Thinking, and drinking, white wine

Whether or not its a useful point (and its not an original one, though disputed), I have increasingly little doubt that on the whole, and at all quality levels, South Africa’s white wines are better than the reds. At the cheaper end, modest but delicious and crisp chenins in large quantities from Perdeberg and Boland and suchlike places, for example. And sauvignon blancs at all price levels (though few are cheap any more): dozens and dozens of them offering what sauvignon blanc always offers, some with a little more greenness, some with a little more tropicality, but most of them cleverly combining the two (they do much the same, on the whole, at all price and quality levels, with a little more richness and intensity as you climb the ladder, glass in hand).

Especially at the lower price level, the reds have trouble competing, and I wonder if it’s something inherent, or rather that winemakers muck around with red wines more: they leave them hanging for longer on the vines for fear of any green flavours, then add oak chips to the overripe and over-extracted wine. Whereas the white wines are left much more to look after themselves, and are all the better for it. Actually, the same sort of overworking of the fruit probably plays a role at higher levels of ambition too – after all, it is at that level that some wonderful white wines are spoilt with too much oak.

That last point was clear both at the Platter launch, where the five star wines were available, and at a recent white blend event (a seminar for producers, a reportback and tasting for a few sommeliers and journalists). I thought, for example, that the Bizoe Henrietta 2008 (it scored four-and-a half Platter stars), a new and most impressive, succulent sauvignon-semillon blend was spoilt by too much new oak. Perhaps it’ll come round with time – after all, the great Vergelegen White can also taste oaky in its youth. The admirable five-star Chamonix Chardonnay Reserve 2008 was also tasting oaky on the day – but that’s a wine that should be put away for a good five years anyway.

On the other hand, though a lover of less-oaked wines, I have to admit that my favourite sauvignon blancs are oaked (they also usually have a good whack of semillon with them, but that’s another story). Almost my favourite white wine (therefore almost my favourite wine!) at the Platter launch was the Cape Point Vineyards CWG Auction Reserve Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (whew! the name makes one grateful for a wine called Isliedh, even if hardly anyone knows how to pronounce it). A most stunningly graceful wine, with superb natural balance, poise and freshness.

Reyneke Reserve White 2008 was not at that tasting (though it could well have been) – it’s another of those revelatory oaked sauvignons. Perhaps as the general standard of Cape sauvignon blanc continues to rise, more producers will seek, at the top end, to make something more of the variety by careful oaking. Not all, sadly, will manage it with the finesse that Duncan Savage achieves at Cape Point or Chris and Andrea Mullineux achieved at Reyneke in the few years that they were there – let’s hope Rudiger Gretschel can maintain this standard.

At the white blend tasting there was a good range of wines in various styles – I’ll have more to say in the future about what was on offer – but I was very impressed by those on the table marked with a sign saying something about their Mediterranean orientation. I can’t remember the exact phrase, but it was inevitably a bit problematic – so would anything be that tried to generalise about blends mostly based on chenin blanc (an emphatically un-Mediterranean variety), but including various Rhône and southern French varieties. One of the  most obvious of the former is viognier, a variety a little of which can go a very long way – too far, indeed, unless it’s  carefully disciplined (bashed into submission, that is, often by oxidative handling).

There were some very fine wines here, mostly with Swartland roots: Sadie Family Palladius at the most expensive end, but the other and much easier-priced Sadie wine, Sequillo 2008, showing really well; the excellent Mullineux White Blend 2008; Scali 2007 – rich, big and oxidative, one for the geeks, perhaps, but they will revel in its glory; Lammershoek 2008, and what seems to me the best wine yet from Vondeling, the Babiana Noctiflora 2008.

But I’d like to highlight the one that is particularly good value, it seems to me: the Val de Vie GVC. Val de Vie is a big Paarl housing estate for the polo-playing ultra-rich, but there are some very good wines being made there by Martin Fourie (probably with advice from big brother and MD Bertus “Starbucks” Fourie). The vineyard orientation is, sensibly, firmly towards Rhône varieties, both red and white. The entry-level wines are a bit over-priced in relation to their quality it seems to me, though very adequate, and the very good, but rather too-sweet-fruited flagship red blend called simply Val de Vie is immensely expensive – well over R400 as I recall.

But you can’t go wrong with the GVC at a little under R100. The letters stand for grenache blanc (50% of the blend), viognier and clairette blanche, and the varieties all work together beautifully, with none predominating, but with the grenache giving the delightful freshness that it so effortlessly can. It’s a beautifully subtle blend, and a great buy. Presumably the marketers know that most of their well-heeled residents, and those beyond the electrified fences too, regard only red wine as meriting high prices, and don’t recognise the greatness of so many local white wines.

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