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Tim James: On Samuel Pepys and home blending

August 15, 2016
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 2 Comments

This is not at all what I intended to write about. In fact I had almost finished an earnest and highly enthusiastic little piece for you about Portuguese varieties in South Africa – but then I had my supper and felt it my duty to accompany it with some of my today’s Platter wines. And, well, the wines were so delicious that I perhaps had too much of them, and then, intending to top up my glass with one of the bottles beside me, I mistakenly used the other one instead.

The result was … spectacular.

Of course, then I had to repeat the experiment in various proportions, to the point where I no longer feel capable of crafting a judicious concluding paragraph about touriga nacional and the vital necessity of planting more Portuguese varieties in the Cape and making more delicious wines from them. Instead, I’m wondering about my (and, I’m sure, your) austerity when it comes to improper mixing of stuff.

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys.

Actually, I’d started thinking about unacceptable liquor mixing over breakfast this morning. I’m happily working through (over breakfasts) the famous 17th century diary of Samuel Pepys. He’s a delightful man in many ways – loves food and wine, and is always taking vows to abstain from the latter (though beer doesn’t seem to count). This morning (ie my own this morning, for Pepys it was 21 October 1663), he said: “… my belly being full of small beer, I did all alone, for health’s sake, drink half a pint of Renish wine at the Stillyard, mixed with beer.”

Can you believe it! Presumably a Rheingau riesling (vintage 1662? I wonder if it was a good one) mixed with beer! For his “health’s sake”! It’s ages since I’ve been tempted to use so many horrified exclamation marks in close proximity.

But my indignation is really my point, this revelatory evening. I am a paid-up terroirist, for one thing, with the T-shirt, and only really approve of wines that purely reflect their origins in terms of soil and aspect. Etc. Furthermore, I think it shocking that the 85% rule allows a wine with up to 15% of another variety to still be labelled as a pure varietal wine. Even worse is the travesty of terroir (which surely must include weather as well as climate) which allows a 15% blending of a different vintage in a wine!

And yet. Tonight I have (and I’ve just done it again and sipped very satisfactorily) been mixing (equal proportions proved best), the following two wines:

  • DeMorgenzon Vine Dried Chenin Blanc 2011, a Stellenbosch wine with 151 grams per litre of residual sugar
  • Skinny Legs Special Rendition 2014, a radical skin contact wine made from muscat de Frontigan

Actually these remarkably different wines had two things in common: first, a lovely old-gold colour (the Skinny Legs deeper and more orange, I suppose); secondly, alcohol levels of 12.5%. Incidentally I’m not sure if either or both of these wines has yet been released, in case you might be tempted to repeat my brilliantly successful experiment.

Both had been thoroughly appreciated by me as individual wines. How dare I confess that it was the appallingly forbidden coupling of the two that was to keep me filling my glass and lead me to writing this nonsense? My apologies to fine winemakers Carl van der Merwe and Kyle Dunn. But the lovely muscat aromas and mineral austerity of the one wine merged so perfectly into the gorgeous soft richness of the other … so seamlessly, so uniquely, so rewardingly deliciously.

Does this mean I’m becoming one of those dreadful people who thinks that “it’s what’s in the glass that counts”? I trust I shall have been restored to my senses by the morning.

I’m sure Pepys will help, over breakfast. No more dreadful mixtures by mouth for him, I hope: he’s been having a continuing attack of constipation and needing to fart (“my body I find being still bound and little wind”); his physician has prescribed various enemas – one of which involves “A pinte of strong ale, four ounces of Sugar, and two ounces of butter”. I trust it helps, and he no longer feels impelled to mix riesling and beer for his health’s sake. One you start this promiscuous mixing, well, anything can happen to society.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes 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.

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2 Comments

  1. Tim JamesAugust 15, 2016 at 3:53 pmReply

    Thanks very much for the enlightenment, Peter. Makes more sense now.

  2. Peter MayAugust 15, 2016 at 12:41 pmReply

    small beer was very low alcohol, basically it was brewed as a way of sterilising water and was drunk in place of water by all including children, indeed schools had an onsite brewery to provide to scholars.

    I suppose Pepys mixing wine with small beer would be much like todays spritzer.

    Blending wine at home can be a revelation!

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