Bordeaux and Cape Bordeaux: Part 1

A couple of recent abbreviated vertical tastings (Le Riche cabs and Epicurean), going back to 1999 made one thing clear: this may be a comparatively unsung, and even unfashionable, category in modern Cape wine, but it is not an inconsiderable one. Stellenbosch is producing cabernets and cabernet-based wines (and, believe it or not, the occasional merlot-based one) that can both be rewarding and tasty in youth and age with distinction.

Mutle Mogase checking Epicurean 2003

Epicurean first, the single-wine label of a trio of people with financial and/or political clout: Mutle Mogase (who I suspect is the most devotedly involved in the production process, which takes place under the aegis of the wholly admirable Rupert & Rothschild vineyard and cellar teams under Schalk-Willem Joubert), Mbhazima Shilowa and Moss Ngoasheng. Ron Gault used to be involved but has apparently left the country. A small group last week tasted the following vintages: 2003, 2005–7, 2010 and the new release 2011 (selling for about R550), with Mutle leading the tasting (Mr Shilowa arrived late thanks to a plane delay).

In fact, I first tasted the 2011 Epicurean a year ago, for Platter, and was as impressed with it then as I was last week. I noted then that it was “more classic-oriented than previous (& than many SA examples). In youth, a savoury sombreness rules, though density and fruit intensity impress. Powerful tannic structure, bone-dry finish & scarcely over 13% alcohol. Give it time.” I feel able to repeat that now, because my impression was much the same. Having it at the end of a line-up of other vintages, it was even clearer to me that there’d been a (hopefully permanent) shift in style, towards a lighter, fresher and more elegant expression.

Not that the earlier vintages were notably overdone (though perhaps the oaking was, generally, more enthusiastic than it could have been). In fact, the maiden 2003 was drinking beautifully last week – and certainly more youthful than the 2005. Good tertiary notes, so definitely more than simply aged, with the tannins nicely resolved; it was rich and well balanced, but definitely with the egregious bigness that the 2011 avoided. I don’t always agree with Christian Eedes, but we were as one on the oldest and the youngest of the line-up being the most impressive wines of the tasting. Though I must say that I enjoyed the fragrant 2007 more than he did; it was more refined and elegant than any of the others until the 2011, but undoubtedly had a noticeable herbal element (which I am used to, and appreciate, in traditional Bordeaux), which Christian didn’t like.

The rather weird thing about the tasting was how different all the wines were – a difference speaking less of vintage or origin (the grapes are always quite widely sourced within Stellenbosch) than of varietal choice. The blend has varied greatly, cab-based (until 2011 which was four-fifths merlot!) but with very different contributions from one or other of merlot, cab franc and petit verdot. This is a pity, I feel, and anyway undoubtedly makes for less interest in comparing different vintages as one isn’t looking at the same wine, in effect.

It’s all very well to say, as Mutle Mogase did, that the aim with Epicurean was effectively primarily stylistic, to make a classic-style wine – but everyone says that, more or less, with different degrees of conviction; and while the goal was met to a greater degree with Epicurean than with most Stellenbosch cab-based reds, it wasn’t sufficiently so to be a particularly distinguishing feature – certainly not comparable with a varietal stability and, preferably, a tighter geographical one.

That stability is something that the Le Riche wines have to their great credit (despite some stylistic change/development) – but I’d better come back to those in a different post; this one’s already long enough. I also tried a comparable vintage of a modest Bordeaux after the Le Riches  – which I think Christian would have like even less than I.

Let me finish, then, by warmly recommending the Epicurean 2011 – at least to those who can afford it (I hate to think what it’ll cost in the sort of restaurant that stocks it!). While it is still very youthful, and should develop over at least another decade, it does have the rare advantage of being five years older than most of the competition, and is undoubtedly already less raw and more resolved than most of those. Drinkable now, without too much guilt.

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