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