Flights of Memory: Graham Howe's Top Wine Tastings in 25 Years

Friday, 15 March, 2019
Graham Howe
In a nostalgic mood, I’ve been reminiscing over the top ten wine tastings I’ve attended in South Africa while covering and writing about wine trends since the mid-1990s. While sorting through a stack of a hundred of my (handwritten) notebooks and three decades of (pre-digital) press releases, I recalled the highlights of thousands of wine tastings and launches I’ve been privileged to attend.

The liquid gold standard in my wine memory is a vertical flight of Nederburg Edelkeur in Namibia in August 1997. Who could ever forget sunset in the sand dunes of Swakopmund filtered through the amber prism of rare vintages of Nederburg’s flagship dessert elixir from the 1960s to the 1990s, led by renowned winemaker Newald Marais and auction manager Bennie Howard? The spotlight of the annual pre-tasting of Nederburg’s Auction of Fine Wines fell on Edelkeur Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc created by Günter Brözel in 1962 – the raison d’êtreof the auction. After the tasting, media, trade and winemakers enjoyed live opera over a banquet worthy of an oil sheikh in the desert. When I caught up with Newald Marais at his family cellar at Kranskop in the Robertson Wine Valley two decades later, we were still talking about the great wine tasting in the desert. Those were the days.

My liquid memory of another of my top ten tastings was jogged at Paul Cluver Wines in Elgin recently when I ran into Dr Remington Norman MW at their new Salt restaurant. We reminisced about the benchmark Great Syrah of the World tasting he led in July 1999 aboard Rovos Rail on the tracks to the launch of Zandvliet’s new Kalkveld Shiraz label.  Paul de Wet and family pulled out all the stops and hired the legendary luxury train to convey media to the old family farm in the Robertson Wine Valley in style. The gleaming brass and plush booths of the grand dining-car were the setting for a benchmark tasting of Syrah from great producers of Crozes-Hermitage to Côte Rôtie, Australia and California – and twenty years later I still have my tasting notes on file. Years later, I went back to see the Shiraz vines we planted bearing our names on brass plates by row.

Looking back, comparative flights mingling South African and foreign wines – contrasting old and new world expressions of key varieties - stand out in the crowd after all these years. A rare opportunity to taste global benchmarks of say Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Pinot Noir is a learning curve for wine writers and a courageous act by Cape winemakers to offer their wines alongside the best in the world. I was reminded of the value of these benchmark tastings at a brilliant launch in early 2019 of new releases under the Survivor label of Overhex – shadowing their wines with a Pauillac blend, Penfolds Coonawarra Syrah and Napa Valley Newton Chardonnay.  Other benchmark tastings which stand out are a Mullineux tasting of Rhône and Swartland Syrah based on soil type/terroir, global tastings at Haskell Vineyards, the Blaauwklippen Zinfandel of the World (US, Italian, Australian, SA) tastings convened by Rolf Zeitvogel, and Ayama’s tasting of Vermentino from Italy at the planting of the first vines of this variety on their Paarl farm in 2014.

Making my own journey from the old-world port estates of Oporto and the Douro to the dusty new-world port cellars of Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo is another highlight of an itinerant career in the wine trade. The early tasting workshops at the annual Calitzdorp Port Festival where the great ports of the world and the Karoo met face to face, glass to glass, under the tutelage of the likes of the Symington family and other Douro luminaries are another highlight. Down under, the port tasting I enjoyed from the barrel of three centuries at Seppeltsfield (1851) in 2010 and 2019 at the heritage family winery in the Barossa was another standout. The opportunity to taste the liquid birth years of three generations of my own family, my grandfather (1900), my father (1927) and my own birth year, at the home of an unbroken lineage of fortified wine from 1878 to the present is a unique privilege. 

Key annual varietal showcases of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, MCC, Pinotage, Shiraz and Chardonnay which track the evolution of a specific variety in South Africa are another highlight of my wine journey. The bi-annual Celebration of Chardonnay Day convened by the third-generation De Wetshof, aka The House of Chardonnay, in the Robertson Wine Valley, is another highlight of three decades on the Cape wine circuit. Inaugurated sixteen years ago, the keynote address by luminaries among wine writers and judges – most recently Stephen Spurrier, Jay McInerney and Andrew Jefford - followed by benchmark flights of sparkling, wooded, unwooded and vintage Chardonnay from Burgundy to California and the Cape, is one of the most sought-after tickets on the wine calendar.

While scrolling through my notebooks, I came across an unforgettable tasting of one of South Africa’s oldest wine brands – Chateau Libertas. Wine writers tasted liquid history at the eightieth anniversary of one of the Cape’s pioneering “claret” blends, released every vintage by SFW/Distell since 1932. At the showcase of eight decades of Chateau Libertas in Stellenbosch in 2012, generations of winemakers who had inherited the baton of Dr Winshaw – namely, Wouter Pienaar, Jan de Waal, Michael Bucholz, Bonnie van Niekerk and Deon Boshoff – led tastings of the 1940, 1957 (Yup, I got to taste wine made in my birth year), 1962, 1978, 1982 1994, 1999, 2000, 2009 and 2010 vintages – while discussing the changing assemblage, staying power and style evolution of what hosts Duimpie Bailey and Dave Hughes called “the magical red blend” . And who could forget tasting rare vintages of Zonnebloem and Fleur du Cap at the underground Bergkelder or in the Tabernacle? 

When tasting vintages of wine older than yourself, etiquette requires that you stand up to pay your respects – which means I usually stay seated these days. My liquid recall includes many special tri-centenary and centenary anniversaries on heritage wine farms. Fine food and wine pairings at fancy restaurants are always a real treat – but the opportunity to break bread and taste wine with winemakers in the intimate dining-rooms, farm kitchens and cellars of their grand Cape Dutch manor-houses make memories. My liquid memory overflows with magical flights of flagship wines from the 1980s to 2000’s in situ with two or three generations of winemakers at Alto, Backsberg, Bon Courage, Deetlefs, Delheim, De Wetshof, Diemersdal, Groote Post, Meerlust, Middelvlei, Muratie, Overgaauw, Plaisir de Merle, Rietvallei, Simonsig, Van Loveren, Weltevrede…and recently, at Thelema with Gyles and Thomas Webb. Wine tastings are like real estate - location, location.

In a high-flying wine writer’s career, the other highlights are real flights around the winelands of the world, sometimes piloted by flying winemakers. Whenever I taste Springfield’s Life from Stone, it takes me flying low over the Breede River in a light aircraft piloted by winemaker Abrie Bruwer, pointing out the tapestry and topography of old family wine farms – down to Cape Agulhas for lunch. And I recall flying over the Namibian desert with Jean Engelbrecht down to a remote fishing spot on the Skeleton Coast to celebrate the launch of his marvelous Donkiesbaai Steen over the al fresco lunch of a lifetime: oysters, kreef and line fish freshly caught in the surf by fishermen who joined us.

They say travel expands the mind – but it also expands the waistline! When a pro pulls out all the stops, they call in the fleet – and fly media to a remote winery for a launch. Thus we flew by helicopter up over Sir Lowry’s Pass to the launch of Lomond to get a bird’s eye view of the new terroir of cool-climate Sauvignon, Semillon and Syrah in the Overberg – and by light aircraft to Paarl Rock, to Bushmanskloof in the Cederberg for a Bouchard Finlayson tasting;and flew up to the west coast for the day for a crayfish braai and tasting of the wines of the Olifants River. Location, location. 

It’s a tough way to make a living but somebody’s got to do it. Talk about flights of memory.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.