Category Archives: Wine

Stalin’s wine cellar, Tbilisi

View of the hills and castle above Tbilisi on a later visit in 2005

A friend recently lent me his copy of John Baker and Nick Place‘s (Viking, 2020) Stalin’s Wine Cellar about John and Kevin Hopko’s travels to Tbilisi in 1999 to identify Stalin’s wine cellar and subsequently to try to sell some of its more famous wines. I had always wondered what had happened to these wines after my own visit to the cellars a couple of years earlier in 1997. Various later conversations with my Georgian friends had told me some of the story from a Georgian perspective, and so it was fascinating to read this exciting account by the Australians who had endeavoured to release the wines onto the market- described by the publishers (Penguin, 2021) as the Raider’s of the Lost Ark of wine”. Fun to think that I had beaten them to the treasure! I was not, though, interested in buying the wine or trying to sell it through the auction market.

My lasting memory of a serendipitous visit to the Savane winery, was that much of Stalin’s cellar actually seemed to be full of gin bottles! I had walked past the entrance, almost hidden in a wall (top left picture below) several days earlier, and asked friends if it was possible to visit. Miraculously, later in the week I was able to visit, and the pictures below (converted from my old slides/diapositives) show something of what the winery was like. The lower left picture illustrates a rack of bottles, not dissimilar to images shown in John and Nick’s book. My hunch is that Stalin himself probably preferred gin and vodka to fine wines, other than of course wines from his homeland Georgia (the brandy served at the famous Yalta conference in 1945 was the Armenian ArArAt brandy). Alternatively, someone in the intervening half century may simply have used this part of the cellar for storing away gin! I never encountered the famed cellar of Tsar Nicholas II with its very old wines from renowned Bordeaux châteaux, which is reputed to have been split between the Massandra winery just outside Yalta in the Crimea and the Savane winery (Stalin shipped the Tsar’s cellar from Massandra to Tbilisi in 1941 to prevent it falling into German hands, and the wines were then reported to have been returned to Massandra in 1945). In hindsight it would have been fascinating to have asked if I could have explored Savane further. What wines were really there, and might some have been stashed away in Savane, never to be returned to Massandra?). Wines from Massandra were auctioned by Sotheby‘s in 1990, 1991, 2001 and 2004, and I remember being fortunate enough to taste some of the Crimean wines available through these sales, but sadly tasted nothing historical from the Savane winery on any of my visits to Tbilisi.

So many anecdotes could be written about fascinating times spent in parts of the former Soviet Union during the chaos of its disintegration . As for the Savane winery, I was told on good authority that complications in determining the ownership had prevented sales during the latter 1990s and 2000s, but it remains remarkably difficult to find out anything about what really happened (some pictures were shared on Facebook in 2015). Another recollection of that 1997 visit was that despite my best efforts to find wines then being produced locally in Georgia, I was most definitely recommended only to drink the wines that had been shipped and bottled in the Netherlands and Belgium before being returned for consumption in Georgia. The quality of the bottling line shown above might explain some of my hosts’ concerns! However, I am certain that I did not often follow the advice I was given. I so look forward to returning to Georgia again before long, and especially to revisiting the Kakheti vineyards and tasting some of the wonderful wines made there. I still wonder where the Tsar’s wines are now.

Vines overhanging lunch tables on the way to Gelati, 2005

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World’s Best Vineyards Top-50 celebrations in Mendoza

It is a great honour to serve as the Academy Chair for the UK and Ireland of the World’s Best Vineyards awards organised by William Reed, which are designed to celebrate and promote the best wine tourism experiences in the world. To achieve this, there are 21 regional panels, each of which has 36 members, who annually vote for their top 7 winery/vineyard experiences. Membership of these panels changes each year, with a constant rotation of new members rotating onto them. In this role, I have very much tried to ensure that our panel represents the rich diversity of the countries of the UK and Ireland, different wine sectors (including importers, retailers, sommeliers, writers, and consultants) and varied personal characteristics including gender, ethnicity and age. This is by no means easy to achieve!

The annual awards ceremony for the top 50 winery/vineyard experiences is hosted by a different country each year. The 2021 ceremony was thus hosted at Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau in Germany, and this year’s ceremony was held in late October at Zuccardi, Valle de Uco, in Mendoza Argentina. The Academy Chairs along with a select group of other leading figures in the wine tourism industry are invited to these awards, and this year a spectacular progamme of winery visits was arranged in Mendoza in partnership with The Government of Mendoza.

We had the privilege of visiting the following wineries, where we also had comprehensive tastings:

I have long wanted to explore Mendoza, and the beauty of the mountains and vineyards, the commitment and expertise of the wine-growers, the winery architecture, and above all the generosity and expertise of all of our hosts went far beyond any of my expectations. I hope that the slide-show below (in approximate order of visits) captures something of my enthusiasm and excitement. Especial thanks are due to the team at William Reed, and to Dr. Nora Vicario, Minister of Culture and Tourism of the Province of Mendoza, for supporting this event, and for her constant energy and enthusiasm.

It would be invidious to pick out any one wine or winery as being somehow the “best” – they were all so interesting and different! The following, though, are among my lasting memories:

  • The land appears so flat – but terroir matters! Most of the vineyards are laid out for mile upon mile (or kilometre upon kilometre) across the alluvial plain at the foothills of the majestic Andes. However, although appearing very flat it is actually gently sloping, and there are indeed important difference in terroir. These depend particualrly on altitude, but also on soil depth and charactistics (not least depending on the balance between clay, sand, and stones).
  • The nets. Many vineyards are swathed in black plastic netting (clearly shown in the image at the top of this post) which is particularly intended to protect the young shoots from being harmed by hail, but it also helps shade the vines from the intense sunlight that prevails here. It nevertheless adds significantly to the costs of production.
  • The architecture. I don’t think I have ever visited a wine region with such a wealth of recent architectural creativity. The level of financial investment in these wineries, restaurants, and hospitality venues is conspicuously high! While some of this investment comes from external sources and the proft generated from their owners’ other enterprises, I was also told that during the COVID restrictions they continued to have significant income from wine sales at a time when their costs were actually reduced, thus enabling them to invest further in their wineries.
  • Innovations in the wineries – and the music. It was fascinating to see the new wine making equipment and innovations in all of the wineries we visited (very visible in the images above). Egg-shaped and rounded fermentation tanks were very evident, and the novel mate-shaped tanks designed at Anaia have pushed the boundaries of vinification yet further. Concrete was dominant everywhere, but it was also interesting to learn about ongoing various micro-vinification trials. Several wineries nevertheless continue to use oak barrels extensively. It will be several years before the influence of these different methods on the wines produced will be fully understood. It was also fascinating to see how many wineries placed an emphasis on the connections between music and wine – even with tango on top of the concrete tanks at Zuccardi!
  • Irrigation everywhere – almost. The plains below the Andes in this part of Argentina are dry and arid. Almost all of the visible vegetation has thus been planted through the use of extensive irrigation; drip irrigation in the vineyards is ubiquitous. However, on being asked, several of the vitculturalists with whom I spoke mentioned that they are beginning to explore dry farming nearer the Andes mountains where water is more plentiful. The challenge here, though, is the danger of the much colder weather in the higher areas nearer the Andes. I look forward, though, to the results of this experimentation, and suspect that they just might produce even higher quality wines.
  • The wines. I have always enjoyed Malbec (or Cot as it is known in the Loire and Cahors), and recall that years ago we published a fascinating paper in the Journal of Wine Research in 1991 by Angel Gargiuolo that explored how quality and quantity could be combined in Argentina through careful selection of vines and appropriate crossings that would achieve optimal yelds and quality in this environment. Ever since then, I have wanted to visit Mendoza to taste for myself the results of this research (as well as the early work by Nicolás Catena Zapata) that helped to lay the foundations of the modern Mendoza wine industry. The red wines that we tasted (mainly Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon – although also including less familiar Italian grape varieties and others as well) were almost all of very high quality, with the Malbecs at their best combining real elegance, rich blackberry and plum flavours, and fascinating herbal and spicy overtones. However, I also learnt much more about the different characteristics of the wines made from grapes in the region’s various subdivisions (often reflecting differences in altitiude). I particularly enjoyed, for example, the elegance of the wines from grapes grown in Gualtallary (at up to 1600 m) in the Uco valley, especially the Malbecs and Cabernet Francs (as well as blends between them) – although this might have been in part infleucend by my enjoyment of Malbec (Cot) and Cabernet Franc blends in the Loire Valley the previous week! While it is indeed possible to find very good Malbec on the shelves in UK outlets, it is clearly necessary to visit Mendoza itself to taste the very best!
  • The hospitality and culture. I was blown away by the generous hospitality of all our hosts. It was such a privilege to learn from so many hugely experienced and knowledgeable wine-growers, and to taste the complex nuances in their wines. Beyond that, though, the professionalism, knowledge and warmth of welcome from all those who helped show us around was truly impressive – everyone I met, from the chefs and those pouring the wines, to the hospitality staff and the winery owners, went out of their way to help us understand their many cultures of wine. It was very humbling to experience the generous warmth of their welcome.

If I had to choose my favourite experience it must have been the opportunity we had at Catena Zapata to make our own blends of wine from different districts – mine was, though, very different from their official blend: yes, you’ve guessed it, I had a much larger proportion of Gualtallary! Thanks so much to Ernesto and Alejandro for guiding us through this (and to Alejandro for his wonderful wines at El Enemigo).

It has been so sad to read recently of the heavy frosts that hit Mendoza the week after we left – very much hoping that the impact will not be as serious as at first it appears.

Thanks again to everyone at William Reed, the Government of Mendoza and all of the wineries that we visited for making this such a memorable journey of discovery

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What we understood by Corona…

It is not easy to be positive about the spread of Covid-19 (the latest Coronavirus) around the world, which as I write has now reached at least 164 countries with a death toll of around 8,000 people.  However, until the start of 2020, “Corona” meant rather different things to people.  I was particularly struck by this while travelling in Pakistan in January and February of this year.  So, I posted a tweet earlier today to explore what people had associated with the word in the past.  This is the result (to be updated should any further suggestions be made!).

Mexico (and Puerto Rico)

Corona beerIn Mexico and indeed in many other countries, Corona was above all else associated with beer!  Produced by Cerveceria Modelo, Corona is a pale lager and one of the five top-selling beers across the world.  In 2013 the Grupo Modelo merged with Anheuser-Busch InBev in a transaction valued at US$ 20.1 billion.  Interestingly, one of the three main breweries in Puerto Rico in the 1930s was called Cerveceria Corona, and it later sold its rights to  Cervecería Modelo de México, which then launched Cerveza Corona as Modelo’s Corona Extra.

Pakistan

indexIn Pakistan, Corona was known above all else as a paint.  It is made by Dawn Coating Industry, which was founded in 1970, and has the ambition of becoming the largest national decorative paint company in the country.  Its advertisments can be seen painted on buildings across Pakistan, but also on hoardings celebrating national holidays.

Spain

Screenshot 2020-03-17 at 21.47.25In Spain, Corona, or Coronas, was primarily associated with various wines.  It is perhaps best known in its incarnation in the well-known Familia Torres wine Coronas, which was trademarked as long ago as 1907 by Juan Torres Casals, and is one of the oldest trademarks in the Spanish wine industry.  Today, Torres’ Coronas wine is made mainly from Tempranillo with a small amount of additional Cabernet Sauvignon.  However, Corona in Spanish merely means “crown”, and so the word has also been used for other wines, as in the Corona de Aragón wines, most notably made from Garnacha grapes (produced by Grandes Vinos).

Egypt

Screenshot 2020-03-17 at 22.00.44In complete contrast, Egyptians thought that Corona was a type of chocolate biscuit (thanks so much to Leila Hassan for sharing this).  Corona was established in Ismailia in 1919 by Tommy Christo (the son of a Greek businessman), as the first confectionery and chocolate company in the Egyptian market.  Corona was nationalised in 1963, and then sold to the Sami Saad Group in 2000.  For some, the association with “Bimbo” reminds them of a roadside café on Route E6 in Mo i Rana in Norway of the same name (thanks Ragnvald Larsen), which provides a neat introduction to that country…

Norway

Corona noruegaTo be fair,  very few people made the above connection.  However, the café takes its name from the baby elephant in the Circus Boy series (1956-58) and has persisted since the café first opened in 1967.  Moreover, the Norwegian krone is pronounced in a similar way to the word corona, and as Tono Armas has pointed out in Spanish it is even called “Corona noruega“.

Japan

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 09.40.23The Corona Corporation in Japan traces its origins back to the founding of kerosene cooking stiove factory in Sanjo, Niigata Pref., by Tetsuei Uchida in 1937.  In the late 1970s it entered the air conditioning market, and has subsequently diversified into a range of fan heaters as well as nano-mist saunas and geothermal hybrid hot water systems (Thanks to Yutaka Sato for sharing this).

Poland

560px-Crown_of_the_Polish_Kingdom_in_1635

The Polish Crown. Source: Wikipedia

In Poland “Corona” brings to mind the symbolic significance of the Polish Crown (in Polish: Korona Królestwa Polskiego; in Latin: Corona Regni Poloniae).  This is the term used for the historical territories of the Kingdom of Poland wihtin the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late medieval period.  However, it is also linked to the Homagial Crown of Poland (in Latin: Corona Homagialis), which was part of the Polish Crown Jewels, first mentioned in the 15th century, and possibly referring to the Coronation Crown of Władisław II (Thanks to Jagoda Khatri for sharing this)

USA/California

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 09.44.53I am never sure whether California should be seen as distinct from the USA, but for those who live there Corona is a town of about 150,000 people in Riverside County.  It was originally called South Riverside, and was founded during California’s citrus boom in the 1880s.  It was once called “The Lemon Capital of the World” (by USAns), and today is perhaps best known (at least by musicians) for being where the flagship factory,  Custom Shop and headquarters of Fender guitars was established in 1985.

USA/Utah

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 10.10.06

Corona Arch, Utah, USA

One of the most striking “Coronas” is the sandstone Corona Arch in a side canyon of the Colorado Rover west of Moab in Utah, which was once known as Little Rainbow Bridge. This had become a renowned site for rope swinging.  A three mile hiking trail includes Corona Arch and nearby Bowtie Arch.

 

Astronomers

SolarFor astronomers, of course, a corona is the aura of plasma that surrounds stars including the sun.  More simply, it can be considered as the outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere that extends millions of miles into space, and generates the solar wind that travels across our solar system.  It is difficult to see because it is hidden by the brightness of the sun, but is clearly visible during a total solar eclipse.

Geologists

For geologists, a corona is a microscopic band of minerals, usually found in a radial arrangement around another mineral.  More generally, it is a term applied to the outcome ofreactions at the rims of structures, where a change in metamorphic conditions can create porphyroblast growth or partial replacement of some minerals by others.

 

Do please share more thoughts on your memories of Corona before Covid-19.

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The Douro and Vila Nova de Gaia in late February: remembering friends

It was wonderful to be back in northern Portugal last week after many years of absence.  The sights, smells, and tastes resurfaced numerous poignant memories.   There have certainly been huge changes, not least the vast network of motorways, and generally increased affluence.  Many of these have been for the better.  However, much also remains the same, and it was wonderful to visit old haunts – even finding one or two places scarcely changed.  It is now only a two-hour drive from Porto up to Pinhão at the heart of the best grape growing areas for port wine, and so on a bright sunny morning we headed up there, swiftly crossing the Minho, climbing up into the Serra do Alvão, and then dropping down from Vila Real towards the Douro river.  I hope that the images below catch something of the very special character of this part of the Douro Valley – and the grapes that are cultivated there.

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Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Porto near the mouth of the Douro, has traditionally formed the second integral part of the port trade, providing space for the lodges where the wines are matured.  The blue skies turned to clouds, mist and rain the next day, but this did not detract from the pleasure of revisting lodges (where port is matured) that I had first explored some 40 years ago.  The narrow streets winding down the hill through the lodges to the river below hadn’t changed, but the corporate structure of the “trade” certainly has, with once proudly independent family firms now being integrated into a small handful of larger companies.

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The ghosts of close friends, many no longer with us, haunt these familiar locations.  They were so hospitable to generations of geography students (and staff!) from Durham University and Royal Holloway, University of London, with whom they shared their experiences of the port trade – as well as their wonderful wines both in the Douro and down at Vila Nova de Gaia.  Thanks are especially due to Bruce Guimaraens and John Burnett – from whom I learnt so much – and are sadly no longer with us.  But walking back past Quinta da Foz and the Cálem lodges also reminds me of many great times with Maria da Assunção Street Cálem learning from her about the business of port from a Portuguese perspective – and being challenged about the role of academics undertaking research in other countries.

Port is one of the world’s great wines, but remains sadly unfashionable today.  It is time for more of us to continue to sing its praises – from the freshness of dry white port, or the nuttiness and subtlety of a fine 20 year old tawny, to the unique character of great vintage ports!

port

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The Champagne stained glass window in Reims cathedral

Over many years I have gathered together a wide range of imagery about grape growing and wine making, but although I have visited Reims cathedral on several occasions, I have never before had a camera with the right lens to take close up pictures of the famous stained glass window representing wine growing in the Champagne region.    Last weekend was different, and a leisurely afternoon provided the opportunity to share the imagery below.

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The window in the south transept was completed in 1954 following the removal of earlier glass in the 18th century, and damage to the cathedral in the 1914-18 war.  Funding came from  the Champagne Houses, winegrowers, overseas agents and others who wanted to help restore the cathedral.  The imagery shows many of the stages in making Champagne, but does so in the style of medieval glass.  It provides a fascinating insight into Champagne production as it was in the middle of the 20th century.

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On the Geography of Wine

MeursaultIt is many years since I wrote substantively about the historical geography of viticulture, but I have nevertheless retained a keen theoretical and practical interest in wine and the vine ever since.  It was therefore with very great pleasure that I  accepted an invitation from an old friend, Barney Warf (well-known for his paper on the historical geography of cannabis) to contribute an annotated bibliography on the geography of wine to the series of geographical bibliographies that he is editing for Oxford University Press.

I hope that this annotated bibliography will be of use to all those with an interest in the geography of wine.  This is how the introduction begins:

“Wine has fascinated geographers since Antiquity. Greek and Roman geographers wrote extensively about wine and grape growing, drawing on earlier texts, most of which have not survived. In the early 20th century, geographers in wine-making regions of the world, especially France, began to develop a distinctive style of wine writing that placed viticulture as a central element of many European landscapes and geographies. However, it was not until the 1980s that professional geographers in the English-speaking world turned in any numbers to research and publication about wine. Geography is central to understanding grape growing and wine making, regardless of how the discipline is defined: wine is one of the most sensitive of agricultural products to variations in the physical environment; landscapes of the vine and wine reflect deep cultural resonances about the relationships between humans and the places in which they live; and the spatial distribution of wine production and wine styles vary significantly across the globe. This centrality of geography to wine means that there are few books about viticulture and wine making that do not contain some mention of geography, which makes it challenging to compile a comprehensive annotated bibliography on the subject. Almost every descriptive account of a wine region refers to its geography, usually focusing on its physical environment, and the influence that this has on the character of the wines. Moreover, important publications by archaeologists, historians, and economists, alongside many others, frequently refer to aspects of geography in their understandings of wine, often in terms of its role in international trade, its spatial variability, or the significance of the environment in shaping the distribution of grape growing and wine production. This article focuses primarily on the works of writers who call themselves geographers, or who write in geographical publications, but it also includes important publications written by those from other disciplines where they contribute significantly to what might be called a “geographical understanding” of wine. Attention concentrates on more recent geographical material published on wine, but classic texts and important earlier research and writing that shaped the field are also included, where of particular significance. The bibliography seeks to illustrate the breadth of geographical work primarily in the English language, and where authors have written several papers on a similar subject, only the most detailed, or accessible, are usually cited. It also seeks to provide examples of the research by geographers in many different parts of the world, drawing on evidence from Europe, Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and both North and South America.”

The bibliography then covers the following main topics:

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Texts on the Geography of Wine
    • French Wine Geographies
    • Wine Geographies in the English language
  • Geography, Environment and Terroir
    • Wine and Climate
  • Geography and Wine in Antiquity
  • Geography in the History of Wine
  • Geography of Wine Appellations and Demarcation
  • The Economic Geography of Wine
    • Wine Tourism
  • Spatial Distribution of Wine and Geographical Accounts of Wine Regions

Do please suggest additions or alterations that I can make to enhance the value of this resource

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Exploring Central Otago’s wines

One of the challenges in trying to buy wines in New Zealand is the dearth of good wine shops across most of the country.  Yes, it is possible to buy many New Zealand wines in supermarkets, such as Countdown or New World, but they do not have the range of quality wines that are made in New Zealand.  Indeed, many of the cheaper wines sold in such supermarkets are actually from Australia,  or even France.

Imagine my surprise, then, as I visited the old mining town of Arrowtown, to discover the Arrowtown Wine Store.  This has an amazing selection of New Zealand wines, especially from Central Otago, and particularly their Pinot Noirs.

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There are so many impressive things about this shop: the range of wines that they stock, especially from Central Otago; the wonderful comments written by the staff about each of the wines, which perfectly capture their characteristics; the knowledge and hospitality of the store manager Tracy Grigor; and the fact that many of the wines are on sale at prices that are usually equivalent to the cellar door prices of the local wineries.  Anyone interested in wine, and especially the wines of New Zealand, who is visiting central South Island should make their way straight to Arrowtown and look out this great little shop!  The only rather bizarre thing, at least for visitors from the UK, is that currently it remains cheaper to buy these wines in the UK than it is in New Zealand, despite the collapse in the value of the pound post-Brexit!

It is difficult to make definitive choices about the best Pinot Noir wines made in Central Otago, but those from the following producers are definitely worth getting to know better:

Some of my pictures from these wineries are shown below:

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Rapid tour of northern New Zealand wineries

Twelve hours between flights into and out of Auckland provided a great opportunity to explore some of New Zealand’s more northerly vineyards.  Despite only having a couple of hours sleep before arriving around 05.00, and with a forecast of rain and thunderstorms, I set off northwards in the dark and rain.  The only trouble was that most of the wineries did not open until around 11.00, and so I had a lot of time to explore the surrounding countryside – much like the Scottish borders, and so very wet!

However it was great at last to see the vineyards and wineries at Kumeu River, Nobilo and Vila Maria (all pictured below).  Fortunately, the sun came out amazingly for a few short minutes when I was at Kumeu River, and so I could actually get some pictures that had a bit of brightness and contrast in them!  Their Chardonnays have long been one of my favourite New Zealand wines, and they are some of the closest New World wines to traditional Burgundies.  Visiting on a very rainy day, though, emphasised the heavy clay soils on which the Kumeu River vineyards are cultivated, a marked contrast to some of limestone soils of Burgundy!  I will have to look into that and explore further.

Not sure I would necessarily recommend driving a couple of hundred kilometres between flights in the rain, especially since to keep on the safe side I did not even taste any of the wines!  It was privilege enough, though,  just to visit!

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Majeka House – a lovely place to stay near Stellenbosch

For anyone seeking a comfortable and relaxed place to stay while exploring the wineries of Cape Province in South Africa I can thoroughly recommend the Majeka House, just outside Stellenbosch.  Hidden away in a quiet residential area, the hotel provides a wonderful oasis of luxury in which to unwind at the end of a busy day of tasting!  With a warm welcome, beautifully hand-crafted rooms, great views, a relaxing pool, and the fine Makaron Restaurant (one of the top 20 in South Africa), it is a very special place to stay.

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Breakfasts are delicious, although I definitely preferred the anti-oxidant juice to the green revitaliser!  Also, beware the white pebbles in the birdcage at dinner – I dread to think of the teeth damage if someone bit hard on them!  As the above pictures illustrate, though, the food was innovatively presented, and of very high quality.  Make sure you book in advance, because the restaurant gets very full!

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My favourite South African Wines…

ThelemaA visit to the Cape Province of South Africa last week in order to help select wines for the Athenaeum provided a great opportunity to learn something about  recent changes in the wine industry in the Cape and to taste some of the really excellent wines that are now being produced there.  It is some 40 years since I last visited Stellenbosch and Paarl, and it is great to see the quality of wines now being made in the region.

Thanks to Stuart and George who arranged the itinerary, and the hospitality of many amazing wine makers, we had the privilege of tasting nearly 200 wines from Stellenbosch, the Cape Peninsula, Franschhoek and the hinterland of Hermanus.  While this represented only a small fraction of the many wines now being made in South Africa, it did highlight three significant things for me:

  • First, the quality of the wines has improved very dramatically indeed over the last 15 or so years.  There are without doubt now some really excellent wines being made in South Africa, and they are very good value indeed, with many of the best wines being priced at under ZAR 250 (£15) a bottle.  We scarcely tasted a poor bottle, and it was difficult to choose those that I preferred best for my list of favourite wines below!
  • Second, South African wine makers have definitely learnt and understood the importance of terroir. Given my geographical wine “upbringing” in Burgundy, I have always argued that the physical environment has a very important role in determining the character of a wine, and it is good to see the increasing differentiation that now exists in the planting locations of different grape varieties in the Cape area.  Many of the wines we tasted emanated from some of the cooler vineyard locations, higher up on the mountain slopes, in windier locations, and closer to the sea.
  • Third, South Africa’s vineyards have to be amongst the most beautifully situated in the world, with many of them being in very picturesque locations, as I hope the pictures below illustrate.  Whilst leafroll virus is a serious problem for grape-growers, it does have the merit of turning vines a beautiful red colour in the autumn!

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Despite the pleadings of my colleagues, I am still not convinced by many of the Chenin Blanc wines we tasted, perhaps with the exception of some of the sweet dessert wines.  I’m sure that some of my reticence stems from tasting too many rough Steen wines when I was younger!  While I recognise that modern good quality Chenin Blanc wines are indeed being made, I simply don’t particularly like them, finding the astringent flavours that I encountered in my youth all too often still to be present.  Likewise, I have to confess not really to liking wines made from the Pinotage grape.  All too often they too retain bitter flavours, and I found many of those we tasted to be rather unbalanced and poorly structured – with one delicious exception!

So, to conclude, my favourite wines, in alphabetical order of producers were:

  • 4Buitenverwachting (with MD Lars Maack)

    • 2009 Christine – excellent open fruity nose; 14.5% alcohol; rich, rounded, soft tannins; red fruit flavours; 45% Cabernet Franc contributes to tobacco and chocolate flavours (with 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot); well balanaced and good length
  • Chamonix (with Wine-maker Gottfried Mocke)

    • 2011 Pinotage – a very unusual wine made in a similar style to Ripasso, combining fresh wine refermenting with air dried grapes; half-picked very young and undergoes carbonic maceration; other half desiccated and refermented with first picking; grown at 440 m 9on Greywacke soils; 14.5% alcohol; kept mainly in one-year-old Pinot Noir barrels; dark red with complex green and dark fruit flavours; very soft tannins.
    • 2012 Chardonnay Reserve – 13.5% alcohol; 14 months in 228 l French oak; 30 year old vines which show character and personality; 80% barrel fermented with 20% in 600 l concrete eggs, which enable wine to be oxygenated and the lees stay in suspension for longer than using other fermenters; high acidity early grapes are put into concrete, with later pickings going into barrels; always goes through malo-lactic; tries to pick fruit at lower sugar levels to make wines more in a Burgundian style; 65% new oak used for this vintage, which remains very evident; need to keep for some time.
  • 5Cape Point (with Wine-maker Duncan Savage)

    • 2011 Late Harvest Noble 8 – only made when conditions are right, with some 2000 half bottles being produced in 2011; 160 grams residual sugar; 10.5% alcohol;  Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon botrytised blend; rich balanced fruit flavours; good length; acidity balances out the rich fruit; dried apricot flavours.
  • Delheim (with Viticulturist Vic Sperling)

    • 102009 Vera Cruz Shiraz – we had the last bottle in the cellar sadly; produced from bush vines; 14.5% alcohol; rich, intense fresh red fruits on the nose; fruity flavours of plums and jam; good length and complexity; their Vera Cruz wines are only made in years when the fruit is good enough; a powerful wine to be kept for a while.
    • 2013 Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest – botrytised Riesling from Simonsberg Mountain; good acid balance; not overly rich; classic slight petrol nose, but well structured and luscious flavours of honey and apricots.
  • Glenelly (with Wine-maker Luke O’Cuinneagain)

    • 12012 Oaked Chardonnay – light golden colour; blanche toasted 500 l barrels designed to keep as much natural fruit flavour as possible; fresh with good fruit expression; distinctive pear flavour, with slight citrus touches; richer and softer than their unoaked Chardonnay; good structure and depth.
    • 2010 Syrah – designed to be like a northern Rhône wine; 100% whole bunch fermented; purple-red colour; very clean, with slight smell of bacon; white pepper and floral aromas; relatively low alcohol at 13.9%; soft tannins, but needs time to develop.
  • Klein Constantia (Wine-maker Matthew Day)

    • 22013 Sauvignon Blanc – made with free-run juice from grapes from across the property; very pale in colour; up-front nose of gooseberry and blackcurrant leaves; 4 months in steel on lees; fresh in mouth, with balanced acidity on edge of tongue; quite light and eminently drinkable
    • 2008 Vin de Constance – classic dessert wine made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, left to dry on the vine; good rich flavours of candied orange, with other fruits including a slight pineapple taste; good depth and length; balanced acidity.
  • Meerlust (with Chris Williams, Cellar Master)

    • 62012 Pinot Noir – a serious wine; lovely rich nose; has been made since 2004 on coolest hilltops, which catch the breeze being only 3 kms from the sea; vines grown on decomposed granite; picked at 4-6 tonnes per hectare; vinified in small batches, some with natural fermentation; has an interesting liquorice nose; quite soft tannins; needs keeping for several years.
    • 2009 Rubicon – excellent Bordeaux blend style wine (69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Cabernet France and 1% Petit Verdot); very rich and intense rich blackcurrant fruit flavours; complex; good length; well structured; definitely for keeping.
  • Newton Johnson (with Bevan Newton Johnson, MD)

    • 32012 Family Vineyards Pinot Noir – really good wine, clean, well structured, medium length, and rich complexity of Pinot flavours resulting from use of grapes from three adjacent vineyards (20% from Mrs. M, 30% from Block 6, and 50% from Windansea); first made in 2008/9; red fruit rather than vegetal.
    • 2012 Windansea Pinot Noir – Pinot Noir from a single vineyard which has more clay than adjacent ones, giving a deeper colour; a bit closed and more restrained than the fruitier more open Mrs. M and Block 6; well structured with good acid balance; excellent finesse; red and black berry fruits.  A really excellent wine.
  • Spier
    • 21 Gables Sauvignon Blanc – hand harvested; made from grapes grown in Durbanville near the Atlantic on red gravel and clay soils; nose of new mown hay; acidity clearly felt at edge of tongue; but well structured; rich complex flavours of gooseberry and slight asparagus; 13.5% alcohol.
  • Thelema (with Cellar Master Gyles Webb)

    • 82011 Cabernet Sauvignon “The Mint” – made from the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines they planted, with eucalyptus trees nearby, which give the wine a distinctive minty nose and flavour; mid-red colour; well-balanced and good structure; will be long-lived.
  • Vergelegen (with Wine-maker Andre van Rensburg)

    • 2011 Merlot – the first 100% Merlot wine made at Vergelegen since 1998; although Andre sees himself mainly as a Cabernet Sauvignon producer, he believes they have the environment to produce excellent Merlot; lovely soft nose and very gently tannins; still a bit young, and lacking a bit in length, but overall very pleasant.
    • 72010 DNA – Cabernet Franc does well at Vergelegen, but the yield needs to be reduced down to around 4 tonnes per hectare; aim is to pick the fruit as late as possible; mid-red, quite intense colour; 65% Cabernet Franc, Merlot 21% and Cabernet Sauvignon 13%; fantastic high notes on nose; very soft tannins; not as strong a smoky nose as I would have expected with this amount of Cabernet Franc; wine is designed to be fruity rather than green.  Wine is made in recognition of Andre’s respect to Cheval Blanc, with the DNA often being thought of as being similar to terroir.  Others might think that it is short for “Dickhead ‘n Arsehole”!  Incidentally, the label is not a fingerprint, but rather the contours of a hill!

Finally, I have long appreciated the work that Charles Back has done at Fairview, and particularly his BootLeggerscommitment to social change in the region.  In 1997 he helped establish The Fairvalley Workers Association, which aims to help workers at Fairview to have their own land, and he was also the driving force behind the Fairvalley wine brand that is owned by the Workers Association, with profits from the sale of their wines (made using cellar facilities at Fairview, and FairTrade certified) being used to support community development initiatives.  Being in South Africa enabled me to access further wines that it is difficult to get in the UK, and so I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to explore the shelves of Bootleggers in Fourways Crossing and purchase additional wines, including some of Fairvalley’s remarkably good value 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was delicious with boerewors, as well as  a bottle of Fairview’s 2010 Goat-Roti (Syrah/Viognier blend) that went especially well with barbecued fillet steak!

For those looking for somewhere quiet and relaxing to stay while exploring the vineyards of the Cape, I thoroughly recommend Majeka House, just outside Stellenbosch, which also houses the excellent Makaron Restaurant!

 

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