Festive fortification tipples for all

Round & About


Our wine columnist Giles Luckett suggests some great fortified wines for the season of goodwill

Hello. Christmas is a time for traditions. The tradition of opening a present on Christmas Eve just after you’ve put the sprouts on! Of partners asking you to buy them something you think they’ll like with the surprise being they need to ask if you’ve kept the receipt! To not so much as driving home for Christmas as stuck in traffic for Christmas.

OK, so, some traditions we could all definitely do without, but there’s one tradition that the British have clung to since the late 18th century, which is one to be treasured – enjoying a glass of fortified wine over the festive season. From Port to Madeira and Sherry to something from the New World, there’s a world of fortified diversions out there, and here is my pick of this spirited bunch…

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a glass or two of Tio Pepe (Sainsbury’s £10). Some of my generation are wary of Sherry, but wines like Tio Pepe are increasingly finding favour with younger wine lovers, and it’s easy to see why. Pale, fresh, dry and clean, its combination of abundant pear, watermelon, and apple fruit and savoury, creamy yeast make for an easy-drinking yet wholly satisfying glassful. Try this on its own and with smoked fish or creamy cheese canapés.

If you’re in the mood for something sweet, then why not enjoy something truly indulgent? Pedro Ximenez (PX to his friends) produces gloriously sweet wines such as the Adnams X Sopla Poniente (£10.99 Adnams). This phenomenal mouthful of treacle, butterscotch, liquid caramel, and hazelnuts is a joy on its own, but with enough acidity to prevent it from becoming cloying, it goes down beautifully with strong blue and white cheeses or, as I found, liver pâté.

When most people think of fortified wines, they think of Port, and this year, I discovered the excellent Adnams Finest Reserve (Adnams £15.99). This has to be one of the best everyday drinking Ports I’ve ever tasted. Many entry-level Ports struggle to integrate the spirit and have a hot, disjointed finish, along with overly sweet, one-dimension fruit profiles. The Adnams, however, is luscious, packed full of dried black fruits, blackcurrant conserve, and prunes and has a rounded, seamless finish. If you’re looking for brilliance on a budget, give this a whirl.

Another, less well-known style of Port is White Port. While much of this is fine but forgettable, there are quality-focused producers who are breathing new life into this old-style wine. I tasted the Quinta Da Pedra Alta White Port (Master of Malt £17.42) at the estate in the summer, and it blew me away. Fresh-tasting and bursting with white fruits, apricots and peaches in syrup, the way it managed to combine the sugar and the spirit into the body of the wine to create a luscious yet clean and refreshing whole is remarkable. We tried this with tonic, and it made for a delicious long drink too.

My favourite style of Port is a wood Port, wines that are aged for an extended period in barrel rather than in bottle. This long ageing in cask has the effect of leaching colour, accentuating the freshness and adding a lovely nuts and dried fruit tone to the wines. An excellent example of this is the Kopke 10-Year-Old Tawny (The Secret Bottle Shop £23.95). Deep red-gold, the nose offers an inviting mix of preserved cherries, plums, almonds, spices and candied citrus peel. In the mouth, it’s warming, full, and gentle, but with a wonderfully complex mix of dried fruits, nuts, caramel, smoke, and a clean, tangy acidity. Try this with blue cheeses or fruity desserts.

Fancy something a little different this Christmas? I have just the thing, the Zuccardi Malamado (Tesco £9). This is an Argentinean fortified Malbec – so Argentinean Port, if you will – and it’s amazing. At first, it tastes like a great Malbec, all blackberries, blackcurrants, fresh blueberries, and sweet spices, but then a warm wave of sweetness comes in, adding decadent richness and power. You can drink this with food as though it were a table wine or with hard cheeses; either way, it’s a Christmas cracker.

South Africa built their wine industry on fortified wines, and while they’re not as important these days, the best can still be world-beaters. Take the Kleine Zalze’s Project Z (Noble Green £33). Made from a blend of noble white grapes, this luscious golden sipper is opulently sweet (think marmalade) and offers creamy flavours of dried pears, candied apples, and peaches in syrup, with a lovely hit of lemon peel and lime juice to the finish. Enjoy this chilled with fruity desserts or white cheeses.

Madeira is one of the world’s most misunderstood wines. It isn’t a type of Sherry – it’s 700 miles from Spain and made in a completely different way – it isn’t all sweet, and if it’s an old maid’s wine, then call me Old Maid Giles! Madeira is joy as the Henriques & Henriques 10-Year-Old Sercial (Waitrose £18.99) shows. Sercial is the driest style of Madeira and it’s only after a decade or so in barrel that it reveals its brilliance. Dark amber, the nose offers caramel, roasted nuts, sweet coffee, citrus peel, and grapefruit. On the palate, it’s rich, yet tangy, with honey, green fig, and dried orange and pear tones offset by lemon and lime.

My next recommendation is one of Australia’s great wine originals. Take Muscat grapes (a Petits Grains Rouge, in case you were wondering) and leave them till they are raisins on the vine. Pick and press but stop the fermentation mid-way with spirit to preserve the sugar. Then age them in a Sherry-style ‘solera’ system, and bingo, you have wines like Campbells Rutherglen Muscat (Waitrose £13.99). This golden ‘sticky’ as the Aussies call it, tastes of sultanas laced with spiced honey mixed with citrus peel and given a mocha shot. This unique wine is phenomenal and is an after-dinner delight.

I’ll finish my festive fortified feature with what most wine lovers regard as the ultimate fortified wine, Vintage Port. Vintage Port is a rare wine – they make up about 3% of Port production – made only in the finest years that can only spend 2 years in cask before bottling with their sediment. The resulting behemoths can age for decades (the 1955 Taylor (MWH Wine £420) was amazing in 2022) and offer a level of complexity and elegance no other fortified wine can match. For drinking now, try the Niepoort 1997 (Fareham Wine Cellar £57.50). A great vintage, time has softened this, giving it a red-amber colour with a nose of fruits of the forest, chocolate, cherries, and smoke. In the mouth, it is sumptuous, loaded with black and red berry fruits, black figs, plums, sweet spices, and liquorice. Decant and enjoy on its own with good company.

Well, that’s it from me for 2023. I’ll be back in January with some no-and low-alcohol wine recommendations. So, until then have a fine wine Christmas, and here’s to a happy 2024.



Festive fizz that’s worth a pop

Round & About


Our wine columnist Giles Luckett raises a glass to the best Champagnes for party season

Hello! I’m in agreement with Andy Williams on Christmas being the most wonderful time of the year – though whether that time starts in October as the shops would have us believe is open to debate. What isn’t up for debate is that Christmas calls for champagne, and in this month’s column I’m running down my top 10 Christmas champagnes. So, without further ado

10. Waitrose Non-Vintage (£21.99) – in my experience buyer’s own brand (BOB) champagnes can be disappointing – especially when it comes to supermarket wines. For some it seems the main aim is hitting a low price point with the wine’s quality coming second. Waitrose’s, however, is consistently excellent. Medium-bodied with lovely peach and apple fruit, a rich seam of creamy yeast runs through to the clean, red berry finish. This versatile wine makes for a stylish aperitif or goes well with white cheeses.

9. Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé (Majestic £18.99) – OK so technically this isn’t a champagne, unless the Champagne AC’s expansion has taken it to South Africa, but this is of champagne quality hence I’ve included it.  Deep pink, the nose offers an abundance of blossoms, cherries, red fruits, limes and biscuity yeast. On the palate its weighty, fruit-laden – strawberries ad raspberries – with a lovely cherry sherbet finish. Serve this with smoked salmon or savoury canapés.

8. Adnams’ Selection Rosé Champagne (Adnams £33.99) – this is a champagne, and a very fine one at that. Produced by Champagne Blin, this is a traditional style of rosé, being full yet refined, fruity, yet dry. Opening with a nose of dried raspberries, strawberries, and buttery brioche, the palate offers pure, slightly savoury, raspberries and boysenberry flavours, followed by touch of blackcurrants and finishing with a taut, chalky finish. This is one of the best value champagnes I’ve seen in a long while.

7. Taittinger Prélude Grands Crus (Amazon £55) – Taittinger’s Prélude is a fascinating wine, and one that’s as much about the mind as the mouth.  Made from 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from Grand Cru vineyards, it all sounds very classical. The twist is that It’s aged for five years in Taittinger’s magnificent chalk cellars (much longer than usual) before release.  This drives a seam of yeast and savoury minerals through the apple, citrus, rhubarb and peach fruits, adding even more complexity and depth. A stylish aperitif, we had this with turkey last year and it was sensational.

6. Gosset Petite Douceur Rosé (Waitrose £59.99) – Gosset’s champagnes are things of rare beauty – and I don’t just mean the bottles – but this was love at first sip. Gosset’s wines are all about precision. Tiny bubbles, perfectly delineated fruit and a balance a tight rope walker would envy. This new wine takes their wines in a new direction by subtly ramping up the sweetness.  Now while this is by no means sweet, there’s a sweeter tone to the red and white berry fruit, as flavours of orange and kiwi come through, and there’s honeyed hint to the long, grapefruit and white peach finish. A superb after supper sipper, it would partner fruit tarts and petit fours perfectly.

5. Palmer & Co Blanc de Blancs Brut (Waitrose £53.99) – the best Blanc de Blancs champagnes – that is ones made from only white grapes – offer a subtler, more delicate style of wine. My recent encounter with the Palmer Blanc de Blancs reminded me that what these wines lack in power, they more than make up for in complexity. From the Palmer’s mid-gold body emerges notes of pears, hawthorn blossom and milk toast. Initially fresh and lively, it soon develops a quiet intensity in the form of baked apples, hazelnuts, peaches, and fresh vanilla cream. Sip this beauty on its own or with seafood. 

4. Champagne Piaff Rosé (Master of Malt £52) has been another delightful discovery of 2023. A blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, it has a very ‘winey’ tone. By that I mean that is it is both full-flavoured and well-structured like a still wine. Salmon coloured, the nose combines fresh strawberries and cherries with savoury strains of beetroot and bread. The palate’s broad, with complimentary tones of red berries, black cherries, and lemons coming together at the finish with a creamy yeast touch. Try this with cold cooked meats or fish pâté.

3. Next I want to recommend a wine by Bruno Paillard. I was going to say try their Première Cuvée (Vinum £46.40) but in the spirit of giving an alternative view, I’ve gone for the Bruno Paillard Blanc de Noir Grand Cru (Wanderlust Wine £66.90). Released this year, this is made from 100% Pinot Noir and marries power with precision. The nose offers an enticing notes of roses, pink grapefruit and smoke.  The palate, while firm and weighty, is precise, rounded, and packed with fruits of the forest, cherries, and loganberries with a hint of clove. On the long finish are fresh red fruits with their signature shot of salinity. 

2. Dom Perignon is one of those wines that every wine lover should try to try at least once. I’ve been fortunate to enough to have had multiple vintages of this exceptional wine, but my recent encounter with the Dom Perignon 2013 (Waitrose £195) left me feeling this was the best young Dom Perignon I’ve ever tasted. Generous and welcoming, everything is perfectly appointed and perfectly rounded.  Soft as a satisfied sigh, the white plum, peach, and apricot fruit mingle seamlessly with gentle spices, highlights of alpine strawberries, and cool minty notes to crisp, nuanced finish. Try this on its own. Or better still, on your own!

1. While all the wines on this list are amazing, the Dom Ruinart 2010 (The Champagne Company £256) is just magnificent. The bouquet blends brioche, white berries, pears, and citrus with yeast.  In the mouth, it’s extraordinarily rich, layered, and full, yet precise and poised. Creamy tones of melon, green pears, apricot, orange, vanilla, chalk, and gentle spices come together to create a mesmerising mouthful. Youthful and sleek, this has a long, long life ahead of it, but if like me you enjoy your champagne young and vibrant, then this is perfect.  Yes, it’s expensive, but for those special occasions, to my mind, this is worth it.

Well, I hope you will have a fine Christmas and enjoy some fine wines along the way.

More soon….


Homage to the wines of Yalumba

Round & About


Our wine columnist Giles Luckett explores the harvest of a magical region of Australia

Hello. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go on a press trip to Australia. Over the course of three weeks, we toured many of this amazing wine country’s regions, visited some extraordinary wineries and met some of the most passionate, innovative, and creative winemakers I’ve ever encountered.

While I discovered the weird (Lucy Margaux’s ‘natural’ wines) and the wonderful (BK Wines’ Savagnin, one of my abiding memories was our trip to Yalumba. This historic, family-owned producer is Australian wine royalty and our extensive tasting was fantastic, revealing a winery that did things its way and one that wasn’t afraid to take risks in the pursuit of excellence.

I recently had the opportunity to taste a range of Yalumba’s wines again (highlights below), some of which I knew and some of which were new to me. I was delighted to see their innovative spirit continue – the Roussanne was a lovely surprise – and I asked Yalumba’s winemaker Louisa Rose to tell me a little more about their wines…

Louisa Rose – head of winemaking at Yalumba

Q. You make a wide range of wines – from unoaked dry whites to fortified wines – what’s the uniting philosophy behind them?

“We seek to sustainably craft wines that reflect a thoughtful interpretation of grape, terroir and house style. Wines of individuality that are both timeless and contemporary. Wines of conviction and provenance. This philosophy spans our full offering, but there is a tailored approach to meet market requirements. We focus on natural appellation, a long view of the wine-style evolution, akin to a slow wine philosophy. At the same time, we are responsive to market opportunities by way of ‘new’ varieties, styles and fashions, whilst still holding true to our legacy and beliefs, raising the bar, and building value.”

Q. Your wines span the classics – Shiraz, Cabernet, Grenache etc. – but I’ve seen new Mediterranean varieties coming through such as Tempranillo and Pinot Grigio. Are you producing these as you have the right sites for them or is there another reason?

“Shiraz, Cabernet and Grenache are varieties that came to Australia early in the history of white settlement. The Barossa is home to the oldest vineyards of all three of these varieties in the world – still growing and producing wines, (Shiraz planted 1843, Grenache 1848, Cabernet 1888). This says something about the suitability of the sites we have to those varieties. At the same time Australian winemakers like to trial new things and experiment. Much of this work does not result in new wines necessarily, but it all helps influence our thoughts and practices. At Yalumba we are fortunate to have a wonderful nursery; a world-class nursery that grows healthy vines for vineyard expansions and is set up to propagate ‘new’ varieties when they come out of quarantine. We have trialled many varieties over the years, and some we like enough to take to the next stage after experimentation. Viognier, Pinot Grigio and Tempranillo are examples of this. Ultimately, they do well as they are suited to the sites we plant them, but the only way to find out what the right sites are is trial and error. It’s probably not surprising that many of the varieties we are looking at in the nursery are particularly suited to warm climates.”

Q. The recent vintage was one of the most challenging of recent years for many. How did you find it and aside from being of high quality, how would you describe the vintage’s character?

“2023 was challenging in the Barossa due to the wetter-than-usual spring conditions, which resulted in a later-than-usual start to the season, and ultimately a later-than-usual vintage. As the ripening gets later in the season, the days get shorter, and the ripening slows down even more. This can be a challenge then to get the grapes growing in the later ripening sites fully ripe. Luckily the season was kind to us and we had good warm weather into Autumn that got most of the grapes to their ideal place. We are very happy with the quality, across the varieties and styles. The whites loved the cooler season retaining good acidity and aromatics, and the reds had plenty of stress-free ‘hang time’ to get flavour and tannin ripeness.”

Q. Are there any vines you’re thinking of adding or would like to add? I had some excellent Pinot Nero, Nero d’Avola, and Arneis the last time I was in Australia.

“We are always thinking! There are a few things in our minds and vineyards, but from thinking about importing a new variety to having something ready to drink is at least a 10-year process… so patience really is a virtue.”

Q. How are you dealing with climate change? Some of the winemakers I’ve spoken to have expressed concerns about conditions becoming more difficult and growing seasons significantly shorter. Are you ‘going up or going south’ or are you trying to deal with the changing conditions with things like more canopy management and other vineyard techniques?

“Australia and the Barossa is used to extremes of climate, and we have many management techniques in our vineyards to mitigate, particularly against heat. Not that we are not concerned about climate change, particularly when it comes to water availability, but we know that we can make wines that are great expression of our region(s) in the cooler (like 23) and warmer seasons.

“Some of the things we do in the vineyards to buffer them against temperature changes include, using mulches under vine, growing grasses between the rows to keep the environment cooler and stop reflection of heat, increasing biodiversity in the vineyard, changes in trellis design and canopy management to keep grapes shaded by the leaves, and even using ‘sunscreen’. The sunscreen is kaolin clay, mixed in water and sprayed on the leaves. It is very effective in stopping burning of the leaf tissue in heat waves. Our old vines, which have so much of their biomass under the ground, are also buffered against day-to-day weather events more than younger vines maybe. Increasing biodiversity in vineyards and surrounds, and increasing soil carbon and microflora should also help the vines increase their natural resilience.

“One of the very tangible things we are doing to combat climate change is actively measuring and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions as Silver Members of the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) is a collaborative working group of wineries committed to reducing carbon emissions across the wine industry. Currently over 40 wineries from nine countries are working together on this, in partnership with the United Nations Race to Zero campaign.”

Q. You still make a range of of fortified. Is this a heritage thing or do they find a ready market?

“We do still make a little bit of fortified wine. There is certainly a market for it, but it is also a heritage thing.”

Q. If you had to pick one of your wines to drink which would you choose and why?

“This is an impossible question without context… where am I… who am I with… what am I eating… how do I feel? Maybe I will just have a glass of our Tricentenary (planted 1889) Grenache while I wait for the answer!

GL: Thanks, Louisa. On the basis of my recent tasting, I’m with you on the Tricentenary.

Yalumba wines you must try

While I’ve never had a bad wine from Yalumba, there are some that have consistently stood out for me, or, in the case of the Roussanne, which were new and head-turning. So, here are my current loves from an impressive Yalumba’s range.

I’ll start my recommendations with the Y Series Chardonnay (winedirect £11.30). I always think it’s a bold move to make an unoaked Chardonnay. Partly as I think most consumers expect Chardonnay to be wooded – especially when it comes to New World examples – and because you need to be sure your fruit’s got the character to pull off a solo performance. The Y Series pulls it off in style. The nose combines freshness with tropical fruit and a subtle touch of vanilla, while on the palate the flavours of red apple, peach, pear and grapefruit are lively, intense, and mask of oak, seem more focused, and pure. Try this with oily fish, pork and seafood.

Yalumba have a reputation for creating great wines from Rhône varieties, and while their Viognier and Grenache garner much of the critics’ applause they have other wines that are equally exciting. Their Eden Valley Roussanne (winedirect £15.75) is a fascinating wine. Straw green-gold, the bouquet offers camomile, rose petals, herbs and (to me at, least) green wood. The palate is fresh and clean, but has an underlying richness as flavours as diverse as white peach, vanilla, orange peel, citrus and almonds come together to give an intriguing whole. This is a wine for the mind, one to sip and savour either on its own or with mushroom risotto, baked white fish or roasted artichokes.

The Virgilius Viognier (London End Wines £36) is acknowledged as a bright star in Yalumba’s firmament. The 2018 is a jaw-droppingly good wine, one that’s fit to rank with the Rhône’s finest Condrieu. Pale gold, the nose is a riot spiced apricots, cardamom, ginger, lychees and nose-tingling kumquats. This mighty mouthful’s creamy, unctuous body delivers wave after wave of apricot and dried pear fruit, mixed spice, orange peel, and honey, balanced and restrained by a fine, cleansing acidity. It’s big, bold, and beautiful, and has a long, golden future ahead of it.

And so to the reds. Australia makes some of the greatest varietal Cabernet Sauvignon in the world, with its Coonawarra wines being perhaps its finest of all. The Cigar Cabernet 2018 (Laithwaites £25) is certainly one of the best Cabernets I’ve had this year. Inky and brooding, the nose is piercing, full of fresh blackcurrants, green peppers, spices, cigar box, and raspberries but, as in the mouth, the more you investigate, the more you discover. Tones of the undergrowth, stewed plums, blackcurrant conserve, mint, bitter chocolate, earth and redcurrants all emerge. This powerful wine is lithe and elegant and is a must for red meats, sheep’s cheese, tomato-based dishes or on its own with good friends.

I couldn’t talk about Yalumba’s wines and not mention Grenache. For many years Grenache has been spoken of as having the potential to make Australia’s greatest reds. Alas, as in so many places, this vine’s natural generosity has been exploited leading to the productions of lakes of moderately coloured, moderately flavoured, massively alcoholic quaffing wines. Yalumba clearly respects it, and the Samuel’s Collection Barossa Bush Vine Grenache 2019 (Sarah’s Cellar £20) shows what it can do in the right hands. Mid-red, the aroma is a cheerful, inviting blend of cherries, raspberries and pomegranates, with floral and vanilla touches. The palate is juicy, plump, with all the hard edges of a ball pit. There’s weight to the cherry, strawberry, and blackberry fruit, and freshness is leant by a delicate red berry acidity. I’d serve this with roasted guinea fowl or gammon.

My penultimate choice reflects Australia’s brilliance at blends. Legend has it that winemakers put Cabernet with Shiraz as they had no Merlot, Australian Merlot being in the words of one famous Aussie winemaker, ‘a nice idea’. The Samuel’s Collection Barossa Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2018 (Vinum £16.70) is a Rhône blend (Mataro being France’s Mourvèdre) that delivers a wine with a lightness of touch that you’re unlikely to find in say, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Peppered black and red fruits dominate the nose, while on the palate black cherries, prunes, raspberries, cranberries and spiced almonds come together to produce a wine of harmonious complexity. This is a wine I’ve always enjoyed with lamb and pheasant – the juicy, peppery tone just seems to go perfectly, but it’s great with barbecued foods and Hong Kong-style spare ribs.

I’ll finish on a high with a wine that’s produced from vines that date back to 1889. The Tri-Centenary Grenache (Vinum £40) is a wine like no other, and not just because of the 100-day post-fermentation maceration which (so I’m told) explains its extraordinary fine, velvety mouthfeel. This is undoubtedly one of the world’s great wine experiences. The aged, low-yielding Grenache vines give a super concentrated glassful of red and black cherries, prunes, chocolate, mint, dried strawberries and a lovely, mellow herb butter tone to the finish. Powerful enough to stand up to well-flavoured red meats and herby, softly spiced vegetarian dishes, this should be on every serious wine lover’s must-taste list.

Well, that’s it for now. Next time out I’ll run down my top ten Chilean wines.


South African wine treasures to uncork

Round & About


Our wine columnist Giles Luckett explores the best wines from South Africa worth trying

Hello. This article was inspired by a recent South African wine tasting, one that turned out to be a simultaneous trip down memory lane and a voyage of discovery (if that doesn’t win Mixed Metaphor of the Year, nothing will!).

This vast county has 30 diverse wine districts and 60 Wine of Origin (WO) designations, boasts a mix of microclimates and soils to enable it to grow pretty much every grape variety brilliantly. They’ve also been making wine since the 1650s, so they have had plenty of time to perfect their art. 

I became a fan of South African wines in my student days, as they offered affordability and drinkability in equal measure. Three decades in the wine trade has burnished my love of the country’s wines and allowed me to try everything from mighty Cabernet Sauvignons that aren’t so much dry as desiccated to that well-known heart condition treatment (well, well-known to Jane Austen) the luscious Klein Constantia. Such long experience meant I attended the tasting expecting great wines but no surprises. What I encountered came as something of a shock… 

Alongside the usual cavalcade of world-class Cabernet Sauvignons (the Vergelegen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch 2017 (Wine Society £16) was in marvellous form, so full, so refined, and typical of this wonderful vintage), cool climate Chardonnays (Journeys End Winemakers Chardonnay) (Laithwaites £14.99), and native grape classics such as the Beaumont Family Pinotage, Bot River, Walker Bay 2018 Pinotage (the Wine Society £18) was a line-up of newbies the like of which I didn’t know existed. Luscious, fruit-bomb Viogniers like the Mount Rozier Estate Queen Bee Viognier 2022 (Laithwaites £12.99), a previously unseen Tempranillo, from Mellasat Vineyards (Brompton Wines £20.9%) which took this Riojan classic and gave it even more oomph and even an orange wine. Well, no one’s perfect. 

(Another) South African Wine Revolution

I’d read that South African wine had undergone one of its periodic reinventions in the past few years, but I didn’t appreciate how significant this one was. On the evidence of this extensive tasting, this is as significant a change as they moved away from making South Africian ‘port’ and ‘sherry’ and moved into table wines.

What is the revolution this time? Well, in essence, it’s about working with nature. It’s about aligning the right grapes, exploration of sites, and using the right grapes and the right production methods to give wines that are authentic, and which convey a ‘taste of place.’ The rationale behind this move varies hugely, but what is universal is the exceptional quality of the wines being produced, as the following highlights show.

Boschendale Chenin (Tesco £9) is about as traditional as South African wine gets. Chenin, or Steen as it’s known here, is planted all over the country as it used to be used for fortified wines. These days it’s mainly used to produce crisp, apple, and melon flavoured wines, the best of which, such as Boschendale’s, have a shot of citrus, honey, and minerals giving them complexity. 

South African Sauvignon Blanc isn’t a wine I’m that familiar with. Like many of my generation, I was introduced to Sauvignon by the thrillingly fruit-driven gooseberry and green pepper wines of New Zealand in the late 1980s. After a year or so of drinking this style, the thrill wore off, and I’ve avoided New World Sauvignon ever since. It seems I’ve been missing out, however, as when I tasted the Journey’s End Identity Sauvignon (£9 Sainsbury’s), I found a wine of subtlety and class. The notes of gooseberries, rhubarb, and peppers are still there, but the volume’s been turned down, and peachy, yellow plum notes have fleshed it out, making for a jolly, food-friendly glassful. 

Kleine Zalze is another South African winery whose wines I’ve always enjoyed. Hailing from the prestigious Stellenbosch region, their Vineyard Selection Chenin (Vinum £13.10) is a serious, grown-up wine. Oak-aged, there’s a creaminess to this wine that compliments the rich peach, guava, and apricot tones before a fresh, firm acidity pulls everything together. This would be brilliant with lemon roast chicken or mushroom risotto. 

Spier is one of South Africa’s oldest wineries, and yet they produce one of its newest and rarest wines. Albarino is a grape most commonly associated with Spain, where it produces some of the country’s greatest whites. Ranging in style from the dry and crisp to the very dry and very crisp, it’s a wine I’ve always liked. The Spier Albarino (Majestic £9.99) has all the citrus you’d expect, but with its full, glycerine-rich body, it has softer, fatter notes of baked apple and pear that make it eminently drinkable. 

I’ll leave the whites with Jordan Wines’ The Real McCoy Riesling 2022. Like Pinot Noir, Riesling seems to be a grape that every nation wants to do well. The quality of the grape is such that everyone wants to create ones that can rival the French and German versions. Jordan has done pretty good job, if you ask me. While this is very much a South African wine, the lovely floral, apple and honey nose, taut, crisp, green and white berry saturated palate and cleansing, mineral-laden acidity make for a compelling Riesling. I plan to try this with a stir fry, but as a solo sipper, it’s a pearl. 

Pinotage is South Africa’s signature grape. Created in 1925 by crossing the noble Pinot Noir and commoner Cinsault (at the time, the Pinot wasn’t so much cross as flaming furious), the idea was to give a noble vine with good heat resistance. It’s a vine capable of great things in the right hands (and utterly forgettable dross in the wrong hands), as the Spier Pinotage shows. Mid-red, the nose is an inviting mix of crushed red berries, warm spices, cherries, and earth. These impressions flow onto the palate where the amble, yet rounded, tannins give it structure, and a hint of mint adds freshness. A great BBQ wine, should the sun ever shine. 

Blends have always worked well in South Africa. Some of my earliest memories of South African wine are of tasting the likes of Simonsig and Meerlust’s mighty Rubicon. Having such a wealth of grapes to call upon, it’s easy to see why they are popular. One I caught up with at the tasting was Kanonkop’s Kadette (Tesco £12), the entry-level wine from the superb Kanonkop estate. Blending Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, this is an inky dark, brooding, spicy, and super-ripe wine that doesn’t so much caress your palate as give it a cuddle and offer it a blanket. If you like big, rich, spicy, and intense wines, this is a great choice. 

Syrah, one of the great grapes of the Rhone Valley, is another variety you rarely see adorning South African wine labels. So when I saw the Griffin Syrah (£20 Ocado), I was intrigued. I tasted the 2016, and the bottle aging had clearly helped it. Young Syrah can be a handful, closed, tannic, brooding, and acidic. This was deep, mellow, and open. It offered a huge weight of plum, black cherry, and bramble fruit alongside signature notes of herbs, white pepper, and raspberries. Drinking well now, it has time on its side and would be fantastic with roasted red meats or hard cheeses. 

I couldn’t write a piece on South African wine and not mention a Cabernet Sauvignon. This noblest of vines seems to like South Africa and consistently produces world-class wines that are as good as they are affordable. I reviewed the Major Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 by Ernie Els Wines last year, and it was outstanding. This time out, I looked at the 2017, which, if anything, was even better. Very dark with only a glimmer of crimson at the rim, the nose offered an intensely concentrated mix of cassis, green peppers, mint, cherries, and smoke. In the mouth, it was powerful yet elegant. Fresh blackcurrants take centre stage, but there’s excellent support from black cherries, chocolate, spicy vanilla, and a shot of cranberry acidity. A delicious wine, I’d give it plenty of time open before drinking. 

I’ll finish this piece as I finished the tasting with a fizz. I’ve tasted the Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé (Majestic £16.99) around a dozen times in the past year, and my notes have been consistent in their praise. While I love all of Beck’s sparkling wines, the Pinot Noir Rosé is on a different level. Sweetly toned strawberries and raspberries mingle with softer flavours of brioche, black fig, creamy yeast, and a hint of saline. This will undoubtedly be our summer fizz, and with its weight and freshness, it will partner all kinds of food admirably well. 

I hope this whistle-stop tour will prompt you to explore South Africa’s great wine treasury. Next time out, I’m heading back down under for some splendid summer sippers.

More soon…!