It’s hard to stay front-of-mind when you’re a wine producer. The big names of yesteryear are easily consigned to dump-bins, even though their quality is usually as good as it ever was, and often better. The punters move on, like teenagers at a school social, preferring the promiscuity of new experiences to the substance of deep and abiding relationships. It’s hard to blame them. If you’re not going to be adventurous when you’re young, and you think you’re immortal, you may only come to this conclusion when you’ve been given six months to live so it doesn’t matter much anyway.
Proper relationships require effort and engagement, they go through dull patches, they’re not always rewarding. The top wineries of a few years ago cannot maintain your interest indefinitely. Once the initial excitement has worn off, the pedestrian moments become more evident. Predictability may be something of a virtue in marriage (and in the work place). However, if it’s an adrenaline high that you are seeking, it comes way down the list. You’re unlikely to see a Bugatti Veyron and a Volvo parked in the same driveway.
The thing is though – if you need to get somewhere, and be sure you’ll arrive there, and on time, you might just take the Volvo and leave the Veyron for the kids to wrap around a tree. For all the excitement of the new and the untested, you will only drink a finite number of bottles in your life so why – to quote the late Len Evans – would you want to waste capacity on even one bad one?
In the past decade the number of new wineries in South Africa has increased by at least a third. Many make excellent wine. Inevitably the excitement around new names, new areas and new varieties takes attention away from places that came to prominence in the 1990s. The Tokaras and Delaire-Graffs have usurped the Rust en Vredes and Vergelegens, who in turn took limelight away from the Thelemas and Meerlusts.
But usually (and there are exceptions) the quality of what is being produced at these older – and longer established – cellars has not declined. In fact, in many cases, they have continued to track the same upward trajectory as the current industry darlings. Fashions change, but most wineries stick to what they do best. Rust en Vrede has been making big, polished Californian-style wines since Jean Engelbrecht assumed responsibility for the direction of the estate. Vergelegen continues to offer a more savoury version, as well as some fabulous whites.
Perhaps one of the country’s most consistent cellars is Thelema. Since the farm was laid out in the 1980s it has been under the direction of founder-owner-winemaker Gyles Webb. He developed the site and planted the vineyards, and has managed the viticulture and directed the cellar throughout the life of the business.
A few weeks ago he hosted a tasting which reviewed a vertical of Thelema’s Cabernets from 2009 back to 2000. In a strange way, the surprise was that there were no surprises. What determined the difference, bottle by bottle, was not the winemaking, but the vintage – exactly as you would expect if you were looking at a Bordeaux First Growth over the past two decades. Of course the winemaking has kept track with the latest technical developments, but in an almost imperceptible way.
My highest scores went to the 2001 (which was fabulous, mature but not really ageing), the 2007 (still quite youthful, but no longer young) and the 2009. All were within a point of each other, and all comfortably in the 90s – in other words, gold medal ratings. There are not many cellars in this league, even today, and none that could cruise to a trio of golds. There’s a lesson in this: you don’t survive at the top of the winemaking game this long unless you’re doing your job as well as it can be done – no points for handicap.