Travels in Wine / South Africa

How well do South African wines age?


Jo Locke Jo Locke / 25 October 2018

Very well! That's what I discovered when I returned to the Cape and attended some incredible tastings. I also got to taste 10 'Episodes' of the ever-popular Liberator series including two brand new creations, and couldn't help but admire the innovation and community focus of Spier.

Greg Sherwood at The Whole Bunch Heritage tasting
Greg Sherwood MW at The Whole Bunch Heritage tasting

Just one of the advantages of being a Wine Society buyer (NB to all aspiring MWs, the same goes for being a Master of Wine) is the occasional opportunity to taste rare and special wines, the kind of experience money cannot buy. So it was on my first day of my September 2018 trip to the Cape, courtesy of The Whole Bunch, and in particular a personal invitation from new supplier and Cape 'rock star' Lukas van Loggerenberg. Hosted and generously made possible by the Winshaw brothers of Usana, this was an extraordinary tasting of Cape red wines dating from the 1950s and 60s. The event was co-chaired by Master of Wine and Cape authority Greg Sherwood of the UK's Handford Wines and the audience response was unanimously hushed, reverential, and positive!

The wines were not only very much alive but delicious. Greg explained that these wines are now rare on the auction market in the Cape, and while prices have risen, perhaps not by as much as the wines deserve. My advice is if you see any of them at auction here in the UK, my guess is that they are likely to be underpriced and well worth a punt!

Delheim 1987: still very much alive and proof positive of the ageing potential of the Cape's best wines
Delheim 1987: still very much alive

Two other extra special treats lay in store at Thelema and Delheim. As we were discussing the ageability of Cape wines, Thomas Webb kindly opened a bottle of 1997 Thelema Cabernet, which beautifully illustrated that, when well stored, these wines can age gracefully way beyond the usual recommended 10-year drinking window (for South African cellars that is). Ditto at Delheim where my delicious homemade Bobotie (a national dish of South Africa: a delicious mix of curried meat and fruit with a creamy golden topping, not dissimilar to moussaka) at their lovely 'cottage' restaurant was graced with a gorgeous Delheim Grand Reserve 1987, a lovely elegant wine and also still very much alive.

Which is more than can be said for my little hire car which was dead as a dodo when I emerged from the tasting room. I had not noticed that the headlights were switched on when I collected it in torrential rain in Stellenbosch that morning. So all my fault therefore, made all the more embarrassing by the kindness of co-owner Victor Sperling whose misspent youth came in handy to get the car started again. Thank goodness Delheim sits on the slopes of the beautiful Simonsberg mountain!

Liberator retrospective in Cape Town
Liberator retrospective in Cape Town

Another privilege on this trip was an invitation to The Liberator's (aka Richard Kelley MW's) first tasting of Liberator Episodes in the Cape. Hosted by Roland Peens at Wine Cellar, top-notch wine merchant and retailer in the still somewhat run down but trendy Observatory area of Cape Town, the tasting showcased 10 Liberator Episodes, including the two latest incarnations which are to be the first sold in the Cape (via Wine Cellar): an extraordinary and to-die-for flor-affected chenin blanc, and a petite sirah which I had already tasted back in April and has now blossomed. A generous contribution from sales of these two wines is to go to Sp(i)eel, a charity that uses the creative arts as therapies to support previously disadvantaged communities. Hats off to all concerned.

Tokara new Winemaker Stuart Botha (left) with GM Karl Lambour
Tokara new Winemaker Stuart Botha (left) with GM Karl Lambour

Catching up with changes in the Cape Wine industry

Stuart Botha is looking right at home at Tokara, where he has taken over the role of cellarmaster from long-term resident Miles Mossop. I was impressed, as ever, with the range of wines, including Stuart's first release, a delicious sauvignon blanc, but also with the way Stuart presented them. An old friend from his former life at Eagles' Nest, I very much hope we will see him at another Wine Society tasting sometime soon!

The cellar at L'Avenir
The cellar at L'Avenir

I had not visited L'Avenir for some years and was delighted to have added it late to my itinerary, having missed them at Cape Wine. Now under new ownership, much work has been done in the vineyards (which looked simply stunning), cellar and visitor facilities. 'Back to being Proudly South African' said cellarmaster Dirk Coetzee, the focus is now firmly on pinotage – a specialism forged under previous cellarmaster François Naudé – and chenin blanc, and the top wines showed far greater purity and finesse than in recent years. A property definitely on the up, and a lovely place to visit.

An art student hard at work at Spier
An art student hard at work at Spier

Many members have recommended Spier and again it had been some time since I visited or bought any of the wines. This large estate not far outside Stellenbosch has always been a go-to venue popular with tour operators and private visitors alike. I quickly understood why its name crops up more than ever. The razzmatazz of old has gone, to be replaced by beautifully restored old buildings, a divine-smelling deli, and an informal restaurant, set in beautiful grounds. In addition, there is an art gallery and workshop, showcasing just one of the community projects that are behind so much of what goes on here, under the appropriately coined 'Growing for Good' initiative. Small canvases and materials are delivered to budding artists, their work bought back, some of which is displayed and sold, some used in the design for the Creative Block range of wines. Top students have the chance to win a year's scholarship to build a portfolio in the on-site studio, where they are currently focusing on mosaic and bead work.

Innovative greenhouse made from recycled plastic bottles at Spier
Innovative greenhouse made from recycled plastic bottles at Spier

A former employee is now running the laundry which supplies the hotel (which was the first in the Cape to be certified Fair Trade). Another, with the help of environmental non-profit organisation Wildlands, manages a nursery of indigenous trees and plants which are grown from seed harvested from mother plants, then delivered as saplings to schools and townships where they are nurtured, supporting education and ultimately providing income, as the young plants are then bought back using a specially designed voucher scheme. The young plants are then raised further until they are suitable for planting in those same schools and townships, for the benefit of all. That so much of this is done using recycled materials (empty plastic bottles used to create a greenhouse, discarded shoes and polystyrene packaging used as planters, even coffee cups used in place of plant pots, the beauty of which is that they are biodegradable, so can be planted directly into the ground), is even more inspiring, and I came away determined to become a better person! Oh, and the Spier entry in the 2018 Platter's Wine Guide speaks for itself. The affordable Signature 'lifestyle' range comprises eight wines in total which aim to overdeliver. Further up the scale the Creative Block and single-vineyard wines are impressive. Look out for them in your local Nando's, which is owned by the same family, and in wider distribution in the UK in due course. They deserve it.

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Members' Comments (1)

"I am often surprised that others are surprised that wines from the "New World" can age. Why wouldn't wines with the same grapes with the same chemical balances not age when they are grown and made into wine using similar techniques to the more famous regions? It is a matter of personal taste but ultra old wines do I feel decline quicker than some would have us believe, Everyone murmurs with hushed awe as a 1961 Bordesux is poured, given the cost... Read more > and rarity no one dares admit that the wine is 30 years past it's best. My own experiences of the best South African cabernet led wines suggest 10 to 15 years as ideal but I honestly think this rings true for virtually all cabernet whether from the Cape or Pauillac."

Mr Antony Brown (26-Jan-2019)

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