Tim James: Older wines, collecting and remembering
By Tim James, 18 October 2022
I wrote recently about the problem (pretty much a first-world one, I confess) of having rather too much expensively stored wine, and then had the pleasure of reading Greg Sherwood’s own thoughts on that issue. We share at least the sense that, as Greg put it, “having these older bottles to pull out of one’s cellar to share with friends and fellow enthusiasts is indeed a wonderful luxury and rewarding indulgence”. To which I must add something about occasionally indulging in the pleasure of a whole bottle to oneself – though it does seem somehow wrong to do that too often.
But I was also amusedly struck by some differences between us. Greg was too modest to more than hint at what I suspect is the grandeur, depth and breadth of his cellar compared with mine. He did, though, admit or (claim) to be “the consummate collector”, of much more than wine. Someone with the soul of a collector can seldom have too much of anything, I suppose, provided that it’s of the requisite quality, while I had admitted (or claimed) to be more of a “chucker”. The agitating sense of having too much wine, more than I need, was at least as much behind my lament as meanness or irritation about having to pay so much for storing the stuff.
More than I need …. “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous”, cried Shakespeare’s Lear in anguish, as some of his vital luxuries were taken from him as unnecessary. But I do reason the need. I regularly scour my shelves to clear them of books that I know I am never likely to open again and that merely nag me about neglect, mutely but eloquently. And ask to be dusted. I acquire art (some pushed into cupboards because of lack of wall space), but with exceptions, as with a few dozen books that earned a permanent place through being so loved, I tend to sell pictures again, once I feel I no longer even notice that they’re there. Of course, the whole auction game is a bit of an addiction itself.
I have cut back on acquiring wine. The last I bought, I think, was from the latest Sadie release. (I stopped buying Columella and Palladius a year or two back as I wasn’t confident about buying too many more wines that deserved ten years or more wrapped in cool, silent darkness before splashing into my glass. A bit of pre-emptive chucking!) Oh, and I did buy some modest bordeaux with a few years on it already. And I will continue to acquire, of course, both semi-matured wine and wine that isn’t going to need much maturation. I’ve actually grown to love more and more some of the earlier-drinking, vigorous and fresh young reds, especially syrahs perhaps (Carinus for just one example, but that’s starting to get rather serious), or less-ambitious grenaches, or cinsauts when they are not too boringly trivial in their charm as so many of them are.
There are, I realise as I write about this, some of my older bottles that, like a few books and pictures, I have such an emotional attachment to that I will have trouble opening them, even if they are also starting to get old. My last bottle of 2000 Columella, the maiden vintage (that I described in print back then, only a trifle excessively, as perhaps the greatest Cape red I’d ever had). My last few bottles of Welgemeend (1995 and 1997), that perennially underestimated pioneer and exemplar of the Cape bordeaux blend, and a place of a great and lamented friendship, and the place (decayed, then altered beyond recognition in the last few decades) where I learnt whatever I know about how to understand wine, with Louise Hofmeyr and the cellar of international fine wine built up by Billy Hofmeyr, and occasionally with Welgemeend’s importer, Roy Richards who supplied many great wines and even greater intangibles.
And I have a last bottle of Radio Lazarus 2012, Chris Alheit’s first vintage from the old, neglected vineyard that he loved and tended so carefully before the drought claimed it entirely and Lazarus fell once more into the death from which it seemed he had been coaxed. A splendid wine it has been (with admittedly some bottle variation). But I realise that’s not entirely the point.
I visited that high Stellenbosch vineyard with Chris and realised what it meant to him; as I visited with Eben Sadie, and sometimes Rosa Kruger too, most of the vineyards that went into the Old Vineyard Series. As to the latter, I will always believe that the launch of those 2009 wines was the most important single event in the modern Cape wine revolution – but that is no doubt coloured by my having been a little involved with the early days of the project. I still have a set of the wines in their case, their one-off labels (which I designed, using Willam Kentridge artworks specially done for them) signed by both Eben and William. It was, I suppose, also the single most important event in my wine life.
Writing about these things, and feeling happy-tinged melancholy rise within me, I realise the obvious point: the wines I am most attached to are those with which I have a strong and positive personal connection. Mostly, I suppose, wines from the Swartland, with whose early pioneer-heroes I had the satisfaction of some degree of friendship and sharing of the excitement of a great venture. I have a few grander, I suppose, bottles, and older ones, some from far away, but those I’ve mentioned, and some others, are more important and will eventually, I hope, be drunk with a fuller heart. I’ll leave it to someone else to sip them blind and give them a score, and so correct me.
Since writing about my dispersed and untidy little amassment of wine, I have done something about it. I’ve withdrawn some cases from their expensive Wine Cellar storage and found space for them, partly by rationalising and packing the wine fridges more tightly, partly by putting less possibly fragile wines into coolish cupboard space. And partly by drinking some. I intended, 1000 words ago, to give a brief report on those. But other thoughts crowded in, and the report must wait.
- 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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