On the Left, but then on the Right …
CAPE WINE ACADEMY – DIPLOMA COURSE – MODULE 2 – DAY 1
Saturday 14 April 2018
It was a shock to the system to be in the classroom at 8.00 am on a Saturday morning but the first day of a new Cape Wine Academy Module is always a long day. The 3 lectures didn’t finish until 4.00 pm so if I was tired at the start I was at the end. The route to Morgenhof Wine Estate, to the North of Stellenbosch, is at least well known and takes close to an hour from the Southern Suburbs, Cape Town. I don’t know if it was an omen or not but I was greeted by a hot air balloon rising about the autumn vineyards part clothed in mist as the sun crept above the Simonsberg and Hottentot-Holland mountains beyond.
The 2-year Diploma Course covers wines of the world with each Module taking either 3 days or 7 evenings of lectures. Module 1 (Global Wine Production) has to be completed first (see review articles of Days 1, 2 and 3 here). The remaining Modules – 2 is Wines of France, 3 is Wines of the Old World (excluding France) and Module 4 is Wines of the New World – can be taken in any order. It was therefore good to see many ‘old’ faces as well as some new ones.
The 2 morning lectures covered the wines of Bordeaux (less the sweet wines that are covered in another Module) and given by Christine Rudman. We were fortunate to benefit from her extensive knowledge as an experienced Cape Wine Master. Previously employed in the wine industry, she started her Cape Wine Academy training to be able to relate to winemakers. She is now the Second Principal of the Academy. Christine told us how she gives 1 lecture a year and deliberately chooses one she has not given for a while so she has to catch up with her learning. The Bordeaux ones gave the chance to taste some excellent R5000 bottles of French wine too!
Christine was focused on giving time for the wine tasting and so sped through the slides and notes, much to the delight of the class. The downside was the prospect of reading and learning some 60 pages of concentrated detail about the Bordeaux and Burgundy wine regions. As ever, the wine classification system is classically French: 6 unnecessarily complex and similar-but-different systems for Bordeaux alone, dating back to 1855, and overlaid with 60 Appellation D’Origine Contrôlée (AOP) appellations in 6 groups according to style. So much for European Union commonality and simplification!
Wine is my passion and as much humbling – wait for the tastings – as it is fascinating. I still learn the simplest things even after 18 months of regular study. Christine reminded us to trust our first impressions and our nose, and not to try to ‘work things out’. Sniff above the glass to determine whether a wine is ‘fruit-forwards’ or ‘fruit-supported’ and therefore likely to come from the New World or Old World, respectively. It seemed simple reason too that Merlot is a lighter coloured wine than Cabernet Sauvignon because it has a larger berry and therefore more flesh relative to the skin, which contains the pigments. Cabernet Sauvignon holds its age more than Shiraz when assessing colour gradation and discolouration at the rim.
Bordeaux has around 115,000 hectares under vine which is more than all of South Africa (circa 96,000 hectares). That puts the region into perspective in an instant. I learned too that it is the Châteaux and not the vineyards that are classified. Vineyard ownership is heavily fragmented due to French inheritance laws that divide estates equally between heirs. Consequently, families may each own a few rows within a single vineyard. Négociants, or merchants, blend different wines within an appellation and bottle under their own label to overcome imperfections.
Christine’s 2 lectures and guided tastings covered the Left Bank and then the Right Bank of Bordeaux. The banks are those on either side of the River Gironde but look at the map and you will see how easily it can confuse. Left Bank wines are Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated, whilst those of the opposing Right Bank are dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The soils, climate and hence the terroir differ and so favour the different cultivars.
We tasted 8 wines in pairs in 4 flights. The first compared a South African Bordeaux Blend (we all thought a Bordeaux wine!) with a Haut-Mèdoc. Bordeaux wines appear younger than they are due to the Cabernet Sauvignon structure and so one must add a few years to assess the French vintage. I learned carefully to consider the fruit/oak balance as well as to pay closer attention than ever to structure and to tannins.
The second flight compared 2 Grand Cru Classé wines, one from Margaux and one from Graves. They differed slightly in the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot (55% and 45%, respectively). The wines were wonderfully, and deceptively, fruity for their age (2004 and 2007) – the Margaux elegant and silky, the Graves lighter and more fragrant.
Wine 5 was very different on the nose, with farmyard and savoury notes and a youthful character. The wine – amusingly served in a Gugulethu Festival tasting glass! – contained less fruits, was sweeter and more floral in character, and with a dry finish. Christine had challenged again for the first wine was South African (a decent Bordeaux blend from Rustenberg). The aim was to teach us to pick out fruit/oak integration and to identify Merlot from Cabernet Sauvignon based blends.
The final pairing compared wines of different quality, ending with a superb layered and complex Mouton Rothschild from the Pauillac appellation. My head was spinning by now at the challenge of how carefully I need to detect and analyse what was in each glass. The secret is of course practice and I cannot wait for my tasting group to resume now that the harvest is complete.
The morning break came soon enough but was all too short as we were soon back in the classroom again to learn about Bordeaux of the Right Bank. The Left Bank may have the great Châteaux but the Right Bank has the elegant blends mostly of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Soils play a large factor here with the clays of Pomerol favouring Merlot – which, as Christine explained, ‘likes to keep its feet wet’ – and Saint-Emilion limestone suited to Cabernet Franc.
Christine played a blinder again with the first flight. Too focused on Bordeaux, I doubt I was alone in failing to identify that both wines were South African, or that one was 100% Merlot and the other 100% Cabernet Franc. The coffee break clearly had not reset my tasting radar and the point was well made. The pairing did put me in good stead later to be able to detect the primary blend cultivar by its colour.
The second flight compared wine of the same vintage (2012) from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. It was not quite as simple as the Saint-Emilion wine was Merlot rather than Cabernet Franc-dominated. Nonetheless, the Saint-Emilion wine showed its elegance with plush fruits and less structure.
Three wines made up the final flight, 2 Grand Crus from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. I was starting to see the delicate nuances of colour differences – though colour alone cannot reliably determine cultivar – as well as quality. I found I needed more time to do so and so was not always able to complete my tasting notes before Christine was ready to explain.
Lunch was outside – tasty lasagne with salad followed by crème brûlée – and a chance to reflect and compare with the other students. I admit I found the morning hard and wished I had paid more attention all those years ago when I lived in England and would regularly cross the Channel for wine shopping trips. I wish too I had brought more wines back from a Bordeaux holiday 2 years ago when my daughter was married.
The third and final lecture of the day covered the wines of Burgundy, again less the sweet wines of the Loire than will be covered elsewhere. Harold ‘call me Harry as it is more relaxed’ Melck was the lecturer. He was part of my Groot Constantia tasting group and a new Cape Wine Master so it was good to see him again. Like Christine, he rapidly covered the theory to leave maximum time for tasting. The Burgundy region is second in importance to Bordeaux. Despite its prestige and reputation for producing some of the world’s best wines, I was surprised to learn that Burgundy covers just 3% of the vines planted in France. The main vineyard areas are Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Beaujolais. I am fortunate that my English origins make the names familiar.
French wines, as many in the Old World, are named not by cultivar but by appellation. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the 2 great Burgundy grapes, at risk from the unpredictable climate of winter hail and frost. Their location is governed by the soil and terroir. Chablis with its limestone clay equates to Chardonnay. Côte de Nuits contains chalky clay and is almost entirely planted with Pinot Noir. To the South, the Côte de Beaune has varied clay, chalk and marl soils that favour both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though Beaune is known for its long-lived Chardonnay. The Côte Chalonnaise makes whites and Pinot Noirs too. Granitic soils meet the marl soils of further North in Mâconnais, where the Continental climate becomes more Mediterranean. The region produces nearly half the white wine of Burgundy and is known for its easy-drinking Chardonnay. The Southernmost region of Beaujolais is warmer still and suited to Gamay Noir that makes beautiful, opulent wines.
Harry was in his element with the tastings where his enthusiasm and knowledge shone through. We tasted 8 wines in 2 flights. The first flight was 3 Chardonnay from Chablis, Chassagne-Montrachet and Mâcon-Lugny, with 1 from South Africa to compare. Harry reminded that Chardonnay is a neutral grape and so the flavours come from the winemaking – the type of yeast, malolactic fermentation or not, and the use of oak. It was good to remember the BLIC mnemonic for quality assessment – Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity – though Harry adds an ‘E’ at the end for Expectation (does the palate follow through as expected from the nose?).
The Chablis was characteristically very high in acidity – ‘a Chablis giveaway’, said Harry – with chalky, mineral flavours alongside those of green apple, lime citrus and butterscotch. The Chassagne-Montrachet from Beaune was the deepest colour of the flight, pale yellow in appearance. The acidity was less than that of the Chablis and the wine more savoury with flinty ‘wet stone’ aromas and flavours. This was a 2006 wine. Who says that Chardonnay cannot age? I learned too that the term ‘bouquet’ (which hitherto I have used interchangeably with ‘nose’) is used by wine professionals to distinguish the simple aromas of the grape from the more complex compounds that arise from fermentation and ageing.
The Mâcon, compared with the South African Chardonnay, was less fruit forwards, less buttery and savoury on the finish. I learned that South African wines usually have relatively short finishes and that the high acidity often comes from added acid – that can be detected because it is not integrated into the wine. Harry explained too the difference between sugar ripeness and phenolic ripeness. Sugar ripeness is the concentration of sugar in the grape that contributes to the alcohol content of the finished wine. Phenolic (or physiological) ripeness is more complex and refers to changes in the grape as it ripens that are important to wine quality. These include skin colour, berry and pulp texture, seed colour and ripening, anthocyanin levels and other phenolics.
The second and final flight for tasting was Burgundy red wines. Three were Pinot Noir and one was a Gamay (Beaujolais) but could I tell which one? The first 3 wines were stylistically similar and I correctly guessed that the final wine was the Gamay. Wines 1 and 2 were Pinots Noir from the Côte de Beaune. The aromas of earthy, smoky red cherry (the 1er Cru) and vegetal, savoury sweeter cherry (Santenay) were restrained with a high acidity and fine tannins.
The third wine was different with greater intensity of floral, ripe sweet and sour cherry aromas, tight tannins and high acidity. This was a South African Pinot Noir from the Elgin region. Harry explained how the Pinots Noir of Stellenbosch tasted more red fruited than those from Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde that have more forest floor flavours.
The Gamay was identifiable by fuller, jammier plum rather than cherry flavours. It was lighter in body, fruit and tannin and contained 13% alcohol. Mention was made of the Beaujolais Nouveau – Gamay doesn’t age well beyond their vintage year – that is released on the 3rd Thursday in November. I remember many years ago the great ‘Beaujolais Race’ to get the wines to London. I remember too the excitement of taking the ferry from Dover or Folkestone to Calais or to Boulogne to buy the first Beaujolais Nouveaux.
We didn’t finish until 4.00 pm and it was a long day to start the new Module. As ever, it was a shock to the grey matter to be back in the classroom after a break of 6 months. The wines were superb and I felt privileged to be able to taste so many fine wines. It was perhaps a pity that I could not have savoured some of them with some fine French food instead of analysing them for their subtleties of appearance, nose and palate. There’s a heap of concentrated notes to digest and learn for the Theory exam in mid-June, with assignments to complete in between. Christina and Harry guided us well and now is the time for self-study. I must make sure I really do know my Left from my Right ….
White: Burgundy, France
2015 Chablis Daniel Dampt et Fils (Chardonnay)
2006 Chassagne-Montrachet Les Mazures (Chardonnay)
2012 Mâcon-Lugny Les Genièvres (Chardonnay)
2015 Boschendal Chardonnay (South Africa)
Red: Right Bank, Bordeaux, France
2009 La Motte Millenium Bordeaux Blend (South Africa)
2005 Château Cantemerle Haut-Mèdoc
2004 Grand Cru Classé Château Brane-Cantenau Margaux
2007 Grand Cru Classé Château Lamartic Lagraviere Graves
2015 Rustenberg Stellenbosch John X Merriman Bordeaux Blend (South Africa)
2009 Château Phélan Sègur Saint-Estephe
2008 Cru Classé Château Léoville Barton Saint-Julien
2004 Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac
Red: Left Bank, Bordeaux, France
2015 Laibach Claypot Merlot (South Africa)
2015 David Finlayson Cabernet Franc (South Africa)
2012 Château Clinet Pomerol
2012 Private Selection Saint-Emilion
2009 Grand Cru Château Teyssier Saint-Emilion
2008 Château Cour Maillet Pomerol
2007 Grand Cru Château Haut-Brisson Saint-Emilion
Red: Burgundy, France
2014 Beaune 1er Cru Close des Avaux (Pinot Noir)
2014 Santenay Louis Latour (Pinot Noir)
2014 Paul Cluver Village Pinot Noir (South Africa)
2008 Close du Grande Carqueux Moulin-à-Vent (Gamay)