Notwithstanding the New Testament injunctions about the virtues of old wine, most modern day consumers seem perfectly happy to flatten their wine purchases with 24 hours of getting home with the stock. Many claim that they like the taste of young wine. As more and more people fall in love with the joys of primary fruit, it’s likely that fewer and fewer consumers will ever know or come to understand the secondary and tertiary flavours present in properly matured wine.
Winemakers have responded (sometimes with indecent enthusiasm) to this trend, happy to pocket the cashflow benefits arising from instant drinkability. Not all young wines have meaningful long term potential, and cash in the bank wins every time against reputational dividend in the hands of future generations. (However, it must be said that the present incumbents of long-established estates do very well out of their ancestors’ willingness to defer a portion of current revenue in the investment of aged stocks.)
The cost (to the producer) of maintaining a library of past vintages can be considerable: excluding wines held for aged release (where the deferred income should compensate for the expense of holding costs) a decent wine library (where the bottles are kept for control purposes and occasional tastings) is an expensive adjunct to what is always a cash-strapped business. Assume that every year the average producer makes five different wines whose age-worthiness warrants tracking, and keeps 60 bottles of each wine – at R120 per bottle. After 20 years that’s R720k, and growing at R36k in constant Rands every year, simply so that you can monitor something that consumers appear to have lost interest in.
So when the owners of Klein Constantia invited me to taste some of their old wines – an exercise they do regularly enough – it wasn’t difficult to accept. They were clear about the purpose of the exercise: it wasn’t to show off, it was simply to show and share. (Most of the wines weren’t available on their aged release programme.) There were three sauvignon blancs, 1995, 2002 and Perdeblokke 2007. All three were very much alive, but only one had evolved into something which justified the cellar space of storing it for all this time, and that was the 2002. One of the least prepossessing modern Cape vintages, 2002 at Klein Constantia illustrated the old adage that there are no good/bad vintages, just good/bad wines. The 2004 Semillon was extraordinary – for me it was one of the two best wines of the tasting and proof that the Cape doesn’t make nearly enough of its semillon plantings. There were also two very good rieslings – the 1987 which was just beginning to fade – and the 1996 which (with the 2004 semillon) turned out to be the wine of the moment. The reds were better than I had expected, with the 1990 Marlbrook still a little austere, but quite Bordeaux-like in its purity and finesse.
As for the charms of younger wines…. On the same day I attended a showing of the current releases from Holden Manz, a Franschhoek winery whose latest wines have been vinified by Thierry Haberer, the man on the ground in South Africa for consulting oenologist Michel Rolland. Two features were instantly evident: firstly that the change of winemaker has played a transformative role at Holden Manz and that, secondly, judging at least from this line-up, those who prefer the infanticide young wines may be onto something. The Rose Garden Rosé 2017 is one of the smartest rosés on the market in South Africa and an absolute steal at R80 per bottle. Fine, delicate, dry and savoury, it would pulverise most fashionable Provence examples. The two best reds are both “straining in the slips” to be let loose: the Visionaire 2013 (Bordeaux varieties plus a little shiraz) has fruit weight and real intensity, all for R140 per bottle, and the ultra-premium Cabernet Franc 2015 (R595), while quite delicious, may never be better than it is right now.