Tag Archives: Vineyards

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!

The Challenge of Winemaking

Vines love a challenge…

If vines were human beings they’d be into extreme sports, wakeboarding on the surf or abseiling down skyscrapers.

You see, give your average vine some nice cosy conditions – great weather, lots of luscious deep juicy soil – and they’ll give you lots of, well, average fruit. All quite worthy, if a bit dull. Then they’ll go down the pub. But give them a challenge; soils which are so barren and rocky that every sensible plant has given up the ghost, or a mountainside so steep that you’re in danger of falling off – and they’re in their element. Bring it on!

Which is just as well. Because every vintage has a story. Every vineyard is on trial.

Only a few weeks ago Bordeaux was hit by one of the worst frosts in decades. Hundreds of hectares were damaged. But while Estelle Roumage, owner of Chateau Lestrille, gazed at the devastation and shed a silent tear, her vines stood defiant. Battered and bruised, their buds lost, crippled but indomitable. “Don’t worry; we’ll be back. We’re vines, you see.”

Mount Etna erupted seventeen times between mid-February and the end of March this year. Imagine waking up and not knowing if your vines have been covered in ash. (Or whether your house is about to be consumed by lava!) Yet that is what our winemakers at Santa Maria La Nave and Al-Cantara face. We – and they – feel those slings and arrows are worth putting up with because of the fabulous complexity of wine which those vines produce.

Chablis lies at the extreme of the great winemaking areas. Philippe Goulley, winemaker at Domaine Jean Goulley, summarised the last vintage for us and included a weather report: “We had spring frost and hailstorms but they weren’t as significant as recent years. Then we had drought and a heat wave in June and July which totally changed the situation. In the end, the quantity was okay but not as good as we’d hoped.” This stoical acceptance of fate happens every year: Chablis suffered tough vintages in 2016, 2017 and 2019. Such is the lot of the winemaker – and the vine.

Weather can be capricious. California is often prey to forest fires – which can destroy vineyards or cause smoke taint. In 2020 the state recorded the hottest August and September on record, during which time thousands of vines were destroyed. We can only salute the fortitude of our winemakers at Far Niente, Raymond Vineyards, Lockwood Vineyard, Oak Ridge Winery and Quady, as well as our newest addition – Sanford.

Australian winemakers face another hazard: drought. They have always had to contend with agricultural risks such as frost, hail and flood. But climate change has made things tougher for growers and winemakers. Wineries rely on natural rainfall for their grapes, but in drought season, irrigation is a must. The amount of water being drawn for the river systems and the underground aquifers may be unattainable in a hotter drier climate. (And that’s before China pulls the plug on Aussie exports!) We’re grateful for wineries such as Berton Vineyards for continuing to produce amazing wines and amazing value-for-money wines in the face of such adversity.

Of course, just as most people prefer the easy life, some people – like vines – love a challenge. Operating out of often impenetrable and inaccessible vineyards within Galicia, winemaker Xosé Lois Sebio has produced a stunning collection of wines as a result of a personal quest: to find wines with unique personality from more risky processing zones and with a very marked identity. He is no respecter of fashions and conventions. His main challenge is to respect and express the soil, variety and area – producing wines with soul and personality.

A different sort of challenge is faced by the winemaking team at Frescobaldi. How to live up the expectations of a Florentine family with thirty generations dedicated to the production of great wines across six Tuscan estates? Well, you do it with a combination of tradition and innovation. With the goal of being the most prestigious Tuscan wine producer, and with over 1,000 hectares of vineyard, Frescobaldi firmly believes in respecting the local land while focusing on the highest quality grapes for its wines. This means different winemakers for each estate, each forging the terroir’s identity, while all living up the quality standards demanded by Lamberto Frescobaldi, chief winemaker. Gambero Rosso awarded Frescobaldi with the prestigious ‘Tre Bicchieri Winery of the Year Award 2020’, in recognition of its uncompromising commitment. Here is one family living up to the challenge!

How to reinvent something? That’s a challenge. For Badiola, a change from a quality hierarchy based on terroir rather than on ageing was a paradigm made possible by the change to the Rioja classifications of 2018. They set out to make wines of place rather than wines of style. The Vino de Pueblo wines are sourced from 300 plots in three villages in the foothills of Sierra de Cantabria in the Rio Alavesa from vines with an average age of around 50 years (many were planted in the 1920s, 30s and 40s). A challenging concept, but thankfully the wines are brilliant.

And then of course there are some winemakers for whom one challenge is not enough. They want to be challenged every day. Take Gérard Bertrand. It would have been easy for him to have rested on his laurels when inheriting his father’s domaine in Corbières. But the drive which saw him play rugby at the highest level saw him purchasing numerous estates, then upgrading them painstakingly. This was followed by his conversion to biodynamic farming, following the principals of Rudolf Steiner.

Now, he presides over some of the most prestigious crus of Languedoc-Roussillon. Formerly the IWC Red Winemaker of the Year and Wine Enthusiast’s European Winery of the Year, his expertise ensures that wines bearing Gérard Bertrand’s signature have a unique style, driven by the values of excellence, authenticity, conviviality and innovation. In 2020, Gérard Bertrand was awarded Green Personality of the Year, by the Drinks Business Green Awards. He is arguably the most dynamic winemaker on the planet. Now there’s a chap who loves a challenge.

Gérard Bertrand’s Challenge: Uncover new terroir through Biodynamic Winemaking

The landscape changes as you drive south along the A61 from Toulouse, the plains of the Acquitaine giving way to the craggy and jagged Occitainie. The first distant view of Mont Tauch to your right is a thrilling one.

Due east of La Livinière, you leave the road and drive onto a winding dirt track. Enclosed within a small stone wall is a patchwork quilt of vineyards. You park the car and start to walk up a steep hill. Some of the vines are 60 years old, gnarled and majestic.

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It is a small estate – nine hectares – and it doesn’t take long to reach the top of the hill. You stop here, turn around and survey the steep slope behind you. Below are the vineyards of Minervois, then on the other side of the valley, Corbières. Further away are the Pyrenees and, to the left, the Mediterranean. Mourvèdre has to see the sea, as the saying goes. You walk further and crest the hill and here the view is of the Black Mountains and, beyond, the Cévennes, stretching towards the Massif Central. A farm labourer and his donkey – she is called Victoria – are working the vineyard. You feel an almost imperceptible change in the temperature. Nestled in the vines, is the small, stylish but unobtrusive winery.

Nineteen years ago Gérard Bertrand stood on this very spot, facing south towards the sea, just like the Mourvèdre. Was he thinking of his father, who helped found the appellation of Boutenac over the highway in Corbières? This, he decided, was his destiny. This is where he opted to make his masterpiece. And to do so using biodynamic methods.

This is Clos d’Ora.

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It is exposed to two different climates, the maritime and the mountain which produces a wide diurnal difference, and straddles a geographical fault, a meeting of two plates. The ground is clay and marl on the maritime side, favouring Carignan and Mourvèdre – wild concentrators of fruit – and sandstone and limestone on the other side of the hill, where Syrah and Grenache flourish.

Olivier, one of Bertrand’s winemakers, shows us around the small winery. There are nine tanks (one for each hectare) all spotlessly clean, all gravity fed. They use only indigenous yeasts.

“The problem is that people “get” organic winemaking,” we say, “but they struggle with biodynamic winemaking. How do you explain it?” And we – the importers – launch into a discussion amongst ourselves about the definitions of biodynamism, with the shifting of the moon’s moods, the tides, the burying of the bull’s horn and the astronomic calendar with its root days and fruit days. But what does it do to the wine? And we begin to tie each other in knots.  Olivier is so patient with us. He gives a small cough. “Well, what it comes down to, is that it adds freshness and acidity.”

Which stops us in our tracks. Freshness and acidity.

“In our estate at Cigalus, when we converted to biodynamic winemaking, we did it slowly, with five hectares, then ten hectares and so on. And each year we could tell the difference between those batches and the rest. So then we converted everything.”

But, we say, we need a new name for “biodynamic”. “Natural” has already been taken by one set of winemakers. “Pure” is good, that might do it. But again, Olivier trumps us. “You should just say… because it tastes better.”

Because it tastes better.

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Two weeks ago during another buying trip to the Languedoc, one of the winemakers in Argeliers lamented: “This region needs new leaders. It is going nowhere. We need an ambassador for the paysan.”

But the answer is there. They already have their ambassador. Gérard Bertrand, whose challenge is to find new terroir, reveawp_20161205_20_38_00_proling it through the development of biodynamic winemaking (his words), is already changing the way the Languedoc is perceived. He would be a demanding man to work for, you’d think, as you stand on the same spot he did. But as one of his workers told us: “Where would I move from here? Any move would be a downwards one.” Such are the demands of excellence. But, thinking of a different sport to Bertrand’s, are Conte, Mourinho, Klopp any different? Do players choose to work with them, or choose to leave? And what about us as importers? What do we choose to do?

We have chosen excellence.wp_20161205_14_17_33_pro

There will be some who crib Clos d’Ora, some who knock it, others who say it’s too young to release (the 2012 and 2013 are already on sale), others who compare its price to those of the Grand Crus (which is exactly the point!) But there are certainly others who wish to be at the birth of something new, something special, something that will be talked about in a hundred years. There are those who look to the past and those who look to the future

Me, I’m for the future