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Colmant Brut ReserveDu Preez Maranda Brut RoséWell, it has been a long time since my last post, but it has been an extended silly season, running from the Solstice on 21/12/12 (which turned out not to be the end of the world) to my 40th birthday, which was celebrated last weekend. Now it’s into the breach once more.

Readers of my column at winemag.co.za are probably aware that I’ve been concentrating on champagne and MCC (Méthode Cap Classique, our own name for Méthode Champenoise) over the season, and I have two wonderful discoveries to report.

Colmant, a farm in Franschhoek, are responsible for two very fine specimens in the range of SA bubbly – their Brut Reserve and their Brut Chardonnay.  (there’s also a Brut Rosé but I haven’t tasted it.) Both are excellent and compare very favourably against the French Champagnes that they are imitating. I’m not alone in saying that they are better than a Moët.

Personally I prefer the Brut Reserve, but that is probably because I like a bit of Pinot Noir in my bubbly. The Brut Chardonnay is very refreshing and well made but it lacks the substance of the Brut Reserve. As an added bonus, the Brut Reserve is R10 cheaper at R140 a bottle. Let us give thanks for small mercies.

Speaking of Pinot Noir in my bubbly, the second pleasant discovery was the Maranda Brut Rosé from Du Preez estate outside Rawsonville. These are the same people who made the award-winning Hendrik Lodewyk MCC, and their rosé offering is no less well-crafted. It’s completely dry, as it should be, yet full of cherry fruit and full-bodied with a buttery mouthfeel, no doubt from the large proportion of Pinot Noir (60%).

It may be the end of the festive season, but the harvest festival (Lughnasadh) is coming up and so is Valentine’s day. I can highly recommend the Colmant Brut Reserve and the Du Preez Maranda for these celebrations.

Chateau Libertas 80th anniversary editionTo mark the 80th anniversary of the first bottling of Chateau Libertas in 1932, Distell has brought out a limited edition special blend. The distributors sent me a bottle to review. Now everyone in South Africa knows this perennial favourite everyday red quaffer, but for the benefit of foreign readers I should add some context. Chateau Libertas is truly a household name in South Africa. There has never been a skipped vintage throughout the 80 years of its production, which spanned World War 2 and the entire Apartheid era. Distell produce 800000 litres of it annually, and it’s reliably available in every supermarket and corner grocer. For generations it’s been a handy fall-back option for bringing along to dinner parties, especially for people with limited wine knowledge, because it’s a consistently decent if ordinary wine that will never let you down. Cabernet Sauvignon is the main component, with varying admixtures of Shiraz, Merlot, Ruby Cabernet and Petit Verdot.

My first impression was that the special edition blend was somewhat lighter, more elegant and more tannic than regular Chateau Libertas, closer to the old-world style than to the ubiquitous new-world fruit bombs. In the interests of scientific rigour, I then popped across the road and got a bottle of standard Chateau Libertas for comparison, and the difference was enormous! The special edition made normal Chateau Libertas taste like youngberry jam. It is much drier and more serious, with a great deal more tannin structure.

Neither the standard-issue Libertas nor the anniversary edition carried any information about the composition of the blend, but I would hazard a guess that the ordinary one had quite large amounts of Shiraz and possibly Pinotage in it. It’s crammed with plum and berry fruit, over-extracted and verging on sweetish. By contrast, the 80th anniversary edition has subtler red berry and redcurrant flavours with some earthiness and a much longer finish. It’s completely dry with robust tannins and substantial character – probably a Bordeaux blend.

Overall, the special edition is definitely worth trying. It’ll definitely continue to improve with age for another few years as the tannins mellow out, but don’t overdo the aging because it’s already begun throwing a lot of black sediment in the bottle. If you’re going to bottle-age it, make sure it’s stored carefully and decant it before serving.

For further info, check out this review on winemag.co.za and an interesting collection of Chateau Libertas factoids here.

Virgin Earth Pinot Noir 2009A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me what I could recommend as an old-world-style (French-style) red wine in South Africa. His point was that he was tired of the jammy, over-extracted, high-alcohol reds that our climate tends to force on us. He wanted something  a little  softer and more restrained, a wine that shows some fruit and then drops its veil to turn earthy and spicy, rather than one that jumps onto your palate in a burst of naked fruity intensity.

Metaphors aside, it wasn’t an easy question to answer. I couldn’t exactly say “try a good Shiraz” or even “try to find a Petit Verdot”. So I suggested he check out local Pinot Noir – after all it’s damn near impossible to make a fruit bomb out of Pinot Noir.

He came back a week later with some interesting information. I’ve posted previously about how Pinot Noir tends to be overpriced in this country, but it seems you don’t have to resort to Chilean imports to get a decent Pinot at locally affordable prices. Besides the main contenders, such as the Cape Chamonix, Bouchard Finlayson and De Grendel that I savoured at the CWG tasting, there are Pinot Noirs that are closer to everyone’s wallet. Two Oceans have begun making a Pinot Noir that retails for about R35. It’s not earth-rattlingly brilliant, but then neither is anything else in that price range, and it certainly fits the bill as far as restrained fruit is concerned.

Then there’s also the Virgin Earth Pinot Noir from Havana Hills in Philadelphia. I tried the 2009, which weighs in at a modest 12.5% alcohol by volume and rated 4 stars in Platter’s Wine Guide, for what it’s worth. Now this is definitely a good deal at R70, with a subtle and complex palate that evolves it progresses, from red berries and background spices into an earthy, savoury finish. This is definitely a wine for those who prefer it less fruity, and it’s very well made to boot. It will definitely improve with a few years on it, but is already a very enjoyable and uninvasive tipple.

Retsina!

A bottle of Retsina with some poured into a glassIt’s practically impossible to get one’s hands on Retsina here in SA, but I was lucky enough to try some of this strange Greek speciality with a friend who’d brought it back from Europe. Apart from the fact that it comes in a crown-capped dumpy bottle, this stuff looks just like any other white wine, right?

Wrong! It is wine made from white grapes, but the traditional Greek winemakers like to add a few handfuls of Aleppo pine resin to the wine during fermentation. This practice began as a way of preserving the wine in ancient times (there’s evidence of it being done in Egypt around 3000 BC) but the flavour caught on and it’s still made this way despite there being no need to preserve the wine this way.

The small amount of resin makes a very big difference! The nose is dominated by the sharp pine-needle aroma with whiffs of turpentine. The wine also tastes strongly of the resin, and little of the underlying flavour of the wine comes through. What can I say? If you like pine scents and flavours, this is a very interesting trip. If you don’t, stay well away.

In case you have the opportunity and inclination to try it, you might want to add water to it in the glass. That’s the Greek way of drinking Retsina and it turns it into a refreshing, thirst-quenching drink for sunny afternoons… or, to get the full effect of the unusual flavour, drink it neat and ice-cold.

Place in the Sun Shiraz '11I’ve always been a strong supporter of the Fair Trade movement, which fights exploitation and improves the lot of workers (especially in developing countries) by encouraging employers to adopt socially responsible business processes. So I was impressed to find that the people making the Place in the Sun wines have embraced this ethic whole-heartedly.

These wines carry the Fairtrade logo, which means all the grapes that go into them are grown on Fairtrade certified farms. The owners of these farms are spending a worthy amount of time and effort on improving the living and working conditions of their workers, providing them with education and including them in the decisions taken on the farm, and in one case even allocating a section of their land to vegetable farming so as to provide the workers with free vegetables. The workers are taking full advantage and producing a surplus, which they sell to generate extra income for themselves.

That’s great for social transformation, but my first cynical thought was that it’s also a catchy sales gimmick, so the real test was to taste the wine and see what sort of thing these happy workers are producing. Right now I’m tasting my way through a bottle of the Shiraz 2011 and I’m favourably impressed. From the beautiful colour to the lingering finish, it’s a fine example of Shiraz-making. The winemaker, Deon Boshoff, has avoided the common trap of over-extracting the fruit and expressed the varietal character very well. This wine has bold but complex flavours that balance red fruit with savoury notes that emerge particularly on the finish. The nose is even more intriguing, spicy and smoky with cherry and hints of leather – exactly what I like about Shiraz.

My only quibble with this wine is that it’s been released too soon. (See my post about releasing wine for more about this question.) It has strong, robust tannins that provide it with great ageing potential, but at the moment they’re still too astringent and they dominate the mouthfeel of the wine. It’s already an interesting wine, but further cellaring is necessary before it will really come into its own. If you want to enjoy it at its best, keep it for another two or three years at least.

My favourite everyday white wine of the moment is the Bushpig Chenin Blanc from Malanot. It’s an unusual Chenin, with none of the trademark tropical fruit flavours. Instead it’s crisp and dry with a green apple character and a bit of leesiness. No doubt that’s because it’s barrel-fermented with natural yeast, and it’s also unfiltered. The grapes come from bush vines, which accounts for the name.

Not only is this an interesting, characterful wine, it’s also exceptionally affordable. The winery is offloading its stock of the 2010 vintage, and it’s available from Getwine at R27 a bottle or from Vino Pronto at R29. At that price it’s a serious bargain, and well worth getting a couple of cases for everyday casual drinking. That’s what I did, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly.

Du Preez Hendrik Lodewyk Brut with a vase of red rosesHere’s a good recipe for turning a stressful day around. My fiancée, who manages an art studio, had to fire three employees today and her spirits were at a low ebb. So I used the time-tested combination of champagne and roses and a warm-hearted smile, and it worked!

The bubbly of choice in this case was Hendrik Lodewyk Brut, a Cap Classique from Du Preez in Breedekloof. It had just the right combination of fruit and biscuity yeastiness on the nose and palate – great stuff for drinking just on its own with someone special. Be warned that it’s bone-dry. If your loved one has a sweet tooth in wine, she’s likely to react as if you’d poured her a glass of grapefruit juice.

The bubbly didn’t last long – it was so delicious – but the evening is moving on beautifully and the day’s stress has been taken right out of the way. Here’s to champagne and roses, and all the reasons we find to celebrate life!

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