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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.


Warwick Estate is in the midst of an ambitious expansion programme that will not only double their cellar capacity, but which has already added extensive visitor facilities including gourmet picnics in the grounds and the 'Big five wine safari'. Guests can take Land-Rover 'safari' through their vineyards to see the 'big five' varieties grown, so I hopped into the Land-Rover with owner Mike Ratcliffe as a wine safari guinea pig.

We stopped first at the Professor Black vineyard (Mike Ratcliffe, pictured right), home of their best-selling Sauvignon Blanc. This old vineyard sits 180 metres above the winery, benefitting from constant breezes making it much cooler than the valley floor.

The Professor Black is a variety of peach, and this entire mountain was planted to them at one point. Mike points out that many people describe the wine as 'peachy', but despite efforts to analyse if there is some scientific link between the old orchards and the vines, none can be proven.

Indeed scientific research is one part of Warwick's plans to improve all aspects of its wines in the longer term. Three dimensional modelling of soils has allowed planting that minimises weaknesses and allows reliable crops. They are also assessing vine water stress by measuring the amount of pressure required to get water out of the leaf, which equates to how much negative pressure (suction) the vine has to exert to get water from the roots to the leaves. Mike insists this is a very accurate way of measuring stress, that allows him to plot 'stress curves' for each variety and each vineyard, with irrigation at optimum efficiency for balanced, quality crops.

Mike also stresses that here in Simonsberg conditions are very different from the rest of Stellenbosch, because it has altitude and marine exposure. The vineyards are decomposed granites, because the Simonsberg is one of only three volcanic mountains (along with Paarl and Table Mountain) - all of the others are sedimentary. The soil is rich, but planting is very dense to counteract this, and wheat is planted as a cover crop "To leach some of the energy out of the vines."

Mike also says "We threw out the concept of 'hang time' a long time ago." Instead, careful monitoring of timings between flowering and veraison and between veraison and harvest, allow them to calculate exactly when they will harvest each year, "because vines are very predictable." This is the main method Warwick Estate uses to control alcohol levels: "We harvested Merlot on 29th January this year - three weeks before others."

This tasting also took in the wines of Villafonté, the ultra-premium red wine project that is a joint venture between Warwick estate and husband and wife viticultural and winemaking team of Phil de Friese and Zelma Long from California.

Warwick Estate wines

UK Agent is Louis Latour Agencies, but see all stockists of Warwick on wine-searcher.

2009 Warwick Estate Sauvignon Blanc
Clear, textural, fresh flavours with lots of citrus and just a little green, fig and herb note, and yes, a touch of peachiness. On the palate lovely weight and mid-palate texture and a fat, but finely-tuned lemony acidity. 88/100.

2008 Warwick Estate Chardonnay
Relatively new for Warwick (1991) 10 months in all Nevers oak, one-third new. Quite bright, focused nuttiness, with a touch of fig and crushed oatmeal smoothness. Lovely tang and orange and lemon cut, with the toasty background and ripe, fat fruit. Beautiful stuff. 90/100.

2008 Warwick Estate Pinotage
Old bush vines, around 40 years old, though Mike admits increased production means a big proportion is from younger vines. Fine smoky nose, with cherry fruit and lots of spice. Juicy stuff, with light and fresh flavours, and a grippy tannic finish with a bit of backbone. Quite a serious style, but red fruity and chocolaty and above all fresh and juicy. 88/100.

2008 Warwick Estate The First Lady
Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Petit Verdot. Very Cabernet nose, with a touch of camphor and brackeny mint leaf and herbs. The palate has tight, fine black fruit. It maintains a certain focus, with a liquorice bite that gives a chicory grip but the smooth black fruit stays focused. A savoury style that I like. 89/100. £8.99, Waitrose, £7.99, The Wine Society.

2006 Warwick Estate Three Cape Ladies
Cape blend of Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot and 10% Syrah. There's maybe a touch of jammy, plush weight and silky fatness to this. Real big mouthful of wine, with masses of plum and chocolate. Fine and refined. 91/100.

2007 Warwick Estate Cabernet Franc
Really clear, beautifully expressive nose with a touch of lead pencil to typically soft, leafy herb fruit and touches of tobacco and spice over ripe blackberry fruit. Fine palate, with smooth tannins and a refined core of medium-bodied fruit. 91/100.

2007 Warwick Estate Trilogy
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and around 10% Merlot. 20 months French oak, never more than 50%. Big plush nose, with that very characteristic herbal note that Mike celebrates as part of the Warwick terroir. Strong minty and eucalypt character. A touch of rubber, but the thick, sweet, ripe fruit powers through. Closer to a blockbuster, but retains finesse and savoury bite. £14.99, Wine Society, £17.99 in independents. 93/100.

2006 Warwick Estate Black Lady
First release for this 100% Syrah. Tight, baked plum nose, with a touch of smoky bacon and great fruit sweetness coming through, a touch of green. The palate has a big fruit sweetness, with that touch of pea pod green quality persisting, but it is chocolaty and has real weight and density of fruit in the finish. 91/100. 40 cases from 1500 in UK with Wine Society.

Villafonté wines

See all stockists of Villafonté on wine-searcher.

In the 1990s Phil and Zelma bought a property and started planting, with new techniques for dense planting, drainage and then pruning. The whole idea was to grow small vines, with no hedging of the canopy and leaf pulling, but balanced vines that would be a natural expression of the vineyard. This is a totally terroir-based project, with the vineyard divided into one hectare blocks.

2006 Villafonté Series M
This is Zelma's 10th vintage with these grapes, but says she is still surprised and still learning by what the vineyard gives. Very fine, cedary nose, with lovely plushness to the fruit. It has a tinge of green herbs and leaf tea that sits beautifully. The palate has a terrific bittersweetness, with ground coffee and such sweet, plush fruit. Fabulous fruit sweetness and plush tannins. 93/100.

2006 Villafonté Series C
Firm, clear blackcurrant fruit with a creamy density, just a touch of that leafy earthiness. Liquorice and bold, tightly wound black fruit. The tight, fine, grippy structure dominates this wine. It has real finesse, with pure blue/black fruit the suggests youthfulness. The creamy, dense, suede-like intensity powers through the palate of a structured wine that really needs 8 to 10 years more to begin to blossom. 94/100

return to South Africa 2010