Getting warm, getting fortified

For bringing warmth to your wintry blood and fire to your frosty belly, you can’t do better than gorgeous, but sadly unfashionable, fortified wine. I’m addicted, myself. It’s perhaps worth starting this modest attempt to persuade others with a reminder of the basic difference between the two commonest styles in South Africa: jerepigo (or muscadel) and port (Europe doesn’t like us calling it that, so it’s usually Cape Vintage, Cape Tawny, etc).

Jerepigo isn’t really wine, in fact, but unfermented grape juice whacked into submission with spirits (fortified to around 16%). That’s why it so often has lovely grapey flavours, and is also sweeter than port. It’s traditional hot-country stuff, so in bleak midwinter it happily recalls the excesses of a Klein Karoo summer.

Many former co-ops are amongst the producers still offering jerepigos and muscadels. (The latter are basically a subset of the former, incidentally, but made only from the aromatic muscadel grape). KWV and Monis are the big merchants with fortified wines – they sometimes release decades-old bottlings, which are fine, sumptuous and immensely easy to love, yet sit on bottle-store shelves for ages, at ridiculously low prices. Grab one, and wallow in sweet, succulent, cut-price hedonism.

Standard jerepigos and muscadels are even cheaper: most are at least pleasurable, but for around R35, for example, you can get the delicious, long-lived Red Muscadel from Nuy, invariably one of the best. More pricey, mostly because it’s made from one of the country’s oldest vineyards, is the excellent 1908 Muscadel from Rietvallei, the name reflecting the year in which the vines were planted (Rietvallei’s standard version is more than acceptable too). The tiny parcel of immensely characterful, low-sprawling old bushvines (in the pic) is a wonder to behold – although it must be hellish to stoop so low to pick the bunches.

Like jerepigos, ports are made by adding spirits, but the juice thus strengthened has already partly fermented. That is, about half of the sugar in the grape has been converted to alcohol. At which point the winemaker knocks the poor little yeast cells on the head with spirits, they turn up their tiny yeasty toes in shocked disbelief, and fermentation ceases. The serious, classic ports are less sweet and sugary than jerepigos – more refined, though not necessarily better (whatever that means), and somewhat more alcoholic.

Generally brandy is used to fortify port, but if you have a modish taste for grappa, Solms-Delta can oblige. The Franschhoek winery, as innovative in winemaking as it is thoroughgoing in its social programmes, has just brought out a fortified shiraz called Gemoedsrus (“Peace of mind”), made with grappa. Elucidating how grappa differs from brandy must await another didactic mood, but its aroma and taste are distinctive, and Gemoedsrus is a delicious and interesting alternative to standard ports (R188 a bottle).

More conventional in its fortificatory methods, though not in excellence and style, is Niepoort-Sadie Cape Fortified 2008. This is a one-off joint effort between Eben Sadie, king of the Swartland, and Dirk Niepoort, the equally brilliant man who heads the great Niepoort winery in Portugal. Niepoort produced the Ubuntu I mentioned a few weeks ago, but this is from Swartland grapes – though the ancient barrels it matured in for two years were brought over from Portugal. (The pic shows Eben Sadie drawing a sample from one of the pair of old blackened barrels. ) It’s one for the rich hedonist, at R375 per bottle (halves also available).

What can I say? It has a rare easy charm which might make you suspicious as you gulp it down all too easily: Where’s young port’s fiery tannin, power, and acidity? But concentrate (if you must), and everything is there. This is the first young port I’ve had so delicate that I suspect it wants to be a riesling when it grows up.


First published in the Mail & Guardian 23-29 July, but this slightly adapted.

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