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S. African reds show promise of star quality

By Stephen Quinn | China Daily | Updated: 2011-04-16 07:50

When Ntsiki Biyela joined Stellekaya vineyard as junior winemaker in 2004 she became South Africa's first black woman winemaker.

Stellekaya means "home of the stars" - a combination of stelle, the Italian word for stars, and kaya, an African word for home. Over time Ntsiki Biyela's wines received increasingly fine reviews and she has evolved into one of the stars of South African winemaking. In 2009, the agricultural weekly Landbou Weekblad named her woman winemaker of the year.

Before Ntsiki Biyela received a bachelor's degree in oenology at Stellenbosch University her only previous experience with alcoholic drinks was brewing beer from corn in her native region of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Stellekaya specializes in red wines and makes about 10,000 cases a year from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, shiraz, pinotage and sangiovese. Vines are relatively young: Stellekaya planted 15 hectares in 2005 and supplements its output by buying grapes from neighboring estates.

The star theme continues with the wines. Blended wines are named after various constellations such as Cape Cross, Orion and Hercules.

Cape Cross is a blend of merlot, pinotage and cabernet sauvignon.

Orion, the flagship red, is a Bordeaux blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Hercules is made of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

The 2005 and 2006 Orion arrived for review. The cork in the 2005 crumbled as I removed it, and the wine was dead. But the suppliers provided a second bottle. It took a while to show its talents, but this is a wine to savor and appreciate. The nose offers a bitumen-like aroma combined with intense flavors of cassis. The tannins are soft and the wine has wondrous length. This is a wine worth pursuing even if relatively rare in China.

The 2006 edition was also impressive and smelled of ripe blackberries and cassis with hints of vanilla, spice and chocolate. The wine is big and imposing - partly because of the 14.5 percent alcohol - and has an almost chewy mouthfeel. Yet the tannins are relatively soft. This wine would be exceptional after five more years in the cellar.

Owner Dave Lello noted on the company's website that Stellekaya allows its grapes time to cool after harvest and then lets them go through a cold maceration for three to four days. Maceration is a way for the squeezed juice to extract maximum flavors from the grape skins and other materials.

Stellekaya uses a wooden basket press - an acknowledged way to get the best grape juice - and matures its wines in French oak barriques (the traditional size barrel of 225 liters). Most of the wines are matured for 12 to 22 months and then spend a few months in the bottle before being released.

I also tried Stellekaya's 2007 shiraz and merlot. The shiraz came from ripe grapes and the berry flavors made it taste sweet. My friend who tasted the wine described it as Heathcliffian - suggesting the wine was dark and brooding like the character in Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights. This is a wine that exudes intense flavors and yet is succulent and inviting while young.

The merlot was similarly black red in color, also high in alcohol at 14.5 percent, and full of promise.

Wine Review

(China Daily 04/16/2011 page12)

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