Few tastings of local wines can be more instructive about South Africa’s wine evolution than those featuring older wines.

One that regularly fulfils its instructive brief is held the afternoon prior to the annual Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Its genesis, some five or six years ago, was to feed an article Michael Fridjhon was writing for the excellent World of Fine Wine magazine. Many individuals dig deep into cellars to find both white and red wines that meet the minimum age criteria of 15 and 25 years respectively. Distell has also been a generous source of old wines from the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery and Distillers days. Fridjhon himself now hunts down and buys up old cellars.  All keep the event going.

No one expects a lineup of perfectly aged wines, a few aren’t even drinkable, but the gems always make up for the lesser offerings. This year, covering vintages 1999 back to 1965, provided the best overall experience, perhaps the most gems too, of any to date.

It certainly drew gasps of amazement, pleasure and enthusiasm from the international judges, particularly UK writer Steven Spurrier, but also Americans John Gillman and Singapore-based Lisa-Perrotti Brown MW. They follow in a long line of international judges, who, since the first event, have expressed wonder at our old wines.

More whites than usual were opened on this occasion – 11, ranging from 1999 back to 1979.

Remember the days when Chardonnay was all oak and oily butter? It seems a very long time ago, when wines from the 1990s prove worth ageing. De Wetshof Finesse 1998, sold on the Nederburg Auction, and Neil Ellis Chardonnay 1992 WO Stellenbosch were the best of the five poured. Balanced oak and freshness on both have allowed such maturation and pleasurable drinking.

Sauvignon Blanc remains, for the average consumer, a wine that needs drinking before the next harvest. More’s the pity those consumers don’t have the opportunity to taste a wine like Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc 1994. Older Sauvignons, especially from cooler climates, can develop a strong green bean/pea character (which is why a little Semillon is now often blended in). This one was juicy, with good leesy richness and also great racy attack.

Oh how we under-valued Chenin Blanc back then! Oude Libertas Dry Steen 1980 (in those days, a home favourite and one of the best dry examples); elegant Zonnebloem Stein 1979 – its fruit lifted by a little residual sugar; and, thanks to subtle botrytis, a honeyed Nederburg Johann Graue Steen 1973, all delighted. These should be a lesson to us all to have more faith in Chenin, especially those from splendid old vines.

From next year, some of today’s stellar white blends will be of an age (2001) to join the gathering of Old Wines. How will the likes of Vergelegen’s flagship white and a prototype Steenberg Magna Carta called Catharina’s White fare?

And so on to the reds. Working from youngest to oldest, we started with Stellenryck Cabernet 1986, an era when new small oak barrels and heavy-handed acid adjustments were regularly used. For me this Cabernet illustrated both well, though some tasters were less troubled.

In complete contrast, Rozendal Farm 1983 CWG Auction wine had charm, elegance and nuance. It has elicited awe and admiration since day one and still does 32 years on. A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon with an influential 25% Cinsaut, which spiced the Cabernet, added a lightness and finesse to the structure. Cinsaut is enjoying something of a renaissance and I’ve heard tell of more than one blend similar to the Rozendal now being made.  

The joy of old Nederburg Cabernets in excellent condition cannot be measured. Their smoky, sweet fruit fragrance, gentle persuasion of structure and overall charm as coaxed by maestro, Günter Brözel, make them readily identifiable. Our 1976 brought back memories of a much happier drinking experience than many in the 1980s.

Still in the 1970s, uneven years had the stigma of being lesser vintages. This was given the lie by both Uitkyk Carlonet 1973, with all the ripe muscularity of its Simonsberg origin, and the firm, pure Alto Rouge 1973, with echoes of Châteauneuf in its delicate spice and savouriness.

Pinotage makes an annual appearance, as it should, and usually throws new light on the variety for our visitors. This year’s pair provided good talking points. The first, more for its rarity, the one-off Meerlust 1976 – sweet fruit and acetone notes were varietal giveaways. The older and maiden 1969 Meerendal really has stood the test of time, as has it is now a heritage vineyard.

Among the greatest treats was the last trio, all bearing 1965 on the label: Alto Selected Cabernet, Zonnebloem Cabernet and Chateau Libertas. Bearing in mind that these were pre-Wine of Origin regulation days, vintage and variety were flexible. According to Zonnebloem records, this Cabernet is a blend of vintages, and contains both Pinotage and Cinsaut. Blending across variety and vintage, when both are claimed on the label, is permitted, but in the Zonnebloem they exceeded today’s limits. Nevertheless, no one questioned its varietal claims from an organoleptic point of view. Alto required even less varietal questioning thanks to its stature and still readily recognisable dark ripe berry fruit. Chateau Libertas remains to this day a blend – 50 years on, our oldie shines with a blood red-garnet glow, the comfortable feel of age, and flavours of spice and well-worn (clean!) leather.

A trio notable for their purity and personality, these and many others sipped left me feeling a little wistful and wondering whether today’s wines will endure as well.

Old wines in order of tasting:

1.  Thelema Rhine Riesling 1999

2.  Chamonix Chardonnay 1999

3.  De Wetshof Finesse Chardonnay (Nederburg Auction) 1998

4.  Bouchard Finlayson Kaaimansgat Chardonnay 1997

5.  Buitenverwachting Sauvignon Blanc 1994

6.  Villiera Sauvignon Blanc 1993

7.  Neil Ellis Chardonnay 1992

8.  Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 1988

9.  Oude Libertas Dry Steen 1980

10. Zonnebloem Stein 1979

11. Nederburg Johann Graue Steen 1973

12. Stellenryck Cabernet 1986

13. Rozendal Farm 1983

14. Le Bonheur Cabernet 1982

15. Nederburg Cabernet 1976

16. Meerlust Pinotage 1976

17. Meerlust Cabernet 1975

18. Nederburg Shiraz 1975

19. Uitkyk Carlonet 1973

20. Alto Rouge 1973

21. Nederburg Vintage Cabernet 1973

22. KWV Roodeberg 1972

23. KWV Paarl Cinsaut 1972

24. KWV Pinotage 1972

25. Bellingham Shiraz NV

26. Zonnebloem Cabernet 1970

27. Alto Cabernet 1970

28. Meerendal Pinotage 1969

29. Zonnebloem Cabernet 1969

30. Alto Selected Cabernet 1965

31. Zonnebloem Cabernet 1965

32. Chateau Libertas 1965


– Angela Lloyd