Japan: an overview of Japanese wine, and why we should be interested

A tribute to local wine at Shiojiri station in the Nagano region

I’m in Japan. The purpose of this trip is to explore Nagano, which is one of the three main Japanese wine regions. Some perspective on the Japanese wine scene. Winegrowing started here 140 years ago under the strategy of the Meiji government (the Meiji era began in 1868). They wanted to encourage new industry, and wine was targeted. Things began in the Yamanashi prefecture in 1874, and to this day, with its Koshu wine, it’s the best known of Japan’s wine regions internationally. But there are two other regions that are emerging with perhaps more potential: Nagano and Hokkaido.

Wine here is quite a new industry, and in recent years there has been a drastic change, with a move towards making more wines from Japanese-grown grapes as opposed to imported concentrate. For many years Japan relied on foreign grapes sources for its wineries. Even now only 20% of domestic production is proper Japanese wine, making wine from Japan-grown grapes.

Since 2000 there has been a rapid increase in the number of wineries wineries and there’s been increasing interest on trying to make authentic wines. There have been more than 100 new wineries, with Nagano and Hokkaido growing the fastest. Many of these producers are operating on a tiny scale. The largest winery (making only Japanese wine) is Hokkaido Wine, with 2.6 million bottles per year, but they are unusual: this is a country where many things are done on a precision scale.

Pergola: this way of growing grapes is still dominant in Japan

Initially, most of the new wineries were focusing on Chardonnay and Merlot, the two most popular vinifera varieties. But this is changing, and people are looking to discover the varieties best suited to their places. I have even heard of some producers who are working with Trousseau. There is also a lot of interest in natural wine, although this can be a polarizing topic.


One of the serious problems is the quality and availability of planting material. There are around 20 nurseries supplying grape vines, but they also sell other plant materials and aren’t specialists. There is only one nursery where you can order by clone, and the virus-checking system hasn’t been developed enough.


Production of proper Japanese wine:

22 million bottles per year

  • 7 million from Yamanashi (33%)
  • 4.9 million from Nagano (22%)
  • 3.3 million from Hokkaido (15%)
  • 1.6 million from Yamagata (7%)
  • 0.8 million from Iwate (4%)
  • 0.6 million from Nigata (3%)

There are 82 wineries in Yamanashi, 36 in Nagano, 34 in Hokkaido, 13 in Yamagata, 10 in Iwate, and 10 in Nigata. In total, as of 2016 there were 280 wineries, but this is growing. Nagano itself has three large wineries – Alps Wines, Hayashi and Izutsu – and then the rest are small.

Japan has a fairly restricted set of grape varieties at the moment. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Kerner are the main vinifera white varieties, while reds are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. In addition to the vinifera varieties, there are the hybrids and labruscas that have been popular because they are relatively disease resistant.

Muscat Bailey A, with hats to protect from rain

The most famous, the pink-skinned big-berried Koshu, is a hybrid, although the Yamanashi growers prefer it to be described as vinifera – it is one quarter is Vitis davidi, which is a wild grape from southern China. The most common red hybrid is also big berried, and it is Muscat Bailey A. It can make some really nice wines if handled well.

Then we have the Labrusca varieties – Campbell Early, Niagara and Delaware.

The most widely vinified grapes

  1. Koshu (16.1%)
  2.  Muscat Bailey A (14.2%)
  3.  Niagara
  4.  Concord
  5.  Delaware
  6.  Merlot (6.2%, increasing)
  7.  Chardonnay (5.6%, increasing)

The climate varies quite a bit, but one common feature is regular rainfall during the growing season, which can be a problem. There is a 23 degree difference in latitude between Okinawa and Hokkaido, whereas France spans just 6 degrees. There are also differences in altitude too, with vineyards from 26 m up to 1000 m.

So, why should I be interested in Japanese wine? This is a small industry, and it’s unlikely that many of the wines will be exported. And don’t we already have enough diversity in the world of wine?

I care, because this is just the sort of wine scene that interests me. It is in its early stages, it is dynamic, and it is growing. And it is being driven by people who care about wine and want to make something interesting. As a journalist, this sort of scene is golden! Lots to explore, and the path is relatively untrodden. The quality so far is variable, but it is improving, and I’m very excited to explore and discover. And in a small way, I want to help the good producers get the attention and rewards they deserve.

Today is day two on the ground here, and I’m looking forward to some new discoveries.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV

This is one of the best NV blends out there. It’s made from 60 different crus, with 40% reserve wines (a very high proportion), and bottled in 2011 before disgorgement in 2017. There is no oak in the cellar here. Average age of reserve wines is 10 years: most are there to iron out inconsistencies in the vintage, but there are also some old ones to add ‘spice’.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV France
This is rich but refined with subtle toast and bread characters, a touch of hazelnut and salted almond nuttiness, and linear lemon and ripe apple fruit. There’s a bit of grip here and the acid is countered by slight nougat and apricot sweetness, with a long lemony finish. There’s weight here but no make-up, and it’s pretty serious stuff. I can’t think of many multivintage blends that I’d rather have over this. 93/100

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Great wines at Hibana, a natural wine bar in Tokyo

Last night I arrived in Tokyo and headed out to Hibana (3F Third Halcyon, 3-6 Araki Cho, Shinyinku-ku, Tokyo 160-0007). It’s a relatively new natural wine bar run by Atsushi Nagashima, who was previously a sommelier at an Italian restaurant. We ate small plates and he served us a succession of Italian wines, all of which were lovely and compelling, and some of which demonstrated that natural wines don’t all have to be drunk young. It’s a small bar and very beautifully styled; certainly not a hipster joint. I really liked it.

Cerruti Rifol Frizzante NV Piedmont, Italy
Moscato from Piedmont, made naturally. Very fresh and complex with apples, spice, salty lemon peel and delicate herbs. Nice spicy, tangy detail. Oxidative but really compelling. Has slightly elevated VA but it works. 93/100

La Castellada Cru Bianca Reserva VRH 2006 Collio, Italy
Deep bronze in colour. 14.5% alcohol. Rich and smooth with seamless pear and peach fruit as well as nuts and spice. Lovely fine grained texture with hints and vanilla and fine spices. Amazing texture here: it’s in a refined, mellow space. 94/100

Giovanni Canonica Barbera d’Alba 2015 Italy
15% alcohol. Very intense with fresh, sweet cherry, raspberry and plum fruit. Very fresh and pure with good acidity. It’s very supple and hides its alcohol very well. Just lovely fruit intensity here with a bright character. Has some floral prettiness too. 94/100

Massa Vecchia Alicante di Maremma Toscana 1999 Italy
Complex, savoury and spicy with citrus peel, herbs and tar, alongside sweet grainy blackberry fruit. Grippy and drying on the finish with lovely savoury maturity. Floral, fine herbs. Lovely elegance. 95/100

Cappellano Piè Rupestris Otin Fiorin 2000 Barolo, Italy
Spicy, tarry and dense with some spice and earth. Grippy and grainy with a savoury balsamic character. Lots of weight here with a grainy richness. Drying finish. A bold wine drinking well now, but also with delicacy. 94/100

Massa Vecchia Aleatico Passito 1999 Maremma, Tuscany, Italy
Very complex, intense and spicy. Seeet and savoury at the same time with some lift and a green-tinged sweet berry fruits personality. Fine, detailed and lively with so much complexity. 95/100

Dinner at Arbour with lovely wines: Felton Road, Vieux Telegraphe, Kumeu River and Quartz Reef

Arbour is widely regarded to be the best fine dining option in the Marlborough region. I visited with friends yesterday evening and we had a really good time. The kitchen here is currently on a roll. We chose the ‘feed me’ option on the menu: you choose 3, 4 or 7 courses and the kitchen cooks something for you. I really like this option, because when you are going somewhere serious, it’s nice to put yourself in the hands of professionals. The dishes here are visually beautiful and quite complex, but not overelaborate.

I was especially impressed by the locally sourced lamb, which was served rare with beautifully flavoured fat that had been charred slightly on the outside. This was precision cooking.

The wine list is Kiwi, with the exception of some Champagnes, and there’s lots of good stuff here. But if you ask nicely, there’s a special reserve list of mostly single bottles from Fromm winemaker Hatsch Kalberer’s private cellar that you can order too. This is where our Vieux Telegraphe 1995 came from (it was a very fair $195).

We began with the Quartz Reef bubbles, which were quite lovely. Rudi Bauer is making very good fizz these days. Then we moved onto the Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2007. It’s nice to find an older bottle like this on the list, and Kumeu’s Chardonnays age beautifully.

Then we ordered a bottle of the Vieux Telegraphe 1995. I was a little nervous: I’ve drunk quite a few of these, but I wasn’t sure how well this would be holding up (the last one I had was a few years back). It has actually held up really well, and there’s no need to drink well cellared bottles of this up now.

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe 1995 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France
Beautifully aromatic with floral gravel, spice, sweet leather, cherries and blackcurrant hints, and a hint of undergrowth and smoke. The palate is structured and fine with lovely spice and earth maturity. Fine grained and delicious with some potential for development still. Fabulous. 96/100

Then a Kiwi Pinot, but from Central Otago. It was the 2014 Cornish Point from Felton, a vineyard I really like.

Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago, New Zealand
Floral and expressive with fine red and black cherry fruit. Structured and quite fine with spice, herbs and some silky texture. Pretty yet also quite structured, this is a supple, delicious, focused, approachable Pinot. 94/100

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Marlborough, where big can be good: Brancott Estate, Deutz and Stoneleigh

The Brancott Estate: view from the tasting room and restaurant

Global drinks giant Pernod Ricard are major players in the New Zealand wine scene, but as this tasting showed, in Marlborough, big can be good. They have a few Marlborough brands. The most famous is Brancott Estate, which used to be Montana. Montana were the first to plant in the region in 1973, and the first to plant Sauvignon Blanc, in 1975. Also in the mix are Stoneleigh and Deutz. Deutz is the sparkling wine brand that they have been making since 1990, and now they are collaborating with Mumm, one of the Champagne houses in the Pernod Ricard portfolio.

I tasted through these wines with chief winemaker Patrick Materman, who has been working for Montana/Brancott since 1990. His first job at the firm was hand riddling Deutz.

The Deutz winese come from the Brancott Vineyard and Renwick Vineyard next to the airport. Some vines are spur pruned, but most are 3 or 4 cane pruned. Interestingly, 100% of the grapes are hand harvested across the sparkling program, so they hand pick 1500 tons, which is unusual in a region where machine harvesters are the norm. They have done trials comparing hand and machine picked fruit: colour and phenolic pick up are the issues with machine picking sparkling.

They have a Cocquard champagne press, the only one in the southern hemisphere. They also use bag presses with a long, slow 4 hour cycle. For the cuvee (the top quality first pressing) the yield is just 500 litres per ton, as opposed to normal Sauvignon yields of 750 litres per ton.

Hand picking is more expensive, costing $300-350 ton. Machine picking costs $380 per row kilometre, which works out at $40-50 a ton.

One of the advances in winemaking that Pernod have adopted for Sauvignon is called continuous flotation. Typical white winemaking involves pressing the grapes then sending the juice to tank to settle for one or two days at low temperature, before sending the clear juice to the fermentation tank. Flotation is a different approach, which involves using nitrogen gas and usually a flotation agent such as gelatin to get all the solids to the top. Pernod use continuous flotation and then the floats go through centrifuges to get any remaining juice out. The advantage is that within 24 hours everything is inoculated and ready to ferment. This is the key to getting clean wines in vintages like 2017 when there was quite a bit of botrytis about.

Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Quite tight and focused with nice citrus and apple notes, as well as a bit of pear. Really tight and focused with nice freshness and detail, and a juicy finish. Tight citrus here. 89/100

Deutz Prestige Cuvée 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
I was nicely surprised by this, a blend of Chardonnay 55% and Pinot 45%, 8 g/l dosage. Using some cuves (large oak) and also harvesting slightly riper. Lovely finesse: really expressive with bright, delicate citrus notes. Lemon and a bit of grapefruit with subtle toast. Has lovely, well-integrated acidity and a hint of cherry and pear ripeness. 91/100

Petit Cordon by Maison Mumm
This is a collaboration with Mumm. Didier Mariotti, Mumm’s chef de cave, comes out to New Zealand a couple of times a year. This wine is based on the 2014, and at the moment is specifically for the Australian market. Patrick says that it’s one of the most interesting projects he’s been involved with, especially the collaboration with Mumm. He’s been over to get involved in the blending in Champagne. 8 g/l dosage, Pinot Noir dominant (60%, has a little Pinot Meunier in here), with 20% reserve wines. Really fine and expressive with nice lemon and pear notes. Very fine with delicate fruitiness and real elegance. There’s an effortless elegance here, with nice purity. 92/100

Generally, Marlborough Sauvignon has just a little bit of sugar added to balance it at blending, especially in a year such as 2017. In the past this would have been a straight sugar addition, but this isn’t allowed for the EU, where grape derived sugar is needed. So some companies will use sugar for non-EU wines and grape juice concentrate for the EU wines. Pernod don’t use grape juice concentrate to sweeten their wines. Instead, they stop some ferments, and also hold some unfermented juice and sterile filter it.

For Brancott Estate Sauvignon, which is a large production (the UK takes 800 000 cases, for example) the wine is bottled several times a year, which means more than one blend. In 2017, for example, Brancott had to ferment on seven different sites because they lost a lot of tank capacity in the earthquake. But the blend is pretty consistent, and the wine is kept at 5 C, which preserves the exotic polyfunctional thiols that add so much to the aroma of Marlborough Sauvignon. Patrick noted, though, that the price for the Brancott Sauvignon hasn’t really changed since he started in 1990. Some of the profitability has gone, especially in more price sensitive and discount driven markets.

But Pernod Ricard’s approach is to play a long-term game, with a view to protecting brands and building them, rather than selling lots of wine as private label or soft brands. For this reason, they have been overtaken by many competitors, particularly in the USA, who are prepared to sell cheaper.

Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
Pure, delicate and quite pretty with nice citrus core complemented by some tropical notes. Has lovely weight and freshness. Clean and pure. Not the most expressive ever version of this wine, but considering the vintage it’s really good. 88/100

Brancott Estate Letter Series ‘B’ Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
The Brancott vineyard in the Southern Valleys. Some cuve fermentation and the odd puncheon. This has more palate weight: it’s quite dense and focused with nice pear and apple notes as well as some citrus. There’s a bit of tropical fruit richness, but there’s quite a solid, almost mineral core, and some stuffing to this. 91/100

Chosen Rows Vertical

These are the only vintages made so far of this super-premium Sauvignon that was a long time in the planning (see here and here). It is 100% off Brancott Vineyard, and the grapes are hand harvested. Vines are pruned to two canes and shoot thinned to one bunch per shoot. Whole bunch pressed and wild ferment, all either in cuve/foudre (2000/4000 litre) plus some puncheons. Remains on gross lees for 10-11 months before blending. 5000 litres made a year, so harvest a lot more than is needed. Retail is NZ$80.

Brancott Estate Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Marlborough, New Zealand
No malolactic, low pH (3.05) and 8.3 g/l acid. Complex nose of wax and citrus pith with fennel and some fine green herbs. This is still south youthful and linear with complex citrus and pear fruit with some sweeter fruitiness (cherry and ripe apple), but also lovely acidity that integrates perfectly, and a saline, mineral streak, too. Just a bit of green, but it’s really well integrated. This is developing beautifully but there’s no hurry to drink it up. 95/100

Brancott Estate Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
pH 3.1 and TA 7.9 g/l. Compact, taut nose of crystalline citrus fruits. Fine, pure and direct on the palate with a lovely citrus core to the fruit, and fringing with fine green herby notes. There’s a long, spicy finish with nice complexity and weight. Very pure and fine, and with lots of potential. Not at all showy, but beautifully toned. 94/100

Brancott Estate Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Some malolactic happened here. Has a distinctive dried hay and seaweed edge to the nose, and there’s some cabbage complexity on the palate. Nice ripe pear and citrus fruit. There’s some lime oil character on the palate, too. Lots going on here: really complex, but needs time to settle. Currently in a bit of an odd state. 91/100

Brancott Estate Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Not released yet (probably early 2019). Fresh, slightly floral citrus fruits nose. Refined. Dense and fine on the palate with concentrated, compact citrus fruits with lovely presence and weight. Has a bright, fresh lemony finish. This is just a baby, but all the elements are here for it to develop beautifully. Very fine. 94/100

Brancott Estate Reflection Limited Edition Sauvignon Blanc Sauvignon Gris 2016
Reflection is cellar door only, in conjunction with the new Brancott sculpture, located in the vineyard. Made about 5000 litres, but bottled 1400 litres. 52% Sauvignon Blanc, 48% Sauvignon Gris, wild ferment, in barrel. 14.5% alcohol. This is rich and textural with great concentration and purity. Crystalline citrus fruits and a hint of white peach, with some well integrated vanilla and spice from the oak. Broad, tending towards fatness in places, but with lovely palate weight and a fresh, finely spiced finish. 93/100

Brancott Estate Letter Series O Chardonnay 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
The O used to stand for Ormond in Gisborne, but now this wine is from the Brancott Vineyard, but ‘honouring the Omaka vineyard’. There’s a lovely freshness here, but also depth of flavour. Rich, slightly peachy fruit, but also with some toast and crystalline citrus character. Has lovely weight and balance. A serious effort. 93/100

Brancott Estate Letter Series T Pinot Noir 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
T stands for Terraces, and it’s a hillside vineyard at the southeastern corner of the Brancott vineyard. Lovely texture here with density to the bright raspberry and cherry fruit. Very appealing with some density and weight to the palate. Has a fine spiciness and some subtle meaty notes. Lovely stuff. 92/100

Brancott Estate Classic Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
100% oak alternatives. Juicy, sweet and spicy. Nice cherry and plum fruit. Supple and drinkable with no nasty edges. 86/100

Brancott Estate Showcase Series Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
14% alcohol. Cellar door only. Sweetly aromatic with enticing berry and cherry fruit aromas. Sweet with a hint of raspberry jam and fine spices. Concentrated on the palate with a lovely silky texture, showing ripe, seductive fruit, hemmed in by some spicy structure. Nice depth and weight: there’s a real substance to this ripe, enticing wine. 93/100

Brancott Estate Reflection Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
14.5% alcohol. Cellar door only. Enticing, aromatic nose with ripe fruit and some toasty, spicy oak character. Dense, bold and ripe with lots of fruit and oak, meshing sort of harmoniously to create a real statement Pinot. It’s complex, bold and quite delicious, finishing grippy and spicy. 92/100

Brancott Estate Chosen Rows Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
14.5% alcohol. Debut vintage. This wine is all about texture. It shows ripe raspberry fruit with some floral cherry hints, but it’s in the mouth that it comes alive, with layered, finely spice fruit and good structure. Ripe, generous and broad but still possessing some elegance and freshness. Very appealing and fine, with some sappy notes as well as a warm, rounded, textured mouthfeel. 94/100


Stoneleigh Lighter Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
9.5% alcohol. 7 g/l sugar. If any country is going to do lighter style wines, says Patrick, New Zealand is the country to do it. This lighter style wine is impressive. It is made using a yeast that reduces malic acid levels significantly (from Lallemand). They are looking for big thiols with this wine. Really aromatic with lovely passionfruit character, Subtle and expressive with a delicate, pretty personality. A really expressive, delicious wine. 88/100

Stoneleigh Wild Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
100% wild ferment, 25-30 000 cases of wild ferment. Majority is tank fermented but some goes through four five year old barriques in the Stoneleigh Chardonnay program. Lovely palate weight and texture here with refined pear, white peach and citrus fruit. There’s even a hint of melon here. Broad and ripe with lovely fruit expression. This is really appealing and stylish: a different expression of Marlborough Sauvignon. 90/100

Stoneleigh Latitude Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
From Rapaura. Stainless steel, two-caned pruned. Really pretty and expressive with bright, delicate tropical fruit tones and also some fresh citrus. Quite an elegant style with a nice mid-palate and a fresh finish. Harmonious and pretty, and very pure, especially considering the vintage. 92/100

Stoneleigh Rapaura Series Chardonnay 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Machine harvested. Beautifully expressive nose with a nice reductive edge to the ripe pear and peach fruit. The palate is quite ripe and generous with bold, peachy fruit and some soft, almost buttery texture. Very broad and appealing with lovely weight in the mouth. A ripe style. 90/100

Stoneleigh Rapaura Series Pinot Noir 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
From Rapaura. Juicy, fresh and bright with some vivid cherry and berry fruits, a bit of grip, and nice purity. Juicy and sappy with nice pure, bright fruit. 89/100

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A top Canadian Chardonnay: Bachelder Wismer Foxcroft 2013

Thomas Bachelder is one of the leading producers in Canada’s Niagara region, and he’s doing very good things with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He also works in Burgundy and Oregon, which probably helps. He’s focusing on good vineyard sites, and to this end a few years back started dividing up his holdings in the Wismer vineyard. This is the Foxcroft Block Chardonnay.

Bachelder Wismer Vineyard #2 Foxcroft Block Chardonnay 2013 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
This is quite lovely: it’s fresh and well defined with a salty, limey underpinning to the crisp apple, yellow plum and pear fruit. There’s a slight hint of pineapple, too. Boasting a smooth, broad, textured mid-palate, this flirts with richness but never really strays from its lean, mineral tendencies. It’s not immediately obvious or terribly complex, but it grows on you and puts on weight in the glass. Lovely stuff. 94/100

Four nice wines at Scotch: Hermit Ram, Equipo Navazos, Bornard, Vajra

Four lovely wines enjoyed at Scotch Bar, Blenheim, the other night.

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Florpower NV Jerez, Spain
This is an unfortified flor-aged wine from the 2012 vintage. It’s really distinctive and lovely: tangy and bright with hints of cheese and some spicy salty notes. Weighty and mineral. Complex and nutty with lovely acid. 92/100

Philippe Bornard Ploussard Point Barre 2015 Cotes du Jura, France.
A delicious lighter-styled natural red. Sappy, bright and focused with cherries, herbs, spice and some fresh raspberry as well as a hint of undergrowth. Fine grained and a bit grippy but also really fresh and detailed. 93/100

GD Vajra Barbera d’Alba 2011 Piedmont, Italy
Now with a few years under its belt, this is lovely. Supple and fresh with sweet dark brambly fruit and some leather notes. Quite grippy with nice tannins and some herby notes. Savoury and delicious. 92/100

The Hermit Ram Sauvignon Blanc Skin Fermented 2017 North Canterbury, New Zealand
New release of this wine. Grippy and bright with a saline edge to the citrus fruit and some fine herbal notes. Grippy and focused. Lovely stuff. 92/100

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Video: harvest at Gabrielskloof 3, making whites

In the third and final video from the 2018 harvest at Gabrielskloof, in South Africa’s Bot River wine region, I look at how white wines are made:


Part 2, red winemaking:


Part 1: in the vineyard:

Harvest at Gabrielskloof:

Video: an epic tasting of 93 of South Africa's top sparkling wines

To most Brits, MCC refers to the Marylebone Cricket Club and it’s an abbreviation synonymous with this most complex and beguiling of sports (one of the many that we Brits invented – we have a talent for this!). But to wine nuts who’ve taken more than a passing interest in what’s taking place in South Africa, MCC is all about fizz. Methode Cap Classique is the name for quality bottle-fermented sparkling wines from South Africa, and it’s a dynamic, growing category. This short film is of an epic tasting of MCCs together with expert fizz winemakers Paul Gerbe (Le Lude) and Pieter Ferreira (Graham Beck). They comment on the various flights of wines that we’ve been tasting.

You can read the full tasting notes of 93 of the best South African bubblies in the full article here. I found lots to like.

Thorne & Daughters, one of South Africa's most exciting producers

John Seccombe

John Seccombe is the man behind Thorne and Daughters. John has a calm, reassuring presence, and a voice made for radio, and the locals – who can’t pronounce his name (it should be ‘secc-comm’) – know him as Seccom-bee.

John met his wife Tasha while they were both studying at Stellenbosch, and after they got married they moved to the UK. Here, John, who had been working as a computer dude, switched careers to work in restaurants, and – bitten by the wine bug – ended up studying winemaking at Plumpton College in Sussex. He began doing vintage around the world, and set up a consulting company servicing the UK’s expanding wine industry.

John, back in the cellar two days after an operation to repair a torn bicep, harvest 2018

In 2008, Tasha and John moved back to South Africa, and John did vintage at Thelema before being recruited as winemaker for Iona in Elgin. Before long, though, he wanted to set up his own project, and Thorne & Daughters was born in 2012.

His project is mainly focused on white blends, which he does really well. Winemaking is sensitive and pretty natural, and where necessary he’ll do a bit of skin contact. ‘For me, Clairette and Semillon have the right soft tannins that work well with skin fermentation,’ he says. But the key is good vineyard sources. The main wine is Rocking Horse, which is now around 12 000 bottles a year, and the other lines are 1200-2300 bottles. ‘As we find vineyards that we can work with we open up new ideas,’ says John. In 2016 he made 18 000 bottles. The wines are made at Gabrielskloof, which is also home to Peter-Allan Finlayson and Marelise Niemann, and the three work well together.

Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of Semillon/Chardonnay/Chenin Blanc/Clairette and Roussanne. Supple and fresh with sweet pear and citrus fruit. Textured and pure with some brightness. Lovely wine. 94/100 (02/18)

Thorne and Daughters Rocking Horse 2016 Western Cape, South Africa
Semillon, Chardonnay, Clairette, Roussanne and Chenin Blanc. Really fresh and lively with lemon, tangerine, wax and spice notes as well as complex citrus fruit. Lovely acidity here with a bright, lively personality. Complex and taut. 93/100 (03/17)

Thorne and Daughters Paper Kite Old Vine Semillon 2015 Franschhoek, South Africa
This comes from Basil Landau’s 1905-planted Semillon vineyard in Franschhoek. Fine, textured and a bit spicy. Nice density to the lemon and pear fruit with some waxy notes. There’s a hint of wax and some lanolin, with a bit of mandarin and a saline twist on the finish. Really fine. 94/100 (02/18)

Thorne & Daughters Paper Kite Old Vine Semillon 2016 Western Cape, South Africa
Semillon Blanc from two old vine vineyards. One in the Swartland, planted in 1964, with 5% Gris in it. The other is La Colline, in Franschhoek. There’s a creamy edge to the direct, pithy citrus fruit. Lovely acidity with great concentration and freshness, as well as a bit of structure. Some green tea hints. So good. 94/100 (03/17)

Thorne & Daughters Paper Kite Old Vine Semillon 2017 Swartland, South Africa
56 year old Semillon vines have yielded a very fine, harmonious wine with citrus fruit, a hint of toast, white peach and pear notes. Such harmony and finesse here. 95/100 (02/18)

Thorne & Daughters Tin Soldier 2016 Western Cape, South Africa
Semillon Blanc and Semillon Gris, destemmed and skin fermented for 7-10 days and aged in old oak. Some Franschhoek and some Swartland. Full yellow colour. Lovely intensity here with lively, pithy lemon and pear fruit with nice grip to the lively fruit. Has depth and structure. A bit of green tea and lime oil. 94/100 (03/17)

Thorne & Daughters Zoetrope Chardonnay 2014 Overberg, South Africa
12.5% alcohol. From clay shale soils, fermented in old oak. Some oatmeal and spice here as well as ripe citrus and pear fruit. Subtly nutty, too. Refined and expressive with lovely weight. 94/100 (02/18)

Thorne & Daughters Wandering Heart 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
40% Cinsault, 10% Mourvedre and 50% Grenache. Early picked with light extraction. So pure and fine with lovely fresh raspberry and strawberry fruit. Elegant and supple with a juicy, bright personality and fine spiciness. 94/100 (02/18)

Thorne & Daughters Driftwood Boat 2016 Western Cape, South Africa
Grenache from Bot River and the Voor Paardeberg, Cinsualt from the Bottelary and Mourvedre from Gabrielskloof. 40% whole bunch, destemmed on top. ‘One of our fights is to get the growers to pick the Grenache when we think it’s ripe, not when they think it is ripe,’ says John. Floral and perfumed with lovely fresh, supple raspberry and cherry fruit. Fresh, vital, grippy and a bit peppery with nice focus. Fine, powdery tannin and good acidity. Lovely stuff, with freshness and brightness. 94/100 (03/17)

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UK agent: Dreyfus Ashby