Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Great vines = Great wines

Ballerina swirl

Mischa magicians: Andy Barns, Rachel Carrigan and Gareth Barns

‘I’m aiming for a whole which is bigger than the sum of its parts’

Dancer-inspired blends will have pundits calling for an encore.

Mischa the brand works on so many levels, you’d swear a highly-paid spin doctor had work-shopped it. But no, it’s the serendipitous result of a series of dreams. Nestled on the slopes of Wellington’s Voorgroenberg, the farm was bought by Andy Barns’s granddad John, a photographer for the Cape Times, after the Second World War because he was tired of taking orders and liked the view of Table Mountain.

The name Mischa comes from the dancing partner of his wife Yvonne, a ballerina with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. There’s wonderful material for an historical romance here: SA dancer performs Swan Lake at the Bolshoi as the diamonds from murdered Tsarina Alexandra’s tiara are sold by Lenin to Ernest Oppenheimer to fund the war against the White Russians … Just one sip of Barns’s white blend of sauvignon blanc, nouvelle and viognier called The Dancer and you can hear the theme tune for Doctor Zhivago and smell the Russian Caravan tea bubbling in the samovar.

Barns’s fiancée Rachel Carrigan hails, like Jimi Hendrix, from Seattle, so no wonder the Mischa wines are rated by Robert Parker, America’s überpalate. They export a container twice a year to the US, although Barns hopes the one this winter will still happen, given the financial calamity.

Parker is the ultimate pundit for American purchases: rated under 90 (out of 100) points, a wine is unsellable. Over 90 and its unaffordable. Which makes Andy’s two Eventide offerings (90 points for shiraz, 92 for cabernet sauvignon) complete steals at R85.

Completely self-taught, Barns refuses to subscribe to wine snobbery, noting only that his flagship red blend, called Cerno (Latin for “to sift, to separate” hence discern), is made from several cultivars. “If I tell you there is some merlot, you’ll pick up those flavours, but I’m aiming for a whole which is bigger than the sum of its parts.” I cernoed some cabernet franc, myself.

There are two brands: Eventide and Mischa, the first consisting of more obvious statements and the second, wines to think about and R25 a bottle more expensive. After all, there is more labour involved. “I start with all my barrels and choose the best one. I then blend in other barrels and accept the result only if there is an improvement. I can repeat this up to 10 times, so in a sense Mischa is 10 times better.”

He’s only been making wine for 10 years. Before that, it was selling vines and today the vine nursery managed by brother Gareth is the third largest in the Southern Hemisphere. To a large extent, that is the secret of their success. Vines grow like an audience of Jimi Hendrix afros: dense jungles of leaves with grapes snoozing peacefully in the shade — something you need to do when the thermometer reads 55°C, as it has done.

The result is a Bacchanalian interpretation of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps with Mischa soaring like Nijinsky out of the primitive jungle of Voorgroenberg. It’s all exotic elegance and the tensile power of an uncoiling, stainless-steel spring, from an appellation which could, without the inspired touch of a gifted amateur, produce nothing better than half-baked, unfortified Port-style dikvoet dops.

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