Pushing the Boundaries on Varietal Typicity

As has been the case during wine’s 6000 years on planet earth, evolution is to be embraced as much as it has been accepted by all concerned. It is therefore unavoidable that certain status quos are constantly questioned, this being necessary to ensure the ball of progression towards a better wine world capable of capturing the whims and needs of its imbibers continues to roll. And roll on.

One of these status quos that, to my mind, deserves a slackened approach is this thing about grape cultivar typicity expressed by finished wines. As the situation currently stands, the South African wine authorities must determine whether a wine falls into the confines of these authorities’ preconceived ideas as to how a wine made from a specific grape variety should taste. Thus, when presented for certification, a Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon – for example – is analysed to ensure that it meets the sensorial criteria of those representatives from the authoritative body tasked with the assessment.

If the relevant panels, thus, consider a Merlot, Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc as not expressing the preconceived perceptions of said grape variety, the wine cannot be certified.

Surely this system is archaic? Over the past two decades, terroir and the individual expression of the uniqueness of geographic place has overtaken the importance of grape cultivar. This has given Cape wines a greater gravitas and generated appreciation for the vagaries and diversity of terroir found in our winelands. And this, is progress.

But what the seeking out of site specificity has led to, coupled with the visionary matching of clones among certain varieties as well as visionary winemaking techniques, is the presentation of a far greater variation in the palette of flavours and in general cultivar expression than ever before. Wines don’t taste like they used to 40 years ago. Not only does the experience of specific cultivars fall outside past parameters and reference, one finds Chenin Blancs with traits you might expect to encounter in Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon that out Cabernet Francs Cabernet Franc and Pinotage that could be a dead-ringer for a weighty Pinot Noir.

Yet, “cultivar specific” is something expected of a wine, and you better make a Shiraz that conforms to the authorities’ expectation of that variety.

And it is Shiraz that brings me to the point that it appears as if said authorities are indeed beginning to take a more flexible approach, appreciating the fact that winemakers are driven by a quest to push boundaries, think outside the box, stretch the envelope…which is something we as wine lovers want.

The wine in question is Kleine Zalze’s new Syrah du Plateau 2022, a limited-release of 600 bottles. Kleine Zalze winemaker RJ Botha says he’d for some time been wanting to get his hands on some Shiraz grapes from the rarified chilly heights of Ceres Plateau, and when he managed to score a ton or so, the idea was to do something original. Like pushing that envelope previously referred to.

So, the grapes were given the whole-bunch, carbonic maceration treatment in two of his beloved terracotta amphorae, and released in November 2022. In a clear flint bottle, sealed with glass Vinolok stopper and with a stand-alone label, despite it being a Kleine Zalze wine – available from the tasting-room only.

The most important thing to say about this wine, is that it is extraordinarily delicious. Being 11.5% alcohol and that bottle giving it a summery look, I chilled the wine and took it to a convivial lunch on a humid day in Durbanville. The only problem was, there was only one bottle. A juicy gorgeous yumminess. Gulpable to the max. On the nose, this Syrah du Plateau has scents of dried prunes laying on a bed of dried lavender, with a cavernous chill on the aroma, one redolent of sea caves at low-tide.

The juice hits the mouth like the first breath of cool air after a torturous and hot bout of mountain climbing. There is the cheek-puckering jig of sour cherry coupled with some wild bramble, plum and a coaxing touch of strawberry. Then, just enough savouriness to provide the umami-like delight of sweetish meeting savoury. And broad, too, this wine, the carbonic maceration and lack of oak giving it the obvious wide and scented charm making its comparison with a very fine and still young Beaujolais unavoidable.

Which brings me to the second point, and that is it might be Syrah du Plateau in name, but sensorially this wine is about as close to what is expected of a Shiraz as the strums of a Gibson electric guitar are redolent with the screeches of a concert violin. Nowhere close.

So, this is one case where “varietal typicity” has been stretched to the limit – by the winemaker, as well as those tasked with ticking the boxes of cultivar conformity.

Let’s hope this progress, progresses.

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