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SA’s Boschendal backs premium push in Asia

South Africa “got it wrong” and should have marketed its sparkling wines as Méthode Cap Classique, not South African sparkling wine, from the beginning, according to Boschendal’s white and sparkling winemaker Lizelle Gerber.

Speaking to db HK on a recent tour to promote some of its super premium offerings, including the newly launched 2012 vintage Pinot Noir from Elgin, Gerber lamented the lack of strong international growth for South African traditional method sparkling wine.

Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) and English sparkling wine are, to Gerber’s mind, the closest in style to Champagne thanks to their climates. As such Gerber believes sparkling wines from these countries are best positioned to to compete directly with some prestige cuvées from Champagne, and has publicly supported effort to market Méthode Cap Classique as a unique South African category.

Gerber was appointed the white and MCC winemaker for Boschendal in 2006, just two years after she joined the DGB group. Boschendal, in Franschoek, is the second oldest winery in South Africa dating from 1685. Despite being a female winemaker in South Africa, she has overcome any speculations of glass ceiling or prejudices and triumphed in putting her own stamp in the historic company’s portfolio by creating a Blanc de Blancs, made with mature Chardonnay vines from cooler vineyards, disgorged after five years of ageing on lees plus one year sur pointe (on the cork) before release. The one year sur pointe is particularly important for better homogenisation, integration and balance, emphasised Gerber.

Named after historic figure Jean Le Long, the French Huguenot who became the first owner of Boschendal in 1685, this is a super-premium MCC launched in 2014 with limited production of just 1,500 bottles. Her sunset salmon-hued Brut Rosé is made with 30% Pinotage, 20% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, with crispness and stylish elegance to match its colour.

However South African wines are not an easy sell in Asia, admitted Nick Sonderup, regional director for Asia of DGB. The challenge remains to convince consumers and the trade that South Africa is capable of making quality premium wines, not bulk wine or entry level bottled wine. This will take education, marketing efforts and time. Sonderup felt that being listedas a pouring wine in the on-trade is an important first step, so that consumers can sample it by the glass and experience the quality themselves.

If Gerber could source more Pinot Noir, she would probably replace some of the Pinotage with Pinot Noir, but Pinotage, despite its challenges as a finicky grape variety (not unlike its parent Pinot Noir), with its lighter colour is perfect for saignée. All three varieties are separately vinified before blending.

Gerber’s focus on elegance, precision and respect of the fruit has seen the launch of another cool climate super premium appellation specific series, the Elgin Series. These single varietal wines (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir – 2012 being the first vintage of Pinot Noir by Gerber) are made from grapes sourced from the Elgin Valley. Given that apples are currently generating a higher income than wine grapes, Boschendal is committed to agreeing long term contracts with their farmers to secure the supply and so that the farmers would have a steady source of income.

When asked about her preferred style for Chenin Blanc, Gerber felt that it could come in different styles, but it was important to let the purity of the fruit show through the winemaking, so that it was not disguised by heavy oak or other winemaking techniques.

This was Gerber’s visit to Asia and she was overwhelmed by how Asian chefs went out of their ways to try to find the best food pairings with the wines. Overall, she found Japanese food more wine-friendly and that Chinese regional cuisines presented particular challenges because of their dominant sauces, with pairing the sauce becoming more a preoccupation than the actual ingredients!

Gerber believes in blind tasting so that wine enthusiasts can be surprised on the upside, especially by such attractive quality-price ratio. Indeed with a recommended retail price of HK$ 560 (around GBP 40) for the Jean Le Long Blanc de Blancs, this seems a steal compared to some prestige cuvées from Champagne.

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