Tim James: Bordeaux reds from here and there
By Tim James, 26 October 2020
Some months ago I was lamenting in this column the absence of good, less expensive red Bordeaux wines in South Africa (the actual stuff, not the style). However I might respect a lot of the local equivalents, it’s still fairly difficult to find amongst them the properly dry, more savoury, less big-and-ripe character that is common (though no longer inevitable) in Bordeaux, and which I prefer. It’s especially the finishing fruity sweetness that disturbs me on most Cape Bordeaux blends. But the importers I spoke to seemed agreed that while there was a market for expensive Bordeaux here, when it came to wines well under about R1000, consumers weren’t much interested, and want local. A few comments to my article did indicate, however, that I wasn’t alone in wanting a modestly priced French alternative.
Last week I attended a tasting of a small range of “petits châteaux” brought in, in admittedly very small quantities, by Caroline’s Fine Wine in Cape Town. Actually, they weren’t all that cheap: Du Bergey 2018 is a mere R220 (and rather nice and well balanced, but quite simple), but the others ranged between R495 and R865. Most of them were good examples of what I enjoy in Bordeaux (including a lack of obvious oak presence), if not particularly good value, I thought. The one I liked best at the lower end was Ch. Les Vimières 2016 (R489). Of the pricier ones, I’d be very happy to have a few bottles – for drinking in five or more years time, ideally – of the Moulin de la Rose 2016 (R755), which showed well the lighter elegance and fine structure of the St-Julien appellation; and the rather richer, more obviously charming Prieurs de la Commanderie 2014 (R730) from Pomerol (the former with 65% cab plus merlot, the latter with 85% merlot plus cab).
The most expensive was a useful lesson in the fact than certainly not all Bordeaux is elegant and restrained: Lafon la Tuiilerie 2016 from St Emilion (R865) is big, very ripe and fruity, with drying oak tannins – rather awful and vulgar, I thought, but a few of the other tasters clearly liked it more than I, so, as often, it’s a matter of taste.
It seems to me, however, that the most interesting place to look for modestly priced red Bordeaux right now is Wine Cellar. Suddenly they have around a dozen bottles under R700 that look very promising (well-known labels and pretty good notices from international critics – with scores hovering around 90 out of 100 and positive notes; and the prices are unusually in line with international ones). I can’t give my own opinion as I, unfortunately, missed the tastings offered by Wine Cellar in Johannesburg and Cape Town – if any readers can offer tasting-based opinions on the wines in that price range, I’d be grateful for comments below. I intend to buy a few of them – but again, I shall put them away for a good few years; most are from the 2017 vintage: rather unfashionable but actually quite good, for the Left Bank especially, and generally quite early approachable.
With the memory of Caroline’s tasting fresh on my tastebuds, I turned to a few comparable Stellenbosch reds, samples that had been awaiting a suitable opportunity. There were two wines from David Finlayson’s Wines – the rebranded name of Edgebaston, with all the wines now reflecting the name of owner and cellarmaster, though the winery home and 20 hectares of the supplying vineyards remain at Edgebaston farm, on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg.
Finlayson is known for wines on the bigger, bolder side of things, as well as for high quality. And these two bottles confirm all that. I preferred the less expensive of the two (as I often do in “New World” reds: the cheaper wines often tend to be less pretentious and excessively ripe, with less new oak). The Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 is full-fruited, rich and ripe, but certainly not OTT, thanks to a beautiful balance and a subtly savoury element and firmly but gently gripping tannins. An excellent example of the style – ready now for pretty delicious drinking, but with the depth to develop a good few years. I’d say it’s very good value at R160, given the increasingly elevated prices of Stellenbosch cab.
The David Finlayson Camino Africana Cabernet Franc 2017 tilts a little too much towards the showy, for my taste. It’s still young and will harmonise further its big structure and its concentrated power, but will surely always have the sweetness on the finish (coming as much from the suggestiveness of that ripe fruit as the big alcohol 14.5%+ and a bit of RS) that for me is the downside – though the lack of varietal (and terroir) character that comes with such ripeness is also a shortcoming. Some others will love it – but they won’t be admirers of traditional Bordeaux.
Delheim Grand Reserve 2015, which also came my way recently, is closer to my model. It’s mostly cabernet, with a little cab franc and merlot, not without the richness that one might expect from the fine vintage, but it has some classic notes of cedarwood and a hint of varietal herbal quality. More elegant and complete than the Finlayson wines, it’s playing a slightly different, more traditional game. It’s an excellent wine – at least as “good” as the Bordeaux examples at twice the price from Caronline’s tasting that I enjoyed, but the touch of unfruity leanness and restraint in the Bordeaux, the lighter elegance, would sway me if I were given the choice.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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
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