There has been increasing interest in the studies done at Stellenbosch University by Professor Wessel Du Toit over the influence wood has on wine. Du Toit is investigating the difference alternative wood material from a variety of plants has on wine. One particularly interesting discovery is how these alternate woody additions change the antioxidant levels in the wine.
That investigation at Stellenbosch University has brought about the 2013 Audacia Merlot from South Africa.
Winemakers have known for generations that oak characteristics mellow the tannins and that aging wine in small casks allow for more wine to be in contact with the oak.
The study by Professor Wessel Du Toit gave Michael van Niekirk an idea. Instead of investing in expensive American or French oak casks for aging the wine, try to age with discarded wood chips in a stainless steel tank. That method will give more wine-to-wood contact and won’t have the cost of casks or space that the casks require in aging cellars.
Michael van Niekirk then took the idea to a new level and created «native woods wine» using other wood to infuse flavor into wine. After a couple experiments van Niekirk came to use Rooibos wood.
Oak barrels and «alternative» oak derived products, such as chips, staves, powder and liquid tannin extracts are currently widely used in the making of South African wines as a means of flavoring wine.
Rooibos, the plant species Aspalathus linearis, actually was a tea made by the natives in South Africa first identified by Carl Thunberg, a Swedish naturalist, in 1772. The tea was spread to the Dutch colonists and then traded to many other places. It is served in South Africa instead of black tea in many places of southern African countries.
Van Niekirk infused the wood of Roobios bushes along with a little Cyclopia genistoides known commonly as honeybush plants growing in the Western Cape of South Africa into the vat of fermenting Merlot. The wood is unique in that it has high levels of antioxidants, no caffeine and low tannin levels when compared to other wood sources used in winemaking. It also contains a number of phenolic compounds and many flavonoids. Both wood types impart unique and distinctive flavours to red wine, including a tobacco–like smokiness, hints of vanilla, cherry and black pepper.
The chief antioxidant normally used in wine production is sulphur dioxide. The legal limit of total sulphur dioxide allowed in South African table wines is 150 mg/L, with a lower limit being 10mg/L, below which the wine can to be labeled as «Sulphur Free» or «No Sulphites or Preservatives Added.» There has been a drive in recent years to lower sulphur dioxide levels in wine due to health reasons, since many people have an allergic reaction to the sulphur.
Back to the laboratories of Wessel Du Toit, the indigenous South African Rooibos and Honeybush have been proven to contain large amounts of phenolic compounds, such as quercetin, luteolin, orientin, iso–orientin, vitexin, iso–vitexin and aspalathin, which may act as antioxidants and assist in preserving wine.
The new wine is made with 100 percent Merlot grapes from the Audacia vineyards. It spent eight months in contact with Rooibos and Honeybush chips instead of oak. There are no sulfites or preservatives of any kind added to the wine.
Tasting notes from this new release have the Audacia Rooibos Merlot with intense aromas with a bouquet of sweet cherries, roses, Turkish delight and fynbos(a southern hemisphere bush). The palate is elegant with a balanced tannin structure. The wine’s flavors are also reminiscent of fynbos and spices, and it exhibits a pleasant, sweet red berry finish.
The Audacia Rooibos Merlot is not available in the US yet. But, you can order the wine direct from the winery for just under $17 a bottle (I don’t know about the shipping costs).
If you are into trading, this first vintage could be a very lucrative purchase to hold onto for at least five years.
Aside from the Merlot without sulfites, I found Audacia experimenting with a new grape cross from the same Stellenbosch University. They are calling it the Roobernet grape, a cross between the Pontac and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. That grape was cross-bred in 1990 and I couldn’t find any other winery using the grape. They say it comes from a red juice and resembles Cabernet Sauvignon.