New from South of the Equator

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For a long time it seemed American wine drinkers were interested in only two grapes: Chardonnay for whites and Cabernet (Sauvignon) for reds. I think that’s because there were thousands of gallons of uninteresting stuff coming out of California, and domestic wine drinkers and the restaurants that served them didn’t really care. Even in the short time (coming up on 9 years) I’ve been in this business of wine, I’ve watched that American taste branch out. First we had the realization that “Chardonnay” is not a wine, it’s a grape, one of the most widely-planted in the world. And you can make many different styles of wine from that grape. Do you like oaky and buttery, lean and elegant, or tropical fruit style? They all come labeled as Chardonnay. For Cabs, we started seeing the fruit-forward wines of South America and Australia, as well as realizing that the great reds of Bordeaux are...Cab and Merlot. Lots of styles to choose from. Lots of wine and food adventures to pursue.
Now as I look over this year’s Featured selections so far, I’ve had another dawning realization. American wine drinkers have discovered some “new” grapes that have become a real hit -- Sauvignon Blanc for the whites that tend to be lighter and crisper than most Chardonnays, and for red drinkers there’s a rush toward Pinot Noir for a lighter-bodied, elegant and food friendly wine and Malbec for a bold, meaty, full-bodied red. Of course, none of these wines is really new. Sauvignon Blanc has long been the main grape of white Bordeaux wines and the backbone of the stunning wines of Sancerre (Loire Valley, France). The most classic Pinot Noir is from Burgundy. And Malbec is still an allowable blending grape in Bordeaux, as well as the focus in Cahors.
Here we Feature wines from two new (for us) wineries, both in the Southern Hemisphere and both making a name for themselves with “new” styles of “new” grapes. These are producers we met at a recent Trade Show in Raleigh. We’ve been looking forward to the opportunity to introduce their wine to our Wine & Words customers.
Finca Sophenia
The wines of Mendoza in west central Argentina are developing asMendoza wine regionsMendoza wine regions many distinctive sub-regions as some of the famous wine-making areas of France. The main region, around the town of Mendoza, includes the regions of Maipú and Lujan de Cuyo, and is home to Catena, Familia Zucchardi (makers of Santa Julia wines) and Trapiche (makers of Falling Star), as well as being the origin of the Malbecs we carry - Budini, Altos Las Hormigas, and Ben Marco.

A bit farther south is the Uco Valley. This region is a little higher (thus cooler) than the Mendoza valley and is developing a particular reputation for its cool-weather wines - Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Finca Sophenia is located in Tupungato, at the northern end of the Uco Valley, at an altitude of almost 4,000 feet. The altitude brings not only a cooler Mt. TupungatoMt. Tupungatomoderation of the temperatures in the valley below, but also a clarity of sunlight and access to meltwater from the surrounding Andes peaks. In the local native language (Huarpe), the region's name means “Star Viewpoint,” a reference to the 21,555ft Mt. Tupungato volcano which dominates the western skyline.
At the Wine Trade Show in Raleigh a couple of weeks ago, we met Roberto Luka, founder and managing director of Finca Sophenia. Roberto is the business mind behind the Sophenia operation (named for his and his partner’s daughers: Sophia and Eugenia). His vision of great wines from Tupungato included obtaining the services of consulting winemaker Michel Rolland and in-house winemaker Matias Michelini. Rolland was born on his family’s estate, Chateau La Bon Pasteur in Pomerol, Bordeaux.  He has become an international influence on wine style, consulting properties not only in Bordeaux but also in South Africa, Spain and Argentina. Michelini is one of the rising stars of Mendoza and now makes his own line of wines, as well as those from Finca Sophenia.

Altosur Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (Tupungato, Argentina) Everyday Price $10.95
Altosur, a made-up trade name I take to mean “heights of the south,” is the value line of Finca Sophenia. The “value” component was not so evident in my Trade Show tasting note for this wonderful Sauvignon Blanc. I wrote, “best sauvignon blanc of the show.” That’s saying alot for a wine that fits snugly in our “$12 and Under” section.
Altosur Rosé of Malbec (Mendoza, Argentina) Everyday $10.95
We didn’t taste this one at the Trade Show...our distributor brought it to us. It’s got what we’ve always liked in our Crios Rosé of Malbec, but at a lower price. You get the rich, dry complexity of the Malbec grape but in a style that’s perfect to chill for a warm summer evening when you’re out grilling something. A very nice “summer red.”
Finca Sophenia Malbec Reserve 2009 (Tupungato, Argentina) Regular 18.25/ Feature 15.52
What we liked about this one is expressed in the one word I wrote in my Trade Show notes: “subtle.” Now, subtlety is not usually a characteristic of Mendoza Malbecs. They’re usually brawny and inky and bold. Maybe it’s the influence of Michel Rolland, the Bordelais consultant, but this wine has a European depth and finesse to it. This makes it a great food wine...and not just with a 3-pound Argentine steak.
Newton Johnson
We discovered this winery at the big Trade Show in Raleigh. Bevan Newton Johnson, one of the founding family’s sons and now Managing Director of the winery poured our samples and explained the wines. What a fine job this family is doing to bring premium South African wines to the attention of a thirsty world. We’re proud to Feature them in our Wine & Words stores.
The Newton Johnson winery is truly a family affair. Dave and Felicity (née ‘Newton’) Johnson got into the South African wine industry in the 70’s when winemakers were re-exploring and re-developing what had been a thriving wine business since the 17th Century. There was leisure to explore in those days, because much of the world was boycotting South African products because of their apartheid policies. Dave became one of the country’s first Cape Wine Masters and in the early 90’s, with South Africa’s readmission to international markets, was instrumental in introducing and exporting some of South Africa’s fine estate wines into mainstream wine markets, such as the United Kingdom. The family soon needed an estate of its own, so in 1997 they moved with sons Bevan and Gordon near to the seaside town of Hermanus and into the picturesque Hemel-en-Aarde (‘Heaven and Earth’) Valley with its views over the Atlantic Ocean. Gordon and his wife Nadia (from a neighboring winemaking family) became the winemakers, while Bevan runs the business side and his wife Ezanne does the graphic artistry.
Newton Johnson picking grapesNewton Johnson picking grapesThe “Wine of Origin” ward of the “Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley” is located approximately 135 kilometres from Cape Town on the Southeast Cape coast. The appellation has established itself as one of the premier viticultural sites in the Cape, traditionally specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because it is one of the coolest vineyard sites in South Africa, with the ability to create wines of finesse, minerality and complexity.

Newton Johnson Felicité Unoaked Chardonnay (Upper Hemel en Aarde, South Africa) Regular 14.50/ Feature 12.33
I’m so glad the wine world, as well as many of our local customers, have discovered the glories of Burgundian unoaked Chardonnay. Done well, as here, the Chardonnay grape creates wines with fresh fruit flavors with a clean, food-friendly finish. I already knew I liked this style of wine when Bevan poured a sample into my glass. I wasn’t prepared for just how well I would like it! It is a stunning wine, with a mouthful of fruit and a very bright finish that just about took my breath away. I immediately drew a big star next to this entry in my tasting notebook, the first (and one of very few) in the show.
The technical side is that the grapes are grown on the uniquely alkaline soils of the Breede River Valley, with warm sunny days and cool nights to bring out the fresh acidity. Then the wine is fermented at cool temperatures in stainless steel vessels. The fermentation is done on the lees (the residual yeast) to add complexity and depth, but there is none of the malolactic fermentation that gives the creamy notes to the buttery style of Chard. And there’s no oak that gives the toasty, woody notes to an oaky Chard. Well done!
Newton Johnson Felicite Pinot Noir 2009 (Upper Hemel en Aarde, South Africa) Regular 16.45/ Feature 13.98
The Pinot Noir was actually the first of the “Felicité” line of Newton Johnson wines (named for matriarch Felicity Newton Johnson). The Newton Johnson family are passionate about Pinot Noir. They have written:
The path in discovering Pinot Noir wines can be a very rewarding experience, some say the ultimate. The fragrant fruit of Pinot Noir is ever distinct; and the silky, elegant texture is what seduces you in to what may be called the ‘Queen of wines’. We believe that our Felicité Pinot Noir is a 1st step in this discovery.
Indeed! The Pinot Noir grape has the reputation of being finicky and fussy. But people who know that the result is worth the fuss work hard to find just the right soils and temperature and sunlight to bring out the sweet berry flavors and deep earthiness of the grape. The grapes for the Felicité Pinot Noir are sourced mainly from the Eilandia ward where co-winemaker Nadia’s family has grown vineyards for 6 generations. The warmer climate produces sweeter berry flavours, and the uniquely alkaline soils in the area deliver a soft, very approachable texture. The 2010 vintage saw very low yields from this vineyard and has been sup­plemented in part with some fruit from Elgin and the Upper Hemel­-en­-Aarde Valley, giving a little more complexity from cool climate grapes. The wine is 100% matured in 3- to 4-year-old oak barriques (large barrels) for 6 months. It is light in body, almost like a full-bodied rosé, with that note of acidity that makes a good Pinot Noir a great companion for all kinds of food. Cool it slightly for a great summer refresher on the deck.
I’m always being asked for a good “reasonably priced” Pinot Noir. This one more than fits the bill. My note at the Trade Show read simply, “Very tasty!”