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Out of the rot comes forth sweetness

Die Bergkelder's 2009 Fleur du Cap Noble Late Harvest, the first vintage to be made from Chenin Blanc

Pieter Badenhorst of Fleur du Cap is the first winemaker I’ve listened to who actually explains the intricacies, pitfalls and barnacles inherent in making a noble late harvest (NLH) or noble rot wine.

Most all other explanations I’ve heard are glib and misleading, as if this benign fungus invades the vineyard and gently turns the grapes into super-sweet raisins, while the viticulturist and winemaker sit back with arms folded waiting for the right moment to harvest.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The fungus Botrytis cinerea infects grapes during the flowering stage but it manifests much later during the ripening stage. Intense humidity followed by longer dry warm periods at just the right time, results in noble rot (édelfaule in German), whereas sustained humidity with no warm periods of relieving dryness, leads to grey rot, The former is divine the latter, disastrous.

The most prevalent legend about the origins of botrytised wines says that the Reisling producers of Schloss Johannisberg (Geisenheim in the Rheingau region, not Jhb SA!) had to wait for the permission of the estate owner, Heinrich von Bibra, Bishop of Fulda, to commence the harvest. In 1775, the abbey messenger was waylaid en route by brigands and the ensuing delay of three weeks allowed the Botriytis to take hold. The shrivelled, raisin-like grapes were considered worthless, and given to the local peasants, who made a surprisingly good sweet wine, the very first “late harvest” or as it became known, Spatlëse.

Known as Sauterne in France (Chateau d’Ychem has been producing such wines since the 1500’s, which by the late 1700’s had an international reputation), Tokajské in Hungary, Ausbruch in Austria, Amarone in Italy, and of course noble late harvest in South Africa.

One of the key features in NLH production is the ruthless selection process the grapes undergo. Chateau d’Ychem for example, produced not a single bottle of wine in 1964, because none of the berries harvested – each grape is handpicked at perfect maturity by a group of 150 pickers in successive “canvassings” of the vineyard – was considered suitable and the entire vintage was declassified.

Fleur du Cap’s viticulturist, Bennie Liebenberg ranges far and wide around the Cape Winelands, keeping a close eye on a number of supplier vineyards, looking for the telltale signs of B.cinerea towards the end of the harvest period. He consults closely with Pieter Badenhorst, and between them they decide what grapes will be acquired from where to go into the NLH. At the cellar, bunches are ruthlessly hand-sorted, with every berry being closely inspected, and only those that pass muster being processed further.

Little more than raisins, they have proportionately higher sugar content and acidity levels because of the water loss that results from the skin porosity induced by the B.cinerea fungus. It is this acid/sugar balance which makes the NLH rich, sumptuous and eminently drinkable, rather than sickly sweet and cloying.

The time and effort which goes into selecting the grapes, the miserly yield (seldom more than 1.5 tons per hectare) and the difficulty in making the wine (fermentation is notoriously difficult to get going, must be constantly monitored, and stopped at optimum alcohol and sugar levels) suggest that it will be expensive, and it generally is, in comparison with conventional wines. Although our local NLHs’ are not in the league of the great Sauternes – Ychem sells for between US$200 and US$500 per 500ml bottle – they don’t come cheap. The Fleur du Cap NLH’s presented by Pieter Badenhorst at a vertical tasting at Coopmanshuijs Private Hotel in Stellenbosch range in price from R107 to R110 per 500ml bottle. Now that’s hardly expensive in comparison with the great Ychems considering what you’re getting. Perplexingly nonetheless, NLH wines are just not selling in South Africa.

We tasted from 2005 to 2009 in a single flight, accompanied by much discussion. Each vintage has unique attributes in its own right, but the line in the sand from vintage to vintage speaks of honeyed raisins and sultanas with dried fruit notes on the nose, dried peaches and apricots, orange peel and honey with a hint of spiciness sometimes (2005 only) on the palate, balanced by compelling acidity, and a long succulent finish.

Fleur du Caps NLH’s achievements over the years are impressive. Platter 5 stars for the ’06 to ’08 vintages; a number of Veritas golds over the years, and more recently, gold at the 2008 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show and a Grand D’Or at the 2009 Michelangelo Awards.

The constituents have varied over the years. Rhine Riesling (57%), Gewürztraminer (18%) and surprisingly, Chardonnay (25%) in 2005, Rhine Riesling (100%) in 2006 and 2007, Weisser Riesling (1005) in 2008, and a complete change in 2009 to Chenin Blanc (100%). But as Pieter points out, it all depends on what is available and the extent to which they are botrytised, and that of course depends on the precise sequence of weather conditions at the right time.

Each vintage is a fine expression of the winemaker’s art, a significant achievement, working with unforgiving parsimonious fruit.

Having said that, it is the 2009 vintage that stands out for me, head and shoulders above the rest. The grapes, 60% to 70% infected with B.cinerea, came from 30 year old bush vines in Firgrove just outside Somerset West, and were picked late March at 40˚Balling.

The wine is yellow gold in colour, much lighter than the preceding four vintages.

The nose is surprisingly shy, offering delicate shades of dried peaches, pears and apricots, with dusty botrytised notes. When I first smelled it, I must admit to a frisson of disappointment, but when it hit my palate, all was forgiven.

Powerful acidity stands shoulder to shoulder with a rich fruit complex redolent of Seville orange marmalade, and dried peaches and apricots. The mid palate is broad and rich with fruit, and the finish lingers enticingly. This is a classic case of under-promising and over delivering.

A significant feature of NLH’s is aging potential, due largely to their exquisite balance, and the significant alcohols, sugars and acidity. The 2009 vintage is no exception. At the time of tasting it was not yet released, but once it hits the shelves, do yourself a favour and lay in a stock. You won’t be sorry.

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  1. July 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

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