So I am in South Africa again. This time, I’m spending a few days in Franschhoek, with the aim of getting under the skin of this region. I’m staying with Kevin Swart of Black Elephant Vintners, a relatively new enterprise in the valley. I met Kevin through his brother Gary, who is a colleague of my wife’s (working in international aid and development) and who has been to dinner a few times at our place. Kevin has got together a few small producers who chipped in for my plane ticket, and I agreed to come here to take a look at a side of Franschhoek that most international guests don’t see. We’ll also be doing a technical tasting, and there will be a session where I’m asked to give feedback. This sounds interesting.
Kevin Swart and his parrot
‘The advantage of this valley is that it is beautiful and it has lots of visitors,’ says Kevin. ‘The disadvantage of this valley is that it is beautiful and it has lots of visitors,’ he adds. If you can make wine here you can sell it. So is it true that Franschhoek is good for restaurants but not good for wine? Are the terroirs here suitable for fine wine production? Ask me in a few days and I’ll be able to give a slightly more informed answer.
This morning I Kevin, his wife, Gary and I went for a beautiful 6.5 km run around the valley. It really is quite a stunning setting.Mr Singh (of Mullineux) has been buying up quite a bit of property here. Richard Branson has bought a wine farm. It looks very successful. It’s peaceful and there are no electric fences or razor wire. But I’m interested in the wine.
I arrived yesterday, and spend the day with Black Elephant. Kevin’s winemaker and business partner Jacques Wentzel joined us and we tasted through the range. So far so good: the Amistad Syrah, Amazing Grace Cabernet Sauvignon and MCC are all very impressive. They also do a Back Roads series of small production gems, and I tasted the 2015 Semillon, made from vines planted in 1905, which looks set to be a stunner. These are all Franschhoek wines. Today will consist of producer visits and then a braii, and the sun is shining. I’m hopeful.
This is amazing! Nebbiolo is a difficult traveller – a grape variety that really struggles to perform well away from its Piedmont home. But Luke Lambert has created a new Australian classic here. It’s such a convincing interpretation of Nebbiolo, and it combines structure and beauty. I served it blind to some experienced tasters and they recognized it as Nebbiolo, but none of them thought it was Australian.
Luke has experience working in Piedmont, and it shows in this wine. It comes from two vineyards: the highland Jansz vineyard at St Andrews, with very rocky soils, and the granitic Denton vineyard. It was kept on skins for 40 days, and matured in old, large format oak.
Luke Lambert Nebbiolo 2012 Yarra Valley, Australia
13.5% alcohol. Wild yeast fermentation, no filtration or fining. This is a beautiful expression of Nebbiolo. Cherry red in colour with a hint of bricking (typical of the variety), it has fresh, focused aromatics of red cherries, plums and spice. There is real finesse here. The palate is fresh and focused with really grippy tannins (again, typical of the variety) under the pure red cherry fruit, with subtle touches of herbs and citrus peel. Very pure and linear, this is a sensational interpretation of this grape, combining sternness with beauty. 95/100
UK agent is Indigo Wine
I don’t really like grape variety days all that much. There are, I am told, some 1400 grape varieties grown commercially in the world. So that means that you’d have to share each and every day among at least three varieties, if their allocated days are spread evenly through the year. That could be boring.
It’s a bit like birthday notifications among friends on Facebook. On average, I have 13 friends who have birthdays on any particular day. Of course, I don’t know them all (I flirt with Facebook’s maximum limit of 5000, which means that although I now only friend people I’ve actually met, in the early days I just friended everyone who requested it), but I do know quite a few of them. It’s quite a task keeping up with all these birthdays, and in a strange way it makes each of us seem less significant. Over 16 million people celebrate their birthday on the same day as me.
Despite this: it is Sauvignon Blanc day. An important variety that is more serious than people realize, and one that I have focused on a bit. So I really ought to put up some notes on noteworthy Sauvignons that I have recently tried. Here goes.
Constantia Glen Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Constantia, South Africa
13% alcohol. Has 4% Semillon in the blend. Crisp, pure and linear with a tight personality. Attractive citrus and grapefruit notes with lovely purity and a hint of pear richness. 89/100 (£11.95 Berry Bros & Rudd)
Kalfu Sumpai Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Huasco, Chile
13% alcohol. Remarkable stuff: lively, super fresh and exotic with bright grapefruit and green pepper notes, as well as some passionfruit richness. Just so expressive and detailed with the greenness beautifully integrated. 92/100 (£16.99 The Wine Reserve)
Giesen The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
This is Marlborough Sauvignon with a difference: low yields and barrel ferments with wild yeast. It’s powerful, intense and textured with quince and pear, citrus and peach. Rich style with lovely fruit. Sophisticated and powerful. 92/100 (£19.95 Dylans Wine, The New Zealand Wine Cellar, Last Try Wines, UK agent: Ehrmanns)
Churton Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
13% alcohol. From Marlborough’s southern hills, this is a distinctive biodynamically grown Sauvignon, unusual in that it is cork sealed. There’s a faint creamy edge to the broad pear and quince fruit with a lovely textural quality. Fine grained and almost structured with mineral notes and a lovely purity. 91/100 (£15.95 Berry Bros & Rudd; Tanners have the 2013)
Dog Point Vineyards Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Marlborough, New Zealand
Who says Sauvignon doesn’t age? This is fabulous: intense and powerful with peach, pear and spice notes, a lovely full texture and a mineral twist. Rich, complex and well balanced, and verging on the profound. 94/100
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I’m a big fan of gin. Gin also happens to be quite trendy at the moment, especially in Spain, where you can’t move for gin bars and where gin and tonics come in big bowl shaped glasses and are wonderful.
Here’s a round-up of some gins that landed in my sample pile recently. I tried them neat without tonic, but the confounder here is that almost no one drinks gin neat. Once you put tonic and a garnish in, clearly the nature of the gin changes. But then we’re dealing with so many variables it’s hard to know where to begin with reviews. Fever tree is currently the darling of the tonics, but I’ve seen blind tastings by people who know their stuff where Schweppes has won.
Warner Edwards Harrington Dry Gin
This includes elderflower and 10 secret botanicals, and it’s fabulous. Nicely packaged it has an amazingly intense nose that’ssweet and very spicy with some ginger notes. Exotic, rich, powerful and complex, this is serious stuff. 8.5/10
Haymans Old Tom Gin
Based on a 19th century recipe this is a slightly sweeter style. It is very lively with bright citrussy, juniper and floral notes on the nose. There’s a sweet edge to the palate and appealing texture, with a seductive personality. 8/10
Portobello Road London Dry Gin
A spicy, richly textured gin with some sweetness and a restrained juniper character. Nothing sticks out, particularly. Taut, compact in flavour and nicely complex, this is a good all rounder. 8/10
Masons Dry Yorkshire Gin
Distinctive nose. I’m not sure I like this: fennel, citrus and pear with a hint of mint. Very herbal and exotic with mint, herbs, spice and pepper. Crazy stuff. Weird. 6/10
Caorunn Scottish Gin
Detailed and pretty with nice juniper and citrus peel notes. Has a rounded texture. A delicious, rounded gin of real appeal. 7.5/10
I have a soft spot for the Barossa. It was the first wine region I ever visited. I’ve been there a few times now, and know it a bit. But I have struggled with some of its wines, which have expressed a bit too much ripeness, a little too much added tartaric, and a generous dollop of oak. So it’s always a joy to find wines which express the place in a way that seems more authentic. And these wines from Abel Gibson at Ruggabellus are just lovely.
They’re picked relatively early, fermented with some stems using indigenous yeasts, and no new oak is used. Interestingly, they are bottled in very modest, light bottles with screwcap seals. If you like the ripe, easier style of Barossa red, you might find these a bit challenging. But they are built for the long haul, and I followed each over a period of three days, which allowed them to wake up from their taut, reductive, closed states to show a bit of what they are capable of. Only bottle age will show how good they really are, though – in this respect, they remind me a bit of the Wendouree wines from the Clare Valley.
Ruggabellus Archaeus 2013 Barossa, Australia
77% Syrah, 11% Grenache, 8% Mataro, 4% Cinsault, 14% alcohol. Wonderfully focused with sweet raspberry and cherry fruit with a taut, fine personality and a bit of spice. The palate is fresh and taut; primary and grippy. Tight and tannic with good acidity. Great concentration, lovely precision and some peppery detail. 94/100
Ruggabellus Efferus 2013 Barossa, Australia
73% Mataro, 12% Syrah, 11% Grenache, 4% Cinsault, 14.2% alcohol. Beautifully fresh and vivid with floral black cherry and plum fruit, with some meaty, peppery notes. There’s a lovely freshness and wildness to this wine with has some cracked black pepper and juicy black cherry fruit, but also a nicely poised sappy elegance. Some dark spicy notes in the background. 93/100
Ruggabellus Timaeus 2013 Barossa, Australia
82% Grenache, 15% Cinsault, 2% Syrah, 1% Mataro, 13.4% alcohol. Fresh, vivid, spicy, bright and peppery. Lovely focused red cherry and berry fruit with a strongly savoury edge. Distinctive stuff that really needs a day or two open to begin to wake up. Potentially long lived. 91/100
Ruggabellus Fluus 2013 Barossa, Australia
The entry level wine in the range, with 54% Grenache, 31% Mataro, 10% Cinsault and 5% Syrah, 13.6% alcohol. Savoury, spicy, grippy and earthy with some peppery notes and appealing cherry and plum fruit. There’s a real freshness here, as well as the savoury notes. On say 2 it has really hit its stride, showing pure, sweet, sappy red fruits with a bit of raspberry freshness. 92/100
UK agent is Indigo Wine.
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Today’s blog post will be about other people’s wine writing. I’m going to provide links to two rather good articles, written by people who I suspect are rather smarter and better than I am. They are also two of the people who I admire the most in the wine world.
The first is by David Williams, and it’s an article I’ve tried to write in the past, but David has done it better than me. It’s on why some people get so cross about natural wine. I attempted to cover this topic recently in a humorous tone, but David has pretty much got it right. He is, in addition to being a very good writer, a totally nice person. I have toured with him a few times, so I have to be super nice to him, because he has enough ammunition to sink me!
The second is by Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene. It’s titled The Accidental Death of the Winewriter, and Doug classifies modern wine writing into several categories, most of which you don’t want to be in. I felt slightly insecure reading it: am I one of the key offenders? But then, at the end, he lists some winewriters who aren’t totally evil, and I made the cut. I breathed a sigh of relief.
So, the first week of the International Wine Challenge is over. I’ve had a nice weekend to recover (the poor team, however, have been busy all weekend sorting out the flights for week 2), and we judges have a day off tomorrow. Then it’s back to work on Tuesday: the exciting bit – deciding which medal the wines that made the cut will get.
Each year I come away from the Wine Challenge with one thought: what fun it is. It is hard work, for sure, and it’s tiring. But the aspect that makes it such fun is the teamwork. For a while, I am part of something bigger, working with skilled professionals with perspectives different to mine. I learn a lot. I meet new people. I catch up with friends.
The wine trade is full of nice people. This sounds a facile statement, but I’m amazed by how much nicer my wine trade colleagues are than they really need be. I think this is partly because it’s really hard to make serious money in the wine trade. People who need to make lots of money choose other industries. This creates a filtering factor. I wouldn’t be so silly to say that all rich people are nasty, but I would suggest that ruthlessly ambitious, self-serving people aren’t all that nice to hang out with. Choosing to work in the wine trade is a sort of vocation, and this helps keep it a really supportive, fun environment. Long may it stay that way.
And we’ve been at the Oval, which is always fun. [For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the game of cricket, this is one of London's two top cricket grounds. The other, Lord's, is where the Wine Challenge used to take place.] No games these two weeks, but we did see Surrey players netting, including Kevin Pietersen.
This year, for the first time, I’ve been keeping my notes from the judging, with a view to matching up the numbers to the names of the wines when the results are released. There are already quite a few wines I’d be keen to discover the identity of.
Colheitas are single vintage Tawny Ports (that is, Ports that have been aged for a long time in large oak barrels, rather than bottled after a few years and aged in bottle), and Kopke are specialists with this style of Port. They have good stocks of old Colheitas which they bottle on order, and the good news for those with significant birthdays coming up is that they are planning to begin bottling magnums. We had a chance to try few a few older examples.
Kopke Colheita 1979 Douro, Portugal
Spicy, warm and quite complex with raisins, nuts and some citrus peel notes. Very sweet and easy but with nice complexity and finesse. 93/100
Kopke Colheita 1976 Douro, Portugal
Spirity, powerful and quite complex, combining citrus fruit, wood spice and some burnt sugar and treacle notes. Fresh acidity and plenty of woody, spicy notes. 92/100
Kopke Colheita 1966 Douro, Portugal
Complex, earthy and spicy with sweet raisin notes and some lemony acidity. Powerful and extremely long with a fresh core to the sweet, casky, fruity notes. Superb. 95/100
Kopke Colheita 1957 Douro, Portugal
Raisiny, spicy and nutty, this is very rich but has a nice savoury edge. Lovely, refined treacle and raisin notes. Casky and complex with a long finish. Fabulous stuff. 95/100
Kopke Colheita 1941 Douro, Portugal
Complex, warm and cedary with notes of iodine and a hint of earth. Very savoury as well as being sweet with keen lemony acidity and tangy citrus peel notes. So lovely, and amazingly detailed and complex. 96/100
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Yesterday, one of the team of judges I was working with at the International Challenge was Youki Hirayama, who’s winemaker at Katsunuma Jyozo winery in the Yamanashi region of Japan. He had a bottle of his wine with him which we tried after the tasting. It was made without adding sulfur dioxide, and it’s quite lovely. This isn’t your typical light Koshu wine but has lots of personality. It’s distinctive and quite beautiful, I think.
Katsunuma Jyozo Misaka 2011 Japan
This is a varietal Koshu made without the addition of sulfur dioxide, from whole bunch pressed grapes – the press cycle is very gentle and takes 8 hours to complete. 12% alcohol. This is a full yellow colour and it’s complex, powerful, spicy and has grippy structure, with pear and citrus fruit. There’s a lovely matchstick/mineral core to the wine. So fresh and distinctive with amazing precision. Coche Koshu! 93/100
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Tuesday evening and it’s time for dinner at Sushisamba. My first visit to this much talked about restaurant, perched on the top of London’s second tallest building, Heron Tower in Bishopsgate, in the City.
I’ve come from the International Wine Challenge, where I’ve been tasting lots of wine all day, followed by a quick beer with fellow judges. I’m not really dressed for the occasion, but the two door guys let me in, and direct me to the outside lift, which rockets me up to the 38th floor in about half a second. It’s almost worth coming for the lift alone: theme park quality ride without any queue.
We gather on the roof terrace, which is the highest open terrace in Europe, apparently. It’s also being experienced on one of the most perfect April evenings you can imagine – beautiful blue skies and balmy temperatures, and we realize that we are very lucky indeed.
We are there to have dinner, of course, but the reason for this dinner is that Bruno Paillard is present. His Champagnes have been chosen by Sushisamba as their house pour, and unlike many such arrangements, no money has changed hands in this case. Bruno has also supplied Sushisamba with some nice large format back vintages, and we are going to try them.
Sushisamba is technically a chain restaurant, but of the most exclusive kind. It was started in 1999 in New York by serial restaurateur Shimon Bokovza, and has since spread to five locations. London was the first outside the USA, and complements Sushisambas in Miami (2), Las Vegas and New York.
I’ve been chatting for a while to Bruno, but then I realize that Shimon (pictured above with Bruno) is also here. ‘Would you like to speak to Shimon?’ Of course! I’m introduced to him and he is charming and clearly very smart, and we have a nice conversation. He says he’s chosen Champagne Bruno Paillard to be his house pour because he wanted something drier. He finds many Champagnes to be too sweet. Bruno explains later that his house will soon become the only one that’s exclusively labelled extra brut, meaning that none of the Champagnes have a dosage higher than 6 g/litre. They’ve already been below this level for six years, and the next step will be to change the labelling.
‘I feel humbled that Shimon has made this decision,’ says Bruno. ‘The idea is that these are Champagnes to accompany great food, and they are associated with Michelin-starred restaurants, but you don’t need to have a Michelin-starred restaurant to serve Bruno Paillard Champagnes.’ He adds quickly, though, that he’s still very keen on being listed by Michelin-starred restaurants.
Then it is time for dinner. We move up a floor, to the smaller dining room on the 39th floor. The views are breath-taking from wherever you are sitting in Sushisamba, because three of the walls are composed of floor to ceiling glass. The décor is just perfectly in tune with the overall feel of the place, and it fits in with the location. When you are on the top of a modern skyscraper in the City, with the attendant views, you need to go modern and vibrant. Wood panelling and soft furnishings won’t work.
The food? Now this is not a gastronomic destination. It’s more of an experience. But if this were a gastronomic destination, without the experience element, I think the food might be taken more seriously, because it’s really good. It is innovative in a good way, describing itself as a unique blend of Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine. This sounds gimmicky, but there was a coherent stylistic thread that ran through the dishes we had. I notice from the full menu, which is very small-platey (making it possible for hungry people to rack up a substantial bill, and don’t forget the 12.5% service charge when you look at the prices), that there are lots of safe meaty havens for the culinary unadventurous. But what we had was pretty innovative and delicious, and the style of the food fitted very well with the feel of the restaurant. They’ve pretty much got it right.
What Shimon gets is that there’s much more to eating out than just the food on the plate. It really is about the whole experience, and Sushisamba is – if you are not too snobby and foodie about it – a really great experience.
So, the wines. Champagne from start to finish, and it works with this sort of menu.
Champagne Bruno Paillard Brut Première Cuvée NV France
Tight and fresh with nice citrus fruit and a hint of pithiness. Very pure and quite a dry style with nice focus and finesse. 90/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs Réserve Privée Grand Cru NV France
Stylish, pure and a bit toasty with nice freshness and purity. There’s a hint of toastiness here with lovely pear and ripe apple fruit. A dry, fruit-driven style. 91/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Rosé Première Cuvée NV France
Fresh with a hint of cherry fruit s well as strawberry and citrus.Lovely precision on the palate, which is fruity with red cherry notes. Taut and precise. 91/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Le Mesnil 1995 France
Disgorged April 2008. Rich and a bit creamy with subtle toasty notes. Stylish citrus and pear fruit with some richness and a bit of pithiness. Still quite youthful with hints of wax and nuts. Linear. 92/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard NPU Nec Plus Ultra 1999 France
Barrel fermented with 4 g/litre dosage, disgorged January 2012. Lively, fresh and focused. Quite pure and linear with precision. Still tightwound and pure with some crystalline fruits. Has potential for development. 92/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Le Mesnil 1990 France
Disgorged April 2007. Distinctive with hints of iodine and herbs alongside the citrus fruit. Pure, fresh and linear with a distinctive herby, toasty, resinous edge, a hint of cabbage and keen lemony acidity. Fresh. 91/100
Champagne Bruno Paillard Brut Assemblage 1996 France
Disgorged April 2008. Linear and toasty with pure citrus fruit. Fine and expessive with a refined toasty character.Tight, pithy and refined. 93/100