Apologies for the rather quiet blog recently. I've had my nose to the grindstone, or at least to the Riedel glass, as I'm in the midst of an intensive tasting period working my way through the bulk of Rhône wines for my annual report, slated to appear near the end of the year as usual. While I've still got a ways to go, it's clear that 2009 provides the best buying opportunity for ageworthy Northern Rhône reds since the superb 2005 vintage. Stay tuned for more on those ….
I did manage to take a short break from the tasting room to catch up with Kevin Grant, winemaker and owner of South Africa's Ataraxia winery, which is now back in the U.S. market after a short hiatus. Ataraxia is one of the small, top-quality producers that's been head-scratchingly absent from the U.S. market, along with the likes of Kevin Arnold's Waterford Estate and Beyers Truter's Beyerskloof.
Following his initial foray into the U.S. market with an importer that eventually went out of business, Grant decided to lay low for a bit before sending new wines over here.
"That was the advice I got, to lay low," said Grant. "The importer asked us to buy back older inventory, which I wasn't about to do, obviously, as the money had gone into vines, poles and so on. So we took a break while the older vintages cleared the marketplace as we knew they were going to be dumped and that was not what we wanted to be following up right away with in terms of newer vintages," said Grant, in reference to the tactic of an importer selling wines at a loss just to get rid of inventory. With his earlier vintages being dumped, his newer vintages would have seemed out of whack, pricewise, and the brand likely would have suffered.
"But the break was actually a benefit, as it allowed me to really focus on getting my vineyards going, as well as giving me the opportunity to realize that I didn't want to get into the trap of releasing wines too early," he said.
Grant has been planting both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the hills of Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, a ward in the cool Walker Bay district that's home to other top Burgundy variety producers such as Hamilton-Russell (where Grant worked during the 1995 through 2004 vintages) and Bouchard Finlayson.
In addition to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Grant also produces a bracing Sauvignon Blanc, produced primarily from the coastal Elgin ward, and a red blend called Serenity, made from a changing mix of varieties that Grant now prefers not to divulge, following his experience with the reaction to his '05 vintage.
"The '05 Serenity was a red blend, and when I introduced it that way, people would taste the wine and then focus on singular aspects—the cassis of Cabernet or the plum of Merlot for example. They were seeing pieces rather than the blend," he said.
"But when you taste Châteauneuf-du-Pape, nobody really cares about what the percentage is of the 13 different cultivars. There's a style expectation, not a varietal expectation. And that's how I want the Serenity to be received. I want a wine that seduces with fragrance and occupies the palate with subtlety," said Grant.
A hiatus from the U.S. market has given Ataraxia's Kevin Grant a chance to focus more closely on his young plantings.
To that end, he is willing to change the blend dramatically from year to year, both in the percentage of each variety he uses as well as the varieties themselves. The 2008 bottling blends two grapes, while the 2010 bottling currently in the works could be a blend of up to seven.
"If I can be consistent to the style of the wine, without being beholden to certain cultivars, I think I'll have succeeded," he said.
Ataraxia currently produces around 7,000 cases annually and Grant said ideal growth would top out at 15,000 cases.
"I don't want to be visiting someone to explain my wines when I've got an assistant winemaker back in the cellar actually doing all the work. I want my sleeves rolled up, but I still want to be able to balance the winemaking with the business and marketing end of things for the winery as well," he said. "So a garagiste on steroids is the production level I'd like to be at."
It's good to welcome Grant and his Ataraxia wines back to the U.S. market, and fans of stylish, cool-climate wines should start to seek them out. As usual, reviews of his newest 2010 Chardonnay, 2011 Sauvignon Blanc and 2008 Serenity, based on formal blind tastings, will appear in the near future.
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