Rupert & Rothschild relax

The number of bottles produced under the world’s fanciest labels is an interesting and sometimes surprising study. The great Burgundies and sweet German wines are tiny, for example, while the top Bordeaux wines are produced in what seem by South African standards huge quantities. Take the incomparable Château Yquem: it trots out about 140 000 bottles each year and the bottlings of wines like Lafite and Latour are much much higher.

Kanonkop Paul Sauer at 48 000 bottles annually is, I’m pretty sure, by far (probably four times) the biggest of the really fine locals (their Pinotage is double that). Volumes of wines like Vergelegen V and Sadie Columella are pathetically small by comparison. Of the pricey young pretenders, perhaps The Jem from Waterford is the most ambitious in terms of production levels – which have been about 9000 bottles annually so far, and might increase by 50% or so soon.  Incidentally, you realise why Bordeaux is unmatchable as the world’s greatest wine region – nowhere else can produce such quality in such volume.  Most of the smartest Cape wines are produced in minuscule quantities, and one is even tempted to wonder why there are not more superb wines here – if all you’re after is a few barrels of the stuff, it should be comparatively easy….

These thoughts were consequent on my learning with a jolt that Rupert and Rothschild’s Classique is produced in volumes more associated with coffee pinotage – not very far off half a million bottles annually, a remarkable number for a wine of this quality, price and reputation. It generally sells for something under R100 per bottle – not a great bargain, in fact, but also not unreasonable given its pretty sexy image. I caught up with this wine and it’s more august senior, the Baron Edmond, at Cape Winex last week (where they were among the disappointingly rather thin turnout of producers – unless the whole wine business is rather more buoyant next year, I wonder if we’ll see Winex limited to Johannesburg).

It’s a year or two since I last tasted the two reds from this Franco-South African partnership (established in 1997 between Dr Anton Rupert and Baron Edmond de Rothschild, and now owned by their respective heirs) and things have changed somewhat. Both wines have become a little friendlier. Formerly I much preferred the “second-label” Classique; the Baron Edmond (a great favourite among the label buyers at expensive restaurants in Johannesburg, I believe) was too big, showy, ripe, overwooded and extracted for my taste, especially in youth, while the Classique was, well, pretty classic – a very decent wine.

The latest Classique, the 2007, is still a good wine (especially at these huge volumes), but it seemed to me rather easier and less serious – obviously ripe, with soft smooth tannins, but a good fresh acidity. The Baron Edmond 2005 is more splendid, and I like it very much. Still a little too toastily oaky, perhaps, but not vastly so; elegant, with a good tannic firmness supporting a lot of savoury fruit flavour. I’m sure those who buy it for the label in Mandela Square, and drink it much too young, will actually enjoy it more than they did previous vintages. I hope so. I always feel a little sorry for people buying these big young cabernet-based wines for reasons of prestige when they’d actually be much happier with something more designed for early drinking.

Now Schalk-Willem Joubert at Rupert and Rothschild is helping them. He is one of the less showy local winemakers, but by producing these wines in these volumes he proves that he is one of the best. Incidentally, the wines do not originate from the large Fredericksburg farm in Paarl-Simonsberg; a good deal of the home grapes must find their way into other labels, while the Rupert and Rothschild wines are sourced from all over the place. The property’s marketers still insist that the farm is in Franschhoek, by the way, but that’s just another bizarre bit of wine South Africana. The important thing is that if you like buying your wines with grand people’s names on the label you’re not going to be cheated if those names are Rupert and Rothschild.

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