Ageing potential – the final frontier for modern-era SA wine

By , 4 October 2022



When to drink?

It is curious, at least to me, that while South Africa’s best modern-era wines are rightfully praised for their striking intensity and complexity, their age-worthiness goes largely without comment. Wine is one of the few foodstuffs that can improve with age, and indeed it is one of its key fascinations. I often get asked by those with only a passing interest in the subject how long this or that wine might be kept, and my stock reply is approximately five years from vintage for top-end whites and eight years for reds.

I am well aware that there are some of my colleagues who think the drinking windows I’m proposing above are unduly pessimistic, and I do always qualify my advice by saying that that the enjoyment of any wine past a certain point in its development comes down to the particular drinker’s individual tolerance for developed aromas and flavours. It does, however, seem sensible to accept that by far the minority of both white and red wines from anywhere in the world are destined to be more pleasurable and more interesting to drink when they are 10 years old than at one years old – a whole lot of complicated chemistry must turn out perfectly.

Despite all this, my sense is that wines from the 2000s and 2010s – supposedly a golden era for South African wine – have generally not aged nearly as well as collectors might have hoped (see the various editions of the 10-Year-Old Wine Report on this site). Moreover, this is not something that can be disregarded or swept aside because if South Africa, or more specifically the Cape, truly wants to be regarded as one of the great wine producing regions of the world, then age-worthiness is non-negotiable.

As to why the development in bottle of SA’s modern-era wines have been at least a little disappointing is perhaps not difficult to explain. When it comes to reds, it’s well documented that there was a shift to pick grapes later and riper throughout the 1990s and 2000s – critics, in particular the influential Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate, were inclined to reward a more brazen style while consumers were in any event opting for fruitier wines with less aggressive tannins. Determined to achieve acceptance by the global market post isolation, South Africa quickly fell in line with these trends. It is clear now that in many instances the desire to achieve extra weight and power was at the expense of ageing potential.

As for white wines, winemakers, consciously or unconsciously, have been making wines that are more accessible and demonstrative to build their reputations quickly among critics and punters alike. Low sulphur levels were also fashionable in hipster, non-conformist winemaking circles and this has done nothing to prevent the rapid development of wines in bottle. Climate change, especially the great drought of 2015 to 2018, has led to compromised vines and wines of greater ripeness and acidic softness. Unfortunately, the variability in performance of natural cork as a closure can’t be left out of the discussion.

Happily, I suspect that wines with real ageing potential might well be with us already or, at least, are coming very soon. The growth in proficiency regarding both viticulture and winemaking was slow in the period immediately after isolation but continues apace – the top end of the industry remains on an increasing-returns learning curve, if you will – and as a result, we are seeing wines that better lend themselves to extended maturation in terms of freshness and structure. It might also be said that winemakers are now much more inclined to be true to site rather than force a particular style on to their wines.

Of course, different vintages of the same wine mature at different rates depending on the respective climatic conditions that prevailed and, in that regard, Stellenbosch and the Cape in general has just had two vintages that should reward very long keeping, these being 2015 and 2017. By contrast, 2016 seems to be a vintage that should be drunk up – vintage variation is becoming more and more marked.

Lastly, there is significant precedent that the Cape CAN make wines that age magnificently, these being the reds of the 1960s and 1970s and even before. Stocks of these wines are inevitably limited but not so scarce that they never get shown and their longevity and evenness of quality is generally astonishing. From what little is known about winemaking technique, tartaric acid additions were routine so no shortage of freshness while maturation was typically in large-format vats so did not depend on oak to make an impression. The one further point I would make is that in the absence of any very binding legislation, these wines were typically blends that conformed to no pre-existing template.

The much-revered Chateau Libertas 1940 consists of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon but includes Cinsault and some of the Port varieties (and is said to have an alcohol of 14.93%) for instance. Alto Rouge dates from the 1920s and the original recipe was apparently three parts Cinsault to one each Cab and Shiraz. The examples of Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1960s appear to have been 1) non-vintage even though labelled as being from a specific year and 2) typically contained not insignificant portions of Cinsault and Pinotage. In the 1970s, KWV Roodeberg consisted mostly of low-yield Cinsault with varying amounts of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Tinta Barocca…

It might well be argued that these wines came about solely for pragmatic reasons, but I’m inclined to wonder if part of their longevity is precisely due to their disparate parts. It has said that growing conditions in the Cape are more Mediterranean than continental which necessitates blending to achieve complexity. Whether this is entirely valid or not, there’s no denying that there are often large variations in soil and aspect over small distances making the successful cultivation of just one variety by the individual producer that much more difficult.

These historic wines have influenced at least some of today’s winemakers. Columella 2020 from Eben Sadie is a blend of 40% Syrah, the rest Mourvèdre, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Tinta Barocca while Leeu Passant Dry Red 2019 from Andrea and Chris Mullineux is 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Cabernet Franc and 16% Cinsault and there are quite a few others (see this year’s Prescient Signature Red Blend Report). The question is: Do they get enough recognition relative to Cape Bordeaux Red Blends or single-variety Syrah?


2 comment(s)

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    Michael Rathbone | 9 October 2022

    In 2020 I shared a bottle of 1981 Le Bonheur Cabernet Sauvignon and wrote the following note in Cellartracker. I have given this a score of 92 but would have rather not scored it as the real point is this bottle has held up amazingly well and justifies the reputation of Le Bonheur as one of the best South African Cabernet’s of the 80’s. Still vibrant fruit that has mellowed into a wine that could stand comparison with any Super Second from Bordeaux of this vintage. In 2020 we had a bottle of Columella and there was general agreement that we drank it too early and it needed much more time to show its full potential

    paul white | 4 October 2022

    I recall buying 3 dozen or so late 1960s and early 70s South African wines in New Zealand a decade a go. SA being a main source of wine for Kiwis back then and Kiwis slow to boycott the apartheid regime until well into the 1980s. They had gone out of fashione with Kiwis and few there knew much about SA’s long wine history. These I purchased at auction for around a dollar each, completely unopposed in bidding. I reckoned that with 3-400 years of wine culture and before the Parker era of spoofulation and UK supermarkets dictating styles, the wines had a good chance of having aged well. Most of them had and going through the boxes was a delight. I don’t recall any being oxidized and none were corked either with quite magnificent, fine grained quality to the stoppers. Most were KWV Cabernets or Roodeberg, the latter wonderful wines. There were also some auction wines, the best Rhine Riesling, made from Semillon I suspect, that were also quite delightful and still fresh.

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