John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for June 22, 2013

South Africa Re-examined; Seductive Southern Rhônes; and More Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Like a high-yielding grapevine, this week’s report is over-loaded with smart buys and top picks. I cover the two VINTAGES features for June 22, namely South Africa, including top picks from the consignment/private order world, and the unstoppable southern Rhône Valley. The Rhône continues to issue forth as many smart buys as Rob Ford’s office issues explanations, and it’s clear what I’d rather swallow. There’s also another half-dozen smart buys for you to consider. Read on for all of the details.

South Africa: Redefining Impressions

I suspect consumers without any special connection to South Africa rarely consider Cape wines when it’s time to go shopping. And it’s my feeling that this is because South African wines suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, there are the ever-popular confected pinotages that are little more than commercial recipes and plenty of cheap but unexciting big brand wines that could be from anywhere, and on the other, an increasing range of serious, regionally unique, authentic wines that have a deserving place in the world of serious wines. Most are familiar with the former, but it’s the latter category that should be much better known and which has the potential to capture some consumer mind-space.

You’ll often hear South African wines being described as mid way between old world and new world in style, and I think the cliché is true. The best have the structure of European wines – firm tannins, bright acids and earthy-herbal flavours – along with the fruit ripeness and generosity of warm new world regions. Think of a blend between Bordeaux and Napa cabernet, malbec from Mendoza with Cahors in Southwest France, or Barossa shiraz with northern Rhône syrah and you get the picture. South African wines satisfy a broad range of personal preferences, and there’s more than enough terroir talk of granites, shales and sandstones, breezes and elevations, and old, unirrigated bush vines to keep the punters engaged. There’s also plenty of value to be found in the low to mid-range, $12-$30 bottle, with many delivering pleasure far above their price category, just to sweeten the deal.

Following are a couple of recommended wines from the June 22nd release, and digging a little deeper into the market, some worthwhile picks from a recent tasting hosted by Wines Of South Africa featuring some fine consignment/private order wines. You’ll have to work a little to get these, but it’s a worthwhile journey and a great way to start re-shaping your image of South African wines.

Sijnn Red 2009Sijnn White 2011A pair of wines from a former Ostrich farm in the hamlet of Malagas, Swellendam, 40kms from the nearest vineyards, were the most striking of the lot at the WOSA tasting: 2009 Sijnn Red ($32.50) and 2011 Sijnn White ($29.80). Sijnn (pronounced “sane”) is a joint venture established in 2004 between winemaker David Trafford, who has his own highly regarded winery in Stellenbosch, South African environmental businessman Quentin Hurt, and Simon Farr of UK importers Bibendum. The attraction was a stony plateau littered with pudding stones over fractured shale reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, along with a warm dry Mediterranean climate moderated by breezes from the sea 15kms away.

The focus is logically on Mediterranean varieties: Sijnn red is a wild blend of 46% syrah, 29% mourvèdre, 13% touriga nacional, and 6% each of trincadeira and cabernet sauvignon. The profile is all black and blue fruit with lots of floral-violet character, gentle spice, ripe and suave tannins and very good to excellent length. This is classy, quality wine made with care, minimal intervention and maximum passion.

Sijnn White is equally compelling, a blend of about 3/4 chenin blanc and 1/4 viognier barrel fermented in 225L and 700L French oak barrels, about 20% new, and bottled unfiltered. The result is a rich and full, succulent, openly inviting style with plenty of depth and length. Wood is of course noted, but the fruit concentration is more than enough to balance. Acids, too, are balanced, and 14.5% alcohol integrated. Availability: Private Order, Gradwell Wine Agency.

Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet FrancLemberg Spencer PinotageIf you’ve given up on pinotage because so many examples today taste like they’ve been blended with Tia Maria, the 2011 Lemberg Spencer Pinotage Tulbagh ($35.55) might just change your mind. It’s from a single site in the southern end of the Swartland, with 20+-year-old vines, unfined, unfiltered, with authentic varietal character, generous but balanced wood influence, and thick, rich, medium-full palate. There’s a backbone of acidity that rides through the finish and freshens up the profile. Best 2015-2020. Availability: Private Order, Gradwell Wine Agency.

Cabernet Franc is not particularly widely planted in South Africa, but the 2009 Oldenburg Vineyards Cabernet Franc Banghoek, Stellenbosch  $36.95 91 is a reason to plant more. It’s grown on the highest part of the property at around 400m elevation, yielding a lovely and floral, ripe but finessed version of the grape. Availability: Private Order, WineMoves.

Lammershoek LAM RoseI’m a big fan of Lammershoek in Paardeberg, Swartland, an organically farmed vineyard with a collection of unusual grapes like harslevelü and tinta barroca, along with more familiar Mediterranean grapes, produced with nothing added other than a minimal amount of SO2, and sometimes not even that. I fell immediately in love with the 2011 Lammershoek LAM Rosé ($20.00) when I first tasted it. It’s a fantastically savoury and drinkable, pale salmon pink-coloured, bone-dry rosé made from 100% syrah. At just 11.5% alcohol one would expect either some green character or residual sugar, but there’s none of that here. It’s all about succulent acids and umami-rich, saliva inducing red berry and floral character with no small measure of garrigue-like resinous herbal notes. Marvelously lean, delicate and vibrant. Availability: Consignment, Bokke Wine.

Rooiberg Sauvignon BlancRooiberg ShirazAnd finally value seekers (and restaurateurs), will be pleased and the quality/value proposition of a pair of wines from a cooperative outfit called Rooiberg in the Breede River Valley: 2012 Rooiberg Shiraz and 2012 Rooiberg Sauvignon Blanc. These are both impressive $12 wines ($10.50 licensee), perfect as a house/by the glass/party options. The shiraz spends one year in old wood and delivers a nice mix of fruity-spicy, very pleasant aromatics and lightly grippy palate fleshed out by solid fruit extract. The sauvignon blanc is as good as many examples in the high teens, with plush tree fruit flavours and no greenness. Availability: Consignment, Lamprecht International.

From the selection on offer at VINTAGES, head straight for the 2010 Avondale Cyclus, $29.95. Here is yet another example of a wine that I’ve tried for the first time without any prior knowledge of the winery, been mightily impressed, and then only after doing some research discovered that it’s a certified organic operation practicing biodynamic winegrowing. Is it yet another coincidence of biodynamic wines rising to the top? It seems less and less likely as anecdotal evidence mounts.

Avondale Cyclus 2010Graham Beck Brut Sparkling WineAvondale’s website begins: “Our ethos, Terra Est Vita meaning ‘Soil is Life’ encapsulates our view of Avondale Estate as a dynamic living system where soil, water and energy; plants, animals and people; even our buildings, are part of a complex web of relationships and networks, interconnected and interdependent.” I suggest you join in the relationship by buying this blend of 60% viognier, along with chenin blanc, chardonnay and semillon. A little more than half was fermented in 500l barrels and the rest in stainless steel, and the result is a rich, intensely flavoured, very ripe and plush textured white from Paarl, with fruit wavering between ripe orchard-peach and fully tropical-pineapple, honeydew melon. Wood is not a major factor, outside of its creamy, textural influence. Fans of plush, new world style whites with more than a touch of earthy old world minerality should especially take note.

Sparkling wine lovers should grab a bottle of the always reliable Graham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine, $18.95. Beck is somewhat of a sparkling wine specialist, and the Brut non-vintage is an all-round pleasing traditional method (aka “Cap Classique”) blend of chardonnay and pinot noir with about 18 months on the lees. It delivers a solid dose of toasty-biscuity flavour, with bright underlying citrus fruit and sharp acids, fine on it’s own or at highly versatile at the table.

Southern Rhône: More Beautiful ‘09s, ‘10s, and ‘11s

Domaine Saint Gayan GigondasDOMAINE DE LA CHARBONNIÈRE CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPEChâteau La Nerthe Châteauneuf Du PapeThe Southern Rhône is thrust once again into the spotlight on June 22nd. It seems every release has at least a handful from the region and it’s not hard to figure out why, especially if the LCBO’s mandate really is to offer good deals from time to time. At this point, reporting on the quality and value emerging from the southern Rhône valley is a bit like reporting on the shenanigans plaguing Rob Ford’s mayoralty: the whole world already knows what’s going on, nothing surprises, and more and more juicy stories just keep coming out.

But on a much more positive, note, the continuous stream of superb wines – both quality and value – especially from 2009, 2010 and now some 2011s coming out of the southern Rhône should cause nothing more serious than the first world problems of lineups or stock outages at the LCBO.

At the top end, the wines worth jostling elbows for are the 2010 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($43.95), a beautifully composed and balanced, finessed wine; the more dense and massive 2010 Domaine De La Charbonnière Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($39.95); and another fine wine from Domaine Saint Gayan The 2009 Gigondas ($30.95), which drinks with the texture of pinot noir and the weight and flavour profile of grenache.

CHÂTEAU SIGNAC CUVÉE TERRA AMATAOrtas L'estellan GigondasLe Ferme Du Mont Le Ponnant Côtes Du Rhône VillagesFor wines closer to the everyday end of the price scale (pretty good days), I recommend the 2009 Château Signac Cuvée Terra Amata ($22.95) with masses of dark berry fruit and savoury-smoky-earthy character; the 2011 Ortas L’estellan Gigondas ($19.95) and its silkier, grenache-based flavour profile of baked red berry, garrigue and scorched earth; and finally, the smart value 2011 La Ferme Du Mont Le Ponnant Côtes Du Rhône-Villages ($17.00) a well-balanced, succulent and savoury wine with well above average complexity, depth and length for the money.

More Smart Buys

Outside of South Africa and the southern Rhône, my list below includes another half-dozen smart picks from Spain, Chile, Portugal, France and Georgia (the republic, not the state).

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

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From the June 22, 2013 Vintages release:

John’s Top Smart Buys
Seductive Southern Rhône
All New Releases


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