By Alex Hunt MW | February 13 2014
by Michael Fridjhon
For many people-including a significant proportion of its domestic consumers-South African wine has no history preceding the era of isolation. An industry, which in 2009 will celebrate its 350th anniversary, has all but obliterated the artifacts of an existence that is comfortably within living memory. So effectively has this been achieved that the assumptions that apply to wines produced in the modern era-which really began in the late 1970s-have automatically been transferred to this earlier age.
Chief among these is the lack of ageworthiness of the red wines. Cape wine consumers could well parody the much-quoted line from Laurence Binyon’s elegy for the war dead: “They shall not grow old…”
Why this should be the case is far harder to explain than to describe. The South African wine industry stumbled into modernity ahead of many of its New World counterparts. While the regulations that drove at least part of the process were imperfect-if not downright flawed-they provided a blueprint from which those charged with managing the infrastructure could at least navigate. Wine of Origin legislation-with strict enough controls to enforce pretty general compliance-became law in 1973.
It brought a host of requirements pertaining to site, minimum percentages of specified varieties, and a framework designed to make verification of any claims on the label a simple enough procedure. Simultaneously, the paucity of international varieties available to South African grape growers became an acknowledged issue, and steps were taken to address the problem. At the time, the dominant force in the South African wine industry was the KWV- the national wine cooperative-an organization imbued with statutory powers and charged with the management of the industry and its surpluses. It is probable that many of the bureaucrats employed by the KWV had little or no inkling of the international wine scene. Since the primary business of the organization was bulk wine and spirits, no real effort was made to source quality clones.
The KWV-dominated Vine (or Plant) Improvement Board-in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture-obtained and husbanded through quite rigorous quarantine requirements, one, maybe two, different clones of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay. This material was released to growers in the second half of the 1970s, and by the early 1980s it was clear that much of it was inadequate or virused-or both. For example, the only Pinot Noir available at the time was the Swiss BK5 clone, developed for producing base wine for fizz. The Chardonnay was grievously infected with leafroll virus, so that the fruit yielded juice that was either harsh and green or clumsy and Porty.
The more avante-garde producers acquired this material in good faith, only to discover, after a few years, how hopelessly inadequate it was in terms of their quality winemaking ambitions. By then many had begun to work with new barrels for the first time. They made many mistakes-most of them obvious in retrospect. These ranged from acquiring the worst possible wood from French coopers happy to find new suckers for their greenest of staves, to overoaking the fruit of young vines. As they came to recognize the shortcomings of their planting material, they took to vine smuggling (which by the early 1980s was virtually a national pastime). Another wave of new vineyards followed; another batch of simple (but not unattractive) wines with no great aging potential came to market. In time, another decade of disappointments ensued, as punters opened bottles cellared a few years previously and discovered they were at their best when they went to bottle. Is it any surprise that most South African wine consumers today have come to believe that Cape wine is not an ageworthy proposition?
When (in early 2007) James Molesworth-Wine Spectator’s South African wine specialist-finally made his first trip to the country about whose wines he had been writing for several years (an epochal moment for producers targeting the American market), he was welcomed as a prodigal son. In the course of his travels he was shown a few wines from the time when Cabernet Sauvignon was the country’s only premium red variety. One sample was an experimental wine made under the auspices of the late George Spies (at the time the chief winemaker at Monis of Paarl). Several hundred bottles of this GS Cabernet 1966 had been distributed to the wine aficionados of that generation, and it was one of these that so impressed Mr Molesworth that it became the highlight of his visit.
Quite quickly, those collectors who had other red wines in their cellars from the same era got together and began sampling these curiosities. A surprising number turned out to be quite impressive-thus setting the stage for a tasting (of a largely archeological kind) aimed at pronouncing upon the quality of the very few survivors from this longforgotten era. The setting was the Grande Roche in Paarl, a Relais & Château/Relais Gourmand. It was the Sunday afternoon before the first day’s tastings of the 2008 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Accordingly the panel comprised some the show judges, as well as tasters for the Platter Guide (the country’s most authoritative wine annual) and several of the Cape wine industry’s leading lights-including at least one winemaker from the 1960s.
Through the generosity of corporates and individuals, a lineup of nearly 30 wines-from 1940 to 1983-had been assembled. Even those accustomed to tasting the occasional pre-modern Cape wine confessed themselves astonished by the array of wines, their evenness of quality, their longevity, and the profound difference separating them from the more current production. Several of the oldest examples seemed almost ageless. Only a couple were unpleasantly old. Where alcohol levels were known (and since there had been no statutory requirement to disclose these on the labels until quite recently, this information came from producers’ records), these were markedly lower than on current releases.
Wines were tasted sighted- primarily because few of those present had any opinions or prejudices to bring to the event and it was deemed more useful to know a little about the context of each flight. The first group comprised seven Pinotages, a lineup about which several of the tasters had expressed at least slight apprehension. The variety that Michael Broadbent MW had famously described in 1977 as “smelling of rusty nails” had few champions in the room, and most people admitted to only limited expectations about its potential to impress all these years later. The youngest wine was a 1972 from the original Spier estate; the oldest a 1963 from Lanzerac (in those days a brand owned by Stellenbosch Farmers Winery).
This group had one of the few obviously geriatric samples: a 1970 KWV that had passed its best several years before and was no better on the second bottle than the first. That said, it was not condemned outright. By way of compensation, however, the flight produced several standout wines, the most striking examples being the 1971 produced at the Swartland Co-operative and bottled by the KWV, the 1969 produced at the Meerendal estate and bottled at the KWV, and the 1963 Lanzerac.
After the Pinotage flight, all the other wines were tasted in ascending order of age. This meant that the youngest wine of the entire tasting- the 1983 Rozendal (which had been included partly because of its reputation but also because it has been produced from an ancient vineyard long since grubbed up)-set a remarkably high standard in what was essentially a Cabernet lineup. It was the first wine made by a restaurateur who had settled in the Cape a year or two before and had acquired temporary rights to the fruit of a block of vines on the old Lanzerac property.
Kurt Amman admits to having let “the wine make itself.” It was barriquematured- but unlike many other wines of that era, the sheer fruit weight of the old-vine Cabernet sailed through the exposure to new oak. It was one of my favorite wines from the tasting, though several of the panelists with an aversion to the rich, almost sweet character of old Cape (or old Australian) wine were less enthusiastic.
Most preferred the 1982 Rustenberg (served from a magnum)-a legendary wine from this transition era. It was made from old vines but at a time when new wood aging meant large vats that had recently been replaced. It was followed-more or less immediately- with the first two Bordeaux blends produced in South Africa. The 1982 Meerlust Rubicon was the third vintage in this style from the Stellenbosch estate-and the best survivor from that earlier period. It was generally preferred to the 1979 Welgemeend Estate Wine-the maiden vintage from the very first property ever to blend Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well (in this case) as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. For all that, the late Billy Hofmeyr’s first vintage was generally considered to be in quite good condition, despite the youth of the vines and the relative inexperience of its producer.
Widely regarded as the best vintage of the 1970s, 1974 yielded another fascinating pair. Both enjoyed a reputation that survived the virtual radio silence about wines from that time, since both had set auction-price records at the annual Nederburg sale. The Nederburg Auction Cabernet outscored the Rustenberg Dry Red on this occasion, being fuller, richer, sweeter, and less fragile. The Rustenberg was produced from select vineyards on the estate (not all of the production was sold under the estate label) and was vinified in open kuipe (concrete fermenters)-two thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, one third Cinsaut, blended at the crush.
Almost all the wines from the 1960s were very impressive-and although individual bottles had their critics and their champions, the average for the Cabernets of this decade was higher than for those of the 1970s. There was only one wine in this section of the lineup that admitted to not being Cabernet-an indication of the reverence in which the market of that era held the great red grape of Bordeaux. This was the 1969 Meerendal, which was generally regarded as suitably Rhône-like and was creditable enough in that context. Sam Harrop MW gave it one of his highest scores, with a note that would not shame an Hermitage of the same vintage.
It is a reasonable assumption, however, that most of the wines sold as Cabernet would have included a significant proportion of other red varieties, ranging from Cinsaut to Shiraz. Francis (Duimpie) Bayly, who worked at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery from the 1960s until his recent retirement, attended the tasting. He confirmed that in the era that preceded the Wine of Origin legislation, wines sold as Cabernet typically contained less than 50 percent of the specified variety. It is probable that the Lanzerac, Zonnebloem, and Nederburg wines from the 1960s were a long way from pure Cabernet. The two GS Cabernets are reputed to have come from a single site in the Durbanville area (a property called Morgenster) and may indeed have been 100 percent Cabernet- exactly as described on the label. The 1966 supposedly enjoyed exposure to oak in relatively new large vats.
The triumph of the tasting was undoubtedly the 1940 Chateau Libertas-not only because it was a remarkable survivor, but also because, notwithstanding its age, it was extraordinarily good. I have had the privilege of tasting it several times in the past few years, and although there has been considerable bottle variation, it has never disappointed. No one appears to know the components of the blend. The brand-which dates from the 1930s-was one of the country’s most popular premium reds and was renowned for its consistency.
Because more recent vintages (from the 1950s and ’60s) have contained a significant proportion of dry-land bushvine Cinsaut, it seems safe to assume that this unremarkable Southern Rhône variety (which was widely planted in the Cape toward the middle of the last century), together with Cabernet, formed the backbone of the blend. Now, very much in the tertiary stage of development, it combines all the typical mushroom and forest-floor aromas of full maturity with a brightness, freshness, and vitality that belie its age. The curious bluish-colored “war glass” of the bottle disposed of any concerns about the authenticity of the vintage-as did the source, which was the vinothèque of the producer.
Reflections on age
Long after the formal part of the proceedings was over-and, in fact, on several occasions during the show judging that took place over several days after this tasting-the question of why these wines have aged so well was discussed. Some of the answers seem almost self-evident, though they are, and remain, mere guesses in the absence of proof. All of the wines from this era came from unirrigated vineyards; all of the vines were untrellised, low-yielding, and in perfect balance. Ripeness was generally measured in terms of an average sugar level below 23 Balling, and this produced greener, less overblown characters in the wine. Virus appears to have been endemic, so only the cooler, drier years delivered ideal ripening conditions.
These are not circumstances that are conducive to sound commercial winemaking in the 21st century. Few grape growers today believe they can afford the tiny yields, the risks of dryland viticulture, the labor of harvesting bushvines, the holding costs of maturing unshowy, restrained, and brooding masterpieces. Of course they are both wrong and right. The contract between producers of ageworthy wines and their customers has long been breached. Most wine drinkers seek the instant gratification of superripe,
soft-tannined fruit bombs-even from cellars whose track record (and price positioning) suggests a more leisurely approach. If the classed growths of Bordeaux are increasingly made for earlier drinking, what are the prospects for a handful of producers at the southern tip of Africa? This is a country where uncertainty about the future is part of the national DNA. In fact, there is a curious correlation between the decline in the ageability of Cape wine and the perceived political stability of the government.
The wines became shorter lived in accordance with the life expectancy of white-minority rule. If there is a watershed, it is the 1970s, when Stellenbosch Farmers Winery culled the old style of Chateau Libertas and introduced new vinification strategies for Nederburg and Zonnebloem (softer, lighter, and market-ready sooner). From the year of the Soweto riots, 1976, time hastened forward with an inexorability that altered everyone’s frame of reference. This won’t change easily now. A new generation of wine drinkers would never dream of keeping a blended red like Chateau Libertas ten years-let alone seven decades-and there aren’t now enough venerable examples from a forgotten past to change that thinking.
1. Spier Pinotage 1972
Spicy, deep-hued, but browning, tannins fully polymerized, still some varietal bitterness rather than acetone whiffs. Pinot notes evident but rustic. 13
2. Swartland Pinotage 1971
Intense cerise, brooding, leathery, aromatic- massive concentration, some lavender/vanilla notes. Long and still very fresh despite attractive, slightly raisiny hints. Majestic and complete. 18
3. Simonsig Pinotage 1971
Very good deep maroon red. There is plenty of spice here, some almond notes, and good tannins, though it is still showing typical varietal grippiness. Slightly metallic mouthfeel mars an otherwise harmonious example of restrained but still quite fresh Pinotage. 15
4. KWV Paarl Pinotage 1970
Both bottles oxidized but not unattractive- Porty, rich, dense. NS
5. Meerendal 1969
Slightly vegetal, earthy notes, considerable intensity, hints of cherry, spice still lingering, tannins a little too tough. 14.5
6. Lanzerac 1969
Quite Burgundian, with camphor/bitter-cherry aromas and an attractive spice marred by a slight mustiness. 14.5
7. Lanzerac 1963
Mocha coffee aromas. Profoundly perfumed, dark-berry fruit still present, color fading slightly-brick at the edge; tannins a little too evident. 16.5
8. Rozendal 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon
Sumptuous and spicy, though verging on the over-big. Brick-edge evident, now fully mature and showing slight rancio. Superb, with great length and richness. Quite colonial in its almost rustic self-confidence. 18.5
9. Rustenberg Cabernet Sauvignon 1982
(magnum) Pale-brick edge. Very bright, slightly herbaceous fruit, spicy, elegant, refreshing tannic notes, lacking a little concentration but very persistent. St-Julienlike in its savoriness and layered aromas. 17.5
10. Le Bonheur Cabernet Sauvignon
Red to brick, refreshing herbal note, belies rich, textured, intense palate. Red berries and sottobosco. Mocha whiffs, slightly obvious (added) acidity on the finish. 18
11. Meerlust Rubicon 1982
Cerise-brick edge. Spicy, with camphor, mushroomy, earthy whiffs, primary fruit all gone but leaving behind a lovely integration and a harmonious finish. 16.5
12. Welgemeend Estate Wine 1979
Developed brick, still quite pleasing spice, volatile notes beginning to dominate, finely textured-just a little too old. 15
13. KWV Roodeberg 1975
Developed brick edge-wine fully evolved with lovely integration, soft, sweet, spicy but not raisiny. A hint of dilution due to the vintage and the Cinsaut. 16.5
14. Groot Constantia Cabernet 1974
Unpleasant, dank beetroot aroma. Long past its best.
15. Rustenberg 1974
Concentrated. Still with good cerise-maroon color, licorice, coffee notes. Palate beginning to dry out. More spice than sweetness. Now just moving past its prime, but still with considerable vigor. 17.5
16. Nederburg Auction Cabernet 1974
Maroon, with great depth, only now bricking at the edge. Almost Porty in its ripeness and texture, yet surprisingly elegant on the finish. Well managed, sweetish, sumptuous, but losing freshness. 17
17. Meerendal Shiraz 1969
Concentrated medicinal spice. Almost jammy. Second bottle fresher with more lavender/ vanilla aromatic. Leathery notes, tarry hints, concentrated and intense. 17.5
18. Zonnebloem Cabernet 1969
Old South African style. Brick-edged, leathery whiffs, restrained spice, hallmark elegance, fine tannins, slightly austere finish verging on the brittle, but still showing the refinement of impoverished nobility. 17.5
19. GS Cabernet 1968
Bright maroon, slight bricking. Massive, spicy aromatic, but better on the nose than on the palate, where flavor is Rhône-like and broad (rather than profound and multilayered), with an elegant, refined finish. 18
20. Lanzerac Cabernet 1967
Obviously bricking, with austere tannins beginning to dominate the mid-palate, yet fine, sweet finish. Persistent aromas of old, long-closed armoires. Beautiful balance. 18.5
21. GS Cabernet 1966
Concentrated, deep-crimson color. Pauillaclike weight and textures. Still some berry freshness. Ample spice, mid-palate tarry sweetness balancing fresh but well-integrated tannins. 19
22. Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 1965
Dusty, Porty, and slightly overextracted. Still showing some cedary notes, but finishing with slight clumsiness. 15
23. Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1965
MF: Surprisingly Rhône-like, with cerise-brick edge. Slightly gamey forest-floor aromas, hints of sweet Cinsaut/Shiraz. Rich, brightfruited, but no sense of aged Cabernet. 18.5
24. Nederburg Selected Cabernet 1964
Sumptuous, sweet, aged Shiraz notes. Spicy, almost nutty aromas. No real sense of cassis or graphite. Fully integrated tannins, midpalate sweetness fading now and finishing slightly bitter. 17
25. Uitkyk Carlonet (Cabernet) 1960
Light-brick edge. Slightly baked aromas. Some nutmeg, red-berry spice, unclumsy savoriness, very long and sweet finish, despite evident acid adjustment. 18
26. Chateau Libertas 1964
Quite herbal, with bright, fresh cherry aromas, preserved-if anything-through a slight lack of ripeness and edgy tannins. 15
27. Chateau Libertas 1940
Brick but not fading, with forest-floor, fungal notes, initial concentration on the palate, though drying out in the glass. Still, remarkably vivacious in old age. 17.5