Sunday 10 July 2011

South Africa - Variety is in our Nature

I have always had a soft spot for South Africa. My first time there was in 1996. After a few weeks on the road driving around the canyons, Kruger and the Garden Route, we finally arrived at Stellenbosch where we spent a week tasting wine every day, duly starting at 9:00am when the cellar doors opened. Since then, I have been back to the Stellenbosch area five times and have had the privilege of doing vintages at Ashanti and Thelema.

Therefore it was great news that Wines of South Africa (WOSA), was finally organising a long overdue South African wine tasting in Hong Kong recently. 29 wines from Cap Classique and Chenin Blanc to Bordeaux blends and Pinotage were presented to packed audiences in two sessions: the trade masterclass with tutored tasting in the afternoon and a consumer walk-around tasting in the evening.

I was surprised that both events were over-booked as South African wine is not exactly well known here. But it turned out this was exactly the reason why. Attendees said they didn’t have a lot of chance to try SA wines and that those commonly available on the shelves in HK were mostly only average. They were truly impressed by the range and the quality.

Cap Classique is sparkling wine made using the traditional method. In addition to Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, winemakers also use Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. Because of the warmer climate and the wider range of grape varieties used, Cap Classique in general has a fuller body and a richer complexity than Champagne. Even James Bond agrees: the 007 agent opts for a glass of Graham Beck Cuvee Clive in his latest adventure, Carte Blanche.

Did you know that South Africa has the most Chenin Blanc plantings in the world, even more than the Loire? Chenin Blancs from the old days were usually thin and bland because of high yields, but thanks to the winemakers’ passion this grape has been rediscovered and revitalised. Chenin Blanc is versatile; it can be made into sparkling when picked early, a fruit laden refreshing to full-bodied barrel fermented style, or a late harvest dessert wine.

We paired the Cap Classique, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay (nine wines altogether) with some Cantonese classic dishes: siu mai (pork dumpling), steamed chicken and abalone. All these dishes and wines are in the Ivory Flavour Colours zone so they all matched well. Guests agreed and here are some of their comments: the bubbles in Cap Classique accentuates the fragrance of the fresh abalone; the richness of Chenin Blanc complements the texture of siu-mai; the lightly-flavoured chicken is perfect with the Chardonnay.

Pinotage is certainly a grape characteristic of South Africa, although nowhere near the most-planted red variety. A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, it has a deep colour and renowned red berry aromas. Most consumers associate Pinotage with a smoky, barbecue nose but this is not strictly true. I had an interesting discussion with the winemakers on this topic, which I will elaborate in the next article.

It could be said that South Africa is the newest Old World and the oldest New World. Wines have been made here since the 17th century and a number of estates have been in the same family for many generations. It was fascinating to listen to the family stories from four estate owners in the ‘Generations and Heritage’ session, and to see how their wines have evolved. After all, wine is not a commodity. It is the passion and philosophy behind them that makes them special. Kobus Burger, the sixth generation of the family owning Rietvallei Estate, named one of his wines, Estéanna, after his two daughters. He confirmed that the family has no succession problem when he showed photos of his twin sons, born only one month ago. There was speculation among the audience if Kobus will follow in his grandfather’s footsteps—he had 21 children.

For me, the treat of the Masterclass was ‘Flagship Reds’, where 12 iconic South African wines were presented by three equally iconic and enthusiastic winemakers: Eben Sadie who also has a winery in Priorat, Boela Gerber winemaker at the historic Groot Constantia and who won the Diners Club Young Winemaker Award in 2002, and Razvan Macici from Nederburg. At the end of the session, there was only one question in the audience’s mind: where can I buy these wines?

South Africa is a diverse country with breathtaking natural beauty, abundant wildlife, over 9,600 plant species (more than the entire Northern Hemisphere) and multi-cultural citizens. Its wines are equally diverse. No wonder the slogan of WOSA is ‘Variety is in our nature’. I hope those who attended the tastings will remember that phrase. South African wine deserves its position in the dynamic Hong Kong marketplace.

Thank you, WOSA, for bringing South Africa’s warmth and sunshine to us on a stormy typhoon No. 3 afternoon in Hong Kong.

My favourite wines from the masterclass:

Villiera Monro Brut 2006: Firm and full bodied yet elegant and refined. Available from Northeast.

Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2010: Creamy mouthfeel with melon and slightly spicy characters. Good length on palate. Seeking distribution.

Bouchard Finlayson Crocodile’s Lair 2009: Fresh, lean with a firm backbone. Seeking distribution.

Rietvallei Estéanna 2008: Complex and rich with fruit and spices. Available from Fine Vintage.

Nederburg Ingenuity 2008: A blend of Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo grapes. Sour cherry aroma combined with floral notes. Silky tannin. Available from Watson’s.

Groot Constantia Shiraz 2008: Complex with floral, white pepper, and spicy nose. Available from Pieroth.

The Sadie Family Columella 2005: Syrah blended with Mourvedre. Restrained and elegant. A complex floral nose mixed with spiciness and a lingering length. Available from Summergate.

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