BD Cultivar Changes 07.05.2014

In the spirit of the twenty year reviews prompted by a sense of nostalgia for 1994, I have been reflecting on what a wine-literate Rip van Winkle (who went to sleep two decades ago) should be shopping for if he needed to renew his cellar today.

Before he began his long snooze, he would have depended mainly on cabernet as the backbone for his quality reds, on cinsaut to fill out the less expensive red blends, on chardonnay as his premium white, and on chenin as the fruit source for table whites. He would also probably have bought a lot of wine labelled as “riesling” which was actually crouchen blanc

If he was one of those lucky people with a tungsten-lined esophagus he might have laid in a little sauvignon blanc as an alternative to the charry oak notes which contaminated most of his chardonnays. By the same token, to avoid boredom from a surfeit of cabernet and Bordeaux blends, he might have added a shiraz or two to his collection, and perhaps some pinotage – but that would depend on his tolerance of the smoky, animal notes contributed by virus-infected vineyards and clumsy cellar hygiene.

Today he would be spoilt for choice – in fact, he might have difficulty believing the cornucopia of riches laid out along the racks of his favourite wine merchant. There is now a vastly more substantial red wine selection. Shiraz plantings, for example, are up by over 1200% and the number of different bottlings have increased by a similar amount. He would certainly be disappointed by those which are patently too alcoholic and too oaky. That said, if 10% of what is now being produced shows balance and restraint, he would still have 30 more great sources of shiraz than were available in 1994.

He would be surprised at how cinsaut has almost vanished off the face of the Cape winelands (a fate much like that suffered by riesling/crouchen blanc, though with less justice). While plantings had been declining since the 1980s, much of what has been available in the 1990s produced wines of surprising delicacy. There are the beginnings of a renaissance today but I suspect it won’t be meaningful: there’s no justification in planting a cultivar that needs many years in dryland vineyards to yield a wine whose primary charm is that it is intrinsically unshowy.

No doubt he would be disappointed that while the number of merlots on the market has increased – pretty much in line with the whole evolution of the industry – quality is uneven, and choice limited as a result. There would be some compensation in discovering that cabernet franc has become a useful partner in many of our best Bordeaux blends. The vast increase in drinkable pinot noirs should cheer him up (though he might be grumpy that the prices have remained so intransigently high). He would also be delighted at how good Pinotage has become, earthy yes, but no longer inevitably rustic.

The Sauvignon blanc selection would lift his spirits. Whereas most of the wines in the market in the early 1990s were harsh and charmless, the choice today is simply staggering. Ranging from the lime-blossom and fern-leaf aromas reminiscent of wine from the Loire Valley in France to the more pungent, almost sweaty, asparagus style made famous in New Zealand, they offer a flavour profile for every occasion.

He would also discover the emergence of a wholly new class of white Bordeaux blends – the sauvignon blanc-semillon combos – several of which have become benchmarks in their own right. Finer, less oaky Chardonnays and the extraordinary range of world class chenins would surprise and delight him

There can’t be much to compensate for twenty years spent sleeping while the wines you cellared up to 1994 collapsed into decrepitude, but finding out how easy it is to replace them should soften the blow.

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