The 1940 and 1957 vintages of Chateau Libertas tasted at the 80th birthday event.
Graham Howe tastes living history at vertical tastings of flagship South
African wines going back to 1940 - and looks for the common thread in
evolving wine styles.
I've spotted an interesting trend to vertical tastings of flagship wines at some of the Cape's leading cellars lately. At annual media and trade launches, winemakers are seizing the opportunity to showcase older vintages of signature varieties and benchmark blends alongside new vintage releases. Vertical tastings of the same wine going back ten or even twenty vintages offer unique insights into the evolution of a distinct cellar house style, the DNA of terroir and the ageing potential of different varieties. And a vertical tasting is a big trump card in the maze of wine pr events.
Vertical flights offer us fascinating glimpses into the matrix of what shapes wine. What is the elusive common thread that defines the essential signature of a flagship wine? What is the role of vintage variation, climate changes, terroir and the maturation of vineyards over the years? And what role do changing winemakers, viticulture and winemaking techniques, blending components and barrel maturation regimes play? Do aged wines deliver more in terms of complexity and longevity? Why are wines getting more alcoholic - and should we drink them younger or older?
Questions, questions. I went looking for the answers at a few landmark tastings. Over five vertical flights of signature wines at Steenberg - Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, Semillon, Nebbiolo, Catharina and rare museum vintages - JD Pretorius showcased "the best varietal expression and the ageability of our wines". In a rare vertical tasting back to the maiden vintage of Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc 1993, the winemaker emphasised he was releasing the new vintage with the old to demonstrate "why Steenberg is the wine brand it is today - based on wines with a long track-record".
Over a vertical flight of Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, JD focused on "the complexity coming out of a single vineyard" - the 24 year old cornerstone block of Steenberg's varietal and white blends. Identifying the mineral core of gunsmoke in "the DNA of the grapes" that runs through two decades of what many rate as the best example of a single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc in the Cape, the 1993 vintage demonstrated the longevity of this classic cool-climate wine style. So did the sublime maiden Catharina White 2000 (a precursor to the flagship five-star Magna Carta).
The vertical tasting turned out to be a wake for Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc Reserve as the 2011 vintage lamentably is the last. JD announced the low yields of this highly prized vineyard (two tons per hectare in 2012) mean it is no longer viable - but that plans are afoot to release another flagship in its place. The next flight of Semillon, another signature Steenberg variety, demonstrated "how cool-climate Semillon wines, bottled early, are tight and lean in youth and age slowly - like Hunter Valley Semillon". The Steenberg signature of smoky minerality, purity of fruit and longevity was the common thread in both the Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon flights.
Every wine tells a story at Steenberg - and the legends help sales at the cellar-door. Over a vertical flight of Catharina (2003 to 2009), Steenberg's flagship red blend, JD explained how the tale of "five varieties for the five husbands" of the first woman to own a wine farm in the Cape has "visitors walking out the door with cases of wine!" The tasting showed the evolution of the blend has changed significantly over the years away from blending components like Shiraz - and "moving towards a Bordeaux-style". While the Semillon tells a story of a smuggled clone, the Nebbiolo tells a story of a trip to Piedmont by Peter Finlayson, Charles Back and Herman Hanekom which led to Steenberg planting the first Nebbiolo grapes in the Cape in 1992 - becoming the mother block for others and a big USP for Steenberg on shows and at the cellar-door.
The recent eightieth anniversary of Chateau Libertas, a pioneering dry red blend in the Cape, celebrated another unique South African wine story. The birthday of one of South Africa's oldest wine brands (1932) took place at the Big Easy in the historic homestead where a legendary Texas ranger and adventurer created his best-selling blend under the gables depicted on the iconic wine label today. The staying power of vintages in the vertical flight - 1940, 1957, 1962, 1978, 1982, 1994, 1999, 2000, 2009 and 2010 - showcased the potential longevity of Cabernet-based blends from the Cape - as well as trends in wine styles, blend components and consumer preferences.
A flight of wine made over the last seventy years is like tasting living history. What made the tasting even more remarkable was that each vintage was presented by the generations of winemakers who made Chateau Libertas - Duimpie Bayly and Wouter Pienaar to Jan de Waal, current cellar master Deon Boshoff - and wine guru Dave Hughes. "Welcome to the magical blend" announced Duimpie, presenting the 1940 vintage (a bottle fetched R20 000 on the Nederburg Auction in 1985). "This remarkable wine shows how South African wines can age with elegance, youth and vibrancy. Chateau Libertas broke with the old tradition of making fortified wines". The big blend - 800 000 litres in 2010 - is in search of a new generation of consumers.
Celebrating two decades of Tiara, Simonsig recently also held a rare vertical tasting of their flagship Bordeaux-style red in situ in the cellar. Johan Malan, cellar master at Simonsig explained, "When we launched our new flagship red blend in 1992, we decided to call it Tiara to symbolise the finesse and feminine style of the wine. Great harmony, intensity and elegance are what we strive for when crafting the Tiara."
While the focus of vertical tastings tends to fall on terroir, vintage variation and evolving blending components, the continuity of winemakers is an under-rated factor in the evolution of flagship blends. Johan Malan and Debbie Thompson are the two winemakers who have played a major role in defining Tiara since the release of the first 1990 vintage. Starting with the elegant Tiara 1990, we tasted eight vintages chosen by the winemakers to "represent the best vintages" - 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. The early vintages showed great staying power and finesse, retaining intense colour, aroma and flavour with still lively acidity.
Two decades on, Tiara comprises all five varieties in the pursuit of an authentic Bordeaux-style blend. While the vertical flight showed elegance, concentration and longevity are the common thread of Simonsig Tiara, the signature flavours of one of the Cape's benchmark red blends are the vibrant potpourri of cassis, black berries and cinnamon. While earlier vintages have lower alcohols (under 13%), Malan explains that later vintages (rising to 14.5%) reflect "the international demand for riper wines which led to us picking on taste on the vine at optimum ripeness and higher alcohols".
While Tiara started out as a dual-varietal blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, a smidgeon (around 6% altogether) of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec (new in the current 2009 release) have been added over the years to add complexity to the blend. Winemaker Debbie Thompson comments, "Cabernet (the backbone) and Merlot are critical to the blend - the other components are like adding salt 'n pepper! You need to be a visionary to predict how it will all come together in the cellar!"