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Friday, May 21, 2010

Hospice du Rhone installment one: South Africa

Hospice du Rhone, the brainchild of Mat Garretson- who has sense passed the baton to John Alban, has become Spring's epicenter for all things Rhone. This global celebration is a warm embrace of all 22 grape varieties that trace their heritage to the lands that surround France’s 505 mile watering hole, 18 years strong, with this year, embarrassingly, being my first. Well, it took me ten years to make it to Disney World as a kid, so why should adult passions open to slimmer waiting rooms?

I left New York’s decaying anatomy of a tombstone skyline in the dust for Paso Robles, California, the anti-New York. It reeks of such belligerent non-New York-ness that it comes out smelling sober. A pastoral baptism in fermenting waters- God love it.

The event was a two day affair, sectioned off into morning seminars & afternoon gang tastings. I’m going to spend a bit more time summarizing the seminars (which were eye-opening, fabulously run joyrides with Rhone inspired vistas), so I’ll break things up a bit into installments- the first being a 9 a.m. wake-up call from South Africa, entitled We’ve Come a Long Way Baby! The past, present and future of South African Syrah. Technically the first event was the Rhone ‘n Bowl, Freudian slipped ‘Bone ‘n Roll,’ which I unfortunately couldn’t attend as the Hitching Post II was calling my name.

I’d be remiss to not mention than James Molesworth has done a terrific job at Wine Spectator covering the progress of South African Syrah over the past few years (he also moderately the tasting eloquently). James prefaced the tasting w/ a few words on Apartheid, touching on how hamstrung the region had been qualitatively & how dramatic the upswing has been w/ the change in South Africa's political environment. The lion’s share of vines are still dedicated to Chenin Blanc (which has moved from a purely jug wine proposition to its now highly versatile expressions from steely & fresh to richer, mouth-filling versions), but Syrah has gone from basically non-existent to representing ten percent of the total vineyard acreage. While the progress has been fast and furious, wine enthusiasts must keep in mind that nearly two thirds of the Cape's red vinifera are under ten years old. As the vineyards & vignerons mature, one can only imagine what the qualitative ceiling is for South African Syrah.

Before I get into the wines I just wanted to make two brief points. One of which is that stylistically speaking, South African Syrah falls somewhere in between the guts of the Rhone and the flash of Barossa. They tend to have a freshness and delineation that the headier Syrahs of Australia lack, while hinting at some of the beefier elements Rhone enthusiasts expect from Hermitage, Cornas & Cote Rotie. Secondly, the major impediment I see for these wines in the U.S. is a function of their raw market presence. While Syrah is such a global & highly competitive category, South African versions do have a singularity in style that was noted by just about all in attendance (most commented that this seminar was the most eye opening), but its penetration into the U.S. market is fairly spotty. I’d imagine it is a multi-factorial issue, dealing w/ business specifics of importation (most are brought in by Cape Classics), sales representation stateside, production numbers & the lingering consequences of the Pinotage phenomenon. That being said it does appear that their presence in the U.K. is relatively strong from what I’ve heard.

Fairview Reserve Shiraz, 1986
(The semantics between Shiraz/Syrah are mostly due to the Australian influence, you’ll see both in South African labels) This was one helluva Apartheid era statement, keeping in mind that this wine was made when little to no Syrah was planted in South Africa. The colors showed a faded, brick-like diaphanous rim, with the lively aromas of smoked apple-wood bacon, decaying vegetation, dark olive & new saddle leather bringing to mind a mature Cote Rotie. The entry showed a spicy, peppery lift, turning mid-weight and complex throughout the palate. The body of the wine was shapely, shaded in finesse & finely resolved tannins, with a pretty, lingering finish awash in red fruit. This was just an outstanding experience to taste an almost 25 year old, one of a kind (literally) Cape Syrah, which can only be dubbed as a tribute to an unwavering artisan, 90 points.

Stellenzicht Syrah, 1994
James Molesworth’s background on this bottle was particularly interesting to me, as it apparently was a fruit bomb at birth- constructed as a showpiece of ‘hey, look what I can do’ cellar stud, with its high class oak, polish and little reference to varietal or place. Well a bit of time in the bottle surely served it well, as it maintained a fair amount of color for its 16 years of age, yet turned the corner aromatically w/ its cedar, lead pencil shavings, black currant and tilled soil notes. The attack came on smoothly, w/ a silky resolve to the texture that turned up the poise dial well past 10, with a good tug of acidity keeping the finish long & defined. In the entirety of its experience, this bottle reminded me of a charming, near-mature claret, 92 points.

Boekenhoustkloof Syrah, 2001 & 2006
This is a producer which you’ll see on the broader restaurant wine lists and reputable urban retailers. The ’01 was still fairly opaque, w/ an impenetrably dark core. The taut, very reserved palate shows a sneaky hint of spice box, olive & black currant fruit surrounded by a foursquare frame. While a bit more character perks up on the grippy, meaty finish, the ’01 was far less persuasive than the ’06, which exploded w/ a wilder, smoky clap. Savory, rich flavors of dark plum & grilled steak pump over the bed of velveteen tannins, w/ the structure still holding sway over the wine’s opulence. A dash of black pepper stretches out the finish nicely. This is a channeled, sharply balanced wine that pays close attention to detail & should really blossom in the cellar, 88 & 92+ points respectively.

Mullineux Family Syrah, 2008
The debut vintage for Chris Mullineux is a showy one, full of warm, primary fruit the likes of cassis, pepper and a basket's worth of deep red cherries. An explosive attack fans out to a big splash, with the midpalate fleshing out a big punch of anise & spicy new oak. Rock solid & pure baby fat, with firm, yet refined threads of tannin tying it all together, 93 points.

Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards Syrah Mourvedre, 2005
I’m not sure if it was the Mourvedre that was doing the talking, but this wine just didn’t cut the mustard relative to its peers. The dried fruit character was not the most flattering, as it wasn’t brightened by the spunk & lift of the previous producer's bottlings. The mouth-feel had a somewhat austere casing to it, with its hard edges poking out in their obviously brash youth. I left this wine w/ the impression that it was a closed/dumb phase, yet I’d be hard pressed to imagine it would show the class of the rest of the flight even at its apogee, 84 points.

Sadie Family Columella 2, Syrah Mourvedre, 2005
The Sadie Family has come up w/ a fantastic label for their Columella blend & a ‘wow’ nose to boot, with its intoxicating blend of dried flowers, cedar, cardamom and a spicy array of sun-baked black fruits. The plump, generously round entry makes way for a gutsy belly of flavor, still wearing primary clothing in soft textures. The one bugaboo I had w/ this showing was its length, which seemed to die down just as things were really getting exciting, 92 points.

De Trafford Shiraz, 2007
Save the bombshell for last, eh? She was a bombshell indeed, popping and crackling from the bouquet of melted licorice, bittersweet cocoa, blackberry liqueur and sweet toast notes. The palate is best described as an enveloping presence, all in symmetry, polish and dazzling proportion. David Trafford’s Shiraz was the class of the group, lithe & dark, with tantalizing purity. I’d love to see what this beauty does w/ a bit of bottle age, 95 points.

A brief epilogue:

I had the good fortune of connecting w/ Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof, David Trafford & the Mullineux family at a barbeque chez Pisoni in the Santa Lucia Highlands. This group of bright, spirited South Africans couldn’t have been more kind or diverse a group. They were quick to acknowledge the sharp learning curves they've faced, yet attack each new vintage w/ a curiosity & experimenting verve that shows they’re not afraid to fail. While Syrah was the theme of the HDR stage, what South African vignerons have been doing w/ Chenin Blanc shouldn’t go w/o mention. Just about every version of the grape outside the Cape comes in a straight varietal package, but in South Africa blending Chenin is fairly common practice for several producers, including Mullineux & De Trafford. It is not uncommon to find a dab of Viognier, Grenache Blanc or Clairette stirring in South African Chenin, with David Trafford’s eyeing Roussanne as another potential partner (his white wine vision reminds me of Bob Lindquist’s bottlings at Qupe, particularly w/ regards to aromatic lift & early harvesting). In addition to Chenin, I sampled a couple outrageously good South African Chardonnays which revealed Meursault-like richness & subtly nutty aromas in just a few years of bottle age.

To demonstrate the contrast in styles I alluded to earlier in Chenin, take Ken Forrester’s stainless steel fermented 2008 Petit Chenin vs. De Morgenzon’s 2006 barrel aged version. Both producers are top flight (De Morgenzon comes from Teddy Hall’s private label), yet each example represents opposing styles of the pendulum. For a twist on summer sipping, the Petit Chenin checks in w/ clean flavors of straw, grapefruit, quince & fresh flowers that zip along nicely over its bony frame. The ’08 is a bit ampler than previous vintages, yet still packs all the nerve & pizzazz of the bottling, 87 points. Now the flip side to Chenin’s coin, the De Morgenzon, is the product of full-throttle, native fermentation that ages on the lees for 15 months in new French Oak barrels. The nose brings a Vouvray Demi-Sec to mind, w/ its wild notes of honeysuckle, bee pollen, candle wax & persimmon fruit. Its palate is full, fat & expansive, turning bone dry on the back end. What really keeps this from being a malo’d up battonage bomb is its buried ripple of acidity, lighting the spark through the well defined finish, 92+ points.

While it is frustrating to me that wineries like the Mullineux family still don’t have an American home, I’m hopeful that they strike a healthy relationship w/ an importer sooner rather than later. As the presence and level of representation for South African wineries increases in the states, I encourage all Rhone-aholics to seek them out. Something tells me you’ll be just as impressed as the 300 or so that attended this past year’s Hospice du Rhone. They really have come a long way, baby!

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