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Uncut Diamonds: Tasting Trends on the Wild Side
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Graham Howe reports on the trend to alternative varieties at key wine tastings in the first quarter of 2016.

“Grenache Noir tends to be thin, lean and mean or a big blockbuster, dense, concentrated and spicy” declares winemaker Philip Costandius. “We’re somewhere in the middle”, he says, at the launch of Oldenburg’s maiden Grenache Noir 2014 at the wine farm atop Helshoogte in Banghoek, Stellenbosch in March. It is the newest member of the growing Grenache club in the Cape - which now includes twenty-four cellars led by the likes of Diemersdal, Sadie, Spice Route, Tierhoek and Vriesenhof.

Made from low yields (half of each bunch was dropped) grown the traditional way on bushvines - to concentrate flavour and increase ripening temperatures, the small two hectare bloc of Grenache Noir was originally intended for blending. Costandius got permission from the Wine & Spirits Board to use the grape’s full nomenclature - adding Noir to the label - and is delighted with the result: a wine with perfumed ripe berry fruit and an earthy, savoury edge. The asking price is R250 at the cellar-door.

New varieties and products can be a major drawcard promoting wine tourism to the cellar door. At an innovative “Zin(fandel) & Gin” tasting in March, winemaker cum distiller Rolf Zeitvogel launched Blaauklippen’s new boutique range of artisanal gins named Triple 3 Three (after the heritage winery which turned 333 years old last year). Zinfandel (Primitivo in Italy) is the signature grape of the farm which makes seven superb styles of this alternative variety - a unique MCC Diva sparkling wine, blanc de noir, reserve (made using spontaneous ferment), vineyard selection, noble late harvest, fortified version and grappa reserve (aged in old brandy casks for ten years).

“We should not under-estimate the potential of Zinfandel in the South African climate” says Rolf of one of the most popular varieties planted in California. In South Africa it remains a niche variety pioneered by Walter Finlayson at Hartenberg and Glen Carlou in the 1980s - and grown on twenty-four hectares of vine by only three producers in the Cape today: Blaauwklippen, Grande Provence and Idiom. Rolf adds, “We imported two new clones which produce smaller berries and looser bunches. Acidity is the nerve of the wine”. Zinfandel is a USP attracting visitors to the farm.

Blaauwklippen has also opened a dedicated spirits tasting centre - where it offers tastings and food pairings of boutique gin and spirits from the winelands. Bonita Gouws, tasting room manager, says, “We aim to be the only gin hub in the winelands. Some visitors come specifically to do a spirit tasting”. Rolf adds, “Gin is one of the hottest things since craft beer. Gin sales have grown dramatically worldwide”.  He talks about “the magic of Zin and gin”. They make a traditional juniper berry gin, citrus infusion gin and African gin made with indigenous botanicals from the Cape floral kingdom such as buchu and rooibois - in a copper potstill at the farm distillery.   

The sex appeal of niche varieties was demonstrated at a benchmark tasting of experimental wines in The Mentors boutique cellar at KWV in Paarl. Johann Fourie, chief winemaker at KWV and Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year in 2015, led a fascinating barrel tasting of alternative varieties competing for a place under the cutting-edge Mentors label. He showcased the “uncut diamonds” in the Mentors matrix - how his team makes four wines from one vineyard, trying out new yeast strains, natural, cool and warm ferments, whole bunch and whole berry extractions, pumpovers and punchdowns, tank and barrel ferments, and coopers; blending all the components of a single variety into small batch Mentors wines. The variables are infinite.  

“Grenache Blanc is one of the success stories of The Mentors” says Johan, who has also made superb single varietal bottlings of Verdelho, Semillon, Viognier and Petit Verdot in the Mentors series since its launch ten years ago. “We do trials to find stand-alone wines. These varieties are not just blending components or building blocks. There are no rules when it comes to making The Mentors - no red tape and no bean-counters. Our initial focus was on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay - as well as Chenin, Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc”. The new hot varieties to watch out for in The Mentors are Grenache Noir, Malbec, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah (Durif) and Pinot.

KWV is a place of contrast. On the way out of the KWV cellar, we spotted some of the biggest vats in planet wine anywhere on earth - five 200 000 litre vats assembled on site by Portuguese coopers in the 1930s. You can’t miss Big Bill, the massive vat named after William Millar, the first GM of KWV, a former Springbok captain and boxing champion - who has inspired a best-selling export blend called Big Bill. The Mentors Grenache Blanc 2011 and Semillon 2009 are two of the finest wines I’ve tasted this year - wines which demonstrate how well white wines can age in the bottle.

Taking our palates for a walk on the wild side, sommelier restaurateur Neil Grant led a tasting of unusual wines over his sublime new menu at Burrata in the Old Biscuit Mill. Over tapas and the new risotto menu (try the crayfish risotto in lemongrass bisque), wine writers were treated to a lesson in the art of creating wine lists. Neil says, “People are looking for something new. We want people to come here because of the wine-list AND the food. We’re selling way more foreign wine than we used to. We don’t just copy and paste our wine lists across our restaurants - Burrata, The Open Door in Constantia and  Bocca in the city. You have to create different wine lists for different areas - and offer a good selection of varieties and wines by the glass”.

The stars of a tasting of alternative varieties and wines in a glorious line-up were - dry Muscat de Frontignan 2015 under the Raised by Wolves label of Yardstick winemaker Adam Mason. We sipped our way through a glorious selection of iconic wines - Duncan Savage’s Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2012, Brundlmayer Gruner Veltliner 2011 (Austria), Burrata’s house-wines In Cahoots Pinot (made by Newton Johnson) and Chardonnay (Richard Kershaw), Chassagne-Montrachet Grand Cru 2013, Tenuta Delle Terre Etna Rosso 2013 (a blend of Nerello Mascalese, a key Sicilian variety), Barolo Cannubi 2010 (Hemingway’s favourite wine - Nebbiolo is doing well in the Cape at DuToitskloof,  Morgenster, Steenberg and Idiom), and Muga Torre Rioja 2010 (an iconic Tempranillo-based wine. And a few others besides.

Who could ask for more on a memorable vinous afternoon? Variety is the spice of life. Closer to home I can’t wait for my first taste of the maiden vintages of South Africa’s first Vermentino from Ayama near Paarl - wher wine writers planted their own row of vines in late 2014 - the first Cape Assyrtiko from Jordan and a taste of the first Nero d’Avola 2014 already released by Bosman Family Vineyards in Wellington.

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