It’s easy for hipster winemakers and their followers to dismiss high-end estate wine. Petrol heads feel the same way about the latest model Aston Martins, reflecting – with a traditionalist’s nostalgia – on the somewhat romanticised era of the great British motor industry, when the marque was rescued by David Brown and Ian Fleming gifted James Bond a seriously modified DB5 to go with his Bollinger. No doubt they hanker after the smell of the Connolly leather interior, and the unmistakeable whiff of fuel and oil that was part of the cockpit ambience. They probably don’t remember that less iconic cars were measurably faster, and they don’t want to know that most other vehicles were significantly more reliable.
The past always looks better through the rose-tinted vision created by the elapse of time. Upper-class Edwardian England makes for great movie sets – as long as the protagonists don’t find themselves in need of surgery, or even a decent painkiller. The same is true of many of the small production cult wines, the labels of which imbue those who serve them – and those who consume them – with an element of superiority. This presents in how they are described: notes which might seem jarring to some are treated as virtues. Fining a wine to buff away the rough edges gets denigrated as the simplistic pursuit of photographic reality. Artfulness, we are told, does not lie in chocolate box perfection.
“Arresting textures” can mean a thoughtful decision not to over-polish the tannins, but it can also indicate unnecessary grippiness. Implicit in this observation is that the elimination of imperfections comes at the price of authenticity. A favourite analogy is Cindy Crawford’s birthmark, a tacit acknowledgement that human imperfection counts for more than idealised beauty. Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 is a paean to flesh-and-blood love. (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) Barbie and Ken do not inhabit the same reality.
All this would be academic if it didn’t offer a useful analogy for the distinguishing differences separating what the French would call “Grand Vin” from what has come to be seen as “craft,” “artisanal,” or “authentic” wine. To be clear, these broad categories have innumerable subsets and the discussion doesn’t need to deal with all of them. There are hand-made wines which are rustic, left unpolished either because of lack of skill or an inability to see the coarseness as a defect – like a perfectly serviceable table held together with brackets rather than finely crafted joints. There are also industrial wines which are so over-engineered that they’ve been stripped of any personality.
But what about an estate like Tokara, where nothing is left to chance and no expense has been spared in pursuit of vinous perfection. Back to the petrol head analogy, its wines – particularly its reserve wines – are the bottled equivalent of a modern era Bentley Continental. They are immaculately assembled, the fruit selected from the best sites, the vineyards themselves monitored using Normalised Difference Vegetation Index maps so that the microclimates of different sections determine the harvest decisions. After the pickers have made several separate passages through the rows, the grapes are hand-sorted and individual (imperfect) berries removed before fermentation. Only the best barrels are selected for the final blend.
Looking at the latest releases you can see the result of this effort in every wine in the reserve range. The Chardonnay is sumptuous, but still not overdone, with a full spectrum of entirely appropriate notes and textures, citrus and tropical fruit, fresh but not overly zesty. The Syrah is almost creamy, with dense powdery tannins, oak perfectly integrated, hints of pepper and nutmeg melding with crushed raspberries. The Telos – at the very top of the range (and priced accordingly at R4k per bottle) – is faultless, but in a Cindy Crawford rather than a Barbie doll kind of way. And as with Ms Crawford, rather than Barbie, you would be happy to have it ageing alongside you.