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To drink or not to drink? – the Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Tête de Cuvée 2001

By Greg Sherwood

So much has been written about all the classic Cape estates in recent years, covering the Cape Dutch heritage, early plantings and wine styles, Cape winemaking personalities and more recently the wine renaissance that has occurred in South Africa since 1994 and the first democratic elections which opened up the international wine scene to aspiring wine makers, young and old.

As the multimedia ground has been trodden and re-trodden, the poor South African “journalistic vineyard” is now in danger of suffering high levels of soil compaction, which any viticulturalist worth their salt will tell you is detrimental to a vineyard and its soil health. Perhaps it is time for an alternative, more specific point of evaluation?

Studying for my MW, the mentors and lecturers continuously encourage the students to taste and write assessments about what is in the actual glass and not about what they know of a specific wine or wine style, for just as seeing a label can change ones objective outlook on a wines true quality or stature, so too can information overload obscure what one is actually tasting and how good or poor the wine really is.

So carrying on from my last column on the Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 1997 in May 2004, I decided to continue the theme of reviewing some of South Africa ’s truly individual Icon wines, but from where it matters the most - not in the vineyards or the winery, but from what’s in the glass. Why? Because, quite simply, fine wine enjoyment and evaluation is derived from the drinking thereof, and secondly, because these are the wines consumers are frantically hunting down to fill their cellars with, and more often than not, parting with huge sums of money in the process!

From Syrah, a hugely successful varietal in South African conditions, we move to Pinot Noir, one of the most demanding and testing varieties to grow and make quality wine with outside of its home Burgundy . Having made the wines at Hamilton Russell for several years before starting his own venture in 1989, Peter Finlayson has become renound as one of a small band of SA winemakers who can genuinely claim to have tamed the beast that is Pinot Noir.

His standard cuvée Galpin Peak is in itself a classic Pinot Noir and judging it on its track record so far, there is little doubt that it can be counted among the top New World Pinots produced. It is usually quite a rich, savoury, spicy, meaty style that’s firmly individual, but Burgundy lies at its heart stylistically. Not totally dissimilar some might say, to the riper 2002/3 new wave styles of Gevry-Chambertin or Chambolle Musigny.

But what about Bouchard Finlayson’s famed, almost legendary, Tête de Cuvée Pinot Noir? Most Pinotfiles have only heard or read about this wine as it is usually so sort after and in such short supply that the 12 barrels Peter usually makes disappear into dark cellars of avid collectors straight after release. A few lucky wineanoraks I have spoken to have apparently stumbled across bottles of older vintages like 1997 on top restaurant lists in South Africa and have been suitably impressed despite the mammoth prices.

And it’s not just the tiny quantity produced that makes this wine so famous and sought after. Reputation, backed up by exceptional quality is the key. The fact that Pinot Noir can be created in such an attractive expression outside of Burgundy makes the achievement all the more admirable.

I managed to track down a bottle of the prestigious 2001 vintage and took this £48.00 Cape Icon for a test run.

2001 Vintage Report
Vintage 2001 was characterised by a great summer with soft, dry conditions and excellent high quality fruit. Harvesting at Bouchard Finlayson started the last week in January, 3 weeks after the completion of vendage vert, and continued for 10 days. Only domain fruit was utilised in the Tête de Cuvée, from vineyards ranging in age from 4 –10 years old. It is the particular soil and microclimate of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in Hermanus, which once again offered up a vintage with its own particular characteristics and one that was very suitable for high quality Pinot Noir. Peter himself rated it the best vintage for Pinot since the long and cool 1997 harvest.

After opening the wine and tasting it at several points of development over a few hours, what revealed itself was a big, dense, dark red black plum coloured wine. Slightly opaque. The nose was bursting with black cherry, vanilla, wood spice and forest berries, raspberry nuances and hints of sweet and sour yellow plums. Certainly easily identifiable as top flight Pinot Noir.

For a wine that Peter assures me can age well for up to 20 years, the palate was soft and silky. But underneath the soft fruit were very fine grained tannins with ample structure and grip. The palate had plenty of concentration, medium high acid and good balance - all important if this wine is to stand any chance of aging for 20 years.

There was a slightly over-ripe feel to elements of the fruit and the long, earthy, “raisoned black cherries in liqueur” finish supported this as did the 14 degrees of alcohol, which revealed itself on the back of the palate with a warm finish. But then again, achieving this level of phenolic ripeness often goes hand in hand with higher sugar levels. Inevitably, there will be a few trade offs.

Overall, my impression of the Tête de Cuvée 2001 is one of a very well made wine with plenty of concentration and power. In its youth, it perhaps lacks a certain degree of elegance and finesse but the wine is not fully integrated yet and needs plenty more time in the bottle. It’s a young, headstrong wine that is certainly top notch though. Only 12 barrels were selected, yielding 300 cases. The official cellaring note from the winery is drink within 5 to 20 years. Under ideal cellar conditions, this wine just might last that long. And my score for what its worth? A generous 91-92/100.

And the price? Unfortunately, not £48 pounds worth for me. Comparable £45+ pound Pinot Noir products from the New World like the Block 3 and Block 5 from Felton Road ( Central Otago , NZ) would seem better value. Not really sure how Peter arrived at this price point but no doubt a large price tag adds to the wines status and collectability. So far, with the exception of the infamous Perold Shiraz that started retailing at $100 or £55 pounds at current exchange rates, the Tête de Cuvée must stand as currently the most expensive wine in South Africa . I guess that’s an accolade in itself!!?

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