An even dirtier little secret

Dirty Little SecretOne of the clever (or should that read “cynical”?) things Ken Forrester has done with the packaging of his new chenin blanc, called Dirty Little Secret, is to have “NATURAL WINE” as almost the most prominent  words on the back label.

Natural wine is, of course, a fashionable term these days. The best-known proponent of the style/practice/concept in South Africa is Craig Hawkins of Testalonga – but how many others there are depend on your definition of the term, which is a notoriously problematical one, not only because it seems to imply that wines not made according to a more-or-less rigorous set of practices are not natural at all.

In South African wine law, which is silent about Craig’s sort of “natural wine”, the definition is easy, and Forrester’s declaration is unassailable according to it. Virtually all wine made in South Africa is “natural wine”, which the Regulations define as merely meaning “wine of which the alcohol content is at least 4,5 per cent but less than 16,5 per cent”. The most manipulated of wines could emblazon the words on its label, and SAWIS could do nothing but smile and let it pass.

Ken Forrester has done much for Cape chenin blanc in the past few decades, not least through the wines he’s made from it. The famous FMC gained prominence through the likes of Wine magazine’s Chenin Challenge big blind tasting, which tended to reward powerful, ripe, sweetish and new-oaked wines. FMC continues to have so many admirers that it certainly doesn’t need me to be numbered among them. The Old Vine Reserve is a much scaled-down version of the FMC (and both are apparently vinified without yeast inoculation). There’s also the excellent Noble Late Harvest “T”, named for the beautiful Mrs Forrester, and the Petit Chenin, a perennially charming, fruity wine at modest price.

But I wonder if, as a pioneer and therefore perhaps occasionally overlooked by those blinded by the bright lights of fashionable new producers, Ken hasn’t felt a bit miffed and wanted to show that he can compete on their own terms with, say, the Swartlanders, with their insistence on low-intervention, lower alcohol, less oaky wines (not that the avant-garde tends to refer to its wines as “natural”). And do better perhaps – the Forrester info sheet refers slightingly to unnamed “cloudy, unstable, technically dirty examples that vaunt their naturalness!”. If so, we could see the rather bizarrely named Dirty Little Secret as a response – with its price tag of R950 not the joke it seems but a lofty rebuke.

For the sake of integrity of the category of “natural wine” (understood in terms of the international movement, not the local regulations), I do think, however, it’s worth looking a bit more closely at Dirty Little Secret’s claims.

Firstly – and this is the thing that would make it a non-starter for just about anyone in the natural wine movement: the vineyard it comes from is not organically farmed. That is, I presume it’s not, as we would be told that, in addition to being informed that it’s of wonderfully old (about 50 years), unirrigated bushvines. “Natural wine”, that is,unquestionably  begins in the vineyard, it’s not a matter only of winemaking: this is something that rules out a great many otherwise “natural” wines. Dirty Little Secret would, I’m sure, not be allowed entry into to Europe’s natural wine fairs.

Depending on your acceptance of the common international understanding of the term, perhaps the really dirty little secret of this wine is that it’s not “natural” at all!

Secondly, one has to raise one eyebrows just a fraction at claims of a “completely natural ferment” taking place in a well-established cellar where powerful cultured yeasts have long been used and are certainly leaping off every wall into the fermentation tanks. This is, of course, a common problem, relevant to a great many wines fermented with “wild yeasts” – including, for example, the Radford Dale Nudity which has otherwise good claims to being a “natural” wine. There are few cellars in the Cape which could claim to be free of cultured strains of yeast – perhaps the most likely candidate is Fable in Tulbagh which has not only never used the stuff, but is also notably isolated, which even a new “virgin” winery like Eben Sadie’s is not. I can’t say that this seems a major problem to me – but people making implausible claims about the situation is more of an issue.

The rest of the making of Dirty Little Secret One (it’s unvintaged for reasons not given in the press pack, but is apparently from 2015) seems to be standard low-intervention winemaking (“low interruptive” to adopt Ken’s idiosyncratic term). Whole-bunch ferment, skin contact, and “a tiny addition of SO2” – though we’re not told if the sulphite level is below 70mg/l, a commonly held maximum for “natural wine” in Europe. Then the wine went into old oak (the barrels are also “natural”, according to the info sheet, which is nice to know, though I wonder how natural or unnatural a barrel can be?). No fining or filtration, of course – though I must say this, in conjunction with “tiny” sulphur usage might be a touch worrying: the wine didn’t ferment dry – it has 4 grams/litre of residual sugar, and there’s a slight danger of the sugar refermenting in the bottle in less than perfect storage conditions. It did go through malolactic fermentation, however, which removes much of the risk.

And what of the R950 wine itself? Certainly, there’s nothing remotely “dirty” about it, from its pale gold clarity to its moderately lengthy finish. The aromas are ripely beguiling, even rather complex, but I didn’t greatly care for the palate, despite good, quite intense flavours – mostly because of the hint of sweetness in conjunction with a rather heavy, too-soft texture that verges on the oily. The acidity is good and firm and balanced with the fruit and the moderate alcohol (12.5%), though it doesn’t amount to the vibrant freshness and thrill which the best of the Cape’s new-wave chenins bring.

Would I recommend buying this wine or about four bottles of, say, Sadie Family Skurfberg or Hogan Chenin, or a few bottles of Alheit Magentic North for the same price? Um, let me keep that secret.

POSTSCRIPT
Three days later, I tried the wine again, both by itself and with dinner of a sort of Moroccan chicken and apricot stew – the flavours of which suited it very well indeed. In fact I thought the three days with air had done the wine a lot of good. Somehow, especially, the wine tasted drier (I scarcely noticed the sweetness) and the acid firmer, and the heaviness of texture was much less apparent; altogether it was more harmonious, with the beguiling quality that I noted earlier less compromised. Still lacking some real incisiveness, but much more pleasing than the first-day experience.

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