As a former professional cricketer, wine expert Geoffrey Dean has been used to ‘rain stopping play’ on many an occasion. But, like the rest of us, he has never had to contend with Covid-19 sending everyone back into the pavilion. Before the pandemic prevented international travel, however, Dean visited South Africa and Australia where he made a number of key vinuous discoveries which he shares with us in his Top 10 wines of 2020.
“The Rolet family’s hard work and passion in reviving this estate near the old Roman town of Vaison-la-Romaine has been rewarded with what is now a formidable stable of wines,” writes Dean about Chêne Bleu.
Having been restricted by the pandemic to visiting just two countries outside the UK in 2020 – South Africa and Australia – I make no apologies for picking eight labels from there. Two wonderful French wines are also included, having been drunk at home. In alphabetical order, here they are.
Abingdon, Chardonnay 2018, 13.5% abv (Lions River, KZN, South Africa)
A South African winery with a difference – not from the western Cape but Kwazulu Natal and the hilly Midlands region. Situated at 1140m in the Lions River district north-west of Pietermaritzburg, the wines are jointly made by British expat, Ian Smorthwaite, and his daughter Laurie Cooper. Wife Jane is in charge of cuisine at the cellar door, which won South Africa’s ‘Best Kept Secret’ American Express award in 2019. Appealing citrus and white peach fruit stand out in this barrel-fermented Chardonnay that underwent 100% malolactic fermentation, giving buttered toast notes. The wine saw no new oak, and zings with refreshing acidity. From low-yielding vines (three and a half tons per hectare), it has a long finish and underlines how good KZN wine can be.
Château de Pommard, Simone 2018, 14% abv (Burgundy)
Already a great wine. From a tiny 0.53 hectare plot in the walled Clos Marey-Monge single vineyard, this truly remarkable Pommard sings like a canary and will give untold pleasure to those fortunate enough to drink it over the next couple of decades. Winemaker Emmanuel Sala is the first to admit he is lucky to have a terroir with the highest internal surface density of clay in the Côte d’Or (736m2/g) but he has crafted a masterpiece, employing whole cluster (75%) for the first time and 38% new oak with very, very light toasting. The result is a beautifully balanced Pinot Noir with freshness, grace, complexity, concentration and length but velvet-like tannins.
Chêne Bleu, Abelard 2012, 14% abv (Vaucluse, France).
A very classy wine made up of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah, this gorgeous blend from the southern Rhône has alluring clove, licorice and pepper notes on the nose with very appetising red plum and black cherry fruit on the palate. Blessed with very silky tannins, it has tremendous intensity of flavour with hints of spice and a long finish. All the wine’s elements are impeccably balanced. The Rolet family’s hard work and passion in reviving this estate near the old Roman town of Vaison-la-Romaine has been rewarded with what is now a formidable stable of wines.
Hoosegg, Jade Moon 2016, 13% abv (Orange, NSW, Australia)
This wackily-named winery is a newish venture from one of Australia’s best-known oenologists, Philip Shaw, who won IWSC Winemaker of the Year twice – in 1986 and 2000. The master vigneron has delegated his sons to produce Philip Shaw Wines, and is concentrating on his personal Hoosegg range. It comes from his Koomooloo Vineyard near Orange which, at 900m, is amongst Australia’s highest, leading to cool nights and good acid retention. Only four barrels of this exquisite ‘Jade Moon’ blend were made, with Cabernet Franc making up 88%, Merlot 7% and Cabernet Sauvignon 5%. Fresh, complex and long with seductive red fruit and soft tannins, this is a special wine that has effortlessly absorbed 100% new oak.
Lismore, Estate Reserve Syrah 2017, 13.5% abv (Greyton, South Africa)
Brilliant example of just how good South African Syrah can be. Made in the Greyton ward in the Overberg district by Samantha O’Keefe, whose vineyards, winery and house were so tragically devastated by bushfire in December 2019. The courageous American producer is winning global plaudits for her wines, and this medium-bodied, supremely elegant Syrah is exceptional: glorious red fruit with marked intensity of flavour and freshness (pH 3.35). Fine tannins are seamlessly integrated and the finish is thrillingly long. Wild yeasts add complexity while a mix of 500 & 700-litre oak barrels (30% new) allow the fruit to show itself in its full glory.
Rickety Bridge, The Pilgrimage 2017, 12.5% abv (Franschhoek, South Africa)
The very essence of Semillon from ancient low-yielding vines (three tons per hectare) that date back to 1905 on this historic Franschhoek property, owned by British entrepreneur, Duncan Spence. Whole bunch and wild yeasts help nurture a complex textured palate with beeswax, lanolin and melon notes; older barrels/foudres add some body and richness, while a low pH (3.2) ensures freshness is retained. Bone dry with a long savoury finish and a long life ahead of it, but hard to resist now.
Robert Stein Vineyards, Riesling 2019, 12% abv (Mudgee, NSW, Australia)
Mudgee is New South Wales’s oldest wine-producing region, and the Stein family’s forebears were early winemaking pioneers. Jacob Stein, whose ancestor of the same name emigrated to Mudgee from Germany in 1838, fashions a superb range, notably a top Riesling from 45-year old vines on gravel and schist soils at 500m. The site’s wide diurnal range encourages a low pH of 3, giving the wine formidable freshness. With lemon pith notes, an abv of 12% and a long finish, it is a delight to drink.
Stanton & Killeen, Grand Topaque, 18% abv (Rutherglen, Victoria, Australia)
Compellingly complex and uber-sweet Muscadelle (230g/l of residual sugar), fortified to 18% with high strength neutral grape spirit. Muscadelle was formerly known as Tokay by Rutherglen producers before they invented ‘Topaque’ due to objections by the Hungarians. Aged oxidatively for 15-20 years, this concentrated and extremely long ‘sticky’, with its mouth-filling viscosity and depth of flavour, has a rich array of notes: toffee, caramelised butter, mixed spice, cloves, roast nuts and raisins, all topped off with marmalade overtones. A sumptuous festive tipple if ever there was one.
Vondeling, Philosophie 2015, 14.5% abv (Voor Paardeberg, South Africa)
This Bordeaux blend from the Voor Paardeberg ward near Paarl soars out of the glass with explosive structure. Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (85%) with 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot and a dash of Malbec, this is full, awesome and complete. Careful 300-litre barrel selection (75% new oak) gives it structure but super-fine tannins are beautifully integrated. Black cherry and cassis fruit merges seamlessly with cedar and tobacco notes. Matthew Copeland, one of the best young winemakers in South Africa, and Julian Johnsen, the British-born viticulturist, have combined to produce an outstanding, rich wine with notable concentration and length.
Waterford, The Jem 2011 (Stellenbosch, South Africa)
As many as eight grapes go into this beguiling blend of Blaauwklippen Valley fruit, south of Stellenbosch. Cabernet Sauvignon (45%) is the majority varietal, while the other seven are Shiraz (15%), Cabernet Franc (14), Merlot (11), Mourvedre (6), Petit Verdot (4), Barbera (3) and Sangiovese (2). Named after Waterford’s owner, Jeremy Ord, who is known as Jem, the wine has a lovely combination of blackcurrant and red cherry fruit, with exotic spices, earthy tones and truffle notes. A hint of umami adds to the complexity of a wine that has impressive concentration and a very long finish. A pH of 3.63 helps retain freshness while judicious use of new oak (33%) adds structure. A majestic wine of real grandeur and class.