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Re-post: Best Hidden Secrets of The Wine World: Wines of South Africa

January 24, 2013 12 comments

During 2011 I wrote a number of posts for the project called The Art Of Life Magazine – of course talking about my favorite subject, wine. The project closed, but I still like the posts I wrote, so I decided to re-post them in this blog. Also, in that project, posts were grouped into mini-series, such as “Best Hidden Secrets” you see here – I will continue re-posting them from time to time.

Also note that the series was written for a slightly different audience – I hope none of my readers will take offense in the fact that sometimes I’m stating the obvious…

Hamilton_Russell_Pinot_Noir_2008Continuing the subject of “secrets” of the wine world (you might remember our past conversations about Rioja, Second Labels, Georgian Wines and more), let’s talk about wines of South Africa. If you are asking why South African wines should be considered a “hidden secrets”, please read below.

As one would rightfully expect, history of South African wines is tightly intertwined with history of South Africa as a country. Winemaking in South Africa started in 17th century, and for the long time, South Africa was making dessert wines, some of them still famous, like Constantia. Most of the wines were exported into United Kingdom. Similar to the most of the winemaking world, South Africa experienced Phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century, and lots of vines had to be replanted. The 20th century was marked by the political issues – as apartheid was a bad problem for the South Africa, the institute of wine regulations by KWV also became a limitation for the wine industry. Combination of the KWV restrictions with boycott of the South African goods, including wines, as a means to fight apartheid regime, lead to South African wines staying largely non-existent for the wine lovers around the world. With collapse of apartheid the situation changed, and then KWV monopoly was also broken, which lead to the great advances in the South African wine making. If you want to read more about the history of

A number of different grapes are used in winemaking in South Africa. First we need to mention Chenin Blanc, which is still one the major white grapes used in wine production (it is also known locally under the name of Steen). Similar to the Loire valley, where Chenin Blanc is shining, it makes whole range of wines in South Africa, starting from very dry and acidic, and going all the way up to the dessert wines. Next we need to mentioned Pinotage, which is unique grape, produced and cultivated only in South Africa. Pinotage is a cross between Cinsault and Pinot Noir grapes, and has a number of strange characteristics, such as being reminiscent of liquefied rusty nails in the glass. Then whole bunch of international varietals are also planted (amount of those plantings is increasing), and it includes Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and many others.

Thelema_Chardonnay_2007So why are we placing South African wines into the “secrets” category? Once you will try [good] wines from South Africa, chances are you will be blown away. It is important to note that South African wines are new world wines masquerading as an old world – which makes blind tasting with South African wines very challenging.

As our tradition goes, let’s open a bottle or two, and let’s talk about the wines. First, 2008 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir. This wine is simply amazing – very restrained and polished, with beautiful restrained fruit, lots of smokiness and earthiness on the palate. This wine shows off as a classic Burgundy, and only when you look at the label you experience almost a shock – this wine is from South Africa, last place one would expect to produce classy Burgundy (you can read about our blind tasting experience here).

Then comes 2007 Thelema Chardonnay, again, very reminiscent of beloved White Burgundy – restrained, with balanced fruit, hint of butter and vanilla on the palate and good tannins – very elegant.

Cirrus_Syrah_2003Last I would like to mention 2003 Cirrus wine – a predominantly Shiraz ( 96%) with addition of small amount of Viognier (4%). On the palate, this wine mostly represents liquid smoke, but it really comes alive in a glass, with excellent tannins, toned down fruit and perfect acidity, well balanced.

I don’t know if I manage to convince you in the “secrets” status of South African wines. But if you will think about it, either way you have to find a bottle of South African wine – to either agree or disagree with me. Look for the one we talked about here – and judge it for yourself. Cheers!

Top Dozen Wines of 2010

December 29, 2010 20 comments

One more year is passing by, becoming memories. As the closing bell nears, we often like to count good things which happened during that year. After reading the post by Joe Roberts, where he talks about his ten most interesting wines of the year, the idea for this post was born.

Here we go – a dozen of wines which made special memories throughout the 2010. Are these the best ever wines I had? No. Are these the best wines of 2010? Not necessarily. Why is there a dozen? After going through my records, I simply counted 12 wines I want to reflect upon. A lot of these wines were covered in the prior posts – I will give you links and prices if I have them. And I will explain why I felt so special about these wines. And – I will make an effort to sort the list. Prioritizing memories and experiences is hard, but I will do it nevertheless – may be just to get a good chuckle later on. And now, without further delay…

12. Haut Charmes Sauternes 2007 ($17). One of the best Sauternes I ever had – clean, balanced, with white peaches and honeysuckle on the palate. Few reasons to be in the “Top Dozens” – legend has it is declassified Chateau D’Yquem, plus great QPR for the Sauternes.

11. Cambria Bench Break Chardonnay 2006, Santa Maria ($25). For the first time in a long while, California Chardonnay tasted like California Chardonnay – lots of vanilla, butter and toasted oak on the palate, extremely balanced at the same time. Real Chardonnay as opposed to wimpy white wine without identity.

10. Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008, South Africa ($40). Totally unexpected – amazing Pinot Noir from South Africa (!). Profoundly Burgundian style, with tremendous finesse and balance. Great QPR. Worth seeking – if you like Pinot, you will enjoy it immensely.

9. Flora Springs Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($18). Literally the best California Sauvignon Blanc I ever had. In general, I love French, New Zealand and Chilean versions, and ignore California Sauvignon Blancs. However, this wine you can not ignore – beautiful combination of traditional grassiness with fruit forward and finesse. Outstanding!

8. Visp Chantone Eyholzer Roter 2008 ($26). Swiss wines are great – it is unfortunate that they literally can’t be found in US. I’m lucky to be able to experience the Swiss wines – and this particular red is probably the best Swiss wine I ever had. Playful, balanced, easy to drink and thought provoking – good till the last drop.

7. Domaine de Granajolo Corse Porto-Vecchio 2009 (€12). Best Rose wine I had in 2010. Nuf said.

6. Domaine de Torraccia Niellucciu 2009,  Corse Porto-Vecchio (€11). Accidental find in the wine shop in Paris (while hunting for the new grapes) – amazing. Playful, balanced and inviting – pure pleasure in the glass.

5. Chateau Hosanna 2003, Pomerol ($100). One of the best Bordeaux wines ever. Very approachable now, and will be amazing in another 20 years.

4. Jamesport Petit Verdot 2006, Long Island ($100). One of the biggest surprises of the year – having only bad experience with 100% Petit Verdot wines from Australia, this wine was absolutely pleasantly unexpected. Luscious , silky smooth, concentrated wine – no edges or rough corners. Lots of pleasure.

3. Satrapezo Saperavi 2006, Georgia ($28). This wine completely changed my perception of Georgian wines. Georgia was a birthplace of winemaking, but tasting Georgian wines until recent was saying that the art is lost. This wine changed that. Perfectly balanced and restrained, with earthiness, fruit, acidity and tannins coming to play as a team. Great wine, and great value.

2. Rozes Over 40 Years Old Port ($90). My best port ever. I can close eyes and imagine the smell and taste of this wine – multiple layers, tremendous complexity and great opportunity to reflect on life when the finish lasts for 15 minutes. Find this wine and experience for yourself.

1. Mara Laughlin Road Ranch Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley ($45). Incredibly balanced, silky smooth wine, very powerful and round. Alcohol content is 15.6%, and it can’t be noticed unless you read the label. Great wine now, will improve with some cellar time. Find it if you can.

There were many other wines worth mentioning, and I did my best throughout the year to cover them. The wines in this group delivered special experiences – that’s why they listed here. That’s all, folks – for this post. I will be glad to hear, however, about YOUR special wines and wine experiences from 2010. Speak up – now is the time!

Pinot Noirs Battle – Let the Best (but Most Unexpected) Win

August 10, 2010 10 comments

When tasting the wine, there is a lot of factors which will affect the perceived taste ( like/don’t like). Some of those factors are objective, like temperature (chill the wine, and some flaws will disappear), some of the factors are rather subjective, like your mood.  I want to talk about another factor which is hard to categorize, but it can greatly affect what we think about the wine. It is one and the same factor which comes in many forms – label, producer, cost, rating,  and wine critic in the end of the day. Of course there are exception to this rule, there are best of us who can simply disregard all the known facts, and simply taste the wine for what it is. However, majority of us (myself definitely included), will be influenced by what we know. Ah, Robert Parker rated this wine 93, it must be really great… This bottle of wine cost $100 – it must be great…

Well, there is a good way to eliminate this factor – it is called blind tasting. Considering this is summer, we decided to try a lighter red grape in the blind tasting format – so we chose Pinot Noir. Great thing about Pinot Noir is that it is grown in many different regions, and while the grape is the same, the wines from the different places will taste quite differently.

How do you run a blind wine tasting? Very easily. Each person brings a wine bottle in the paper bag and then opens it. All the bags are assigned random numbers. Then the wines get poured into the glasses which are standing on the mat with the numbers. Voila! Now all the wines can be tasted and independently assessed – no intimidation by any of the factors we mentioned above  – in the glass they all look [almost] the same (oh, boy, I can be bitten up by professionals for such a lame claim, but oh well…).

We had 6 Pinot Noirs and went through them one by one, assessing color, smell and taste of each, exchanging thoughts ( like “I think this is California” or “I can’t smell anything”), but not enforcing opinions. Here are my short notes as we went along (you can actually see the picture of all 6 wines and then see how funny my notes are):

#!:  New world, too alcohol – 2006? (Actual wine: Chateaux Corton Grancey 1999, Grand Cru Corton, France)

#2: New World, California, 2007/2008?(Actual Wine: Sea Smoke Southing 2007, Sta. Rita Hills, California)

#3: Not bad, needs time, Chile? (Actual wine: J. Lohr Fog’s Reach Pinot Noir 2007, Arroyo Seco, California)

#4: Bright acidity, fresh fruit, Oregon? (Actual wine: Terra Noble Pinot Noir Reserva, 2009, Casablanca Valley, Chile)

#5: Classic – perfect smoky nose (Actual wine: Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2008, South Africa)

#6: Young and reminding of Monastrell. Very nice (Actual wine: Wine by Joe Pinot Noir 2008, Oregon)

Once we tried all 6 wines, it was the time to tally it up and proclaim the winner, after which all the wines were revealed out of their bags. I would think that considering the title of the post, you already guessed that something unusual is coming. True, though for me it was way too  unusual. So the two winning wines were tied up – #3 and #5, both got the same number of votes. I can understand the wine #3, J. Lohr Fog’s Reach Pinot Noir from Monterey county, California. California is known as the place for Pinot Noirs, especially with the help of movie Sideways. But the wine #5, which I thought had all the traits of the classic Burgundy – please tell me honestly, how many of you heard of ( never mind trying) Pinot Noir from South Africa?! Of course there are great wines from South Africa – Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, but Pinot Noir? And nevertheless, wine #5 was Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir from South Africa.

So here you have it – blind wine tasting, which removes all the intimidation and decision influencers, and leaves you one on one with the wine in the pure and honest fashion. No hints “oh, that should be good because…”, no pretension.  Of course there can be flaps. Wine #1 was spoiled (probably oxidation), so it should really be excused from the judgment. At the same time, wine #2, Sea Smoke Southing, would probably be decided a winner, simply because it is a cult Pinot, and it cost $80+ – if you can find it. And yet in the blind setting, it didn’t generate much response. Of course there is always a happy chance that none of us has sophisticated palate – but in the end of the day, the definition of the “best wine” is simple – it is the one which YOU consider the best, so I think we shouldn’t worry about it.

To conclude – get your friends together and try blind tasting one day – you might be surprised, but you will not be disappointed! Drink the wine, and have fun doing that :).

Cheers!

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