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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Cork Problems

Oscar Foulkes December 20, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

I’ve had a really bad run with corks over the past month.

It began during a series of tastings for journalists in London. In one tasting the final three wines (Crucible Shiraz 2003, Lynchpin 2005 and our 2003 Cabernet Franc blend) were not showing well. There wasn’t any obvious cork taint, but in each case the flavour had been stripped out of the wines. The danger, of course, is that I knew there was something wrong with the specific bottles; a stranger to the wines would just have assumed that they were supposed to taste like this. Of course, it is horribly bad luck to have the three top wines at the end of a tasting all suffer from cork problems, and it’s never happened to me on this magnitude before.

The other was a debate I initiated on the basis of a comparison of cork-sealed and screwcapped bottles of 2004 Cloof Bush Vines CPS. All I wanted to illustrate was how much more slowly wines under screwcap evolve than under cork. In my experience the wines can remain so tight that consumers will need to be educated to decant screwcapped wines. We ended up having a lengthy conversation (that continued on email) about the wine’s alcohol level (in this case only 14%).

It has to be said that the cork-sealed bottle was served at a significantly warmer temperature than the screwcapped one, which would have accentuated the alcohol (even if it had only been 13%). The main difference, as alluded to above, is that the tannins in the cork-sealed wine were softer, which allowed the flavour of the wine to express itself. Very Important Wine Writer was of the (strongly-expressed) opinion that the cork had oxidised the tannins, which made the wine taste flat, and hence throw the alcohol out of balance.

The following evening I dined at a restaurant for which this wine man had written the wine list, and was delighted to discover the Minervois (previously discussed) that – in my view – had unbalanced alcohol. In response to this on subsequent emails, Very Important Wine Writer once again trotted out his ‘cork oxidising the tannins’ thesis.

Never having been able to keep my mouth shut when a contradictory opinion is buzzing around my head, I then entered the lists. Corks don’t oxidise tannins, oxygen does (which of course enters the wine as a result of the imperfect seal provided by a cork). The part of the wine that balances the alcohol (especially in Cloof wines) is the wonderfully rich mid-palate, which is the product of poly-saccharides and glycerol. Neither of these binds with oxygen.

In the case of the Minervois there was no shortage of tannin; in fact, this may have been one of its redeeming features. What was missing was a huge hole in the mid-palate – components that should have come from the vineyard, and didn’t. The joust has not yet delivered a winner. With two equally stubborn people, both of them totally believing in the rightness their own point of view, how could it?

Earlier this week we visited Mannenberg restaurant in Cape Town’s Waterfront (great live music, by the way). We selected the 2004 Robert Alexander Merlot. The first bottle was fine, but we were obliged to send back bottle numbers two and three as a result of them being corked. At this point the manager asked if we didn’t want to order a different wine. I did my best to explain that the wine had been tainted as a result of a chemical reaction with stuff on the cork, and that she’d be perfectly entitled to return it to the supplier for a refund. When bottle number four was also corked we decided to grin and bear it, rather than risk getting thrown out for being ‘difficult’.

We were both shocked and amused a while later to see the owner sharing the sent-back bottles with his personal guests.

Blending Out

Oscar Foulkes December 6, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

Playing around with a table-full of samples and a measuring cylinder is one of my most enjoyable activities at Cloof. Even when only one grape variety is involved, the components can be diverse:

– wine from different vineyard blocks
– wine made from grapes at varying stages of ripeness
– wine aged in stainless steel
– wine aged in barrel (further diversity comes from the cooper, or from the age of the barrels)

The permutations become more involved when one is working with multiple grape varieties (each of which can have their own variations, as per the list above).

A case in point is the Cloof Bush Vines CPS 2004. As the acronym ‘CPS’ suggests, it’s made up of Cabernet, Pinotage and Shiraz. Within each of these varieties are batches from different vineyards, as well as a large component that was aged in barrel. The end result is an intriguingly interesting wine. No grape variety dominates, the wine has multiple flavour dimensions, and the palate has a firm structure of fruit and oak tannins that makes it a great complement to many foods.

Having now had the opportunity to reflect on the wine (thanks to numerous bottles consumed slowly over the course of several hours each time), I think it’s one of the most interesting South African wines around. In my view it makes a uniquely Cloof expression.

There’s a growing group of UK wine writers that agrees with me.

Writing in Wine & Spirit, Simon Woods described the 2004 Cloof Bush Vines CPS as “excellent” and awarded it a score of 90 out of 100:

“The 2004 CPS is rich and fruity, with an earthy berry and plum intensity, but thanks in part to the French Oak ageing, it also shows a more refined and gentle edge, along with a spicy, velvety finish.”

Leading UK wine writer Tom Cannavan selected the 2004 Cloof Bush Vines CPS as his Wine of the Week, making the following comments:

“Given [its] luxurious recipe [i.e. ageing in French oak] the price is very low, but the wine delivers. The nose is dominated by the Shiraz, giving pepper and spice along with bright cherry and raspberry fruit, and a touch of earthy, vegetal, Pinotage character. On the palate a very soft cloak of cedary oak flavours is layered over ripe, juicy cherry and black berry fruits, with plenty of black pepper and clove-like spice and a robust, earthy tannic structure. There is lovely freshness too, with good acidity and the bright fruit profile persisting. Delightful stuff, and well priced.”

Olly Smith, clearly not drawn to verbosity, just said: “Rocks!”

No comment on this wine would be complete without referring to the role played by Pinotage. Without it (i.e. as a Cabernet/Shiraz blend), CPS would gush with fruit and the tannins would be softer. Pinotage not only gives the wine more structure, but also lends a savoury note to the flavour profile. It’s all part of what makes this an interesting wine. But probably harder to sell to a populist market – this is not a wine that ‘blends in’ with the crowd!

Another point of interest is to compare the cork and screwcap bottlings. The latter is much tighter, while the wine under cork has evolved faster. Its flavours are more expressive and its tannins softer.

While I love the reliability of screwcap (i.e. no corked wine), it’s clear that screwcapped wines need to be well aerated prior to drinking.

The Alcohol debate

Oscar Foulkes December 1, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

I suppose I could be accused of having become over-sensitive to certain types of criticism of Cloof wines.

One of the most nonsensical criticisms of high alcohol wines is that one can drink so much less of them. Well, let’s do the maths – three glasses of 15% wine have the same alcohol content as three-and-a-third glasses of 13.5% wine. A third of a glass over three glasses is hardly a lot. In fact, I would say that the reverse is true. Sometimes when drinking a ‘lighter’ wine I have found myself getting close to finishing a bottle – when my regular consumption is a maximum of half-a-bottle of 14.5% red. Paradoxically, one is therefore more likely to consume more alcohol when drinking a lower-alcohol wine.

Let’s begin by saying that I fully accept that wine is an entirely subjective experience, and that – thankfully – we all have our own likes and dislikes. I would, however, expect of an informed taster to be able to say what it is about a wine that makes it unacceptable. Let’s add, further, that I’m not convinced that one’s experience of a wine can be reduced to a numerical score. There is no such thing as an absolute, empirical measurement of a wine’s quality.

All we have are preferences based upon an accumulated taste experience. Following from Edward de Bono’s observation that the mind recognises the familiar, we can become accustomed to just about any flavour experience. An article I read on the subject a few years ago suggested that eating something seven times is all that’s required for a new flavour to become accepted.

It is part of the unique style of Cloof wines that they are significantly more concentrated in flavour than the majority of other wines. An accompanying feature (let’s not at this point call it a benefit!) is that alcohol levels of the red wines are above 14%, and occasionally even above 15%. The wines are a reflection of the soils and climate where the vines are grown – dare I say terroir?

In this sense Cloof wines are no less valid as an authentic wine style than any of the established regions of the Old World.

I accept that the richness and power of Cloof wines can be a little intimidating. However, by the same token, some wines that I regard as being ‘green’ are considered perfectly balanced by others. These are preferences, based upon personal reference points.

The criticism I’m struggling with most at the moment is alcohol; one of the few truly empirical measurements applicable to wine. When printed on the label, it’s nothing more than a bland statement of fact. Once again, subjective judgement is necessary, to assess whether it’s in balance with all the other components in a wine.

It would be the same as saying that a wine that’s been aged in 100% new oak for 12 months is over-wooded. The percentage of new oak, and the length of ageing are both statements of fact, but a subjective judgement of the wine remains necessary.

My opinion is that our alcohols are in balance with the wines’ extract (polyphenols), tannins and acid. In support of my viewpoint (because this is, after all, so subjective) I offer an example of a wine that I believe is out of balance.

Earlier this week I spent a couple of hours working my way through a bottle of 2004 Vieilles Vignes Minervois from Domaine Pierre Cros. The first experience on the palate (admittedly without any ‘burn’) was the soft, sweet sensation of alcohol. This was accompanied by some interesting spicy flavours that dissipated quite rapidly. The texture of the fruit extract was hardly present. The palate was then belatedly attacked by some fairly determined tannins. While the wine was very definitely made up of three different parts, it was only the tannins that offered any kind of redemption from the wine’s awkwardness.

Here’s a wine with a relatively moderate ‘claimed’ alcohol of 14% (it can legally be as high as 14.49%) that is patently so alcoholic that it’s out of balance. Would I rather have a well-balanced 15.5% or an out-of-balance 14%? No contest.

How to deal with wine snobs

Oscar Foulkes December 1, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

cellarblend2004Last week I hosted a UK-based customer, who told me how Cloof Cellar Blend had helped him out of a difficult situation with a wine snob.

One of the guests he’d invited to a dinner party was known to always arrive with a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CNDP). In fact, she also very loudly orders CNDP at restaurants, including – wait for this – when eating Thai food! Drinking CNDP doesn’t immediately categorise someone as a wine snob. I’ve drunk substantial quantities of it myself (all in the name of research, of course!), and would list southern Rhône wines as one of my favoured points of reference.

It’s how she goes about drinking the CNDP that defines her as a wine snob. On this basis, it is clear that it’s also theoretically possible for her to be wine snob when drinking Cloof wines. In that case I’ll of course leave it to someone else to call her a wine snob!

So, having greeted his guests and relieved them of their coats, bottles of wine (including CNDP!) etc, the host offered them a drink. He proudly brought out a bottle of Cloof Cellar Blend, to which Ms Wine Snob loadedly commented “interesting”. Fortunately she was open-minded enough to judge the wine on its merits, and loved it.

Commenting that if she’d known that the host was going to be serving a South African wine she’d have brought TWO bottles of CNDP, she said how pleased she was to be drinking Cloof Cellar Blend. There are no reports (yet) of her carrying Cellar Blend wherever she goes.

Kitchen Disasters

Oscar Foulkes November 14, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

Don’t Try This At Home is a book of top chefs’ kitchen disasters. Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Worrall-Thompson – they’re all there. The key point was the way in which they managed to recover. It’s good to know that we are not alone.

Take the wedding I worked at on Saturday night. First, the lemon juice that had been squeezed (from our only lemons, it has to be said), was ditched by mistake. No problem for Jon, who dashed off to the Spar. Then the guests took an extra 30 minutes to take their seats, with the result that the lemon beurre monte I’d made was less liquid than it was supposed to be. So all the little dishes were returned to the kitchen for re-heating, but being made up largely of emulsified butter, the sauce promptly split. Fortunately we had some eggs, and so I was able to convert the sauce to an impromptu hollandaise.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The gas canister for the blow torch had been fitted incorrectly, with the result that it was leaking its gas. Thanks to another caterer based nearby, we were able to get a replacement, and get the crème brulees out on schedule.

All in a night’s work!

18 Hours in Dublin

Oscar Foulkes October 24, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

On a recent Phineas Fogg-type itinerary (6 cities in 10 days) I had occasion to visit Ireland for the first time. My flight from Bradford-Leeds on Ryanair was uneventful, except for the fact that the announcements by the Eastern European hostesses were absolutely incomprehensible. It was at the Immigration desk that I first discovered I was in another kind of country. Unlike the very serious-looking uniformed officials I usually encounter in other countries, these non-uniformed men looked as if they could be pulling pints in the local pub, or even providing the musical entertainment at a similar establishment. Passengers in the EU-queue vaguely flashed passports at the official. Many didn’t bother to do even that.

In the non-EU queue I was preceded by a middle-aged businessman, who dutifully handed over his passport. After studying it for a little bit, the official looked up, pan-faced, and said: “What’s happened to yer head?”

The businessmen looked confused. This wasn’t the usual line of questioning (e.g. Where are you staying? How long are you staying for?).

Still pan-faced, the official held up the passport, opened to the picture (clearly not a recent one) in which the businessman had a full head of hair.

My turn. How long are you staying? I’m leaving after my meeting tomorrow. Standard stuff. But then he caught me – since losing part of my vocal chords earlier this year my voice is not nearly as strident as it used to be.

“So, will ye’ be usin’ sign language?”

Immigration officials do an important job in screening undesirables. But they can also be valuable in getting visitors into the right mood. I thought these guys were great, and encountered nothing but genuinely warm and friendly Irish people in service positions for the rest of my stay.

Harrassed in the Aisles

Oscar Foulkes September 3, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

Wine shopping has become a hazardous experience, especially when undertaken at peak times. On Saturday morning I went browsing for an interesting selection at a large ‘discount’ outlet. I had barely gained my bearings inside the store than a promoter was offering me a taste of wine she assured me was delicious. I managed to shrug off her further offer to assist me in choosing my purchases, and then had to brace myself for the next promoter. With a jinx and a step off the left foot I got past the third promoter, only to find the first promoter positioned between myself and the shelf, once again offering assistance.

Quietly, but slightly less politely, I once again asserted myself, which bought me a minute, or so, of peaceful browsing, before offers of assistance started flowing in again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to accept recommendations from trained professionals (i.e. the people who actually run the store), but having part-timers getting in my space, pushing their dubious wares, was more than irritating.

It doesn’t help that as a wine producer myself I can see what’s happening – difficult market conditions means that we all have to work very much harder to keep wine moving out of the cellar doors.

(Note to self: cancel all Saturday morning promotions)

Is the New World killing Bordeaux?

Oscar Foulkes August 19, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

During Vinexpo 2003 I was invited to a wine tasting at a cru bourgeois chateau in Haut-Medoc. I very much enjoyed the elegance of their wines. Then they proudly pulled out a wine they had purposely made ‘in a New World style’, presumably with Robert Parker in mind. It even had a brand name that had little to do with its Bordelais origins.

It was a wine without any charm or enjoyment. New oak completely dominated the palate. How sad, I thought, that in responding to perceived changes in consumer preferences, they had turned their backs on what they do really well. The kind of elegance, balance and finesse that it’s possible to achieve in Bordeaux (and other parts of France) are a wonderful counterpoint to the powerful, concentrated wines the New World is able to churn out with ease.

OK, so the labelling is more complicated, and French wine producers appear to be utterly mired in bureaucracy, but it would be a terrible shame if the crisis facing their industry were to lead to dramatic changes in the character of French wines.

At the beginning of August we (Cloof) hosted a group of UK wine writers in Bordeaux for the launch of our 2005 Bordeaux-style blend (Lynchpin). To make the programme a little more interesting we hosted a mini-conference, entitled Is the New World killing Bordeaux?, and invited four Bordelais producers to speak on the subject.

I was interested to taste how they were ‘sexing up’ their wines, if at all, and to see what kind of debate ensued. I hoped that they would also give us examples of how they think a Bordeaux of the 21st century should taste.

Representing the more traditional non-cru classé – a constituency that can’t be finding it easy at the moment – we had Jean-Michel Lapalu (Chateaux Lacombe-Noaillac, Liversan & Patache D’Aux). Harking from Canada, and now a confirmed French traditionalist, we had Philip Holzberg, the owner-winemaker of the 10 hectare Chateau Franc-Cardinal.

Bordeaux Oxygéne, an affiliation of 18 young chateau representatives, sent along the vivacious Florence Lafragette (Domaines Lafragette), as well as its President, Benoit Trocard. It has to be said that they largely represent the elite of Bordeaux – this is the next generation of its aristocracy – who are having a jolly good time of things these days, thanks to the sensational 2005 en primeur campaign during which prices went up by in excess of 200% for some chateaux.

Florence and Benoit opened in tandem with a rehearsed presentation that dealt mainly with the way that Oxygéne is trying to show a more approachable, youthful face to Bordeaux. Florence particularly liked the Britney Spears analogy I’d used in the invitation, and brought along a bottle of Pink de Loudenne to show how they’ve modernised their labels. Benoit brought a bottle of his critically acclaimed Clos de la Vieille Eglise. I very much appreciated them taking the trouble to join us, but was a little disappointed that they didn’t bring more wines to illustrate the wine styles part of the debate.

Benoit correctly made the point that they seldom have bad vintages anymore, which is partly a product of employing the kind of modern winemaking techniques practised in the New World, and partly a result of global warming. Bordeaux is undeniably complex, but within this is wonderful diversity (as represented by the membership of Oxygéne).

Florence said that, as Oxygéne, they prefer to present a positive face. So, for them, there is no such thing as a crisis. It is a commendable attitude, but probably a lot easier to maintain when you’re on the right side of the sales curve, as most of their members are!

Philip and Jean-Michel did more to get to grips with the nitty-gritty of issues facing the more run-of-the-mill Bordelais. Philip explained some of the problems inherent in the system of co-operative cellars, the biggest of which is the lack of confusion around “mis en bouteille”, which leads consumers to believe that a wine was chateau-bottled, when in fact it was made at a co-op. He also showed how it’s possible to employ modern winemaking techniques, and yet produce wines that remain true to their origins.

His masterstroke was in producing a mystery bottle of Bordeaux that was the perfect illustration of a pseudo-New World wine.

Jean-Michel showed how they’ve modified the packaging of the Patache d’Aux second label, with the addition of the grape variety.

It was, admittedly, more than a little presumptuous for a New World producer to convene this kind of discussion (especially in Bordeaux!). Part of my motivation was to encourage embattled Bordelais to stick to their guns in doing what they do best.

At the end of the day, though, it was more about what I could take away from the time spent in Bordeaux.

No matter where one makes wine in the world, one’s first responsibility is to make wines that represent their region of origin with integrity. In so doing, one is also presumably making wines that are unique. It may take time for the wine buyers, ‘anoraks’ and consumers to understand your wines, but they won’t take you seriously if you aren’t doing something different.

It is diversity that makes wine a fabulous beverage, and it is our duty as wine producers to uphold this tradition. If it is true that an artist is only as good as his reference, then we all need to know each others’ wines very well.

While it is true to say that inexpensive New World wines, in general, are more approachable (i.e. wine being easy to drink and packaging easy to understand) than inexpensive French wines, there is a tendency in the New World for us to over-make our wines. It is the norm for reserve wines to have in excess of 70% new oak. Combine that with high alcohol and oodles of ripe, sweet fruit and you have something akin to shouting.

The New World may have reminded the Old World of the need to operate hygienic cellars, to be more picky about where they grow vineyards and to crop them within acceptable bounds. The Old World has learnt to appreciate and listen to its customers more. But in terms of elegance, balance and understated classiness the best French wines still have something that for most of the New World remains an aspiration.

A week later I was party to the consumption of Chateau Pavie 2003, the wine that split the world’s wine writers into fiercely conflicting camps. Despite giving the wine a thorough airing in decanter, we were not able to drink it. For our palates it was just too over-extracted and over-worked. It would have been very interesting to have had this wine available for tasting during the mini-conference.

Launch of The Very Sexy Shiraz

Oscar Foulkes August 14, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my involvement at Cloof is that I experience the finished wines at every stage from fruit in the vineyard onwards. This enjoyment is substantially amplified by the quality of the Shiraz emanating from these vineyards. I just love sticking my nose into a glass and finding the aromas that I associate with Shiraz.

Every year we make several tanks of Shiraz, each from different vineyards on Cloof and Burghers Post. Unfortunately the volumes have been limited, so we’ve generally blended the Shiraz with either Cabernet, or Cabernet and Pinotage. The only single-varietal bottling of Shiraz has been Crucible, which for all its quality has been very restricted in quantity (in four vintages we’ve only made 1100 cases).

This week we finally unveil a Shiraz that has quietly been making its way through the system since its vinification in 2004. The grapes came from Burghers Post, and had produced gorgeously hedonistic Shiraz flavours. It was a prime candidate for barrel maturation, which is where it spent a little more than 12 months.

The combination of concentrated juicy fruit and French oak resulted in an irresistible package. In fact, the attractiveness of the wine was such that it could only be called ‘sexy’, hence The Very Sexy Shiraz (with apologies to Eric Carle, the author/illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Very Busy Spider etc). “Darling of origin, darling by nature” is how we describe it on the back label.

So, finally, we have a Shiraz to partner the Crucible.

Premium, barrel-aged shiraz often goes on the market priced in excess of R100, but given the name, the only price that made sense was soixante-neuf (or, R69).

Last week Wine magazine announced the results of its 2006 Shiraz Challenge, which has led to a great deal of excitement at Cloof.

The judges tasted 215 wines, from which they selected 28 wines to go into round two of the tasting process. The eventual winner was awarded four-and-a-half stars, with seven wines on four stars, one of which was The Very Sexy Shiraz.

So, one could safely say that our own (presumptuous) judgement of the wine was vindicated.

Laws of Sports Neutrality

Oscar Foulkes July 14, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

With all the international sport on at the moment it’s worth re-visiting the old issue of which team to support. As a starting point, I share with you Blackshaw’s Law of Sports Neutrality. Always support South Africa. When South Africa is not playing, support the side that makes better wine (for example, this would see one supporting France against Australia).

I suspect, also, that on the losing-with-good-grace scale, France is not a bad team for us to lose to. Twice in one weekend? Difficult, but defensible when one can stand back and admire the phenomenal talent of a young flyhalf, like Bauxis. Ireland and Wales are good teams to support, especially when giving England or Australia a bloody nose.

The latter teams are a no-no under most circumstances, but as with all scientific issues, there are always exceptions. So, I happily supported Australia in the Ashes series against England last year.
The soccer World Cup raises a variety of issues around which team(s) to support. These have been addressed by a friend living in London, who produces a blog at I still don’t quite follow the logic, but he somehow made a case for supporting England. And he’s a Transvaler!

Golf confounds the whole matter even further, especially when it’s a major, being played in the US. American parochiality reaches new heights when commentators pick up microphones. I suspect they regard it as a curiosity that non-Americans swing golf clubs, and even produce an International Leader Board to reinforce this view. So, it is no hardship at all to support even Australians and English golfers under these circumstances.

As you all know, in the Land of the (non-)Free they play sports which ensure that Americans will always be the world champions. They even play the World Series (baseball) against themselves (some people would argue that there’s a case for changing the ‘against’ to ‘with’). So I’m seldom pressed to make a call on which team I’m going to support when Americans are involved. The exception, of course, was Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France, who – to the best of my recollection – is the only American sportsperson I have supported. The way he powered up mountains is an image that will remain with me for a long time. Which all goes to show, that – at the end of the day – it’s sporting prowess that really counts, not solely national fervour.

Especially in the Cape winter, I prefer to watch with a glass of red wine in hand, but as we all know, there are exceptions – even I prefer to drink beer occasionally. I’m told that beer sales in Europe are massive this summer, to the detriment of wine.