Have you ever seen wines labelled as ‘Old Vines’, ‘Vieilles Vignes’, ‘Viñas Viejas’? It’s one of those terms that can be used freely on a bottle of wine as no one has yet determined how old vines need to be in order to gain the plaudit. As vines get older they will expand their root system and burrow deep into the soils, which is a good thing. They will also start to regulate themselves better and become more hardy as they do so. With advanced age vines will become less productive, but I suppose that happens to most of us! That drop in production could mean the vine puts the energy into ripening fewer berries, thereby ensuring a more concentrated juice. The term itself is on the rise and is often seen as a badge of quality, but the fact there is no regulation around it makes it more of a marketing term. That said, I have had many wines labelled as ‘Old Vines’ that do show a remarkable concentration and balance.
What really caught my eye was a wine that proudly proclaimed on the label it was produced from ‘Young Vines’. Wow! I’m not sure I would have the courage to admit to that. My slight apprehension was immediately quashed as soon as I tasted the wine, the Seven Springs Pinot Noir from South Africa.
The Pinot Noir vines were only planted in July 2008 in the beautifully named ‘Hemel en Aarde’ Valley (Heaven and Earth), near Hermanus. The vines yielded their first ever vintage in 2011, made by 29 year old Riana van der Merwe and it is simply gorgeous. With the fruit doing all the talking rather than the oak, this was a sheer joy of juiciness. Ripe cherries and strawberries, vibrant in its innocent youth. Not so much an unruly teenager as a well-balanced, vivacious character that already shows complexity well beyond its age and knows its way around a wine glass. Hats off, not just for the wine, but for having the gumption to label it as young vines and making a feature of it. It will be interesting to watch this one over successive vintages and see how it develops into a thirty-something.
Seven Springs is not all about Pinot Noir either. The delicate, apple-scented Sauvignon Blanc is lovely and pure. There are a couple of Chardonnays with the unoaked being my favourite and a sumptuous Syrah, again coming from younger vines and gently oaked in older barrels.
There is a popular pastime in Scotland for hillwalkers called “Munro-bagging”. A Munro in Scotland is a hill over 3000ft and the practice of “bagging” involved climbing all of them. There is ongoing debate about the exact number but a recent list puts that number at 283. I’m not a Munro-bagger as I can only lay claim to two. One of these was Ben Lawers, overlooking Loch Tay. The reason I remember it so well is that I climbed it on a gorgeous summer’s day and the views from up on the mountain are nothing short of spectacular. The other reason though was that for 75% of the climb you could see the top of the mountain, or at least, I thought it was the top. Just as you reach the crest you realise that the top is still a mighty long way to go and you’re forced to drop down into a valley before having to climb all the way up again. That last part was very tough going.
I was reminded of this story last night at dinner with Rollo Gabb, owner of the Journey’s End winery in South Africa. I asked him where the name came from and he talked about the location of the winery on the edge of Stellenbosch, only a couple of miles from the coast, overlooking what is know as ‘False Bay’. In the old days many a sailor was drawn into False Bay believing their journey to Cape Town had come to an end (Journey’s End) only to realise they still had the treacherous task of rounding Cape of Good Hope. I suppose that is how I felt coming to the false summit of Ben Lawers.
Rollo makes Journey’s End sound like a pretty special place. Originally from Shropshire he comes from a very entrepreneurial family who have had a hand in bringing many well-known wine brands into the UK. In 1995 the family bought the farm in South Africa and after taking over from his father in 2007it is now Rollo’s aim to grow the estate sufficiently to make premium South African wine but also make it work as a commercial venture. I was already aware of one of the wines, the Pastor’s Blend. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, it is a wine that Rollo describes as his easy drinking wine and he jokingly adds it’s his Monday night wine. The blend changes depending on the vintage and it sees a bit of oak, giving it a softness without losing the fresh fruit. The wine was the result of a slight misunderstanding when Rollo gatecrashed what he thought was a party at a neighbouring property, carrying a case of wine. It turned out to be a church service, but I’m sure the wine didn’t go to waste and Rollo became good friends with the local pastor and the Pastor’s Blend was born.
Journey’s End also produces Chardonnay and for me the 2010 Single Vineyard Chardonnay was stunning. The oak was beautifully integrated, which means it’s not as obvious on the nose and the freshness of this wine when tasted makes it an absolute joy to drink. Rollo has started producing Sauvignon Blanc which we didn’t taste but I’m being told it is beautiful. I was slightly dubious about that considering the estate is in Stellenbosch but Rollo assured me his location, although in Stellenbosch is facing the coast and that brings with it the cooling influence of what is locally known as the ‘Cape Doctor’, an on-shore wind so called because it also helps to keep disease and rot at bay.
Rollo has named his top wines after this wind and we got to try the Cape Doctor Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, as well as the Single Vineyard Merlot 2007. Both are gorgeous wines with the Merlot being soft, spicy with ripe plummy fruit. I found the Cabernet Sauvignon very elegant with a much more savoury, tobacco like nose but none of the green stalkiness you sometimes get with this grape. Journey’s End completed a new winery in 2010 and all of these wines were made by borrowing other wineries’ facilities, so Rollo is very confident that the quality of subsequent wines will really take a jump over the next few years. He certainly isn’t short in ambition in putting premium South African wine firmly on the map and it seems like Rollo’s journey has only just started.