Busting the Big Tank Myth: Durbanville Hills

dhwThere are easier ways to get to Durbanville Hills Winery than aboard a snorkel-equipped Land Rover, but I don’t think there’s a better way to go.

They brought out the 4×4 vehicles (snorkel-equipped — who knew? — so the engines can breathe even in deep water crossings) so that we could experience and appreciate the hills, the vineyards and the rugged terrain even before we came to the winery itself and the braai lunch that was planned for us there.

My visit to Durbanville Hills Winery started as adventure and became a learning experience about the diverse nature of wine in South Africa. Now it is also Exhibit A in the case against the One Big Tank myth that I wrote about last week.

The Big Tank theory is that giant wine and drinks companies with dozens of brands in their portfolios offer consumers the illusion of choice, not real choice. It’s as if all the different wines came out of one big tank.  Although there is a grain of truth in this idea, I think it is fundamentally bogus and Durbanville Hills is a case in point.

From Oom Tas to Nederberg Noble

Durbanville Hills Winery is part of the Distell drinks empire. As I wrote last week, Distell is South Africa’s largest wine and spirits producer and is a global power in several beverage categories. They superficially fit the Big Tank stereotype, but within their range of brands you will find choices over a wide range starting with very basic wines such as Oom Tas (described as “an inexpensive, dry, golden, unsophisticated wine of constantly good quality and taste”) and Kellerprinz (” an unpretentious, fun wine, its quality is nevertheless good and consistent, offering value for money”) and moving on up the ladder to the rather special Nederberg Noble Late Harvest wine I wrote about last year.

Durbanville Hills Winery is a relatively new addition to the Distell group.  The winery is beautiful in a modern way that does not seem out of place for its setting. The public spaces are welcoming, the restaurant gets good marks and you can’t beat the views looking out over the vineyards or on to the city. It looks like Distell has put a lot of time and money into the operation and the result is impressive.

Even Lettie Likes It

The wines are impressive, too. I especially liked the Sauvignon Blanc, which seems to do especially well in these hills. And the Pinotage is good enough to get a nod from self-confessed Pinotage-hater Lettie Teague, wine critic for the Wall Street Journal.

Durbanville Hills’ wines are distinctive (which runs counter to the Big Tank myth), but in fact the whole operation is unusual and not what you would expect from a “drinks company” winery at all.

Durbanville Hills was founded in 1999 as a partnership between Distell and seven wine farms in this region and the first wines were released in 2001. This area has a long history of wine growing — the youngest of the farms was founded in 1714 according to the winery website.

Triple Bottom Line

Distell’s representatives sit on the winery board, as I understand it, along with the farmer partners plus a workers’ representative. The wine farm workers have a 5% equity stake in the business that is administered through a trust that provides a number of social and economic benefits to workers and their families. Durbanville Hills was one of the first wineries to be accredited by the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association. 

Cellar master Martin Moore is an enthusiastic promoter of a particular brand of sustainability that is sometimes called the “triple bottom line” approach (although he never used this term when talking with me). Businesses need profits to sustain themselves in the long run, of course, but economic sustainability doesn’t mean much if the environment is sacrificed (true for all business, but especially for wine), so you have to add that factor into the equation. And what are planet and profit without people? Communities must be sustained along with business and the environment. So true sustainability is the intersection of the three spheres of life taken together.

To quite intentionally organize a wine company around these values is a long term commitment and not the sort of thing that you associate with a corporation nervous about quarterly earnings reports. But it seems to me that everyone at Durbanville Hills is in this for the long run and the structure of the business is meant to keep it that way. It’s an impressive achievement and it makes a glass of Durbanville Hills wine a particularly satisfying drink.

Not Free Range

Clearly there are values and principles beyond a simple short-term profit motive behind the Durbanville Hills project, but they are usefully balanced with a sense of realism — you have to be pragmatic to make the triple bottom line work because this idea of business  isn’t about avoiding trade-offs, it’s about confronting them and making effective choices.

I saw this in a sort of sustainability manifesto that Martin Moore gave me at the end of my visit. Moore writes that, “We farm responsibly … not organic, not biodynamic … but sustainably.”  I think his point is that it is difficult to balance all three bottom lines if you swear off potentially important tools. “I would not even claim that we have free range vines,” he jokes, “as most of it is stuck in a trellis system.”

But I do believe that if we continue improving strengthening our 3 pillars of sustainable farming Durbanville Hills, our producers, our farm workers and community will hand over a successful business to the future generation without having to apologize.P1040576

Myth and Reality

Clearly Durbanville Hills Winery doesn’t fit the Big Tank theory and I think it is an indication that Distell and other giant wine and drinks companies are capable of offering wine consumers real choice — choice in both the wines themselves (which is the point after all) and in the entire wine experience.

It would be easy to make the case that Distell and Durbanville Hills are special cases. South Africa has a unique wine history that stretches back for hundreds of years and a unique social history, too, which motivates many there to address directly issues of race and inequality.

And then there is the Rupert family’s influence on Distell. If anyone understands the the benefits of product differentiation and avoiding a Big Tank syndrome, it is probably the Ruperts, whose broad holdings control many luxury brands including Cartier. They would certainly appreciate the business value of distinctive products compared with Big Tank uniformity.

Distell is a unique wine company in many ways, but I don’t see it as unique in terms of the Big Tank myth.  While I don’t deny that there are a few Big Tanks out there, in general I believe that even giant wine companies have strong business incentives to provide consumers with diverse choices (and even in some cases to take seriously the triple bottom line).

It is a sad fact that some of the great potential diversity of wine production does get filtered out by the logic of distribution and retail economics, and the vast scale and scope of the wine giants indirectly contributes to that problem. But, as I said in my last post, it takes a village to raise a child and it takes an entire supply chain to deliver diverse wine choices … or not. But it’s not just a Big Tank problem.

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I realize that one example, even a really good one like Durbanville Hills, isn’t enough to bust a myth (n=1 is a pretty small sample size). But there are lots of examples if you only take off the “Big Tank” glasses and look around.

Thanks to Cellar master Martin Moore and Managing Director Albert Gerber for taking the time to answer all my questions at Durbanville Hills and Cape Wine 2012. The images up top are from the winery’s website.

The “One Big Tank” Myth

My recent post about How Much Choice Do Wine Drinkers Really Have? made the point that true diversity in wine choice is complicated. Although there are constellations of wine brands that are theoretically available, from a practical standpoint the choice available to you depends on your price point “comfort zone,” how you shop (on-line or wine club versus bricks and mortar stores), where you shop (local shop versus national chain store), where you live (state regulations vary enormously) and many other factors.

It takes a village to raise a child, they say, and it takes an entire product chain to raise up a diverse selection of wine … or not!

The Illusion of Choice?

A persistent concern is the influence of giant wine companies with dozens of wine brands in their portfolios. The conventional wisdom seems to be that these big firms merely create the illusion of choice, not choice itself. I guess the idea is that all of these different wine brands actually pour out of the spigot of one giant wine tank. If they all come from Gallo (or Constellation Brands or Treasury Wine Estates, etc.) then they must all be the same — or so similar as to make choice irrelevant.  I call this the “One Big Tank” theory and I think it’s a myth, although like all myths it contains a grain of truth.

The reality is that giant wine companies can and often do produce distinctive wines. And smaller operations sometimes pump out quantities of relatively terroir-free negociant wine to pay the bills. Size matters in wine, but it’s not the only thing. My motto is still “think global, drink local,” so I am not arguing against small terroir-driven producers, but I think at least some of the big wine companies have an undeserved poor reputation from the wine choice standpoint.

Giant wine companies have many advantages: access to capital, technology and vineyards, for example, and economies of scale in purchasing, distribution  and some aspects of production. What matters from the consumer choice standpoint is how these advantages are employed. You can aim to fill that one big tank as cheaply as possible or you can leverage the large scale advantages to create real quality and diversity.

Big Tank Stereotypes

A good example of how the myth unravels at least some of the time comes from my visit to South Africa. I was a guest of Distell for part of my visit (Distell owns Nederberg and I gave the keynote at the Nederberg Auction) and this gave me an opportunity to learn about the company, which is South Africa’s largest wine and spirits producer.

If you go strictly on stereotypes, Distell has got to be one of those “big tank” operations because it has most of the defining characteristics. It is, first of all, a “drinks company” and not a “wine company,” to use a distinction I first heard from a New Zealand winemaker (who worked for a “wine company,” of course). Here’s how the wine vs drinks dichotomy works.

Wine companies make wine (and only wine) and are often family owned. Drinks companies, on the other hand, manufacture all sorts of alcoholic beverages and are usually public corporations.  Whereas wine companies think tradition and  terroir, the story goes, drinks companies think marketing and product positioning.  Wine companies sometimes stay in the founding family’s control for generations. Drinks companies often get acquired, merged and traded back and forth like properties on a Monopoly board.

Distell fits the drinks company profile pretty well. It dominates the market for brandy in South Africa and is the leading wine producer, too. It is the world’s #2 producer of cider, another “drinks” category. Distell has strong international interests and owns  both a French Cognac house (Bisquit) and an Asian distributor. It has over 30 spirits brands in its portfolio and an even larger number of wines, wine apertifs, ciders and “ready to drink” beverages.

Distell is probaby best known in the U.S. for its Two Oceans and Fleur du Cap wine brands, but its hottest product is a cream liqueur called Amarula, “the Spirit of Africa.” It is the #2 best-selling cream liqueur in the world according to the company’s 2012 annual report.

Circumstantial Evidence

Distell also has a complicated business history.¹ The current firm was created in 2000 with the merger of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery and Distillers Corporation, but the history stretches back a ways. Key players include the South African billionaire Rupert family, which controls a diversified multinational business portfolio (they own the  Richemont  group of luxury goods companies, for example), the South African wine giant KWV and the big beer player SAB (think SABMiller — SAB stands for South African Breweries).

So, Distell fits the big tank  stereotype pretty well and some of its products have the classic “drinks company” profile, too. But the evidence that wine choice at Distell is an illusion is what Perry Mason would call “circumstantial.”  Can a “drinks company” like Distell offer consumers wines that give then a real choice and not just an illusion of choice?

Inside the big drinks company I found a good deal of counter evidence to the big tank theory. Join me in my next post as I climb into a snorkel-equipped Land Rover 4×4 and visit Distell’s Durbanville Hills Winery.

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The top image is an historic example of a great big tank: the famous Heidelberg Tun, made in 1751, with a reported capacity of 220,000 liters. Here’s what Mark Twain had to say about it in A Tramp Abroad (1880). 

Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.

¹ Most of what I think I know about Distell’s business history I learned from the company’s investor website and from Nick Vink, Gavin Williams and Johann Kirsten, “South Africa” in Kym Anderson (editor), The World’s Wine Markets: Globalization at Work (Edward Elgar, 2004).

Extreme Wine South Africa: The International Connection

One of the issues I wanted to explore during my visit to South Africa was the nature of international investment, partnerships and strategic alliances in that country.  There is so much about South African wine that is very old and traditional that I wondered how it was  dealing with the new and global. Here’s some of what I found out.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa.  Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

The International Connection

I am interested in international economic connections in particular because they have proved to be so important elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere wine world. The modern wine boom in New Zealand really took off when the international wine trade was opened up, for example, along with opportunities for inward investment. Now the export-focused NZ wine business is largely foreign owned,  part of the Faustian bargain that generated New Zealand’s great success.

International investment, partnerships and strategic alliances have been important in Argentina, too, with European, American and Chilean relationships exerting strong influence.  Chile and Australia also have important stories to tell in this regard, too, but as they say on Facebook “it’s complicated” for these two countries — too complicated to be included here.

The Screaming Eagle Connection

What’s the story in South Africa, I wondered as I walked into CapeWine 2012? I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The opening general session featured remarks by Charles Banks, former managing partner of California cult winery Screaming Eagle,  and Troy Christensen, CEO of Accolade Wines, which is the phoenix that has risen from the ashes left behind when Constellation Brands offloaded their wine assets in Australia and Europe. Banks and Christensen were seen as leading indicators of international interest in the South African wine industry.

Banks received special attention, which probably isn’t surprising given his Screaming Eagle background. He is CEO of Terroir Capital, an investment group whose international holdings now include Mulderbosch Vineyard and Fable Wines in South Africa. He is very positive about South Africa’s wine future and obviously purchased assets there with an eye towards taking them to the next level.

Mulderbosch was already a global brand, he told the international audience, and he saw potential to increase quality and expand scale. With Fable Wines Banks intends to take a highly-regarded existing South African winery (Tulbagh Mountain Vineyard) and rename (to make it more pronounceable, Banks said), rebrand and re-position it in international markets. The focus is on old bush vine Chenin Blanc and red Rhone varietal wines.

So clearly South Africa is on the wine investment radar, I concluded, despite what American investor Bill Foley told Lettie Teague in a recent Wall Street Journal article. But how deep does the interest go?

A Half Dozen Answers

I got my answer and more at a seminar the next day that was organized and led by Mike Ratcliffe, the managing director of Warwick Wine Estate. Mike wanted to showcase international investment in the South African industry and he decided to do it through a tasting of the six wines shown in the photo at the top of this post and listed below. Each wine had a different international story to tell and together I think they give an idea of the variety of actors, interests and motivation.

 # Wine & Vintage
1 Waterkloof Circle of Life White 2011
2 Delaire Graff Botmaskop 2009
3 Glenelley Lady May 2009
4 Anwilka 2008
5 Fable Bobbejaan 2010
6 Vilafonte Series M 2009

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Waterkloof  Wines is the creation of UK wine executive Paul Boutinot, whose title is listed as “Custodian” on the website, which suggests that he is in this for the long run.  Boutinot, his UK business, is an ambitious and successful enterprise that produces, imports and sells wine; it was named Sommelier Wine Awards “Wine Merchant of the Year” four years in a row. The South African winery is a personal investment that reflects Boutinot’s passion for wine and sincere interest in terroir. I expect it will also benefit from his business background and distribution experience.

Delaire Graff Estate is the project of Englishman Laurence Graff, Chairman of Graff Diamonds International and I think you can see the luxury lifestyle influence in the video and on the website. The intention was to create more than a winery — Delaire is a destination resort that includes the winery of course, but also luxury lodges, a “destination Spa,” and two restaurants in an atmosphere filled with art and natural beauty.


Madame May de Lencqauesaing is the proprietor of Glenelley Estate and you are correct if you guess that she is French. She was born in Bordeaux and managed her family estate Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande until its sale to the Roederer Champagne house in 2007.  Since then she’s focused on her South African estate, which makes “South African wine with a French Touch” according to the website.

Anwilka is a multinational partnership between South Africa’s Lowell Jooste of Klein Constantia, Hubert de Bouard, co-owner of Chateau Angelus in Bordeaux and Bruno Prats, former owner of another Bordeaux property, Chateau Clos d’Estournel. The bulk of Anwilka’s production of its Syrah-Cab-Merlot blend is exported, according to a Wine Advocate note, and sold through the Bordeaux marketplace.

The fifth wine was the Bobbejaan from Fable Wines , which I’ve already discussed. It added an American name to the mix and was the perfect prelude to the final glass.

Mike Ratcliffe saved his own project for the last act, but it was worth waiting for. Vilafonté  is an ambitious collaboration between South Africa, represented by Ratcliffe, and America in the form of head winemaker Zelma Long and head winegrower Dr. Phillip Freese. Long is legendary in California for her work at Robert Mondavi, Simi and her own family winery, Long Vineyards. Freese was head of winegrowing for Mondavi for 13 years and designed the first Opus One vineyards.  He has consulted with several South African wineries including Warwick. Like the other wines in the tasting, Vilafonté was a South African wine made to international standards and positioned for export.

These wines will be good ambassadors for South Africa, I believe, and represent intelligent (and generally delicious) international initiatives and collaborations. Each international investment brings something useful to the South African wine table while highlighting the best of what’s already here.

I know that there are other international investments in South Africa (Donald Hess’s investment in Glen Carlou springs to mind)  and I know that all of them have not worked out as well as the ones showcased here (I won’t name names). It’s too soon to tell how the story will turn out in the end, but on balance it seems to be a healthy collaboration so far.

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This is the last post in my series on South African wine, but look for the topic to come up again in other contexts. Thanks to Mike Ratcliffe for organizing the seminar and encouraging me to attend.

I hope you don’t mind the videos that I’ve inserted in the post. I found them on YouTube and I think they add something to the story.

Extreme Wine South Africa: Nederburg Edelkeur

Since I’m writing about South Africa’s Extreme Wines (see previous post) I cannot neglect a wine so extreme that it it took an act of Congress (figuratively) to get it produced, and act of Will (literally) to initiate a tradition that can be sustained only when acts of Nature permit, and that  provoked the creation of a very special stage for extreme acts and actors.

I’m talking about the wine in the photo, Nederburg Edelkeur, one of South Africa’s (and the world’s) treasured extreme wines.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa. Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

Wine Gets Personal

This is a personal story for me because my small cellar now holds two half-bottles of Edelkeur from the 1977 and 1979 vintages. They were given to me by Carina Gous, Distell Business Director of Wines, as a token of thanks for giving the keynote address this year at the Nederburg Auction. I’m looking forward to sharing these wines with Sue (and perhaps one or two special friends) on an appropriately special occasion several years in the future.

Edelkeur was the personal vision of an extreme wine person, Günter Brözel, one of South Africa’s most honored winemakers who was Nederburg‘s cellar master for 33 years until his retirement in 1989. (You can see and hear  Brözel in the video below. You can read details of Edelkeur’s history here and  another story here).

Brözel’s extreme idea was to create a Noble (made with Botrytis infected “noble rot” grapes) Late Harvest wine that would express the elegance and power of South African terroir in much the way that German Trockenbeerenauslese, French Sauternes and Hungarian Tokaji represent their respective wine producing regions. The only things that stood in his way were Mother Nature and the South African wine law.

Mother Nature is easy enough to understand. Late harvest wines are tricky to produce because the grapes need to stay on the vines long after the usual harvest and they are subject to damage from birds, mold and other problems. Making a Noble wine is even harder and requires both luck (in the vineyard) and lots of harvest labor. You can’t count on making a noble late harvest wine every year and indeed the first Edelkeur vintage in 1969 was not followed by a second until 1972.

Extreme Wine Law

So Edelkeur required an act of nature to make, but an act of Congress? Well, not literally Congress, but it’s a fact that South African wine laws prior to the 1969 vintage did specifically forbid this kind of wine. The rules permitted (and protected) sweet fortified wines but outlawed the production of natural (unfortified) wines with more than 30 percent residual sugar. Tokaji Eszencia often has as much as 50 percent to 70 percent residual sugar (90 percent in the 2000 vintage!). Brözel was going for an extreme and the law got in his way, so the law had to be changed. And it was.

But not all the laws yielded to Nederburg’s cellar master. The most reliable way to get late harvest grapes (because Mother Nature’s part is reduced) is to harvest them earlier and dry them on racks, concentrating the flavor that way. (Just as the most reliable way to make Ice Wine is to pick unfrozen grapes and then … freeze them!) But Nature’s Law prevailed here and so the grapes for Edelkeur are left to hang exposed to and expressing wild nature before being finally picked and vinified.

A Special Stage 

And so finally Brözel was able to make Nederburg Edelkeur but that created another problem: how to distribute the tiny amount of this precious wine that law and nature permit. After some early trial and error, it was decided that a special stage was needed and this became the now-famous Nederburg Auction, where a juried selection of rare South African wines are offered up once a year to the international wine trade. Some of the 1972 vintage was sold at the first Nederburg Auction in 1975 and the link between the auction, Edelkeur and the best of South African wine has been going ever since.

The “first five” founding wineries — Nederburg, Delheim, Groot Constantia, Overgaauw and Simonsig — are now joined by many others, the Auction Selection wines determined through rigorous blind tasting panels. It’s an honor just to be selected for the auction and to have your bottles wear the “Nederburg Auction Selection” ribbon.

The auction today does much more than just allocate one extreme wine. It honors an extreme wine person’s vision and draws international attention to South Africa’s best wines.

Back to the Wine

So what does the wine taste like? Well, I’m not going to open my bottles for several years, but I was able to taste through several vintages of Edelkeur on the first day of the auction and they were memorable and gave a hint of how this wine can age. I don’t rate wines or write reviews, but I found this CellarTracker tasting note for the 1976 vintage that sums up my opinion.

Brown with a bright yellow rim. Fabulous nose – intense citrus, caramel and leather with a very slight flor touch. Amazing attack. Citrussy sweetness. Amazing life. Huge depths of flavour. Great length. Excellent

One of the people I was tasting with that day had this reaction: “They shouldn’t sell these wines; they should hold them back.” She didn’t care about the money, she just knew that the wines would get better and better and that it was a sin to drink wines like the 1979 and the 1977 so young.

She’s right, I suppose, because certainly the wines will continue to develop for many years, but I think she’s wrong, too. Yes, the wines will get better with age, which is why I’m not rushing to pull these corks, but putting some of them up for auction isn’t really about the money or maybe even [just] about the wines themselves. There’s something bigger going on here — defining the identity of South Africa and its wine and honoring the passion of the wine makers — and that’s what makes it really extreme.

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Update November 1, 2012. Here’s a new video from the Nederburg Auction website. Cheers!


Extreme Wine South Africa: Oldest Living Wine?

I received many invitations to sniff, swirl and chat while I was in South Africa and I had to decline most of them because of my tight schedule. But I’m glad I made time for lunch with Cobus Joubert of Maison Joubert and his winemaking (and photo-taking) brothers. It was a most memorable Extreme Wine experience.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote address at the Nederburg Auction.  Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

Brothers in Wine

The agenda for the tapas lunch was mainly to talk about wine and South Africa (and for me to autograph a copy of Wine Wars that Cobus brought along for that purpose). Cobus and his wine-maker brother Meyer opened several bottles of wine from the family wine farm, Joubert-Tradauw, which were excellent and paired well with the tasty food.

But the simple tasting turned a bit competitive when another brother, Schalk-Willem Joubert, Cellarmaster at Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons, pulled out some of his wines for comparison. Joubert-Tradauw and Rupert & Rothschild represent two faces of South African wine that, like the brothers, compete in a friendly way.

The Joubert family history in South Africa goes back ten generations to 1688 when French Huguenot Pierre Joubert arrived in Cape Town. The current  Joubert-Tradauw wines date from 1982, when vines were planted in Klein Karoo, and 1997, when the cellar was established.

Rupert & Rothschild, on the other hand, is a partnership between the Rupert family of South Africa and the late Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The Rupert family, whose wealth is measured in the billions, controls the Swiss luxury goods multinational Richemont (brands include Cartier, Alfred Dunhill, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Sulka, Montblanc, and Baume & Mercier) as well as South African wine and spirits producers such as La Motte Wine Estates.

Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, who continues his father’s work in this project, is descended from the non-winemaking branch of the Rothschild family tree, but certainly the Rothschild name unlocks doors, for wine as other things, especially in the growing China market. The R&R wines have South African roots to be sure, but with high international aspirations.

It was interesting to taste the brothers’ wines at lunch. Sometimes Meyer’s wine would shine a bit brighter, other times it was Schalk-Willem’s wine that stood out. The wines were deliciously different, but not without a certain family resemblance, just like the brothers themselves.

The Oldest Living Wine?

But the brightest star of all came at the end of the meal, when Cobus brought out a small bottle of Jaubert Muscat d’Alexandrie vintage 1800! Wow, what an experience it was to taste this wine. Here is Neal Martin’s Wine Advocate tasting note:

Just twelve 250-ml bottles of this incredibly rare and ancient Muscat d’Alexandrie are released from a 100-litre French oak barrel in Klein Karoo that is topped up each year. It has an iridescent clear amber hue with green tints on the rim. The nose is simply stellar: candied orange peel, toffee, apricot and almond soar from the glass and fix you to the spot. The palate is perfectly balanced and fresher than some South African wines two centuries younger! It has a Sauternes-like viscosity but is not cloying like a Tokaji Essenzia. There is a touch of sherbet at the tip of the tongue and then it fans out towards a kaleidoscope of spice, clove, candied fruits and a touch of honey. One can discern an oxidative tang towards the finish that has a touch of volatility. Very long and intense and yet somehow refined and elegant, this is an ethereal experience. Drink now-2100+. Tasted June 2011.

I missed the touch of sherbert, but the rest was there in my glass. Drink now or until 2100+. Now that’s a wine that can age.

The brothers date the wine in their barrel from 1800 because that is the date that is given for the few similar lots of wine that are still around, but they think it could be older. The barrel has been in the family for several generations and in fact the house they grew up in was built around the barrel, so there is no way to get it out. They worried a bit (as brothers would about an ageing uncle) that the oak barrel was getting old and might some day simply collapse. But they had no plans to try to fix it up — too risky.

They maintain the wine — and share it! — through a sort of solera practice where, as the tasting note above explains, three liters of the wine are drawn off each year, replaced with new wine and a little bit of spirits. Is it the “oldest living wine” in the world as some have said? That probably depends upon your point of view, but it is certainly the oldest wine that I have ever sampled. And one of the youngest and freshest, too, if you go by taste.

One of my goals in visiting South Africa was to taste a wine as close as possible to the famous Vin de Constance that European heads of state treasured and Napoleon requested on his death bed. I did in fact get to taste a 2007 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance (made by Adam Mason, who was at the Joubert lunch) at a dinner party hosted by Mike Ratcliffe and it was great — hats off to Napoleon and special thanks to Mike and Adam. But the glass that Cobus put in my hand brought me as close as any human being can come to that 200 year old taste.

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The lunch group shown in the photo includes (left to right)  John Mitchell, Chris Waters, Igor Ryjenkov MW, Schalk-Willem Joubert, Adam Mason (winemaker at Mulderbosch, ex of Klein Constantia), Cobus Joubert, Mike Veseth and Meyer Joubert. Photo by Andries Joubert. Thanks to Cobus and family for sharing this great experience with me.

Extreme Wine South Africa: De Toren Book 17 XVII

Regular readers know that I’m interested in how Old and New intersect in the world of wine — and that I like to push arguments to their extremes (that’s why my next book will be called Extreme Wine). So it should come as no surprise that I sought out extremes of new and old during my time in Cape Town. And I sure found them!

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote address at the Nederburg Auction. Thanks to Wines of South Africa and the Nederburg Auction for facilitating my visit. Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

My interest in seeing what’s new in South African wine provoked me to call on a number of wineries in the CapeWine 2012 exhibition hall. One of them was De Toren Private Wine Cellar, a boutique winery started by Emil and Sonette Den Dulk in 1994 to make Bordeaux-style wines that showcase Cape wine terroir. The first wine, a 1999 vintage, was Fusion V, a left bank (Cab-centered) Bordeaux blend using all five (or V if you will) traditional grape varieties.

Extreme in Several Dimensions

I tasted the current release of De Toren Fusion V as well as a right bank (Merlot-centered) blend called De Toren Z. Both were classic representations, noteworthy for their fine tannins and delicate balance. This part of the New South Africa is doing very well, I thought. And then things started to get extreme.

Emil reached behind the counter and pulled out a bottle labeled “Book 17 XVII,” the most extreme wine in the De Toren collection. It’s extreme in several ways at once. First, its inspiration is pretty extreme. Pliny the Elder wrote about wine and viticulture in Book 17 of his treatise on Natural History and De Toren sought to apply Pliny’s farming principles to make a modern wine (Emil showed me the relevant passages from Pliny’s text). Pliny’s favorite wines were quite sturdy, potent and age-worthy, but elegant, too, and that’s what this project aimed to achieve.

Having started with an extremely old way of growing grapes, De Toren’s winemaker Albie Koch then studied the most extreme contemporary winemaking techniques, focusing on cult wines such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Extremely low yields in the vineyard (300 grams of grapes per vine). Hand de-stemming, foot stomping, hand punch-down and 200 percent (not a misprint) French oak.  I tasted from one of the extremely scarce 650 bottles that resulted.

I don’t have much experience tasting cult wines and I admit to being a little frightened as I stared into the black hole at the bottom of the glass. Book 17 XVII was notably darker and more extracted than the other wines I had tasted. But in fact the wine was balanced and elegant and while all the oak showed in the glass it didn’t knock me down with a two-by-four as might happen in less skilled hands.

Chicken or Eagle?

Going to extremes without going over the edge is a tricky business and you can see it in Neil Martin’s Wine Advocate review of the wine (I think he was tasting from barrel).  On one hand “It has a super-ripe creme de cassis, fruitcake and fig scented bouquet with a palate that is ostentatious to the point of vulgarity” which sounds like it’s over the top. “However, this full-bodied turbo-charged wine is so damn silky smooth and seductive in a super-Tuscan kind of way, that its charms will be nigh impossible to resist.” Hmmm. Sounds a little like Lady Gaga.

Making cult wines must be a bit like the “chicken game” in Rebel Without a Cause. I think De Toren Book 17 XVII succeeds in mixing ancient inspirations with extreme techniques to make a very interesting wine. Martin was obviously seduced by the wine’s elegance in the end (as was I), which pulled it back from the cliff edge at the last minute.

Unlike the Z and Fusion V wines, I wouldn’t want to drink XVII  every day (which would be impossible in any case given cost and limited production). But I appreciate its potential to make wine enthusiasts reconsider the potential of South African wine.

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Is that an angry chicken or a screaming eagle on the title page of Pliny’s book? You be the judge. Thanks to Emil Den Dulk for letting me taste the wines and providing helpful background information.

South Africa: Old World or New?

The question is this: should South Africa be considered an Old World wine country or part of the New World. The answer is easy: it’s both. The reasoning (and why it matters) will take a bit of time to explain. Here’s the first installment.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote address at the Nederburg Auction. Thanks to Wines of South Africa and the Nederburg Auction for facilitating my visit. Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

The New South Africa

The conventional wisdom classifies South Africa as part of the New World based mainly on geography. Europe is the Old World. Everything else is New. QED. Fine, if that’s how you want to have it, but wine has been made in South Africa for more than 350 years and some of the vineyard estates (sensibly called  “wine farms” here) have been in family hands for six or seven generations — longer than most Old World vineyards and far longer than anything you might find in California. So it’s not really new, even if it’s not entirely old.

The stronger case for the New World classification is that South Africa’s modern wine history is less than 20  years old. When the period of isolation ended and the post-apartheid era began, the South African wine industry was suddenly reconnected with a rapidly changing global wine industry. Significantly, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand all also emerged on the international scene in the decade bracketing South Africa’s opening, changing the face of global wine. It didn’t all happen at the same time and certainly not for the same reasons, but looking back you can see that the seeds of today’s New World of wine were being sowed.

Each of the countries I’ve just mentioned has navigated the new ocean in a different way, finding markets, raising quality benchmarks, avoiding crisis (or not avoiding it) and trying to steer a clear course through uncharted seas. South Africa is New World wine in the sense that it is constantly changing, adjusting, learning. There’s something new around every corner and inside every bottle. Visiting Cape Town and tasting the Cape wines was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.

The Old South Africa

But then there’s the Old World connection. The new industry did suddenly or magically appear, it grew or evolved out of the older wine industry — and this complicates things in South Africa as elsewhere. Adjusting to the new external environment obviously also required considerable internal re-negotiation and it is understandable that this came as a shock. Much of what I will write in up-coming posts will explore this theme.

But the question I want to consider here is what those pre-global era (the “old” South Africa) wines were like? Many of them were below the current international standard of course (as was true in the other New World countries and the Old World ones, too). But some of the wines were apparently spectacularly good, as a pair of older wine seminars I attended at CapeWine 2012 made clear.

The first, organized by Michael Fridjhon and Simon Back, surveyed white wines from the early years of the new era and red wines from the 60s, 70s and 80s. You can see the list of wines in the top photo and the colors of the wines in the glasses in the lower photo.

I am not an expert taster but even I could appreciate the quality of these wines and, especially in the case of the reds, how time had transformed them into something very different and special. My spirits were lifted by this tasting. If the New South Africa is built upon a foundation that includes wine like this, I thought, it is in very good shape indeed.

The second seminar afforded a rare opportunity to taste older Pinotage, starting with the 1964 Lanzerac shown here. Everything about Pinotage is contested, I believe, and everyone seems to have an opinion. But if the question is whether Pinotage can age (as Old World wines are supposed to do), the answer is very clearly yes it can. These particular older vintages have evolved into quite fascinating creatures — interesting enough to make a fan of old Burgundies stop and think. Another eye-opening experience.

We were fortunate to have some of the old timers in the room — the people who made these wines or were involved in significant ways in the process. As they talked about how the wines were made back in the day I got the impression that the session was meant to be much more than nostalgia. I think there was a concern that today’s wines might not age as well — that the adjustments necessary to compete on international markets came at a cost and that cost is that these wonderful old wines were becoming (figuratively as well as literally) things of the past.

Old and New again, but in a different relationship. More to follow.

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Top photo: A tasting or older South African wines that was moderated by Michael Fridjhon. Michael is shown carefully extracting corks along with Simon Back of Backsberg Estate Cellars.

Lower photo: I love the subtle colors of older red wines such as those at the Fridjhon tasting. Can Pinotage age? This 1964 Lanzerac Pinotage still had a lot to say.

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