Craven wines, with a digression on bitterness

Jeanine and Mick Craven – a great pic stolen from

Mick and Jeanine Craven offer the main Stellenbosch outpost of radical natural(ish) winemaking in the Cape – its domicile being the Swartland – though there are others there, notably the Winery of Good Hope, who include such wines among their ranges. I add the “-ish” bit to “natural” (and the scrupulous Cravens would too)  as organically-farmed grapes should be seen as a vital component of the movement/set of practices that generally goes under the “natural” rubric. What Mick and Jeanine offer, then, in pretty small quantities, is early-picked freshness, spontaneous fermentation, some skin contact for white wines as well as red, minimal intervention (just a dash of sulphur at bottling, usually), and early maturation in old oak barrels. Honest stuff, no means cheap, but fairly priced.

It makes for attractive and very drinkable wines, as I was reminded when tasting their 2016 releases recently. The following notes reflect the order in which I tasted the wines.

Clairette Blanche 2016 (about R150), It’s a pretty neutral grape variety this, usefully drought-resistant, with (Mick points out) most of the flavour in the skins, so they use a mix of whole-bunch-fermented and skin-contact wines – about 60% of the latter, giving good aromas and flavour and a nice bit of tannic bite. It’s very light at 11% alcohol, but just about satisfactorily vinous. Fresh goes without saying….

Chenin Blanc “Karibib” 2016 (a little more than the Clairette). A new addition to the Craven portfolio, made from Polkadraai Hills fruit. A winning lightness to it, but with a degree more alcohol (at 12%) than the Clairette, which gives a balance/weight that I prefer. Bright and succulent, with a long-lingering finish. I love it.

Pinot Gris 2016 (pushing R200). Fermentation on the pale-red (“gris”) skins gives the wine its delightful orange-rosiness and no doubt contributes to its gorgeous aromas and pleasing flavours with a dry, slightly herbal note. And actually quite a shot of tannin. The 2016 is riper than I remember this wine being before, with an alochol of just over 13% – pretty heady stuff for the Cravens! I wonder if the skins also contribute the edge of bitterness that I found.

A digression
On which note, a digression…. I’ve always found my experience of bitterness unreliable, though I seem to get it more often than most people I taste with. One day I’ll find it in a wine, and not the next. I’m at present working through Jamie Goode’s excellent new book on the challenges of wine tasting, called I Taste Red, and recently arrived at some discussion of bitterness. Firstly of relevance, he says that “there are many chemical compounds that elicit bitter tastes, with quite different structures”; and he cites a researcher who “thinks that about one-third of people do not seem to get bitterness in wines at all”; there’s clearly a genetic factor working here. Which means that just because I found a bit of problematic bitterness in the Pinot Gris on the day doesn’t mean that you will. (I hope to do a review of Jamie’s book shortly.)

Cinsaut 2016 (pushing R200). Another new wine, this one from “a breath-taking vineyard up on the the Bottelary Hills”. Destemmed, which is unusual for the Cravens, but they say it helps retain acidity, which is useful for cinsaut. A little more challenging and characterful than many cinsauts, which can tend to be a bit facile, and quite the opposite of jammy. Beautifully dry, good balance; fresh and lively, but I’d ideally leave it in bottle for a year or three before drinking. A good addition to the Cape’s range.

Pinot Noir “Faure Vineyard” 2016 (pushing R200). As usual, from Jeanine’s family farm in Faure, Stellenbosch. A shy, light version, this, and not for keeping, I’d suggest. My least favourite of the bunch: I found it a little too austere, low on fruit and charm, with dry tannins.

Syrah “Faure Vineyard” 2016 (well past R200). Whole-bunch-fermented, off a rocky site. An excellent, successful example of an early-picked, light (just over 12% alcohol) syrah, that shows no greenness (not to me, anyway), is aromatic, fresh, charming and bright, but with good fruit and a supple, subtle succulent tannin structure. I’d love a look into the future to see how this will develop. I certainly wouldn’t gamble on it doing much beyond five years, but I confess that’s mostly a gut feeling.

Syrah “The Firs Vineyard” 2016 (price as for Faure version). From a Devon Valley site, made in the same way as the Faure version, but pretty different. My notes seem a bit contradictory, which is no doubt more my fault than the wine’s, though I do think it is less “together”, less complete than the other, and somehow tougher. It’s a touch lighter, but the aromas offer more fruit, though the palate has less intensity (but has a richer texture). Clearly I preferred the Faure one at this tasting, but there’s much interest here, and I could imagine liking this one too….

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