Wine Cellar recently purchased an exciting collection of vintage wines from George Spies’ grandson, Piet Fischer. The collection contained a number of GS Cabernets which were purposely kept for long-term cellaring and passed down through the generations. With such a prized collection for sale, I thought it would be worth summarising and expanding on what we know about the George Spies 1966 and 1968 Cabernets.
A good deal of this information is quoted from Joanne Gibson’s award-winning piece, ‘The mystery of South Africa’s greatest red’, written for then WINE magazine in April 2008.
‘It seems Spies didn’t have any tertiary training, but started his winemaking career in the lab at Bellville Winery,’ writes Gibson. This path led Spies to Monis, during an era of mainly sweet, white and fortified wine production, with very few serious reds. Monis and Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW) merged in 1966 and Spies produced a small batch of red wine as a special experimental project. While the large company may not have supported it, and finally cancelled the project altogether, Spies somehow manged to produce 2 impressive vintages of GS.
In trying to gather information from key industry figures at the time, Gibson writes:
‘”Unfortunately all the records have been lost,” says (Diumpie) Bayly, who was studying at the University of California at Davis in 1966 but was involved when the second (and last) GS Cabernet was made: the 1968.’
It seems that the GS Cabs were never sold, but rather handed out to friends and family. Both vintages were apparently extremely tannic in their youth and only started showing impressive character after 20 years of maturation. Gibson continues:
‘”George was very generous with the wine,” agrees Bayly. “It was almost our house wine!”’
Spies died in 1997 and his daughter Ronel has been unable to provide much more information.
With nothing other than the wine and vintage printed on the label, the lack of information opens the story up to much controversy. Bayly is ‘quite certain’ that the wine came from the ward of Durbanville: ‘Monis used to buy red wine from Phil Walker at a farm called Morgenster,’she told Gibson. Morgenster was sold off and developed shortly thereafter, but others suggest that the grapes could in fact have been from Altydgedacht, their neighbour.
‘The 1966 supposedly enjoyed exposure to oak in relatively new large vats,’ writes Michal Fridjhon in a World of Fine Wine article on vintage SA reds. But this conflicts with reports from Bayly, as well as later information from Neil Ellis. Through Gibson, Bayly comments:
‘The wine was made there, probably very simply, in those big old 1000-gallon stukvate, and once it had been brought to Monis in Paarl, George would ready it for bottling.’
Neil Ellis was an acquaintance of George Spies and confirmed this when I quizzed him on this in mid-2015. Ellis told me that the wine was made like a white wine, with a short time on the skins before heavy filtering and immediate bottling. If it was made so radically, what was Spies’ motivation and reference? And was it the reductive winemaking along with early bottling that preserved the tannins so graciously?
As far as the grape variety goes, Fridjhon writes: ‘It is probable that the Lanzerac, Zonnebloem, and Nederburg wines from the 1960s were a long way from pure Cabernet.’ There are rumours that Cinsaut was blended into the wine. The palate, however, is still remarkably fresh and tannic, different to Cinsaut’s delicate nuances and rounder mouthfeel. Why would Spies note ‘100%’ in very small text on the lower edge of the label if it wasn’t 100% Cabernet?
If 4,000 or 5,000 bottles of each vintage were produced (which was the likely size of 1 large barrel, or stukvat), the majority would have been consumed early while the wine was incredibly tannic. Little wine was left during the ’80s and ‘90s when it was ‘mature’ and almost none is around today.
South Africa’s warm climate and undeveloped fine wine market did not assist its preservation. It is rare to find cellars from the ‘80s and earlier that are in good condition. I have heard of a number of GS-drinking experiences where poor cellaring has partially or fully ‘baked’ the wine. While the GS is seemingly one of the hardiest wines South Africa has ever produced, finding a good bottle, or cellar, is becoming increasingly rare. Over the years, Wine Cellar has been offered a handful of GS bottles that have been ‘kept in the cupboard’. These should not be on the market.
Unlike the fine wines of France, there are few experts to attest to the condition of vintage SA wines, especially the few bottles of the GS ‘66 and ‘68 that are available. This leaves room for fakes as the market realises their rarity and the high prices they command. It is paramount that GS be purchased from a reputable source, with offers on the Nederburg Auction and now the Fischer cellar topping the list.
Modern timeline of GS
My personal GS story starts in around 2007, when I read an article online by Michael Fridjhon about South Africa’s top vintage wines. (I haven’t been able to find it.) Michael pointed out that both GS ‘66 and ‘68 were some of the finest vintage SA wines he had tasted. Interested and keen to get my hands on a bottle, I had some incredible luck that very same week. Looking through a bargain bin at a wine shop, underneath mostly poor reds from the ‘80s, I found a perfect bottle of 1968. I paid the R10 price tag and walked out beaming…
It was later poured blind and enjoyed with some friends over dinner. The bottle was spectacular, vibrant and delicious. A prestigious guest on the evening was Dirk Niepoort and he was also truly impressed (and so were the other tasters until Dirk opened an 1850 port!). I posted the note on a little-read wine website I had called ‘Wineguru’, and it was later picked up on by Jancis Robinson.
David Finlayson has always had a strong connection to the wine; apparently his father was a friend of Spies and owned a good collection. His top Cabernet Sauvignon bears the name ‘GS’.
‘He [David’s father] never said anything about it until I was studying winemaking. Then one night when I was about 19 ,he opened it alongside a Chateau Margaux 1979 for an English wine importer and it ( now predictably) blew the Bordeaux out of the water, something it has recently done against a number of big name old Bordeaux’s including a 66 Haut Brion
I met Ronel Spies, a label designer and it turns out, George’s daughter. We talked about her father’s wines and she gave her and her mother’s blessing for the top Cab I was making to be named after her father’s wines. The fact that I showed the 66 GS to Wine Spectator by chance at a dinner in 2007 just to show James Molesworth how good old SA reds can be and he then scored it 95 points is probably what then caused so much noise and interest in this wine.’ – David Finlayson on Winemag.co.za in 2011
A few years earlier, following his 2007 visit, James Molesworth noted on his blog:
‘At first whiff, it showed tons of dark currant fruit, along with grilled beef, charcoal, hot tar and truffle notes—clearly it was far from dead.’
It was even more impressive on the palate, with notes of currant and fig paste, smoke, chestnut, incense, date and brandy-soaked plums. It was fleshy, ripe and powerful, with a great core of sweet fruit. Though slightly grainy in texture, the wine was plenty viscous, with a roasted, overripe character that remained fresh and long on the finish nonetheless.
I’ve reviewed over 2,000 South African wines for the magazine over the years, and I’ve never given one a classic rating (95 points or better on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale).’
This was the real kickstart that the GS needed.
Joanne Gibson then produced the brilliant article ‘The mystery of South Africa’s greatest red’ in April 2008. It won the 2009 SA wine writing award and was re-published on Jancis Robinson’s website. It cleared up a number of controversies, but also hit a few dead-ends on the important details.
News slowly spread and with the increased interest in new-wave South African wines, suddenly there was interest in vintage SA wines too. Wine Cellar managed to buy and sell a handful of excellent GS bottles and the price gradually increased.
After a 7-year absence, Jancis Robinson’s trip to South Africa in early 2015 was important for the industry. Together with WOSA, I dined with Jancis and husband Nick Lander at the Test Kitchen, and I took along a bottle of the ‘66. Why not?
‘A truly iconic wine in South African wine history kindly brought to a lunch at Test Kitchen by Roland Peens of retailer Wine Cellar. Absolutely stunning – such a beautiful combination of maturity and delicacy – but with far more fruit integrity than most 1966 red Bordeaux would have now. Perhaps it was hard work in its youth but I imagine it will be at least a few months before I tasted a mature Cabernet as good as this. Apparently it was once compared with Ch Margaux 1966 and knocked spots off it, but Palmer would probably have put up more of a fight. Lightly minty, fragrant and it spread right across the palate with satin texture. Gorgeous. The only other known vintage was 1968, I was told.’ – Jancis Robinson, February 2015. Score: 20/20
In an instance, GS became the first South African wine to receive a perfect score from not only a top international critic, but arguably the most revered wine critic in the world.
I needed to taste the GS ‘66 one more time, but up against some serious opposition. Château Latour usually holds the highest percentage of Cabernet amongst the First Growths, and in 1966 it was one of the wines of the vintage. In partnership with the Nederburg Auction, we created the Grand Taste-Off in 2015 to pip some of SA’s top vintage wines against world benchmarks.
‘The famous GS Cabernet Sauvignon 1966 versus Chateau Latour 1966, widely reckoned the top Bordeaux of the vintage. Very different wines. GS was undoubtedly fresher, with lovely pure fruit and as close to perfectly balanced as one could hope for. The elegant Latour had a typical (of older Bordeaux) “dirty rockpool”, cedar and herb nose. I thought the tannins were a bit too drying for perfection (perhaps this bottle was on the downhill – unlike the GS). The vote was 10:5 in favour of GS.’ – Tim James on Winemag.co.za
Then, an incredible line-up of rare wines at the 2015 Nederburg Charity Auction was spearheaded by 2 bottles of tabernacle-stored GS 1966, Distell’s offering at the auction from their historic cellar. They were auctioned at a record price for a 750ml South African red wine.
The Bordeaux bottle shows a dark red label (on the verge of pink) with large initials, the vintage and a small ‘100%’ at the bottom in small text. It was clearly hand-labelled as each label is at a different height. Capsules range from dark maroon to a faded purple. The wine?
‘Concentrated, deep-crimson color. Pauillac like weight and textures. Still some berry freshness. Ample spice, mid-palate tarry sweetness balancing fresh but well-integrated tannins.’ – 19/20, Michael Fridjhon’
After tasting it against the Latour 1966 in last year’s Grand Taste-Off, I wrote:
‘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 quite different to the Latour, less Bordeaux and more 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: it’s a perfect wine and should easily age another 50 years.’
Apparently the wine produced in 1967 was not good enough to be bottled. But purchased from the Fischer cellar was a small bottle of Monisberg with a handwritten ‘1967’ on the label. Could this be a ‘declassified GS’? Has anyone ever seen this bottle?
This is very different to the ’66 in that every label I have seen has faded to a maroon, almost-brown colour. The capsules are, however, consistently red. The 1968 is a Burgundy bottle and the labels are all straight, as if they were machine labelled. Most of the bottles seem tattier when compared to the embryonic-looking 1966s. Perhaps the ‘66 has always been more prized and was therefore stored better?
‘Bright maroon, slight bricking. Massive, spicy aromatic, but better on the nose than on the palate, where flavor is Rhône-like and broad (rather than profound and multilayered), with an elegant, refined finish.’ – Michael Fridjhon, 18/20
Julia Harding MW of JancisRobinson.com awarded the vintage 17.5 points and adds:
‘Private bottling. Never commercially available. Michael Fridjhon didn’t think this one of the best bottles – quite a bit of bottle variation. Remarkably dark colour. Rich garnet-brick core. A little minty and herbal and some liquorice, perfumed tobacco. Leathery sweetness on the palate. A little bit tough at the end and slightly metallic on the finish but remarkably youthful and still so much fruit. Coffee and spice on the finish. Tannins and fresh acidity still giving structure and shape.’
What could have been
The experiment by George Spies at Monis can be likened to what Max Schubert did at Penfolds in creating Grange in 1951. What if SFW Monis had released GS commercially, or allowed Spies to continue the project? Would GS Cabernet have shaped the SA wine industry much like Grange did?
Perhaps more information and well-stored bottles will surface. If you know more about this mysterious wine, please get in contact with Wine Cellar.
Roland Peens, January 2016
Joanne Gibson, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding – 2009
Michael Fridjhon, 2014
Tim James, 2015