African connection

Slaley wines are remarkably good. You'll not be too surprised, however, to learn that the grapes were grown not on the damp green hills of Northumberland, but in the sun-gorged vineyards of another Slaley, at Stellenbosch in South Africa.

Slaley wines are remarkably good. You'll not be too surprised, however, to learn that the grapes were grown not on the damp green hills of Northumberland, but in the sun-gorged vineyards of another Slaley, at Stellenbosch in South Africa. But there's a link.

The Cape Slaley was named by the Hunting family after their old family home: Slaley Hall, not far from Hexham, which is now a luxury hotel and resort that proudly boasts two championship golf courses, one of which is named after the family.

The Huntings made their fortune from shipping on the Tyne. They sold the Hall after the Second World War and in 1957, Martin Hunting established the first Slaley winery on the western slopes of the Simonsberg where some the finest Cape wines are made.

His son Lindsay is now in charge. Last year Lindsay came to Britain and visited Slaley Hall, a place to which he still feels strong ties.

Andrew Coney, Slaley Hall general manager, was thrilled to renew this special link with the Hunting family and promptly ordered three of Lindsay's wines. "It's very important to retain the heritage of the hotel, and I'm pleased to have reunited Slaley Hall with the family that created it.

"These wines help to tell the story of the building. Our guests find the history intriguing, but they are also very enthusiastic about the wines themselves."

Lindsay is delighted too. Earlier this week I phoned him at the winery. Although this is the busiest time of his year (harvest in South Africa is in full swing during February and March) he took time to talk about his wines.

His passion is for "classically-made wines", very different from the high alcohol "fruit bombs" typical of many New World producers.

"A wine's not classical unless you use pre-Second World War technology," he argues. But this is no blind attempt to turn back the clock. It's an approach favoured by a growing number of thinking wine makers who, though thoroughly versed in modern wine science, realise that the old ways had a lot to offer.

And if the latest modern methods are appropriate he's not afraid to use them, for example to make his Sauvignon Blanc.

He's very persuasive. He explains that "the old winemakers didn't understand everything they were doing, but they learned that if they treated wine a certain way it wouldn't get sick".

In other words, it would be robust enough to withstand a bit of rough treatment while being transported to the market. It needed to be "young, tough and bullet proof". And most importantly, it tasted good too, but especially after "some time" in bottle.

Classically made red wines, Hunting-style, are high in extract, with deep colour and plenty of tannin. Wine with bits in. They're made by allowing the juice plenty of time to macerate with the grape skins.

He doesn't use grapes gorged with monstrous levels of sugar and he believes that if the wine maker is careful, the tannins (the dry taste in the mouth after you swallow) help the wine to have a longer-lasting taste and fine texture. But it does take time.

The Shiraz on sale at Slaley Hall is from the 2002 vintage and is already drinking superbly well. It doesn't look so old: it's still a deep, almost purple-tinged ruby. It has a big, powerful smell and taste of black pepper, leather and mixed spice with no lack of black fruit, and although the tannins are chewy and strong they're not bitter. And the flavour really does linger.

The 2003 Slaley Chardonnay is a rich gold with the smell of candied lemon peel, butter and a hint of pineapple and a taste almost like dry lemon curd, it's as good a South African Chardonnay as I can remember.

The third Slaley wine available at Slaley Hall is a Pinotage. I've not tasted it yet, but I wouldn't mind betting it needs longer in the bottle.

"My 2002 Pinotage will make me famous in time," says Lindsay with no hint of a doubt, "when I sell it at auction in 2020." He insists: "I believe the world will rediscover classically-made wines." I have a hunch that he may be right. And I rather hope so.

Slaley is not the only Northumbrian wine name. Just down the road in Stellenbosch there's Bellingham wines. Australia's Hunter Valley, however, is truly a North-Eastern home from home.

In this premium wine-growing area of New South Wales, just inland from Newcastle, you'll find Belford, Branxton, Stanhope, Allandale (sic), Warkworth, Wittingham (sic) and best of all from a wine point of view, Rothbury.

Rothbury Wines - a great little wine shop - celebrates the link with three wines from the excellent Rothbury Estate, Cowra Chardonnay 2004 (£7.13), Verdelho 2005 (£8.07) and Mudgee Shiraz 2003 (£7.99). I warmly recommend them all.

The Rothbury Estate winery was founded in 1971, the passion and vision of Len Evans, who died last August. Often and fondly described as the "godfather of Australian wine", Len was born in England . . . of Welsh parents. He first went Down Under as a professional golfer. It's a funny old world.

Kumala Sauvignon Blanc/Colombard 2006 (£5.49 Co-op or Morrisons): Fresh, clean, fruity dry white from South Africa with a creamy smell of kiwi fruit, gooseberry and green plum with a bit of lemon added to the taste.


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