Expensive stuff from Bilton and Steenberg

A cynic, said Oscar Wilde, is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Lacking Wildean succinctness, let me venture that the cynical wine producer sets a price so excessively above his wine’s value that he’s clearly strategising beyond mere sales.

Enter Mark Bilton, who owns the eponymous winery in Stellenbosch and has just released a cabernet for R3000 a bottle, more than double the previously most expensive local pretender, another red, a big, ultra-ripe blend from Rust en Vrede. Internationally many wines cost apparently silly amounts, but most acquired their prices after, rather than before (or instead of), earning some renown for quality. Incidentally, the Bilton press release didn’t even bother to indicate the vintage of the wine, but it appears to be a 2006.

Little of The Bilton is likely to be sold but this egregious example of “aspirational pricing” presumably aims mostly to add spurious lustre to a name and get it into circulation. The latter at least is working, you observe.

I haven’t tasted the wine and am unlikely to. The serious end of wine journalism was largely not invited to the launch, understandably. (How many serious wine critics would have accepted an invitation is unclear; looking at how relatively poorly Bliton has performed over the years at Grape tastings of new releases would mean that our acceptance, at least, might have been as unlikely as the invitation!) Tweeters and bloggers were there, however, seemingly as impressed as was expected of them. As to other reported tastings: In the Platter Guide, Greg de Bruyn, more generous about some of the estate’s wines, awards Bilton four stars despite describing it as a “porty, inky, tannic leviathan”, Journalist Cathy Marston, tasting at the launch, thought it “very, very good”.

A presumed selling point – or discussion point – is that the wine was shunted five times to new oak barrels. To serious wine-lovers this indicates gross vulgarity: the purpose of “500% new oak” could have been only to add wood flavour and provide a story to wow the impressionably ignorant.

Good or not, it is rather odd that a wine of this kind should be linked with Giorgio Dalla Cia, associated rather more with classicism at Meerlust, where he was cellarmaster for many years. Bilton’s press release calls him “legendary consultant winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia”, which is their privilege I suppose – though I confess I have always thought his contribution to Meerlust rather overrated in the popular imagination, and the Meerlust wines have improved greatly since his departure. Nonetheless, grappling with Rubicon, he never perpretated such things as 500% new oak!

Another strangely aspect is that the packaging of The Bilton looks, from photographs, to be sadly amateurish, and inappropriate to the country’s most expensive wine. Without the class of good old-fashioned classicism (like Alto Rouge, for example),it also lacks the chic of more modern international styling. A winemaker, who’d better remain nameless, described the label to me as looking for all the world like the school badge of Worcester High….


A white alternative

The most expensive white wine in South Africa is pitched somewhat lower – although the guiding principle in setting the price was also, I believe, to crow boastfully from the heights. But – marking a difference with Bilton – Steenberg Magna Carta was conceived with the Constantia winery’s established great reputation for its sauvignon blanc and semillon – the grape varieties of which the blend is composed.

The second bottling of the wine, 2009, was released recently at R440 (there was no 2008 as quality was deemed inadequate).

(As to “most expensive white wine” – it has more recetnly occurred to me that although it is the most expensive one singly available, the wines included in the Sadie Ouwingerdreeks were more expensive. That set was sold – four whites, one red, and a half bottle of sweet wine – at something over R3000, making those whites definitely more expensive than the Magna Carta.)

Unlike Bilton, the Magna Carta was launched at a serious dinner party at Steenberg and bravely shared the table with some great wines from Champagne and Burgundy, which provided context for claims about quality. I tasted it again recently, with Steenberg’s Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc Reserve of the same vintage – also expensive wines, approaching R200 a bottle.

Again I was convinced of Magna Carta’s superb, subtle quality – it happily stands with the best examples of the magisterial class of South African blends in the tradition of Bordeaux (Vergelegen is the pioneer and best known). Worth the price? Well, yes, if you can afford it and are happy to leave it to its own mysterious development, somewhere cool and dark, for three or four years at least.

Incidentally, on the strength of just two vintages, Magna Carta is one of only 10 wines nominated by all the professional selectors in a poll reported on the Grape website, naming South Africa’s 100 best wines.

Also on the top 100 list is one of the Cape’s undoubted great white bargains, at about R35 – Kleine Zalze Bush Vine Chenin Blanc. Zero percent new oak. Zero cynicism.


First published in the Mail & Guardian, 1-7 April 2011, but this is an expanded version

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