Tim James: SA legends vs the world

By , 27 July 2015



A most remarkable tasting was held in Cape Town last Friday evening. Some 15 people paid quite a bit of money to sit down at a table at Aubergine restaurant and work though five pairs of wines – one South African and one foreign in each pair. The oldest two wines were from 1948, the youngest was from 1995. To say there wasn’t a dud amongst the lot of them is ludicrously faint praise. I’m not going to go into much detail here (I will be writing a longer piece on the topic for the World of Fine Wine), but even the bare results will be interesting to some.

One of pairs that fascinated me most (because the most unprecendented) was the youngest, of chardonnay. We didn’t know the order they were poured, but one was lightly oaked De Wetshof Finesse Chardonnay 1993, the other a Burgundy Grand Cru: Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 1995. Both very fine. Most people got their identification wrong – including me; but the majority preferred the Robertson one – again including me; certainly it was less evolved, and had a brighter acidity. The better experienced Andrea Mullineux, sitting next to me, confidently got it right, and preferred the Montrachet. But anyway, the Cape went immediately one up.

What to pair with pinotage? Roland Peens of the Wine Cellar in Cape Town (who organised the tasting in conjunction with the Nederburg Auction – supplier of the tasting’s local wines from Distell’s “Tabernacle” cellar) cleverly went for Californian Zinfandel. So: Zonnebloem Pinotage 1974 and Chateau Montelena Zinfandel 1975. Overwhelmingly correctly identified, and overwhelmingly the favourite was the Zin – though most people seemed to really love the pinot-like aromas of the Zonnebloem. But for me the least impressive pair of the evening.

Next up, Chateau Libertas paired with the very first Chateau Musar made by Serge Hochar, from the Lebanon; both 1959. Another clever match by Roland, with both wines including cabernet and cinsaut in their make-up. A closer call, this, with Musar winning 9:6 (and generally identified). I myself thought the Chateau Lib more complete, complex and elegant. (We were now generally at SA: 1, Rest of the World: 2.)

GS Cabernet Sauvignon 1966The evening’s highlight for most of us came next. The famous GS Cabernet Sauvignon 1966 versus Chateau Latour 1966, widely reckoned the top Bordeaux of the vintage. Very different wines. GS was undoubtedly fresher, with lovely pure fruit and as close to perfectly balanced as one could hope for. The elegant Latour had a typical (of older Bordeaux) “dirty rockpool”, cedar and herb nose. I thought the tannins were a bit too drying for perfection (perhaps this bottle was on the downhill – unlike the GS). The vote was 10:5 in favour of GS. Two all.

Last flight was 1948 port. Rather unfortunately very different styles: KWV Limited Release is very clearly more of a tawny (and gorgeously rich, sweet and lovely). Taylors Vintage 1948 is a magnificent example of the less oxidative style, showing eloquently what magic can happen in a bottle, given half a century and more, to fiery alcohol and massive tannins if in perfect balance with fruit intensity.

In fact the Taylors just pipped GS as my own top wine of the evening – making my own overall score 3:2 in favour of the Cape). But the general preference went (just) the way of the KWV, so that by the general consensus as well as my own, South Africa triumphed in this test match. Which didn’t seem overly important (though pleasantly reassuring): wine was the winner; great wine that brought back summers that had cooled before most people around that table had been born.

But if I may finish on a disillusioned note. The Johannesburg replay of a brilliant tasting that would be hard to replicate has been abandoned due to lack of interest. OK, lack of interest amongst those who can afford R7 500 – but that shouldn‘t be a problem, given how many supposed wine lovers could easily afford it. It was a struggle to get enough people in Cape Town too. So while my opinion of old Cape wine remains resolutely high, my opinion of contemporary South African wine culture has taken a knock.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes 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.


8 comment(s)

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    Kwispedoor | 23 September 2015


    A nice read on the ’66 GS. Let’s abduct George Spies’s former assistant and MAKE him talk! Who’s with me?

    Michael Fridjhon | 11 August 2015

    In the mid-1970s I regularly tasted both the GS Cabs paired against comparable vintages of First Growths, usually at blind tastings organised by the 777 Guild in Pretoria (sometimes with the earlier Chateau Monis reds thrown on for good measure.) The SA wines did well then and the argument at the time – a bit like the one used ahead of the 2006 re-run of the “Judgement of Paris” tasting – was the SA wines did well then because they were more forward and wouldn’t necessarily last as long. As with the 2006 California versus France taste-off, time proved the age-worthiness of the so-called “new world” wines.

    As for Tim’s comment about the lack of depth to the pockets of wine lovers – I think he’s hopelessly mis-read the market. Wine Experience (which costs roughly the same) has been running for almost 20 years and delivers a comparable tasting, plus a dinner with unlimited volumes of fine wine & a Champagne brunch replete with prestige cuvee fizz. The guest numbers have remained resolutely what they were ten years ago. There can’t be 200 people in SA willing to part with that kind of money for a tasting

    Fiona McDonald | 29 July 2015

    If you’re interested Marthelize, the original article was published in WINE magazine’s April 2008 issue – coincidentally my last as Editor! Whether winemag.co.za’s electronic story archive still has the link I’m not sure. I do remember sitting in on the tasting/interview – generously hosted at Glen Carlou by David Finlayson during his tenure there. It was also David who shared a bottle of GS with Molesworth which kickstarted the interest in this otherwise forgotten and overlooked gem/icon. George’s daughter Ronel joined us, along with Duimpie Bayly to provide some historical perspective. Having dug up my tasting notes they reflect that the ’66 showed more tannin and structure while the fruit on the ’68 showed better. Not in question was that both wines were superb and more than matched the 1966 Haut Brion which they were tasted against.

      Christian | 29 July 2015

      Here’s a link to the article mentioned above (written by Joanne Gibson): goo.gl/5ILUz1

      Marthelize | 29 July 2015

      Hi Fiona,

      Brilliant, thank you! And thanks Christian for the link to the archive article. Fascinating.
      I love a good mystery and this wine seems to still have quite an air about it. Thank you also for the comments on the 1968, it seems to be the slightly less famous younger brother of the two. I still find it rather amazing that such a wine has become an icon – possibly the best red ever from SA (according to some). Dimple’s comment touches on it not being great at the time and my dad can’t remember exactly where he got his bottle but possibly at some or other SFW staff special or something similar. And look at it now…

    Tim James | 28 July 2015

    I’ve had both on various occasions, Marthelize. Firstly it should be noted that there has been bottle variation (storage conditions the usual problem) – this particular one was at least as good as any 66 I’ve had. The 68 is also extremely fine. For some reason there seems to be a bit more of the 66 around, to attract comment – also, this is the one that most international critics seem to have tasted, and it’s their opinions that are most important for South Africans. I reckon that if we didn’t have the 66, we’d be content with the 68 as an icon of old Cape wine.

      Marthelize Tredoux | 28 July 2015

      Thanks Tim, I couldn’t find out much about the 1968 online, which is why I asked.
      There’s a 1966 SFW Cabernet Sauvignon bottled under a “Special Reserve” label that was (as far as I know) also made by George Spies – I’m trying to track down more about it but I wonder if it will have the same appeal. It won’t be under the near-cult status GS label, of course, but could possibly be a comparable wine nonetheless.
      We found a bottle of ’66 and ’68 GS in my father’s collection – both seem to be in very good condition, corks look good, no volume seems lost so I’ve renewed curiosity about the two wines and their backstory.

    Marthelize Tredoux | 27 July 2015

    Hi Tim
    Thank you for the write up of the tasting that had a lot of people wishing they had the spare cash to flash in order to attend (like myself – was seriously considering bankruptcy in exchange for a taste!).

    About the GS – I’ve read the story on “The mystery of South Africa’s ‘greatest red’.” on JancisRobinson.com. Do you know of anyone having any experience with the 2nd and last GS, the 1968? I know info on the wine is sketchy at best but was wondering if anyone (who may read this) has tasted the 68 and how it stacks up to the more famous 1966.

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