For seven – or is it six or eight? – years now, Michael Fridjhon has organised an annual tasting of older South African wines to precede his Trophy Wine Show competition. It’s largely intended for the edification and education of the foreign judges, but I’ve been privileged to attend most years. This year’s tasting was held last Monday, with wines going back to 1959.
In some ways it was a touch disappointing compared with previous years, with quite a few rather dull, tiring wines (though few were utterly dead) and not a lot that was particularly impressive – though a nice handful of very good stuff.
The small white flight this year was, however, impressive. (White wines for this tasting must be at least 15 years old, reds at least 25.) Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc 1999, was, in fact, certainly the best old Cape sauvignon that I’ve had, with clean aromatic aromas, clearly varietal but developed with some complexity. Perhaps even my top wine of the tasting. The palate was firm, with a strong vein of acidity supporting the substantial flavours. So often old sauvignons become very pungent – particularly when they stress greenness in youth, as with, say, Steenberg’s, which can also age but become, to my taste, far too piercingly pungent. It must be said that a few tasters here found too much in the way of pyrazene character – but these are people for whom “pyrazene” is as much of a swearword as “brett”, and equally damning. To me the Vergelegen’s touch of ripe green flavours (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron) was part of its highly acceptable varietal character. Incidentally, the bottle, long resting in Michael F’s cellar, had a hand-written label; he wasn’t sure whether it was the standard Vergelegen sauvignon, or the single-vineyard Schaapenberg/Reserve (Vergelegen’s naming practices have been erratic and changeable over the years). Either way, excellent.
Also fairly remarkably, the Lemberg Sauvignon Blanc 1986 was still full of life and freshness, though showing marked oxidative, toffeeish characters from bottle-age, and it faded quite quickly once poured. But for a 30-year-old sauvignon, most impressive. Lemberg, in Tulbagh, was then the smallest estate in the Cape, with Janey Muller one of the country’s pioneering woman winemakers.
Next up was a younger chenin blanc, the Stellenzicht 1996. Another wine from Andre van Rensburg, who’d been winemaker at Stellenzicht since 1993 before moving to Vergelegen. According to the Platter Guide, he dedicated this wine to his oenology professor at Stellenbosch University, Joel van Wyk. Again from Platter – it was “a third oak fermented, a third fermented with natural yeasts, a third ‘reductively’ made fresh”. Twenty years on, with a mid yell-gold colour, it was drinking most pleasingly. Characterful, with lovely, intense ripe fruit flavours now in tertiary development, and a good acidity. All in balance – a key to ageing wine successfully. Maybe not hugely complex, but drinking very well.
Back ten years again for Backsberg Chardonnay 1986. Lots of toasty oaky in evidence, but sadly little else. Not entirely dried out, but ruined by oak.
Thus the white wines of the tasting. (I will write later about some of the reds.) Michel Bettane, the notable French wine critic who’s been judging at the TWS this year remarked to me later – after having gone to give the white wines a sniff at another table where the taster had foolishly not turned up – that he thought the admittedly limited range of whites showed better than the reds; it was a surprise to me to find myself agreeing with him.