Masters of Pinotage

Having been out to South Africa earlier this year we felt it was time to arrange a tasting of Pinotage. Pinotage is a cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut, bred in 1925, in an attempt to adapt the qualities of Pinot Noir to the South African climate. Pinotage has historically been accused of lacking the potential to make great wine, and condemned for tasting notes of burnt rubber and bananas. Having tasted almost 200 wines during the trip we identified a few standout bottles of Pinotage to showcase the grape and dispel any remaining doubts.

The wines below were tasted blind, with a bottle of Tesco’s finest Pinotage added to the flight as a comparator. All 4 wines were decanted prior to serving from the decanters. I quickly sorted the wines on the basis of the depth and complexity of the nose to determine a tasting order as below. Incidentally these wines are all from different regions of South Africa and represent a cross section of the terroir

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Tescos Finest, South African Pinotage, Swartland, 2015

Price: £6.00 from Tesco Online

A garnet of moderate intensity, this had a thin nose with notes of cherry.  A refreshing wine with high alcohol, high acidity and high tannin.  This was somewhat out of balance and was the only wine tasted where the burnt rubber notes were obvious -coming through on the late palate. I have previously drunk this wine without complaint, and whilst is in no way a bad wine, it does little to excite. On returning to this from the other wines in the flight its relative inadequacy was very much apparent.

Score: The score among the group tasting ranged between 82-86/100 with the fine felt to be above average but nothing standout.

Kanonkop, Pinotage, Stellenbosch, 2003

Price: £22.99 (different vintage) from SA Wines Online

Kanonkop are renowned as one of the leading Pinotage estates, with their black label Pinotage one of the most expensive wines from South Africa. On my recent visit Kanonkop impressed across the range. The example we tasted here was from 2003 and was the oldest wine in the flight demonstrating the capacity of Pinotage to age.

This wine was much richer that the first; sweet with moderate silky tannin.  Again we find cherry but this time closer to a black cherry.  The balance is better, and we are rewarded with greater complexity.  Perhaps a little rough round the edges but I can accept that to be rewarded with savory flavours of leather and game.  Spice on the finish rounds out a typical and mature high quality pinotage. This wine is a great match for a piece of charred steak or other fare cooked on a charcoal grill.

Score: 90/100 (DT)

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Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Ashbourne, Walker Bay, 2009

Price: £27.99 from SA Wines Online

This was the only wine that was a blend of grapes, and in this case it was made up of 82% Pinotage, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Shiraz. This article gives Hamilton Russell’s thoughts on Pinotage, and it is worth noting that Ashbourne will become a single varietal pinotage from the 2015 vintage.  Hamilton Russell is famed for Pinot Noir, and although this may be sacrilegious, I think I actually prefer the Ashbourne red.

On tasting this was a very different wine from the first two. In comparison this was pretty, and delicate, with stacks of red raspberry fruit. High acidity keeps this in focus, and it was the only wine that expressed much in the way of minerality. Excellent balance, with floral overtones. This tastes much closer to Pinot Noir and impressed fans of the grape. If this came from Burgundy it would cost a small fortune.

Score: 93/100 (DT)

Meerendal, The Heritage Block Pinotage, Durbanville, 2006

Price: £39.99 from K&L Wines

Durbanville lies directly to the north of Cape Town and is best known for producing stunning Sauvignon Blanc. The farm at Meerendal has been growing wine since 1714 and this Pinotage was one of my best finds whilst in Cape Town. My thanks go to David at Meerendal for opening this to taste as it is a truly exceptional wine. K&L Wines appear to be selling this here in UK although I would be surprised if there are many bottles available.

This wine was a dark garnet of high intensity, and markedly strong legs.  This was full bodied yet smooth, luxurious and silky sweet in the mouth.  More tannic that the other wines tasted, and again showing a flare of high acidity keeping the wine in focus.  This still tastes youthful with the fresh greenness of fruit pips, although the bulk of the fruit is more in line with raisins or stewed dark fruits. Cracking high powered, yet classy wine.  Just edged out on score by the Ashbourne but well received all round, and well worth the effort seeking out.

Score: 92/100 (DT)

‘If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving!’

If you were to offer Miles Raymond a bottle of 1982 Petrus, I would suspect he would change his mind. However, when the lead character of the Hollywood film Sideways made this remark, he was really making a jibe at the over-produced, easy-to-make, easy-to-drink, generic, sweet, simple expressions of merlot that we all know and avoid.

Instead, Miles and I pursue the ‘haunting and brilliant and subtle’ flavours of the temperamental, thin-skinned grape pinot noir. Growing pinot noir is notoriously difficult. In cold climates, there is a risk of under-ripeness; in hot climates the grapes ripen too quickly, preventing the development of complex flavour compounds.

There is a great deal of pinot noir being made in warm-climates. As these are cheaper than Burgundian expressions, I popped a bottle yesterday in sincere hope that I would find something charismatic.

2016-03-27 00.01.16Newton Johnson, Walker Bay Pinot Noir, Upper Hemel-En-Aarde Valley, South Africa 2012

100% matured in French Oak, pH 3.5, residual sugar 1.9, alcohol 13.95%

Light-mid ruby colour. Sour cherries and raspberries on the nose. A subtle touch of manure and some thyme. Lovely acidity on the palate with buckets of red fruit. Sweetness on the mid-palate (which is not a bad thing as it is balanced by the acidity).

Conclusion: I enjoyed this. It had some of those herbal aromas that you remember for days to come. However, you can tell that this is Newton Johnson’s more simple pinot . The palate is fruit driven, forward and slightly sweet. I would love to try their ‘family vineyards’ pinot noir to see how it compares. 88 points (BP)

Learning Point: Jancis Robinson is, as usual, correct when she says about South African pinot noir: ‘the coastal regions show promise.’

Old World Elegance Meets New World Flair

My experience with South African wine is somewhat limited; however I’m always interested to try new things! Spurred on by my good friend’s recent adventures in South Africa, I decided to find out what I have until this point largely been missing out on. Being a long time lover of all things Syrah (Shiraz), it was natural I gravitated towards this particular bottle. A tall sleek bottle that left me wondering was the wine as polished as the name suggests?

The Glenelly estate lies just northeast of the town of Stellenbosch in the southern foothills of the Simonsburg Mountain, sitting on a bed of decomposing granite, which lends itself to good drainage and deep roots to the vines. Whilst the region itself has been making wine for over 200 years, the Glenelly estate is a relative newcomer, having first produced wine in 2009, after being taken over in 2003 by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, previous owner of the Bordeaux Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (Pauillac GCC). Wine making at Glenelly is headed by Luke O’Cuinneagain who has teamed up with the legendary Adi Badenhost (See ‘The ‘Rock-Star’ of Wine’). With this line up, the team clearly mean business and have already built up a reputation as a leading player in the Stellenbosch region.

Glenelly, The Glass Collection Syrah, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2011

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100% Syrah, Aged for 12 months in old French oak barrels, Alcohol 14.0%
Production 42,000 bottles
£12.50 Lea & Sandeman

The wine boasts a deep amethyst colour with legs that wouldn’t look out of place on a fashion catwalk thanks to its impressive 14% alcohol content. It was the nose that truly blew me away, erupting from the glass with the most intense bouquet of roses and black cherries that does with time develop towards a more mature nose, more reminiscent of its cousins in the Rhone with black pepper predominating. On tasting, lots of red fruit juice comes to the fore, balanced well by rounded tannins and just the slightest hint of acidity to carry into a delightfully peppery finish. Again after an hour or so of air, the flavour develops a more austere character that is refreshingly different to the initial taste, once more bringing a flavour that is more in-keeping with a wine of particularly the northern Rhone (which may perhaps be a nod to the cooler year that was had in the region).

I’ve sat here and demolished several glasses of the wine with little more than a few crackers and a smearing of cheese, though I feel a pairing with a lighter pork dish or even a lamb dish would work well too. At the price point it really is excellent value, especially if you consider it along side some of the more traditional Syrah based wines which it more than stands up to. Madame de Lencquesaing, I doff my cap to you on a job well done.  89 points (MI)

Meerlust Estate, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Prior to visiting South Africa I had already tasted Meerlust Rubicon, and this wine helped set the yardstick to judge against. The visit to Meerlust came towards the end of the trip so I felt a certain trepidation for how the wines of the estate matched both expectation and memory.

Wine has been grown on this estate to the south of Stellenbosch since 1756. The estate has been recognised as a national monument since 1987, although we did not stop long enough to see more than the tasting room. Meerlust has been long recognized as one of South Africa’s top estates. The range at Meerlust is simple: 4 varietals (1 white and 3 red) and the flagship Rubicon (a Bordeaux blend). Here in the UK I have also seen an entry level Meerlust red although this was not available for tasting.

We travelled to Meerlust Estate from False Bay having followed the stunning R44 along the coast around the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. False Bay is still visible from the turning into the estate and this proximity to the sea is key to the wines. A sea breeze and mist keep the vineyard temperatures in check through the summer permitting a longer ripening season. This translates into a great intensity and permits elegance in the wines.

The tasting room and shop are in one of the estates historic buildings and are accompanied by an exhibition of photography and articles about the cape and the estate.

Opening Hours: Monday to Friday: 09h00 – 17h00, Saturdays 10h00 – 14h00.

Tasting fee: R30 per person refundable on purchase of wine.

Stockists in UK: The wines of Meerlust are relatively easily found in the UK.  The price disparity across the range is less here than in South Africa and so Rubicon is relatively more keenly priced.  I have included a link for each wine as some are slightly tricky to find.

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Wines Tasted: Meerlust Chardonnay 2014, Meerlust Pinot Noir 2015, Meerlest Merlot 2013, Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Meerlust Rubicon 2012

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Iona Winery, Elgin, South Africa

When we were recommended Iona it was with the caveat that it was somewhat difficult to find. We happened upon the sign to the winery on the main road and took a chance detour.  After following a dusty dirt road approximately 7 km uphill we arrived at the gates. The winery was empty and the tasting manager was out on other business.  Luckily the accountant was on hand and was kind enough to present the wines free of charge. It is great to see all members of the team engaged in the product and eager to show off the wines.

Production at Iona is not diluted by too many different varieties or cuvees –  they only list 4 wines – and it would appear this allows them to focus.  Compared to other wineries this was a no frills tasting experience.  There is no restaurant, art gallery, delicatessen: the wines are allowed to speak for themselves   Hell, they don’t even need a paved road.

Pride of place in the tasting room goes to a vintage Porsche, owned and renovated by the proprietor.  The car and wines both had a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi‘, the sense of something classic, elegant and refined.  I suspect much is of this is the result of cool climate and high altitude as well as diligent winemaking practice.

I would certainly visit again if in South Africa, and I will certainly be getting hold of some of the wines of Iona here in the UK.  Indeed, based on our pretty small sample, the wines of Elgin include some real gems at very competitive prices. Unfortunately the Chardonnay was out of stock at the time of our visit, although I understand it is also very well regarded.

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Wines Tasted: Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Pinot Noir 2013, One Man Band 2010

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Wines from Stellenbosch

The following wines are a mix of wines tasted by the bottle with friends in South Africa. I tasted these wines with no preconception and minimal knowledge of the producers. Unfortunately for two of these I did not have any appropriate glassware available so they were sampled from a flat bottomed tumbler (unfair I know).

StehuisMorgensterWines: Morgenster White 2012, Sterhuis Merlot 2013, Eikendal Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

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The ‘Rock-Star’ of Wine

If you Google ‘Adi Badenhorst,’ you will discover a multitude of articles and pictures describing a bearded, charismatic maverick of wine-making. WineSpectator calls him ‘a wooly bear,’ WineAnorak describes him as ‘a showman, with a nice line in self-depreciation.’ He has even been featured by the Daily Mail: ‘the joker in Swartland.’

He sounds like a great guy, but how is his wine? Temptingly, it is impeccably well reviewed. Therefore, seeing his famously good value ‘Secateurs’ chenin blanc on offer at Swig.co.uk for only £8.05, I made the order and drank up.2016-03-14 20.23.13

Secateurs 2011, Chenin Blanc, Badenhorst Family Wines, Swartland, South Africa

Rich golden colour. Clearly viscous in the glass. Honeyed nose with obvious pear and peach fruit, along with pretty floral notes. The palate demonstrates rich peach fruit, salted butter, some watermelon. Brief warm mid palate transitioning into stoney minerality as the long saline finish begins. More than good value, this is complex, intense and exciting. Lovely acidity. 91 points (BP).

Learning point: I want to be Adi Badenhorst.

Eagles’ Nest Winery, Constantia

Eagles’ Nest winery lies at the north end of Constantia on the slopes of the Constantiaberg to the south of Table Mountain.  The location of Constantia, a suburb of Cape Town, means access for visitors is straightforward and we traveled to the winery by Uber allowing us both to enjoy the wine.  Being in close proximity to the Atlantic on the west and False Bay to the East, Constantia is blessed with a coastal breeze giving its wines a cooler climate feel than those regions further inland.  I had hoped to make it to the majority of the Constantia wineries, however, due to a last minute excursion to Durbanville I only made it to Eagles’ Nest and Steenberg (link to follow shortly).

The vineyards at Eagles’ Nest were destroyed by fire back in 2000 but have now been replanted with Shiraz (Syrah), Merlot and Viognier in terraces leading up the mountain slopes.  Given that Syrah and Viognier grown together leave me thinking of Cote Rotie in the Northern Rhone I had high expectations for these wines.  Eagles’ Nest is an idyllic spot, with a modern tasting room opening on to the garden of the estate.  If I had more time around Cape Town it is a spot I would certainly return to for lunch and a glass of wine on a sunny afternoon.

Tasting Facilities: Mondays-Sundays from 10:00am – 16:30pm.
Appointments are not required, and tasting is in the gardens of the estate.
The cost of tasting is 50 Rand per person (this is refunded if spending over R500 on wine).

Refreshments: We accompanied our tasting with a superb Antipasto Platter for R165 which was more than enough for 2 to enjoy as a light lunch.  I understand it is also possible to arrange for a picnic in the grounds during the summer months.

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Wines Tasted: Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Viognier 2015, The Little Eagle Rosé 2015, Merlot 2011, Shiraz 2013

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Lidl: South African White Blend

Having returned from South Africa I got home to find my father had picked up the 90+ scoring wines from Lidl’s latest wine release.  Decanter have also been giving them a swirl so I thought I would post my thoughts.

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La Meridonale, Western Cape, South Africa. 2015.

Chenin Blanc, Grenache and Roussanne blend, 13.5%
Sold in Lidl for £5.49. Imported by offpistewines.

Given I was unable to find anything bout La Meridonale I can only assume this is a bottling for another producer.

Tasting Note: Peach and pear on the nose and this fruit continues on the palate.  The wine has a medium body and is in dry style but vanilla notes on end of the palate lend a slight sweetness. High acidity keeps wine in focus whilst oak gives structure. 13.5% alcohol suits the style. Surprisingly for supermarket wine at this price point this also expresses good minerality and salinity on the finish.

Having just returned from 2 weeks in the Western Cape I would be very interested to know who is making this.  This wine is fresh, in an early drinking style and very accessible when considered alongside the more majestic whites from the cape.  The Quality:Price ratio is superb – drink up!

Conclusions: Representative South African white in a new world style. Unusual but well balanced blend with judicious use of oak.  For the price you can’t really fault this.

Score:89/100