Tim James: In praise of Portuguese varieties
By Christian Eedes, 11 January 2016
It’s just a trivial throw in the great game of “If” – but if the Cabo das Tormentas had been settled by Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias or other Portuguese explorers, instead of Jan van Riebeek for the Dutch, then our vineyards today (and much else!) might look somewhat different. Though I daresay they’d still be boringly dominated by the fashionable Big Six international varieties that rule the fine wine trade: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, syrah, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir (thank heavens for chenin blanc – and pinotage).
Portugal has a marvellous treasure house of some 250 indigenous grape varieties, many of which would undoubtedly be suitable for the Cape. True, a handful have been grown here successfully for port-style wines for many decades, and of late a few new ones have appeared in table wines: trincadeira in David Trafford’s Sijnn label, and the Newton Johnsons have released their maiden white alvarinho. Slightly more significantly in terms of scale, recent years have seen the port varieties being also used for dry, unfortified reds, following the example set by Port producers in the Douro itself.
I was prompted to recall all of this last week, when I drank one of the most delightfully delicious, winningly unpretentious bottles of modest-alcohol red that I’ve had since – well, since the last time I had a good local cinsaut (thankfully not long ago), though this beautifully balanced wine has an element of rich, vinous generosity that is hard to find in light-feeling wines of just 11.5% alcohol. I shouldn’t puff Fledge & Co’s Souzão 2014 too much, though, as you’re unlikely to find it. A mere 240 bottles were made, and I hope I’ve just secured the last half-dozen of them (R85 each) for myself.
South Africa’s first varietal souzão, comes, like so many exciting and sometimes brilliant wines, off vines (these planted in the 1980s in the Klein Karoo) that previously fed the co-ops’ vast blending tanks. It was made by the Fledge & Co partnership of Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel (the latter being winemaker at Boplaas, where they’re pretty used to Portuguese varieties), as part of their “Experimental barrels” range. These are wines, says Leon, “which allow us to push the envelope a little more, craft slightly off-centre, quite possibly one-off wines. I do it, so that I can have a braai wine or two for the year or try out new techniques, grapes or ‘styles’”.
OK, so you unlikely to get this wine (another vintage is on its way, I believe) but it’s worth remembering the Fledge & Co name, if it’s new to you. I tasted half-a-dozen of their wines for Platter’s this year and it was one of the ranges that gave me most satisfaction, offering both character and quality; one of the most convincing labels of the Cape new wave. The Souzão wasn’t submitted, but a 2012 Red Blend of souzão, touriga franca and touriga nacional was, and there is some of that still available at Wine Cellar in Cape Town, I know – though at a heftier price, R240. It’s a more serious, bigger and deeper and more complex wine, but also deliciously drinkable.
In fact, the more I have of the local wines made from Portuguese grapes, the more impressed I am. Boplaas, for example, makes a few which I haven’t tasted, but I have had their maiden Touriga Nacional 2012 (sourced from Stellenbosch, Wellington and Calitzdorp), and it is first rate. It was a local ringer in a tasting I participated in of Douro reds; just about all the wines were really lovely, and the Boplaas was a favourite of many of us.
Viva Portuguese grapes! This is a category I intend to explore: it’s definitely among my new year resolutions – one that will give, I know, more pleasure than some others.
- 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.