Tim James: On “light reds”
By Tim James, 26 January 2018
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.
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.
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