From the Ground Up

Slate soil wine summit in South Africa explores character, quality.


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Wine tastings usually revolve around some theme but one of the more unusual topics explored recently in South Africa was wines grown in the same soil type, in this case slate, in different parts of the wine world.

This was the inspired idea of sommelier Jorg Pfuetzner, who, with Harald Bresselschmidt, chef/owner of Aubergine restaurant in Cape Town, brought three premier exponents of winegrowing on this metamorphic rock together for a three-day exploration of slate soil wines.

The trio comprised Dr. Ernst Loosen of the eponymous winery in Germany's Mosel region; Dirk van der Niepoort, who produces some of Portugal's best red table wines as well as Ports in the Douro valley; and South African winemaker Eben Sadie, whose Dits del Terra from the slate soils of Priorat is causing waves among respected European journalists.

The second day of the seminar explored the wines from slate soil in depth and included discussions and tastings. Loosen explained the effect of different types of slate on his wines: "Bernkastel's blue slate produces wines with more vigorous acids, whereas the acids in wines off the red slates of Ürziger seem much softer, more integrated, though both are of the same level."This difference was effectlively demonstrated by Bernkastel Lay Kabinett 2006 and Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese 2006.

From a different perspective, van der Niepoort's grapes for his table wines come from completely different vineyards to those for his Ports, many at higher altitudes. "Schist (slate) better expresses itself when mixed with around 20% granite," he noted. The wines, in turn, show lightness and austerity, emphasizing structure rather than flavour.

Niepoort added that the importance of the slate soils in expressing terroir is matched by old vines (90% of his vineyards are over 60 years), different varieties growing together and minimal cellar treatment.

The day before, food and wine pairings demonstrated the food-friendly character of slate soil wines. Bresselschmidt matched eight dishes

 

The winemakers are from left to right: Ernst Loosen (from Dr Loosen), Eben Sadie, Dirk van der Niepoort and Sommelier Jörg Pfützner of the Aubergine Restaurant, Cape Town

with 11 wines, introduced by each producer. The Loosen wines, all Rieslings with alcohols ranging between 6 percent and 8 percent were perfect antidotes to the blisteringly hot, Cape Town evening. After the Bernkastler Lay Riesling Kabinett 2006 ("Lay" is local dialect for slate) as apéritif, participants moved through a 1981 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese, with the driness of age and wild mushroomy echoes, paired with Fried Scallops; an Erdener Treppchen Auslese 2006, a natural with Pan-fried Foie Gras with Poppy Seed reduction, to a Beerenauslese 2006, the Crème Brûlée's Kumquat Compote accompaniment perfectly showcasing the wine and food's sweetness. The Kabinett and Beerenauslese were harvested from the same vineyard on the same day, the clean and botrytised grapes being harvested into separate, color-coded buckets.

"I look for freshness in my wines and not obvious fruit." So Dirk van der Niepoort introduced his white Tiara and Redoma branca Reserva 2006, and red Vertente, Redoma tinto and Batuta 2005. Many of Portugal's numerous indigenous and obscure varieties go into these wines; Cordega and Rabigato lead in the two whites, Tinta Amarella in the Redoma and Batuta. But it is clarity of expression and freshness rather than fruit which defines Niepoort's wines and, indeed, those of the other two producers. Slate soil has, no doubt, played an important role in this.

Eben Sadie's Dits del Terra, also served with the Blesbok, comes from old vine Grenache and Carignan grown in the rugged Priorat countryside. "I've worked in various wine areas throughout Europe since 1994," Sadie explained. "Priorat was the first place I really wanted to return to. I was so attracted by those wines with their delicacy and warm spice."

 

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