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Are South African Wines Ageworthy?
Vinous explorations and investigations in a prestige cellar

By Greg Sherwood

It’s the perennial wine anorak question… are South African wines age worthy? In fact it’s a question asked of most new world red and white wines by collectors. More and more as winemakers explore and master their local terroirs in break speed time, wineries are producing better wines with riper fruit and a more harmonious tannin / acid balance, while simultaneously discovering nuanced hints of terroir minerality. But are these wines really worth collecting and cellaring, with an expectation that aging will actually improve the contents? With my personal cellar filled with over 1,000 bottles of premium South African wine, there are inevitably numerous bottles that are in need of drinking, and perhaps even a few past their best as all hoarders eventually discover. So with a family reunion in the offing, I decided to put my anal collector tendencies behind me (pardon the pun) and set about on a course of serious wine exploration and investigation.

First to the guillotine was a bottle of 1991 Kanonkop Pinotage. I should add at this point that most of my bottles have been purchased on release and have been cellared since ‘new’ at a constant temperature that is more than optimal for the hot South African climate – 12 degrees Centigrade constant. So no problem with provenance. However, there are a few auction bottles purchased in 1998 that were perfect when purchased and offered me no reason for concern.

Sadly the 1991 Pinotage was tired, fruitless and down right dirty. I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, as you do, and decanted it and moved on to another bottle only to return later and confirm my first impressions. So down the sink it went. By this time, my blood was up and I grabbed a bottle of 1992 Uitkyk Carlonet Cabernet Sauvignon and proceeded to yank the cork out. Straight into the glass and a quick slurp. Hmmmmmm… that’s more like it! While not quite Utopia, there were elements of bliss in the bouquet and the palate was charged with a juicy acidity, lush dense cassis notes and lovely old world minerality reminiscent of an ’83 or ‘85 Saint Julian or Paulliac. Most importantly, the tertiary development did not over power the wine’s fruit or fragrance and the herbaceous cassis and black berry notes shone. Fine silky tannins suggested a wine on its plateau and with a few more good drinking years left ahead of it. An easy 89+/100 success! And hey, not much quality from Bordeaux ‘92 to compare in any case!

This only served to make me over eager and before family or guests could say enough, I had pulled the cork on a bottle of 1991 Zonnebloem Shiraz with a Stellenbosch provenance. With no takers, I nosed a glassful and “vacuvined” it. At breakfast the following morning, the talk was firmly focused on what we were eating for lunch and dinner with view to extracting something appropriate from the cellar. Lunch was a slight rehash of cold chicken, cold BBQ’ed meats and salad. Lovely with the Shiraz that was surprisingly cassis fruit laden and showing very little development for a 14 year old wine. At this quality, you would need to spend a substantial amount on an Old World Hermitage or Cote Rotie to match this freshness. A healthy 88/100 score. Yet another successful bottle adding to my ever rising moral. But this was nothing compared to what was to follow with the evenings roast beef!

 With family and friends now eagerly poised, I decided it was time for some heavy artillery - A 1995 Buitenverwachting Christine Bordeaux blend and a Grangehurst Cabernet Merlot 1996. The 1995 vintage in general was a stunner and helped shape South Africa ’s extraction from the vinous isolation of the Apartheid 1990’s era. All in all a hot, ripe vintage with excellent balance and great potential longevity for premium bottles. Some wines required added acidity, but on the best examples, it was either not applied or not required. Admittedly, the 1996 SA vintage was a bit of a 1997 Bordeaux copy with cool conditions prevailing at harvest and unexpected rain during picking. But for those growers that held on, dry weather followed and helped produce a handful of stunning wines, worthy of a greater vintage. I would wager a bet that very few wine enthusiasts have many 1996 bottles still lurking in their cellars, most styles being obviously early drinking.

The Christine was explosive from the word go, with classic Old World Bordeaux notes to match the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend. Lush, dense and fruit forward with an exciting fine grip of tannin still youthfully showing on the wine’s finish. But the minerality was the surprise. Absolutely stunning, and integrated with French oak, sweet fruit and tertiary development perfectly. A potential score here of 92 - 93+/100! The Grangehurst was also a revelation. Incredible fragrance of violets, grape notes and perfume filled the glass and followed to a fruit filled, textured palate that was elegantly poised. One could have been fooled into thinking they were drinking a 3rd growth AOC Margaux such was the finesse, floral lift and elegance. No hesitation in offering a score of 91+/100. Coffee was inevitably delayed to allow a few of us to linger over our last mouthful of Grangehurst. Thank goodness I have another bottle in the cellar for a future date.

If ever there were any initial doubts about the ageability of South African reds, then these were being put to bed at steady pace, and no doubt before my two week family break was over, there would be a few more “dead marines” (empty bottles) to lay to rest.

But before I finish this installment of my vinous cellar discoveries, what of the whites you may ask? Admittedly, I have been cautious to add nothing but the best wooded Chardonnays, Chenin Blancs and Rieslings to my cellar list, with an odd few Blanc Fumé wines making a brief appearance. But needless to say, I was on a roll and the next day’s lunchtime of cold hams, cheeses and assorted pickles was cleverly matched with a 1997 Bouchard Finlayson Kaaimansgat (Crocodiles Lair for UK consumers) Chardonnay. Now most will know already that 1997 was almost the longest and coolest vintage on record and produced excellent whites with freshness, plump ripe fruit purity and natural acids capable of allowing the best examples to last a good 5 to 7 years plus. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the bottled and tasted what could have been a well oaked, well integrated, ripe, taught 1995/6 AOC Saint Romain or AOC Saint Aubin 1er Cru white Burgundy ! But no… just a humble new world white scoring 91/100.

Now for those starting to umm and ahhh with skepticism about my revelations and scores, sensing some kind of promotional publicity stunt for Wines of South Africa, I should set your minds at ease and tell you I am almost as surprised as some of you readers may be. Yes, I am a proponent of aging SA wines, but the sheer class, balance and complexity encountered on some of the above examples was exemplary and surprised me. Not faultless but quite simply very high class! Watch out California and Australia , the best examples from South Africa are stunning and will reward patience and a little trust…. with the help of a nice cool cellar of course. So, if you weren’t in the mood for a nice South African bottle before reading this piece, I’m sure you will be now. Happy drinking!!

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