Passion for Pairing – Jean-Vincent Ridon – (Ridon Communications (Pty) Ltd, First Edition 2020) – R599
Dr Peter Rating – Book: 5/5
Galileo, the Italian astronomer and physicist, stated that ‘Passion is the genesis of genius’. Although a scientist, he would no doubt have had an opinion on food and wine. After all, they embrace both science and art. Food and wine are made for each other. So too are wine and learning. Learning and passion are indivisible. Passion and pairing couple well also. Thus, ‘Passion for Pairing’, the title of this excellent book, speaks loudly. It matters not whether you are an advocate of the traditional school of ‘horizontal pairing’ – which gives equal importance to both food and the wine on the basis that both complement each other with similar ‘likeness’ – or one of the rebels who believe in so-called ‘vertical pairing’, in which either the food or the wine has the upper hand, as pairing is better based on ‘contrast’, with the rationale that ‘opposites attract’. Or, indeed, whether you consider both or neither. Food and wine and passion equally fit – they harmoniously balance – whether on the plate or on the palate.
Moreover, having tended his vineyards as well as learned from and tasted his wines, it is indisputable that passion and Jean-Vincent Ridon exquisitely pair. ‘JV’, as he is known to his friends, is a remarkable man and a genius. Read the Preface of ‘Passion for Pairing’ and you will discover that has been inter alia a sommelier, a wine-broker, a chef and restaurateur, a retail wine merchant, a wine importer and distributor, cellar master and winemaker, vineyard ‘owner’ and viticulturalist, and educator. Extensive as this list is, JV’s modesty precludes mention of entrepreneur, consultant, strategist, mentor, judge of many alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, bon viveur, innovator, (dare I say) rebel and – now – author.
Born in Crozes-Hermitage in the largest appellation of the Northern Rhône, France, JV was brought up in the right country for a sommelier with an emerging passion for food and drink. From paternal and maternal grandparents who not only loved wine but also cooked for an extended family, to Catholic upbringing, to buying his first wine at the tender age of 10 years old (beginning, like the rest of us, with a sweet wine – a Manzabillac from South-West France), it comes as no surprise that JV’s career path has moved and developed as it has. The ‘flying sommelier’ has lived and worked in many countries – France, the United States and Belgium – whilst making wine in Turkey and elsewhere. I can well relate to the arrival in Cape Town and the ‘few days to decide that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my days’. It took me a weekend in 2010 to make that decision; for JV it was in early 1996 and soon after the first democratic elections in 1994.
The lengthy Preface usefully sets the scene for the rest of the book as it well articulates why JV has become the enthusiastic sommelier that he is. He is one of the most experienced and most knowledgeable of South Africa’s wine experts. I like how he explains his passion for good service in the hospitality industry, born of the high standards in Europe and North America. The Preface firmly establishes JV’s authority and credibility, together with the raisin d’être for writing the book. The desire for human contact – away from the technical, theoretical aspects of winemaking – is very real. I have huge respect too for how he has put his passion and beliefs into action to assist others by being an early contributor to the South African Sommelier Association and founder of the Sommeliers’ Academy. The stereotype of the surly French waiter could not be further from the truth.
‘Passion for Pairing’ is an impressive tome for a first foray into writing a book. The glossy hardback stretches to 248 pages and is sumptuously illustrated by artist and photographer Gerda Louw. Each page is a visual feast that makes one want to reach for a glass of the wine in the photograph. Gerda’s passion for art and photography clearly matches – or should I say, pairs – with JV’s passion for food and wine. Each of the 7 Chapters takes the reader on a journey through a rich and mouth-watering meal: from Fish to Shellfish, to Game and Meat, to Vegetarian, to Cheese, and to Dessert. The cuisine is decidedly South African: kabeljou, snoek, kreef, abalone, waterbuck, kudu, springbok, apricot atchar, chakalaka, pap, boerewors, bobotie, waterblommetjie, bunny chow, Cape Malay, butternut, gruberg cheese, malva pudding, koesister and koeksister. Sixteen famous chefs tantalise with the fine dining creations and add their twist and ingenuity to the many traditional South African dishes.
JV curates each dish with dexterity and all the practical knowledge that an experienced, top sommelier brings. The food comes alive with snippets of information about the history behind the particular type of fish or cut of meat, or origin of cheese, or dessert. Little did I know before that koesister and koeksister are not the same though I, as many, use the words interchangeably. Koesister is Cape Malay and different to the fluffier and spicier Dutch koeksister. Every item of food is paired with a specific beverage. I liked how these included not only wine but lager from Limpopo, India Pale Ale from Paarl, Dunkel beer from Rustenburg, and Weiss beer from Newlands in Cape Town.
The wine list is impressive to say the least. It covers every style from sherry apéritif to brandy digestif, with sparkling Cap Classique, white, rosé, red, dessert and fortified in between. The wines are all South African. There are the big and well-known wines and brands – Graham Beck Cap Classique, Kanonkop Pinotage, Meerlust Rubicon, De Wetshof Chardonnay, Ken Forrester the FMC, and Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia – but not exclusively so. JV has sensibly included representation from every major wine-growing region: Stellenbosch and Franschhoek; the Swartland; Paarl and Wellington; Tulbagh and Wolseley; Robertson; the Cederberg; and cooler Constantia, Elgin, and Walker Bay. No favouritism is offered either to grape variety, whether red or white. The noble varieties deserve their own mention of course, notably Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. There is the well-known Chenin Blanc (Steen), Shiraz, Pinotage, and Cabernet Franc too, together with another 20 minority cultivars that include inter alia Sémillon, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre and Nebbiolo. The inclusion of such a wide range of region and cultivar and style must have been no easy task. I salute the inventiveness and creativity to cover such a wide portion of South Africa’s wine industry within the food pairing context.
‘Passion for Pairing’ comes into its own with the thinking and theory behind each food and wine pairing. This is where the sommelier expertise and approach make this book unique. JV explains in layman’s terms how the characteristics of each wine or food counterbalances heat and spiciness, sweet and savoury, saltiness and astringency, tanginess and sweetness, texture and complexity, and more besides. The commentary fascinates to show a rare depth of understanding. Each wine has its own Serving Suggestion for temperature and shape of glass to show it off at its absolute best. There is an alternate pairing too – a foreign wine – that highlights yet more JV’s encyclopaedic wine knowledge.
Mention should be made too of the sections after the Preface that cover the history of food and wine in South Africa, of the Sommellerie, and Pairing Guidelines. It seems barely believable now that 20 years ago there were virtually no restaurants in the wine estates of the Cape Winelands, given the excellence of fine dining opportunities that now exist. The history of food and wine in the Cape is another story, with humble beginnings of Khoi and San peoples and long before the first wine was made in the Cape early in 1659. The rest, as they say, is history with all the influences of the French Huguenots, the Dutch and the British. It is perhaps no surprise that Cape Town is regularly voted one of the best food cities in the world.
I enjoyed reading a definitive account of the definition, role, and skills of a sommelier. The sommelier is so much more than a glorified wine waiter, with skills that extend to all beverages as well as food. JV traces their origins to the shamans of the First Peoples and, no doubt, had the Khoi and the San in mind within the South African context. I did not know that the ancient Egyptians brewed beer to purify the dirty water of the Nile but was aware of the role of the Church and monasteries in vine-growing and winemaking. I was fascinated to learn that the modern sommelier stems from the ‘échanson’ – akin to the royal food-tasters of the Middle Ages – aided by a ‘soumelier’ who tended to the luggage of the Court. The role of the sommelier in wine developed only at the end of the 18th Century. It was not until 200 years later, in 2014, that the identity of the sommelier was agreed at international level.
JV sensibly is not too prescriptive about food and wine pairing in ‘Passion for Pairing’. The standard rules of thumb about ‘red with red’ or ‘white with white’ are far too generalised and take little account of the complexity of the dominant, secondary, and other elements of a dish. I am sure JV is right to state how fundamentally important his background as a chef is to his skills as a sommelier. He is right too to draw attention to the serving temperature of a wine. Did you know, for example, that cold temperatures enhance the perception of acidity or tannin in a wine whilst warmer temperatures emphasise roundness and the bouquet of a wine?
I digress but such is the rich and tasty information within the writing. Allow me to return to the Introduction of ‘Passion for Pairing’ in which JV legitimately tackles the so-what question: ‘Is it relevant?’, he asks, to write a book on food pairing. His extensive experience in the kitchen, front of house, the vineyard and the cellar certainly answer the question, ‘What do I have to contribute?’ as his background give him a unique position and perspective in South Africa. I completely agree with his analysis of the gap between the chefs in the kitchen and staffs in the restaurant. One does not have to watch many episodes of chef Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ from 15 years ago to realise that. ‘Passion for Pairing’ takes a useful, informative, and relevant step seriously to close the gap. Consequently, the book will appeal not only to sommeliers but also to wine enthusiasts, foodies, chefs, restaurateurs and many more besides. It is so much more than a coffee table book as it has real practical advice and information. JV, rightly, has resisted the temptation to include individual recipes in the book, even though there were moments when I wished he had. To have done so would have detracted from the very focus on pairing is his purpose.
In sum, I highly recommend ‘Passion for Pairing’ which, given the depth of research and glossy content, is well worth the cover price. I shall certainly be paying much more attention to pairing in the kitchen at home and whilst eating out in future. Merci beaucoup, genius JV, santé et bon appétit!
Tuesday 26 May 2020
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wines: 4/5
It is rare that I sample wines without visiting the estate at which they are made. However, there was good reason with Guillaumé. First, I came by the wines on the eve of covid-19 Lockdown and, second, Guillaumé, is a garagiste producer and consequently without a Tasting Room. The three wines, one rosé and two red, make up the entire range made by Johan Guillaumé. A garagiste, to set the scene, is a small-scale winemaker. According to South African wine classification, the garagiste must be a commercial rather than a home winemaker as well as being the sole financier and winemaker. Production needs also be under 9,000 litres per annum to gain SAWIS certification under the Wine of Origin scheme. It is customary, though not essential, that garagistes buy in grapes and do not own any vineyard.
Garagiste literally means a ‘garage mechanic or garage owner’. The name comes from the pioneer of the ‘movement’, a Bordeaux wine merchant called Jean-Luc Thunevin. Frustrated by the big name, historic producers and with ‘No money, no big vineyards’, he set about making his own wine in 1991 in an old garage in the back streets of St Emilion. He bought in grapes from a 1-hectare plot of vines and sold the wine he produced under the Château Valandraud label. Five years later, the great American wine critic Robert Parker rated one of his wines higher than the famed and iconic Château Petrus. I can only imagine the ripples of Gallic shock and discontent that must have rippled through the French wine establishment.
It took only 4 years for the first garagiste wine to be made in South Africa, a remarkably quick turn of events. First was Cathy Marshal who started Barefoot Wine in Muizenberg, to be closely followed by Clive Torr of Topaz Wines who produced Pinot Noir from a plot of just 400m2 of vines in Somerset West. There are many more garagistes nowadays. Indeed, I recall hearing at the Small-Scale Winemaking (aka Garagiste) Course, which I completed at Stellenbosch University in 2018, of at least 28 garagistes in Durbanville alone. Some, like Guillaumé, make it into the Platter’s Wine Guide. I have tasted – and reviewed – the wines made by Bemind Wyne (McGregor) and Sonklip (Stellenbosch), both of whom are listed.
Johan Guillaumé, true to form and like his Platter-garagistes Isle Schutte and Frik Kirsten, makes wine in his garage. He is based in Orangezicht, close to the Cape Town city bowl, and has produced wine since completing the ‘Garagiste’ Course in 2015. 2020 marks his sixth vintage. Johan’s ancestors were French Huguenots who came to South Africa at the invitation of the Dutch East India Company. Francois Guillaumé arrived in Cape Town in 1726 with the intention of being a silk maker. On his arrival, he changed his name from the French to Dutch (later Afrikaans) spelling and pronunciation. However, and I am unsure whether this was the cause, the business failed. He wanted to become a winemaker instead but this was not possible at the time due to the lack of available wine farms and so he moved to become a sheep farmer in the Overberg. It intrigues that six generations later, descendant Johan is making wine from grapes bought in as he does not own a vineyard either.
The first Guillaumé I tasted during the ‘Taste Live with Dr Peter’ series was the Le Phenix, a Merlot-led red blend. The name refers to the Greek mystical bird the Phoenix that regenerates itself to be born again. Wine blends do much the same when different cultivars come together to make something anew. It seemed fitting too that I was sampling a Right Bank Bordeaux-styled wine, as if the garagiste journey was returning to the place where the movement began. The wine is made from Stellenbosch grapes in small amount (198 bottles only) such is the small-scale of typical production. After de-stemming, the grapes are soaked for 5 days before fermentation with frequent, manual punch downs. Light basket pressing follows before 18 months of maturation in new/4th fill French oak barrels and minimal filtration prior to bottling. The deep ruby wine showed classic Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon notes of burnt raspberry, red plum and cherry t0gether with bramble, cassis, mint, leather, and meat, respectively, on the nose. The dry wine showed good balance with silky Merlot offsetting the more structured tannins of the cabernet Sauvignon. The heady 14% alcohol was well matched by the dense fruits to make for an enjoyable wine that will age well.
I shared ‘Live’ the Rosé tasting a few weeks later. Like Le Phenix, this was a blend of Bordeaux grape varieties with Cabernet Sauvignon as the lead cultivar (48%) with the grapes sourced from Kaapzicht and Bottleray in Stellenbosch. Johan tells me that the idea for making a rosé came from a day making wine at De Toren. Rather than waste 60 litres of juice bled off to concentrate a red wine, he fermented it in stainless tanks. Sixty days on the lees followed before hand-corking with only 110 bottles made. The Rosé was a pale salmon in colour with delicate aromas of red strawberry, candied honey, and slight white blossom. These notes followed though to the palate which showed above average acidity, a refreshing clean dry taste, and modest length.
My favourite of the three wines, Johan’s too, was the Cabernet Sauvignon and bottle number 45/153. The grapes also come from Stellenbosch, hence the Stellenbosch Wine of Origin on the elegant and stylish black label. The wine was made in similar fashion to Le Phenix – with a dash of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for complexity and balance – with light basket-pressing and 110 litre barrels for maturation before light filtering and bottling. The wine showed classic deep ruby appearance with aromas of warm dark fruits – ripe cherry, dark plum, cassis – smoky toast with excellent complexity and intensity. The dense, concentrated fruits balanced well the 14% alcohol and structured tannins on the palate that were already showing some signs of opening. I liked the decent finish. This wine will improve with keeping as tertiary aromas and flavours develop in the bottle.
I recall asking Professor Wessels du Toit during the Small-Scale Winemaking Course whether making wine was really that easy as I feared producing awfully expensive vinegar. Johan Guillaumé has shown that it is entirely possible for a garagiste to make decent wines and, indeed, to sell them. More pleasure even for me, is that the Live Tasting videos of his wines have had some of the highest viewing numbers. I say so as I am keen always to profile the small producer. I raise a glass to Johan and encourage you to buy and enjoy his wines.
Wines tasted (bought *):
2019 Rosé (47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 16% Merlot, 12% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot) – R150
Red: 2017 Le Phenix (51% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot) – R300
2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot) – R300 FAVOURITE WINE
SAME ESTATE, SAME CULTIVAR, SAME VINE-GROWING, SAME WINEMAKING, SAME VINTAGE – DIFFERENT SOILS
Thursday 25 May 2020
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wine: 4.5/5
A month ago, I ‘Tasted Live’ two Sauvignons Blanc from Lomond estate. The wines were identical except that one was made with grapes from clay and the other from sandy loam. It made for a fascinating tasting and to explore whether theory matched practice (read more here) and one worth repeating. The opportunity arose with two Chardonnay from De Wetshof. Both wines were 4* Platter’s rated, of the same vintage (2019), made with grapes of similar age, contained 13.5% alcohol and vinified in the same way: de-stemmed grapes, fermented in stainless steel tanks, unwooded and matured on the lees for 6 months before bottling.
De Wetshof lies in the Robertson Valley. It is the oldest estate in the Valley. Danie De Westhof pioneered the growing of noble grape varieties in 1972, first Chardonnay and then Sauvignon Blanc. Three generations of winemakers later and with 180 hectares under vine, De Wetshof produces mostly white wine (90%). The estate has a range of rocky slate and clay soils with limestone outcrops.
Each soil type brings a different character to a wine. Limestone contains beneficial nutrients to produce better and sweeter grapes. It remains moist in dry weather and has good drainage. It can lead to iron deficiency which is overcome by frequent fertiliser application. The alkalinity in the soil promotes acidity to make zesty wines. Clay retains even more moisture than limestone which it releases throughout the dry summer months. The extra moisture brings a cool soil to slow ripening. The resultant wines are rounder, bolder, more generous and with more structure and colour from deeper extraction. Slate is metamorphosed clay that has been compressed under heat and pressure. It is low in organic matter so does not retain water. Therefore, slate soils warm quickly and retain heat. Broken rocks on the surface shade the roots from the sun and reflect the heat onto the vines, which make them good in cool climate regions. The resultant wines contain higher levels of alcohol, leaner and more mineral in character.
The popular Limestone Hill Chardonnay is made with grapes that are grown close to the River Breede. This has heavy clay soils that are rich in limestone. The Bon Vallon wine comes from vineyards in Bonnievale (hence the name) that contain broken rock with slate. The expectation therefore is that the Limestone Hill wine will show more structure and fullness, with deeper colour and more tropical fruits than the Bob Vallon Chardonnay. The latter ought to show a more steely and mineral character. The Tasting Notes describe aromas/flavours of ‘grapefruit and nuts’ and ‘citrus, wildflowers and grilled nuts, with a nuanced minerality on the aftertaste’ for the Limestone Hill and Bon Vallon wine, respectively.
The proof of the wine is in the drinking, so to speak, and so I poured equal amounts of each into a bowl-shaped wine glass, ideal for Chardonnay. With both wines being unoaked and with the same winemaking, there was predictably little colour difference. I tested the Nose on both wines first without swirling as this can help to detect minor variation. The Limestone Hill (clay) showed slightly more intensity of aroma than the Bon Vallon (slate). With swirling, the Limestone Hill revealed aromas of baked Granny Smith apple, melon, kiwi fruit and green pineapple. This compared with the Bon Vallon that was more citrus in character, showing less tropical fruit notes and more lemon and lime citrus.
The Chardonnay were beautifully balanced on the palate – between fresh fruits, well-integrated acidity, and the medium alcohol – to make two excellent wines. There was a distinct difference on the Palate between them. The warmer tropical fruits of the clay-based Limestone Hill followed through on the Palate that was fuller, weightier and with more structure in the mouth. In contrast, the Bon Vallon showed a livelier and fresher character with a cleaner mouthfeel and more mineral character due to the rocky slate soils.
The tasting fascinated as expected. It was intriguing that the practice of tasting matched the theory as forecast. Whilst the clay soils were cooler than those of the rocky slate, this had the effect of slowing down ripening to allow a fuller structured and rounder wine with more sugar development and hence a warmer fruit profile. The tasting proved, if proof ever needed, the extent to which fine wines are made in the vineyard, together with the vital importance of terroir.
2019 De Wetshof Limestone Hill Chardonnay – R102
2019 De Wetshof Bon Vallon Chardonnay – R142
What is Biodynamic Wine? – Nicolas Joly (Clairview, Reprinted 2011) – R185
Dr Peter Rating – Book: 4/5
Coincidentally for South African readers, biodynamics and Pinotage are of remarkably similar age. They date back to 1924 and 1925, respectively. Biodynamics is an alternative attitude to agriculture that draws on the teaching of its German founder, Rudolf Steiner. It was the first organic movement and emphasises a holistic and systems approach by treating the earth as a ‘living and receptive organism’. Plant growth and livestock care, together with soil fertility, are ecologically inter-related. Biodynamics eschews the use of chemicals – herbicides, pesticides, and fertilisers – whilst highlighting the application of manures and composts. Further, sowing and planting are governed by an astrological calendar to add to the mystical and spiritual practices. Opinion is divided, almost 100 years later, as to whether biodynamics is a pseudoscience or not and whether the reported benefits would happen with organic practices alone.
Turning to wine, vineyards make up circa 5% of biodynamic agriculture. It is difficult to obtain reliable up to date figures but in 2013 there were over 700 certified biodynamic wine estates adopting the strict criteria set by Demeter, the certification organisation. South Africa has just 75 hectares of biodynamic vineyards. Three wine estates are recognised: Waterkloof, Reyneke and Elgin Ridge.
Nicolas Joly, the author of ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is regarded as the ‘Godfather’ of biodynamic wine and has been working with the approach for 30 years in the Loire Valley, France. Born in 1945, his formative years do not perhaps mark him out as a major protagonist. He studied at Columbia University and worked for merchant bank JP Morgan in New York and London. However, he left in 1977 to run his family’s vineyard called Coulée de Serrant in Saviennières. The 7-hectare estate has produced all its wine biodynamically since 1984. Coulée de Serrant single vineyard has the rare distinction – along with Romanée-Conti and a handful of others – to be granted its own AOC.
My aim in writing this piece is to review Nicolas Joly’s book rather than offer a critique or my opinion of biodynamism. This is not an easy task. First, it is difficult to avoid consideration of the efficacy of the approach and some of its more esoteric practices whilst reading the book. Second, and as an applied biologist with a Doctorate from Cambridge University, I fall into the ‘scientific cul-de-sac’ that is imprisoned by its misplaced ‘materialistic dogmas’ and so, according to Joly, I am unable to pass judgement anyway.
‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is a slim volume that stretches to little more than 100 pages. The paperback was first published in 2007, this being a reprinted 2011 edition. Make any internet search for books about biodynamics and this book will show high up in the listings, such is its standing and importance. Joly sets the scene in the first chapter by describing how the 1930s appellation contrôlée concept of ‘regulated wines of origin’ gave ‘Lady Vine’ a place where she felt at ease. He introduces biodynamism by describing the 4 states of matter, drawing from Plato’s ancient wisdom. These are gravity, heat, air, and light, together with water. This secret language affects different plants at different stages in their growing cycle in different ways. Should the vine, for example, have help to raise it up to ‘escape the earth a little’ by trellising or pruning? Or should it re-connect with gravity by annual pruning?
Chapter 2 deals with the so-called errors in agriculture that since the 1950s have destroyed the original, authentic taste that the AOC system once guaranteed. Joly lays the blame at the feet of modern agricultural practices with their use of chemical fertilisers, general/systemic herbicides, and technology. These have inter alia killed the micro-organisms in the soil leading to impoverished, industrial-scale cultivation. He continues, in the next Chapter, to comment on like industrial processes in the cellar that have changed viticulturalists and winemakers from ‘nature’s assistants’ to factory workers. Joly cites interventions such as the use of commercial yeasts, temperature control during fermentation, osmosis, and micro-oxygenation. The modern cellar, with its electrical and magnetic pollution from HT cables, mobile phones etc, disrupts the ‘’form waves’ of nature and the solar system that naturally occur. He ties in his thinking from earlier by describing how the rain, heat and wind of climate affects vine flowering and fruiting to imprint on each vintage in the unique AOCs. We have, he suggests, lost our way by substituting our intuitive experience of energy and natural forms by cutting ourselves off from life and relying on physical matters and modern science. Rather than being (as opponents argue) ‘sectarian …for the wealthy … esoteric … and obturantist’, biodynamics derives from real laws and offers the way ahead.
The fourth Chapter is where Joly brings the practical application of biodynamics to the fore. ‘Bio’ means life whilst ‘dynamism’ accelerates or stimulates life. Here, he describes Steiner’s 1924 suggestions to improve the well-being of plants by using natural preparations from medicinal plants that have been inserted into their corresponding animal organs to amplify their effects. He explains the thinking behind enclosing camomile in a cow’s intestine, together with manure or fine silica quartz in a cow horn and their multiplying effect on soil bacteria and to activate photosynthesis when atomised and sprayed onto the vines at appropriate times of the year. The pace of the writing accelerates too as Joly furthers develops the idea of ‘invisible energy information’ and how biodynamism seeks only to activate what nature has already in place. He starts to link biodynamic application to the solar and stellar system and hence season.
This well leads to the final Chapter that connects these celestial systems to the earth. Joly returns to the complex world of energies and how the earth is bombarded all sorts of frequencies of differing cosmic wavelengths that impinge on the varying rhythms that sustain life. ‘Matter is never the mould, only the content of the mould’, he argues, and so the earth (and all life) is composed of particles made up by specific informational forces. We must therefore understand these formative forces – visible and invisible, centripetal and centrifugal, spring and autumnal, earthly and cosmic, solar and stellar – and use this knowledge to improve the vine. This relates to the states of matter in Chapter 1 – fruiting + heat impulse, blossoming + light impulse, growth + water impulse and root growth + earth impulse – that act in different ways according to the positions of the planets in relation to the earth and the stellar constellations behind them as they orbit the sun. Agriculture has destroyed the living agents so that the plant has become ‘deaf to the invisible’ with the result that our food quality and human nutrition are poor. This can be visibly demonstrated by crystallisation tests with copper chloride powder. The resultant petri-dish images show greater uniformity and size of structure for organic and naturally produced food and wine than for over-processed products. Joly then introduces the sowing and planting calendar by German Maria Thun for which she measured each planetary and stellar influence on the plant world. The relation of every planet and the earth has a different energy effect based on mathematical laws. Thus, if we understand the health-giving forces of the moon or Saturn or Mercury or the stars, we will be able to apply them to (say) fruiting and when to harvest the grapes in the biodynamic vineyard.
‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ ends with a short (2 page) concluding chapter, ahead of Appendices that set out a Quality Charter to permit an appellation to express itself fully. Joly summarises by describing biodynamism being not a pseudoscience or some illusory sorcery but ‘a reality which each of us comes to in our own way’. He returns to the Greek Gods, their forces and ‘mortality’. Real wine should transport us into a far-off, ethereal, and magical world that is distant from earthly forces. That, according to Joly, is achieved and sustained by a knowledgeable and respective biodynamic agriculture.
As explained above, this is not a book one can read without applying one’s own values and beliefs, indeed experience and thinking, to the topic. Joly argues his case well and coherently. The simple style of his writing, with little jargon or (if used) simply explained, makes for an easy read. There are minimal photographs and illustration other than to amplify or explain specific points. This lets the book flow, but I would have liked more than the 5 main chapters or the use of section breaks, or both. Much of the information is new and challenging and these would have allowed me time to reflect and think as I read through the book.
I enjoyed how Joly told his story. He builds up the case for biodynamic wine making in a logical way, with each step built on the previous one and with good linkages. I liked how he closes the open threads by returning to the centre stage every so often. Predictably, there was much that made sense and much that did not. I am a child of the late 1950s and brought up in very rural England. I can therefore well relate and understand an agriculture that was far more ‘organic’ and far less reliant on agro-chemicals. I thus empathise when Joly talks about and posits that human animal husbandry practices have caused avian flu, encouraged mad cow disease, or sheep scrapie and swine fever. Should we use the anti-biotic and medical approach of veterinarians to combat animal disease? Or practice better methods of production? Do we treat the cause or the effect? And, what is health anyway? These commercial arguments apply as much to the vine and winemaking.
I also empathise with the organic movement and the related one, surprisingly little mentioned, of sustainability. One test for me on the concept of biodynamics is whether its effects are sufficiently large or significantly different and distinct to those of organic agriculture. Joly does not tackle this question head on and that leaves room for wonder. ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’ is written more for the converted and the evangelist than the doubtful which I, as an evidential scientist, am. Thus, many of the more far-out claims and statements cause me to question even more. These include the suggestion that a vine can be protected from sunshine by treating it with teas prepared from seaweed, or that biodynamic wines improve several days after being opened, that breeding either at full or new moon determines the sex of an animal (80% male or female), or that certain people can alter the rate of growth of a plant by their very presence and thinking. I would have liked to have seen the ‘scientific demonstration’ of these claims refenced in the Bibliography at the end of the book. The observation, for instance, that some church spires appear like an inverted amphora intrigues. Science is about making proven and predictable connections. Observations such as this must pass the ‘so what?’ test for me, otherwise they become meaningless. Does their likeness prove the existence of opposing calling down cosmic forces (the church spire) and calling up terrestrial forces (the sunken amphora)? Where does coincidence begin and end? Otherwise, it becomes possible to bring together any two pieces of information – whether related or otherwise – and draw conclusion from them.
Ultimately of course, and I am trying to resist the temptation to comment on the efficacy of biodynamics rather than the book – though the persuasiveness of the latter drives the reader’s opinion on the former – and therein lies the rub. Here is a poser. I buy 2 identical shirts. They are indistinguishable from each other. One is made by an ethical producer with well-paid staffs working in safe and healthy working conditions, whilst the other comes from a sweat-shop factory using cheap labour. Without this background information, is one shirt any better than the other? Well, not if they are identical. If anything, the sweat-shop shirt will likely be priced cheaper and so offer better value for money. Apply now to a biodynamic wine. Is the biodynamic wine any better than an organic wine or an old vine wine or a vegan one or a commercial one? The ultimate test for me is whether the biodynamic wine tastes better and how much better. Blind tastings, so far at least, have proved inconclusive.
Meanwhile, I do agree that the back story has a role to play. It will increasingly do so with the conscious marketing of ethical and sustainable products and services, and not only for the environmentally aware millennials. The shirt may not look any different or the wine taste any better but just knowing how each was made matters. The emotional link and connection with the consumer are real. This could have been more emphasised by Nicolas Joly. He does mention personal connection, already touched on above, in the sense that biodynamics is ‘a reality which each of us comes to in our own way’.
Joly is nonetheless an authoritative author and, after all, a biodynamic practitioner with 30 years winemaking experience rather than an academic theorist. He concludes ‘What is Biodynamic Wine?’, as I shall here, with these wise words. The farmer would say, “You are what you eat”. The viticulturalist would say, “You are what you drink”.
CAROLINE’S FINE WINE CELLAR
Wednesday 13 May 2020
Dr Peter Rating – Website: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
It is not the best of times to be a wine drinker and smoker now in South Africa. We are approaching the 50th day of lockdown and living under the most restrictive covid-19 conditions in the world. Alcohol sales, including online buying, are forbidden. Alcohol is deemed not to be an ‘essential’ product, unlike in most other countries. The home stocks are running dry for many and, for some, run out completely. We must therefore dutifully and patiently wait for lockdown Level 3 – seemingly some way off as the virus is far from its peak – for the bottle shops to open for 3 mornings a week. Meanwhile, according to the news today, an estimated 20,000 lives have already been saved. That is good news amid the teetotal gloom.
I began reviewing online wine stores a few months ago – long before lockdown, coronavirus and covid-19 became part of our daily vocabulary – beginning with Premier Cru and then Wine Cellar. It is timely to look at the online retailers again in the hope that sales will soon be permitted. I buy often from Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar and regularly attend Caroline’s specialist wine tastings. It thus makes sense to share my first-hand experiences with you.
Caroline’s, as the retailer is affectionately known, has 2 stores as well as an online business. The stores are in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD and in the Southern Suburb of Tokai. The CBD shop beneath Strand Street is by far the larger and resembles a cave with its terracotta tiled floor, arched wine displays, wooden shelving, and discreet lighting. Living in Wynberg, the Tokai branch is slightly closer and with the ease of available parking outside. It has the same style of décor but a smaller selection of wine albeit with the same broad range. Both stores are open during regular weekday shop opening hours and on Saturday mornings. The staffs are always polite and well dressed in pale and navy-blue uniform that adds to the exclusive wine merchant brand.
‘Purveyor since 1979’, Caroline’s has an established footing in the fine wine and international wine market. Owner Caroline Rillema had a varied wine career at the Lanzerac and Carlton hotels, retail in Johannesburg, and marketing for Buitenverwachting and La Motte before opening her first specialist wine store in the CBD. She is engaging company and ready to share her obvious passion for wine and to recount tales of her frequent (before lockdown) trips to the wine regions of the world. The website ably describes the focus on the finest South African wines and those from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, Champagne, Italy, and Spain, together with the New World.
Wine is the best place to start. Caroline’s offers 1,169 South African and International wines that range in price from R86 to R9,620. South African wines number 711 with imported wines making up the 458 remainder. France predictably makes up the bulk of international wines (254) followed by Italy (69), Portugal (46), Spain (32), Australia (20), New Zealand (13), Argentina (10), Germany (9), Chile (4) and the USA (2). Not all wines are currently in stock which is entirely understandable given the present ban on the transport of alcohol. The website groups South African wines by style – then by cultivar for red and white wines – and foreign wines by country with France and Italy sub-divided by region. There are also selection options for Platter’s 5* and Rare Wines. The simple drop-down menus are easy to use. One can usefully sort by Popularity, Latest or Low-to-High price or High-to-Low price within any selection. Rijk’s 2014 Pinotage (R298) tops the Popularity of South African wines whilst the 2010 Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico Reserva (R695) currently heads the imported range.
Compare Caroline’s with other like specialised online retailers, and the range and number of wines (711/458 South Africa/Imported) is on a par with Wine Cellar (circa 550/440), fewer than Port2Port (972/860) and more than importer Great Domaines (84/426), whilst wine.co.za sells only South African wine. Select an individual wine from the bottle shot and you will find more detailed information about the region, a Tasting Note, food pairing and the producer. This information is basic and adequate for most wine lovers to be able to make their purchase, though I prefer more details about the viticulture, wine-making and tasting analysis, which is included by some of the competing retailers. Caroline’s prices are broadly comparable to those of her online competitors. My impression from 3 years of buying South African and international wines for my own pleasure and for my Cape Wine Academy/WSET studies is that Caroline’s wines tend to be priced around 5% to 10% higher – there is the added expense of 2 shops to run – than elsewhere. That said, I am fortunate to live locally and so able to collect purchases from the Tokai store. There is always the delivery fee to factor in. Shipping fees are not currently listed on the website due to lockdown so I cannot comment on how they compare. Nonetheless, I do find Caroline’s useful when looking for a specific wine or region, particularly so for wines from Germany, New Zealand, and Australia.
Turning to other products and services, I have always enjoyed the tasting events. I have attended inter alia those for Alheit, Eben Sadie and French Rosé wines. Caroline often hosts these herself or the winemaker hosts, which makes for an enjoyable and informative evening with the opportunity to buy after. The events are invariably very well-supported, and I advise early booking. There is a Wine Club too, which I have not joined, that offers a case of selected wines every 3 months with free delivery for circa R1,500. Neither have I attended any of the School of Fine Wine courses for enthusiasts (four 2-hour sessions at either store, morning or evening) or service staff (Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced levels). Caroline’s also offers a broad range of wine accessories that includes glasses, decanters, aerators, glass and bottle bags, openers, and stoppers.
My experience of Caroline’s is generally very favourable. I am content to pay slightly extra on occasion to buy the wines I want for my studies and tastings that I host. I can offset the extra cost against the benefit of being able to collect the wine/s from Tokai. I have mentioned the limited but basic information on the website. Other niggles include the fact many of the more limited or specialised wines, notably imported wines, are often listed on the website but sold out. This pre-dates South African lockdown and the severely curtailed movement of wine. Further, whilst listing total stock number, the website does not show the number of bottles in the CBD and Tokai outlets. The tie up between the 2 is not perfect which has meant that I have had a wasted journey to Tokai for a wine that is in Strand Street, even after a prior phone call to check. There appears to be no regular transport of wine between the 2 stores – other than when Caroline happens to be making the journey – and so it always feels like I am asking a huge favour to collect a bottle from Tokai that is in the CBD shop.
To conclude, these are minor gripes compared to the impressive selection and range of wines that Caroline sells. The layout of the stores makes for easy browsing and in comfortable surroundings with staff always to hand. Use the online shop too but it helps to shop around if you want a particular wine but do not forget to factor in shipping fees. Above all, show your support for Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar to re-stock your wine cellar when lockdown ends. Sweet Caroline, we wait for the good times to seem so good again … 😊
Wine by the Glass – Oz Clarke (Pavilion Books, 2018) – R155
Dr Peter Rating – Book: 4/5
It is a little-known fact that Oz Clarke and I went to the same school – The King’s School, Canterbury in England – and just 8 years before me. Better known perhaps is that the name Oz was given to him ‘in the school showers’ as he played cricket like an Australian, whose team was touring at the time. From there, the parallels diverge as I went up to Cambridge and he went to the other place. He has written almost 50 books. I enjoy my website writing but have yet to write my first book.
I came across ‘Wine by the Glass’ in a Cape Town bookshop and it immediately appealed. The hard, cloth blue cover and thick paper pages give an air of durability that would readily survive any wine spillage whilst reading with glass in hand. The book is small enough to fit in a holiday bag or for the pool or beach. Indeed, there remains a bookmark from Rick’s Café in Casablanca as a reminder of happier days when we could freely travel the world unencumbered by restriction or a mask. There is also a torn Tasting Menu from Oldenburg Vineyards with my notes written on it.
‘Wine by the Glass’ easily divides into 3 sections: the Basics, Practical Stuff and Becoming a Geek. The first section begins with ‘Wine at a Glance’ in which Oz Clarke brings his wisdom of wine down to 12 words, 6 grape varieties and 6 countries. Sadly, South Africa does not make the list. Sections that describe the grape varieties (Pinotage does get a mention here), wine styles, vine-growing and winemaking, together with a full list of countries and their wine regions – those that you would see ‘in a wine bar or stood facing a wall of wines in a supermarket’ – complete the section. The middle part is the practical how to? of wine. It covers essential tips such as how to read a wine label and wine classification, how to buy and order wine, glasses and openers, food pairing, how to keep wine and vintages. The final section is for the geeks who – like me – want to ‘taste like a pro’, have all the right word descriptors to hand, identify wine faults, build a cellar, and find out more. The back of the book has a handy aide memoire of the key wine countries and their regions together with a glossary of wine terms (aka jargon).
The book is a friendly read. The sections are short and so easy to dip into in any order. There is no Index but the Contents and chapter introductions well sign post the reader. One could read from cover to over in under 4 hours without difficulty. Throughout, Oz Clarke’s pacey yet humourous writing makes the book a pleasure to read. Pinotage, for example, is described as ‘the grape that doesn’t do what it says on the tin’ which is a fair comment that the Pinot Noir x Cinsault (Hermitage) cross of 1925 did not produce an elegant Burgundy grape that was high yielding. ‘At best it tastes of mulberries and marshmallows toasted on a November bonfire’, he goes on to write, ‘at its worst …..’. Natural wine is ‘organic on steroids’, New Zealand is summed up in 3 words “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’, whilst the reader is told that a friend practised spitting in the bath.
The back-cover states that no previous knowledge is required. That is right as the language is simple and avoids the technical which, if necessary, for the topic in hand, is readily explained. I liked how Oz Clarke dispels the wine snob and ramps up how anyone can enjoy any wine with an encouragement to experiment, for it is very much my wine philosophy. The book has no photos save for some witty line drawings – the Old World v New World label: Grand Cru Classé Château Oz Clarke v Clarkey New Dawn Shiraz – is typical of the style and character of the book. I could not quite decide whether ‘Wine by the Glass’ was meant to be a reference book, guidebook or reading book. It mattered not as it was all and none. Oz Clarke covered all the bases and all the basics.
I thoroughly recommend whether you are a wine novice, an amateur or student of wine – or even holiday reader. There is something for all. ‘Wine by the Glass’ costs little more than a reasonable bottle of wine and will last longer too!
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wine: 4.5/5
A few weeks ago, during another ‘Taste Live with Dr Peter’ 6pm daily tasting, I experimented with glasses of different sizes with a red wine, a 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch Reserve. The tasting experience fascinated with a mix of outcomes, some predictable and others less so. It was always my intention to repeat the tasting with a white wine. The recently released 2019 Oldenburg Chenin Blanc – of similar price and quality – offered the ideal opportunity. The variety is one of the more aromatic common cultivars and perfect to expose any differences between the glasses. The grapes are hand-harvested, de-stemmed and then barrel-fermented using natural yeast in 20% new/80% old French oak, with 10 months of maturation with weekly barrel-turning to stir the lees.
Read the previous article for more background about the wine glasses we own and use. The aim of the tasting was the same. Does glass size and shape really make a difference to the drinking experience, as the glossy marketing material from the single-varietal glass companies will have us believe? The only was to discover, of course, was to put it to the test. Thus, I picked out 3 quite different glasses to compare. There was the utility, durable ISO 21.5cl glass that is used in most tasting rooms and wine courses, retailing at R25 each but far cheaper when bought in bulk. Second, was my trusty Riedel Vinum glass. It is recommended for Cabernet/Merlot, but it is very much a universal size and shape. I am familiar with it as it is the glass, I use for my WSET Level 4 Diploma tasting and a big step up from the ISO glass in quality and price (R400). The final glass was the featherlight White Wine glass from high-end Zalto with an exalted price of R670 to match.
Riedel and Zalto are both Austrian companies. Riedel dates back 11 generations to 1678 and steeped in the history of Bohemian crystal glass. Fast forward to 1973 and it was the first company to make machine-made varietal glasses. The glass promised to ‘emphasize the fruit …. to allow the bouquet to develop’. Zalto has roots in Murano, Venice dating back to the Middle Ages, but it was not until 2006 that the current mouth-blown, seamless glass collection hit the headlines. The shape is said to be inspired by the tilt angles of the earth. Like Riedel, the marketing copyrighters have been busy to claim that the glasses are ‘nearly too delicate to hold’. Surprisingly, there was no mention of Chenin Blanc in the single variety copy (nor for Riedel) but the universal White Wine glass suited as being ‘especially suited to fruit forward white wines’.
I poured the Chenin Blanc into each glass at the same level and at the ideal serving temperature. There were no differences in Appearance as one might expect the wine being pale lemon in colour. As with the similar red wine experiment, I assessed the nose from each glass without swirling to start, as this might best emphasize the differences between them, before swirling. The ISO glass showed simple lemon and lime citrus aromas that, even with swirling, showed limited intensity. The Riedel offered a greater steely minerality on the Nose – typical for this lean style Chenin Blanc – with similar lemon and lime but with delicate white spice and kiwi notes. Surprisingly, the glass brought out subtle vanilla aromas from the barrel-fermentation. Last, the Zalto glass showed the greatest intensity of aroma – more open – with a riper lemon and mineral character that was backed up by a gentle florality of white blossom.
The Chenin Blanc was bone dry on the palate. Like the Nose, the Palate with the ISO tasting glass was simple and one-dimensional, with the wine barely filling the mouth and showing modest length. The aroma profile followed through to the Palate for the Riedel with flavours of lemon, lime citrus, green melon, and kiwi. The big difference was how the broader glass rim led to a fuller mouthfeel with more pronounced alcohol, texture, and length. Further, the glass emphasized the bright, zesty acidity of the Chenin Blanc for a fresher experience. The Zalto glass on the other hand made for a subtler and softer feel to the wine to show off the lean mineral character with a more rounded elegance and finesse.
In drawing together the conclusions, I am mindful of the results from the comparison of the different glasses for the red wine as there are similarities. The ISO tasting glass offered a limited tasting experience, in terms of both aroma and flavours on the palate. The glass did not do justice to the wine and that is a sobering thought (pun intended) for the many Tasting Rooms that use this size and shape of glass as their standard. The Riedel and Zalto were closer in how they presented the wine than to the ISO glass. The Riedel better brought out the aromas and flavours in both intensity and complexity. Interestingly, and I am unsure why, I detected enhanced vanilla notes on the Nose for the Chenin Blanc and for the Cabernet Sauvignon during the red wine comparison tasting. The Zalto, meanwhile, displayed softer aromas and flavours of lesser intensity than the Riedel but with more refinement.
It certainly does seem therefore that bigger is better – and that size does matter 😊
2019 Oldenburg Chenin Blanc – R150
SAME ESTATE, SAME CULTIVAR, SAME VINE-GROWING, SAME WINEMAKING, SAME VINTAGE – DIFFERENT SOILS
Monday 24 April 2020
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Wine: 4/5
Soil is an integral element of terroir together with climate, terrain and winemaking tradition. It is the synergy of these natural and man-made factors that give a wine its unique and identifiable character. The effect of soil type on the taste of a wine is a topic that has long fascinated and continues to do so. South African lockdown meant that I had to postpone my Dr Peter Master Class ‘Soils’ tasting. The aim was to compare like wines of varying cultivars from different soils and to see if any consensus or consistent conclusion could be drawn amid those at the tasting. The event was not to be, for the moment at least, but I did happen upon 2 Lomond wines that well suited a comparison for one of the ‘Taste Live with Dr Peter’ daily 6pm live tastings hosted on Facebook by the Cape Wine Lovers’ Society.
Lomond was the 100th estate that I visited and tasted wines for review on the www.capewinelover.co.za website. I remember it well, travelling 3 hours from Cape Town to the Agulhas wine District. The vast estate on the Agulhas Plain has 120 hectares of 1,100 hectares under vine and grows a broad range of Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. It lies 8 km from Gansbaai and so gains the benefit of cooling South-East and South-West breezes to keep February temperatures below 30ºC on slopes that are 50-100 metres above sea level. The large property brings with it 18 different soil types and so perfect for terroir-cultivar matching, as well as the potential to taste wines from differing soils. All the wines are named after the local fynbos and indigenous plant species.
The 2 Sauvignons Blanc were from the same wine estate, of the same 2017 vintage, grown on high East-facing vineyards and made by the same winemaker. The grapes were hand-harvested, fermented at a cool cool 13-15ºC in neutral steel tanks and underwent 8 weeks on the lees before bottling.
Soils differ in their fertility, nutrient and organic matter content, water retention ability, temperature and a whole host of other factors. These all impact on the character of the wine. Fine clay is cool and retains water. This, as theory suggests, makes for a fuller bodied wine with a higher extract and colour. In contrast, sandy loam – loam being a fertile soil with a near equal mix of silt, clay, sand and organic humus – is well-drained and retains heat. This produces eelegant wines with high aromatics, pale colour and low tannins.
The Tasting Note of the Sugarbush Sauvignon Blanc, from clay soils, describes a nose with “aromas of citrus, with distinctive minerality, layers of herbaceous flavours and Cape fynbos”. Further, the taste has “full-bodied, clean, mineral tones with gooseberry purity”. The Pincushion, in contrast, from sandy loam soils promises a bouquet that is “elegant, driven by minerality and citrus nuances” together with a taste with “flavours of tropical fruit with a hint of citrus”.
The theory set. The full-bodied label description of full body and elegance for the Sugarbush and Pincushion, respectively, certainly matches the clay soil and sandy loam theory expectation. Will it prove to be in tasting practice? There was only once way to find out as I filled 2 glasses equally for side by side comparison at the Dr Peter Live tasting. There was little difference to their pale lemon colour, so I assessed both wines for the Nose.
The Sugarbush (clay) showed fresh primary fruit aromas of fresh lime, grapefruit and unripe lemon citrus together a delicate florality and notes of English gooseberry that were reminiscent of a Marlborough, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The Nose of the Pincushion (sandy loam) was very different. There were fewer green and herbaceous notes. Instead, the aromas were of stone fruits and of melon, kiwi and ripe lemon with less perfume. I checked the minerality after. Both wines showed some minerality on the nose – a slight salinity – but it was not very intense.
The differences on the Nose followed through on the Palate. The clay-soil Sugarbush Sauvignon Blanc was elegant on the Palate with good balance between the fresh fruits, medium alcohol and a bright, integrated acidity. I liked the clean, crisp texture. The Pincushion, from the sandy loam soil, was likewise well balanced but with a fuller mouthfeel and weight. The wine showed warmer tropical fruit flavours but with poise, elegance and finesse.
The comparison was fascinating, and the theory was mostly borne out by the tasting. The effect of the cooler, damper clay soil certainly contributed to the fresh citrus fruit aromas and flavours of the Sugarbush wine whilst the Pincushion (sandy loam) had the expected a warmer, more tropical and less herbaceous fruit profile. The relative fullness of the Pincushion was not anticipated but the warmer fruits could have confused, yet the greater elegance was expected.
I am now keener than ever to try this tasting experiment again with the other wines I have that are identical but for their soils. Alas, I shall Have to wait for lockdown to end to be able to arrange that tasting.