Their earliest attempts at winemaking, in were described by one contemporary writer as having ‘revolting sourness’ and being ‘astringent – useful only for irritating the bowels!’ Yet, only 30 years later, the famous Constantia Estate was founded, which went on to produce marvellous dessert wines that were in demand across all the major royal courts of Europe – and were even ordered by Napoleon when in St Helena, presumably to make his exile more bearable.
The fortunes of Constantia – and South Africa’s wines, in general – declined in the 19th century and the arrival there of the phylloxera bug in 1886, decimating the vineyards, seemed like it might be the final straw. But, happily, it wasn’t, although rebuilding in the 20th century was very slow and mistakenly focussed on quantity rather than quality. As a result, South Africa’s wine industry was in a dreadful state when the country emerged following the apartheid years.
Fast forward little more than 2 decades and South Africa has turned round again. Attractive Chardonnays, intense Cabernet Sauvignons and the local speciality, Pinotage, all make this a country that wine lovers should take notice of. But, if I had to pick just one grape variety from there, you might be surprised to hear it would be Chenin Blanc. Originating in France’s Loire Valley, it was, for a long time, used as a workhorse variety in South Africa and remains the most planted grape across the country. Yes, there are still some poor and rather bland Chenins around, but, provided you ignore those at rock bottom prices, there are some excellent ones, too.
One definitely worth trying is from Morgenhof, a company that has survived the highs and lows since its beginnings in 1692, less than 40 years after South Africa’s first wines. Their bottling from the Simonsberg sub-region (Waitrose, £11.99) starts crisp and citrusy, before opening up with a lovely peachy richness and an almost oily texture (in a nice way!). All enhanced by some gentle smokiness from restrained use of oak and a long, long fresh finish. And, because Chenin remains unfashionable, it’s a real bargain at the price.
“That was an adult wine” said my wife as we cleared the table after a leisurely meal. I knew exactly what she meant – and it was nothing to do with the sort of movies to which the same adjective is often attached! No, it was a wine (and this is going to sound very snobby, but it’s not meant to) for sophisticated palates; not one for easy quaffing with lots of up-front fruit, but one with real depth and intensity – although not at first taste. Decanting helped, of course – I’d say it was essential – but even then, it took some time to open up and really show all it had to offer.
The wine in question was Mascota Vineyards Gran Mascota Malbec (Great Western Wine, £14.50) from the Uco Valley, one of the most exciting parts of Argentina’s Mendoza region. Here, vineyards are planted between 1000 and 1700 metres up in the foothills of the Andes Mountains (3300 to 5600 feet, if you prefer). The altitude gives the wines a wonderful balance between ripeness and acidity and, in good hands, as, clearly, at Mascota – a new name to me – can produce something really special. As the evening wore on, the wine revealed lovely flavours of blackberries and cooked plums with vanilla, cinnamon and smoke from the 18 months in French oak barrels. All this came together beautifully with a long savoury finish. It’s a wine to sit and enjoy, preferably with a tasty meal and some good company.
The Italians have a marvellous name for this sort of wine: they call it a Vino da Meditazione. Literally translated, that’s a wine for meditation but, really, they mean a wine that encourages you to linger, to sit and chat and put the world to rights. Or, as my wife said so succinctly, an adult wine.
Mme Lily Bollinger, former head of the famous Champagne house, was once asked when she drank Champagne. She replied: when she was happy, when she was sad, sometimes when she was alone, always when she had company and whenever she was hungry or not. Apart from that, she claimed never to touch it – unless she was thirsty!
Now, although my wife and I enjoy our wine (not necessarily Champagne), we agreed long ago that, unlike Mme Bollinger, we wouldn’t open a bottle every day. So, unless we’re celebrating a birthday or anniversary or we’re entertaining friends, we usually restrict ourselves to a bottle with our dinners at weekends. But last Wednesday was different – as you’ll see from the picture above, it was Valentine’s Day, and not just that, it was our 40th Valentine’s Day together (I could suggest we met when we were very, very young but it wouldn’t be true!) So, forget the fact it was a Wednesday, out came the glasses and a bottle of one of our favourite English fizzes: Camel Valley (Cornwall) Pinot Noir Rosé (Waitrose, £28.99).
I’m not sure if it was the effect of the wine, but we started chatting about why February 14th has become so closely linked with romance and why St Valentine? We found a number of conflicting explanations in Wikipedia and other sources: I liked the one about the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was connected to fertility, being observed around this time of year. My wife preferred the quote from Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote that St. Valentine’s Day was the day when every bird chooses his mate. (Although she did point out that it was a woman’s right to choose her mate!)
Whoever is right, by the 19th century, Valentine’s Day and Valentines cards were well established and the practice, happily, is likely to continue for many years to come. But, back to wine: our celebratory choice had a delightful deep salmon pink colour with an attractive nose of crushed strawberries and a delicate but mouth-filling mousse.
As for food matches? Almost anything, so long as it’s shared with a very good friend or partner!
Happy (belated) Valentines Day
Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, holds a key strategic position and so has attracted traders and invaders since ancient times. Each of these has left their mark, not least where vines and winemaking are concerned. But sadly, for much of the last century, the island’s focus was firmly on bulk wine and, in 2001, barely 2% of Sicily’s output was of DOC or IGT quality, the remainder just lowly Table Wine. (Even now, this figure is only 15%).
Yet, change is definitely happening and some of the diverse range of grape varieties planted in former times are, at last getting the recognition they deserve. To the west of the island, Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto, once used to produce the sweet, fortified Marsala are now turned into crisp, refreshing dry whites which, given Sicily’s latitude, surprisingly outnumber their reds.
But, for me, it’s the reds that are the main attraction: on the precarious volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, vineyards are planted at up to 3000 feet above sea level where they produce some delightful wines from the Nerello Mascalese variety with its intense herb and red berry flavours (Wine Society have a good example for £9.50).
Towards the south east coast, the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, can be found. The most famous producer here, COS, has revived the ancient tradition of fermenting the wine in clay amphorae buried in the ground to make some interesting and distinctive wines. Others, such as Planeta, use more modern techniques.
Their example, a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola with 40% Frappato (£15.50 from Great Western Wines), undergoes a cool fermentation in large stainless steel tanks. This preserves the lovely red fruit aromas of the grapes and gives attractive vibrant and fresh bitter cherries on the palate and a good long savoury finish.
I know £15 isn’t cheap – even though I think it’s worth every penny – (and wines from COS are even dearer), but many Sicilian wines are real bargains, and will remain so until customers recognise the transformation in winemaking on the island in recent years.