My dream of tasting a selection of SA’s forgotten gems against world benchmarks was realised on Friday, 24th July 2015 at Aubergine. Lately there has been tremendous hype about vintage SA wines, both locally and abroad, but the question of their true, intrinsic quality requires more investigation. Just how good are the South African wines of the previous era?
Finding great South African vintage wines evokes the same excitement as discovering a new wine from impressive new terroir. Many of these grand vintage wines just haven’t been exposed and given the praise they deserve. It is sad that the industry has little information about them, although perhaps it is understandable, with many of the wines being made under the dark cloud of Apartheid.
I must thank Dalene Steyn and the Nederburg Auction team. The auction has shifted focus in recent years to provide a serious industry platform for the auctioning of SA’s finest vintage wines. The selection panel has improved and wines that make the auction are unquestionably very fine. Our Grand Taste-Off aimed to highlight the quality of past and present Nederburg Auction wines and show comparative quality and prices from other benchmark regions. Many of the bottles were offered from the Distell private cellar, the Tabernacle. This was important, as finding mature SA wines of known provenance is exceedingly rare. The remainder of the wines were sourced directly from their properties or from respected cellars.
We tasted them blind in pairs and 14 tasters voted for their preference in each flight. A selection of vintage wines, before and after, completed a hedonistic evening of amazing food and wine exploration.
JC Le Roux Pinot Noir MCC, 1989 Magnum (Auction 2015)
This wine is phenomenal! It still holds an amazingly fresh and vibrant mousse, showing none of the caramel notes or oxidation that can often dominate such an old sparkling wine. The colour and nose are somewhat developed, delighting the senses with brioche, custard and ripe citrus layers. The palate ends with a touch of sweetness, balanced by a dash of soy sauce and dried peaches. It reminds me of vintage Krug with its generosity and richness. A great buy on the auction, but one to drink over the next few years.
My score: 93/100
De Wetshof Finesse Chardonnay, Robertson 1993 (Auction 2014)
This wine is unbelievable and definitely lives up to its ‘Finesse’ label. The colour is a pale straw and astonishingly shows hardly a hint of yellow or gold. Not typically Burgundian, the nose and palate are more tropical, lined with pineapple, melons and red apple notes. The acidity is super fresh, creating a taut, steely structure, opening up to a hint of honey and candied lime on the back palate.
A few tasters mistook this for the Burgundy because of its high acidity and leanness, but others argued that it is somewhat one-dimensional and not showing the complexity expected with long ageing. At 22 years of age, it is hardly mature and will continue in its almost embryonic state for perhaps another 2 decades! De Wetshof produces world-class Chardonnay on these special limestone soils and there are more recent vintages on this year’s auction.
My score: 92/100
Versus Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche, Burgundy 1995 – R 11,750
We could have chosen many Burgundies to compare with the Finesse, but 1995 was the top vintage of the early ‘90s and Joseph Drouhin has had a connection with the SA industry for a number of decades. This is a 2ha vineyard on the Puligny side of Montrachet and it has been in the Laguiche family since 1334! The Drouhins have been vinifying the vineyard since the ‘50s, apparently agreed upon with a handshake by Robert Drouhin 60 years ago. Montrachet is the king of Chardonnay and this was a real treat.
Far more golden and developed than the Finesse, the palate is broader and richer with more nutty and honey notes combined with lemon rind and melted butter. It is exquisitely balanced, both creamy and mineral, resulting in a long, moreish finish that seems to constantly develop in the glass. It will plateau for another decade, perhaps more.
My score: 94/100
Result: De Wetshof wins 10-4.
Zonnebloem Pinotage, Western Cape 1974
One notes the resemblance of Pinotage to Pinot Noir in this special wine. Upon opening, the nose explodes with perfume, sweet red berries and an underlying earthiness. It changes radically over an hour, showing far more smoke, grilled meat and wild spice. The palate is more rustic and savoury and I couldn’t help wondering how food would balance its maturity and brighten the fruit. This is no doubt one of our best 1974s, but it was such a great vintage that even the most simple of wines seem to be in great condition.
Pinotage ages beautifully and, along with the Lanzeracs from the ‘60s, this Zonnebloem can proudly represent the finest wines of this dark era.
My score: 92/100
Versus Chateau Montelena Zinfandel, Napa Valley 1975
What to compare to Pinotage? Why not another awkward New World variety that has struggled to gain a polished status in the international market? Chateau Montelena, made famous by Steven Spurrier’s Judgement of Paris, beat the best of white Burgundy in a blind tasting in 1976. Montelena was more known for its Chardonnay and Cabernet, but this Zinfandel is very special nonetheless. Utterly fresh and vibrant, it shows an electric acidity, nicely balanced, richly textured sweet fruit and soft tannins. Slightly gooey on the finish and, like Zonnebloem, it would probably be better with food. I thought this flight was far closer than the score-line shows and these were not the easiest to decipher.
My score: 92/100
Result: Montelena wins 12-2.
Chateau Libertas, Western Cape 1959 (2015 Charity Auction)
Is Chateau Libertas our one true cult wine, having been made since the ‘30s without the intention of being long-ageing or glamorous? We don’t know the exact blend, but it is likely Pinotage, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tim James suggests it could even contain Shiraz. Poured from half-bottles, which are often better than the 750 mls, there is some oxidative character, delivering a bouquet of caramel, toffee, Christmas cake and warming spice. With air, lovely red fruit appears and the palate shows purity and poise, leaving your senses intrigued and delighted.
There are many great vintages of Chateau Libertas from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s ‘70s and even ‘80s. And if well stored, they offer an incredible snapshot of SA’s wine history.
My score: 93/100
Versus Chateau Musar, Lebanon 1959 (R 29,250)
How very special it was to interact with Serge Hochar at last year’s Swartland Revolution, just a month before his tragic death. The 1959 was his first vintage and is often said to have been his favourite. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan from high up in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, this eccentric but legendary wine seems to have many parallels with the Libertas.
Musar is renowned for being quite a funky wine, and the 1959 is no different. Slight VA on the nose, an earthy and musty edge blew off over 30 minutes to reveal wonderful sweet fruit and exotic spice. There is generous sweetness on the palate, perhaps even residual sugar, rounding off the wine but also giving it life and enjoyment. The palate is slightly more composed than the Libertas and it could age even further.
This wine was recorked and relabelled at the property in 2012, keeping the legacy for future generations. The serious price tag no doubt shows its intention and heritage. I wish our vintage wines, and specifically the vintage Chateau Libs, were given the same credibility.
My score: 94/100
Result: Musar wins 9-5.
GS Cabernet, Durbanville 1966 (2015 Charity Auction)
For many of the tasters, this was the drawcard of the tasting. An experiment made by George Spies at Monis in 1966 and 1968, GS is akin to what Max Schubert did with Penfolds Grange in Australia. However, GS was never commercially released and its greatness and mystery have never fully been realised. The grapes are from the Parker estate in Durbanville, although the exact vineyard is now apparently a housing estate. Neil Ellis, an acquaintance of GS, told me that the wine was made like a white wine, with a short time on the skins before heavy filtering and immediate bottling. It was apparently quite undrinkable in the first 20 years.
First of all, it is incredibly fresh. One would be hard-pressed to think it is 15 or 20 years old, never mind 49. Secondly, it does not taste like Bordeaux, but rather just sublime New World Cabernet. The nose explodes with layers of red and black fruits – hauntingly deep, detailed and balanced. A meaty, savoury edge starts building with air, adding complexity to the immense fruit purity. Finely etched tannins form a towering structure and carry an enormously long and moreish finish. We were lucky to have such an incredible bottle and I agree with Jancis on this one: it’s a perfect wine and should easily age another 50 years.
My score: 100/100
Versus Chateau Latour, Bordeaux 1966 – R 14,950
The obvious choice to battle the mighty GS, Latour was the wine of the very good ‘66 vintage and usually contains the highest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon of all the First Growths. It shows far earthier, herbaceous elements, which are typical of Pauillac and Latour. Cedar wood, garrigue and fine black fruits offer waves of complexity and refined drinking. Medium bodied and classic, the tannins are perhaps slightly dry on the finish as it moves towards its swansong of maturity. The imposing 1982 or ’61 would have been a better match for the GS.
My score: 94/100
Result GS wines 10-4.
KWV Limited Release Port, Western Cape 1948 (2015 Auction)
Higgo Jacobs, a consultant sommelier to the Nederburg Auction, remarked on how special a week it had been for us. We tasted and drank the 1948 on 3 occasions whilst showing it in Cape Town and Johannesburg. All 3 bottles were beautiful – composed, warming and complex, with the Tawny hues balanced by red fruits, spicy notes and raisin sweetness. This will be one of the top lots at this year’s Nederburg Auction.
My score: 95/100
Versus Taylor’s Vintage Port, Portugal 1948 – R 18,950
It was difficult to find a Tawny style of this age to match against the KWV, but how about one of the greatest Ports of the first half of the 20th century. 1948 was not widely declared, but Taylor’s is regarded as the wine of the vintage and receives 99/100 from Wine Spectator.
This wine sent shivers down my spine! Once poured and after a few minutes of air, I could hear the rumblings of the tasters. Tim James and I agreed that it was an astounding wine, giving you the same unworldly experience that only the GS could give on the night. Compared to the KWV, the palate is alive with red berry fruit, fine Ceylon tea, braised meats and fragrant spice. The palate is so delicately balanced and the fortification is hardly noticed as the soft, fruit-coated tannins seem to carry the finish for minutes.
Is it a perfect wine? Well, why not. It tops any other wine I have had.
My score: 100/100
Result: KWV wins 8-6.
Final Score: South Africa wins 3-2.
Nederburg Edelrood 1982 Magnum
Along with the Cabernet Sauvignon, the 1982 Edelrood is a special wine. Fully mature, it shows wonderful depth, complexity and composure. The tannins are soft and it’s a delight to drink. Most likely a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Pinotage and Syrah.
My score: 91/100
Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon 1974
This ethereal, majestic and delicious wine contended for the top spot on the evening. Many wines from this era and vintage show a slightly ‘porty’ character or Christmas-cake edge, where the ripeness of the vintage perhaps leads to oxidation and frayed edges. This 1974, however, is utterly composed, fresh and deeply complex. It is definitely not Bordeaux-like in any sense and actually doesn’t show much Cabernet Sauvignon character at all. Perhaps suggesting the addition of Cinsault, Pinotage or even Syrah, the nose reminded me of an aged Hermitage, or even top-flight Burgundy. So elegant and pure, with red berries, a hint of toast, nuts and exotic spice. Again, the palate was astonishingly refined, deep and elegant. 1974 Nederburg Cabernet is one of SA’s legendary wines and will mature well for another few decades. If there is any left…
My score: 98/100
Monis Collectors Port 1948
This wine achieved the highest price at the Nederburg Auction in 2011, reaching a whopping R 68,000 for 6 bottles! Only 5,000 bottles were produced and this is another legendary SA wine.
More defined, fresh and detailed than the KWV, it astounded us with waves of complexity wafting from the glass: candied figs, melon rind, nuts, molasses and a touch of cold coffee. The palate is rich, but not sticky while the finish is deep, spicy and delicious!
George Spies was working at Monis in the ‘60s; did he perhaps make this immortal legend too?
My score: 96/100
There are so many variables in wine that perfect comparisons are impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, having legendary wines from across the world as ‘taste boards’ was important in order to try and assess the quality of the SA vintage wines. A number of the wines in the Grand Taste-Off offered magical moments, where pleasure and intrigue challenged descriptions and defied quantification. The GS ’66 and Taylor’s ‘48 were truly magical, with the Nederburg 1974 not very far behind.
With a good balance of consumers and wine professionals contributing to the results, the victory was credible and representative. The international wines were all very fine and it was a tough contest, but South Africa won by a whisker. The bigger question, however, is: are today’s winemakers learning enough from the great wines of our past?
Roland Peens – July 2015
To find out more about the tasting, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wine Cellar stocks a variety of fine vintage wines. Please visit www.winecellar.co.za for our full price list.