The pleasures and mysteries of old wine and old labels

Some people are lucky with their birth vintages of course, some are not. I’m not: quite apart from the year being so far ago, it was universally horrid, though an English friend once went to a touching amount of trouble to find a 1954 Piedmontese nebbiolo (neither Barbaresco nor Barolo), which, served blind, we generally agreed was a much younger cabernet….

A local friend is lucky to have been born in 1968 and even luckier that last year I came into possession of a small clutch of the two GS [George Spies] Cabernet Sauvignons. One of them, you probably know, came from 1966 and one from 1968, and both are superlative wines, which won the great respect of fancy American and British wine critics in recent years, which revived their fame here.

Michael Fridjhon included both in the tasting he conducted just about a year ago, of 27 Cape red wines dating between 1940 and 1982 (and reported on in the current issue of that great but very expensive quarterly, World of Fine Wine). With the scores of the tasters averaged, the 1966 GS Cab was the winner, and the 1968 was sixth (Chateau Libertas 1940, Nederburg Cab 1974, Rustenburg Cab 1982 and Chateau Lib 1964 intervening).

That’s a long preamble to saying that I gave a bottle of the 1968 GS to my pal Warren, on the understanding that he share it with me (and his wife!). He went one better and found a bottle of Rustenburg from the same vintage, and near enough to his 41st birthday we settled down to try them (having warmed up – or cooled down, rather – in the late afternoon and evening with a lovely De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc 2005 and a 2007 vintage of one of my favourite sauvignon blancs, the bracing Chamonix Reserve.)

The GS was in good condition, still with some fresh berry fruit pointing the added complexity of bottle age, and a firm but graceful structure, well balanced and harmonious. I must confess that the last quarter of the bottle was not quite as good as the first, as the wine was starting to oxidise and lose its freshness. That hasn’t happened with previous bottles that I’ve had.

Nonethless it was undoubtedly a fine wine, and put the Rustenburg (which we opened second, not having been sure we’d get that far) in its place: it was definitely less harmonious, less fresh,and the tannins more exposed, though without that illustrious predecessor we’d have simple marvelled how good this 41 year old was. And we had no doubt that it was very drinkable indeed.

The interesting thing was that, while the GS had declined in exposure to the air, the Rustenburg found youthful vigour and joie-de-vivre, and gained in complexity over the next late-night hour. I’m pretty sure that if we’d opened the two bottles together and only tasted them a few hours after opening, the burlier Rustenburg would have won. As it was, it was simply a great privilege to have had both.

Of course I always wonder whether the contemporary Rustenburgs are going to reveal their greatness in four decades time, whether all the alcohol and pure ultra-ripe fruit and substantial oaking of Peter Barlow is a match for the graceful power of the 1966 or the probably better 1982, for example. I confess, too, that I also have a great admiration for the beautiful old Rustenburg label, even when a little ravaged by time.

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