Facts ruin a good story, again

Neil Pendock February 7, 2009 4

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.

Liza Goodwin and her Meerendal marvels

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.

4 Comments »

  1. Emile February 7, 2009 at 9:19 pm -

    I also read Fridjhon’s Exclusive Analysis on Meininger’s with amazement. He disregards the ’70s and 80s, which were the SA industry’s wonder years. Sure, the political situation was not conducive to international marketing, but the likes of Brozel, Laszlo, Boland Coetzee, Frans Malan, Spatz Sperling, Beyers Truter, Danie de Wet, George Spies, Duimpie Bayly, Georgio DallaCia, Billy Hofmeyer and Ronnie Melck were all internationally respected wine makers who could hold their own, as the acclaim accorded them from all the great winemaking countries shows.

  2. Peter May February 7, 2009 at 10:59 pm -

    The wines of van Riebeeck and that of van der Stel are separated by ‘the few decades’ that Fridjohn mentionend.

    Does anyone seriously argue that there was not a vast improvement in Cape wines after van der Stel arrived?

    You are confusing (deliberately?) comments about the first vintages made by van Riebeeck with those of 40 years later .

    But why let facts stand in the way?

  3. Neil February 8, 2009 at 8:01 am -

    Excellent Peter, we’ll make a post-modern apologist out of you yet!

    The Cloete wines Fridjhon praises were made a century after Van der Stel (not 50 years after Van der Stel’s late 17th century guidelines – Hendrik only bought the farm in 1778).

    The comment of Van der Merwe refer to 17th century SA wine – certainly within the “first few decades.”

    Speaking of facts, Fridjhon’s enjoyment of a “legendary Vin de Constance from the 1791 vintage (and still in immaculate condition) – made even before the British began shipping convicts to Australia” is also amazing as the first fleet landed, with convicts, in Botany Bay in January 1788.

  4. martin February 9, 2009 at 8:23 am -

    Does it really matter if antique SA wine was all rubbish? There’s not too much of it around. Let’s focus on the brilliant bottles around today – the kind of stuff the Good Value Guru unearths. Don’t worry about the bowtie bonzos – they’re just promoting themselves at industry expense.

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