Too hot? Too cold?

I was reminded this week of the story of Goldilocks and the three bears; some of the detail eludes me, but the essence was she tried each bear’s bowl of porridge. One was too hot, the next too cold and finally, the third was the perfect temperature, so she gobbled it up (much to the bear’s dismay when the family returned home).

It was the temperature of wine rather than porridge I was contemplating, specifically an impressive lineup of 71 chenin blancs entered on this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Thanks to a little serendipity, I was asked to step in as a judge on the first day, when official international judge, Eric Goettelmann had flight connection problems.

Chenin Panel Chairman, Christian Eedes, briefing the judges
Chenin Panel Chairman, Christian Eedes, briefing the judges

Impressive applies both to the number of chenins as well as the wines themselves. I well remember in the show’s early days, chenins were judged with other white wines, there being insufficient to warrant their own class. What a sea-change there! An even bigger change is evident in quality. It was difficult not to give a medal and we ended up with more golds in a class that the show has ever seen, plus a slew of silvers.




Back to the temperature issue. Our 71 chenins were poured in three flights, two of 25 finishing with one of 21. As is customary, each judge tasted the wines in a different order: from the start forward, from the last back, from the middle forward and from the middle back. In this way, each wine receives the same level of palate freshness/fatigue. Also of relative temperature. As the wines are served well chilled, those first to hit the palate are the coldest, which in this day and age of chenin can easily hide the layers found in the more complex examples. In fact, I often found myself changing my score on returning to earlier wines. Retasting and discussion are two huge benefits of this show.

The lineup illustrated chenin in many forms; from the familiar youthful, unwooded fruity wines through to those naturally fermented in barrel, aged on lees, but still with purity of chenin fruit, some with an added suggestion of botrytis. I can’t think of one in the old heavily oaked, oily style – thank goodness; indeed, many were extremely subtle in their complexity. They are killed by being served too cold as much as the richer styles.

This observation goes for many of today’s white wines where a combination of vinification and ageing processes have been used. Something for both winelovers and sommeliers to consider when serving.

Or even too old?
The treat for Old Mutual Trophy Wine judges, and thankfully still for a retiree such as myself, is to be invited to the Old Wine Tasting now some six, seven or eight years old (no one can quite remember exactly how many) held the afternoon prior to the main event.
Although the majority are reds over 25 years old (the minimum age), a few whites (minimum 15 years old) are also included.

White wines on the Old Wine Tasting. Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc is on far left.
White wines on the Old Wine Tasting. Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc is on far left.

First poured this year was a Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc 1999, given to Michael Fridjhon by Andre van Rensburg with a hand dated label, so we’re unsure whether it was commercially available. No matter, if any wine proved the bona fides of mature sauvignon, this was it. Its fabulous bright lemony green infused hue announced something special. The age that had developed peas and asparagus had not dimmed the vibrant richness and real fruit weight. My ‘lovely mature sauvignon’ reflects that this was not any old white!

Chenin blanc too had its turn, again made by Andre van Rensburg when he was at Stellenzicht. His 1996 is a fine, elegant wine again catching the eye with a brilliant lemon/gold colour flecked with green. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, colour isn’t often noted, but an attractive one starts the relationship with the glass of wine on a positive note. Wet wool (yes, a pleasant smell!), honeyed aromas, viscosity, a fine line of acid led to a gently lingering dry finish. The wine’s precision clearly defines its chenin origins.

Should either of these wines have been entered as Museum entries on the show, I have no doubt they would have garnered gold medals, a trophy too.

Some of the oldest reds on the Old Wine Tasting. My best Zonnebloem Cabernet 1965 is second right.
Some of the oldest reds on the Old Wine Tasting. My best Zonnebloem Cabernet 1965 is second right.

As for the reds, Tim James (who, like me, has attended this event since whenever it was first held) and I agreed afterwards that perhaps as a group they didn’t quite live up to past years – maybe because we’ve become so used to these older wines holding up so well.
Again the real oldies from the 1960s and 70s showed better than youngsters from the 80s, but generalisations are not to be made about wines of this age, each bottle offers its own experience – good, bad or brilliant.

If there was a point of difference, it lay in the three wines poured from half bottles – 375ml: Chateau Libertas 1967, Nederburg Select Cabernet Sauvignon 1970 and what proved to be my red wine of the tasting, Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1965. One might have expected these to be far more developed than wines from 750ml bottles; not a bit of it.

The Zonnebloem enjoyed a strong ruby core with bright garnet rim. Being pre the Wine of Origin system, the amount of cabernet in it is debatable, but it’s full of character, walnut and dark fruit well defined by its freshness and concentration. A truly amazing 51 year old.

Were it not for systems such as Coravin and others, I’d suggest a campaign for the return of the half bottle. Would the wines reach such a gracious age? We’ll have to leave that to those who attend the Old Wine Tasting in 2067.


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