Age. As with people, so with wine; age treats some better than others. Some don’t improve or become more interesting with age, they just get older; some aren’t meant to age but be enjoyed in the bloom of youth. Yet, I’m sure most winelovers would agree drinking a properly mature (as opposed to aged) wine is an experience not to be missed.
In recent years, South African pre-1980 red wines have been poured, often to great acclaim from locals and international luminaries alike. White wines of a slightly younger age have also impressed. These tastings have led to debate as to how the more modern red wines, both riper and more heavily oaked, would age. There’s a deal of scepticism that they’ll have similar legs to those pre-1980s
Ten years might seem a short time as compared with those golden oldies, but it does give some indication as to where they’re headed, especially in an excellent vintage, which is how many winemakers reflect on 2009.
Summer 2009 was ushered in after a very cold, wet winter and mild spring, the traditional heatwave arriving in February, much later than usual. This allowed for slower ripening of a healthy crop with excellent analyses. So no downsides? Fires, probably the worst since 2000, wreaked havoc from Somerset West to Paarl with others in Tulbagh, the Cederberg and Table Mountain. Not only were vineyards burnt or so badly affected by heat that they needed replanting, there was also the issue of smoke-affected fruit. On Vergelegen, where around 5 hectares of vineyard was affected by heat, vines were marked where there were traces of ash or smoky smells in the canopies; berries were sampled, trial fermentations and finings carried out; all to no avail. ‘Nothing helped and in the end we had to dump about 20% of our total harvest,’ André van Rensburg’s despair can surely only be matched by his delight at the tremendous quality of unaffected fruit. One of these wines will feature in future articles. On the smoke issue, Wineland’s Elona Hesseling wrote a thought-provoking article here.
Beyond wine, weather and wild fires in 2009, the Proteas became the first South African team to win a test series in Australia and the Springboks beat the All Blacks three times in a year. Less propitious; Jacob Zuma became President, arms deal charges against him were dropped and Schabir Shaik was released from prison on medical parole – he’s currently still defying the prognosis ‘terminal illness’.
Enough context. What of the ten-year-old wines? Where better to start than with a chenin from Ken Forrester. ‘The FMC 2009 was our tenth vintage’, recalls this cheninophile, ‘and one of my favourites; in fact I just wish I’d bottled the whole lot in magnums; Stellenbosch was blessed with fantastic quality.’
FMC or Forrester Meinert Chenin (there are other names used for those initials!) is the leader of Ken Forrester Wines chenin pack, the fruit mainly from a single vineyard planted in 1974 and fermented in all-new, 400 litre oak barrels (though one would be hard pressed to say so).
I’m delighted to record the 750ml bottle still has a lot of steam in it (probably helped by a screwcap closure, which Ken first used on some 2005 FMC). The subtleties of natural ferment, complexity of a brush of botrytis – now developing some truffly decadence – and the still evident sweetness from the usual few grams of residual sugar, all are there, as is the flash of freshness to balance the wine’s rich texture. A natural with spicy dishes would be my recommendation.
Alright, so the wine’s aged well over the past 10 years, what about positive changes in the industry? ‘The rise of ‘new’ regions like Elgin, Hemel en Aarde and the Swartland; an entirely new generation of winemakers, many the sons and daughters of my colleagues, who have hit the ground running with new winemaking styles, great labels, stories and a huge opportunity to play a role in wine tourism,’ Ken reels off and also acknowledges how foreign investment has given the benefit of access to global distribution.
One doesn’t get far by looking back; what simply has to change between now and 2029? ‘Our single biggest challenge is viticulture and the need to educate labour and vineyard management. At the other end of the chain, we need to stop apologising for being South African, establish price points for fine wine and grow the market.’ And the future for chenin? ‘By far the most chenin consumed isn’t the award-winning wines, but those unoaked, fresh and fruity wines, the silent champions of chenin, which continues to be the backbone of the industry.
Cheers to chenin (and to Ken)!