Jeremy Borg of Painted Wolf Wines was in town this week catching up with old friends and giving a tasting of his wares at Carruthers and Kent in Gosforth. It’s not the first time Jeremy have been at Claire and Mo’s; he was one of the first producer tastings they had soon after opening their store on Elmfield Road back in 2011/2, but after a parting of the ways with his old UK Distributor his bottles disappeared from their shelves. Until now that is, thanks to a new arrangement with North South Wines, ably represented by Newcastle-based Greig Wilson – who I was happy to see at the tasting (both as a fellow NEWT and for his excellent pouring and bottle-handling skills!).
In fact with 3 other NEWTS at the tasting it felt like a gathering of friends more than a formal tasting event!
Jeremy comes from a conservation background; the Endangered Wildlife Trust and Tusk motifs on the back label of his bottles confirms his dedication to wildlife.
Educated in Zimbabwe, he spent 16 years out of Africa in the UK and California, but in 1994 he returned to visit family in South Africa and, through his sister, ended up working as a Chef in a bush camp in Botswana working for Emma. 2 years later she became his wife and they then moved to Paarl, but the time spent in close proximity to the wild animals left its mark and, after seeing a magazine article on African Wild Dogs or “Painted Wolves”, he registered the trademark that would allow him to establish Painted Wolf Wine company in 2007.
For his wine experience, Jeremy started work under Charles Back of Fairview (famous for Goats do Roam and Spice Route) and put himself through a wine business course with Adelaide University. It was only after more than 7 years with Back that a “bust up over something” saw him leave, and it was at this time when he had a chance to buy some quality Shiraz grapes for a knock-down price to make some wine under his own name. That wine was put into storage over the Christmas period and when he came to collect it to sell he discovered it gone – apparently a guard at the storage facility had managed to bypass the security systems and he, his family and friends had a great holiday season! It wasn’t all bad news for though, as a fast-paying insurance policy meant Borg now had cash to put towards next years grapes and, with investment from a group of backers, from these shaky beginnings a wine-business was created.
The first vintage was in 2007 and first export to the UK in 2008, with the TUSK and EWT relationships in the following 2 years cementing the conservation associations that last to this day.
The evocative wine label designs are from artists Jenny Metelerkamp (who knew the Borgs from the Botswana Camp days), the late Keith Joubert, Lori Bently and Lin Barrie.
Painted Wolf doesn’t own any vineyards of its own, buying in grapes, unfermented must and some finished wine to make their labels using cellar space in Nederburg, courtesy of Willie Dreyer of Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards.
Jeremy also told of using and experimenting with different winemaking techniques; oak staves for seasoning, tartaric acid adjustment, powdered tannins for texture, re-using part-pressed white grapes with red ferments – all common techniques used globally but often not referenced by winemakers wanting to appear “natural” or “traditional” – Jeremy’s openness was refreshing for those in the know!
However, he did give one word of caution, “don’t do open ferments without sulphur…that’s a mistake!”
And finally (before the wine) the African Wild Dogs, Lycaon pictus (Painted wolf). Unlike other canines they have only four toes per foot (no dewclaws) and live in permanent packs, possible the most social of all canines with an alpha female and dominant breeding pair hierarchy.
Jeremy was passionate describing these extremely intelligent, misunderstood and persecuted animals. He recounted a somewhat gruesome story of witnessing a pack hunt down a Kudu (a helical-horned antelope), the final take-down interrupted when a pack-member was on the receiving end of a nasty back-kick from the prey and almost all the others gathered round to see if it had survived (it did, just). Most interesting was the pack’s almost total ignoring of nearby humans as they went about the hunt, including jogging past adults and kids on their way (considering their only predators are almost exclusively humans and the occasional lion they should probably be more avoiding of our species).
For more on African Wild Dogs see A celebration of Painted Wolves on Facebook and African Wildlife Foundation links.
And so to the wine, and we were in for a treat with 12 bottles to try over the 2 (and a bit) hours!
The Den wines are the entry level range showcasing single varietals, with mid-range single labels such as the Penny (named for Penny Hughes, the late wife of grower and investor Billy Hughes), Old-vine Chenin, Guillermo (named for Billy Hughes himself) and Madach (“Mad/dirty Dog”, slang for Wild Dog) plus the numbered Pictus special blend (named for Lycaon pictus).
- The Den 2017 Chenin Blanc, Swartland, 12.5%: Seasoned with Radoux oak staves and some lees aging, this had a gentle floral nose with a little sweet green apple. The approach was light with lime acidity and a gentle, warm finish. A pleasant drinker with refreshing acidity, it lacked strong flavours, but had a touch of character.
- The Den 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, Coastal, 13%: A small amount of the wine spent time in used oak barrels. The nose was delicate and creamy developing a gentle sweet grassy aspect. The approach was light with a thin, buttery aspect and a subtle tangerine finish. Overall this felt too simple without obvious Sauvignon characteristics.
- Penny 2014 Viognier, Swartland, 13.5%: A rich, sweet nose with some pineapple, this was had a creamy palate with a touch of white peach and a long finish, although the flavour profile was linear throughout, only building slowly and lacking edges or peaks that would have improved it.
- 2015 Old Vine Chenin Blanc, Paarl, 13%: 5400 bottle from grapes from a 1986 vineyard, this was a “dirty and slow ferment” according to Borg, natural wild-yeasts with a touch of spontaneous malo-lactic giving a low-acid, high-tannin wine. It was initially closed on the nose but opened up slowly with a little honey and apple, subtle yet promising. On the palate it was deceptively light at the start but developed a textured mouthfeel with a honeyed finish.
This was a well balanced, rounded wine with plenty of character, my favourite white in the line-up.
- Pictus V (2016), Coastal, 13%: The first white Pictus blend; 5440 bottles of Grenache Blanc from the Meerlust Estate, Chenin Blanc and Rousanne. A full creamy-floral nose with a honeyed backdrop this showed good complexity on the palate with a herbal/honey finish. It was a very well made wine but could have done with one of the grapes to stand out a bit more in the flavour profile and act as a focus.
- The Den 2018 Pinotage Rose, Paarl, 13%: The youngest wine I’ve drank this year this had a nod to Provence with a pale, almost onion skin colour. Red berry and peach on the nose this was smooth on the palate with candy fruit flavour, developing a surprising tannic dryness on the finish, which made it interesting and very quaffable.
- The Den 2017 Pinotage, Coastal 14%: Pinotage as many expect it…sadly for me! A youthful fruit nose with a rubbery edge (not quite burnt) but still a struggle to enjoy. A lean, slightly graphite palate, mineral and short, warm although doesn’t feel like 14%.
- The Den 2015 Shiraz, Swartland, 14%: Warm, sweet fruit on the nose with a dark edge and a touch of violet, the approach is equally dark and sweet with a youthful feel but a mineral edge, plenty of grip and texture. Quite a forward wine, floral with a hard edge, good.
- Madach 2014 Cape Hunting Red, Coastal, 13.5%: A blend of organic Shiraz, Pinotage, Mourvedre, Grenache (and Merlot, although not according to the bottle), 14 months in French and American oak. The nose was subtle but interesting, floral, smoky and spicy. On the palate a minty component surrounded a clean, well structured, medium-bodied wine with fine, dry tannins and the long finish showing a light-berry aspect. The Wine Society do a version of this called The Peloton.
- Guillermo 2014 Pinotage, Swartland 14%: Organically certified grapes were sourced from the Kasteelsig vineyard, owned by Billy (Guillermo) Hughes. Tartaric acid adjusted before fermentation, this had a warm, sweet nose with some coffee and a touch of menthol/eucalyptus going into the palate. Very dry tannins show the wines youth, even at 4 years of age, and coffee and mocha come through on the finish – a cool, fresh wine needing a few more years, but good with it.
- 2013 Syrah, Swartland 14%: Dry farmed organic grapes matured in small French oak barrels. Quite dark in colour this had a firm, edgy nose with some floral, warm fruit aspects. On the palate violets and liquorice bark, very elegant, integrated tannin and great balance. Also too young there was some warmth at the end, another couple of years should mellow that, very enjoyable.
- Pictus IV (2012), Coastal, 13.5%: Although most of the grapes were from the organic Kasteelsig vineyard a paperwork miscalculation meant 5-10% of Stellenbosch fruit ended up in the mix, hence the Coastal W.O. category (South Africa aren’t as forgiving on percentages compared to others). A GSM blend (OK SGM with 40% Syrah, 38% Grenache and Murvedre bringing up the rear at 22%), 2720 bottles made. Aged for 18 months in mostly French oak barrels (20-40% new) this had a delightful funky, sour-savoury nose with some cherry marzipan. The approach was smooth and full with cherry, spice and sweet toasted oak, still feeling fresh and young at 6 years, one for the long-haul and probably the best red on show today, for my palate at least.
The last 4 reds were all a step up from the Den Shiraz, which itself was the best of “The Dens” tasted by far.
After the tasting we met up with Jeremy again as he had a swift pint with Greig in Gosforth before heading on to the friends I alluded to at the beginning of the post – none other that Ruth and Kelvyn from Guest Wines, who spent time with the Borgs in South Africa back in 2013 (as recounted on their blog post “Leader of the pack” from last year. See that great T-shirt on show with Ruth on their twitter feed!)