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John Szabo's wine picks for February 5, 2009

In This Issue: Vintages February 14th Release Featuring South Africa
By John Szabo MS
To subscribe to FIL and get the full news and reviews on 80+ wines in this release, including the top ten smart buys, go to www.wineaccess.ca/first-in-line.
IN 1652, the Dutch East India Company set up a victualling outpost at the Cape of Good Hope. The purpose was to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to passing ships on their way between Europe and the East, and Cape wine would soon be one of the eagerly sought-after local products. This week the LCBO focuses on the wines of South Africa, and the timing of this release couldn’t be better, as I have just returned from a week long sojourn in the Cape Winelands organized by the Court of Master Sommeliers and the memories are still vivid and fresh. This was my first visit to South Africa, and it was an eye opening experience to be sure. There is nothing like a little knowledge to destroy prejudice. The old truism that wine regions of the world keep their best stuff for themselves and export the rest doesn’t exactly hold true here. South Africa produces world-class wines of great distinction and character, and even exports them, but sadly not often to Canada.
No doubt you have been seeing and hearing more about South African wines in recent years, as exports have increased from 20% of total production to over 40% in the decade 1997-2007. Of course, prior to the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1992, virtually no wine was exported at all. The majority of what is shipped to Ontario, in my experience and estimation, falls into the category of cheap and (sometimes) cheerful, establishing South Africa as a good source of value wine, but overshadowing the fact that it also produces top notch stuff. I hope I can be forgiven for having lumped most of SA’s wines into the former category, and even more erroneously, for tarring the majority of these wines with the same brush, that is, as being tainted by that curious ‘Cape funk’ that has been reported on earlier in FIL. While the smoky-rubbery character is still present in some wines, the vast majority of what I tasted was clean, fruity, and in the best cases strongly marked by the minerally character imparted by the predominantly sandstone and granite soils of the finest vineyards. Stuff to get excited about.
A few points of interest: In the last 15 years there has been a dramatic change in the make-up of South African vineyards, moving from predominantly white wine production (much of it destined for distillation into brandy) with as much as 80% of vineyards planted to white varieties, to today’s dominance of red grapes, now accounting for 55% of all plantings.
Old World vs. New World: The wines of South Africa are often described as being somewhere between old world and new world in style, combining the generous ripe fruit of warm, new world regions with the distinctly earthy-minerally character more common in the old world. This still holds true. It’s worth knowing that the Cape celebrated 350 years of winemaking this past Monday February 2nd. It was on this day in 1659 that under Jan van Riebeeck, representative of the Dutch East India Company, the first wine grapes grown in the Company Gardens in Cape Town were pressed., The sweet wines of Constantia were among the most famous and sought after in the world in the 18th-19thC. So a fair bit of history to drawn on. South Africa can also boast of some of the oldest viticultural soils in the world, in some cases over 500 millions years old, in addition to a truly staggering array of flora and fauna. The Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest of six floral kingdoms in the world can boast of greater biodiversity – some 9600 plant species – than is found in the entire northern hemisphere. Table Mountain alone, the famous flat-topped mountain that forms the dramatic, picturesque backdrop to Cape Town has more floral species than the entire UK. South Africans, being closely tied to their land, have launched a groundbreaking “biodiversity in wine” initiative, whereby for each hectare of (diversity-destroying monoculture) vineyard, 1.1 hectares are set aside as conservation land to preserve the fynbos and renosterveld (indigenous vegetation) unique to the Cape.
Some of the most exiting wines discovered on my recent journey include the white blends based on the wealth of old-vines Chenin Blanc found in many different regions, mixed with intriguing, more recently-introduced Rhône varieties such as Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Clairette, as well as the useful partners Semillon and Sauvignon. These I believe have the potential to truly captivate a world audience. Varietal Chenin Blanc, still the most planted grape in SA, remains an outrageous value for the most part, as Tony Gismondi, David Lawrason and I discovered during a tasting with the Chenin Blanc Growers Association of SA. Prices, it seems, are still suffering from the grape’s earlier reputation as suitable only for bulk wine or brandy. Old bush vines planted in the right soils and microclimates display a fabulous range of styles from steely-wooly Loire valley-like, to lush, tropical fruit salad-flavoured versions.
Sauvignon Blanc is the variety on which many producers are pinning their export hopes. From cool, coastal areas like Walker Bay and Elgin, to warmer inland vineyards in Stellenbosch and Franshhoek, the grape can range from the popular, pungently green/herbal/ canned asparagus style (which many producers favour but I can’t quite wrap my taste buds around) to riper, more passion fruit and guava-scented versions.
On the red side, it is the blends again that generate the most excitement for me, in which Bordeaux and Rhône varieties together yield more complex, complete wines together than on their own. And finally Pinotage, you’ll be pleased to learn, does not simply smell and taste like rusty nails in burnt rubber boots. Top quality examples, of which there are more and more, have depth, richness, ripe dark fruit character and an uncanny ability to age. So much for the simplistic little box into which we could throw all examples.
I could go on, but you’ll read all about South Africa in much greater detail in the April-May issue of Wine Access. I’ll be penning a piece on the most famous region, Stellenbosch, while the rest of the WA crew looks deeply across the rest of the country. For now, let the wines do the talking. Most of the releases here fall into the good value category, and sadly there is not a single Chenin Blanc, so I encourage you to continue your South African journey through other channels, such as cutting edge restaurants or private importers, to get a representative idea of what the country has to offer.
Top Scoring Wines From South Africa:
White/Sparkling:

1. 956219 2007 DELHEIM SUR LIE CHARDONNAY 88 $18 **1/2

2. 948620 2008 GRAHAM BECK SAUVIGNON BLANC 86 $14 **

3. 593483 NV GRAHAM BECK BRUT METHOD CAP CLASSIQUE 86 $19 *1/2
Red:

4. 79525 2005 STARK-CONDÉ SYRAH 89 $20 **1/2

5. 96487 2005 GROENLAND ANTOINETTE MARIÉ THE CLASSIC COLLECTION 88 $18 **1/2

6. 98095 2005 TMV VIKTORIA RED 88 $20 **1/2

7. 96503 2006 SLOWINE SHIRAZ 87 $15 ***

8. 981357 2005 DELHEIM CABERNET SAUVIGNON 87 $17 **

9. 89698 2005 DE HEUVEL PINOTAGE 87 $17 **

10. 96347 2004 MEERENDAL PINOTAGE 87 $20 **

11. 37408 2005 THE CLOOF CELLAR BLEND 87 $21 *1/2

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