Heritage Wine Tasting review by Anthony Smook

Posted on Thu June 2, 2016.

I was privileged to receive an invitation to a very exclusive tasting of vintage red wines of South Africa on Courchevel a farm situated in Franschhoek.

The moment I walked into the farm house to attend the Wine Tasting, I sensed that this would be the most special wine event ever for me. South African vintage wines from the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s together with some of the most influential personalities from the wine industry in one room.

This set the scene for the tasting which would not only present amazing wines, but also embrace the South African Wine Heritage through personal accounts by these accomplished wine makers, who were involved with the process more than 50 years ago. The heart of the industry joined together to celebrate and capture our unique wine culture, history and achievements.

The beautiful spacious authentic farm house at Courchevel wine farm is perfectly suited for this event with spectacular views of the Franschhoek Mountains, humbling all present with the feeling that we are privileged to be a part of this tasting where we are testing, celebrating and honouring our wine heritage. Our hosts were Graeme Falck and Sonja Hellinger, the owners of the property and the Courchevel Wine Collection.

The introduction by Graeme presented facts about the wine storage conditions and interesting tasting procedure to be followed. The wines were stored in its original sealed cartons, upside down, with each wine in its own round carton sleeve. These boxes were stored in a dark room within a Cape Dutch house with thick walls and it were not moved for several decades. These wines were waiting to be selected and retrieved from its original packaging by the original wine makers so many years later.

The attendees included Duimpie Bailey, the retired wine master and ex Stellenbosch Farmers Winer (SFW) winemaker. He was involved with the making of most of these wines. Danie de Wet of De Wetshof, the ex-chairman of the KWV and establisher of chardonnay in South Africa chaired the other long table. Other attendees included Jan Boland Coetzee who cultivated some of these wines at the time that he was employed as a junior at Kanonkop. Beyer Truter of Beyerskloof, the Pinotage King and also Chairman of the Pinotage Association.

Other attendees included the likes of Johan Malan (Simonsig), Gary Baumgarten (Antonij Rupert Wines), Johan Krige (Kanonkop), Roland Peens (WineCellar), Karin Visser (Great Domains), Wynand Lategan (Lanzerac), Charles Hopkins (De Grendel),Johann Laubser (DelAire Graff), Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux Wines), Michelle Grimbeek (Cape Wine Academy), Rico Basson (Vinpro), Piet Theron (Brisbane), Dr Winifred Bowman (Cape Wine Masters), Edo Heyns (Winelands).

We had the opportunity to view these wines in their original boxes. Graeme added some flair to occasion to allow each of the attendees to personally select a bottle of the wines that were to be tasted. What a beautiful moment it was a we all watched in anticipation when Gary Baumgarten open the seal of a box that was sealed in 1969, after 47 years.

The most important question that needed to be answered now was whether the wines were still good. If so, would they still have the qualities comparable with our younger best red wines? It was time to taste our history and test our wine making methods of the time.

The bottles were carefully un-corked by the senior personalities, while the mysterious expectation could clearly be felt in the tasting room.

Most of the corks were surprisingly good and healthy. In general, the colour was still good with little terra cotta coming through. On the nose the wines were still very much alive and on the palate the wines were still showing amazing longevity with supreme quality and balance.

The tasters’ comments on the wines suggest that they are amazed that the wines kept so well while the winemaking procedure were so basic in those days compared to today. Duimpie for instance explained that they used a big jam tin can on a ton of grapes as the measurement for the acid addition and the small jam can for the sulphur. That is classic wine making for you. Winemaking equipment was limited, no stainless steel tanks and fancy presses. It seems the passion of the winemakers also played a big role, as Jan Boland explained how he slept in the cellar for long periods when he was involved with the making of some of these wines.

The popular brands in the sixties and seventies consisted mostly of the SFW tradenames which included Lanzerac, Chateau Libertas, Zonnebloem, Nederburg and Oude Libertas,. Others included Alto, Bellingham, Rustenburg, Bertrams, Gilbey’s Montagne ( Now Hartenberg),Verdun ( now Asara)and Zandvliet.

The Lanzerac trademark that was used by SFW consisted mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage.

Chateau Libertas was a blend originally made to be a premium wine and Duimpie refers to it as a “staatmaker” over the years. According to him it is one of his favourite blended red wines over time. It is unfortunate that this trademark was later discounted in the trade by a big retailer which made a big impact on the brand’s reputation, exclusivity and price. The older wines are however still favourites of wine collectors and count amongst the highest priced wines at the Nederburg auction over the years.

The stories from the various personalities around the table amused all and captured our true South African Wine Heritage in a small space of time. Some of these stories and remarks are summarized in the few clips of the wine descriptions and random tasting notes below.

We started with the a 56 year old Lanzerac Cabernet Sauvignon 1960, which immediately grasped the imagination of all due to its remarkable good quality more than a half century after it was made. This was the first year the teardrop shape bottle was used for the Lanzerac wines..

Remarks and Notes:

-  Healthy colour, toasty nose, velvety and elegant with a hint of typical pencil shaves

-  Acidity adds to freshness and longevity on palate

Other comments: Grapes were mainly from bosstok vines from Stellenbosch Co-ops, No harvest machines. Small berries in open fermenters. Cinsaut cultivar also blended with Cabernet and matured in big wooden vats. Only half the sugar was fermented on the skins. Water additions to wine had code names like: T&T and Black snake (hose pipe)

The unique Tear Drop Bottle (the same shape as the cone in ten pin bowling) presented difficulty to label these bottles as they easily toppled over like cones do, and the employees at the bottling plant of SFW were very happy when this bottle shape was discontinued. Now marketers suggest that young people would love this bottle shape today

The Lanzerac Pinotage 1969 was out of the small 375ml. teardrop shape bottle. Despite the risk that a smaller bottle may not have the ageing ability of its bigger brother, we were again pleasantly surprised with the relative freshness of this wine.

Remarks and Notes:
- Light and healthy burgundy colour, clean nose. Good structured wine with upfront fruit (Blackberries)

Other comments: This was the first harvest for Jan Boland Coetzee. The grapes came from Kanonkop and Bellevue. Skins were pressed down 5 times a day in the open fermenters. The price for grapes at the time was R64 per ton. Jan told us that he basically slept in the cellar for the two months at that time.

We now knew that the SFW wines were still very good as we moved on in anticipation to the Chateau Libertas 1970. It would be interesting to compare it with the modern version.

Remarks and Notes:

- The light brick colour showed this wine’s older face. The nose was beautiful. On the palate it has good structure, soft acidity and good balance. Long fruity (red berries) after taste.

Other Comments: The wine was aged in big wood barrels. The blend consists of 60% Cabernet with mainly Cinsaut. The oldest existing blend is a 1940. Duimpie told us that he also tasted a 1959 vintage which was wonderful. The seventies was the decade of red wine revolution in South Africa.

The Verdun Gamay 1980 ( Gamay Noir) was going to be very interesting due to the scarcity of this wine in South Africa.

Remarks and Notes:

-  Good colour. A fresh and alive red berry nose. A potpourri of fruity undertones on

the palate, with an initial full round mouth feel with soft tannins. The flavour dries

out towards the back of the palate.
-  Contrary to the belief that Gamay Noir does not mature as good as his more popular

brother, Pinot Noir, this wine has aged very well over 36 years.

Other Comments: Gamay Noir was traditionally seen as a secondary standard wine. It was only Verdun (now Asara) that cultivated this variety from 1980. Nederburg made also some in 1985 that revived some interest. These remaining bottles are extremely rare and of historical value.

The Bertrams Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 originated from the farm in Devon Valley where the existing JC Le Roux is situated. This wine is in a lower price range and was tasted to compare it with the wines of more popular provenance. Unfortunately the bottle was corked.

Remarks and Notes:
- Dark Brick Colour, oxidised. Some hints of nice flavour hidden behind the cork. On the palate it is musty with strong tannins, a big structure with high alcohol, which is out of balance.

Other Comments: This wine is probably more important for its historic value than its quality. It was time to step up to good and faithful Zonnebloem and we started with the

Zonnebloem Shiraz 1978

Remarks and Notes:

Light Red colour, White pepper spice, bit acidic but light fruit coming through with fine tannins.

Other comments: The Label states “Superior Wine of Origin”: Duimpie jokingly confessed that the Superior prefix may have been due to the fact that the winemaker was also
chairman of the WO certification at the time. They made a lighter style Shiraz than today and it was one of the first Shiraz made by SFW at the time. There were not many Shiraz made those days. In 1977 it was a very wet year and 1978 had good harvests, although they difficulty with the control of viruses.

We went 9 years back in time to the Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1969 and experienced superb qualities in this 47 year old wine.

Remarks and Notes:

- A fresh and healthy red colour. Light feminine and elegant with good balance and complexity.

Other comments: The temperatures were about 3 degrees lower with the harvesting of these wines in relation to the 1974 harvest. The vintage consisted of grapes from Kanonkop who planted the blend in a block of 90%Cab and 10% Cinsaut. Later years the farmer’s wife used the Cinsaut to make jam and she was highly upset when the Cinsaut was removed.

The famous Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 1971 made by Oom Piet du Toit was selected by popular demand.

Remarks and Notes:

- Brick Brown Colour, complex, Good acidity, well balanced with finesse and tea leaf character. North facing vineyards, average vintage but still very good matured wine.

Other comments: Jan Boland told us that he and Hempies du Toit (Oom Piet’s son) would go diving for perlemoen or crayfish and Oom Piet du Toit would give them this wine in 3 l cans. They would then later enjoy a guinea fowl with Oom Piet when bringing him some of the takings from the sea..

A special request from Duimpie for the Lanzerac Pinotage 1963 was allowed. This selection ensured that the tasting ended at a climax. Beyers Truter as the chairman of the Pinotage association had the honour to select a bottle from the cellar.

Remarks and Notes:

-  Beautiful bright clear colour. Fresh fruit, violets, berries and spice on the nose and

-  Fresh and elegant.
-  Good acidity, balanced with a good tannin structure.

Other Comments: Johan Malan stated that this was the best Pinotage he has ever tasted. Beyers Truter also confirmed that both the 1969 and 1963 vintages must be of the best Pinotages he has ever tasted. He scored this wine 19 out of 20. For him the terroir was distinctly recognizable in these wines.
Duimpie started at SFW in March 1962 and was still a bit of a “cellar rat” or “pyp sleeper” that year. In 1963 however he was the proper winemaker and this wine was his first product.

The Other wines in the “Courchevel Vintage Wine Collection” that were not tasted, includes the following:

Lanzerac Cabernet Sauvignon 1970, 1968, 1961, 1958; Lanzerac Pinotage1968, 1965; Lanzerac Riesling (no vintage).

Chateau Libertas 1981

SFW Stellenbosch Cinsaut 1973 and Paarl Claret 1974 (These wines were made at a time when area wine was introduced to the market, due to the Wine of Origin and Certification system that became a requirement. The “area wines” were however phased out shortly after that.)

Oude Libertas Pinotage Superior 1973. This wine is still in its original packaging when used as the Stellenbosch 300 year festivals in 1979. As part of the festival the students of the private student house, Libertas held a relay marathon from Pretoria to Stellenbosch. These packages were used as gifts to the mayors of various towns along the way.

Verdun Dry Red 1981; Zandvliet Shiraz 1975;

Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon 1969; Selected Cabernet Sauvignon 1968; Johann Graue Late Harvest 1973

Douglas Green St Augustine 1972
Gilbey’s Montagne 1971 (Now Hartenberg); Bellingham Shiraz Zonnebloem Shiraz 1971; 1967, 1965
Rustenburg Dry Red 1970 & 1969

The tasting was finalized by short speeches from several winemakers. They all expressed gratitude for being part of the experience. The golden thread was the celebration of our vintage red wines that showed its capability to age for decades although the wines were not made to last that long. It is remarkable that the winemakers could taste products that they made a half century ago.