Reasons to love South Africa

World Cup 2010! It started over the weekend and is being hosted in a world wine capital – South Africa.

My husband and I got to see the stadium being built in 2008 when we were in Cape Town on our honeymoon. Though we can't make it this year to watch the games, it was still pretty cool.

While down there two years ago, we drank a LOT of South Africa wine. South Africa has been making wine for centuries – from the time the Dutch settled it in the 1600s, there have been vineyards planted for winemaking. Apparently, the colonial governors of the time really liked their wine. Then the French Huguenots arrived and lent their wine making knowledge and the industry flourished.

While wine has been made there for quite some time, it's only been in our backyard for a couple of decades. The US did not allow any South African products into the states until 1990, when apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela set free. Since then, South Africa has grown in both its wine presence and its wine quality.

Here's what I love.

Chenin Blanc – this is a grape South Africa does VERY well. It's dry, crisp, mineral-driven, tropical, delicious… it sometimes reminds me of Sauvignon Blanc, but with a bigger tropical kick. It's the perfect wine to drink if you love a good, crisp, refreshing white, and the values are fantastic – most of these bottles come in well under $15. My favorites include Mulderbosch, Kanu and Indaba.

Pinotage – a bit of a polarizing grape, Pinotage is finally coming into its own in quality. Some people can't stand it, and when you drink a bottle that reminds you of bubble gum and burnt rubber, you'll understand why… But a good Pinotage delivers the positive aspects of both parents grapes – the bright red fruits of Pinot Noir and the structural undertone of Cinsault. Plus the smoky-meaty characteristic of South Africa… yes, Pinotage is definitely its own varietal. Favorites include Kanonkop and Southern Right.

Shiraz– They call it Shiraz and Syrah around these parts. Either way, it's making fantastic wine. From value styles (like Indaba) to more boutique and expensive versions (think Mulderbosch), to blends of all kinds, this grape is starting to show its stuff.

Watch our video below to find out more!


Still loving those Biodynamic wines…

Last week I was able to taste through some delicious Biodynamic wines at a “Taste of Place” tasting in Portland. Wow. I am constantly amazed at some of the quality coming out of these style of wwines and it really makes you think about where a wine comes from and how the grapes are treated. I’ve come to the point that I can easily tell a “manufactured” wine from an artisan wine in a blind tasting much faster than I can nail down a varietal. Possibly because when you have what I like to call factory-made wines, they don’t always have true varietal character!

But back to the tastings. The wines that impressed me most were those from Bonny Doon (well, not impressed because I KNOW those wines are amazing), Cooper Mountain and Qupe.

I sold Cooper Mountain wines when I worked at Best Cellars in NYC. It was the only “organic” wine we carried and it was way before organic was cool. Great Pinot Gris, but it’s gotten better. All of their wines, actually, have character and depth. They don’t taste contrived, but rather multi-dementional – which is what I want in my wines. And the winemaker was a kick. Very French, very opinionated (then again, which winemakers are not?). He finds the Pinot Gris grape boring (though the wine is anything but). What I loved about the wines – the Pinot Gris, the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir was their finish. Quality wines deliver a strong finish and all three of these had lingering, balanced finishes. Can’t wait to stock our shelves with these wines.

There was also Qupe. And while I love their Syrah (so does Eric Asimov!) and have for some time, I tasted their Grenache for the first time. Notes I wrote down: OMG! Yep, that was it. Fantastic wine, with berry and spice and just all over deliciousness…

And then there was the Cow Horn. How can you not love this wine? They named it after the cowhorn that is used for aging manure in biodynamic practices. They make Syrah in Southern Oregon that is just fantastic. It’s peppery and complex and shows what Syrah is all about.

I did not get to taste all the wineries represented, but was again impressed with what I was able to experience. My thoughts in general are that good grape growing and good winemaking techniques make really good wine.

When the “big” wine guy helps the “little” wine guy

Last Friday our company outing took us to two wineries for tours and tastings, one of which was DeLoach Vineyards. If you've ever visited DeLoach, nestled in the lovely Russian River Valley of Sonoma, you'll know how impressive it is. As well it should be. The winery is owned by Boisset, one of the largest French wine companies – they own and import a number of wines from France and run a few properties in California, too. The family's line up ranges from easy-drinking quaffable wine to collectible Burgundies. They have positioned themselves at the forefront of the eco movement in wines, packaging a few of their wines in PET bottles and converting DeLoach to organic and then biodynamic farming.

DeLoach is pretty cool in that it has an organic farm, with herbs and vegetables galore, as well as chickens laying fresh eggs and sheep roaming about. It's what you'd call self-sustainable.

Walking through the vineyards with Lisa Heisinger (yeah, she knows her stuff), the general manager, we heard all about their biodynamic practices, as well their efforts to recycle (water & grape pumace). In the barrel room they described the artisan practices used in making Pinot Noir – manual punchdowns, natural yeasts, minimal oak, etc. While I love all of these efforts, it's still wine made from a big company. With a lot of money, who can afford to implement these practices. That said, they are a big company that helps the little guy. We were joined by one of the "little" guys that day.

His name is Ulysses Van der Kamp and he owns Van der Kamp vineyard, which is located in Sonoma Mountain and has been around for over 100 years. You immediately want to talk to Ulysses due to his rugged good looks and piercing blue eyes. He's a farmer. He grows grapes. Pinot Noir grapes, to be specific. That's pretty much it. This man lives and breathes Pinot Noir. His passion is contagious and draws you in. He's the kind of guy that does not take vacation because the grapes don't take vacation. He personally visits each vine at least 12 times a year, doing the pruning himself, focusing on the entire life of the vine. I actually asked him if he gave the vines proper names! (he doesn't)

Ulysses (I choose to call him by his first name because I love it) loves DeLoach and DeLoach loves him. They've been working together for a few years and in 2006, DeLoach released the first Van der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir, part of their Vineyard Designate series. As a grower, dedicated to organic farming and sustainable living, I think Ulysses wants to sell to a winery that feels the same way about the vines. Though he has no say in what happens after DeLoach takes the grapes, he is clearly pleased with the outcome in the bottle – as are we. This wine was fantastic. Bright fruits, lots of dried herbs on the nose. And the palate, while bright with acidity and red fruits, is also coating with its texture, savory character and super lingering finish. A great food Pinot and we loved it with the myriad of foods we had on our plates for lunch.

While it is still a wine run by a big wine family, who makes everything from artisan Pinot Noir to easy-drinking value bottles, they are a big company that thinks like a small one and they represent what you want a "big" company to do – use their money to give back to the earth (organic, recycling, etc) and utilize the artisan growers of the region, like the very lovely Ulysses. Hats off to DeLoach for all that they do up there – making fantastic wine, maintaning a beautful place to visit and most importantly, doing what they can to better the earth they use and the people around it. 

Stay tuned for the Van der Kamp Pinot Noir to show up in our selection. And we hope to head down to Sonoma to talk further with DeLoach and Ulysses.

Q&A with Frog’s Leap owner and winemaker, John Williams

Frog's Leap – a well-established and very respected winery located in Rutherford within the Napa Valley – is our wine alert today. We love Frog's Leap, both for its wonderful sensibility when it comes to growing good grapes and making great wine, as well as their lighthearted sense of humor that makes the wine – and winery – so approachable. We asked John Williams, owner and winemaker at Frog's Leap, a few questions. Make sure you also watch our video as we taste the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery.

Q: Why the name, Frog's Leap?
A: It is a contraction of "Frog Farm", where I made our early homemade wines, and "Stag's Leap" where I had my first winemaking job in the Napa Valley.

Q: Your winery was organic before organic was "cool." Why did you choose organic farming?
A: When you come to the realization that we have, that the surest sign of a wine’s character is when it has the ability to transport you, captivate you and ultimately draw you back to its source of uniqueness, then you must also believe that the vines must be deeply rooted and nourished by their soils. To that end, the decision to farm organically was simple…nourish the soil, nourish the plant and capture the sense of place. No politics, no agenda, just good, honest farming.

Q: What is your favorite part of the vine cycle (or part of the year in the vineyard)?
A: Harvest. That time of year is filled with hard work, great promise and the rarest of opportunities to capture the sense of time, place and people into a bottle of wine. This is the essence of terroir to us. Harvest time represents all the possibilities of the year and all of our hope for how the wines we are making will age into the future for our kids and their kids to enjoy. There is something magical about a well-aged bottle of wine that carries the significance of history with it.

Q: What is your favorite grape to work with?
A:I would have to say Merlot. It is the hardest red wine to make (yes, even more so than Pinot Noir). Merlot is a cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon, so one must “work” the wine in the cellar to soften the tannins and smooth the rough edges…just like one has to with Cabernet. Yet, Merlot has an aroma profile similar to Pinot Noir…the very pretty red-fruits. If one “works” the wine in the cellar too much then the wine will end up smelling “weedy” just like you would with a Pinot. Merlot forces the winemaker to walk a very fine line between working the wine enough and knowing when to stop…it is a constant challenge and one that can reward you with a wine of extreme depth and character…see Petrus for an example.

Los Vascos Le Dix – this is a wine that can age…

While we always love a wine that is ready-to-drink, it's particularly exciting to pull out a bottle of wine that has some age on it and realize, I was SO smart to leave this one in the cellar. Yet, by the same token, it can be depressing as you are quite put out when you realize that was your only bottle. Why oh why did I not buy more?

In this instance it was the Los Vascos 2001 Le Dix from Chile.

A bit about the winery: Vina Los Vascos is owned by the Lafite family, who of course, is more will known for Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux. Chile is actually boasts a number of wineries owned by French families who saw great potential in the country and invested in vineyard land.

Mike and I visited this property in 2006 and it is definitely a destination. It sticks out a bit as a grand estate in a small, rural town where horse-pulled carts are the typical mode of transportation. We had the chance to taste the line up of the Le Dix, among other wines. The 2001 vintage was the first made by current winemaker, Marcello Gallardo, a jolly man (see picture of him playing the guitar late night with us) with a load of energy and passion. Not only did we love him, but we also loved his wine – there was a marked difference in the tasting when we moved from previous vintages to the 2001 and the following vintages. Gallardo brought a different winemaking style that brought the wine to life. We remember loving the '01 as well as the '04.

I read the Wine Spectator review for this wine, which said "Drink through 2007." Wow, were they wrong. Opening the wine we were worried that it may be past it's prime, or have a bit of brett, or even just be lacking fruit and showing too much of that "meaty" "smoky" character typical of Chilean wines. And wow, were WE wrong. This wine not only tasted fantastic, but it probably had a few more years on it! The fruit was still going strong, backed by dried herbs and a touch of wood. Yes, there was that smoke/meat element I get from Chilean wines, but it was not prominent by any means. We smelled even a touch of eucalyptus. Pairing it with a grilled, NY steak, the fruit came forward immediately. I love it when food changes a wine.

Le Dix is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon – at least, that was the '01 vintage. Since 2006, smaller percentages of Syrah, Carmenere and Malbec are adding to the blend. Unfortunately, the 2001 vintage is long sold out. The 2007 vintage is what is out right now. Sadly, much of the stock of this wine was destroyed in the earthquake last February. We hope to showcase the 2008 vintage when it releases, and if you do find the '07 out there, pick it up and hang onto it, as it's sure to do well in that cellar.

As Mike said, "God, I love this wine," followed by a hefty swirl, a deep inhale and a loud slurp. Well put, dear.

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