All posts by Steve Daniel

South Africa and why everyone should be drinking their wines

Many people still see South Africa as the new kid on the block in the New World. This in some ways is true, but the reality is that wine has been made in the Cape for centuries. The first wines were produced in the Cape in 1659 and the country has some of the oldest wine estates in the world. However there has been a qualitative revolution in the last 20 years, which seems to gather pace every year. The wines have been elevated from the old school and mundane to world-beating and cutting-edge. I have been lucky enough to have witnessed the transformation of the wine industry and country since my first trip, during South Africa’s winter of 1994.

It was a few months after the country emerged from the shackles of Apartheid, and the wine industry was stuck in a time warp – it was like revisiting the 1970s. There was a palpable feeling of uncertainty, and in some people, fear. No one quite knew what was going to happen.

The weather was dull, wet and windy, and the wines on the whole were way off the mark, especially compared to Australia, New Zealand and the then emerging Chile. However there were something going on and a few shining exceptions showed the promise of the country. There was also an acceptance of this, and a willingness to learn and to achieve. I was struck by the spirit and commitment of the people I met, and a bloody mindedness to make something happen. South Africans are entrepreneurs -they have to be.

Years have passed and with every year I have visited as a wine tourist I have seen improvements. Improvements in the wines, wineries, food and tourist infrastructure. I know there are still many injustices and inequalities in the society but I am not qualified to comment on them or to go into them here. I am talking purely about the wine industry and the industries that support it.

So, why everyone should be buying South African wine?

Well the first and foremost is the extraordinary value for money that the wines offer! South Africa is producing wines at every price level and all at a high quality. I am happy to go out on a limb and say that entry-level Chenin Blanc from South Africa is offering some of the best value for money on the planet, and every restaurant should consider it for its house wine or one level up.

Chenin is a real trump card. South Africa has lots of Chenin planted in almost all the growing regions, in amazingly varied terroir. They have some venerable old vines that should make the Loire jealous. Chenin loves South Africa, and the young and young-at-heart winemakers have embraced it and coaxed the grape into some of the most exciting wines on the planet. For me, top Chenin has layers of tropical fruit, can take or leave oak, really expresses the terroir and most importantly retains great acidity. In the right hands it can achieve greatness that can stand shoulder to shoulder with top white Burgundy.

Talking of white Burgundy, there are drastic shortages of the Burgundian classics this year. Very little Chablis, Puligny, Meursault and Mâcon and all at very high prices. South Africa makes great Chardonnay. From fresh unoaked Macon and Chablis lookalikes to full-on oaked Chardonnays which sit somewhere in style between classic Burgundy and California, and at amazing prices for the quality. This year we are going to see shortages of white wine in Europe and price increases across the board, and we also have a critical shortage of that restaurant must have New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. South Africa can fill some of the gaps. I believe South African Sauvignon is more than a match for Marlborough or Sancerre. Stylistically it is cross between the two styles but leaning more to the minerality of Sancerre. It offers exceptional value in comparison to both. So be bold and offer your customers a better option!

Recently there has been great interest in Rhône varieties grown in South Africa led by the pioneering winemakers of the Swartland. Once again South Africa is able to take on France with some amazing wines made from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc.

I have tasted amazing wines that take on classics such as Côte Rôtie, Cornas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and at a fraction of the price. Even Pinot Noir, the most fussy of all grapes, is showing excellent results in the cool regions to the South. Some amazing examples are produced – and again at very attractive prices.

South Africa is really delivering on quality and value. If you need to look for other reasons to buy South Africa look to recent events in the country.

The country has had years of drought making vine growing very tricky indeed and some growers are on the point of giving up. The drought has also led to an increase in wild fires and a number of properties have had extensive damage. Our very dear friend, Sam O’Keefe, had her beloved Lismore Estate destroyed. Luckily she is up and running again, fighting to make world class wines.

We have all suffered from the pandemic, but South Africa has been hit very hard and the wine industry has been hit harder than most. In South Africa there has been shut downs and the banning of sales of alcohol (including wine) both domestically, and for export. This has meant no income at all for the wine farms for many months. The Cape before COVID was welcoming 10 million tourists and this income stream has also dried up. So the Cape is in the middle of a perfect storm.

The one thing that has struck me is that not one of our Cape producers has complained or moaned about this. They just get on with it and try to make the most of the situation. They don’t want our charity, but what I would say is buy their wines, give them a helping hand in the process help yourselves to some amazing wines, from amazing people in a beautiful country.

And when this COVID nightmare is over, get over there and see for yourselves one of the most exciting wine growing regions of the world!

Embracing Change

Things change, Steve Daniel writes. Life changes. I think we have all being given a brutal taste of this in the last 18 months. We adapt, change and ultimately learn to live with it. The world of wine is less dramatic, but like everything else it is not immune to change.

What we take as an absolute given at this moment might not be the case in the future.

At the turn of the last century German wine was the most revered and expensive in the world, and Château Petrus was just another Bordeaux Château until the 1960s. If you did not have Muscadet on your wine list or on your shelves in 1990 you would have either been fired or declared clinically insane.

How many people still have Muscadet on their absolute must-have list? A small number, I imagine. But what happened to it? In 1991 there was a devastating frost, supply dried up, prices sky-rocketed and the industry had to find an alternative. New Zealand Sauvignon, and the New World in general, arrived to mop up the demand. And where is Muscadet now?

If 20 years ago I had said that one of the most popular red wines, and an absolute essential on any rack, would be Argentinean Malbec most be people would have laughed!

I remember tasting Picpoul de Pinet in the Languedoc in the 1990s and saying what a brilliant wine it was to a producer, and that I was going to buy it. The producer laughed at me and said: “you are crazy no one buys Picpoul”. Well, now everyone buys Picpoul.

So, things change. These changes are usually precipitated by an event or a series of events.

With crystal ball in hand, where are we today and what events might mark a change to our drinking habits?

Within the wine trade it usually starts with natural events such as drought or frost, or hail, or fire which has an impact on supply and ultimately has an economic impact. Or the impact could be more gradual due to changing tastes of consumers, or the changing style of a wine due to climatic changes.

So what are the areas of concern and interest right now? I am going to focus more on white wines here…

New Zealand Sauvignon – the current go to wine on every retailers’ shelf and every wine list in the country. Due to unprecedented demand and short vintages in succession we are now looking down the barrel of shortages and price hikes (sounds a little like Muscadet in 91!). So what should we be drinking instead? My money is on South Africa. For me the Cape produces world-class Sauvignon Blanc from its cooler coastal regions. Lots of the vibrant fruit, similar to what you get from Marlborough, but with a more classic steely back bone closer in style to Sancerre pre-global warming. It is great value and we should all be doing the beleaguered growers and the winemakers of the Cape a favour. They have had to deal with drought and a COVID crisis that is as bad as anywhere on the planet. So, make sure you add Cape Sauvignon to your list!

Burgundy has been decimated by frost and hail, and there will be shortages and price hikes particularly on the household names like Puligny and Meursault. If you are looking for absolute quality, have some cash in the bank but still want to save a few pounds, South Africa delivers once again. Some of the most impressive Chardonnay I have tasted recently from anywhere in the world – and at any price – have come from the Cape. Richard Kershaw and Sam O’Keefe make stellar examples that you simply have to try.

California can also make beautiful examples of Chardonnay, particularly in the cooler areas like the Santa Rita Hills. For a taste of what they can offer, try the iconic Sanford wines.  Australia is also making beautifully elegant wines in cooler areas, such as in Mornington Peninsula and Western Australia. Names to look out for are Paringa, Oceans Eight and Larry Cherubino.

Larry Cherubino entrance, Australia.

All these wineries also make spectacular Pinot Noir. If you are looking for value Pinot as an alternative to Burgundy, then Chile is the answer particularly, particularly those from the cool rolling hills of Leyda. The area reminds me of Santa Barbara, as do the wines.

With global warming some of the old, classic white wine growing areas are not making wines like they used to. I think the most obvious examples to me are Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume and Chablis. The reason the world fell in love with these wines was their freshness and minerality. My personal opinion is that the wines are now much riper and have lost some of their “Va Va Voom” or Vif as the French say.

Rather than being safe and looking for alternative sources of Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, I think it is far more interesting to look for wines that maybe share the original style you were looking for, rather than the grape.

Areas that make wonderful wines that have that life, minerality and acidity might not be totally obvious. The North West of Spain and Portugal is a treasure trove for fresh, vibrant whites. I believe most people have now tried Albarino but there are so many interesting wines being produced in the region; try a Treixadura from Ribeiro, an Avesso, or a Loureiro from Vinho Verde. Godello is an excellent alternative to Macon. The wines are amazing and offer real value.

My personal go-to for white wines is Greece. I believe Greece is making some of the freshest, most interesting white wines on the planet right now. They are never going to be at the house wine level or even first price varietal, but pound-for-pound and excitement per mouthful they can compete with anywhere in the world. If you haven’t already, you must try these grapes: Assyrtiko, Vidiano, Malagousia, Kidonitsa , Monemvasia – all of which show why Greece is the word.

Assyrtiko vines, Santorini.

I believe the coastal regions around the Mediterranean are making great wines – Vermentino from Sardinia is amazing, as is the same grape often called Rolle in the South of France. I don’t need to mention Picpoul which still offers great value and reliability, and is now a mainstay on shelves and wine lists. Croatia makes wonderful wine from Malvasia, Posip and Vugava and the first ever Assyrtiko is now being produced in Lebanon. It’s vibrant, fresh and amazing value you will soon see more of it in Lebanon and around the world. Lebanon also makes amazing wines from indigenous grapes, like Obeidy.

For me, islands make the best wines. I have already mentioned Greece and Sardinia, but Tenerife, Majorca and Cyprus also make world class examples of mineral-driven white wines. The cooling effect of the proximity to the sea with the salty tang it imparts, the amazing terroirs and local grapes all add up to an exciting package.

Talking of islands, Blighty is making some great bracing white wines. I have often heard Bacchus referred to as the UK’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc – why can’t this be the next world-beating white wine? Or, with global warming, will we soon have Marlborough Sauvignon from Wiltshire?

Oh and I almost forgot, I think Muscadet is well worth re-visiting. Fresh, Crisp, mineral and offering great value! Surely it’s time Muscadet made a comeback… It’s been over 30 years now!

There is a vinous treasure trove out there, and sometimes shortages and adversity make us reach out to try new things. There has never been a greater need to do this than now. Diversity is the key. It makes for more interesting and unique wine lists, more exciting wine shelves and happier customers.

Great Wines, That Don’t Cost the Earth

As consumers, we all want to do the right thing for our health and the health of the planet, and buy organic and sustainable. Until very recently this meant paying more and in many cases radically changing our buying habits.

Historically organic wines were quite rare and we would have to pay a significant premium for them, and sustainably produced wines were rarely mentioned. I remember having conversations with consumers about organic and sustainably produced wines, and they were just not interested. I also remember having conversations with wine producers who were farming organically and sustainably and asking them why they were not shouting about this; their response was no one is interested, and in fact, some consumers think organic wines won’t taste good!

How times have changed. I think most people in the supply chain are acutely aware of the impact us humans have on the planet.

Winemakers and grape growers have worked relentlessly in the last 30 years to increase quality at every price level. Initially the biggest and quickest increases came from investment in winemaking equipment, technology and expertise and it became possible to make very drinkable wine, at very attractive prices. There were massive investments in the wineries and winemakers. But technology is only a part of the equation.

The more forward-thinking producers soon realised that their biggest and most precious asset is their vineyards – it’s also the most fragile. If a piece of machinery breaks you can repair or replace it. If your winemaker leaves you can find another. It’s just a question of a little time and money.  A vineyard is a living thing. It is a whole ecosystem and if you abuse it you can irreversibly damage it and jeopardise your unique asset. If you break it, you cannot just throw money at it. You have to work out the best way to treat your vineyard to allow it to produce good fruit for the longest time. You also need to protect those living things that work in your vineyard, including your work force! This is a long term investment in time, money and working practice.  Invariably this means adopting a sustainable holistic approach.

This is something that the artisanal small domains have known for a long time; the wines they produce are outstanding and you pay a premium for them. The fact that many larger producers have now adopted the same principles means that you can now get organic, sustainably and ethically produced wines at everyday prices. You no longer have to go massively out of your way or pay a huge premium to get great tasting wines that won’t cost the earth.

We are very proud to represent many forward thinking producers of all sizes. Below is just a selection of producers that are ticking the sustainable boxes and producing amazing wines.

Colomba Bianca, Sicily

Sicily and Italy’s largest certified organic producer with over 2,000 hectares of organically farmed vineyards. Try their fantastic ‘Vitese’ Grillo.

Perez Cruz, Chile

One of the pioneering wineries of the sustainable movement in Chile. They have been farming sustainably since 2005 and are one of the first boutique producers in Chile. Their Cabernet must be one of the best value for money red wines in the world, using fruit only from their estate-owned Alto Maipo vineyard.

Piattelli, Argentina

An wonderful family-run winery that operate vineyards in Mendoza and Cafayate, farmed sustainably and organically. The Alto Molino Malbec is a great introduction to the wines of Cafayate.

Echeverria, Chile

A family-run winery from Molina. One of the pioneers of modern winemaking in Chile, they farm organically and are certified Sustainable. Their No es Pituko “Natural Wine” range are must tries – give the Chardonnay a whirl.

Lake Chalice, New Zealand

A boutique, fully sustainable producer, making stunning food friendly wines. The Nest Sauvignon Blanc is a stand-out great value Marlborough Sauvignon.

Prapian Estate, Italy

The pride and glory of the Sacchetto family. A beautiful new winery and an amazing organically farmed vineyard, creating an sublime single-vineyard Prosecco. A real step up in quality from regular Prosecco. Try the Brut Organico Valdobbiadene.

Peninsula, Spain

Modern winemaking, major investment and a sustainable and organic approach in the vineyards. All the wines are technically brilliant. Try the Tempranillo which is a Gold Medal winning wine in SWA 2020.

Undurraga, Chile

Sustainable historic winery, making cutting-edge wines from some of the best vineyard sites in Chile. Try the ground-breaking TH range – the Chardonnay from Limari is spectacular.

Gérard Bertrand, France

Gérard is one of the pioneers of Biodynamic wine production in the Languedoc-Roussillon and the largest “Bio” producer in France. His Naturalys range is exceptional value and the Naturalys Merlot stands out above the rest.

Matias Riccitelli, Argentina

Matias is one of the superstars of Argentinian wine. He supports low intervention winemaking and organic grape growing. His wines truly represent the outstanding vineyards he works with. You must try Not Another Lovely Malbec – artisanal winemaking at a great price.

Herdade Do Rocim, Portugal

This is an amazing project in the Alentejo.  Fully signed up to Sustainable farming,  the grapes are all farmed organically – 70% are certified the rest in conversion. Minimum intervention in the winery and only natural yeasts are used. The wines are produced in the renowned Vidigueira area of the Alentejo the resulting wines have a freshness not often associated with the Alentejo. Try the Mariana Red.

Olifantsberg, South Africa

These are incredible handcrafted wines. The vineyards are farmed organically and heading towards Biodynamic. They believe in sustainable vine growing and winemaking and their style is very hands-off, with only natural yeast and use of large seasoned oak barrels and concrete eggs. These are beautiful handmade wines from one of the superstar producers of the future. Buy while you still can afford them! Try the amazing entry-level Chenin Blanc.

Finca Bacara, Spain

100% Monastell (Mourvedre) wines from high altitude vineyards in Jumilla. All the wines are made from organically farmed vineyards in a very modern fruit-forward style with eye-catching packaging. Try the Time Waits for No one White Skulls.

Bodegas San Alejandro, Spain

The Garnacha specialists of Spain. Working with high altitude vineyards in the Calatayud region, all their vineyards are farmed organically and are in conversion from 2019. They make great wines at all price points and consistently rate as some of the very best Garnachas coming out of Spain. Try the beautifully silky smooth and elegant Evodia.

 

Argentina: It’s more than Malbec

Hallgarten head of buying, Steve Daniel, recently put pen to paper to recount his first experience of Argentina as well as looking at what the future may hold.

My first visit to Argentina was in the mid-90s. I had been travelling to neighbouring Chile since 1988, had seen their wineries evolve and Santiago transform from a rundown city with no night life into a dynamic, modern international power house with incredible restaurants and bars.

When I finally took the short hop across the Andes to Mendoza and landed in a rural, sprawling agricultural area of around 1 million people it was like stepping back into the 70s! The cars were ancient rust buckets, the town was very run-down and – for a vegetarian (no big juicy steaks for me) – the food was truly awful.

The one hotel that was deemed suitable for foreigners was The Aconcagua which reminded me of a very cheap youth hostel I had stayed in in Greece during my time as a backpacker. It had the noisiest most inefficient air-con I had ever encountered, and was one of the most uncomfortable stays I have ever endured.

Thankfully I was there to taste the wine and not rate the hotels. The red wines were old fashioned and heavy. Nobody talked about the whites, which was not surprising as they were completely oxidised and totally undrinkable when you did encounter one.

Most of the wines were produced in vineyards on the hot, flatlands around the city. The most common way of training was still an ancient Italian pergola system, which was all about getting as large of a yield as possible, and the wineries were old and not very clean!

However, the one thing that struck me was the vibrant energy of the people. They had an amazing spirit, and despite what their government inflicted on them, they embraced life and were still amazingly positive and joyful.

It is this spirit and ‘can-do’ attitude that was the driving-force that revolutionised their wine industry in the following years. The winemakers still have to deal with hyperinflation and a struggling economy, but they have managed to deal with everything their government has thrown at them and emerged triumphant.

So where is the Argentinean wine industry now?

The vineyards have spread from the flatlands around Mendoza to the foothills of the Andes, where the combination of altitude and latitude plays a fundamental role in the resulting wine. The cool, high vineyards of Tupungato, where Andeluna are situated and Juampi Michelini utilises his egg fermenters at Zorzal, and La Consulta are producing amazing fragrant white wines fully of verve and zip, and red wines of balance and class. Cafayate and Salta in the far north, where we work with Piattelli Vineyards, are some of the highest vineyards on the planet are making beautiful vibrant wines.

In the far cold south of Patagonia ancient vineyards have been resurrected and new ones planted. It is from this lesser-known of Argentina’s winemaking regions that Matías Riccitelli produces his ‘Old Vines From Patagonia’ range which have received critical acclaim since their launch.

In the vineyards, some of the old Pergola vines still exist but yields have been reduced and large areas planted using Guyot. The wineries are now state-of-the-art and chock full of stainless steel, computer-controlled and temperature-controlled winemaking gadgets. Gone is the one size fits all approach, each winery also has rows of barrique and new larger formats barrels, as well as concrete fermenters – including the in-vogue concrete eggs.

They are as well-equipped as anywhere on earth, but again, the thing that makes the difference are still the people. Argentinean winemakers can now make squeaky clean wines on an industrial scale if they want, but what really excites them is expressing themselves. These guys and girls love to push the boundaries of what is possible. Argentine Malbec has turned from an unknown 15 years ago into the darling of the wine consumer, and is the go-to for steak and a ‘must have’ on all restaurant lists, but Argentina has so much more to offer! It is a huge mistake to think that Argentina is a one-trick pony.

The high altitude vineyards of Argentina are growing some of the best quality Bordeaux grapes in the world. In my opinion, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from these high vineyards can more than rival anything from Bordeaux or the swanky Napa Valley, and at far more attractive prices.

The fragrant Torrontes is the perfect match with Japanese food. The Chardonnays have real depth and class and the best Sauvignon Blanc has a rapier-like intensity that are more than a match for Sancerre. The country’s high altitude vineyards are producing some of the most exciting wines on the world stage – something that was almost unimaginable during my first trip to the country 25 years ago. Oh, and as an aside, Mendoza has also transformed. There are amazing hotels to stay in and the food is amazing (even for a vegetarian). I would now thoroughly recommend a stay there!

Featured in issue two of Assemblage.