19 March 2017

Visiting Mellasat, Home of White Pinotage

To Paarl and Mellasat Vineyards, home of the White Pinotage.


Vineyards alongside Mellasat's dirt access road are exotically dotted with clumps of tall bamboo canes.

Stephen Richardson in his cellar. Note airlock on barrel front right
indicates wine is fermenting

Stephen Richardson, a farmer from Norfolk, England, bought the property in 1996, started planting vines and produced his first vintage in 1999.
Gizelle Coetzee

With fellow winemaker Gizelle Coetzee and two assistants, Mellasat's cellar has a maximum capacity to deal with 50 tonnes, which is roughly 45,000 bottles “although wines like the White Pinotage have a much lower yield per tonne due to the whole bunch pressing and the need to avoid any colour emanating from the last few squeezes of the press,” says Stephen.

And white Pinotage, which I feature in my tastings, is the reason I'm here. Mellasat were the first to commercially produce white Pinotage. A few others producers now offer a white Pinotage though, says Stephen, “none are like ours, which are 100% Pinotage that's been barrel fermented and lees aged.”


We go to the barrel cellar where this years vintage is fermenting. “The first year, 2007, we made one barrel,” says Stephen. “Then four barrels and this year we've made 20 barrels, though two are reserved for a new MCC (Methode Cap Classique) methode champenoise sparkling wine, the first in South Africa.

White Pinotage in Mellasat's Barrel Cellar

We pick for white wines by PH levels, rather than Balling as PH is a measure of health in a grape,” says Stephen. “We usually pick in three batches but this year for the Pinotage we picked four times over the period of four weeks. We get lower sugar but better delicacy. The first batch had a Balling (B)of 16.5B which is ideal for MCC. The second batch had 18.5B, the third 20.5B and the last 24B. We get good acidity and freshness, and as the skins are not phenolically ripe they have no colour.”

Stephen used a wine thief to extract a sample from each of the four batches in barrel. The differences in these works in progress were noticeable: the first was sharp and acidic, the second and third quite floral and the fourth more full and creamy. The first three were in old oak, the last in first fill. “We're using Romanian oak barrels as they give a spiciness,” says Stephen.

After fermentation is complete the wines mature in barrel on the lees for up to eleven months. “We roll the barrels once a month for six months,” says Stephen, “to mix the lees. It's better than just stirring with a stick. The lees acts as a preservative and reduces the need for sulphur. But too much battonage (stirring the lees) makes wine flabby so we keep tasting.”

After maturation the batches are blended together to make the final White Pinotage.

As well as White Pinotage, Mellasat grow and make Chardonnay, Viognier, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon (released after 18 months in barrel and 3½ years in bottle), Tempranillo and an intriguing Cab-Shiraz-Tempranillo blend.

Mellasat are one of just a handful of wineries growing Tempranillo. It was planted in 2007 with the first vintage in 2011. Stephen says “I think more South African wineries should plant Tempranillo. Most goes into blends. We currently make a 100% varietal. It's a variety that suits our climate.” Stephen says he is intending to plant Graciano, a variety often blended with Tempranillo to make Spain's famous Rioja.

All the Mellasat wines are now estate grown and made. “We are now thinking of registering as an Estate,” says Stephen.

In the tasting room Stephen opens his range of wines. The White Pinotage 2016 tastes fresh and inviting with great texture and subtle oak in the background. “2015 was sharper but this vintage has more fruit and mouthfeel,” says Stephen. “Lower alcohol, too, just 12½%,” adds Gizelle.
Some of the Forgotten Wines

Before I go I ask to see Stephen's 'Cemetery of Forgotten Wines' and he takes me down to a cellar below the tasting room where wines for sale are aged, and the library wines are stored. On shelves around the walls are old, mostly Cape, bottles some with their original price stickers. Brands that no longer exist and historic labels abound with prices we'll never see again. It's interesting to see how much some wineries have changed their branding, while Chateau Libertas' label has hardly altered. Most bottles have been donated by friends who forgot about them and kept them too long.

Stephen with a bottle of each of the first 10 vintages of White Pinotage

Also on show is one bottle of each on the White Pinotage. Originally named Enigma, because it was an enigma, a trademark issue changed the name to Sigma.

Mellasat's Pinotage Vineyard

Before I left Stephen explained about the bamboo canes. “When we were planning our vineyard we stuck canes in the ground to show where rows should go. During planting the canes were discarded around the edges. Not all were cleared away and they took root and spread.”



As there is no grape variety named 'white pinotage'
the legal name for this wine is 'blanc de noir' meaning
white (wine) from black (grapes).



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