A Tale of Two Cape Cabernets

I only met Desiderius Pongrácz, one of the pioneers of Cape viticulture, on two occasions and all I can remember is that he looked at one with a beady and sparkling eye implying that if you were to say something, it had better not be anything stupid. But as a youngster back in the 1970s, I was not going to suggest an opinion regarding matters vinous or viticulture. It was far safer to act uninformed and curious, and just ask questions if people like Pongrácz, Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW) MD Ronnie Melck and his production sidekick Duimpie Bayly were in the vicinity.

The second time I met Pongrácz – I found the referring to him as “Pongi” by others somewhat belittling – we were tasting wines from Lanzerac and Zonnebloem and I happened to ask why these wines were labelled as Cabernet, and not Cabernet Sauvignon. As this was the grape variety whose virtues were extolled by the legendary viticulturist and botanist Abraham Izak Perold, which led to the cultivar being planted keenly throughout Stellenbosch and surrounds since the 1940s.

Melck and Bayly, in whose stable Lanzerac and Zonnebloem were, said the wording had something to do with label space, and that if any wine-drinker did not know this Cabernet was Cabernet Sauvignon, the relevant persons should forsake these wines and go back to Lieberstein. Laughs were laughed heartily, and a bit of banter ensued, such was the jocular nature of the Cape wine scene back then, half a century ago.

It was later that day, after the lunch and walking back to my car parked outside the SFW squash court, that Pongrácz called me over. About your question on the Cabernet, he said. “Remember, that many of these wines originate from vineyards that I believe have just as much Cabernet Franc material in them as Cabernet Sauvignon. Everyone thinks it’s all Sauvignon, but this is not the case. So perhaps labelling it just Cabernet is more logical than you or I think it is.”

I never had the interest to follow-up on the great man’s explanation, as in those days I – nor I presume many other people – would have much care in a Cabernet wine being of the Sauvignon or Franc variety. (Pongrácz died in 1984 after a motor vehicle accident.)

However, since the stratospheric interest in the South African GS wines from the 1966 and 1968 vintage, Pongrácz’s assessment of much of the Cape’s Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards having actually been Cabernet Franc, is a fact to ponder over. Labelled only “Cabernet”, these two wines made by the late George Spies of SFW now have a cult-like status, partly due to the mysteries of their origins. It is known that the vineyard was in the Cape’s Durbanville region, but no records exist on how the wine was made. And with the name GS Cabernet, could the legendary George Spies have been aware of the relevant vines possibly being of the Cabernet Franc variety, or an interplanting of both cultivars?

For surely, he would have added more aura to the wines by calling the GS Cabernet Sauvignon instead of the rather innocuous “Cabernet”?

The only thing left of these great wines is memory and place. Last year the Durbanville Wine Valley launched a wine evoking both site and heritage of GS with a wine called The Master’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon made from the 2016 vintage, 50 years after the original GS. The grapes come from the Morgenster farm in Durbanville where the original GS grapes were grown.

Of all the regions he could source grapes from, George Spies selected Durbanville. It is a fact of nature that the area has superb red wine terroir. Decomposed granite soils, abundant lateral air-flow, proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and a history of viticulture going back to the late 1600s.

Whatever the motive for its making may be, the modern rendition of GS – The Master’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – is another example of the truly stupendous quality of Cape Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine spent two years in oak barrels – 24 months more than the GS 1966! – and then about three years in the bottle, so be assured that opening it now is a wine in what will for the next three years be in its absolute prime.

The thing about Cabernet Sauvignon is that it is just such a commanding wine, with a regal, upright and confident presence. It does not have to try to impress with spice and velvet texture, nor does it react to winemakers wishing – god knows why – to get restraint out of it. Originating from a great piece of earth, the grapes ferment, rest in wood and bottle, and opening the thing, the wine is just there. Assured. Direct expression of flavours without trying to be too nuanced or clever. Black berries and cedar, plus a whiff of Cuban cigar-box assert themselves, while the tannins run tight and true with the kind of elegance that comes with presence and the garnering of respect.

The Master’s Vineyard has a no-nonsense nobility about it, a non-showy brilliance and splendour that a nobleman such as Pongrácz would have been proud of. I raise a glass to him and those who with foresight and understanding paved the way for the great vineyards of South Africa. Because this is how they taste.

  • Lafras Huguenet

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