An anomaly of the South African wine landscape is that, generally, consumers believe our top-tier red wines are far more ageworthy than the whites; so, while the former are deemed better at ten years, the latter are considered to lose interest after four or five.
Yet again, Winemag’s 10-year-old Report for 2020 has proved the lie. In a year described by Editor, Christian Eedes, as: ‘a testing vintage due to the constant fluctuations in weather conditions throughout – a cool, wet spring caused uneven budding in many regions while summer months were exceptionally dry and windy, the heat wave at the beginning of March 2010 which lasted longer than a week going down in the annals’, it wasn’t surprising entries were down on those in the heralded 2009 of last year.
One might have thought with 53 red wine entries, 13 whites, (as well as three Noble Late Harvests and five fortifieds), that reds would dominate the top of the rankings; not a bit of it. Seven whites scored 90 or more, a much better hit rate than 17 reds. The full results and tasting report can be downloaded here.
But are either white or red wines really standing the 10-year test? This year, like last, the top scoring wine is a fortified, Morné Vrey’s Delaire Graff Cape Vintage. For this achievement, he won the coveted bottle of GS 1966 Cabernet Sauvignon, kindly donated by Amorim. Are fortified wines the best we can do; are our whites and reds just not up to scratch? Given vintage conditions, it puzzles me less that 2010 delivered a fortified winner than 2009.
The winelands have seen many, very important changes in the last ten years, but before touching on a few of those, how do the top-scoring wines stand up to scrutiny?
Winning producers (at least those not hard at work on vintage 2020) and guests were given the opportunity to taste and drink a selection at the lunch, held at Viande, Pete Goffe Wood’s newish restaurant in the Grande Roche.
As someone who doesn’t score, I grouped them according to the following levels of enjoyment: safe (drinkable but without all the benefits 10 years should bring), sad (past best – as one might hope, there were none) and superb (wines with developed complexity). Sadly, there were none in the last grouping either; to compensate, I added the qualification ‘appealing’ to ‘safe’. The few deserving of this latter accolade, are: Tokara Director’s Reserve White (sauvignon/semillon blend), Iona Sauvignon Blanc, Nederburg Private Bin Eminence and Delaire Graff Cape Vintage. I would drink all these with pleasure, if without being rendered speechless with wonder.
White Bordeaux-style blends are among my favourite, sauvignon and Semillon are each other’s ying and yang, having the ability to grow with interest and ten years is certainly achieveable. I was much more surprised by Iona Sauvignon Blanc; not only is it still so fresh and elegant (it’s from Elgin, remember!) but there’s no hint of green peas or beans, which often over take older sauvignons. I look forward to the promised 20 year vertical later this year.
Eminence remains full of live and ripe flavours; Morné’s Cape Vintage is in the drier style I prefer, not too heavy and with clean, warming spirit. We really do this style well but no one should think it’s easy compared with others, therefore achieving higher scores more readily.
When the lowest alcohol among the top reds (all cabernet or cabernet blends) is 14.7%, two consequences are givens. The wines will be bruisers and half a glass will be more than enough. Balance being more important than actual alcohol tipped the scales for me in favour of Ernie Els Signature Red (cabernet, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec, a medley which has some truth in the taste), as opposed to Christo le Riche’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which has a noticeable afterglow.
Apart from tiring levels of alcohol, these 2010 reds (and I’m sure many others) are four-square, blockish wines that could have been consumed around three years ago; I doubt they’ve changed that much in that time.
We are moving on from this big, brutish style. I chatted to Aidan Morton, viticulturist at Tokara since 2000, and Christo le Riche about changes they’ve made in the past ten years. It all centres on viticulture; getting rid of virused vines, undertaking multispectral imagery which helps determine when certain parts of the vineyard are ripe; matching this up with vintage conditions creates a great resource for future vintages. Le Riche cabernet now includes some different vineyards from those in 2010, which Christo believes provide better balance, but he’s also picking earlier – another trend across the winelands to capture freshness with ripeness.
Whatever the results, whether or not the wines warrant ten years, and whoever enters – or doesn’t – in Winemag’s 10-year-old Report, they offer an informative general insight into a particular vintage, as well as a reminder how far we’ve come since then.