Age-worthy South African wines go under the hammer

Peter Ranscombe gets a sneak peak at a collection of older South African wines going up for auction at Christie’s in London this week.

ASK different drinkers about how they perceive wines from South Africa and you’ll get a host of different answers.

Some will praise the weird and wacky low-intervention wines produced in the Swartland, some will associate the country with bargain-basement brands in supermarkets, some will wax lyrical about specialist bottles like sweet Klein Constantia or fizzy Cap Classique.

Then they’ll be the quiet voice in the corner who will mention the age-worthiness of the very best South African wines – and that’s the voice to whom we all should be listening.

Last year’s visit to the Cape Wine trade fair really underlined the potential of South African wines, especially at the premium end of the market.

Older vintages of some of those same premium wines will go under the hammer on Tuesday at Christie’s in London as part of its Fine & Rare Wine Auction.

Seventeen South African bottles have been placed into two “super-lots”, with the first opening the afternoon session at 2.30pm.

The London auction follows on from the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction in Stellenbosch last month, where Christie’s sold 124 lots from 64 regions for a total of nearly £138,000.

The Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction was launched in 1975 by Nederburg, which is now owned by Distell, the drinks group behind the Libertas Vineyards & Estates fine wine portfolio and Scotch whisky brands including Black Bottle, Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermoray, following its takeover of Burn Stewart Distillers in 2013.

“I worked in South Africa for Steenberg vineyards some years ago and have long been banging the drum for South African wines,” explained Charlie Foley, Christie’s auctioneer, at a preview tasting in London last week.

“There are many reasons to chase down the two ‘super-lots’ of South African wine on this auction – the variety of styles on offer, the personalities of the wines, the nuances that distinguish and differentiate wines made from the same varieties by different winemakers from different sites, along with the potential upward price movement of these vinous collectables, which are only now entering the investment market.”

Foley hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the “personalities” of the wines – South Africa’s wines are distinctive and always stand out from the crowd.

My favourites from the preview tasting included the 2011 Alheit Vineyards Cartology, the first vintage made by Chris Alheit, featuring a blend of chenin blanc and semillon.

There’s light wood smoke on the nose, with the lemon rind and apricot aromas morphing into apricot jam and red apple compote on the palate; what’s most impressive is that there’s still tonnes of freshness so, even though the wine is tasting delicious at the moment, it still has years ahead of it to age further.

Freshness was also the order of the day with the 2009 Ken Forrester The FMC, a chenin blanc made from old bush vines, which delivered honeysuckle notes woven into its red apple and peach aromas.

Butter and red apple come to the fore on the palate before finishing with toastier tastes.

The preview tasting also illustrated how some of the wines in the two “super-lots” are just starting their journey of development: for me, the acidity in the 2014 Kaapzicht Wine Estate 1947 Chenin Blanc is still too tingly and needs longer to integrate, while it was a similar story with the 2015 Richard Kershaw Wines Kershaw Elgin Chardonnay, which shows lots of promise with its toast and lemon rind flavours but needs longer for the freshness to calm down.

I loved many of the older vintages of Kanonkop that I tried at Cape Wine, but the 2006 Kanonkop Wine Estate Pinotage‘s tannins still need longer to mellow – although the nose is hard work with lots of heavy wood smoke, burnt meat and dark fruit, the palate is already much more accessible, with enticing raspberry, redcurrant and spun sugar flavours.

The 2009 Rustenberg Wines Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon fell into the same category – lots of very promising concentrated dark fruit flavours, yet still with tannins that stuck out for me.

Yet that’s the whole point – we’re talking here about South African red wines from 2009 and 2006 that still have plenty of time left ahead of them, and a preview tasting like this is all about assessing potential as well as present drinkability.

And that’s the real beauty of exploring older vintages of these bottles; we’re finally considering South Africa’s wines in the same context as age-worthy Bordeaux or Burgundy or Napa or Margaret River – and that’s exactly where these excellent wines belong.

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