Tasting History

By Jamie Goode | 13 June 2017

One of the compelling things about wine is that fine wines have the ability to age, which means that you can, if you are lucky, taste a bottle that even pre-dates you, or which was produced from the harvest of a significant year. Some of these wines are remarkable merely because they have survived and are still drinkable; for others, this age has imparted extra dimensions and complexity. This is why we cellar wine: in the hope that it will be transformed during its gently slumber into something special.


But there are three South African bottles that I've been lucky enough to drink, which really have involved tasting a bit of history.


The first is the oldest of the three. It's not an ancient bottle, by any means, but it is a significant one. It's South Africa's first commercial Chardonnay from the new cuttings that were illegally smuggled in during the late 1970s. This wine is the 1981 De Wetshof Chardonnay, from Robertson.


The 1970s saw the emergence of a small number of ambitious wine estates who wanted to make more serious wines, and De Wetshof was one of these. They produced their wines as part of the Bergkelder, which was a group under the banner of Distellers, one of the two large official wine producing companies. They wanted to make Chardonnay. But the only available plant material was from cuttings made from the existing heavily virused Chardonnay vines. The KWV, the organization that held the South African industry in an iron grip, was not importing any clean planting material.


A whole group of wine folk decided to take things into their own hands and smuggle in vines, in an operation that was quite well organized. They included Danie De Wet of De Wetshof, in Robertson, as well as Peter Finlayson, Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee, Fritz Joubert, Julio Laszlo and even the researcher Eben Archer. Danie De Wet ended up being chosen to propagate the cuttings on his farm. Unfortunately some of these cuttings, thought to be Chardonnay, were actually Auxerrois, the Alsatian white variety. It was a bit of a mess, and took a judicial commission, the Klopper Commission, to sort out.


I tasted this wine late at night with Johan de Wet, one of Danie's sons. It was made from Chardonnay vines propagated from cuttings made from the Clos des Mouches vineyard in Burgundy, and planted in 1979. According to Johan, Danie de Wet got these from Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee of Vriesenhof, and Fritz Joubert brought them out to South Africa. The wine is a gold/bronze colour with notes of apricot, citrus and nuts, as well as some savoury mushroom characters. It’s old, but it’s like tasting a piece of history in the glass, and as such it is very special. For the record, this isn’t South Africa’s oldest varietally labelled Chardonnay: that title goes to the Simonsig 1978 Chardonnay, made from 1.1 hectares of old, virused vines, planted in the mid-1970s (not from imported cuttings). It was unwooded and bottled in a hock (German style) bottle.


The second is the debut vintage Pinot from Hamilton Russell. This bears the dual distinction of being South Africa's first decent Pinot Noir, and also the first wine from what is now the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in Walker Bay. It is labelled Hamilton Russell Grand Cru Noir 1981 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa. The vintage isn't actually indicated on the bottle, and nor is the variety, but this was the debut year for this pioneering estate and it was a varietal Pinot Noir. Tasting this wine at age 35, I was stunned by how vital and alive it was. It was sweet, herby and spicy with berryish fruit and had some brightness, with notes of herbs and iodine, with a mineral twist. This bottle was drunk with Hans Astrom of Klein Constantia, and I was so thrilled to be able to experience it.


Some context: back in 1975, advertising executive Tim Hamilton-Russell bought 170 hectares (400 acres) of undeveloped land not far from Hermanus, and only a short distance from the cold Atlantic ocean. A year later he planted a vineyard. Viewed from the perspective of the South African wine industry at the time, which was heavily controlled with a quota system, this was a bold and illegal move. His focus quickly became Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and for a long time these were the leading examples of these varieties from the Cape.


Finally, the youngest wine, but equally important. It's the first (or joint first) wine from the Elgin Wine region (the other one that could claim this distinction was made from the same vintage by Neil Ellis). It's the Nederberg Elgin Weisser Riesling 1990 from Paul Cluver. I drank this with Paul Cluver Jr and winemaker Andries Burger. The wine is dry with a hint of sweetness, and lovely flavours of marmalade and mint. Amazingly fresh with subtle wax and lanolin notes.


In the 1980s Ernst Le Roux, who was viticulturist with Nederberg, studied the climate of the Elgin Valley. He found that it was Winckler region II, and thus the coolest known in the western Cape, ideal for producing quite a few interesting varieties. At that stage it was fully planted out with apple orchards. Then, later that decade, three farms who had some space – De Rust (the Cluver family farm), Whitehall and Oak Valley – planted some vines, in 1987. The wine I drank, the first Cluver wine, was released in 1990 and was labelled as Wine of Origin Elgin Valley. To be able to demarcate Elgin like this, it was necessary to prove that Elgin was distinct from Worcester, which was another wine region in the Overberg district. Oak Valley and Whitehall sold their grapes, and Neil Ellis' 1990 wine came from the latter farm. Cluver were the first to open a winery in the region, in 1997.


These were three very memorable bottles, and I still have special memories of them. That's one of the great things about wine. It lets us connect with history.


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