Cape winemakers are confidently including foreign wines as benchmark
expressions in comparative local tastings. How are the Cape's flagships
faring in mixed company?
"We make wines of international character. We're not shy to pitch our wines against the best foreign examples from around the world." - Peter Finlayson, Bouchard Finlayson
I've spotted a fascinating trend to comparative tastings of South African and foreign wines in recent line-ups confidently presented by some of the Cape's top cellars. Whereas some winemakers have used leading foreign examples to emphasise points of difference in old/new world wine styles, others have used benchmarks to point out similarities in varietal expression, terroir, viticultural and winemaking techniques. Spotting the foreign interloper in a blind identity parade is not always as easy as you'd think.
In a taste of terroir, Mullineux Wines demonstrated the key role of soils, pairing Chave Hermitage 2007 and Mullineux Granite Syrah 2010 - and Jamet Côte Rôtie 2006 and Mullineux Schist Syrah 2010. Winemakers Chris and Andrea Mullineux have worked "towards bottling soil types on their own in two terroir wines after we found two single vineyards in the Swartland" (which are based on the two distinct soil types). The two French wines elegantly showed the fresh and perfumed character of Syrah grown in granite versus the density and texture of Syrah from schist soils.
The Mullineux tasting was a learning curve for media and trade in the role of soil in wine. The husband-and-wife winemaking team at the forefront of the Swartland revolution emphasize, “The Swartland is a big region with different terroirs - and three distinct soil types: granite (for richness and perfume), schist (for structure and length) and iron-rich gravel (for mid-palate and density).” At the tasting they spoke about how they use soil types as blending blocks in the flagship Mullineux Syrah - a blend of nine Swartland vineyards planted in a variety of these soils.
Why the Swartland? After working vintages in France, the Mullineux believe the warmer climate is similar to Southern France - with terroir ideal for the cultivation of Rhône and Mediterranean varieties. They say, "The granite and schist based terroirs and old vineyards of the Swartland have the potential to produce truly great wine" - particularly the old bush vines of Chenin Blanc and Syrah. Watch this space for Granite White. While the Mullineux White 2010 - a flagship Chenin Blanc blend - reflects the fragrance and freshness of its granite origins, the acclaimed Mullineux Straw Chenin 2010 is a blend of shale and schist. This was an earthy wine tasting!
I've attended comparative local wine tastings which showcase foreign and Cape expressions of a signature variety from Syrah and Sangiovese to Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. At the annual tasting of leading Zinfandel from around the world, Rolf Zeitvogel of Blaauwklippen, offers media the rare opportunity to taste benchmark Zinfandel made from California and Italy to South Africa. Coming to terms with an unfamiliar (and scarcely planted) variety in South Africa was another learning curve. Tastings of versions of California's signature red grape undoubtedly helps to grow the cult grape in the Cape. On public shows and at the cellar-door it is a unique selling proposition for Blaauwklippen - a cellar which specializes in four expressions of the variety (Blanc de noir, white, reserve, red and noble late harvest).
The Zinfandel tasting reminded me in subtle ways of the Mullineux tasting of Rhône and Swartland terroir - and not only in terms of including flagship foreign wines in the line-ups. The key principles of Zinfandel are the use of old vines on old family farms, the expression of regional variations in terroir, natural/organic winemaking, and the use of minor blending components (in this case Petite Syrah and Carignan). Rolf bravely included their new Zinfandel Reserve 2009 (from 23 year old vines) in a line-up of Robert Biale's Monte Rosso 2009 (132 year-old vines), Michael David's Earthquake 2010 (106 year-old) and Terra d'Oro Deaver 2008 (131 year-old).
It takes a confident winemaker to gamble on showing "the newest kid on the block" (Blaauwklippen Reserve Zinfandel 2009) in the company of some of California's top Zinfandels from different appellations from Amador County to Napa and Sonoma. In the big, bold style of Californian Zinfandel which reflects US consumer preference for "outspoken flavours" and "full-bodied wine", Blaauwklippen's reserve reflects many of the key "blockbuster" pillars. An expression of old vines and single vineyard terroir, it shows the typical big black berry flavours, high alcohols (15.5%), acidity and vanilla spice character of extensive wood maturation (18 months French oak).
Peter Finlayson led the third comparative tasting - a vertical flight of Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir interspersed with leading examples of Pinot Noir from California (Domaine Alfred 2002), France (Hospices de Beaune Rousseau Deslandes Bouchard 2001) and New Zealand (Cloudy Bay 1999). The blind tasting of a trio of foreign wines and the eight best vintages of Galpin Peak Pinot Noir from 1996 to 2010 (the current release) showcased the role of terroir, vintage variation and winemaking styles. When it comes to this notoriously pernickety variety, Peter declares "Pinot Noir hates to follow Chardonnay" - it must be tasted on its own.
Forthright Finlayson comments, "Bouchard Finlayson make wines of international character. We're not shy to pitch our wines against the best foreign examples. What makes Pinot Noir so special is that it carries the crown of being the most terroir expressive of all grape varieties. We make wines with personality, wines that age. Californian Pinot Noir is too uniform - it smells like bonbons (boiled sweets). In an era of instant consumer gratification, Americans don't want aged wines - they want the newest vintage, red or white. We're trying to work with less tannin … so we're not putting any pressed juice into our Pinot."
A vertical tasting of a single variety enables tasters to examine the many dimensions of a specific grape - even the role of ageing vines and wines - as well as variations in foreign and local expressions. The evolution of a house style and signature becomes more and more apparent in a vertical flight especially when compared with contrasting foreign styles. Peter concludes enigmatically, "Pinot Noir is a continuous tease. Pinot Noir is prone to enormous vintage variation, and, this having been my thirty-second Pinot Noir vintage in this ward, I have to agree. It is important for consumers to know that climatic differences do show in our wines. We do not operate in a region where there is no vintage variation. That is the beauty of Pinot."