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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2013.


Almenkerk Partners Natalie Opstaele and Joris van Almenkerk arrived from Belgium with plans to set up a wine and farming business, but never dreamt they would end up making and selling their own wine. A successful lawyer, Joris arrived intending to practice law, but things didn't quite work out like that: "We bought the apple farm, and worked with a team of vineyard and winemaking consultants at first," says Joris. "But we soon decided I really needed to be the one who took the decisions, so off I went to Stellenbosch to study winemaking and viticulture, whilst still doing some legal work for private clients."

With 15 hectares planted to vine, Joris says he does not want to grow any bigger: "We are a registered wine estate, one of only 90 left in South Africa who are registered to use only their own grapes." The business is successful, but the wines are not exported to the UK - about half goes to Belgium and half is sold locally. "I would be happy to be in the UK," says Joris, "but we don't want to go looking - we want an importer to come to us, someone who is here because they want our wines, not someone who agrees to take them at a knock down price." They do sell apples to Tesco, but Joris says "there are so many audits, paperwork, and expenses to get wines into the UK supermarkets now that it makes the UK unattractive."

Indeed new plantings will be of apple trees, not vines, "because apples are easier to sell," according to Natalie. The Almenkerks seem happy with how things stand however. They are in the centre of the Valley here, in a beautiful spot enclosed by mountains, and from their first vintage in 2009 the wines were well received. A very smart new winery and visitor centre looking out over the vineyards and orchards is impressive too, and whilst expanding the wines business is not on the plans, that does not mean the keenly intelligent, always inquisituve Joris is resting on his laurels: "We're just grafting our Malbec over to Petit Verdot," he tells me, "because Malbec hasn't worked." Lawyer, winemaker, businessman - the pragmatic approach to making Almenkerk work seems unshakeable.

The Wines

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Almenkerk, Sauvignon Blanc 2011, South Africa
This is totally reductive wine making with no oxygen: an special press pumps inert gas into the press bladder as it is deflating to exclude oxygen. Distinctive, green apple juice nose, fascinating perfume with that green-tinged herby edge, but fresh and smooth bite to the aroma. Very juicy on the palate, crunchy green apple again, but ripe, a touch of pear, and a big scything background of lemon and lime freshness, hinting at minerals and a touch of nuttiness. 89-90/100.

Almenkerk, Chardonnay 2011, South Africa
No sulphur is added until the very end of winemaking which Joris says "Needs meticulous, clean grapes and maximum hygene." The opposite of the Sauvignon this is pressed with deliberately oxidative handling, the juice very brown to begin. Natural ferment in barrel with the lees, all 225-litre French oak barriques, around 20% new. No malolactic, no stirring, just rolling barrels. Beuatiful fragrance here, the exotic, delicate wreathing vanilla, almond and perfumed, blossom and incense nose, a fine lime fruit. Delightfully fresh on the palate, with green apple bite, that little nuttiness and such lovely shimmering acidity. Just delightful. 5.9g/l of residual sugar disappearsinto the acid and refined fruit balance. 92/100.

Almenkerk, Syrah 2010, South Africa
This has 15% Cabernet Franc and a blend of three Syrah clones, and is an individual barrel selection picked on taste rather than analysis. Wild yeast fermentation and extended maceration before 16 months in all French barriques. Lovely spiced, fresh and buoyant fruit, with deep, rich berries, mulberry and blackcurrant, a touch of game and truffle, but really focused on the fruit. Lovely sweet fruit on the palate, with a dry, nicely extracted fruit concentration, tight and racy, the tannins quite grippy, but smoother too, and with creaminess to the fruit texture and a lovely acid balance, this has really nice style and length. Finishing juicy and fresh. Clones used are 22 ("Gives some Barossa style," according to Joris), 29 ("Meaty") and 7 ("Spicy"). 91/100.

Almenkerk, Lace by Almenkerk 2010, South Africa
Second selection of Syrah that does not make Almenkerk, blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, plus a little Viognier. Has around 6g/l of RS "which people love." Delightfully ripe black fruit comes trhough on the nose, with bountiful red fruit, a touch of coffee and chocolate from 2nd and 3rd fill French oak barriques smooths and rounds this out. 87-88/100.

Almenkerk, Village of Hope Red Blend 2012, South Africa
Made for an English couple Tim and Maz Walker who run a local project to shelter and foster Aids orphans. They had some trellised vines hanging over the balcony of their property, so Joris harvests these and supplements them with his own grapes. One barrel was made which will be shipped to the UK and auctioned for the charity. Nice lifted nose, clove and cherry and rosy red apple. Dry on the palate, with some nice fresh, biting fruit and a bit of real juiciness and dry finish. It is mostly Mourvèdre. 88/100.

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