South Africa - Part I - Constantia, Overberg, Hemel-en-Arde

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If you have never been to South Africa, I have one word for you: GO! The sooner the better. Once you do, you will realize how many incredible things this country has to offer, things I’m now kicking myself I didn’t discover ten years ago. I could wax lyrical for days about the food, the wine, the beaches, the mountains, the sunsets, the people, the penguins! But already at risk of too much material, I’ve decided to stick to what I know best and give you a brief run down of some of the wineries we visited and why I think they are making some of the most exciting wines South Africa currently has to offer. 

Prior to this trip, as many a fellow MW student I’m sure will concur, my pointer for picking up South African red wines in blind tastings was a sort of smoky, singed quality, slightly rustic and not particularly attractive. This, it turns out, was, and is, a totally misguided notion. In our ten days of tasting wines from all over the Western Cape, not one wine had anything of this nature. Maybe we were just lucky, we were visiting an array of top producers after all, but really I think this is a reflection of where South Africa wines currently are in terms of overall quality – basically very good! And a million miles ahead of where I’m guessing most consumers, particularly here in HK where they are hugely underrated, consider them. This is something I’m going to be working hard to try to change!

The sheer diversity of wine from South Africa is hard to fathom. From zesty Sauvignons, to mineral driven Chenins, highly textured Chardonnays, Burgundy style Pinots, Beaujolais style Pinotage, skin contact Hárslevelű, easy drinking Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache in all possible guises, elegant Bordeaux blends…the list is endless, incredibly experimental and all very exciting!

What I hadn’t appreciated fully before I got there was just how different every region and sub-region really is. Proximity to the ocean plays a huge role in cooling influences as does altitude and the influence of the hills and mountains which rise up with breathtaking beauty, shaping this dramatic landscape. What struck me most about the majority of the places we visited were the constant breezes that cooled what otherwise would be extremely warm daytime temperatures. 2015/2016 growing season in particular was very warm, with temperatures reaching upwards of 40°C in some regions. Very little rainfall due to El Niño weather patterns led to drought and resulted in much lower than normal yields although happily most producers we visited were reporting good concentration and quality.

Our first visit, almost as soon as we touched down in Cape Town, was to Klein Constantia. This estate is firmly on the tourist trail and well prepared for welcoming guests for tasting. Nestled in the hills of Constantia overlooking Hout Bay, the views from their high Sauvignon vineyards are beautiful. Just 10km from the ocean, the cooling breezes could be felt to such an extent that I broke out in goose pimples despite the bright sunny day. Ideal conditions for retaining crisp acidity and slowly building up complexity of flavour in the Sauvignon Blanc grapes. A huge amount of investment has been put into the estate over the past ten years including 2 million euros on a project to tackle soil erosion, where drainage channels have been built to funnel water from the mountains away from the vineyards and into reservoirs which then provide the total water needs for the winery.

Their aim is to compete with the best Sauvignon Blanc producers in the world. This has led them to team up with the likes of Pascal Jolivet from Sancerre to produce Metis 2013, a very restrained, mineral, savoury style of Sauvignon, which shows lovely stone fruit and rounded, mouthfilling texture from 11 months spent on fine lees. Their red wines have also improved since I last tasted them a few years ago. The Estate Red Blend 2013 showed nice cassis fruit with attractive touches of Cabernet herbaceousness, spicy notes from ageing 12 months in 65% new French oak, and good freshness. The jewel in their crown, the Vin de Constance 2011, a wine which is meticulously cared for during it’s three and a half year ageing period in 1st and 2nd year French oak barrels, of which 50% are new, showed rich lemony citrus and apricot notes with floral, honey tones and a slightly nutty, dried fruit oxidative touch. 160g/l residual sugar are masterfully balanced by zesty acidity with no cloying effect whatsoever. A wine, I think, best to serve as desert rather than with desert. Really delicious. Available in Hong Kong via Wine’N’Things.

Our next visit, after a few days in Cape Town, was to Gabrielskloof, a fairly new operation in the heart of Overberg, managed by the highly talented Peter-Allan Finlayson, better known for his range of classy Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs from Hemel-en-Arde under the Crystallum label. When I told him I was finally getting my arse in gear and coming to South Africa, Peter-Allan immediately extended the very generous offer to stay with him and his lovely wife Nicolene…and their three dogs, Wolfgang (a completely mad and loveable pointer of some sorts), Bepe (a miniscule whippet) and Lucy (a miniature poodle) all of whom added to the constant entertainment of the weekend.

We started off with a lovely lunch and tasting on the outside terrace of the restaurant at Gabrielskloof. We were joined by friends of Peter-Allan’s also in the wine trade, Roland Peens who works for Wine Cellar one of South Africa’s top importers of wines from outside of South Africa and his wife Jessica Saurwein who looks after marketing at Kleinood. This made for a highly animated lunch with Peter’s wines providing excellent fodder for discussion as to where South Africa is currently positioned in terms of the world playing field. His Crystallum Pinots have apparently been described as South Africa’s answer to Chambolle-Musigny, something with which I wouldn't disagree. And the best news is they’re half the price!

We jumped between wines from both Crystallum and Gabrielskloof,  starting with the Gabrielskloof Sauvignon Blanc 2015 which showed green apple, lime and lemongrass - the perfect refreshment on such a hot day. Next the Crystallum Clay Shales 2015, full of kumquat citrus and tropical fruit, with highly integrated vanilla/spicy oak and lovely fresh acidity followed by Gabrielskloof Chenin Blanc 2015 which was more floral, golden delicious apples, crisper acidity and supple texture. Moving onto the reds Crystallum Mabalel Pinot Noir 2015 was very pure with tangy red berry fruit, cherries, strawberries and touches of subtle oak spice. Cuvee Cinema Pinot Noir 2015 concentrated, rich yet with fine grained silky tannins and wonderful freshness. With the 2015 vintage Peter-Allan really seems to have nailed it. I’m looking forward to seeing the wines again when they have had a bit of bottle age as no doubt these will be ones to watch develop. Avialable in Hong Kong via Bottle Shock.

That evening Peter-Allan cooked us up a storm of a braii and opened up some incredibly special bottles one of which, on reflection, was, I think, my wine of the trip - the Momento Grenache 2013 made by Marelise Niemann a rising star it would appear – delicate yet immensely intense, graphite minerality, subtle Campari, cranberry, floral notes. Really delicious and a great way to end our short stay down in Hermanus.

For Stellenbosh & Swartland see next posts South Africa Part II & III…

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