The power of great tradition

It’s been something of a purple patch for me, the last few weeks, for tasting and drinking great wines, especially foreign ones. More tasting than drinking is the only unfortunate element, but still. Of the tastings, the one that will linger longest in my lustful memory is that of sherry, presented in brilliantly well-informed fashion by Jean-Baptiste Cristini (Fairview marketing manager) for the SA Sommeliers Association. It’s more than rare to have such a thoughtful programme of great wines offered with such meticulous care,  understanding – and, clearly, love. Some of the sherries we had (and wines from neighbouring, similar, Montilla) are near-unobtainable anywhere, let alone in South Africa; all were interesting at the very least, and a few were of truly great profundity and hardly matchable complexity, precision and elegance – at prices that are ridiculous compared with other great wines of the world; only a few sherries cost more than about 70 euros a bottle. What a great wine sherry is; yet horribly neglected.

They were prefaced by a couple of South African versions from Monis. Unfortunately, local “sherry” (not allowed to be called that any longer of course), is not even what it was at its best some decades back, and now not to be taken seriously at all – unlike local port-style wines. The Monis Pale Dry is, for example, neither pale nor dry. Tasty enough, if that’s all you want, it is sweetened with, as far as I know, jerepigo. Sigh.

Sherry can’t easily be compared to anything else (though the Jura wine and Adi Badenhorst’s too-modestly named Funky White, tasted at the Swartland Revolution, were also made with the influence of that anti-oxidative layer of yeast called flor, and so had some things in common). But my other abiding memory of recent weeks is of red wines from three different tastings that seem to me have something in common – but I’m struggling to work out what exactly it is. It’s something that’s important, as the wines were all pretty marvellous.

First was the Lopez Heredia Viña Tondonia from Rioja that I wrote about recently. Second, Chateau Musar, the Lebanese wine of which a range of  vintages back to 1989 were tasted at the Swartland Revolution. Third, Ridge Montebello 2011, the famous Bordeaux-style blend, given at Andrea Mullineux’s well-conceived and thought-provoking tasting of classic, cult and new-wave Californian cabernet and chardonnay for the Cape Winemakers Guild – Ridge was in the classic category of course.

All three wines are defiantly old-fashioned in some ways. This was clearest with the Ridge, perhaps, as we tasted it alongside such stuff as the 100-Parker-point Colgin Cabernet with its cushiony, unchallenging tannin and gushing ripe fruit. Charming, certainly, that wine is, and clever, but pretty vulgar and trivial in my opinion; not even vinous; made to impress in small sips, not to copiously accompany dinner. Vinous the other three are – they are wine, not alcoholic fruit juice – more dried herb, spicy notes than simply fruity ones, along with a depth of complex flavour. None are sweet-finishing, none are fruity; all have a firm but balanced grip of tannin and acidity. Perhaps above everything else, all have personality, character. And, like most interesting people, none are entirely without fault, I suspect. Here and there a bit of volatile acidity, oxidation perhaps, a touch of brett. Would any of these fare well out of context in a competition looking for bright clean modern wines? I doubt it.

Back home
I was pleased to find some of this character (especially the herbal, spicy bit, along with red-black fruit traces) on a maturing Cape syrah I opened recently: Quoin Rock 2006. Quoin Rock was perhaps the best of the Stellenbosch shirazes for a while – I haven’t had it recently and there is now more than a little competition in this comparatively restrained, elegant style from Reyneke above all, and the soon-to-be-released single-vineyard wines from Keermont, and also Radford Dale.

In fact the Quoin Rock tasted better on the second day – more harmonious, less obviously “big”, the sweet fruit notes better integrated. On the first day I rather preferred a slightly younger shiraz I opened for comparison – Lammershoek Syrah 2007, from the Swartland. The present regime at Lammershoek is rather ashamed, I think, of the older style of wines made there before Craig Hawkins started picking earlier, avoiding new oak, etc; but this is a lovely wine at the very least speaking well of the terroir. The tannins were beautifully firm but soft (a real Swartland hallmark); the flavours were ripe and a touch sweet, but there was a real freshness and vitality. It didn’t last nearly as well as the Quoin Rock, however, and was tiring on the second day and not very nice on the third, while the Stellenbosch wine soared along rather majestically.

As I write, however, it suddenly strikes me as notable that both these wines were made by winemakers no longer in the same position – Albert Ahrens left Lammershoek a few years back, as Carl van der Merwe left Quoin Rock. Very different situations obtain at Ridge, at Musar and Tondonia. There might well have been some winemaker change in the last while at the latter two wineries – but it makes no difference there. The power of tradition is a great thing, and something else those three have in common. Sherry too, come to think of it.

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