A week – and a future – of white wine

If I have a vinous resolution for this brave new year it is to drink more white wine. Somehow my instinctive position is that wine (just “wine”) is red; the other stuff needs an adjective – “sparkling”, “fortified” or, of course, “white”. This despite the fact that I would unhesitatingly say, if asked, that my favourite wine in the world is riesling from the Mosel and Saar valleys in Germany (“clean as steel, with the evocative qualities of remembered scents or distant music” as Hugh Johnson puts it, in words that I never tire of quoting). And my other favourite wine is madeira – mostly made from white grapes.

When I eat grandly, at a restaurant say, I like to indulge in both white and red, but eating and drinking at home (usually by myself – and then I agree with restaurant-detesting Vladimir Nabokov that eating and drinking should be done in silence and in a recumbent position, preferably on a couch), it’s nearly always a bottle of red that I reach out for.

But because I increasingly seem to be enjoying whites, I have realised that with a bit of resolution I can change my automatic grasp. It’ll inevitably make choice even more complicated, but that’s how it should be, I suppose.

The recent appalling Cape heatwave (worse for the vineyards than for me, sadly – and they’re already suffering with the recent rain which prompted too much growth, not to mention encouraging fungus) made cool white wine an even more sensible idea than summer anyway does.

On the second heatwave night I opened (as a reward for an unpleasant task bravely performed), one of my last bottles of SA Pruem Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spaetlese 1996. I’ve had many bottles of this over the last ten years, and this was a little more advanced than I was expecting – still fresh but hinting strongly that mushroomy notes woud increasingly assert themselves over the reminiscences of peach and grapefruit. Ravishing stuff, tasting drier as it gets old, despite the (I’d guess) 30 grams or so of sugar. And just 7.5% alcohol!

That sort of alcohol level makes such wines invaluable when having to drive after dinner, so I felt excused the folowing evening taking out another wine from the greater Mosel area, 2004 Maximin Gruenhauser from the fine Herrenberg vineyard – taking pleasure also from the estate’s amazing old Jugendstil label (the inadequate pic alongside is of a different wine, but the same design). More splendidly fresh and fruity than the Pruem had been (but a touch less profound), and lovely to sip in the crowded garden of Societi Bistro on the edge of central Cape Town.

For our red that night, incidentally, we bought a bottle of Joubert Tradauw Syrah, a fine, rather elegant wine (and a great bargain at R165, especially as I’m pretty sure it retails for over R100). I was prescient enough to have doubts about how the wines were being stored at the restaurant and to order it well in advance, so it could have some beneficial cooling down in the ice bucket. I think it would have been much less attractive at the warmth the restaurant was offering it.

And, this being a week of treats, I went two nights later to the restaurant that I think is Cape Town’s finest, Jardine (and didn’t change my mind), so of course I had to look out another low-alcohol German. This time it was a 2004 Spaetlese from a much less well known Mosel vineyard, Wolfer Goldgrube (Weingut Vollenweider) – but the wine was superb: defiantly off-dry with its 7.5% alcohol, but with a balancing, thrilling acidity.

Local too

But my other recent white wine drinking, as I implacably carry out my resolution, has been local. Again a last bottle – of The Foundry Grenache Blanc 2009; I was shocked to see that I’d already found five bottles irresistible, but then was not surprised, as the intense flavours echoed on an and on in happily subtle fashion.

And a little crop of Swartland chenin-based wines, which started before Christmas when I visited, amongst others, Pieter Euvrard at Orangerie (I think I like his red blend even more than the white, but both are very good) and Craig Hawkins, now making the wines at Lammershoek. I bought wines from both of them – from Craig his own-label El Bandito from the 2008 vintage; as I described here many months back it spent six weeks on the skins. Altogether Craig is full of wonderful surprises and energy, and the wines of Lammershoek are undergoing something of a revolution, without losing their excellence – I will be writing a great deal more about Lammershoek and Craig Hawkins.

Then Jurgen Gouws, another of the young generation bursting out in the Swartland and making Eben Sadie seem quite the elder statesman, brought me a bottle of his maiden Intellego Chenin Blanc 2009 to try. Definitely oxidative in style (made and matured in older oak barrels – just a few of them, I fear, there’s not much available), hinted at by some bruised apple notes, rich and flavourful, with fine, balanced acidity. It developed well for a few days once opened, which is a very good sign.

Just to compare, I opened for Jurgen and me a bottle of the Hughes Family Nativo White Blend 2009, from Perdeberg chenin but with substantial dollops of verdelho and viognier. Perhaps a little too substantial a dollop of viognier for my taste – it’s peachy, slightly heavy and heady obviousness detracts from the liveliness of the chenin; actually there’s also a little viognier in The Foundry Grenache Blanc, but it is a subtler presence there, unobtrusively adding a little weight.

Then, just to remind us that, while old-vine Swartland Chenin is immensely exciting, Stellenbosch is making some magnificent examples of the grape too, I opened one of my favourites, the L’Avenir Grand Vin Chenin Blanc 2008. It didn’t disappoint me at all – perhaps more polished in style than the Swartland wines, but with fine fruit persistence and lovely balance.

What a wonderful adventure South African white wine is these days. My resolution to drink more of it is going to be no hardship whatsoever.

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