To twirl the adage concerning the 1960s: If you can actually remember your days of drinking Tassenberg at university, you weren’t really there.
The light red wine called Tassenberg, with the maroon and custard label, has been around for as long as I can remember seeing wine bottles on my parents’ dinner table. It was around when I began imbibing illicitly procured bottles of vino at high school. And any young wine-drinker who made a mandatory visit to the border between Namibia and Angola wearing a brown uniform and donning a R4-peace-keeping instrument, would remember the tears of nostalgic joy brought about by slugging warm Tassenberg out of the bottle under the harsh African sun. In that part of the world, Tassenberg was and still is the drink of choice, with a per-capita-wine consumption outscoring South Africa five-to-one. Thanks to Tassenberg.
During my first year at university, here in Stellenbosch, Tassenberg was sold at De Akker, a popular public house, for 99c per bottle. This was some 15c cheaper than the going rate at other establishments. The bargain price ensured De Akker was full to the brim each-and-every night. It was not uncommon to bump into UCT students who had, during a week-night, driven all the way from Cape Town to partake in the cut-price Tassenberg.
Of course, the novelty of the cheap Tassenberg wore off. And some academic types began querying the reason for its low price-tag at De Akker. Fake news was not heard of at that time, but soon the rumour began to spread. Somebody who knew someone who lived next to the friend of a guy working at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, makers of Tassenberg, had let it slip. See, in 1983, the year before this economically accessible wine was being flogged, a cellar-worker had fallen into a tank of maturing Tassenberg. He was alone on night-shift, see. So, no-one saw him taking the plunge and entering the other life in a deep steel vessel of red wine. Only a few weeks later when the tank was being emptied for bottling were the wine-ravaged remains of the hapless worker discovered.
And seeing as the wine was not allowed to go to waste, a plan had to be made to sell it, pronto.
Slash-priced Tassenberg to the thirsty students at De Akker. Made the problem disappear, they say.
Obviously, had my palate then been as cultured as it is now, I might have detected the presence of taste, texture and aroma unfamiliar to the assumed profile of that wine. But still today, whenever someone refers to a wine as “savoury”, a shudder runs ever so slightly down my spine.
Tassenberg still brings joy, and the blend of Cinsaut and Cabernet Sauvignon – they lost the Pinotage over the years – is a pleasing accompaniment to social occasions that are marked by their authenticity and jovial nature. I recently spent a few days in Richmond in the Karoo, and Tassenberg was all around, just under R40 a bottle.
In the hot, dusty light of day, the first two bottles are consumed to the sound of ice chiming in the wine glasses. Chilled, this wine is now a firm, fleshy (whoops!) rosé such as that of the north-west Luberon in France. A bit of diluting on account of the ice, and berry flavours run through it with a lip-smacking sour-cherry hit on the finish.
Karoo nights are beautifully black and broad, even when the full-moon is out. The Tassenberg comes out at real room temperature, poured in wet liquid streams into thick glasses on short-stems. As the fire burns down, the wine’s initial tartness gives way to plum and bitter-orange, with a lingering finish full of dancing, prickly tannin.
But most noticeable of all, it is Tassenberg. Still tasting like it always has, all those years ago. I know. I was there.
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