Learning vintage truths

We don’t yet really understand our vintages in the new South African wine regime – not surprisingly, perhaps. It’s not even all that long ago that the dominant tendency was to think that most vintages were, really, not all that different – grim 2002 was probably the year that jolted us completely out of that way of thinking.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, after drinking some older local reds, especially some disappointing 1998s. The real problem with not reading a vintage well, through lack of experience of different conditions, is not of course that one might buy incorrectly and keep wines for longer or not as long as appropriate. The real problem is that sensitive winemakers (and viticulturists), who adapt their practices to vintage conditions, will not always make the best of the grapes that come into the cellar. It’s another reason to worry about rapid turnover of winemakers at serious wineries, another reason why wines should generally be getting better in South Africa, as producers start understanding better what to do in different circumstances. (There’s clearly quite a bit of confusion about this weird and difficult vintage that we’re having right now. I’m sure a lot of winemakers are having to guess how best to respond, and it’s certain that some will do it much better than others.)

Anyway, 1998 reds. Generally, it was a hot, early harvest, with lowish yields. Commented the Platter Guide two years later: “reds big, booming but flavoursome, excellent maturation potential. Undoubtedly a red-wine year.” But I seem to remember that the reds didn’t shine brightly when Wine mag did its ten-years-on tasting, not did they when Angela Lloyd presented a line-up of some top examples.

And nor have they in my recent experience. Conveniently forgetting the above, I thought it might be a treat when I took Cordoba Crescendo and Kanonkop Paul Sauer to dinner with Cathy and Philip van Zyl last December. Tasted blind, the Cordoba utterly surprised them – and me, and was quite different from the elegance one normally expects of that much-lamented wine. Like the Paul Sauer, it was, basically, rather thick and soupy, lacking any freshness, and on the way down. Perhaps the Paul Sauer was even more disappointing – I had a 1998 Kanonkop Pinotage more recently and it was better.

Yet the Platter note on the Crescendo when it came out was as enthusiastic as most notes were about top 1998 reds. Platter quoted winemaker Chris Keet as imploring: “Allow 10 years before touching; will then give the total pleasure it was created for.” Wrong. I think, if the bottles I have had are typical, it should have been drink in its impressive youth, before the basic lack of harmony revealed itself in a congested swelter of clumsy power. It’s a while since I’ve had the 1997 Crescendo, but I’d be willing to bet that that it will now be showing much, much better than the 1998. That cooler vintage, which flummoxed some winemakers, suited those who wanted elegance, and I remember showing the Crescendo to a foreign expert as, along with the Welgemeend of that year, among the Cape’s best reds that I knew. (Welgemeend ’98 has also mostly fallen apart, unlike the ’97, though it has done so a little more gracefully. Another lamented label – unlike Cordoba it still exists, but the vineyards are so ravaged by virus it will surely not produce anything good until they are replaced.)

One of the best 1998 reds I’ve had in the last month or two was Rust en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon (I haven’t tried the Estate blend – I remember at the time preferring and only buying the Cab), which was rich and flavoursome without too much of the heaviness that mars many of the others. I think it was on the downhill, though, and I shall drink my last bottle soon. Another good 1998 I had this evening: the maiden vintage of Vergelegen’s flagship blend: 75% cab, 20% merlot and a splash of cab franc. It is certainly big and tannic, powerful and forthright, and still holding itself together very well. But not showing the grace or charm that maturity should bring to a wine.

That’s 1998 for you, in my opinion and in my experience, even at its best. I think we misread it and over-estimated it at the time. There are vulgarians and others who don’t think any Cape red should be matured for any longer than it takes to mark it up a few hundred percent and sell it, and they are even more wrong. But we must learn to understand vintage differentiation better, and how to respond to it better, from the moment of picking the grapes to the moment of drawing the cork.


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