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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.


james Shannon's farm sits a little off the beaten track. The most westerly farm in Elgin, it is beautifully sited on the Palmiet River, a leafy, shady place with stunning watery views in every direction. The farm grows apples and pears as well as wine grapes, and was busy bringing in a bumper crop of Braeburns on my visit.

I met up with James Downes, a shrewd and affable character who has had the most interesting life: a qualified marine biologist, work took him to Aberdeen in Scotland to study for a year. Nine years later he was still in Scotland working first in Aberdeen and then setting up fish farms in the Mull of Kintyre.

Returning to the family apple farm, James took on the role of viticulturist, planting the family's first vines in 2000, 15.5 hectares on virgin land to join the 35 hectares of orchards, "But we have a coal mine on the Traansval that finances the whole project," quips James. James runs Shannon along with his brother Stuart, whose career in wine business marketing included the launch of the Cono Sur label when he lived in Chile. The farm still sells 75% of its grapes to clients including Tokara and Mulderbosch, and the first release under their own label was only in 2008.

For now the wines are made at Newton Johnson winery, though James is "Involved in all stages of the winemaking, heading up the blending panel and so on." James explained to me that even by Elgin standards, this is a cool spot: "Grapes from the farm ripen a week later than on Paul Cluver's farm," he tells me, on their vineyards which have rocky soils, with sections of kaolin clay, table mountain sandstone and silica. It is farmed organically, though not certified, with clover and lupins sown as cover crops in winter.

James also tell me that they currently have a troop of 70 baboons resident on the farm, which excites him as a biologist: "The more top-end preditors you have, the more it indicates the biodiversity success of the farm - we have otters, raucous toads and eagles." I ask if the baboons do much damage in the vineyard, but James is unphased by the fact that they do: "So the baboons eat 0.04 of our production," he says. "That's nothing compared to a heatwave or attack of moths that can destroy 15%".

The Pinot Noir vineyards is planted with old Dijon Clones 115 and 113, and new Dijon clones 667 and 777. James says the newer clones give higher yield, more colour and more structure. But he doesn't rely on the them, and is very happy that his final blend is usually dominated by the older clones that give finer, more elegant fruit. "This is not Burgundy, this is South Africa with perfect growing conditions, so what works there doesn't necessarily work here."

The Wines

Shannon Vineyards, is imported by Richard Kelly. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Shannon Vineyards, 'Sanctuary Peak' Sauvignon Blanc 2012, South Africa
Fermented with natural yeast, there's little bit of Semillon in this and 11% of the blend is fermented in barrel. Nicely leesy, fruit skin nose, traces of soft green herbs but really more about lemon and a certain mineral saltiness. There is a background of more tropical, mango and lychee. Delightful palate, really refreshing crunch and crispness, with deliciously tangy lime and grapefruit, that vivacity playing against sweeter, more exotic notes but lovely structure and length. 91/100.

Shannon Vineyards, 'Rockview Ridge' Pinot Noir 2012, South Africa
Only about 30% new oak is used here, but James says they have moved away from charry barrels. He is looking for spice not smokiness. James says "This always sells out, but I like it staying just below the radar." Lovely pale colour, delicious herbal edges to this, even a touch of camphor, gentle vegetal quality, with delicate nutty notes and dry red berry fruit - very attractive. The palate has delicious red fruit at its core, it has an intensity, but a very tight, finely wrought style, but then there is generosity with more spice indeed, pepper and truffle and damp undergrowth essence. Delicious. 92/100.

Shannon Vineyards, 'Mount Bullet' 2010, South Africa
"Our front row forward in the line-up - broad shouldered," says James. Made with wild yeast in a slow ferment, the dark, saturated colour comes from a blend of three Merlot clones; two from France and one from Italy. Lovely oak quality, spicy and fragrant, with ripe, plummy but bouyant fruit, lots of fat red and black berries and plum, but that fragrance also has little meaty and savoury, almost meat stock character. Very attractive. The palate has delicious sweetness, the intensity of the berry fruit and the silkiness of the texture through soft, giving tannin structure. Good spice again, the juicy character of the fruit and elegant cherry acidity really nice into the finish, just hints of more chocolaty and dark plummy charcter amognst the fresher elements into the finish. 93/100.

Shannon Vineyards, 'Macushla' Pinot Noir Noble Late Harvest 2012, South Africa
"More of an academic excercise," according to James. Discovered/created by accident, two hectares of Pinot allocated to sparkling wine production were not picked and forgotten about. James came back a couple of months later and the bunches all had Botrytis. He took it to the winery and tasted with Gordon and Nadia Newton Johnson "and it was clean." So he experimented the next year with a Pinot Noir Straw Wine, but it didn't really work. So in the next year, 2009, he dedicated 22 rows to making a sweet Pinot that ends up with around 132g/l residual sugar, both through Botrytis and Dehydration. With wild ferment over many months in old barrels, it is not produced every year - this is the first since that 2009. Light pinky colour, very delicate on the nose, light, rose style strawberry and raspberry (match with chocolate or with berry fruit desserts). Delicious palate, the beautifully creamy, sweet balsamic strawberry character is delicious, lovely sprinkling of pepper and spice. Delicious stuff with a light to medium body and nicely retained acidity adding a lovely sour cherry freshness. 91/100. In half bottles, a few restaurants have it in the UK.

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