There are various reasons why, in the midst of all the fine local stuff offered us these days, we should look to wine imports. The main one must be to get styles and levels of quality not available here. Then there’s a trade-off in terms of cost: how much more are you prepared (or able) to pay for something different, or better? Sometimes, though, despite the too-generalised claims about how cheap local wines are for their quality, it’s arguable that you can get a better quality:price ratio from certain imports. What price excitement, anyway?
With such thoughts hovering, I last week enjoyed a formal trade tasting of Chapoutier wines, offered by their importer, Cape Town’s Wine Cellar, and presented by brand manager Eduard Payot. We tasted 11 Rhône and Roussillon wines – one rosé, three whites, seven reds, across the vast Chapoutier range – Wine Cellar imports over 40 labels. Chapoutier is enormous as well as highly reputed – they’re negociants and also own numerous vineyards (all managed biodynamically, but I don‘t hold that against them).
One other bit of relevant context: The last time I reported on tasting Chapoutier Belleruche Côtes du Rhône Rouge was exactly 4 years ago; the 2010 cost R100. The currently available 2014 costs R185. Such a leap must radically affect that quality–price balance. It certainly does for me.
I’m considering here just the Chapoutier whites we sampled. Les Vignes de Bila Haut Blanc (2015 – a great vintage in France as well as here) is from Roussillon in the south of France, made from grenache blanc, macabeu, marsanne and vermentino. It’s lightly fruity, tight, dry and fresh; delectable in its undeniably simple way. At R150 it’s R35 less than Belleruche Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2015 – also totally without oak influence, also dominated by grenache blanc, but with clairette and bourboulenc. Belleruche is a bit richer and broader, with a similar good acid balance.
I’d be happy to drink either wine any day of the week. But at those prices? Not when I’m surrounded by many chenins and chenin-based blends for very much less, speaking the same sort of language. Obviously, with different flavour accents – but, really, these rather elementary French wines (beautifully made) don’t offer enough difference to make it worth spending the extra bucks. If I were rich, perhaps – but as it is, I’d rather stretch the budget for something more distinctively interesting.
As an extreme comparison, I went to my local supermarket for a bottle of Wolftrap White (viognier, chenin and, ah! florally charming grenache blanc), for R44. I can’t pretend it’s as refined or linear as either of the Chapoutiers, but it’s probably more deliciously flavourful – and arguably with more personality, at the cost of some coarseness. There’s value for you. And, even ignoring chenin and sticking to Rhône varieties other than viognier, there are a few lovely local roussannes (eg Rustenburg, Bellingham Bernard Series), and even a few grenache blancs, with much more quality and interest than the entry-level Chapoutiers – well-established, excellent The Foundry at the same price as the Belleruche, and a new version from Leeuwenkuil (2014, a touch less impressive, but welcome; R120).
Our third Chapoutier white was the pricier (R950) Ermitage Chante Alouette 2014. According to the rules it could include roussanne, but is always pure marsanne. Northern Rhône whites always underwhelm me, I’m afraid, even Hermitage (Chapoutier eccentrically drops the H); I find especially marsanne a rather dull and uninteresting grape on its own. But some seem to admire it, and Chante Alouette has a reputation for ageing well, which might render it less enigmatic. If you want to explore marsanne outside of blends, and can’t afford the Chapoutier, you could well try the (only?) two pure local varietal versions – from Bellingham’s Bernard Series and Leeuwenkuil again, at a fraction of the price.
- 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.