SA red wines: Where’s the beef?

By , 7 June 2019

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Speaking at the third annual workshop run by official producer body Hallo Merlot earlier this week,  Luca Rettondini, winemaker at Le Macchiole in Bolgheri, Italy, openly admitted that he dilutes the must of his Messorio Merlot from a potential alcohol of between 16 to 17% down to 14.5% before maturation for 18 months in 100% new oak – this a wine with an aggregated critic score of 94/100 and an average retail price of $189 a bottle (the equivalent of approximately R2 850) according to Wine-searcher.com.

Top dollar.

Later at the annual Merlot dinner hosted by Rupert & Rothschild Vignernons, one of the wines served was the Ornellaia Masseto 2015 from Tuscany, vinfication involving 200% new oak, aggregated critic score for previous vintages 95/100 and current average price being $757 (approximately R11 500) a bottle.

Needless to say, both wines were incredibly concentrated yet soft and round and made the likes of Laibach Claypot 2016 (R320 a bottle) and Shannon Mount Bullet 2016 (and R450 a bottle), top wines in our recently released Merlot Report look much more herbal in terms of aromatics and much slighter in terms of body. It caused me to wonder: Is our collective aesthetic appropriate if we are to take on the likes of Messorio and Masseto? Do we even have the necessary growing conditions and fruit material to come close?

Earlier in the week, Chris and Andrea Mullineux showed the 2017 vintage of both the Leeu Passant Stellenbosch Chardonnay (R650 a bottle) and Dry Red (R1 000) next to the previous 2015 and 2016 renditions of these wines. It was striking to note that while the Stellenbosch Chardonnay has pretty much remained stylistically consistent from year to year (alcohol in the case of both 2015 and 2016 at 14% and dropping to 13.5% in 2017), the Dry Red appears to have slowly been beefed up.

Always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Cinsault, the portion of Cab has gone from 36% in 2015, to 37.5% in 2016 and now sits at 56% in 2017 while alcohol has gone from 13.5% to 14% to 14.5%. Andrea Mullineux insists that these alterations are purely due to vintage variation, and of course the drought was a massive factor over the years in question, but you do wonder, even if only subconsciously, there’s a realization by Team Mullineux that when it comes to the top-end of the market for red wines, most consumers prefer a more embellished wine.

The other point that could be made is that the benchmark for the very finest (and most expensive) white wine in the world is, of course, Burgundy and South Africa’s best Chardonnay and to some extent Chenin Blanc bears much more ready comparison (in basic terms) to this in terms of stylistics than many of our reds do to the Super Tuscans, the cult wines of Bordeaux or Napa. Finally, South African producers might also have to admit that endemic leaf-roll virus compromises late-ripening red varieties more than it does whites.

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4 comment(s)

  • James Downes, viticulturist at Shannon Vineyards7 June 2019

    Hi Christian

    Re the SA merlots above – don’t you mean more herbaceous (herbs) instead of herbal (green mint)?

    Talking from a viticulturist perspective our challenge is yes, planting clean (virus free) red wine varietal vines to harvest around the equinox being key going forward. Extended or “adequate” hangtime providing concentration, structure and ripe tannins instead of stress ripening from drought (soil moisture deficiency due to lack of sufficient rainfall and/or insufficient complementary irrigation) and/or diseased virussed vines. “Stress in a vine causes decline over time.” Last time I was in super premium vineyards in europe the vineyards and viticulturists proudly boasted vibrancy and health which lends itself to longevity and adequate hang time/ripening. Another thing “if you don’t have latitude you need altitude” to plant vineyards, employing again adequate vine architecture to time the ripening tempo at arrive at harvest dates aiming for the equinox. For every 100m you gain in altitude the rule of thumb is you gain one week in hang time. Budburst to equinox = rule of thumb adequate hangtime.

    We still have the juxtaposition in SA. In the vineyard we are all now trying to adopt better viticulture principles “feeding the soils to feed the vines” to create improved vibrant and healthy environments which lend themselves to longer/adequate hang time/ripening. Yet we still have some obsessed with the “the vines must stress to make great wines” concept. Stressed vines (climatic stress) have shorter ripening tempo or at the other end (diseased/virus stressed) may not ripen properly at all. In europe if a winegrower talks of stress it may be because they have had 100mm less of the 400-500mm rain they normally have during the growing period (April to end Nov) as opposed to here having hardly any rain/irrigation at all for the entire year (12 months).

    I still don’t understand some vineyards where they are talked up employing some organic or biodynamic principles but then at the same time praised for being so stressed by the decisions of the winegrower/maker that the ripening hang time is manipulated to be shorter so much so that leaves in the vineyards fall prematurely after a forced and therefore earlier than normal harvest date – thus reducing essential reserves for winter and in turn forcing an accelerated vine decline over time. Maybe someone could elaborate on this ideology?

    Merlot is the heartbreak grape from Bordeaux, like Pinot Noir from Burgundy it too is a thinned skinned red wine variety finding itself here under the sometimes brutal African sun. We tend to find examples of either green flavours or “over-exposed” and overworked wines. Vineyard site selection is crucial as is the vine architecture and interpretation of ripening tempo. There was a time a few years back when grape buyers were looking for 10-15% “oumans-gesiggie” i.e skin wrinkle of the grape berry in some red varieties. If you taste individual “oumans-gesiggie” berries they taste porty. Also do we ask depending on the variety “are we looking for flavour from the juice or flavours from the skins?” Merlot being thin skinned if over exposed to the elements, the sun tends to bake its flavours and can produce a dead fruit flavour profile. Leaf plucking manipulations in sunny SA needs to be adapted to our conditions and not copied text book from cooler/softer european vineyards. Everything we do in the vineyard, every action has a resulting reaction to potential flavour profile. In the vineyards we are flavour farmers.

    Not being a winemaker I can only surmise that I am not to sure if 200% oak is the way to go for us. Maybe it works for some because it influences the wine more in terms of flavour profile and texture and therefore makes it distinctive and easier to recognise. Or maybe a 16.5% reduced down to 14.5% Alc and 200% oak regime makes the wine more consistent in its offering which is what the consumer is looking for at R11,500/bottle? Sometimes the hand of man (picking very/over ripe and employing a 200% oak regime) versus that of mother nature (or terroir) is easier to manage and the manipulation delivers a consistent and predetermined end result.

    Yes, the last two days of tasting through wines at the annual Merlot workshop and the wines presented last night at the dinner has sparked much introspection and discussion. Knowing your target market and ensuring your terroir and additional vineyard and winemaking decisions delivers a wine style so much so, that they aspire to purchase your wine.

    • Christian Eedes7 June 2019

      Hi James, Frankly, I’ve never really understood the distinction between “herbal” and “herbaceous”. That said, I definitely do think there’s a difference between “not nice” and “nice” pyrazines, the former being cut grass, bell pepper and overt mint, for instance, and the latter being fynbos, crushed leaves, rosemary, thyme and so forth… As my colleague James Pietersen says, “green is a colour” and not necessarily a useful wine descriptor – we need to be careful with our use of language.

      For the record, I’d still prefer to drink both the Laibach and the Shannon before the Masseto just about any day of the week but equally I do worry that I’ve become so immersed in our local style that I can’t see it’s shortcomings.

      • Gilles P7 June 2019

        WOW!!!!!! I just fell off my chair (should I say again) with Christian”s statement but Ok this is his personal taste. This is very concerning though given his position.

        I have the pleasure to drink the Macchiole Messorio 2006 in magnum 2 month ago. This was absolutely mind blowing wine. Nothing on the Merlot side from South Africa come even 10% close to this!!!!! Sorry to say but this is the reality check!!!!

  • Jacques8 June 2019

    I personally don’t agree with the whole version of Merlot being softer and so on so forth…..a proper or near perfect Merlot should not be green/herbal as Christiaan as elaborated that there is no difference between good/bad parazyne. Yes we need full bodied, polished Merlot with structure and able to mature however I don’t think that SA should adopt the manipulation method of Masseto to get to the level of great Merlot in World. We need authenticity and this can be achieve through good viticultural practice instead of manipulation

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