Owls and wine

Some consequences of going green are not easily foreseen. Like an exploding mouse population amongst the islands and corridors of natural vegetation in the biodiversity-friendly vineyard redesign at Neethlingshof estate in Stellenbosch. The rodents emerged in the dark to wreak havoc on vine-roots. As a management response, owls were understandably considered more attractive and appropriate than pesticide – though if you’re a hungry little mouse neither alternative offers much charm.

owlpostPosts were dotted around in lieu of trees in the vineyards, for the ghostly night predators to perch on (twisting their necks 270 degrees as they surveyed their hunting ground, deploying the extraordinary physiological mechanisms only recently discovered by scientists at Johns Hopkins University).

It’s a good story (except, again, for the mice), perfect for Neethlingshof’s re-branding exercise a few years back. Stories are good for selling wine, apparently, and Neethlingshof, part-owned by mighty Distell, had an image that was rather ho-hum. So, along with some modernising tweaks to all the labels – and also to the wines, making them that bit fruitier and more easy-going – the top-level range became the Short Story Collection.

The Pinotage became the Owl Post. Continuing the biodiversity theme, the cabernet-based blend Laurentius was renamed the Caracal. More insect-life, you see, in environment-friendly farming, means more guineafowl, which brings this subtle feline hunter down from the hills to breed – if not among the vines, then at least among the large area on Neethlingshof devoted to indigenous vegation.

Another good story. Whether it has worked as for sales I have no idea. To me, it seems a bit forced and corporate-designed – wine-stories are best and most convincing when they emerge spontaneously, rather than via marketers, strategists and consultants. But at least it draws attention to Neethlingshof’s conservation efforts – and to one of the truly happy larger narratives of Cape wine in the last decade or so: the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, which encourages producers to dedicate land (amidst the vine monoculture) to indigenous flora. Some 175 members now formally conserve over 130 000 hectares.

Neethlinghof’s latest bottled short story is a white called Six Flowers – the name refers to a sentimental feature on the gable of the historic manor house (a short story itself, but too long to tell now). Neatly, there are also six white varieties grown on the estate, all represented here. Chardonnay and chenin provide a good base for aromatic sauvignon blanc, viognier, riesling and gewürztraminer’s grace notes and flourishes. Beautifully assembled and subtly oaked, elegant and charming, Six Flowers 2011 adds happily to the category of wine that is the pride and joy of South African viniculture. At around R80, it’s one of the best-priced.

There’s also a riesling Noble Late Harvest in the Collection, called Maria (another chapter of history rather than of fynbos). The tea-coloured 2012 is rich, heavily sweet, and not quite fresh enough for my tastes.

Of the reds, the Caracal shows some of the difficulties of the 2010 vintage, being rather unripe and not fruited generously enough for its modern oaky styling. The Owl Post 2011, though, is a really appealing pinotage in a showy sort of way, with lovely red fruit flavours and succulent oakiness; enough structure to give dignity (and potential bottle-age though it’s approachable now); the variety’s imposing tannins are properly disciplined. And mice won’t even dare to nibble the cork.

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