Category Archives: 2008

Meeting the Vintners: Kleine Zalze, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Entering the estate in the evening

Entering the estate in the evening

It is hard not to notice the size of Kleine Zalze’s business endeavors as you enter the compound through a security gate: To your left, you find rows of apartments, there is a lodge, and in the distance is a golf course operated by Kleine Zalze, but at the heart of these operations, geographically and by importance, is its winery.

Kleine Zalze was founded in 1685 and was purchased by the current owners Kobus and Mariette Basson in 1996. Its production is 720,000 bottles per year. The winery has between 50 and 60 hectares under vine, but it also buys grapes from 23 suppliers that have long-term contracts with Kleine Zalze. This stems from the simple fact that some grapes are simply not suited for Kleine Zalze’s holdings (like Sauvignon blanc), but are seen as essential by the owners for their portfolio. These contract growers are spread out over the Cape, with some over 400 km away from Stellenbosch. The logistics of this seemed to be quite intense, with regular inspections at the vineyards and then bringing the grapes in cooling vans to Stellenbosch so that they don’t start fermenting after picking. I know that this practice is common in many wine regions, but I think it was the first time I got to talk with a winemaker about the logistics.

With assistant winemaker Dirk van Zyl

With assistant winemaker Dirk van Zyl

Dirk van Zyl is an assistant winemaker and vineyard manager at Kleine Zalze. His family owns a small winery, so it was natural for him to go into the wine business. At Kleine Zalze, he is in charge of integrating vineyard management and winemaking. This means that a big part of his job is driving to the contract growers and inspecting their vineyards, adjusting methods and doing what is necessary there. In the cellar, he is involved in all areas of winemaking. Dirk very clearly loves his job, and he loves working at Kleine Zalze. When I asked him about future plans, he told me he wants to stay with Kleine Zalze as long as he can to learn more about different vineyard sites and cellaring methods. Eventually, he plans to return to the family farm but not for now.

Kleine Zalze produces three lines of wines (a practice that seems common in the Stellenbosch region): the Cellar Selection, which is meant for early drinking with usually low use of oak and more fruity in taste; the Vineyard Selection as the middle tier of quality, in which all white wines are barreled; and the Family Reserve, which is their highest tier.

Our line up for the night

Our line up for the night

I will focus these reviews on the high end wines for the sake of readability, but I want to point out the two whites we tasted of the Cellar Selection, a 2014 Sauvignon blanc and a 2014 Chenin blanc, which were both great easy drinking wines. The Sauvignon blanc was fruity with great acidity, and the Chenin blanc struck me with its fruit mix of guava, gooseberry and peach.

The 2012 Sauvignon blanc Family Reserve spent 12 months on the lees in stainless steel and is meant to be more in an Old World style. The color was slightly golden, and the nose was intriguing: full aromas of tropical fruit (and some banana?) and honey, with some acidity noticeable in the nose already. Most of all there was something that reminded of an older Riesling. I couldn’t nail it down to what it was, but definitely intriguing. Its mouthfeel was nicely velvety, much heavier than the Cellar Selection. Aroma-wise, I got gooseberry and green pepper, but all in all it was rather restrained, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was nice mixture of soft and muscular, with good acidity and a nice finish to it.

The 2012 Chenin blanc Family Reserve was the maiden vintage for this line’s Chenin blanc. The grapes come from three sites in Stellenbosch, which all have different soil types (granite, decomposed shell, and sand and clay mix). Vinification begins in stainless steel and then the wine spends one year on the lees in first and second fill barrels. The color was golden, and the nose quite expressive and complex. There was tons of tropical fruit (probably pineapple most prominently). On the palate, you could taste a bunch of minerality, acidity was again spot on, and the wine was creamy and balanced with an elegant finish. Everything was well made in this wine, but somehow it didn’t touch me the way it probably should have. It probably needs more time to age.

And two of the whites we tried...

And two of the whites we tried…

The 2010 Shiraz Family Reserve was made from grapes from one block which contains three different soil types which produce different kinds of grapes: some with thicker skins, others with thinner skin and therefore less tannin potential. The batches are fermented separately, some in open cement containers, and then are blended afterwards. The color was a dark ruby red, and the nose was intense and concentrated, with chocolate and coffee aromas. Nina and I both loved how well integrated the wine tasted: it was grippy with great tannins that held it all together, with dark fruit aromas and a long finish. The balance of it all was great. When I just checked Nina’s notes, I saw a smiling face beside this wine. Mine has a bunch of plusses. A total winner.

The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve we tried comes from one block in Stellenbosch and is aged in first fill barrels for 26 months. The nose of the wine was complex and very intense, almost aggressively so. I picked up boiled green peppers, bitter chocolate and what I would describe as tomato stalks (have you ever smelled them?). Nina’s notes read pencil shavings and spice with lots of red fruit. On the palate, despite its age, the 2008 was still very firm and closed, with restrained fruit, and still a bunch of green aromas. It was very hard to assess at this stage because it didn’t really want to come out of its shell. When I voiced some frustration about this, and that I would love to try it again in three years, Dirk got up and told us to wait. He came back with a bottle of 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve that had been opened a few days before! While the nose was pretty much gone, just a whiff of prunes left, the flavor worked on this one: great tannins and what I would describe as port wine like flavors (fortified, prunes, sweet cherry). It was succulent and full, enticing and alluring. All of that topped by a long finish. This was an impressive wine, and it did give an idea of where the 2008 might be headed…if that’s the case, there’s some good times ahead for it…and what a great way to finish the tasting.

If you visit the estate, make sure you book lunch or dinner at Terroir, the restaurant on the estate. The food is exquisite and very well prepared. A must for me in Stellenbosch.

2005 Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve

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Impressions of VinItaly NYC 2014

VinItaly Logo

I apologize in advance that this post is text-heavy, but I don’t like taking a camera to these kind of events. I want to focus on the experience, the wines I try, the personal connections I make. I find taking photos distracts me from that. For another impression check out Anatoli’s excellent post he just published.

More often than not I have these moments where I am asking myself: How did I get here? And how do I deserve this? This year’s VinItaly and Slow Food tasting in New York was definitely one of those moments that made me appreciate my blogging and all that it has brought to my life. Before we get to the tasting, I need to give credit where credit is due:

I would never have gone had it not been for my formidable partner in crime and friend Stefano, of Clicks and Corks, who sent me an email in November telling me to see whether I could make it to New York for VinItaly. This put the idea in my head, and when I found decently priced tickets Nina and I decided to go. We stayed in Connecticut with Stefano and Francesca (of the wonderful food blog Flora’s Table), who were the most hospitable hosts you can imagine. We flew in Saturday, and Sunday we had a big dinner with fellow bloggers Anatoli (the inimitable Talk-a-vino) and his wife, Suzanne (of the great food blog A Pug in the Kitchen) and Azita (of the Persian, mouthwatering food blog Fig and Quince). As you can tell, Francesca was on a suicide mission, inviting all these fellow food bloggers to her house and cooking dinner for them….just as us wine bloggers were trying to outdo each other with our wines (Nina and I had checked a bag to be able to bring some wines). It was a competition of sorts, but tampered by the mutual respect for each other and the fun we had with the meal, wines, and company. What a night it was! Francesca truly outdid herself with her apple and speck risotto, which will become a staple for me, and her veal roast which was so so so tender. Incredible! It was wonderful meeting Stefano and Francesca again, and then meeting these online friends that I now am able to count as real world friends! Thank you all, for a spectacular evening!!

Monday morning, we braved the snow and headed to downtown Manhattan for the VinItaly NYC tasting. Let me give you a tiny bit of background: VinItaly is the largest tasting of Italian wines in the world, held every year in Verona, Italy. Not long ago, the organization decided to branch out and hold tastings in New York, Moscow, Chengdu, and Hong Kong as VinItaly International. VinItaly teamed up with Slow Wine who also brought wineries to New York for what turned out to be a great tasting experience. The tasting lasted from 1pm until 5.30pm, but there were all sorts of classes in the morning as well. While I did not manage to get into any, Nina was able to snatch a place in a tasting class on Franciacorta (Italy’s Champagne, as they dub themselves) and one on Amarone (lucky her!).

If you have never been to a tasting like this, it is hard to imagine what goes on there, so let me give you an idea: You enter a hall that has rows and rows of tables, behind which winery representatives stand, three bottles of wine in front of them. If I say row upon row, I mean row upon row: Slow Wine alone had brought 70 wineries, and VinItaly another 50. You can do the math, but that is a lot of wine. And naturally, I wasn’t able to taste them all. But I tasted a fair share: I have, just to give you one example, never had that much Barolo in my life (combined), and it was a marvelous experience. The best part to me, though, is talking to the winemakers, hearing their stories (not their sales pitches necessarily)…these tastings are a great opportunity to meet these folks, while the tasting itself is completely overwhelming. You don’t have much time to fully experience the wine, and the whole spitting is also not necessarily conducive to a full wine experience….given that notes are cryptic and hardly worth sharing, let me just share a few stories with you:

Treasure trove for Wine Century Club aspirants
VinItaly is a feast for Wine Century Club aspirants. Italy, along with Portugal and Greece, is a cornucopia of indigenous grapes that only grow in minuscule quantities and still survive. Case in point: The white grape Timorasso that I tried. The winemaker told me that total production by 23 producers is 300,000 bottles. Worldwide. That’s it. How incredible is that? I am not saying there aren’t reasons why this grape is not more popular (the wine was rather bland), but the odds of ever being able to try this grape are so low, how can I not be excited about this? We added about 30 grapes to our list with this tasting alone and are halfway to Double Membership!

Re-trying rare grapes you only tried once
In that same vein, it’s also really exciting to find several wines of a particular grape that one has only tried once in the past. Case in point: Remember my post on a wine called Lacrima di Morro d’Alba? I really, really liked that wine. And there we were, towards the end, standing at a table, glancing over, and I see the words Lacrima di Morro d’Alba and almost jump!! Massimo and Pascale, the owners of Tenuta San Marcello in the Marche region, were surprised I was aware of the grape, and my ecstatic behavior paired with their gentle humor and friendly demeanor made for quite the match. Unsurprisingly, their wines were very good and since it was towards the end of VinItaly they were my last impression there…couldn’t have asked for more!

200 year old vines?
A winemaker from Mount Etna had an eye opening revelation for me: He told me that his vines are over 200 years old. 200 years, I am not kidding you! I looked at him in disbelief and then asked how low the yield was. Because in Germany, these 120 year old vines have way lower yields. Now was his turn to look at me in disbelief: NOOOOO, the yields were super high! I just stared at him. He then pulled out his phone and started showing me pictures: His vines looked like trees, seriously. The trunks were massive, like trees. And then he smiled and explained: Yes, yields go down, but it is a curve, and after 180 years or so, yields go up again….go figure. Reason to hold on to the old vines for my German winemaker friends!

Can your face muscles be sore?
After tasting dozens and dozens of wines, mostly red, mostly young, mostly quite tannic and acidic, swishing them around in my mouth, my facial muscles got so tired that it became harder and harder to muster the force to spit the wine out in style….towards the end, I had to grab the spit bucket, hold it under my mouth, and just let it run. That was embarrassing and I will need to train my muscles more!

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A Vertical Tasting at Ridge Vineyards

Ridge Vineyards winery

Ridge Vineyards winery

Nina and I are low-key planners when it comes to our trips. Just like our California trip to see family, until we arrived, all we had were the tickets and a place to stay. The rest usually comes naturally. And so it did. During a dinner with one of Nina’s cousins, he mentioned that one of his cousins is a vineyard manager at Ridge Vineyards…I did not take notice immediately, but then I saw a Ridge label in a wine store and realized: Wait a second, I have heard of the winery before!! This is not some local hack, this is actually pretty decent California wine royalty.

So we pestered cousin 1 to get in touch with his cousin 2 and see what he could do to get us to the winery. I know, I know. I am a sucker for good wine, and I wanted to see whether we could get a decent tasting. And a decent tasting we got. Turned out that the day we were in the region (we were in San Jose, while the winery and tasting room is in Cupertino), they were having a Wine Club exclusive tasting. And that tasting included a vertical of Ridge’s Bucchignani Ranch Carignane. We naturally made ourselves available for this and ended up on the guest list, together with two friends of ours.

Let me tell you about the winery: Ridge Vineyards was founded in 1962, but its roots go back further. In the 1880s, a doctor bought land in the Monte Bello Ridge, a mountainous slope near Cupertino. These vineyards were later bought by the then owners of Ridge in the 1960s, and Monte Bello is still their flagship vineyard. Apparently, the winery has been owned by a pharmaceutical company since the 1980s (weird!!). It now mostly has holdings in Napa and Sonoma (north of the San Francisco Bay), with Monte Bello still being part of its portfolio. It became famous when during the Judgment of Paris in 1976, a blind tasting in Paris that compared California and Bordeaux reds as well as California and Burgundy chardonnays, it came in fifth with its 1971 Monte Bello, an outstanding achievement (the first wine was a California, then three Bordeuax, then Ridge). In a re-enactment 30 years later, Ridge came in first with its wine!!

The label (Photo credit:

The label (Photo credit:

Let me say this first: I love the bottles for their iconic, simple labels. They’re just really stylish.

The drive up to the tasting room is gorgeous in itself. You wind the car up and up and up and then reach the winery, which overlooks Silicon Valley. It’s just spectacular.

But off to the vertical. As I indicated, we had a vertical of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011 Ridge Bucchignani Ranch Carignane. Bucchignani Ranch was added to Ridge’s portfolio in 1999. The vineyard is located in the northwestern edge of Alexander Valley. The majority of the Carignane vines in this vineyard were planted in the 1940s, with oldest dating back to 1927 and the youngest to 1952.

We started with the 2006 Ridge Bucchignani Ranch Carignane. In the glass, the wine showed a lighter red with slight browning at the edges. The nose was enticing, with blueberry pie, salt caramel and sweet almond aromas. Quite unexpected, very pretty. On the palate, the wine was light bodied, with firm tannins that were nicely balanced. The wine was showing some contraction, with rather low fruit aromas. However, it felt a bit thinnish to me. It got more impressive when paired with the salty cheese that ridge was providing. I’d say a good to very good wine. Not impressive, but solid.

Next up was the 2007 vintage. The pourer informed us that 2007 was a very hot year. The wine presented itself in a darker, ruby red color. The nose was very intense, it was hard to focus on what aromas I got: it was perfumy, one of our friends remarked on butter scotch, although I am not sure I got that. To me, there were meaty aromas going on…whatever that says. So, yeah, definitely interesting nose. On the palate, the wine was medium-bodied, with a surprising amount of acidity and lots of tannins. Very different from the previous vintage. It felt rather balanced, but was a bit all over the place. What I liked most about this wine was the taste after you swallowed. About 20 seconds in, aromas became jammy and fruity. I really enjoyed that finish. For my flavor profile, though, this might have been a bit too strong. I could see it go well with food, though!

Us with our good friend in the tasting room

Us with our good friend in the tasting room

We then moved on to the 2008 vintage, which was of a lighter ruby red color. In the nose, we got orange peel, cloves, I detected some sweat. Not a bad nose (despite the sweat). The great thing about this wine, though, was its structure. Unlike the other two wines, it was spicy right in the beginning, not the end. There was very good balance in the wine. I detected some chalk in the mid-section that leads over to well developed flavor in the back. Very good, lingering finish that wraps up the wine well. I thought this was very good.

The final wine in the vertical was the 2011 Ridge Bucchignani Ranch Carignane. A bit more powerful in color, this wine showed very young aromatics in the nose, with balsamic vinegar, stone fruit and blackberry. Again, a nose that was very nice to linger in for a while. In the mouth, this wine was medium bodied with strong acidity, but the flavors were dominated by its jammy-ness. Later I got vanilla and scone batter. I noted down that this wine was very refreshing. It might have been a bit unbalanced still with the rather strong acidity, but I still thought this was a very good wine. And give it a few years and the acidity will calm down a bit, too.

All in all, it was a good tasting. The wines were definitely interesting and diverse and gave a good impression of the skill that is going on at Ridge. The wines are definitely a reason why this winery has a good reputation. I’d come back any time. :)

The wines from this line are apparently only sold to members of the Wine Club. The 2011 vintage is being sold at $26, which seems a fair price when compared to other California wines.

Goofing off, Silicon Valley in the background

Goofing off, Silicon Valley in the background

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