Age worthy, yes – but any fun?

Saturday, 2 November, 2013
Dave March, CWM
There is obviously a chorus of voices for aging SA wines, and I am among them. Reading Claire Hu’s article ‘Can South Africa make wines that age gracefully?’ (i)  only solidifies my opinion; and whets my appetite.
I hear the laments of Michael van Deventer in Claire’s article, that storage is a problem, others might insist that most SA wines weren’t meant for aging and that after a few years they wouldn’t be fit for adding to gravy. Only a few hardy souls would agree with such an innocent statement, and they tend to be wine buffs.  I imagine the average consumer is firmly of the opinion that we are all talking nonsense. Especially as we seem to contradict ourselves by saying old wines are great but nobody keeps them properly. 

Yet, surely no one has failed to notice the incredible prices raised for ‘ancient’ SA wines at the Nederburg Auctions of late? (ii). Witness the 40 year old Zonnebloem that went for more than R7,300 per bottle. I know it is a charity event mostly for trade buyers as much as anything, but I bet the new owners are looking forward to cracking open a bottle.

Then what of ever more frequent articles and blogs such as that of the hardy explorers tackling Distell’s Tabernacle cellar of epic proportions, including wines many of which qualify for a state pension? (iii).  The survivors definitely sang the praises of the old masterpieces they opened.  Christian Eedes put it into words, ‘the Lanzerac Pinotage 1963 and the 1940 Chateau Libertas were absolute standouts’. Chateau Libertas at 73 years old! Am I wrong in thinking that both those wines would not have been expensive purchases on release? And what of the 1974 Uitkyk Cabernet Sauvignon that Claire describes as ‘Delicate, elegant and absolutely delicious’. I wonder if anyone – including their winemakers – would have expected the quality found some half century later.  And don’t forget that winemaking and vineyard techniques – not to mention virus free clones – have been improving steadily, making more recent wines an even better bet to age. As Michael van Deventer says of the Tabernacle experience, ‘I don’t think there’s anyone within the wine industry that won’t get excited about wines like these.”

Is that the problem?  Most positive experiences of old SA wines are from stock held in perfect conditions and tasted by people in the wine trade. Claire’s tasting is a case in point – how many people are going to keep their wines in the conditions of the Bergkelder Vinoteque? Do ordinary consumers spin tales of dusty bottles from under the stairs which are wonderful upon opening decades later?  Probably not. Statistics show we don’t keep wines, we drink them soon after purchase, usually hours after purchase.

So if we can’t or won’t store them, can we buy them? But where would we buy old wines from, presuming we are not used (or nerdy enough) to buying from specialist outlets?

To test my theory, I set out to find old wines from my local bottle shops. The reality is that the oldest things on the shelves are probably the crisps. White wines were still in nappies and most reds were at nursery. Few reds were older than 2009. But then, nirvana; maybe, at an underused shop which obviously doesn’t waste money on appearances.

Lying discreetly were Shiraz’s from 1995, Chenins from 2004 and, shock/horror, Sauvignon Blancs from 2000. Not in the Bergkelder Vinoteque age range, but a start. It was obvious that this was not because the owner was a wine nerd but because the wines just didn’t sell. Perfect; now we can see if real wines under real conditions and selling to normal consumers actually survive. I ignored the Nederburg ‘Eminance’ and ‘Edelkuer’ with some 15 years of age, I knew they would be divine and nowhere near fading.

I was looking for ‘ordinary’ wines at normal price points. Let me start by saying the Dormershire Shiraz from 2003 and at R39 is one of the nicest Shiraz’ I have ever tasted. No, I am not using hyperbole to inflate my case. Beautiful fading garnet, gentle blackberry nose and soft integrated tannins. The fruit is elegant and smooth and like silk pyjamas, comforting and soothing. Maybe not a blockbuster, but all class and definitely alive and kicking and good for several more years. Alas, a second bottle proved disappointing – compelling evidence of the saying ‘there are no great wines; just great bottles’. The 2003 Golden Triangle Merlot from Stellenzicht was also drinking nicely; with tertiary aromas and enjoyable fruit. The 2001 Shiraz from Zevenvacht didn’t have the fruit intensity of the Dormershire, but it did have a golden amber edge, wet leather and spiced forest fruit nose and restrained palate finesse. It was also drinking beautifully and had a few more years to go. The 2001 Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon from Fleur du Cap was still a beast, intense black fruit lozenge and acid grip – definitely not going out quietly.
Okay, so perhaps you might expect such reds to be still enjoyable though less ‘New World’ in their middle age, after all, they are just entering their teens. Would white wines prove otherwise?

The CS Bush Vines Chenin Blanc from Kleine Zalze is a firm favourite. I imagined a bit of age might make it even more delicious and I was right. The 2006 – lying directly under a strip light for several years - was still vibrant, with intense marzipan and tropical fruits galore and layers of flavour. I’d love to try it in five years time, and at less than R20 a bottle (!) incredible value.

Then, a real test. The 2002 Sauvignon Blanc from Zevenvacht.  The deep gold colour was a worry, as was the nose which was of buttered toast and nothing else. The palate wasn’t obviously Sauvignon; the acidity was still there, with a gentle creaminess at the end, but the fruits were hazy, lemony and herbal still, but less pronounced. Certainly drinkable, though and despite being past its best, it still provided an enjoyable experience. After 10 years in these conditions I think the Sauvignon is strong evidence.

Of course, there are tales of much older wines still in good order, but don’t forget these have been under harsh lights in a warm shop beside busy feet for most of their life; not mollycoddled in some dank cellar or regulated warehouse.

A good place to change perceptions is the advice from the producer. I know they have to be conservative, and they want their wines drunk soon to encourage repeat purchases, but reading, on the back label of the 2003 Dormershire, ‘…with maturation potential of four years from vintage’ (ie 2007) in 2013, surely many would put it back on the shelf. This hugely undersells the wine’s capabilities. I think Dormershire among others can justifiably say, ‘drinking nicely at 3 to 6 years then improving for another 6’. Just don’t keep it beside the cooker.

Anyone thirsty to try really old wines couldn’t do better than visiting Pieter’s Private Cellar Gourmet Evenings, held monthly at his Good Hoop Estate outside Stellenbosch.  Not only is the four course meal, cheeses, MCC, Vintage port and Estate wine plentiful, but you can choose your own bottle from a range which includes dozens from the 1970’s onwards. Favourites among the guests so far have been the Goede Hoop Vintage Rouge 1982 and the 1971 KWV Pinotage. Six couples can select wines, meaning you can sup half a dozen wines whose combined age could be more than 250 years! (iv)

(i)  20 October 2013
(ii)   ‘Zonnebloem reaches Zenith at 2013 Nederburg Auction’ on
(iii)‘    stellenbosch’.