South African wine unveiled – Live from Vinitaly

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April 14th, 2024: the Italian Wine Podcast team is ready to document some of the main events of Vinitaly 2024. Bright and early, the first masterclass of the 56th Vinitaly is led by Richard Kershaw MW, Andrea Mullineux and Robert Joseph. The title: “South African wine unveiled: a rare wine journey amidst Italy’s Vinitaly spotlight”. The room is full, with eager tasters waiting in the hall for any empty space. This tasting almost didn’t happen, due to wines caught up in the impossible to describe labyrinth of Italian customs bureaucracy. Never fear, the unflagging efforts of the wine2digital back office team finally got the wines released from the clutches of the Dogana and into the glasses of the participants. . .  approximately 467 calls and 319 emails later, just in the nick of time.

Robert Joseph introduces the session with a quick overview of the South African winemaking situation as it currently stands. He clearly separates the country’s winemaking history from its roots back in the 1600s, to the birth of modern South African winemaking, which really began in 2000, after decades of political isolation and strict governmental control. Joseph referres to South Africa as the “youngest” wine producer in the New World, despite having had grapes there for over 400 years. It was not until post-2000 that the country could access good quality wines from famed wine regions around the world and exchange information regarding style and technique. Top wines from South Africa are all made by modern, new producers – there is not a history of generations of high-quality family wine making. Richard Kershaw MW, originally from the UK, and Andrea Mullineux, originally from the USA, are introduced as two examples of excellent winemaking in modern South Africa, with Mullineux’s winery achieving great recognition and hailed as “Winery of the year” and “Winemaker of the year”. Richard Kershaw is a Master of Wine, one of only a very few who actually make their own wines. He is experimenting with clonal selection, location and style.

Kershaw and Mullineux give a detailed presentation of the unique ancient character of the South African soils, which have been undisturbed by volcanic and seismic activity for over half a billion years. Large areas of single soil types provide pure examples of terroir. The key to moving South African wine production industry away from quantity and into quality will be the right grape and clonal selection, planted in the right place.

The first wine is Mullineux’s Schist Chenin Blanc 2021, with the label reflecting the importance of the schist soils of the vineyard. These very hard soils don’t allow water to penetrate, the roots stay compact and shallow, creating a very compact canopy of smaller leaves, smaller bunches and smaller grapes. The vines are trained in the bush-vine style (“alberello”) to protect from wind. Chenin is a good “drought mate” as Mullineux remarks, due to early flowering, early budding, and early ripening, protecting the grapes from the later dry months. The clonal differences in South Africa make the Chenin wines produced here very different to the Chenins from their “home” location in the Loire in France.  The location of the vineyard, at 33° S latitude gives a very high angle of sunlight, creating grapes that ripen to a golden, freckled, slightly thicker skin, which ultimately gives the wines more phenolics and a creamy texture that comes directly from the grape, not from batonnage. The wine has notes of neutral oak, acacia and white peach, with a vibrant acidity, a chalky, almost waxy texture, hints of lime blossom and passion fruit with broom flower and quince.

The second wine is Leeu Passant Chardonnay Stellenbosch 2021, from Mullineux’s second estate. The focus is on the vineyard, which is at 400 meters above sea level, facing the sea and buffeted by a strong, cool sea breeze. Altitude here is the most important, as well as the use of the barrels to allow gentle oxidative qualities. The wine is toasty, nutty and buttery on the nose, with aromas of pineapple, peach, quince jam and a little hit of honey on the top note. A tang of sea salt, a good acidic spine and a sticky, grippy texture all balanced well together.

The third wine is Kershaw’s Deconstructed CY96 Lake District Chardonnay 2020 from the shale soils of Elgin, where the vineyards are significantly higher above sea level and the sea itself is much closer, at most 9 kilometers away.  The “south-easter” winds, as Kershaw describes them, keep the valley cool and cloudy in the summer, creating a ‘lid’ over the vineyards, giving more rain and less sun.  He comments that “Elgin is really an apple region that just happens to have grapes grown there.” The shale soils contribute power and mid-palate weight to the wine, which has a savory character with a briney, saline note combined with a sweet white blossom perfume. Acidity remains energetic and high, balancing the gentle malolactic fermentation note of yogurt, with a touch of tropical fruit pie, a notable use of oak, flavors of cedro peel and dry yellow apple skin, a fuller body and a higher alcohol style. 

The first red wine of the Masterclass is Kershaw’s Deconstructed PN115 Pinot Noir 2020. Kershaw explains that “around the world there is a quest to make great Pinot Noir.” He is aiming for more structure and elegance, more width and color, more texture and tannin, as he tries to move away from South Africa’s reputation of exceedingly fruit forward. The wine is rosy ruby with a slight hint of garnet, due to the fact that he adds stems for color stability and tannin. Pinot Noir is relatively new to South Africa, as it was illegal to plant it there for many years. The wine has lovely notes of smokey bonfire, baked cherry and silky tannins. Perfumed on the nose and warm on the palate.

Next, we have Kershaw’s Deconstructed SH9c Syrah, a challenging grape for the Elgin region, with more crop loss than anywhere else due to too much rain. This clone is grown on shale at 420 meters above sea level.  Joseph describes it as intense and elegant, “a Pinot Noir maker’s Syrah.” The wine is powerful, with notes of hot ripe blue-black fruit and black pepper spice.

The final wine is Mullineaux’s Schist Syrah 2019, which she introduces as being a product of the “after-effect of sunshine and how it penetrates the canopy.”  Syrahs on granite have high acidity and long tannings, due to a high skin to juice ratio. The wine has a beautiful floral note, a vibrant acidity, warm black and blue fruits and a big full body with lots of powdery tannin covering the palate and working well with the high level of alcohol. This wine cries out for some food!

Kershaw and Mullineaux wrap up the session with a brief look at climate change effects in recent years, particularly the “La Nina” vintages in 2021, 2022 and 2023 which all saw immense rainfall. Sustainability is taken very seriously among South African winemakers, with a great deal of work on soil and water conservation. Mullineaux explains that “complex wines come from happy vines,” and conservation and biodiversity aimed at protecting South Africa’s wealth of native flowers and herbs will all lead to the best vine conditions. The biggest challenge facing small wineries creating high-quality wines in this country is how to raise the perception of South African wine around the world. Kershaw and Mullineaux definitely make an impact on the international audience and the follow-up Q&A session ensure that everyone present at this masterclass will be talking about South African wines for the foreseeable future. 

 

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