Monday, June 15, 2009

Swinging with Norma and Warwick

Published by under Reviews and Views

Norma Ratcliffe - Grand Dame

Ever since Mike Ratcliffe talked me into buying a membership of the Warwick Wine Club two years ago, I seem to have a lot of this farm’s stuff lying around. I’m not going to stake a claim to being a Warwick boffin, but I can spot the Estate’s wine in most line-ups, just as I can tell my dog’s bark from 320 others running around De Waal Park.
Of course, being somewhat intrigued by the wines from Simonsberg, Stellenbosch’s Pauillac, delving into my Warwich stash is always going to be more than just opening another bottle of something.
The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot do not give as much heady fruit intensity as Kanonkop, Warwick’s one neighbour. Nor to these varieties portray the likeable leanness of Le Bonheur just up the road.
For me the Warwick reds show wine’s ability to bear a seductive power. Tannins are evened out, but the presence is weighty and potent, without any hint of after-burn or over-extraction. Of course, a reason for this is the dominance of Cabernet Franc in the Trilogy Bordeaux blend. Having perfected Cabernet Franc, the farm is able to bring out the best in this variety, namely grace and poise enveloped by an assertive juiciness. For Cabernet Franc can be greener than a Kommetjie whale-hugger.
I was thus not going to let the opportunity pass me by of attending a tasting to celebrate Warwick’s 25 years in the winemaking business, held last week in the Vineyard Hotel. I wanted to see where everything came from. The bash behind the stash.
Norma Ratcliffe, Mike’s mother who placed Warwick on the wine map – amongst other noticeable achievements – led the assembled group of hacks and friends through a tasty line-up.
But this was a tasting Norma style. No weighty diatribes on yields, smart cellar decisions or philosophical statements on wood maturation. Just Norma talking animatedly about some of the Warwick wines she likes and using a few nostalgic titbits to complement her vivaciousness, knowledge and personality. (Isn’t the thought of young Mike among a pile of pumpkins just adorable!)
Norma tells it all, her way. She is, after all, our Grand Dame.
Okay, so first up was a 1984 Warwick Femme Bleu (sic), the first commercial wine made by Norma on Warwick. A Cabernet Sauvignon, this 25 year old model was in perfect condition. The colour was garnet. The nose honey-comb. Lean fruit on the palate, a hint of cedar. No oxidation or stuffiness.
The 1986 Trilogy was similarly brilliant, although the addition of Merlot and Cabernet Franc to the Cabernet Sauvignon allowed for a tad more complexity and depth. Once again, it was crystal clear on the palate and the good acid ensured it was still as tight as an Eric Clapton guitar string.
A lot of the anti-Pinotage gang rip into anybody willing to state that a Pinot Noir character can become evident in Pinotage. Well, Norma put up a 1997 Warwick Three Cape Ladies (Pinotage blend) which almost knocked one over with the whiff or pure Burgundian forest floor, wet haystack and Algerian vineyard worker arm-pit. This was more Pinot Noir here than in a lot of Pinot Noirs themselves.
Of course, the wine was huge in the mouth, making an assertive Pinot Noir entrance and ending with ripe cherries and hints of Fortis syrup.
Heading onto the 1995 Cabernet Franc and the 2001 Cape Winemakers Guild Femme Bleu (sic), it was enormously satisfying to begin recognizing the stylistic traits of my current, newer Warwick wines. Looking at my 2006 Trilogy and Cabernet Franc, it appears the wines are actually fuller and more voluptuous in their youth. After a couple of years, the fruit and tannins separate giving the wines a different structure all together, whilst maintaining pureness and depth.
Norma threw in a 1998 Chardonnay, and what a humdinger. It was big, it was nutty, it was limey, it was a Staffordshire terrier of Chardonnays, just waiting to rip the gonads out of anyone wearing an “Anything But Chardonnay” T-shirt. Some, like wine-trader Mark Norrish, were so inspired they shouted: “This is Burgundy, Norma!”
The evening ended with dinner, and I enjoyed more of the Chardonnay – albeit a younger model that, unlike the 1998, hadn’t been stirred with Norma’s golf club – and Warwick’s wonderfully supple Pinotage.
This was definitely the wine event of the past year for me, for you can haul out the best wines in the house, but the event don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
Keep swinging, Norma, because you’ve got it.

E Louw Joubert


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