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Two iconic South African wines are this year celebrating their first decade of existence. Both were ahead of their time and have over these ten years produced the goods, without exception.  And both are still some of the most sought after and pricy wines available.

The Sadie Family Vineyards Columella and Forrester Meinert Chenin, better known as FMC, also have another significant common denominator: neither of these wines are ever analysed before being bottled.

Winemaking talent and skill triumphed over modern technology, producing wines that eventually weren’t always analytically similar, but retained the intended style and more importantly, quality.

Eben Sadie is first to admit that his career started in an environment that was hyper analytic and technology-based, after which he gradually refrained from relying on figures to trusting his senses and pure gut feel. And as one of the most admired and respected winemakers, it obviously worked for him.

In the case of FMC, as the vintages varied, the picking dates, ripeness and amount of Botrytis – a very significant component of this wine – also varied accordingly. Since 2000 the alcohol levels in this wine ranged from 13.5% (in 2002) to 14.5%. Similarly the highest residual sugar was a whopping 14g/l in 2002, while the most recent vintage (2009) has a RS of 6.1g/l – the lowest of all 10 wines.

Yet, despite substantial differences in analyses and the expected vintage variation on taste and smell, the defying character of all the wines in essence remains similar: full, rich and complex.

Many top winemakers have suggested that red grapes in particular ripened at a lower sugar level in 2011 than most South Africans are accustomed to. It’s surely going to be interesting to see who picked on the optimal sweet spot, and who succumbed to forcing their standard recipe – resulting in jammy, overripe wines.

I’m not suggesting that chemical analysis should be omitted completely. Not at all! Many cooperative cellars even pay their producers according to these analyses and possibly rightly so. Chemical analysis is, however, just a tool and should be seen as such.

Pioneers like Sadie, Meinert and Forrester have shown that it pays to show some balls and rely on your skill, palate and memory, leaving the sugar hydrometer in the lab.

Edo Heyns is a winemaker, turned wine journalist working for WineLand magazine.

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