“…you cannot enter into an investigation with a philosophy that dictates the outcome. Objectivity is paramount; this is the first principle of detective work that each of us must learn. It sounds simple, but our presuppositions are sometimes hidden in a way that makes them hard to uncover and recognize.”― J Warner Wallace
WHY a wine is unique and stands out amongst its competition is very often focused on where it comes from. Down to the nitty-gritty colour, particle size, texture, depth, origin, and the historic era of the soils these vines were anchored in, giving birth to beautiful bunches of grapes that make the wine so special. Followed by HOW it is grown, treated, and according to WHO´s philosophy, WHAT equipment, materials, and techniques have been used to transform grapes into fermentable juice. WHEN were these decisions made? HOW much, HOW long. And last but not least, WHAT does the actual wine taste like?
We are all very much aware of the level of microscopic detail our curiosity for this mysterious, intriguing liquid sometimes leads us as we dig ourselves deeper and deeper into decoding and demystifying it. But too often I think we are missing out on communicating the real WHYs. The WHYs link us to the effect all those variables and decisions have on the actual wine you now have in your glass.
Thus bringing us to the noble pursuits of investigative journalism and its very cornerstones: WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, HOW, and WHY. While I don’t have ALL the answers, they present a viable foundation for this investigation.
In the spirit of investigation and unpacking, potentially INCORRECT assumptions, we need to start with the actual research question.
On a hot day anywhere in the Winelands, talking temperatures for the upcoming weekend, the general comment is: “if it´s hot here, imagine Paarl”. Yep, generalised, done and dusted, classified, set in stone.
From another perspective, Paarl is not super-hot. I would even dare to say that Paarl is one of the most uncool and untrendy of the well-known wine regions to put a label on. It is far from being the trendiest wine of origin in the Cape, clumped together with some other less-hyped wine districts, and placed into that pile of “might check out later if I have time”.
Thus, THE assumption.
Hot climate grapes will never struggle with ripeness, but rather the possibility of high alcohol and low acid flabbiness, requiring assistance from a winemaker’s toolbox to make them fresh and drinkable. What not to say of making Cap Classique from Paarl grapes? What a joke!
WHO CHALLENGES IT?
SO, how does all this pertain to AVONDALE? There’s something very un-Paarl about their wines.
I had an interesting conversation with a fellow MW the other day, and when I mentioned I thought they had been going from strength to strength and how impressed I was with some of their wines, he said: “Avondale, the guy with the hat and the ducks? Organic, right?”
Exporting 95% of their wines, it´s not strange that they are not that well known in the local market. Also, highly successful in the Swedish market, and one of the reasons I became very curious as to HOW they could accomplish what they had, away from the hype and the noise. Persevering, marching on.
Having spent a few weeks with them during harvest last year, however, I started understanding HOW.
HOW ARE THEY DOING IT?
The Supernatural powers of healthy soils for balanced ripening.
An alcohol-boosted waiting game. Or the dream scenario of achieving balanced ripening at lower potential alcohols?
The simple truth about elevated alcohol levels is heat. Or deliberately prolonging hangtime towards reaching dehydration, losing out on as much varietal typicity as a sense of place. But that’s another topic to ponder.
Higher fermentable sugars naturally lead to higher alcohols, and a boost in residual sugar if that is accepted as part of the mix. Warm to hot climate regions often struggle with high alcohol levels, especially in red wine. The simple reason is that no one wants to produce a red wine with hard, angular, unresolvable tannins which even time in bottle will struggle to master before the fruit has died off and left a bony skeleton crew behind. So, you wait and wait for the structural components in the grapes to find that magic balanced ripening, with the often-unwanted bonus of sugars climbing higher and higher each day, waiting to hit that sweet spot that occurs at the crossroads. While the acids hit rock bottom. The time to get that winemaker’s toolbox out and start repairing the mess incurred by the waiting game.
Or you start at the other end. With healthy, living soils.
The proof of Avondale’s success. Since they decided to stop force-feeding the soils and the vines with everything that innovative chemical companies have to offer hardworking farmers struggling with the weather gods and their liaisons, breaking down nature’s circle of life, they won the unbalanced ripening game. It did not happen overnight, but with the long-term approach converted to organic and biodynamic principles, their healthy soils support vines that deliver grapes that reach overall fruit and tannin ripeness at lower sugars, naturally maintaining acidity levels. A no-brainer with the results on hand.
WHEN DID THIS BECOME APPARENT?
There’s nothing more representative than the wine. THESE wines to be precise.
Avondale Armilla Cap Classique Blanc de Blancs Brut Vintage 2014
Contrasts and contradictions at their best. One of the most super-complex bubblies in the Cape IS a WO Paarl, 100% Chardonnay. With an astonishing seven years on its lees before release, Corné Marais has created a textural masterpiece with a lovely core of bright acidity and a biscuity, citrus, zesty twist reminiscent of lemon-meringue pie crust. Bone dry, there is no need to build palate weight through sugar as this gloriously textured palate was built on lees and lots of patience. With an organic bonus.
A Cap Classique from Paarl. Just imagine yourself telling your geeky wine friends that. That´s when I LOVE blind-pouring wines which deserve a better destiny than being declassified by people with preconceived notions. Don´t rub it in too much once the wines have been revealed. Let them carefully lick their wounds and figure out how they might continue on a new, interesting route, gently laid out for them. Becoming ambassadors of inherent quality. And identity. Without preconceived ideas. Without assumptions. Becoming detectives and guardians of rightfully judged wines. My mantra. Amen.
This wine is a brilliant example of being forced to humbly admit that you now need to throw all your preconceived ideas out the door. Like when the GPS gets really confused and desperately recalculates to give you a new route to follow.
If Robertson’s climate can be the origin of some of the top Cape bubbles, why shouldn´t Paarl be able to too? Robertson gets hot days and cool nights, being more inland and therefore more continental. But so does Avondale, situated higher up the slopes of the Drakensberg mountains, where constant airflow subsequently cools the evening temperatures down, overall ending up 3-4 degrees cooler than town. With Johnathan Grieve’s viticultural philosophy and the additional influence of cover crops creating a buffer against heat, bringing soil temperatures down to make the vines realise there is no urgency/rush to speed up the work in the sugar factory.
It will keep you reaching for a second glass while constantly playing with your mind – HOW?! But now we know WHY.
Qvevri Red 2020
50% Grenache and an equal split of Syrah and Mourvedre. Classic Mediterranean varieties, used to the heat, are in need of full ripening before they can deliver their personalities full on. So, where´s the story, the point, the thing?
12% alcohol confirms there was no real “waiting game” happening in the vineyard.
The key to this wine is the use of qvevris. Balanced on a knife’s edge between greatness and potential failure. The qvevri exposes the wine’s structure, its real integrity, and character. Nowhere to hide grapes picked too early, edgy tannins or green, unripe characters. A wine like this would usually scream for help to hide its weaknesses and shortcomings. Adding to this the influence of three months on the skin and stems. As much as oak can be the most perfectly applied makeup, oak can also be the perfect hiding place for scruples. In this case, the wine is as naked as it gets and it gets away with it so nicely. Gorgeously lively, energetic, spicy, with orange zest and beautiful floral aromatics reminiscent of rose petals. With a strawberry, mulberry fruit flavour, grippy and intriguing earthiness imparted by the qvevri.
Just HOW? WHY? A simple answer worth repeating. Healthy soils promote earlier fruit ripeness at lower sugars.
The superNATURAL ways of Avondale confidently making magic in Paarl.