Tim James: Older whites

March 9, 2015
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 5 Comments

whitesA little adventure with older local white wines began with Steenberg Semillon 2010. Five years is not, however, elderly for a serious, oaked wine from a variety which always takes a few years to show its best, even more than most. Perhaps that need for some maturity is why semillon is perennially under-appreciated by wine-drinkers. In fact, friend and colleague Angela Lloyd says (via Twitter) that she remembers when I “actively disliked semillon” – which I can’t myself remember, but then I’m also an older white and there’s much I’ve forgotten. I have certainly always thought that semillon is generally improved by a dash of sauvignon blanc (and vice versa).

The 2010 was drinking beautifully the other night – elegant, restrained and harmoniously balanced; I forget what I ate with it, but know I was watching (second time around) the final gripping episode of the notably brilliant Fargo TV series. The combination was so beguiling that writing a note on the wine increasingly seemed like a silly thing to do while there remained the possibility of drinking it; and drinking more made writing about ever more unlikely.

Actually I’m not at all sure the Steenberg would have been improved by a dash of sauvignon, given that the estate’s best examples, while impressively long-lived, tend to start showing pungent green-pea notes fairly soon, which is a character I don’t care for. In fact, someone was telling me recently that the maiden 2007 vintage of Steenberg’s Magna Carta (a sem-sauv blend) has now too emphatically and unattractively acquired it.

That was not a problem with a significantly older wine next evening: Vergelegen White 2005. (In typically inept Vergelegen fashion, they’ve changed the name at least once since then – it’s now called GVB White; or just GVB on the label.) This 2005 (with twice as much semillon as sauvignon in it) was always magnificent, though I remember how closed, but bursting with potential, it was in its early years. It remains excellent, though it’s perhaps reached its peak of maturity: a day after opening, the lingering, intense flavours were fading, and there was some mustiness on the bouquet. The honeyed lemon character is now more preserved lemon than fresh lemon, the honey more old honey. A fine wine still, but I shall drink up my last few bottles over the next year or two.

Next in my adventure was Quoin Rock Oculus 2007, from Simonsberg sauvignon blanc with 15% viognier. In my 2011 Platter entry on this wine I noted that it was “subdued, brooding, acidic; might yet expand”; also that the viognier added “both texture and subtle peach”. I gave it only four stars – perhaps partly because it was so outclassed by the Nicobar, the estate’s sauvignon from Agulhas – but now I realise I should have been more generous.

Oculus 2007 has, at eight years, “expanded” as I’d hoped, though still with a little quite fresh fruit on the nose. It’s less forceful and intense than the Vergelegen, and also has another year or two of good life in it, but it too shows none of that disfiguring (in my opinion) old-sauvignon green pungency. The main gorgeousness on offer, however, is the soft, velvety texture given by the viognier and oak-ageing (a quarter new). I haven’t had this wine for five years, but I think it might well be at its best now, though some would have liked more of the youthful fruit character. Which is fair enough, and a matter of choice – but everyone should at least try to also appreciate the charms of maturity. Speaking as an older white….

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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5 Comments

  1. James PietersenMarch 10, 2015 at 11:46 amReply

    I recently had some great older South African white wines – notably the Vergelegen White 2003 and the Cape Point Isliedh 2009. Also some Ataraxia Chardonnay 2005 and Uva Mira 2005 – these were all in very good condition. I had some of these same wines from the 2002, 2004 and 2006 vintages with a much less joy. The take away for me is that better vintages go a long way to aiding longevity and should be taken much more seriously in South Africa.

  2. Christian EedesMarch 10, 2015 at 8:48 amReply

    Hi Marthelize, As a general rule of thumb, I would suggest that five years from vintage for modern SA whites and eight to ten years for reds will provide optimal bottle maturation. Obviously there are exceptions – Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2005 is still excellent and my guess is that it’s going to provide satisfaction for many years to come, for instance. I don’t think SA wines are inherently less age-worthy than those from elsewhere in the world (witness Jancis Robinson’s recent score of 20/20 for GS Cab 1966) but I do think that the market demand for wines to be accessible early on and the resultant changes in winemaking militates against this – you can’t have your cake and eat it.

    • Marthelize TredouxMarch 10, 2015 at 9:21 amReply

      Thanks, Christian. Sounds about right for a good rule of thumb (from my experience anyway). There are occasional whoppers that just surprise everyone. I remember a Vergelegen Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (can’t remember the vintage but at the time it was opened, it was 8 or 9 years old) and it was amazing.
      And then there’s the 1998 Bouchard Finlayson Blanc de Mer which I tasted at a flighted tasting last year which was just mind-boggling for a 16-yo white (in my experience, anyway).
      Obviously, those are *not* rule of thumb examples but they seem to be out there, happily.

      @Kwispedoor we bought it from the cellar in January so if it’s a storage issue then they stuffed up (unlikely). The cork disintegrate on contact so I think that wine just wasn’t going to have a chance either way.

  3. KwispedoorMarch 10, 2015 at 8:34 amReply

    I don’t think the question allows for an easy answer, Marthelize. Too many variables. Also, sometimes one opens an old wine and it’s a train smash, but when you open another bottle of the same wine, it’s a beauty. I like really old wine, but even I probably wouldn’t have kept a Chardonnay from a hot climate for that long. Having said that, the excessive oxidation might rather have something to do with the wine’s closure.

  4. Marthelize TredouxMarch 9, 2015 at 10:45 pmReply

    What is the general consensus (if even possible to reach something like that) about ageing SA white wines? Or – perhaps slightly narrowed down – which cultivars/styles most likely to keep and how long is “old/older”?
    Asking because we opened a Rijk’s Chardonnay 2001 this weekend. It was so badly oxidized, it had gone orange. Wondering if it ever stood a chance in the first place or if 14 years was just 7 too many?

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