“Harry, come in here.”*
I stopped trying to charge my phone from a dying macbook – so I could inform the dearly beloved I was picking up some wine from Wine Cellar so I’d be late – and walked through to Roland’s office.
“Harry,” Roland, Wine Cellar’s head-honcho, said as soon as I walked in, “you’re young, represent the new wine drinkers of the country, tell Graeme here what you think of Durbanville, their Merlot’s and Cabernet’s specifically.”
I took a chair next to an older gentleman in khaki pants, a check shirt, with pens poking out the top pocket, and short, curly grey hair.
There was one word on my mind. One word that to me summed up this region on the edge of the boerewors curtain, one word that that is a theme amongst nearly all its reds. Green. Green. Green. Spring green, green like a jungle, green as a suburban golf course.
“No, let him taste the wine,” said the man to my right, “forget Durbanville, it’s about what’s in the glass.”
It was hardly a blind tasting. I could see the bottle was from Hillcrest Winery. I knew the man to the right was the winemaker Graeme Read, and I could assume the wine was the flagship, due to its Gaddafi-like adornment of medals. The name of the wine escaped me at the time, but I remembered it was a Bordeaux blend.
Graeme poured me a glass. I swirled and sniffed.
Damn, I thought, it’s bloody living up to Durbannville’s reputation. A thick, dusty, green aroma greeted me. Kinder people would call it herbaceous, more tight-arsed tasters would call it green, mean, GODDAM-PYRAZINE. I quickly swirled and snifffed again before tasting, desperately searching for some fruit beneath the blanket of green. Perhaps some red fruit. A little cassis. Good enough. I tasted, slurped, and swallowed. I was surprisingly taken with its freshness, elegance, and weight. There was some more black fruit on the palate, and the length was good. However, that green character pervaded everything. Around every corner, at the end of every good part of the wine lay a leafiness, thoughts of snapped green stalks, and tramps through wet grass. I do not hate green elements in a wine, but here it was just overwhelming, and for me, threw the wine off balance. I looked at the medals with a mentally cocked eyebrow.
The two of them looked at me expectantly.
“I like the freshness. I think it’s elegant. But that dusty, greeness. Well, err, I think it’s a little too much.
Roland concurred, if a little bit more vociferously than me. I admired Roland’s forthrightness with the winemaker. He was of the opinion that Durbanville could simply not – at this time in its history – produce wines with a purity of fruit that can be found relatively easily in France.
“Would you like me to get a bottle of Bordeaux to compare?” Roland asked.
“No no, no need.” Graeme responded.
Odd man I thought. Let us all compare until the small hours.
“You should compare. It’s what my customers drink. It’s what they prefer. I don’t have to convince them. I had one recently who came here with a R10 000 a month budget for wine,” Roland paused, “She doesn’t have children. She started off buying all local, but after trying french wines, she buys only 10% local now. ”
Graeme was not rolling over that easily. “So are you saying that French wine is just better?”
“No, they’ve just been doing it longer. I’m going to get that bottle.”
Roland left and I sat with Graeme in the office. He looked at me and asked what I thought of his wine.
“I loved the freshness”
“Exactly, thank you, I’m glad, the alcohol is only 13,5%”
And it was true. The wine was very good on the whole. Rich, and weighty from the South African sun; fresh, bright and balanced structurally. Except, that the pervading green dominated the flavour too much. It was like someone had walked up to a beautifully finished oil-painting, and haphazardly tagged it with a spray can.
Roland returned with a bottle of Lacoste Borie 2009 from Pauillac. It was a clever comparison. The wines had a similar make up, being primarily Cabernet and Merlot, in a similar price bracket, the Lacoste sells for R395 (wine cellar) , and the Hillcrest Hornfels for R250 (cellar door) and both were from the 2009 vintage (although being in different hemispheres this means little apart from they are around the same age).
Immediately I found the Lacoste to be a leaner, sleeker wine. It was a little cold to begin with, but as it warmed up there was some sweet fruit, cherry, touch of tobacco. The finish was tangy, the tannins fine. Crisp and balanced. The fruit was purer, as Roland had anticipated.
“So there is a little green edge in here,” Roland pointed out, “but it’s more dried herbs than, well, fresh herbs I guess.”
Graeme seemed more taken with the wine’s tannins than anything about greeness. I thought he was devilishly avoiding the obvious.
I went back to the Hornfels. The Bordeaux seemed to magnify its green character grossly. Apart from this character – if it is possible do ignore it – on pure quality I don’t think the wines are miles apart, but to me it was quite clear which wine I would prefer to drink . The Lacoste, by a mile.
“You two are lucky I’m not in a sensitive mood,” Graeme chuckled. He seemed to accept Roland’s criticisms with good humor. He went on.
“But Roland, I’m a biologist, so I look at the area, the aspect, the soil…..”
“But wine’s more than that,” Roland interrupted.
“Listen Roland, look at the analysis, the pH is…
“Wine’s not just about analysis.”
“OK. I get it. I’ll go next year to some cellar in Bordeaux, and be told to move this pipe there, pump that here, and when I come back I will be able to make wine just a little better.”
Graeme, it was clear, was warming up for a scene.
“And then the following year I will return to France, and learn French, then my wine will improve even further. Maybe I need to live there for awhile until I can come back and make good wine.”
He got louder, his gestures wilder, sending up the idea.
“Graeme, it’s not that the french are better…
“Is it their Terroir? Their climate? What is is it?”
“They’ve been doing it for a very long time. This bottle,” Roland gestured toward the Lacoste, “has at least a hundred of years of production behind the name. We know about it, where the wine is going. Your wine, we just don’t have that certainty.”
“All right Roland, I’ll make a pact with you now. In 20 years – don’t look at me like that, I’ll be alive – we’ll meet here and taste these wines…”
“You should buy a case of the Lacoste, and you can drink one every few years.”
Ah, Roland, always the wine salesman.
This conversation stuck me as very important. Not because I preferred a Paulliac to a Durbanville bordeaux blend. That, at this point in history, is as normal as preferring a cup of fresh coffee to a week old, cold, cup of instant. But because of how biased our palates in South Africa are.
I think the Hornfels is, on the one hand, an accomplished wine. It shows elegance and freshness, characters that many of our big name producers that sell wine at the R250-plus range sadly lack. However, it has been heavily awarded. The greenness in the wine does not seem to concern the judges. It concerns me very much. I may be wrong, or at least, happy to be argued with, but this did not smell like terroir, it smelled underripe. Vegetal.
Again, not groundbreaking. But after thinking about Meneer Clarke’s point:
The lack of international wine being drunk by those in the industry.
I had to wonder if we were all drinking more wines like the Lacoste would we be so happy to put up with this greenish streak? Would we be as comfortable with it as all the medals seem to suggest?
It is where preferences, ideas about what wine should taste like, and science collide. If we are comfortable with this character it is not going to change. If we – South African wine drinkers – limit ourselves to only that which we know and are comfortable with, we will never think it a problem.
It is a fine line. I have written before of how we are over-concerned with how Burgundy tastes in relation to our Pinot Noirs. A balance needs to be struck about which wines are excellent examples and what we can learn from them, and what is unique about our own wines and championing that uniqueness.
*The words in this post were not transcribed or recorded. I have absolutely misquoted, Roland, Graeme and myself. I think I have captured the spirit and truth of the conversation so I doubt they will mind. Because, any of you that know me even slightly, will question this sudden perfect memory. Hah. If I have got a single word right here I will be impressed.