Michael Fridjhon: No going back for SA wine

By , 16 June 2021

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The evening before the first day’s judging of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show is traditionally the occasion for the annual Old Wine Tasting. The event dates back to the early 2000s and was originally initiated so that an array of old wines which I had assembled for an article commissioned by The World of Fine Wine could be shared as widely as possible. Given concerns about the size of the “bubble” at the time of the judging last year, and again this year, we’ve now gone two years since the old wines collected for this occasion have been exposed to any kind of scrutiny. Accordingly, I decided that I would gather up a few bottles and serve them to the panellists over dinner after the first day’s judging at the end of May.

As always there were a few disappointments, wines which may never have impressed or which had been kept too long. But the standout wine in the line-up was a 1968 Chateau Libertas. On paper, it didn’t look all that promising: an ullage of over 5cm, and a provenance which suggested it had tracked the vagaries of climate change for a full half-century without any kind of insulation or protection from the elements. Despite the odds stacked against it, it was fabulous, and it showed no signs of fading even by the time we had reached the end of the bottle.

Inevitably there was a discussion about the wine itself, but more widely, about the way wines were made then and whether any of the vastly more expensive icon wines produced today would survive into the second half of the 21st century. Some of the group – which included the editor of WineMag – went so far as to say that, looking at the ancient Chateau Libertas, the modern wine industry had “lost its way.”

Lining up the greats of the past with those of the present is a fruitless exercise, the equivalent of comparing Don Bradman and AB de Villiers, or Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano. Fifty years ago everything was different – not merely the weather patterns. Surprisingly little was known about the chemistry of wine production (and much of what was known wasn’t necessarily part of the curriculum for winemakers in the Cape.) All fermentations were probably natural – inoculation with commercially produced yeasts generally dates from the 1970s. The mechanism of malolactic fermentation was only properly understood at the beginning of the 1960s. Producers never had access to sophisticated laboratory analyses, and probably wouldn’t have known what to do with the information. It was winemaking pretty much by the seat of your pants.

It is of course impressive that so many of those wines have both evolved, and survived. They had freshness from the outset and this seems to have contributed to their longevity today. They were lower in alcohol – generally 12% or less – but they weren’t “green” when they were released: they were commercial wines, produced in quantities large enough to satisfy the demands of a growing wine market. Much of what went into the Chateau Libertas blend of the 1960s was cinsault, harvested mainly from bush-vine vineyards. Arguably this is what gave the 1968 its longevity and its balance: naturally lower-yielding dry-land vineyards not forced by trellising to crank out more fruit than they could sustainably produce.

This makes the Mullineux’s Leeu Passant current-day enterprise a particularly interesting foil for this debate. On paper the Dry Red is modelled on the old-style Cape blend model – Chateau Libertas or Rustenberg Dry Red – replete with claims about ancient vineyard yeasts, and co-fermentations of the kind practised in South Africa at the time. They are certainly the most authentic attempt to go back to the crossroads at which the industry is presumed to have taken the wrong turning.

Tasting their latest releases I very much doubt that their Leeu Passant wines will ever turn out like the classics from the 1960s and 1970s. For a start, it may be impossible to turn back the clock: winemaking today can never be the way it was in that more rustic, prelapsarian era, even if some of the grapes, which go into their Dry Red, have been harvested from seriously old bush-vine vineyards. It is also possible to argue that what makes them strike a chord for so many people is the idea of what is being attempted. If this assumption is correct, their appeal is vested in a form of nostalgia: we wish them to become great because we wish our idealised sense of the past to become a reality.

There’s no doubting the interest value in what the Mullineuxs are doing – and this should be sufficient reason for those well-heeled enough to buy their Dry Red. (For my money I’d rather buy the Chardonnay, the Wellington Cinsault, and perhaps the Stellenbosch Cabernet.) Cellaring the Dry Red for the express purpose of rediscovering the past is a fool’s errand: the “good old days” were never all that good – it’s better to look forward. Clive James said it perfectly: “What’s gone is gone, sweet prince, what’s done is done”.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

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  • Frikkie Liebenberg22 June 2021

    Great to hear the Chateaux Lib is still showing class. Anyone know who the SFW winemaker was at that time?

    • Michael+Fridjhon22 June 2021

      Duimpie Bayley would certainly have been a member of the team. And in 1968 the late Ronnie Melck (who had a legendary palate and who shared many thoughts with me about what happened to SFW wines in there 1960s) would probably have been involved, if only to give the final wine his blessing

  • Shane Gordon19 June 2021

    At a visit to CT in January 2010 I hosted a wine tasting for a group of friends of European wines that I had brought over with me.
    After the tasting the excitement was such that the following wines appeared: Villiera C/S 1988, Meerlust Rubicon 1986, Chateau Libertas 1989 and GS 1966. They all showed fabulously with the GS 1966 the star closely followed by the Chateau Libertas.
    I have subsequently over the past 10 years had the Chateau Libertas 1989 again and it remains a memorable wine.

  • Francois van Zyl18 June 2021

    Don’t forget the influence of pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers. Soils were much more alive in the 60’s and 70’s and probably irrigation was not used so much. Plants were more in balance, roots were deeper adding more flavor and better ripening at lower alcohols. Funny nobody ever talk about this

    • Dion Martin21 June 2021

      Hi Francois

      Interesting points that you raise. Could you provide evidence or is this just a random off the top of your head opinion?

      Cheers
      Dionysus

      • Francois van Zyl21 June 2021

        Hi Dion

        Deeper roots, more alive soils all add much more flavor than we previously thought. Also I have seen the difference on our farm Laibach which is now 21 years organic. If you want to chat about this: 082 41 34346

  • Chris17 June 2021

    what is presumed to be the wrong turn ? (“the industry is presumed to have taken the wrong turning.”)

    • Christian Eedes17 June 2021

      Hi Chris, In very broad terms: 1). Small oak casks introduced for maturation in the mid-1980s; and 2) 1995 – 2010: excessive ripeness as the industry attempted to adjust to the aesthetic promoted by US critic Robert Parker. Has there subsequently been a correction? Only time will tell but the signs at this early stage are positive…

      • Chris19 June 2021

        Yes please no more crazy alcohol levels. Would you include the exclusion of Cinsaut (in blends) in that list? Smaller barrels means smaller volume of wine so more oak influence?

        • Christian Eedes19 June 2021

          I don’t think the exclusion of Cinsault from blends was necessarily detrimental to overall wine quality but it arguably did rob SA wine of a point of difference. Oak influence definitely became more marked with the use of barrels that were not only small but new – previously wine was matured in larger format, seasoned vessels.

  • Kevin R16 June 2021

    Think what Mullineux are doing is great.
    We will never make the same wines as yesteryear – too much has changed.

    But valuable lost practices are worth bringing back to allow the past to meet the present again, now with the value of hindsight

  • Roman Kerze16 June 2021

    Completely agreed – the Chardonnay is fantastic. We recently relocated to the Cape and have enjoyed discovering the unique expressions of it in here in your country. Wines like Storm and Restless River in Hemel en Aarde are so exciting for their tight structure, and we love that the Leeu Passant from a different region shows a different expression – a touch more texture on the palate, but with that same freshness and vibrancy. What a delicious discovery to see the subtle differences between Stellenbosch and Hemel en Aarde.

    As for the Dry Red, we listened in to the recent Vertical Release and enjoyed this approach of using the past as inspiration to make a truly South African wine but using modern techniques to have a modern interpretation. I must say that my wife fell in love with the perfumed and firmly structured Wellington Cinsault, but I was blown away by the 2015 and especially the 2018 Dry Red which has so much character and class.

    We’ve not tasted those old South African red blends, but your note makes us want to Michael. I hope we can find some in our time here.

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