|TOMORROW'S STARS - BACK TO BASICS, PUSHING THE ENVELOPE, GETTING IT RIGHT
"Britney will not be with us today," said sommelier Jorg Pfützner of Fine Wine Events (to much laughter) as he introduced the Cape Wine 2012 seminar entitled Tomorrow's Stars.
He was drawing parallels between styles of wine and music, where one might have the great classics (by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example), the more rebellious styles of rock (such as The Rolling Stones), the "weird stuff which I love very much" (think Tom Waits) and of course hits for the mass market à la Britney Spiers. "Apparently no one listens to Britney or drinks Blue Nun..."
Pfützner said a star isn't just about the wine in the glass; it's about having a great story too. "Personality is also quite important - someone very bland or a real arsehole might struggle to become a star!"
In the end, however, he said it's the marketplace which determines who really makes it. "The wine needs to be drunk; it needs to be delicious."
There's certainly a lot of talent in South Africa, said Pfützner, who had tasted "extensively" to come up with his panel of stars and their wines. "We planned to have five but only managed to narrow it down to seven. It was really difficult."
In Pfützner's opinion, young South African winemakers are less driven by tradition than they might be in Europe, and more by breaking new ground. "We don't copy the Old World, although we sometimes adopt the philosophy of the World and adapt it to our conditions."
His first star was Gottfried Mocke of Chamonix, chosen because the Franschhoek property's quality has "exploded" in recent years. "Early on, I was very focused on the cellar and vinification," explained Mocke, "but over time I realised that if you understand your vineyards and farming, it makes the winemaking so much easier."
In Chamonix's case 50 hectares of vines planted at an altitude of 350-600m - higher than most farms in Franschhoek but by no means in a cool climate: "It's neither cool nor coastal - there are definitely no sea breezes mentioned on our back labels," he quipped. "So although there's a slight chill factor in the evenings, I know I can't have primary flavours in my Sauvignon, and go for texture, mouthfeel and secondary flavours instead."
He presented his Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2010 from 24-year-old vineyards, containing a 14% Semillon component he expects will increase as the "quite young" Semillon vineyard matures. "It still doesn't have enough personality whereas the Sauvignon has a sense of place and a bit of individuality."
All barrel fermented, some using carbonic maceration for extra phenolics ("to help to keep the wine youthful"), some also undergoing malolactic fermentation, the wine spent 11 months on its lees in barrel (30% new) to result in a complex wine intended to age.
Above all, though, Mocke insisted that the wine's complexity is the result of "focusing on the soil more than ever before".
Next up was Fable's Rebecca Tanner with her Jackal Bird 2011, a white blend based on old bush vine Chenin Blanc with Grenache Blanc for perfume, Roussanne for palate weight and also a bit of Viognier, all bought in from a number of organic growers in the Swartland (in particular the Voor Paardeberg) and Stellenbosch: "A combination of varieties and sites."
As Tanner explained, the beautiful farm itself, nestled against the Witzenberg mountains and alongside a nature reserve near Tulbagh, grows only Rhone reds. "Our two red wines are very terroir-driven, very natural, whereas I love this one precisely because it is very much a winemaker's wine, orchestrated, or like a painting."
Using 500-litre barrels as well as concrete eggs for about a third of the wine ("for a bit of mineral edge"), she said the composition changes from year to year depending on which varieties are looking best.
With Mocke having chosen Pink Floyd as "his" music, and Tanner opting for traditional African music to convey what Fable is all about, Sebastian Beaumont decided he was very much "Goin Out West" with Tom Waits in presenting the Hope Marguerite 2011 from his family's Bot River farm. "Most people have never heard of Bot River but we think it's the centre of the universe - which it is."
When he took over from his parents, Raoul and Jane, who had brought the farm back to life in the mid-1970s after decades of neglect, Beaumont planned to make a lot of changes: "But after 13 years I now realise that my dad's unscientific approach of letting the ground speak for itself was a good principle, and that Richard Smart practices are not necessarily right for our climate..."
He said there are clear differences between vines planted in the mid-1970s and the younger ones. "Our young Pinotage vines ripen a whole month earlier than our old ones!"
Passionate about Chenin Blanc, his Hope Marguerite comes from the oldest vineyard on the property, and when Pfützner remarked on the wine's remarkable freshness, he insisted that it's a result of literally tasting the grapes to determine their perfect harvest date. "And as a family we like fresh flavours, green apple crunchiness, fresh acidity."
The wine ferments "spontaneously" (a word Beaumont prefers to "naturally", which implies wild yeasts from the vineyard only whereas his wines are helped along by yeasts already present in the cellar and old barrels). "It's hands-off winemaking," he concluded.
Then it was off to the Swartland, accompanied by Irish punk rock, to Lammershoek where winemaker Craig Hawkins has his own small project on the side, describing it as "my experimental playground" and "a small key to open the door so that Lammershoek can follow".
His Testalonga El Bandito "Cortez" 2011 is not your standard Chenin Blanc. For starters it is very, and deliberately, cloudy.
"But it's probably the cleanest wine of all," insisted Hawkins, who has endured more than his fair share of opposition from the Wine & Spirit Board certification body, which has repeatedly rejected the wine as faulty. In fact the cloudiness is nothing but very fine sediment in suspension: "If you leave it for long enough it sinks to the bottom."
His reason for not filtering or fining the wine? "I've drunk a lot of port and old reds, and the bottom is always the best part, so why not leave the sediment in white wine too? I'm not reinventing the wheel, but I do want to see how far I go yet still make drinkable wine."
Hawkins, who also adds zero sulphur to the wine (total sulphur content is a mere 9g/l), says his greatest challenge is "nature taking over". That, and of course the Wine & Spirit Board: "But we've been going backwards and forwards with them and the result is that there's now a new category, Experimental Wines, so hopefully they'll start accepting wines from producers who are pushing the envelope."
Pushing the envelope doesn't quite describe what Callie Louw is doing (or not doing) at Porseleinberg, the Swartland property purchased by acclaimed Franschhoek cellar Boekenhoutskloof a couple of years ago. Very much a farmer rather than a winemaker, he said: "I figure I work hard enough for 11 months of the year growing the grapes, so after the harvest I just bung them in tanks, then kick back and drink beer."
Pfützner asked him how he achieves such freshness in the Porseleinberg Shiraz 2010: "We just pick the grapes to taste, a bit earlier. We don't have any fancy Balling meters or anything."
In the cellar, too, Louw said: "Presses are very expensive and you only use them for about five minutes of the year. Gumboots cost R70 and we only need two pairs. Once the grapes are in the tanks, we just do a little gumboot dance and see what happens."
From the start Louw has used 2500-litre foudres: "The slow oxidation impacts on the tannins. The bigger the volume, the slower the ageing."
But there has also recently been some investment in concrete eggs, with Louw revealing that the 2011 vintage was 100% matured in eggs: "They're more reductive. Also, you fill them once can leave them, whereas barrels always need a bit of topping up - if you're into that stuff."
The sultry tones of Edith Piaf introduced a completely different mood to the seminar theatre, along with Luke O'Cuinneagain of Glenelly Estate, the Stellenbosch property owned by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, formerly of Château Pichon-Longueville. And the Bordeaux touch apparently doesn't end there, with Pfützner revealing how a group of Masters of Wine blind-tasting 100 wines from around the world were convinced that O'Cuinneagain's Lady May 2008 (a blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Petit Verdot) was from Bordeaux because of its fine tannins, natural freshness and mineral finish.
"I take it as a compliment but I don't want people to get so caught up in the structure of the wine that they forget the South African nuances," said O'Cuinneagain, insisting that he gets those fine tannins naturally, having a very hands-off approach. "I let the grapes do all the work themselves to express what they want to. I'm just a custodian of grapes."
He said the slight fynbos or herbal tone on his wine's nose is "very Simonsberg" while the fruit aromatics point far more towards South Africa than Bordeaux.
As Pfützner observed: "Sometimes it is better to be right than original, and this wine for me is very right. It goes from strength to strength every year."
Also going from strength to strength since 2004 is Mvemve Raats, the partnership between Mzokhona Mvemve and Bruwer Raats. "Bruwer is my better half," laughed Mvemve. "It is a bit like a marriage."
A happy one, if the success of their De Compostella Bordeaux-style blend is anything to go by: "We never expected as much interest from consumers; we just wanted to do exactly what we wanted, which was to make a consistent quality product without necessarily owning a farm."
This they have achieved by working with "certain blocks in Stellenbosch" to achieve the best possible individual components, all vinified and matured separately in mostly second- and third-fill vats for a year, then blind-tasted jointly ("we're very frank with each other") to choose what ultimately ends up in bottle - 37.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37.5% Cabernet Franc, 10% Malbec, and 7.5% each of Petit Verdot and Malbec in the case of the 2008. "If something doesn't make the cut, we leave it out. The blend then goes back into barrel for another six months."
Where he found the 2006 and as-yet-unreleased 2009 vintages immediately accessible, Mvemve said it had taken the 2008 longer to open up. "Now it's very exciting," he said - and Robert Parker evidently agrees, having given it 96 points.
So what, if anything, makes it a South African wine? "I think it is too early to pinpoint what is typically South African," said Mvemve. "There's a lot of experimentation taking place in the younger generation. We're breaking new ground."
He went on: " Our industry is continuing to expand, so obviously most of our products are market orientated, with producers taking their signals from consumers. But on the side, there are winemakers doing what Craig [Hawkins] is doing, where they jury is still out on whether the consumer will jump up and down or not."
Pfützner argued that the South African industry has perhaps been TOO market-driven: "The market is determined by fashion, and fashion by definition has an expiry date. Given how long it takes for a vineyard to make money, we can't base plantings on fashion."
He used the example of producers who now regret uprooting their Chenin Blanc to plant trendy Sauvignon Blanc, because these days farmers with old vine Chenin are getting far more money - at least from top-end producers who recognise the quality.
But Beaumont said there was no reason he couldn't try to change perceptions about Chenin Blanc with his Hope Marguerite even as producers at the bottom end focused on Chenin as "the Pinot Grigio of the South African wine industry". He also made the point that South Africa is "so complex in terms of sites and soils that it makes us hard to pigeonhole."
Hawkins said winemakers should simply look at what they've got and ask what is right for their terroir rather than basing their plantings on what they think will sell.
In terms of style, Beaumont said there's been "pendulum swing" since the 1990s when post-Apartheid winemakers had been very quick adopted international styles and techniques. "It was a strong reaction to the styles that had been made previously, perhaps too strong. Now we're moving back to a middle ground."
Whatever is made, though, he said winemakers must never apologise for the style they produce "as long as it tastes good".
"Just produce quality," insisted Tanner. "If you do, your wines will stand out."