14 Mar 2008

'More Hills to Climb'

‘Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes…’
[Cape Town's founder, Jan van Riebeeck, 2nd February, 1659]
IT IS a heady accomplishment. A country whose produce was so recently popularly boycotted now provides an eighth of our wines (and also most of those frustratingly unripe avocadoes).
I felt a little strange walking through the discreet entrance of Sir Herbert Baker’s South Africa House yesterday. During the 80’s and early 90’s, perpetual anti-apartheid protests took place outside this stoically ugly building. The gloomy pile was even set alight during the Poll Tax riots. The effluvium of controversy has since blown. Indeed, Nelson Mandela marked the 7th anniversary of Freedom Day in a speech from its balcony in 2001.
From across the leaping jets of pigeon cleansed Trafalgar Square, it resembles a smaller version of Buckingham Palace, albeit one landed on a greying White House, which in turn lies squat over a tier cut from the Bank of England.
My reason for this rendezvous, to taste Cape critic, ‘John Platter’ guide anointed wines. Out of darn near seventy bottles, I enjoyed fewer than 20p/c. The recurring theme, apart from exposure to gravid alcohol levels, was the noticeable lack of honed beauty.
Hamilton Russell ’06 Chardonnay, Walker Bay: developed colour, with cakebread and muscovado and a waxed, pear-laden palate.
Vergelegen ’04 Cabernet Reserve, Stellenbosch: convincing, slick, cedar scented, with cassis, firm tannins and great ageing potential.
Rustenberg ’04 Cabernet Peter Barlow, Stellenbosch: cress, refreshing, green, but not vegetal.
Ashbourne '04 Pinotage (Hamilton Russell) Walker Bay: startlingly fresh, with a charming carafe rusticity. Not remotely reminiscent of what I consider to be Pinotage's traditional signature (sun-baked road kill mingled with tarmac, rubber and thirsty dog’s breath).
Saxenburg Private Collection ’04 Shiraz, Stellenbosch: smoked, cured fowl on the nose, but with a smartly tailored palate evocative of juicy artisan black pudding.
Kukani ’06 Chardonnay/Viognier, Stellenbosch: at only £5.99, tantalising. Almost subdued, but gently spiced and silky.
Paul Clover Noble Late Harvest '06 Riesling, Elgin: delicately infused with botrytis, this evoked honey, combed with a creeping acidity. Basic, but again, reasonably positioned at £9.99. A super collaborator with goat’s cheese mousse?
Hamilton Russell ‘06 Pinot Noir: smelt of burnt sticks, hot pavement and chemical-spiked chicken sandwich (I once bit into such a quality uncontrolled specimen, purchased in a moment of hunger-struck madness from a petrol station). It had an immediately austere mineral palate and crippling tannins.

My verdict: traditional Bordeaux blends and Chardonnays are the safest bets. Judging by the bottles presented, Platter seems largely to shun Chenin at this level, which is a shame. South Africa will no doubt continue to make strides with Syrah, although I saw nothing here as convincingly honest as the recently tasted Luddite. It seems that for fine wine the world wants red from a white wine weighted country, leading to speculation over a shortage. Power cuts and emerging inter-producer tensions also niggle.

I nearly interrupted a spittoon missile from Jancis Robinson M.W. If my hand had actually intercepted, I might not have washed it for a while.
Lovey rather than lovely, I overheard keeper of sheep, opera singing, ‘spontaneous’ critic Charles Metcalfe exhort something about these being “sledgehammer wines”.
The tasting, as usual, was crowded with various Oxbridge alumni. The top tier of the U.K. trade is, and will probably always be, stuffed like a goose’s liver with this league. I am 'posh', but not Etonian. I was born in Cambridge, but enrolled at U.E.A., an institution concrete carved from radical principles. If being in a room with this lot makes me feel flyspeck, seriously what must someone with liquid aspirations from a genuinely tough background observe?
FURTHER LINK: Platter Guide (back editions are free)