That old print media (and Time and Thelema)

With wine getting less and less coverage in print media everywhere, it’s gratifying that South Africa seems to be reversing the trend. Wine columns around the world have been slashed in recent years, but a few months back Melvyn Minnaar was given space in the Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport, and I have recently started a column in the national weekly newspaper, the Mail & Guardian.

True, last year economic problems shrank the monthly Noseweek, for which I’d been writing for some years, and wine was deemed among the most dispensible subjects. But I now also write regularly for GW (formerly Golf und Wein/Golf & Wine, but now only in English), the three-monthly glossy lifestyle magazine available at the pointed end of the planes of various international airlines.

This can all only be good, surely, for those who want to see the advance of the world’s greatest beverage, here in South Africa.

I shall be reproducing my Mail & Guardian articles on Grape, in the week following their publication; sometimes in an extended version, sometimes not. Herewith the second one to appear in the newspaper.


Time and the curious change

If ambitious wine-producers think their darling wines will benefit from a few years’ maturation in bottle (which most do), then shouldn’t they release them only when they’re approaching their best? Which most don’t – the trouble and expense of maturation is ours, which is why so few of us hold onto wine more than the hour or two between taking it off the shelf and subjecting it to the tender mercies of a corkscrew (or, increasingly often, a twist of the wrist).

It used to be that smart restaurants could justify their mark-ups by cellaring good wine and only selling it when they thought it ready. Nowadays pricey places in Mandela Square and elsewhere retain the scandalous mark-ups, with the owners declaring (smirking smugly all  the way to the bank), that “South African wines don’t age”, so there’s no point in keeping them.

With the majority of wines, red and white, fair enough; but not with many of the more serious examples. The chemistry of what happens to fine wine in a bottle is still not completely understood by anyone, and scarcely at all by me – I’m happy to stick with the great idea of miraculous transformation – but happen it does.

The case for putting away the best Cape reds for a few years (somewhere dark, quiet and preferably cool) was made once more at a recent sampling of the 21 Cabernet Sauvignons made by Thelema Mountain Vineyards between the maiden 1988 and 2008. The five youngest wines were impressive, but marked to different degrees by still too-obvious tannin: giving the mouth-puckering, mouth-drying effect (you get it also from very strong tea, for example) that originates mostly from the grapeskins on which the fermenting juice is left for a few weeks, and also from the oak barrels in which the fermented wine spends its formative first 18 months or so.

In the splendid Thelema 2003 (one of the finest of the line-up), the tannins were noticeably softening – although I’d suggest holding on another few years to any bottles you’re lucky enough to still have. The 2001 showed integrated and harmonious development, with plentiful flavour too. Remarkably, some older vintages were still drinking beautifully, at their peak – notably the 1995. Even the 1988 still had some sweet fruit and charm, though the oldest wines were definitely on the downhill slope.

Gyles Webb’s wines seemed suspiciously modern back in those prehistoric times; it’s remarkable how classic Thelema appears now, in the company of many over-eager-to-please wines made for early, easy gratification.

The current Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (R175 ex-cellar, more at retail) and forthcoming 2008 are likely to perform as well, and reward you amply if you grit your teeth and keep the corkscrew undeployed.

By the way, if you believe the producer should take on some of the responsibility for you drinking their wine in a reasonably mature state, try Grangehurst. This Stellenbosch winery for some reason has a less sexy image than it deserves (dull labels don’t help), but is generally amongst the country’s top two dozen red wine makers. If showy, easy and obviously fruity stuff is what you’re after, don’t bother. But if you like serious, good wines you should easily find some of their labels from the early 2000s, drinking well now.


First published in the Mail & Guardian, June 25 to July 1 2010

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