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dimanche, 21 juin 2015





Claude Gilois 

The results of the ‘Chardonnay du Monde’ competition well orchestrated by the domains and the press agency led us to believe that the best Chardonnays come from South Africa. This totally dumbfounded your scribe as he was about to write an article about the most appropriate cultivars for the South African terroirs, and the Chardonnay did not figure on his list even though it produces, as often with Chardonnay, some interesting results.


It is the tasting committee of the ‘Chardonnay du Monde’, which yielded these results after blind tastings and classified the South African Chardonnay amongst the best. Two domains particularly distinguished themselves, Groot Constantia and Jordan. The Chardonnays elaborated in these domains are of good quality and are amongst the best twenty-five South African domains. The Chardonnays from Hamilton Russell and Chamonix, often considered the best that can be done with this grape variety, were not included in the flight of wines tasted. The South African Chardonnays, at their best, are equivalent to a good appellation from the South of Burgundy and this is already pretty good. The Coche Dury, the Roulot, the Kistler can continue to sleep tight. A South African Tsunami of Chardonnay is not for tomorrow.


The competition does not attract the best Chardonnays as the jury does not have any judges of international standing and domains have better things to do than supplying wine to a competition where they have nothing to gain and everything to lose.


So what are the most appropriate cultivars for the South African terroirs?   They could well disappear before they reach international fame.  We have known for some 40 years or so that an indigenous grape variety or a lesser known variety that does well can give a real identity to the country and is a formidable asset for marketing and sales.  It is the Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region that put New Zealand on the map of producers of fine wines. Malbec did the same for Argentina and likewise Syrah for Australia, not to mention Carmenere that had virtually disappeared from Bordeaux, which was found  amongst a Merlot vineyard at the domain of Carmen in Chile.


South Africa has the longest history of wine growing and winemaking of all the New World countries. It has an indigenous variety, Pinotage, a cross between Cinsault and Pinot Noir obtained by a researcher from Stellenbosch University.  Nevertheless, this cultivar is largely unknown even in South Africa and it is not widely planted, despite a good match between the climate and the soil of the region and a relatively easy growing pattern. However, it is a difficult grape variety to vinify as it can easily produce isoamyl acetate that gives the wine aromas of acetone that closely resembles nail varnish.


Some of the best growers, such as Andre Van Rensburgh at Vergelegen, argue that it has no place in South Africa. It is also a cultivar that produces high tannins and skin contact has to be reduced in order to avoid highly structured wines with high tannins that will take a couple of decades to subside before the wine gets more user-friendly.  


It can also be vinified partially or totally under carbonic maceration, which produces wines that are more fruit driven and more vibrant, easier to drink and which can be consumed upon release. Yet, when you taste old Pinotage from the sixties and the seventies from top Estates that believe in the variety, such as Kanonkop, then you understand the untapped potential of the cultivar. It is too often blended these days with other varieties to form a group of wines know as ‘Cape Blends’.


Among the endangered species and perhaps on its way out is the Semillon, this ‘Bordelais’ cultivar, which is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc, produces some very fine wines. Eben Sadie from the eponymous domain confirms that not so long ago, Semillon represented 80% of plantation of grapes for the production of wine. It can be easily understood when you taste the Semillon Kokerboom from Sadie and the Semillon from Vergelegen, Boekenhoutskloof and  Steenberg.  Few wines from other varieties produce wines with such distinction, but the variety is out of fashion growers prefer to plant Sauvignon Blanc which mostly produce under-ripe grapes giving herbaceous wines whose only virtue seems to be a good pipe cleaner, like Gros Plant in the Loire Valley. The Sauvignon Blanc, which requires no wood and which can be released to markets six months after picking, is increasingly becoming the Cash Cow of the South African wine industry.


sa vineyards.jpg

And what about the Cinsault, the underrated and understated variety which enters in the blend of Chateauneuf-du-Pape ? This still has a good following in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, but  is disappearing fast in South Africa. The grape variety has lovely fragrant vivid fruit and can provide a lovely glass of wine especially in warm countries. With  old vines it produces wine of good complexity, tannic structure and keeping potential. The best example of Cinsault old wines is the Pofadder from Eben Sadie from the eponymous domain.


It would not be possible to finish an article on South African cultivars without mentioning the Chenin Blanc, widely planted in South Africa, which produces wines of great complexity from old age vineyards in particular in the Swartland region and in the hands of Eben Sadie or David Sadie (No family relation) from the Paardeberg domain. Of course, Cabernet still reigns supreme in regions but very good Syrah (Chris Moulineux) and Pinot Noir (Crystalum) are also being produced.


The road is still long before South Africa can pretend to rank within the elite and should include a re-assessment of the best suited grape varieties, if they are not already condemned to oblivion. 

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