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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Alive with possibility

Oscar Foulkes July 4, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

A conversation about the business of wine was reputed to have taken place between Robert Mondavi and May-Elaine de Lencquesaing, the owner of Château Pichon-Longueville, during which Mondavi was lamenting the state of the industry. “Ah, Robert, but it is only difficult for the first 300 years”, came her priceless reply.

Of course, she was describing the situation in Bordeaux, where the cru classé are now selling their wines at huge prices on the basis of reputations build up over, well, three hundred years.

Jan van Riebeeck may have made ‘wine’ in the Cape more than three centuries ago, but South African wineries are still finding their feet in international markets. South Africa’s share of the UK market is around 10% (compared with around 20% for each of Australia and France), but in most countries its share hovers around 1%, which most marketers would regard as being virgin territory.

Sales people have been hard at work, trying to drum up demand for South African wines. At the same time their viticultural colleagues have been scouting the Western Cape for new vineyard sites. The result has been revelationary, with many seriously exciting wines seeing the light of day. It could be argued that these vinous treasures could do more to stimulate demand than the efforts of the marketing people (but don’t tell them).

It is interesting to come back, once more, to France, where wine producers unquestionably benefit from a great vinous tradition. However, they are hamstrung by unbelievably restrictive legislation that governs which grape varieties may be grown in which geographical areas. The Appellation Controlée have been delimited. These borders define where vines may be planted, and which varieties may be planted in which regions. Simply put, there is absolutely no room for creativity or exploration.

Consider then the example of Cape Point Vineyards, with its sauvignon blanc vines that were planted in Noordhoek, an outlying suburb of Cape Town, in 1996. These vineyards are not much more than a mile from the beach, on a breeze-cooled south-westerly slope. The estate markets two different sauvignons, both of which display a wonderful combination of intense fruitiness and zingy acidity. The quality of the wines is such that even the ‘second-tier’ Stonehaven is better than most estates’ premium release.

1997 saw the planting of vineyards in Elim, just 20 km inland from Cape Agulhas. Anyone who has visited this coast in summer can attest to the unceasing on-shore wind. Bruce Jack’s Flagstone was the first release from Elim, and Flagstone’s The Berrio remains (to my taste, anyway) the best sauvignon produced in the region. It delivers a blast of fruity flavour against a backdrop of refreshing crispness.

It seems hard to believe that Elgin is now taken for granted as a source of quality wines. Its only been 15 years since the establishment of vineyards at Oak Valley (however, the grapes were mostly sold off to producers in other regions). With the decline in income from apples many farms have been replanted to vines. One such example is Iona, where replanting started in 1997. These vineyards are situated 420m above sea level, and ripen a good two months later than sauvignon in other parts of the Cape. As one may expect from these cool conditions the wine has a wonderful purity in the mouth – crisp acidity combined with gorgeous fruit. Numerous Stellenbosch wineries have made investments in the region, so we can expect a raft of new releases from Elgin.

The Cape’s West Coast is no less exciting. Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc is produced from vines growing a mere 850m from the Atlantic ocean. The project was started as a hobby for Wynand Hamman and his in-laws, when they planted three hectares of vines near their holiday home in Strandfontein (close to the mouth of the Olifantsrivier). This wine’s fruitiness is so intense it is almost overwhelming, but on its small scale of production one is unlikely to have the opportunity of drinking it more than once a year!

Closer to Cape Town, and thankfully available in larger quantities, are the sauvignons produced in Darling. Grapes are not that new to the region, but with the conversion of Mamreweg Co-op to Darling Cellars, and the planting of vineyards at Groote Post, followed by large-scale plantings by other producers, Darling has taken on an entirely new character. The pioneering wine was Neil Ellis’ Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s also worth looking out for the sauvignon produced from David Tully’s Lanner Hill vineyard (marketed under the Kumkani brand).

None of this is meant to imply that there is anything deficient in the wines being produced by established big names in Stellenbosch, Paarl or Robertson, or even that these are the only interesting ones being made in the ‘new territories’. Curious geography aside, South African sauvignon blanc is at the cutting edge of the world’s most exciting wines.

They are the products of a committed and passionate group of vignerons and an environment that truly is “alive with possibility”.

This piece first appeared in South Africa magazine

The Mystery Brutes

Oscar Foulkes April 24, 2007 Uncategorized 1 comment

In the latter half of 1994 I’d been in the wine trade for a little more than a year, and had acquired a reputation amongst wine producers as a means of shifting bin ends or odd lots. I was offered about 20 000 bottles of Méthode Cap Classique (Champagne-method sparkling wine) that were still on the lees, at a price that covered only the cost of the bottle and a nominal bulk wine recovery. Shortly thereafter another winery offered me multiple vintages of their bubbles (in the same state), totalling some 80 000 bottles. I remember a cost of just over R4.00 per bottle, which looked very interesting to me when related to the R20 retail price of the established brands.

As with all bargain basement deals there was a catch. In this case much of the production process remained to be done. Firstly, the process known in Champagne as remuage, whereby the bottles are inverted (sur point), with the lees (dead yeast cells) collected in the neck of the bottle. Those with time and space on their hands follow the traditional method of using a purpitre (riddling rack); two wooden boards hinged into an a-frame. The boards have holes that the bottles’ necks are stuck into. The bottles start off horizontal and through a process of half-turns end up inverted. The relevance of this time-consuming process (it can take a month) is that the lees are very fine, and need to be coaxed into the mouth of the bottle (it does sometimes happen that the lees stick to the glass).

The less labour-intensive method is to use gyro-pallets. Their name is probably self-explanatory, but I had neither gyro-pallets nor riddling racks. Assuming I’d managed to reach this point, the next stage requires the bottles to be chilled to a couple of degrees Celsius, and for the necks to be frozen in preparation for disgorging – the crown cap that seals the bottle during second fermentation is removed and the frozen plug of lees and wine pops out. The sweetening dosage is added, and the bottle gets sealed with cork.

From this point it would have been a comparatively simple exercise to label the bottles in preparation for the market.

So, in addition to finding a cellar that would do the production for me, I needed to find a way of funding the project. I wasn’t making any progress on either front, and eventually – after a night of not one wink of sleep – I decided it would be better if I walked away. As ‘luck’ would have it, a potential investor came through the following day, and I signed on the dotted line. I was now committed to purchasing what amounted to 10% of South Africa’s annual production of bottle-fermented sparkling wine. This person disappeared as miraculously as he’d appeared, so I needed to start that process all over again.

The one thing I did have was a customer, in the form of a supermarket group that was going to take the majority of the stock. Eventually I managed to badger friends and family into supporting the exercise, but I had to declare myself stumped on the production side.

With November almost upon me I switched to Plan B, and set about assembling my own production line. I rented a refrigerated shipping container for chilling the bottles, and was lent the device for freezing the necks (it turned out not to work), borrowed a corker, as well as the machine that applies the wire cage (that keeps the cork in place), and the machine that shrinks the foil onto the neck of the bottle. I got a short lease on a warehouse adjoining my premises, and then assembled the motliest crew of workers that have ever handled sparkling wine bottles (I suspect that several of them were no strangers to the insides of prison cells).

Finally, at the beginning of November, we started our work. With Christmas upon us time was of the essence. Lacking riddling racks or gyro-pallets we merely shook the bottles and inverted them. Fortunately this worked well enough as far as the lees was concerned, but as we were working in a 30-degree warehouse the six-atmosphere pressure of the contents became more of a hazard. One batch of bottles had production flaws, in that the glass was not an even thickness all over, with the result that several of them exploded. I shudder to think what the consequences could have been.

We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, energised by the workers’ choice of radio station (played at maximum volume). Other than having the use of a few critical pieces of equipment, every single part of the process was done by hand. For visitors familiar with the romance and prestige of Champagne it was incongruous to witness our make-do operation.

Probably the most epic part of this Heath Robinson affair was the initial opening of the bottle. Under ideal conditions – with a frozen plug of wine and lees in the neck of the bottle – it’s a straightforward exercise. However, in the absence of a functioning piece of equipment, we had to do this ‘on the fly’. The person doing the disgorging would slowly turn the bottle from inverted to horizontal, all the while watching the little pocket of air making its way up the bottle (same principle as a spirit level). Using a special tool he would then need to whip off the crown cap just before the air pocket reached the top. Leave it too late and the lees would end up back in the bottle, rendering the wine unsaleable. Do it too early, and a substantial quantity of wine would be lost. The moment needed to be timed to perfection. Fortunately, the three of us doing this (the other two were Garron Elmes, who is now making wine in Canada, and Stuart Downes, the Export Director of San Pedro wines in Chile) had quite a lot of practice!

The final part of the process – labelling – could also have done with a machine, but we had to settle for doing this by hand as well. The people doing this work (the main one worked as a minder at a printing press by day) worked with amazing accuracy at a remarkable speed.

It should also be mentioned that for a few weeks we became the local supermarket’s biggest customer for sugar, which was then mixed with wine to become the sweetening dosage added to the bottles after disgorging. I thought it quite appropriate that in a few weeks we’d be delivering the sparkling wine to the same supermarket group.

The corker provided its own challenges. It was impossible to get the setting just right, so the corks either went in too much, or too little. The latter option was a problem, because then the wire cage wouldn’t fit. One of the features of corks in champagne bottles is that they slowly lose their elasticity over the course of many years in the bottle. Given the timing, Mystery Reserve Brut was going straight onto the market, so these overly-inserted corks were occasionally very difficult to get out.

We launched at R9.99, which then was an important price point for still wines (the popular Buitenverwachting Buiten Blanc retailed at that level). Customers streamed in to buy it, journalists wrote about it, and the story eventually had a happy ending

A few weeks later (Friday the 13th of January to be precise) we served Mystery Brut at our wedding, on the lawns at Buitenverwachting. It was a magical summer’s evening, and as the ‘I do’s’ were being exchanged we could hear the sound of the corks popping in the adjacent marquee in preparation for being served immediately afterwards.

The fruit of one’s own labour is sweet!

Consumed by consumption

Oscar Foulkes April 4, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

Deciding what to buy these days involves the weighing up of a multitude of sometimes competing considerations. The big one, of course, is the big, ugly splodge of carbon that gets footprinted in the course of growing, manufacturing or distributing the product in question.

It’s easy for us Africans to laugh at Europeans’ angst about such matters. After all, their supermarkets are stocked with produce that’s been flown or trucked in from all around the world. However, rising affluence in South Africa means there’s a greater willingness to pay a premium for out-of-season produce that’s been flown in.

Last week I needed green asparagus, so I made the usual visit to Woolies. I noticed that the price was double what it had been a month previous, but thought no further of it. It was only when I was about to trim them in preparation for blanching that I realised they were produced in Peru. We’ve had Kenyan or Zimbabwean green beans, broccoli or rocket for some years – and in any case they’re in Africa – but asparagus from Peru somehow pushes us into another bracket.

It has to be said that I would not normally buy produce at double the in-season price – I’d rather switch to something else that’s in season – so I’m not going to be responsible for spreading that splodge too much. I do sometimes buy imported avocado, which I pretend has been brought in by ship, which is a relatively carbon-friendly way of moving goods around (for the record, wine moves around the world by ship, not air).

I’m looking forward to the day when a bottled-water-sipper gives me the carbon footprint lecture. There are few places in the developed world these days where it is not safe to drink tap water, which by some distance is the most carbon-efficient way of distributing aqua (not to mention the cheapest). I suspect most people who order bottled water in restaurants do so because they don’t want to be perceived as being miserly. Somehow it seems so un-cool to ask specifically to be served tap water.

One of these days I’ll stop writing about Tokyo, I promise, but I must mention the bottled water I encountered at Foodex. Labelled Arabian Oasis, it comes from the Emirates, the carbon centre of the world, and was being dished out by promotion girls dressed so scantily they would be in danger of getting stoned in some Muslim countries. When we’re drinking bottled water from a desert country (probably produced by reverse osmosis) the perversity of modern consumerism has reached a dangerously destructive pitch.

It used to be thought that organic farming was where the ducks ate the snails, and the farmer ate the ducks (I’m happy to eat the ducks, too). While I don’t actively seek out organically-farmed produce I prefer to consume food or drink that’s been produced with the minimum of chemicals. When it comes to wine – notoriously difficult to grow organically – bear in mind that the vines have to be sprayed more regularly for downy mildew, which substantially increases the carbon footprint.

I’m troubled by the viability of fish stocks every time I see a big, beautiful tuna, yellow tail or geelbek lying on crushed ice at the fishmonger’s. How long must it take them to grow to that size? Can there really be so many of them that they can be fished as intensively as they are? My solution is to switch to farmed salmon, but then I have to consider the carbon footprint (fresh salmon gets flown to South Africa). There just doesn’t seem to be a win-win solution.

I could switch to Karoo lamb, which is effectively farmed organically, but what would Patrick Holford say about me eating all this meat, not to mention the lack of fish in my diet? Dare I suggest that he has a box of pills or capsules to sell me?

Dinner, bed & breakfast

Oscar Foulkes March 31, 2007 Hotels No comments

I neglected to add comment about Park Hotel (www.parkhoteltokyo.com) to my report on Tokyo, which is remiss, because it earns a huge ‘thumbs-up’. Its cost would have precluded me from booking it direct, but as I was on an ANA package (very civilised economy class!) from Hong Kong, the first two nights were free, and the additional nights were billed at a much more affordable rate.

It’s a hotel that occupies the 25th to 34th floors of the Shiodome Media Tower, so one is well away from the noise and bustle of street level. The reception area is backed by huge windows; when I went downstairs on my first morning there was a clear view all the way to the sunlit snowy slopes of Mount Fuji.

The breakfast buffet consisted of the usual array of cereals, yoghurt, eggs etc, but could have done with better bread than the airy white sandwich loaf (a common problem in Asia). However, it probably had the best croissants one will find outside Paris, no doubt the influence of resident chef, Tateru Yoshino, who also has a restaurant in Paris. Two mornings running I was joined in the lift by the same visiting businessman (I soon learnt that he was French) carrying a huge takeaway box of these crispy, buttery objects of delight.

My room was small, but extremely comfortable, especially by big-city standards. In-room broadband was free, which is the way it should be at all hotels.

As far as evening meals were concerned, I did my usual wander around the streets in search of ‘local’ experiences. Even at the lower-priced restaurants, there was an unbelievably large selection of wonderfully fresh fish and seafood on offer. While the rand has depreciated nearly 20% against the yen since my visit last year, it still amazed me that sushi is generally cheaper in Tokyo than it is in Cape Town. That is should be better is no surprise!

I didn’t only eat sushi; I also pigged out on noodles with soup. All very oi-shi – and I could tell them so.

The Great Frequent Flier Scheme Scam

Oscar Foulkes March 30, 2007 Uncategorized 2 comments

When the great book of marketing triumphs is written, one of the chapters will surely deal with the variety of frequent flier schemes that these days abound. As a way of getting customers to focus on issues other than the lowest price, they’re a masterstroke. It used to be that you could earn maximum miles on discounted fares, but that’s all been changed as airlines have wised up to the contingent liability. These days the miles earned are substantially reduced when you buy a cheap ticket.

Especially with the rise of budget airlines, I doubt that there’s any calculation of miles earned that justifies loyalty to one airline, especially on short-hop flights. However, the much-coveted gold status does confer a large number of benefits that make travel a more bearable experience (unless, of course, you’ve bought a business class ticket, in which case none of this applies to you). Access to lounges, preferential seating and boarding, and my personal favourite – additional baggage allowance – are a few of the benefits. I don’t think I ever travel without wine samples – usually a case – which can single-handedly wipe out an economy class baggage allowance. I would say I’m probably also safe from getting ‘bumped’ due to over-booking. (For the record, my favourite lounge is Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, where I never fail to eat my way through the entire noodle bar menu.)

It was required of me earlier today to explain the concept of miles to Aedan, especially with respect to using miles to upgrade to business class. “It works like this”, I said to him, “your teacher rewards you by giving you stars for your star chart. Imagine if you could convert those stars into an extra day’s holiday, or even a special toy.” The juvenile analogy is perhaps not misplaced, given how emotional travellers can get about relatively trivial issues.

My tenure in wine retail yielded at least one case of air rage (of which I’m aware). This happened on a flight from Cape Town to London in 2000. I was in business class (having purchased a ticket with air miles), in a suitably cosseted state, sipping a delicious glass (or three) of Kanonkop Pinotage, and deciding which channel to watch on my personal video screen. In stormed a winemaker in a state of some pique at having to drink Oscar’s Easy Red in cattle class. It was not a pretty sight, and hardly a good time for me to suggest to the hostess to “give them cake.” The man’s eyes were crazed, his little remaining hair dishevelled. Not wanting to interrupt the in-flight entertainment for too long, I begged a bottle of the Kanonkop Pinotage (one of the Cape’s finest) to pacify the gent.

So, how did I come by the miles? In 1998, when I couldn’t get conventional funding for my wine shops, I began to get extremely creative in foraging for cash. On one day, Andrea and I applied for every single credit card we could. With interest rates heading for 25% it was cheaper to add the 2.5% merchant’s commission for the sake of 55 days free credit. There was the secondary benefit of collecting Voyager miles (which is what got me into business class). When the concept was introduced the banks were offering one mile for the expenditure of every R5.00. It seems hard to believe that they were that generous.

For travellers with automatically-replenishing gold credit cards none of this is relevant, but for the rest of us – scratching around to make the inhumane bearable – the slightest advantage that either gives us an edge, or that gives us the illusion of having one, can cause us to act somewhat less rationally than we would otherwise. Especially when it comes to choice of airlines.

“Oi-shi”

Oscar Foulkes March 16, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

img_1900I’ve spent the week in Tokyo, where I represented Cloof at the Foodex trade fair. It’s been an amazing experience, not diminished in any way by it being a repeat of last year’s visit.

I kicked off on Monday morning with a visit to the Tsukiji market, which is within walking distance of my hotel. My aim was the fish market, but I took a detour through the fresh produce section. The perfection and array of produce, on a grand scale, needs to be seen to be believed. The same is true of the fish market, where a yellow tail (hamachi) had gills so red it appeared to have been yanked from the ocean minutes previously.

I saw the two-metre long over-sized sushi knives they use for filleting tuna, and discovered the secret of firm, red-tinctured defrosted tuna; as the fish is defrosting, and during storage thereafter, it is wrapped in moisture-absorbing paper. At home I always avoid defrosted (i.e. not fresh) tuna, because it tends to be grey, watery and spongy. One forgets that the majority of tuna in Japan has been frozen, and yet it generally presents well at sushi counters.

Thanks to presenting Cloof wines at Foodex I learnt a new Japanese word, oi-shi. I’m not going to attempt a definition, rather the context in which it is used. I’m told that Japanese will say ‘oi-shi’ even when they think something is just so-so, but my skill at reading body language confirmed that when they said ‘oi-shi’ about Cloof wines they absolutely loved them! So, there you have it, oi-shi is used to describe a delicious taste experience.

The hit of the show was unquestionably The Very Sexy Shiraz, with Crucible Shiraz a close second. Several people asked how we could call it sexy if it is so elegant. Ah, I said, but sexiness can be defined in many ways. One lass suggested that the wine was called thus because of my own sexiness, and then rapidly vanished when I asked her what she was doing later.

One could (and would probably need to) write lengthy strategy documents about selling South African wines in Japan. Let’s just say that the reputation-driven Japanese are in love with the French. Apart from the highly desirable French luxury brands, at the top end French wines remain the world’s benchmarks. All things French have immediate cachet and saleability. Our challenge – as South Africans – is to develop our own message of desirability. On a very cursory examination I would suggest that golf (Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and others), golfing (stacks of affordable golfing possibilities in South Africa), wide open spaces, relaxed South African hospitality, sunshine and wildlife could be good starting points, to name just a few possibilities.

I was alarmed to discover that South African wines are not even in the sommeliers’ syllabus. So here’s a crazy idea – as an industry we should be sponsoring a module on South Africa, complete with a selection of wines for tasting. When those graduates go out into the industry they will be much more receptive to the sales people coming around to sell them South African wines. It’s undoubtedly a long term approach, but if we are to succeed in this very affluent market we need to lay the right foundations.

Sadly I didn’t get much opportunity to stroll around the fair, but I did see a phenomenon I’ll call ‘spontaneous queue formation’. I happened to walk past the stand of a Mexican tuna farm three minutes before they were due to start handing out tasting plates of sashimi, rice and avo. Good timing. I thought I was in pole position, until I saw the queue of patiently waiting Japanese snaking around the corner.

In such a densely populated city crowd management is critical to the smooth running of just about everything. Every day 2.6 million people go through the Ikebukuro station! At every station people queue in neat rows to board the train, but only once passengers have disembarked. Japanese orderliness in action is one of the cultural wonders of the modern world.

Japan is largely a monoculture, and is possibly the better for it. However, walking through Roppongi I encountered what looked like Nigerians loitering (with apparent intent) on the pavements. I didn’t stick around to have a conversation, and so never ascertained whether it was drugs or girls they were pimping. These are not the kinds of Africans we want preceding our business development exercises, especially in a country like Japan.

The most interesting African I met at the fair was Brian Sathekge, who relocated (on a whim) to Tokyo in January after an unspecified business disappointment back home. In a short time he appears to have learnt apparently good conversational Japanese, and is determined to put big deals together for the benefit of his countrymen (well, for his own benefit, too, but you get the picture). Brian has no shortage of courage, ambition or dynamic energy. I’ll be watching his progress with interest.

I also met a Spanish-speaking Japanese man, who was afflicted with the combined pronunciation problems of the two languages (in Spanish Vs become Bs, and in Japanese Ls become Rs). It was hard to keep a straight face when he started telling me about his visit to ‘Napa Barrey’.

Given a choice of what to peddle in Japan, I think I would have to switch to hair products for men. Women’s styles are relatively conventional – generally not colour treated, shoulder-length, and apparently professionally cut. Young men on the other hand, all begin with straight dark hair, and end up on the streets with a wide variety of styles – many carefully dishevelled – involving bleach, blow drying, waxes and gels. That’s a market worth having a piece of.

It all comes down to identity and (perceived) sex appeal. Perhaps that’s why The Very Sexy Shiraz is so very oi-shi.

The ‘Kaeffers’ are restless…

Oscar Foulkes February 23, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

I was reading a news report earlier today (at www.decanter.com) about the court challenges that have followed the announcement of the Kaefferkopf region as Alsace’s 51st designated Grand Cru area.

Given its name, and being South African, I immediately assumed political correctness to be the reason for the legal action.

But no, it seems that 37 growers, making up 15 hectares that had been excluded from the revised classification, were aggrieved at being prohibited from using the name in future.

Having watched Gallic intransigence in the face of conflict from afar, it can reasonably be assumed that the looming legal fees on both sides could easily turn those ‘de-Kaeffernated’ 15 hectares into the most expensive vineyards in France.

Dare one suggest that it would be cheaper for the French government to buy those vineyards now than defend the action in court?

The Devil Drinks Cloof

Oscar Foulkes February 23, 2007 Uncategorized 1 comment

logo_forkAs a purveyor of red wines that inevitably average out at just under 14.5% alcohol I’ve been at the receiving end of a growing number of (negative) comments about high alcohol. I wouldn’t say that I feel yet like the vinous equivalent of the super-sized Big Mac, fries and soda, but I am feeling a bit sensitive about the issue.

Climate change aside, I can understand how the phenomenon of high alcohol levels came about. Simply put, winemakers found that it was easier to sell flavourful wines made from fully-ripe fruit. Some of this fruit was probably left ‘hanging’ for longer than was absolutely necessary, with the result that wines got bigger and bigger.

However, we don’t all make wine in the Mosel. In some parts of the world (not only the Southern Hemisphere!) alcohol levels in the vicinity of 14% are the natural level. In this region an equilibrium point of ripeness has been reached. Depending upon the quality of fruit that’s been harvested the wine will be in balance. Simply put, there is enough fruit extract, acid and tannin to balance the elevated level of alcohol. The wine is undeniably fuller-bodied, but it is a faithful representation of the conditions under which it was grown. Surely this is a feature that should be praised?

It seems to me that the alcohol argument has become somewhat hyped, and so is lacking in logic. Let’s take the case of someone drinking two 125ml glasses of a 14.5% wine. If that person were to switch to a 13.5% wine they could increase their consumption by all of 18.5ml. That’s a little more than three teaspoons.

Or, doing the maths slightly differently, you would have to drink 13 glasses (each 125ml) of 13.5% wine before earning yourself an extra glass. Most people I know would not be in any condition to drink that 14th glass.

There is an interchange in The Devil Wears Prada where one of the fashionistas says: “Four is the new six.” Nowhere in the alcohol lobby is there any suggestion of the ideal level of alcohol. If 13.5% is currently considered acceptable, how long is it before 13% becomes the new 13.5%? And so on.

I’m not suggesting that all wines of 14% alcohol are in balance. Far from it; but then I’ve even had 12% wines that have been out of balance.

The bigger issue as far as alcohol is concerned is the temperature at which the wine is served. In my view most red wines should be served at about 16°C and service above 18°C should be disallowed. Red wines change personality completely when they are served too warm.

One of the trademarks of our chosen beverage is that our experience of it is so subjective. There is no empirical measurement of a wine’s quality. One of its few absolutes (excuse the pun) is the percentage of alcohol it contains. As one of the few undeniable facts relating to any particular bottle it is therefore a prime candidate for getting latched onto.

This brings to mind my observation of a certain style of sports commentary that employs statistics at every turn. These are important, and can explain why a team or individual is not getting the results they’re hoping for. Telling us what percentage of fairways a golfer has hit is relevant, but not to the exclusion of pointing out to the viewers at home what adjustment to either grip or swing is necessary to rectify the problem.

Alcohol per se is not the problem, but it would be helpful to guide wine drinkers in picking well-balanced wines, and in suggesting ideal serving temperatures.

I am of the opinion that there are more examples of wines that have become unbalanced due to over-wooding than there are wines that are unbalanced as a result of over-ripe fruit. Here again we are in subjective, non-empirical territory. At the end of the day it comes down to the style of wine favoured by the winemaker.

But that is just subjectivity. If we stick to facts the average wine drinker’s consumption is only marginally affected by switching to wine at 13.5%.

Not-Average Drinking

Oscar Foulkes February 13, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

I had occasion last year to visit a medical specialist, who undertook a lifestyle audit during the course of his examination. I sailed through the bits about smoking, regular exercise, and even elicited a raised eyebrow when he saw my blood pressure and heart rate.

I thought my half-bottle per day consumption (of life expectancy-extending red wine) should earn me a pat on the back. But no, he leaned back, fixed me with a concerned gaze, and told me that this was somewhat above the average. He was not amused when I suggested to him that perhaps there was a problem with the average.

I found myself stepping slightly beyond my own average last week when sipping my way through the greater part of a bottle of The Very Sexy Shiraz. It’s a wine that’s drinking so well at the moment (let’s not even consider a direct examination of the grammar of that phrase, and write it off to industry colloquialism) that I found it difficult to replace the cork once I’d reached the allotted demi-bouteille.

I was a victim of the wine’s deliciousness, without any free choice in the matter.

A New Harvest

Oscar Foulkes January 31, 2007 Uncategorized 2 comments

Between Monday and Thursday last week we had four days of temperatures in the vicinity of 40°C and above. Walking outside was like stepping into an oven. There was no escape from the heat. Sleep was almost impossible.

If this was a sneak preview of global warming it’s a scary future.

Of course, it’s not unusual for temperatures in the Western Cape to touch 40 degrees at various points between December and February. What made this so devastating was that the heat wave continued for four straight days, following on from several very hot days in the preceding week.

Oh, I forgot to mention that we’d started harvesting Pinotage grapes. Dozens of hectares of ripe Pinotage were hanging on the vines awaiting harvest. The pickers (spare a thought for them working in the heat) just couldn’t get there in time; even a team of 500 pickers couldn’t have brought the grapes in before they were beyond the pale.

By Friday, when winemaker Christopher van Dieren took me around the vineyards to show me the bunches of shrivelled berries, we’d lost the equivalent of approximately 150 tons of Pinotage (one ton produces about 650 litres of wine). The high levels of sugar in the almost-raisins meant that the potential alcohol was way over 16%. Even if we’d had a dip at making wine we’d have ended up with jammy, raisin flavours.

Ever the opportunist I considered the possibility of making Pinotage Amarone. In Veneto, where the red wines tend to be quite dilute, the wineries partially dry the grapes, which they then ferment and make into Amarone. This dehydration process increases the concentration in the juice. Perhaps as a niche product, produced in small quantities, there could be a future for Cloof’s Vine-Dried Pinotage Amarone – but 10 000 cases? We left the grapes hanging, and got on with harvesting the grapes that were still healthy.

Which brings me to the juice that’s destined to become the 2007 Cloof Crucible Shiraz. After only a day and a bit on skins the juice is already the most concentrated I’ve ever seen. Clearly the berries lost a fair amount of moisture during the heat wave. One of the dangers of hot conditions is that the sugar goes racing up, without simultaneous ripening of the berries. In the case of this Shiraz the pips were nut brown indicating full physiological ripeness. It promises to be a blockbuster, but first it needs to ferment.

Juice from Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes (potential for Lynchpin 2007) harvested this week is showing good concentration. The flavours are good, so the grapes appear not to have been unduly affected by the hot conditions.

The accelerated nature of this year’s harvest means that we’re already onto Cabernet Sauvignon, a full three weeks ahead of schedule. We’re supposed to be hosting a Harvest Day experience on 17 February. At the rate we’re going we’ll have to ‘borrow’ grapes from a neighbouring farm!