Shiraz of South Africa

as reported in the Star Newspapers

Syrah’s origin is the stuff of legends – The Kings of Persia (now Iran) were the first to taste Syrah wine.  The grape subsequently traveled to Europe thanks to a returning crusader. Another story has ancient Greeks bringing Syrah vines from Persia to Sicily. The Romans then took vine cuttings from Sicily and planted them on a hill in the Rhone Valley called Hermitage.

But how did Syrah get to South Africa?
Surprisingly, it was thanks to a migrant to Australia, James Busby, during the early 1800’s. Curious about wines, Busby went back up north, to Spain and France to visit vineyards.  On his return to Australia, he brought along vine cuttings. The ship that Busby sailed in, stopped off at the Cape to pick up provisions.  And he must have dropped off some Syrah cuttings there.

The rest of the cuttings were renamed Shiraz and they became Australia’s most famous wine. But how has Syrah fared in South Africa?

I recently visited Stellenbosch, Paarl and various wine regions of South Africa to find out.

Colin Collard, who runs a successful ‘Wine of the Month Club’ in South Africa (SA), gave me a quick overview over a glass of delicious Shiraz, by La Motte winery.  “Because the Shiraz grape produces low yields there was little demand for it. After apartheid, all changed. When I started the business, there were only 100 wineries in the country. Over the years cooperatives were privatized and today there are over 600 wine companies. Farmers who used to supply low quality grapes to cooperatives suddenly became wine producers. Producing quality wines meant they could charge more and reap healthy profit. So they turned to the quality cultivation of the Shiraz grape.”

Later, at the Michaelangelo Wine Challenge, alongside other judges, I blind-tasted lots of Shiraz. The wines were deep coloured, had a perfume of ripe red fruits, filled the mouth with flavours, yet tannins were ripe and lightly chewy. Added to it, the wine finish was long – all you would expect of a good wine. So I decided to take notes and after the blind tasting was over, was able to identify some favourites.

In taste, it is difficult to pin down a distinct SA style. Some wines are reminiscent of France’s Northern Rhone Hermitage wines, with raspberry and blackcurrant flavours, a toasty edge and a rich grand texture. Others resembled Cote Rotie, being redolent of red fruits such as cherry with smoky undertones and a hint of meat.  Yet, some others were almost undistinguishable from the Australian Barossa Shiraz, with big, complex mouth filling flavours of the hot-climate grown grapes. And there was also SA Shiraz with a big structure allied to elegance, like those Australian cool climate Clare Valley wines.

I paid a visit to Fairview Estate where Charles Back is a champion of the grape. “Shiraz is the back bone of our business; the grape excels in the Paarl Mountain; and the most expressive Shiraz wine is usually made from grapes growing on granite soils”.

Yet granite is not the only soil that Shiraz thrives on. At another Paarl-based estate, Simonsvlei, the deep clay soils are responsible for spicy overtones. Indeed, the spice element is found in Simonsvlei’s ‘standard’ Shiraz as well as in their Hercules Paragon Shiraz.

That is not to say you don’t get outstanding Shiraz in other regions. Mulderbosch Estate’s Shiraz, made from grapes grown in the Stellenbosch region, was like a Gigondas from Rhone’s south – the wine had nuances of violets, iodine and a freshly ground white pepper.

Table Mountain is better known for its panoramic views than wine. Still, the Muratie Estate’s vines grown on the Table Mountain’s sandstone soils produced a rich Shiraz, with a delicious ripeness, modern in style.

It was the juicy Bilton with bright fruit that reminded me of the cool temperature ferment Shiraz of certain Australian wines. Then there was the rich red fruity wine with lashings of vanilla and oak from Hofstraat Winery’s ‘Renosterbos Shiraz’. It was inspiring – for the creator is a ‘garagiste’ – a term used to describe home winemakers who rent equipment and cellar space to make their dream wine – usually 1 but up to 12 barrels of it.

Yet another wine, oozing with strawberry jam and blackcurrant flavours, is the former cooperative Kango Winery’s ‘Swartberg Shiraz’. Made from grapes grown in yet another part of the Cape, these lovely wines had wine connoisseurs arguing about the origins of fine SA Shiraz.

Is there a need to pin down a definable style for SA Shiraz? Lovers of the grape variety will love the Saronsberg ‘Full Circle’– with its lightly bitter tannins. Or they might revel in the Kleine Zalze, all spicy and fruity. Alternatively, the Kaapzicht is cherry-smoky like with muscular tannins. Then again they might prefer the Landskroon ‘Paul de Viller’ with a savoury taste and chewy tannins. For something all complex and layered it has to be the De Grendel. Looking for something plummish that will stand the test of time, then a Kanu Shiraz is for you. And if you love organic, hand-made wines, the Shiraz of Springfield Estate is a must.

Shiraz may yet turn out to be South Africa’s new signature red.

Douro – Cristiano Van Zeller

Until recently, all the Douro Valley exporters produced port. However, it’s not that table wines were never produced in the Douro. The port producers did make small amounts of table wines for local consumption, usually from surplus grapes or grapes that by law could not be used for making port.

Lately, however, a new generation of winemakers in the Douro are turning their attention to producing red wines for export. Instead of using surplus or low quality grapes, they have been using the same, high quality grapes that were destined for port.

These include Touriga Nacional (venerated for its tannins and acidity), Touriga Franca (prized for its perfumed aromas) and other grapes varieties such as Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinto Cao (produces concentrated and spicy wines) and Tinta Barroca.

The reason for this couldn’t be simpler. If the grapes can be turned into high quality port, surely fine table wines can also be made.

Any visitor to the Douro Valley will be awed by the vista of stunning hills, running on both sides of the river and falling steeply down to the water’s edge. And on the steep slopes of the hills are man-made terraces, all planted with vines.

In this region of contrasts, winters are cold and wet while summers are searingly hot. Soils range from granite to schist, slate and even limestone. In many places, the Douro River cuts through the slate, thus splitting it into vertical layers below the surface . This enables water to seep in and roots grow deep.

Vines are planted almost everywhere from the river’s edge right up to an altitude of 500m. Microclimates abound and the conditions are perfect for making fine wine.

Cristiano, checking on our lunch

On a recent tour of Douro, I visited a group of five like-minded port producers who have turned their efforts towards making dry table wines. They do so with the intent of promoting the region for its fortified port wines as well as for its fine table wines. They call themelves the Douro Boys.

First of the Douro Boys is Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta Vale Dona Maria. A former co-owner of the esteemed port winery of Quinta do Noval, van Zeller set out on his own a little over a decade ago, buying a vineyard and then adding to it an old vineyard belonging to his wife’s family.

Although he began by making port, he discovered that he could also make good red wines from the same grapes. To make quality wine, “you make mistakes, try everything and even deliberate errors just to discover the consequences,” he shared.

Over the years, as van Zeller crafted his wines, he found a growing interest from appreciative drinkers for his table wines. Less port was made as more grapes from the vineyard were destined for wine.

Today, with the assistance of winemaker Sandra Tavares da Silva, 25,000 bottles of red wine are made at Quinta Vale Dona Maria. Van Zeller continues to expand operations by leasing neighbours vineyards and also acquiring them.

Winemaker Sandra Tavares da Silva (left) helps port producer van Zeller make fine, dry white table wine.

I tasted his Quinta Vale Dona Maria red wines from various vintages – all had beautiful aromas but it was the 2004 with a scent of fresh plums, a sweet core of red and black fruit and a complex and elegant finish that impressed me most.

Lemos & Van Zeller CV-Curriculum Vitae 2007 was another equally outstanding wine with power and stature; it was herbal with spice, violets, eucalyptus and pencil shavings, tannic and perfect for long ageing.

Then out of nowhere, van Zeller whisked out a pink wine.This was a big surprise as I had only been expecting red wines from the region. The delightful rosé wine lived up to the estate’s reputation – it was perfumed with strawberries and had a smooth texture. Another wine was uncorked. I was way past surprises. But even so the white Quinta do Vale Dona Maria VZ Branco seduced me with its citrus overtones, with an underlying oak flavour and creamy texture.

Douro wines certainly are full of revelations!

Note: Its entirely unfair to compare wines from different countries and regions but for readers unfamiliar with Portuguese table wines and wondering about the styles, here are some approximations:

The Quinta Vale Dona Maria is like a terroir-based European wine; The CV could be compared to a New World iconic wine, the pink, somewhat between a mid-heavy bodied Tavel and Navarra rose; and the Branco – I could have mistaken it for a Pessac Leognan.

Grüner Pastures

The Grüner Veltliner wine, once considered suitable only for quaffing in the Viennese Heurigen, has evolved into a wine that has earned its place in the lists of a handful of international restaurants.  Grüner Veltliner, literally meaning ‘green grape from the Veltlin village of Tirol’ is a local speciality grown on 36% of Austria’s 47,500 hectares of vineyards.

In style, the uniquely Austrian white wine Grüner Veltliner has elements in common with not only the wines of Germany, but also those of other countries. If I may venture a generalisation, the famous Grüner Veltliner is delicious, with floral-fruit typical of Rieslings wines, the snow-pea-kind of herbaceousness and fruitiness of Sauvignon Blancs from cool New World regions. Allied to it is the clean crisp yet un-aggressive dryness of the Australian Semillon wines whilst the silky richness found only in Alsace Gewurtztraminers completes the wine. With the best many varieties, no wonder Grüner Veltliner has become the most widely planted grape in Austria.

The Appetite Tasting Panel was convened and here’s what we thought of the wines.

The Panel

The Sommelier – Janice Koh
People who love bone dry Rieslings such as the zippy Aussie Clare types will love these wines. I was impressed with the freshness, even in the older wines. Some great Gruners were seen here today. I loved the big spectrum of flavour in the Loimer, the juxtaposed flavours of vanilla ice cream and minerals in the Neumayer Engelberg and the mineral crisp Neumayer Zwirch

The Wine Journalist – Jenny Tan
Most gruners are unoaked so it was refreshing to have toasty flavours in a gruner. Yet it is well handled. I am referring to the Kurt Angerer 1997. Wines like this were put up in a taste off in the UK recently and they beat some Burgundian Chardonnays!  There is potential in wood aged gruners.

The Wine Lecturer – Daniel
What an eclectic mix – so many styles in one variety. I am ecstatic. I’d drink Ott as there’s lots of stuff in the wine, and not forgetting the incredible balance. Then there is also Hirtzberger where I am seeing good development and its so different.

The Wine Journalist – Curtis
Huber was outstanding and way ahead, a classic with sea salt mineral flavours; Salomon Undhof was explosive – nutty with the salt and marmalade; and Neumayer Zwirch for its exotic botrytised style – this will will age. Ultimately my vote goes for the Non bortytised gruners – those with the inherent pomelo-grapefruit kind of searing acidity.

The Wine Consultant – John Chua
Just give me any gruners that are up to seven years old. There was a good showing here. I like them young. Huber for its overall taste, Ott for its density and refreshing taste and Salomon Undhof because it is spicy – all this is what gruner is.

Appetite Wine Editor – Ed soon
I could not imagine we tasted just one variety. And herein the secret is revealed. Savour them young but some can show those wonderful aged Riesling and mature Chardonnay characters when aged. This is a noble variety indeed. So bring on the sushi, the cheeses, the salads and even the meaty stews.

The Wines

* Good / ** Very Good / *** Outstanding

Nigl, ‘Privat’ 2006 (Kremstal) ** Peach, pear, yellow plums apricots, chick peas, intense, warm, textured, wholesome. A rich bold wine that works well with stews, meat dishes and cheeses
Markus Huber, ‘Obere Steigen’ 2006 (Traisental) *** Intense, with minerals, roses, bananas, lemons, grapefruit, sea salt. Racy and exuberant wine.
Eichinger ‘Gaisberg’ 2006 (Kamptal) *** Crystalline fresh, length with perfume of honey, peach, cream, tropical fruits and with a savoury finish and length. Truly a refreshing wine.
Loimer ‘Lois’ 2006 (Kamptal) ** Fresh minerality and squeeze of lemon, lingering although straightforward. A wine with lemon burst personality.
Ott ‘Der Ott’ 2006 (Wachau) ** Ripe banana and guava notes allied with white pepper, grapefruit, yet rich, warm and with a smoky savoury palate. A fruity wine.
Alzinger ‘Steinertal’ 2005 “smaragd” (Donauland) ** Hint of quince and peas, almonds florals and white stone fruits, fleshy yet zingy with a good balance. A poised wine.
Salomon ‘von Stein’ 2005 (Kremstal) ** Spicy, herbaceous, floral, biscuity, pickled ginger, mineral oil even; an inordinately complex wine.
Prager ‘Achleiten’ 2005 (Wachau) ** Edamame beans, green tea, off dry style with honey, botrytis but good intensity and an exotic wine.
Neumayer ‘Engelberg’ 2004 (Traisental) ** Leaner style with mint, herbal, bread, white pepper - exotic.
Neumayer ‘Zwirch’ 2004 (Traisental) ** Persimmons, pear, lemons and minerals. Pure with a toasty flavour. Angular wine.
F.X. Pichler 2003 “smaragd” (Wachau) ** Fat, fruity, toffee nose, earthy with barley mints and cammomile; textured and earthy wine.
Hirtzberger - Honivogl 2003 (Spitz/Donau-Wachau) ** Opulent, rich, honeyed with minerals and development of secondary bouquet. Layered and long and big.
Domaine Wachau (FWW) 2000 “smaragd” ** Atypical wine with whiffs of lemon curd, pineapples, flint and slightly oil but complex with soy and bacon.
Kurt Angerer ‘Donatus’ 1997 (Kamptal) ** Classic wood aged and mature wine nose - buttery, spicy, mineral oil, yet underlined by fresh citrus notes and some toast and vanilla. Smoky.

Grüner At a Glance
Growing Grüner

Previously, more the merrier – This variety adapts easily to many soil types and can produce at high crop levels. The Lenz Moser vine training system, named for the Austrian producer who developed it, was developed so that the vine could produce lots of grapes in widely spaced vineyards that accommodate machines to reduce labour costs. However, the wines farmed this way turned out to be light and simple; but lot of wine can be made this way.

Less is more, today –  In the 1990’s, Austria’s winemakers discovered that, with lower yields and higher ripeness, Grüner Veltliner can produce strikingly intense and concentrated wines. So began the shift towards high end Grüner Veltliners.

Grüner Where

The wines are terroir specific and so their styles can range from fruity with white-pepper nuances to those with secondary flavours reminiscent of lentils and bayleaf, depending on where the vine is grown.

•    Weinviertel – This district within Niederösterreich and Austria’s single largest winegrowing area and offers the medium- and light- bodied Gruner, of ordinary quality.

•    Wachau – Lying west of Vienna and facing south and on bank of the Danube is the Wachau region. Grüner here are made in the unctuous, hedonistic, ripe style. Many are identified on the label with the term Smaragd – and it is best to cellar the wines for 4-6 years prior to indulging.

•    Kremstal – Adjacent to the Wachau, is the Kremstal and its combination of loess soil and primary rock make for wines with greater body.

•    Kamtal – Here, you will find deep and powerful wines even more intensely flavored that that of the Kremstal, owing to the soil’s combination of loess, clay and primary rock.

Grüner What

•    Marvelously fresh, fruity, clean and simple to be enjoyed immediately after they are made in the Heurigen taverns around the country

•    Dry and full bodied,  with nuts, spice, nutmeg, almonds and nougat. You begin to appreciate the mouthfeel and textures due to the balance of acidity and sweetness, and the 12.5% alcohol

•    Full and complex (up to 14% alcohol) showing fruit flavours of pear, quince and apple.

•    Sweet and rich (late picked and also Trockenbeerenauslese), most wines with intense apricot and dried fruit overtones

Groovy Grüner Pairings

Despite all its various incarnations – there is a certain crystalline clarity and purity of flavour in Grüner Veltliners. Whichever style you chose, the wine has the uncanny ability to pair with all types of cuisines and especially with “difficult” foods such as artichokes and asparagus that usually overpower wines,

Spice Nice
Most of the wines are not high in alcohol, and so they can pair well with spicy dishes. White pepper  in some of the wines will echo the flavours in many Asian foods. The wine also pairs harmoniously with cumin, coriander in a Tunisian vegetarian cous cous. Try the light, brisk styles of gruner with light Thai or Malaysian dishes. The more intense Grüners will go with curries and sauces featuring peanuts or sesame oil.

Ja umami
Crispy Mushroom snacks or steamed Chinese mushroom-vegetable dish make very good liaisons with Grüner Veltliner. Try the dry style as well as the sweet style Grüners with sun dried tomatoes on toast – you will taste a marriage made in heaven.

Grüner Now

You will find the grape growin in Austria’s neighbouring countries.  In Hungary, it is known as Zoldveltelini whilst in the Czech Republic you can identify the grape as Veltlinske Zelene.

The grape has made its way from Europe, from Slovakia and Yugoslavia to the
South Island of New Zealand and to Oregon in the U.S.

Grüner Savvy

When you have become a Grüner Veltliner fan and can say the name of the wine correctly (pronounced: Groo-ner Velt-leener ), its time to show you know more. Being able to call up or order the styles, especially if you are in Austria ( Steinfeder for the lightest style; Federspiel means a richer, more fruit-intensive wine at 11.5% alcohol; and Smaragd for the complex version of 13-14% alcohol) shows you are no wine snob but a wine expert!

Want more?
Steinfeder usually refers to ‘quality wine’ of the Wachau; Federspiel is the equivalent of Kabinett (German and Austrian classification of non chaptalised wine with less than 10 grams per litre residual sugar); Smaragd means emerald, the colour of the tiny lizard inhabitants in the vineyards.
And if that is not enough, merely mention the family relations of Gruner. It is etymologically related to the lesser-known Roter (red) Veltliner and even lesser-known Brauner (brown) Veltliner, although the two darker grapes are genetically distinct from Grüner Veltliner.

This article was published in Appetite Magazine