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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2010 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2010.


Ataraxia's vineyards lie at 450 metres above sea level, and close to the cooling influence of the ocean. "It was 25c yesterday in Cape Town," says winemaker Kevin Grant (below), "but only 22c at out farm." That relatively small but crucial difference is one secret to Ataraxia's very refined wines, but so are the variety of soil types, which allow him to make wines he describes as being "the expression of ancient soils".

Grant says he spends an enormous amount of time sourcing fruit from specific vineyards - vineyards that are special because of altitude, Ataraxia's own vineyards are composed of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as these are the grapes that suit their soils. Sauvignon Blanc is sourced from contract farmers. "We are a beer drinking, relatively unsophisticated market," says Grant, which he says explains the appeal of Sauvignon Blanc: "it appeals because it is fresh, crisp and undemanding.

"Unfortunately to meet that demand a lot of Sauvignon has been planted where it does not belong." That, he says, forces winemakers to harvest early in hot climates to retain freshness, and the wines do not last. "The motto is 'drink young'," he says, "but we don't necessarily believe that: our 2007 is drinking beautifully now."

Indeed, the Ataraxia Sauvignon Blanc seemns mineral driven, which Grant says is all down to the soils and climates from which he has sourced the grapes. "You can drink a bottle, not just a glass," he says.
   sa-ataraxia (32K)

Warming to his theme, Grant moves on to Chardonnay. "Its future in this country has got to be focused on cooler styles, not the big nickerbocker glory fruit salad. We need to understand the personalities of our vineyards, ferment them separately and really understand what they give us. There's no point putting a vineyard that gives a very delicate, floral Chardonnay and sticking it in high toast oak."

For his 'Serentity' blend, Grant refuses to name the four varieties in the mix. When people try to guess what varieties are in the blend he counters, "hold on, you are not tasting four wines, you are tasting one". He thinks this need to identify the components is partly about confidence: "I'd like people to just taste the wine and make their mind up if they like it without being prompted by assuming whether they like or dislike the grapes." What he does confirm is that the varieties change vintage by vintage - there were three varieties last year, seven varieties the year before.

the wines

UK Agents are Stone, Vine & Sun and Howard Ripley, but see all stockists on wine-searcher.

2009 Sauvignon Blanc
All Elgin fruit as 2009 was a year of fires in Hemel-en-Aarde, so fruit not available. The wine spends five months in tank post-fermentation, with lees stirring. Very mineral, with no herbaceous aromas, but a citrus peel and gentle gooseberry and melon fruit. On the palate a lovely lime and lemon quality, a gentle ruby grapefruit character and plenty of tight, steely acidity. Intelligent stuff in a reserved style. 90/100. £11 Around 3,600 cases made.

2008 Chardonnay
100% barrel fermented, each barrel inoculated with yeast. "There is a small amount of spontaneous ferment that happens, but it is not predictable and is microbiologically dangerous in this climate". Nine months in oak, 33% new, in uncooled barrel room that gets up to around 27c. Spontaneous malolactic, which Grant "doesn't push if it doesn't want to happen." Lovely creamy cashew nose, with the nutty and very gently cappiccino oak marrying in to melon and orchard fruits. The palate has a big richness and weight. There's a lemon and orange fruit at the core of this that gives lots of finesse. Tight and mineral in the finish, the wood definitely subdued by the fruit and acidity. Should last. 93/100. £18. Around 2,600 cases

2006 Serenity
Twelve months in barriques, 40% new. A Syrah based blend (I got that much out of Kevin Grant). Quite a delicate, spice and pepper nose. There's a tightness about the fruit too, with some nice black berries. On the palate a real firmess at the core of this, a beautiful edge of cherry and plum skins, with nicely spicy notes and a firm core of something gravelly. Very fine. 92/100. Around 2000 cases.

See all stockists on wine-searcher.

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