Can South Africa make wines that age gracefully?

Friday, 25 October, 2013
Claire Hu
Claire Hu debated the issue with Stellenzicht winemaker Guy Webber and Michael van Deventer of Vionoteque Wine Bank, over a rare tasting of local gems going all the way back to 1974.
Drinking a really good old wine is one of life’s greatest sensual pleasures. It’s not just the complex and multi-layered flavours you appreciate with every sip, it’s what the wine tells you about its birthplace and the people who crafted it.

So I was intrigued when offered the chance to taste 13 South African wines going back four decades from the coffers of Bergkelder Vinoteque Wine Bank, which sells and stores probably the biggest collection of mature SA wines from mainly Cape Legends farms such as Allesverloren, Alto, Le Bonheur and Uitkyk.

The conversation took as many windy paths as the stories behind the wines. We wondered whether the demand for instant gratification had impacted on consumers’ appreciation for mature wines and producers’ appetite for making them. “Respect for older wines is being lost in consumerism,” says Guy Webber of Stellenzicht, which has won many plaudits for its mature wines. “Vintages are being brought forward and forward, and we are losing sight of the fact these wines mature exceptionally well.”

We also wondered: have consumers’ palates been dumbed down to the extent they have lost the ability to appreciate the delicate nature of older wines? Have we become ‘fast-food’ wine drinkers? And given most people drink a wine soon after buying it, are producers no longer motivated to make wines that last?

Webber believes the trade needs to adapt to meet demand for instant gratification while also educating people about the joys of wrinkly “Penny Coelan” versus “teenage blond bombshell” wines. “Our challenge is to make wines you can drink tomorrow and in 20 years time”, he says. There is no one recipe that can be followed to achieve this but balance between elements such as acidity, tannin and ripe fruit are key. “There is no one answer that can produce a long-living wine,” says Webber. “Nothing is equal in nature so you have to adapt to the site, and hope the area has got good genes.”

Michael van Deventer, manager of Vinoteque, admitted persuading people to wait can be a hard sell. “I tell people your patience will be rewarded, but it’s a hard business model telling people they should ideally wait 10 years before drinking a wine.” Most homes do not have the right conditions for storing the wine for that long either, a key consideration.

In comparison to more famous European counterparts, Guy believes South African wines change quicker but can last just as long. “SA wines grey faster but don’t reach the grave faster,” he explains. He is a big fan of the ageing capability of pinotage, which he believes can outlive cabernets and shiraz. “It seems to have this unbelievable ability to mature. If you consider it as a combination of cinsault and pinot noir, it makes sense.”

The tasting:

•    Golden Triangle Sauvignon Blanc 2005
Anyone who believes you can only drink sauvignon young should try this. Deliciously vibrant and fresh as a daisy, with green pepper, lime and complex mineral tones.

•    Stellenzicht Semillon Reserve 1995
An unusual savoury tone like chicken stock mingles with honey, lychees, jasmine and honeysuckle aromas. Probably at its peak, with a pot-pourri note creeping in.

•    Stellenzicht Syrah 1994 (R902, price where sold, per bottle)
Intense nose with a smoky note of charred charcoal. A powerful and brooding wine but still lively.

•    Stellenzicht Syrah 1997 (R427)
Plenty of fresh plums and berry fruit coming through. Complex and deep in the mouth, with a deeply perfumed finish.

•    Stellenzicht Syrah 1999 (R185)
Delicious and so drinkable! Poised, well-made and stylish. Bags of forward berry fruit, sweet spice and a smooth texture.

•    Uitkyk Cabernet Sauvignon 1974
We all felt deeply privileged to be tasting this pretty wine, which was older than at least one of us! Blackberries, violets and a strong aroma of sweet liquorice. Delicate, elegant and absolutely delicious in a mellow kinda way.

•    Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1981

•    Fleur du Cap Pinotage 1982
Slightly spirity and port-like nose. Comes alive in the mouth though, with an intensely delicious pinot noir character coming through. Tastes younger than it is; could rival a really top-notch Burgundy.

•    Alto Rouge 1986
A successful example of a maturing red blend. Lashings of red fruit persist, although it’s starting to show its age with leather aromas.

•    Allesverloren Shiraz 1987
A hint of salted caramel. Still lively in the mouth, but the rather aggressive tannins mean this is more enjoyable on the nose.

•    Stellenzicht Syrah 1989
Layers of ripe fruit flavours still coming through, a slightly mean finish.

•    Jacobsdal Pinotage 1996
A hit of salty Marmite, together with bright fruit and earthy tones. Characterful and vibrant, with a minerally after-note.

•    Le Bonheur Prima 1999 (R112)
This 75% merlot, 25% cabernet sauvignon blend had powerful tomato leaf aromas. Delicious, velvety and feminine with ripe fruit being the predominate memory. An absolute steal at that price.