A most remarkable tasting was held in Cape Town last Friday evening. Some 15 people paid quite a bit of money to sit down at a table at Aubergine restaurant and work though five pairs of wines – one South African and one foreign in each pair. The oldest two wines were from 1948, the youngest was from 1995. To say there wasn’t a dud amongst the lot of them is ludicrously faint praise. I’m not going to go into much detail here (I will be writing a longer piece on the topic for the World of Fine Wine), but even the bare results will be interesting to some.
One of pairs that fascinated me most (because the most unprecendented) was the youngest, of chardonnay. We didn’t know the order they were poured, but one was lightly oaked De Wetshof Finesse Chardonnay 1993, the other a Burgundy Grand Cru: Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 1995. Both very fine. Most people got their identification wrong – including me; but the majority preferred the Robertson one – again including me; certainly it was less evolved, and had a brighter acidity. The better experienced Andrea Mullineux, sitting next to me, confidently got it right, and preferred the Montrachet. But anyway, the Cape went immediately one up.
What to pair with pinotage? Roland Peens of the Wine Cellar in Cape Town (who organised the tasting in conjunction with the Nederburg Auction – supplier of the tasting’s local wines from Distell’s “Tabernacle” cellar) cleverly went for Californian Zinfandel. So: Zonnebloem Pinotage 1974 and Chateau Montelena Zinfandel 1975. Overwhelmingly correctly identified, and overwhelmingly the favourite was the Zin – though most people seemed to really love the pinot-like aromas of the Zonnebloem. But for me the least impressive pair of the evening.
Next up, Chateau Libertas paired with the very first Chateau Musar made by Serge Hochar, from the Lebanon; both 1959. Another clever match by Roland, with both wines including cabernet and cinsaut in their make-up. A closer call, this, with Musar winning 9:6 (and generally identified). I myself thought the Chateau Lib more complete, complex and elegant. (We were now generally at SA: 1, Rest of the World: 2.)
The evening’s highlight for most of us came next. The famous GS Cabernet Sauvignon 1966 versus Chateau Latour 1966, widely reckoned the top Bordeaux of the vintage. Very different wines. GS was undoubtedly fresher, with lovely pure fruit and as close to perfectly balanced as one could hope for. The elegant Latour had a typical (of older Bordeaux) “dirty rockpool”, cedar and herb nose. I thought the tannins were a bit too drying for perfection (perhaps this bottle was on the downhill – unlike the GS). The vote was 10:5 in favour of GS. Two all.
Last flight was 1948 port. Rather unfortunately very different styles: KWV Limited Release is very clearly more of a tawny (and gorgeously rich, sweet and lovely). Taylors Vintage 1948 is a magnificent example of the less oxidative style, showing eloquently what magic can happen in a bottle, given half a century and more, to fiery alcohol and massive tannins if in perfect balance with fruit intensity.
In fact the Taylors just pipped GS as my own top wine of the evening – making my own overall score 3:2 in favour of the Cape). But the general preference went (just) the way of the KWV, so that by the general consensus as well as my own, South Africa triumphed in this test match. Which didn’t seem overly important (though pleasantly reassuring): wine was the winner; great wine that brought back summers that had cooled before most people around that table had been born.
But if I may finish on a disillusioned note. The Johannesburg replay of a brilliant tasting that would be hard to replicate has been abandoned due to lack of interest. OK, lack of interest amongst those who can afford R7 500 – but that shouldn‘t be a problem, given how many supposed wine lovers could easily afford it. It was a struggle to get enough people in Cape Town too. So while my opinion of old Cape wine remains resolutely high, my opinion of contemporary South African wine culture has taken a knock.
- 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.