Liking the lesser wines

What sort of wine would Mies van der Rohe have liked I wondered, while thinking somewhat exasperatedly about form and function in wine (though that’s a high-falutin way of describing my grumpiness). “Less is more” was the great architect’s aphoristic gift to the world’s stock of indispensible clichés and it certainly applies to wine.

Mies would surely have preferred in wine as well as buildings a simple construction with structural integrity rather than a grandiose affair whose lavish decoration overwhelms both itself and its audience.

Vinous excessiveness consists most often in inappropriately gushing sweetness, flavours of ultra-ripe grapes and too much evidence of the new, toasted oak barrels in which the wine matures. It’s an approach still found much too often, and not only in South Africa – doubtless partly because generations of new wine-lovers worldwide are less acquainted with the classic wines of Europe than with the sweet unsubtlety of fizzy drinks.

Many have grown to associate especially oakiness with expensive wine. So when a hitherto modest winery (like co-ops and former-co-ops) decides to go for a grander and more expensive image, it is often oak that that they think of first. Take Swartland Winery. No matter that it’s surrounded by some of the most exciting developments in Cape wine, where the most ambitious producers are increasingly shunning new oak barrels in favour of allowing a pure expression of grape and the place it’s grown. Swartland Winery’s new top-level, small-volume Bush Vine range is characterised as much by its obvious oaky aromas and flavours as by alcoholic power.

Many will enjoy the ripe, very sweet-fruited softness, and take the oakiness as a sign of sophistication. Others, like me (and a wine-drinking ghost of Mies), will think how much better, and above all more refreshing, they would be with cleaner, finer lines.

Of the Swartland Bush Vine reds, I prefer the Shiraz to the Pinotage and the Cabernet. Shiraz is now firmly associated with the best that area can produce, and this wine shows, beneath the excesses, hints of the typical scrubby, herbal notes and, above all, the refined tannic structure which so many producers are going to the Swartland region to find.

I noticed something similar at the Shiraz Showcase recently held in Cape Town. Wellington Wines (a recent merger of Wellington and Wamakersvallei Co-ops) produces two wines from shiraz. The standard version is pleasant, unpretentious and tasty (but beware the alcohol level). The grander version under the La Cave label is altogether richer and more oaky and showy. I myself would rather drink the ordinary wine, even if I couldn’t get two bottles for the R100-plus the La Cave costs.

With another pair of wines I was less certain that I could make the easy generalisation of  preferring the cheaper wine. Strandveld, near Cape Agulhas, has the Cape’s most southerly vineyards, and the sea-wind coolness helps streamline the wines. The cheaper First Sighting Shiraz 2009 is good value at around R80 – rather elegant, with restrained but delightful flavours, and fresher and drier than most.

At twice the price, the Strandveld Syrah has more complexity and interest, and a finer, firmer structure. It has a little more new oak influence in its make-up, but neither wine shows the flavour of wood, and nothing imposes. And, oh, how much that lack makes for more.


Some other recent tastings involving shiraz, with Angela Lloyd:

Knorhoek. Two pleasant 2009 wines from this Stellenbosch producer. The Shiraz has an attractive spicy, lightly tobaccoesque nose. Good sweet fruit on palate, with powerful tannin, and a sweet-sour finish. 14.5/20. The Pinotage has a good varietal nose, with the bonus of not being at all mammy. It’s light and fruity, with medicinal-herbal notes; moderate tannins; but also a sour-sweet finish. 14/20. These are both fairly lightweight wines, and basically rather ordinary, but at decent prices – at least if bought ex-farm: R70 and R65 respectively.

Graham Beck Chalkboard Series. The Series #3 Cabernet Sauvignon has done very well recently, with Veritas Double Gold as well as a very solid five stars from Platter. It seems likely that the bottle Angela and I tasted was not a good one – I suspect it might have suffered from some cork-permitted oxidation that we didn’t pick up. Although we found decent varietal nose, with some oaky tobacco and spice, the palate was devoid of fruit – very dried out and tannic. We scored it low (13.5) but clearly there was a problem. This is the sort of problem wine producers hate – when there’s something wrong, but it’s not clear that there is, unless you happen to know the wine – as this is a new wine, we, of course, did not know what to expect. The Chalkboard Series 4 Shiraz 2008 we did like, however. Attractive clean leather and spice aromas, the palate with a lightly fruited charm, quite seriously structured and  supportively oaked and a lengthy finish – even elegant. The forceful tannins, we think, will get more harmonious in a few years and the wine shoould rate higher than the 16.5 we gave it.

The main part of this article first published in the Mail & Guardian, 7-13 October 2011

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