Drink Chenin Day (Epilogue): South African Sampler, Part II – Wagnerians vs. Martians

29 06 2021

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Although Drink Chenin Day is now in the rearview mirror for this year, our South African wine feature is but half complete. There is one more Chenin in the mix, but here South African cool climate “up and comer” Sauvignon Blanc gets its just due, along with a few classic red varietals and at least one oddball (if one can ever truly refer to the unobjectionable-to-a-fault Pinot Grigio as “odd”…I feel this grape might merit the designation in South Africa due to a relative lack of historical presence in the region, but I digress). As South African wine expert Tim James notes in his erudite treatment of the region’s history, various problems such as ongoing racially informed inequalities, a floundering economy, and viticultural hazards such as leafroll virus may “dim the brightness of the new world of South African wine, but do not obscure it”. When Apartheid finally came crashing down in 1994, the South African wine business almost immediately made rapid improvements as the international market opened up, and South African winemakers responded with a game of catch-up that has led to some intriguing results. South Africa morphed from a region notorious for overproduction of decidedly mediocre wines to one capable of showing the legitimate wine-growing potential of the land and climate through the lens of various international grape varieties, along with one (in)famous native cross, Pinotage. In short, South Africa did finally catch the terroir bug. Although this failed to spread quite as rapidly as the aforementioned vine virus, we now live in a world of South African wine where a farmer might sell his old vine Chenin Blanc grapes to a small-scale boutique producer who honours the health of the land just much as said farmer might, as opposed to a mammoth co-operative that ultimately consigns this vinous gold to an anonymously dilute identity death amongst the hoi polloi in a huge vat (a little more on huge vats later).

Nice couple of labels here … These capture everything that is old and new about Cape wine… or something.

My personal journey with the wines of South Africa began quite early into my obsession with this greatest of beverages, as I found myself immediately taken with the oft-repeated trope that South Africa naturally bridges the gap between the finessed restraint of the classic European wine regions and the opulent fruity hedonism of the New World. Far be it for me to either gainsay or corroborate what real experts have to say on this matter, but my own experience broadly affirms this notion. If the grapes are not excessively ripe, many Cape wines (particularly whites) display a fine acid structure and even a fresh minerality that cleaves nicely with Old World sensibilities, yet there is also a concurrent sun-kissed tropical vibe that you probably won’t mistake for Chablis…such wines are not austere. I also not infrequently get a distinctive herbal earthiness, for a lack of a better general descriptor, particularly in the reds. I am intrinsically drawn toward such stylistic middle grounds, because there are multiple layers on which to focus, and such wines can surprise when one is able to simultaneously experience elements that initially seem discordant (like, say, a fresh stony minerality that co-occurs with bright fruit). One has to be careful not to get too carried away, though. The present spread of wines range in price point from around $9 to almost $30. This is a set that will capture Cape wine in a much broader sense than a wine nerd like me might typically seek to experience. A further word or two on that if I may, which will explain the rather quaint title of this post.

In his book “Wine Wars”, wine economist and entertaining writer Mike Veseth explains that a cultural divide exists between wine lovers, a fundamental disagreement between Wagnerians on the hand and Martians on the other (the derivation of these terms is explained in the original source work). The former believe that satisfaction with wine does not have to hinge on price point or other metrics of quality per se, but rather that wine must be delicious above all else, and affordable enough to be a constant dinner companion. The Martians disagree, believing that superlative wines are truly better wines, and that winemakers should strive to produce liquid poetry rather than a commodity product of the sort that has been scrubbed of all influence of time and place. Veseth is more of a Wagnerian, and me… well, I like ray guns and typically skew toward a beverage that reflects something pretty evocative of art, whether said art is largely derived from terroir, the deft hand of a clever winemaker, or both. As you might have surmised, though, this is a potentially false dichotomy. I got some serious Wagnerian tendencies when it comes to enjoying a wine of place at a bargain price point (hello, Portugal!), and wine is not a status symbol for me. Wine is different things to different people. Although I mindfully taste every wine I drink, and as a classic “wine snob” do not often haunt the lower priced regions of the wine wall, I do love KFC, and if someone is kind enough to share a $12 bottle with me, I am going to plunge right in and have a good time. There’s something to explore in every bottle, even if sometimes your journey is short. Let’s do this.

2019 Distell Two Oceans Pinot Grigio (~$9): We begin with my expectation dial set to “what’s the worst that can happen?”. An anemic pale straw hue in the glass, the nose here is anything but, a nigh-blowsy burst of banana candy, confected mango, fruit cocktail syrup heavy on the pears, and something vaguely akin to paraffin wax. This tries to entice, but perhaps a bit too hard. The palate is much more subdued in comparison to the aromas, flashing green banana and perhaps some underripe cantaloupe, together with a palpable sweet impression (odd for the style – should this be labelled a Pinot Gris?) butting up against a coarse, rather prickly acidity that tickles the back of the throat. Generic white blossom meets dilute pina colada. This sparks and sputters into a spiky short green apple finish as my tastebuds rapidly habituate. Although this leads with a tropical swing, it ultimately careens into an acetic oblivion. Would I choose this over a more purely neutral Grigio at a similar price point? Quite conceivably. 84- points

Not wine but a commodity? It’s both.

2020 Distell Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc (~$9): We move on to a grape that is decidedly harder to get wrong, and one that may speak stridently to the Cape’s winemaking future. Not sure we want this at the front of the line, however, even if there’s some pleasure to be had. Varietally correct lawn clippings, wilted asparagus, sun-baked pea pods, and lemon drop lead the way on the nose, but as was the case with the previous wine, the nose easily outstrips the watered-down palate. Even the most ardent Wagnerian likely expects more. I get some woody nectarine near the back end, and a “baked in the sun” aromatic character that somehow conjures up melted muscat grape gummies and fresh copper coins in approximately equal measure. Although there is a pleasing jolt of classic Sauvignon jagged acidity, this is swamped as two oceans come together to wash everything out in a briny haze. Some fun associations to be sure, but nothing that I would explicitly seek out unless I could take a time machine back to the grad school days of crushing a bottle (likely alone) in a hotel room after a particularly daunting poster session. Ah, memories. A small price to pay. 84+ points

2019 DGB The Beachhouse Citrus Grove Chenin Blanc (~$13): We move up a price tier…sorta. I have to admit, it’s cool to see a bottle of Chenin all decked out like a market-friendly New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. This classic grape usually conjures up much more bucolic, staid, and perhaps serious associations for me. Enter “The Beachhouse”. Alrighty then. This looks rather like a Sauvignon in the glass too, greenish tints and all, but that extra four bucks or so pays off in the drinking almost immediately. More carefully constructed than the Two Oceans wines, at least in an aesthetic sense if not also a technical one, this initially yields a slight reductive struck match sensation on the nose. This pulse quickly yields to ripe green pears, Granny Smith apple, lemon salt and pepper, pineapple skin, grass (!…we sure this isn’t a Sauvignon? Yes we are. The almost creamy texture is different!), steel wool, and Orange Julius. A spike of broad acidity surfs front to back, where the short finish sports lemon-lime soda. The simple side of Chenin, obviously, which likely is the whole intended point. I can appreciate the stark stony elements and the ever-so-slight varietally classic woolly caress. Score one for the Wagnerians. 86- points

Thanks, Douglas Green.

2019 DGB The Beachhouse Sauvignon Blanc (~$13): We are still in the Beachhouse, and this is more the vinous company one might expect there. Also greenish in the glass, also smelling like fresh lawn clippings with a flinty reductive spark. Fortunately things diverge away from $13 dollar Chenin land into classic gooseberry, lime and bitter melon rinds, white pepper, and a hint of pine pitch. A curious (and quite lovely) floral note somewhere between magnolia and sweet pea hovers above the box-elder and lime Lifesaver in the slightly longer-than-expected finish. If I have a gripe here, it’s that the acid spine might be a touch too weak and brittle, less varietally jagged and more like a bunch of outstretched green bananas that fail to provide the desired level of structure. The nose is intense, the palate less so. And here’s the thing. As a general rule, do not expect Cape Sauvignons to have the bombastic tropical fruit and sweat aromas of their New Zealand cousins. South Africa is about the grass and the gooseberry and other permutations of green. This wine fits the Cape mould well, but still might do the trick if your NZ craving would otherwise go unsatisfied. 86+ points

2019 DGB The Old Road Wine Co. Juliette Sauvignon Blanc (~$13): Hey, this wine label actually mentions a ward, the most specific geographical designation for wine to be found in the Cape. Elgin, although originally famous for apple production and other forms of high intensity agriculture, is also the coolest climate wine region in South Africa and has rapidly earned a sterling reputation, specifically for Sauvignon Blanc. Just how good is $13 Elgin Sauvignon Blanc? Well, this grape is supposed to be green, and these specific grapes hail from a cooler climate, but damn, this is well and truly verdant. Perhaps overly so. It’s all fresh wheat grass and shrill jalapenos, Granny Smith skin and pea shoots…and pile on yet more green chilli. The nectarine and crushed pineapple fruits flash some vibrant richness but nevertheless remain almost wholly wreathed in this spicy green Tex-Mex cloak. A pinch of dank white pepper and cannabis resin does not help matters much. I used “cat pee” as an aroma note on Instagram ages ago, to some fanfare. This is (believe it or not) a classic aroma descriptor for this grape but some people don’t get it, and fair enough. Anyhow, give this a sniff. Cat pee. This has better body than the Beachhouse Sauvignon, not to mention a more sturdy refreshing acidity shot through with a fine vitamin tablet minerality. I’d score this higher if the green notes were in better balance with the rest of the package. Snotty Martian in the house. 86- points

This is actually a fantastic label… False advertising? Shhhh. Drink up.

2018 KWV Big Bill Cabernet Sauvignon (~$14): Now this is a fun label. Depicted here is KWB’s first general manager, William “Big Bill” Millar: decorated war veteran, boxing champion, and rugby captain. If Bill asks you if this wine is good, you should probably just say yes. This Cab is named in honour of the man as well as a gigantic 22,000-litre oak vat (named after Bill himself) that still resides on KWB property. No, this wine was not made in said vat, but allegedly the two Bills did provide some inspiration. Although the visual resolution is not high, the depiction on the label does conjure up some unfortunate associations with the guy an ex-girlfriend downgraded to when she left. Shudder. Shaking this off, I pour a “ridiculously big” glass of dark ruby wine, noting a few blue-purple highlights, and take a sniff. The nose provides a pleasant sweet impression, albeit not cloying, with pungent cassis, blackberry, blueberry, and liquorice strands of both colours (red and black) playing off of a few savoury elements that recall weakly-steeped black tea and grilled sirloin tips. The jammy fruits combine with the initially rather stark, dry oak aromas to yield maraschino cherries, and as the wine gets some air one can discern toffee, almonds (again, chocolate-covered), and wintergreen, with this latter note rather aggressively reminding me that yes, this is indeed a Cape wine and not entry-level Napa Valley. There’s more tannin than expected perhaps, fine round beads that become scratchy as they accumulate on the gums. This begins in delicious form, but as such wines are wont to do, it becomes cloying once you’ve parsed a few layers and are done being wowed by the “ridiculously big” slab of berry Pop tart. The average Wagnerian might approve of the price point but balk at the notion that this is truly easy to drink. No need to linger on it too long, although it is much better than a poorly made cocktail. 87- points

2018 KWV Cathedral Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (~$16): In 1997, KWV went from being an all-powerful winemaking co-operative with legislative control over the entire Cape wine industry to a private company, forced to compete like everyone else. It has not been easy. Tim James flatly states that KWV’s offerings “have not impressed much”, but tentatively allows for one exception across their many labels: Cathedral Cellars! He describes these wines as “very good, tending toward a polished, recognizably new-world style: ripe and rich, dense and extracted, with obvious fruit and generally obvious oak, but well if softly structured”. This is pretty much bang on by my reckoning. A perfect deep ruby in the glass. The nose is indeed polished compared to the Big Bill, moderate intensity black plums and raspberries, red bell pepper, instant coffee, chocolate-covered raisins, pipe tobacco, and hints of burnt sage, vanilla wafer, tea tree oil, even a little caress of purple flowers (violets?). This is medium-bodied and quite herbaceous, rather recalling the best Chilean examples, with some of the attendant nuance and finesse. Gritty mouth-filling tannins, and that coffee note becomes more and more prominent. The alcohol is a touch hot. Still, this might just be the best value to be found in this set of wines. 88+ points

You don’t look “ridiculously big” underneath the towering ceilings of the cathedral, Bill…

2019 Milner Bros. Natte Vallij Cinsault (~$30): I will freely admit that I saved this for last. Alex Milner is the sort of winemaker that I naturally (pun intended) seek out. Cinsault has a checkered history but is ultimately one of my favourites. It loves the heat yet almost always remains fresh. This hails from four vineyards across the Cape (the Swartland, Darling, and two in the Stellenbosch), with the grapes all from old bush vines and ageing in a mixture of concrete and large oak vessels. The initial whiffs reek of sun-baked road tar and a pack of mentholated cigarettes after six months misplaced under the car seat. With air in the glass, these aromas meld with pie cherry (plus the pie crust), black liquorice, red pepper jam, stewed rhubarb, plum sauce, burnt sage, and pine bark. Vague allusions to grape jelly and wilted lilacs prevent this from being firmly consigned to Cinsault’s dark side. Further strawberry and pomegranate fruit wink through, and I find myself enjoying the yin and the yang, the enticing contrast between light and dark. See, this is what wine can do. Command your attention, activate curiosity, make you wonder, and be both delicious AND fascinating. Eventually the shadows are scrubbed away and we get something akin to a rustic South African Beaujolais. These old vines carry massive concentration yet the wine does not plod, but jukes and jives and ultimately integrates into a soulful wash of the Cape’s past and (hopefully) future. I’d like to believe that wines like this might just keep both Wagnerians and Martians happy. Sure, this may not be welcome at the beach house, unless maybe one is allowed to track some muck around. I’d rather be out amongst the wind and the rain, the baked earth and the bugs, the authentic and the challenging. And still, the pleasure. 91 points


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