Singaporeans, turtle skirt and South African wines as investments

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Singaporean fine wine moments caused Kim Maxwell to ponder whether we have worthy investment wines in South Africa.

Asia's fine wine market seems to have attracted a lot of attention on this website recently. It brought to mind a Chinese wine dinner I was treated to in September 2008, generously hosted by long-time wine and food friends in Singapore. A mischievous, male-dominated group of lawyers, investment and financial consultants, a neurosurgeon, a crystal stemware supplier and a small-time wine importer, they call themselves the Monday Reprobate Table (MRT). If you've ever spent time in this humid city-state, the MRT abbreviation will also bring to mind their super-efficient, air-conditioned, ever-spotless mass rapid transit underground train system.

The MRTs have been getting together for years, finding flimsy reasons to tour overseas cellars, host visiting wine producers or get together at chosen restaurant lunch or dinner tables where managers allow them to bring out their own wines (BYO is not common practice in Singapore). Although they dip into the New World, France is their preferred drinking destination. But then French wines have been available longer than most wine-producing nations in first world Asian countries. Scouting the swish wine bar of the recently opened St Regis Singapore hotel for instance, I was unnerved to find wines on tap in a glass display case. No ordinary wines available by the glass here, but Châtour Latour 94 and Pichon Lalande 97 no less!

With impressive selections but none of that level of show-off silliness defining Singaporean MRT members' cellars, this group's criterion is simple. They take turns supplying the wines and hosting the group, plus partners, at a Singapore restaurant table on their respective birthdays. By chance I witnessed the tail end of one birthday dinner, arriving after the main course to see a table bulging with Riedels for 20 tasters - around 15 glasses per head - alongside individual dishes at a French restaurant. The mystery theme was Burgundy whites followed by reds, and discussion and merriment was plentiful.

My own Chinese MRT dinner a few days previously was a more intimate event with eight or so of the core members (partner-free) in the private room of the Imperial Treasure restaurant. Lawyer Tan Kah Hin delights in selecting a menu more exotic than his last, so that evening's line-up kicked off with his Dom P 2000, with a Lazy Susan of snacks including bean curd, warm red and yellow peppers, and pig intestine sautéed in sweet dipping sauce. To follow was suckling pig with crispy skin and the most delicious battered miniature fish fillets. As we warmed up, gelatinous shark's fin (something my marine sensibilities prefers to avoid) with an egg foo yong sauce arrived on a lettuce leaf. Members contributed foil-covered wines and the "guess it" game began. "Is it white, is it red, is it Chambolle or Gevrey?" they'd chant.

Personal wine highlights of many interesting bottles included Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 'Clavoillon' Premier Cru 2000 (outstanding despite its sharksfin partnership), and Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 99 from Domaine Bonneau du Martray. The Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru 'Les Beaux Monts' 2000 from producer Domaine Bruno Clavelier offered a classic expression of Pinot Noir. A solitary Bordeaux, Third Growth Château Cantenac Brown 2002 from Margaux, made its entrance as an alternative to Burgundy, with succulent goose in its crispy skin. Its blackcurrant, violet intensity had an almost Syrah-like black pepper quality. Also delicious was stonefish with mustard greens, an ugly-looking specimen in the fish tank before its poisonous spikes removed. The intended high point of the meal was braised turtle skirt on Chinese spinach, prized for being rich in collagen - did I mention I was en route to Bali, where a friend has saved 3,500 turtles from ending up in the cooking pot over the years?

Sweets included a thousand-layer salted egg yolk cake. I'm familiar enough with Chinese etiquette to know better than to refuse generous hospitality, but I did scold Kah Hin gently about the turtle. "Next time we'll eat crocodile from head to tail, the feet near the ribs are the best part!" he declared.

I joined another group of Singaporeans for lunch at Terroir in Stellenbosch a few weeks ago. Enthusiastic members of the International Wine and Food Society (Singapore branch) they were out for a whistlestop tour of the Cape Winelands. With compliments flowing over the lovely South African scenery, food and wines tasted, it turned out that they'd been hosted at Kanonkop, Meerlust and Boekenhoutskloof. So the follow-up question from a wine collector took me by surprise. "Does South Africa have any investment wines, something along the lines of Australia's Grange?" he asked.

I nominated those same wineries as having established track records for producing fine ageable wines over consecutive vintages. But I had to acknowledge that we have no icon wine where older vintages appreciate in value, on a par with Grange. So I took the question to Roland Peens of Cape Town's fine wine brokers and wine storage facility Wine Cellar.

Peens says he's successfully sold older vintages of Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Meerlust Rubicon and Boekenhoutskloof Syrah for upwards of R600 or R700 per bottle (they charge a 20% brokerage fee). He's also seen earlier vintages of Vergelegen V sell online for over R1000, after release prices in the R700 range. Sadie Family's Columella fetches these figures too a few years after release, but then Columella achieves higher prices to start with. Peens agrees that we don't have a South African Grange, pointing out that it's difficult to develop a proper market for fine wines amongst South African collectors, local collectors being so niche they barely count. In comparison a huge amount of merchants in the UK offer vintage French wines.

One problem is that South Africa doesn't have a secondary market. Lacking the UK's bonded warehouses and auctions of wine for investments (where many Asian collectors also store their wines), it means every time wine is sold, duty and taxes are payable to the government. Buying wine from a bonded warehouse in the UK, those taxes aren't paid until the buyer requests to have the wine released. When fine wine is sold as a potential investment in South Africa, the duties and taxes have to be paid every time. And with our high interest rates, most South Africans would rather back an interest-bearing account to deliver. In wine you're not guaranteed a return.

This point might be overlooked if South African wines were considered rare enough. One such exception is the George Spies Cabernet Sauvignon 1966 from Stellenbosch. You've probably read about the wine being awarded 95 points in Wine Spectator by James Molesworth during a 2007 South African visit. "I found a bottle of George Spies 1968 for R10 in a bargain bin," Peens continued. "We had it at a tasting the other day and it was phenomenal. It should be selling for thousands of Rand on a wine auction."

Peens wondered if the correct interpretation should be that great South African investment wines were amongst those made pre-1980s. "We don't seem to have a market for glorious older vintages. But I don't believe in local wines from the eighties or early nineties," he admitted candidly.

Tasting two impressive wine releases last week, the Vilafonté Series C 2006, and Morgenster 2005, I thought about local investment wines again. Both wines exhibit elegant blending, fine tannins and cellaring ability; initial vintages being held back until their makers were confident of what was in the bottle. Both achieved Platter five-star ratings for the first time in 2009, and have cellar door prices upwards of R300. Considerable thought and cash injections went into vineyard and cellar practices, and foreign expert input came from Americans Phil Freese and Zelma Long (Vilafonté), and Pierre Lurton (Morgenster) respectively. Although not referring to these wines specifically, Peens' outlook for top-end local wines seemed more optimistic going forward. "Perhaps South African wines are getting better and more age-worthy. Maybe in 10 years the investment picture will be different," he suggested.

I think he's right. Are wines such as Series C and Morgenster going to drink better after a few years of ageing? Unquestionably. Neither have the track record and history of South African competitor wineries, and there is no certainty that either wine will appreciate in value. But with world stock markets in flux, I reckon there would be riskier moves than gambling on a case or two of each. If all else fails, you could follow the example of the MRTs in Singapore after a few years cellaring, and drink it.


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