Humble beginnings

It was inevitable I suppose. When wine enthusiasts gather over a glass or six they often try to outdo one another, to see if they can come up trumps with the hottest, sexiest, most obscure, most revered or almost unobtainable wine or wine experience. Wine upmanship.

So on Christmas Day someone asked me what my ‘Wine of the Year’ was – and I was a bit stumped because I generally don’t play that game. I like wine: modest or bemedalled. But that seed had been planted and over the next few days I flipped through my notebooks, going over tastings I’d attended and wines I’d sampled.

Ultimately it came down to three wines – and the interesting thing was how humble and low key all of them were. In March I was part of the panel which selected the wines for the 2013 Nederburg Auction. At the end of the tasting we were invited to the Holy of Holies – Distell’s Tabernacle at the old Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery in Stellenbosch. The task was to sample through some older vintages of wine which would be added to the auction.

We had Oude Libertas Pinot Noir and Cinsaut from 1971, and Tinta das Barocca from 1971 and 1977. Following that, Lanzerac 1963, 1964, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975; Chateau Libertas 1940, 1965 and 1982; and then Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1963, 1973 and 1980. What a treat!

It’s always interesting noting others’ reactions to older South African wines. Christian Eedes is not easily impressed – and neither is British wine writer Jamie Goode – but their comments on the oldest Chateau Libertas contained only superlatives. It was a classic with Goode describing it as “an insanely good, crazy wine that is so good it’s awesome”. Comments not often ascribed to South African reds by British wine writers for sure…

My notes reflect that I was knocked sideways by the 1973 Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon. Evolved yes, but it had aged magnificently! What shone through was the purity of fruit and the overall harmony and freshness of the wine – even though it was 40 years old at the time of tasting. Three bottles of that wine were auctioned off in Paarl later in the year and fetched R7 000 per bottle and I can assure whoever bought that lot that they are in for a seminal drinking experience.

And I have to say that I feel no embarrassment in mentioning my final two wines: the first being a Nederburg Baronne ‘from the 70s’, the first bottling run of the modest red blend. I wrote about that in my July blog for Cape Chatter if you’d like to read more about that experience.

The final wine of the trio was a 2013 Graça! Yup, the all-singing-sharing-dancing-eating wine which has graced more tables and contributed to more celebrations than most of us can recall. And it was as much about this wine’s 30th anniversary at The Standloper in Langebaan, with sand between the toes and seagulls cawing overhead as we sucked at crayfish legs, as it was about the sheer vivacity, enjoyment and drinkability of what was in the glass.

I don’t think I’d had a glass of the white blend in years so it was a genuine delight to discover how tasty the wine still is. It ticks all the boxes – ample fruit, good refreshing acidity, lovely body and enough interest to be able to partner a snoek off the braai, a mussel potjie or a Caesar salad in an upmarket restaurant!

It was also the stories told by Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery old timers Brian Glass, Colin Frith and Duimpie Bayly about the wine’s gestation and the tales of how it was marketed that tapped into the memories of happy times with the vino for friendinos – or langostinos. Ultimately that’s what wine is about for me: not ticking off a list of the great and good but simply how enjoyable it is with friends, food and good times.

– Fiona McDonald