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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.


Crystallum Peter-Allan Finlayson carries a famous name, but prefers not to trade on the fame of his father, Peter Finlayson senior who is one of the Cape's most experienced and renowned winemaker and the man in charge at nearby Bouchard-Finlayson.

Peter started the business in 2007 having studied at the University of Stellenbosch - but not winemaking. In fact, his formal education stalled when he dropped out of his philosophy degree for an extended 'gap year' when he pursued a career in acting, eventually returning to his studies but switching course - still not to winemaking, but to economics. I asked why there was no early desire to make wine given his background. "Actually, it was difficult growing up in a wine family," he told me. "There was no romance, and a lot of business stress."

But winemaking eventually found him, even without formal training. "My first vintage in 2007 was supposed to be Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but all but my Sauvignon went down the drain because of elementary mistakes I made." And what led him back to wine? "I went to work for Eben Sadie's winery in Priorat," he tells me, "and then to Burgundy for Comte Armand, and suddenly I realised that I had to take this seriously, and that it was what I wanted to do with my life." Peter-Allan says that working with Eben Sadie "Really showed me the poetry of wine again, and got me really fired up."

Peter-Allan shares his small and simple winery with Chris Alheit, and for the moment buys fruit from plantings in Hemel-en-Aarde, a farm near Bouchard Finlayson with some really old vines, and yet more very old vines planted on slate soils in Villiersdorp.

The Wines

UK importer of Crystallum is Liberty Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Crystallum, Agnes 2012, South Africa
From three vineyards, and as with all of Crystallum's wines, it is wild fermented with no added acid. Peter-Allan used only 2nd fill barrels in this vintage, but says he would be comfortable using 10 - 15% new oak. It has a beautiful nose with gorgeous hazelnut and ripe, ripe apple fruit, a hint of the tropical - guava and pineapple - but beautifully tempered by cool citrus and salt. Delicious palate too, the lime and lemon juice clarity and the hints of fatter fruit, waxy lemon, but the oak just adding a nice spicy edge that rather pleasingly disrupts the purity of the wine, the finish showing a bit of grip and a touch of tannin to end on a serious note. 92/100.

Crystallum, Clay Shales 2012, South Africa
A single vineyard that "Does what it says on the tin," according to Peter-Allan. Tighter, more purely focused on the mineral and tight fruit, the oak sitting lightly. Orange and fruit skins, with some nice waxiness, but, again the hints of more tropical fruit comes through on the nose. Really nice fruit on the palate too, that slightly more austere character is there, but there's a lip-smacking, lemony concentration and purity, the almond and oatmeal softening edge of the oak just fleshing out the finish. 93/100.

Crystallum, Peter Max Pinot Noir 2012, South Africa
Made with 20% whole bunches and a long maceration on skins, with Peter-Allan saying he is "not working the pumping over too hard." It's a blend of two Hemel-en-Aarde vineyards. Instantly appealing, it has a little beetrooty and nicely vegetal quality as well as some truffle and the fine red fruits, hinting at spice and chocolate. The palate has delicious fruit, with dry tannins, that little touch of chocolate and spice is very flattering, but his has such lovely fruit sweetness and balance. Delicious. 90-91/100.

Crystallum, Cuvée Cinema 2012, South Africa
Named because the vineyard is on a site used to film a big movie about Napoleon Bonaparte. From a five-year-old vineyard, it has lovely tightness to the fruit, a black berry quality with some lifted notes of clove and kirsch-like cherry, that fine truffle and gently beetrooty quality. Some cassis here in a concentrated style. The palate has delicious focus too: there is such a pure line through this wine, the softly smoky oak wreathing around that deliciously dark but not heavy fruit, plenty of dry acidity and a bit of roughening tannin to maintain and edge, the soft juiciness of the fruit pushing back through to dominate the finish. 93/100.

Crystallum, Bone-Fide Pinot Noir 2012, South Africa
From a four-year-old vineyard, this has a little more dark, liquoricy tones to the nose, with a pure black fruit and touch of floral and violet, yet really ripe and blackcurranty and direct. There's a coffeeish tone too, making it fairly plush for Pinot, with plenty of ripe, sweet, mouth-filling fruit and more weight and texture, plenty of spice too. Oak is the same, with 30% new, but seems to be a little more charry and deep, giving this a big, spicy finish where the sweet, sweet fruit pushes through. 91/100.

Crystallum, Paradisum 2011, South Africa
The fruit for this comes from the Swartland. It is a Rhône blend, though Peter says it will "not necessarily always come from Swartland." It's a blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre. Wonderful lift, the kirsch and violet perfume is beautiful, a nice dark cocoa edge and plenty of tight black fruit. The palate has an equally tight juiciness, that lovely slick of earthiness and cherry skin bite to the acidity, the tannins coffeeish and smooth, but really a very attractive, concentrated and fairly big wine of great substance. 92/100.

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