Sweet Success of The Chocolate Block

Having recently flown half-way around the world – literally – it was astounding to see the presence of one specific South African wine label at every stop. From Cape Town International, the frenetic bazaar-like space of Dubai Airport all the way to Auckland, New Zealand a bottle bearing a white label with the words The Chocolate Block was encountered in nearly every wine  store.

Incidentally, this is what wine-nerds do when they do long flights. Instead of raiding the duty-free cigar and perfume sections or striking-up conversations with equally jet-lagged foreign strangers in the airport television bars, we head for a liquor outlet to check-out the wine offerings.

The global footprint of The Chocolate Block, a blended red wine made by Boekenhoutskloof in Franschhoek, became more apparent in the sleepy town of Blenheim in the Marlborough region on New Zealand’s sparsely populated South Island. I popped into a non-descript booze store to pick-up a six-pack of beer when the salesperson asked where I was from. (They don’t get many foreigners with thick accents down there.) Upon receiving the answer of South Africa she said she’d kill for “some bloody good Chocolate Block” wine to sell as “everybody I know is craving it”.

By now thus, the commercial success of The Chocolate Block should be apparent, especially when you add the eye-watering volumes of its local South African sales to the equation. And it is truly one of the country’s great brands. Catchy name straddling mystery and temptation and something tasty. Clean and crisp label. And, what matters more than anything, delectable contents in that bottle, wine that is consistently pleasing in a luxurious, svelte way.

The wine itself has always been made to a red Mediterranean style aimed at offering juiciness, soft tannins and a pleasingly moreish mouth-feel, as the name implies. The blend varies, but you can always bet on Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault playing a part, southern European varieties known for providing fleshy purple juice that is more succulent and vivacious than tight-arsed northern grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

The Chocolate Block 2017, currently on market, is a blend of Syrah (64%), Grenache (14%), Cinsault (11%), Cabernet Sauvignon (10%), and Viognier (1%), all the grapes originating from the sunny, dry and very Mediterranean Swartland region.

The wine is aged in French oak, from 1st fill to 3rd fill barrels, meticulously blended by Boekenhoutkloof’s Marc Kent, surely one of the country’s best winemakers, and shows that a wine does not have to be made in big volumes to be of superior quality.

Fans of The Chocolate Block are buying a premium image which also tastes damn well delicious. The Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache elements combine seamlessly to offer an accessible red wine with those desirable nuances of violets, charcuterie, spice and squishy blackberry and red currants. The Cabernet Sauvignon brings firmness and depth, ensuring palate-weight.

And if you think hard enough, you can almost taste chocolate, too. Dark and intense, and definitely worth the journey.

Sticking to wines made with a bit of an edge, Chamonix – also in Franschhoek – is well-known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. These are some of the Cape’s best expressions and perhaps they have dominated the attention Chamonix deservedly receives. Looking a bit broader, there are some great wines in that stable burrowed into the mountain slopes, and during a recent visit I was particularly taken by its Pinotage.

Chamonix Greywacke Pinotage 2015 is named after one of the soil-types found in its vineyards, and I was innocently expecting those fleshy and feral Pinotage notes I have come to really like about the variety. But no, the style of winemaking employed for this cultivar creates a different animal all together.

Grapes are picked in batches, beginning in February with the healthy ripe bunches, leaving the rest to get further hang-time and develop a bit of air-dried concentration. Reason for this is simple: these partly-dried grapes, wrinkly and looking as if they need a course of Botox, have less water and more flavour.

Whole-bunch fermentation of the initial Pinotage picking is complemented with the addition of the later, partly dried grapes. Malolactic fermentation is followed by maturation in French oak 225s, some 30% being new. For a full-on 18 months.

The journey is complex and intricate, but it’s truly worth it. The wine’s colour is purple-black with a rim the colour of blood. On the nose I got potpourri and all sorts of sappy, juicy stuff including the liquid that runs out of the dish after you’ve baked a plum pie. The wine is sensual on the palate, gentle and coaxing, with a delectable array of tastes ranging from prunes, sour cherry, just-grated nutmeg and that delicious touch of liquorice.

At four years of agel, this wine is absolutely stunning in a deliciously tasty and rewarding way, underscoring the brilliance of the 2015 vintage. And the special quality of Chamonix wines, a broad range truly worth trying.

Sticking to Pinotage, lovers of fine wine who – like me – don’t have the patience to stash bottles away for enjoying them in the mature state they should be in, should check-out the offerings at Kanonkop wine estate. This eponymous Stellenbosch estate holds back vintages of its famed Pinotage for 10 years before offering them for sale, allowing one to experience the glories of a well-aged wine without sitting around twiddling your thumbs for ten years until the stuff is ready.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2009 is now available at the winery and what splendid things maturity brings to this wine. It is always a brilliant, joyful and confident wine in its youth, but with some age on its side it becomes a thing of lofty beauty. The Pinot Noir aspect of Pinotage now comes to the fore, the wonders of time also adding a fleshy mouthfeel and evocative, exotic whiffs of cigar box and cardamom to the wine.

Classic is worth waiting for.

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