With eyes shut you would have thought for all the world that you were tasting Hunter Valley Semillon. Except you weren’t. Welcome to the rare and wonderful Semillons of Rikus Neethling from the western Cape – a real eye-opener at a fascinating masterclass that was one of the many highlights at the Davy’s New World tasting last week. There were more wines from Australia, Kiwi wines including some from Little Beauty, Robert Sinskey’s idiosyncratic but wonderful Napa wines, Ventisquero, Gouguenheim and many more as Geoffrey Dean discovered.
“Across the Andes in Mendoza, it was easy to see why the Davy’s team consider Gouguenheim to be ‘one of the best kept secrets in the Uco Valley,” writes Dean.
Lovers of Hunter Valley Semillon would have been forgiven for thinking they were tasting some very good examples of it at the Greenwich wine merchant, Davy’s, New World portfolio tasting at 67 Pall Mall in early September. With very fresh acidity, a low ABV of between 10.5-11%, and showing clean, bone-dry limey notes after elevage in stainless steel, the wines in question had Aussie Hunter written all over them. Except they weren’t: they came from the western Cape. And at a fascinating masterclass given by the young South African winemaker who produced them, Rikus Neethling revealed how he had been heavily influenced by champion Hunter Valley producer, Bruce Tyrell.
Not that much Semillon is grown in South Africa (1.18% of the national area under vine according to latest SAWIS stats), but Neethling admits he is totally obsessed by the variety.
“I want to show that South African whites can age, and my Semillons will go 20 to 30 years,” he said. Hunter Semillons can do that, majestically of course, held together by high acidity thanks to early picking. By doing the same, and by using an Australian clone (GD1), Neethling has every chance of being successful in his quest.
His three Bizoe label Semillons (all 2018s) are drinking very well. Semillon, generally speaking, is best drunk young or old, rather than say aged 4-6 years when it tends to go through a dumb phase. His Bizoe Morning Star 2018, from 13-year old bush vines on sandy loam at Darling, has mineral notes as well as some sea-salty ones thanks to the proximity of the ocean (8km away). Very low pH of 3.1, achieved by harvesting in late January or early February, gives vibrant acidity (TA 7 g/l).
“I think we’re getting it right picking on pH to prevent flat flavours,” Neethling mused, adding that three clones had been interplanted in the Morning Star vineyard – GD1, GD315 (French) and GD 16 (American).
The Bizoe Robertsvlei Road 2018 comes from Franschhoek, which Neethling thinks should be the “South African capital of Semillon.” Using 100% GD1 cloned-fruit from 24-year old vines, this wine was even closer to a Hunter Semillon. Six hours of skin contact and being run through a basket press gives the wine added flavours. When Neethling blended together juice from these two Semillons to form his Bizoe Kruispad 2018, he produced the best of the three, combining Darling’s vibrant acidity with Franschhoek’s limey freshness and charm. But all three wines are worth trying, although Davy’s get only 20 cases of each per annum.
A 2016 SSB by Neethling, named Bizoe Henrietta (70% Semillon fruit from Franschhoek but picked later and 30% Sauvignon Blanc) also showed well, as did some superb single varietal examples elsewhere in the Davy’s portfolio of Sauvignon Blanc from Australasia and Chile.
Glorious tropical fruit notes greeted tasters of Adelaide Hills producer Sidewood Estate’s 2016 version. Meanwhile, across the Tasman, Mount Brown Estates, in North Canterbury, produced a richer wine with their Catherine’s Block 2016, which saw 50% old oak.
A personal favourite was another Kiwi: Marlborough producer Little Beauty’s Black Edition Sauvignon Blanc 2016. Crafted from a mere ten rows of low-yielding fruit, and left on the lees for nine months with no batonnage in old oak barriques, this Sav Blanc had pronounced length and lots of intensity. Made using wild yeasts by former Cloudy Bay winemaker, Eveline Fraser, this multi-layered wine is unusual for the region as rows are aligned north-south (while the vast majority in Marlborough are east-west). In charming owner, Fleur McCree’s opinion, this imbues “sweet and sour notes” that add to complexity.
A Chilean Sauvignon Blanc also deserves a mention in despatches. Ventisquero’s Grey Glacier, Atacama 2017 emanates from the country’s most northerly wine-producing region. This ultra-low yielder (18 hl/ha) comes from salty soils by the coast, which is the reason why its salty and spicy notes dominate any fruity ones. Winemaker, Felipe Tosso, has fashioned a really interesting wine.
Staying in the Americas, two 2014 whites from Napa Valley producer, Robert Sinskey, caught the eye. His Abraxas label, made up predominantly of Riesling (45%) with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Guwurztraminer thrown in, sees no new oak and is an elegant wine with notable freshness, concentration and length. His Orgia label, a single varietal Pinot Gris, has a pink hue often found with this grape, but is pronounced thanks to three weeks on the skins. The influence of this contact is noticeable, with the wine possessing lots of character. Sinskey’s Cabernet Franc 2013 and Pinot Noir 2014 were also fine examples of their type, offering intensity of flavour, concentration and a long finish.
New World Shiraz found formidable expression in the form of Sidewood’s Mappinga 2015 label. This belter of a wine has won many awards, including Best Aussie Shiraz at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Made from the estate’s best parcels, this elegant 14.5% offering has appealing blackcurrant and blackberry notes with soft tannins and lots of spice. It is long and complex, and benefits from judicious oak use (35% new). Sidewood’s three premium Pinot Noirs were also excellent, as were Little Beauty’s two Pinots – the Limited Edition 2017 and the Black Edition 2015.
In South America, Ventisquero’s reds stood out. The Chilean producer’s Grey Glacier Carmenere 2016 (from Maipo Valley fruit with 33% new oak) was a fabulous example of this grape, being both elegant and complex. Ventisquero’s Vertice 2015 label, a 50:50 blend of Carmenere and Syrah is the baby of former Penfolds Grange winemaker, John Duval, who acts as consultant. Made from Apalta fruit in the Colchagua Valley, this has terrific concentration and complexity.
Across the Andes in Mendoza, it was easy to see why the Davy’s team consider Gouguenheim to be ‘one of the best kept secrets in the Uco Valley.’ Situated at 3,600 feet above sea level, the winery enjoys a wide diurnal range that gives its Malbecs undeniable freshness. The Flores del Valle Blue Melosa Malbec 2014 stood out. So too did the classy reds of the nearby Tupungato-based Domaine Bousquet estate, whose winemaker is Rodrigo Serrano. Certified organic since 2005, the winery’s Malbec Grand Reserve 2015 was complex, concentrated and long, while its Ameri 2015 (65% Malbec, 25% Cabernet, 10% Syrah & Merlot) was powerful and structured. The Gaia Red 2017, a similar blend, also had overt tannins with notable concentration and length. Both are food wines for a steak or Sunday lunch.
Although a New World tasting, two Sussex sparkling wine producers of note were included, and duly impressed. Court Garden, in the village of Ditchling, employs long lees-ageing to create some fine wines from the three Champagne grapes. Their Cuvee Rose 2013, for example, spends five and a half years on the lees. Not far away in Mountfield, the Hoffmann & Rathbone winery, a husband and wife set-up, produce ultra-premium bubbly with even longer lees-ageing.