Imagine using Zinfandel grapes, a variety from Italy (Primativo) better known in California, and Malbec, a French variety, better known in Argentina.
Then, having tried and discarded Cabernet Sauvignon as a botrytised Noble Late Harvest, imagine turning Zinfandel into a desert wine with some 140grams of Residual Sugar and maybe adding some Malbec when felt beneficial. Then imagine your assistant winemaker accidentally pouring an eight year old potstilled Brandy into your glass of Zinfandel NLH.
And there you have ‘Before and After’. No wonder Blaauwklippen’s aperitif is known in the office as the ‘oops’ wine.
Winemaker Rolf Zeitvogel was as surprised as anyone, but as everyone thought it was delicious, the team set out to experiment with its constituents to create something quite unique. Less accidental is the finished product, which took two years in development and involved lots of consumer trials and tastings.
The basis is the estate grown Zinfandel, a variety Rolf believes is already Blaauwklippen’s signature. Grapes are left on the vine to concentrate sugars and may or may not get botrytis. Rolf likes high sugars and is happy if that means low alcohol levels. It must be under 10% alcohol as a NLH for Rolf as any higher means less sugar, and that means it is less able to caramelise, reduce tannins (it is a red wine, after all) and battle the alcohol. Low sugars means more strident tannin and alcohol and a ‘rougher, grainier’ texture, Rolf believes.In fact, Blaauwklippen’s 2012 NLH Viognier (yes, Viognier) comes in at only 7.5% alcohol and is delightfully pure. Yields are necessarily low at around four or five tons per hectare and concentration is intense. Part of the crop will ferment in barrel and part will mature in barrel; this allows Rolf the spectrum of styles he needs to create a consistent blend. Barrels are chosen for the Noble Late Harvest, the 2011 of which is unctuous without being cloying and like squashing a handful of blackcurrants right under your nose.
The rest goes to ‘Before and After’. And for weeks, if not months, Rolf becomes a master blender. I pictured those magicians in Champagne who play with dozens of samples of base wines before selecting the final house blend. It is very like that and Rolf keeps the wine as a Non-Vintage so that stocks of older vintages can be used if desired (the Brandy would make it impossible to classify as a vintage wine anyway). Rolf is looking for colour, intensity, ripe tannins and high sugars as well as depth of flavour. After sleepless nights and lots of double-checking, the blend is made.
Enter Blaauwklippen’s eight (minimum) year old estate distilled potstill Brandy. On its own the spirit is beautifully smooth and gentle; I felt no unpleasant heat, just silky warmth. Fractions are added to the NLH, again after much trial and error. Rolf might add up to 5% Malbec if the blend would be improved, but recently hasn’t needed to. At least Rolf is sure of the Brandy, ‘it always provides the same flavour profile and structure’, he says. Enough is added to bring the wine up to 16% alcohol. This is lower than some Sherries and all Ports, and even some table wines, Rolf laughs that Zinfandel can exceed that if you wanted it to. The lowish alcohol is deliberate and at that level offers the best balance and harmony, as well as being the ‘favoured point in consumer testing’, says Rolf. It also makes the wine fit perfectly with its role before a meal or as a digestif after, ‘always chilled’, insists Rolf. Sugar levels are around 200grams RS, which surprisingly doesn’t seem to stand out and in fact the wine feels supple, light and as Rolf puts it; ‘playful’.
A bottle of the Eight Year Old Brandy will cost R280 from the farm. The Zinfandel NLH will be R195 for a half bottle, so you can’t expect the ‘Before and After’ to be cheap. Especially when you add the beautiful uniquely shaped bottle imported from France and the box the wine comes in. Refreshing to learn, then, that a 500ml bottle sells at R200.A gift in many ways, and indeed, the perfect gift, and not more for girls, either. In trials, Rolf found the men were very easily won over. I asked if selling the idea of an aperitif/digestif was difficult. ‘No, we take the wine to people, we don’t need to say anything, just let them taste it and it sells’.
So what does it taste like? Difficult to describe. Firstly you get intense blackberry, cassis and Christmas spices, rich and supple. Then soft, pervasive sweetness and then the gentle heat and subtle rounded notes of oak aged Brandy, all burnt coffee and vanilla. The impression, and it lingers, is of a slightly fortified, silky sweet blue fruited wine; totally in harmony and totally drinkable. ‘Try it as a sorbet’, says Rolf, I don’t think it would last that long. I think jokingly, Rolf suggests the wine will improve in time, the spirit will integrate even more and the Zinfandel might develop tertiary flavours, it’s difficult to know as not only has the wine existed for just two years, but no-one has been able to put one away for any length of time.
I would change the name of the wine. It should be, ‘Before and After and During as well’. The mistake would be to buy a bottle, you will regret not buying two.
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