From Apples to Wine

I’ve often commented how much the wine world has changed in the first 2 decades of this century, but nowhere is this more true than in South Africa.  Looking back to the 1990s, the isolation of the Apartheid years had left their wine industry in a terrible state: outdated winery equipment, winemaking methods firmly stuck in the 1950s and everything controlled by the dead hand of the Co-operative Growers Association meant that the country had a mountain to climb to meet the challenges ahead.

Fortunately, a whole generation of young wine producers was just waiting for the opportunity and quickly began travelling the world’s wine regions to gain understanding of new techniques and inspiration (and often investment, too) for their projects back home.  Historic areas, such as those around Stellenbosch, where wine had been made since the 17th century, were transformed into a hive of activity and interest, but new areas also started to emerge.

Among these was Elgin, a district to the south-east, cooled by Antarctic currents, that was previously a centre for apple orchards.  But, where apples will grow, the climate is often suitable for grapes, too and the family estate of Paul Cluver was well-placed to explore the possibilities, having owned land there for around 100 years.

We opened a bottle of their Pinot Noir recently (Majestic, £14.99, excellent value) and straight away recognised the distinctive Pinot Noir smell, most politely described as ‘farmyardy’.  On the palate, the wine is medium bodied with slightly bitter red cherry flavours and attractive earthy, mushroomy hints leading to a long, savoury finish.  The 2018 vintage was still a little tannic but worked well with our meal (pan-fried pigeon breasts with mushrooms – yummy!).  The 2020 is also in the shops but, if you buy this, it may benefit from a couple of years before opening.

It is inconceivable that a wine of this quality could have come out of South Africa – and certainly not Elgin – 30 years ago.  Further proof, if needed, of how far that country’s wines have improved and why they are really worth looking out for now.

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A Name to Note

I looked at a bottle of South African red in Corks of Cotham recently.  The region of production, the Natte Valley, and the producer, Milner Brothers, were both new to me.  I thought about putting it back on the shelf and choosing something else but was intrigued that the only named variety on the label was Cinsault.  It’s a grape that’s rarely vinified alone; it’s far more commonly found as part of the blend in some of those lovely, warming southern French reds such as Fitou and Minervois.  So, despite knowing little about it and the price – not cheap at £18, I decided to give it a try.  I’m pleased I did.

A note on the back label recommended decanting – the wine had been neither fined nor filtered (2 processes often carried out in the winery that remove any small, but harmless, particles remaining from the fermentation) and so there would be sediment in the bottle.

On pouring, I noticed that the colour wasn’t particularly deep but the nose was delightfully savoury and full of attractive dried fig aromas.  On the palate, the wine was medium-bodied (based on the likes of Fitou I was expecting it to be a little fuller), with appealing bright cherry fruit, quite restrained tannins and a long, spicy finish.  Definitely a food wine – a good steak or venison would match perfectly.

Although native to the south of France, Cinsault has a long history of being grown in South Africa, dating back to the mid-19th century and, in fact is one of the parents of South Africa’s ‘own’ grape variety, Pinotage, (the other being Pinot Noir), which was developed there in the 1920s.  

And what of the Natte Valley?  This well-kept secret (from UK customers at least) is right at the heart of some of South Africa’s prime vineyard territory just a few miles north of Stellenbosch.  

It’s certainly a name to note. 

What’s in a Name?

Naming is vital. Get it right, and your product is on everyone’s lips; on the other hand, failing to check what your wonderful name means in other languages can be disastrous. Take the car company Vauxhall, for example. They named a car ‘Nova’; that’s great in English but, in a number of European languages, No va means ‘it doesn’t go’ – hardly the basis for a good marketing strategy!

In wine, too, names have been used to good effect: to my mind, one of the best is the South African producer who mocked Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages perfectly with Goats do Roam and Goats do Roam in Villages, although I also like the style of an American grower, annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to use the name ‘port’ for his fortified port-style wine, called it Starboard!

And then there are the attempts to attract buyers with particular interests: some friends of ours, knowing that I love cricket, shared a bottle called ‘Men in White Coats’ with us recently.

white coats

(For non cricket-lovers among you, I should explain that cricket umpires traditionally wear white coats and the raised finger gesture on the label is the umpire’s signal that the batsman is out and his innings is over). The wine itself – a clean, crisp, easy-drinking Viognier from South Africa – was, however, less of a talking point during the evening than the name, which, to all of us, had another, less flattering, meaning.

Back in our youth, when someone was behaving strangely, it was often said that the men in white coats would soon be coming to get that person – the men in question being the nursing staff at a local facility for the mentally ill.

So, did our friends’ bottle really refer to the cricket or were they thinking of the current state of the country here in England?