Uncharted Territories Expanding- South Africa


To truly grasp South African wines, one has to understand why wine would be in South Africa. It’s not only a hot, intense climate, but it’s also an area of vast trade and fluctuation in populace and politics. The first vines were planted in the 1650’s in what is now South Africa. Why? Trade and government- of course!  The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) used the Southern Cape (Cape of Good Hope) as a port in between its journeys for years.  Finally, one of the captains decided that it was ridiculous not to have fresh foods and drink, so they made a “refreshment station” and farm in Constantia.  New territory, yet, as with trade, government and agriculture, it likened to awkward teen years for quite a while.

Photo: Ansara vineyards (Stellenbosch)

South Africa is broken into five large geographical areas: Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal, and Limpopo.  Of the wine producing areas of South Africa, the majority of production is in the Western Cape. The Western Cape is a small area in the southwestern corner of the country.  The Mediterranean climate is warm, with sunny growing seasons that are thankfully cooled by the Benguela Current (aka the Cape Doctor) which flows north from Antarctica. The Cape Doctor does more than cool the coast, it also inhibits fungal disease and eases the heat off of the vines in these intensely hot areas.

South Africa’s geology is rich with history and environmental diversity as well as majestic in beauty.  The coast is protected by the plutons, dome-like intrusions of igneous magma into the earth’s crust with a coarse crystalline texture, which have eroded into hills (Paarl, Perdeberg Mountains, Darling Hills, Table Mountain and Simonsberg Mountain) that are flat and covered with sandstone. The layers of each region have individual meso-climates allowing for a vast array of varietals and growing environments.  This diversity matched with the exposure to wind and ventilation create patches of subtleties such as vineyards “hugging valley floors, clambering over hills, climbing steep mountain slopes, or tucked beneath high peaks”.

Photo: view from Stark-Condé estate (Stellenbosch)

Of the varietals grown in South Africa, we find 26 red varietals (most popular being Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Mourvedré) and 23 white varietals (most popular are Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc (Steen) and Sauvignon Blanc) with a history of a killer dessert wine- the liquid gold of Klein Constainia. Reds are big and bold, with subtle bacon or brine notes.  Many have heard of Pinotage- the red varietal that was created from Cinsault (then called Hermitage) and Pinot Noir in the Stellenbosch University Vicultural Center in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold.  It is a flagship as well as the somewhat bastard child of South Africa.  Whites are full with bright fruits, medium to low acid and spicy qualities.  Chardonnay is rich, full and likens to a balance between California Sonoma and Côte Nuit when oaked.  Unoaked, it’s very similar to Macon, with a bit more acidity.  As South Africa has invested in growth and modern technology, we find excellent examples of Pinotage and award wining wines across the board.

Photo: De Toren estate (Stellenbosch)

For wines that are exported around the world, we find that the Western Cape, specifically the Coastal region with districts of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington, Franschhoek, Swartland and Darling are prevalent.  Though Stellenbosch and the Western Cape rule the current market, don’t hesitate to adventure into the other four wine region of origins!  For more details, check out this great resource.

Happy New Year!  Here is to new adventures!  Jaci

Other resources and regions detailed


New Tasting Series: Grape Varietals A-Z

A-Z_logo_Jan 2014
Kicking off a new year, we thought it would be fun to do a comprehensive tasting series featuring as many single grape varietals as we carry in the shop. We counted them up. (There are 60+!) We put them in alphabetical order. And we’re ready to go! Here’s the schedule.  If you make a good chunk of these tastings, you will have tasted the vast majority of single grape varietals grown around the world today. We’ll offer a little educational overview on each grape including tasting notes & where it’s grown. The rest is up to you. Ready, set, go:

Tastings run every Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday from bar open (4pm) to 8pm:
Tue, 14-Jan – Albariño ~ pictured above in the Outon vineyards in Rias Baixas, Spain
Wed, 15-Jan – Aligoté
Thu, 16-Jan – Arneis
Tue, 21-Jan – Barbera
Wed, 22-Jan – Blaufraenkisch
Thu, 23-Jan – Brachetto
Tue, 28-Jan – Cabernet Franc
Wed, 29-Jan – Cabernet Sauvignon
Thu, 30-Jan – Cannonau
Claude Nouveau_grapes_chardonnay_banner
Tue, 4-Feb – Carmenère
Wed, 5-Feb – Chardonnay (France) ~ pictured above in Claude Nouveau’s vineyards
Thu, 6-Feb – Chardonnay (California)
Tue, 11-Feb – Chenin Blanc
Wed, 12-Feb – Cortese
Thu, 13-Feb – Dolcetto
Tue, 18-Feb – Garganega
Wed, 19-Feb – Garnacha Grenache
Thu, 20-Feb – Grauvernatsch (Schiava Grigio)
Tue, 25-Feb – Grüner Veltliner
Wed, 26-Feb – Inzolia
Thu, 27-Feb – Kerner
Tue, 4-Mar – Lagrein
Wed, 5-Mar – Malbec
Thu, 6-Mar – Melon de Bourgogne
Tue, 11-Mar – Merlot
Wed, 12-Mar – Montepulciano
Thu, 13-Mar – Moscato
Tue, 18-Mar – Muscat
Wed, 19-Mar – Nebbiolo ~ pictured above in the Pelassa vineyards of Piedmont, Italy
Thu, 20-Mar – Nerelo Mascalese
Tue, 25-Mar – Nero d’Avola
Wed, 26-Mar – Pedro Ximenez
Thu, 27-Mar – Petit Verdot
Claude Nouveau_grapes_v2_banner
Tue, 1-Apr – Petite Syrah
Wed, 2-Apr – Pineau d’Aunis
Thu, 3-Apr – Pinot Bianco
Tue, 8-Apr – Pinot Blanc
Wed, 9-Apr – Pinot Grigio
Thu, 10-Apr – Pinot Grigio
Tue, 15-Apr – Pinot Noir (France)
Wed, 16-Apr – Pinot Noir (Oregon)
Thu, 17-Apr – Pinotage
Tue, 22-Apr – Primitivo
Wed, 23-Apr – Prosecco
Thu, 24-Apr – Riesling
Tue, 29-Apr – Sangiovese
Wed, 30-Apr – Sauvignon Blanc (France)
BLOG_Jens in Australia_Shiraz grapes from Beachworth_Victoria_v4
Thu, 1-May – Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand)
Tue, 6-May – Semillon
Wed, 7-May – Shiraz ~ pictured above from Jens’ trip to Victoria, Australia
Thu, 8-May – Syrah (Old World)
Tue, 13-May – Syrah (New World)
Wed, 14-May – Tempranillo
Thu, 15-May – Torrontes
Tue, 20-May – Verdejo
Wed, 21-May – Vernaccia
Thu, 22-May – Viognier
Tue, 27-May – Welschriesling
Wed, 28-May – Zinfandel
Thu, 29-May – Zweigelt

This should be a lot of fun! Look forward to seeing you there!
Julie, Jens & the Portalis team

A Little Bit about Syrah & Shiraz

Warner Vineyard Shiraz, Giaconda Winery, Beachworth, Victoria

First of all, this is the same grape – a dark grape with thick skin that needs a lot of heat to ripen.  It just has a different name, depending on where the grape is grown,  but because of the impact of the land, weather, altitude, soil & winemaking style of where the grape is grown, the use of Syrah or Shiraz has become indicative of the style of wine you will get.

It’s unclear where the grape originates, but it was first cultivated in France’s Rhône Valley.  Red wines from the Northern Rhône (Hermitage, Côtes Rôtie, St. Joseph & more) are mainly (up to 100%) Syrah (with up to 5% Viognier “to make things more interesting” Jens says).  They tend to be higher-end, require aging (due to the level of tannins) and are known for flavors of dark fruit, black olives and a notable gaminess. We don’t carry many Northern Rhône wines are they tend to be pricy and not easily accessible, but if you get the urge to try them out, they are wonderful, lesser-known examples French Syrah.

The vineyards of E. Guigal, Côte-Rôtie, Northern Rhône

Reds from the Southern Rhône also have Syrah, but as a blend of Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre/Cinsault.  These wines are more accessible, a little juicier but still with a lovely, soft earthy spiciness, building from a nice, $12 straight-forward, bottle of Côtes du Rhône to a big, fuller-bodied, old world style Chateauneuf, which is full of liquorice, herbs, and meaty flavors.  Jens said that some of the old Chateauneuf houses are starting to produce a New World style which is super fruity, super oaky … and a big disappointment if you’re a traditionalist and like wines to taste like where they’re from.

Vines growing next to rosemary (Baumes-de-Venise, Southern Rhône)

Australian Shiraz is a big boy due to the hotter climate of the regions where it is grown, most famously the Barossa Valley (although it must be noted that many of the more nuanced (and often not available in Seattle) wines are from lesser-known, less hot areas.  Jens was in Australia last Februrary, a guest of the Australia Wine Commission for a tour of Victoria Pinot Noir country, but he still had the pleasure of visiting several areas growing top notch Shiraz, e.g. the Giaconda Winery located in Beachworth, north-east Victoria (note the photo – top).  For Shiraz (available in Seattle) that show off big, well-balanced wine with the nuance of minty herb that can be Australia’s lovely touch, try: D’Arenberg 2008 Laughing Magpie or for a splurge D’Arenberg 2006 The Dead Arm Shiraz, both from the McLaren Vale Valley & both with a touch of Viognier. An excellent example of 100% Shiraz from the Barossa Valley is John Duval 2007 Entity Shiraz.

South Africa is making some notable Shiraz as well.  Still big and dark, they use a yeast additive in fermenting that gives the wine a special smoky flavor.  Neil Ellis (known for his Pinotage) makes a tasty, as well Boekenhoutskloof (calling it Syrah) makes a beautiful 100% Syrah.

Last, I will end with the wonderful & varied Syrah coming out of our home state.  Washington State sits at the same latitude as the Rhône Valley, so it enjoys many of the same growing conditions, and its Syrah is known for its dark fruit flavors of black currant & blackberry with some nuance of black pepper, licorice, clove, thyme, sandalwood & cedar.  WA growers don’t seem to differentiate style by the use of Syrah vs Shiraz on the label, but both styles are readily available (usually called Syrah), from what could be called the “hedonistic pleasure bomb” (as quoted from our friend Catherine Reynolds) style. Wonderful examples of this style are Chris Sparkman Darkness Syrah, Mark Ryan Lost Soul Syrah, Owen Roe Ex Umbris, Darby The Dark Side Syrah.  In the other camp you have a leaner, more subdued, arguably more complex wine, with notable examples including Efeste Syrah Jolie Bouche & wines by Chuck Reininger.

Other notable around the world Syrah:  California offers up some excellent examples of Syrah.  Darioush is perhaps the best known. We currently serve one by the glass at the bar: Qupé.  As well Novy has, through the years, produced a nice quaffable, well-priced Syrah.  Argentina, while known for Malbec, has several producers offering up exceptional Syrah, try: Benegas 2006 Syrah from Mendoza.

It’s the time of year for these wines, so come pick out a few and go exploring!


Neil Ellis & Pinotage (South Africa)

Neil Ellis came to Portalis for a tasting in the summer of 2009.  Warm weather, though, is not when we sell Pinotage and a visit from a winemaker of this magnitude merited its proper spot in the featured lineup, with the proper spot being deepest winter … so here we go:

We are always delighted to have winemakers in for tastings, but this was a special one & we were all solemn with excitement. (Can that be?)  We had sold thousands of glass pours of Neil Ellis Pinotage and along with a hard core following of customers who love this wine, we were so excited that we were a little nervous.  And rightly so.  Mr. Ellis was not that jokey-jokerton, engagingly accented funny story-teller from former British colonies who often shows up (much to our delight, I might add).  He was a solemn, professorial man, with a lovely, understated sense of humor, who sat on a stool with the tasting participants around him and modestly shared his history (starting out with KWV, a huge South African wine co-operative, with stints at the Groot Constantia Estate & Zevenwacht, before striking out on his own in 1986 & making a name for himself as the rogue, entrepreneurial producer he has become) as well as his philosophy on wine, wine production & the role of wine in life.

Pinotage is just one of many wines in Neil Ellis’ lineup, but it’s one of our favorites and is excellent Pinotage for the money. Pinotage has an unusual history.  It’s a cross between Pinot Noir & Cinsault, grown as an experiment at the University of Stellenbosch in the 1930’s, forgotten & then rediscovered later in an overgrown patch of vines.  It’s known for its dark brambly fruit with notes of smoke and even bacony flavors.  Wine from this grape makes a statement & customers tend to really like it or really not like it.  The likes win by far, and Pinotage at Portalis has a sizeable fan club with Jens leading the charge (he loves this grape!).  So if you’ve never tried it & are open to this style wine, go exploring.  Neil Ellis was European in his belief that food belongs with wine and every meal is enhanced by a well-paired combination of the two.  Pinotage pairs beautifully with all kinds of grilled red meats & game.  It’s a lovely sipper, though, too.  And with evenings by the fire in front of us, we highly this wine.

Neil Ellis Pinotage is solid year after year and is excellent wine for the price.  Jens is also a big fan of Southern Right Pinotage (a little bigger fruit) & the Kanonkop which is a huge wine made from old vines, but also commands a higher price:

Neil Ellis 2008 Pinotage  (Stellenbosch)
$21.99  | Mixed Case $17.59
Spice Route 2007 Pinotage (Swartland)
$21.99  | Mixed Case $17.59
Southern Right 2007 Pinotage (Walker Bay)
$24.99 | Mixed Case $19.99  
Kanonkop 2005 Pinotage (Stellenbosch)
$37.99  | Mixed Case $30.39

Pinotage Blends (with Cab Sauv/Merlot combinations):
Kanonkop 2006 Kadette  (Stellenbosch)
$17.50 | Mixed Case $14
Warwick 2005 Three Cape Ladies (Stellenbosch)
$27.99 | INSIDER $22.99 | Mixed Case $18.39   
Spice Route 2004 Malabar (Swartland)
$73.99 | Mixed Case $59.19  

Enjoy & cheers!

Malbec – The Dark Horse

courtesy of www.appelationamerica.com
courtesy of http://www.appelationamerica.com

Due to recent press of this grape from the celebrated wine region of Mendoza, Argentina, Malbec has become one of the most popular red wines among both connoisseurs and novices. It wasn’t always available on the shelf, never mind in different styles ranging from juicy and silky or bold and spicy. Malbec is indeed making a comeback. Comeback you say? What if I told you that the dark, mouth-filling, robust and hip wine, known for its power and uniqueness has a sordid past? That its beginnings were in old world soil, and that it struggled to have an identity of its own?

Malbec had its start in Bordeaux, France where it is known as “Cot or Pressac” and is one of six original grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Carménère permitted in red Bordeaux wines. Malbec’s thin skin and dark fruit wasn’t able to produce rich wines in Bordeaux, so its traditional use was to provide color and tannins. After a bad frost in the mid 1950’s destroyed 75% of the Malbec vines in Bordeaux, usage has continued to dwindle. Its main home in France is now the warmer southwest region of Cahors, where it thrives as Auxerrois (not to be confused with Auxerrois Blanc) as well as a small presence in the Loire Valley. If you haven’t had a chance to try Malbec from either of these regions, I highly recommend you do so. The Cahors version is so dark and tannic that it’s known simply as, “black wine,” and has great character and potential for aging. In the Loire Valley, Malbec takes a lesser role to Gamay and Cabernet Franc, producing elegant and food friendly reds.

Despite its early plantings in Argentina in 1868, Malbec lay virtually unknown for over a century to the rest of the world. In Argentina, the combination of warm sunshine, the long growing season and irrigation from the Andes was a natural climate for Malbec. Combined with the high altitude of Mendoza, (Argentina’s flagship region) Malbec was able to flourish and finally become harmonious with a region it could call home, with its new incarnation being an inky, velvety and rich wine.

Oh what a difference a century makes. Malbec has become one of the most buzzed about grapes in the modern wine age. Not only is it the benchmark of quality wines from Argentina, Malbec is currently produced all over North America, including 60 appellations spread throughout 12 states & Canada, along with plantings in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile. It’s still rare to see 100% Malbec wines outside its native France or it’s adopted home of Argentina, but there is no doubt its influence on our wines today. Take a look at the next red blend you drink. Don’t be surprised if there is a little Malbec in it, bringing character and firmness to wines as it has for so long. Malbec has had a long journey, mostly in obscurity. Who doesn’t like a good comeback? I’m putting my money on the “dark horse” to become a world-class competitor!

Come taste Malbec at one of our upcoming tastings:  Argentina Tasting Wednesday, March 18th  or Loire Valley Tasting Friday, March 20th (line-up includes one Malbec from the Loire)

Click here for available Malbec wines from our website.

Contributor:  Gina Gregory