One of the greatest regular pleasures of my wine-year is the tasting of old South African wines that Michael Fridjhon organises and hosts on the Sunday afternoon before the start of the Trophy Wine Show. It’s primarily for the benefit of the judges – especially the foreign ones, perhaps – but I’ve been a privileged hanger-on each year now. I think this is the fifth of the tastings, and the impact is no less: the sensuously delightful revelation, once again, of just how many splendid Cape wines there have been of the neglected, occasionally despised past.
This annual tasting (like other tastings of old wines) is, in fact, just a symptom of a new maturity in Cape wine culture. There’s grown up in recent years an inquisitive, confident interest in the past, seeking to find the best in tradition and to build on it. The “rediscovery” of so many old vineyards is the other facet of this. So it was particularly good to have among the tasters this year viticulturist Rosa Kruger and wine-producers Chris and Suzaan Alheit, all of them impassioned lovers of old vines – with the two latter being younger than most of the wines on offer this sunny Sunday afternoon in Paarl.
White wines were a small minority this year out of a total of 30 wines, but there were some goodies. Gleaming gold Klein Constantia Blanc de Blanc 1993, mostly from sauvignon with chenin, showed botrytis honey on its lovely aromas and rich, harmonious, still quite fresh palate. There were two Thelema Chardonnays from the period, both still very much alive and satisfactory: the 1994, probably cork-tainted unfortunately, had more power and fruit than the lighter but fresher 1992. Just making the 15-year cut for whites was a balanced Steenberg Semillon 1998, which was smokily impressive, still flaunting the green notes so characteristic of Steenberg.
But the reds – needing 25 years since vintage to qualify – were generally more impressive, and the further back we went the more impressive they were, on the whole. The great lesson from all these tastings of older Cape reds is what a dip we entered in the 1980s (with a few notable exceptions) for a decade or even two. The reasons are complex and debated – including the academic insistence on routinely and destructively over-acidifying, poor quality oak barrels at a time when new oak and even a taste for oakiness were coming in, plus viticultural inadequacies (including higher yields from irrigated, trellised vines compared with dryland bushvines of earlier decades).
The straight cinsauts from the 70s (KWV, Landskroon) were past their best, but this once ubiquitous and now largely neglected grape showed through clearly and positively in some of the blends – which would have included wines firmly labelled “Cabernet Sauvignon” for example, at that stage, even for some years after the introduction of the Wine of Origin Scheme in 1973.
Much is expected from old Chateau Libertas bottlings and we were not disappointed by the 1961 (though the 1965 was corked). Balanced and fresh, with some enticing fruit depth allied with sweet caramel notes of advanced maturity, gently supported by fully integrated, scarcely noticeable tannin and acidity, it made for lovely drinking – perhaps a little rustic, but that is part of its charm.
Just think – 1961, the year the republic was declared. I actually recall sitting in my primary school assembly on the morning of 31 May 1961, and being given a little flag of the new republic and a medal. While I was no doubt singing the national anthem, this thoroughly more appealing manifestation of South Africa was doing its modest thing in big old barrels in some cool cellar in Paarl. Or various big old barrels, as I guess it wasn’t yet even assembled.
Another joy from the period was Nederburg Selected Cabernet 1962. Lightish, rather elegant (more so, I think, than the Libertas, if a touch less profound), with some decent fruit still and lingering charm. Unpretentious and delightful.
The cabs showed well generally – only when we ventured into the 80s was there diappointment, with the Stellenryck 1986 – over the hill, with some sweet fruit still, but heavily dominated by swingeing added acid and massive tannins from over-extraction and over-oaking.
From the 70s: Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon 1975, still showing itself as obviously cab, with lots of cassis aromas; a little awkward with big tannins, but drinking very nicely (much better than just about all the Rubicons of the 1980s and 1990s, going by my experience of those). Also good was Uitkyk Carlonet 1973 (lean and dry, tending to austerity, but impressive still) and Vergenoegd 1972 (firm, serious, balanced – and very much alive).
The three pinotages also showed fairly well, holding their fruit. Oude Libertas Pinotage 1972 was full and rich, but with powerful tannins revealed nakedly by receding fruit. Light by contrast was KWV Pinotage 1973 – pretty well balanced but a trifle decadent already. I most like the Lanzerac 1968. This still showed a good mature garnet colour; sinewy tannins and acid well balanced with the fruit, and a pretty neat package altogether.
We finished with Monis Selected Port 1948. I was still just about able to make notes, albeit rather too skimpy, and this one reads: “Fresh nose, lively, vigorous, clean. Forceful, brilliant integrated acidity, lovely development, subtle toffee character, some complexity of flavour. A little spirity, perhaps. Clearly a long future ahead of it.”
An altogether exhilarating experience. Chris Alheit enthusiastically emailed later: “I believe it was a watershed evening for Suzaan and me. We talked about it all the way home.” (PS, he added, “Our favourites: Chateau Lib 61, Vergenoegd ’72 Cab, Lanzerac 68 Pinotage”.)