Melvyn Minnaar: Wine and the significance of track record

By , 6 October 2021

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A glorious Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon which had spent ten years in the bottle was the past weekend’s highlight. All the classic elements of the noble grape were held up in a wine that simply took over the conversation with full forceful, charming, complex personality and a presence that lingered in thought and aftertaste as we showed due respect to its provenance and maturity. And so the contemplation turned – again – to time. Time as an experience, but also time as a track record.

Not that there wasn’t the usual hum-‘n-hah-ing about the perfume, the kaleidoscope and depth of flavours, the delicacy of its bold ‘construction’ (whatever anyone considered that to be), balance, and, of course, how beautifully it had made use of its time in the bottle. (It was nowhere near tapering off in terms of poise.) But it was the change and improvement (if that is the right word) that time had awarded the grape as wine.

The wine wasn’t a newcomer. It had a label that’s been around for a few decades, boasting numerous vintages of note. It came with attribution – as art auctioneers love to say about an artwork.

Perhaps this awareness of time has been prompted by the odd year or so of the pandemic which seems to have mangled the clockwork of existence: days flowing into another during isolation without inter-human social prompts, weeks, months, and, now nearly the end of another very strange, unsettling year.

Maybe it is a consciousness of one’s own time running out. (Duimpie Bayly’s death reverberated in saddened wine circles.)

Over another conversation table earlier, the subject had been Madeira – like in the formidable wine from that distant island to which the concept of aging and maturation is its founding truth. (Port is another, of course. And we’ll get to the Constance.)

That local point man for Portugal and the pride of its cork forests and industry, Joaquim Sa, recalled a recent Madeira tasting and how the technicalities discussed faded in the presence of the very old wine itself. As he put it: the spirit of place and history of the bottle’s contents spoke wordlessly in the aromas and tones of the colour. To try and analyse and formulate a response do not feel like the right reaction to sipping (or even judging) such a wine. One is in the presence of something far beyond simply fine wine.

Naturally, our conversation turned to the mysterious allure of certain very old stuff – such as, recently, the ‘investment’ (or trophy) appeal of a 1821 bottle of Grand Constance (sold for R967 300 a few weeks ago). As bottle-neck closure expert, Sa had been instrumental in re-corking ancient wines, including some of these precious bottles from the old colonial Cape. Somehow he is in the know about what’s inside. 

The big question to ask is not whether the wine – in this auction hyped-up case, 200 years old – is drinkable, but if it ever will be poured. Will the spirit and history of Constantia and its muscat vineyards and artisan winemakers be unlocked in a tasting-drinking event?

Or will the wine simply make the new owner happy to have it, indulging in (bragging about) this glorious vinous asset? (Watch this space: there are still a few of these fragile little Constance bottles out there; auctioneers are keen for the money and the publicity.)

Of course, the ridiculous price is partly due to a remarkable history – track record, if you will. (And a rather still good-looking label, I believe. Apparently some of those other old Cape bottles in dark cellars won’t make the auction spotlight because, well, time has taken its toll on the labels.)

And so we wondered about the newbies on the auction blocks – the johnnies-come-lately, if you want, who are all the craze, the fashionable 90-point young-‘uns. Do track records count? Time in those bottles? Will they unveil in time lingering presence and personality?

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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  • Stewart Prentice8 October 2021

    You’re spot on Melvin. Jancis Robinson recently wrote in her FT column about an upcoming Madeira tasting going back well over a century. That must be something!

    I also recently picked up a case (split with a friend) of KF Renegade 2013 (from Cybercellar I think). At about R130 a bottle it is streets ahead of lots of similarly priced reds (babies based on vintage) on the shelf at the same price point.

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