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Tim James: On “light reds”

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There’s much to be said in favour of light wines. In fact, for a whole school of hipsters, both winemakers and wine drinkers, it seems sufficient to point out the lightness, say “Look mum! No added yeasts” and mutter a bit about drinkability (bring in beaujolais if you’re very sophisticated): if it’s light and “natural”, any wine must undoubtedly be good or better. If you disagree, you’re out of tune with both the cosmos and modern winemaking, old, and should really stick to heavily oaked cabernet at 15%.

But there are occasional dangers, I find, especially with reds, when alcohol levels hover around 11%. There’s, ok, an unchallenging “drinkability” (if you like acidity) but it’s also easy also to lose the quintessence of wine, that vinosity that includes a balance of body, weight, alcoholic presence. Lightness can indeed be winning but, unless you have all the other ingredients right, it can lead to insipidity. The greatest light wines that I know are fine old-fashioned Mosel kabinett rieslings, often with alcohol levels around 6-8% but just the right amount of extract, sweetness, fruit flavour and acid, all perfectly attuned to the grape variety and the terroir.

Simply going into your hot Swartland vineyard and picking syrah that’s scarcely ripe in order to ensure that it’s light is not the same. It might well be good, and “easily drinkable” in infancy, but sometimes it’ll merely be light and trivial.

Intellego Kolbroek 2016
Confounding.

That’s admittedly a negative way to starting to talk about the wines of JH “Stompie” Meyer and Jurgen Gouws, which were presented by the winemakers at a trade tasting in Cape Town this week, organised by Ex Animo’s David Clarke, the distributor that I would like to have if I were a winemaker. Christian, also there, has written about the wines on this website, rather pre-empting any contribution from me – especially as I largely agree with his judgements, though I must say that the scores seem to me often a touch high. More specifically, I find it rather ludicrous to give Intellego Kolbroek a higher score (94/100 – see here) than he gave the splendid Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2015 (93/100 – see here), a wine that will only enter its “drinkability” window in 5-10 years, and will do so with an already-evidenced profundity that Kolbroek doesn’t really aim at (while being certainly more “drinkable” now). I suspect this might be over-enthusiasm for style somewhat obscuring proper judiciousness. If I were scoring the two ranges, I’d probably give the Kolbroek 91-92 (and Intellego Elementis at least a few points more), and adjust the rest pro rata.

But that is partly my general point, that fashionability is one thing; enduring values are quite another. And patience with wine is a virtue that’s getting lost.

I should point out, however, that I stand second to no-one in my admiration for Jurgen Gouws and his Intellego range. In a December blog I gave him my lighthearted award for most improved winery, and am happy now to repeat what I said then of the wines: “always attractive, unpretentious, lightish, with integrity, and immensely drinkable, they’ve gained in detail, expressiveness and depth. And are delightfully cheaper than the competition.” Kolbroek, indicating just 11% alcohol on the label, confounds the curmudgeonly doubts of my opening paragraphs: it’s serious, quite ambitious, youthful.

There’s not one of the Intellego wines – all beautifully and properly dry – that I wouldn’t recommend, including the fragrant, cloudy, syrah-based Pink Moustache 2017 – almost more a lively and light dry red than pink, with  a not entirely trivial charm.

Stompie Meyer is a winemaker I often admire, though his wines are not as consistent as the Intellegos. For example, I absolutely loved the Mother Rock Syrah 2015 (and much of the range), but the 2016 we tasted this week was too oxidative for me, touched by volatile acidity, with dry tannins and little fruit. The Mother Rock whites were better than the reds. As for the JH Meyer range of chardonnays and pinots, they reflect a particular style of (light, natural) winemaking which seems eccentric, though brave, for these varieties. It’s great that, like Hannes Storm, Crystallum and Newton Johnson, for example, he’s exploring terroir differences.

I know his burgundy-grape wines have admirers, and I myself liked the Palmiet Chardonnay and, as usual, preferred the Elandsrivier amongst the pinots. Stompie is making a great many wines these days. It can’t be easy rushing around the Western Cape to this extent at harvest time and taking care of so many diverse vinifications in current difficult vintage conditions. Both busy and brave, and, when successful, making delicious stuff.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I think it is worth considering as well that not everyone has the budget to buy premium wine to cellar so you can drink when the wine is truly expressing itself as it was intended. Maybe that is why there is such a strong trend for lighter reds, especially from the younger generation. It is sad to miss out on this experience but I would certainly rather drink something that is elegant and expressive than something dense and challenging because you don’t have a cellar of aged wine.

    I think if you compare the experience of drinking the two styles now you certainly get more pleasure from the more in balance light style but I guess its a matter of preference. I would be interested to see how the likes of Kolbroek, Testalonga’s Dark Side, Franco Laurens red blend would do with some age also.

  2. Personally, as a 33 year old I’ve grown tired of buying the bigger, more “old school” wines, cellaring them very well, to drink them as soon as the oak tannins drop away – only to discover that the primary fruit is lacking, yet no amazing secondary or tertiary nuances have emerged to offset the loss of that fruit. There are some wines that I will buy to keep for the long haul because they do maintain fruit well or deliver great tertiary flavours but unfortunately, I find them to be few and far between and I think many young wine drinkers feel the same way. “And patience with wine is a virtue that’s getting lost.” – 100% true. Maybe younger consumers have become more conditioned to lighter wines because more of them are around, or maybe they’re just tired of tannins that won’t go away, or wines that they feel disappointed after cellaring. I think the generation younger than me are searching for strong varietal character paired with accessibility when a wine is first released which they believe they experience more in lighter wines. Just my guess…

  3. Very fair and important comment, other-Tim, and I agree wholeheartedly. But let it please be noted that I am far from knocking light(er) reds: I am all in favour of the move from big wines, as has surely been obvious in my comments over the past 20+ years (I remember big arguments in the 1990s with certain people here who were trying to encourage Australian-style ripeness etc). But just as if non-greenness doesn’t require a move to over-ripe fruitiness, nor should a move away from the latter require going too far for ultra-lightness’s sake. That’s all I’m saying.

  4. Balance has always been key in wine production. It’s an old adage, but it will never get old. Balance can be achieved in different ways and – no matter what style you aim for – should always be foremost in the mind of the viticulturist and winemaker. It’s when a stylistic aim becomes more important than balance that things go tits up.

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