Although the basic 80 per cent of winemaking is undoubtedly science – art and artistry is, surely, the sherpa for the final ascent from good to great. Or so I thought – but I recently met a man who proved me wrong!
Mike Ratcliffe, managing director of South Africa’s Warwick Estate, applies science to most of that final climb to the pinnacle of excellence – and his wines are terrific. Stressed vines are spotted early on – from the air – and grapes that will be unacceptably over-ripe or under-ripe at harvest are identified (and eliminated) as soon as the bunches start changing colour. Decisions are taken using more standard deviations and quantitative techniques than a statistician could shake a calculator at.
But it works – and it works seriously well! It even helps make scintillatingly fresh, aromatic medium bodied wine from the variety the pundits love to hate – pinotage.
My initial focus though will be on the red South Africa probably does best of all: cabernet sauvignon. 2011 The First Lady Cabernet Sauvignon costs £10.99 at The Fine Wine Company in Portobello and Musselburgh, and at House of Menzies near Aberfeldy. Both suppliers stock all the Warwick wines listed here except Vilafonte. First Lady is named in homage to Ratcliffe's mother – Norma, the country’s first female winemaker. The wine is vibrant and fresh with good acidic balance and firm (but not tough) tannin to embellish the blackcurrant, chocolate, mint and plum flavours the variety delivers so well.
Cabernet sauvignon is also a major component of 2011 Three Ladies Cape Blend (£14.99). This wine is even endorsed by James Bond during an – inevitable – seduction scene in Carte Blanche, the first Bond novel to be penned by American author Jeffery Deaver. Agent 007 declares the wine to be “wonderful”. Like Bond himself, the wine is smooth and full bodied but it also brings together black cherry, mint and vanilla flavours and enlivens them with raspberry-centred acidity It is actually a blend of around a third each of pinotage, cabernet sauvignon and syrah but with a mere dash of merlot, and is named after Norma Ratcliffe, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Eve.
We move up a step now to the 2010 Vilafonte Series C (£39.99 at Hard to Find Wines – www.htfwines.co.uk). Vilafonte is a joint venture between Ratcliffe and American winemaker Zelma Long to create one of South Africa’s first luxury wine companies. Its name comes from the vineyard’s soil type – one of the world’s oldest – which produces small vines with low yields but highly-concentrated fruit. One side of the vineyard gives us bold, powerful and structured wines from cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes for the Series C wines, while – a bit like Bordeaux – the other side is ideal for merlot in particular and, hence, the soft, rounded, fruit-driven wines of Series M.
The 2010 Vilafonte Series C is clearly designed for ageing, with a smooth yet intense and powerful palate featuring spicy bramble fruit and firm but balanced tannins that brilliantly sustain its opening deep cherry aromas.
Finally to the white and, of the two main ones, I preferred the 2013 First Lady Unoaked Chardonnay (£10.99). It is lively and aromatic, with flavours of apricots and spice. Ratcliffe boosts the wine with a touch of viognier to add some floral complexity – but only 1 per cent, as even 2 per cent was found to overpower the chardonnay. …….There’s that science at work again!
2013 Wine Selection Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon: South Australia: 14 per cent: An inexpensive but substantial red is a “must have” for the barbecue season and this great value Oz cabernet ticks all the necessary boxes. Its ripe and juicy plum fruit is supplemented by traditional blackcurrant and mint flavours, pleasingly soft, pliable tannins and touches of nuts and marzipan. (£4.75 at Asda)
2009 Hungerford Hill Hunter Valley Semillon: New South Wales, Australia: 10.5 per cent: There is enough age on this delightful white to bring out semillon’s toasty, textured elements but the classic lightness of touch and vibrant lime and grapefruit flavours still come through nicely – showing exactly why Hunter Valley is the capital of southern hemisphere semillon. (Currently £9.69 – instead of £12.95 – atwww.slurp.co.uk)
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