Put fire in your wintry belly! If ever there’s a time to indulge in rich, alcoholic, delicious fortified wines it is now, when the Cape is grey, wet and blustery, and the Highveld cold pierces to the bone. (Smug Durbanites can get pleasure from joining in, in a show of solidarity.)
My sense of responsibility, even if not my entire experience, obliges me to acknowledge that comfort and warmth are not to be found at the bottom of a bottle – but a modest glassful of port or jerepigo can surely only help.
The warming factors of sweetness and alcohol are, unfortunately, also those which have internationally helped to reduce the popularity of wines fortified with brandy or other spirits. In fact, at around 16.5%, jerepigos and muscadels are seldom much more alcoholically powerful than some of the riper unfortified wines around these days. Modern local ports tends to be, like their Portuguese models, around 20%.
Unlike their Portuguese models, however, the locals have been obliged by deals with the European Union to completely phase out the use of the name “port” (the same goes for sherry). After January 2012 that’s it – the drink will stay, but the word on the bottle must be dropped. In its place will usually be some epithet associated with a tradional port style, prefixed by “Cape”.
So, Cape Tawny is a port-style wine that’s been matured for many years in large casks – that oxidative process produces the deep orange-red colour that gives the name. Tawnies are often blends of many years and most don’t mention a vintage on the label. A few, like those from Boplaas, are superb – lusciously rich, nutty and flavourful.
Other ports spend much less time in barrel (sometimes, for the cheaper rubies, almost none, for others a few years) and are deep, luscious red. Cape Late-Bottled Vintage is designed for drinking as soon as it’s bottled, but Cape Vintage (or Vintage Reserve), while often fiery and compellingly delicious in youth, should acquire greater complexity, velvet smoothness and interest after five or ten or even more years.
There’s no need to defer to Europe when it comes to jerepigos and muscadels – a glorious tradition of our warm-country winemaking, which lingers on. Rietvallei makes its 1908 Muscadel from a tiny vineyard planted in that year. Perhaps these wines don’t have the sleek sophistication of ports, but some of them are great, and as long-lived as any. I recently had the privilege of sipping at an unctuous, still-vibrant 1933 KWV Muscadel.
Of more modern production, the Nuy Muscadel (white and red versions) are among those that gain complexity with many years in the bottle. And unlike port, they don’t seem to mind how long the opened bottle lingers on the shelf before being reached for some dark and stormy night.
Muscadels are jerepigos made from a muscat grape, but jerepigos can be from just about anything. Whether they are in fact wines at all is moot. Making port involves adding spirit to partly-fermented grapes – which knocks the busy little yeast cells on the head, leaving some unfermented sugar. With jerepigo, on the other hand, spirit is added before the yeast barely gets a chance to start its work, leaving all the ripe fruit’s sugar unmolested.
It’s a national treasure as well as wonderfully warming.
Without retracting that judgement at all, I must express surprise at a very recent tasting of muscadels by Christian Eedes and James Pietersen, and reported on Christian’s blog. He awarded more than a third of his sample of 11 wines scores of at least 18/20; James gave two of them 18. I did make a comment about this there, and Christian has responded,
My position on jerepigos (including muscadels of course) is that it is very rare indeed for them to reach anywhere like the quality of port – precisely because they are not in fact wine in the true sense: they do not possess the complexity that can emerge from fermented juice, A good deal of age can bring about some complexity and interest, but never, I’d say, with the grace and beauty of port or madeira or sherry, the three great fortified wines. (And to repeat, muscadel is not a fortified wine, it is essentially fortified grape juice.) In my comment on Christian’s tasting, I wondered what sort of score he’d give to a great young port if he gives 18.5/20 to one year old Merwida White Muscadel?
The beverage has, I’m saying, an inherent limit (much as Christian thinks that rosé wines have an inherent limit!).The limit is not low by any means, but it is only reached with many years of maturation in my opinion. Christian suggests that the same is true of a wine (or a port), yet we are happy to assess them in their extreme youth. It’s very possible that I simply don’t have the necessary experience and perception, but it seems to me that the rising curve of complexity for wine starts much earlier (and is much steeper) for wine – it starts at the moment of fermentation, a moment that jerepigos don’t have. With jerepigo it only starts much later,
Furthermore, Christian, in his very brief remarks on the individual wines doesn’t speak of potential, he speaks of now. Of the Merwida he says only, after a comment on its colour: “Intense Muscat aromas on the nose. The palate shows excellent purity of fruit and zippy acidity. Elegant and complex.” Purity of fruit is to be expected, zippy acidity is good – and presumably the fortification was done well, and elegant is good (and pretty rare in a muscadel in my opinion – it’s not a quality I would normally think of in this context, even in a great old syrupy one like the 1933 Muscadel mentioned above). The 18.5 points come, I would image, mostly from the “elegant and complex” bit, which is unexplained.
But maybe I’m entirely wrong, and would appreciate some comments. Christian speaks of the “stigma” attached to muscadel. I don’t think there is one, really, in the sense of underserved criticism or neglect..Most people simply don’t want much of an extremely sweet, grapey, fortfied drink that usually doesn’t have much interest until you’ve stored it for years. I love a glass or two occasionally, whereas I’d be happy to have a decent bottle of port or sherry once or twice a week, and madeira even more often than that!
The first half of this article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 15-21 July 2011