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South Africa: Day 5—The Country’s First Classic Wine?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 12, 2007 4:51pm ET

Today, I spent time with Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof and David Finlayson of Glen Carlou. Kent makes top-flight Cabernet, Syrah and Sémillon, while Finlayson produces excellent Cabernet, Syrah and Chardonnay.

Syrah has helped propel South Africa to its current state of quality. Kent’s version shows lots of briar and olive characteristics; it sees no new oak and is made in a more traditional manner. A vertical of the ’97, ’98 and ’99 showed the wine is a solid ager too, thanks to the grapes sourced from a vineyard owned by Schalk Berger in Wellington.

I also really like Kent’s Sémillon, which spends over a year in barrel before bottling. It’s tight and minerally when young, but it opens up to show more tangerine, orange and wax notes after a few years, similar to aged white Bordeaux or a traditional white Rioja. I tasted the ’97, ’98 and ’99 vintages, with the ’98 really on form.

Finlayson’s Syrah is more modern, with dark, plush fruit and toasty notes, while his Cabernet and Syrah offer solid varietal character and sleek finishes.

Finlayson wasn’t going to be outdone, though, when it came to opening some older wines. When I told him I was coming to South Africa, I also asked him if the country had any benchmark wines from the past—a Max Schubert Grange or Tchelistcheff BV— something that the current generation of winemakers looked to as proof of what their terroir could provide.

Finlayson scratched his head a bit at that one—and he wasn’t the only winemaker I asked who had trouble coming up with such a wine. That’s because prior to the end of apartheid, the wine industry was very different, with grapegrowers selling their grapes to the large cooperatives that distilled half of the harvest for brandy production.

“We were alcohol farmers, not wine farmers” is the quote you’ll often hear about South Africa’s wine past.

The horses and vineyards of Boekenhoutskloolf in the Franschoek Valley  

But Finlayson dug around, and through a contact, he scrounged up a bottle of 1966 GS Cabernet, made by George Spies (pronounced "speace"), who was winemaker for the Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery long before it became Distell. From what he knew of the wine, if there was a bottling from the past that could prove South Africa could make a classic, this might be it.

Though the cork crumbled at the mere sight of the corkscrew (the bottle had never been reconditioned), the wine seemed to be in great condition as it hit the glass—dark in color, and with little sediment.

At first whiff, it showed tons of dark currant fruit, along with grilled beef, charcoal, hot tar and truffle notes—clearly it was far from dead.

It was even more impressive on the palate, with notes of currant and fig paste, smoke, chestnut, incense, date and brandy-soaked plums. It was fleshy, ripe and powerful, with a great core of sweet fruit. Though slightly grainy in texture, the wine was plenty viscous, with a roasted, overripe character that remained fresh and long on the finish nonetheless.

I’ve reviewed over 2,000 South African wines for the magazine over the years, and I've never given one a classic rating (95 points or better on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale). This one was the breakthrough. Granted, it was not tasted blind, and the wine in question is not exactly a new release. But it still proves that the country is capable of producing classic wines.

Unfortunately for Spies, and perhaps the industry in general, his bosses told him to stop (much like with Max Schubert at Grange). And unfortunately, unlike Schubert, he listened and stopped after making only one more bottling in ’68. Had he continued, perhaps South Africa’s winemakers would be a step ahead of where they are today.

That’s not to say that they’re far behind. Being so close to producing world-class wines is what makes the region such an interesting place to be covering right now. Like the country itself, the wine industry has a checkered past but bright future.

If George Spies could do it in 1966, there’s no reason Marc Kent or David Finlayson or any of the current quality-oriented winemakers can’t do it today. It’s just a matter of time.

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