By Celia Strong
When it comes to trying new wines, finding a new favorite can be very subjective — partly because one person’s new favorite wine may or may not be the next person’s new favorite, or partly because some people aren’t looking for new favorites. Many people like having a lot of different wines in their tasting repertoires so they have choices when needed, but no real favorites. Some wine drinkers have lists of what they like, but the choices they make change depending on weather, day of the week, who they’re drinking with, what they’re eating, and other variables. These all sound like good reasons for trying new wines; something good will come of it.
This week there will be more tasting, more new wine, and more learning about the three “w’s”: where the wine is from, what kind of grape it is, and winery information.
Where: South Africa
South African wine history dates back to 1659, with the Dutch East India Trading Company. Their first vineyards were on the western, Atlantic Ocean, coast of the country. This area is now known as the Western Cape, the fourth largest province of nine total in South Africa. Cape Town is the capital of the province and the province is responsible for making the majority of all South African wines. Yearly production for the country is over 270 million gallons per year — that makes them among the top 10 producers in the world. Within the Western Cape region, or Geographical Unit as their wine laws call it, there are smaller regions, and below these there are districts and then wards. The Western Cape includes the regions of Constantia, Stellenbosch, and Paarl, probably the best known, for us at least, of the country’s wine areas. Our wine this week is from the Western Cape — a Geographical Unit that was established in 1993.
Despite a range of distinct micro-climates and soil types in the Western Cape, growing grapes in this area can be trying. The vines are trellised to let their leaves grow upright. This allows plenty of sunshine to get to grapes with just enough coverage to keep them from getting sunburned. At harvest time, heat can be a problem so it is not uncommon for wineries to harvest at night in cooler temperatures.
Irrigation is necessary in most vineyards because of low rainfalls. Slowly, vineyard managers are learning that some water stress on the vines can produce higher quality grapes. In addition, vineyard pests like mealy bugs, downy and powdery mildew, botrytis near harvest time (botrytis is only good if they want to make dessert wines), and other hazards are all part of every year’s worries. But, still, great wines come from the Western Cape.
What type of grape: Chardonnay
Even though it is one of the most widely planted white varieties in the world, Chardonnay is still a relatively new variety in South Africa, really only getting established there in the last two decades.
At first, the Chardonnays grown in South Africa were really not even Chards but another, lesser variety. It was an effort to start making “authentic” Chardonnays. It is now the third most planted white variety in the country and has become one of their most popular exports.
Chardonnay has found a unique set of flavors in South African, and in Western Cape wines. in particular. Fermenting and/or aging Chardonnay wines in oak barrels is the most popular way to enhance the flavors in these wines. For beginning winemakers, over oaking is an easy misstep, and what are considered to be good Chardonnays take some experience to learn how to make.
In addition to the wood, cinnamon, nutmeg, toast, nutty flavors that most Chardonnays can develop, South African Chards can develop spicy, exotic characteristics like mango, pineapple and coconut as well as floral notes. These wines are fruity and delicate with crisp acidity and they are very food friendly. Some South African winemakers are trying blends of Chardonnay with Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc with success as well.
Winery: Fleur du Cap
“The flower of the cape. The cellar in the mountains,” as the Fleur du Cap winery Die Bergkelder is known, was built in 1968, in Stellenbosch. It was the first mountain cellar in South Africa and was named after the annual clay pigeon shoot.
The Bergkelder has established itself as an innovator in this country’s wine industry. During the 1970’s, it was a driving force encouraging the planting of classic European varieties — Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Die Bergkelder is more than just a wine cellar, though. It has a wine museum, an extensive wine shop, tours limited to 25 guests, and more. In 1979, the winery was the first producer to use small, new French oak casks for maturing its wines. In 1998, the winery launched a set of wines, Fleur du Cap, that was unfiltered, unique at the time, with the intention of maintaining the absolute flavors and varietal characters of each grape. Currently the Bergkelder makes over 12 million liters of wine each year. (Doing the math here, 12 liters is more than 3 gallons. So 12 million liters is over 3 million gallons. A lot of wine, for sure!)
Today, a tasting of Fleur du Cap at the Bergkelder is still a completely unique event. Die Bergkelder has a close affinity to its surroundings, including many unrefined salts in its proximity. They offer a wine and salt tasting. They make small, savory little tastes, from local ingredients, many cured with local salts, and taste them with five wines. The food morsels are served on salt blocks. A Sauvignon Blanc is tasted with sulfuric salt. A Chardonnay with green olive pesto and Black Lava salt. A full bodied Merlot goes with prosciutto or chicken liver pâté with Murray River salt. The Cabernet with sun dried tomatoes, aged Gouda cheese and Khoisan salt. And, last, the late harvest wine with Malden salted fudge. It would be nice to think we might be able to replicate these tastings, but I’m sure at least one trip to Die Bergkelder for research is needed.
The grapes for this week’s Fleur du Cap Chardonnay were picked from mid-February to early March. Then small amounts of the whole were each handled in specific ways to enhance the flavors and textures of the final wine. Twenty percent was fermented in tanks and completed in 80 percent French oak and 20 percent American oak barrels. The other 80 percent of the wine was fermented in tanks with 50 percent French oak and 50 percent American oak staves. Both the 20 percent of the wine and the 80 percent were kept in contact with wood for six months and stirred repeatedly with their lees.
The aromas of this Chardonnay include melon and lime and stewed fruits and hints of oak spices (the cinnamon, nutmeg, nuttiness we mentioned earlier). This wine has great finesse, acidity and balance. And it will drink wonderfully — now and for a couple of years more. It will go well with rich white sauces, seafood and shellfish, fried foods, cheeses, and more. Maybe even salty foods?
Yours to try for $9.99. Enjoy.