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Vintage anomalies: South Africa's top 1996 reds revealed

Greg Sherwood

E-mail: Sherwood@cis.co.za
January 2001

The French experience
When buying Bordeaux or Burgundy en-primeur or even just by the case on release, what is the first thing that usually goes through the buyers mind when considering a specific wine? Well, other than cost, it has got to be vintage. Whether buying wines for short-term consumption such as the 1997 Bordeaux red's, or for laying down for 5 to 10 years or more, the consumer wants to feel assured that when the time comes to pull their special case of wine out of a bonded warehouse somewhere, the wine is going to meet or exceed all their expectations.

Now, debating the swings and roundabouts of fine wine pricing is certainly a contentious topic on its own, but vintage should be far more straightforward. After all, a vintage is either poor, average, good or excellent. However, multiply that choice by the variances among individual Chateaux and Domaines from year to year, and decade to decade (not to mention winemaker to winemaker), and one can immediately see that choices become a lot more difficult and risky. Then, lump on top of that the marketing hype of producers sitting on larger than expected stocks from the previous year or two, and the scene is perfectly set for a game of hopscotch in a mine field.

At the end of the day, there can be no real substitute for long-term experience, ample information and first hand tasting reports, preferably from wine critics who you know have similar likes or dislikes to that of yourself. Trading and buying wine en-primeur is a bit like share and equity trading from home via the internet. At first it is exciting, challenging, and highly stimulating, especially when wines appreciate noticeably in price after only 1 or 2 years. After time however, the novelty can wear off and keeping up to date, merely to maintain ones current portfolio, can start to feel like unwanted homework. So, if you feel that you don't have the time or the nerve for spending large sums of money on French Bordeaux and Burgundy en-primeur, could New World prestige wines offer a safer, simpler route for buyers to follow?

New world consistency?
Well, I always used to believe that barring bad winemaking, vintages in the USA, Australia and South Africa (for primarily the top producers), were for the most part either: 'Good', and for drinking within 3 - 8 years, or 'Excellent', with maturation potential of 15 or possibly 20 years or more, if kept in a temperature controlled cellar. Easy drinking quaffers and El Nino-induced droughts and floods aside, New World wines normally always hit the mark, vintage after vintage, despite the vagaries of climate. Or do they?

A good case in point is the 1996 vintage in South Africa. From as far back as I can remember, this vintage was regarded as unusually 'poor', with a cool growing season marked by several sets of late showers around harvest time in many areas, allowing vineyards to produce record yields, thus sacrificing quality and concentration to a large extent. A very patchy year for red wines, and not much better for premium white varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Looking back now on my own tasting notes for this vintage, I remember most of the reds, particularly the Cabernets and Merlots, being lightweight, green and often watery on the palate, lacking depth, and most having a very short finish. The other noticeable problem was the premature browning on wines of 1 or 2 years old, which in my mind was a sure-fire sign of a poor vintage. Otherwise, great for putting in blind tastings to fool people on the age of the wine.

The 1996 contradictions
Of course, like for every vintage there were exceptions, into which the successful wines can be neatly grouped into two quality categories. Firstly, the wines that compared well in quality terms with the excellent 1995s, and that were released around mid to end 1997, and secondly, the more serious 'boutique styled' wines that were released commercially up until as late as mid 1999, and that are being retailed still today at selective specialist wine merchants!

In the first category, few wines performed as well as the Le Bonheur Estate range, including their Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 and their Prima 1996 Merlot-Cabernet blend. Bearing in mind the frightful quality of wines from 1996 that abounded at the time, these extraordinary wines spoke volumes about intelligent winemaking under difficult circumstances. Uncharacteristically for the vintage, the wines exhibited lush up-front fruit, a depth of ripe plums, wet tobacco and cherry flavours on the mid-palate, and a rich array of red and black berry concentration on the finish. Tannins were silky and accessible, adding sufficient structure to balance the fruit and juicy acidity. A definite ray of light in an otherwise 'overcast' skyline.

Speaking to Le Bonheur winemaker Sakie Kotze at the 1998 Stellenbosch Winemakers Road Show, held at the Pretoria Country Club, South Africa, I asked him about this vintage and the wines it produced. I enquired how it was possible that his wines portrayed none of the typical 1996 vintage characteristics when so many of the wines of the other so-called 'top wineries' in Stellenbosch and beyond were so negatively influenced? The modest man that he is, Sakie replied that he had played the waiting game with the late rains and left the fruit to ripen fully. As it happened, things did clear up and Le Bonheur and a handful of other producers brought in optimally ripe grapes in stark contrast to the bulk of Cape producers who had picked slightly early fearing the rains. Even though the rest is, as they say, history, he will be the first to admit that he did indeed risk much of his red grape crop based on his 'gut instinct'! Or, perhaps he had faith in Mother Africa. After all, there must be some advantages to not living and making wine in the unpredictable climates of Bordeaux or Burgundy.

While there were other 1996 red successes that did show well and probably continue to do so, like the Vergenoegd Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, there is no doubt that they are now, only four years later, hard to come by. Such was the retail panic to get rid of the 1996s, that few remain in the trade or wine Estate's cellars at all. As for the Le Bonheur story, it is I feel a fair summary of the winners of the 1996 vintage where the first category of wines is concerned. However, with the release of all 1996s well and truly a thing of the past, there might well be a necessity to rewrite the final obituary of the 1996 vintage! Or at the very least, add a few footnotes.

Quality wines From quality producers
Elusively, many of the best 1996 South African reds in the second or Boutique/Cult wine category were not widely available by the time the vintage had already been analysed, debated, tasted, re-tasted, and final judgement passed. But as any wine enthusiast will know, it is usually the trail blazing cult producers and 'garagist' winemakers that succeed where large corporate wine producing locomotives fall down. Recipe wine making is not ideally suited to unexpected vintage anomalies. Creativity, insight, guts and determination, as well as a unique understanding of the local vines and terroir, are what make great wines possible in difficult years.

Admittedly, despite numerous examples to the contrary, 1996 will not go down in the annals of vintage history as a good or even average year primarily because the majority of wine producers did not get it right. But of course the same happens the world over, and few Bordeaux properties will claim to be fully satisfied with the quality of their red wines for the 'poor' 1997 vintage. But like always, there will be exceptions.

So perhaps in an effort to moderate and uplift the overall historical view of South Africa's 1996 vintage, several star performers have been selected from the Boutique/Cult wine category, to illustrate the inherent quality that top New World producers are capable of, even in the occasional 'off-vintage'. Where known, retail and wholesale stockists are listed. If you can find them, buy them! They are rich, lusciously juicy and accessible now!

THE 1996 STARS TO LOOK OUT FOR:

Rozendal 1996
Kurt Ammann, owner and wine maker of Rozendal is a serious chap and accordingly, pays little attention to what others around him are doing or saying. The wine here more or less reflects its maker: thoughtful, sometimes rebellious, always original. His 1996 Red Bordeaux style blend is sumptuous, balanced, silky textured and almost French in its elegance, making one think of certain right bank Bordeaux properties, probably owing largely to the wine's almost 80% Merlot component. A distinctive cult classic from South Africa's pre-eminent red wine region of Stellenbosch. (Seckford Wines, Handford Fine Wines - from 10.99 to 15.99)

Veenwouden Classic 1996
This Paarl winery put the 'B' in boutique. The Van der Walts are uncompromisingly quality focused and firmly take their lead from the Bordeaux masters on the Left and Right Bank. With very low yields, concentration and ripeness is accentuated to the maximum to produce complex wines with volumes of depth and structure, but without sacrificing elegance. While the 1995 Veenwouden Classic is already regarded as a legend in its own time, and a wine that will not easily be matched, the 1996 is lush and rich and almost Australian in its intensity. Oddbins UK purchased most of the 1995s and 1996s and lucky wine explorers can still track down both of these vintages at selected branches. Worth every penny of its 12.99 price tag! Seckford Wines is the new exclusive wholesale agent since the 1997/8 vintages. (Seckford Wines, Handford Fine Wines - 14.99)

Veenwouden Merlot 1996
Here again, the Van der Walts pull out all their tricks learnt in Bordeaux, to produce a big, round, rich Merlot that just oozes fruit. Definitely a departure in style from their first vintage Georgio Dalle Cia (Meerlust winemaker) helped produce in 1993. Regrettably, I opened my last bottle of 1993 far too early, as this is a wine built to last like the top offerings from Pomerol, or Saint-Emilion. The 1996 however, is ready to drink now but will keep easily for at least another 5 or more years. (Seckford Wines, Handford Fine Wines - 14.99)

Rustenburg Stellenbosch 1996
One of the most picturesque vineyards in the world, the Rustenburg estate lies at the base of the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch. With Rustenburg's declared aim being 'to be the most prestigious winery in South Africa in terms of image and quality', there can be no doubt that they had full faith in Rod Easthope, the young Australian flying winemaker who produced 1996 vintage reds. This blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, and 15% Cabernet Franc is rich, ripe and up front, clearly rewarding the low impact winemaking practices of the estate. We're talking wild yeasts, no filtration or fining, and minimal use of preservatives to bring the most out of fruit from low yielding vines. Still several years of development potential on this wine. (Available from Mentzendorf wholesalers and Handford Fine Wines in Holland Park at approximately 12.95 per bottle.)

Meerlust Rubicon 1996
THE classic Cape cult Bordeaux-style blend. If you have not heard of Meerlust Rubicon yet, you should consider becoming a teetotaller! Around since 1980, Rubicon has become an integral part of South Africa's fine wine culture, or should I say, history, with winemaker Gorgio Dalle Cia the general leading the troops. The 1996 has all the hallmarks of a cooler vintage and displays ripe cherries, cassis and spice. (Maison Marques et Domaines, Handford Fine Wines - 16.95)

Meerlust Merlot 1996
There is no doubt that Merlot is Gorgio Dalle Cia's favourite grape variety. He seems perpetually capable of crafting wines that are as charming, powerful and complex as any French or Californian counterpart at double or triple the price. Certainly not one to be over-looked. (Maison Marques et Domaines, Handford Fine Wines, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason - 14.99)

Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
The Platter's 2000 Wine Guide describes this wine perfectly, "Immediate impression of the 1996 is Old World restraint, then deeper fruit-penetration brings hints of New World exuberance. Smooth and harmonious palate accentuated by superb, fragrant, understated oak." Once again, the description takes its lead from the cooler vintage characteristics of 1996. (Majestic, Oddbins - 13.99)

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1996
Other than Meerlust's Rubicon, one of the Cape's most outspoken reds. Big, round, rich and superlatively structured, this wine is not for the faint-hearted! While the 1996 did not make as many ripples in the SA market as new releases of any Paul Sauer normally would, is certainly will reward fans who have correctly decided to cellar their 1994's and 1995's further, and drink the 1996 sooner. Since the 1995 picked up the Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Trophy for the best red blend in the World (for the second time, first time with the 1991), it has climbed to Quasi-Californian cult status, and price, in the South African auction market, retailing for over R300 Rand a bottle, or about 30.00. Probably the only SA red that actually costs more in South Africa than in Central London! (Majestic, Oddbins - 12.99- 13.99)

Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
Same old story here. This wine was released on August 1st 1999, and was sold out one month later. Like many of the above mentioned wines, the cooler vintage also manifested itself in Thelema's wines, with a supple juicy elegance, velvety texture, rich red and blackberry fruit, and ripe new-clone mintiness. Webb has made no secret of the difficulties this vintage presented, but a strict fruit and barrel-selection policy won the day.

Thelema Merlot 1996
Like the Paul Sauer, Thelema's wines are now in the leagues of Californian modelled cult stardom - but with one big difference. They are just not available. Not at any price. All budding economists will tell you that demand and supply will set the market price. But if no product ever changes hands other than in the first month from the cellar door, scarcity becomes a bit of a marketing ostrich that never actually manages to fly. All that imposing "big bird" talent wasted. But, none of this small talk can detract from the masterful wines crafted by Gyles Webb. The 1996 is slightly atypical, being a touch more herbaceous, and less meaty, than previous vintages. Definitely for drinking from release, but with ample development potential. (around 13.99)

P.s. For those curious anoraks out there, the European trade offered mixed messages about the 1996 vintage. In Tom Stephenson's Sotherby's Wine Encyclopaedia, he describes the 1996 vintage as one of the best in recent years?? What? True, look it up for yourself. Maybe Tom knew something no one else did? While in more traditional circles, Michael Broadbent wrote, "After an uncharacteristically wet December and January, the weather changed into a hot and listless February. Conditions then changed again, with the end of February and March turning cool with localised frost. A little rain during harvest caused rot problems in certain areas. Resulting wines showed more European style due to the long, cool ripening period." Well, I say taste the good wines and make your own mind up…..

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