Merely out of a rigorous sense of duty, of course, I last evening opened a bottle of red burgundy. I am, of course, always obedient to the dictates of duty – especially perhaps (I mentioned previously that I am engrossed in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park) when I feel the severely dutiful Fanny Price hovering like a good angel over my left shoulder. Actually the only mention of wine in the book in connection with Fanny Price is her regretting the absence of her beloved cousin Edmund when it comes to adding water to her wine. (I warmed more, I confess, to another character who welcomed the arrival of a friend to stay as an excuse for drinking claret every night.)
My bottle of burgundy was not a very grand one – a mere village wine, though from an excellent producer – but anything from burgundy seems grand as the rand plummets and the prospect of affording more of the stuff recedes into the mists of fantasy. A bottle of Meo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanée would probably cost at least R1000 now.
Compare that to Newton-Johnson Pinot Noir – probably a third of the price. Comparing them was precisely my point. I had first opened the 2008 Newton Johnson. Nowadays it’s known as Family Reserve, but the 2008, the first release to come entirely from the home vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde, just has “Pinot Noir” on the front label and “’D’ Pinot Noir” on the back – the “D” standing for the word “Domaine” that had to be dropped in deference to the linguistic controls exercised by the European Union.
Well, comparing the two – though not the price – was precisely the point of the exercise. I’d opened, the bottle of Newton Johnson 2008 the night before and drunk happily of it. No question it was still very much alive (the colour pretty advanced but that’s no surprise as this wine can show brown almost from birth) and valid as a pinot noir, and actually pretty tasty. My worry was that it was a touch heavy and thick-textured, lacking verve, though certainly drinkable. So, off I went to find a 2008 burgundy to compare.
Flashback to New Year’s Eve. A quiet, marvellous evening: dinner under the trees with Chris and Andrea Mullineux outside their house on Roundstone farm on the Kasteelberg, with Rosa Kruger also there. Amidst too much else, we opened a bottle of similarly modest village burgundy I’d brought along (also a 2008 from a fine producer: this was Dujac Morey St Denis). Said someone: “Can we here make anything as good as this?” I thought perhaps we could, though I am a touch sceptical of the big claims that are made about Cape pinots (and not only by local critics).
So when, a week or two later, I’d broached, and started enjoying, the Newton Johnson 2008, I thought I’d make the direct comparison. I do rather think, in fact, that the Newton Johnson Family Reserve has improved with succeeding vintages, vintage differences taken into account. (In Burgundy, 2008 was a very decent, probably underestimated, vintage.) But on the night, with this pair, some seven years after the vintage (the Cape wine obviously a little older than the French one), I’m afraid there was no doubt about the quality difference – clearer, I suspect, with a bit of maturity than it would have been in the flush of youth. The Méo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanée 2008 has, firstly, a freshness, elegance and liveliness that the N-J lacks (has perhaps lost), and more layers; it certainly has many more years of life and development ahead of it.
As the rand plummets and serious French wines get increasingly unaffordable, and I feel so grateful about the quality of local white wines, syrah and the occasional other, this reminder of how hard it is to match red burgundy (chardonnay’s a different story, perhaps) is a bit depressing.