The only thing I know about style is that true style never goes out of fashion. In wine terms, I’ve always drawn a blank when writers, makers and opinion-formers go off about a “certain style” in which a wine is made. For how does making wine to a definite style agree with said commentators’ gospel stating that terroir plays the overriding role in the final outcome? If you make to a style, terroir must surely be massaged, manipulated or mangled, the mystical influences of ocean breezes, gentle slopes and gritty, gravelly clods of earth ungraciously shunned through inoculation, malolactic fermentation and exposure to a diverse selection of toasted barrel options.
Style in wine is, unlike mullets, moustaches and the music of Roger Whittaker, not entirely dead. But especially in white wine, it appears to be becoming irrelevant as more-and-more winemakers search for true expression of site and clarity, fruit purity being the only constant in their endeavours. The result of this quest, be it in Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc or Sémillon, is largely the reason for the brilliance of the Cape’s white wine offering.
Although the stylistic approach of leaner, fresher and brighter is shared, the result is definitely not homogenous. Because this way of viniculture has given the palette of Cape wine an array of diversity and excitement, now more so than ever, as the quest for lucidity and understated eloquence has resulted in wines expressing the awesomely varied geographical footprint of what truly is the most exciting wine country in the world.
Kleine Zalze, the dynamic Stellenbosch winery, illustrated this to me recently during a conversation with cellarmaster RJ Botha. The occasion was chatting about the Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2013 which won the Museum Class Trophy at this year’s Trophy Wine Show, with the winning wine illustrating just how much things have changed in the winemaking mindset.
“This is what makes Museum Class wines so interesting,” said RJ, “it gives one a look back at how wines have changed, as well as the approach to winemaking. A decade and more back, there was a tendency in making Chenin Blanc to pick riper, even giving it a botrytis component for some fruit-bomb woema. Big, blousy wines – this awarded Family Reserve 2013 had some of that element.”
Tasting it, I see where RJ is going. The wine, holding up excellently after nine years, is dense and profound on the palate with drifting elements of spice and a shrivelled-raisin fruitiness. Truly delectable, but about as close to anything relating to minerality as Cyril Ramaphosa is to coming clean on the hidden dollar millions. The wine’s Firgrove origin, that windswept parcel of slaty Stellenbosch earth near False Bay, has hardly had the opportunity of showing through the ripe concentration and wood.
Kleine Zalze’s current Chenin Blancs, which have been at the top-end of the awards outings for the past few years, display a different winemaking approach – style, yes? – to that found in those earlier wines.
RJ reasons this to earlier picking and harvesting a block at various ripeness levels. Old wood. And a portion of the wine kept off the oak and in the terracotta clay pots for which he and his team are so fond.
Take the Kleine Zalze Reserve Chenin Blanc 2021, made from the same vineyards that gave the 2013, where the wood has gotten older and terracotta-aging is done on certain portions. The initial impression is of zest and restless, edgy – and not because it is a young wine. There is a keen respect for vineyard that has combined with the practicalities of lesser intervention and a supressed will to impose style on the wine. Grapes are talking here, grapes proud to carry the name Chenin Blanc.
The result is a wine layered with green and yellow citrus, a pungent breeze of low-tide ocean and a gentle layer of fynbos and creamy white arum lilies. A gentle crunch of green apples lies on the mid-palate, aided by a slight – yet heady – morse of sourdough. It tastes of sun and roaring waves, coloured by an endless crisp blue sky.
For this is the art where nature never goes out of stye.
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