Plank, plonk and patriotism

American wine writer Matt Kramer’s almost invariable response when a winemaker wanted advice on how to improve his wines – usually without even finding it necessary to taste the wines – was to say: “Use less new oak.”

And, oh, I agree. Probably these days one could add: “And pick the grapes earlier.” We have surely had enough of the unnecessarily high-alcohol, ultra-ripe-fruited stuff.

As to the noticeable taste and other effects of oak in wine, many local winemakers are, in effect, following ­Kramer’s advice. But not enough, unfortunately. The mocha note in so many pinotages in recent years derives from the clever use of heavily toasted oak as a wine flavourant, but it also happens at more exalted levels – and most certainly in some expensive wines.

Sometimes ambitious wine­makers seem to use that sad bit of illogic, assuming that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better. And some wine drinkers find reassurance in that the aroma of oak has come to be associated with expensive (and therefore good, by another bit of illogic) young wine.

The traditional use of small oak barrels in the great classic wines of France (especially in Bordeaux and Burgundy) led imitators of those styles to realise that wood’s influence can add complexity to a wine. Partly it is a matter of the slow oxidation that occurs when a wine is matured in oak (and the smaller the barrel the greater the relative surface area in contact with wood). But new barrels will impart some flavour too and also some tannins (the mouth-puckering component also found in grapeskins, pips, stalks and strong tea).

With time, the flavours and tannins deriving from oak can resolve themselves into something more graceful than their youthful obviousness, but only if everything is in balance. But, especially for those untraditional early-drinking wines, oak too easily substitutes for the real complexity and interest that comes from grapes.

I do not think that a happy maturation process will transform a few youngish wines I tried recently. Kleine Zalze surprised me with new releases in the Vineyard Selection range, as I have come to expect better wines from it than the Chardonnay 2011 (R65) and the Shiraz-Mourvedre-Viognier 2010 (R80) – both sweetish, upfront and marked by obvious oak. No more attractive was the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (R95), in which fruit aromas are bullied into submission by spicy oak and wood-derived tannins are surely too crudely powerful for balance and pleasure.

Even more oak-driven (but smoother and better to drink than the Kleine Zalze) is the maiden Welbedacht Patriot 2008, an unusually showy style to come from Schalk Burger’s Wellington winery. Strangely, however, I believe that, in spite of its drying hardness and green-flavoured edge, the wine is doing quite well with the habitués of flashy Johannesburg spots. Perhaps they really like this sort of thing, so I will leave them to it – especially at R240.

What a relief to turn to Water­kloof’s Circumstance Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (R150), which does not rely on oak for a spurious appeal to importance. It is big but fresh, pure-fruited and lively. Although not aiming (or pretending) to be a great wine, it is harmoniously balanced, well structured and deliciously companionable. This genuinely ambitious modesty is characteristic of all the reds from Waterkloof. Oaking here is what it should be – supportive and ­unobtrusive.

A further note on Patriot

If it’s true that Patriot is doing just nicely thank you up in Johannesburg it also probably means (apart from differences in taste) that the punters there are not disconcerted as I was by its packaging. For me, a severe design in white, red and black with Germanic gothic script has got unfortunate associations, especially when there’s a clear note of nationalism/patriotism thrown in. And apart from the name of the wine, there is also a neck-tag, also in gothic script, saying (in two of the 11 official languages of the Patria, English and Afrikaans): “Thanks for being a patriot”.

Apart from the Germanic associations, my first guess (which ultimately proved to be correct) was that the naming of the wine might have something to do with the first Afrikaans newspaper, Die Afrikaanse Patriot, published in the Cape in the 1870s and 80s. Like many newspaper banners before and since, this was rendered in gothic script.

But the backlabel of the wine didn’t make any reference to this – just has some sentimental stuff connecting patriotism to love of the land, terroir etc. And the Welbedacht website was (and remains, as far as i can see) silent about the wine and why it is so called.

A bit of correspondence with Schalk Burger (Snr) at Welbedacht did sort it out. Even if we did not agree on the to me troublesome associations of the imagery of the Patriot label, a fascinating story was forthcoming.

In fact, CP Hoogenhout, one of the most important figures in the first Afrikaand Language Movement, and the editor of Die Afrikaanse Patriot, taught for many years at the Groenberg school on the Webedacht property. Now, that is indeed a historical connection worth celebrating on a wine-label of the property – we don’t make nearly enough of our history (admittedly troubled but who’s history isn’t?) in the wine industry. And here there’s a nice connection with a wine’s origin in a particular soil.

But surely better to make the invocation specifically, without some vague contemporary patriotism and nationalism. What sort of patriotism is the necklabel thanking winelovers for? Hooogenhout’s newspaper makes it clear that his version was (utterly understandably and sympathetically to me) a pro-Afrikaans reaction to arrogant British colonial rulers of the Cape – whose own patriotism was directed back to Britain and its system of international dominatin and exploitation called the Empire. Patriotism always has a clear political meaning, and is never neutral.

The first part of this article appeared in Mail & Guardian, 9-15 March 2012

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