vanilla and mocha oak. This is a glorious wine with an epically long finish – 92/100 points.

This is Kleine Zalze‘s top Pinotage, but their more humble examples under the Zalze label are rather good too. They also have a rather lovely restaurant at the winery by the way.

£26.99 a bottle in the UK from SA Wines On Line.

Osiris2009 Wildekrans Estate Osiris Pinotage  
W.O. Bot River, South Africa
Lifted aromas of smoky spices and chocolate together with dried red fruit and ripe black fruit. The palate offers coffee as well as damsons, blackberry and cooked strawberry fruit. Again the tannins are a very silky and the finish is long, but slightly marred by some heat from the alcohol – 91/100 points.

Wildekrans wines are in the UK from SA Wines On Line.

From my recent tastings of Pinotage I would say that the at its best the grape has a decidedly Mediterranean character showing spice and warmth – as you might expect from the Cinsault side of its ancestry. However the fruit is richer and glossier, when handled correctly – as you might imagine from the fact that it is used in a sunny place so the grapes can ripen fully. In addition the tannins seem to be very light – as indeed they are in both the parent grapes – so the good examples seem very soft and supple. And that is the key, for that delicious fruity, velvety smoothness to shine, the grapes must be really ripe and any touch of greeness will throw that balance out of kilter and spoil the pleasure I now take in a good example of Pinotage.

Much more besides
Of course it isn’t only those grapes and blends that can do well in South Africa, Altydgedacht Estate produces a stunning Gewürztraminer and possibly the best Gamay that I have ever tasted, while KWV delighted me with their fabulously drinkable, ripe and juicy Mentors Cabernet Franc, which rightly won a trophy at the 2012 Michelangelo Awards. I have also become very impressed by some of the Syrahs, especially the wonderfully supple, delicately spicy and seductive Oldenburg Estate Syrah 2009.

Michelangelo International Wine Awards
Remember that if you want to explore the wines of South Africa, but are unsure where to start, the Michelangelo International Wine Awards website lists all the winners they ever had since the competition started in 1997, take a look, it might well help you to choose some interesting wines to try. I know the effort that we put into judging them and the high standards that we adhere to, so if it won a medal or trophy at the Michelangelo it is going to be a good wine and an excellent example of its type.

Another thing to bear in mind is that South Africa is one of the best wine countries to visit as the countryside and main wine towns of Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are all beautiful, and unlike Europe the wineries are superbly geared up for visitors with lovely restaurants and elegant tasting rooms.  What’s more everything is very compact and within an hour or 2 of Cape Town airport, which makes it an easy place to tour around.

If you do visit – and I highly recommend it – make sure you see a bit of Cape Town too, it is a delightful city and the V&A Waterfront complex is an absolute gem, stuffed with bars, shops and restaurants of very fine quality. While you are there be sure to drop in at Vaughan Johnson’s Wine Shop. Vaughan is one of the wine trade’s great characters and a delight to chat to while browsing the bottles in his lovely shop.

The man himself - Vaughan Johnson

The man himself – Vaughan Johnson

Vaughan's words of wisdom

Vaughan’s words of wisdom

So, if you have not really got into exploring South African wines yet, now is a great time to start as the quality of the wines coming out of the Cape now is very high indeed.