Very few wine producers are disarmingly honest about where they’ve come from, and where they’re heading. This is partly because wine has a longer shelf life than most products, so to mention that you handled a particular vintage in a way you wouldn’t repeat today may be to condemn whatever bottles are about to the ignominy of dismissive consumption. It doesn’t always matter that much: if the “mistake” relates to a long forgotten vintage you get credit for the honesty without much of a downside.
Veronique Drouhin made a point of presenting the wines of the 2003 “drought” vintage Burgundies by comparing them with the largely unsuccessful 1976s – the previous drought vintage. She declared her debt to her father who guided them through the 2003 vinifications by avoiding what he described as his mistakes from almost 40 years before. It was all very polished, and very civilised, and obviously brand-enhancing.
Gary Jordan, of Jordan in Stellenbosch, was even more disarmingly honest as he addressed an audience in Johannesburg recently. Together with his wife Kathy, he has been responsible for everything produced at Jordan since the cellar was built in the early 1990s – no ancestors to blame, but with the learning curve of a quarter of a century evident to all.
During the talk he presented a temperature map of the western Cape, showing how the Jordan vineyards in the Stellenboschkloof were significantly cooler than the averages for the region. In the same breath he confessed that this discovery, made only about a decade ago, came as a complete surprise, forcing a change in viticultural practices and harvest decisions – the positive effects of which are evident in his more current releases.
I had always thought that the earlier Jordan vintages were never quite ripe enough – and I had assumed that this was his preferred style. Nor had I any idea – until this presentation – why things changed: it’s a brave and honest producer who admits to mis-reading the potential of his own vineyards.
The benefits of his “discovery” are palpably evident: the current release wines of Jordan are now amongst the best from Stellenbosch, and this is across the whole range, rather than a few select cuvées. The first visible signs of change came with the white wines: the Unwooded chardonnay started to look pretty smart from around 2011. Then the Barrel-fermented began to rival the ultra-premium Nine Yards. Then the Nine Yards itself became more precise, refined, still rich but somehow less showy.
The launch of the Inspector Peringuey Chenin Blanc a few years ago showed that this kind of precision and linearity could extend to other varieties. Its ongoing success, together with the Real McCoy Riesling and the Cold Fact Sauvignon Blanc, make it clear that the post-2010 Jordan whites are serious wines.
While vineyard management and harvest decisions can be more marked with red wines, it takes longer to become manifest because of the maturation cycle. Gary Jordan’s confession about his discovery of how cool his vineyards actually are (and which partly explains my long-held preference for the whites) provided the perfect explanation as to why I hadn’t really been attracted to the reds until about five years ago.
The first wine to show this transformation in style was the CWG Auction Sophia, and it has been consistently impressive for several years. Now most of the estate reds have tracked this improvement – making choice a matter of preference, not a parsing of quality.
That said, the wine I like least is The Prospector Shiraz: it is neither peppery in the French style, or rich enough for those who like them opulent. On the other hand, the cabernet is really perfect, that elusive melange of cassis, texture and freshness; likewise the estate Sophia, which I think is now one of the Cape’s finest Bordeaux blends. It’s a step up on the other reds, delivering extra nuance and complexity, and accordingly is well worth tracking down (and paying the price).