The question I get asked the most whilst hosting wine tastings isn’t, as I’d love it to be, “Can I order by the lorry load?” but is instead, “What’s your favourite wine?” It’s a great question but, somewhat frustratingly, it’s an almost impossible one for me to answer. Why?
Well, there are so many great wines and they all, from the humblest to the highest, have their own particular appeal. Some are sublime with a simple picnic on a sunny day, some are serious and cerebral and others evoke memories of great times with good friends. Ultimately, it all depends on mood, occasion and food. Or to put it another way, sometimes you’re in the mood for jazz and sometimes you want tear it up with a bit of punk!
Right now, as autumn encroaches, my favourite white wine is the, intriguingly named, The Tea Leaf Chenin Blanc from the Piekernierskloof region of South Africa. Surprisingly, to me at least, the wine’s name has nothing to do with rhyming slang – think thief – and everything to do with the unusual vineyard that produces the wine. Perched high on a rocky mountainous slope, the vineyard is home not only to ancient Chenin Blanc bush vines but also to rooibos plants. Rooibos, a tea indigenous to South Africa, cannot be cultivated and only grows wild and if that’s in the middle of your prized vines, well so be it!
The vines themselves are over forty years old and had been abandoned for years until they were recently rediscovered by rising star of the South African winemaking world, Donovan Rall. These ancient vines yield far less fruit than younger vines but the grapes produced by these ‘old timers’ are unparalleled in their intensity and complexity of flavour. Preserving such palate pleasing purity is paramount and hand picking of the grapes in the dead of night, before transportation to the winery in a chilled grocery truck, ensures the grapes give of their very best.
After arriving in the winery, the grapes are hand sorted by winemaker, Donovan Rall, and his team. Only the very best grapes are chosen and those that are selected are naturally fermented with wild yeasts in a combination of old wooden barrels and stainless steel tanks for up to ten months before bottling. Incredibly, only 4,000 bottles of The Tea Leaf Chenin Blanc 2013 – its first vintage – were produced and unlike many other limited edition wines it’s not exorbitantly priced.
So what does it taste like? Well, it’s rich and full with ripe apple and pear flavours to the fore with underlying notes of honey, pineapple and spice. Pleasingly, the concentration and richness of the wine is beautifully counter balanced by a racy, zesty limey acidity on the finish. It really is a great showcase for what can be achieved with mature vine Chenin Blanc in South Africa’s neglected and forgotten vineyards. Hats off to Donovan and here’s to future vintages, that’s assuming the rooibos doesn’t take over!
The Tea Leaf is delicious on its own but it’s also a versatile food wine. For lazy lunches, it’s perfect with egg based dishes such as quiches, frittatas or omelettes. However, it really comes into its own when paired with fish. Try it with light seafood pasta dishes, prawn risotto, fishcakes, scallops, sushi or – my absolute favourite – with spicy Asian style salt and pepper squid. If you’re in the mood for meat, pair it with loin of pork and lots of apple sauce.
To finish, I should probably mention that it’s not just me that’s mightily impressed with The Tea Leaf. The judges at this year’s International Wine Challenge were also smitten and awarded the wine a silver medal.