Chenin Blanc

Dinner With Jean

26 October 2013
Jean Engelbrecht at left, in RL restaurant in Chicago

Jean Engelbrecht at left, in Chicago’s RL restaurant

Although South Africa‘s wine industry dates back to the 17th century, like America’s, it encountered some trouble in the 20th. Not Prohibition, but trade embargoes enacted because of apartheid. Vintners didn’t stop producing wine, but they stopped being able to sell it on the international market. When the trade sanctions were lifted in the 1990s, wineries faced an unexpected problem. Jean Engelbrecht, owner of the critically acclaimed Rust en Vrede winery, was there. We sat down to dinner recently to discuss what happened and where the South African wine industry is today.

When the trade embargoes were lifted, the international debut of South African wines did not go well, Engelbrecht admitted. “Everyone in the wine industry then had tunnel vision,” he explained, and had little sense of what was happening in the larger world of wine. South African vintners had been holding their own wine competitions, and absent any competition from abroad, they felt quite satisfied with their wines. Isolated from the rest of the world, the industry had stagnated.

After trade normalized, winemakers wasted no time in learning about wines in the rest of the world, and acclimated to the international palate in just five years or so. But the first impression had been made. South African wines initially landed on the market with a thud, which is why — even now, 20 years later — you rarely see a South African section on a wine list. Engelbrecht and his fellow vintners have worked hard to reverse that initial perception of South African wines ever since.

I asked Engelbrecht about the influence of terroir on South African wines nowadays, since as the World Atlas of Wine notes, “Not that long ago most South African wineries, no matter where, used to produce a wide range of different varietals and blends.” That trend has recently been reversing, and Engelbrecht pointed out that not only are estates planting varieties which work especially well on their property, they are drilling down yet further, siting varieties on the specific parts of the property best suited to them. This attention to matching varieties with vineyard sites, along with the improved winemaking techniques employed since the trade sanctions were lifted, has led to the development of a truly world-class wine scene in South Africa.

Fortunately, “The international market is giving a second chance” to South African winemakers, according to Engelbrecht, thanks to American tourists returning from safari vacations. After a safari, it’s common to spend time in cosmopolitan Cape Town and in the nearby Cape Winelands, just an hour away. I haven’t visited this wine country myself, alas, but I have spoken with many people who have. The historic towns and mountain-backed vineyards there seduce even the most jaded travelers I know. After drinking excellent South African wines in this remarkable landscape, travelers quite understandably want to have some more when they return home.

I also had to ask Engelbrecht about Pinotage, a signature variety of South Africa not grown on the Rust en Vrede estate. This cross of Cinsault and Pinot Noir is controversial, and my experiences with it have been mixed. Too often I find it unpleasantly meaty and smoky. My wine books tend to agree, noting that Pinotage is best sampled in blends. But Engelbrecht described the Pinotage situation with uncommon clarity, equating it with American Red Zinfandel. “You won’t find Red Zinfandel outside the U.S.; it’s made for domestic consumption. The same is true of Pinotage,” he asserted. And just like Red Zinfandel, Pinotage is easy to screw up. “If you have a Helen Turley making the Zinfandel, that’s one thing,” he continued, but in the hands of inexpert winemakers, both Zinfandel and Pinotage can easily become unbalanced.

If you’re looking for a signature South African varietal but don’t want to risk a bottle of Pinotage — and Pinotage is a risk — I recommend picking up a Chenin Blanc instead. This white variety has a checkered past as well, but nowadays it’s not difficult to find beautiful and well-priced expressions of Chenin Blanc. In this excellent article on Chenin in the Wall Street Journal, Lettie Teague recommends Mulderbosch Vineyards and A.A. Badenhorst Secateurs, and I recently tasted a very fine Chenin by Protea, described here.

But this evening, we had gathered to taste some serious South African reds. Would they confirm that the South African wine industry had really turned a corner and now produced wines that could compete with the best from anywhere? I looked forward to finding out.

Unusual Whites At Tangley Oaks

3 August 2013

This is the way to start a Friday afternoon.After a sparkling introduction to the mansion at Tangley Oaks, we moved on to tasting some delicious whites imported and/or distributed by Terlato Wines. I very much enjoyed the grassy but well-balanced Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc, the rich and minerally Chateau de Sancerre Sancerre and the flinty, creamy and spicy Lapostolle “Casa Grand Selection” Chardonnay, but of course what I really want to talk about are odd ducks of the tasting. And there were some mighty tasty odd ducks.

2011 Cuarto Dominio “Tolentino” Pinot Grigio: I tend to avoid Pinot Grigios unless they come from the far northern Italian provinces of Friuli or maybe Trentino-Alto Adige. Too often, Pinot Grigios from elsewhere can be insipid and wan. But how could I resist a Pinot Grigio from the Uco Valley in Argentina? The World Atlas of Wine calls the high-altitude vineyards in this valley ”the most exciting part of Mendoza,” and if the Tolentino is any indication, Pinot Grigio does just as well in the Uco Valley as Malbec. It had a rich but very fresh aroma, and a lush texture leavened with focused, almost pointy acids. Fruity, but with a dry finish. Delightfully refreshing.

2012 Protea Chenin Blanc: As Lettie Teague recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Chenin Blanc “may be the world’s most noble yet most discredited grape.” Chenin Blanc has been “responsible for a great deal of plonk,” she rightly notes, but it also “can produce wines of depth and complexity.” This Chenin Blanc from South Africa certainly fits the latter description — in fact, it’s “made by a genius,” remarked Anthony Terlato during the tasting. Crafted by winemaker Johann Rupert, the Chenin Blanc had an enticingly perfumed aroma with a bit of a grassy note. It tasted full and plump, but a dry backbone and some zesty spice kept it well-balanced and thoroughly charming.

2007 Boutari Kallisti Reserve Assyrtiko: This remarkable wine comes from Santorini, which The World Atlas of Wine calls “the most original and compelling” of the Greek islands. On this unusually scenic speck in the Aegean, most vines are trained in little bushy balls close to the ground, to protect them from the wind. Assyrtiko originated on Santorini, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, which calls it a “top-quality white grape variety” with a “severe mineral profile.” This particular Assyrtiko certainly struck me as top quality. It had a sweet and smokey aroma which reminded fellow taster Liz Barrett (Terlato’s Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR) of toasted oak. It felt rich and almost buttery, but quite taut and fruity as well. There was something exotic about it too — a certain spicy, aromatic quality which I loved. Delicious.

2008 Chimney Rock “Elevage Blanc”: I don’t often write about wines from Napa Valley, but this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blew me away. I can’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion. This relatively rare variety is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” the Companion asserts. Sauvignon Gris has a following in Bordeaux, the Companion goes on to note, which perhaps explains why the Elevage Blanc reminded me a bit of Pessac-Léognan, one of my favorite whites from Bordeaux (or from anywhere, for that matter). This beautiful wine practically glowed with elegance, its creamy fruit focusing into some carefully restrained white-pepper spice. Voluptuous but perfectly balanced — a joy to drink.

Note: These wines were provided free of charge as part of a wine tasting at the Tangley Oaks estate.

Up next: The Reds.

Loire Gold

15 September 2012

I can’t yet bring myself to contemplate the vast array of cocktails I consumed while in New Orleans, so let’s start with something more easily digestible on this quiet Saturday morning: A glass of Savennières. This seldom-seen Loire wine is one of the best white values out there.

The World Atlas of Wine notes that this appellation occupies one of the Loire River’s rare steep south-facing banks, giving the wines an immediate leg up — south-facing hillsides (in the northern hemisphere, at least) receive the most sunlight and allow fruit to ripen most fully. The Atlas goes on to hail the dry Chenin Blanc produced here as “as dense and rich in substance as it is rigid in structure.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia puts it even more simply, noting that because of the favorable location and low maximum yields, Savennières produces “the world’s greatest dry Chenin Blanc.”

I find I can rarely afford to drink the world’s greatest anything. But drink I did. This isn’t Burgundy or Napa Chardonnay, after all. Savennières is hardly a household name, and that obscurity helps keep the price down. I found a 2008 Domaine du Closel ”La Jalousie” on the by-the-glass list at Commander’s Palace, and at $14 for a six-ounce (about 1/4 bottle) pour, it’s not inexpensive. But it was worth it, and in any case, Commander’s Palace is no place for moderation.

The wine, a rich golden hue, had me at first sight, and its spicy aroma with a touch of cedar quickened my pulse a good notch or two. Sweet white fruit (like pears or apples) hit the palate first followed briskly by floral notes, ginger spice, tightly focused acids and some minerals at the end. Sheer delight. Unfortunately, its charms were overpowered by the turtle soup and the sneaky spicy heat of the redfish main course, so I was forced to order a darkly fruity glass of Morgon (a Cru Beaujolais) to compete with the fish. You gotta do what you gotta do.

But you don’t have to go to one of New Orleans’ fanciest restaurants to get a Savennières, where it might not pair well with the food in any case. Binny’s, for example, sells the 2010 Domaine du Closel for just $20, and the highly regarded 2008 Domaine des Baumard for just $23. These gorgeous wines should work beautifully with non-spicy fish, chicken, pork or pasta with cream sauce.

I spend only around $12-$15 for a bottle of wine most of the time, but now and then it’s worth it to cough up just a little more. With Savennières, you’re not paying for the fame of the name. It’s not a status symbol to own or pour a Savennières. You’re pretty much paying for the wine alone, and that’s what makes it such a stellar value.

SUMMARY

2008 Domaine du Closel ”La Jalousie”: Rich, spicy and tightly focused. A little more expensive than I usually prefer, but the extra $6 or $7 buys a wallop of flavor, intensity and structure. Chill for an hour before serving.

Grade: A

Find It: Only about 30,000 cases are produced in the whole of Savennières each year, but many wine shops, such as Binny’s, will carry one or two examples. I’ve never had a Savennières I didn’t like, so feel free to take a risk on an unfamiliar producer.

 

A Meeting Of Rivals

31 May 2011

There may be an almost countless number of wine regions gracing the globe, but Bordeaux remains arguably the most important benchmark of quality. It wasn’t always so, of course. The Loire Valley once held that title, its river serving as an easy trade route into the Atlantic, from which cargoes of wine swung north to thirsty Holland and England.

That all ended in the 12th Century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II favored Gascony with generous excise tax privileges, ensuring that “…Gascony became the most important supplier of the English court and London society,” according to André Dominé’s Wine.

The Loire Valley’s still wines have languished in the shadow of Bordeaux ever since, and to the north, the sparklers of Champagne continue to eclipse Loire bubblies. But again, ”Saumur producers claim to have been in the fizz business long before the Champenois.” (Alice King, Fabulous Fizz.)

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