Archives for category: ICC TASTING

The Alsace wine region is one of the smallest in France, making about 2% of all French Wine. It is a narrow strip running 90 miles North-South parallel to and between the Vosges mountains to the West and about 15km from the Rhine to the East. The Vosges mountains also shelter the vines and provide a rain-shadow over what is actually quite a cool continental-climate area. This leads to long warm dry autumns that give the area its ability to ripen grapes. These conditions combine to make vineyard site very influential in the wine.

It’s near to Germany so there is significant Germanic influence on the region, the architecture, the culture and the wine. It is, in general, a rather “comfortable” region, but one of the charms of Alsace wine is that it is rather more radical…

  • Alsace has a strong emphasis on varietals and unusually for France, the grape name appears on the label.
  • It has the highest proportion of bio-dynamic growers of any wine region in the world, including some big names [Humbrecht , Josmeyer, Marcel Deiss, Weinbach, Barmes Buecher, Bott Geyl, Albert Mann, Cave de Ribeauville…].
  • Most significantly the region’s (mainly) dry wines complement “world” and “fusion” cuisine so well. The aromatic qualities, the varying levels of acidity and the clarity and precision of good examples set off complex flavours in – especially oriental and even Indian – food very well.

The wine area starts near Strasbourg and reaches down towards Mulhouse, but the 40km central section near Colmar is where the great wines originate. Grapes are grown on the lower slopes of the Vosges up to about 400m altitude. So the strip is only a few miles wide and the general orientation is East facing. However the landscape is widely varied, twisting around to give slopes of all aspects and giving over 20 different soil compositions. If you visit the region it’s clear to see that the GC sites are often South facing, departing from the general East facing lie-of-the-land – and at altitudes near the middle of the range (i.e. about 100m-250m or so).

The wine is over 90% white (the rest is Pinot Noir based) and almost irrespective of grape the white wines has an aromatic, usually floral, quality. It often couples sweet notes with dry acidity which makes it go well with spicy food.

There are only 3 Appellations: Alsace; Crémant d’Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru – comprising (approximately) 72%; 24% and 4% of production, respectively. However it is the last that has the biggest influence on the way we think of Alsace. Alsace Grand Cru wines are only allowed from the 4 noble grapes: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. These may grow side by side in the same vineyards, but each Grand Cru vineyard is designated for each of these grapes separately – for example a climat may be GC for Riesling but not for Gewürztraminer. In addition the sweet classifications (Vendange Tardive and Sélections De Grains Nobles) only permit these four noble grapes. Priority is also given to them in the top blended wines, labelled Gentil, which must have >50% of these noble varieties [other blends, often field blends, are called Edelzwicker].

Thus Alsace wine gives the impression of being about these 4 grapes – “the usual suspects” – even though they only make up 60% of Alsace plantings.

Other grapes include Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, most of these find their way into Crémant and blended wines – although some of the former is found in varietal wines. The other interesting grapes are Pinot Noir for reds and the whites less seen: Sylvaner; Auxerrois and Chasselas.

Other = Auxerrois, Chasselas; Chardonnay                        – From Wine Folly

We’ll concentrate the July Tasting on these (relative) rarities, and one other – although it is made from one of the usual suspect: Vendange Tardive. This is made from a Late Harvest of drying grapes  requiring a minimum must weight equivalent to producing 13.5% (Gewürztraminer & Pinot Gris) or 14% (Riesling and Muscat) if fermented to dryness. That makes it a bit richer than Auslese in Germany (a style with guaranteed botrytis called Sélections De Grains Nobles is equivalent to Beerenauslese). VT also has to have a physical check of the grapes before picking and be submitted to blind tasting 18 months after making. It will be rich but not necessarily that sweet, we will see.

So we will taste Crémant; Sylvaner; Pinot Blanc; Auxerrois; Pinot Noir and a VT Gewürztraminer. Notes should be with you in about 4 or 5 days…

À Bientôt


We met at the ICC on Thursday 14th June to taste wines from six Mediterranean islands. We started with whites from Corsica, Crete and Santorini, then moved on to reds from Mallorca, Sicily and Sardinia.

Here are my notes:

Domaine d’Alzipratu Fiumeseccu Blanc 2016 – 13.5% – The Wine Society (£13.50)
This Corsican white from Corse-Calvi in the northwest of the island, is made from the Vermentino grape. Stone fruit and floral notes on the nose. Peach and some mango on the palate with a fresh minerality and good balance of fruit and acidity. This was the favourite white of just under half of the group and the favourite overall wine of about a quarter. Very enjoyable!
Quality: 16/20                    Value: 17/20

Domaine Douloufakis Dafnios 2016 – 13.5% – Maltby & Greek (£17.40)
From the Dafnes region of Crete and an altitude of 350m, this white is made from the local grape, Vidiano. Floral and stone fruit aromas on the nose. Honey and floral notes accompany apricot and a slight nuttiness on the palate. Slightly oily. The finish is a little shorter than the Corsican.
Quality: 15/20                    Value: 15/20

Santo Wines Santorini Assyrtiko 2016 – 13.5% – Maltby & Greek (£17.40)
This Santorini Assyrtiko comes from the island’s large co-operative, Santo Wines. Fresh and complex with distinct floral and citrus flavours complemented by hints of smoke and salinity. Full bodied with a long finish. A very good wine!
Quality: 17/20                    Value: 16/20

Mesquida Mora Sincronia 2016 – 13% – Great Western Wines (14.95)
This Mallorcan blend of local grapes and international grapes is biodynamically produced. Slight prickle or hint of a fizz on the palate at first. Forest fruits and some earthy notes but lacking the complexity or finesse of the other two reds.
Quality: 13/20                    Value: 13/20

Planeta Mamertino 2015 – 13% – Great Western Wines (£19.95)
This Sicilian blend of 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Nocera has pronounced cherry and plum on the palate with herbal notes and a hint of tar. Very well balanced with defined tannins and acidity and a long finish. Very good!
Quality: 17/20                    Value: 15/20

Santadi Noras Cannonau Di Sardegna 2014 – 15% – Great Western Wines (16.50)
This Sardinian red is made from the Cannonau grape. Pronounced aromas of black fruit and herbs on the nose. Blackberry, herbs and some wood on the palate. Good acidity in balance with firm tannins and well-integrated alcohol. For me, it had a shorter finish than the Sicilian. Marginally came out on top as the best wine of the night when the group voted.
Quality: 16/20                    Value: 16/20

A really interesting range of wines. It was very close for the best wine of the night with roughly equal numbers voting for the Corsican Vermentino, the Santorini Assyrtiko, the Sicilian blend and the Sardinian Cannonau.

See you soon,

Brigitte. x

This theme was last explored by the ICC group back in February 2014. Before the tasting, Corkmaster asked whether the wines from these islands could be said to have anything in common, and afterwards concluded that one shared characteristic was ‘big’ flavours and the need for a prolonged line of acidity. Just over four years on and we’re revisiting the islands to try some different wines, and possibly see if much has changed.

Last time, the only two whites of the evening came out on top: an Assyrtiko from Santorini and a sweet Malvasia of Crete. The best red was a Nielluccio (Sangiovese clone) from Corsica.

We will be trying a different Santorini Assyrtiko on Thursday along with two other dry whites from Crete and Corsica. Our reds come from Sicily, Sardinia and Mallorca.


So let’s refresh our memories about winemaking on these six islands…

As the biggest island in the Mediterranean, we’ll start with Sicily. Sicilian wines have featured in other tastings over the years, but (partly for that reason) didn’t feature in our last look at Mediterranean islands. Sicily is an enormous wine region and one of the top producing regions in Italy in terms of volume. Historically, the majority of Sicily’s output has been in the form of bulk wine and its reputation for quality hasn’t been great, but this is slowly changing. White wine is still the major output, but it’s generally some of the island’s reds, particularly from the indigenous, Nero d’Avola grape that are more highly regarded.

Our other Italian island, lying 200km west of mainland Italy, is Sardinia. Nowhere near as significant in terms of wine production as Sicily, its main agricultural outputs are milk and meat. There’s less area under vine on the island than there used to be and this reflects a shift from quantity wine production to an improved focus on quality. Unlike Sicily, basic bulk wine only accounts for 15% of the Sardinian output, but DOC and IGT classification doesn’t always equate to high quality on an island where production zones can cover the whole island and maximum yields are set very high. The most popular grape varieties on the island are Vermentino and Cannonau (a clone of the Spanish Garnacha).

Directly north of Sardinia is the French island of Corsica. Like Sardinia, Corsica has seen a shift from quantity to higher quality wine production in recent years with vineyard area now about a fifth of what it was in the mid-1970s. It’s a mountainous island and vines are cultivated up to an elevation of 300m above sea level. Niellucciu, Sciacarellu and Vermentino are important Corsican varieties. Rosé wine accounted for just under a third of the island’s production in 2003, it’s now more like two-thirds. White wine production has also doubled from 10% in 2003 to 20% more recently. Reflecting this shift, it’s a Corsican white we’ll be trying this time from the Vermentino grape, as opposed to the Niellucciu we tasted in 2014.


Lying some 500km west of Sardinia and 200km off the Spanish mainland is the Balearic island of Mallorca. Mallorcan wine has been revived since the 1990s and wines are now being produced using both local grapes such as Manto Negro, Callet and Moll as well as international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay. The wine we will taste on Thursday is a red blend of local and international grapes.

Moving on to Greece and arguably its two most important wine producing islands: Crete and Santorini. Crete is the biggest producer in terms of volume and Santorini is probably the island with the best reputation for quality.

Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean and has Greece’s second largest wine district. Phylloxera came to Crete as late as the 1970s and the subsequent replanting tended to favour the international varieties demanded domestically and by tourists. That has changed more recently however, with the recognition that the island’s range of indigenous grape varieties have more to offer on the export market. Despite the island being very far south, vineyard altitudes of between 200 and 900m serve to moderate temperature and Crete produces more white wine than red (around 68%). According to wine writer, Andrew Jefford ‘The indigenous star among Cretan whites is a grape variety called Vidiano’. Let’s hope the one we taste on Thursday lives up to this praise.

Finally, Santorini, famous for its whitewashed holiday cottages carved into the picturesque coastline. But in addition to tourism, which is Santorini’s main economy, winemaking provides an alternative income for the island. Its volcanic soils make the island safe from phylloxera so vines are ungrafted; their extremely old roots dig very deep for nutrients in the ‘aspa’ soil of volcanic rock and pumice. Santorini’s vineyards are also known for their vines being trained into a low basket shape to protect the grapes from the island’s extreme winds. Assyrtiko is the main grape variety on Santorini, producing white wines with a good combination of minerality, acidity and alcohol.


It should be interesting to compare and contrast the six wines which mostly feature grape varieties indigenous to their respective islands. Will we find much in common between the wines? And will we discover anything different from the tasting four years ago?

Looking forward to it. See you on Thursday,

Brigitte. X

On Thursday 17th May the ICC Group to taste some wines from Provence.

We tried wines from 3 famous small appellations: Cassis, Bellet and Bandol; a top Côtes De Provence Rosé and a Rosé and a Red from the slightly more International area of Aix.

Here are my notes:

CASSIS   CLOS VAL BRUYERE 2015 (Chateau Barbanau)   –   12½%   –   Wine Society (£12)
This is Marsanne, Clairette and Ugni Blanc with a little Sauvignon Blanc. Light soft fruit and floral nose, quiet but complex! Slightly herby and salty notes on the palate – almost vermouth, some fruit behind too and the many flavours pan out into a long, quite persuasive wine – rather good.
Ratings:        Quality:  16.5/20   Value:  17.5/20

CÔTES DE PROVENCE ROSÉ 2016 (Domaine De Rimauresq – Cru Classé)   –   13%   –   Virgin Wines (£15)
This is Cinsault and Grenache based with about 8% – 10% each of 4 other grapes. Prickly nose with strawberry and slightly cherry fruit and a higher perfume. Palate is lively and fresh with a red fruit middle and a long line of acidity coming to a mineral finish, Structured and dashing this would make a good food wine, with fish, salad or even something spicy.
Ratings:        Quality:  16/20   Value:  16/20

COTEAUX D’AIX EN PROVENCE ROSÉ 2016 (Chateau Vignelaure)   –   13%   –   Wine Society (£13)
This is Grenache, Cabernet and Syrah and has a pinker, slightly darker colour… the nose is simpler but more powerful with citrus and cherry fruit. The palate is rounder and heavier-seeming than the previous wine, mainly though through a shorter, warmer profile. Well made, but lack the dash of the previous wine…
As I write these notes 6 days later I have also tasted another 5 Rosés at home or in the Loire, including a Sancerre (Pinot Noir), and 4 other Loire: two from the Bourgueil area made with Cabernet Franc (at a quarter of the price!), one from Pineau d’Aunis, one a sparkler. The Sancerre was the clear winner, the Rimauresq next best and this, Aix, the least interesting!
Ratings:        Quality:  14/20   Value:  14.5/20

“HARMONIE DE PROVENCE”  COTEAUX D’AIX EN PROVENCE ROUGE 2014 (Domaine des Oullieres)   –   13%   –   Yapp (£19)
This is a similar (more Cab less Syrah) grape mixture to the previous Aix Rosé. Nose is rather Southern Rhone Garrigue, slight twist of red berry fruit. Blackberry and black cherry, slightly jammy, fruit a little too sweet and the tannins a little too soft for balance IMO – good for initial gulping but lacking complexity or shape… In many ways a parallel to the other Aix!
Ratings:        Quality:  14/20   Value:  13.5/20

BELLET: DOMAINE DE LA SOURCE ROUGE 2013   –   13½%   –   Yapp (£27)
Very intriguing nose of vegetal, smoke, spice, forest floor, dark berries… Open, succulent palate without being cloying, with fruit and a long line of warm acidity intertwined for a long complex wine. Very balanced and complete – many people made it favourite but a high price. Excellent though!
Ratings:        Quality:  17/20   Value:  15.5/20

BANDOL LA BASTIDE BLANCHE 2014   –   14½ %   –   Waitrose (£15)
Slightly brackish but fresh nose, with some high notes, over a brooding dark fruit element. Palate is powewrful and full bodied with sweet briar, blackcurrant fruit, and non-fruit component – liquorice (?). Big-boned, long and involving but lacking the lightness and charm of the previous wine. A good, not dazzling, Bandol, but very good value.
Ratings:        Quality:  16.5/20   Value:  16.5/20

Quite an interesting tasting, I think. For me the star was the Bellet, but close behind – and a real surprise – the white Cassis.  The first Rosé and the Bandol were very good, as expected. In fact all the wines were enjoyable, but I found – in this company – that the two Aix wines were… not bad but a bit pedestrian… chacun à son goût as they say in the Government (!?).

Talking of which… the group were very amused at receiving a letter advising on democratic processes from a certain  Pridirka Putat’, answering a query about American democratic “innovations”, from the Kremlin. I have tried to establish this person’s identity and bona fides… with little success. However transliterating the name into Russian characters, translating to English and using a Thesaurus gives a clue… ’nuff said!

À Bientôt

Provence is a relatively small wine area, producing under 300m bottles a year, compared to about 1bn from the Rhone, but it has about twice the production of Alsace or Beaujolais and about 30% more than Burgundy.

Provence is the home of Rosé, over 80% of the wine is pink!  The majority of the rest is red (over 13%), in fact white wine only makes up 5% of the total.

Apart from a few obscure traditional grapes in the fringes (see below) the main grapes are similar to those in Southern Rhone, the big 5 reds: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignan; and on the white side: Grenache Blanc, Rolle (Vermentino), Clairette, Roussanne and Marsanne.

Most Provence wine, 68%, is AOP (AOC) while 30% is IGP (Vin De Pays). At this top (AOP) quality level Rosé is even more dominant: 87% Rosé; 9% Red and 4% White. In fact nearly 40% of all French AOP Rosé  comes from Provence.

That makes it a niche area – in two different ways: it’s a big player in the Rosé world (but that’s rather a small world (less than 10% of all still wine worldwide); and a very small player in the overall French Red & White wine world (about ½ of 1% of the total).

So to sum the region up: a lot of Rosé – usually based on Cinsault and Grenache; reds a bit like Southern Rhone, but with some specialties; unusual and rare white wines… Any further general assessments about styles is difficult – it seems to be more about very particular growers or small appellations…

There are 9 AOP areas, they are:

Côtes de Provence
The largest AOC /AOP, producing over two-thirds of Provence AOP wine. The most varied regional also, with soil and climatic differences across the area…
There are four geographical “Sub Regions” in the Côtes de Provence: Sainte-Victoire (Some of the better Reds); La Londe (Cinsault based Rosé); Fréjus (at the eastern edge – bigger wines); Pierrefeu (near Toulon, focused on Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. producing Garrigue inflected reds and rosés).

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence (nearly 15% of AOP wines)
There is more red here (up to 10%!) and more influence of Cabernet and Syrah – carrying over to the Rosés.

Coteaux Varois de Provence (9%)
Rosés, mainly from Cinsualt, Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah are in the majority, but there’s even more red (a third) here, it’s relatively cool and even Pinot Noir is grown.

Bandol (5%)
On the coast in the South West corner of Var is the most famous Provence area of all: Bandol. Home to some white (from Clairette and Bourboulenc) and Rosé, the main attraction is the Red. Based mainly on the Mourvèdre, with a little Cinsault and Grenache, the best wine combines subtle fragrance, delicacy, power and longevity.

Cassis (1%)
Along the coast, West of Bandol, is the rare white-dominated AOP of Cassis. Marsanne is the main grape, with Clairette, the wines have a reputation for intense aromas of citrus, peach, honey and dried herbs.

Les Baux de Provence (1%)
This is predominately red – fitting to this very hot enclave within Aix en Provence, with Granache, Syrah, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon common, and more unusually Tibouren and Calitor. It’s home of the most famous wine – outside Bandol at any rate – the (£60 ish) Domaine de Trevallon!

Pierrevert (1%)
Pierrevert is the newest (1998) and the most northerly of the Provence AOPs, next to the Luberon,  and has a S. Rhone style. Rosé here differs from the other parts of Provence: the rules dictate that a minimum of 50% of the wine must be made in the ‘saignée’ method, the only place in Provence where this technique is allowed.

Bellet (0.2%)
Bellet is set on the steep hillsides surrounding the city of Nice, so it’s tiny and expensive. Cooled by the sea influence the area produces Red and Rosé from interesting Italian-ish grapes like Braquet and Folle Noir – at a price!

Palette (0.2%)
Nestled below Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence and coming in at only 100 acres, Palette is the smallest AOP of Provence. The vineyards were planted on the limestone and clay soils by the Romans around 100 BC and the area is now home to over 25 grape varietals (some obscure), all hand harvested and subject to specific blending rules and aging requirements. Very esoteric, and expensive!

Is there an overall Provence style? Well the Rosé could be called a style of its own – the best examples are fresh, herby, dashing and food-friendly. There are also, certainly, unique reds: Bandol and Bellet are styles that one won’t find elsewhere. However many other reds are versions of the Southern Rhone formula with a Cabernet twist. Are they truly distinctive?

We’ll see – the May tasting will be a Cassis white; two very highly-rated Rosé; and reds from Aix, Bellet, and Bandol.

My notes will be published next week…

À Bientôt

On Thursday 19th April the WING group met at the ICC for a Tasting of wines from South Africa. We kicked off the evening with a bonus extra wine that Jane and Lee had brought back with them from their trip to South Africa last year. It was a Stellenbosch Chardonnay and was very enjoyable; thanks Jane and Lee!

We then moved onto three more whites, followed by three reds.

Here are my notes:

Badenhorst Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2017 – 13% – The Good Wine Shop – £13 (£12)*
This Swartland Chenin comes from old vine fruit, fermented with wild yeast with plenty of lees contact but no new wood. The result is full of tropical fruit, pineapple in particular and some mango. Sherbet with honey and floral notes and quite a sharp, tangy finish. Very drinkable!
Quality: 16/20                                    Value: 18/20

B Vintners Haarlem to Hope  2015 – 13% – Hennings Wine – £19.99
This white blend from Stellenbosch contains 54% Chenin Blanc, 42% Semillon and 4% Muscat d’alexandrie. More Semillon on the nose; slight oiliness in balance with a high acidity and pronounced flavour intensity. Peach, lemon sherbet and quite a bit of ginger on the palate. Another interesting wine.
Quality: 16/20                                    Value: 15/20

Springfield Estate Wild Yeast Chardonnay 2016 – 13.5% – ND John – £13.50
This Robertson Chardonnay is fermented using the native, wild yeasts that occur naturally on the skins of the grapes. Pronounced aromas of nuts, vanilla and pineapple; in addition, for me the nose has an agreeable character reminiscent of tinned sweetcorn. Fresh pineapple and pear on the palate with hints of vanilla and nut and some lime on the finish. The acidity, alcohol and flavour intensity are all in balance. Probably the highest praise for this wine however, came from Harry with his judgment: “For a Chardonnay, it’s not bad!”
Quality: 17/20                                    Value: 18/20

Silwervis Smiley V2 Red Blend NV – 12.5% – The Good Wine Shop – £20 (£17.50)*
This Swartland red blend is 40% Cinsault, 40% Mourvedre, 15% Syrah and 5% Tinta Barroca from three different vintages spanning 2015-2017. The producer’s tasting note includes almost every flavour ever used to describe red wine from cranberry, redcurrant and blackberry to smoked paprika, clove, star anise and white pepper to liquorice, rosemary, thyme and oregano to violets and cured meat! Unfortunately, on the whole, we were unable to detect this type of flavour complexity in the wine and the general conclusion was that it was a bit jammy and not worth the price tag.
Quality: 14/20                                    Value: 12/20

The Liberator Terroir by Truck 2015 – 14% – The Good Wine Shop – £14.50 (£13)*
From Richard Kelley, MW, whose alter ego, Rick is the Liberator. The idea behind these wines is that the Liberator travels around, ‘saving’ wines that are in danger of being ‘blended away or disposed of in bulk’. ‘It’s my mission,’ says Rick ‘to procure these precious vinous orphans and consign them to a better home.’ Terroir by Truck is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault from Piekenierskloof, Swartland and Franschhoek respectively. Both red and black fruit with a spicy finish and smooth tannins in balance with good acidity.
Quality: 15.5/20                                                Value: 16/20

Manley Pinotage 2013 – 14% – The Good Wine Shop – £14.50 (£13)*
A previous vintage of this Tulbagh Pinotage was voted in the Top 10 Best Pinotages in the competition organised by the Pinotage Association. This 2013 vintage was voted best red of the night amongst our group. Medium bodied with well-balanced acidity and tannins. Red fruits such as strawberry, cherry and plum; some gamey flavours and suggestions of rubber and blue cheese that are not unpleasant and contribute to a pleasing flavour complexity; none of the acetone aromas that are sometimes associated with Pinotage.
Quality: 16.5/20                                Value: 17/20

An enjoyable evening with an interesting selection of wines. The Chardonnay and Pinotage got the most votes for wine of the evening, but there was no runaway favourite. Great to see you all and thanks for all your contributions. See you next time,

Brigitte. x

*’Mixed six’ price

Although it is generally considered to be a ‘New World’ wine country, winemaking in South Africa actually began on 02 February 1659. It is possible to be so specific, thanks to the diary of Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape who wrote on that day: “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes…” Seven years earlier, van Riebeeck had arrived in the Cape to set up a supply station for the Dutch East India Company. It was hoped that sailors on the spice route would be protected from scurvy if provided with wine and grapes, so vines were imported from Europe in 1655 and thus began South Africa’s wine industry.

Jan van Riebeeck’s successor was Simon van der Stel, who established the town of Stellenbosch and advanced winemaking in South Africa with the planting of 10,000 vines on his Constantia farm. The fledgling wine industry received a further boost in 1688 when the Cape became the new home of some 150 Huguenots who were fleeing religious persecution in France. Indeed, one of the wines we will be tasting on Thursday is made by ninth generation descendants of a Huguenot family who arrived from the Loire, bringing vines with them, in 1688.

The industry flourished over the next century and a half. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, ‘the famous Muscat-based dessert wines of Constantia seduced 18th and 19th-century Europe at a time when names such as Lafite and Romanée-Conti were still in the making.’

South African wine exports did well under British rule until the 1860s when Gladstone removed empire-preferential tariffs, benefitting French wine at the expense of South African. This setback was followed in the 1880s by phylloxera which was to be the catalyst for over a century of unexceptional wine production in South Africa.

Following the devastation of phylloxera, growers responded by planting high-yielding vines and a wine glut ensued. This led to the formation in 1918 of the South African Co-operative Wine Growers’ Association or Ko-operatiewe Wijn-bowers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika (KWV). The KWV was initially set up to fix production quotas but over time it acquired more and more power and came to control every aspect of the industry from disseminating planting material to setting minimum prices. The KWV effectively disincentivised the production of quality grapes and prevented any sort of innovation. Thus, much of the twentieth century saw an industry in stagnation, made worse by the global isolation of South Africa due to apartheid.

SA wine map
So prior to 1994, the South African wine industry was quasi-state controlled; vineyards were mostly planted with bulk white varieties; fruit was harvested before it was ripe; there was little fruit selection; acidification was standard; lots of new oak was used; cellar hygiene was poor; yields took precedence over quality, and wine faults and defects were common.

Since the advent of democracy in 1994, much has changed in the South African wine industry. No longer told what to plant and where to plant it, new vineyard areas have been explored and new, cooler regions have been developed. There has been a swing towards planting more black grapes and more international varieties. The Cape Winelands have a great diversity of terroirs and South Africa has become the New World leader in terroir research; consequently, there is now much better matching of vine variety and location. Flying winemakers have brought their knowledge, skills and experience back to South African vineyards and wineries. In the vineyard, improvements have been made in terms of choosing the best rootstocks and planting densities; in trellising and canopy management and also in tackling a major scourge of South African vineyards: leafroll virus. In the winery, many winemakers are now favouring minimalist intervention in order to let the terroir speak for itself. Another improvement is the use of larger, older barrels rather than an excessive use of new oak.
Unlike other New World wine producing countries, such as New Zealand and Argentina, South Africa hasn’t really developed an ‘icon’ wine or signature grape that consumers can recognise and rely on to meet their expectations.

South Africa’s indigenous grape, Pinotage, which was created in 1925 by Professor Abraham Perold when he crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault (known in SA at the time as Hermitage), has generally suffered from a bit of an image problem. Many still champion the grape though, and it currently accounts for 7.4% of all plantings in South Africa. In 1995, the Pinotage Association was formed by producers and two years later The Top 10 Pinotage competition was launched. The Pinotage which we will be tasting on Thursday evening has featured in this Top 10 so we’ll be able to judge for ourselves whether careful winemaking practices can allow this grape to shine and avoid the notorious acetone aroma that some have come to associate with it.

Traditionally, Chenin Blanc, or Steen as it is known locally, has been the white grape most associated with South Africa. Today it is still the most widely planted grape variety in the country, accounting for 18.5% of the total vineyard area. However, unlike Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, South Africa’s Steen produces a very wide range of styles so that consumers don’t always know what to expect from the label and hence it has not become the signature or icon wine for South Africa that Sauvignon Blanc has for New Zealand. On Thursday, we’ll be tasting a varietal Chenin as well as a white blend containing the grape.

There is currently a lot of optimism about the wine being made in South Africa. Tim Atkin, MW, says that it’s the best ever and that the industry is ‘dynamic, exciting and still evolving.’ At the same time, there are a lot of big challenges that the industry faces, including meeting Black Economic Empowerment targets; improving return on investment and thus preventing vines being uprooted in favour of more profitable crops; shaking off the ‘cheap and cheerful’ reputation and not least, contending with the severe drought that has gripped the Cape over the past three years.

Find out more about the country’s regions and wines on Thursday evening and hopefully taste some wines that justify the current buzz.

See you there,

Brigitte. x

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