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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

[New oak] barrels make the most noise

Oscar Foulkes July 31, 2009 Wines No comments

I have a friend who once a year holds what he calls a Cellar Rationalisation Party (CRP). This gathering not only does double-duty as his birthday celebration, but is also a useful outlet for wines that he describes as being “well past their rack life or of a style that we no longer choose to drink” (CRaP?).

It has become my practice to open every single bottle to ensure that we are not faced with the prospect of being forced to drink it twelve months hence. Over the years the quality of the wines has leapt considerably, with the result that there are fewer marginal bottles on offer. Clearly we have done our work well at previous parties, in weeding out the dreck!

Much of what is done and said at the CRP is probably best left unreported. However, I do want to share my observation of the several dozen reds that I tasted (OK, some I drank) on Sunday. It should also be said that I’m quite a critical drinker – hopefully more in the ‘kritikos’ sense of the word – so I tend to move through the wines rather rapidly until I find ones I want to drink.

It was when I reached the 2001 Welgemeend that I had a moment of epiphany. Here was a beautifully structured, very well-balanced wine that wasn’t trying to shout its way over the noise of its competitors. Rather, it was presenting its charms modestly, without any trace of ego, and was so much the better for it. The same could not be said of many of the other wines on the table, some of which were more a reflection of the budget available to purchase new barrels than anything else.

I never met Billy Hofmeyr, who helped pioneer Bordeaux-style blends in South Africa in the 1970s, but I had numerous contacts with his daughter Louise, who took over from him when ill-health ended his winemaking career. In a sense, the 2001 Welgemeend is very much like Louise – attractive, down-to-earth and not someone to draw attention to herself.

One may not say the same about Michel Rolland, who is the consultant behind Remhoogte’s Aigle Noir, a shiraz, cabernet, merlot, pinotage blend. It was interesting to compare this wine with others on the table. While it is undoubtedly to some extent a formula wine it succeeds in delivering a most enjoyable experience. It is not a wine that imposes itself. There’s plenty of fruit and oak, but it’s all in balance.

Two different approaches. Both of them successful.

There are many who would argue that Michel Rolland’s formulae disallow the expression of terroir; that the wines are more a reflection of him than they are of a unique sum of climate and soil. That may be valid, but it says a lot for his sensitivity to varying conditions that his methods can lead to the making of successful wines in such disparate locations.

Making the wine is only one small part of the process. It also needs to be sold profitably, which requires a proactive marketing effort. While the sincere effort to make enjoyable wine and the ability to market it effectively are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it must be very much harder for those who prefer not to shout from the mountaintops. The Hofmeyrs made very much nicer wines than most of the big-budget newcomers. It’s a shame they’ve been ‘rationalised’ out of the industry.

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