Surprises in South Africa

I recently participated in a virtual tasting hosted by Verve Wine, where I stumbled upon Craven Pinot Gris Stellenbosch 2019 from South Africa. I read it was a skin contact aka orange wine, so I was both intrigued and excited.  

Their story began back in 2007 while both Mick Craven and his now Aussie wife Jeanine were in Sonoma, California for the harvest season. After both having taken to the textbooks at their respective universities, they decided to hit the road, see lots of things, work in lots of places and try, and learn as much as possible from the wine world. Luckily enough, their similarities helped them launch Craven wines. Back in 2011, they moved to Stellenbosch, South Africa, a place dear to their hearts. Stellenbosch has an amazing array of sites and terroir, perfect for what they wanted to do—make site-specific, honest wines.

In terms of winemaking, they like to keep things as simple as possible. They employ hands off wine methods while being very hands on. They pay serious attention to the wine but don’t manipulate the wine, since they strive to express the terroir of the site and fruit. They do not use cultured yeasts, enzymes, fining agents, etc. throughout the winemaking process and only use older oak, favoring larger format barrels. Their wines stabilize naturally at times and essentially a minimal amount of SO2 (their friend) is the only thing added to the wines.

Pinot Gris isn’t abundantly planted in Stellenbosch, but Mick and Jeanine have fun working with it. They identified an incredible site, called the Newlands Vineyard, farmed by Deon Joubert, on an easterly slope facing back toward Stellenbosch. It is a relatively young block, planted in 2005, but showing balance and intensity. It ripens extremely early and it almost always the first fruit in. The grapes were destemmed and fermented in vat on skins for six days with occasional pump-overs and punch-downs. The skins were quite thick and tannic in 2019 due to drought, so they decided to limit extraction. The wine was then pressed off into neutral barrel for élevage. It was bottled unfined and unfiltered.

When I poured this wine into my glass, the first thing that wowed me was its color—a gorgeous deep copper color, actually leaning towards pale ruby, thanks to that time on the skins. It was dry, medium bodied, medium acidity, with some tannins and a long finish. The nose was aromatic and a bit red fruity. It was a weird one to wrap my head around, but I got notes of Rainer cherries, stone fruit, and apple. After it opened up for a while, I felt like there were even some hints of tropical fruit. I always geek out when grapes are used in unexpected ways or grown in nontraditional regions, so this was a fun one for me.  

I got it at Verve Wine for $30, but they seem to be sold out. I’m sure if you reach out, they’d be able to find it for you.

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