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E.Guigal – Rhône wine

As recently as the 1970s the great appellations sold for a fraction of the price of a fairly ordinary Bordeaux Cru Classé red. I still have bottles of Hermitage, purchased in Johannesburg, marked with a R7-00 price sticker. No one cared much for syrah/shiraz – not in France, nor, for that matter, in South Africa (where national plantings at the time were comfortably less than 1000 hectares).

I discovered the Rhône during my student year in France. When I returned to South Africa and began working as an importer and retailer, its wines where high up on my shopping list. I couldn’t understand why so few people shared my enthusiasm or passion. Except for Chateauneuf-du-Pape – much of it sold with fake cellar dust glued onto asymmetrical bottles – none of the appellations were even known in the trade.

Part of what changed all this was the advent on the scene of Robert Parker, but not Parker alone. The American uber-critic loved the weight and intensity of the best Côte Rôties and Hermitages. However, what really led to his recalibrating the region’s potential, and in due course the way the world now values the wines, was a single producer, a man whose shyness and slight inaccessibility (mainly the result of his dedication to his craft) is often mistaken for arrogance: Marcel Guigal.

The Guigals were relative newcomers to the area: Marcel’s father, Etienne, arrived there to harvest apricots after the Great War. In time he found work in the vineyards and cellars of a long-established producer, Vidal-Fleury. In 1946 he set up in business on his own. Afflicted by a sudden loss of sight in the early 1960s, he handed over the winemaking and management of the business to his 17 year son Marcel.

Careful acquisitions of small but important vineyard parcels together with a fanatical attention to detail enabled Marcel to grow the enterprise. By the 1980s he was probably the most celebrated producer in Parker’s pantheon, described on one occasion as “the greatest winemaker on the planet.” A few years later Parker commented that “in the past 26 years I have spent visiting wineries and vignerons, I have never seen a producer so fanatical about quality as Marcel Guigal.”

This is exactly my own experience of Marcel, and also of his son Philippe, who has inherited his parents’ obsession with detail. I have been with them in the cellars late in the evening while they go round to check the casks, topping where necessary.

Some of their production is frighteningly small: the so-called “La-Las” (La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne) rival the rarity of the Grands Crus from Vosne-Romanée. Others, like the Guigal Côtes du Rhône, are available in plentiful quantities. All share in common a focus on craft, where nothing is left to chance. Even the component parcels in a volume blend are hand-managed from source to bottle.

The curious thing about Guigal (the brand) is the pricing: while nothing is cheap – and nor should it be, given the effort that goes into every bottle at every price point – nothing is outrageously expensive, taking account of the reputation of the family and the relative rarity of the wines. The entry level Côtes du Rhône sells in South Africa for less than many of the fashionable SMV or SMG blends, while the Côte Rôtie Brune & Blonde – the great Northern Rhone wine upon which the house built its reputation – costs no more than several of its Cape counterparts.

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Price and Rarity in Burgundy

The logic works best for those who see themselves as wine investors, rather than wine drinkers. If you’re buying wine to consume, you want to optimise the quality-price nexus. This is never easy in the Cote d’Or – but it can be done.

Domaine Latour has been assembled over more than two centuries of astute vineyard investment. It is now one of the largest property holdings in Burgundy – though it still comprises several parcels so tiny that anywhere else except Burgundy it would be unviable to farm the land. Take for example its Romanée St Vivant Quartre Journaux vineyard: 0,8 of a hectare and situated literally metres away from Romanee-Conti, it has belonged to the Latour family since December 1898. Or its 0,81 hectares of Chambertin running from the top to the bottom of the hillside. In total the Latour family has 28.6 hectares of Grand Cru – the largest single holding of Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy and part of a wider domaine of over 50 hectares.

In 1997 Latour was admitted to the Henokiens – where the requirement of membership is that the business must have been family owned and family run for at at least two centuries and must still bear the name of the founder. This is worth a moment of reflection: you don’t get to survive through the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the revolutions of 1830, 1848, the Commune, the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Great Depression, the Global Financial Crisis and still be on the top of your game without a long term vision.

After a series of depressingly small vintages (many of very good quality) Burgundy was blessed with a generous and fabulous 2015 and an equally striking 2016. We have just received our allocations of some of these wines. With the worldwide demand for quality Burgundy higher than ever, it has been a great advantage to have a working relationship of almost 40 years with a family-owned enterprise that cares to understand the unique features of our market. Accordingly we can offer small quantities 2016 Romanée St Vivant Quartre Journaux – scored 100 points by James Suckling, 2016 Chateau Corton Grancey (99 points) 2016 Corton Clos de la Vigne au Saint (96 points) amongst others.

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Chapel Down – English Bubbly

I had just begun working in the wine trade and I saw first-hand the effect of that hot dry ripening season in Burgundy. Even ahead of the vintage the vignerons I knew and spent time with in Beaune and Chambolle Musigny were thrilled with ripeness levels in their grapes. For them it was unimaginable that it could actually be too warm and too dry to make good wine. In August and September most years they hoped for enough sunshine to ripen the grapes and prayed for the rain to hold off until the vintage was in their cellars. I was less upbeat – a lot of the fruit looked too shrivelled and stressed to yield great wine. When, a year or two later, I arrived back in Burgundy as the buyer for a very large import business, I shopped with caution, doubting the age-worthiness of the low acid, alcoholic and porty wines that were being proffered with such enthusiasm.

However, I felt none of these reservations when I was offered a parcel of 1976 Adgestone – wine from England’s oldest commercial winery (established almost a decade earlier on the Isle of Wight). In the days before climate change, vineyards in Britain needed every bit of warmth and sunlight simply to make vaguely palatable wines. Sure, there were the stories about Roman viticulture in ancient Britain, about the hundreds of vineyards listed in the Domesday Book. You can dismiss these as PR and hype: back then, when wine deteriorated (and very quickly) from the moment of fermentation, proximity to the market trumped any pretences about appellation.

Today England has a booming wine industry, one which is anticipating even greater opportunities if and when Brexit becomes a reality. Probably the country’s most successful category is fizz, with vineyards planted to champagne varieties on exactly the same chalk soils that contribute to Champagne’s flavour profile. English bubbly, competing against any number of reputable French producers in credible northern Hemisphere competitions, regularly takes home the trophy for the best sparkling wine.

Chapel Down is one of a handful of brands which has come to dominate the English fizz market. With around 10 hectares of vineyard in Kent, it has become the go-to source of wine for occasions like royal weddings (including the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton), Downing Street receptions and the horse races at Ascot.

We have managed to source a small quantity of the cellar’s standard cuvée for South African wine lovers curious taste one of the new benchmarks in the world of fine wine.

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Cos d’Estournel

He asked of a worker “what is this palace?” only to receive the not very useful reply “the gardens for M. de Estournel’s herds of beef.”

He was understandably confused: the exotic Asian appearance of the buildings is like nothing else in the Medoc, a folly which cost so much that there was no money left over for the Chateau (and which is why, for many years, the wines were known only as Cos d’Estournel and not Chateau Cos d’Estournel.) The property is situated right next door to Chateau Lafite Rothschild, a so-called “Super Second” whose wines attract prices which place them above most other Seconds, but still safely enough below those of its immediate neighbour.

Given the location of its vineyards, the elevation of Cos to the rarefied space between the Seconds and the Firsts in the last few decades of the 20th century now seems obvious: however, even 40 years back the estate was hardly known outside the circles of Medoc aficionados: in the early 1970s you could buy the 1961 vintage for R6-75 – less than the price of a current release Cuvée Prestige. Twenty-five years later a bottle of the equally impressive 1982 was already fetching $100 – in effect one hundred times more than the 1961 vintage a quarter of a century earlier.

What changed all this was firstly the extraordinary investment in time and passion of erstwhile proprietor Bruno Prats. The best terroir in the world is worth nothing if you do not optimise its potential, and then share the results with wine enthusiasts around the world. Meticulous viticulture and rigorous fruit selection changed the profile of the property. Today Cos is rightly regarded as one of the top ten estates of the Medoc. The fact that Bruno Prats is now a shareholder at Klein Constantia illustrates perfectly how at home he is wherever good wine is being produced and enjoyed.

Given the demand, securing stocks of mature good vintages of Cos has become increasingly difficult. It’s now almost impossible to assemble a small vertical of them, to taste and track its evolution. Recognising the problem, the estate has released a limited number of mixed vintage cases with wines ranging in age from 10 to 16 years. Three such cases have arrived in South Africa and comprise a bottle each of 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008. They are offered on a first-come-first-served basis for…

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Résonance – Oregan wine with a Burgundian accent

At the time, the wine industry there was in its infancy – at least compared with what it has become today. There were fewer than 70 wineries, and all but five of these had been established since 1970. David Lett’s resounding success at the 1979 Wine Olympiades (organised by the French Gault-Millau magazine, and where his Eyrie Vineyards Pinot had beaten an impressive line-up of Burgundies) had been the catalyst for growth. Back in the late 1980s, it was possible to get to meet most of the main players – Lett, the Ponzis, David and Ginny Adelsheim – without even an appointment.

Much has changed since then: today there are well over 700 wineries, several owned by Burgundians seeking to expand their access to world-class Pinot sites. As Thibault Gagey said when Louis Jadot acquired its Resonance site in 2013, “We have done nothing but Burgundy for 150 years …. Burgundy is a small wine region so there are not so many opportunities to grow and we are entrepreneurs… we like to do new things, so we said, ‘why not go outside Burgundy and do something.’”

While it’s easy to explain why growers – especially dedicated Pinot producers – have hastened to the Pacific Northwest, it’s important to understand why consumers the world over are paying the price of a Premier Cru Burgundy for Oregon wines. At the beginning it was the combination of the exotic and the performance of the wines in blind tastings: Lett’s success in the Gault Millau tasting was more or less repeated a short while later, when Robert Drouhin cherry-picked an ultra-premium Burgundy selection and the Eyrie did even better, coming in a whisker behind a 1959 Chambolle Musigny.

Once Oregon’s claims to Pinot excellence were confirmed, it became the international appellation most likely to challenge Burgundian supremacy. This, in turn, encouraged growers to aim for ever higher quality, a course of action which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The wines justified their prices, which in turn pushed up land values in the top appellations, notably the Willamette Valley and the Dundee Hills.

As a result Oregon Pinot Noir has become almost unobtainable (and ordinarily pretty much unaffordable) for Rand-locked consumers: since wines from outside the European Union also attract an additional 25% duty, the vinous rarities never come to market in South Africa. Now, pretty much for the first time, a small parcel of wine produced at the Louis Jadot Resonance winery in the Willamette Valley has been imported. For wine enthusiasts wanting to make up their own minds about Oregon’s challenge to the Cote d’Or, there may never again be an opportunity to sample Willamette Pinot without first mortgaging their homes…

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De Ladoucette – Loire Sauvignon Blanc

Tannat is one such cultivar: unless you grew up with Madiran and the red wines from Basque country, or in Uruguay, where it is considered the national grape, it’s unlikely that you will find yourself with a compelling craving for its chunky tannins and its opaque vermillion hue. Australian sparkling shiraz is another example: you can be absolutely familiar with the variety and (quite separately) love great fizz but your mind simply cannot combine these two vinous treasures under a single aesthetic.

Loire Sauvignon blanc is a slightly different issue: wine drinkers brought up on a diet of Cape Sauvignon are often never quite sure what to make of the greatest French examples: they are not green and grassy, like some of the more pyrazine-driven wines from Constantia, nor are they pumped with the passion-fruit and tropical notes of Elgin and Durbanville. In fact, unless they were crafted in the mock-Kiwi style recently adopted by some of Loire’s well-known producers as a counter to the international success of the best New Zealand examples, they seem a little too elusive, a little too refined, a little too nuanced to be easily comprehended. Only if you give up trying to position them somewhere on the South African spectrum will you allow yourself a chance to appreciate them in their own right.

Consider De Ladoucette’s Pouilly Fumé, the Comte Lafond Sancerre, or, if a really special occasion looms, the Baron de L. Their aromas are generally more floral – whiffs of honeysuckle and lemon blossom – and their palate is more linear, more precise, with curious blackcurrant-like notes (the French call this “cassis leaf”) and a more flinty, dry finish. It is, however, worth the effort to invest in this slightly reticent acquaintance – one you know deep down has much to give once you penetrate the reserve. Even Chardonnay aficionados – who have long forsworn any interest in Sauvignon as a variety – come to embrace their charms.

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Domaines Ott 2017

As a category, it had been contaminated by its history: the old platitude about Mateus – “not red, not white, not sweet, not dry, not wine, not water” had infected everything.

When life came back into the market, it did so through a sleight of hand: Boschendal Blanc de Noir was a rosé by another name, and it became one of the biggest selling premium wines in the South African market 30 years ago. Unfortunately, it attracted many less talented imitators – and so ten years later Blanc de Noirs was languishing exactly where rosé had been a few years earlier.

Then the strangest thing happened – perhaps because of climate change, perhaps because a new generation entered the wine market without the baggage of those who had come before them, perhaps because the fashion industry fell in love with Fifty Shades of Pink. Suddenly rosé was back with a vengeance, and the obvious place to look to for inspiration was Provence, where one brand dominates the scene like no other.

The Ott family has been making rosé in Provence for over a century. Pretty much single-handedly they have raised its image from “pleasant and easy-drinking” to what the French call “a gastronomic beverage.” Their three domaines, each with their own vineyards and their own wineries – these are estate wines, not brands – represent the acme of what can be done with Provence rosé.

Domaines Ott is the only rosé producer listed in the world’s top 100 wineries. It is also the only producer on that list the majority of whose production is sold in the country of origin – though not necessarily to the citizens of that country. As summer descends on the Cote d’Azur all the grand restaurants vie for their allocations – which sell out long before the end of the season, and at mark-ups which even fine dining establishments in Paris and Tokyo can only contemplate with envy.

You cannot stay on top of your game for more than a century by illusion alone. Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to taste a rosé from one of the Ott domaines – Clos Mireille, Chateau de Selle or Chateau Romassan – and to compare it with any number of the beautifully packaged trendy attempts to play in the same league will tell you immediately that even with a wine as subtle as a perfect Provençal rosé, you can tell the masterpiece from the imitation.

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Cloudy Bay: New World Sauvignon Blanc

Cloudy Bay: New World Sauvignon Blanc

Only once every few centuries this creative force extends beyond national boundaries and transforms a whole category of wine. The legendary Dom Perignon is reputed (but this a matter of myth rather than of fact) to have discovered the secret of Champagne. (Those who prefer the truth to a good story now know that Christopher Merrett, a physician, and scientist in England, beat the famous Benedictine monk by over 30 years). That invention effectively created a new kind of beverage, one which transcends national boundaries and national cuisines.

There were several such figures in early modern times, partly because as trade between nations developed innovation was essential to meet the demands of foreign markets. For example, it was to make the wines of the Douro Valley palatable to customers in England that Port was developed. However, by the time the 20th century hove into view, it appeared that very little of such significance would ever again happen in the world of wine.

And so it might have been, had David Hohnen, the owner of Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, not looked eastwards and southwards to New Zealand’s South Island and decided that this would be the perfect location for growing Sauvignon blanc. In 1985 he harvested his first grapes from one of the first vineyards ever planted in Marlborough. His winemaker Kevin Judd could not believe the intensity and richness of the later harvested fruit: Cloudy Bay was so far south that its vintage only began when most of the rest of the Southern Hemisphere’s vintners had finished their fermentations and were ready to go on holiday.

Kevin Judd’s Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc transformed the way people thought of the varietal. It transformed the way the world thought of New World wine. It transformed the New Zealand wine industry. When Kevin Judd crushed the first grapes harvested at Cloudy Bay the entire New Zealand wine industry was roughly the same size as the Vredendal Co-op. Since then it has grown five fold. Along the way sauvignon blanc, made to Kevin Judd’s original vision, has become the one varietal which wine drinkers from around the world identify as “the taste of New Zealand.”

Most wine enthusiasts never get to drink this authentic expression of Marlborough: worldwide demand means that every vintage is on allocation. South Africa’s annual share of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is somewhere between 100 and 200 dozen…