On Friday, a most extraordinary tasting featuring 40 vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch property Vergenoegd. We impose the structure of decades on history in order to interpret it more easily but of course changes in the wine industry specifically and society in general don’t happen nearly so neatly. Even so, hugely insightful to consider one particular wine from one particular property over such an extended period of time, something rare in the South African context.
The wines from the 1970s tended to have a noble rusticity about them, more red fruit than black, and tannins rather soft (vinification occurring in 3 600-litre vats up to 1988). 1974 was generally considered a great vintage and the Vergenoegd didn’t disappoint, more aromatic than its immediate counterparts and still very much intact (score: 16/20).
At some point in the 1980s, the winemaking seems to have become more ambitious with more black fruit in evidence but also more green/mint/eucalyptus character. The 1983 was one of the least convincing wines overall (13/20) showing sweet fruit pastille and overt green character at the same time. Conversely, the 1982 was probably wine of the day displaying relatively little ageing and plenty of complexity – red and black fruit, violets and spice (18/20).
Cellarmaster John Faure was at a loss to explain the 1983, although he did say excessive greenness was a general problem that year. More generally, he suggested that there was a tendency to “overcomplicate things” in the 1980s. “There was plenty of new plant material and new technology. It was an experimental time”.
The observation was made by fellow attendee Tim James that the 1980s would’ve seen more direct intervention in the vineyards compared to the 1970s posing the question whether or not the great wines that South Africa made in the 1970s were as a result of vines which were more naturally in balance.
One innovation that I thought had a positive impact was the introduction of small-volume barrique. The 1989 vintage was the first to feature 225-litre barrels and I thought it was in great nick (18/20), maturation in these vessels presumably contributing to greater stability over the long term.
The 1990s showed well, modern in a positive sense, with better fruit expression but not at expense of structure and balance. The 1995 was stand out with incredible fruit density (17/20) while I thought the 1998 (16.5/20) had the edge on the 1997 (15/20). So many 1998s were overdone but the Vergenoegd seemed all of a piece while the 1997 was underdone, if anything.
Onto the 2000s and it really is quite remarkable how consistent the house style is – Faure has been involved in winemaking since 1972 and the value of extended tenure in the cellar shows. Current release is the 2005 (reviewed here). Why the delayed release? “The berries are too small, the skins are too thick. Cab doesn’t fit the prevailing paradigm of make now, sell tomorrow”.
While Faure’s approach in recent times has been to mature the wine 18 to 24 months in barrel, around 40 to 50% new, neither the 2009 or 2010 feature new oak as “the bank wouldn’t extended overdraft facilities”. It would be a great pity if this serious, unflashy producer had to deviate too much from its established style purely due to financial reasons.