An amazing tasting of older South African wines, in Texas

By Jamie Goode | 31 August 2016

wine, South African wine, old wines, Texsom

A huge thunderstorm hit, just as our plane was about to land in Dallas. It was quite dramatic, and we had to divert to Houston, and land there instead. After an hour on the ground without deplaning, the captain told us that there’d been a break in the weather, and we could try to head back to Dallas and land there. After what seemed like an age in the sky, circling the storm and waiting for the OK, we finally made it onto the Dallas tarmac, some 5 hours late. It was my first time in Texas, and I hadn’t a clue about what to expect. Cowboys? Rodeos? Republicans?


I’d been invited to Texsom, which is a major wine trade event in the US calendar that now draws not just sommeliers, but also journalists, wine agents and wineries for three days in the August heat of Dallas. The event is held at the luxurious Four Seasons resort not far from the airport. Getting a critical mass of wine people together like this – with the majority Sommeliers – is asking for trouble, and we were repeatedly reminded ‘What happens at Texsom doesn’t stay at Texsom: you are professionals!’ While there were some late nights and lots of room parties, it was generally pretty well behaved, but I heard some stories of antics in previous years that helped me understand why the warning had been given.


The reason for bringing me here is that I’d been asked to present a tasting of older South African wines. This was an extremely ambitious tasting of more than 30 wines, lasting three hours, and it was probably the largest tasting of South African wines of this sort to have taken place in north America.


I began by putting the tasting in context, running through the history of South African wine, and how things really started moving after the end of white minority rule in the early 1990s. Since then, I explained, there have been three waves of innovation and exploration. The first was led by established wine estates, such as Thelema, Vergelegen, Kanonkop, Klein Constantia and Meerlust. This was an important time, and suddenly people began to sit up and take notice of what was going on.


The next wave was largely led by younger winemakers, typically doing a bit of home brew alongside their day jobs. We had the likes of Chris Williams (The Foundry), Miles Mossop, Eben Sadie and also new wineries such as Mullineux. The Swartland Revolution with the explosion of smaller, quality-oriented producers in this previously off-the-map region, was part of this wave. It was very exciting.


And now we have the third wave, which is post-Swartland Revolution, with talented winegrowers such as Duncan Savage, Chris and Suzaan Alheit, Mick and Jeanine Craven and Craig and Carla Hawkins searching for interesting vineyards and expressing these sites through elegant, beautiful wines.


This tasting focused mainly on mature wines from this first wave, and it was pretty exciting to see these wines with some bottle age on them. Most were holding up really well, and some were thrilling.


Two Sauvignons from 2006, Constantia Glen and Klein Constantia, were showing beautifully at age 10. This was surprising! Sauvignon’s ageability is underrated. De Wetsof, Chardonnay specialists from Robertson, were represented by the Bon Vaillon 2004, and this also showed well.


Chenin can age, so it was no surprise that examples from De Morgenzon and Raats were lovely at age 10 and 11 respectively. And one of the highlights of the tasting was the 2004 Boekenhoutskloof Semillon, which was complex and thrilling.


Of the reds, one of the stars was the Kanonkop Pinotage from 1998, which is nowhere near fully mature. Kanonkop make wines for ageing. The Chamonix Pinot Noir Reserve 2008 was also lovely, which was a surprise: Franschhoek isn’t thought of as a Pinot Noir region. Warwick’s Cabernet Franc is a wine with a reputation for ageworthiness, and this was confirmed with the delicious 1997. Vergelegen’s Merlot 2004 had also developed really well, and better than I’d have expected.


Groot Constantia Gouveneur’s red 2003 was just lovely, and the De Toren Fusion V 1999 had also aged into an elegant maturity. No surprises that the Meerlust Rubicon 2005 showed well, because this is a banker for cellaring.


Vilafonte M appeared in two vintages, 2007 and 2003, and both were good, but I had a slight preference for the former. A real star was Thelema’s 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon, which showed amazing elegance.


Beaumont’s Mourvèdre 2004 was lovely, with restrained black fruits, and Spice Route’s Malabar 2004 was a ringer for a high-end Rioja with its mellow oak-bathed black fruits.


Then we hit the sweet stuff, and this was quite a treat. Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance is one of the great sweet wines of the world, and the 2006 we had was just a baby, but what a beautiful baby. It’s just fabulously balanced and amazingly complex. I spat this one backwards.


KWV had kindly sourced some older wines for this tasting. And by older I mean properly old. Their 1930 Muscadel was an astonishing experience, with thrilling complexity. Viscous, intense, sweet and delicious, it was a real treat, and once again was spat backwards by pretty much everyone in the room.


The 1949 KWV Ruby Port was also compelling, but not quite at the same ethereal level as the Muscadel, with a savoury, slightly medicinal edge. But it was still a really great experience. We finished with a 1973 Hanepoort Jerepigo, which was utterly delicious, with barley sugar, grapes and raisins meshing together seamlessly.


This was a remarkable tasting, and it was such a privilege to present it. In Texas, too! The feedback from this audience, for whom older South African wine was entirely novel, was brilliant, too.

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