South Africa’s Incomparable Sweet Legends

Quite aptly, the greatest wine-tasting of this year on local soil occurred at South Africa’s most lauded winery. Kanonkop Estate in Stellenbosch may be the country’s First Growth in terms of red wine pedigree, but co-proprietor Johann Krige’s love of old fortified wines also makes this site the venue for an annual showing of sweet South African jewels.

The emphasis is on the Muscadel, Hanepoot and Port wines made by the KWV, and no matter the size of the line-up Johann selects for presenting in a specific year, I doubt whether any other category of South African wine could match the combined gravitas, class and sure excellence of the stuff poured at these tastings.

This year’s event saw two flights, one each of Muscadel and Hanepoot combined, and one of Port, as it was permitted to be called when these wines were produced by KWV.

Just look at this line-up in flight one: KWV Jerepigo Hanepoot 1975, Red Muscadel 1975, Jerepigo Liquer Wine 1972, Hanepoot Jerepigo 1969, Muscadel Jerepigo 1953 and – sweet Lord – KWV Muscadel 1930. To those readers with a reference of the above wine styles and an idea of what this kind of maturation does to them, rest assured: experiencing these elixirs is equitable to the collective paradise one can expect to find in the heavens of all religious persuasions combined. It was a surreal experience.

All the wines were made in the jerepigo style of adding neutral grape spirits to just-harvested juice at the beginning stages of fermentation. The spirits stop fermentation then and there to capture the vineyard’s sweet essence, as well as providing the alcohol-backbone to make it a fortified wine of between 17% and 20%. Aging was done in old big wooden vats for years before bottling, then sold – mainly to KWV members – whereafter they were stored in private cellars for decades.

As far as this style of fortified winemaking goes, nobody in the world comes close to what the KWV cellar-masters were doing all those years ago. These simply must count among the greatest sweet wines in the world, right up there with vintage Madeira, Port and Sherry.

For fear of becoming excessively aroused and succumbing to cardiac uneasiness, I am not going to describe each wine. But let me take three items that still have me waking-up at 03.23 in a cold sweat, fearing that the world is going to implode before I will ever have the opportunity of letting them pass my lips again.

The KWV Hanepoot 1969 was made from Muscat d’Alexandrie grapes growing in the Robertson region, then known as Boberg. Close on 50yrs old, the wine obviously turned from its initial golden, sunny hue to a more serious browned garnet colour. And in the process, much of the typical Muscat fragrance has dissipated, being replaced by a denser, more formidable dessert wine character.

A firm acidity causes an immediate grip to the palate, grapefruit-peel and marmalade spring to mind. This is soon cleaned-up by lashings of well-brandied fruit mince, treacle sponge, cinnamon and finely roasted coffee – everything held together in a puddle of fresh, invigorating, scintillating alcohol wine. Damn it is a good drink, something I really could have all day despite the 200-plus grams of residual sugar possibly leading to adverse effects on certain internal organs.

Next, dream on, about the KWV 1930 Muscadel. The origin is also Boberg, and on the label lies the words “Late Bottled” for some or other reason. Like a Platter Wine Judge or a wine blogger obsessed with scorings and ratings, it is almost impossible not to harbour some kind of pre-conceived prejudice in this wine’s favour. The influence of age and provenance on the human psyche are known to cloud all reasoned objectivity and I was already all teared-up and emotional about the stature of the wine before I had tasted it.

Having managed to pull myself together for the sake of rational comment, I slipped the glass of 1930 Muscadel between the lips. Now, if Champagne made Dom Perignon seen stars, this would have made the old Monk see the whole universe with each one of Hugh Hefner’s pin-ups sitting upon every cosmic entity. As well as a rerun of the 2018 World Cup Final which France won.

This wine is cheekily alive with verve and swagger. Mounds of burnt toffee on the mid-palate as well as a decadent line of Moroccan black honey and the peels of small, overripe figs. Like the 1969, a cheeky run of life-affirming acidity is still present here, making this wine an unashamedly quaffable 88 year old. A wine not asking for respect, but commanding it.

So why have I left the KWV Muscadel Jerepigo 1953 for last when, age-wise, it should be handled mid-way. Quite simply, because this is the greatest wine I have ever had from South Africa.

Recognised by certain significant others as such, this gold-labelled bottle is highly sought-after and tastes quite unlike any other Jerepigo or Muscadel, and there’s a story here.

According to Gary Baumgarten, who used to work in the KWV cellars and knows his stuff when it comes to this style of wine, the making of the 1953 Muscadel differed. It was a hectic harvest season and whether by chance, forgetfulness or intent, the grape juice had already fermented down by some six degree balling before the spirits was added.

Perhaps it was the vintage. Perhaps it was this unplanned pre-fortification ferment. Whatever, the result is a memorable and spectacular glass of wine.
It lies black in the holder, with a tinge of green, the colour you find on the back of a good brown trout. It makes its uniqueness known upon entering the mouth. Soft as a stroke from a feather just fallen from a new angel’s wing. Smooth as the bonnet of a wet Buggatti. Delicate as the broken heart of a country maiden who has just heard her first Nina Simone song.

The flavour, oh man, the flavour. Lyle’s Golden Syrup mixed with jasmine nectar. Pulverised sultana raisins lying under the hot sun of Kakamas. Colombian coffee sweetened with love and the sweat of dying cocaine dealers. Molasses, dripping, running down your mouth and scooped up with a spoon made from Cuban sugar palm.

Dark, rich, intoxicating, heady and funk-filled as Miles Davis in full throttle.

All that’s left is to raise a glass to the generations of wine greats who created the above, their vineards, skill and foresight. I think they greated more than what they bargained for.

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4 thoughts on “South Africa’s Incomparable Sweet Legends

  1. Had that 1930 eight years ago on a blind tasting of very old (non-port) fortified wines with The Noble Rotters and it wiped the floor. By some way the best fortified muscat wine I’ve had – now I pine for a taste of the ’53!

    I hope you’re going to write about the ports as well?

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