Winelands of contradictions

Oh my goodness, what a world of contradictions is South African wine. The tasting earlier this week of old vintages from Klein Constantia wasn’t the first event to bring such a thought to mind, but when the oldest wine in the lineup is a 1987 Rhine Riesling (as it was then named) and still going strong, the reminder of those contradictions digs deeper into the conscious.

Some of the old Klein Constantia white wines showing evolution of labels over the years.

The Old Vine tasting in London this week only served to highlight the issue. By far the majority of favourites are white wines. Which South African wines receive the most frequent praise? Our white wines. Of course, there are some excellent reds too, but there’s always more grumbling in the corner about them: too much alcohol, too sweet, too oaky. Yet, my impression is that having a red in the range is de rigeur; a white-wine only list lacks a certain gravitas (unless you are Chris and Suzaan Alheit, though even they have a red wine under the Flotsam and Jetsam label. Have I missed anyone?).

Yet, frankly, judging by the older red wines Klein Constantia winemaker, Matt Day kindly selected I’d hedge my bets the farm wouldn’t suffer from lack of sales or image from going the white-wine route only. That’s leaving aside Vin de Constance which is a brand in its own right.

The three reds poured were Marlbrook 1990, a 60% cab, 30% merlot, 10% cab franc blend; the other two straight cabernets from 1997 and 2000. The blend elicited some extreme opinions; I was in the naysayer’s camp, finding that tomato leaf, sweet and sour sensation of fruit that’s not properly ripe. Other colleagues present were much more enthusiastic, comparing its elegance to that of a Bordeaux classed growth. The two cabernets were riper, but over-enthusiastic acid and tough tannins respectively diminished potential pleasure.

Success with reds, in the Bordeaux mould especially, in Constantia has depended in part on length of sunlight in the vineyards, something Klein Constantia cabernet often didn’t receive sufficient of. Enough of my red moan; I’d much rather rave about the whites.

Klein Constantia made its name in 1986 for a young-vine sauvignon blanc, which astounded everyone by winning the ultimate trophy on the Young Wine Show. Bottles opened down the years have only proved its pedigree. It wasn’t the maiden vintage; I see we tasted a 1985 (with 10.2% alc!) at the first official tasting; a 1983 Rhine Riesling was also presented.

Some of the corks from Klein Constantia’s old wine tasting proved a battle to remove.

There was no 1986 sauvignon this week, but 1995 and 2002 held their heads high; from their bright lemon-green colour alone, one would never guess their age; blackcurrant leaf purity still rang true, while a toasty-leesy character indicated development. The younger wine, including a little semillon, was the more complex, vindicating sauvignon’s often-doubted ageing abilities.

Perdeblokke Sauvignon Blanc 2007 was a horse of a different nature; less about fruit, more about structure, viscosity and a pebbly tension. In recent years, excitement increased with the discovery of marked differences between the blocks of sauvignon, leading to eight versions in the current range; not so surprising given the vineyards extend over a range of altitudes on this mountainside property.

For years, riesling (or Rhine Riesling as it was then labelled) was a slow seller, meaning the current vintage could be three or four years’ old; this and the unrealistically low price, were bonuses for those of us who love the variety. Just what winelovers were missing out on was fabulously illustrated by the 1987 with its drop of botrytis complexity and zest; a still delicious 30 year old riesling. Strangely, its lower acid and higher sugar (16 g/l vs 14.7 g/l) than the 1996, was better assimilated. Today the wine is made in a drier style and is much more in demand, but still ages as well (see my write up on 2007).

If riesling was a difficult sell, semillon was even more so. Those who bought and still have 2004 are the winners; yet how many would bother to wait for the satiny breadth and ripe toastiness to unfold? It seemed more complex, complete than Mme Marlbrook 2004 sauvignon-semillon blend.

How many other varieties get a raw deal in Constantia at the hands of sauvignon? Add chardonnay to the list, especially when they are generally understated, as was our 2007, still full of life, excellent chardonnay character and from a really good white wine vintage.

Of course, a tasting at Klein Constantia has to end with a sticky; in this case Sauvignon Blanc Noble Late Harvest 1998. A glowing reddish gold, the balance between sauvignon character and botrytis spot on, providing an exhilarating finish and end to a memorable morning.

This, 2004 semillon and 1987 riesling were my stand outs but there wasn’t a white wine that didn’t give pleasure.

There’s just one red wine in the present Klein Constantia estate range, a blend of cabernet, shiraz, petit verdot and malbec; pleasant enough but hardly providing the distinction the farm enjoys in its sauvignons, chardonnay and riesling.

Will we ever see Klein Constantia producing white wines only? I’d like to think so; it might help shift some of those contradiction which decree having a red wine is obligatory.

Winter light over Klein Constantia’s vineyards. The closest, bare earth at one time was planted to cabernet, if I remember correctly.

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