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.
Earlier this week I did a brief talk on the history of wine at the Christmas dinner for the Scottish Women in Business. Here is the story I shared. Details of the Greek and Turkish wines we tasted can be found at the bottom of the article.
On a recent trip to Turkey I went in search of the “Source of Wine”. Turkey was playing host to the annual digital wine communications conference (EWBC) and one session in particular gave a unique insight in the journey wine has taken from its first wild roots.
The Roman Empire
Most people’s association with history and wine is likely to be related to the spread of the Roman Empire. And it would be true to say this is a crucial time for the modern, cultivated or domesticated vine. There is plenty of evidence showing the spread of the wine regions with Rome as its starting point. One of the most important natural historians of his time was Pliny the Elder, who became famous for his encyclopaedic work ‘Naturalis Historia’, which included a large section devoted to vines and wines. He was possibly even more famous for the manner of his death in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 and gave his name to what we describe today as a “Plinean eruption”.
The Ancient Greeks
Yet this is not where wine was born. You would have to go quite a bit further back. The Ancient Greeks used wine in ancient ceremonies, often drunk as a grog, mixed with spices, honey and water in some cases seawater. The wine “Retsina” to this day is flavoured with pine resin. The Greeks even had a God of wine, Dionysus, whom the Romans later adopted as Bacchus. The wines from ancient Greece were highly praised by its poets but some of the adulteration of it would suggest they perhaps weren’t so great after all.
Clearly modern winemaking owes more to the Romans, but we honour the Ancient Greeks by tasting a modern Greek wine which comes from Drama in the north of mainland Greece bordered by Bulgaria and Turkey. Assyrtiko is regarded as one of Greece’s best indigenous white grape varieties. We’re giving a nod to modern wine with the addition of Sauvignon Blanc. Assyrtiko originated on the island of Santorini and thrives in volcanic soils. It’s ability to withstand high summer temperatures and still retain freshness and is the secret of its success. The grape variety produces a very dry, mineral wine with almost earthy qualities, particularly when grown on the volcanic soils of Santorini. Elsewhere, such as here in Drama it produces a somewhat milder, fruitier style of wine.
So far we’ve traced wine’s first steps back from the Roman Empire down to the Ancient Greeks. But we haven’t even covered half of it. Following the traces from Greece we move 2000 years further down the line to Ancient Egypt. The Pharaohs were great imbibers of wine and even kept detailed records of what they drunk which included many vintage dated, single vineyard wines.
But it doesn’t stop there either. From Egypt our journey moves North-East and into Mesopotamia and ultimately ends up in current day Eastern Turkey, or Anatolia to be more precise, and countries like Georgia and Armenia. It is now believed the earliest known wines originated here. The archeological evidence was found not far from Mount Arrarat, where Noah is said to have landed his ark and planted the first vineyard.
Some of the evidence discovered in 1957 was of a tomb in Gordion, the capital of Phrygia in what is modern day Turkey. Dated to roughly 700-750BC it was named the Midas Tumulus. The hermetically sealed tomb was covered in earth. It proved a spectacular tomb belonging to what some believe is the king of Phrygia, King Midas.
Ancient Ales, Wines and Extreme Beverages
Inside the archaeologists uncovered the remains of a 60-65 year old male, as well as the largest iron age drinking set ever discovered. It consisted of 160 bronze vessels. More recent chemical research by chemist and archaeologist Patrick McGovern, who in the popular vernacular is known as the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages”, revealed not only the remains of what turned out to be some funerary feast of barbecued lamb and goat’s meat with lentils, but provided some detailed insight in what was drunk too.
The identification of tartaric acid points to grapes or grape product. Now this could have just been grape juice, however the juice would more than likely have fermented naturally considering the high ambient temperature and the fact that yeast is naturally present on the grape skins. Beeswax was also found which points towards something along the lines of honey mead. Finally beerstone (Calcium Oxalate) was discovered, a substance which is commonly associated with the production of Barley beer.
These findings led to a bit of experimental archaeology with the help of the Kavaklidere winery. They recreated the drink albeit not in a commercial sense. It was later produced in the US as the “Midas Touch Golden Elixir” and is made using Barley, honey and muscat grapes. Saffron was added as a bitter agent and would have given it a lush golden colour. A drink fit for a King.
Modern Day Turkey
Unadulterated by barley, honey or saffron our second wine comes from Turkey and is made by the same winery, Kavaklidere. Here the indigenous variety Kalecik Karasi is blended with Syrah to make a wine not unlike a French Cotes-du-Rhone. The Kalecik Karasi is named after the Kalecik district close to Ankara although it is now fairly widely grown in Turkey. It can produce a variety of wine styles, from soft, easy drinking to more complex. In character it sits somewhere between Gamay, Dolcetto and Pinot Noir.
Much earlier evidence of grape cultivation and winemaking were found in this same area and genetic research, conducted by the Swiss grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz (one of the authors of the most authoritative book on grapes to date, Wine Grapes), has helped pin down some of the earliest evidence of grape domestication, which is now accepted as having been instrumental in the spread of the beverage. Grape domestication favoured the self-pollinating plant, where in the wild the vast majority of vines would be either male or female, with only the female bearing fruit. The hermaphroditic vine dispensed with this need and made grape growing much more efficient and with fruit readily available the drink was only a short fermentation away.
So can we trace this all the way back to the earliest glass of wine. Unlikely, according to Jose Vouillamoz, as that was probably a simple case of “serendipitous inebriation”.
We tasted two wines on the night which were kindly supplied by Direct Wines (Laithwaites), the first of the mainstream retailers to add a Turkish wine to their range. They promised me there are more to come very soon!
Probably not the world’s biggest Sauvignon Blanc fan, I often find it lacks the interest and complexity to get me really excited, but there are exceptions. And a few weeks ago at a dinner at Gandolfi Fish in Glasgow, I came across one of the best examples I have tasted in a long time. And it was neither Sancerre, nor Marlborough but hailed from Elgin in South Africa. Iona the wine in question is a winery owned by Andrew Gunn since the mid-90’s. ￼
Andrew, a very tall man who can trace his roots to Scotland, was looking for a change from his career as a medical engineer and found an old apple farm in Elgin. He realised quickly that the old apple orchard wasn’t going to sustain him and his family so he decided to plant vines instead. Having travelled extensively through the South African wine regions of the day, Andrew felt the slightly cooler climate of Elgin at an altitude of 450 metres was perfect for growing grapes and Sauvignon Blanc in particular. Around 70% of his production is made up of the grape, which achieves a perfect balance of ripeness and alcohol due to the long ripening season. Andrew calls this optimum physiological ripeness, and the balance this creates is what this wine is all about. It is closer in style to the mineral Sancerre than the abundance of tropical fruit flavours you might expect from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Mineral is a slightly woolly term but you get what I mean when you taste this. It is the aroma you get from soil, freshly rained on stones or even salt. The flinty character in Sauvignon Blanc is often mentioned as a mineral character. Together with the fairly brisk acidity it gives a distinctive and dry feel to the palate which is refreshing and lively at the same time as showing great purity of flavour.
Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2009 – Elgin, South Africa
So here we go with our mineral, flinty nose that has a floral character and slight herbaceousness along the Sancerre style. And then the ripe fruit takes over. Not tropical but more zesty citrus fruit, gooseberry and stonefruit characters. The wine is generously mouth filling with a lively, dry and pure finish. This superbly balanced wine was a joy to taste on its own but when it was paired with a Ballotine of Scottish Salmon with cucumber, horseradish creme and a beetroot reduction it really came to life. I’m sure a pairing with a goat’s cheese tartlet would be equally good but make it something creamy as it will find a perfect balance with the dry and zesty character of the wine.
Gandolfi have this wine on the list and sell all their listed wines retail as well, so even more excuse to pop in now.
Andrew’s other wines are pretty exciting too but are much more difficult to get hold off. Gandolfi Fish expertly matched various dishes to some of these extraordinary wines. The almost Burgundian 2009 Chardonnay was matched with a Confit of chicken, baby leek and black truffle terrine served with toasted spelt bread which was a gorgeous combination.
Pan roasted lamb chop with a potato millefeuille, wilted spinach, stilton and port sauce was matched to the Gunnar 2005, a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot. It had a deep smoky nose and lovely ripe fruit on the palate. Again, I couldn’t fault the combination with the food.
The next course had to match with the Syrah 2007, deliberately using the French spelling indicating a more old-world approach to Syrah. Still, it was a big wine with big flavours and exactly what was needed with the Slow braised shoulder of ‘Venison Wellington’ with fondant potato, Scottish girolles and juniper jus.
The finale was a Plum and frangipane upside down cake with crème anglaise which was paired with Andrew’s dessert wine a Noble Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2007. Delicious hazelnut, orange and honey with plenty of zesty flavours to balance the sweetness of both the wine and dessert.
This was the first time I tasted any of the Iona wines but it certainly won’t be my last. Judging by the reactions on the night, I somehow doubt I am alone in this.