Tim James: Understanding the ageworthiness of top Cape wines
By Christian Eedes, 24 May 2021
The success of wine auctions in the last year or two have not only made a lot of money for the auctioneers and some sellers, but gone some way to establishing a secondary market that promises to complicate the buying and selling of finer South African wines. It has revealed a willingness to accept the value (sensual and thence monetary) of ageing serious wine. For those of a speculative turn, it’ll mean more of the best ageworthy wines being laid down for later, profitable sale; for those who want to drink more complex and subtly exciting wines, it’ll be an encouragement to lay them down (in the right cool and quiet conditions, hopefully) for later drinking. Both categories of buyer will be waiting for the magic to happen. Hoping that it will happen. And many of them wanting early advice.
Widespread interest in the ageability of good Cape wine is clear. In my column last week, I lamented the relative lack of detailed commentary about this issue amongst the local dishers-out of scores, and mentioned the five-star scoring system used by Michael Broadbent, in which stars were given for the drinking-value of the wine at the time of tasting, and perhaps additional stars were given in brackets to indicate its expected ultimate value.
The trouble is, and why that would generally be difficult to do with any confidence for local wines, is that the required experience, and hence the necessary connoisseurship, is lacking – precisely because most of the top wines are too new (invented, as it were, within the last decade or two) to allow for experience to have built up about how a wine of a particular kind or origin is going to be in 10, 20, 30 years. Okay, we can know that cabernet sauvignon from Paarl or Stellenbosch is capable of ageing for 50 years even – but there is insufficient continuity from the 1960s, when GS Cabernet was made (and we can’t even be sure of the conditions of its production) to make for detailed usefulness. Wines like Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir have been around for 40 years – but even the pinot clones used for it have changed in that time. Incidentally, frankly, going by my limited experience, I think that some auction prices for certain Cape wines of wines from the 1980s and 1990s have been over-enthusiastic, and too high for the likelihood of the wines delivering great satisfaction.
Probably the Kanonkop wines are the most understood of the top post-1980 wines – which is the reason they do particularly well on auction (it should be the reason, rather than a critic giving a whopping score to an infant version!). And we’re starting to learn – after 10 or more vintages of a good number of wines, and through vertical tastings of Sadie Columella, Mullineux Syrah, etc – about some of the younger stars of the emerging secondary market. In general, and for example, that is, we can expect a Columella that’s 5, 10, or 15 years old to have gained, and to still have life and development potential. And just this year I’ve come to really accept that there are now many white wines, even apart from chardonnays (like the wonderfully ageworthy De Wetshof Bateleur), which, at ten or so years old, are drinking extremely well and should do so for a bit longer. I mentioned Steenberg sauvignon recently in this context; and I’ve also been greatly impressed by, amongst others, decade-plus Badenhorst, Alheit and Mullineux chenin-based whites, Boekenhoutskloof Semillon, Sadie Ouwingerdreeks whites, etc. Winemag’s Ten Year tastings are significant here.
But I don’t think we have even developed a sufficiently deep understanding of the effects of different kinds of harvest conditions on ageability, let alone the interaction with terroir. Especially given the major improvements in viticulture this century.
Michael Broadbent was largely working with a fairly restricted range of wines (especially Bordeaux, Burgundy, Port, some Germans, perhaps Barolo, etc), of which, as a wine auctioneer, he could develop his splendid experience. It’s still largely those wines, with some aspirant additions (Napa cabernet, Tuscans, a few specific Australians, etc) that are at the peak of the international secondary market; because connoisseurs have had the chance to learn about them. (But remember the uncertainties brought about by the Parker revolution’s effect on Bordeaux, in particular.)
The real problem is that we often can’t be entirely sure what factors in a wine (one without a history) are going to help or hinder its ageworthiness. The grape variety is obviously important, as seems to be a general balance; pH is vital by many accounts, and total acidity; the use of sulphur; tannins in red wines…. And what about the role of maturation vessels? The wines from clay pots that I love so much – will they mature as well as those from oak? Of two brilliant wines from the same vineyard, will Sons of Sugarland Syrah, brought up in concrete, age in bottle as well as partly new-oaked Van Loggerenberg Graft? We don’t know. We can guess, and each year we can make increasingly good guesses – but in most cases I would be very wary of anyone who dares to give more than generalisations about ageworthiness of wines without intelligently adducing a track record. (Of course, I’d be even more wary of people who assign scores to wines in blind tastings, with inevitably no awareness of track record at all – but let’s not go there now!)
Here’s a relevant account of something which illustrates something about this. And about my own ignorance, of course, but my point is that we’re still at a stage in understanding Cape wine where ignorance is widespread, even amongst those who are more widely and deeply experienced than the generality of drinkers. In my Winemag report in March on a Cape Vintners Classification tasting, I mentioned that a 2014 DeMorgenzon Chardonnay Reserve was notably over the hill. Tonight, at my side, I have a glassful of the 2015 – a year younger, yes, and of a renowned vintage, but of an excellence and youthful vitality as to make me pretty certain that the fault of that 2014 was an individual bottle one of random premature oxidation (presumably thanks to a faulty cork).
I seldom get a chance to taste older vintages of wines like this – how many do? But until more critics and commentators develop an understanding of how specific Cape wines age, and until more Cape wines reach a serious maturity, we need to be modest in our claims about ageability. Unfortunately. But at least it’s a marvellous and fascinating learning experience, building up this database for the future.
- 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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