The Italian connection

For about 75 years KWV controlled the South African wine industry, the decline of its rule more or less coinciding (fittingly) with the coming of formal democracy to the country. Among the many bad aspects of the KWV reign (there were also positives) was its neglecting to introduce a wide range of grape varieties suitable to the Cape’s climate. We’re still stuck with a lot of sameness.

If KWV had been more oriented towards quality, where would they have found interesting varieties? In vineyards around the Mediterranean, of course, perhaps especially in central and southern Italy. More latterly, a few Italian varieties have been planted here, although as yet we have seen no releases from the southern peninsula or Sicilian varieties like aglianico and nerello, which should do well on our own sunny slopes.

Somewhat infuriatingly, an Italian variety more experimented with here is the unlikely nebbiolo, the home of which is in the cool hills of near-Alpine Piedmont (its name comes from the Italian word for fog).  Steenberg makes the best of the few varietal nebbiolos but, in fact, this aristocratic grape
has so far been most successful here when mingled democratically in blends. The same is true for sangiovese, the great Tuscan variety at the heart of chianti.

The best of these few blends is the leader of the Nederburg pack, Ingenuity Red, a fine combination of mostly sangiovese and nebbiolo, with a dash of barbera, another northern Italian variety. Certainly it’s one of the more unusual wines at the top end of local reds. The current release, 2007, is the third and best yet, confirming that winemaker Razvan Macici is fully in command of the style, having somewhat toned down the overt presence of oak. The bottle is unfortunately designed to look prettily reminiscent of the traditional Chianti flask, but curvily impossible to lay on its side and submit to stacking – unfornuately, because Ingenuity will well repay a few more years in bottle, and should last for longer still. Actually, I believe that the current bottle is to be replaced by something more standard after the next release – not because of protests like mine, but because the French producers are deleting it from their list.

Another fine mix of the same Italian varieties, though it also takes in some French grapes, is Hannibal from Bouchard Finlayson.

Two Italian-owned local wineries have – unsurprisingly – been inspired to make wines with grapes from la patria. Those of Idiom are altogether too ripe, powerful and sweet for my taste but Morgenster, owned by magnate Giulio Bertrand, offers some that appeal more (although the winery’s flagship remains the Bordeaux blend going simply by the estate name). The two reds, in fact, include substantial
contributions from cabernet and merlot, and neither would easily be mistaken for Italian wines, certainly not Italians in the classic mould. They are undoubtedly modern, driven by very ripe fruit, with firm tannins that are as cashmere-soft as we have come to expect from Morgenster.

Both are named after famous operas. Nabucco is the grander of the two (as it should be at about R300), with a majority contribution from nebbiolo giving a sour cherry succulence and tannic power. Tosca, featuring sangiovese and costing R100 less, is also serious, dry and well structured, but the generous fruit is more elegantly accessible in youth (both of these will beneficially age a good few years, I’d guess).

The Grape team tasted them recently and we collectively gave them both scores of 17/20 – though, tasting them later at leisure, I was more struck by the ripe, rich fullness making them rather less refreshing than I’d have liked – and I would reduce the score by a half-point each, maybe more. Possibly the problem was that they had risen to room temperature on a warm evening, and I had neglected my own advice to drink red wine cooler than that. So I’d recommend drink them not too warm in order to maximise the elegance and minimise the plumpness.

The third of Morgenster’s Italian Collection is a particular delight – a rosé (rosato?) named, with a sideways shift in the cliché, after a famous tenor and made wholly from sangiovese. At about R80, Caruso 2010 is possibly the priciest local rosé but it’s also possibly the best – wholly untrivial, with enough weight and savoury interest to avoid the sneers of the more dourly serious wine-lover, and enough charm and spicy, cherried fruitiness to please everyone else. (The Grape team scored it 15.5.) The gorgeous shade of pink (like 1960s’ lipstick) used on the label and bottle capsule just adds to the pleasure.


This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 5-11 November 2009

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