In Michael Broadbent’s “Pocket Guide to Winetasting – How to Approach and Appreciate Wine” (Mitchell Beazley: 1995), the author writes “Without hesitation, I put cabernet sauvignon at the head of the great red-wine grapes of the world, not because I’m dogmatic enough to place the finest claret, which it produces, above the finest burgundy, but because it maintains a recognizable style and character even when transplanted out of its classic home region, Bordeaux”. This will no doubt irk Burgundy lovers but it has to be said that to date Stellenbosch Cab tends to be just that much more convincing than Elgin or Hemel en Aarde Valley or Elgin Pinot Noir.
And with the seventh annual Prescient Cabernet Sauvignon Report released yesterday, all indications are that the 2015 vintage is one for the ages – 25 of the 40 wines to rate 90-plus from this dream vintage and 30 of these from Stellenbosch. If the district can’t leverage this vintage to take ownership of the category and position itself as a global player, then it never will. Mike Ratcliffe, please stand up.
At the function to mark the release of the report, I was asked by more than one guest if these were wines to buy to mark a child’s birth year and serve 18 or 21 years later. That’s a moot point – the 10 Year Old Wine Awards which Winemag.co.za recently reinstituted suggests that many of SA’s modern reds just about make a decade, becoming more mellow but not necessarily obtaining more interest with time. That said, what makes the 2015 Cabs remarkable is that the best examples combine monumental structure with freshness and detail and if ever there was a year to back, this is it.
The other point to make, yet again, is that SA fine wine still offers stupendous value for money or rather quality relative to price. Average price of the top 40 wines was R292.97 a bottle (ranging from R120 for the Glenelly Glass Collection 2015 to R980 for the Rust en Vrede Single Vineyard 2015). The average global price for acclaimed Bordeaux Fifth Growth Chateau Lynch-Bages 2015 according to Wine-Searcher.com is $126 (R1 593) while that of First Growth Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2015 is $645 a bottle (the equivalent of R8 155) – our best Cabs are there or thereabouts in terms of quality but nowhere close in terms of price.
As has been pointed out many times elsewhere, SA best wines fetching more on the open market is not about a privileged few profiteering but rather about the sustainability of what is generally a tenuous industry. Farm labourers and growers need to be paid more and vineyards need to be kept in the ground and free of leafroll virus. Have any discussion about late-ripening Cab and there’s no avoiding the leaf-roll virus issue – you only have to drive around Stellenbosch at this time of year and see the swathes of red-leafed vineyard to realise that the problem is as rife as ever. And as difficult to control as ever – a leading producer confessed to me recently that his top Cabernet block had just become infected despite his best efforts to keep it clean, his one theory being that the gardeners had sprayed flowers on the property with pesticide, destroying the ladybird population – ladybugs being a natural predator of mealybugs which transmit leafroll.