The “Big five”: Benchmarking Cape wine

It’s doubtful there could ever again be a tasting like the famous Judgement of Paris of 1976, when some Californian upstarts humbled some of the most famous names of France. Partly because the wine world is now accustomed to such surprising results and the complacent are armed with all sorts of explanations; partly because, well, we all know that long-term reputations and sales performances are as tightly bound up with image and hype as with quality.

To take a minor example – the glittering line-up at the Davos Economic Forum in 2008, led by Jancis Robinson and reported here (for subscribers only). When 2001 cabernet-based blends from Australia, California and South Africa were favoured over three first-growth Bordeaux, and when the favourite white at the tasting was a Vergelegen, the effect on world wine (or even on the buying habits of the rich participants) was, I’m sure, a blip not even reaching the level of infinitesimal.

Notheless, such comparative tastings can be instructive – “especially for price snobs” as Ms Robinson noted on that occasion. And they can be great fun, too. That same Vergelegen White was a star at a tasting billed as The Big Five and held in Cape Town in December. The idea (it was that of Joerg Pfuetzner, the German former sommelier now living in Cape Town and an invaluable contributor to the local wine culture through his wine impresarioship) was to take five leading South African wines and compare four or five vintages of them with very grand equivalents from France.

The tasting, for 20 participants including the local winemakers plus mostly wine professionals of various types, was spread out over a whole day, to minimise palate fatigue and allow for discussion (and an excellent lunch with German riesling!). In all cases, the wines were tasted in vintage pairs, but with the local and French wines served in different order in each pair, to introduce a small but salutory element of “blindness”.

The whites

The first tasting was of five vintages each of Didier Dageneau Pouilly-Fumé – a renowned sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, more or less in the centre of France – and the Sauvignon Blanc of Cape Point Vineyards, whose vines on the Cape Peninsula are buffeted by winds off the nearby Atlantic. With the younger vintages (2008, 2007, 2006), choice was more a matter of stylistic preference than quality. Cape Point winegrower Duncan Savage is working to achieve full ripeness and combat the “green” notes in these wines (notes which the local market anyway still expects). The young Dageneaus I found more complex, with lovelier floral, blackcurrant echoes, and especially fine acid structures.

The unusually ripe, vibrant 2005 Cape Point was diferent, however – and closer to what is now starting to come more regularly from this fine producer, as careful vineyard work pays off. The wine also showed the rewards that come from holding the best Cape sauvignons for five or more years. The 2004 was also in fine shape. Both older Dageneaus showed rather premature oxidation, however, especially the 2005.

Vergelegen White, from Stellenbosch, was compared with another semillon-sauvignon blend, Château Laville Haut Brion (one of the grandest of Bordeaux’s white wines (costing around ten times as much as Vergelegen’s R300!). An oxidative quality seems consistently part of the strategy with the Laville (Tokara’s Miles Mossop noted artichoke as a recurrent character), and prompted a good deal of discussion about “oxidative” (good) versus “oxidised” wines – with some of the tasters finding some Laville vintages perilously close to faulty and others and others defending the wines and prophesying a long ad benefecial futire for them.

I was on the doubting side, and thought most of the Vergelegens superior – beautifully structured and balanced (the more recent vintages also helped by a significant toning-down of the new-oak regime). Vergelegen was undoubtedly more consistent though the five vintages (2002-2006) and the 2003 and 2005 were notably magnificent. But the great linearity and grippy power of Laville 2002, for example, helped it reach a commanding, subtle glory for which I, at least, partly forgave the browning-apple aromas. All the French wines at the tasting, incidentally, were recently sourced in Europe, mostly from a leading London merchant, and carefully transported south.

The reds

I suspect that cost considerations might have played some part in the selection of vintages of the famous cabernet-franc-dominated Bordeaux Château Cheval Blanc, which was tasted alongside the local Raats Cabernet Franc. We had four pairs, from 2003 back to 2001. Apart from the cork-tainted 2001 Cheval (its excellence struggled bravely, and not ineffectively, to show itself), this was not a serious contest. The Raats was far from disgraced, however, especially in the still fresh and youthful 2001, which had appealing sweet dark berry notes on the nose, along with a sous-bois character and spice, and finer tannins and drier finish. Generally, though, the Raats wines showed much ripe sweetness and power, sometimes uneasily combined with a touch of green austerity, and were no match for the cool and complex elegance of the Bordeaux.

Then came what was for many the most interesting and satisfying of the matches: Kanonkop Paul Sauer and the Premier Cru Bordeaux Château Mouton-Rothschild.

Paul Sauer was in 1981 one of the first Cape Bordeaux blends, and has consistently been one of its best. It is also one of the more classically oriented. It became obvious meanwhile that modern Mouton was not going to offer lessons in supreme elegance and restraint.

We tasted the 2004 to 2001 vintages, then leapt back to 1995. (Including an older vintage partly because we were able to: it’s worth noting that Kanonkop is the only one of the South African producers at this tasting that has been offering wines for more than a few decades. Vergelegen is a much older estate, but had been through many decades of non-production before its re-emergence in the early 1990s; the other three’s first bottlings were around 2000.)

Initially, it was not obvious which was the French and which the South African (again, they were tasted in vintage pairs but blind, and randomly ordered). But, with concentration, patterns started revealing themselves. There was, indeed, a little more fruit sweetness on Paul Sauer together with its rich savouriness, and it tended to show more oak – though this slight imbalance might be resolved with time. For me Mouton’s tannin and acid structures were just finer, its presentation silkier and more elegant.

One the basis of that interpretation, I identified most correctly – prejudice leading me to stumble with the 2002s. That vintage was not great in either Bordeaux or Stellenbosch, but was even notorious here. Although Kanonkop has a record of performing well in poor years, when one of the wines sampled was sumptuous and vibrant with youthful life and the other more evolved and altogether less harmonious, I assumed the superior one to be Mouton. Wrongly so.

The 1995 Kanonkop was excellent – it has always been a splendid wine and will be so for a good few more years. It was the second vintage in which I thought it clearly outclassed the Bordeaux (while the others were close). It should be said that many of the tasters thought Kanonkop better than Mouton more generally than I did.

I suspect that, for various reasons, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab-based blends from around the world are more frequently going to be closer matches in style and quality than other wines. For me it was the only category at this tasting where I ever hesitated over attribution. I certainly didn’t in the final match of wines. This involved Sadie Family Columella (from the Swartland; a blend of Syrah and about 18% Mourvèdre) and one of the more modern, riper-styled, oakier Chapoutier, Le Méal Hermitage, from 2004 to 2007. These were the only two remotely similar in terms of price, by the way.

The achievement of the Chapoutier was to unfailingly reveal its origins in flavour and structure, even when rather riper than it needed to be (which was often). Columella demonstrated, with a degree of  finesse and a resolute lack of jammy power, why it is one of the most admireded local wines (vintages from 2008 are progressively lower in levels of alcohol and oak; it is, like many of the best Cape wines, still something of a work in progress). The fine 2004, still youthful, was for me only a touch off the Chapoutier 2005, my top wine of the flight; for some it was the favourite.


– This is a slightly adapted version of the article I wrote for Jancis Robinson’s website, which also drew on material from my columns in the Mail & Guardian. Jancis noted, incidentally: “I see that there was no comparison of Chardonnays. Last Saturday night I happened to serve my last bottle of Glen Carlou Chardonnay 1996 blind with Jean-Marc Pillot’s Puligny Folatières 1996 to a table of wine lovers. The South African wine was much preferred to the (pretty oxidised) white burgundy.”

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