Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 1971

Amazing grace.

Amazing grace.

Before the start of judging for this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, the traditional tasting of old South African wines  – whites at least 15 years old and reds at least 20 years old.

Meerendal Pinotage 1974, Rustenberg Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1967 and Lanzerac Cabernet Sauvignon 1959 were all in great nick but the wine which was truly memorable was the Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 1971.

Red and black fruit and a subtle perfume on the nose. The palate meanwhile was wonderfully poised and retained remarkable detail despite the wine’s 43 years of age. A wine of astonishing elegance and a privilege to taste.

Score: 95/100.

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11 Comments

  1. JoeMay 13, 2014 at 6:36 pmReply

    I’d go with Hennie’s suggestion. Jan Boland Cotzee may be the man to ask…

  2. Michael FridjhonMay 13, 2014 at 12:53 pmReply

    Not all green notes, especially in inland sites, can be attributed to pyrazines. As for the virus debate – I have asked the old-timers how they ripened the grapes in the bad old days and I was told that long coolish dry ripening seasons left the vines relatively unstressed and therefore less prone to the virus notes we so readily identify today. 1974 was a classic in this respect. We also shouldn’t under-estimate the importance of bush-vines and the role they play in managing the evolution of grape ripeness.

    • KwispedoorMay 13, 2014 at 1:30 pmReply

      Thanks, Michael

      I realize that not all greenness could be attributed to pyrazines (and that there are different types of pyrazines), but the feedback was that there were no trace of green notes on the 1971 Alto – which would include pyrazines. As I recall, 1974 and 1976 were good vintages, but 1971 wasn’t really anything to write home about? Also, there were many, many 14.5% and 15% ABV Cabernets from the almost perfect, cool South African 2009 vintage. Was the Stellenbosch climate really so perfect in the sixties and seventies that no country can compete in the 21st century?

      But bush vines – that sounds like it could possibly have a meaningful impact. Of course pyrazines are not an issue with Rhône varieties, but the moderate (and even low) ABV’s that we are seeing from properly ripe grapes from old bush vines in the Swartland does make one think…

  3. GrantMay 13, 2014 at 10:58 amReply

    A few thoughts,

    1- Methoxy-pyrazine doesn’t age out of a wine. The flavour remains, so I’d suggest the wine was balanced in terms of this component when it was bottled.

    2- Between 1967 and 2007 the mean winter temperature in S’bosch rose by 1.8 degrees. That may be even higher now. Vine dormancy, accumulated cold units, length of growing season, all affected by this. Probably not an explanation on its own, but a contributory factor.

    3- I’ve never met a winemaker who doesn’t set out to make the very best wine they can every vintage. They obsess on grape ripeness, and pick when the grapes taste ripe. Unripe flavours taste the same in grapes as they do in wine, so why would you pick if that’s the case?

    4- How many places anywhere in the world ( inc BDX) at the moment can ripen phenolics in Cabernet at 12- 13%? By and large, not possible, unless pinched, green olive flavours become aspirational and commercially viable.

    Cheers

    • KwispedoorMay 13, 2014 at 11:44 amReply

      Hi, Grant

      “Between 1967 and 2007 the mean winter temperature in S’bosch rose by 1.8 degrees.” As you say, only a contributing factor. A really, really small one indeed, I’d venture, because different locations within Stellenbosch (not to mention in other W.O.’s) and different vintages account for much larger differences in temperature.

      “How many places anywhere in the world ( inc BDX) at the moment can ripen phenolics in Cabernet at 12- 13%? By and large, not possible,..” I must say, though, that I’ve had some stonkers at around 13 – 13.5% ABV in recent years (some from Bordeaux, but wines like Cordoba Crescendo and Jordan CWG Sophia also come to mind), even though the pyrazine fundamentalists might have sent out a search party to see if there were any toys left in the cot.

      I suppose it all just highlights the fact that there’s no answer for the question yet: why and how did they manage zero pyrazines in the seventies and before that at low ripeness, using old methodology?

  4. Angela LloydMay 12, 2014 at 9:27 amReply

    And virus free vines pick up sugar much more easily than virused ones; one reason there are few cabs at 12 to 13% – BUT it’s also a question of aesthetics – the Parker influence, if you like, of bigger, plusher wines laced with generous dollops of new oak. At our monthly group tasting last night, 6 Bordeaux from different AOC’s, only Gloria 06 showed any sign of elegance and origin. It was difficult to discern the origin from the others. There are SA red wines out there clocking around 13%, but not cab as yet; most of these lower alc wines are being made by young guns. To my mind one of the most elegant, restrained cabs from the grape’s heartland of S’bosch is Waterford, although the std Thelema is always balanced & ageworthy.
    Does this help?

    • KwispedoorMay 12, 2014 at 11:51 amReply

      Thanks again, Angela.

      Virused vines may have less effective sugar build-up, but they surely have more green nuances than virus-free vines at the same ripeness levels, don’t they? I also pine for the days that one could fairly easily pick out a Bordeaux red in a blind tasting and yes – of course modern aesthetics have evolved.

      Lack of greenness in very ripe Cabernets, made from virus-free grapes, using modern techniques, is easily explained. I’m still looking for a plausible explanation for the lack of greenness in fairly under-ripe (at least by today’s standards) Cabernets, made from arguably unevenly ripened (to a degree, at least) virused grapes, using traditional methods (no berry selection to remove green berries, etc.) I guess what I’m trying to say, is that the theory that pyrazines are forever sensorically prevalent, is contentious. Why would they be immune to molecular polarization? What else would explain the lack of green nuances in those very old wines?

      The stylistic debate is something else: does it make sense to over-ripen Cabernet with the almost exclusive intent of eradicating pyrazines, at the expense of balance regarding alcohol, sugar AND acid? Harvest earlier and you have a properly dry wine at a balanced alcohol with no requirement for acid additions. Yes, and some pyrazines – a natural grape-derived element. But in cool regions (the best places for this grape) with excellent viticulture, this should not be a problem in most vintages.

      The problem with the latter style/philosophy is of course that modern winemakers are all trained with a completely different mindset. And the modern aesthetic doesn’t accept those wines (when they’re young, anyways). And people want/need their wines market-ready in a few years, not a decade or more. Conversely, back in the days people even proudly trumpeted that their wines should not be approached when young, but those days seem to be over…

      The problem with the former style/philosophy is that you end up with mostly uniform products (even from France, as you mentioned) that speaks little of their origin, all with smooth and easy tannins. Also, some residual sugar, high alcohol and acid adjustments, plus arguably generally less ability to mature for extended periods. Let’s not even talk about the accompanying temptations of reverse osmosis, water additions, etc. I find all of those to be exorbitant sacrifices, all made just to eradicate one little commercially unpopular grape-derived natural element.

      For the record, I generally like optimally ripe and balanced wines, showing a sense of place and maturation ability. I just think that too much is being made of pyrazines nowadays and the desperate quest to eradicate it at all costs is an industry-typical over-reaction (just as the initial enchantment with it – remember the KWV green pepper additions? – lead to under ripe wines, dominated by pyrazines).

      Even disregarding any stylistic/visionary/terroir/immediate gratification debate, I would still really love to know why there are no sensorially perceptible pyrazines in fairly early harvested, but mature, Cabernets (like the one in question, plus many others of its era) made from arguably unevenly ripened virused grapes, using traditional methods.

  5. HennieMay 9, 2014 at 7:48 pmReply

    why dont you ask the older winemakers. there should still be a few winemakers around that made wine during the 70’s?

  6. KwispedoorMay 9, 2014 at 10:56 amReply

    With today’s prevalent (amongst many writers and winemakers, at least) horror at anything resembling one part per trillion pyrazines and the general belief that it never goes away with age, I have the following question: was this Alto Cab ripe with an ABV of over 14% (let’s face it: getting a proper Cab in SA today at under 14% ABV – or one that will last half a century – is near impossible) or was it less ripe at somewhere below 14% ABV? If it’s below 14% (my random guess would be around 12%), then surely the wine must be shockingly green by now, especially considering wine making practices back then (no berry selection, possibly virus affected vines, etc.). Now if the wine clocks in at under 14% and it’s not green, can someone please explain to me why pyrazines were no issue back then, but nowadays it seemingly is? Or does it diminish in wine after enough time and this clashes with the average modern man’s general quest for immediate gratification? I’ve heard theories, but nothing remotely convincing, and I find this rather perplexing and fascinating – is there anyone out there that actually has a thoroughly plausible explanation, please?

    • Angela LloydMay 9, 2014 at 4:40 pmReply

      It definitely seemed closer to 12 than 14% alc but not a trace of greenness; it was a quite sensational bottle. The only explanation I can give is that the vines weren’t as badly affected with virus then as they are now (I’m speaking generally, not specifically about Alto) and leafroll virus can and does spread. The yield was probably lower, so the grapes had a better chance of ripening. Old Welgemeends from virused vines also don’t have pyrazines and clock in between 12 and 13%. Whether or not you find this plausible, Kwisp, it’s the best I can offer.

      • KwispedoorMay 10, 2014 at 9:19 pm

        Thanks, Angela. Many current winemakers have replaced virused vines with virus-free ones. And most winemakers that try to make serious wines limit their yields. Still: no quality (or hardly any) Cabs to be found at 12 to 13% ABV. I’m still stumped…

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