As the last shreds of 2012 dissolved, I idly started wondering about the vinous highlights of my experience of the past 12 months. Perhaps the most spectacular and fascinating wines I had were a number of exquisite sherries during a visit to Jerez. And for sheer satisfaction what stands out was a bottle of Burgundy, a perfectly mature 2003 Gevrey-Chambertin from Fourrier – not a very grand wine at all, and not even the grandest Burgundy I’ve had this year, but somehow it was just perfect, and if I could think that I’d never have a lesser Burgundy than this in the future I certainly wouldn’t feel the need to have a better one.
But I’ll stick here to local stuff – what I can pull up in random, ad hoc categories out of the soggy unreliability of my memory. Strangely – or not so strangely, in fact – they are mostly whites; I might have to poke around in that memory-morass with a stick to find a few reds.
Just pipping an amazing sampling of Vin de Constance from 1986 to 2012, my tasting of the year was another complete vertical – the somewhat shorter one of Vergelegen White, from 2001 onwards. It revealed yet again what a fine, age-worthy and world-class wine this is. The brilliant 2003, for example, is still fairly youthful, and I reckon the current 2011 will age as splendidly.
Another wine in this sauvignon-semillon mould provided another, though very much shorter, complete vertical of memorably impressive quality: Steenberg Magna Carta (all the vintages paired with Franck Dangereux’s food in what was undoubtedly the sybaritic wine-launch of the year).
My top white new release of the year was another Stellenbosch wine – unfortunately the most expensive white in the country, as far as I know, and one of the rarest, made as it necessarily is in minuscule quanitities: Mev Kirsten 2011, in the Sadie Family Old Vine Series. It’s the best vintage yet – Eben Sadie has licked the vineyard’s tendency to produce a wine that is a touch too oxidative, and the profundity of the chenin fruit is even more lustrously displayed than before. (Chenin must be my Variety of the Year, not for the first time – the number of top-end chenins continues to grow, making some of the country’s most intellectually and sensuously satisfying wines.)
That Old Vine Series as a whole must certainly stand as my wine range of the year. Just as Sadie’s pre-eminence in the Swartland was being challenged by some younger wineries (especially Mullineux), he pulled out of his prodigious winemaking intelligence and experience this triumphant collection of wines, in a project whose importance and quality it would be hard to overemphasise. Although only a minority of the wines are of Swartland origin, of course.
But staying with the Swartland, it’s interesting to have a tussle in my mind about which winery to nominate my newcomer of the year. But a tasting through mostly barrel samples of the wines from Meerhof (OK a revival rather than a new birth) and Mount Abora was undoubtedly one of the more exciting wine experiences of the year: such freshness, such light and savoury elegance! I will write much more about these two labels when more of the wines are released. It’s not too early to make Johan Meyer my joint Young Winemaker of the Year, however, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind sharing that slot cosily with Chris and Suzaan Alheit of Alheit Vineyards – whose Cartology 2011 must count (unless I’m forgetting something?) as the most exciting maiden release of 2012. With young winemakers like this, respnding to and shaping the possibilities of Cape terroir, one can be full of hope for wines to come.
Alheit is based in the Hemel-en-Aarde, which is becoming an increasingly exciting source of wine – but still showing itself particularly well suited to pinot noir. My two favourite young pinots this year also showed how it can serve different styles: Crystallum’s wonderfully pure-fruited, perfumed Cuvée Cinéma and the ever-graceful, elegant Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot 2011.
As for the year’s other new reds, the Mullineux pair of terroir-specific syrahs (Granite and Schist, both 2010) revealed that the Swartland can occasionally do this trick just as well as it can do blends (of varieties and origins, as found in the splendid Sadie Family Columella 2010). But up there with the Mullineux bottlings, I think, is another straight syrah, Porseleinberg – released too early in 2011, but showing in latter 2012 what finesse, purity and precision can be expected from this exceptional site.
But good old Stellenbosch continues to hold many trumps. Two of my top reds come from high on the Helshoogte pass. Tokara’s Director’s Reserve Red 2009 is a stylistically triumphant wine, successfully designed to meet just about every contradictory requirement that the world can make of cabernet (and cabernet’s pals). And a straight cab, hugely expensive but more validly so than many wannabes, Delaire Graff’s Laurence Graff Reserve 2009.
Before concluding these random ramblings, I must mention just a few mature wines: Chamonix Chardonnay 2005 now coming into full flower and drinking beautifully, though with many years development ahead of it. Of all the older wines I drank this year, this is perhaps the one I kick myself for not buying more of at the time…. And Bredell’s Cape Vintage Reserve 1997, superbly delicious and a good reminder of how, briefly, in the latter 1990s, it seemed to me that port was perhaps the most exciting category of Cape wine.
I’ve no doubt left out a number of wines which will leap accusingly into my poor brain during the next day or so (and I should at least have mentiooned some more modestly-priced wines like Badenhorst Secateurs and Lammershoek’s Lam range which are, jointly, my own “house wines”), but let this list stop there.
My favourite vineyard of the year (and oddly connected with it my favourite witblits of the years) must wait till the next episode.