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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.


Hemel-en-Aarde I met up with five contrasting, but high quality estates of Hemel-en-Aarde, including originals Peter Finlayson of Bouchard-Finlayson and Anthony Hamilton-Russell of Hamilton Russell, as well as newer players Creation Wines, Sumaridge and La Vierge. Spread across the three sub-zones of Hemel-en-Aarde - Hemel-en-Aarde, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge - the dinner following my tasting was a delight, especially as the Pinot Noir flowed and good natured arguments about the vines, wines and politics of the area ensued.

Though the estate is no longer in his ownership, Peter Finlayson remains at the helm of Bouchard-Finlayson, and of course remains one of the founding fathers of the entire region, his Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blazing a trail for Walker Bay for a couple of decades. It was interesting to hear Peter and Anthony Hamilton-Russell, another stalwart of the region, cross swords in a good natured way with the others, particularly the not so shy and retiring JC Martin of Creation Wines, over the surprising diversity of grape varieties they have chosen to plant, from Syrah and Mourvèdre to Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. These varieties certainly do not follow the Pinot and Chardonnay masterplan.

Fog rolls in It is surprising. This region is one of a tiny band around the world that has carved out a reputation for excellence with Pinot in particular, a grape variety that has also come into vogue over the past decade and which surely promises very good returns to those who make it well. Perhaps this dilution of 'Hemel-en-Aarde = Pinot Noir' is a mistake. Producers in other Pinot hot-spots around the world, from Central Otago in New Zealand to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, toe the Pinot party line. But then the other estates present occupy the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Ridge appellations, with slightly different soils and climates, so maybe their Rhône and Italianate blends will have the last laugh in years to come.

The clay soils of Hemel-en-Aarde do not lie on limestone à la the Côte d'Or, but nevertheless their very low vigour and maritime-cooled climate have proved excellent for Pinot and Chardonnay. It's clear that Peter in particular regrets the move to plant Syrah and other varieties: "We had the opportunity to become the Martinborough of South Africa," he says somewhat wistfully. Above: fog rolls in to Hemel-en-Aarde.


UK importer of Hamilton Russell is Hallgarten Druitt. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Hamilton Russell, Chardonnay 2012, South Africa
A very fragrant style this, the oak sweet but floral too, with a minty freshness to the fruit, notes of apple and pear, Asian pear perhaps, spiciness following. The palate has that freshness nicely handled too, with the lemon and lime juice of the fruit flooding the palate, then a creamy but delicate infill of oak. This is vibrant and juicy, the lemon zest squirt of acidity fresh and shimmering. Seriously Burgundian stuff and delicious with concentration and energy. 92-93/100.

Hamilton Russell, Chardonnay 2011, South Africa
More subdued aromatically, the taut apple fruit and light layer of vanilla and cashew on top, but misses the 2012's vivacious aromatics a little. On the palate seems full and harmonious, with a smooth texture and lovely natural concentration again, very nicely resolved and very well done. 91/100.

Hamilton Russell, Pinot Noir 2012, South Africa
A little exotic incense here, quite subtle aromatics at this stage, but the berry softness and delicate chocolate, tiny spicy notes. On the palate it is taut and focused, the juicy freshness of the fruit is lovely, just sprinkled with an exotic, delicate spice and clove seasoning, running through to a juicy, well-balanced finish. 91-92/100.

Hamilton Russell, Pinot Noir 2010, South Africa
Seems a little darker and more solid in colour. Seems a little bigger on the nose too (though alcohol identical) with rich berries tempered by some earthiness and hint of truffly development. The palate has really nice, sweet, full and rounded fruit, the berries and cherries filling the mouth, wrapped in a sheen of vanilla almost hinting at coffee, but then the elegant but quite pert and grippy tannins and acids freshen the finish. Very juicy again, and drinking very nicely. 92/100.


UK importer of Bouchard Finlayson is Seckford Wine Agencies. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Bouchard Finlayson, Missionvale Chardonnay 2011, South Africa
Elegantly fragrant oak, the exotic spices and hints of gently wreathing woodsmoke and vanilla are lovely. On the palate this has plenty of sweet fruit, lots of very ripe melon and moving towards tropical, but then the lovely freshness of the acidity in the finish really comes through, fresh and mineral, giving real light and shade to the wine and a long finish. 90/100.

Bouchard Finlayson, Crocodile's Lair Chardonnay 2012, South Africa
Fresh, fruit forward aromas, orchard fruit freshness and just background creaminess and hazelnut nuances. The palate has lots of lemon, lots of pithy crisp and dry acidity, the picture taut and nervy in a quite Burgundian mould, with a sense of burgeoning fruit sweetness that will emerge with a year or two in bottle. 90-91/100.

Bouchard Finlayson, Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2011, South Africa
Not a terribly clear Pinot nose, seems a touch oxidised perhaps? Not singing, a bit overripe possibly, but there is a rich berry essence beneath. On the palate the acidity feels a little raw, perhaps against that slightly oxidised fruit quality. Decent length, and has attractive components, but doesn't totally convince at this stage. 88-89/100.

Bouchard Finlayson, Hanibal 2011, South Africa
A blend of 51% Sangiovese, 13% Pinot Noir, 13% Shiraz, 13% Mourvèdre, 6% Nebbiolo and 4% Barbera. Again just a little oxidised feeling, a little baked perhaps, the fruit a little too solid for the Blend? There is a lot of sweet, rich, full and ripe character here on the palate, but I cannot escape those slightly oxidised notes once again. 88-89/100.


UK importer of Creation Wines is Copestick Murray. See all UK stockists on wine-searcher.

Creation Wines, Pinot Noir Reserve 2010, South Africa
Very attractive, gently truffly and damp undergrowth nose, a hint of chestnut and soft smokiness, but nice and soft red fruit beneath too. The palate has a little stripe of something liquoricy, with a nip of astringent quality that is freshening, the juicy endive edge adding to the cherry fruit. 89/100.

Creation Wines, Pinot Noir 2012, South Africa
Youthful, tight, mineral quality here, a touch of game but tight and lean on the aromatic profile. The palate has lots of fruit forward appeal, a soft sheen of vanilla and beneath a tight core of fruit. There is that firm liquorice, endive bite again, a house style, giving this a fresh finish. Potentially very nice, finishing with soft spice and good fruit. 90-91/100.

Creation Wines, Syrah 2011, South Africa
Youthful, tight and focused aromas, big plum and more cherry skin black fruit, something a little like caraway seeds. The palate has a juiciness and plenty of rasping, fresh edged cherry fruit and tannin just adding a pleasing roughness. It is a big wine style, with plenty of alcohol, the oak underpinning with a bit of extra char. This finishes with a fairly big and grippy style. 89/100.

Creation Wines, Syrah Grenache 2010, South Africa
14.7% abv, with all of Creation's wines around the 14.5% mark. A nicely jammy and sweet fruit note on this - not overdone, but just suggests ripeness to come, along with a nuttiness from the Grenache and plenty of fruit to the fore. On the palate this has a silky texture, the extra confiture sweetness of the Grenache leavening the forthright, powerful Syrah style. Juicy acidity and freshness, very attractive, wearing the alcohol slightly better I think. 90-91/100.


Sumaridge is imported by The Wine Company. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Sumaridge, Maritimus 2011, South Africa
A blend of 55% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Chardonnay, 15% Semillon, 5% Viognier grown on part sandstone, part granite. 40% fermented in older barrels with natural yeast. Lovely clear and ripe nose with some oatmeal and nuances of honey and wild blossom, very attractive. The palate has a lovely limpidity, clean and very juicy, tangerine and lime freshness and lovely racy acidity. The oak adding just a softening sheen to the crunchy fruit and freshness of the finish. 90-91/100.

Sumaridge, Chardonnay 2011, South Africa
Ten months in barrel, 35% new and all Burgundy barrels. From granite soils with quartz. Combination of spontaneous and inoculated yeasts. Gentle battonage. Hot buttered crumpet toastiness, with nutty apple fruit and a hint of pineapple and more luscious ripeness. The palate has lovely clarity again, the fresh-cut apple freshness and juiciness of the acidity lovely against the creaminess and the mandarin orange tang. 91/100.

Sumaridge, Pinot Noir 2011, South Africa
All Burgundian coopers, 33% new wood. Granite and clay soils, weathered to chalky texture. Careful hand sorting, both spontaneous an cultivated yeast, some in closed steel fermenters some in large oak, mostly whole berry. Pleasing colour and pleasing nose with some delicate coffee and earthiness, a dry cranberry fruit and delicate spices. On the palate this has medium body and it is in a lean, savoury and has a lemony freshness. Perhaps a touch more acidity or less fullness of fruit than I'd ideally want, but lovely citrus. 88-89/100.

Sumaridge, Epitome 2009, South Africa
A heftier 14.7 abv here. The blend is 55% Shiraz, 45% Pinotage matured 18 months in 225 and 500-litre barrels, all French and 50% new, and whole berry fermented in large oak. Very nice spice and cedar, quite peppery and rich, an earthy tone too and plenty of ripe berries. The palate is flooded with creamy red and black fruit, juicy and has a lovely choc finish with very nice balance if a little lacking in plumpness. 89-90/100.


La Vierge is imported by The Wine Treasury. See all UK stockists on wine-searcher.

La Vierge, Original Sin Sauvignon Blanc 2011, South Africa
Plenty of nicely mid-way style here, with juicy fresh fruit and a hint of grassiness, but quite restrained too without too much tropical flamboyance. The palate has lovely fruit too - an easy, relaxed style of SB, but with precision and a fine limey cut of acidity. fresh with that gooseberry tang and dry finish. 88-89/100.

La Vierge, Jezebelle Chardonnay 2011, South Africa
Softly inviting and very discreetly oaked, with juicy fruit of apples and pear, a touch of riper melon, and just that fine sheen of oak adding oatmeal and cashew. The palate has deliciously sweet fruit, lots of tangerine and nectarine that is exotic but juicy and vibrant, lovely tangy finish too. Very nicely made and well balanced stuff with juicy, pleasing appeal. 89-90/100.

La Vierge, Noir Pinot Noir 2011, South Africa
Fine, rounded berry fruit, with gentle oak, truffle and light smokiness, the palate showing a nice fruit balanced by leafy and vegetal notes that are quite Burgundian, with a dry cranberry finish and really nice balance showing light spice, good acidity and a savoury finish. 90/100.

La Vierge, Satyricon 2010, South Africa
The blend here is 60% Sangiovese,30% Nebbiolo, 10% Barbera. Ripe but also has a nice tang of tomato leaf giving a little welcome and bright edge to the fruit. Some creaminess, cherry and a bit of elegant cherry fruit with hints of tobacco and spice, nothing overtly oaky. The palate has a flood of sweet fruit: real juicy berries and fat red cherries, then a chocolaty infill from the oak is lovely, giving this a broad and full appeal, but the juice and freshness of the Italian grapes does freshen the finish nicely. 90/100.

return to South Africa 2013