Squaring the cabernet circle

Out shopping for a cabernet? I guess front of mind for the average wine drinker would be one that’s good to drink now. Is this such an unrealistic wish?

The late Paul Pontallier, Cellarmaster at Bordeaux First Growth, Chateau Margaux, once told me: ‘A great wine should taste good when it’s young as well as being able to age.’ Local wine writer and colleague, Christian Eedes sees things in a slightly different light, as he writes in his 2017 Prescient Cabernet Sauvignon Report: ‘There seems to be preoccupation with flattening out cabernet’s tannins … some tannic grip is precisely what has always made the variety so well suited to food as well as providing it with maturation potential, which remains the mark of great wine ..’

Just how does one square the circle that cabernet as a variety presents?

This & other photos, some of my favourite winning cabernets

Before delving further, Eedes’ remarks come not only on the back of tasting 65 handpicked cabernets for the above report, but also the obviously exciting experience, at the old wine tasting prior to the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, of a 1978 Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon. He expresses doubts that many of today’s cabernets will have the same staying power; I didn’t check whether that included any among the 15 Prescient winners, but my feeling is many have the pre-requisites for, if not 40 years, then enough of that maturation potential to give label them more than impressive.

A quick further detour; in his original John Platter’s Book of South African Wines, the man himself opined on Nederburg Paarl Cabernet Sauvignon, which he awarded three stars!: ‘Richly-flavoured dry red with great depth and excellent keeping qualities. An elegant wine, not too heavy on the palate.’ Strangely, I find no mention of 1978 in this or follow-up guides, but he does confirm: ’74 best recent vintage’, a vintage I remember very well as likely best of that decade and which I saw via a recent voice on Twitter, was still giving pleasure.

As I tasted through the 15 wines which met Eedes and his co-panel members’ (Roland Peens and James Pietersen of Wine Cellar), criteria of scoring at least 90/100, it’s clear winemakers are getting to grips with what makes a quality cabernet; one that shouldn’t deter pulling the cork, or, as is increasingly the case, unscrewing the cap, on a young wine.


That said, we’re still grappling with issues familiar to Gunter Brozel, Nederburg’s celebrated Cellarmaster during the 1970/80s, such as leafroll virus and acidification. On the other hand, those were pre-new, small oak years, which arrived at the end of the 1970s but its widespread use took off only in the 1980s. Brozel’s cabernets evolved in 4000/5000 litre old oak. Long, post-fermentation on the skins was also a thing of the future, as was over-extraction, oh, and high alcohols. Nederburg cabs in the 70s clocked in around 11-12%.

Virus-free (initially) vines changed all that: with sugars easily soaring, we soon reached the age of 14%+ alcohol, then a little residual sugar to temper these giants and a generosity of new, small oak – often not the best until winemakers learned the coopers’ ruses.

I don’t need to continue through the litany of misguided fashions, just be thankful that travel, drinking of the world’s wines and, most importantly, paying more attention to good viticulture – among other necessities – today’s crop of young and slightly less young, winemakers are realising what it does take to produce a great wine, and cabernet as the subject of discussion.

To me this is emphasised by the number of wines from that difficult vintage, 2014, which came through to the very top (I think it’s proving better than 2013). It was apparent that winemakers hadn’t tried too hard; they’ve let the fruit express itself without trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, producing some delicious, pure, well-formed cabernets in the process. Important too is that they’ve then released only after three years, if yet in Neil Ellis’s case; bar Groot Constantia, the others benefitted from an even later release date.

Perhaps squaring the cabernet circle, producing a wine that’s both good young and benefits from lengthy maturation, lies not only in starting with good fruit but also in the approach of Brozel and others of his era – don’t over-complicate the winemaking process. I have a feeling it’s a lesson our winemakers are learning.


Neil Ellis Jonkershoek Valley Stellenbosch 2014
Price: Not yet released.

Strydom Rex 2014
Price: R220

Bartinney 2014
Price: R179

Jordan The Long Fuse 2014
Price: R160

Kleine Zalze Family Reserve 2013
Price: R335

Le Riche Reserve 2014
Price: R500

Peter Falke 2013
Price: R140

Rustenberg Peter Barlow 2012
Price: R400

Tokara Reserve Collection 2013
Approximate retail price: R315

Waterford Estate 2014
Price: R295

Warwick Blue Lady 2014
Price: R275

Groot Constantia 2015
Price: R201

Neil Ellis Stellenbosch 2014
Price: Not yet released

Spier 21 Gables 2014
Price: R260

Vergelegen V 2012
Price: R1 300


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