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From Grape to Glass

Signal Hill, dessert wines

Tim James, editor of Grape magazine recently paid a visit to one of our South African wine makers, Jean-Vincent Ridon from Signal Hill Winery. In his article, "A (nobly) rotten education" published in the July-September 2004 issue, Tim James is sharing with us his unusual experience; not only at meeting Jean-Vincent Ridon but also at discovering his exceptional dessert wines. As he says in this article "Jean Vincent Ridon's range of dessert wines is not only delicious, it provides material for a pretty comprehensive lesson on the subject". Here is his article.

This ever innovative winemaker, based in the Cape but
with one foot still firmly in his native France, offers a range of unfortified dessert wines surely unmatched for breadth anywhere. The elegant Signal Hill label accommodates the whole gamut – from lighter unbotrytised wines to the most refinedly decadent of classic European styles.

Why so many? was my first question as I sat down with the winemaker to be guided through the range. The reason why not is two fold. Prosaically, first: Ridon would like to find out what works best for him, and also to master a range of techniques to respond to all conditions – for years that offer plenty of those concentrated grapes shrivelled by botrytis, and for the years that do not.

An element of challenge and obsession is at work here. There is risk, there is skill and love, and an element of luck involved in making these wines, and a bit of magic.

Lessons one and two
There are firstly the styles that are internationally practised, though nowhere on a large scale, and that we are familiar with in the Cape: the international dessert wine more or less on the model of Sauternes, made from late-harvested grapes with or without botrytis. Ridon, of course, must make both. The Vin de l’Empereur (the eponymous emperor being, naturellement, Napoleon) in its 2000 incarnation is a silky, freshly elegant wine, with little in the way of botrytis, and a subtle minerality; it is labelled a Natural Sweet.

The Noble Late Harvest is called Crème de Tête. It is barrel-matured, kept on its lees for a year or so –which helps account for the oxidative element that is characteristic of Ridon’s sweet winemaking style and is not always admired as much locally as in Europe and America; Ridon himself is happy to trade a little freshness for the added complexity he achieves. There is botrytis evident in the honey notes of the 2003, as well as a raisin character from long hanging grapes, along with flowers, dried apricots and marmalade. The substantial sugar and acid challenge and balance each other very satisfactorily and a fairly modest 10.5% alcohol plays its role too.
The unusual element about these two wines is that they are made from Muscat d’Alexandrie, not usually considered of a quality exalted enough for this class of wine, nor usually with sufficient natural acidity, and with a tough skin that strenuously resists the attack of botrytis.
Ridon’s secret for success is that his grapes come from an old, low-yielding vineyard (called David’s Dome) high on the Simonsberg slopes. It was these grapes themselves, in fact, that provided the wine-maker with his initial push along this winemaking track.

Lesson three
If a Noble Late Harvest from muscat d’Alexandrie is unprecedented, what can one say for an ice wine from the same grapes? A German or Austrian Eiswein is made from (usually) healthy grapes which have been left on the vine until frozen by the first sharp frosts of winter.(...) In Cape Town, the freezing is arti-ficially carried out. There is no provision in South African regulations for ice wine, and Ridon’s Vin de Glacière (only a 2000 so far) is labelled as a Natural Sweet. Made from the same grape source as the Vin de l’Empereur of that year, the Glacière is much more intense and bracing, with greater acidity and flavour concentration, and nutty oxidative overtones.

Lesson Four
(...) The maiden Straw Wine 2001 was made from a blend of mostly palomino, chenin and riesling, dried indoors on straw mats for a few months (...). So rich and powerful was the must that it took nearly two years to ferment to its final level of 9.5% – and 246 g/l of sugar. Rich and powerful the wine is too, with a vibrant lemony acidity, and a balance and character of its own.

Lesson 5
We’ve done the French styles, then, and the Germanic. The other great tradition of unfortified dessert wine is perhaps the oldest of all and certainly for some the finest: that of Hungary.
The example of Tokaji has led to Jean-Vincent Ridon’s latest (and most audacious and successful) experiments.
At Vinexpo 2003 in Bordeaux, his Mathilde Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2002 initially aroused the ire of the Hungarian contingent there, who not unreasonably objected to this appro-priation of their terms by a South African (even a French one). They tasted, recognised and admired, and were convinced that the epithets were validly applied(...).
‘Aszú’(pronounced ‘ossoo’) refers to the sweet completely botrytised grapes, which are mashed into a paste before being added to a base wine; puttonyos are the special hods that traditionally served as a measurement for the amount of aszú paste added to a cask. A six puttonyos wine is relatively rare, and generally as high as one goes. There are various techniques for combining the pulp and the base wine: sometimes it is added to a made wine (even one from the previous vintage), but Ridon prefers to add it to fermenting must.
The picking of grapes for this wine is an even fussier business than for the others: only individual botrytis- affected grapes are selected from a bunch, and they must be ‘dry’ rather than ‘wet’ Ridon supplies his harvesters with photographs of the sort of berries he requires. (...).
Mathilde is made from sauvignon and the Hungarian variety furmint; the official category here is the catch-all ‘Natural Sweet’.
And the wine? Remarkably different from anything else (except for Tokaji, of course); a nose dominated by dried fruit and an attractive mushroomy quality does not fully prepare one for the burst of freshness and flavour, subtle but powerful, persistent and already offering a real complexity. The natural acidity is an enormous 14 grams per litre.
Locals are not generally sympathetic to the sort of balance offered by this wine, says Ridon, and most is destined for elsewhere.

Essential experience
The final installment of my afternoon’s education came in a small sample bottle, with a centimetre or two of viscous, darkish liquid lurking at the bottom. Poured almost sluggishly into a glass, it smelt like a winery at harvest time: fresh and grapey.
The sensation and the flavour when the wine reached my tongue were a simultaneous experience of unexpected gorgeousness: piercingly sweet, with a thrilling bite of acidity, deeply rich, hugely alive, intensely flavoured. This is the unfinished evidence of Ridon’s most baroque experiment yet, his version of Tokaji’s eszencia: the product of the slow dripping of juice from a pressed mass of aszú berries.
The sugar concentration is so fantastic, to the point of being inhibitive, that fermentation can continue for years – the alcohol level of Ridon’s wine has crawled up to around 5% after 27 months in its large glass jars. (...)
There is only about a hundred litres of it, but believe me, it should be worth its high price. For me, sipping this wine was a new experience I shall not forget.
Scarcely a wine, in fact, more a lightly alcoholic syrup, but a winemaker’s triumph, and a winelover’s fantasy.
Making eszencia must be, though, a nerve-racking and a risky difficult and expensive process, something of a sideline to the serious business of making a more standard sweet wine – whether in the spirit of French, German or Hungarian traditions, and realised in the Cape.
It is by no means certain whether Signal Hill will ever again offer so many different styles of dessert wine within the space of a few years. It depends on what the harvests offer, on the success of Jean-Vincent Ridon’s experiments, and on his will to continue extending the motto that accompanies the Gallic cockerel on his labels: vivent beaucoup des différences!

Grape No. 23 July-September 2004, Tim James, Web: