Tasting a 2013 Vintage Horizontal with Thomas Webb of Iconic Thelema Mountain Vineyards…

Thelema Mountain Vineyards is an absolute Cape classic, located high on the slopes of the picturesque Simonsberg Mountain in the heart of Stellenbosch, the true Kingdom of Cabernet. With vineyards grown at elevations of between 370m and 530m above sea level, Thelema is one of the highest and coolest estates in the area with 100 percent of the fruit used coming from their own vineyards.

For the last few years, Thomas Webb has taken over the reigns from his father Gyles Webb, who established Thelema in 1983 by purchasing a run down fruit farm. The first wines were released in 1988 and they soon became some of the most sought after wines in the Cape winelands and pretty soon came to typify the new quality and modern style parameters that were being pursued in the post 1990 South Africa, ahead of the first democratic elections in 1994.

Chatting to Thomas at our recent 2013 red vintage horizontal tasting, I recalled how in the mid 1990’s I used to battle to secure even just a few bottles of their Chardonnay, Merlot Reserve and their famous Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines, despite their fame, we’re not produced in huge quantities and were actually quite a defined, limited boutique offering. Today, Thelema still sells a healthy 70 percent of their wines in the local home market, a revealing sign of their continued fame and fashion among local South African fine wine consumers.

Thelema Merlot 2013, Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

Cool dark spicy nose showing black fruits, dried herbs, baking spices and macerated black plums. Also a noticeable dried bush veld and cherry skin pithiness. The palate is sleek, tight knit and cool, packed with fleshy black berry fruits, black plum, and black current. There is tension here and classical fine grained mineral tannins lurking underneath the elegant creamy texture. A Merlot definitely on the more serious end of the spectrum. 

(Wine Safari Score: 92/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Thelema Merlot Reserve 2013, Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.

This wine shows evidence of a step up in quality and intensity with 100% new French oak being used for maturation. The nose is sweet and savoury revealing an alluring earthy vein along with blueberries, tannery leather, dried herbs, and a Cabernet-like cedary oak spice lift. The palate is rich and intense, showing very polished, textured and suave luxurious sweet tannins. There is extra power here and harmonious fleshy depth with cassis leaf, subtle herbal notes and sweet tobacco on the long vibrant finish. Impressive wine with only approximately 3000 bottles produced from vines planted in the mid-1980’s.

(Wine Safari Score: 93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon The Mint 2013, Stellenbosch, 14 Abv. 

A really individual style with a dusty lift of pronounced peppermint and sweet cassis spice together with cedary, mineral spice and boiled black currant sweets, pastille, and herbal mint tea notes. The palate is full and fleshy, rich and round, with fine purity and creamy, caressed tannins. The finish is modern and opulent, with black currant leaf, reductive saline cassis notes and that characteristic eucalyptus lick. Very enjoyable to drink. A real crowd pleaser.

(Wine Safari Score: 92+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Thomas Webb pouring a glass of the CWG 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, the predecessor of the Rabelais

Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Stellenbosch, 14 Abv. 

There is officially no reserve Cabernet Sauvignon in the Thelema range, but this classic black label Cabernet Sauvignon is a serious piece of kit. Aged 20 months in 40% new French oak, there is lovely varietal typicity here (despite the sneaky splash of Petit Verdot in the blend), with a dusty mineral nose of dried basil and thyme, hints of fynbos, graphite, and perfumed potpourri dried herb spice. Beautifully textured, the palate shows great purity and precision and intelligent winemaking. Like all the Thelema wines, there are fine polished tannins, real elegance, focus and finesse. Classy and classical, this is an impressive expression of Stellenbosch Cabernet with complexity, age-ability, and confidence of style. Benchmark in everyday.

(Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Thelema Rabelais Blend 2013, Stellenbosch, 14 Abv. 

Alternatively called the Thelema Cape Winemakers Guild blend, this wine changed to the Rabelais label with the 2007 vintage, being produced originally from only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. From 2009, Petit Verdot started to replace the Merlot portion and now the blend appears fairly settled on a 90% Cab / 10% PV mix. Dark, cool, broody black fruits reveal hints of cassis leaf, saline oyster shell, graphite, iodine and blueberry crumble. Palate is taught and fresh, with real precision and incredibly fine, pin point velvety tannins. A very elegant package, the acids give this wine extra tension and real steely cut. Classy and restrained, the Rabelais will improve immeasurably with at least another 10 years in the cellar.

(Wine Safari Score: 94+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

The stunning mountains at the Helshoogte Pass
A sneaky glass of the newly released Chardonnay 2015 to refresh the palate after a lovely horizontal tasting.

Fine Wine Tuesday… Ending the Burgundy En-Primeur Campaign with a Grand Cru Lunch…

In the wine trade, we spend so much time finding wines, tasting wines, negotiating the purchase of wines and selling wines that sometimes it’s good to pause, reflect, and actually drink some fine wines.

With Burgundy En-primeur 2015 reaching a successful climax, it seemed fitting to close off the campaign with a wonderful Grand Cru Burgundy lunch at La Trompette, one of London’s best 1 Star Michelin restaurants. 

As always, some top wines were expertly served, creatively matched with fantastic food, and enjoyed in good company, just as the producers intended them to be. Simple. 

Champagne Krug Grande Cuvee NV – 94+/100 GS (Aged in cellar on cork from release at least 10 years)

Domaine Michel Niellion Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2013 – 93+/100 GS

Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 2012 – 96/100 GS

Domaine Rapet Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 1986 – 94/100 GS (Recently sourced ex-cellar)

Marie-Louise Parisot Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir 1993 – 94/100 GS (Negotiant label)

Domaine Grivot Echezeaux Grand Cru 2002 – 95+/100 GS

Louis Jadot Latricieres-Chambertin Grand Cru 2001 – 94+/100 GS

Frederic Esmonin Griotte-Chambertin Grand Cru 1999 – 94+/100 GS

Mommessin Clos de Tart Grand Cru Monopole 1999 – 96+/100 GS

Domaine Pierre Amiot Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 1978 – 95/100 GS

JJ Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 2006 – 96/100 GS

Roast pheasant pearl barley risotto
Linguine, black winter truffle and Parmesan
Roast haunch of fallow deer
Banana soufflé with ginger and passion fruit ice cream

La Trompette Restaurant, 5-7 Devonshire Road, Chiswick, W4 2EU

2017 and the Onward Rise of Bordeaux Second Wines… An Introduction

We all like premium wines. But occasionally, we all have to trade down to more affordable, drinkable options, like perhaps a second wine? The rise in popularity of premium Bordeaux second wines in the international fine wine marketplace is not necessarily a trend that began in 2016 but it is certainly one which solidified further and gained a massive amount of extra momentum.

This trend was confirmed by year end trading figures on the Liv-ex Fine Wine Exchange, with a massive increase in purchasing of a wide spectrum of second labels, primarily from premium or super premium Chateaux names.

The fine wine crash of 2011 not only brought a stark dose of reality back to an over heated, over priced, over ambitious Bordeaux market, but also massive, sustained loses for buyers of En-primeur from 2010, 11, 12, 13, and 14… with only a glimmer of respite emerging with the 2015 releases and the post-Brexit, post-pound depreciation fine wine gold rush that commenced in Mid-2016. 

So this second wine popularity trend perhaps has its true origins in the price rises of 2009-10… two exceptional, though expensive, vintages where the quality of many top Chateaux second wines were as good if not better than the first wines from previous lesser vintages like 2006, 07, or even 08. 

Producing and selling through €150-300 Euro per bottle first wines with potential production volumes of 5,000 to 10,000 cases (not bottles), was never going to be easy in a world approaching its 9th year of austerity economics. Cleverly, Chateaux realised if they reduced production of the first wines down to 2,000 or 3,000 cases, and upped the production and quality of second wines at lower, more accessible prices, they could successfully maintain the super premium prices and perceived scarcity value of their first wines.

So which Chateaux second wines offer the consumer good value for money? Over the coming weeks and months in the lead up to En-primeur 2016 in April, I’ll be tasting an ongoing series of second wines to see if I can strike vinous gold. I hope you will join me on this fine wine safari!

My 10 Most Memorable South African Wines of 2016…

2016 has been a busy year in the U.K. trade. Gone are the days of defined seasonality that used to resemble something like … Mediocre to very busy in January incorporating Burgundy En-primeur, quiet “gone skiing” February and then back to work in earnest in March…normally incorporating a couple of trips to South Africa, and then back, straight into the melee of Bordeaux En-primeur and Italian Super Tuscan new releases. Non-stop until July, then a bit of wind-down over the summer months before picking up the fine wine reigns one last time for the final push to Christmas.

Nope. Doesn’t work like that anymore. While seasonality has been on the way out for some time, the Brexit vote result and subsequent depreciation of the pound against the dollar and euro, ensured the busiest sustained fine wine market action in the U.K. since 2010/11. Indeed, the past year now seems a blur, albeit a successful blur. 

After recently reading journalist Tim James’ 2016 year in reflection, I agree that I too am not a massive fan of Top 10s … or 20s etc, wines of the year lists. Like him, I prefer to contemplate my “most memorable” wines of the year… the ones that were accompanied with a “wow” moment and then firmly lodged themselves in your subconscious wine psyche. 

I’ve probably missed a couple, and have almost certainly left a few older vintages off in favour of more current releases, but all the below wines made an impact on me and my palate! So well done to the wineries! Onwards and upwards in 2017!

5 Memorable White Wines

David & Nadie Hoe Steen Chenin Blanc Swartland 2015 – 98/100
I sat on the blind Decanter Magazine panel that judged this wine top of the tree. Maybe next time David will decide to make more than one bloody barrel!! Oi vey!

I wish all Skurfberg labels could have the William Kentridge label like the 2009
Sadie Family OVS Skurfberg 2015 – 96/100

This wine from Eben Sadie is normally a slow starter, requiring a bit of time in bottle to show at its best. But with the extra 2015 vintage concentration and intensity, it’s spectacularly good from the start. Fill your cellar with this gem.

Ataraxia Chardonnay 2015 – 95/100

Tasted and rated blind recently, this is Kevin Grant at his dogged and determined best. A benchmark Chardonnay from an obliging vintage. I think I even dreamt about drinking and tasting this wine afterwards!

Naude Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2013 – 95/100

Tasted again recently at the Ian Naude Old Vine Masterclass in London, along side his 2015. Well, if Coche-Dury made Chenin Blanc, it would probably taste something like this beauty! A really profound white wine that’s also age worthy.

Thorne & Daughters Paper Kite Old Vine Semillon 2015 – 95/100

While Semillon has hit the big time again, this one just piped a few other great wines from 2015. I loved the versions from Jacques Wentzel and Chris Alheit, but the Paper Kite just seemed to be that little more seductive, earlier. 

5 Memorable Red Wines

MR de Compostella 2014 – 96/100

This is one of my favourite SA reds. While I’m yet to taste a vintage that’s even near maturity, I believe the MR will one day be revered as one of the longest lived SA reds a la GS Cabernet 66 and 68. The maiden MR 2004 is still a baby. Patience is definitely required.

Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2014 – 96/100

Kanonkop has always been closely aligned with Majestic Wine Warehouses in the U.K., making it difficult for independent merchants to champion one of SA’s greatest producers. In 2016 this changed and I finally shipped some of their Cabernet, Paul Sauer, and their Black Label 2014, a profoundly good wine, regardless of varietal!

Savage Follow the Line 2015 – 95/100 

Duncan Savage carved out a niche as one of SA’s best “white wine makers”. Now he is firmly engaged in convincing the wine world of his new credentials as simply… “one of SA’s very best winemakers”… period! His reds are possibly even better than his whites (dare I say that?) and I predict that in the grand wine scheme, we ain’t seen nothing yet! 

Mullineux Family Wines Schist Syrah 2014 Swartland – 95/100

I’ve never denied being more of a Bordeaux guy than a Rhone kind of guy, but when you taste such a suave, terroir driven expression like the Schist Syrah, I’m easy to convert! A wine and producer that in my opinion, is still to really receive it’s just international acclaim among connoisseurs … though Andrea Mullineux’s recent Wine Enthusiast Wine Maker of the Year title in 2016 might just help!

Newton Johnson CWG Seadragon Pinot Noir 2015 – 95/100

Tasted this at the fabulous Cape Winemakers Guild press tasting in London pre-auction. Everyone in the room was swept off their feet including big wigs Dr Jamie Goode and Tim Atkin MW. A really profound expression of South African Pinot Noir. A real WOW wine! 

So a big thank you to all my friends, be they wine makers, estate owners, wine merchants or wine journalists for making 2016 another epic year of wine friendships and fine wine experiences. 2017 can only be better.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

Handford Wines Xmas Tasting ~ Highlighting Some of South Africa’s Finest White and Red Wines…

Last night was the Handford Wines Christmas Tasting for 150 of our best clients. I could not miss this opportunity to highlight some of the fantastic South African 2015 vintage whites and reds that have arrived over the Autumn. We are spoilt for choice in London!

Here are some of my top 2015 picks of the night with the odd sneaky 2014 also getting in on the act! We are blessed in South Africa with such diversity and quality. You’d be mad not to seek out these wines and fill your cellar with them! 

Berene Damon’s fantastic 2015 maiden release Hemel en Aarde Ridge Pinot Noir (94/100)

2016 and 2017 vintages look like being very low yielding drought vintages. All the more reason to buy the sumptuous 2015s! 

Beautiful Mother Rock pair from Stompie Meyer. What a vintage to launch his new Cuvees to the world! Both the Grenache (95/100) and the Carignan-Cinsaut (93+/100) were on fire last night.

Jocelyn Hogan’s Chenin Blanc has taken the market by storm. The 2014 was a beaut, the 2015 leaves you gasping for air it’s so good (95/100).

John Seccombe has built a towering reputation in a matter of years. He reaches new heights of greatness with his epic white Rocking Horse 2015 blend (95+/100).

We all know wizard Andre van Rensberg is capable of making incredible wines. This small “Liberated” parcel of Helderberg 2015 Semillon (with a splash of 2016 Sauvignon Blanc) illustrates his exceptional talents (93/100).

No fine wine tasting would be complete with out South Africa’s most acclaimed Bordeaux red blend. Here the MR de Compostella 2014 struts its stuff and impresses like we know it can. A beautiful Cabernet Franc driven expression (96/100). 

Can there be anyway better way to finish off a tasting than with a sweet wine made by the Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of The Year 2016? Andrea Mullineux, with husband Chris, have followed up their Olerasay Solera Straw Wine release (98/100) with the fantastically good 2015 Chenin Blanc Straw Wine (97/100), winner of the Platter Guide 2017 Sweet Wine of the Year. Need I say more?

The Anwilka and Chateau Angelus Blind Tasting Challenge ~ A New Era of Quality in South African Red Wines Confirmed Yet Again…

I recall the pronouncement from Robert Parker Jr. well… “This is the finest red wine I have ever had from South Africa.” He was of course referring to his tasting of the first vintage of the Anwilka red blend 2005. I always knew which vintage was specifically mentioned, but I somehow struggled to find this quote again when a year later, I wanted to reference it to introduce a release offer of Anwilka 2005. 

This statement made a surprise come back today being boldly quoted in the introductory tasting brochure for the blind tasting arranged in London by Klein Constantia’s Managing Director Hans Astrom and Stephanie de Bouard-Rivoal of Chateau Angelus fame. 

Anwilka is of course a 48 hectare maritime influenced property in the Helderberg region purchased in the 1990s by the previous owners of Klein Constantia along with Hubert de Bouard of Angelus and Bruno Prats, formerly of Cos d’Estournel. The estate was extensively replanted with exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Verdot vines.

Today’s tasting was an exercise in removing preconceptions surrounding premium South African wines and confirming that they can and do stand shoulder to shoulder quality wise with some of the greatest wines in the world. The tasting featured 8 wines, specifically chosen from multiple vintages, from all over the world. 

My tasting notes below were written tasting the wines blind, and with out guidance as to their provenance other than assuming there would be several Anwilka wines and several Angelus wines. The results were intriguing. Here are my 8 wines and their scores:

Wine No.1

What I Said: Old World, Bordeaux 

Actual Wine: Chateau Angelus 2006

Score: 93/100 GS

Blind Note: Dark, rich fruits, perfume, red fruit spice and fine dry classical tannins, peppery restraint, some alcohol heat, finishing with power, grip and good concentration.

Wine No. 2

What I Said: New World, South Africa

Actual Wine: Anwilka 2005 

Score: 88/100 GS

Blind Note: Sweet meaty stewed flavours, spice and warm ripeness, evolved tertiary notes, with 8 to 10 years development, finishing with savoury earthy berry fruit, green bean hints and wet leaves and chocolate.

Wine No. 3

What I Said: Old World, Italy

Actual Wine: Ridge Monte Bello 2011

Score: 93+/100

Blind Note: Rich, opulent lifted nose, with kirsch, cherry blossom, violets, and cassis. Sleek, fresh and vibrant with masses of elegance and finesse. 2012 vintage?

Wine No. 4

What I Said: Old World, French Bordeaux

Actual Wine: Ornellaia 2008, Bolgheri

Score: 93+/100

Blind Note: Ripe, kirsch cherry nose, cherry confit, spice, dusty cedar oak, violets, and creme de cassis. Earthy forest fruits, suave tannins, warm finish but plenty of elegance.

Wine No. 5

What I Said: New World, Australia

Actual Wine: Anwilka 2012

Score: 94/100 GS

Blind Note: Rich, opulent lifted nose of salty cassis, black currants, and dark pastille sweets. Refined and perfumed with Parma violets and hints of boiled Bon Bon sweets. Soft sleek textured wine that’s plush and fleshy. Laced with mocha spice and dark chocolate oranges. Almost Chilean characters to the black saline fruit finish.

Wine No. 6

What I Said: Old World, French Bordeaux

Actual Wine: Chateau Angelus 2012

Score: 93+/100 GS

Blind Note: Dusty spice of cinnamon, and mocha, vanilla pod and hints of medicine chest. Classically proportioned palate with dry mineral tannins, restraint, and grainy black cassis and mulberry confit. Powerful cherry spice laden finish. Young Bordeaux… 2011 or 2014?

Wine No. 7

What I Said: New World, USA

Actual Wine: Anwilka 2013

Score: 95/100 GS

Blind Note: Sweet creme brûlée and cassis, blue berry crumble, cherry and kirsch liqueur, ripe black currant. Very polished texture, super fine tannins, sweet / sour black cherry and cassis density, freshness with ultra fine tannins. Juicy fresh acids and a whole lot of finesse. 

Wine No. 8

What I Said: New World, South Africa

Actual Wine: Cullen Diana Madeline 2014

Score: 94/100

Blind Note: Dark, dense core of black fruits, black currants, liquorice, Xmas cake, and sweet oak spice. Polished tannins, fleshy and opulent, good concentration with balance. Fine effort with ripe core but a classically layered texture and tannins. Classy wine in its youth.

So, there you have my humble scribblings for what they’re worth. As any wine judge or journalist will tell you, tasting blind and noting ones own mistakes can be very humbling, but oh so much fun… and massively enlightening in hindsight. I was of course sitting next to the very great Stephen Spurrier, who has his own endless array of stories about a group of judges’ blind notes, scores and comments from a certain little tasting that took place back in 1976!

With Stephen, Hans and Stephanie after the tasting

I feel if this had been an exam, I would have passed. But more importantly I have to tip my hat to Hans and Stephanie for organising such an enlightening tasting. 20 years ago when regularly tasting reds blind, we would pick out Californian wines by their polished finesse, purity, opulence, balance and precision. We all wished that South African wines could aspire to this greatness. 

Today I fittingly picked a South African wine as not only my top scorer, but also placed it in a quality realm so good it had to be Californian! Oh how times have changed. 

Venue was private members club Home House at 20 Portman Square, London

Ruth Lewandowski Wines ~ Purity and Precision with 105 Year Old Vines…

The 2015 Naomi is 100% Grenache gris made by Evan Lewandowski, with 105 year old vines from the Gibson Ranch of Mendocino’s McDowell Valley. Rather than treating this fuchsia-toned grape like a red wine and macerating it with its skins, Evan whole cluster pressed the fruit and seperated the juice from the skins to ferment in an egg-shaped tank. The manually controlled press cycle was a long, fairly rough one to extract a higher than average amount of phenolic material from the beautiful, unique fruit.

After about three weeks, native alcoholic fermentation was complete along with malolactic fermentation. The 2015 Naomi saw no winemaking additions of any kind except for a scant 20ppm of SO2 before being bottled unfiltered and unfined.

Ruth Lewandowski Wines’ winemaker Evan Lewandowski

“Contrary to who most people imagine Ruth to be, she is not my mother, nor my grandmother, but my favorite book in the Bible.  Without sounding ‘preachy,’ and in the interest of concisely summing things up, there is no better depiction of death and redemption than the book of Ruth (who just happened to be from a town called “Moab”).  Much of my philosophy of farming and, in turn, winemaking is derived from this cycle of death and redemption (both in the physical realm we can see and the spiritual realm we often do not). Death is, indeed, the engine of life.” ~ Evan Lewandowski.

Tasting Note: Ruth Lewandowski Naomi Gibson Ranch 2015, California, 12 Abv. ~ Beautiful pale marmalade orange colour with a hint of pink blush. The nose is rich, expressive, pithy showing zesty marmalade jam, orange peel, salty briney gravelly minerals, wet river pebbles and an alka seltzer lift, dried herbs and grassy elderflower nuances. There is a fine density on the palate from these 105 year old Grenache Gris vines, with tangerine peel, lemon grass and spicy green pears. The subtle grape skin grip and spicy tannins add to the palate texture, all in beautiful balance. This is a complex, seductive wine that wills you to drink it! A real pleasure giver. No surprise then that this wine sold out within days of release… entering it into the unicorn lexicon! (Wine Safari Score: 95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Naomi’s Grenache Gris ferment