One of the year’s biggest vinous treats is the old wine tasting held the afternoon prior to the start of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. What is now a tradition began in 2008, when Michael Fridjhon, the show Chairman, was researching for an article on old South African wine for the World of Fine Wine.
Setting the minimum age for whites at 15 years and 25 years for reds, it was obvious this would be a one bottle per wine event; perhaps even one event!
What this has proved over the past seven years is the importance of keeping library stock; so few do, or keep back too little. As much as improvements with each vintage are desirable, so are reflections on past years, when a wine might or might not have matured with interest.
Thankfully, the previous Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery team laid down a seemingly endless stock of historic labels such as Lanzerac, Zonnebloem, Chateau Libertas and Nederberg. With great generosity, many of these oldies – some dating back to the 1940s – are opened for this annual tasting. As are equally historic labels from the former Distillers stable, Uitkyk and Alto among them.
Individuals with cellars or access to them also chip in: Christian Eedes from his late father’s cellar, some wines from our own stock of oldies and, more recently, Fridjhon acquired the contents of a large cellar, which also add to the interesting mix. Of course, not every bottle is great, or even drinkable; sometimes drinkability has nothing to do with ullage or even condition of the cork. As the photo from this year’s tasting illustrates, rarely are many corks extracted in one piece.
Indeed, the condition or lack of it of the packaging – a moth-eaten label or dry, crumbly cork – just adds to the spine-tingling pleasure when the wine itself is sensational, as were Alto Cabernet 1971, Lanzerac Cabernet 1959 and the same label Pinotage 1967 on this year’s line-up. Each generated a feeling of exquisite pleasure; the more so, as the next bottle may be a dud; never has the saying there are no great wines only great bottles rung more true.
What makes them special, apart from their age? Their wonderful colours, the pinotage a positively glowing ruby; the other two with similar luminescent ruby centres gently fading to their equally bright garnet rims. Whoever says colour doesn’t matter needs to look at a healthy old wine to realise how important eye appeal is. How much cabernet was in those cabernets, heaven alone knows as this was pre the 1973 Wine of Origin legislation, when percentages of the variety named on the label were not regulated, but all three wines had sweet fruit (no greenness at all), freshness, a lightness of feel (alcohols were probably around 11.5% – 12% maximum), dry finish, length and balance. There was no sense that such harmony was about to disintegrate. To reach this age with such equilibrium probably has much to do with balanced yields, not too much fiddling in the cellar and no oak overload (small new oak was unknown in those days).
A while earlier I had tasted through Alto’s latest red wines – Cabernet 2010, Shiraz and Rouge 2011; not only did none herald the likelihood of ageing as well as that 1971, but appeared clumsy with the cabernet advanced in colour and showing the simple sweet ‘n sour rhubarb flavours of unripe, virused fruit. It’s a tragedy that this much-loved property and its wines, on prime Helderberg land, isn’t receiving the care and attention it surely deserves.
There is much more confidence in the ageability of whites, even given they have a ten-year head start on reds. The Klein Constantia Rhine Riesling and Backsberg Chardonnay were excellent, while Vergelegen Semillon was just hanging in there. The full list of old wines we tasted is given below.
But what to expect from 21st century reds at 25 years or older? It was by happy coincidence that the day after that old wine tasting, I made my first visit to Porseleinberg, the Boekenhoutskloof owned winery, lying a-top the eponymous mountain. The name apparently derives from the kaolin that was mined close by.
As I gingerly drove the long dirt road and the final few kilometres up the mountain, I again reflected how remote vineyards seem to produce such distinctive wines (I’d recently been to the Trafford’s Sijnn winery in Malgas). Porseleinberg didn’t disappoint in this regard.
The vineyards, both shiraz and grenache, fan out across all aspects around the mountain on their mica, schist soils. The young vines already bearing are fed into Boekenhoutskloof Syrah but the oldest block of shiraz, planted by the previous owners in 1999, goes into the home wine. Winemaker, Callie Louw kindly opened both 2011 and 2012 for me to try. Neither has yet been released, and the plan is to offer the younger wine first. As I experienced, the 2011 still needs some taming of its really grippy tannins, due, Louw believes to two years in concrete eggs. Oak has been introduced only with the 2013. The younger wine, which spent only a year in those eggs, enjoys more balanced tannins and greater savoury, spicy expression with raspberry undertones. Both vintages are under 14% alcohol, flavourful with great freshness and solidly dry.
In some ways they are reminiscent of those old Lanzeracs and Alto; everything kept straight and simple in the cellar and just built to last. I certainly won’t be around in 43 years’ time, let alone 55 to find out whether I’m right, but it struck me if there’s any wine that will challenge the ageing ability and mature as well as those oldies, it is this pair of Porseleinberg syrahs.
OLD WINE TASTING HELD AT THE GRANDE ROCHE ON 4TH MAY 2014
1 Vergelegen Semillon 1999
2 Klein Constantia Rhine Riesling 1998
3 Vriesenhof Chardonnay 1987
4 Backsberg Chardonnay 1985
5 KWV Riesling 1979
6 Welgemeend CIWG Cabernet 1984
7 Uitkyk Carlonet 1982
8 Blaauwklippen Cabernet 1979
9 Allesverloren Tinta Barocca 1978
10 Rustenberg Cabernet 1978
11 Bertrams Cabernet 1975
12 Bertrams Shiraz 1975
13 KWV Cinsaut 1974
14 Meerendal Pinotage 1974
15 Backsberg Cabernet 1974
16 Uitkyk Carlonet 1973
17 Nederburg Vintage Cabernet 1972
18 Montagne Cabernet 1972
19 Alto Cabernet 1971
20 Nederburg Johann Graue Cabernet 1971
21 Zonnebloem Cabernet 1969
22 Delheim Pinotage 1967
23 Lanzerac Pinotage 1967
24 Zonnebloem Cabernet 1967
25 Chateau Libertas 1963
26 Nederburg Select Cabernet 1962
27 Chateau Monis 1960
28 Lanzerac Cabernet 1959