Bouchard-Finlayson, Springfield and other top South African wines

xPeter Finlayson, arguably South Africa and one of the world’s great wine-makers presented an extensive selection of his wines, alongside a range of other fine South African wines. All of these are distributed in the UK by the excellent Bibendum wines.

Peter Finlayson was the very highly regarded wine-maker at Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the cool-climate Walker Bay area of South Africa. Regular visitors will have seen glowing reviews of their Chardonnays on these pages over the past few years. In 1989, Paul Bouchard of the great Burgundy domaine/negociant was invited to South Africa to judge a prestigious wine competition. He offered a special prize for the top wine-maker: a visit to his home in Burgundy.

Peter Finlayson won the prize, and spent a week visiting with Bouchard. Around the same time, Peter had spotted a small, coastal farm for sale in Walker Bay, which he believed had the perfect terroir for growing pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. He started on a campaign of fund-raising to establish his own winery, and he persuaded Bouchard to join him in the venture. And so, the New World/Old World partnership of Bouchard-Finlayson was born.

I was tremendously impressed by the range of Bouchard-Finlayson wines on show (a few of which I’d tasted before). Across the range they share a similar character: wines of restraint and finesse, quite austere in some ways, but each showing lovely balance and refinement. These wines are far more Burgundian in style than many New World examples, and are made without adjustment to sugar or acidity levels. Finlayson believes that great wines are made in the vineyard, not the winery. He is also a great believer in restricted yields, meticulous attention to detail and a relatively “hands-off” approach. Indeed, his plan for the future is to scale-down production, as well as increasing his plantings of Pinot Noir in favour of other varieties. Finlayson’s wines are priced at a small premium to the sector, but I have no doubt that these are wines of some distinction and cellaring potential.

Flight 1, Bouchard-Finlayson (Walker Bay)

Galpins Peak Pinot Noir 1998 – £10.44 (approximate: not yet released)
Beautifully soft and alluring nose – floral with sweet, strawberry fruit and some vanilla. Not at all jammy, there is lush texture yet also good structure. It is very long and a coffee-bean richness shows-up in the finish. Drink now with food, and over 6 – 8 years.

Galpins Peak Pinot Noir 1997 – £10.44
Nose is lightly more closed, and deeper with more structured, firm cherry fruit over soft strawberry and raspberry notes. The palate is chewy and serious, softly spicy with oaky flavours and hints of gaminess. It is beautifully poised and integrated. Long and very good indeed. Better in 5 years.

Sauvignon Blanc 1999 – (barrel sample)
Wow! Astonishingly aromatic nose, bursting with pear-drop, gooseberry, leafy aromas. There is lovely ripe pear fruit that follows through to the palate, which is quite full and balances pear and apple fruit with pure, fine acidity. Not an aggressive wine, tamer on palate than nose, but full of character. Very good.

Oak Valley Sauvignon Blanc 1998 – £6.98
Made from bought-in fruit, this has a more herbaceous, green-bean quality, but still fine aromatics beneath and zippy citrus fruit. Palate is cool and restrained again, balanced and bone-dry with fine pear fruit and lemony acidity. Not as long as the previous wine and not quite so distinctive.

Chardonnay “Sans Barrique” 1998 – (price not known)
Reserved but peachy nose, some steely, mineral and salt nuances. Very dry palate. The wine is again finely tuned, with crisp natural acidity and a very pure, if narrow core of peach and citrus fruit. Excellent length. A very good Chablis style.

Chardonnay “Kaaimansgat” 1998 – £8.63
Huge, charred, high-toasted oak dominates the nose. Beneath there is a depth of buttery peach fruit. On the palate this is immpresively layered and pure. There is sweet, ripe pear and apple fruit and a rich texture, yet fine acidity. A peppery quality which emerges in the long, long finish. Lovely stuff with cellaring potential. It reminds me very much of the ’97, tasted 6 months ago, with that highly aromatic oak cloaking fine components.

Chardonnay “Kaaimansgat” 1997 – £8.63
When last tasted I thought this was a superb wine of great complexity. In the intervening 6 months the powerful roasted coffee-bean oak has subsided, leading to an intriguing, savoury, meaty nose with notes of orange marmalade, cinammon sticks, nutmeg and toast. Beautifully balanced, the savoury palate is fleshy and dense, with pure citrus acidity that is integrated and natural. A complex and serious Burgundy style wine. Very good indeed and with years ahead of it.

Mission Vale Chardonnay 1997 – £9.06
Subtly toasty nose. Fruit is mostly lemon, with boiled-sweet notes. Very fresh, pure and classy. This reminds me more of the style Finlayson created with Hamilton Russell. There are mineral edges too and smoky, vanilla oak adding depth. Long and very good indeed.

Oak Valley Chardonnay 1996 – £8.69
Older, deeper colour to this wine. Big, soft, low-acid nose with aromas of butter, peach and oak. Softer, rounder style on the palate with apricot flavours and a pillow of soft oak and gentle acidity. Drinking well and balanced, though a less complex and somehow less composed style of Chardonnay.

Flight 2, Springfield Estate (Robertson)

Sauvignon Blanc 1998 – £5.21
Pure gooseberry and lychee fruit driven nose. Pear and acid-drop aromas, some gentle blackcurrant leafiness. Plate is clean and very dry, light and refreshing. Fruit doesn’t quite hold through to the finish, but a good commercially styled wine.

Chardonnay 1997 – £5.17
Very clean nose. Only lightly-oaked, with citrus fruit and fatter, buttery notes. More of the same on the palate, and rather spiky adjusted acidity in the finish.

Chardonnay Méthode Ancienne 1997 – £10.50
An experimental batch of Chardonnay using only wild yeasts for fermentation, no fining, no filtering and ageing in barriques. The nose has a distinctly volatile note – really quite vinegary, but mealy, yeasty aromas emerge along with nuances of herbs and spice. Interesting. Palate is clean and savoury, with a dominance of spicy oak over lemon and lime fruit. Quite long. An interesting wine which might develop over 5 – 8 years.

Sauvignon Blanc Special Cuvée 1998 – £6.25
Marvellously gun-flinty nose, very Pouilly-Fumé in style. There is intense, ripe pear and lychee fruit too. On the palate lots of character, with pure, ripe, sweet fruit and racy grapefruit acidity. Very long and taut, good balance. Very good indeed. (Vines for this wine are grown on a chalk-rich, very Loire-like soil).

Flight 3, Other wines

Grangehurst Winery (Stellenbosch) Pinotage 1997 – £10.17
Very aromatic. Fragrant bouquet of pastille fruit, vivid blueberry and blackcurrant. Ripe and fruit-driven, yet with a peppery, herbal edge. On the palate typical medicinal, cough-sweet notes are present, but sweet black fruit powers through. Some tannins in a long and very concentrated finish. Very good.

Grangehurst Winery (Stellenbosch) Merlot Reserve 1996 – 10.50
Quite a gamy quality to the nose. Slightly green and herbaceous too, but blackcurrant fruit emerges. A little bit green and lean on the palate, plenty of tannin and moderate acidity. A wine that needs food.

De Trafford (Stellenbosch) Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 – £8.27
Charcoally, slightly green nose with earthy notes. Fruit is rather lean, there is background oak and quite ripe, spicy tannins, then harsh lemony-acidity in the finish.

De Trafford (Stellenbosch) Merlot 1996 – £8.23
Quite a cool nose of blackcurrant fruit, but also a mineral, earthy quality. Palate is serious and structured with a firm, peppery edge to darker plum and currant fruit. Quite dense and chewy, with spicy oak in the moderately long finish. Good.

Welgemeend (Paarl) Douelle 1994 – £7.74
Very claret-like nose. Cedary old-wood, blackcurrant, dusty, dry fruit. Tannic, but that impression of dusty, sweet blue/black fruit continues. Quite a drying finish suggests maturity, but a Bordeaux style wine that is drinking quite well at a reasonable price.

Welgemeend (Paarl) Estate Reserve 1992 – £8.14
I’ll confess I only had time for a very quick assessment of this wine, but it seemed quite enjoyable with sweet black fruits, though a little dried out and with notable acidity.