It’s hardly news that many serious (ie very expensive?) wines, notably reds, are being made to be drinkable early these days. Thirty years ago the aesthetic rules about wine were formulated by posh Brits who had, or were writing for owners of, cellars in which they lovingly matured their bordeaux, burgundy, port, mosel and hock, and the occasional wine from Italy and Spain.
Nowadays it’s the rich American and far Eastern buyers wanting immediate gratification that are the consumer model – even the grandest vintage port seems to be drunk young in America rather than at 20 or 30 years. (It’s always been the rich that grand wine has been made for, so there’s a real continuity and no cause for complaint.)
No different, really, with South African wines. The very first Platter guide, from 1980, says of cebernet sauvignon: “A minimum of seven years ageing should be given a full-bodied cabernet to do it justice. Lighter ones need proportionately shorter maturation but even these are still usually improving after a decade in the bottle.”
“Huh?” might well be the uncomprehending response of today’s consumer and winemaker if that statement were made now. They want to, respectively, drink and sell current vintage wines immediately. Very few are the producers that hold back their serious red wines until the tannins have started to soften, the flavours started to acquire complexity (tertiary characters) over and above the charm of fruitiness.
Those tannins, in fact, are cleverly worked so as to be soft enough to be approachable from the start – even if, as I am convinced, the softness of 20-year-old tannins that once were sombrely unyielding is magically different from the softness of 5-year-old tannins derived from ultra-ripe fruit and deft work in the cellar. (Whether the early-lovable wines will in fact mature as well – that’s a separate question.)
Even so, it is to my taste indisputable that (sticking to local wines) the best ones will grow in interest and suavity – in drinkability and pleasure – over some years. This has two implications for me. Firstly that, if we respect a producer, we should drink their more modest wines (the “second labels”) in youth, while waiting for the more ambitious ones to justify their greater price by maturation in bottle. Almost as a rule, in fact, the second label is going to be more enjoyable in its youth than is the more senior one.
Secondly, we need to understand vintages better, so that we learn which are the vintages to keep for longer, which are for earlier drinking. The critics and commentators are learning how to do this, but such is the novelty of much of our better modern winemaking that it is usually more quesswork than anything else. (Looking back a bit: everyone raved about the hot-vintage 1998 wines and predicted great things; most of those wines collapsed while the less-touted 1997s sailed on serenely. I don’t know of any local critic who got 1998 right at the time. Certainly including me – though I was always a big fan of 1997.)
This stuff about the need to mature the best wines maybe sounds pretty prejudiced, and I fear it is – I find it difficult to overcome a training in old-style Bordeaux (and old-style Cape wine too). I almost distrust a clearly ambitious wine that is too pleasant in its youth! But it’s not always easy maintaining that prejudice. I wrote just recently, for example, about the sheer, convincing loveliness of the infant Crystallum pinots (an achievement regularly accomplished in good New Zealand versions too).
And even with the Bordeaux grapes. I’m prompted into these thoughts tonight mostly because of Tokara. Yesterday (for Platter purposes) I opened the Tokara Director’s Reserve Red blend from 2009 (not yet released; generally a great vintage, of course – well, we think so!). I was expecting good quality, and found it, but was astounded by how eminently drinkable the wine is. I confirmed that today. Although I am sure it will be even better in five (maybe even ten) years from now, I have to confess that I found it difficult to spit. Extremely difficult. (The bottle is approaching emptiness, such judicious zeal have I shown over these two days!)
Without making here any definitive remarks about relative quality in ranking terms, the wine is most appealing even to an old-fashioned Bordeaux lover (though I have no doubt I’ve been deeply corrupted in the past decade or so). Last week I had a similar Bordeaux blend from Tokara’s neighbour, Thelema. I was also greatly impressed by the quality of that wine, Rabelais, but it wasn’t quite as temptingly ready to drink, I thought, despite an extra year in bottle (the Rabelais came from the admittedly generally rather tougher 2008).
Miles Mossop at Tokara is, quite simply, making a red wine of high quality which is remarkably enjoyable in its youth. I’m hugely impressed by what he’s doing. Today, alongside the Reserve, I tried the “ordinary” Tokara Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, which includes some dollops of other Bordeaux varieties. At R80, it’s about a third of the price of the other wine. My usual formulation would be, as it it for many equivalents (such as Le Riche Cab Reserve versus the le Riche Cab-Merlot, for example, or the similarly separated Vergelegens) – drink this while waiting for the Reserve to mature; you’d be wasting your money on the more expensive wine otherwise.
I can’t say that about the Tokaras, however. Certainly the Cabernet is ready now, and a very decent wine it is (though I managed to spit after swirling). And certainly the Director’s Reserve is going to reward half a dozen years’ rest in a cool place. The difference now is mostly one of quality, however – one of an intensity and lavishness and profundity of a drinking experience. If I were simply offered the choice of one of them to drink now, I would take the Reserve. And I find that somewhat disconcerting.