At the end of the week in which the SA wine turned 350, the question on everyone’s lips is just how bad were those first vintages? UK wino Tim Atkin writing in Off License News in January describes them as “reportedly made from Muskadel (sic) and almost certainly nasty.” Importer and show impresario Michael Fridjhon in an “exclusive analysis” on the Wine Business International website claims that “the first few decades of Cape wine were deeply unmemorable.” Quite where these tasting notes come from is not clear and happily they are not universally shared. Writing in Groot Constantia 1685-1885 (SA Cultural History Museum, 1997) Matthijs PS van der Merwe notes that “Constantia wines had already become known in Europe in Van der Stel’s time” i.e. by the end of the 17th century.
Simon van der Stel was something of a wine whizz, the proud owner of two vineyards in the Netherlands from which he made wine and brandy. He was a firm follower of terroir, setting out his Constantia estate on the basis of an extensive soil survey. To assume that such a fastidious and conscientious man would waste his time making “deeply unmemorable” and “nasty” wines is unlikely when he could presumably import as many European cuvées as his corporate expense account would allow. And if those first vintages were duds, why did Henning Hüssing plant 100 000 vines on Meerlust and his own son, Wilhem Adriaen, 500 000 on Vergelegen.
More likely, the assumption that the first few decades of SA wine were rubbish is up there with other recent red herrings like the burnt rubber character of SA reds and the observation that SA whites are far superior to SA reds, two theories that are being seriously backtracked on by their authors. But not letting facts interfere with a good story is a hallmark of post-modern winespeak. How else can you justify sweeping statements like “SA is currently making better wines than at any point in its history” or rubbish a party you did not even attend.
Certainly on the basis of a vertical tasting of two dozen Shirazes and Pinotages at Meerendal on Friday, a case could be made that the recent highlight of SA red wines was the end of the seventies and early eighties when alcohols danced around the 12% flagpole and elegance, balance, finesse and humility were prized attributes.