It’s getting harder for producers (and wine producing nations, for that matter) to make a statement which provides evidence that their stature in the world of wine needs to be recalibrated. The classic such event was the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” tasting where the best Californian wines were pitted against leading French examples. In those days, France dominated the upper echelons of the wine business, so when the Californians romped home against a very credible line-up of Old World big guns, wine drinkers everywhere were forced to recognise that the American West Coast was no longer a vinous backwater. Austrian producers did something similar to show that their gruner veltliner grape can compete against the best white Burgundies (a bit of an apples-and-pears comparison since the French wines are made from Chardonnay). What astonished many of the experts who participated in this exercise was how hard it was to tell aged examples of the two varieties apart.
Wine producers – mainly from the New World – undertake similar exercises. Petaluma in Australia used to present its annual new releases in a line-up with international benchmarks: the fizz alongside Bollinger, the merlot next to Petrus. This was more a statement about confidence in the Petaluma cellar quality than an attempt to unseat Old World icons. It was probably in the same spirit that Glenelly’s Luke O’Cuinneagain recently showed several of his wines (current and older vintages) in the company of some top international wines. The Stellenbosch property is owned by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing whose family once controlled several of Bordeaux’s top estates – including Chateaux Palmer and Pichon Lalande. Mme de Lencquesaing fell in love with the Cape winelands in the 1990s and acquired Glenelly a little more than a decade ago, determined to make its focus cabernet and chardonnay – and to make a viable business of the investment (at which she appears to have succeeded).
Unsurprisingly, the Glenelly wines held their own, especially those with a little age (and which were therefore in a better position to match the complexity which time brings to great white Burgundy and fine claret). There are two schools of thought about the usefulness of bottle-ageing wine: one, which denies its importance, celebrates alcoholic fruit juice, the other vinosity. Both styles, to be fair, have their advantages. For the former there is the prospect of instant drinkability, plush opulent fruit, velvety tannins; for the latter there is nuance, intricacy, detail and savouriness – the rewards of patience. There is very little overlap between the two positions: for a wine to be age-worthy it’s likely to be grippier and less showy in its youth. Not hard, or harsh, or green – just less immediately accessible. Glenelly’s wines have been made according to these rules. It’s a formula which appears to be working: the more mature wines sat comfortably alongside vinous classics including a 2012 Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru, the 2012 Henschke Croft, and Chateau Calon Segur 2008.
Hopefully what is happening at Glenelly will serve as an inspiration to Distell, South Africa’s major wine and spirits producer and proprietor of Alto and Uitkyk. The latter is a national treasure, one of the great Simonsberg properties on which the vinous reputation of Stellenbosch was established. Kanonkop is a sub-division of the original Uitkyk farm and remains an undisputed “first growth” estate. There’s no doubt that Uitkyk can produce comparable quality. As things stand, despite years of pitifully little investment, but under the careful management of cellarmaster Estelle Lourens, it still yields very fine wines which sell for a fraction of what they are really worth. The 2015 Chenin Blanc (which won a gold medal at the 2017 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show) is on shelf for less than R100 per bottle. The 2013 Carlonet, a beautifully crafted Cabernet, is a steal at R130. Fine wine can’t be made sustainably at these prices: Distell owes it to the heritage of which it is the present custodian to invest judiciously and charge appropriately.