South Africans (and various grapes) in southern France

One of the first stories I heard on arriving in France two weeks ago was the rumour that the much-lauded Engelbrecht-Els partnership had come to an end. It wasn’t at the top of my concerns then, I confess (though I hoped it might mean that at least one of these producers might now tone down a bit on the over-ripeness, alcohol and sugar in their wines), but the story re-emerged with a little more certainty on what is, sadly, my last day here, so I pass it on – without, as yet, any details.

Although the wine and the vineyards of the past week or two have all been French and plentiful, South African home-boys and -girls have not been lacking. In the far south – in the overlapping coastal appellations of Collioure and Banyuls, just above Spain and sharing with that part of Spain a Catalan identity – I met up with L’Ormarins viticulturist Rosa Kruger for some days. Rosa (on the left in the pic) was there to learn how best to cope with grenache, the grape she’s planting on Johann Rupert’s Swartland farm. How good is that? – a winery owner so concerned with getting good results that he sends his viticulturist to the grape’s heartland to investigate. And how rare! They send the winemakers often enough, but seldom those who grow the grapes. Though it must be sadly admitted that rather too many Cape viticulturists themselves seem not all that much interested in wine, so long as brandy and coke are an alternative. Rosa loves the stuff, however.

Then along to join us came Eben Sadie, only a little exhausted from a week of hard spring-cleaning work in his vineyards in Priorat not far inland from Barcelona, with his partner at Terroir al Limit, Dominik Huber (right and centre in the photo). Grenache and carignan are the essential grapes of Priorat, so that varietal theme continued – taking in cinsaut/cinsault in a pretty big way too, not to mention white and “gris” versions of some of them, and a few other Spanish-French Mediterranean varieties. A bit of shiraz/syrah too – but that variety was to come into its own in a splendid way some days later when we moved up the Rhone River, inland, where Mediterranean blends give way to the authority of the single varieties that tend to be more characteristic of continental climates

The next South African involved on the trip was Tom Lubbe, who worked for a little while with Eben in his Spice Route days, then founded the now languishing and much-lamented The Observatory. Tom now lives at one of the most exciting little wine villages in Roussillon, making a small range under the Matassa label and winning great renown for them, especially the brilliant Matassa Blanc (mostly grenache gris). That’s Tom on the left of the luncheon picture taken outside his cellar, with, alongside him, Lionel Gauby, the latest generation at Domaine Gauby, the great and pioneering wine producer of the region. Tom started his own small winegrowing concern here and married into the family. Lionel Gauby is a man entirely after the heart of Eben and Dominik, who are (as this visit repeatedly reminded me) tireless wine-drinkers and party-boys as well as passionate about vines and wines. (I can’t remember what it is they’re all looking at in the photo….)

Leaving Rosa behind for a few days to pursue her researches into the joys of grenache et al, we moved on to Bandol, where the grape is predominantly mourvedre. The South African presence there was associative – we had a great tasting at Domaine Tempier, where the man in charge of the winemaking, Daniel Ravier, irresistibly reminded both Eben and me of Joerg Pfuetzner, man-about-wine in Cape Town.

And then there was Chateuneuf-du-Pape, an oppressively touristy and pretty town, out of which we beat a hasty retreat in favour of a beer at a bar in Orange frequented mostly by Arabs and, eventually, a hotel room for three people which miraculously managed to fit us in – just. We were happy to move on next day to to wines we much preferred to Chateauneuf anyway – Cornas and Cote-Rotie further north, where we tasted amazing stuff, at great length and depth.

But the glories of Clape in Cornas and Jamet and Rostaing in Cote Rotie must be another story, if at all. Not to mention a long, long evening of the Sadie type with vigneron Stephane Ogier…. Tonight I am here alone in Lyon , abandoned by the others who have gone to their seminar on grenache in Gogondas. I have wished them well – but declined to join them, as there is only so much about grenache that I want to know. I had a fine meal (salade Lyonnaise, quenelles de brochet, etc, washed down by a pretty good  roussanne-based wine from Costieres de Nimes (Chateau de l’Hermitage). The meal finished with a marc de Bourgogne and with me pretty bleary. Now it all depends on some abstract taxi driver managing to remember to pick me up for the airport at 5.30 tomorrow. I hope he’s feeling a bit less fuzzy than I.

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