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Tierhoek Straw Wine 2006

Only a week or two ago I attended a dinner featuring South African wines hosted by Richard Kelley of Richards Walford, a UK importer, with a quartet of top South African winemakers and their respective wines in attendance. These included Carl van der Merwe of Quoin Rock, Carla Kretzel of Lammershoek and Chris Williams of Meerlust, who brought along wines from his personal project which he runs alongside his Meerlust commitments under the title of The Foundry. The fourth member of the group was Tierhoek, represented by Roger Burton and Shelley Sandell, who as well as showing their admirable 2004 Chenin Blanc brought along the 2006 vintage of the estate's Straw Wine. This was my second taste of this wine within the space of a very short period of time, and finding both bottles to be absolutely delicious it seemed like the perfect choice for my Weekend Wine.

Tierhoek Straw Wine 2006Tierhoek is located in the Piekenierskloof region north of Cape Town, nestled in amongst the peaks of the Olifantsrivier Mountains, with the Cederberg Mountains to the east and the Atlantic Ocean over the peaks to the west. It sits within a bowl-shaped depression at an altitude of 760 metres, making it the second-highest vineyard in South Africa. Those who are knowledgeable both of Afrikaans and the indigenous species of Africa will wonder why the estate appears to be name "Tiger's Corner", when of course the tiger is not one of this continent's native species. Roger Burton explained that the first settlers in the region, who were Malaysian if I heard Roger correctly, on first sighting of the local big cats simply named them for the Malayan tigers with which they were familiar. Of course they were in fact leopards and cheetahs, but the name stuck, at least in the title of this farm, which was established in 1886 by the Malais family. Now owned and restored by Tony and Shelley Sandell, the estate boasts vineyards which are home to Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Grenache Noir, as well as plantations of Rooibos (for tea) and Buchu (for medicines and cosmetics). Naturally it is the vines that interest us though, particularly because like many estates in South Africa we have here Chenin Blanc, the Loire's greatest white variety.

When I was first learning about wine several decades ago, South African vineyards were often described as being dominated by a white variety named Steen, a vine which turned out to be the noble Chenin Blanc. A number of writers were quite enamoured of the variety, such as Oz Clarke who opined in The Wine Book (Websters, 1987), "The grape they used was the Chenin Blanc, usually rather tart and mean in France, or bland and flabby in California, but here perfectly balanced, its gentle, positive, creamy fruit sharpened up with carefully controlled, mouthwatering acidity". I can't agree with Clarke's assessment of Loire Valley Chenin, unless he has been tasting at all the wrong domaines, but his thoughts on South Africa seem to be on the mark, and today Chenin Blanc is turning out to be a real asset for this still-emerging wine nation. With the right terroir, the right work in the vineyards and appropriate care in the winery it can turn out very admirable wines. Speaking at the aforementioned dinner Richard Kelley, an MW with particular interests in both the Loire and South Africa, confided that although the dry Chenin Blancs of today's South Africa were very good, it is the sweet Chenins that are - in his words - "world class".

And so to the wine, which fits very well with Kelley's bold statement; this is not merely a good wine, but one that is vibrant, rich, exciting and vigorous. The 2006 Tierhoek Straw Wine has an attractive golden hue in the glass. Perhaps more important than than it has a fabulous nose, savoury and sweet at the same time, a mix of caramel, honey and apricot with straw, oatmeal and pepper. The palate possesses a fine style on entry, and it is just brimming with flavour, exuberant and rich, packed with explosive sweetness and depth, but all nicely cut through with superb acidity. On the finish it shows some very savoury elements again, broad, honeyed and yet at every moment very fresh. Very long too. This is indeed excellent wine, which I suspect would do well in the cellar, although it is so good to drink now, why wait? 17.5+/20

I will have a more detailed account of my South African dinner with Richard Kelley on this site as soon as possibe. (26/10/09)

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