A Wine from a Genius, and from Time

No matter how far humankind develops, there will always be a few mysteries about wine that shall forever remain out of our reach. And this is good, as without definable answers and without the breeding of curiosity, wine will lose much of that which makes it the most cultured and revered item devised for human consumption.

Take the presence of leaf-roll virus in the vineyards. Why would certain winemakers and viticulturists rather pour flaming grappa onto their eye-balls than make wine from grapes growing on vines infected with leaf-roll? While on the other hand, some of South Africa’s finest wines originate from vineyards happily living with the virus. A drive through and look at the winelands in autumn serves as proof of the latter.

Billy Hofmeyr, photographed by Victor Holloway.

Then there is, too, the seduction of the label. How is it that qualified critics who judge with a full view of the identity of the wines they are scrutinising are unable to be led by quality alone, allowing themselves and their ratings to be swayed by their perception of the relevant brand and its producer?

One mystery I find worth pondering is the matter of aged wines, for here all wines are definitely not created equal. What is it that allows certain wines to grow old and yet maintain a wondrously expressive and energetic presence? Storage conditions play a huge role, obviously, in allowing wines to live for four, five decades and more. But having been subjected to perfectly stored oldies for a few years now, it is intriguing that some brands can be counted on to deliver exquisite maturity, while others are certain to creak and grown and break-up after 15 to 20 years, no matter what the ullage or the integrity of the storage.

The benchmark for old Cape wines appears to be the mystical GS Cabernet 1966 made by the late George Spies when he was heading up production at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. Considered South Africa’s greatest red wine, this single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Durbanville continues to present itself in a state of blue-blooded splendour able to counter a great Left Bank Bordeaux from the same era. Yet, the GS 1968 – same vineyard – has for the past 15 years been dull, tired and blousy with a musty tang.

Of the 1970s, Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage, Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon, Uitkyk Cabernet Sauvignon, Vriesenhof Bordeaux-style blend, Rustenberg Cabernet Sauvignon and Welgemeend Bordeaux-style blend have in my tasting circles consistently shown their respective exhilarating presence in the ability to mature. Yet, many other wines from that era which were perceived great 40 years ago now consistently provide soured bitterness not even worthy of the name vinegar.

Variation of vineyard provenance and winemaking technique must therefore contribute, but why and how? And what be the role of grape cultivar – show me a fine Cape Shiraz of 40 years old and I’ll show you a three-legged dung-beetle.

This particular mystery only adds to the spectacular enjoyment of an older wine, and that is why finding one is so special. Like the Welgemeend 1988 I recently scored from the cellar of a deceased friend, a magical and delicious highlight of the Cape winter so far.

Welgemeend Estate in Paarl was an important contributor to the local wine scene. Sure, the late owner Billy Hofmeyr made the country’s first Bordeaux-style blend there. Still, Welgemeend’s main influence was its attachment to the name Billy Hofmeyr who was one of the most inspirational figures in South African wine.

A quantity surveyor by profession, Hofmeyr’s attraction to and expertise in things of culture included a phenomenal knowledge of classical music, the fine arts and wine. The latter inspired him such that he bought Welgemeend to take-up winemaking, his commitment to the wine culture and his obsession with the topic inspiring a generation of legendary winemakers such as Jan Boland Coetzee, Kevin Arnold, Peter Finlayson, Etienne le Riche and Walter Finlayson. It was in 1982 that Hofmeyr founded the Cape Winemakers Guild these winemakers, among others, and became the Guild’s first Chairman.

If the quality and ageability of his wines are anything to go by, Hofmeyr must have been a born winemaker despite this not being his chosen profession when he set out in life. Like other Welgemeend red blends from the 1980s I have experienced, the 1988 is an absolutely magnificent wine, a comet, a zenith, a classic.

The Welgemeend 1988 blend is 41% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon and 29% Cabernet Franc. As an expert in classical music, Hofmeyr appears in the mind’s eye when I sip this wine, conducting, orchestrating, coaxing the vineyards, the fruit, the fermentation and the barrel-aging into a harmony of his distinct composition.

Billy Hofmeyr

Despite its 31 years of age, there is not a slack string in the symphony to dull the overriding gush of exuberance and energy. The wine is pure and fine, extremely polite and well-mannered in its supple tannins, the enlightening palate presence and that lengthy and thoughtful finish that lingers longer than a Maria Callas high note. Yet, calm and elegant as it all is, something is exciting and adventurous. The flow of flavour. The magical aroma. You smell fynbos and tar; petrichor and fig-paste. It is the perfume of life, and of heaven.

Flavours are restrained, but immense. Alaskan cranberry preserve springs to mind, off-set by heavy plums and a line of cured game. The wine manages to be both plush and satisfying, yet scintillating and zestily sharp, accurate and focused. But above-all, memorable, letting you await the next experience thereof with shivers of anticipation.

This, is wine. Made greater by the mysteries of time.

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8 thoughts on “A Wine from a Genius, and from Time

  1. A great ode to an inspirational winemaker. Not supposed to be a great year for red wine, but then struggle sometimes turn out great results. Thank you Emile.

  2. Billy Hofmeyr was indeed inspiration and example to us all. Highly principled, in his quiet and unassuming way, had a major impact on South African wine, and not only the CIWG, as it was then called. His ongoing quest for integrity in vineyard and wine has been felt throughout. There must be a spot in “wine heaven” for someone like him.

  3. It was because of tine spent with Billy and Ursula that I eventually bought our vineyard and started making wine – he truly was an amazing man. Thanks for a great story and rekindling the memory of the Welgemeend trailblazing path.

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