Tim James: How ageworthy are lighter reds?

By , 11 March 2024



When I mentioned last week how far over the hill was Van Loggerenberg Breton 2016 cab franc, I didn’t adequately convey my surprise and disappointment. It was a shock – as if a smart Swartland winemakers revealed how much acid is being added these days, or a leading wine critic admitted getting something wrong. Somehow we (or I) too easily assume that what we’ve proclaimed a really good red wine is going to see out its ten years of life and reward our expense and patience with some pleasing development. And I tend to pack such wines away and forget about them for too long – which is foolish, especially with a new wine with no track record. Especially, perhaps, if its got 12.5% alcohol or less.

I am, though, generally a touch doubtful about the “seriousness” of the more hipsterish, light end of “new-wave” winemaking – however delicious they are in their youth. Though it must be said that even  a perceived lack of potential development doesn’t stop very high scores being tossed at such wines by eminent critics (of which a bit more anon).

As to the Breton, I thought it would be fair to explore a bit further, so I opened a bottle of the 2017. And am glad I did. This was generally a very good vintage and the wine is drinking much better than the 2016, though I doubt if it has far to go. The fragrance has a more leafy-savoury than fruity note, the fine tannins are a delight and the fresh elegant balance is there, though the structure is perilously close to outweighing the fading fruit. I must say I do sometimes wonder about the category of “Loire-style” – Cab franc came to be what is in the Loire in response to a very different climate/terroir to what we have here, and I think we need to work a bit harder to take a valid wish for lower alcohol and less oaking and extraction in a Cape-appropriate direction.

Another older light wine I opened is streets ahead in terms of development and quality, however, with the lightness giving a really fine delicacy rather than, well, just lightness almost for its own sake. Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah 2015 is the best Cape wine I’ve drunk so far this year, and if I am to have a better I shall feel very lucky. I suspect it is close to its peak, but there’s no hurry to drink it. The tannins are resolved and almost indetectable though giving form. The flavour has become complex, with just echoes of sweet fruit in the whole. Not a magnificent wine – it’s too elegant for that, and too modest in the very best sense. I’ve never enjoyed a Swartland syrah more. Leeuwenkuil, without a rockstar winemaker in a tiny cellar, generally doesn’t have the reputation it deserves – though this wine was, in fact, the Platter’s Guide Shiraz of the Year in 2019. A validation for low-alcohol Cape wine, if any is needed.

The latest Strauss online wine auction is of 2014 wines, mostly local but also foreign, and I’ve just looked to see if there are lowish-alcohol wines on offer. Not many, but one of few wines with many bidders (at the stage I looked: most of the bidding activity is likely to be towards closing time this evening, Monday 11 March), is Savage’s cinsault-based Follow the Line, at a little under 13% alcohol. Four bottles of it, so I guess someone drank two bottles of a case and decided to rather pass on the rest and make some profit.

A delightful wine when I last had it some years ago. But I do wonder where ten years will have taken it. The auctioneers offer some “Critics ratings” (the disdain for an apostrophe is theirs) but, typically, the notes are all from about eight years ago – so one wonders what relevance they have to possible buyers. Except that, interestingly enough, this selection quotes both Tim Atkin and James Molesworth suggesting a drinking window until … 2020 (the first Covid year – doesn’t that seem ages ago?). So these eminences clearly expected (as would have I) that this was not a wine likely to mature more than half a decade or so – let alone be worth the R2500-plus per bottle that is looking likely on auction.

But aren’t scores of 92 (Molesworth) or 93 (Atkin) somewhat inflated for a wine that you expect to start keeling over after five years in bottle? That’s another story, perhaps. And I see (not quoted by the auction) that Greg Sherwood rated it 95 and suggested at least five more years of ageing potential. I’ll hold thumbs for the winning punter.

The Savage wine was not an entrant in this website’s 10-Year-Old Wine Report 2024, nor, I think were any new-wave, lower-alcohol wines– 13.8% was the lowest reported red (in the top 10, that is). It is a great pity altogether that there are so few entrants for this annual report. Presumably that’s largely testament to the small market relevance of a reputation for ageability.  We know so little of how modern Cape wines age in various vintages, especially the new-wave ones, and tastings like this could help us build up some of the joint experience and understanding that is seriously lacking, I’d suggest. Although, frankly, I do find it rather bizarre that virtually none of the tasting notes given in the report (and it’s true of the 2023 report too) seem to indicate any vinous development. The tasting notes of the top 10 are mostly lists of the primary fruit characters that you’d expect from much younger wines, but, despite the claimed purpose of the tasting, indicate nothing about the structural or flavour development that should have happened in ten years since the vintage.

That’s a pity. We are learning, after 25 years or so of the modern Cape wine revolution, a little about how the best wines (including some lighter ones) are ageing, but not enough. And something of a secondary market has emerged though auctions. Most wine-critical reports are of the wines in their extreme youth – which is when a lot of them are drunk, of course. We need to know more about how these wines age; so any trickle of informed report is useful.

  • 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.


14 comment(s)

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    Michael Fridjhon | 13 March 2024

    I thought this was an excellent and thought-provoking piece, Tim. There are multiple issues ranging from ageability to whether or not the wine gains enough over time in bottle to warrant taking up space in the cellar. There’s also the question of what varieties reward bottle ageing: unless a wine is intrinsically capable of transforming, delivering interesting/desirable secondary and even tertiary notes, the only merit in keeping it at all is for its component parts to knit together.

    Grant Dodd | 13 March 2024

    Tim, glad to see you havn’t lost your edge 🙂

    Also appreciate the honest, critical reviewer style. I’ve lamented recently the tendency of some of the more internationally famous writers to ignore ( or possibly not understand or recognise) serious wine faults in certain marquee wines. It’s refreshing to read a review both objective and to the point, and one that may allow open discussion about ‘improving the breed’ in wine, which should be the goal of both sides of the fence in the industry.

    My take is that making the early picked, fresh and bright style of red wine that we’ve come to see is often at the expense of ripe phenolics, and these never really harmonise with time. I see it as a problem of the warming climate and increasingly shorter growing season.

    Hope you are all doing well over there!

    All the best

    Angela Lloyd | 11 March 2024

    ‘Not a magnificent wine – it’s too elegant for that’. An intriguing comparison, Tim. What does magnificent imply for you & why should elegance not be magnificent?
    I know that 2015 Leeuwenkuil; it probably got its Platter gong under my tenure. Its Swartland precision & complexity for me were magnificent. I think I still have a bottle. I shall put it to the test.

      Tim James | 11 March 2024

      Angela – Magnificent for me is something great that has an element of almost aggressively imposing showiness about it. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel perhaps, in painting? Elegant restraint is something very different (quieter and less assertive in effect), though perhaps equally wonderful – a Bellini Madonna, or a Cezanne apple.

        Greg Sherwood | 12 March 2024

        You mention a whole bunch of variables there… but I would identify the ambition to lower the use of Sulphur primarily for any ageing issues. Even Eben Sadie went through a slightly “natural wine” phase and those early vintages of the Old Vine Series have not necessarily aged as well as the newer releases probably will. I can’t speak specifically for Duncan, but the general trend to reduce SO2 and make the wines more attractive on release has obviously not played out well for some producers. But then again, it comes back to my question that everyone has conveniently avoided … “are you implying only wines capable of ageing 10, 20, 30+ years are worthy of substantial scores on release??” – Seems it is indeed a Pandora’s Box no one is prepared to open at the moment!

          Kwispedoor | 12 March 2024

          I’ll open that box. I don’t think it’s a black and white thing. By and large, to me all really great wines have at least some maturation potential. So perhaps there is a sort of soft ceiling for wines that start dying after one or two years. If they fall apart that quickly, it might be difficult for them to get a 98+ score, right? If, however, such a wine is fantastic in its youth, nothing should prevent it from still getting, say, a 95.

          Ideally, there should definitely be a clear warning with a suggested drinking window included on the label of these “I’m-bright-and-fantastic-now-but-will-turn-into-mud-within-a-couple-of-years” wines. Too many winemakers historically (and still) overestimated the drinking windows of these wines. Many have caught up to reality by now, but I feel the best way of handling this issue is not yet common practice. Either change the winemaking or fully celebrate the youthful playground of these wines, with fair and clear warning.

    Kwispedoor | 11 March 2024

    Great article, Tim! I think the longevity issue is not only due to the wines being lighter. Around the same time, it became fashionable to fine and filter less (or not at all), to sometimes prevent MLF (especially in white wines), and to add less sulphur. Thus, the problem arising after some time in the bottle is often not only a lack of fruit integrity, but also the instability in some of the wines. Perhaps we all overestimated the longevity of these wines because they were just so gorgeous in their youth?

    I do think the lighter white wines generally do better with time in the bottle than their red counterparts – they certainly have much less issues with stability/purity. My wine club, The Noble Rotters, actually has a blind tasting coming up in April, themed “Mature Young Guns & Mature Modern Era Newbies”, where we will explore some of these wines. The idea is to taste good wines, not expose the ones that didn’t make it. Thus my Lammershoek Cellar Foot Sink the Pink Pinotage 2012 – a lovely, crunchy Nouveau-style (“Nuwe Ou” on the label) – will stay in my Prank Rack. It promises to be very interesting!

      Tim James | 11 March 2024

      Kwisp, that sounds like an important tasting. Congratulations on dealing with that theme, and I would genuinely love to hear the results.

    Ryan Coetzee | 11 March 2024

    I had a 2005 Columella recently that is deftly held together and beautifully balanced, though largely tertiary now. A wonderful wine but I wonder if it’s better at 19 than it will be at 25. I suspect so. But what’s wrong with an amazing 19 year old wine? Happy with it.

    Greg Sherwood | 11 March 2024

    Tim, you will be pleased to hear I drank a loose bottle of the Follow the Line 2014 last year and it was absolutely spectacular. Fresh, vibrant, a hint of tertiary and simply beautifully balanced. Will it improve further? Probably not, but it is certainly not in danger of falling off a cliff. You will also be pleased to hear that I still have another 6 pack of the maiden 2014 in storage and at least 3 more bottles in Wine Cellar storage in Cape Town… all bought on release. At 10 years old, I would say the wine is maturing gracefully and is still packed full of energy. I stand by my score of course. But perhaps I should raise the question… “are you implying only wines capable of ageing 10, 20, 30+ years are worthy of substantial scores on release”?? This would indeed be an interesting Pandora’s box to open.

    Though, I should point out that even with the very best storage conditions, you do sometimes get wines that have not aged as well as some other parcels / cases of the same wine. The Burgundians will point to the unspeakable issue of red wine premox, others will just talk about variable corks and bottlings. I have not drunk a Van Loggerenberg 2016 Breton recently but I would be suprised if the wine was falling over. Stephen Spurrier described Lukas’s Breton as the most serious Cabernet Franc he had tasted outside of the Loire. So hopefully your bottle was just a flat bottle and not representative of the entire vintage of Breton!

      Tim James | 11 March 2024

      Well, Greg, I see that the four bottles of Follow the Line sold on auction for R37 520. Nearly R10K per bottle. What could you buy for that in London? I wonder if your comments today helped achieve what seems to me one of the most ridiculous results ever of many ridiculous results on local wine auctions. But I hope the buyer at least enjoys the wine. The seller must be celebrating wildly!

        Kwispedoor | 12 March 2024

        My two perfectly cellared bottles of 2014 Follow the Line just went on the market! I’m happy to oblige if the punter wants to restore his case to a full six bottles. No auctioneer’s commission – haha!

      Greg Sherwood | 12 March 2024

      I would be thrilled to know I “moved the market!” 😉

    Christian Eedes | 11 March 2024

    Hi Tim, For the record, I gave Follow The Line 2014 a rating of 90 on release in June 2015, my note as follows: “Upfront red cherry but also some smoky, savoury nuances. Good fruit concentration, bright acidity and unobtrusive tannins. Admirably lacking in artifice.”

    More generally, I am increasingly fascinated with older wines and the more I ponder what constitutes quality, the less certain I am. You point that the 10-Year-Old Report tasting notes “indicate nothing about the structural or flavour development that should have happened in ten years since the vintage” and you aren’t wrong but I would counter that there is a rather stark contrast between wines that are very much intact and those that are fading rapidly/close to collapse. What I mean to say is that the better wines are still remarkably primary (as arguably they should be, 10 years being significant but not entirely extreme when it comes to a discussion about wine maturation). I was recently given as a gift a tranche of SA wines from the late 1980s and early 1990s and they are altogether far better than I might have hoped but here issues of transformation in structure (polymerisation of tannins and so forth) really do become relevant.

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