Ivy Ng
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The underrated ageing potential of South African reds?

One of the more interesting events during Hong Kong’s recent South African Wine Festival was a tasting of five back vintages from four iconic wineries hosted by Northeast Wines, writes Ivy Ng.

20160412_164019_resized_1The first vintage (1995) of Hartenberg Wine Estate Gravel Hill Shiraz, under current winemaker Carl Schultz, had been produced exclusively for the 1997 Cape Winemakers Guild auction and this marked the first of 14 vintages sold at the CWG auction.  The quality of the low-yielding (about 3 tons/ha) single vineyard Shiraz is largely due to its unique soil composition. The thin topsoil (30-50 cm gravel) overlies the subsoil of metres deep of clay performing the function of water regulation.  The winter rain filtering through the gravel is trapped in the fissures in the subsoil, forming the water reserve to feed the growing season.  As the summer heat subsides and rain arrives, the clay swells to prune the roots, limiting vigour of the vines during the ripening period.  The wine spends about 7 – 8 years at the winery before release.  The vertical tasting showcased the 5 vintages from 2005 to 2009, its most recent release.  Retail price of the 2008 vintage is HK$ 575 (or US$ 74).  The family-owned Hartenberg Wine Estate was established in 1692.  Its vineyards on the slopes of Bottelary Hills bordering Stellenbosch are renowned for high quality Shiraz.

Kanonkop Estate has long been known as the ‘First Growth’ of South African wines. With vineyards on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in Stellenbosch, Kanonkop is a fourth generation family estate.  The estate was originally purchased by JW Sauer, a cabinet member in the parliament of the Union of South Africa.  Here 5 vintages of the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux blend Paul Sauer, including the award-winning 2009 vintage, was showcased at this special tasting. Retail price for the 2011 vintage is HK$321 (or US$41).

20160412_163824_resized_1Hannes Myburg, 8th generation owner of Meerlust Estate, presided over the pouring of Meerlust Rubicon wines, spanning the vintages 1998, 2001, 2005, 2009 ad 2012.  Meerlust was established in 1756.   The first vintage of Meerlust Rubicon was 1980. Hallmarks of Rubicon are intensity, harmony, vibrancy and complexity. The complexity is further enhanced with 1% addition of Petit Verdot from the 2009 vintage.  The wines are released after 4 years in the winery and the magnums are released after 10 years.  Not every vintage would produce a Rubicon.  The last 40 years saw gaps in 1985, 1990, 2002 and 2011, according to Myburg. The 2012 vintage retails at HK$ 294 (or US$ 38).

Traditional basket presses are used to craft this elegant Syrah, with grapes from 3 parcels in Stellenbosch.  Low yields, carefully selected fruit and gentle extraction give rise to this special cru from one of Stellenbosch’s oldest winery.  Originally known as ‘Bellinchamp’ (pretty fields), the Bellingham story began in 1693 when Hollander Gerrit Janz van Vuuren and his French Huguenot wife planted the first 1000 vines on the estate. When Bernard and Fredagh Podlashuk (“Pod”) purchased the derelict farm in 1943 and set about to restore it, thus began the modern renaissance of the Bellingham Estate in Franschhoek.  “Pod” was a pioneer and Bellingham was the first to release a single varietal Shiraz in 1956.   The 5 vintages of Bellingham Bernard Series Basket Press Syrah showcased were 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

South African native and long-time HK resident, Greg De’eb, who also heads fine wine storage facility Crown Wine Cellars, believes that beautifully aged South African Bordeaux blends, Syrah and Pinotage are where Napa Cabernets were 20 years ago.  They were under-appreciated (and under-priced at the time) but possessed the ability to age gracefully and effortlessly, that only took decades to reveal.  De’eb was referring to the mature Napa reds from 60s, 70s and 80s that he was able to buy at sensible prices before the prices sky-rocketed.  De’eb particularly treasures his collection of South African reds:

“The Cabs and Bordeaux blends are particular cause for celebration because of their distinctly old world/French character which means with age comes the very best of mature claret,” he said.

At a recent dinner at a private home in Hong Kong, De’eb’s host produced a magnum of 1986 Kanonkop Cabernet.  Not one of the connoisseurs present spotted its South African origin, most thought it could only be a first or second growth Bordeaux.

Based on the online retail prices for the wines showcased, one might do well by following the wisdom in De’eb’s advice.

Sarah Wong, wine columnist for local newspaper, SCMP, believes that the ageing potential of the wines is under-rated.  Wong said: “All the wines shown seem so youthful still, that they seem to have years, if not decades, ahead.”

While the 1998 Rubicon has now reached the plateau of its drinking window, Myburg said: “The ageing profile of South African wines is like the country’s famous Table Mountain!”  He expects the 1998 Rubicon will stay in this plateau phase for a very long time.


One Response to “The underrated ageing potential of South African reds?”

  1. Richard Bampfield says:

    Delighted to see this initiative – it seems to me this is EXACTLY what top South African wine producers should be doing to communicate the outstanding quality and ageing potential of its best wines. Should be of benefit to the South African wine category as a whole.

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