Bellingham’s best

Johannisberger, that long-surviving triumph of semi-sweet, modestly priced insipidity, is now marketed under the “Legacy” label. Bellingham Johannisberger (named for a German town rather than the Highveld one) is what it was called before, although it is still in the baroquely curvaceous bottle modelled on either (choose your story) the Groot Drakenstein peak rising behind the old Bellingham homestead in Franschhoek or on the house’s gable.

The bottle itself can draw a nostalgic sigh from older winedrinkers who wouldn’t now be seen dead drinking the stuff. But the Bellingham brand is these days used for a substantial range of wines made by the large producer DGB and offered in less exuberant packaging.

Bellingham also decided a few years back that it would be useful to introduce a higher-quality selection in the range, as some other big brands have done, for example, Nederburg (Ingenuity, Manor House), Fleur du Cap (Unfiltered Collection) and, most recently, KWV (the Mentors). The Bellingham name appears in the palest of inks on the labels of the Bernard Series, its entry in the pricier stakes.

That name derives from proud Bellingham history. Bernard Podlashuk became the winemaking owner of the neglected Franschhoek estate in 1943. His is a name worth remembering and honouring – his Rosé, Premier Grand Cru and Shiraz were significant Cape pioneers in the 1950s.

The Bernard Series is a thoroughly recommendable range and an admirably brave and original one in eschewing the obvious prestige candidates – sauvignon, cabernet and chardonnay. Apart from chenin blanc and pinotage, it goes for ­varieties most associated with ­southern France. Viognier is probably the best known of the white ones and the Bernard Series Hand Picked Viognier 2010 is subtler than many in proffering delicate apricot fragrance and flavours.

Viognier also plays a meaningful but minor role in a refined and flavourful blend dominated by grenache blanc. It’s beautifully textured, as is the Whole Bunch Roussanne, which very satisfyingly combines spicy, savoury elements with notes of peach and flowers.

A minor drawback for me is the overt ripe richness of these whites and a dollop of sugar sweetness. It is a stylistic taste thing to prefer a drier steeliness but I enjoy these too – perhaps for sipping rather than drinking. The same character, with wood influence, is more obvious on the Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2010, though it is much less overt than in some chenin blockbusters, such as the FMC or Kleine Zalze.

The whites retail for something more than R110 and are reasonable value, as are the reds, which are at least half as much again. The Basket Press Syrah 2009 is opulent and dark-fruited shiraz, clean, well structured and pure, needing a few years to start offering the real satisfaction it has in store. More accessible, and a thing of some real joy, is the delicious, firmly built Bush Vine Pinotage 2010, full and sweet-fruited, but not overworked or overpowerful.

Best of the reds (and priciest) is the Small Barrel SMV 2009, the initials standing for shiraz/syrah (the overwhelming majority), mourvèdre and viognier (a mere drop). All the grapes come from one farm in Paarl, just nudging on the Swartland, which explains the brilliance of its understated but forceful structure. Also ripely engaging, but more elegant and streamlined than the Syrah, it’s a wine that Podlashuk might well have dreamed of making.

First published in Mail & Guardian, 2-8 December 2011

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