Around the (Old) World in 18 Hours – starting with the European Cuvée!
CAPE WINE ACADEMY – DIPLOMA COURSE – MODULE 3 – DAY 1
Saturday 22 September 2018
I had been warned that Module 3 of the Cape Wine Academy Diploma Course was the toughest of all 4 modules. Notwithstanding my obvious nervousness, it matters not how many times I have made the trip from Cape Town to Morgenhof Estate, outside Stellenbosch, in time for lectures to start at 8am – it never gets any easier. This morning was particularly challenging as I had landed back at Cape Town airport from climbing Mount Kenya barely 12 hours earlier.
The Diploma Course, unlike the preceding Certificate Course covers wines of the World and not only those of South Africa. The tasting and learning journey to the Old World started in France a year ago with the intricacies and peculiarities of the French appellation classification system. Alsace, Champagne, Cognac and Armagnac followed to complete Module 1. The second Module continued the journey via Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and Rhône Valleys, to the Southern Rhône, Languedoc and the surrounding areas.
The vineyard slope considerably steepened today. The 3 lectures covered more countries than the French wine-growing regions alone. Fortunately, I had had some prior knowledge and familiarity of the wines of France. Little did I think my student days of drinking far too much Black Tower and Blue Nun Liebfraumilch from Germany or Bull’s Blood from Hungary would give me much help. Further, the wine industry from my country of origin – England – had at the time barely moved forwards since Roman times, being in the hands of a very few risk-loving producers and far from the sparkling success it is today.
The wine journey today took me on a clockwise route from Germany to Switzerland and Austria to the United Kingdom. The Balkans beckoned next – Hungary and Bulgaria – and then the ancient Eastern Mediterranean wine-making countries of Greece, Lebanon and Israel. The wine tour ended in Northern Italy which at least had some semblance of familiarity to me. Reassuringly, Dave March was the lecturer. Reassuringly too, Germany was the first country that Dave visited for a wine holiday and so I felt in good hands.
Germany, I learned, had a similar vineyard area to South Africa (roughly 100,000 hectares compared with 94,500 hectares) but many more wine estates (almost 17,000 compared with around 3,000 growers in South Africa). South Africa, however, is the 7th biggest wine-producer in the world (10.8 million hectolitres), ahead of Germany in 10th position (7.7 million hectolitres). What I didn’t know beforehand was that Germany is the world’s biggest wine importer.
No wine lectures, particularly those by Dave, are complete without referencing the latitude (49.0-50.5°N). It’s ‘close to the most northern limit for growing wines’ but, I mused, for how much longer given the creep of climate change. It thus surprised that only 60% of German wines are white – I would have put the figure closer to 80% or even 90% – due largely to the rise of Spätburgunder, the German Pinot Noir. An overview of climate (cold Continental) and soils (slate/schist) followed, to complete the terroir overview.
It’s never long when studying the wine of a country before the teaching turns to legislation and classification! Germany, like every other European country I was to learn, does it differently to the rest of the European Union. There’s 4 broad wine categories, instead of the normal 2, as Quality Wine (Qualitätswein) is divided into Prädikatswein and Qualitätswein bestimmer Anbaugebiete (QbA) whilst Table Wine (Tafelwein) is subdivided into Deutscher Landwein and Deutscher Tafelwein. I was already tired and having to concentrate hard on the geographical units, their regions and sub-regions. Fortunately, my English upbringing, student travels around Europe and enjoyment of the wines meant that I could at least understand and pronounce the words.
Dave gave a strong hint for the exam – and he was right – that I need know the 13 Qualitätswein regions (Anbaugebiete). Fellow student Shon shared with me and the other Diploma students a handy mnemonic to remember them – ‘all men really need remember please have money for when being sexually stimulated’ for Ahr, Mittelrhein, Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Hessichte Bergstraße, Mosel, Franken, Württemberg, Baden, Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut.
More of interest is how German wine classification is based on ripeness of the grapes at harvest time. Wine quality does not therefore automatically match category and so different categories of wine can also be very different in style to each other. The highest wine quality, Prädikatswein, makes up nearly a quarter (24%) of German wines. Extra regulations concern ripeness level to give 6 special attributes. I was broadly familiar with them beforehand but it was good to have the theory behind explained. They are, in ascending order of ripeness: Kabinett (fully ripened grapes); Spätlese (‘late harvest’); Auslese (selected, very ripe bunches); Beerenauslese (individually selected overripe berries usually infected with Botrytis); Eiswein (harvested and pressed while frozen) and Trockenbeerenauslese (individually selected overripe berries usually infected with Botrytis dried up to raisins). How the Germans like their long words! Then, to add more to learn, there are the 4 styles of wine dryness or sweetness, ranging from Trocken (dry) to Halbtrocken (‘half-dry’) to Lieblich (sweeter) to Süss (sweet).
Next was a quick canter through the wine-growing regions in detail and their cultivars. Riesling of course is the most well known German wine grape but, surprisingly, accounts for less than a quarter by area (23%). Muller-Thurgau (12%) comes after, followed by Spätburgunder and a host of minor cultivars I hadn’t heard of before. All this theory was making me crave some wine, so the first flight came as welcome relief. We started with a Rheinhessen Sylvaner some 8 years old and full of grapey aromas, a subdued acidity and clean on the palate. It was an Auslese and contained 14% alcohol.
The Kabinett Riesling from Mosel that followed showed a more familiar diesel nose and drier than I expected on the palate. It showed richness and depth together with a dessert wine fell due to the higher quality and more integrated and rounded acidity, even though 7.5% alcohol. I learned not to be guided by colour for the last wine of the flight, a South African Riesling that was drier and with a harsher acidity due to added acid, and with 12.5% alcohol.
The aim of the second flight was to compare sweetness levels. The Spätlese was smooth with a honeyed sweetness on the nose, low in alcohol (7%), off-dry on the plate and a fresh acidity. The wine showed classic Old World elegance and good length at the finish. The Auslese from the same producer was deeper in colour, befitting a wine over 10 years old, but full in aroma, dry in the mouth with an off-dry finish.
As we finished the flight, soon to leave Germany, I was fortunate for the opportunity to taste a rare Blue Nun Riesling Eiswein. The wine was almost sherry like in colour but, sadly, oxidized and so not at its best. The bottle label and even bottle shape was nothing like that of the classic, student-favourite, Blue Nun Liebfraumilch that I over-indulged on in my youth. I wish I had paid more attention then as the grapes were returning to roost in the winery. Did you know – curious fact – that the nuns wore brown habits but that blue was thought a better marketing colour!
The European Cuvée
The morning coffee break gave a welcome chance to catch up with my fellow Diploma students as well as to catch my breath before Dave’s next teaching instalment. He called it the European Cuvée – cuvée typically means a blend of different base wines or varieties – which was particularly apt as the second lecture covered the wines of Switzerland, Austria, the UK, Hungary, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Greece and Israel. Phew! That’s a lot of ground to cover in little over 2 hours and no wonder that Dave scarcely referred to the study notes. This is Diploma level, after all, and so self-study is the norm.
The session started well as I had at least a good knowledge of Switzerland having spent 3 student summers volunteering in the country. The wine regions are located around the edges, and hence show German and French influence, with many vineyards on steep mountain slopes above the many lakes. Switzerland exports little wine yet average annual consumption is relatively high – 33l per person compared with 7l per person in South Africa. It must be those long cold winters! It was thus no surprise that I hadn’t tasted a Swiss Pinot Noir or white Chasselas, the country’s signature grape that make up just over half of wine production.
Austria produces some excellent wines from a vineyard area half that of South Africa (45,500 hectares). Grüner Veltliner is the classic Austrian grape and most planted variety (30% of total). I have tasted at Diemersdal, the sole South African producer, and familiar with its Burgundy-like ground white pepper spice and citrus grapefruit fruitiness and high acidity. I learned too that Austria produces some of the world’s top Riesling – with delicate citrus, peach and apricot notes and racy acidity, so it ages well – in Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), notably in the regions of Kremstal and Kamptal.
Not to be outdone by Germany, the Austrian wine classification system that follows the German system of sweetness includes 2 extra Prädikatswein categories: Strohwein (‘straw wine’) and Ausbruch (botrytised overripe berries that have been shrivelled and dried only while on the vine). I was eager to taste an Austrian wine. It was a Brut made from a blend of varieties, mostly Pinots and Chardonnay, from Kamptal. The wine is the closest to an Austrian ‘champagne’ and showed clean fruit and a yeasty, brioche character.
The second wine of the flight was a Tokaji from Hungary, ahead of the theory, made from Furmint. This was another unfamiliar cultivar and commonly known as the grape used to make the sweet Tokaji Aszü. The wine showed slight floral notes with fruity apple, peach and pear, together with honey and walnut. It was dry on the palate with richness and an oily character. After, I learned of the sweet Tokaji wines, made mainly from Furmint and Hárslevelü that can reach ridiculously sweet levels. The sweetest Eszencia essentially is free-run grape syrup and contains at least 450 residual sugar (the 2000 vintage had an RS of 900g/l). It is typically sold with a small serving spoon that is said to stand up in the wine.
The UK, emerging onto the world stage as a serious wine producer, offered a brief pit stop before the wine journey continued to the Eastern Mediterranean. I was brought up in the Southern counties of Sussex and Kent and well remember the few struggling vineyards which had curiosity value. Much has changed in recent years due to climate change, international awards and recognition. England has almost 500 vineyards with more stretching to Wales and even Scotland.
Wines 9 and 10 were both Grüner Veltliner, one from Diemersdal and the other from Austria. The wines showed their New World/Old World differences in fruit intensity, ripeness, weight and alcohol level (14% compared with 12%). The SA wine showed richer, white stone fruit aromas and a slight oiliness of texture, whereas the Austrian version was less overt on the nose and dryer, more delicate and mineral in character on the palate.
The last wine of the flight was another Hungarian wine, a sweet (6 puttonyos – at least 150g/l residual sugar) Tokaji Aszü. It comes in traditional 500ml bottle and showed a deep amber colour. It was silky in texture, with a sweetness that kept it fresh for its vintage, with flavours of tart orange and apricot.
By now the remaining cuvée countries were coming thick and fast. The wine industries of Hungary – renowned for its hangover-creating ‘Bull’s Blood’ red student wine – and the adjacent Balkan countries suffered during Communism and are only now emerging onto the world stage. Foreign investment with traditional Bordeaux red and French white cultivars sits beside traditional winemaking using indigenous grapes with names of Misket, Dimyat, Mavrud and Melnik.
We didn’t taste but did sample a wine from the next country as we headed east to Lebanon, another country whose wine industry has faced the struggle of war. Mention Lebanese wine and Chateau Musar in the Bekaa Valley will certainly come to mind. The estate reached international acclaim in the UK 1979 Bristol Wine Fair. The classic Musar wine is blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre. I like the idea of a different blend for each vintage – so contrary to the uniformity demanded of brand recognition.
The final wine of the morning was the first red wine of the day, made by Chateau Musar Hochar, the ‘baby brother’ of Chateau Musar. Sadly, ‘brett’ and oxidation had got the better of it and the wine was faulty. We returned to a final burst of theory before lunch. Greece was the next country to ‘visit’ and one of the leading countries to market indigenous cultivars internationally. It’s all too easy to think of SA being at the epicentre of the wine world – after France, Italy and Australia – yet Greece has more land under vine (103,000 hectares) than South Africa, together with over 300 indigenous varieties. Acidic Assyrtiko is the most widely known white grape whilst Agiogitiko is the ‘Cabernet of Greece’. Alas, there were no Greek wines to taste, or from Israel the final country of the ‘European’ cuvée. Israel, like Lebanon, is a predominantly red wine producer with many French cultivars grown in the country.
The Italian Connection
Lunch came and went all too soon. The after lunch lecture is renowned as the ‘graveyard slot’ but there was no let off from Dave. For me at least, having enjoyed 10 holidays in 10 years in Italy, Northern Italy was at least relatively familiar even if not all the wines were. Italy, not France is the world’s biggest wine producer although the 2 countries vie for the kudos and title. If ever, I thought the afternoon was going to be spent with the luxury of wines from a single country, I was in for a rude awakening. One of the delights of Italy is the regional and local cultural differences and variety. This is especially true of the 22 major growing regions and wines that are named by region rather than variety. Particular regions indeed are ‘synonymous’ with specific cultivars and an intimate knowledge is needed to be able to relate and decipher. All would soon be revealed.
I adore Italian wines as they are some of the most drinkable and most flexible to drink with food, whether red or white. Many top cultivars are grown in small amounts in South Africa – Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Primitivo (Zinfandel), Pinot Grigio – so at least the names if not the tastes are familiar. No wine study is complete without description of the classification system. Italy, like many EU wine countries, has clumsily sought to ‘square the circle’ of EU classification that roughly parallels the French appellation controlée system, by adopting the EU system whilst retaining its own system of identity. It makes for a sea of long foreign words and like abbreviations: ‘Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita’, DOP/DOC, IGP/IGT and DOC/DOCG, for example. These keep many a wine student awake at night before exam time.
Northern Italy encompassed the regions North of Tuscany and The Marches and for convenience is subdivided into the North-East and North-West. Piedmonte and Lombardia are the most well-known North-East regions and so were the focus of study. Piedmonte, I learned, means ‘at the foot of the mountains’ and is home to some of the best known and famous of Italian wines. Regions, as I said above, invoke cultivars and Piedmonte is no exception. Think Barolo or Barbaresco and think Nebbiolo; think Asti and think Moscato.
Rustic yet noble Nebbiolo – big in fruit, big in body, big in acidity, big in tannin, big in alcohol – is known as the ‘wine of kings and the king of wines’. Barolo and Barbaresco may be just 20 kilometres apart but Google their differences and close to 4 million results will show in less than half a second, such is the difference in their terroir of microclimate, vineyard aspect and soils. Overlay this too with the traditional/modernist winemaking debate. The study notes were dense in detail of information and Dave was barely referring to them. There’s the ‘workhorse’ grape of Barbera, a favourite of mine, and lively, fragrant Dolcetto.
The afternoon tasting began slightly out of turn with a Brut Prosecco from the heart of the Veneto in North-Eastern Italy. Prosecco is Italy’s popular answer to Champagne but without the arrogance and premium pricing. It is no wonder it overtook worldwide sales of Champagne in 2017. I later learned that Prosecco is made from the Prosecco grape – using the tank (Charmant) method of fermentation – but that wines made from outside the DOC/DOCG areas must soon use the new grape name of Glera, an ancestor of Prosecco.
Three Barbera were poured to compare, a South African one and 2 from Barbera, both from Alba. I must have been deeply focused on the wines as I made little notes about their stylistic differences. The wines were deep in colour and with high acidity together with the classic rustic Italian sour-cherry, plum and liquorice notes yet very low tannins. I learned that a ‘Superiore’ wine contains an extra 0.5% alcohol and that ‘Classico’ is a wine from the heart of a region.
The final flight of Day 1 was Nebbiolo from the low-lying Langhe and classic Barolo regions. I must have enjoyed the wines as I wrote few tasting notes for this flight also. The entry level Langhe Nebbiolo was paler than the other 2 wines but nonetheless powerful, dry and smoky. This compared with more dark berry and herbal flavours for the Bel Colle Barolo. I liked most the version from Paul Scavino for its ripe fruits, good balance, high acidity and potent, integrated tannins.
The remainder of the lesson passed through Lombardy and to Franciacorta, Italy’s direct copy of champagne. The sparkling wine is made using the same method – méthode champenoise – and using the almost the same Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc grapes. I must try some as it is available on South Africa. I mused too, as our attention turned to North-Eastern Italy how Franciacorta is marketed to compete with cheap Prosecco, fizzy Asti, Spanish Cava and Champagne itself.
Whereas North-Western Italy is famous for its red wines, the North-East produces some excellent white wines. I have mentioned Prosecco and Franciacorta. There’s Soave with its delicate flavour of almonds and lemons that is made from (minimum 70%) Garganega grapes. There are the indigenous varieties in the Trentino-Aldige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions and their mineral rich soils. If ever you have been to the magical Venice you will likely have enjoyed these wines with seafood pasta whilst watching the gondolas and hundreds of other boats going about their business on the Grand Canal.
Last, but not least, sandwiched between Soave and Lake Garda is the red wine region of Valpolicella. Barely 20 kilometres wide, 4 styles of wine are made from a blend of Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. Valpolicella is a light, easy drinking red that I remember also from my university days. I don’t remember the Superiore version (extra 0.5% alcohol) nor Amarone or Recioto that can age for over 20 years. The latter 2 are dessert wines made using the same appassimento method in which the grapes are dried on mats in lofts or drying rooms, akin to straw wines. Amarone means ‘big bitter’ as the wine is fermented until it is dry (and 17-18% alcohol) whereas the less popular but sweeter Recioto (meaning ‘little ear’, for the dried out grapes) has fermentation stopped to make a wine with a minimum of 13% alcohol.
I wrote at the start that Module 3 is considered the most testing Diploma Module and I can now see why. Day 1 is always toughest for me too as there are 3 lessons, stretching into mid-afternoon compared with just 2 sessions that end at lunchtime for the 2 other Diploma days. I was tired to start too having just returned from 2 weeks of mountaineering in Kenya. Nonetheless, it was a great pleasure to be learning about wines from entirely new countries and regions. I would have liked to have tasted more but many wines are not available in South Africa or, even if they are and as we found out with a couple, not in the best of condition. Dave, as ever, dazzles with his depth and breadth of knowledge. We covered over 100 pages of notes. That’s as many as for the Certificate Course in entirety or 2/3 of Module 1 and ¾ of Module 2. The sheer volume is scary and, as usual, Dave refers little to the notes. I can see a long journey ahead to discover and learn about the European cuvée.
NV Collalto Prosecco di Collegniano-Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut (Glera, Italy)
2010 Rheinhessen Westhofener Sylvaner Trocken (Germany)
2010 Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett (Germany)
2015 Meinert The German Job Riesling (South Africa)
2010 Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese (Germany)
2006 Dr Loosen Erdener Treppehen Riesling Auslese (Germany)
2005 Blue Nun Riesling Eiswein (Germany)
2007 Weingot Brut Willi Bründlmayer (Pinots/Chardonnay, Austria)
2015 Mandolás Oremus Tokaji (Furmint/Hungary)
2016 Diemersdal Estate Grüner Veltliner (South Africa)
2010 Weingot Willi Bründlmayer Kamptaler Terrassen Grüner Veltliner (Austria)
2001 Hétszőlő Tokaji Aszü (Furmint Blend, Hungary)
2013 Chateau Musar Hochar Père et Fils (Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lebanon)
2015 Merwida Barbera (South Africa)
2011 Brezza Barbera d’Alba Superiore (Italy)
2008 Sandrone Barbera d’Alba (Italy)
2013 Cascina Luisin Langhe Nebbiolo Italy)
2011 Bel Colle Monvigliero Barolo (Nebbiolo, Italy)
2008 Paul Scavino Barolo (Nebbiolo, Italy)