When it comes to developing a wine property, it’s not always easy to stick to your original vision. It takes at least ten years to put a new project in place (usually twice as long) and in this time fashions change, costs rise and sometimes the ability to deviate from your original course is all that stands between you and bankruptcy. The number of upbeat producers who have told me – as the first clod was being turned for yet another “state-of-the-art winery,” or the first vintage (from young vines) was being released – “we will bottle no more than one red and one white, the rest we’ll sell in bulk.”
None – as far as I can remember – have remained true to the original plan. It takes too long to find out what a property is best suited to produce, and along the way, you have to sell what you’ve grown and made. Even Hamilton Russell, in many respects the most focused of the Cape’s more established producers, and with a consistently Burgundian vision, early on offered a Bordeaux blend as part of its range.
The long lead time between planting and harvesting fruit from properly established vineyards presents producers with a problem: what to do with the first crops from the very young vines? Vergelegen came to market with its second label first – “Les Enfants” (the children) of Vergelegen – and discovered that the punters weren’t queuing to buy something the winery had already damned with faint praise.
Morgenster’s Giulio Bertrand handled exactly the same problem more adeptly, creating a brand that wasn’t obviously a second label – Lourens River Valley. With a couple of vintages in the market before the launch of the Morgenster Grand Vin, it could gain a little traction in its own right. When he released Morgenster, Bertrand made sure that it had a separate identity – a strategy which has allowed both to flourish alongside each other.
In the meantime, the model of only one wine from the cellar has been superseded, even in Bordeaux, the appellation which wrote the original “rules.” Almost every Cru Classé property now has a second label, partly to ensure that only the best fruit goes into the Grand Vin, partly to enable the producer to manage pricing stability by shorting the volumes of the Estate Wine in difficult times. (In fact, some of the top properties now have three tiers: their second labels have acquired brand status in their own right, necessitating the option of an additional disposal mechanism to allow for further price/volume manipulation).
Back to Bertrand: assisted from the outset by Chateau Cheval Blanc’s Pierre Lurton, he now has at least 10 vintages of both Morgenster and Lourens River Valley in the market. A recent opportunity to taste a vertical of both from the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010 vintages was as instructive as it was satisfying. Firstly it’s clear that the wines are evolving in much the way that one would expect fine Bordeaux to develop. The 2001s are at their peak, the 2003s (from better established vineyards) are more youthful than the two year age difference would suggest, with the Morgenster almost St Julien-like in its elegance and purity. The 2005 Morgenster was equally impressive, though given its higher merlot content, it seemed more a Pomerol than a Medoc lookalike. The 2006s (Morgenster and Lourens River Valley) were both fabulous, and showed where the equally impressive 2010s were likely to go.
Lurton – widely regarded as one of Bordeaux’s true stars (rather than a celebrity flying winemaker) – is rightly obsessed with freshness and tannin management. Henry Kotze, who has been making the wines under his direction since 2009, has taken the lesson to heart. Even the youngest examples have cashmere-like tannins while the old ones remain nuanced and bright. They may not be the Cape’s showiest wines, but they are comfortably amongst the classiest.