Thursday, December 29, 2022

South Africa


In 1990, two momentous events changed South Africa in ways that are still being felt today: Nelson Mandela was released from his prison on Robben Island, setting a new course for the beleaguered nation and Apartheid was abolished, freeing the people from its grip and opening the country's economy. 

Less known, but important to wine drinkers around the world, was the lifting of  international sanctions, allowing the struggling South Africa (SA) wine industry to recover its potential. Outdated vineyard and winery equipment were replaced, winemakers began traveling again to learn the latest innovations in wine making and the opportunity to rejoin the international wine fraternity.  The worldwide  wine community took notice that the nearly South Africa moribund export wine market began to show new life. 

Great Britain had long been South Africa's major export market.  Before the early 1990s, if you wanted to see what SA's small wineries had to offer, London was the place to go.  Except for the odd bottle of Steen (the local name for Chenin Blanc) and an odd red called Pinotage, there were few SA wines in American wine shops. 

Aside:  Perhaps no other wine, that I can think of,  was met with such negativism outside its country of origin, than South Africa's Pinotage.  Developed in 1924 at Stellenbosch University as a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, the first rustic reds were slightly bitter and smelled and tasted of acetate. 

For years, Pinotage was controversial and a hard sell outside South Africa, but with advances in grape growing and wine making, the rough edges were smoothed out and many Pinotages, such as those from Kanonkop, began to show clean fruit flavors, no bitterness, a little refinement and the ability to age.  

For some wine drinkers, mainly those who remember the old style Pinotage, the signature South Africa red is not yet out of the woods, but many SA wineries are working on it.

My first trip to South Africa was in 1995, when the SA wine industry was working hard to get back in the game.  Some vineyards I saw looked ragged and didn't have the orderly well-tended appearance of vineyards in California, Australia and Europe. Wineries were suffering as well, lacking the funds to buy the latest stainless steel tanks, pneumatic presses and Italian bottling lines.  

Wherever I went, the winery owner tried to impress me with a re-styled Pinotage when it was Pinot Noir I was after. It was like being handed a glass of Carignane in California when all I wanted was to taste their Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.  




Regions, Grapes and Winemaking

Cape Winelands major wine zones are roughly divided into four major regions: South Coast; Coastal Region, the core of Cape wine making; Klein Karoo, Northern Cape and the Breede River Valley. 

The focus of this overview of Cape wines will be the districts within the Coastal Region, home to South Africa's most recognizable wine districts: Stellenbosch, Paarl, Constantia and Franschhoek.  

In SA wine terminology, the breakout is Region, District and Ward.  This bit of seeming trivia can be useful when shopping for SA wines, much the same way as reading a California wine label showing region, winery and vineyard: Napa Valley, Acme Winery, Paramount Vineyard.

Stylistically, South African wines have been described as between European and California or Australian. To my taste, the wines are less ripe than California and some Australian and earthier than many European wines.

Franschhoek (Frans-huk) is a major area and home to some of SA's oldest wineries. The area was settled by French Huguenots in the 17th century; the name means "French Corner."  An early name for the area is "Oliphants hoek" (elephants corner) for the large herds of elephants that once roamed the valley.

Franschhoek is one of the loveliest spots in the Western Cape, with the valley nestled between the Drakenstein and Franschhoek Mountains. 

Major varieties: Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, plus some Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc. 

Franschhoek wineries: La Motte, Boschendal, Franschhoek Vineyards.


Cape architecture


Stellenbosch is a university town, along the Eerste River.  The large district has more than 80 wineries, the most by far in the Western Cape.

Stellenbosch wineries make a wide range of wines, including the sparkling Cap Classique. More than any variety, Stellenbosch is identified with Chenin Blanc and there is far more planted in South Africa than in France's Loire Valley.  Called "Steen" by the first settlers, the wine became popular, thanks in large part to Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, for its sweet Steen.

Stellenbosch winemakers were at the forefront of those making Shiraz, often grown as a bush vine and aged both in American oak and French oak. Those opting for French oak, prefer the marriage of Pinotage sweet fruit and spice of French oak.

Major Varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz. 

Stellenbosch wineries: Neal Ellis, Kanonkop, La Bonheur, Meerlust, Rustenberg, Mulderbosch.

Paarl Wine Region | Wine region, Natural landmarks, Landmarks
Paarl wine region in shadow of Drakenstein mountains

Paarl is an important inland district, mainly for its growing number of wineries, but also for its dependence on grapes from other districts like Stellenbosch.  KWV is the biggest winery in Paarl, and maybe in all of South Africa.  Paarl is a warm area, with the best wines coming from vineyards at higher altitudes, thus the reputation that Paarl has for fortified wines, like port-style wines made from the Souzao grape.  In recent years, Paarl has transitioned from mainly white to mainly red wine.

Major varieties: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Pinotage

Paarl wineries: Glen Carlou, KWV, Fairview, Simonsvlei

Constantia has a colorful history stretching back to the 17th century when the Constantia estate was established. Today, three wineries carry the Constantia name. In the early years, the Constantia wines was made from Muscat de Frontignan, Muscadel and Chenin Blanc

Major varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon

Constantia wineries: Constantia Ultsig, Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia

South African wines may require a search, but it's worth the effort for their unique styles, high quality and good value.            


Next blog: Sonoma Series: Carneros & Other Appellations

Write me at



Thursday, December 22, 2022


The holiday countdown has begun and that usually means folks are beginning to think about what to eat and drink on festive occasions. Year-end musings also mean it's time for the annual treatise on Champagne, sparkling wine, bubbles, or whatever name suits your fancy. 

I'm not sure of how many articles I've written on the enjoyment of sparkling wine, but it's probably been hundreds. One thing I always make sure to include in these articles is to mention the folks who put the bubbles in wine.  Throughout the year, they faithfully remind us that bubbly is not just a wine for celebration, but a pleasure to be enjoyed year round. 

Well, when I think of opening one of my dwindling number of sparkling wines, it's usually to toast a holiday or celebrate a special milestone of a friend or loved one or to toast a holiday, like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years...or even Boxing Day. 


Holidays are, after all, about tradition and Champagne is the traditional choice of a wide range of wines with bubbles. 

Most of the best bubbly from France is made by the traditional methode champenoise or classic method. And the classic method is universal when making top-end sparkling wine.  Winemakers around the world accept the French right to use the word Champagne; the Spanish call their sparkling wine Cava and the South Africans use Cap Classique.

All references in this overview will be sparkling wine unless, or course, I mention Champagne. 

Tom Stevenson, the British Master of Wine, is a Champagne and sparkling wine specialist who also is author of the "World Encyclopedia of Champagne sparkling wine," generally thought to be the best reference on the subject in the English language.  

The use of the name Champagne has been  controversial for years, with Champagne producers being very protective of the name and others claiming the name Champagne has become generic, like aspirin. In Stevenson's book, there's a short sidebar in the section on California sparkling wine where he accuses the champenois for being hard-headed and then scolds them for their rigid position on the use of the name Champagne. 

Stevenson recalls Jack Davies, owner of Schramsberg, in the Napa Valley, offering to swap the name "Champagne" for "Champagne style" on all Schramsberg labels and the champenois flatly refused. Stevenson then offers this bit of irony: " they abuse their own appellation in South America, where companies such as Moet, Mumm and Piper sell domestic fizz as Champana (the Spanish for Champagne)." 

I sampled Moet & Chandon's Argentina Champana, in Buena Aires and thought it not as good as Moet's sparkling wines in the Napa Valley and Australia's Yarra Valley, where the name Champagne is not miss used.  The Moet rep in BA didn't see (or wouldn't admit to) the irony. 

Methode Champenoise

What's so special about the classic method?  You can get bubbles in wine a lot faster and cheaper using Charmat or tank method.  Use of the classic method, however, requires hundreds of manual steps, from base wine to driving home the mushroom cork. 


Methode champenois means that each bottle is an individual fermenter. Bottles are filled with a base wine, a small amount of yeast is added, the bottles are sealed with a crown cap (think soda bottles) and left to ferment and slowly develop the pin-point bubbles, that foam and effervesce when the wine is poured. 

There's much more to the process and you can find plenty of information on Champagne and sparkling wines in the  introductory sections of Stevenson's book, or any of the many other books that have been written on Champagne and other sparkling wine.

Sparkling wines made by the classic method, of course, are not limited to Champagne. Production of traditional method California sparkling wine was more or less static until the early seventies. In 1973, the Champagne house of Moet & Chandon opened Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley, followed soon by Domaine Carneros by Taittinger and Mumm, Roederer in Mendocino and J in Sonoma.

Before the French invasion, Schramsberg and Kornell in Napa, and Korbel in neighboring Sonoma County, dominated the market for classic method sparklers. Today, California's best bubblies are getting better and more refined with every vintage.  

Elsewhere, Spain's Cava is made using the traditional method and despite the huge quantities coming out of Penedes, such producers as Codorniu, Freixenet, Juve y Camps, Segura Viudas, Castellblanch, consistently maintain high quality.  Another good bet are Australian sparkling wines, like Chandon's Green Point from Victoria.

Enjoying Sparkling Wine

The best way to open a bottle of fizz is to ease out the cork with a quiet release of  pressure, more a light snap than a loud pop, accompanied by a faint cloud of effervescence that quickly disappears.  Shaking the bottle, shooting the cork out with a loud bang and an exploding fountain of wine, is best left to the celebration at a Formula One race win.                           


Surprisingly, salty foods are good matches with sparkling wine. Mixed salted nuts, popcorn or even unflavored chips are nice when bubbly is served as an appetizer wine.  Savory dishes, like lightly salted ham, work best with sparkling wines and the main course.  For mains that lean more to sweet (including dessert) then savory, try sparkling wines marked Sec, Demi-Sec or Doux.

A final word on the sweetness of Champagne: The most common style is Brut, finished at about 1.2% residual sweetness, just enough to balance out the acidity. Sec is medium dry with a maximum sweetness of 3.5%, Demi-Sec maxes out at 5% and the rarely seen Doux is 5% or higher...enough to make your teeth ache.

Have a vinous holiday.

Next blog: Cape Winelands

Write me at


Thursday, December 15, 2022

Sonoma Series: Sonoma Valley & Sonoma Mountain


Jack London, the activist American writer, felt comfortable in the Valley of the Moon, a name he gave to the part of Sonoma Valley he called home. Running southeast from Santa Rosa to the town of Sonoma, the valley includes the sub-region of Sonoma Mountain, with the Jack London Ranch and vineyard.

Fame as a wine region was never quite achieved by Sonoma Valley in the same way as other Sonoma wine areas like Alexander Valley and Sonoma Carneros.  Yet the valley offered a promising climate that attracted wineries such as Chateau St. Jean, Hanzell, Kenwood Vineyards, Ravenswood, St. Francis, Benziger, Arrowood and Buena Vista. And there was space for lots of vineyards on the narrow valley floor and on the hillsides. 

About midway down the valley, west of the small village of Glen Ellen, is Sonoma Mountain.  Rising above the fog, a narrow belt on the mountain is an ideal place  for Cabernet Sauvignon to thrive in a good growing environment. There are a few other grapes, such as Chardonnay, but on Sonoma Mountain Cabernet is king.

Sonoma Valley 

At midday, if you happen to be on the Sonoma Highway, the main road that bisects Sonoma Valley, as you pass Ledson winery, listen closely for the bell at St. Francis winery announcing the noon hour.  The bell was cast in the same foundry that forged the bells in the main cathedral of Assisi, Italy. 

A scattering of vineyards break up the heavily forested west slopes of the low mountains that divide Sonoma from Napa.  At the southern end of the valley, outside the town of Sonoma, the landscape flattens and the vineyards change as you enter Sonoma Carneros.  Varieties that do well on hillsides at higher elevations, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, give way in Carneros, primarily to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

Unlike Napa Valley, where wineries line highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, the bulk of the wineries in Sonoma Valley are along Sonoma Highway, especially around Kenwood.  And there are small clusters of wineries on side roads, including the road leading off Sonoma Highway, to the village of Glen Ellen.

Wineries are also in an urban setting, like Carol Shelton and Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa. In Sonoma, Sebastiani Vineyards is not far from the plaza and Hanzell overlooks the valley from its perch in the hills outside town.

A personal aside: For a wine writer, Sonoma Valley is a great place to live.  My home was less than a mile from a handful of wineries and a short drive from the city of Santa Rosa. The Napa Valley was across low hills to the east and to the west, beyond the coastal mountains was the Pacific Ocean.

The location was ideal...until 2017, when life changed for my wife and me.  Wild fires were racing up the slopes of the hills bordering Sonoma Valley and alerts went out to evacuate. After nine days in a hotel, we returned to find our home tainted by smoke but thankfully intact. 

Could the 2017 fires (and all the subsequent ones) that destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and vineyards be a one off?  Climate forecasters say no and, in fact, are predicting more dangerous fires in the future.  That prospect was enough to send us packing to Western Washington, where the climate is more benign and the threat of uncontrolled wild fires is far least for now.

Sonoma Mountain 

Although there are few wineries on Sonoma Mountain, three names brought fame to the lofty appellation.  Patrick Campbell founded Laurel Glen Vineyard in 1977, followed by Bruno Benziger's Glen Ellen Vineyards and Winery (later to be known as Benziger Family Winery) and Phil Coturri, along with his brother Tony, started the eponymous family vineyard and winery. 

Phil Coturri
Phil Coturri

Pocket vineyards on the mountain produce a variety of grapes including, but not limited to, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Notable wineries working on Sonoma Mountain include Laurel Glen Vineyard, Coturri Family Wines and Benziger Family Winery.  La Follette Wines sources Pinot Noir from Sonoma Mountain and Paul Hobbes buys mountain-grown Chardonnay. 

Key to the quality of Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is planting vineyards above the fog line.  Laurel Glen and the historic Jack London Vineyard meet these criteria.  The London vineyard is also highly prized for its Zinfandel.

There are a lot of wine regions to choose from for your next bottle of wine, so turn left at Calistoga, drive over the mountain and make that next purchase from Sonoma Valley or Sonoma Mountain.

Next blog: 'Tis the Season for Bubbly

Drop me a line at

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Value of Old Vines

A question that pops up now and then in wine circles is "What is the definition of 'old vines' and how important are they?"  It's not a burning issue, but it is one that has an impact on wine buying decisions. 

When a consumer reads "Old Vines" or "Century Vines" or ""Vielles Vignes," or "Alte Reben," the reaction is to wonder what exactly does it mean?  The easy answer is whatever you want it to mean, since there is no legal definition of the term.

Old Zinfandel vine

Wanting to be different, some winemakers decided on such fanciful names for old vines as "Gnarly Vines" which many of them are and "Ancient Vines" which many of them aren't.

A little history

The history of old vines is extensive, so here are a few highlights.

Most people would agree that the Monte Rosso Vineyard on Moon Mountain, in Sonoma County, is an old vine vineyard, since it was first planted in the 1880s.   And there are dozens of other old-vine vineyards in Sonoma County.

The Historic Vineyard Society (HVS) in California maintains that an old vine is a vine or vineyard at least 50 years old. Further, the society adds that one third of the existing vines must be traceable to the original planting. 

Interesting, as the idea for the society was inspired by the film "Sideways" and its enthusiastic endorsement of Pinot Noir, although there are very few old Pinot Noir vines in California, compared to the numbers for Zinfandel and Syrah. 

Old Vitis vinifera vines go back to the mid-19th century, but there are some surviving Muscadine vines still cultivated in the southern United States. The 400-year-old "Mother Vine" on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, is still producing grapes.  Supposedly, the Muscadine variety, Scuppernong, was the grape in Virginia Dare, a wine of Colonial times.

British wine writer, Jancis Robinson publishes an extensive free worldwide Vineyard Register, at  The register lists a vine at the Hampton Court Palace, planted in 1769 and still producing.

Today, ungrafted drought tolerant vines are being considered in Spain's Ribera del Duero, to replace the traditional Tempranillo, a grapevine that is suffering the ravages of climate change. Many of the existing vines in Ribera are considered old vines.  The proposed vine swap is being prompted by climate change and the desire of a wine region to get ahead of what may be an unknown.

Sonoma Old Vines

Most established vineyard regions worldwide have some vines that qualify as old vines. In California, Sonoma County is home to numerous old vines, especially planted to Zinfandel.

Here are 12 Sonoma County vineyards certified by the HVS that meet their criteria: Jackass Hill (1880s), Saitone (1895), Russi (1900s), Belloni (1900s), Limerick Lane (1910), Puccini (1900s), Hartford (1910), Maffei (1920s), Mancini (1920s), Montafi Ranch (1926), Carlisle (1927), Papera Ranch (1930s).

Sonoma old vine vineyard

Wines made from these old-vine vineyards have a concentration that comes only with age. Although technically not considered old vines, Pinot Noir heritage clones such as Wadenswil, Calera, Pommard, Martini and Swan have that character.  So too does the Mount Eden clone, from a cutting brought to California by Paul Masson as a "suitcase vine."

The value of adding "Old Vine" on the front or back label means the winery can tell the wine buyer that because the grapes used for the wine in the bottle are old, the wine is better than a wine making no such claim.

It is true that a wine made from old vine grapes has more stuff like texture, structure and concentration, but that alone does not make it a better wine.  Vineyard location, grape health and condition and wine making are but a few of the many factors that ultimately determine if one wine is better than another.

Wine consumers can rely on getting clearly defined varietal aroma and taste of specific varieties, when the wine is made from old vines. If the concentrated berry character of Zinfandel or Syrah or Petite Sirah is what you are after, then pull the cork on a bottle from Biale Vineyards, Pedroncelli, Aperture Cellars, Ridge Vineyards, Martinelli, Comstock Wines, Gary Farrell, Ravenswood, Hartford Family Wines, Joseph Swan and Limerick Lane.

Find your favorite winery, gather a few friends and do a comparative tasting. Select a regular bottling and one made from old vines, from the same winery. It can be fun and informative. 

Late add:  There apparently is enough interest in the value of old vines to warrant a get-together to talk about old vines.  Last month, the first Old Vines Conference was held in Veneto, Italy, sponsored by the InternationalWine & Spirit Competition. The aim of the conference was to show the value of old vines beyond their beauty and longevity.

Next blog: Sonoma Series: Sonoma Valley & Sonoma Mountain

Contact me at

Thursday, December 1, 2022

A Most Extraordinary Wine Tasting

Writers who claim to know about wine without having tasted the wine they are writing about is a mystery to me. It's like saying you know how to ride a bicycle with never having ridden one.

So, it would seem that a writer must then taste the wine. For a writer, tasting is an ongoing necessity and personal education. In the 50 years that I have been writing about wine, I have tasted thousands of wines from various wine regions around the world. 

None was more memorable and educational for me than "The Rewards of Patience," a comprehensive tasting of Penfolds (Australian) red wines, recorded in a tasting book "to provide a wine-by-wine assessment of drinking and cellaring potential."

The tasting took place over three days in August 1993 at the Penfolds main winery in Nuriootpa, Barossa Valley, South Australia.  On the tasting panel were James Halliday and Huon Hooke, both distinguished Australian wine writers and authors; Robert Joseph, noted British wine writer; John Duval, Penfolds (former) Chief Winemaker and myself.  Also present was Andrew Caillard MW, tasting recorder and composer of notes for the "Rewards of Patience" (RoP) book. 

The RoP tastings are held a minimum of every four years, since 1983. In the forward to the 1993 book, John Duval wrote "Looking at 20 to 30 years of winemaking in a structured and disciplined way is a fascinating and educational exercise." 

I agree and wonder, then and now, why no other winery has held similar retrospective tastings of their wines. To mount such a tasting, a sufficient number of bottles need to be laid down from each vintage, but evaluating the evolution of your wines over time is an invaluable way to know if you are going in the right direction.

The five top Penfolds red wines are Penfolds Grange Bin 95, Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, Magill Estate Shiraz, St. Henri Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 407.   The other seven groups of red wines we tasted were various Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Clare Estate Bordeaux-style blend and a Shiraz Mourvedre.

We tasted 140 red wines, aging then in Penfolds cellar, over three days, while standing at a tasting bench,using a similar organization as an Australian wine show (competition. There isn't space enough here to give a comprehensive account of all the wines tasted, so we'll look at what I thought were the highlights of Penfold's two top red wines -- Grange and Bin 707.

Penfolds Grange Bin 95

Penfolds is justifiably proud of Grange, a Shiraz with small percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, first made by the late Max Schubert from the 1951 vintage.(The wine then was called Grange Hermitage, but the French objected to the use of  "Hermitage," so Penfolds went with Grange). 


Grange is a multi-district blend, predominately from the Barossa Valley. Fermented at both Nuriootpa and Magill, it is aged in new American oak for 18-20 months.

We tasted a remarkable 22 vintages of Grange, from the 1955 to 1990 vintages. With the exception of 1986 and 1990, most of the other wines we thought would peak by 2015. Vintage 1986, a concentrated meaty wine with dark cherry flavors, was pegged to peak in 2020 and the 1990 Grange, an intense plummy wine, was thought by the panel to max out at 2025. 

The 1993 RoP tasting was, of course, a one off, with the evaluations and predictions yet to be proven. In the fifth edition of the Rewards of Patience, published in 2004, the 1986 Grange had been projected out to the year 230+, while the 1990 Grange was moved from 2015 to 2040.  

James Halliday described the 1990 as "Flawlessly supple."  And joined his fellow panelists in proclaiming the 1990 Grange "as extraordinary with incredible power and finesse."

The bottom line for a wine of the high caliber of Grange is that there is no "bad" year, just a range of goodness.  And Grange clearly shows the remarkable ability of a great wine to mature in the bottle for many years and to challenge the best wine tasters to predict with any accuracy when the wine, such as Grange, will begin to fade. 

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon

Penfolds other super premium red is Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, a multi-district blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in American oak for 18 months. Bin 707, which first entered the Penfolds inventory in 1964, is among the finest Cabernets that Australia has to offer. 


The combination of American oak and intense berry flavors for the unique character of Bin 707. The 1990 had high-toned plum and blackberry, concentrated layers of ripe berry and licorice.  My comments about the 707s we tasted included "big berry flavors and dominant sweet fruit character."

At the 1993 Rewards of Patience, we tasted through 16 vintages of Bin 707 and decided that most of the wines would be best cellared further.  Outstanding vintages included a remarkably lively 1976, 1983, 1990, 1991 and the 1986 which the panel projected not to peak until 2020.  

Ten years later and with two diffferent panelists (Hooke and Halliday had returned as tasters), the assesment of the wines we thought were keepers in 1983 had changed but not by much.  The '76, '83, '90 and 1991 Bin 707s were still highly rated, although their peak had retreated by about five years, to2015.

The panelists described the 1990 Bin 707 as "rich and ripe wine with plenty of blackcurrant/plum/mulberry/dark chocolate aromas...A great vintage." lists the 1990 Grange at $400 and the currently available vintage, 2018, is $500.  Current Bin 707s are priced at $375 for the 2019 and $400 for the 1990.

Penfolds Grange and Bin 707 are a testament to long aging and to the careful attention paid selecting the vineyard site and matching the variety to the site. The Rewards of Patience book records these factors and is a valuable account of the wine's life and maturity.  

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of sharing a memorable 1999 Bin 707, with my wife and good friends visiting from out of state. The bottle had traveled a lot but didn't seem to be any worse for wear.  Forecasted in the 2004 RoP book to be at its maximum in 2020, our Bin 707 still needed more time to show its full potential.

This account of Penfolds red wines is presented here as information for the wine buyer and collector.  I was priviledged to have served as an international judge at this exraordinary tasting.  My intent is to show how well some red wines age and not to say to the reader, "too bad you weren't invited to the tasting."


Next blog: The Reliability of Old Vines  

Write me at