Homeland remains heartland for most grape varieties. The classic European wine-producing areas jealously, and sometimes arrogantly, claim a prestige deriving from traditional authority or genuine quality – and quite often from both.
No one doubts that Piedmont is the only place that makes great wine from nebbiolo. Burgundy is seldom disputed as the model for what pinot noir and chardonnay should try to achieve. Only a few Antipodeans wistfully deny that the Rhône valley produces the world’s finest shiraz. And South African chenin will have to work very hard before international winelovers take it as seriously as they do chenin wines from the Loire valley.
Many individual outsider wines test the rule, of course, but leave it intact. Possibly the only important exception is malbec. It used to be the big grape in southwest France, including a presence in prestigious Bordeaux. It has now largely disappeared from the region but remains central in many other appellations, especially Cahors, albeit without a glittering reputation.
Malbec’s place of glory nowadays is Argentina, which produces vast amounts of the stuff and sells it internationally with enviable success. It is undoubtedly the Argentine rather than the French example that has prompted the increased planting of malbec in South Africa in the past few decades, even if it is not a name that yet trips off the tongue of most local wine drinkers.
The current Platter guide lists 20 producers of varietal malbec wines; 10 years ago it could muster only four. Malbec is now the Cape’s ninth most-planted red variety, just behind petit verdot and ahead of mourvèdre.
But, like petit verdot, a lot of malbec goes into so-called Bordeaux blends, with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, usually as minor components. What malbec contributes to such blends is its deep colour, velvety softness and exuberant juicy fruitiness. When it is used alone in a wine, that is basically the character. It’s scarcely surprising that Argentina is on to a winner — such wines are not hard to enjoy when well made.
How do local examples perform? In my experience most Cape winemakers are reluctant or nervous to aim at the full-throttle, very ripe and alcoholic Argentinian style, preferring a little more restraint or perhaps being obliged to hold back by younger, less perfectly attuned vineyards.
Certainly a uniformity of expectation is not possible, beyond an element of sweet fruitedness, as a recent small sampling showed. Some wines, such as Doolhof and Mount Vernon, emphasise the grape’s showy, voluptuous side, pushing towards an almost squishy softness and sweetness. Both these wines also unusefully show lavish oak.
A slightly more restrained use of wood, with fruitiness disciplined into something approaching elegance, marks the Plaisir de Merle – it’s neither vulgar nor overly serious, and deliciously impressive. Oak is also apparent in the Bellevue bottling for Woolworths, where it’s nicely balanced with typical loganberry juiciness.
Zorgvliet, for me, pushes things too hard in the serious direction — it is a big, bold, oaky wine, with an over-powerful tannic structure. What has happened to the light-hearted pleasure?
Very different are the aims of Annex Kloof. The malbec of this small Swartland producer shows lovely pure fruit unobscured by oak. It is trim and balanced, not descending to softly lush sweetness. Like Plaisir de Merle, it is a fine advertisement for a variety that is likely to make forays into Cape vineyards.
First published in Mail & Guardian, 29 July-5 August 2011