The Hoax of Food and Wine Pairing

Despite being in the profession involving the crafting of copious tasting notes and other wine marketing material, I have always considered wine and food recommendations to be patronisingly prepared with just a hint of arrogance. For who am I, or a winery or a food and wine writer or a sommelier to suggest that a certain dish should be “paired” (Christ, I hate that word) with a glass of something that apparently forms a perfect match?

Through reams of food-luvvie writings, hours of pontificating by the wine trade and lectures from self-appointed experts, the general consumer has now been indoctrinated into thinking that there is some Holy script of wine-food matchings enlightening the path to an ideal culinary experience.

A lightbulb moment in self-illumination appeared a few years back when I attended a talk by Tim Hanni, Master of Wine, nogal, at a Sauvignon Blanc conference in Marlborough, New Zealand. Tim had hardly stopped his entrance on stage when he said that this wine and food pairing business was all “bull-shit”.

Tim, by the way, has been around. Over 55 years of experience in the food and wine game and is a highly-regarded lecturer and writer in his homeland of the USA as well as doing wine gigs around the world.

Employing some simple psychology, he laid it out for those commentators and recommenders who deem it a right to tell others what is going on inside their own sensorial world: “Avoid the pretence of thinking what you smell, taste and prefer is what someone else should experience,” he said. Just think about that for a while.

Tim Hanni, MW

While the sommeliers and food-writers in the room were choking on their water-biscuits, Tim went on, just short of calling the industry of food-and-wine recommendations a hoax. Some of his points:

  • Wine and food “pairing” or “matching” was never a tradition in France until recently
  • The emergence of wine and food pairing coincides with plummeting wine consumption in France (and Italy)
  • Biological sensory individualism (genetic/physiological differences) alone provides a basis for revising how we approach enjoying wine with food.

With this in mind, Tim called on his peers “to educate the wine trade, hospitality professionals and wine influencers to better serve the personal interests of wine lovers.”

One specific aspect of Tim’s presentation attracted my attention, a quote he had pulled from the rather influential book Larousse Gastronomique (1938). Here the chef-cook-entertainer-host of a meal is told that for the third course of meat and vegetables, the wines that can be served are Romanée, Lafite, Hermitage, Côte Rôtie “of if the guests prefer the white wines of Bordeaux, the Sauternes, the Saint-Peráy should be served”.

In simpler non-Larousse terms: give them what they’d like to drink with their meal. Today’s wine scene, says Tim, has lost the plot of true consumer engagement, the writers, sommeliers and chefs having fell victim to metaphors, pseudoscience, misunderstandings, hyperbole and plain ignorance.

But he wasn’t there to stir or diss. The take-out message was that if a greater, all-encompassing love for wine is to be created for the consumer, those in the industry are going to truly have to understand the factors that contribute to personal preferences. “Connect with consumers at a powerful and personal level,” he said. “Understand, embrace and cultivate all wine consumers and guide the people who are interested in learning more about wine to do the same.”

For those subscribing to wine-pairing gospel, I can add a few observations of my own. The one being that when it comes to selecting a wine to accompany a dish, we consumers are encouraged to have developed a Pavlov’s dog set of expectations. So, with a plate of freshly shucked oysters, a cool Chablis or Sauvignon Blanc is going to be the way to go.

But this is so only because the diner, or the person recommending the combination – be it a writer or sommelier – has never attempted to discover the possibility of chasing a live plump oyster with a glass of chilled Pinotage. And this ignorance influences generations of consumers until the one-dimensional recommendation is cast in stone.

The prospect of a bloody rare steak automatically evokes instinctive calls for a claret-shaped bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux-style red blend or possibly the slicker form of a bottle of Shiraz/Syrah.

Sit back and think why this is so? Because due to all that food magazine and cookery book thumping one has come to assume that a full-bodied red wine will move your world when chomping some bloody meat.

Your democratically disposed individuality, over which one should be so protective, has never been allowed the opportunity to discover the joy of chomping the best cut of charred beef with a buxom glass of wooded Chardonnay served just-off room temperature. Because it is “not done” and it “doesn’t say so” on the wine-list.

So the list can go on, and it is such fun. But the point remains that there is no ideal food and wine combination, and harping on about this topic through countless prescriptive recommendations and assertions of doctrine does more to detract from the exciting wonders of wine and food than encourage it.

What a great challenge this is…to turn the current status quo of poncy wine-themed dinners and wine-service dogma on its head. True art needs a blank canvas. Glass of New World Pinot Noir optional.

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Pinotage: 100yrs Old This Year

Despite most of the industry claiming 1925 as the date of the birth of Pinotage, the correct year is 1924. This article appeared in Die Burger, the world’s largest Afrikaans daily newspaper and can thus rightfully be assumed as fact. This version was loosely translated from the more poetic Afrikaans.

Right in its own kraal, the South African wine industry is always looking for a reason to throw a party, celebration, or shindig. The establishment of the country’s wine industry on February 2, 1659, is annually celebrated with solemn reverence. Then once each year’s grape harvest is complete, cheerful gatherings take place at the cellars where vineyard and cellar workers – despite the fatigue of three months of hard work and long hours – let loose properly.

And when a farm unveils its latest vintage wines, the festivities kick off anew. This year, 2024, however, in my opinion, is an epic year for the South African wine industry deserving full-scale celebration. Because it’s precisely 100 years since the grape variety Pinotage originated – here in the Cape. Not only is it the country’s national grape variety, but our Pinotage wines are known worldwide, with countries like America and New Zealand even planting the variety.

In fact, of all the wine-producing countries outside the vineyard’s traditional home in Europe, South Africa is the only one to create its own grape variety that can be considered a global force in terms of wine offerings. And its name is Pinotage. The “father” of Pinotage is Abraham Izak Perold, the ingenious viticulturist who was associated with Stellenbosch University and later the KWV. He was a scientist with a restless and creative soul, earnestly seeking better vineyard conditions in the Cape and the ideal grape varieties to plant in the right places. Perold’s many deeds and actions are recorded in the book “Abraham Izak Perold – Wegwyser van ons Wingerdbou” by R.U. Kenney, and it is here that it is noted that the wise wine man brought Pinotage into being in 1924.

This was done by crossing two French grape varieties, namely the noble Burgundian variety Pinot Noir and the hardy cultivar Cinsault, which in Perold’s time in the Cape was known as Hermitage. The fruit born from this ambitious combination was thus named Pinotage. With no history or references, several Stellenbosch wine farmers began planting the “new” grape variety. Among them was one Paul Sauer from Kanonkop wine farm, who happened to be one of Perold’s first viticulture students.

However, Pinotage only made its debut as wine from the 1959 vintage under the Lanzerac label. Since then, Pinotage has grown into one of the cornerstones of the South African wine industry, widely planted, and its wines of Cape origin found on shelves around the world. A few years ago in Beaune, the capital of the grand wine region of Burgundy, I stumbled upon a few bottles of Pinotage (Kanonkop) in an upscale wine shop. When I asked the owner why this wine among all the offerings of fine French wines, he said: “Because it’s your country – South Africa’s – greatest contribution to civilization. And civilization is indeed wine, oui monsieur?”

Once the parties start, those words along with that wine is certainly on my lips.

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Nico Myburgh: Meneer of Meerlust

The first wines under the Meerlust label, Cabernet Sauvignon 1975, resulted from the vision of the late Nico Myburgh, 7th generation Myburgh on this Stellenbosch estate. Fritz Joubert, a retired journalist, remembers a remarkable pioneer who helped lay the foundations for the modern success of the Cape wine industry.

For wine-lovers of my generation the name Nico Myburgh will immediately herald an association with Meerlust Estate and its legendary Rubicon wine. Those who were fortunate to know him will, however, remember the nature of the man who, as its seventh generation Myburgh-owner, created the Meerlust brand that has become a global icon. The pride of South African wine.

One could describe Nico as a true man in full, an enigmatic personality and a farmer with a broad range of interests, as well as someone who could come to the fore with the irreverent and unexpected. Myself and my family got to know him intimately when in 1979 we found ourselves living on Meerlust for a few months. On the move from Cape Town to Paarl, our new Boland home was not yet ready and here Nico graciously stepped-in and offered to “put us up” for the required period.

Actually, this was probably due to my wife Maureen, who was at that time editor of the Wynboer magazine, today known as Wineland. Nico attracted women like honey does bees, and Maureen was one of his favourites.

Nico Myburgh

In any event, we had the privilege of staying in the Jonkershuis on Meerlust. And upon arriving on the farm after a day’s work in my Cape Town office the inevitable was to enjoy a few glasses of wine with Nico and his wife Eileen. This was always red wine – Nico did not have much time for white.

The bottles Nico opened usually came from the Meerlust cellar itself, unlabelled. One of these unlabelled wines that stood out for me was a Carignan, a deep-red, robust wine that Nico truly enjoyed in social circumstances. It never saw the market, however – Nico probably handed it out too generously and loved too much of it himself.

Only later would I discover the origins of Carignan on Meerlust. Eileen had smuggled some vine-cuttings from Argentina, inspired by Nico who was not the kind to subscribe to the conservative wine industry conventions of the time. Cinsault was at the time one of the most planted varieties at the Cape, but a cultivar for which Nico showed no interest.

For he was a man for Cabernet Sauvignon and had a vision to create blended wine of the type he had gotten to know in Bordeaux. Merlot, however, was non-existent at the Cape, so Nico had some Merlot shoots clipped in Bordeaux with the help of the legendary Danish viticulturist Vinding Diers and the contraband was ferreted to Meerlust with the help of a pilot friend.

Thus, more smuggled vines passing the KWV control board – Chardonnay was not the only illicit variety commuting through dark channels between France and South Africa.

On Meerlust the French Merlot vines were, under instruction of the legendary viticulturist Desiderius Pongrácz, placed in frozen storage until the nodes were ready for propagating.

Pongrácz, who at the time was involved at the Bergkelder, was the true inspiration behind a Meerlust Bordeaux blend. The making of the wine by Meerlust’s winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia was one thing – finding a suitable name for it was another. Here Nico turned to the great Afrikaans poet and academic Dirk Opperman. In a sort of “Eureka” moment, Opperman said “Rubicon”, and so the mythical river had been crossed, so to speak.

One thing I remember about Nico was his directness and ability to sum-up a person immediately. Either he liked you, or he did not. As illustration he liked to tell a story of the self-deprecating kind.

On a tour with Wynboer to Argentina Nico found himself on the pampas where the gaucho cowboys were working the cattle with horses. There was also an opportunity for the many tourists to themselves get onto horseback. While Nico and another Wynboer guest were standing around a man came trotting by on his horse. Nico nudged his companion, pointing to the rider.

“Het jy al ‘n drol op ‘n perd gesien (Have you ever seen a shit on a horse before?)” Nico asked his pal in Afrikaans. The rider stopped and looked down at Nico, replying in perfect Afrikaans: “Het jy al ’n kont op die grond gesien? (And you, have you ever seen a cunt on the ground?).”

Unbeknown to the Wynboer-group, another South African party was also touring the farm……

I remember Nico’s fascination with baboons. And they unleashed all levels of havoc on the seaside farm he had at Potberg on the south Cape coast – Nico was an extraordinary, committed and accomplished angler. But the chaos caused by the baboons disrupted his joy of angling and being at the sea, and he unsuccessfully deployed scarecrows, rubber-snakes and any sort of primate-repelling gadget to keep the apes out of his house.

One day Nico opened the door to the Potberg house and saw that the baboons had, once again, been inside and made their usual mess. But there was something different about this troop’s particular visit: the apes had, genuinely, gotten hold of a pack of playing cards and had set-up a game before being disturbed by the master of the house. “There, on the dining-room table four hands of poker had been dealt by the baboons,” Nico told me. “But you know, one of the bastards must have been cheating because there was a hand that held five bloody aces.”

I am not going to doubt Nico’s eye for detail in the telling of the above story as he was meticulous and a true perfectionist, which could border on the cantankerous. One day myself, Nico and my youngest son Fritz were having lunch on Meerlust before heading off for a week-end’s fishing at Potberg. Fritz was seated next to Nico as the mutton and vegetables were being enjoyed, and Nico saw the kid was struggling to get his peas onto his fork.

“No son,” Nico reprimanded Fritz, “not like that. Here on Meerlust we eat our peas this way,” he said, illustrating how the peas were to be eaten from the back of the fork and not scooped with the bottom-end.

The experts will have one believe good wine is made in the vineyard. But looking at where Meerlust is today, a brand glowing with provenance and legacy in tandem with the quality of its fine wines, I believe the souls of the people behind such wines play as vital a role as any in their success. Of this, Nico Myburgh is a fine example.

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Coming in from the Old

Wine has a true friend in time, that concept of the aged and old, the historical and antique deemed nothing but beneficial and revered in the halls of wine-speak. A bottle bearing a label attesting to that wine having been made 40 years ago or more is carefully held in hands slightly trembling in awe, the contents spoken of in hushed tones of respect and anticipation. It is the names of wine cellars from Bordeaux to Piedmont, Rioja to Stellenbosch, Napa to Robertson who have been making wines for decades and centuries that command admiration on account of their legacy and reputation, places whose history and generations of cellarmasters underscore and extend the providence of the wines they have made for years, and will be making for years to come.

The old vineyards from which wine is made, too, bear a gravitas. These living plants rooted for years and generations in patches of soil they call home. They have withstood the challenges and tests of time by, year-in and year-out, ripening bunches of fruit from which the wine is made. Stormy winters belted their leafless shoots and gnarled trunks with wind and rain, snow and sleet. They have battled under the sun of scores of hot summers, offering a warrior-like and formidable resistance to the harsh rays’ heat and the parching dryness it brings to the soils, where those life-giving roots lie deep and true. These senior sages have adapted to the heartless vagaries of nature, learnt to exist in its ever-changing rhythms.

South Africa did not invent the concept of recognising and honouring the unique properties of old vineyards and the need to embrace them as an integral part of a country’s wine legacy. Europe, Australia and the Americas have older vineyards than South Africa, and more of them. But through innovation and will, a proud realisation of the role old vineyards offer a country’s legacy as well as current wine profile, South Africa has to a large extent taken charge of a rebirth in the global recognition of the role old vines play in the wine.

That’s why the name Rosa Kruger can be found at the top echelon in terms of South Africa’s most important wine people. Back in 2002 this former lawyer and journalist fell under the spell of the many old vineyards she had encountered during her forays as viticulture consultant.

Timeworn patches of vines, many forgotten, were tracked down in the Swartland, outside Vredendal and in Citrusdal. Spirited place-names such as Piekenierskloof, Skurfberg and Moutonshoek added to the allure. And once rock-star winemakers like Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Chris Alheit showed  – with the inspiration of Kruger – an interest to vinify the fruit from these low-yielding far-flung vineyards, it all began falling together rather nicely as a greater understanding of South Africa’s old vineyard treasures made its way into the public domain. Then in 2016 the Old Vine Project was launched to map all vineyards over 35yrs old and whereby wineries wishing to do so could honour the wines made from these mature vines with an official seal.

Rosa Kruger

The Old Vine Project’s innovative approach to creating a platform from which the magical appeal of old vineyards and their resulting wines could be expressed did not only capture the imagination of the local wine world. Kruger’s brain-child and her unbridled commitment to these vinous treasures in Southern Africa sparked an interest in old vineyards from around the world, and among the many international accolades she has received has been Wine Personality of the Year for 2018 at the International Wine Challenge.

Time and age are synonymous with romance. And for sure, as with any art form, romance has a vital role to play in wine, otherwise it would not be the multi-layered and diverse offering it is – no other consumed product has more labels portraying more countries and areas of origin than wine. Throw-in 6000 years of wine’s presence in the world presided over by humankind, and the romance is unavoidable.

But today is today, with consumers becoming more questioning and discerning. And the ask is, besides all the nostalgia and violin-playing to honour vineyards that have stood in the soils for 40, 50, 60 years, do they make better wines? If not, what is the song and dance all about?

Kruger herself says: “Do old vines make better wine? I believe they very often do. Age in vines brings an intensity, a perceived freshness, a texture and a sense of place. They show less fresh fruit and varietal character, and more terroir and soil.”

But it is to the winemakers I want to go to get an explanation, they who oversee the farming of the old vineyards and who at harvest-time must send the bunches of ripe grapes on the road to becoming a bottled wine. And here it is apt to turn to those who make Chenin Blanc, the erstwhile work-horse grape of the Cape wine industry that understandably represents the greatest mass of the country’s Old Vine spread. Of the 4 292ha of vineyards aged 35 years and older, Chenin Blanc represents 2 207ha – the next largest is Sauvignon Blanc at 454ha, to give an idea of Chenin Blanc’s dominance.

Tertius Boshoff

Stellenrust in Stellenbosch is one of the country’s great Chenin Blanc brands  – in 2023 four Stellenrust wines found their way in to the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10, with a wine made from vineyards planted in 1964 being among the farm’s most revered offerings.

Tertius Boshoff, co-owner and winemaker at Stellenrust, is not hesitant to reveal the intoxicating effect of old vineyards, remaining pragmatic before a poetic tone embraces his words.  “It’s not that old vines – 35 years or older – necessarily produce better fruit,” says Boshoff. “Often yields decrease as the vine ages – so it’s not all sunshine and roses. But Old vines are like old people – they have seen good times and bad come and go, and are at peace with themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that they can deal with anything.” 

He fiddles with a cork-screw and smiles. “Young vines, like young people, are often enthusiastic growers and a touch too vigorous. They set more fruit than they can ripen. But as they age, vines learn to self-regulate. Yields come into balance and the grapes ripen slower and more evenly. Older vines produce smaller berries, which leads to powerful fruit concentration and consequently more structured wines; there’s a greater ratio of tannin-packed skin to juice. We see vintage-on-vintage consistent premium quality and beautiful pH levels in the juice.”

Stellenbosch, in fact, is the headquarters of South Africa’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc offering, carrying 558ha of the total national spread of 2 207ha. Kleine Zalze Wines uses the largest portion of Stellenbosch Old Vine Chenin Blanc, the enticement of this category shared by Kleine Zalze’s French owners Advini who deem it a jewel in the Cape wine crown.

RJ Botha in an old Kleine Zalze vineyard.

RJ Botha, cellarmaster at Kleine Zalze, relishes in this offering of Old Vine Chenin, deploying the fruit in a diverse range of the marque’s wines.

“There are two ways of recognising the allure of Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” says Botha. “On the one side, there is the attraction of each vineyard having a story to tell. These are of old, gnarled vineyards growing on tough granite soils that have for over three decades been exposed to stormy winters, breezy spring seasons and sun-drenched summers. Through age, they have become a part of the soils and their environment, able to truly express the world in which they have lived – which we on the outside call terroir.”

This brings Botha to the second beguiling factor of Old Vine Chenin Blanc: and that is, when it comes to working with the grapes in the cellar, the character of the grapes deserves the aforementioned respect they deserve.

“Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyards express the varietal character and terroir more vividly than younger vines do; it’s as simple as that,” says Botha. “You see it in the tight bunches of small berries. The juice spreads its intoxicating aroma through the cellar at harvest time. And the balance between sugar and acid is tense, almost electric, leading to wines of multi-layered complexity.”

Studies done by the Old Vine Project show that wines from old vineyards have discernible differences to those from younger wines, mainly in terms of concentration, texture and length.

“No-one says old vines make better wines, but that the wines have an own personality and individual finger-print, this is non-negotiable.”

Chenin Blanc might be ruling the roost in the Old Vine scenario, but South Africa’s national red grape of Pinotage delivers two of the country’s greatest red wines made from historical vineyards in the Lanzerac Commemorative Pinotage 2019 and Kanonkop’s perennial iconic Black Label Pinotage. Both wines, incidentally, made from vineyards planted in 1953.

Wynand Lategan, cellarmaster at Lanzerac who had the honour of making the Commemorative Pinotage from an old vineyard planted in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary appellation, says this wine would not have been what it is without the old vineyard fruit.

“I just think old vineyard fruit brings soul to a wine,” he says. “Compared to the other vineyards I use for our Lanzerac wines, I look at an old vineyard as the Chairman of the Board. The grapes don’t always have the virility and up-front fruit you find in younger vines, but the Chairman has seen it all. He isn’t easily affected or influenced by storms, drought or wind, nor the discrepancies of different seasons. There is just that quiet confidence honed by decades of having seen and lived it all. It is almost as if the old vineyard is saying ‘don’t sweat the small stuff in life’. Because the old vines bear fruit that have an immovable gravitas, leading to wines of assured length and substance that will prevail over everything else.”

Gravitas in wine, seemingly, but Old Vines also carry a hefty marketing clout. Few realise this better than Shirley van Wyk, MD of Franschhoek luxury wine destination Terre Paisible which includes a historical vineyard Sauvignon Blanc in its portfolio, Les Dames de 1987 Sauvignon Blanc made from a vineyard planted in 1987.

“Despite being a new destination, I was from the outset adamant about cherishing our old Sauvignon Blanc vineyard through a wine aptly called Le Dames de 1987 in the Terre Paisible line-up,” says Van Wyk. “History, provenance and legacy will always have tremendous marketing appeal, so if you have access to these traits in any of your offerings – use them. For us, an Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc is a major benefit for Terre Paisible, not only honouring our but also the whole of the Cape’s winemaking heritage.”

Known as one of South Africa’s leading wine marketers with a background in advertising and film, Van Wyk talks the Old Vine talk with charming conviction: “Old Vines are like beautiful history books – they carry the stories of all the harvests past and when we take the time to nurture them, they have so much to give back. These vines have survived many seasonal changes and climatic extremes and are now so resilient and adapted that they easily bear fruit each year which carry the nuances they have so carefully cultivated over the year. It is a gift to work with these vines and to capture their essence.

 “In a time where there is such a rush for instant gratification, new technology, innovation etc – it is ever more important to protect, respect and cherish our heritage wherever we can. Our old vines are treasured, and we are doing our best to ensure we look after them for many years to come.”

A search for a pragmatic and less romantic explanation behind the allure of wines made from old vineyards led me to Robertson and De Wetshof where my personal wine sage Danie de Wet planted a block of Chardonnay in 1987, the 37-year-old vineyard still harvested for making De Wetshof’s magnificent Bateleur Chardonnay.

“My answer as to the merits of old vineyards? Well, each year when the De Wetshof team tastes the barrel and tank samples of that season’s harvest it is the Bateleur that comes out as the best wine in the cellar,” says De Wet. “And it is made from the oldest vineyard on the farm, so if you put two-and-two together, the answer could be that more mature vineyards give an added dimension.”

Being a man of science but with enough experience and savvy to realise that vineyards and wine do bear unanswered mysteries, De Wet is not going to pin-point a specific reason for this added dimension. But he turns to the subject of soil, and he goes deep.

“Above the surface, the vineyard changes in each season as shoots are pruned, leaves grow and drop-off, grape-bunches develop and are then removed when ripe,” he says. “But what happens beneath the soil, there where the vines’ roots are, this we never know. An old vineyard can have roots going down to 10, 15 metres beneath the surface, prodding between the soils’ various layers, seeking nutrients and carrying what has been discovered deep below the earth through the vine and into the grapes as they ripen. I can only think that it is what these older roots find deep down below that adds another level of character and personality to the vine itself, which finds its way into the final wine.”

That the time is right to talk of the hot topics that are old and age in vines and wine, this is a given. But the finding of the answers is going to demand a lot more time, and this has still to come. If ever  – sometimes a mystery should remain shrouded, especially one that is as fascinating as this.

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Putting Your Head on a Loveblock with New Zealand Pinot Gris

Looking at the statistics it is difficult not to see New Zealand as a one-trick kiwi in terms of its wine offering, Of the country’s 38 000ha under vine, just under 24 000ha is planted to Sauvignon Blanc, pretty much determining the mind-set of those doing the wine-thinking down under in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Despite the emphasis on Sauvignon Blanc, a grape that has undoubtedly found a suitable home in the cold maritime conditions and gravel and loam soils, various other varieties are coming to the fore that truly underscores the country’s ability to make exceptional wines.

Pinot Noir takes-up the second largest space at 5 588ha, followed by Chardonnay at 3 106ha, with both cultivars delivering some astonishing wines able of not only meeting standards set by good Burgundy, but offering riveting flavour profiles straddling pushy, talkative fruit and cathedral-like structures echoing light, dappled sun-beams and harmonious acidity.

Erica Crawford

On my last trip down under, there was, too, a lot of talk about Pinot Gris growing between the gargantuan spreads of Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough. Driving around the evocative landscape of fawn-coloured grass, elevated bumps of earth and endless rows of precision-aligned vineyards, my drivers would veer from our conversation about rugby to point out a Pinot Gris vineyard. “Special stuff,” I was told in tones of unmistakable, if gruff, reverence.

Some 2 470ha of New Zealand earth is under Pinot Gris, but there appears to be an acute focus on this variety and the wines created from it.

Unlike Pinot Grigio – the same grape – wines labelled Pinot Gris imply a gentler flavour-profile, broader and less brisk than what the Pinot Grigio-style is supposed to be. But I can’t really see this difference as being practically provable and the distinction is surely just a winemaker whim. Much like Syrah and Shiraz, the difference appears to be in the mind of the maker. As is his or her right.

A recent visit to the Cape from Erica Crawford, she of Loveblock Wines in Marlborough, presented an opportunity to delve into Kiwi Pinot Gris, as her Loveblock number has gained a reputation as one of the leading examples from New Zealand. Grown on the Lower Dashwood farm in Marlborough on the South Island, Loveblock’s first introduction entails an understanding that this is organic wine-growing to the max. It is a mind-set Erica and husband, winemaker Kim, have taken to heart with impassioned talking done on soil-health, use of animals in the vineyard, cover-crops and enough eco-friendly harmony to make a Noordhoek farm-girl burn her last stick of Dharamsala incense.

Lower Dashwood, Marlborough

The lovingly organically farmed vineyard soils are aged alluvial loams containing some silt loam over stone. According to Erica, organic management decreases the vigour of the vines, reducing berry size and, hence, overall yields.

In making a dry style of Pinot Gris, vines are managed to give physiological ripeness at low brix (sugars) to keep alcohol-levels low. “Organic management does this for us,” she says, “with the competition from the wildflowers and grasses forcing the vine to struggle.”

Once the grapes were deemed ripe, the fruit was machine harvested and membrane pressed immediately (no preservatives were added in the field to reduce the grape phenolics). The juice was then floated and inoculated with certified organic yeast in stainless steel tank. At 8 brix, 10% of the juice was fermented in neutral French oak barrels and another 10% was transferred to a concrete egg for fermentation.

But it is all about the wine in glass, and the overall impression is that Loveblock Pinot Gris 2022 certainly justifies the Crawfords’ meticulous approach to viticulture and their discernible love of the site responsible for the end-product.

It is just such a gorgeous white wine, finely straddling the line between disciplined precision and sheer delight in the enjoyment of its drinkability.

The first surprising observation is a slight muscat floral tone on the nose, which is also found on the palate once the wine reaches the end-zone of the finish. Residual sugar is 6grams/litre at 12.5% alcohol, giving the wine just a bit of easy, coaxing whispered breath outside the confinement sometimes found in bone-dry white wines of repressed austerity – also known as minerality.

Despite the Loveblock Pinot Gris’s extreme, virginal fragility there are truly spectacular flavours to be had, as if some wine god had attempted to extract as much fruit-filled delicacy from each grape, whilst maintaining the surrounds of a fine dry white wine. Custard apple and ripe pears spring to mind, with a sliver of green mango, some tangerine zest and a zingy squirt of pulverised grenadilla. And don’t forget the flowers: intoxicating cherry blossom, nectar-laced jasmine and white rose-petal.

A mesmerising tapestry of scents, aromas and flavours strung together in a racy cool wet wine. Remarkable, one of my favourite white wines ever. Just that.

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Bateleur: King of the Skies, and of Chardonnay

It graces the skies in a unique rocking motion, the eyes on its scarlet facial mask seeking its prey in the valleys, mountains and veld of Southern Africa. This black, white and grey plumed raptor, with the characteristic short tail and orange-red claws, is the magnificent Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), the eagle that has been named by BirdLife South Africa as the country’s Bird of the Year for 2024.

And for wine-lovers around the world, the name Bateleur might also find purchase, as this is the name of the premium Chardonnay made by De Wetshof Estate in Robertson, one of South Africa’s pioneering Chardonnay estates.

It was Danie de Wet who in 1991 as owner-winemaker of De Wetshof made the decision to name the farm’s first bottling of a single-vineyard Chardonnay after the Bateleur eagle – 10 years after De Wetshof had made released its maiden Chardonnay onto the market.

The Bateleur. Photograph: André Botha

“I had a vineyard planted in 1987 from plant material I propagated from vine-cuttings sourced from the Clos de Mouches vineyard in Burgundy,” recalls Danie. “The 3.5ha vineyard had produced an incredible Chardonnay expressing the distinctive terroir of its site on De Wetshof, and as the wine was maturing in barrel – new wood – I decided that this wine deserved to be bottled under its own label. Problem was, I did not have a name, something that is of vital importance if you as a winemaker and farm-owner want to make a statement.”

Since his childhood years Danie had been a frequent visitor to the Kruger National Park in the Lowveld, the African wildlife being – along with wine – his presiding passion. And in 1991 he was in Kruger with his wife Lesca and sons Johann and Peter, marvelling at the wonders of the bush. But still, at the back of his mind, thinking about that nameless and special Chardonnay resting in oak barrels back home on De Wetshof.

Danie de Wet

“At that stage the message I wanted to convey about that Chardonnay was that it should be able to soar and fly above any form of criticism, rising up above the rest,” says Danie.

And then it happened. “One afternoon, drifting above the veld in a pale blue sky was the form of the Bateleur eagle,” he remembers. “I had always been drawn by this bird’s flight pattern, a graceful rocking motion as if it was dancing through the sky. No wonder the eagle was named after the French word for juggernaut (bateleur).

“Looking at the bird in my usual state of wonder, it struck me – this was going to be the name of that Chardonnay. And the rest is, as they say in the classics, history.”

The first De Wetshof Bateleur Chardonnay was bottled in 1991 and since that initial offering it has gained a consistent reputation for excellence and deemed internationally as one of the world’s great Chardonnays. And the wine is still made from that very same vineyard planted 37 years ago.

The Bateleur eagle itself finds its home in diverse South African landscapes, from the Kruger National Park to the dry Kalahari as well as throughout sub-Sahara Africa. Unfortunately, it is now a threatened species with loss of natural habitat, poaching and poisoning having led to the demise of the population which today comprises less than adult 1 000 birds in South Africa.

Birdlife SA, who have named the Bateleur as South Africa’s Bird of the Year for 2024, has set-up various methods through which the public can contribute to efforts aimed at conserving the Bateleur. This is to be found at https://www.birdlife.org.za/bird-of-the-year-2024/ and The Endangered Wildlife Trust at ewt.org.za.

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Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc: Genius and Youth

Lafras Huguenet

In his marvellous book Drinking With The Valkyries the genius wine writer Andrew Jefford promotes the joy of young wines: “Who doesn’t enjoy being invaded by a young wine, and having your head turned, your horizons altered, your composure rattled? Acidity in wine is never better than in youth, when it, too, remains spliced to generous fruit contours, indeed when it seems to bubble and froth with fruit itself, like a gurgling baby with milk.”

However much I agree with these words and do enjoy Chablis, Alvarinho, Picpoul and Sancerre wines under a year old, I found my Editor’s encouragement of trying a Sauvignon Blanc wine a mere six weeks after the grapes were harvested a bit of a ballsy request. Surely a gimmick, I thought, this Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc bottled, on-market from grapes harvested in January.

But having researched into the pedigree of Diemersdal where Thys Louw established himself as one of the pioneers in the explosion in popularity and quality of Cape Sauvignon Blanc some two decades back, I relented. The bottle of Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2024 did not end-up in salad-dressing or as a tenderiser to the batch of glistening squid recently procured in the Eastern Cape. It was chilled until the bottle beaded moisture, iced my rheumatic palms as a unlocked the screwcap. And with Jefford’s words echoing through my tufts of ear-hair, the wine was poured for pondering.

An underage, raw wine will mostly be aggressively sulphery and edgily pungent on the nose. But here this was not thus. Instead, the wine showed assured aromatics, a waft of jasmine-leaf, freshly mowed buffalo grass and just the ever-so slight sunny cirrus layer of guava sap. Very interesting and inviting at the end of a long day behind the steering wheel from Jeffrey’s Bay to Hermanus.

The promise from the nose was delivered onto the palate. A tentative perusal revealed delight that led to thirst and a desire to drink fast and drink deep and drink good.

Thys Louw from Diemersdal.

There must be some intuitively scientific techniques going on in the Diemersdal cellar for such a young wine to achieve this state of excellence. Which leads to wonder and amaze, but anticipation is not conducive to lofty pondering.

The exquisitely bracing revelation the wine’s nose held was furthered by its titillating, tasty and enjoyable presence in the mouth. There is the harmonious balance between the thiols of tropicality and a crisp crest of vibrant flavour so characteristic of fine, pure Sauvignon Blanc.

Expecting acidity, robust in its virile youth, there was, rather, a comforting glycerol mouthfeel making the temptation to glug the wine in huge dollops so much greater. This agreeable texture made the flavours confident and assertive, with everything being in balance. I found on my taste-buds a generous scoop of cantaloupe whetted with rivulets of passion-fruit juice. Gooseberry, tart and teasing, also presented itself, as did a hit of honey-suckle and yellow zest from those thick-peel Cape lemons.

I was reminded, fleetingly of a waterfall thundering into a pool surrounded by a forest filled with trees bearing tropical fruits and citrus, the splash and the roar elevated with each mouthful of a truly lovely, delicious wine. Reminding me that, as I always tell my neighbour’s daughter, there being great pleasure in youth. Indeed.

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Fryer’s Cove: Where the West Was Won

Having traversed the Cape winelands for a few decades, I yet have to find a more unique winery than Fryer’s Cove in Doringbaai, 300km straight-up the West Coast. The winery itself is set in a former crayfish factory that was built in 1928 and is the very reason for Doringbaai’s settlement as a once-thriving coastal village. Back then, Cape crayfish was fished and processed here – first as a canned product, and later frozen whole, adorning the swanky tables of America and Europe. Those in the know would know, too, that when it comes to the consuming of the lobster-species, Cape rock lobster has no equal.

The politicisation of the South African fishing industry post 1990 ended the Doringbaai fishing factory, and after two decades in disrepute it was purchased by Jan Ponk van Zyl and Wynand Hamman. They had begun making wines from the vines they had planted between Doringbaai and Strandfontein, focusing on Sauvignon Blanc set 500m from the icy rollers thundering in from the Atlantic Ocean. This is balls-to-the wall, rugged wine country if ever there was some, and not unexpectedly the fruit showed a visceral concentrated thrust ever since the maiden Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc release in 2001.

Initially the wine was made in Stellenbosch, but in 2010 Van Zyl and Hamman acquired the decrepit Doringbaai crayfish factory, turning it into a working winery literally on the edge of the ocean where in days of old the fleet of boats would off-load the day’s lobster catch. In 2020, local drinks behemoth DGB bought the Fryer’s Cove winery, taking ownership of this distinctive location and continuing to churn-out the toppish notch wines. It is great stuff, and I never miss the latest offering. Drinking these wines takes me to desolate coastal village of Doringbaai with its murky morning fog, scent of sea-spray and wild-brush and the sound of mussel shells being crunched by ceaseless waves braking in restless unison.

The latest releases of the two premium Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc wines are the Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve and its brethren Bamboes Bay, both from vintage 2023. They are made from the same Sauvignon Blanc vineyard outside Doringbaai, with vines varying between 12yrs and 25yrs, cropping yields of five, six tons per hectare. Same piece of wind-swept, ocean-splashed sandy red earth; two varying vinification regimes.

The Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2023 is an expression of pure Bamboes Bay terroir and was made to the principles of minimum intervention. Free-run juice is settled overnight and then racked to stainless steel tanks for seven day’s fermentation. The wine is then left on lees for seven months where texture takes hold and the grapes’ inner secrets are allowed to unfold.

The result is a Sauvignon Blanc of truly singular and distinctive terroir expression. On the nose, Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2023 exudes aromas of nettles and white flowers with a pronounced oyster-shell note, a familiar feature of Sauvignon Blanc fruit grown in extreme maritime conditions. The palate is dense with flavours of green citrus-peel and goose-berry with an intoxicating line of wild-herbs. A firm, lasting presence on the palate is elevated by the typical bracing Sauvignon Blanc freshness leading to a commanding and persistent finish.

Then the other wine. After destemming of grapes and pressing, Fryer’s Cove’s Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2023 underwent a spontaneous fermentation and was aged in a combination of 500l Austrian oak barrels and ceramic amphorae for seven months. The time spent in these vessels elevates the textural nuances of the wine’s terroir origin, resulting in a Sauvignon Blanc of statuesque, regal presence yet still expressing the unique flavour-profile of this wine’s Bamboes Bay origin.

The nose is led by a rakish maritime edge with underlying aromas of cut-grass and an exotic whisper of sage. In the mouth, Hollebaksstrandfontein Reserve 2023 offers a luxurious density of flavours which include grape-fruit, kumquat and grenadilla leading to a discernable minerality. The tastes are presented in sumptuous layers lying beneath a luxurious veil that creates an experience harbouring both charm and excitement. An extraordinary white wine which will only grow in character through aging of five years or more.

In the rising tide of great South African Sauvignon Blanc, Fryer’s Cove is, for me, a force lifting all boats.

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Thamnus Adds to Cape’s Rosy Chardonnay Scene

The introduction of another extraordinary South African Chardonnay to the magnificence of the variety’s Cape portfolio is such a regular occurrence that a tendency to greet the arrival thereof with a shrug of complacency could be tempting. But we lovers of the glorious Burgundian white soldier on, duty-bound to admit enamoured admiration while attempting to supress the inner-thigh tremble of titillation when seduced, once again, by a wine confidently striding onto the stage of greatness.

Most recent to arrive on this scene was the Thamnus Chardonnay 2021, a number that took a graceful run-up, extended its right-arm and let rip, bowling me over, middle-stump and out.

Before getting to the wine itself I had to source the origin of the name, initially supposing it to be some poncy and forgotten reference to London’s River Thames. But no, the title is soundly based in the Cape, originating from Orothamnus Zeyheri. This might sound like an oily, yet well-read, Greek playboy, but is actually a wild rose. Part of the Cape fynbos kingdom and indigenous to the surrounds from where Thamnus wines sources its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Namely, in the Overberg, Caledon side of the Hemel-en-Aarde, a magnificent wilderness, rugged country with shrubby ridges and broad valley-like indents and lots of ancient poor soils.

Orothamnus Zeyheri also goes by the name of the Marsh Rose in English or the Afrikaans Vleiroos, and I can’t help but think that – objective, despite my Afrikaner rootstock CY Bellville – that the latter is the more beautiful name of the three.

In any event, it is vitis vinifera that rules, Chardonnay to be more specific, and Thamnus 2021 is, well, I have never seen a Marsh Rose, but if it is as gorgeous as this wine I better start looking.

The site of fruit origin is 250m above sea-level and 20km from Walker Bay. But being just over the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, it has to be slightly sunnier and warmer, in this case a benefit. Half the grapes were pressed whole-bunch, settled for two days in tank and racked to barrel. The other portion was destemmed and pressed. Fermentation was done in wood, taking two weeks, and then maturation ensued for nine months, 29% of the barrels being new.

My first impression of this wine was that it was going to be hard to swallow as the aroma is so intoxicating one wants to linger on the nose. There is a traditional dessert made in the Gers region of South-West France which entails butter and cream being heated with flour and then, once warmly bubbling, honey is added to the mixture. This is what my nose detected on the wine, a homely, comforting scent of honeyed buttery-ness with a whisper of cake-in-the-making.

True to focus, I shoved the nostalgia-evoking aroma aside and took the first sip. Now, if one asked any producer of Chardonnay in Meursault, Burgundy, what he or she dreams of in a wine, Thamnus is going to tick a reasonable number of boxes.

There is a taste of perfect, accurate ripeness which could be the result of the even and extended ripening of the 2021 vintage, but knowing the Overberg region well, for me this feature also reflects the place where the Chardonnay grows. This sensation, glowing shards of dappled sunlight coaxing succulence and juice from the wine’s life-affirming core, is something European winemakers strive to achieve. They dream of it while lying awake during their summer nights where the effects of weather on their vines is as dangerously erratic as a vodka-fuelled Russian soldier on week-end pass, as unpredictable as the colour of Taylor Swift’s next choice of underwear before showtime.

This long run of fruit gives Thamnus Chardonnay something I find non-debatable in any wine purporting to be great, and that is deliciousness. Tasty. Nourishingly moreish. Yes, the texture is all Moroccan silk and the first flow of oil from Kalamata olives. The acidity is animated, buoyant and breezy, not snappy and brittle but alive and present with the charm of a steady, anticipating heart-beat. Flavours of honey-suckle, ripe Packham pear and persimmon run true, and they run sure, with just a touch of grilled hazelnut on the finish.

The entry on the palate is trustworthy in the immediacy of the perfection, the mid-palate secure in its calm power. And it all ends in a taste of fond memory, the desire to top the glass and begin all over again.

Thamnus 2021 is a brilliant wine, text-book in its completeness in displaying the cultivar’s noble pedigree and shows that, indeed, a rose by any other name would taste and smell just as sweet, but more so if it is this Chardonnay.

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Alto Estate: Top of the World with 2015 Icon

They have been lying low and racked for some years now, the bottles of red wine representing the Cape winelands’ comet 2015 vintage. This recognition of that year as one in which good wines were born is largely due to Tim Atkin’s 100pt score for the Kanonkop Paul Sauer. And when questioned, Kanonkop’s winemaker Abrie Beeslaar describes 2015 as a perfect golf-swing “where everything was perfectly in synch, all chapters of the growing and ripening just right”.

Normally not of the patient type, I have been uncharacteristically hesitant to open 2015 wines, for once falling under the influence of the lofty advice from pundits warning against so-called “wine infanticide”. But nine years on from that year, I succumbed and carefully released a Stellenbosch red wine from the cool surrounds of its shelf on the wine-fridge. It was a wine from Helderberg, from Alto Estate. The M.P.H.S., a 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the name honouring the first four winemakers on Alto, namely Manie Malan, Piet du Toit, Hempies du Toit and Schalk van der Westhuizen.

Besides being a vintage of “golf-swing” perfection, 2015 was also the year in which Bertho van der Westhuizen took-over the winemaking duties on Alto from his father – the very aforementioned Schalk. This wine represents, thus, a father-son team effort: Schalk oversaw the harvesting of the grapes and the fermentation for that year, while Bertho – joining the cellar in May – managed the Alto M.P.H.S.’s blending and bottling.

The decision to open this wine at nine years of age underscored my belief in my instinct and ability to get the timing right in vinous matters. For this blend, Alto’s top-offering, is now at the cusp of greatness: it has evolved sufficiently to allow one to experience the marvel thereof, while a discerning sniff and taste reveals the potential to reach even greater heights over the next five to 10 years.

Those north-westerly vineyard slopes of Alto allow the grapes to ripen in glowing reams of extended sunlight, the warmth of which is tempered by the expanse of False Bay’s Atlantic Ocean some 10 kilometres to the south. The elevation – running steep to 500m – permits a vivid variation in exposure to sun and temperature as the microclimate scatters in variation to the summit. It is intense red wine country, here on the Helderberg’s decomposed granitic earth, and it shows as the M.P.H.S. runs into the glass, dark and red-black, the colour of the pupil in the eye of a stalking leopard at sunset.

Aromas abound, drifting and coiling with scents of fallen plums and dry pine-needles; a bloody sappiness and just a touch of Havana cigar wrapper from an old, forgotten cedar box.

Its introduction to the mouth is not of the indecisive, hesitant kind: this hits the palate like a thundering, misty wave crashing onto a family of nesting sea-birds perched on a rocky ledge. Immense and powerful, grating and dramatic.

But this wild-eyed, feral spirit is not of the offensive nor boorish kind. The dramatic opening is but the first attention-grabbing note of a symphony that warms, intoxicates and seduces with a spectrum of red wine marvels.

Bertho van der Westhuizen

There is an abundance of fruit, a feature of fine red wines from Helderberg whose tannins are generally more subdued that those made out Simonsberg way. The M.P.H.S. 2015 has black-currant and fig-paste; there is the note of maraschino cherry with an intoxicating layer of warm tar and a stroke of aniseed, the latter something I have only been able to determine in the upper echelon of wines made from red grapes with a Bordeaux pedigree.

But flavour is only permitted to show in its most refined splendour if there is balance and deft in the palate weight. And here it is as finely honed, as Zen-harmonious as an André Pollard drop-kick from the 40-yard line, as pitch-perfect as a tuning fork held to the loins.

The wine is broad, and it is deep. Sumptuous and opulent in its confident show of luxury and un-coy, flirtatious beauty. Yet, it is also riveting and edgy; shivering and thrilling with a vivacious, lusty energy. Respect it does not draw from the outside, but commands from within its assuredly spirited soul.

Alto might be more known for its ubiquitous Alto Rouge red blend, of which the 100th vintage – 2022 – will be released later this year. But in the M.P.H.S. the brand has a wine that comfortably sits at the very top level of Stellenbosch red offerings, which everyone knows can strut their stuff alongside the world’s best. Which this does, rewarding patience and stimulating the desire to experience the state of future comings.

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