Who’s afraid of “natural” wines?

Some are, it seems, and consequently hostile in their easy negative generalisations. Not me, though I’d be pretty wary of trying to closely define the category. But I think so would intelligent and informed proponents, like Craig Hawkins – formerly winemaker of Lammershoek and his own Testalonga range and now, I’m glad to say, concentrating on the latter. (He and partner Carla got married recently and are looking radiant and relaxed as a result perhaps of that and also of settling into their new property at Eendekuil up the West Coast). Craig revealed at a tasting last week both his widely tolerant passion for these wines and his depth of experience and understanding of them as an international phenomenon.

silwervis2The tasting was a splendid and rare (in Cape Town certainly) opportunity to taste some “natural” and well, perhaps, “sort-of-natural” wines from around the world. Talking of “sort-of”, I’d be inclined to first ask any wine-producer who claims “naturalness” if the vineyards are organically farmed, rather than if no additives (arguably bar a little pragmatic sulphur if needed), were employed in the winemaking – both are clearly, to me, vital components of a thoroughgoing approach. More and more local winemakers are, I’m really pleased to say, experimenting with some of the elements of “naturalness” – especially avoiding additives, including acid and yeast, and cutting back on oak as a flavourant. But “natural” is, or can be, something rather more radical.

silwervisOr not! The tasting I attended was a pre-“Cape Wine 2015” event most generously organised by the group – overall called Avant Garde Wines – that are producing the small Silvervis label of Swartland wines. There’s Michael Roets, who it was that acquired, in New York, most of the dozen-and-a half wines on the tasting, and Roland Peens of the indispensable Cape Town retailer Wine Cellar, and Ryan Mostert, the enthusiastic young winemaker, who learnt a useful thing or two at Reyneke and now runs the cellar in Paarl.

There were just a few iffy wines on this tasting, I thought, but perhaps the two that I least appreciated were not in the least bit weird, but rather traditionally over-ripe, sweetish and heavy Californians – two cinsauts from two producers off the Bechtoldt vineyard: Scholium Project and Oresta (perhaps they’ve since joined the great and dynamic freshness revolution in California – I rather gather the only real equivalent to Swartland-and-South Africa’s new wave). Those cinsauts were included, I suppose, to give context to the Silvervis version: the unreleased 2014 of that was showing beautifully: fragrant, elegant, light and utterly drinkable.

And there were two vintages of the Silwervis chenin blanc. Firstly, the maiden 2011 drinking very well (you can read here my account of its origins at the Swartland Revolution, and an earlier tasting of it). Then the 2012, rather better, I think – clean and fresh, but with a Swartland richness, and a balnced but subtle grip.

It must be said though, that the best local wine on offer at this tasting was Craig Hawkins’s Testalonga El Bandito Cortez 2009. This is the non-skin-contact chenin he makes, and 2009 was the first. I now wish I’d not drunk all of the case I bought of it – though I’m not at all sure it had developed or gained anything from its years in bottle; but it was certainly drinking beautifully still: lively and rich and earthy-nutty, creamy and savoury, very finely balanced. If you need an advertisement for the virtues of natural wine, this would do well.

The best foreign wines were, of course, even more exciting, partly because of their newness to me. And you don’t get much rarer than a wine made from gringet. Domaine Belluard Savoie 2011 showed what a loss to the world that rareness is: cloudy mid-gold (at a tasting like this, if you care about cloudiness you learn how trivial brilliant clarity is, after all!), apple and white-flower fragrance, fresh and delicate, dryness fostered by the skin contact; softly gently and just lovely.

Another wine I must mention, as it was also an important first for me: from the Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains (home to perhaps the world’s most ancient wine culture), made in large clay vessels called “qvevri”. Made from rkatsiteli grapes, this seemed to be a rosé – a most marvellous colour it was – and a most unique wine: beautifully dry, spicy and gripping; I could have downed a bottle with ease.

And, apart from this and that, there was more from the Loire, including a cabernet franc, La Clef du Sol (key of the soil) from La Grange Tiphaine, which reminded me happily of modest, old-fashioned Bordeaux before it learnt to be ripe and rich and stupendous. And we finished with a sublime pair of wines from the Jura – by which time I was so content and contemptible that I didn’t even bother to note their names. One was in the typical flor-influenced style, reminiscent of sherry of course, but very different and no less wonderful in its lighter, subtle effect; the other only hinting at flor.

That was a great ending to the best sort of wine tasting: one that, by reminding one of the extraordinary variety of sensual delights that wine can offer, refreshes and excites, as well as informs.

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