Paul Cluver 2007 Gewurztraminer (Elgin) – Starts out promising, showing ripe peach, apricot, some cashew oil, and a bit of rose. Not too heavy, not too sweet (but somewhat so). But then, a lack of acidity makes itself generally apparent and eventually somewhat annoying, there’s an intrusion of weedy growth, and the wine flattens, wrenches ‘round, and ends up somewhere a good deal more vegetal than it started. (1/10)
Boekenhoutskloof 2008 “The Wolftrap” (Western Cape) – A syrah/mourvèdre/viognier blend. The viognier (or some viognier-aping aromatic yeast) is aromatically dominant, but otherwise this is sweet, sweet, sweet fruit…too sweet for my tastes, with ripeness in the slightly candied blueberry and sticky plum pudding realm. Patently grasping for mass appeal, and failing to be of more than anti-academic interest as a result. Boekenhoutskloof, while decidedly New World in style, can make much better wines than this elsewhere in the range. (9/09)
Meerlust 2000 Pinot Noir (Stellenbosch) – Though it shows none of the obvious signs, there’s every likelihood that this has undergone long-term storage damage, so read what follows in that context: tired, yet still huge, with powdery tannin dominant and a syrah-like smoky leather component about all that’s left of the appealing side of the heavy fruit. Still dark mahogany, ranging towards purple, and pretty solid throughout in both color and weight. An intact bottle might be better. (8/09)
The current state of the wine business is enough to drive anyone to drink. Consider, for instance, this report from France:
French wine and spirits exports fell by almost a quarter in the first half of 2009…Champagne sales plummeted by 45% in value with Bordeaux declining 24%…Burgundy exports fell 30%
That last number might also be slightly elevated by the ongoing, and as yet not convincingly solved, premature oxidation issue affecting some of the region’s whites, but I suspect the majority of it is a simple matter of (over)supply vs. (under)demand.
In Champagne, however, they have a plan:
With sales falling, producers may be ordered to leave up to half their grapes to wither on the vine in an attempt to squeeze the market. Merchants are pushing for an historic reduction in yield as they seek to ensure that champagne remains an expensive luxury. “Everyone agrees that production has to be cut because no one here wants to see prices fall,” an industry insider said.
I suppose some might be moved to a fair bit of offense at the naked avarice of the folks who make Champagne, but I’m afraid I’m too cynical to be upset at this sort of thing anymore. And it is a good business/marketing decision, given what they sell is no longer wine (more on that in a moment).
But the news isn’t all bad. Referring once more to French wine:
The vin de pays category was less badly affected, while vin de table grew by 1.2%.
This matches what I’ve heard from retailers and restaurateurs: people are still buying alcohol, they’re just spending less when they do. But still, those drops in Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy are dramatic. Aren’t these in-demand luxury products, with a worldwide audience and a steady stream of new buyers?
Yes. Therein lies the problem. Champagne, and to a slightly lesser extent Bordeaux, are not – in the market’s imagination – wines any longer. They’re luxury goods. They’re sold on their names and admired for the same reason, probably more than they’re admired for the contents of the bottles. Don’t believe me? Heed the source:
“Champagne is the drink of dreams and of parties,” [Patrick] Le Brun [chairman of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne] wrote in La Champagne Viticole, the trade magazine. “Its image, its universe are endangered when the term ‘crisis’ is associated too often with it.”
Note the absence of any talk of Champagne’s gustatory qualities. It’s all about the image, the prestige, the “event.”
This is a situation certain regions have engineered themselves. In boom times, it helps their sales, and – especially in Champagne – it neatly separates desirability from quality, making the former rather than the latter the driver of popularity (were that not so, people wouldn’t buy so much mediocre Veuve Clicquot). But as we’re now seeing, there’s a downside. People might remain true to a beloved beverage during hard times. But a status symbol? Those can be replaced, or abandoned, with ease.
On the other hand, not everyone suffers in a downturn:
The South African wine industry could face wine shortages within five years if sales continue to rise at the current rate, a leading South African producer has warned. In 2008, total exports increased 12% to a record 405 million liters but vineyard planting has not kept pace with increasing demand. Merwe Botha, financial director at Distell told decanter.com, “We need to look at the demand and supply situation. There are signs that in the next five years the industry could face shortages in supply. Producers have been under severe pressure because of margin and cash flow problems so they have not planted as much as they should have,” he added.
This was a topic of much angst last year when I visited South Africa. The ten-rand-to-the-dollar exchange rate that made the trip a ridiculous bargain has, for a while now, helped the wines make significant inroads into territory that once belonged to Australia, New Zealand, and California. But the too-cheap prices received by the producers have a significant downside, one that’s been plaguing South American countries as well: the money to plant (or replant, a significant issue facing a good number of South African growers), the money to upgrade facilities, and the money to work the market simply doesn’t materialize, even though the bottles themselves might be flying out the cellar door.
Overgaauw 1997 Cape Vintage South African Liqueur Wine (Stellenbosch) – I admire the attempt to avoid using the word “port,” but this seems a little convoluted. The wine, however, is anything but difficult. A burst – nay, a fireworks display – of berries, still structured but with nicely-maturing spices (clove, nutmeg), forward and fruity. “Port” is a category in which South Africans appear to take much pride, but I have to say that after tasted around a dozen on a recent trip, I found the category – and many of the big names – pretty mediocre. Not so this, a library release to contrast with the winery’s more current vintage, and already showing a sophistication and worldliness that many of its brethren lack. No, it’s not up to the full range of complexities in a true Port, but it’s also not done maturing. (7/09)
Overgaauw 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Stellenbosch) – Vibrant green things – herbs, stems, vegetables, leaves, grasses – poised at their ideal midpoint between the underripe harshness of pyrazines and softer impressions of tropicality (though there is a hint of pineapple as well). There’s minerality…large rocks, decidedly indelicate…and a fine balance. A bit outrageous, in a manner that will remind some quite strongly of Marlborough, but it’s fuller-fleshed than that. The more I taste, the more I agree with a number of South African winemakers who believe that, at the moment, their country’s most accomplished and terroir-revelatory wines are its sauvignon blancs. (7/09)
Ken Forrester “Petit” 2008 Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch) – Sweet apricot and a hint of banana skin, but not a tropical fruit-salad wine; rather, sunny, polished, and summery fruit, clean and simple. There’s just enough acid, and maybe even the suggestion of chalk…though that may be self-suggestion. A wine for now, now, now. (7/09)
Raats 2008 “Original” Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch) – An unoaked cuvee. Appealing, sunny fruit, showing hay, gum, and fresh apricot. The texture’s overtly creamy, and while it retains a certainly lightness of spirit, the wine would be improved by a little more acidity. There’s a long, pure finish, and despite the absence of crispness, I really enjoy this wine. (11/08)
Raats 2006 Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch) – The difference between this and the “Original” is the élevage; some of this wine is barrel-fermented, a “world-classing” technique to which my initial reaction is dismay. Chenin shouldn’t need makeup to achieve greatness. And yet, here’s the first volley in South Africa’s attempt to prove me wrong, and I’m already wavering. There are the expected elements of cream, butter, and a more luxurious texture, but there are some surprises as well. For one thing, a salty, iron-rich minerality is brought to the fore. And while the finish is even thicker than in the “Original”, there’s a clear sensation of a greater quantity of balancing acidity. It’s all very mysterious. I still think I’d rather drink the “Original”, but this does make a compelling case for itself. (11/08)
Savanna “Dry” Cider (Elgin) – As dry as the label promises, with a fine bitter edge. Not great, but quite drinkable. (11/08)
Villiera Méthode Cap Classique Brut “Tradition” (Stellenbosch) – A little sweet, almost tasting as if there’s muscat in the mix (I don’t believe there is). Simple and quaffable, but no more. (11/08)