Some observations on Cape cabs in competition

It’s arguably absurd to make serious judgements about soi-disant serious wines by considering a line-up of 60 of them over a mere morning. But how much more unreasonable to offer opinions on 13 of the selected “best” of them, on the basis of quick tastings of them in a crowded, noisy restaurant? Yeah, well, but here goes.

CECSRThe crowded, noisy occasion was the announcement today of the top-scorers in this year’s edition of the grandly titled “Christian Eedes Cabernet Sauvignon Report”. It’s a perfectly acceptable list of top-scorers, in fact, especially seeing that the scores were pretty modest – not a single equivalent of a gold medal or a Platter five-star: the “winner”, Waterford 2012, scored 93 out of 100 (well done, winemaker Francois Haasbroek, who’s since moved on to other things).

Of course, it should have been an unlaughable list, seeing that the 60 candidates were pre-selected – though one does wonder why there was, for example, no Glenelly Lady May or Rustenberg Peter Barlow or Kleine Zalze Family Reserve in the line-up. Surely there should have been? On the other hand, there were three wines from Spier (5% of the total!), which greatly increased Spier’s chances of getting amongst the top flight, as indeed it did, with one of them.

The full Report (which could have done with some eagle-eyed proofreading, incidentally), is available here), including all the scores.

Of some interest to me, organiser and panel chair Christian Eedes made a point, in his introduction to the Report and at the function today, of comparing the status of cabernet sauvignon in the Cape to that of shiraz. He thinks that Cape cab is doing as well as shiraz – although he suggests that especially Swartland shiraz is getting all the attention and that “that what’s going on in other red wine categories is getting short shrift”.

glass-redI’d differ here, substantially. Firstly, it’s not only the Swartland that gets huge international praise for its shiraz, but also Stellenbosch (the real home of quality cab here, as Christian points out); Stellenbosch shiraz has an increasingly great reputation – for starters, think Reyneke, De Trafford, Keermont – and great examples come from other regions too. Secondly, other red categories have recently got the kind of international attention Christian is talking about – not only Swartlandish grapes like grenache and cinsaut, but also, at a far extreme, pinot noir.

Personally, I would rate local shiraz much higher than local cabernet (and even local cab-based blends, which are frequently superior to the varietal wines. Whether the reason for this is how the grapes perform in the Cape, or that prestigious cab still tends to be made in a way that is starting to seem old-fashioned (a lot of ripeness, a lot of oak, perhaps inadequate viticultural care), I don’t know.

One thing is certain, however: a showing of the Cape’s best shirazes would not show the high alcohols offered by the 13 top-scorers in the Christian Eedes Cabernet Sauvignon Report. All but two of the cabs were well over 14%; the other two were only just under (including one of my favourites, Waterford) and my suspicion would be that the very ripe-tasting, sweetish Spier Woolworths Reserve 2012 had had its alcohol artificially lowered (but it’s only a deduced suspicion). Does Cape cab really need to be this big to make an effect?

In fact, without going into detail (appropriately for such a quick tasting), I would divide the 13 top-scorers (nearly all from 2012) into two camps: the blockbusters and the slightly more modest, comparatively classic-leaning ones. Leading the former group was my least favourite, Graham Beck The Coffeestone 2013, which was powerful and too sweet-finishing for my tastes (possibly with a good few grams of residual sugar, though the Report doesn’t give technical details beyond the alcohol level, for some reason).

But not all these big wines lacked harmony and a measure of grace – Rust en Vrede, for example, was well-balanced and harmonious, as was Vergelegen V (though a little sweet); I Iiked the Oldenburg more than I have previous vintages.

My favourite wines on this quick tour of the room were Waterford and Stark Condé, and, with a few more years but still very young, the Nederburg II Centuries 2010. The standard Le Riche (the famous Reserve did poorly in the tasting), Warwick, La Bri, and De Trafford also showed promise of a drinkability not overwhelmed by too much bigness.

To drink when? Christian is being more optimistic this year and mostly suggests 8-10 years; some might happily go further I’d say; some I’d be happy to put away and forget about entirely, with any luck. This evening I opened a bottle of Kanonkop Cab 2000 (the 2012 scored just 85 in this competition); 2000 was not one of Kanonkop’s most graceful and harmonious vintages, but my bottle gave much satisfaction, and I reckon it’s about at its peak now.

One thought on “Some observations on Cape cabs in competition

  1. I suppose it’s to be expected that the riper wines will dominate, considering the style of SA Cabernet that the three judges evidently prefer. In fact, the selection process to get the 60 wines are also influenced thus.

    Anyone who has participated in a few blind tastings will attest to the fact that it’s not always easy – mostly, far from it. And even though professional and amateur palates (and minds) alike will always get hammered to various degrees by tasting 60 young Cabernets in a morning, I still can’t help but judge results of tastings just a little bit by how the more serious Kanonkop wines are scored…

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