A Pal of Muscadel

Unlike the hordes of grumpy halitosis sufferers on the High-Fat-No-Carb diet thumb-sucked by Tim Noakes, I don’t mind much for a bit of sweet. Especially when it comes to matters wine-ish.

Sweet wines are, after-all, closer and more naturally aligned to the grape than those fermented dry. The essence, the life-affirming plushness and the natural sugar-clad cloak of the grape remains untouched in wine’s sweet versions, bringing a sense of tremendous goodwill and satisfaction.

In sunny South Africa fortified Muscadel wines remain the best sweet-offerings we are capable of producing. These are consistently world class and whenever I am asked to show an array of wines reflecting the best of South Africa, such as at the recent Sante Mares Wine Ducts in Lisbon, Muscadel is always in there.

Off the beaten track. Winelands of the Orange River.
Off the beaten track. Winelands of the Orange River.

The Muscat de Frontignan grape is quite simply in love with the South African terroir. Those deep alluvial soils found in the Breedekloof, Robertson and the Orange River. The dry harshness and the winds. Throw-in some blistering sunshine in the ripening period from December through March, and the grapes’ Muscat gains a rich, perfumed and evocative intensity, enough to make a honey-bee’s eyes water from the sweetness.

Just as the grapes have met with South African soil to provide great and structured fruit, so Muscadel has taken on our country’s character as generations of wine-makers have perfected the art of producing this wine-style. The fruit is picked ripe between 26 and 28 degrees Balling and after crushing pumped into tank. A crucial waiting period ensues as the juice and skins marry flavours, with fortification with neutral grape spirit having to commence just as the fermentation starts so as to stop the natural sugar character being decimated.

It is a wonderful, magical process and one which unfortunately does not get the recognition it deserves in the local winemaking lexicon.

The products are, however, of an exceedingly high standard and very accessible to the consumer. Take Orange River Cellars Red Muscadel from Upington, an Old Mutual Trophy Winner, yet retailing for just over R30 a bottle. This recognition for a wine of which over 100 000 litres were made from vineyards yielding 20 tons per hectare says much about the general quality of South African Muscadel.

And yes, each Orange River vintage is a sell-out despite the general fortified wine market being slow.

Combine this great product with a bit of legacy and Muscadel truly carries a national vinous fingerprint.

Such an example is the 1908 Muscadel from Rietvallei made from a vineyard planted in 1908. Throw in the fact that this Robertson estate is 150 years old this year and if there is one place warranting a Muscadel Pilgrimage, Rietvallei is it.

Rietvallei - a taste of history and of place.
Rietvallei – a taste of history and of place.

Crushed grapes are pumped into a concrete tanks and the juice fortified while on the skins. The fortified mash is given a few days for extra flavour to be extracted before being racked and pressed where-after the heavenly concoction is matured in the tank for a year.

Temperatures plummeted in the Cape recently and I hauled out a bottle of the Rietvallei 1908 from the 2008 vintage. I love the way it spills into the glass….like a setting sun over the Florida Keys, an orange burning. The stuff smells like a candy store for adults with splendidly inviting aromas of caramel, salted liquorice, cinnamon and fruit mince pies. This Muscadel attacks the palate with tender caressing, a flirty brush of velvet and lace before opening up a cavernous vault of delicious and irresistible decadence: sunny sultanas abound with delicious touches of leather, tobacco and smoked pimento.

Roald Dahl wrote about some Moroccan honey made by bees frequenting cannabis plants, and I can imagine that this is what it must have tasted like. With residual sugar of over 160 grams per litre this Muscadel is always going to be sweet. But the nature of the sweetness is so heavenly, concocted and refined that the only sin is not allowing yourself to be seduced by it.

And that warmth it provides is not just in body, but in spirit too.


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