Tasting with a reasoned palate

Wednesday, 23 June, 2004
Nederburg News Service
Better matching of varietal with location and greater varietal specialization are required in South Africa, according to Brian Croser. 
Brian Croser is winemaker for Petaluma Wines and considered one of Australia’s greatest names in winemaking. He made his second visit to South Africa after an interval of six years, having last been in the country in 1998 as a judge for the SAA wine list selections. Here again in May to judge in the Fairbairn Capital SA Wine Trophy competition, he was exposed to a broad range of South African wines and asked to give his impressions after evaluating a line-up of varietal and blended wines.

As he sips a chilled Czech beer on a rainy autumn day to counter the palate fatigue from just having tasted 87 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends, the former president of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, who is richly decorated with awards and citations, and is internationally renowned and respected, particularly for championing the concept of terroir in the New World, is at great pains to point out that he doesn’t want to appear to be pontificating on the South African industry.

Croser is scrupulously careful not to offend, making observations that are consummately measured in their even-handedness, preferring to confine his animated opinions to more generic issues.

After three long days of tasting, he praises the improvements in wine growing and winemaking evident on the palate. But he points out that with global wine production progressively shifting to the southern hemisphere, more needs to be done to create ‘hero’ wines that truly measure up to the finest French classics. This is not a problem that is unique to South Africa though. It applies to all wine producing countries below the equator. Better matching of varietal with location and greater varietal specialization are required here. And, like their Australian counterparts, South African producers must learn that not all areas are suited to all varietals.

Not ignoring the many good wines he has encountered, he believes South Africa’s best wines are still to be realized and that perhaps the Cape’s best locations have yet to be identified - superior sites that give credence to his long-promoted concept of ‘distinguished vineyards’.

When it comes to corks versus screwcaps, Croser is quite vocal: ‘Too much is being talked about closures. We all feel betrayed by corks but that’s no reason to jump into the arms of stelvins (screwcaps). The media are on an evangelical mission, forgetting that the majority of consumers are still way behind and not all ready to switch from corks. I get regular complaints from customers who want to know why we are using screwcaps because they suspect the change signifies a change in the contents of the bottle.’

He readily concedes that there is a place for screwcaps and continues to use them but doesn’t view them as a cure-all for cork taint. He also reckons that in their wholesale advocacy of alternatives to cork, many members of the media don’t fully understand the cost implications of making the change or their impact on wines.

The prolific entries in the Shiraz category of the competition meet with his approval but he is disappointed at how few Rieslings are produced by South African winemakers.

That there are so many Shirazes to judge, shows local winemakers are becoming more attuned to terroir and to their markets. ‘When I tasted here for SAA, there were 15 contenders, if I remember correctly. This time, we tasted 147.’ And he is impressed by a widespread, consumer-friendly style of concentrated colours, ripe aromas, intensity of fruit and good tannins.

Not many of these Shirazes would be taken for Australian wines. They show a distinctive sense of place while expressing typically varietal characters of mocha, clove and cinnamon. But he also remarks that in the line-up are wines from vines not yet fully matured, which means they are not yet yielding their full flavour potential. There are also examples of Shiraz ‘grown in the wrong place’.

‘These are wines that are euphemistically described as having flavours of white pepper. In effect they are weedy and herbaceous and, in some cases, come from planting vines too close to the sea, where an insufficient variation in daytime temperature makes them lacklustre and uninteresting.’

Nevertheless Shiraz as a category has coped well with 2002, which he calls a difficult vintage, faring better than some of the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends from the same year, which are ‘weedier and harder of tannin than the Shirazes’.

Another observation is the generally modest use of wood, which he attributes to the expense of oak barrels for South African winemakers. ‘In many instances it’s not a bad thing for your wines to stand on their own fruit but where you have a really powerful concentration of fruit and tannin, you do need more oak.’

Known for his assiduous focus on cellar hygiene, he is quick to pick up evidence of Brettanomyces in both red categories, most particularly the Cabernet/Merlot blends. Brettanomyces, also referred to as ‘brett’, are a class of natural yeasts occasionally found on grapes and in wines and can produce metallic-like off-flavours. But when contamination is very slight, these yeasts can impart an attractive complexity. The problem is how to restrict their development.

Their presence is most typically associated with lack of cellar hygiene and where the use of sulphur dioxide, storage temperatures and pH levels are not adequately controlled.

He is fascinated by the South African devotion to Chenin Blancs, not having made any himself since the 1970s. But while many of those he tasted are ‘merit worthy’ and certainly should not be eliminated from South Africa’s repertoire, he doesn’t think these wines have the same broad-based appeal that Sauvignon Blancs or Chardonnays do.

What really stand out for him are the seamlessly integrated and beautifully balanced Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends, with the Semillon tempering the overt characters of the Sauvignon Blanc. These, he says, have a great future.

And this draws him to the similarities between the Margaret River and parts of the Cape that share the influence of the Indian Ocean. Similarities extend beyond climate to soil types. He points to how well Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot can do in both.

He is delighted that our sparkling wines are not Champagne-wannabes but have their own identity and, while he says local ports are far closer in style to the Portuguese examples than their Australian counterparts he is puzzled at the local interest in these wines, which have been falling off in popularity in his own country.

He has spoken widely about the symbiotic relationship between commodity-driven brands and those wines that taste of place. Each group depends on the other for success in increasingly competitive markets and, while perhaps regionality has not been subjugated in the name of big brands in this country as in his own, he says we must grow both types of wine offerings if we are to continue to hold our own in international markets.