Tim James: Loving old Bordeaux-style reds, especially Morgenster
By Tim James, 24 April 2020
First love becomes a tricky thing when there have been many subsequent loves. A sentimental over-valuing perhaps; or a recognition that something of it persists; or dismissal, if not repression? As for the first wine-love, mine came after a few trivial flings, and I can remember the day I was first struck by its lightning – by a bottle of cheapish, off-dry German Riesling, a Marks & Spencer own-brand Piesporter Michelsberg. I was living in London at the time. The wine was for my Saturday treat at the end of a week’s work as a High Street picture framer, to be accompanied by another bit of semi-kitsch from Germany: a slab of Bavarian blue brie. It was altogether a wonderful experience devouring both.
I hadn’t intended to write about that, but it just welled up from my own mention of first love. I’d intended to talk about my discovery of Bordeaux-style red blends, when I came back to South Africa in the latter 1980s, to Cape Town, and became properly interested in wine (in England it had been the occasional bottle from the lower supermarket shelves). In the early ‘90s I became friendly with Louise Hofmeyr, by then moving into winemaking at the Paarl family farm, Welgemeend. Her dad, Billy Hofmeyr, had released the first local red Bordeaux blend, the Welgemeend Estate 1979. Furthermore, he had built a decent cellar of the real French stuff, which we dipped into, momentously, over the years.
Welgemeend Estate Reserve itself remained perhaps the lightest and most elegant of the local blends (see here for Christian’s enthusiasm about a 2016 tasting of the 1995 – with just 12.5% alcohol). Other notables of the 1980s and earlier ‘90s included Delheim Grand Reserve and Kanonkop Paul Sauer, of course, along with a growing handful of straight cabs (Le Bonheur the finest of the ‘80s). Then along came the fairly short-lived Cordoba Crescendo, perhaps the last of the more elegantly styled blends, at around 13% alcohol.
Of course, Bordeaux itself was also getting big and bold, oaky and Parkerised by then, and that played a part in muting my love affair with this genre. Somehow, local straight cabernet sauvignon has seldom entirely convinced me either. As the 21st century progressed I started dallying heavily with syrah as far as red wines went, and, internationally more than locally, with point noir (burgundy, that is), enjoying the occasional fling with the likes of sangiovese and grenache. Too much playing around altogether; my heart was not entirely engaged as it once had been.
Perhaps it has been my striving to capture the ardour of my comparative youth in the ‘80s and ‘90s that has sent me back in recent years to my early love, red Bordeaux. Perhaps also some toning down of them. There have always been some local versions that I have mildly enjoyed since the demise of Crescendo and old Welgemeend, but few apart from Paul Sauer that I have regularly bought (and even Paul Sauer not as often as I should).
I do remember how splendid I found the maiden vintage of Morgenster, 2000, with its notable contribution from cab franc helping to give it the same sort of finesse that it had to Crescendo. But subsequent vintages, while still more classic than most, used more merlot and (as I see I wrote in 2011): “the tendency seem[ed] increasingly to be towards more softness, and perhaps an over-concentration on the virtues of great ripeness”. Softness seemed to be overcome to an extent in some later vintages, but via more extraction and dry tannins. (Others have been more enthusiastic than I: the 2014 Reserve won the trophy in the Bordeaux blend category at the Six Nations Wine Challenge 2018.)
A few nights ago I opened a bottle of the 2003 Morgenster, rather unsure what to expect, but not greatly excited – although this vintage saw, with benefit, a temporary drawback of the merlot component. Excitement supervened. The wine was, in fact, entirely impressive and lovely. Certainly warm-country stuff, with richly ripe fruit, but complex, silky, savoury and suavely elegant, and a finish that didn’t have the sweetness that, to me, spoils too many local cabs and cab-based wines. I have no doubt that this is one of the not-too-frequent examples of a Cape red that has benefited greatly from fifteen-plus years in bottle. (I see that Christian was equally enthusiastic about it when trying it two years ago.) And there’s no hurry to drink it up, if you are lucky enough to have some bottles.
So, of course, I had to then open my last bottle of Morgenster 2000. Had I been mistaken as remembering it as being superior to the vintages that followed it? No. If the 2003 is excellent, the 2000 is superb, with all the positives of the 2003 plus the greater finesse and character that the maiden vintage always had. I’m sure it could stand proudly amongst the great blends of the world of a similar sort of age. This is one of the great Cape reds of the century. It must be around its peak now, but I don’t think there’s a hurry.
I remember that when Morgenster 2000 was released at what seemed a very high price (it proved unrealistic in the market), the expressed intention was that this would be an estate offering just one wine. Now there are a dozen wines, with little coherence. As to this flagship, Platter records a tasting of the 2015, a few years back, while the latest on offer (on the estate website and elsewhere) is the lauded 2014. Ambitions are forced back, marketing is inadequate or misconceived (ask neighbouring Vergelegen about it!). The problems in Stellenbosch are not with terroir – as more than the older Morgensters and the defunct Crescendo prove. These problems need to be sorted out, and especially with regard to the Bordeaux-style blends, which could be Stellenbosch’s greatest triumph.
- 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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