"The Beautiful South" London 2013 Trade Tasting: Overall Impressions / Top South African Producers

"The Beautiful South" trade tasting was held this past week in London, featuring hundreds of producers from three countries of the Southern Hemisphere: South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. Wines of South Africa (WOSA) generously paid for three Master Sommeliers and 16 other members of the Guild of Sommeliers to travel to London for the event. We asked for a full report from the three Masters and comments from all Guild members in attendance. Following are some overall impressions on current trends in the Southern Hemisphere, and snapshots of some favorite producers and tasting notes from South Africa. Tasting notes on Chile and Argentina will follow later in the week.

 Southern Hemisphere Observations

Pyrazine: Chile has, for better or worse, managed to completely ripen pyrazines out of their wines. For some this may come as a relief that the days of leafy Carmenere might be behind us, but for others this means a reduction in not only typicity, but authenticity. And I am not talking about a reduction in pyrazines, which might be an acceptable balance, but rather an entire obliteration. And it does not stop with Carmenere, but also includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec (we will get to that in a moment). While this may seem desirable to some, I am left with a feeling of sameness and placelessness all at the same time. Why plant Cabernet Franc if you don’t want pyrazine character? Christopher Bates MS

Chilean Malbec? Partly as a result of Argentina’s immense success with Malbec, Chile was tempted to hop on the bandwagon, and began planting Malbec. Now with a number of 6- to 8-year-old Malbec vineyards coming on line in Chile, we are beginning to see a range of Chilean Malbecs entering the market to compete with Argentina. But as Argentina struggles with its association with one varietal, it is worth asking: is it a good idea to try to compete in a nearly saturated market against the well established brand of Argentinian Malbec? -Christopher Bates MS 

Acid and Sugar (Truth in Labeling?): One of the truly amazing aspects of this tasting was that every wine was listed with its residual sugar, total acidity and finished alcohol levels - possibly a condition of doing business on the English market. I was really surprised at the number of wines that were listed with a minimum of 14% alcohol, over 3 g/l of residual sugar and anywhere from 5% to 8% acidity. This showed up across the board with all 3 countries offering many wines of this type. Many of the wines had a vibrant attack on the palate that accentuated a juicy fruit quality. Good or Bad? Really neither, but I left my last day of tasting wishing I had tasted drier wines that had less acidification. Many of my top wines came from the small group that were on the drier side. -Eric Entrikin MS

Is there such a thing as terroir in South Africa, Argentina and Chile: Yes! (But it comes with a disclaimer): In many regions the idea of terroir has firmly taken hold but there are still too many wines that were just crowd-pleasing fruit bombs. In an effort to achieve some semblance of terroir many producers will have to ask themselves if they are willing to lower yields and limit oak usage to produce wines truly reflective of their regions. Thankfully many producers seem to be making this transition as the number of wines displaying terroir-driven character was much higher than I have seen in the past. -Eric Entrikin MS

Cool Climate Focus... Chile and South Africa are making this a big focus of their winemaking style, and are really exploring the limits of viticulture in their respective countries. Overall this has been a boon to their quality and development of typicity, as the elegance of the wines is really starting to show in their home turf. In some cases the vineyard sites are maybe too cool, as I noticed in quite a few Sauvignon Blancs, which had a tendency to be just too lean and hollow. -Chris Tanghe MS

...And Climate Change: The current global mean temperature is 15.5° Celsius (59.9°F).  It will continue to rise due to trapped greenhouse gases; the critical threshold will be 18° (64°F). Upon reaching that, we will experience an extremely unstable climate.  Despite this bad news, temperature change has been less dramatic in the Southern Hemisphere because 90% of it is water, and the land temperature is moderated by the oceans and cold marine currents (Benguela and Humboldt) which come up from Antarctica.  So while most of the world’s wine regions are in peril with rising temperatures, we still have the Southern hemisphere to keep us supplied with wine. -Jill Zimorski

Divergent styles of wine: The first sign that not perhaps everyone is using the exact same playbook, and maybe for the better! Cookie-cutter winemaking may be good for a staid commercial market but when was the last time that was a good idea? The level of experimentation in the Southern Hemisphere seems to be very much alive and growing by leaps and bounds. The unbridled desire to make a wine for every market has led to some interesting creations. Truly stunning examples of sparkling wines, a sweet variation of Pinotage deemed "Coffee Pinotage" (referred to as chocolate/cherry about two years ago) and Bordeaux blends that seemed more Bordeaux-like than many of the wines from that venerable French region were just a few of the varied styles of wine that were seen at the Beautiful South tasting. -Eric Entrikin MS

Ripeness: There needs to be more braking applied to over-ripeness. It’s noticeably a problem in Argentina where I was hard pressed to find any red wine under 14%. I am not a low-alcohol fanatic: there are wines that can handle themselves gracefully at 15%, but Malbec just isn’t one of those wines, for me anyway. Fruit is raisinated and oxidized as a result and the finish is dominated by booze. One sip and I’m done - not to mention the hundreds of other such wines to work through at a massive tasting. There are some great wines made here without a doubt but the overall impression was a need to tone it down. There are producers that are doing a great job and scaling back, South Africa as a whole has made leaps and bounds in the last 5 years. I was very, very impressed with the restraint and elegance of even the warmer WOs. Chile is also getting there but has yet to really figure it out with the exception of the well established houses. It was eye opening to walk from South Africa table to table and be consistently impressed with overall quality. -Chris Tanghe MS

It’s All About Wood: It seems to be par for the course that in the modern evolution of every wine region there comes the craze for oak. Argentina is in the heat of it now. It is common to see producers offering a range of Malbec (sometimes other varietals as well), each distinguished simply by its exposure and use of wood. To quote one producer: “It's all the same wine, but with different amounts of wood chips”. I could not make that up. Certainly, this will quickly go away, and in no time these lines will be divided by truly unique and noticeable differences in the base wines (terroir) with wood use appropriate to the wine, as opposed to the other way around.  -Christopher Bates MS

Availability: Many of the South African wines aren't available in the U.S. Some owners expressed frustration with our jumble of laws, and others said they've been burned by their importer and/or distributors.  I believe that there's a lot of potential for organized, ethical U.S. importers to do more business with South African wines. -Rob Van Leer

Pinotage: My first surprise occurred when one of our winemakers (at a producers' dinner) poured me a glass of Pinotage, that tasted, well, remarkably un-Pinotage like. I asked Louis Boutinot (Export Manager for Waterkloof wines) what was happening in my glass. There was none of the iodine or burnt-rubber characteristic that (sadly?) we have come to expect from this grape. My question prompted a tremendously informative exchange, and what I came to discover is that all the nasty that we have come to associate with the grape is due to excessively high yields, from young vines and from wines that haven’t been vinified correctly. The consensus (among South African wine professionals at my dinner table) is that unfortunately, even with Old Vines and controlled yields, Pinotage needs a lot of manipulation (particularly micro-oxygenation) to taste, in their words, “decent.” Additionally, it is felt that Pinotage is best when élevage occurs in Hungarian or American Oak barrels, as it needs a touch of sweetness. So, typical Pinotage? Made poorly. “Correct” (but also heavy handed/interventionist) winemaking yields only a mediocre wine? Is the final product worth the process then? No one could really answer that, so to break the silence I told the South Africans at my table that I grew up on the east coast and there are some wineries in Virginia that are growing & producing Pinotage. That news went over like a lead balloon…and their response was the same as mine: "Why?" -Jill Zimorski

South African Label Lingo: courtesy of Jill Zimorski

  • Kloof refers to a canyon or ravine through which water runs.
  • Dal = Valley
  • Klip = Stone
  • Koffie Klip = Coffee Stone, a term for decomposed Granite with a high clay content
  • Steen. Ummm, no one uses this word to describe Chenin Blanc anymore. I didn’t hear one South African say it and it appeared on no labels. When I inquired at the Chenin Producers Association table, the response was eerily Mean Girls-esque. “It’s an old term, no one uses it anymore.” (Stop trying to make Steen happen Gretchen; it’s not going to happen.)
  • Hanepoot. No one really uses this term either. Cue shock and awe. (also, “oo” makes a soft “u” sound…as if it was spelled Haneput)

Tasting Notes: Eric Entrikin MS

Old Vines: Of the themed tables for tasting the most interesting to me were the Old Vine wines. The Old Vines provided a glimpse into what these regions can do with lower yields. Unless the wines were overdone there was a true sense of terroir in many of these wines. Old vines in South Africa favored the white varieties!

  • Beau Joubert Vineyards & Winery, Old Vine Chenin Blanc, 2012, Polkadraai Hills: A really amazing wine that had much less RS than many of the red wines at the tasting. Vines were only 32 years old, but a lush red apple, honey, melon and floral quality lingered on my palate a lot longer than in many of the other wines.
  • Darling Cellars, Arum Fields Chenin Blanc, 2013, Darling: 30-year-old vines produced a fabulous mineral-laden version of Chenin Blanc.

Although I tasted many very good to excellent Cap Classique sparklers from South Africa (mentioned below), a special note of mention for one Argentine Sparkling wine that I had the pleasure of tasting at the winery 2 years ago and also at the Beautiful South tasting.

  • Bodega Fin del Mundo, Extra Brut, 2010, Neuquen80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. I'm not sure if this can compete with top quality NV Brut Champagne but at $20 retail it really doesn't matter. A fine bead that lifts a strawberry, white cherry compote with signs of lees aging that give it a Champagne-lookalike quality. I'd put this up against a lot of sparklers from around the world.

 Wineries that impressed me across their entire line:

De Wetshof in the Robertson Valley is run by Danie de Wet and his two sons, Peter and Johann. The estate has been producing wine for 150 years. The southernmost part of Robertson Valley is only 90 km from Cape Agulhas, and it receives a convection effect of constant air flow. During summer this is mostly an onshore flow bringing the cooling influence of the ocean. This allows De Wetshof to be a Chardonnay specialist. The moderate temperatures and abundance of limestone, gravel and clay soils gives them some excellent fruit. Along with an excellent Cap Classique Brut NV, made from 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir (all in the current bottling from the 2007 vintage with four years on lees), there are several Chardonnays in the line up and only the unoaked version did not get top marks. Two Chardonnays really stood out: the Lesca 2012 spent 10 months in oak (1/3 new) and showed great balance between fruit and acid with a yeasty undertone, and the Site 2012, in new oak for 12 months, displayed a roasted hazelnut, lemon balm and crisp apple character while still maintaining a great degree of elegance on the palate.

Crystallum in Walker Bay pulls fruit from many regions and had a terrific lineup of wines focusing on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Cuvee Cinema Pinot Noir 2012 (Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge) was a favorite for its savory fruit character, length and texture. The Clay Shales Chardonnay 2012 (Overberg) had lingering texture and length.

Gabrielskloof in Bot River on the Western Cape produced a range of some of the driest wines I saw at the entire tasting. My favorites were the Magdalena 2010, a blend of 50% Sauvignon Blanc and 50% Semillon, that displayed fennel, wax, green pepper and honey notes with a long finish that just sat on the palate. The Blend 2010 from 36% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 7% Petit Verdot was made in a true Bordeaux model with cassis, black cherry, raspberry, tobacco and cedar aromatics. There were some large-framed tannins on the finish that gave the wine a structured nature that will require some more age.

Some standout wines:

  • Demorgenzon Maestro White, 2012 Stellenbosch: A blend of 31% Chenin Blanc, 24% Chardonnay, 23% Roussanne and 22% Viognier had a intensely floral, fruity complexity that evolved in the glass as elements of grapes in the blend showed themselves: jasmine, nut, white peach, orange peel all came with a terrific weight and texture. The wine reminded me a bit of the fantastic white blend of Mas de Daumas Gassac.
  • Waterkloof, Circumstance Seriously Cool Cinsault, 2012, Stellensbosch: A Beaujolais-like quality in structure but with lovely blue fruit, violets and notes of black tea. A refreshing wine that had low RS and moderate alcohol.
  • Klein Constantia Cap Classique Chardonnay, 2009, Constantia: A terrific sparkling wine that had a surprisingly long finish and juicy texture on the palate with citrus, fennel, and brioche notes.

Tasting Notes: Chris Tanghe MS

Age-ability: Ronan Sayburn MS presented a great seminar on the aging potential of these wines that was fantastic and impressive. As sommeliers we often don’t give enough credit to these regions for their longevity. Some highlights were:

  • 1995 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, Curico: slight garnet rim, dried herbs de provence, tobacco, compost, tomato leaf, sweet red fruit core – dried cherries, strawberry, currants, silky tannins and bright acid. still has five years left.
  • 1998 Meerlust Rubicon, Stellenbosch: Garnet rim, dried black fruits, smoky earth, soy, umami, chocolate, menthol finish. peaking now.
  • 2000 Catena Zapata Catena Alta Malbec, Lunlunta: Dusty Malbec tannins, swisher sweets, slightly dried black plum/prune, blackberry, blood sausage, licorice. At least five years left.

Highlights in South Africa:

Crystallum: A third-generation winemaking family in Walker Bay, they produce primarily Chardonnay & Pinot Noir but in recent vintages have a new bottling of Syrah/Mourvèdre from Swartland, which was excellent. They are moving towards natural yeasts and are playing with more whole cluster fermentations. Oak usage is quite moderate and in all the wines it was very well intergrated.

  • 2012 Cuvee Cinema Pinot Noir: A single vineyard at high elevation in Hemel-en-Aarde. Very high-toned red fruits of cranberry and strawberry with savory elements of tarragon, beets and spice. Elegant and lovely.
  • 2012 Peter Max Pinot Noir: A blend of two different vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde. Natural yeast and partial whole cluster fermentation. A bit richer than the Cinema, with darker and more plush red fruits of black cherry and plum, with mushroom and oak spice. Oak is more apparent but fits with the richness and concentration. The whole cluster really shows through and balances out the fruit. Powerful and ageworthy.
  • 2012 Clay Shales Chardonnay: From a single vineyard in Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. Barrel fermented in 10% new barriques. Lots of verve with red apple, lemon curd, jasmine and mineral tones.
  • 2011 The Agnes Chardonnay: Produced from a blend of 3 vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde and Overberg. This one is a bit richer with tart tropical fruits, kaffir lime, lemongrass and great texture. Lots of density balanced with a mineral undercurrent. 
  • 2011 Paradisum Syrah/Mourvedre: Produced from old bush-trained vines in Swartland, this cuvee is 80% Syrah and 20% Mourvedre. Super meaty & gamey with black pepper, charcuterie, juniper and spice. Yes please!

Radford Dale is one of the labels of the Winery of Good Hope group based in Stellenbosch. They make wines from several WOs and singlehandedly changed my impression of Pinotage, as their bottling was completely devoid of that burnt rubber chemical smell. None of the wines surpass 13.5% abv!

  • 2012 The Renaissance Chenin Blanc: Produced from 50-year-old vines growing in decomposed granite at the base of Helderberg mountain in Stellenbosch, the wine is barrel-fermented in around 15% new oak and shows ripe stone fruits with orange marmalade, ginger, saffron and banana cream pie. Lots of acid and mineral to balance out the richness.
  • 2012 Nudity Syrah: A new bottling from them after much experimentation with zero sulphur use in production. The result is a taught and floral nose that is surprisingly clean. Violets, perfume, plum, grapefruit, venison jerky and mineral. Allemand-esque.
  • 2012 Frankenstein Pinotage: Grown in white marl at the foot of Helderberg mountain, 100% de-stemmed and free-run juice, 14 months in second- and third-year barrels. Silky red and black fruits with cardamom, bouillon, and red flowers. Very clean and delicious.

Cederberg, located in the Cederberg mountain preserve, just east of Citrusdal, has some of the highest vineyards in South Africa. The property has been a farm since the late 1800s and it’s first vintage was 1977 Cabernet. Extremely isolated, it’s about 3+ hours from Cape Town.

  • 2012 Sauvignon Blanc: Extremely bright and zippy, this wine is all about fruit and acid. Lime, jalapeno, parsley and green apple with clean rocky base. No oak.
  • 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon: Classic Cabernet here. Tobacco, cassis, cedar, nutmeg, vanilla, gravel, plum with lots of structure and aging potential. Oak is present, roughly 50% in new and 50% in 2nd-year barrels. Pyrazine is evident and at a proper level.
  • 2012 Bukettraube: A cross of Silvaner & Trollinger developed in Germany that is used for off dry and sweet wine styles. South Africa has the most plantings now as it is very susceptible to powdery mildew. Off-dry with 25 g/l of RS it has a nose similar to Muscat – very floral with dried tropical fruits, cotton candy, apricot but with ripping acid. Fun wine.

Tasting Notes: Christopher Bates MS

Highlights in South Africa: This is where it gets exciting. As recently as 2011, I would have never thought I would be saying this, but narrowing down my list to only a few wines from South Africa was nearly impossible. These are some of the most exciting, compelling wines I have tasted recently, and I believe them to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Newton-Johnson: A relative newcomer located in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, the modern winery is built to allow for gentle handling. With a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this winery is quickly showing a deft hand at incredibly detailed and delicate wines.

  • Chardonnay South End 2012: Stony, unbuttered popcorn, and just a hint of VA elevate the nose to earth and complexity, and the texture is stony and rich with medium-plus acid.
  • Chardonnay Family Vineyard 2012: Burnt rock, mineral, unbuttered popcorn, toasted wheat bread, with pie crust, subtle baking spices and a saline core, ending with great balance and a creamy texture.
  • Pinot Noir, Walker Bay 2012: Light ruby color gives way to fresh cherries and pomegranates with sweet spice, dried herbs, potting soil and a bright and light texture. Delicious.
  • Pinot Noir, Family Vineyards 2012: Similar to above but with additional roasted strawberry noses, cranberry and a sour cherry note all adding to the complexity. Well made wine, showing amazing delicacy.

Mullineux: Along with peers like Adi Badenhorst and Eben Sadie, Mullineux is a major force in what is being termed the “Swartland Revolution.” With reclaimed, old dry-farmed vineyards on a variety of soils, this young couple turns out truly world-class Chenin-based whites and Syrah-based reds. All natural (spontaneous) ferments.

  • Kloof Street White: 75% stainless and 25% Neutral Barrel. 100% Chenin Blanc. Honeyed, oily waxy texture with lemon peel, lemon oil, lanolin and green apple. The wine carries significant texture but ends fresh and bright.
  • Mullineux White: 75% Chenin (70 years old), 15% Clairette Blanche (80 years old) and 10% Viognier, aged in neutral wood with one new foudre blended in each year. Deeper than above with honey, waxy with smashed yellow apple, damp hay, sweet lemon, creamy corn, and a texture loaded with oily, waxy, honeycomb viscosity. Full bodied and long on the finish.
  • Kloof Street Red: 83% Syrah with Cinsault & Carignan. Fresh aromatics of bright red fruits, showing a granitic edge. On the palate, sour cherry, cranberry, tart and juicy with a bright finish.
  • Mullineux Syrah: Grown on granite, schist and iron soils. 50% whole cluster and 3 months on skins. Creamy smoked plums, blackberry, blueberry, sweet and savory spices, creosote, and char. Medium-plus acid and medium-plus tannin.
  • Granite: Black fruits, soft cherries, mineral salt, and burnt herbs all supported by medium-plus acid and tannin.
  • Schist: Smokier, leaner than the Granite, but with more red floral and spicy notes. The wine is perfectly balanced.
  • Straw Wine: 100% Chenin Blanc. Honeyed apricots, soft wool and passion fruit caramel, with a savory, marrowy palate. Great wine.

Alheit Vineyards: A young couple is behind this winery, producing white wines exclusively. Their major focus is on the vineyards, and the exceptional old, dry-farmed bush vines that South Africa sports.

  • Cartology 2012: 86% Chenin, 14% Semillon (including Semillon Gris). Beeswax and bruised fruits with citrus marmalade, oil, lanolin and confit ginger end with a leesy, toasty texture and just a hint of VA to add lift.
  • Radio Lazarus 2012: 100% Chenin. Textured and rich with waxy sandstone and a ton of herbal savory notes. Well-built wine.

Springfield: A small, family run estate in the Robertson Valley whose wines are built in a rather restrained style for the area. With vineyards full of rocks and a noticeably old fashioned attitude to wine making, it is no wonder these wines show an incredible ability to age. I have been in love with these wines for years, and this tasting only emphasized why.

  • Sauvignon Blanc “Special Cuvee”: Grown on a sand “island” between two rivers which--when they flood during the winter season--are completely submerged, allowing for boats to pass over the vines.
    • 2006: High toned jalapeño, lime, tart apple, cooling green herbs and a bright finish with medium plus acid. This wine shows how ageworthy SB can be here. This wine has many years ahead of it, and has barely even begun to evolve.
    • 2012: Jalepeno, lemon peel, green apple, and grass end with medium-plus acid and a bright finish.
  • Sauvignon Blanc “Life from Stone” 2012: 80% quartz soils. Tropical, passion fruit, pineapple core, snipped herbs and high acid.
  • Chardonnay “Wild Yeast” 2010: This wine sees no oak but spends 3 years on the lees. Sweet spice, creamy, marzipan, cinnamon and a round rich texture with just a slight impression of RS on the finish.
  • Chardonnay “Methode Ancien”: From a highly calcareous vineyard with natural yields of 1.5 tons to the hectare. This wine undergoes barrel fermentation and aging.
    • 2009: Caramel, butterscotch, creamed corn, almond skin, and sea salt. The palate is rich and creamy.
    • 2002: Buttered toast, biscuits, meyer lemon candy, pear, yellow apple, tarte tatin and a long, perfectly balanced finish.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon “Whole Berry” 2011: Graphite, gravel, pencil lead, plum, and cassis; soft and balanced with medium-plus acid.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon “Work of Time” 2008: Blood, orange peel, ruddy, earthy notes, with tonic, and a bit of VA. Gravel and great structure, this wine is delicate but with noticeable tannin.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon “Method Anciene” 2006: Grown on quartz. Orange peel and oxidation, but with perfect amounts of savory and sweet fruit and earth.
  • 2001: Bloody, meaty, decaying leaf, tobacco and cedar…wow.

Other Highlights: Kanonkop (Bordeaux varietals and Pinotage), Meerlust (Bordeaux varietals), Buitenwerwachting (Sauvignon Blanc), Cederberg (all).

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  • Great write-up! I did a South African tasting last year, which was my first introduction to Pinotage and "goat-rotie". I did not find the selection of wine that I had favorable. Although, last night I tasted through 15+ South African wines, all from Stellenbosch, some Walker Bay. I must say, I found these wines to all be of high quality. I was very surprised. Blind tasted Chenin Blanc that I would of swore was Chardonnay with new barrel influences. The wines were nuanced and showed complexity. Kanonkop Pinotage was delightful. Producers represented at my tasting were Ken Forester, Fairview, DeMorgenzon, Neil Ellis, Southern Right, Hamilton Russell. I'm so glad to see the quality improving in South Africa. As a somm, I would highly recommend using these in blind tastings.

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