Beauty of the Cape’s Old White Wines

Just because a wine has survived to reach a ripe old age is no guarantee that the thing will make for interesting drinking. I have had enough cloying, porty Cabernet Sauvignons, collapsed Pinotages and demented Shirazes to attest to this. Especially since the old-wine craze hit South Africa 10 years ago and wines from the 1960s to the 1980s began rising for an appearance at wine auctions, tasting-clubs and on retail shelves. And while the old antiquated labels make for attractive aesthetics and researching them leads to quaint tales of yore, most of these bottles best remain unopened.

But when, after dusting the bottle and scraping out the old, a 50-year-old Cape wine spills into the glass with bright bloody colour and presents a nose that is still vibrant and breathing without signs of varicose veins or false-teeth, the matured wine is a beautiful thing.

Most of the attention accorded these senior Cape wines go, deservedly, to the reds. 1966 GS Cabernet Sauvignon. Kanonkop Pinotage 1973. Nederburg Cabernet 1974. Oude Libertas Cinsaut 1971. The magical process of vinous evolution, undergone under the right storage conditions, has turned these wines into things of wonder. Tannins have broadened to build on the initial flavour profiles of youth. Initial darting fruit traits have become more profound, more sensual, more ingrained and weightier. Integration has brought all the wine’s elements together in a joyous whole, a whole that commands respect without leaving a hint of the stern or arrogant. It is this that makes a wine worth waiting for, but a certain degree of luck is required to find an old wine in the kind of health required to offer this degree of splendour.

While red wines become interesting and fascinating with age, old white wines are also intriguing – provided, of course, that these too have arrived at a ripe old age in a state of approachable health.

I have not been fortunate to sample the tremendous German Rieslings that, after 60 or 70 years in the bottle, are still strutting, hopping and rolling like Mick Jagger upon renewing his Viagra prescription. But it was sampling a Louis Jadot Meursault 1979 a few years back that made me realise that white wines, too, can age with brilliant confidence to become different and, perhaps, better. This was a Chardonnay that blew my mind, not because it was 32 years old, but just because it was wonderful and timeless.

As far as the Cape’s old wines go, more mature reds seem to be going around than whites. But lately, I have been fortunate to get hold of some white wines in a state of seniority, which proved to be thought-provoking and delicious.

A Backsberg Chardonnay 1986 presented itself, the topped ullage being the sign of decent storage. Things got better as the in-tact cork popped and the wine fell into the glass in a shimmering gold cloak and with clarity-assuring calmness.

No further evidence was required that this 36-year-old wine was in pristine shape, and the fun had not yet even truly begun. The nose was honey and clotted-cream, with a faint presence of jasmine. At this stage, I truly could not believe what was happening. In 1986 the Chardonnay grape had not yet been vinified for 10 years in the Cape, yet here was a wine stomping around like it had been leading communion in Burgundy’s Citeaux abbey.

On the palate there were none of the piercing citrus-slashes of modern-day Chardonnay. The Backsberg was coolly plush and pliable, dreamily slipping around the mouth bearing tastes of almond, yellow-peach and dried Saville orange peel. A bit fleshiness for some, maybe, but fleshiness of the Kate Winslett type that only holds good things into places where something exciting is going to happen.

A fresher, zingier older wine came in the form of Simonsig Vin Fumé 1985. The late Frans Malan, pater familias of Simonsig, used Robert Mondavi’s famous Fumé Blanc as inspiration for this wine’s name. Although unlike the Mondavi number, which was made from Sauvignon Blanc, Vin Fumé 1985 was a Chenin Blanc – Sauvignon came later.

The Vin Fumé had definite age on the colour, which had turned from the pale-straw of Chenin youth to a liquid with a slight ochre tinge. Showing old, true, but to the senses this wine was a revelation having transformed from wooded Chenin into a fascinating and complex white wine.

Loads of quince on the nose, with a thread of oxidation, as if a few drops of Sercial Madeira had been plonked into the bottle. But what wonderful exuberance did this wine not show as it entered the mouth. Bitter orange, grilled hazelnuts and marzipan came to the fore but quickly gave way to the bracing, zesty alertness the wine carried through the mid-palate to the long finish.

Hunting and sourcing old wines may be a bit of a gamble, but the chase is thrilling when the quarry delivers what some winemaker, way back when, had aimed at.

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