Le rouge et le noir

I get the impression that more previously doubtful critics are coming to finally realise just how much better South African white wines are than the reds – at all price levels, at all levels of winemaking and viticultural ambition. Why that’s the case is more difficult to understand. There might well be something inherent that makes chardonnay here generally superior to cabernet, chenin finer than shiraz – good though the reds can be at their best.

I’ve always thought that it’s also a question, paradoxically, of winemakers being less ambitious with their white wines than their reds. That is, they don’t mess around as much with the former, while they’re so keen on impressing with the reds that they over-ripen, over-extract, over-oak, generally overwork the black grapes, while the white wines are less imposed upon and can consequently show some more freshness and grape-derived character.

There is more to it than that, but I was reminded of this idle theory of mine when tasting a small range of Australian wines made from unusual varieties – stuff ranging from aglianico to verduzzo that Angela Lloyd generously shared with some colleagues and friends. There were three whites, which were all rather good (especially a Soumah Savarro, from savagnin, balanced, fresh and delicious at just 12% alcohol). And half a dozen reds which I find pretty nearly all ghastly, fitting into the most caricatured idea I have of Australian wines: sweetish, ultra-ripe, soupy. Now, I have of course, had one or two very good Australian reds, but I’ve had a whole lot more very good good Australian whites: rieslings and chardonnays particularly.

So it seems to me there’s something similar happening there.  And I don’t think it’s just me, and it’s certainly not that I prefer white wines to red; on the whole (German riesling apart), I don’t. It’s not the same thing in France, for example, where in the warmer south the reds are perhaps lovelier, to my mind and palate, than the whites; or, at least, equally as good.

This red:white confrontation came to the forefront of my mind again recently, when I tasted (with Angela Lloyd, in our regular joint sampling of new releases) two new Woolworths wines. I came to them expecting a lot, as they were offered as special selections of Woolies’s veteran wine-man Allan Mullins and I have a lot of respect for the range assembled (and even often partly created, in terms of final blend assemblage) by Allan and Ivan Oertle. My Song, the two wines are called, and there’s a Red and a White.

The Red is a 2009 merlot-based Bordeaux blend from Spier, and very much in the Spier style – notably ripe and oaky, the oak adding some sweet effect. Big, rather tannic, with a whack of acid trying to compensate for the lack of genuine freshness in the wine. Very standard modern Stellenbosch stuff, really, well made but of little interest – and there’s nothing wrong with it at all if you like this style. Except the price tag of R200 (R199.95 if you want Woolworths irritating actual price). Neither Angela or I could see this wine going anywhere useful if you laid it down for a few years. You can do vastly better for the price – for half the price, in fact – and I’d have thought Allan Mullins could have done vastly better for a wine being offered as “the ultimate creative expression of my blending passion together with dynamic, talented and like-minded Winemakers”.

The White we found much preferable (though Angela was a little less appreciative than I – for one thing she thought it a trifle oaky), though also expensive at R170. It’s a 2012 blend of sauvignon blanc from Reyneke and semillon from Cape Point, which is an interesting idea to start with. Beguiling aromas, with touches of both blackcurrant and lemon, then a rich and flavourful but vibrant palate. The trouble is that it has been released far too young, which was stupid and greedy of Woolworths, especially as it costs a hefty R170. If they’d held it back another year it would have been that much more harmonious as well as more complex. (If you want a white blend from Woolworths, I’d suggest getting two and a half bottles of the  DMZ White from De Morgenzon, or you might still find the brilliant Spectrum White 2009 from the then Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards.)

All in all, not to my mind the sort of wines that should be coming out with this sort of imprimatur from Allan Mullins. He’s been partly responsible for so much excellence at Woolworths that it’s difficult to work out why he didn’t do better than this. But maybe I’m just wrong in thinking that his tastes in wine are not really served by a showy but dull red and an immature white.

And I don’t think in this case we can blame or credit only the Cape terroir for the white being so much better!

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