Tim James: Underdone and overdone Bordeaux-style reds

By , 24 June 2024



I don’t always agree with Christian Eedes’s wine notes and scores, but welcome them especially when he digresses beyond organoleptic stuff about aromas and flavours (which must always tend to the idiosyncratic and don’t much interest me except when they’re argued to indicate something significamt about the wine’s character or quality), Perhaps I’m pleased most when I disagree, as I’m thus prompted to reconsider my own ideas. That of course is the advantage of a tasting report from an individual rather than a panel – one usually gets an actual point of view to engage with rather than some composite, compromise fuzziness.

Witness the note on the latest release of Kanonkop Paul Sauer, the 2021. Firstly, I thought Christian showed an admirable independence of mind and restraint in giving it what amounts to a modest rating of 93 points. Compare this with the rah-rah one has come to expect for this most celebrated of the Cape’s Bordeaux-style wines (varietal cab or blended). The eminent Greg Sherwood, I see elsewhere, scored the wine 99, almost feverishly noting a remarkable panoply of aromas and flavours (“incense, violets, black currant, saline oyster shell, black cherry, sweet cherry tobacco [is that really a thing and not two things, or even three?] and graphite” as well as blueberry, a “subtle kiss of sweet cedar and vanilla pod spice”, plus “picante spice, intense salinity and “maritime, nori seaweed nuance”, not to mention “bold” blackcurrant, mulberry, black cherry and blueberry. Which catch-all abundance doesn’t, frankly, give me much idea of the wine except suggesting that it’s very fruity and a bit salty (which I don’t think it actually is), though there’s also stuff about “glassy acids” (um?), and boilerplate blandishments about “fine silky tannins”. It does make you wonder, though: Oh wow – all that and not even 100 points? What does a poor winemaker and a scrap of vineyard have to do these days for that ultimate point?

I could suppose that Christian’s more modest score relates to his being able to summon up only a measly “red and black berries, rose, tea leaf, vanilla and baking spice” as well as a rather alarming and unpleasant-sounding rubberiness  (even Greg hadn’t got round to picking up some of those). There’s no doubt, of course, whose tasting notes will be quoted by the retailers. But in fact he makes an actual point about the wine that strikes a genuine note, one that I recognise, even if I disagree with it. He suggests that the wine might be a touch too elegant – and be “a bit underdone”. I suspect many people accustomed to South Africa’s riper, richer, often sweeter reds will also find that “underdone” quality. Greg, enviably experienced in the world’s wines, welcomes and enjoys a wide range of styles, I think.

Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2019.

Incidentally, I probably do agree, though, with Christian’s preference for another current release, the splendid Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, which is for a me a more complete wine, at this stage at least.

Oddly, I also tend to think of Christian as admiring light syrahs, including some hipsterish ones that I certainly find “a bit underdone”, while more often than not preferring bolder cabs and cab-based wines. Take Meerlust Rubicon 2017. I remarked a few weeks ago that, of the mini vertical I sampled, I most admired the 2017, doubtless partly because it had more than half a degree of alcohol less than the others (13.6%) and less residual sugar (just 1.57 g/l). But I see that the 2020 Prescient Review of  Cape Bordeaux Blends scored Rubicon 2017 a mere 89 points, which Christian raised to 91 at a more recent tasting. At that Review it’s notable that only one of the Top 10 wines declared an alcohol level below 14.5% – saying as much about the category, no doubt, as about the judging.

It’s the usual effect of finishing sweetness of Cape Bordeaux-style wines that puts me off somewhat. It’s probably the only category where I sedom buy local examples (though I did buy that Kanonkop Cab 2019, as well as the Kadette Cab of that year – at less than a third of the price, an even more splendid bargain!). I have often bemoaned the paucity, as well as the excessive mark-ups, of modest-level genuine Bordeaux available in this country, but in fact the supply has improved in recent years, mostly from Wine Cellar, sometimes from Caroline’s Fine Wines, but also occasionally from Great Domaines.

I buy some of these minor wines – for less, even much less, than the best local versions – and admit that I am sometimes, albeit rarely, disappointed. In my drinking of recent weeks, Château Graves de Pez St-Estèphe 2014 was pretty much what I expected for R355 paid some years back: pleasing, restrained and dry, and with a mere 13% alcohol. Unambitious and a bit underdone, to apply Christian’s phrase, but I enjoyed it vastly more than if it had been “overdone”. I’d bought quite a lot of Ch. Bernadotte Haut-Médoc 2014, a much more ambitious wine that cost about R100 more, as I recall. When it was younger it was very promising and enjoyable, well-structured, I thought, and a real find. But now the tannins are still forthright, while the fruit is starting to fade. (Something that happens with many Cape versions, though usually noticeably so at a bit older than this.) Still interest and satisfaction, but I should have enjoyed its less stern youth.

Ch. Teynac 2016.

A triumph, on the other hand, was 2016 Ch. Teynac St-Julien, a better vintage. This must have been a one-off parcel that Great Domaines found somewhere and brought in recently. To my great satisfaction. Just the sort of modest cab-based Bordeaux I love – probably more than many grander and impressive wines that would have riper fruit, more alcohol than the declared 13% on this, more extraction, power and oak, and less elegance. This was poised and balanced, fresh and fairly youthful still, but the fruit restrained and coloured by the savoury, sombreness of older-style, old world Bordeaux. Quite the opposite of sunshine in a bottle, and “done” just right.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


8 comment(s)

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    Gal Gestin | 24 June 2024

    All of this made me search for this scoring system again: https://wineandi.wordpress.com/the-kak-en-lekker-scale-of-wine/

    Kwispedoor | 24 June 2024

    Interesting, Tim. I think we agree on a few things.

    I enjoy tasting notes that give me a good idea of the vibe of the wine (if it moved the taster / what the texture was like / dryness / length / balance / brightness / elegance /classic vs modern – you get the idea). What is more often offered, is largely a (real or contrived) list of aromas that the taster perceived.

    Scoring is problematic from the start – even if one would leisurely taste a wine blind twice , then sighted twice, and then finally score it within a three-point bracket. But nobody is ever going to do that.

    And the bigger the flight, the bigger the problems… I also prefer dry, classic, pure, less showy wines, but I understand that people are more easily wowed by overt expressions and power in larger lineups – especially when judging younger wines.

    Christian’s description of the 2021 Paul Sauer makes me want to taste it even more – the 2019 (also deemed comparatively elegant) was fantastic!

      Greg Sherwood | 26 June 2024

      I think like Tim James, many of you confuse my aromatic notes with my tasting notes. Some of us are perhaps more attuned to describing what they actually smell and taste. I’ve always wanted people to read my tasting notes and the close their eyes and get a hint of the sensation of actually tasting the wine. Simple as that. No exaggeration, no hyperbole, not even that much purple prose puffery intended. It’s my style. If you don’t relate or like… don’t read. Simple.

        Kwispedoor | 26 June 2024

        Hi Greg. I’m not sure if you specifically meant to reply to my comment but your response is below it, so I guess you did? Either way, what I wrote was not a response to your tasting notes, but a very general response to some of the interesting points that Tim raised. Only my very last paragraph was specific to a wine or person.

    Vernon | 24 June 2024

    I’ve never had to write a weekly opinion piece but my guess is that after a while it’s not easy to come up with new ideas or fresh angles on topics previously dealt with. As it happens, I found Tim’s article amusing, thought provoking (it made me go back to the 2020 Prescient Report), informative … and all conveyed in a light and unpretentious manner.
    Not for the first time, I’m struck by a similarity between Tim’s taste in wine – restrained, balanced, relatively subtle – and his manner of writing. And, as with a ‘blockbuster’ style of wine, I’m not a huge fan of the hyperbolic … or hyper-bollocks as I like to think of it.
    As for tasting a flight of SA Bordeaux blends across a decade with a similar flight of Bordeaux examples, it’s an attractive idea. A pity, then, that the cost of such wines would probably be several multiples of the fee Tim would receive for writing the article.

      Martin | 26 June 2024

      BvR – Very well said, totally agree. Was hoping it was all an in-joke amongst friends but unfortunately dont think it is.

    BvR | 24 June 2024

    Hi Tim, not really all too certain what the point of this article was. And you’ve written some great ones before. Seems like an ill witted attempt to either justify Christian’s score for a wine or try and discredit Greg for his score on the same wine…neither of which seem like a decent talking point, unless its amongst friends, said wine in hand with a fire crackling away in the background. There is no substance in the article apart from trying to make someone look good, someone look bad and then sort of mention something about some average wine you bought a decade ago. If you really wanted to talk about comparing Bordeaux with SA from a style comparison and how that might have changed over the last decade, maybe taste a flight of various SA Bordeaux blends across that period with a flight of relevant Bordeaux and maybe comment on that? Compare them. And then off course you could bring in various critics views on style, scores, change over time etc – that would be a good read! And that’s what one would assume given the title. But this is well below you, your wine knowledge and your writing talent.

    Greg Sherwood | 24 June 2024

    Tim, I am very pleased you enjoyed my purple prose puffery so much. Tasting a sample of the Kanonkop Paul Sauer 2021, freshly opened late that morning (I arrived at the winery around 12pm)… I certainly did not find the wine lacking in complexity, depth or indeed structure. As for missing the “rubbery” note, I will allow Christian to correct me, but I believe he may be referring to the slight reduction that is present on this young wine. I think we may choose slightly different descriptives for this character as I don’t think “rubbery” is a term that should be used lightly, especially as it has such different negative connotations when originally bandied about describing Pinotage reds that were invariably over oaked, charred, and also possibly reductive at the same time.

    As per my observations on Australian wines from Margaret River, in the noughties we would always seek out wines Robert Parker scored ideally around 88/100… because alongside a good note, we knew the wine would be right up our strasse! Elegant, fresh, but not overblown. I suspect 25 years living in Europe as perhaps fine-tuned my own palate to a little bit more subtlety, elegance and weightless concentration over more obvious power, which the Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 certainly possesses compared to the Paul Sauer 2021. I greatly look forward to tasting the Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 in the future.

    As for 100-point scores… it’s common knowledge that I don’t really believe in scoring young new release wines 100 points. Indeed I have never done so before, the exception being Olerasay No.3 which is a 14 multi-vintage blend. Surely, we have to keep something back for these exceptional wines and exceptional vintages as they mature further in bottle. Knowing intimately how well the Paul Sauer wines age, as well as wines like MR de Compostella, for which I also ventured a 99/100-point score for the 2021 vintage, I am very confident these wines will live up to their high ratings and consumers will be well rewarded to putting these wines in their cellars.

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