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Friday, 4 February 2022

Warwick Estate First Lady Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon

Two First Lady Wines from South Africa's Warwick Estate at Tesco

If you have not heard of Warwick Estate, don't worry; it was founded in the 1980s and until recently exported little of its wine overseas.

Its back-story is fascinating, however.

Force-of-nature Canadian, Norma Ratcliffe was on holiday in Mykonos and met Stan Ratcliffe who won her heart and took her back to his South African farmstead in Stellenbosch around 40 km inland from Cape Town.

Once there, she decided she would make wine and taught herself from scratch. In rural South Africa. In the the days before the internet and YouTube.
Producing her first wine in 1984, just 6 barrels, she launched "Blue Lady" in 1986 and went on to achieve a string of firsts for the country - largely because she refused to accept people telling her that it "couldn't be done", including:

- one of South Africa's first female winemakers
- iconoclastic packaging design
- South Africa's first varietal Cabernet Franc

In 1994, she launched a "Cape Blend", including some Pinotage, and in 2006 the "First Lady" wines. In the mid-teens she finally retired and sold the business, unusually, to a US Private Equity firm.

More associated with rapidly-scaled, tech-enable disruptive offerings, the PE house's interest in Warwick was for the opportunity to increase volumes, through the acquisition of the Uitkyk vineyard, and pricing, as they believe South African wines are undervalued.

As current CEO Christiane Von Arnim explained, the development cycle of  a winery is very different to that of a tech business, but with neighbours including Kanonkop and just 20% of wines exported at the time, the scope for growth is there.

The First Lady Cab and Chardonnay are the two biggest sellers in the winery's portfolio and provide the funds for them to invest in higher-end projects and more sophisticated, individual wines.

Climate and terroir

The winery is 100ha and located around 40km inland from the cooling effects of False Bay, so it is a warm-climate region; there is some moderating influence from Simonsberg and the vines get good sun exposure all day.

There is limited irrigation to cope with the heat, around 4 times per year.

First Lady Chardonnay, 2020 (£8, Tesco)

The grapes, which are sourced from across different vineyards in Stellenbosch, picked in the cool of the early morning to keep them fresh and zingy. They are destemmed and crushed with no skin contact, and fermented mostly in stainless steel, with just 8% fermented in oak, adding a creamy structure to the palate. Extra complexity and roundness come from 100 days spent on lees, before bottling.

Expressive and aromatic with tropical fruits and leesiness; ripe apples-and-pears, yellow stone fruits, tropical citrus and limes with a savoury, leesy broadness.

Thoroughly enjoyable and Good Value at the clubcard price of £6.

Match with roast chicken, pork kebabs, poached salmon with horseradish and dill or chicken korma.

First Lady Cabernet Sauvignon, 2018 (£8, Tesco)

Warwick released its first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1984 and have been specialising in this variety ever since. Warwick use the vibrant younger vines for this energetic Cabernet, and the grapes deliver a wine that is full of life without the weight and seriousness of old age.

The grapes are harvested at optimal ripeness then aged for 18 months in a selection of oak (none new) before the final blending.

Expressive with black fruits, black olives, dark chocolate and dried herbs; fresh, juicy berries, very supple with gentle, perfectly ripe tannins and some pleasing hints of aged leather and savouriness.

Thoroughly enjoyable and Good Value at the clubcard price of £6.

Match with grilled steak with a creamy mushroom sauce, tagliatelle with venison ragu or spicy salami.

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