Tim James: The stylistic vagaries of SA Port-style wines
By Christian Eedes, 19 September 2016
I’ve been thinking, rather unfashionably, about port. Rather unseasonably too, perhaps, as we move into spring and most people seem to associate drinking fortified wines (if they drink them at all) with winter. Not me – when willing to confront the alcohol and the calories, I’m happy to drink it all the year round, especially one of the more modest examples poured over ice-cream in summer.
My port ponderings (forgive my avoiding quotation marks for the local stuff; let’s take it for granted we all know the rules and the difference) were prompted by stumbling on some oldish articles from the defunct Grape magazine, when I was looking for something quite different. First, a 2002 account of a Grape tasting conducted and written-up by the late Tony Mossop, eminent wine journalist, judge, and port-maker at his tiny Calitzdorp property, Axe Hill – and also father of Miles Mossop, not the least of Tony’s contributions to Cape wine. Secondly, tantalising excerpts from what was clearly a heated debate in 2007 about a Wine magazine port tasting (the rest of the debate is lost in cyberspace).
A decade and especially two decades back, port seemed much more important to South African wine than now. In fact, if you’d wondered in the mid-late 90s about the most exciting category in Cape wine, it’s bizarrely certain that port would have been a leading contender.
By the early 1990s there had been signs from Calitzdorp of a shift from the prevalent model of single-variety wines, a lot of sweetness and fairly modest alcohol levels, towards something more approaching the classic Douro style. But it was really a Stellenbosch wine, JP Bredell Reserve Port 1991, that announced the port revolution – and in fact, long before, Overgaauw had been pioneers of using traditional varieties. The 1991 was Anton Bredell’s maiden release – though JP Bredell had long been one of the largest private producers of port in the world, making it for KWV to market.
A blend of tinta barroca and souzão, with just 100 g/l sugar and 19.3% alcohol, it received enthusiasm and 4.5 stars in Platter, and things really started moving. Tony Mossop, for example, was soon prompted to acquire Axe Hill and start planting port varieties in 1993, and his traditionally made (foot-trodden in lagares), dry-finishing, tannic first release was 1997. It’s reliance on touriga nacional, the finest of the port grapes, was as important as its style. Higher alcohols and less sugar were becoming more common now.
The Calitzdorp producers were making decent, more traditional vintage-style ports, though they still tended towards more sweetness and youthful charm and less tannic power and fire than JP Bredell. (I now see something of a reversion to that style in Axe Hill, for example, which nowadays offers much delicious pleasure, but not the level of power and tannic grip that is part of a genuine Vintage style.)
Bredell’s was certainly my favourite of the ports. And then (it seems to be a complicated story involving land and family) it suddenly disappeared – the 2007 Cape Vintage Reserve was the last I know of. If there hadn’t by then been so much excitement about other categories of Cape wine, its absence would have been mourned more. I hear, however, that from a new base in the Klein Karoo’s Langeberg-Garcia ward JP Bredell is being reinvigorated. Whether there’ll be more ports forthcoming I don’t know, but apparently a few of the older ports are being re-released, including the 2007, and a 20-year-old Cape Tawny on the way. Worth keeping a look out for.
- 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.