Earlier this morning, I was christened The Julius Malema of SA Wine by an anonymous commenter (aren’t the best comments always the anonymous ones?) although seeing Julius and SA wine in the same sentence requires a double take. I thought Julius drank Moët along with the rest of the ANC Youth League. But the deployment of bizarre metaphors confirms the Pinotage Wars have reached a level of surreality that ensures the point has been made. Although hyperbole and tongue-in-cheek cheeky chappie oenography does not seem to have too many followers in the vinous blogosphere.
Nice to see the blind v. sighted wine guide cudgels have been taken up by Tim Cohen, one of the smartest journos in the SA moshpit, with yet another skirmish in the Platter Wars. His position is sound, although fans of the late, great William S Burroughs would probably disagree with the statement “[Pendock] might be called a maverick except that he has been around as long, if not longer than, the non-mavericks.” Since when do mavericks have sell-by dates?
Anyway, the coiner of the Julius bon mot requires me to get back to my knitting (assume he missed this morning’s golem stuff), so some more on the female imperative in SA wine, continuing the Simonsberg Mountain of Women riff.
It’s not known what the Celtic Goddess of Nature, Brighid, looked like. But judging by the Crios Bríde – a girdle of straw crosses used as a label on a wine of the same name – you can imagine a bit like the 18th century Welsh Amazonian Margaret Evans. The Welsh Academy Encyclopedia of Wales (English Version) (Davies et. al., University of Wales, 2008) notes that “there is a tradition that [Margaret’s] husband agreed to marry her after she beat him, and that after a second beating he gave up drinking and became prominent with the local Methodists.”
If Margaret’s Man had bottles of Crios Bríde in his cellar, giving up the sauce would not have been so easy. The 2007 maiden vintage is made from cool climate Darling grapes and has all the grassy greenness of a west coast meadow. Great with oysters and thin crust pizzas from Balducci’s on the Waterfront, it is by happy coincidence also made by a lady: Carla Pauw.
Twenty five years ago the Cape Winelands were a different country. For wine tourists there was but a single airline with a garish orange tail. People still traveled by train and road, but with the latter came petrol restrictions and stringent speed limits. No petrol between lunch on Saturday and Monday morning and 100 kilometres per hour was all the Ford Cortina was allowed to (or indeed could) do. There were no toll roads and the Huguenot Tunnel was still under construction. Journeys to the Winelands were exciting expeditions back then.
John Platter’s Wine Guide was in its infancy. JP himself provided all the assessments, the modest number of wines available making this feasible. Fonts were larger, the spacing more generous and the whole guide slimmer – a sign of more modest times and a more humble industry. Owners and winemakers were formally referred to as Mister or Doctor and there was one female winemaker.
Jean Parker, matriarch of Altydgedacht, was a towering figure. After the premature death of her husband, she ran the Durbanville farm while bringing up a pair of sons who would help her produce some of the most idiosyncratic wines ever made in the Cape. Like the GS Cabernet 1966, rediscovered last year by visiting American wine journalist James Molesworth. The GS on the label refers to George Spies, a Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery travelling grape buyer who bought and labeled the wine.
“Lead taster on the wines of SA” for US Wine Spectator magazine, Molesworth scored the Spies (“pronounced speace” according to the Speccie) 95/100, hailing it “a breakthrough” and liquid proof that “the country is capable of producing classic wines.”
One disciple of the vine present at a momentous supper held at Stellenbosch’s iconic Wynhuis Restaurant recorded the scene for posterity. “After a mouthful, James had a ‘moment’ and called for a pencil and paper and made furious notes to himself.” And what a rave it duly turned out to be: “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.”
This was St. Paul on the road to Damascus revisited: “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).” His only reservation was “it was not tasted blind… and the wine in question is not exactly a new release.”
Further affirmation came when the sacred relic was revealed as doppelgänger for Australia’s own genuine icon, Grange, in that the winemaker, the eponymous Mr. Spies, was working for Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery when he bought it. “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.”
Alas, we’ll never know and are unlikely to taste Molesworth’s milestone, even if Neil Beckett did include it in his 1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die (Cassell, 2008). The wine is now over half a century old and spectacularly contradicts Sandton restaurateur Alan Pick’s contention that “SA reds don’t age.”
By anointing a sacred relic as his one and only “SA classic”, Molesworth is promoting vinous voyeurism, which reached its nadir when a local magazine breathlessly reproduced the wine list for the 80th birthday party of former Bordeaux chatelaine May de Lencquesaing who starred in the Simonsberg Mountain of Women posting.
In 2008 Erika Obermeyer, winemaker at Graham Beck in Franschhoek, won the Landbouweekblad SA Woman Winemaker of the Year Competition with her The Joshua Shiraz. Pity about the male name, but then Joshua is Mr. Beck’s middle name and he who pays the piper not only calls the tune but gets to name the wine too.
It was historically most appropriate that Erika won, as her employer also owns Steenberg, the first wine farm in SA (sorry for you, Groot Constantia!), an estate run by the first woman winemaker south of the Sahara, Catharina Ustings, rumoured mistress of Simon van der Stel.
Catharina arrived in Constantia a scant ten years after Van Riebeeck. She was unlucky with men and went through five husbands in quick succession: one was trampled by an elephant, another was murdered by a Hottentot, another taken by a lion. With more blood around than Lady Macbeth, it is appropriate that she is commemorated by the flagship red blend from Steenberg.
Over in the valley where the wagons were made in preparation for treks into the interior (now called Wellington) Anna Lategan lead a more sedentary life than Catherina who “rode bare-back like an Indian and her children resembled Brazilian cannibals.” Childless, Anna transferred her maternal instincts to the children of her slaves.
Another female pioneer, Lady Anne Barnard, recalls a “room filled with slaves – a dozen at least – here they were particularly clean and neat, Myfrow sat like charity tormented by a legion of devils, with black babie in her arms, one on each knee and three or four larger ones round her, smiling benign on the little mortals who seemed very sweet creatures and devilish only in their hue.”
Anna lived on Nabygelegen in the Bovlei valley, so it’s most appropriate that the present owner, James McKenzie, names his blend of old vine Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon after her. It is just the kind of wine SA consumers are looking for: a soft, voluptuously feminine wine. At R35, it is also incredible value for money, offering all the richness and warmth of its namesake
I wonder if all these important ladies in the industry knew then that they produce less saliva than their male counterparts?