The ocasional remarkable quality of Cape chardonnay struck me again recently, when a friend brought along for dinner a 1998 of which I confess I initially felt only moderate expectations. What chance of a really drinkable Stellenbosch chardonnay at 13 years? It was a Woolworths bottling from Neil Ellis, called simply Chardonnay Reserve. At first I thought it rather too reserved in fact – probably past its best. But that was partly my expectations speaking and soon I realised that it had simply absorbed its straightforward fruit into a delicate harmony that was just not as effusive and powerful as a young chardonnay, though not without some richness too.
It also opened up with time – a sign of its continuing vitality. Over the next hour or two it gained in interest in the glass and was an immensely satisfying dinner companion. A day later I had the last glassful and that was in fact the best of all. I don’t think it was a great wine of stunning complexity, but it was very good, with some genuine elegance – and I could repeat Jancis Robinson’s remark when she was so impressed by a Chamonix 1997 tasted ten years on: where, outside Burgundy, could one find chardonnay maturing like this? And this Neil Ellis was 13, and certainly not going to die for a few years yet.
How many of our best chardonnays get the chance to show what they’re capable of? We should all treat them with more respect.
The other mature wine my friend brought was also impressive, in a different way. It was Alto Rouge 1995, made when Hempies du Toit was still winemaker there. Before the Distell/Lusan partnership shamefully degraded this great old Cape label into just another biggish volume supermarket bargain (a bargain it usually is).
The 1995 Alto Rouge marked the return of traditional shiraz into the blend. Sixteen years on, the wine was showing very well. The robust flavours were not actually all that much different from a more youthful Alto – this was one of those wines that had aged a bit rather than matured into something complex. The benefit of ageing was much more in the silky, smooth structure than in the development of flavour. But fresh and vigorous still; a great pleasure. And at 12.5% alcohol not hard work. (The Neil Ellis Chardonnay declared 13%).
Incidentally, the 1998 Platter Guide devoted 17 lines to its discussion of Alto Rouge! The 2000 edition gave five lines to the Chardonnay. Nowadays, at four-star ratings, both wines would get just two lines each. While a lot has gone right with the South African wine industry in the years since these two fine wines were made, it’s not all good news. And I’m thinking of the alcohol levels as well as that more leisurely discussion in Platter.
Old stuff of a different kind – old vines rather than old wines. I’ve recently had the great privilege and pleasure of drinking some of the new bottlings of Eben Sadie’s Ouwingerdreeks – the Old Vine Series that came out last year with the maiden 2009 vintage bearing William Kentridge drawings on the labels. (See that story here.) The 2010 Mev. Kirsten – the old-vine Chenin from Stellenbosch – is, interestingly enough, much less oxidative in character this year. I loved the previous, more oxidative wines too, but must say that this is even better: more expressive of variety and youth, for a start. Eben thinks he’s worked out how to cope with the oxidising tendency of these grapes, partly though shorter skin contact.
I should think the wines will be released fairly soon. The good news is that from this, second, vintage onwards they won’t be coming out only in complete sets of all the wines at a hefty price. They’ll all be sold separately – mostly because they’re produced in such different quantities. The wines that are produced in slightly larger quantities (like the ‘T Voetpad field blend from an ancient isolated vineyard at the extreme north of the Swartland region) will be much cheaper than the bottlings of the minuscule yields from some other vineyards – like, sadly, the Mev Kirsten, my favourite.