A century ago – and some old, but not that old, wines

As the African National Congress celebrates its centenary (and I suspect that whisky, beer, champagne and teetotallers’ water flowed in Bloemfontein this past weekend more plentifully than South African wine!) I thought it might be a good idea to look at what was happening in the local wine industry around 1912.

The answer is a sad one: not a lot, and all of it pretty bad. Perhaps there are specific centenary events to acknowledge, but I’m unaware of them. Generally, things were extremely depressed.

Even more so as a consequence of the Union of South Africa achieved a few years previously, when the defeated Boer republics were yoked together with the British colonies of Natal and the Cape. (Primarily, of course, the Brit-Boer rapprorochement was achieved at the expense of black people, who had nothing significant to do with the Union. They remained, incidentally, most of them – until 1962 – victims of prohibition, without the legal right to consume alcohol and thereby drown their sorrows for all the rest they were left without.)

As for the wine industry – it had been a very important part of the old Cape Colony and the decade up to Union had seen numerous commisions of inquiry and the like into the bad conditions of trade, which were partially the consequence of phylloxera, partially the consequence of the poor quality of the product, partially the consequence of the post-war (of independence) depression.

But now, the wine industry was just one depressed industry in one of the provinces – and not the most economically important province either. The Union government didn’t seem to much care about its troubles. Quite the opposite, if one considers increases in excise duties – which provoked some wrath from the industry, and even – at times – some joint action.

Some wine co-operatives had been set up as a reponse to the situation early in the century – to enable more effective use of machinery and lower costs, as well as to realize the benefits of collective marketing. With substantial Cape government financial support, nine co-ops were established, with the Drostdy in Tulbagh being the first in 1906. But four of them soon collapsed.

Things were already happening, however, in the process that was going to lead – as the appalling World War started grinding to an end – to the modest emergence of the KWV in 1917 and its growth as the overwhelming force in South African wine for much of the remainder of the century. With all the good and ill effects of that – and there were both, mostly ill, unfortunately.

Enough ancient history. Or perhaps not. A friend recently gave me a handsome parcel of old South African wine, mostly white but some red, mostly from vintages reckoned to be lesser, mostly in the 1970s and 80s.

I’ve started exploring them with much interest and pleasure. Some have proved as unattractive as anyone would have suspected. Who’d hold out much hope for Lemberg Sauvignon Blanc 1986? I have another half dozen of that vintage to try, in the hope that the bottle variation that is inevitable in old wines will mean something interesting will turn up – but the hope is not strong.

Chardonnays from the 1980s fared better. All the bottles had good fill-levels, incidentally, and corks in very good condition – they’d clearly been well cellared, which makes all the difference in terms of longevity. The oldest was the furthest gone, I thought, rather oxidised, with little fruit and a bit mushroomy-earthy – De Wetshof 1982. Coming back to it ten minutes later I realised that the bottle was, in fact, corked; I must try another one.

Van Loveren 1987 had something going for it, not seriously oxidised and with some recognisable chardonnay character plus old honey and wax. Old but by no means lifeless, with a decent balance – though finishing rather hard, something caused by poor oaking perhaps, or over-acidification or perhaps both.

That wasn’t a problem with Overgaauw CWG Reserve Chardonnay 1988, whose gold colour was a bit deeper. Really harmoniously balanced, and with some attractive complexity. I’ve tried two bottles of this, one of them too oxidised to give much pleasure, the other in excellent condition and totally drinkable – at least by someone like me who likes old, fading wines vastly more than thrusting, over-brash young ones.

La Couronne 1991, the youngest of the chards I’ve tried recently, was also the dullest and deadest.

I also have opened two bottles of my favourite white so far, and as with the Overgaauw one was too oxidised to give more than a half-glassful of interesting pleasure. But the other was really lovely, and a total surprise – I was expecting nothing like this. Groot Constantia Weisser Riesling 1983. Just a little petrolly – but less so than many five-year-old local rieslings I’ve had, and this was nearly 30! – but the petrol not was also earthy, mushroomy and complex – part of a delicate, lingering, browny-gold whole that still had some real fruit character, very recognisable as riesling. Noticeably light – just 11.55 alcohol, the label says., And Platter 1984 tells me it was “semi-sweet”; but as so often mysteriously happens with old sweet wines the sugar somehow got subsumed with age, leaving just echoes of that sweetness. A gentle, elegant, modest and delightful wine.

Returning briefly to state politics: The ANC was still banned, of course, at the time of all these harvests. PW Botha was still president when the Overgaauw 1988 was bottled, wagging his finger at history.

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