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New sponsors, Absa, pick Annual Port & Wine Festival as a winner

Posted by peter | Articles | Posted on June 29th, 2011

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Is South African Port in crisis? You certainly wouldn’t think so if you were in Calitzdorp last weekend when the (fingers crossed) annual Port and Wine Festival was held.

New sponsors, Absa, had picked it as a winner (and will hopefully return for more next year), the restaurants were packed, the guesthouses overflowing and the streets were full of people enjoying the weather and the wines. Certainly Calitzdorp is one of the best places to hold a drinking festival as its compact size and the close proximity of most of the cellars means leaving the car behind is not only sensible, but a darned sight easier as well.

Many of the events were aimed at broadening the appeal of Port – trying to take away its crusty image as a digestif for old men and encourage people to drink more by giving it funky names, highlighting flavours or matching it with food. I would say that the organised events definitely succeeded in that aim – the Boerekos, Bollywood and Ballroom presentation by Francois Ferreira was a case in point where Port beat still wine on four out of five occasions – but really, they were preaching to, if not exactly the converted, then definitely those interested enough to trek all the way to Calitzdorp in the first place.

Sure, there is room for growth in the Port market, but I suggest that it is relatively limited and may well be slow. And although new versions are emerging such as pink ports or Boplaas’s Chocolate Port and De Krans’s Espresso, this may not be enough to make us all drink fortified wine. So what can the Port producers do about it?

Nearly 20 years ago, the Portuguese cellar, Quinta do Crasto hit the headlines by winning Wine of the Year at the London Wine Trade Show for a still wine made from Port varieties. Their success led to a flurry of imitators and nowadays, most Port producers make a still wine – in fact, some of them do better with them than their Port! Our local producers have been doing that for some time as well with De Krans, Boplaas, Calitzdorp Cellars and more, all making still versions of Touriga, Tempranillo or a Tinta of some sort. I tasted my way through them all this last weekend, and on the whole I was very impressed with the exciting possibilities these varieties offer to palates jaded by the ‘same old same old.’ Plenty of fruit, lots of spice and well-managed tannins were the hallmarks of the best on offer.

The only problem I can see with switching the emphasis to making still wines from Port varieties is the names. These are strange words to the majority of wine-drinkers in South Africa and the risk of making these relatively-unknown varieties the star on the label, is that their very unfamiliarity may turn off more people than they thrill, sending them scampering back to the safer territories of Shiraz and Cabernet. Perhaps with that in mind, Boets Nel of De Krans believes that the best way forward for Port varieties, Port producers and Calitzdorp as a whole, is a blend. His niece, Margaux Nel, is already making a particularly toothsome one at Boplaas called Ring of Rocks – a combination of Cabernet, Merlot and Touriga offering ripe black fruit and a spicy finish – and there are others from Axe Hill and Du’SwaRoo as well. But Boets wants to make a real statement and create a ‘Calitzdorp Blend’ as a brand new category, made solely from Port grape varieties.

At present there are two cellars making pure Port varietal blends, my favourite being the ‘III’ from Peter Bayly which is a combination of Tinta Barocca, Touriga Nacional and Souzao – he only made 280 bottles of the 2010 which will be released in the next few weeks. The wine itself is spectacularly good, with dense, black fruit, ripe plummy mouthfeel and silky tannins (“It’s the Souzao which makes the difference!” claims Peter) and if this is the kind of thing Boets has in mind, then I’d say he’s onto a winner. Much discussion needs to take place before this gets adopted as a way forward for the region, so don’t expect to see a ‘Calitzdorp Blend’ on the shelves anytime soon. But with the EU finally getting its way and all new bottlings of fortified wines having to remove the word ‘Port’ from their label from January 2012 onwards, perhaps this is as good a time as any to introduce something proudly South African into the world of Port.

Article by Cathy Marston

9 Responses to “New sponsors, Absa, pick Annual Port & Wine Festival as a winner”

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