The Unusuals – time to taste new varietals
01 January 1970
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Jenny Crwys–Williams: Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine edition, on mobile, on digital, on demand and thanks for listening, I’m Jenny Crwys-Williams. There are wine shows of varying sizes all over the place, but I think one of the most unusual was called just that, The Unusuals.
Its aim was to highlight a new wave of varietals in South Africa, all of them slowly making their presence felt in the wines we drink. I’m sitting with the driving force behind the The Unusual, Corlien Morris of Wine Menu. Corlien, what gave you the idea for doing this in the first place?
Corlien Morris: Hello Jenny, thank you for having me. We get stuck in a rut very easily, we tend to stick to our Cabernets and our Sauvignon Blancs. We have just seen over the past few years, it really is in the past five years, where we see an increasing amount of interesting wines coming into the market. The winemakers make little experimental batches.
It’s never enough to really go around for everybody, but we really like these. We’ve created a space within our retail store for this and this space has become too small for all the interesting stuff that’s out there. That’s where the idea came from. There is so much out there, we have to share this with people.
Unusual varieties, not just unusual wines
JCW: When you say there is so much out there, The Unusuals that took place recently in Johannesburg, there were winemakers from estates that are well known. But are they playing games? Are they experimenting or does some of this come onto the market?
CM: A lot of these varieties, the focus is on unusual varieties, not just unusual wines. Because you can make an unusual wine with a well-known variety. The focus on the varieties and a lot of these farms have had these varieties in their portfolio or on the farm, planting, so that’s actually quite old vineyards, but it used to be blended away in the white blend or in the red blend.
You didn’t even know that it was in there, but it played a very important role in that. Now that people are willing to experiment. Now they say, okay, let’s keep a little bit separate. Bottle it separate and see how people receive that.
JCW: These varietals, many of them are from the south of Europe aren’t they? They’re Greek, they are Portuguese, they’re definitely Spanish, take us through some of this?
Where there varietals come from
CM: Yes, they’re really from all over. We didn’t go and specifically choose varieties from specific countries. It was really anything and everything that’s just not part of the norm. We had some Carménére, for instance, from Chile. Then there’s some wines from the south of France, Grenache, Mourvedre and those kind of things. Showing quite a bit of Cinsault coming through now.
Cinsault is one of those varieties that we actually have a lot of and has been planted in South Africa for many years. Has been blended away in famous wines like Tassenberg. Now the guys are paying attention and making really beautiful wines with them.
Then there are the Tempranillo and the things from Spain. The Portuguese things are more, we used to know just the Portuguese varieties that’s in port. Like Tinta Barocca or Touriga Nacional and there are now people making dry, red wines with those varieties.
But once you start scratching the surface and you realise there’s so much more, there’s things like Verdejo and things that I can’t even pronounce, and to my surprise I found out that quite a bit of this is actually available in South Africa.
But the farms, they make it and I think the winemakers often keep it all for themselves. So they share it amongst their friends or they use it for experimental tastings. Now a lot of them have come into the commercial market and that’s fantastic.
JCW: The wines that I saw at the, I’m not sure whether it was a fair or a festival. But it was the Unusuals, they seem to be not maybe mainstream. But they were bottled, they were professional and they were on the market. So maybe people are buying them and drinking them without even knowing about the varietals?
Are the different varieties recognisable?
CM: I think that there is a bit of that. We have in South Africa a little bit of a way of calling our wines ‘blends’, we give them names. There would be the Sophie or the Aristargos or something. We don’t know what varieties are in there.
When you see on the shelf maybe Thelema Verdeo, you might think that it’s a blend cause it’s not a name that you’re familiar with. You might not ask all the questions and not realise that Verdeo is actually the name of the variety. Yes, we get that.
I think one of the first unusual varieties that people started taking notice of was Viognier, that’s been on the market for a little bit longer commercially. I remember people asking me: What’s in this wine, which variety would be in this wine. No, Viognier is the name of the variety.
Yes, I think there might be a little bit of that where people buy and think it’s a blend and not realise it’s actually a variety. But I think there’s just a lot of education. People are starting to buy these things because they’ve heard of it. A friend has tasted it somewhere. However, the place where we really need to grow this is in the restaurants.
There isn’t a category on wine lists, in restaurants for these wines. It’s like restaurateurs don’t know what to do with it. Each one of these fit into different categories. I’d like to see wine lists listed, rather than listing them by variety. But listing them heavy reds, light reds, spicy red, fruity white. Do the wine that way because then you can put all these interesting varieties in without them sitting in an unusual slot on the wine list.
JCW: And I think that would help the consumer as well because you usually know if you like a sweet wine or you usually know if you like dry. Although I think people have moved away from that to a large extent.
CM: I think it’s just a matter of matching with the food. If you’re going to eat really spicy food, then a slightly sweeter wine works really well. You might not drink a sweeter wine on an everyday basis, you prefer dry, white wine maybe. But when it comes to that specific food, if the wine matches the food, then that’s what you will have.
That’s where some of the really good restaurants are now offering these wines by the glass, which makes it easier. Because we all eat something different around the table and therefore we would all have to drink something different to go with the food. That’s the way we can educate people.
If we have these unusual things on our shelves, or in our restaurants, we have to give people the opportunity to try it, otherwise they’re never going to buy it. That’s the other reason why we decided to do this festival. Because we find people are a little bit scared of buying the unknown. But once they’ve tried it they’re like wow, I’ve never known that this is so amazing. Then they’ll buy it again, so it’s really an educational thing.
A new lightness to wines
JCW: Listen, the one thing that I was picking up at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show was the need to get away from the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am wines. The great, big heavy wines that we’re so used to and actually love anyway. But to something that is much more refined, maybe a Rhone wine, maybe something that is lighter. Maybe a little bit more elegant and whatever. Are some of these varietals beginning to give us that kind of lightness of spirit?
CM: Absolutely. You still have the heavy ones, so you can have a heavy Petit Verdot or something like that. Just because it’s an unusual variety doesn’t mean necessarily it’s going to be a specific style. It really depends on that variety, what it’s going to give, but in general we see a lot more elegant, softer wines coming through, especially on the red side.
It’s not just all those Big Bang theory kind of wines anymore, which we were all brought up on. It was Cabernet and big Bordeaux blends, but we see even on the Pinotage side. We see some winemakers now making softer, more elegant styles of Pinotage which I think the consumers are going to love. We already see the change.
Yes, I think it’s just the variety is becoming so much bigger. There’s really now something for everybody and we don’t all have to drink the same thing. For goodness sake, we don’t like the same clothes, why would we all like the same wine?
JCW: There was an article recently saying, why aren’t we planting more Spanish varietals because of course, the hot-hot summers, the cool to cold winters and a Mediterranean climate, particularly in the south.
CM: I’m a big believer in that as well. I also think that in the years to come we’ll probably see more of that. There are experimental plantings of more and more varieties that you and I don’t even know of, being planted in Spain. It’s Portuguese and it’s Greek from all these countries where I really think yes, our climate is more suitable to those varieties that’s doing so well there. We should experiment more with it.
There are people like Eben Sadie with the help of Rosa Kruger who are planting these things and making experimental wines with it. They’re not available on the market at this point in time and they probably won’t be for many years to come. Because they first want to see really how do these varieties handle South Africa, what do they look like a few years later in the bottle. I think there’s some interesting things coming and I completely agree with that, that we should look at those Mediterranean varieties for South Africa.
What varietal’s are hot at the moment?
JCW: Corlien, as we’re sitting here, we’re surrounded by wines and can’t smell anything, but it looks very enticing. But because you actually sell them, you must have a good idea of what people are interested in at the moment? Is there a varietal within wine that people are asking for, for instance?
CM: You know, I find that people are a little bit more willing now, to go with their own taste and not necessarily just follow the crowd. Yes, there is definitely an increase in sales on wines like Grenache, Cinsault and Chenin Blanc. That would be three varieties that definitely stand out as being supported quite well at the moment. I’m hoping for others to come through because we’re making fantastic wines in South Africa.
But I do see a lot more individual buying. People are a lot more willing to stick out their neck and say: I really like this style of wine. Then willing to take something that their mate might not take and that’s very good. That’s very inspirational to know that people are starting to follow their own taste buds.
JCW: If you just look at the different wines, I don’t know that I can see that far, but Newton Johnson for instance was at The Unusuals and with some really interesting varietals wasn’t it?
CM: Newton Johnson wasn’t at The Unusuals this year, but if we could have them there we would.
JCW: I thought it was on the list.
CM: No, Newton Johnson makes the Albarino which we really were hoping to have there, cause they’re the only ones who make Albarino in South Africa at the moment, commercially. But unfortunately it’s such small stock levels and they were completely sold out already. For them, they couldn’t really show it. Yes, there would be something like maybe Thelema who had their Verdeo there, that’s something that nobody else has. Then we would have Petit Verdot from De Trafford, that was something different.
Mullineux has a Mourvedre that a lot of us don’t necessarily know them for, we know them for their Shiraz and for their Chenin and those blends. But they make little bits of things separately from their mainstream things and that’s the kind of stuff that we had at The Unusuals and that there’s so much more of. We only scratched the surface. We had 90 wines there on the night and we can fill a few more rooms. 90 is really just scratching the surface.
More to come
JCW: I hope it doesn’t get too big because I liked the sense that it was actually quite restrained in terms of numbers. So that you didn’t get these endless clusters of six people deep trying to speak to the winemaker. That didn’t happen and therefore I think a lot of people had a very good experience. Are you going to do it again?
CM: We’ll definitely do it again. This was our first time and we were absolutely, I must say actually a little bit surprised with the turnout. We weren’t really sure how people would support this kind of thing. Because it is unusual, number one and people are not really sure what to expect and the turnout was great.
However, we would never want to grow it to the point where it becomes a bun fight. We want people to be able to engage with the winemakers, with the people from the farms and learn. It is, after all, an educational evening. So for that reason we will always cut the numbers off at a comfortable number where everybody can get the best out of the evening.
JCW: And the winemakers response to it? They seemed to me to be enjoying themselves?
CM: I think the winemakers were so completely, the first time when I came out with this idea they all said: Fantastic. Then they start scratching, well, what can we bring, what are we going to bring. Yes, the winemakers I must say, they all gave very good feedback. They were all very happy with the kind of people.
You know, they said to me that there would be some farms, say for instance like Steenberg, that takes part in festivals fairly frequently and everybody knows their Sauvignon Blanc or their bubblies there. They had their Semillon there last night and their Nebbiolo. The lady said to me that there were people coming to her that she’s seen at other shows.
But they come and stand in front of her with absolutely no preconceived idea of what they’re going to find and they ask all the questions and that’s fantastic. That people didn’t arrive there knowing what they’re getting, they arrived there and it was like a candy store.
JCW: Corlien Morris, thank you very much indeed.
CM: Thank you.
JCW: To get these podcasts and stream live, visit dogreatthings.co.za, see you next time.