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Beam Me Back To The Past Boets: The brave new world of Covid Tastings


5 July 2021  -  Graham Howe

The Covid19 pandemic has rewritten the protocols of wine tastings. Smart wine producers are launching new products by using digital and personalised platforms to reach media and markets.

A virtual tasting of port-style wines presented by De Krans Wines and Vinimark in early June brought the dry and dusty terroir of the Klein Karoo into the homes of wine media and retailers around the world. Hosted by co-owner Boets Nel from the comfort of his old family cellar which has pioneered authentic port varieties and port styles in the Cape, the online winter tasting bridged the distance between Calitzdorp and markets far and wide, overcoming the limitations of lockdown for an hour.

Participants were able to taste a real range of seven samples of De Krans port-style wines paired to cheddar, Stilton, nougat and brownies – all courtesy of a gift pack hand delivered by the farmer’s daughter Annemi Nel to our homes. While Boets narrated the serendipitous story of the fifty-year old history of port varieties in Calitzdorp, when they planted Tinta Barocca thinking it was Shiraz, we tasted through 50ml bottles of Cape Pink (complete with mixers), Original Espresso, Cape Ruby, Cape Vintage and Cape Vintage Reserve (back to 2007).  We couldn’t get to the Klein Karoo this year, so Calitzdorp came to us on zoom– despite an outage caused by Boets' dogs disconnecting the cables.

Since the late 1990’s I’ve been a veteran of the annual road-trip up Route 62 to attend the Calitzdorp port wine festival – with an obligatory pit-stop for padkos en route at Joubert-Tradauw Cellar as well as Ronnie’s Sex Shop. There’s nothing like the real thing – cresting the magnificent Huisrivier Pass and finally free-wheeling down to main street, Calitzdorp, home of six cellars, the port capital of South Africa. After boules, I even got to interview Miss Port Poppie at the annual port ball in the Calitzdorp high school hall one year (a dinner prepared by master Karoo chef Francois Ferreira). But in the absence of regional travel due to the pandemic, a virtual tasting was a fair substitute.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Strange times call for innovative media and marketing strategies. With the usual weekly rounds of media tastings in the winelands on hold during the third wave of the pandemic, other wine producers opted for highly personalised briefings of journalists. Before the fourth alcohol ban, cellar master Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira, celebrated his thirtieth year at Graham Beck by taking to the road in early June to brief journalists through a one-on-one, face-to-face pre-release of their new Artisan Collection of MCC wines. 2021 also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kaapse Vonkel, the Cape’s first bottle-fermented wine by Simonsig in 1971.

It is not often a wine scribe gets the full and undivided attention of a travelling winemaker as busy as Pieter Ferreira, one of the pioneers of Méthode Cap Classique. Over lunch at my neighbourhood bistro, Baron Bubbly spoke animatedly about the release of the first limited edition (720 numbered bottles at R580) in their new Artisan Collection. Matured for eleven years on the lees, the 2009 vintage blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was disgorged in September 2020. He considers it his best MCC vintage of the new Millennium thus far and aims to set a new bar for the virtues of “extended lees ageing”(branded on the label) of MCC –combining complexity, longevity and vitality.

While pairing Cuvée Clive MCC (a midday indulgence at R750 per bottle) with a humble hamburger in my neighbourhood, Pieter spoke about forthcoming releases in the Artisan Collection: a twin pack of Yin and Yang MCC, reversing the assemblage of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – as well as exploring single vineyard Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuniere. While Covid19 has put a temporary hold on his projects in the USA and United Kingdom–Graham Beck sells more sparkling wine there than in South Africa – Pieter is pursuing the perfect bubble at home rather than spending time on his lees! He talks about the rich chalky soils of new Chardonnay and Pinot vineyards in Sussex and Hampshire.

We move onto the rebranding of Graham Beck’s Brut Zero, first released in 2005. On a humorous footnote, Pieter reveals that some consumers and retailers were confusing Brut Zero with non-alcoholic wine in these Covid19 times of prohibition – and putting it on the de-alcoholised shelf - while of course, it refers to zero (sugar) dosage. To avoid misleading teetotalers, the new 2015 vintage, “the purest form of Brut”, a bone-dry wine in a growing category of zero dosage worldwide, has been released under an Ultra Brut label. “Making sparkling wine without using sugar is like walking a tightrope” he adds, “There’s no room for error. It can only be crafted in exceptional years”.

One last taste of scintillating bubbly– and Pieter is off to his next hands-on tasting. His parting comment is, “In the cellar we can show you a bottle-fermented wine that has spent over thirty years on the lees. We have a great wine library at Graham Beck. There is a fine line between extended lees and drinking it. The big debate is ‘’Do you count the life of an MCC from the year of the vintage or from the time of disgorgement?’’ Walking two blocks home, I ponder the meaning of life of MCC.

Pieter Ferreira and Pierre de Klerk

Covid19 has rewritten the rules and rituals of media tastings and launches. Small is safe on the new calendar of wine events and virtual wine shows. Over the course of the last eighteen months, we’ve attended a fraction of the bi-weekly tastings of the past. The protocols of social distancing mean that real in situ tastings take place in small groups of up to a dozen masked tasters, sitting outdoors either at our own posts or at diagonal table settings with every second chair missing. No buffets - and ideally, your very own paddle of hors-d’oéuvres. The two metre apart rule rules. No cellar wants to be remembered as the source of a spreader event. Instead of sharing a minibus to wineland tastings, media are now treated to the luxury of solo uber transfers. Such are the times we live in.

Nonethless, it’s good to get out, break out of the isolation and elbow-bump colleagues in the wine industry when lockdown allows – and I’ve enjoyed a dozen fabulous, safe tastings this year at inter alia Ken Forrester (to celebrate twenty vintages of his iconic FMC Chenin Blanc), Waterford (at the opening of Salt, Craig Cormack’s divine new restaurant), Tryn at Steenberg (where cellar master Elunda Basson led a vertical flight of Black Swan Sauvignon Blanc), Taaibosch (for the launch of Schalk Willem Joubert’s flagship Cabernet Franc led-Crescendo blend) and Quoin Rock (where winemaker Schalk Opperman and viticulturist Nico Walters led a fascinating cellar technology, tour and tasting over a pairing with new chef Jacque Coetzee’s fine cuisine at Gǻte (meaning labyrinth).

Rising to the challenge of Covid19, producers such as Van Loveren Family Vineyards have launched a major rebranding makeover on a live zoom session broadcast around the world in April from a television studio in Gauteng. Undeterred by the limitations of lockdown, the Retief family unveiled the smart new-look packaging of their core heritage range under a contemporary label to a large zoom audience, using the format of a television-style talk show with ex-BBC presenter, Peter Ndoro, who interviewed the famous four cousins on past, present and future. I shut my eyes and recalled the legendary pumpkin fritters we enjoyed in the gardens of Van Loveren on sunny Saturdays in the Robertson Valley in the 1980s and 1990s which drew fans from far and wide. Those were the days, unmasked, care-free, when farm visitors received a generous free pour at the rustic tasting rondavel.