wine walkabout


Wine Walkabout


Zak's South African wine recommendations

Evaluation system

I follow a modified version of the evaluation system developed and used by Hugh Johnson in his annual Pocket Wine books. He uses four classes but I make do with only three. They are:
One Star ( * ) = plain, everyday quality.
Two Stars ( ** )= well known, highly reputed.
Three Stars ( *** ) = grand, prestigious, expensive.

An alternative more user friendly system, also from Hugh Johnson (see the back of his Pocket Wine Guide) is:
One sniff = the minimum score. emphatically no thanks
One sip = one step up
Two sips = faint interest (or disbelief0
A half glass = slight hesitation
Two glasses = means you quite like it (or there is nothing else to drink)
Three glasses = you find it more than acceptable
Four = it tickles your fancy
One bottle = means satisfaction
A second bottle = is the real thumbs up
A full dozen = means you are not going to miss out on this one
The whole vineyard = the logical top score

Good Cabernet Sauvignons in no particular order

All of the following are Three Stars in my book.
Thelema
Thelema The Mint
Boland Cellars No. 1 Reserve
Springfield Whole Berry
Rustenberg Peter Barlow
Rustenberg Brampton
Neil Ellis
Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection
Morgenhof Reserve
Boekenhoutskloof
Vergelegen
Vergelegen V

Good Shiraz - in no particular order

All of the following are Three Stars in my book.
Boekenhoutskloof Syrah
Black Granite Shiraz from Darling Cellars
Saronsberg
Kleine Zalze Family Reserve
Neil Elis Vineyard Selection
Tokara
Vergelegen
Boland No 1 Reserve
Raka Biography Shiraz
Riebeek Cellars - A Few Good Men

NOTE

One of my frequent dining and wining companions is a young lady who is opinionated about wine and food. She would like some of her opinions tagged to some of the wines but she says she would like to remain anonymous so that she can offer freewheeling, insouciant views. So for these purposes we dub her "Blondie".

1. THELEMA (Stellenbosch wine district)

Most Thelema wines are very good and their CHARDONNAY is excellent! Very difficult to get hold of. A larger than life chard; - big, bold with hints of lime and a long lingering finish. And very alcoholic at around 14.7% alc.
Sauvignon Blanc - excellent ! - sold out as soon as its released. When the Queen's Equerry responsible for victualling the royal yacht Brittania (then moored in Simonstown) called specifically to get sauvignon blanc, Gyles Webb the insouciant and humourous winemaker, not knowing who the persistent gentleman was, said "No, even if it was for the Queen I couldnt help" whereupon the gentleman riposted, "But it IS for the Queen!". The Thelema was required for a reception aboard the royal yacht. Giles Webb was able to help Elizabeth II out from his own private cellar.
Cabernet - excellent! Three Stars
Shiraz - excellent!! Three Stars
Merlot - Two Stars
Merlot Reserve - excellent! - but difficult to get. Usually sold out. Three Stars

2. BOLAND CELLARS (Paarl wine district)

Reserve Cabernet & Shiraz - both excellent! Three Stars
The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon has won international awards in London at the International Wine and Spirit Competition, beating the French, Australians, Californians, New Zealanders and Chileans etc. They sell the Reserve at an astonishing discount price considering its track record and wonderful quality.

3. De WETSHOF ESTATE (Robertson wine district)

Danie de Wet understands chardonnay! That last sentence is an understatement.
Chardonnay Sur Lie - unwooded, bone dry with hints of citrus. The good thing about this one is that it costs almost mothing. (less than U.S.$8)
Limestone Hill Chardonnay - excellent - a very nosy unwooded local cousin of chablis - excellent value. Three Stars
Bateleur Chardonnay - excellent - wooded chard with plenty of subtlety - long lingering finish - hints of hazelnut and apricot. Three Stars
Edeloes - Noble Late Harvest dessert wine from Riesling - Three Stars

4. RIEBEECK CELLARS (Swartland wine district)

Chardonnay - very drinkable (less than U.S.$8) Two Stars
Sauvignon Blanc - very drinkable - (less than U.S.$8) Two Stars
Reserve Chardonnay - Three Stars
Reserve Shiraz - very good - Three Stars
When I was last there for the annual SHIRAZ DAY the chief winemaker asked me if I was a "shiraz person". I said I was, whereupon I was congratulated on my good judgment and good taste and he then opened a bottle of his yet unreleased reserve shiraz, for my group to taste. The collective opinion of the group was that it was a most glorious wine. A wine which could turn almost anyone into a shiraz person.

5. DARLING CELLARS (Swartland wine district)

The Black Granite Shiraz is excellent. Three Stars (less than U.S.$8)
A story doing the rounds is that when winemakers from Stellenbosch are thirsty and need to quench their thirst with some shiraz they drive to Darling Cellars to stock up on Black Granite Shiraz.

6. VERGELEGEN (Helderburg wine district)

They have two ranges; a discount range (including Vin de Florence which is a very drinkable summer luncheon wine) and an upper range. The upper range is good to excellent.
Chardonnay - Three Stars
Chardonnay Reserve - excellent! Three Stars
Cabernet - excellent! Three Stars

7. RUSTENBURG (Stellenbosch wine district)

John X. Merriman - excellent blended red. Three Stars
Peter Barlow - excellent Cabernet. Three Stars

8. CABRIERE ESTATE (Franschhoek - included in the Paarl wine district)

Very good bone dry sparkling wine. There are 4 versions of it called “Pierre Jourdan”.
Pierre Jourdan Brut Sauvage NV excellent! - the most expensive. Three Stars
Pierre Jourdan Brut NV - excellent! - medium priced. Three Stars
Pierre Jourdan Blanc de Blancs - excellent! - the least expensive (less than U.S.$8)Two Stars

They also make a good ”still champagne”; i.e. a “bubbly” without the bubbles, which is 60% chardonnay & 40% pinot noir, called: Haute Cabriere Chardonnay / Pinot Noir---a good, drinkable, summer table wine. Similar in some ways to the taste of a good Italian Frascati.

9. CHAMONIX (Franschhoek - included in the Paarl wine district)

Reserve Chardonnay - Three Stars One of the benchmarks for South African chardonnays.

10. RUPERT & ROTHSCHILD FREDERICKSBURG (Franschhoek -included in the Paarl wine district)

Cabernet Sauvignon - good & Baroness Nadine chardonnay - excellent! Three Stars

11. BOEKENHOUTSKLOOF (Franschoek - included in the Paarl wine district)

Cabernet Sauvignon - Three Stars
Shiraz - excellent. Three Stars
The Chocolate Block - A magnet for European tourists. An opulent blended red with shiraz as the main ingredient (about 60% to 69%) with four other cultivars making up the balance

12. RAKA (Walker Bay wine district)

Biography Shiraz - Five stars. Winemaker Danielle van Rensburg continues the success story started by winemaker Tanya Rousseau who won gold medals for Best Red and Best Shiraz at the 2004 Trophy Wine Show, and subsequently a gold medal at the South Africa Young Wine Show and was selected for South African Airways First Class and Business Class use.

13. WARWICK ESTATE (Stellenbosch wine district)

Chardonnay - international award winner - excellent. Three Stars
Trilogy - Bordeaux blend - Three Stars

14. KLEIN CONSTANTIA (Constantia wine district)

Vin de Constance - Outstanding, unique dessert wine -from Muscat de Frontignac grapes. Three Stars
Napoleon Bonaparte favoured the 18th Century version - it was then known as "The Emperor's wine."
When serving this nectar after dinner give your friends only a thimble full and treat your taste buds to a generous triple tot ! (at the cellar door costs less than U.S.$60 for a half bottle)

15. CAPE POINT (Cape Point wine district)

Sauvignon Blanc - Two Stars
Stonehaven Sauvignon Blanc - Two Stars

16. SWARTLAND WINERY (Swartland wine district)

Cabernet sauvignon - good quaffer (less than U.S.$8 ) One Star
Merlot - good quaffer (less than U.S.$8) One Star

17. MEINERT WINES (Stellenbosch wine district)

Wine consultant, Martin Meinert shows the old guard at Stellenbosch how its done.
Synchronicity - a complex red blend (60%/30% Cab-Merlot & 10% Pinotage) fruity with hints of vanilla & lots of tannins. Will age to about 7 years. Three Stars
Devon Crest - a Cabernet dominated red blend. excellent. Three Stars

18. SIGNAL HILL (Cape Town wine district)

Wine consultant Jean Vincent Ridon had the bold vision to grow grapes on the slopes of Table Mountain in Oranjezicht (a 500 sq. metre Shiraz vineyard) and set up a Cellar in Church Street - in the new Mandela Centre - in downtown Cape town. With winemakers Khulekani Laurence Buthelezi and Wade Metzer he makes some fine wines with French flair.
Vin de l'Emperor - very good - Noble Late Harvest dessert wine - made from Muscat de Alexandrie grapes brought in from Simonsberg. Two Stars
Clos d'Oranje - from the tiny (less than 800 sq. m.)Oranjezicht Shiraz vineyard - delivered with French panache Three Stars

19. JEAN DANEEL WINES (est. 1997- Napier wine district)

Another wine consultant shows the Stellenbosch old guard how its done - on the bare, windswept fynbos hills between Caledon and the sea.
Cabernet Sauvignon - Merlot - excellent complex, well structured - big mouth feel. Three Stars

20. SARONSBERG (Tulbach wine district)

Shiraz - excellent. Three Stars
Blondie says "The Saronsberg Shiraz is a slinky little black cat of a wine. Smooth and sleek, it curls into your glass and purrs at you."

22. MORGENHOF (Stellenbosch wine district)

Owner Anne Cointreau makes sure that winemaker Jacques Cilliers delivers world class wines in keeping with the nous of the Cointreau name.
Premiere Selection - excellent Bordeaux style blend Three Stars
Cabernet sauvignon Reserve - excellent. Three Stars

23. GRANDE PROVENCE (Franschhoek wine district)

Grande Provence is the estate taken over by a consortium of European businessmen from the Augusta family (Augusta Motorcycles) who bought a number of estates and amalgamated them under the Augusta Wines name. One of these was Haute Provence of whose chardonnay the Empress of Wine Jancis Robinson said that it was one of the few New World chards actually worth buying - and promptly hauled out her cheque book and bought some cases to ship home to England. Unfortunately the winemaker at the time who was doing some work on a stainless steel vat electrocuted himself so his chardonnay making skills were lost to Franschhoek. But the vines live on and winemaker Jaco Marais (advised by Kevin Watt) continue to make interesting chards.
Chardonnay - Three Stars
Shiraz - excellent. Three Stars
Cabernet sauvignon - excellent. Three Stars
Sauvignon blanc - excellent. Three Stars

+ + +

Inexpensive- but relatively good - 2011 wines - all One Star

Cabernet Sauvignon
Boland Reserve
Riebeeck Cellars
MAN Vintners
Swartland
Waterstone
Du Toits Kloof

Merlot
Boland Reserve
MAN Vintners
Boland 5 Climates
Windmeul

Shiraz
Windmeul
Rooiberg
Excelsior Paddock
Boland Reserve

Chardonnay
Slanghoek Private Selection
Tall Horse
Danie de Wet Sur Lie
MAN Vintners
Footprint - The Long Walk 2010
Rietvallei
Douglas Green
Fleur du Cap
Tokara Zondernaam

Sauvignon Blanc
Windmeul
Du Toits Kloof
MAN Vintners
Zorgvliet Silver Mine
Kleine Zalze Cellar Selection
Simonsig Sunbird
Le Pommier
Pecan Stream
Indalo
Fryers Cove
Perdeberg
Bonnievale

+ + +

The Triumph of Terroir

by Zak Van Straaten

winemakers & grand prix drivers

Winemakers often posture like Grand Prix drivers. They are photograped standing against the backdrop of flowing vineyards, with their thumbs tucked into their belts looking pleased with themselves, and bearing an enigmatic smile. Public adulation on the grand prix circuit centres on the contest between the drivers and their amazing skills. So it seems that in both the wine industry and the grand prix circuit it is the wine makers and the drivers who are the most important factors. But is this correct ? Ron Denis, the C.E.O. of McClaren Racing Cars, whose cars have won the driver's championship and the Constructor's championship more times than any other marque in the last ten years tells a different story. He has said that the important factor is not the driver, it is the car. He claimed that you could take any one of the top 7 drivers, put them into one of his cars and that driver would come first, second or third in the world championship. Could the same be true of winemaking, that the most important factor is not the winemaker but the terroir? Some have held this view about winemaking. But is it true ?

The view says that terroir is more important than the winemaker, or viticulturalist, in the production of good wine. Its one thing to advance the thesis, but quite another to test its truth. Lets first get some clarity about what "terroir" means.
"Terroir" in ordinary French means 'soil' or 'ground' and derives from the Latin word 'territorium'. The French wine industry then hi-jacked the word and redefined it to mean the complete natural environment of a viticultural location. It has no equivalent in English.
A fundamental feature of terroir is that all of its ingredients are natural, givens which viticultural management cannot change, they are what the viticulturalist and winemaker have to work with.
"Terroir" is determined by the way the following factors holistically combine with each other:
* relief or topography; which centres on the altitude of the site, the slope of the land and the aspect, i.e. the direction in which the land faces.
* geology and pedology; the factors determining the soil's chemical and physical features.
* soil-water relations; water retention and drainage etc.
* sunlight; the sunlight energy which the site receives in the growing season.
* micro-climate; as indicated by rainfall and temperature.
It is the unique combination of all these factors at a location which determines the location's terroir. Some writers talk about terroir and climate as two distinct factors; and some incorporate 'micro-climate' into the meaning of 'terroir'. The idea being that the topography of a site will interact with the climate of the region to determine a unique micro-climate, and hence contribute to a unique terroir.

How could one test the thesis that in making good wine terroir is more important than the winemaker, or the viticulturalist?
If the thesis were true, then if you start with good terroir well suited to a particular variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, you should be able to produce consistently good wine, over a long period of time, even though the winemakers and viticulturalists have changed, because the terroir stays unchanged. Conversely, if you start with indifferent terroir, or a blend of good and indifferent terroirs, you should produce consistently indifferent wine over time, despite the interventions from highly skilled winemakers and viticulturalists.

You can see right away that if the idea of terroir were argued in a particular way that it could be very controversial. So if someone argued that the terroir on some Bordeaux estate was both excellent and unique for producing a Cabernet-Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend, the implication would be that no one in Australia or South Africa could ever really compete with this uniqueness. The only way you could overcome this argument would be by demonstrating at an international wine competition that the wine from your terroir wins the gold medal, and the one from the unique French terroir doesn’t.

the evidence on a Platter

To test the thesis, I did some 'data mining' which is a computer science term for extracting new information from the data you already have. I took John Platter's South African Wine Guides, which have been published every year since 1980, and looked at selected wines, from a particular terroir, at 5 year intervals over a 20 year period. In the early years John Platter did a lot of the tasting himself. Sometimes the tasting at an estate was done by one person, sometimes by a panel. Sometimes the offerings from an estate were tasted blind by a panel of tasters, or an individual panel member at a competition like the SAA or Diner's Club or Veritas. The award of stars to wines over the 20 year period in John Platter's Guides was carried out by very many different tasters, that is different brains connected to unique palates. And the individual tasters, or teams of tasters, making a judgment about wine from the same estate changed many times over the years.
This is a variable which you might think would affect the overall consistency of the 20 year results. But that does not seem to be so.

There is another feature which we should bear in mind. Over the years, as a result of discussion in the media by wine writers and others, and the number of medals and awards the estate's wines win, a certain public, journalist-created attitude, to the estate is born and maintained. In the public mind an estate could be regarded as grand, prestigious, and selling expensive wines. Or the estate could be regarded as unpretentious, quite ordinary, selling undistinguished wines. This media factor affects everyone, including wine writers and members of tasting panels.

Co-operatives and winemaking from 'blended terroirs'

South Africa produced more than 9 million hecto-litres of grape liquid in 1999, and about 65% of that was made into wine. The rest was used for grape concentrate, grape spirit and brandy. The Co-operatives had the lion's share of the 65% or about 585 million litres that was made into wine. They produced about 80% of that, or about 468 million litres.
Winemakers at co-operative cellars have a difficult task. They have to take the grapes from different terroirs that the members bring them and produce something from a blend of good, bad, and indifferent terroirs. In this case the results should be the opposite of what happens in a single estate, where fruit is carefully selected from patches of excellent terroir. The results should fluctuate and show lots of ups and downs. And the fluctuations should remain despite changes of winemaker, viticulturalist, or changes of owner of the member wine farms of the co-operative. This result also seems to hold as we can see in the table.

There is a way to transcend indifferent terroir and overcome the handicap of having to blend the product of different terroirs. It is to identify and judiciously select the best grapes from the best terroir farms and channel those into a select label, so in effect copying what the estate winemaker does.

In the table below the numbers represent stars awarded to the wine in the
John Platter's South African Wine Guides.
In the 1980 Guide 4 stars was the maximum rating; with the meanings; *=above average ; **=good ; ***=excellent; and ****= superb;
By 1985 the system had been expanded to a 5-star rating system, with new interpretations:
* = acceptable **=pleasant *** good ****=excellent *****=superlative
By 1995 the interpretations had changed to: *=Very ordinary **=casual quaffing ***=Good, reliable everyday quality ****=excellent *****=superlative, a classic
All the 1980 Platter evaluations, where the maximum was 4 stars, were multiplied by 1.25 to ensure that the scales are uniform.

TABLE

Estate Wines

Backsberg: Shiraz (av.=4.1) 1980=5 1985=4 1990=4 1995=3.5 2000=4
Fairview: Shiraz (av.=3.9) 1980=5 1985=4 1990=3 1995=3.5 2000=4
Lievland: Shiraz (av.=3.9) 1980=unlisted 1985=4 1990=3.5 1990=4 2000=4
Overgaauw: Trio Corda (av.=4.4) 1980=untasted 1985=5 1990=4 1995=4 2000=4.5
Rustenburg: Dry Red (av.=4.1) 1980=5 1985=4 1990=4 1995=3.5 2000=untasted

Co-operative Wines

Boland: Cab. Sauv. (av.=3.3) 1980=2.5 1985=4 1990=3.5 1995=3.5 2000=3
Louwshoek: Muscat de Alexandrie (av.=1.6) 1980=0 1985=3 1990=0 1995=3.5 2000=untasted
Swartland: Steen (Chenin bl.) (av.=2.6) 1980=1.25 1985=2 1990=3 1995=4 2000=3

interpreting the smile of the winemaker

The arithmetic can't be said to rule decisively in favour of the view that terroir is more important than the winemaker, or viticulturalist, in the production of good wine. But I claim that the data supports the view that terroir is first among equals.
The winemaker and the viticulturalist are equals, but terroir is first. This is terroir's triumph. The numbers in the table show that you can juggle the other variables; the winemakers, owners, viticulturalists, who the wine tasters and wine judges for the wine guides were, or media acclaim. You can change the owner or winemaker or viticulturalist many times on an estate with good terroir, and still produce 4 star wines over a twenty year period. Each of the estates in our table had at least two different winemakers over the 20 year period.

But no matter how good your winemaker on a co-op is, if she has to make bulk wine by blending from a range of good and indifferent terroirs, it is improbable that she will be able to compete with her counterpart on a good terroir estate where the best grapes from the best patch of terroir is made into medal winning wine. Terroir cannot be photographed;- you can't take a picture of geology, pedology, soil drainage and micro-climate etc.

But the winemaker and the viticulturalist can be photograped. And when the estate winemaker is pictured she usually smiles enigmatically at the camera. We know now what the smile really means.