2020 a Year to Forget, but not the Wines

I tend to skirt around any reference to that annus horribilis that was 2020, that being the year of torment and regret, the year of stupidity and of waste, of paranoia and loss, the year of that covid-thing which I shall not be referring to with a capital letter. Yet, of late I have been looking at the numerals 2020 without finding a mild tremor of fury or a wish to burn-down a Chinese noodle house because of this appearing to be an exceptional year of red wine in the Cape.

This realisation first dawned when I stood chatting with wine icon Jan Boland Coetzee and RJ Botha, winemaker at Kleine Zalze, with RJ enthusing his pleasure at the quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the 2020 vintage. “Well,” said Jan, giving RJ one of those steely stares that could paralyze a Stellenbosch squirrel at 58 paces, “if you couldn’t make a good wine from 2020 in Stellenbosch, you’d better find another job.”

Seems that a cold 2019 winter, some spring rain in October and a mild growing season – a long one for reds – had done just fine in ripening red grapes. For those of us who recall scampering around in various degrees of confused incredulity as that Wuhan Lab Leak gained its grip on our lives in March 2020, evenly weighted grape bunches, balanced acidity and concentrated fruit profiles among late-ripening red varieties went by somewhat unnoticed. The only wrinkled dark fruit we saw was police minister Bheki Cele’s mug threatening to place dog walkers and outdoor tai chi practitioners in solitary confinement with regular nipple shocks and anal probes.

Three years have passed, God bless, and the corks now being pulled on bottles bearing Vintage 2020 do appear to be truly beautiful wines, possibly the universe’s way of attempting to balance things out.

After listening to Jan and RJ talking cover-crops and barrel-quality, I scampered to the Kleine Zalze tasting room to procure a case of Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard Selection 2020 to assess the validity of these positive reports the two gentlemen had given.

As usual, it begins with the colour. The Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon shrouded the inside of my decanter in a black-purple curtain of loud, foreboding darkness as an intoxicating aroma drifted from the glass vessel, hanging like a fragrant pool above my cigar-scented tasting room.

The wine was allowed to retrieve calmness for 30 minutes before being tasted while its taster listened to some trumpety jazz, courtesy of Bix Beiderbecke. The wine itself is sheer splendour, and like some of the other 2020s I’ve had, this Cabernet Sauvignon showed an eye-winking approachability in its youth.

A sappy juiciness invigorates the palate and opens the mind, such vivid displays of autumn in the ripe plums, bramble-berries and that hint of dew-dampened fallen leaves lying golden and russet on fresh moss. It is assertive and muscular, toned, and has a presence of the formidable. In the same breath, the resounding statuesque aura does not eschew deliciousness and drinkability. While not plush nor silky, the tannins are spun in threads of delicacy, allowing the fruit to bloom, the wonder to amaze.

The agreeable impression of 2020 was furthered a few weeks later when, lo and behold, I came across the latest release of Meerlust Estate’s Rubicon. This iconic Bordeaux blend led the Cape’s foray into establishing these classic blended wines as the greatest category of South African red wine. First released in 1980, Rubicon continues to command the attention of that part of the wine world wishing to accept this country as capable of making wines reflecting a true Médoc-inspired soul.


Rubicon 2020 sees Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot going head-to-head in the blend’s make-up, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot playing bit parts. The substantial Merlot component is the result of concentrated vigour emanating from Meerlust’s more mature vineyards, and those still thinking Merlot is a cuddly, bright-fruited charmer will not find any sign of this in Rubicon 2020.

There is a seamless harmony between the Cabernet Sauvignon’s riveting graphite, dark-fruit intensity and a Merlot of gritty and weathered gruffness, adding an irony edge and tuning-fork precision to the wine’s physicality. Most noticeable is the long throw the wine puts through the mouth with pencil-shaving, cigar-box, prune and maraschino cherry ripping through the senses, leaving an aura of refined fragrance and taste.

The final wine responsible for my groin-twitching excitement on vintage 2020 is Taaibosch Crescendo, this wine not yet released but which I had the privilege of tasting during a courtesy call to the attention-grabbing Helderberg farm. Taaibosch has managed to obtain cult status in five years, and I deem the 2020 as the best yet to originate from this spectacular property.

As ever, Crescendo is a Cabernet Franc-led Bordeaux blend, and the 2020 presents the purity and precision this spectacular wine has become renowned for. But there is a levelling-up in vintage 2020, as if the brilliance of Crescendo’s first few offerings have led the fruit from the Taaibosch site to get together and show, now, what they can really do.

This wine does not mess around and opens in the decisive, electrifying manner with which Eric Clapton’s guitar kicks-off his epic track “Layla”. Crescendo 2020 goes straight to the head and to the heart in that unsettling manner one experiences when knowing that you have been allowed into the passageway that leads to greatness. A vice-like grip, flavoured by broken rock, midnight-black berries and fresh pine-needles closes in over the senses. Despite all the polished edges, the cultured and graceful palate-presence, and the air of the stately cultured, this is a wine you want to devour. To rip its flesh, chew it to the bone and suck-out the marrow while emitting growls of jealously guarded satisfaction.

You must have it all, and you have it now.

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4 thoughts on “2020 a Year to Forget, but not the Wines

  1. Excellent Emile ~ a journey into the ‘never never land’ of viticultural complexity and thrill which brings the hither of 2020 into palpapble reach ~ just fantastic.
    I find it both invigorating and absolutely astounding how refinedly and delicately you evaluate and dig into the deeper nuances of the journey our Kaapse Wynlande offers so magnanimously, to the more serious of wine lovers.
    Somehow you introduce the ‘music of the vine’, which only comes to bear and ‘beat’ richly much later, normally, and into rythm, in a way which i’ve seldomly encountered anywhere else and with nobody else either.
    So, sincere complimént…the written word in your careful and steady, observant and well informed hand, upon reflection of this ‘dark magic’ of our magnificent Fairest Cape (lately emphatically of ‘Storms’), is truly a blessing, a joie immense…one lingering long after the journey of thought.
    Great that you called Jan Boland in, and also touched upon Rubicon respectfully ~ somewhere down the line you should treat us to Georgio and JanB together and bring both Vriesenhof and Meerlust ‘head to head’ with two remarkable ghurus at hand, yet. (Also perhaps blend the Co with Neil Ellis, would be great).
    You will open a wonderful sharing of magnificense unto us all…
    Thank you kindly for brilliant moments, whenever your e-writs arrive. A treasure trove sincerely appreciated and embraced, with unknown intensity, these terible days of ZA total disintegration of system and order logical, functional and disciplined, meritorious…Touché Emile. Wonderfully talented, in fact BRILLIANT!!
    Looking forward immensely to the next.

    1. Beste Kobus
      Baie dankie vir die lees van die artikel en jou inspirerende kommentaar. Ja, ek is gaande oor ons plek en ons wyne, en al manier hoe ek my daaroor kan uitspreek is deur die woorde.
      Enige idees vir skrywes van jou kant is welkom! Jy weet waar om my te kry as jy wil inval vir ‘n koffie of ‘n dop.

  2. Dagsê Emile
    Dit sal baie bakgat wees, dankie
    Hopelik kan ons DV afsienbaar so maak ~ jy’s lekker naby
    Jou werk is soos nektar : ‘n absolute hoogtepunt in ons totale ZA verval en daaglikse geswoeg om positief en konstruktief lojaal en gefokusd te bly, dus positief…Dus dankie weereens
    Die minste wat man kan doen is om goeie boustene nader te bring, EN planne!
    Boereplanne (wat goed werk…) Hoe goeie moed
    Ek volg met graagte op sodra daar ‘n goeie gaping is
    Intussen sal ek jou direkte komms besonderhede bekom Groete,

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