When French Huguenots arrived in Dutch-colonized South Africa in 1688, they brought with them centuries-old winemaking traditions, thus beginning South Africa┤s legacy in making fine wine. Yet despite boasting nearly 400 square miles under vine, South African wines remain little known to many American wine consumers.
South Africa has multiple growing regions (or appellations), most of which are clustered along the temperate coastline at the tip of the country. About an hour and a half southeast of Cape Town near the shores of Walker Bay lies the Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley. Within this mountain valley, influenced by the temperate maritime climate, the Bouchard Finlayson Winery has established itself as a premier producer of cool climate grapes. It excels in the production of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
During a recent visit to Lansing for a wine tasting, winemaker Peter Finlayson extolled the beauty of the region and the winery┤s commitment to environmental stewardship. Almost within eyesight of the winery, southern right whales come to breed and calve. Mountains extend to the coast in this region of South Africa and the maritime influence in the Valley means that growing seasons are long, maximizing the opportunity to produce physiologically ripe fruit in a cool growing region. Enhancing the quality of the fruit is the winery┤s commitment to biodiversity and it has been recognized as a national leader. The Malmesbury shale soil, heavy in clay, is well suited to the production of rich, balanced wines.
A 2012 Bouchard Finlayson Sauvignon Blanc was a good example of this principle. This wine could be the offspring of a marriage between a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a French white Bordeaux. It tones down the grassy, herbaceous, overtly acidic character of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. More French-like, it is very balanced, showcasing soft, delineated fruit with no astringency.
This theme carried through to the 2012 Bouchard Finlayson “Crocodile’s Lair” Chardonnay. Finlayson said that as a young winemaker he was offered excellent advice about making Chardonnay.
The advice? Don’t produce Chardonnay that requires one to reach for water after the first glass. No “banana juice.” No over oaked, over buttery, overripe Chardonnays — just perfectly balanced, but with intense and concentrated fruit. Barrel fermented and aged for eight months in French Oak, this wine is excellent as a sipper or for the dinner table.
The cool maritime climate combined with heavy clay soils creates a pristine incubator for growing perfectly ripened Pinot Noir. Finlayson observed that the 2010 Galpin Peak Pinot Noir achieved a 93 score from Wine Spectator and has been chosen as a wine to serve in the firstclass cabins by Lufthansa. Impeccably balanced, the 2011 vintage is a varietally correct Pinot Noir. Aged 10 months in French Oak (an even mix of new, once-used and twice-used barrels), this wine leans toward the bright, red berry and tart cherry end of the flavor and bouquet spectrum.
The big dog of the tasting was the Bouchard Finlayson 2011 Hannibal red wine. This wine has been years in development, and entailed securing and planting vines from Europe. It is a unique proprietary blend which includes 50 percent Sangiovese, 13 percent Pinot Noir, 13 percent Shiraz, 13 percent Mourvedre, 6 percent Nebbiolo and 5 percent Barbera. So there is the bright fruit and acidity of Sangiovese and Barbera; the finesse and aromatics or Pinot Noir; the structure of Nebbiolo; the earthiness, tannin and color of Mourvedre; and the power and body of Shiraz (Syrah). Italy meets Tuscany meets Piedmont meets Rhone meets Burgundy. Hannibal is rich in mouthfeel, with moderate tannin, good acidity, and broad fruit flavors. Heckuva wine.
Another unique proprietary blend is the 2012 Bouchard Finlayson Blanc de Mer; this one 49 percent Riesling, 27 percent Viognier, 14 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 8 percent Chardonnay and 2 percent Chenin Blanc. Germany meets France in a dry Riesling focused wine. This would be a good entry-level companion to shellfish and sushi.
Finlayson encourages visits to the winery in this rugged and spectacular region of the world. Time for a road trip? From wine tasting and whale watching, to trekking, canopy touring and safaris, South Africa is a booming adventure touring destination. For more information, visit bouchardfinlayson.com.
Bouchard Finlayson wines can be ordered through Imperial Beverage by your favorite wine shop. Or just head to Old Mission Peninsula: Brys Estate winemaker Coenraad Stassen and Two Lads Winery winemaker Cornel Olivier are South Africa-born, raised, educated and trained, and are making some of the best wine in the state.
In Vino Veritas (Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintner’s Club. His column appears monthly. You can email him at email@example.com.)