In vain, I’ve been searching iPhone, iPad and iMac (the last of which machines I have come to exasperatedly dislike, incidentally – I prefer Wimdows anyday) for a photograph which I know I took a few months ago. Of course I feel that if it had been an old-fashioned photo which I’d had printed it would now be stuck into an album somewhere, but I also know that if it had been an old-fashioned photo it probably wouldn’t have been taken. And if it had been, if I’m incompetent enough to lose or willfully delete an electronic photo, I am incompetent enough to do something similar with a paper one.
Anyway. The photo showed two bottles of Chris Keet’s Bordeaux-style blend, First Verse – in fact it was a record of a complete vertical tasting of the released vintages, 2009 and 2010! I was going to suggest that you spot the difference between the bottles (apart from the vintage date, that is). It’s a difference that was not, I think, even mentioned at the recent Cape Town launch of the 2010. And admittedly not all that crucial, even if it’s taken me two paragraphs to get to it: it was called “Keets First Verse” in 2009, and in 2010 it is “Keet First Verse”. No “s” after Keet, you perceive. Yes, well, small things interest my small mind sometimes.
The reason I didn’t write anything about my tasting of this two-vintage vertical, when Chris kindly gave me the wines a few months back, is that the 2010 was corked. (The 2009 was drinking beautifully, fresh, rich and very youthful still, but not hard to down a whole bottle of.) So I was very pleased to try the 2010 last week at the launch. Chris became a favourite winemaker of mine when he made his cab-franc based Crescendo at the much lamented Cordoba. The 1997 I particularly remember as a complex, elegant treasure, but many vintages were very fine. (The farm on the Helderberg is still there, still presumably for sale at a price that Charles Banks thought too exorbitant, so he settled for Mulderbosch and Fable; I don’t know what’s happening to all its grapes, but I know that some of that marvellous cab franc has been going into someone else’s very good rosé.)
At Cordoba, Chris’s wine acquired a name for modesty and restraint, at a time when that was anything but the fashion in South Africa or the wider world. Now Chris is doing some consulting in viticulture and winemaking, and producing his own wine, from widely sourced vineyards in Stellenbosch, at the Van Biljon farm on the Polkadraai Hills just outside Stellenbosch town.
First Verse is rather different from Crescendo, in fact (more forward fruit, riper and somewhat richer, more svelte, less classic – but so is modern Bordeaux), but still very refined and fresh, with oaking, in particular, thoroughly well restrained. There’s alcoholic power there, but it is carried lightly and subdued by the masterly balance of the whole; there’s intensity of fruit – but it is subtle rather than bold. Suave tannins, but a firm-enough grip. Crucially, the wine is properly dry, and harmoniously balanced, which is how it can cope with the alcohol and richness without becoming at all vulgar. Ravishing stuff, which is very drinkable now, and should get even more interesting over ten years.
Cab franc is just in the lead, but all five main red Bordeaux varieties are included (to hear Chris’s lyrical praise of petit verdot is to make one want to rush out and find some more).
Interestingly, there are only four varieties (no petit verdot) in the 2011 Van Biljon Cinq (French for five, of course), which Chris also makes, and which made its debut at the same function. But all five varieties are planted in the Polkadraai vineyards which , so I daresay we’ll soon see the justification for this wine joining the ever-growing club which trumpets the number in some way on its labels: De Toren Fusion V, Raka Quinary, Constantia Glen Five, Gabrielskloof Five Arches….
I found Cinq a less successful wine than the First Verse, though also pretty good – but less triumphantly ready to drink in its youth (granted that it’s a year younger). It’s more ripe-fruited, though also rather more herbal, with a similar softness of structure but accompanied by more fruit sweetness, richness and boldness. Perhaps partly a stylistic preference for the Keet, but I do think that the First Verse’s harmony is a matter of sheer quality. Let’s see what happens as the Van Biljon vineyards mature. There’s no doubt that the winemaking is in the hands of one of the Cape’s most thoughtful and skilled exponents of the Bordeaux-style red blend.