“Denise, there has been a slight change in our lunch plans today. Could you please call us? ” That was the first voice mail that greeted me on a recent Monday morning.
I knew it was all that damn Icelandic volcano’s fault even before I returned the call. I was supposed to be attending a tasting and lunching with a Burgundy white wine producer that afternoon but I had a niggling feeling that lunch was going to have to be rescheduled due to the flight ban caused by the volcanic ash spewing into European air space.
Rebecca,the PR rep, was very apologetic and to make up for the cancelled lunch offered me a lunch and tasting with James Dare, the stranded marketing director of South African winery, Warwick Estate as a substitute. Much as the French winemaker couldn’t fly in, no one could fly out. James was stuck here until flights resumed. I’d gone from a white Burgundy lunch to a S.African lunch in the space of two seconds. I was a bit hesitant because as many of you may know, I’m not a big fan of S.African wines but agreed because lately I have had some positive SA wine experiences and was curious to see what Warwick Estate had to offer.
Lunch was at the delightful Islington restaurant, Frederick’s just off the high street. Walking in, it’s an oasis of calm with a lovely garden which is where we were seated. We sat down and James proceeded to give me a brief history of Warwick Estate as well as the Stellenbosch region since I wasn’t very well informed on the whole region. Originally a fruit farm, in 1902 it was bought by Colonel Willam Alexander Gordon of the Warwickshire Regiment, converted into a vineyard and renamed Warwick Estate in honour of the regiment. In 1964 the estate was bought by Stan and Norma Ratcliffe. The couple decided to plant cabernet. At first the grapes produced were sold to neighbouring wineries but Norma found she was drawn more and more to the art of winemaking and completely self taught, she produced her first Cabernet in 1984. Norma was one of the first female S. African winemakers and the blue label she chose for her first wine was considered quite shocking at the time. On another note, the symbol used on all the labels is a loving cup which Norma first found in a charity shop. She soon began collecting them and she now has the largest collection in the world. If you stop by the vineyard, she’ll be more then happy to take you on a tour of her cup collection.
The first wine we had was a white, more specifically a sauvignon blanc. Stellenbosch is not known for it’s s. blanc but they have found a parcel of land on the estate, referred to as the Professor Black parcel because it was once was the site of a Professor Black peach orchard- a hybrid form of peach that the professor had invented himself. Norma found that the soil was perfect for s. blanc and produced the first one in 2002. We sampled the 2009 S. blanc. This wine was not like the nettly, green s. blanc that I usually associate with S. Africa. Unsurprisingly, knowing the history, there was a plethora of peach notes and tropical fruits on the nose and palate with a lime twist at the end. A rich, rounded body, just enough acidity and a slight herby finish made this a very enjoyable white to start off the lunch. If only all S. African s. blancs were as tasty as this one.
We then moved onto their 2008 Chardonnay. Planted in the Elgin region, the vines are 20 years old and produce some very lush, directed fruit. The wine is barrel fermented 8 months in French oak barriques and then aged on the lees. I quite enjoyed this chardonnay, it did remind me of buttered popcorn and Tropicana suntan lotion – you know that coconutty smell of the beach, on the nose but then again, I love buttered popcorn and holidays on the beach. Followed by ripe, green apples and orange peel flavours. Full and rich on the palate, slightly oily even, the chard went brilliantly with my dressed crab starter, magnifying the sweetness of the crab while still leaving traces of the wines’ fruitiness on the palate.
The discussion then moved onto the state of the dreaded pinotage. I’ve never liked pinotage and one of my lunching companions, Casper was downright hostile to the whole idea of pinotage. I was glad I wasn’t the only one but did feel a bit sympathetic to poor James who had to sit there and listen to us rant. While James did concede that in the past, pinotage had been hastily planted and then rushed out to export, things were changing. The S. African response to the wine world’s criticism of it’s flagship pinotage had been basically, “screw you, we’ll make it the way we like it”. Not such a good attitude if you want to sell abroad but nowadays with new, young winemakers coming on board, there are dramatic changes taking place. Old vines are being ripped out and pinotage is now being planted in sites where it will do well not just willy-nilly as in the old days. The clones are also improving and James thinks the quality has been more consistent in the past few years. The style of pinotage produced had been very inconsistent and he blames this on the ’90s and early ’00’s when producers were rushing to market. Now, winemakers are getting a better handle on the grape but since pinotage is a relatively little known varietal, he believes that it will take at least another 20 years before we really know how pinotage works and what is the best way to grow and cultivate the varietal. He thinks it definitely has a role to play but it’s still a work in progress.
Stellenbosch is, however, known for it’s cabernet and the first red we tried was their entry level, ’07 First Lady, 95% cab and 5% petite verdot. Retailing for less then £10 this wine was a raspberry ice cream scented delight with an underlying herbaceous quality to it. I was pleasantly surprised. These S. African’s were changing my opinion of their wines by the second. Rounded tannins and good blackberry fruit with a lingering spicy. I’d buy this wine, perfect for a barbeque.
The 2006 3 Cape Ladies was next. Warwick was the first estate to use the label “cape blend” but they are now considering removing those words from their 3 Cape Ladies because the term has been hijacked and much abused, nowadays seeming to mean shorthand for cheap S. African red. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment as when I saw those words, my enthusiasm for the wine died a bit. However, on tasting it, my enthusiasm picked up again. Intense black fruits, plums, blackberry and black cherry, it had the dreaded pinotage (25%) as one part of the blend but I don’t think it hindered the wine at all. The tannins in this one were a bit rougher but I think it gave the wine more character.
The last wine of the afternoon was their flagship wine, the 2007 Trilogy. Norma first produced it in 1986 and has been the standard bearer ever since. 50% cab, 30% cab franc and 20% merlot the 2007 was an elegant yet powerful wine. Each of the varietals were harvest and vinified seperately and then combined and aged in French oak for 24 months. Waves of licorice, prune and blackberry along with a whiff of mocha and leather following along. Drinking it was a pleasure, smooth and silky, coffee, mocha and a pleasing black fruit profile finishing it off. It was voted one of the top 100 wines in the world by Wine Specatator in 2006 and 2009 and I would be hard pressed to disagree. It was a great match with the venison and was also my pick to go with the cheese plate afterwards.
So, Warwick Estate has converted me to S. African wines. Well, maybe not all but like any wine region, I suppose it is unfair to lump all the wines together. Now I know what other wine writers have been going on about. I’m still not entirely convinced but I won’t turn my nose up at S.African wines anymore. You hear that, Spittoon.biz? 🙂