Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Finally, a second South African Wine that I like

Ever since travelling to South Africa ten years ago, and drinking local wines both at wineries outside Capetown and in restaurants in Cape Town and Johannesburg, I have been less than effusive in my praise of South African wines. I have always found them too "body-free" for my liking.  When Eric Asimov wrote a piece in the New York Times a few years ago on the coming of South African wines, I drank the Kool Aid and bought four bottles of his highest-rated red.  I rolled them out at a JRE wine-tasting dinner and my friends were less than impressed.  The first South African wine that I have truly liked was a bottle of Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc that I was introduced to by Dhane Chesney (now of Vibrant Rioja).  I have now found a second South African wine that I can say that I like and that, frankly, I can recommend.

Last Saturday afternoon I attended a "meet-the-winemaker" event at Tim's Wine Market just outside of Downtown Orlando.  The winemaker on offer was Bruwer Raats (I had never heard of him but Tim knows stuff) of Raats Family Vineyards.  The pouring was scheduled for 1 to 3 pm but the winemaker was delayed

as a result of uncooperative traffic.  When he did walk in, I could swear that I had seen him in a uniform of the Springboks, the South African national rugby team.  Without a lot of preamble he proceeded to pour the 2008 vintage of the Original Chenin Blanc, one of the wineries offerings.

Stepping back a bit, Raats Family Vineyard was initially a partnership between brothers Bruwer and Jasper Raats, with their father as the viticulturist.  According to Bruwer, after working in vineyards in Bordeaux, Napa Valley, and Tuscany, he had settled on the goal of doing something that would make South Africa special in the wine world.  He felt that this goal could be realized through his family's passion for Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.  The winery, located in Stellenbosch (outside of Cape Town) became the sole property of Bruwer (his wife works as the general manager) upon his father's retirement.  As he poured the Original, Bruwer indicated that we should be getting impressions of Golden Delicious apple and citrus.  Chenin Blanc, he said, if grown in Table Mountain sandstone, will provide yellow fruit flavors.  If grown in decomposed dolomitic granite the prevalent flavors will be citrus.  He wants to show all of the Chenin Blanc characteristics in the 2008 Original so 70% of the fruit is from sandstone vineyards with the remainder from granite vineyards.  Juice from the grapes were vinified separately and then blended to produce the final product.

In warm vintages, more granite-grown grapes are used in order to get higher acidity while a higher percentage of sandstone-grown grapes are used in the blend in cooler years.  All grapes are sourced from vineyards that are above 600 feet and are handpicked from vines that are, on average, in excess of 25-years old. 

Bruwer feels strongly that good soil makes good grapes.  While pouring the '08 Raats Chenin Blanc, Bruwer shared his views on the role of a winemaker.  Ultimately, he said, a winemaker's job is to unlock the flavor from the grape.  In order to do this, he/she has to understand the soil, know what to plant in that soil, and then proceed to unlock the flavors containd within the harvested grapes.  He is against the use of exorbitant amounts of oak as it introduces "extraneous flavors."

We next turned to the Cab Franc and Bruwer indicated that he was the only Cab Franc specialist in South Africa.  He feels that winemakers prefer to use Cab Franc in blends rather than as a pure varietal because it is even more difficult to manage than is Pinot Noir.  When I tasted the wine, I noted a burst of flavor on the palate, silky soft tannins, and a clean freshness on the finish.  It slowly dawned on me that I liked this wine.  It was  a South African wine.  But I liked it anyway.  I looked around sheepishly, sidled up to the counter, and, in hushed tones, ordered six bottles.  It was $30 a pop.

Wanting to be sure of my assessment that this would be a stellar Monday night dinner wine, I  recently retasted it.  It had excellent color and good consistency in the legs.  There was spice, black fruit, and black olives on the nose.  On the palate there was a slight fruitiness but it was well integrated with the sweet tannins and the quality of acid showed a backbone for the future.  It had a persistent, though slightly weak, finish. At 13.5% alcohol, this is a balanced wine that could serve double duty as an easy-drinking wine or as an accompaniment to a Monday evening (or any other evening, for that matter) dinner.

The Chenin Blancs were good, but did not make me forget the Ken Forrester.  Definitely buy the Cab Franc.  At $30 you cannot go wrong.

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