Against Description

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content to see the thing at all.”

– Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, 1964

sontagsmSusan Sontag, who battled with cancer throughout her life and wrote some of the most muscular and transparent prose of any critic, has always been my paradigm of the critical voice. She was able to maintain two opposing ideas at once and to pull off the rare feat of disinterested criticism that made her such a valuable voice. Although her work was ocassionally too stylised, camp even by her own definition, I was a precocious and pretentious 20 year old when I heard the news that she had died and I cried for days. That’s not something I can say about many critics.

Her ability in short, pugilistic sentences, to present her often controversial view on the world remains unique. In the two sentences above it seems to me that she strikes at the heart of the way wine lovers and writers communicate about our own works of art through the medium of the tasting note.

How do we, as wine drinkers, writers and (amateur) critics, cut back content to see the thing at all? Our superannuation of adjectives – blackberry, blackcurrant, blueberry, vanilla, chocolate, toast, butter, cream, vanilla – seems like a lot of content in place of real perception, like standing in front of a painting describing the colours, the type of paint, the nature of the brushstrokes, and while appreciating the technical brilliance of the achievement, utterly failing to see.

On a day devoted to books and writing, Sontag’s thought-provoking criticism reminds us that the task of the critic, in any medium, is to describe what things truly are, rather than simply describing what we see.

Beaujolais Cru 2015

The crumbs from some tables can be worth waiting on.

So it was with the scraps from a recent World of Fine Wine tasting on 9th February 2017 focussing on 2015 Beaujolais. The bottles, once tasted by Andrew Jefford, Alex Hunt and Peter Liem, were commandeered by Christina at Westbury Communications and collated downstairs at Greg Andrew’s D’Vine Cellars.

And so, on a bitterly cold February evening featuring horizontal sleet, members of the wine trade gathered to taste that quintessential summer drink, beaujolais.

This tasting focussed on the 10 leading villages, or cru, that make up a bit less than half of the region’s production. It is here that gamay reaches its apex, although, like nebbiolo in Italy, there doesn’t seem to be a wide array of international competition to compare it alongside.

Overall, the 2015 vintage was warm – done-and-dusted by 15th September – and you can taste it. Colours are deep, tannins are significantly higher than usual and in some cases alcohols were declared around 14-14.5%. So, as with many highly rated vintages, they are atypical in their concentration and structure. Good news if you want to age beaujolais (a very honourable course; good luck to you) but perhaps less so for those of us who want to get stuck in.

For those wines which have managed to maintain balance, the future seems very promising, much in the style of 2009. However, not many wines managed to transcend the heat and retain the lightness of touch that makes these wines really joyous to drink.

There was a corked bottle of Chateau de Chatelard Fleurie which did no one any favours, and Domaine Joncy Cote de Brouilly gets a special mention for being the first wine to taste like blackcurrant Dioralyte and taleggio in a glass.

My picks were as follows and they are all, to a man, better value than anything I’ve tasted from the Cote d’Or in 2015.

Daniel Bouland Chantenay Chiroubles
Spicy black fruit with plenty to chew on, but it’s not extracted or thick. Lively and refreshing with substance and balance.

Antoine Sunier Regnie
A distinctive sherbet character gives lift and the sensation of powdered stones alongside crisp fruit and a fine texture.

Guy Breton Regnie
Perfumed with violets, allied with a delicate, lithe, expressive palate. Delightful.

Christophe Pacalet Saint Amour
From his bought-in fruit, this is tangy with a lot of acidity, counterpointed by some kitschy fruit and a petrichor smokiness.

Christophe Pacalet Fleurie
Energetic, fresh, just the right side of sour. Crunchy and vibrant.

Jean-Paul Brun Pisse Vieille Brouilly
Polished and Burgundian in style (cf. Ch des Jacques) but this is long and fine with plenty of fruit. The 2015 seems to suit the Cote d’Or approach more than typical years.

Jean Paul Brun ‘Terres Dorees’ Cote-de-Brouilly
Very distinctive with a faintly reductive, wet match/damp charcoal quality. Very fresh, vibrant black fruit. Persistent and intriguing. Will be interesting to see how this evolves.

Anne-Sophie Dubois L’Alchemiste Fleurie
Cherries and earth, defying the vintage to provide ethereal finesse and the exuberant moreishness that Fleurie can do so well. Long.

Domaine Chignard Les Moriers Fleurie
Turns out these are quite famous. Well, this was lovely – stony, earthy, with petrichor and a resonant quality on the palate.

Julien Sunier Fleurie
A little wild, with some of that sherbet character in his brother’s wine that reminds me here of bath salts. It’s more noticeable in this wine. Lively, silky red cherries.

Chateau Thivin Les Septs Vignes Cote de Brouilly
Low-toned, serious, substantial – this vintage suits the more brooding Thivin style. Black fruit, long and concentrated – one to cellar for a few years, but one of the highlights of the tasting. (No La Chapelle on offer but on the evidence of this I bet it is stunning.)

Les Roches Bleues Cote de Brouilly
Super fresh, crunchy and mouthwatering. Not complex but a very finessed effort for the vintage. Serve chilled, by the pint, with rillettes and cornichons.

Domaine des Chers/Antoine Briday Chenas
Extremely floral – violet, geranium. Pretty and lively.

Domaine Piron Quartz Chenas
Possibly my favourite of the tasting – closed on the nose but the palate is superb with lots of sap and spice, intensity and texture. Tightly wound, the only analogy I can give for this is like tasting a top young GG riesling. Huge potential.

Domaine Piron La Chanaise Morgon
Polished and rich with immaculate balance. Dry finish, lots of potential. One to age.

Domaine Lagneau Cuvee Didier Morgon
Elegant with lots of juicy and a fluid, flowing texture that is hard to describe. There is a subtle persistence too. Stylish.

Jean Foillard Corcelette Morgon
Biscuity and spicy with a certain yeastiness. Long and earthy with raspberry pip notes. Fruit of the earth – concentration and flavour without weight. Delicate for the vintage.

Jean Foillard Cote du Py Morgon
Darker fruit tones than usual – lots of blackberries, very juicy, hard to resist drinking it all now but do try and hold on to some.

Lapierre Cuvee Camille Morgon
Wild and funky with rich tea notes. Superbly elegant and light on its feet. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Profile: Beaumont Family Wines

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sebastian Beaumont’s eponymous winery was the one that changed my view of South African wine. Six years ago, I had experience of some fairly tough, stringy Cape reds and fruity, but rather confected and oaky whites. Then someone pushed a glass of Beaumont Hope Marguerite in my direction. It was a revelation, and in every subsequent tasting I’ve placed it in, it has been an almost unanimous favourite among tasters.

Although Sebastian is the current winemaker, the Compagnes Drift farm in Overberg was bought by his parents, Raoul and Jayne in 1973 and was mainly given over to orchards. Jayne made a small amount of pinot noir for family consumption but it wasn’t commercialised. Some half bottles of reds from the 80s exist, but Sebastian smiles disparagingly when he mentions this. “Pretty rustic stuff – I don’t drink it.” It wasn’t until 1993 that wine production became the focus of the farm, and not until 2004 that Sebastian took over the wine making after working with Raoul for a number of years.

His first decision was to focus on chenin blanc, despite the fact that over the years various grapes had been planted. The situation of the farm in Bot River valley means the soils have a high proportion of shale, and south-easterly winds coming in from the sea, both of which favour chenin blanc. Making a speciality of chenin blanc was a smart choice. South Africa’s old workhorse is its new calling card, and the competition from the French in export markets isn’t particularly stiff.

Tasting with Sebastian at Cape Wine 2015 was a pleasure. He’s more than happy to dispense technical information on the wines, but, as he put it “wine is about subtlety and development, not immediate gratification”. It’s certainly true that some of the wines are not immediately gratifying, but I liked that. There is a reserve to the whites, and a glassy hardness underneath all the fruit that was just very grown up. The reds show great purity and varietal definition, but with some firm tannins and quite linear structures in the mouth. All of this bodes well for the wines as they mature, but this sense of restraint is also quite tantalising, and therefore quite moreish.

I was a bit sad to hear that the Old Basket Press blend based on Tinta Barocca has been phased out. However, the vineyard is very old and the yields are so low that Sebastian says it is no longer commercial to make the wine for blending under this label. Thankfully, the grapes live on. Winemaker Marelise Jansen van Rensburg is buying the fruit to work with under her own label, Momento, and very good it is too.

I loved these wines. Sadly, I wasn’t able to make it out to the farm but it sounds like they do an excellent line in hospitality, with cottages on site. Next time.

Chenin Blanc 2015

With a residual sugar level of around 5g/L you might expect some unintegrated sweetness, but this is as seamlessly dovetailed as it is in Hope Marguerite. The difference is that this is straightforward, with lots of ripe orchard fruit and a note of pear skin. Unoaked.

Chenin Blanc Hope Marguerite 2014

Named after Sebastian’s grandmother, the grapes for Hope Marguerite come from two vineyards planted in 1974 and 1978 on clay and shale soils. Sebastian picks the grapes on taste rather than phenolic ripeness as he wants “a ripe, green apple character in the grapes”. High acid and low pH are the goal here, and the malo is suppressed. On average, the wine spends a year in wood before being bottled, around 15% of it new. This is one of the most elegant vintages I have tasted. In fact, my tasting notes don’t mention any flavours, just the incredible finesse of the structure, the seamless integration of 4.3g/L of residual sugar and its long, reverberating finish. With the 2011 shown alongside, still beautifully youthful despite a touch of varietal (rather than oxidative) honey, I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the best chenin blancs available in the world, let alone South Africa. At around £20 in the UK, it’s also a very smart buy.

Chenin Blanc Demi-Sec 2013

Cheerful, breezy stuff with about 30g/L of sugar, this would make a very pleasant aperitif or a lightweight way to round off a meal – probably lunch rather than dinner. It does feel fairly simple coming off the back of Hope Marguerite, but I don’t think this is a wine that aims for high seriousness.

Beaumont Goutte d’Or 2014

Fresh, succulent and very well-balanced, this hides it 150g/L of sugar exceptionally well – integrated sugar is clearly something of speciality of Sebastian’s. Lots of pineapple and mango here, but not big and in your face – fresh and restrained instead. It has a lovely line of acidity that keeps a tanginess to the fruit character.

Raoul’s Constable House Shiraz Cabernet 2013

The replacement for the Old Basket Press blend mentioned above. Quite delicious and perfectly pitched between bouncy, commercially appealing fruit and then some savour and chew from ageing in old wood. This is 60% shiraz and 40% cabernet sauvignon.

Pinotage 2013

I shall miss being able to be rude about pinotage. Blueberries and petals leap out of the glass in this fragile, delicately aromatic varietal wine that show considerable intensity and grip on the palate, betraying the charm of the nose. One of South Africa’s game changing examples of this much-maligned grape.

Syrah 2013

Actually, not quite. A canny blend of 86% syrah and 14% mourvedre, this manages – by a hair’s width – to not have to declare the mourvedre on the label under EU law. I wonder why, though, since mourvedre is becoming something of a cult grape among wine lovers. It certainly does its work on the palate, turning a plush, juicy nose into something with a lot more fibre and granite. I think this will need another year to unwind, or a decanter.

Mourvedre 2012

This hasn’t previously been a wine I rated much, and maybe under the genial eye of Sebastian I was slightly prone to generosity, but then again maybe its the extra bottle age as I think this is the same vintage I’d tasted about a year previously. It is still in the process of coming round with a scrubby, Mediterranean leatheriness to the flavour and a structure that’s firm and earthy (without being dirty). Sebastian is holding back subsequent vintages which is both honourable and sensible, so 2012 is the current release.

Vitruvian 2011

Named after the old Vitruvian mill on the farm, and with a nod to the Vitruvian man, this is a motley blend of 47% mourvedre (I get the impression he grows a lot of mourvedre), 32% syrah, 12% pinotage and 9% cabernet franc.  Still youthful, this has generous layers of dark fruit alongside some clear white pepper notes and again, the granitic, firm texture that is a kind of hallmark for Sebastian’s reds. A powerful wine of considerable density, this is still tightly packed and youthful but with enough fruit to keep it buoyant. I’d like to try an older one!

Where Next for South Africa?

Grand horizons: the view over False Bay from Paul Boutinot's ambitious biodynamic project at Waterkloof.
Grand horizons: the view over False Bay from Paul Boutinot’s ambitious biodynamic project at Waterkloof.

It’s unusual for me to experience moral anxiety about wine, but it happened on my recent trip to South Africa for Cape Wine 2015.

I was excited by the incredible array of world-class wines coming out of South Africa, but concerned about the future of the industry. Don’t get me wrong: the wines are great, and there are many bargains, but I wonder whether some of the new-wave wines are viable in the long-term.

Shortly before I arrived, the pound was exchanging for 21 Rand, admittedly strong from a UK perspective, meaning that top bottles of wine from leading estates were listing for the equivalent of £25 in smart restaurants. Yet even allowing for the comparative strength of the UK economy and how far that carries the British traveller, this is clearly too low for good wine, let alone some of the best bottles produced in the southern hemisphere’s most compelling terroir.

When the wines of the Cape are on shown at our weekly tastings, they overperform on the value-for-money front. This week, by pure coincidence, we were showcasing chenin blanc from South Africa alongside bottles from its homeland in France. We sold a healthy amount of South African wine on the night in both stores – and not a bottle of French. Bearing in mind that many consider Loire wines underpriced in the context of French quality wine, this is telling.

Although excellent wines are being made, this low selling price may be reflected back into the winemaking ethos. A sense of good value was probably part of Charles Back of Fairview’s original decision to start buying fruit from the Swartland. Certain wineries are now using a substantial quantity of fruit from Oliphant’s River, previously not at the top of anyone’s shopping list. Many winemakers are relying on less new oak, and employer larger, cheaper formats of oak such as the 600 litre barrel, which is hardly surprising when the cost of 225 litre barrels exceeds R15,000, not to mention bottles and corks, which are being brought in from Europe on a punishing exchange rate. Undoubtedly an element of this is down to an authentic desire for less oakiness in the wine, but it isn’t necessarily encouraging to see some ambitious, skilled winemakers forced to cut costs due to the low selling price of their wines.

It seems in addition that there is a structural issue with South Africa’s business model. The dynamic group of young, highly qualified winemakers who comprise variously the Swartland Revolution and the Zoo Biscuits are busily cracking out some creative, delicious wines from across the Western Cape but with a major focus on Swartland and Stellenbosch. Yet few own any vineyards, and even the greatest of their number, Eben Sadie, is dependent on rented fruit for which he overpays, enormously, in order to secure the grower’s loyalty. For many of the producers I spoke to, their contracts are only as secure as the friendships they have with their growers. In he case of Etienne and Yvonne Le Riche, one 15 year contract that has never been written down on paper is still going strong, but such honourable dealings surely can’t be relied on across the board as the competition for good vineyards increases.

Meanwhile, the more established ‘chateaux’ of greater Stellenbosch are busily buying up land in desirable viticultural areas to produce their wines. The best example I came across was Mark Kent at Boukenhoutskloof. While fruit for the syrah has always come from Wellington, Mark intends to use the newly purchased Porseleinberg site in Swartland to form the basis of the estate syrah in the future (it is only 20% in the current vintage, 2012). This will change the flavour of the wine but it is also going to change the character of the Cape as other estates do the same.  In the case of Mullineux, now Mullineaux and Leeu, the finances of Analjit Singh proved crucial in securing a critical vineyard for their lauded Swartland operation that they couldn’t afford independently, the loss of which might otherwise have directly impaired – or at least changed – the quality of their wines.

My ticket to the Cape was paid for by Wines of South Africa UK because they can see the clear need to build advocacy and loyalty to South African wine in the UK trade, in view of the challenges from the competition in both the northern and southern hemisphere. Although I spent only five days in the Cape, it seemed that the region’s major strength – diversity of flavour, youthful polyvalence of views, myriad styles – is also a weakness. A branding consultant would advise tighter focus, and I don’t just mean a new logo. At the moment, South Africa stands for potential, some of it realised, but not much more than that for many consumers. Some of the initiatives I saw – The Swartland Revolution, Zoo Biscuits and the Breedekloof producers’ association – are building communities which is a step in the right direction of creating strong identities. But I wonder if South Africa will be able to find a strong enough brand identity for its cheaper wines, or a clear enough demand among fine wine drinkers for its more expensive wines as the competition from Europe heats up.

Aside from continuing to advocate South African wines as a retailer (which I have been doing for years) I’m also devoting the opening pages of this new blog to South Africa. I’m sure they won’t be the last.

Next up: Profile – Sebastian Beaumont