SOUTH AFRICA: CHARDONNAY HOTBED?

At the end of last year one of the key points we made was that Chardonnay was going to be an important topic in the wine world, but “not the Chardonnays you think”.  A lot of folks here are moving past the biggest and blowsiest wines stylistically, and a number of newer California bottlings are showing much more precision and verve.  Oregon is making Chardonnays like they never have before.  But it seems, for the time being, the biggest news is south of the Equator.

The critics will continue to buzz about those $100+ ‘drama’ California Chardonnays that ring up 99 points every year that you can’t buy.  Hey, that’s what critics do.  But for real people who have to spend their own money, there is a lot more to like and better value from places like Australia, Argentina and the origin for today’s compelling value offer, South Africa.

Most people may not realize it, but the closest climate to California on the planet can be found in…South Africa.  Lots of sunshine, warm days near the coast but never scorching.  The temperatures and soils make for Chardonnay that manifests like some of the finest from California and France, but with their own unique edge.  It’s all about the limestone, that definitive dirt that has much to do with the vinous success of estates in both Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as very specific sites in Mount Harlan (think Calera), westside Paso, and parts of the Santa Rita Hills.  Of course the price tags for things from those magical soils can be a bit dear.  Character costs. 

But that’s what makes knowing about little secrets like De Wetshof all the more exciting.   If we can get both the sunshine, and the stones, combine that with perfect vines and top winemaking, and good things are likely to happen.

The De Wetshof Estate is, in fact, one of the pioneers of Chardonnay in South Africa.  We fondly remember looking back and tasting some of the very first South African wines to arrive here post-apartheid and even back then we noted that De Wetshof was one of the labels to watch.  The family continues to pioneer Chardonnay, with no less than a half-dozen different site-specific bottlings.   All are noteworthy, but it is easiest to make the case for the purity and definition of the De Wetshof Estate Chardonnay Bon Vallon Robertson 2018 at a sub $15 fare.

What a wine for the money!  The vines are 10-20 years old and sit in soils of broken mountain rock and limestone with a little bit of clay that aids in water retention.  The resulting juice has surprising palate authority and tension that whisks the palate clean with every sip, but still has enough mid-palate weight to deliver in an aperitif role.  It’s the perfect fusion of old world and new world styles.  This particular rendition also sees no oak, which is an additional plus for some folks.  

We offered with the DeWetshof’s Lesca bottling not long ago and, like we said, have worked with these wines for a long time.  We actually tasted this little number alongside the newest Lesca (2018, we still have a little of the 93-point 2017).  They were both excellent examples of terroir driven, clean Chardonnay and both of these 2018s got 92 points from Wine Spectator.  However, the price difference made our choice clear.   The ‘delta’ was strong with this one (WS 92 points, $14.98) and it is a fantastic candidate for house Chardonnay particularly given its food versatility.

Wine Spectator’s succinct prose tells a pretty concise story, “A flash of matchstick gives way quickly to a bright core of green and yellow apple flavors laced liberally with honeysuckle and verbena notes through the nicely detailed finish. Very, very solid. Drink now through 2021.”  We’d also note a subtle streak of minerality running through the wine adds more dimension.  We’d have to say the Bon Vallon 2018 is one of the better unoaked Chardonnays out there and pretty much unequalled for style and character in the price range. 

Most people don’t think of South Africa as a ‘hotbed’ for Chardonnay.  But offerings this good for this kind of price will do a lot to change that. 

HILLERSDEN ESTATE PINOT NOIR MARLBOROUGH 2016

We have been selling New Zealand Pinot Noirs since the 1993 vintage, prior to which we had no idea they even made Pinot Noir in New Zealand.  A Pinot Noir-centric Oregon purveyor went there and hand carried back things like Ata Rangi and Te Mata, and our impression was that this was clearly the start of something significant.  In the roughly quarter century that followed, the Kiwis have established themselves as an important Pinot Noir option in this marketplace.

Back then few here had a clear idea of the appellations or general lay of the land, but certain consistent profiles became apparently.  Generally New Zealand Pinots are cooler customers and a bit more savory.  Sometimes they can be downright sharp and green, perhaps just a bit too ‘cool climate’ for a lot of people’s tastes.  But the best examples have a more pronounced fruit core and more rounded edges, but still present their fruit in a more restrained, lifted, cooler-edged manner.  It is the ones that hit that happy medium of bright mulberry and dark cherry fruit with enough palate tenderness to give them a broader audience that really present the most viable and distinctive options for Pinot fans.

The best examples play to that, and Hillersden is a new face for us that offers a great look at a wine that is reasonably outgoing yet at the same time distinctly New Zealand.  The mulberry, plum and dark cherry fruit has both mineral and savory spice underpinnings, but also possesses a suppler palate-feel and somewhat softer edges to really give a good reckoning of the place without one having to forgive a touch of shrillness far too many other NZ reds have.

The combination in the Hillersden Estate Pinot Noir Marlborough 2016 makes for a compelling drink and the price point is relatively easy on the pocketbook.  In other words, we may have found a new player moving forward but this example certainly delivers.  Their claim is that they are the only family-owned, single estate producer in Wairu.

We had never heard of this producer before but that may have to do with the fact that their history only goes back to 2015.  They are in the upper Wairu Valley, which is a bit further inland and a bit warmer than many of the other Marlborough sites.  This would certainly help make the wine fleshier while still preserving the brightness of the flavors.  Winemaker Adam Kubrock actually grew up in Walla Walla and made Syrah and other reds but became enchanted with the cool climate winemaking Down Under.  This Pinot sees 10 months in 25% new French oak and all of the fruit is farmed sustainably.

TANNAT’S TIME HAS COME…in URUGUAY

Tannat doesn’t have a lot of champions out in the wine world.  While it is the staple grape of the relatively obscure appellation of Madiran in western France, and there are some skilled practitioners there crafting big, chewy, substantial reds, there are far too many course, ferociously tannic examples out there for the grape to ever become a ‘mainstream’ favorite.  It is not grown very many places.  For some reason, however, Tannat was selected as the poster child for Uruguay’s reds.  Here the grape seems to have a completely different personality and the Garzon Tannat Single Vineyard Uruguay 2015 is a best of breed example demonstrating what we are talking about.

The versions from this part of the world have a sense of refinement rare for the varietal and Garzon, by far the biggest ‘dog’ in Uruguayan viticulture, has taken it to a new level.    Weighty and full flavored, big with a surprising level of polish, there are plenty blueberry and mulberry fruit notes to be enjoyed here, with underlying accents of minerality.  It’s a fine tipple and expresses itself in a way we hadn’t really considered for Tannat.

The Garzon Tannat Single Vineyard Uruguay 2015 has raised a few eyebrows besides ours, garnering a Wine Spectator 91, Wine Enthusiast 91 and James Suckling 92.  Sucklings comments, though characteristically brief, to paint the correct picture, “This is round and very silky with a lovely texture and intensity. Full body, round and polished tannins. Lots of blueberry, cherry and hints of mineral and stone.” Doesn’t sound like a typical Tannat but then it isn’t typical compared to most people’s experience and it’s well worth the $25.98 price tag.

If you are still afraid, you can get into their very tasty, the Garzon Tannat Reserve Uruguay 2016 (Suckling 92, $14.98) offers a lower cost ticket into the wonderful world of Uruguayan Tannat.  Sucklings notes are again enthusiastic, “Iodine, ink, tar, crushed stones and dark plum essence. This has all the hallmarks of a fruity Tannat, but it’s in no way too much. It combines a lovely firm tannin backbone with tangy acidity, which carries all the way to the savory finish.”  In truth we think the ‘Single Vineyard’ is the star but the ‘Reserve’ is a superb value not only among Uruguayan Tannats but all red wines in this price range.  Thanks to Senor Garzon, the time has come for you to fire up the grill and get a little Tannat in your life.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S CHENIN BLANC

South Africa has been an interesting proposition winewise.  Starting to export in the 90s after the apartheid was lifted, the political stigma and rather parochial styles of most of the wines made it difficult to get any traction for the category in this marketplace.  Now that we are about a quarter century into the ‘program’, we and they have learned a few things.  The styles of many of the wines have become more international in an attempt to create better market penetration.  A lot of those wines are competitive internationally, but it is fair to say that a good many of them are not memorable or distinctive.

With a few exceptions, most of South Africa’s best efforts are uniquely South African.  Among the most notable are the work of folks like Erin Sadie and some dynamic new white blends from an emerging cadre of open minded, creative newcomers.  But the grape that seems to achieve the highest expression as a varietal is…Chenin Blanc!

Typically the vines are old, with deep roots extracting distinctive character from the unique vineyard sites, tremendous infused minerality and crackling, mouth-watering acidity.  This is not the sweet, quaffable stuff that permeated the American market in the 70s, sort of a precursor to the white Zin era.  In fact the best examples of South African Chenin can hold their own with the produce from the ‘motherland’ of the Loire Valley.  Which is better?  That’s not a sweeping debate but rather comes down to the individual comparison being made.

Huet or Chidane versus Sadie Family or Alheit?  Fantastic comparison on the quality front though the acidity is a bit more driving in the South African wines.  Frankly, for the most part, although the best of the Loire ‘giants’ are expensive these days, the best SA versions typically cost more.  Advantage Loire.  On the value end of the spectrum, however, we have seen things come out of South Africa that are downright unbelievable, and we have recently come across one of the most remarkable examples of South African Chenin Blanc we have ever tasted for this kind of price.

Simonsig was among the first wave of wineries that came over here when South Africa was permitted to enter this market.  We tasted a number of wines over the years but mostly reds.  We can assure you we never had their Chenin or it would have been a staple.  Apparently, Simonsig Chenin Blanc was the first wine released by founder Frans Malan in 1968 and this particular bottling marks their 50th Anniversary harvest.

For a wine that is going to sell for this kind of price, it is given the royal treatment in the vineyard with all hand harvesting from 30-40 year old bush vines and cool, controlled fermentation.   In the glass, a honey/peach aroma makes its presence felt right out of the gate. The flavor aromas of crunchy ripe kiwi and green melon jump out of the glass. The palate is crisp and fresh with Granny Smith apples and sweet tropical limes all sitting atop of driving acidity.  The Simonsig Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2018 is what Chenin is supposed to be, with broad, bright honeyed toast, peach, and subtle minerality all as part of the presentation, but with the kid of cut that makes it all quite vibrant.

Full and round up fruit, and so easy to sip, this has the kind of riveting acidity that makes an impression and makes the mouth water.  A complete effort with sizzling character, a little punch of berries and lemon drops underneath and mouth watering snap to the finish.  You can drink this with lighter fare or on its own as an amazing aperitif.  Normally with most wines we’d roll out some sort of reviews, but wines like this doesn’t get the kind of respect they deserve and this one wasn’t reviewed anywhere we saw.

Like we said, we don’t recall ever tasting past incarnations of this effort from Simonsig, but this is one is one of the best Chenins we have had at any price in terms of its verve and, certainly among the best value white wines we hve had period.  At $10, it’s downright silly.  Over the years one of our value, go-to Chenins was Mann (also from South Africa), but this one is better.  In fact we have tasted few others this compelling at any price.  A stunner!

AN EXCITING ‘REFUGE’ FROM HIGH PINOT NOIR PRICES

We said back in January, 2016, “We expect Chile to continue its breakout ways and surprise us with more ‘wait, that’s from Chile?’ type stuff…”   The progress has been coming slowly, progressively, and unimpeded for a few years now.  But it seemed like we started seeing some really ambitious new things coming along through the latter part of 2015.  It was clear then that the Chileans are going through an ‘awakening’ of historic proportion. They are finding new terroirs and creating new projects, as well as rediscovering and reenergizing some of their longtime producing areas.

Definitely the biggest surprise in Chile has been Pinot Noir.  Who knew? With over 2600 miles of coastline, it makes perfect sense that there would exist some unique spots in coastal valleys with mediating ocean influence in which Pinot would thrive.  Folks think of Chile as Cabernet country, but the real excitement has been producers figuring out what to do with other varietals.  Some of these breakout Chilean Pinot Noirs have been very compelling stories, though we still haven’t run across a more interesting tale than Montsecano.

The cast of characters is small, but interesting.  Julio Donoso, who founded this estate, is a world famous photographer who had a passion to create a wine project from scratch.  This he did by researching a number of different terroirs not far inland from the Chilean coast.  He settled on a rather wild, unspoiled spot located near the town of Las These, in the commune of Casablanca. The narrow, winding road leading to the cellar speaks volumes about his Cordillera de la Costa.  Here, 10 kilometers from the sea, there’s no power, steep slopes and poor granitic soils, an unattractive place to establish ‘conventional’ viticulture, but Montsecano is anything but.

Of course, by nature, photographers see things a little differently.  Hence, against the advice of the locals, the not-particularly-conventional Donoso planted six hectares (about 15 acres) of Pinot Noir on steep, rocky hillsides in the Chilean version of ‘the middle-of-nowhere’.  Who was going to make this Pinot?  Well, Julio took the next ‘logical’ step by enlisting the services of one of Alsace’s greatest talents, Andre Ostertag, who is typically not as busy in France during Chile’s (opposite) growing season.  The idea of working with reds intrigued Ostertag.  Thus, a label was born.

Andre also directs the farming, which is done biodynamically, with plowing by horses.  The cellar, which is unobtrusively wedged into a hillside, has no corners (it’s oval).  The wines are made as naturally as possible in a facility that depends on natural power, and there is no oak involved as everything is done in stainless steel and concrete eggs.  We featured this walk-on-the-wild-side project a couple of years ago and they have only improved in that time

These clearly delineated, expressive Pinot Noirs are considered by some among the best wines in South America.   They are still not a household word around these parts because they don’t make a lot of wine and are brought in by a small, extremely passionate and knowledgeable importer who hasn’t had much time to ‘network’ yet.  But here they are making news again with their Montsecano Pinot Noir Refugio Casablanca Valley 2017.  This is a dark, powerful Pinot that, quite honest, takes a little while to open up, but has a remarkable density and purity of fruit to reward a little patience.   Full bodied, plush, superbly balanced, this has a seamless, sweet core of mulberry are dark cherry fruit with subtle streaks of minerality.   The original bottling we reviewed (2015) was a James Suckling 93, and so is this one.

But the energetic review by wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez kicks it up a notch, “The 2017 Refugio Pinot Noir shows a reductive personality that I love as well as some flinty notes, so decanting in advance could be a good idea… Ostertag’s son, Arthur, is now involved in the winemaking, and as a result, they made a lot of changes in 2017, such as including about 25% full clusters in the fermentation. They use no sulfur and no oak in the production of this wine, and it has some of the character from the full clusters. However, the palate is very relaxed and harmonious and also mineral, with plenty of finesse and perfectly ripe fruit without excess. This is subtle, elegant and simply amazing; it has depth yet is approachable and very drinkable. I love the style of this wine. I believe this is the best vintage they have ever produced. A real bargain. I’d buy this by the case...94 points.”

All of that and under $20? Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

 

 

Chile’s Greatest Under the Radar Cabernet: Domus Aurea

As we have been singing for some time now, South America is almost all grown up.  Back when we first started working with South American wines in earnest back in the early 90s, we could see that there was a lot of potential.  A lot has happened since those times.  If we were being completely honest, we probably couldn’t have predicted it would go this far.  But it has.  We have accepted it and have taken to the pulpit ourselves as we have seen some pretty amazing things coming out of South America.  We have really seen an escalation in quality particularly over the last five years.

We can run through some of the big names.  Catena, Clos Apalta, Caro, Sena, Almaviva, these are the banner carriers for the elite from South America.  As with all wine programs, there was a process.  First came the inspiration to ‘reach for the stars’.  Then the producers had to learn the unique characteristics of the various vineyards in play. Vineyards don’t show you their stuff until they’re older, then you have to figure out if you have the right vines planted in the right spot. Wine growing and producing is a patient person’s game in an impatient world.

Finally there was the establishment of a style and consistency in the cellar.  Sure, in all the cases, there was consistent high quality.  But we can’t help but think that the wines had pretty serious international marketing behind them that helped the cause.  Viña Quebrada de Macul Domus Aurea Cabernet Sauvignon has been on our radar for quite a while as well, but is only now starting to get the attention it deserves.

We’ve had a soft spot for Domus Aurea, one of the boldest, most electric Cabernets produced anywhere in the world. It’s so distinctive, full of minerals, rocks, herbs, mint, dark berry, it’s kinda like the Chilean version of a great Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, but perhaps even richer and with more base notes.  Sleek, powerful yet refined, ‘Chateau Pinhead’ as we call it (the quirky label looks like a stylized native getting acupuncture) moves in a sphere all its own.

We have a long history with this wine going back over at least a decade (the 2002 might be the first version we sold if memory serves), but the press didn’t really get this unique red until Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez took over the category with the 2008 vintage.  He gave that wine a 94, and the trend has only gone up from there.  The 2010 vintage, which we did an email offer on back in January, 2016, was considered their best effort to that time, getting a 96 point nod from Wine Advocate.

While the vintages in between have certainly been noteworthy, the 2014 Viña Quebrada de Macul Domus Aurea Cabernet Sauvignon hit the same heights as the 2010.  It is a spectacular effort packed with power, polished, and expressing its full array of gifts.  Luis Gutierrez said the same thing, “2014 has to be one of the finest vintages at Quebrada de Macul, with wines that remind me of the 2010 vintage.”

Given his extensive narrative, Gutierrez makes our job easy this time around, “One of the best, most classical Cabernet Sauvignons from Maipo, the 2014 Domus Aurea contains some 6% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. This wine is always balanced and elegant. In a dry year like 2014, they think the key was sensitive irrigation without excess to keep the plant with enough water supply to get through the summer without stress. It comes from a plot of vines planted ungrafted in 1970 in the outskirts of Santiago, and it’s always vinified in a simple and traditional way; the wine is fermented with indigenous yeasts after a 12-day cold soak and aged for 16 to 18 months in French oak barrels, 80% of them new…”

… 2014 is a great year for Domus; it has the notes of mint and eucalyptus, intermixed with hints of spices (cola nut and Jamaica pepper), and it’s quite aromatic, with cassis aromas and good ripeness. It has the Domus character, which is what they search for, as well as the wild character from the mountains and the stones, with that dry sensation and somewhat austere palate. It reminds me of the 2010, which was also a superb year and a textbook Cabernet from Macul. 24,491 bottles were filled in January 2016. This wine is always aged for a minimum of 18 months in bottle (often a lot longer) before it’s released…96 points.

All we can add is that this is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, delicious and expressive Cabernet that is likely unlike anything you have.  It’s a wild ride well worth taking, a real ‘sock knocker’particularly at our special insider price.  Wine Advocate shows a $75 retail, but we’re rolling it at a special at the checkout price of $54.98.

 

WELCOME BACK, POWELL

We have been at the Aussie game for nearly three decades now, and can honesty say that we were involved in the earliest days of the boutique influx.  We were among the very first customers for groundbreaking importers like the late John Larchet (Australian Premium Wine Collection) and Dan Philips (Grateful Palate).  We can still recall looking at a status report from an early shipment from Grateful Palate where a wine that we had never heard of called Torbreck RunRig (1994 vintage if memory serves) was on our manifest.  We asked Dan about it and he simply said, “you want it.”

Turned out it was sensational and the first step in a long and successful run for the Torbreck label. The mind behind it was one Dave Powell, clearly a man of enormous winemaking talents and great ambition.  Over the years he continued to amaze with one distinctive, deliciously well-conceived bottling after another.  His winemaking associate at the time was Dan Standish, who has spun off to create a sensational label of his own.

Torbreck is now in the capable hands of former Peter Lehmann winemaker Ian Hongell.  What happened to Dave?  Well the story of his personal life would probably make a pretty good cable series on one of the edgier channels.  But the key elements were that Dave got into a situation where he needed a serious infusion of capital to keep the label afloat and subsequently made his investment arm so distraught with some of his antics that he was essentially kicked out of the company he founded.

People have said all kinds of salty things about Powell.  But no one, even his detractors, could honestly say that he wasn’t a brilliant winemaker.  Well after the Torbreck debacle, the supremely confident Powell kind of disappeared from view.  Apparently he spent some time teaching his son, Callum, the ropes and, clearly, the guy hasn’t lost a step.  Whether or not this new duo will be able to equal the pinnacle of success that Torbreck enjoyed remains to be seen.  But if you are looking for great purity of fruit, expressive personality, and unique profiles, why not go with one of the best winemakers in all of Australia.

Dave believes most of the work happens in the vineyard and this is where Dave and Callum spend most of their time.  The resulting wines have the same kind of flair that those early Torbreck wines showed. The short story is that Dave is back, and doing what he does best in creating distinctive, hand-made wines.  It doesn’t hurt that these debut wines are from 2016 which was an exceptional vintage Down Under.

 Powell and Son Riverside Grenache Mataro Shiraz Barossa Valley 2016It starts here with The Powells’ entry-level red, the 2016 Riverside Grenache Mataro Shiraz, a 70% Grenache, 20% Mataro and 10% Shiraz  blend that spent 15 months in large foudres and concrete prior to bottling. A Wine Advocate 91, the comments are, “It’s full-bodied but floral and fine, with a silky texture, cherry fruit and a bit of earthy depth. It should drink well for 3-4 years, possibly more.”  It’s like the old Torbreck Woodcutters value bottling only more engaging and packed with fruit.  It’s kind of ‘old World’, as is Dave’s bent, but there’s an appealing lift and new World freshness.  At $17.98 it’s a buy.

Powell and Son Shiraz Barossa and Eden Valleys 2016The Barossa & Eden Valleys Shiraz “epitomises the philosophy of Powell & Son to marry the greatness of the Barossa and Eden Valleys”.  Barossa supplies the rich middle with the higher elevation, cooler Eden Valley giving the wine a lift and freshness that people don’t typically think is a part of Australian reds.   A 50/50 blend of Eden Valley Shiraz from 40+ year-old vines and Barossa Valley Shiraz from 60+ year-old vines, the fruit is fermented separately in concrete vats before spending 15 months in 4,500 liter French oak foudres.

The aroma of this wine shows kirsch, lavender, sage and charred meats. It has a dark, brooding character to add further complexity. The palate is dense and deep with ripe black fruits: plum, blackberry compote as well as a cured meats and black olive.

Wine Advocate was quite supportive with a 94 point score and notes, “Taking price into account, the GMS and this wine, the 2016 Barossa & Eden Valleys Shiraz, are my favorites in the Powells’ lineup. The blend is 50-50, as there was a single foudre from each region used in the blend. The nose is more floral and garrigue-like than the straight Barossa Shiraz, with mulberry and blueberry fruit mingling easily on the palate. It’s full-bodied, creamy-textured and rich, with a concentrated, velvety finish that’s a clear step up from the entry-level wines.”

Wine Spectator was equally enthusiastic with a 93 point score and comments, “Whiffs of eucalyptus and white pepper announce the massive, dense and concentrated blueberry and blackberry flavors, with Earl Grey tea— and clove-scented notes on the finish. There’s no denying the power here. A good candidate to evolve with mid-term cellaring.”  The $44.98 price is serious, but so is the wine.

Powell and Son Grenache Shiraz Mataro Barossa Valley 2016 The Barossa Valley GSM takes the various ‘parts’ and hones it into a complete new world Chateauneuf type wine.  The blend is about 2/3 Grenache  from mature Barossa Valley Grenache bush vines, with Shiraz and Mataro making up the balance.  Again the maturing in big foudres harmonizes everything while not allowing the wood to get in the way of the fruit.  Engaging, expressive, and intense, yet never overblown.

Again impressive words from Wine Advocate, “…One of the best values and flat-out sexiest wines in the lineup is the 2016 Grenache-Shiraz-Mataro. Driven by the 1901-planted Grenache from Seppeltsfield that makes up 60% of the blend, it’s richer, darker and deeper than the Riverside bottling. Sage and licorice notes add nuance to the black cherries on the nose and palate of this full-bodied, richly concentrated and layered offering. 94 Points!”

Dave is back and this line with his son is an important new (old?) face on the Aussie scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A DELICIOUS, WELL-PRICED WHITE AND AN UNUSUAL STORY

The search for great wines and great wine deals is never ending, but the discovery is always more fun when there is a unique story.  Exciting wines certainly can come from anywhere, and the catalyst doesn’t necessarily have to be wine itself (though it often is).  This particular white value gem starts more like a Disney story, with two young men, a long journey, and a dog.

It started in 2014, when two foreign exchange students from the U.S., Walker Brown and Charles Brain, chose to embark on a 6 day, 100-mile trek through South Africa’s Wild Coast.  This part of the Cape is said to be the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.  On the second day of this backpacking expedition, the travelers were joined by a wandering dog that the locals called Lubanzi, who accompanied them until the night before the final morning of the trip when he disappeared.

The story of the wandering dog, the striking beauty of South Africa, and a deep appreciation of the culture of the South African people motivated the pair to return to South Africa two years later with the idea of bringing well-made, true South African wine into the U.S. market.  They met with over 40 small family farms and cooperatives in an effort to build a network from which they could source quality grapes on a consistent basis.  Their intent sounded idealistic, their missions statement was that they were trying to build “… a young, innovative, and socially responsible wine brand built on the concepts of collaboration & exploration, with a ‘locally run, globally minded’ mantra.”

A lot of lofty ideas to be sure, but they found the right people to work with and proceeded to do exactly that.  They made two wines that, in their minds, were the best choices to represent the unique terroirs of South Africa.  The red, a Rhone blend, was certainly solid if a bit undistinguished, but the Chenin Blanc rocked us, particularly for the price.

We have been selling South African wines since the early 90s and have learned that they can be a bit parochial.  Chenins in particular, on the plus side, show riveting fruit, driving acidity, and some intense stony minerality.  The good ones can rival the best Chenins from the Loire Vally from the likes of Huet, Foreau, or Chidane.  A lot of them, however, can cost substantially more than their accomplished French counterparts.  On the flip side, many of them a bit too searing with an in-your-face minerality that is off-putting for American palates.

These out-of-towners and their winemaker managed to strike a remarkable balance between the tender, dry, citrus, melon, and peach fruit and well woven in, subtle, stony minerality from the decomposed granite and shale in a bush-vine, unirrigated vineyard in Swartland.  Some 80% of this came from old vines.

This is a lovely foil for fish or fowl, and presents an excellent choice for aperitif (OK, porch pounder) scenarios.  Well meshed, pleasing and brightly fleshy from front to back, nothing sticks out.  ‘Nicely done’, we said, figuring that this sharply packaged bottle with a complex label and tee-top natural cork (we’d never seen one quite like it) was setting us up for something in the $25-30 price range.

While much of the press we read in our research in places like the Washington Post, Forbes, Eater, and the Mother Nature Network was commending their new age, socially conscious business model, we found some enthusiastic words from James Suckling about the wine itself, “Love the dried-peach and apple character with hints of cream and apricots. Medium to full body, sliced fruit and a flavorful finish. Drink now….91 points’.

As to the drink now part, we’ll be doing plenty of that!  The wine was delicious, the package was striking, and the review was compelling.  But the biggest surprise was the price, a mere $11.98!  The Lubanzi Chenin Blanc 2017 far over-delivers for the price point.  Clearly this is no ordinary story.

As to what all of the non-wine media attention was on about, well that’s almost over the top.  Brown and Brain noticed in their vineyard travels that the living conditions for South African small farmers were difficult, to say the least.  They wanted to give back to the community.  So half of the profits from sales go directly back to the Pebbles Project, which is an NGO that supports the families who live and work on the farms that produce the grapes.  Socially conscious, a superb value and a surprisingly engaging beverage, they have all the bases covered!

PENFOLDS KOONUNGA HILL: STILL ONE OF THE BEST VALUE REDS

Back when we first discovered Penfolds in the 80s, the wines represented some of the most compelling values in the marketplace.  A lot has changed since that time.  In fact it would take quite a bit of space to go over all the changes.  Perhaps the key points are that Penfolds is not the same entity we sold all those years ago.  A purchase by Southcorp some years ago, and subsequent ‘market factors’,  changed the brand forever.

Since that time there has been financial intrigue, an explosion of demand in Asia that shot prices of Penfolds Bin 389 and 407 to 2-3 times their norm, and a period where most of the moderately priced Penfolds wines bordered on undrinkable (they were ferociously over-acidified).  We won’t even get into some of the bizarre marketing moves that have recently come about.  It would be very easy to let this behemoth go the way of the dinosaurs except for one small thing…they still have the ability to make some pretty interesting wines.

The 2016 Penfolds Shiraz/Cabernet Koonunga Hill South Australia  is still one of the more compelling and straightforward value reds in the marketplace.  It is a blend of 65% Shiraz and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a variety of locales (Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra if you want to know) that sees 10 months in American oak.  Stylistically it is round, plump, surprising ample for the price but not overdone.  No self-respecting critic is going to give this more than an upper-80s type review simply because it is a ‘little wine’.  But it is a delicious, engaging little wine and that should always be the point.

The Syrah is the star here imparting a good bit of blackberry fruit and spice, with the Cabernet providing some redder fruit, a touch of olive and a hint of vanilla.  Is it a ‘fastball down the middle’?  Absolutely, and what’s wrong with that?  You would be hard pressed to find a more crowd-pleasing red for this kind of price.   Up-front, expressive fruit, straightforward flavors, just enough acidity and laid back tannins, it’s an outstanding, budget-friendly choice for  parties, grillin’, and everyday applications.  We don’t really need to sell commercial stuff like this, but when it’s this good, why not?

TROCKEN THIS, PART ONE: FRANKLAND ESTATE RIESLING

We know we have been a little harsh on the whole German trocken (dry Riesling) phenomenon.  Some might have said, “ these guys say they love Riesling, what’s their problem”.  Well, there are a couple of things.  One is execution.  Far too many are lean and skeletal as trocken wines.  The fruity examples with a little residual sugar to counterbalance blazing acidity is a true joy to us.  There’s nothing quite like a good traditional kabinett or spatlese anywhere in the wine world.

The other point is ‘why’?  Why muck with a good thing?  Plus, it has been done.  The Australians and Austrians have been making compelling dry Riesling for a long time.  There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to have another, less successful choice other than it’s German.  But we are not here to bag on the Geremans (they are probably cranky enough after the 2018 World Cup).  Rather we are here to praise some of the outstanding dry Rieslings that we do endorse.

We’ve been acquainted with the wines of Frankland estate for probably to decades.  The story is always a bit puzzling.  What possessed this family to head on out to one of the more remote parts of southwestern Australia to plant grapes is baffling.  To take a chance on a varietal like Riesling that doesn’t perform just anywhere  was a leap of faith.  But they have become one of the icon Riesling producers in Oz and have developed a unique and flattering style.  Delicate apple and pear, some pleasing citrus and floral notes, with a nice underpinning of a delicate earthy minerality, this is tender and fresh and lifted without being at all edgy.

The 2017 vintage in Australia is quite successful (a cracker!) and 2017 Frankland Estate Riesling is a beautifully composed expression of pristine fruit.  Made from various parcels from the estate including some of the original vines from 1988 and a 2006 planting on an ‘ironstone’ ridge, it is a subtle, layered, mouth-watering, ‘pretty’ example of the genre from a very special, if really isolated place.

We aren’t sure how much of a ‘Riesling guy’ Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski, but he seemed to like this one as well, “Scents of lime blossom and orange sherbet practically erupt from the glass. The exuberant 2017 Riesling is medium-bodied with slightly rounded edges and hints at red berries to go along with all of the expected citrus and green apple notes. It’s approachable now but should continue to drink well for a decade or more… 91 Points!”  This is how you trocken.