Blend it and Send it

A recent visit by a delegation of MBA students from California had me thinking that our wine scene has an edge on the American industry. In one voice the Americans told me that back home  – the world’s leading wine consuming nation – red blended wines were now becoming the big thing, with producers from sea to shining sea beginning to experiment with blends.

Welcome to my world, I could say, comfortably introducing the Americans to a South African industry filled with red blends of such diversity and mix that they can be seen to truly reflect the rainbow nation.

Those of us who started out drinking red wine in South Africa forty years ago probably began with reds such as Chateau Libertas and Tassenberg. Later on, here in the 1980’s, Meerlust Estate introduced blended Bordeaux varieties, and a short hop from then saw Cape Blends hit the scene with their foundation being a hefty chunk of Pinotage.

Get the Port, winter is coming.

(Note to Wine Geeks: I do know that Welgemeend Estate produced the first Bordeaux blend, okay?)

Rhône Blends, concoctions of grapes like Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Tannat, became trés chic as the first hipster winemaker saw his tattoo scar heal, and from Caliltzdorp way South Africa has seen a wave of Portuguese red blends.

So when it comes to mixing things up to produce individual wines where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, South African is, like, out there.

One of my favourite blended red wines is also one of the country’s most interesting. It comes from Hemel-en-Aarde winery Bouchard Finlayson, probably more known for its brilliant Pinot Noir, but also responsible for a unique wine called Hannibal.

The wine’s name gives a clue of its nature, and no, it is not Hannibal The Cannibal Lecter of human liver and fava beans fame. Go back 2 000 or so years when Hannibal the Carthaginian general was out to conquer France and Italy, and you are on the right track.

Hannibal the wine is a blend of Italian and French varieties. Despite a lifelong obsession with Burgundy, Bouchard Finlayson cellar master Peter Finlayson has a soft spot for Italian. So he came-up with this blend of Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera, for the Italian effect which is given a bit of French flair with Pinot Noir and Mourvèdre.

Sangiovese makes for 46% of the blend, with Pinot Noir coming in at 18%, and all this really is as interesting as it sounds.

After harvest, each variety is given up to 16 month wood maturation before the cellar master deploys the magical art of blending each component before the final harmonious whole is reached.

The Hannibal 2015 is from a stupendous vintage, and if you are wanting to try this wine for the first time or already have a committed physical relationship with it, the 2015 is the one to go for.

South African Sangiovese tends to be enormously over-powering and dense. But thrown together with these other juicy little bits, the variety commands this wine with the style, grace and deft of a chic, waltzing Italian gigolo – minus the under-arm odour. The sap of berries and plums comes to mind when sipping this wine, but the Pinot Noir component brings a haunting feral muskiness, while the motley mix of other grapes, plus the extended wood maturation, adds all sorts of spice, bordering on the exotic.

This is a great red wine and deserving of a top-spot alongside South Africa’s more iconic blends as made by Kanonkop, Meerlust and Vergelegen.

While Hemel-en-Aarde is also Ground Zero for Chardonnay, an unwooded Chardonnay from Stellenbosch producer Eikendal is currently my go-to easy-going white.

Unwooded Chardonnays are growing in popularity as a result of white wine drinkers having recurring nightmares of their palates being molested by densely oaked Chardonnays in previous decades. But for this, more is required from the wine maker than just keeping the wine away from the barrel.

With Chardonnay, terroir is all important. And if the wine is not going to wood, the post-harvest handling has to be on-song to ensure brisk freshness while maintaining the complexities Chardonnay is known for.

Eikendal’s The Janina 2016 is a great example of why these de-forested Chardonnays are hitting the consumer’s sweet-spot. Crisp, brisk and fresh as a Llandudo bride at her first wedding, the wine also lets you experience the pretty complexities that Chardonnay is known for. Aromas of white flowers and almond shell lead to a palate exuding notes of lemony-limey citrus, a whack of grilled nuts and beautiful clean finish.

This is an all-day drinking wine, but if there are oysters or sashimi around I’ll have my daily quota right there and then.

As those butch medieval cross-dressers say in Game of Thrones, “winter is coming”. Well, it was supposed to be here, but with El Niňo and all that, one never knows here in the Cape. Not that I need winter for that great drink that is Port, possibly the most civilised of all those civilised wines Ernest Hemingway was alluding to when saying that good wine is the most civilised thing on earth.

Port is made in the Douro Valley of Portugal, and here in South Africa we produce Port-style wine. The best in the world actually, outside aforementioned Douro.

Peter Bayly from Calitzdorp makes a killer Cape Vintage, the 2009 drinking especially well at the moment. The wine is made from a blend of three classic Port varieties, namely Touriga Naçional, Tinta Barroca and Souzão, grapes that just love the dry, hot baked earth of Calitzdorp.

The grapes are fortified with neutral grape spirits at the early stage of fermentation to arrest the process, ensuring that most of the grapes’ natural sugar levels remain to caress the fruits’ vinous flavours while maturing in oak.

Peter Bayly’s Cape Vintage has that typical Port whiff of Havana cigar-box and crushed mulberry, leading to an explosion in the mouth. It is sweet fruit, dense and unforgiving but with silky tannins and an expressive hit of white pepper, cardamom and dried red figs. Like all good Port-styled wines, it finishes with a lasting, dreamy cacophony of beautiful flavours and a perfumed presence lasting just about as long as a slow kiss from a fast woman.

Drink it in big glasses, blue cheese and nuts optional.

  • Emile Joubert for Southern Vines

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