Age

Emerging from nearly two months of chewing my way through plantations of oak in young reds alternated with brashly bracing young whites – whew, some of those 2013 whites are nothing if not intense – you might well imagine all I’d want to drink would be a cold one, or three.

Well, I would have had it not been for my step-grandson’s 21st this past week. Even though he wasn’t here – he’s a student at the University of New York in Abu Dhabi, where he was celebrating – I felt a well-matured red wine would make a more suitable toast.

KanonkopPS90Time to dip into one of the most-difficult-to reach-bins in the cellar, that devoted to Kanonkop, mainly Paul Sauer. First out of the sleeve was a 1990; James (step-grandson) did suggest a 1992, would have been more appropriate given the occasion, but the shelves are bare of that 21-year old.

From the outside, my 1990 it looked in perfect condition (see photo); the ullage was as if it had been bottled yesterday; apart from a tiny bit of seepage and a glistening of crystals, the cork was in excellent condition, emerging smoothly and in one piece; oh, and free of taint – thank goodness.

My hopes were further raised by the quite glorious colour – the garnet ruby glow of maturity but also glowing with life; it was something that deserved more than a quick glance. How often do we really study the colour of today’s red wines? I guess so many, with their opacity look so dull by comparison.

A properly mature wine is full of its own memories; I like to think those remaining tartrates hold many of them. But beyond its clarity of colour, this 23 year old had a composed aura of clean leather and tobacco, which themselves couldn’t quite deny still recognisable scents of cabernet; so mature and yet at the same time so fresh! Layers of flavour, too, not shouting but quietly unfolding with memorable length. Like a perfectly focused photograph, there were no fudgy edges and like true beauty, no extraneous detractions – obvious oak, over-extraction or high alcohol (oh, for the days of 12% alcohol again! NB look carefully at that back label: age of vines, projected optimum drinking!). Young winemakers may doubt the ripeness at 12% alc; I can assure all this wine was ripe; I have a theory that under ripe and over ripe wines age (well those that do) rather than mature; it’s only those harvested at optimal ripeness that really evolve more complex flavours.

KanonkopPS90blFrustratingly, I cannot find what I paid for the wine; I’d have purchased it on the futures system that Kanonkop ran for a few years. For the following vintage, also bought through the futures’ system, I paid R160 for 6 Paul Sauer (yes, roughly R25.50 per bottle!), the cab was R145. What a buy! I reckon that 1990 (given provenance and condition) would now be worth a good R800-R1000.

There’s been some recent chat on Twitter about perfection, with several high-profile wine writers saying they’d never given a perfect score on whatever scoring system they use. I think this misses the point. There are occasions to throw any scoring system into touch and just enjoy the wine in your glass for what it is. This particular wine might not have gained the 100/100 from James Molesworth or Jamie Goode, but I’d have said ‘bah humbug’ to them for even thinking of scoring, rather than just enjoying the hedonistic experience, an experience of perfection for me.

And talking of experiences, today’s young winemakers should make it their duty to hunt down and drink these old wines; they would offer a good insight as to what the Cape can and did produce and, hopefully, their own future goals.

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One thought on “Age

  1. I also really enjoy drinking some of the older vintages from the Cape and it reminds me of some Thelema wines we were recently drinking. I was recently away from my home base in Kenya and staying in a beautiful corner of Mpumalanga not far from the town of White River in the Lowveld of South Africa. It was winter, but with sunny blue skies and day time temperatures around 24 degrees centigrade it is not what I would call chilly. I first got to know this part of the world when I was living in Mozambique from 1994 onwards. In those days Mozambique was emerging from decades of civil war and the availability of many items including food and not least wine was limited. The lucky few mostly expatriates would abscond once a month or so to the town of Nelspruit in neighbouring South Africa about a three hour drive from Maputo and fill up their cars with anything from butter to fresh vegetables and of course at least for me wine.

    By 1994 when I began living in Mozambique the ‘frontline states’ had fully embraced the newly elected ANC government in South Africa. This was then great timing for this particular wine lover as it meant I had free reign not to mention a favourable US$ to Rand exchange rate to explore the wines from the Cape. To assist our enthusiasm for wine I and a group of friends started a tasting group in Maputo. Being a group made up of many nationalities we had the great benefit of having access to wines from a whole host of countries. Each of the individuals in the group of course championed the wines from their own country proudly presenting perhaps a Barossa shiraz, a cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley, or a lesser, although occasionally a first growth from Bordeaux. It was great fun and dare I say even educational as we explored the different tastes of New and Old World wines. In the absence of any South Africans in the group, (in those days South Africans had only just started spreading their wings to neighbouring African countries), I became defacto the talisman for the wines from the Cape.

    The general consensus is of course that the demise of apartheid and the emergence of South Africa into the international fold had overwhelming positive impacts. This was particularly true for the South African wine industry. Through most of the 20th Century South Africa’s wine farms largely produced grapes either for sale to the brandy industry or to large cooperatives, which then made wines of variable quality mainly for domestic consumption. There were of course a number of estates that had been producing wine for centuries and the quality of these wines for those fortunate to drink them was usually good and quite often exceptional. Nevertheless, these relatively few estate wines were the exception rather than the rule. Locked away for decades behind a wall of sanctions there were few incentives save personal pride let alone markets to encourage South African winemakers to produce anything less than vin ordinaire.

    There is a much used adage to restrain those tempted to enter the wine industry, which is: the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one. In some ways despite the explosion in worldwide wine consumption over the last fifty years this is probably truer today than ever. However, from the 1980’s onwards with the end of apartheid now within touching distance South Africa offered new opportunities for enthusiasts to start up their very own wine farm with relatively limited resources.

    Gyles Webb had been an accountant working in Durban historically not a place known for wine production. Infected with the wine bug Gyles, his wife Barbara and family bought a fruit farm outside Stellenbosch the Cape’s wine capital on the Helshoogte pass and called it Thelema Mountain Vineyard. The family had owned a hotel in Kimberley called the Phoenix and accounts for the emblem that adorns the label of Thelema’s wines. It is rumoured that Gyles became particularly adept at producing olive oil from the olive trees that are common in Kimberly, but that is another story. Gyles completed a degree in Oenology at Stellenbosch University and after some experience making wine in South Africa and overseas, in 1988 produced the first vintage from Thelema Mountain Vineyard.
    The first vintages from Thelema were well received in South Africa and indeed Gyles won the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year in 1994 for his Merlot 1992. It is probably fair to say though that it was the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 which captured the attention of a wider wine drinking community. Gyles enthusiasm for wine was partly ignited by the wines from Burgundy and he admired the minimalist as opposed to old fashioned wine making techniques that the very best appellations use. “Wine is made in the vineyard”, is another adage common in the wine world and its proponents highlight the importance of the quality of the fruit rather than any wizardry in the cellar as the key to making great wine. The reputation of Gyles and Thelema for producing quality wine is much based on the emphasis of producing the best quality fruit possible and then handling it as little as possible to make wine. The wines from Thelema were though not shy in terms of using the best quality French oak barrels 50% first fill for the 1994 vintage for a total of 18 months.
    Living in Maputo I bought a case of Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 in 1996; which if my memory serves me well cost R34 a bottle. I still buy a case a year and it demonstrates to wine makers if you hook them early they stay loyal dare I say even if the vintages go up and down. We used to have Thelema and other Cape wines shipped to Nelspruit, after which we managed to get them to Maputo in all sorts of innovative ways. I left Mozambique in 2001 and the Thelema wines followed me first to Zambia. In 2005 the wines returned to South Africa where they have been stored ever since in the Lowveld in temperature controlled conditions. I am down to my last three bottles of 1994 and it has become something of an event in our household to open a bottle or two on our visits to the Lowveld.
    The vast majority of wines produced throughout the world are designed to be drunk young and I suspect it is only odd folk such as me that enjoy old wines to drink as opposed to collect. It is also probably fair to say that Gyles never intended his 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon to be kept for the best part of 20 years. I notice on the back label of the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon it says that the wine has the structure to, “improve over the next five years”. Since 1999 the wine may or may not have improved, but it has certainly changed. We drank two bottles last night with friends over dinner. I decanted the wine only forty minutes before drinking and there was as you would expect from a wine made with minimal finning and filtering and given its age plenty of sediment in the bottle. The wine was still bright if not necessarily brilliant with some good colour albeit gravitating towards mahogany. On the nose there is still good fruit aromas definitely blackcurrant and perhaps even a hint of the famous eucalyptuses (mint) that Thelema and to an extent South African cabernet sauvignon’s are known for. On the palate the fruit is there, smooth tannins and a reasonable length of finish.
    The remaining bottles of the 1994 cabernet sauvignon will probably not get the chance to last another 20 years, a pity really as it would be interesting to see how it would taste. I should add that Gyles was awarded for the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 again the accolade of Dinners Club Winemaker of the Year in 1996. Although the wines of Thelema Mountain Vineyards have changed in terms of style since the early 1990’s, the ethos of producing the best possible fruit has not. To this end Thelema now sources grapes from its Sutherland farm in the cooler climate Elgin area of the Cape. I am aware that for some Thelema wines are not necessarily considered in the imaginary category of South Africa’s “first-growths”. What is not in dispute though is the significant contribution Gyles Webb and Thelema wines have made to the modern South African wine industry. I for one will keep sending a nod of thanks from the Lowveld in the direction of the Helshoogte pass as I enjoy the remaining vintages of the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon.
    A footnote is that we also tasted some other older Cape wines on the same trip to the Lowveld, which included the following.
    Meerlust Rubicon 1984
    Stellenzitch Syrah 1998
    Stellenzitch Sémillon 1998
    Vergelgen 1998

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