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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.


the griers Cousins Jeff and Simon Grier started the family-owned Villiera Wines in 1983. I met up with Jeff and his wife, Cathy, in their busy tasting room just outside of Stellenbosch. Villiera is well known in the UK, with its wines on the shelves of Marks & Spencer and The Wine Society, and indeed export makes up 40% of their business. Though thought of mostly as a sparkling wine producer by many consumers, in fact that happened much by chance, the sparkling wines catching the attention of buyers and consumers in the early days as the couple built up contacts though travels in France and across Europe.

"We always wanted to ensure our terroir reflected in the wines," says Jeff, "but we also wanted to innovate and see our wine in an international perspective. The bubbly business developed through contacts we made in France, and it has been bubbles that have been responsible for a large part of our success and growth." Indeed that growth has seen production rise from 3,000 cases to over 100,000 cases today, with the 200 hectares of estate vines meeting 90% of their needs.

I visited the wonderfully life-affirming creche run by The Pebbles Project in one of the estate's buildings, and indeed the social and environmental impact of the business is now as much of a focus as selling wine. But Cathy is quick to dispel any thoughts that this is only about altruism "Today, the quality of wines in a competitive market is a given, so it is environmental and social focus that give you an advantage," she says. "It is something we have been practising for over a decade," she continues, "but we do use it for a marketing advantage - we started without even thinking about that but now companies we supply like M&S in the UK and Woollies in South Africa tell us we have to shout about it more."

The entire operation runs on a 'no waste to landfill' policy, bottle bags in their shop are made from recycled newspaper, the winery is solar powered with the biggest roof-mounted solar project in South Africa which was very expensive to install but which will pay for itself in seven years.

The Griers also have a small, 20-hectare estate in the Roussillon called Domaine Grier, though those wines were not presented here.

the wines

Villiera is imported into the UK by Marks & Spencer and Crush Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Villiera, Brut Natural 2009, South Africa
Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay. Zero dosage, zero added sulphur or preservatives. First released in 1998 and the first of its style in SA. Pale lemon colour, lovely very small bubbles, a nice creamy, custard nose, with baked apple. Mouth-watering lemon and dry apple, nice fine mousse and tangy and long. Beautifully balanced. 90/100. In M&S.

Villiera, Monro Brut 2007, South Africa
Classic 50% Chardonnay, half fermented in old barrel, plus the two Pinots. On yeast for five years. Fine, light gold colour and very small, steady bubbles. A nice autolysis here, a yeasty and brioche character, with a bit of honey and a bold fruitiness too. On the palate it is fresh and tantalising. 90/100.

Villiera, Crow's Fountain Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc 2013, South Africa
13. Lovely passionfruit and elderflower punch and vibrancy, a big push of grassiness and green bean, massive crunch and freshness on the palate, a lot of flavour and concentration, plenty of vivid tropical notes and that streak of green into a very crunchy finish. 88/100. £9.99 in M&S.

Villiera, Crow's Fountain Bush Vine Sauvignon Blanc 2010, South Africa
Still bright and fresh, the asparagus and green bean pungency is there, a really nice drink, drier than the 2013, but finely tuned and abundantly Sauvignon Blanc. 88/100.

Villiera, Crow's Fountain Chenin Blanc 2012, South Africa
Even more successful through M&S than the SB. Quite a deep golden colour, with a lovely smokiness and touch of honey, a little Cox's Pippin nutty apple. The palate shows just a touch of lemon zest and there is great thrust and freshness. 87-88/100. In M&S. A "Similar wine," is sold by The Wine Society.

Villiera, Villiera Traditional Barrel fermented Chenin 2012, South Africa
Five per cent Botrytis influence here, four months in 400l French barrels. Gently open and invitingly nutty, oxidative style, a fine creaminess, delicious and flowing, smooth palate, but perhaps lacks a little of the bite and tangy vibrancy of the straight Crow's Fountain. 88/100. In M&S.

Villiera, Crow's Fountain Red Blend 2011, South Africa
14.5% Shiraz, Merlot and Pinotage. More ripeness, more oak, more glossy appeal, deep and chunky, edging into chocolate. Sweet earthiness, lots of plump, juicy black fruit, with a nicely dry finish bolstered by a touch of grippy tannin and good acid base. 87/100. In M&S.

Villiera, Down to Earth 2012, South Africa
14. Touriga Nacional and Shiraz. Very fresh style, has some of the nice Touriga ripe black fruit lift and blackcurrant kirsch, the palate has lovely spice and has the sweet earthiness of the Touriga again along with lovely forward black fruits from the Shiraz. Finishes with bright acidity and real juiciness and is deliciously drinkable. 87-88/100. In The Wine Society.

Villiera, Munro Red 2009, South Africa
Cab, merlot, CF, two years in French oak. Wonderfully sonorous nose, the deep-chested ripeness and richness of the fruit is svelte and black, plenty of coffee and mint and a sheen of polished wood. Quite a lot of oak showing on the palate, has a slightly drying effect, but the substance of the fruit, the solid black berry and cassis, and then a squirt of really fresh, juicy, cherry and damson skin. A big wine, but has that lovely juiciness. 91/100.

Villiera, Gewurztraminer 2012, South Africa
12%. Used to be riper, but Wine Soc requested it to be lighter. Delightful floral lift, a touch of geranium leaf, a lovely nettle quality. The palate has delightful freshness and a full flavoured appeal, with really nice freshness and a dry finish. 87/100. In The Wine Society.

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