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The old wines of South Africa - a fascinating historical tasting

There's much talk of the old vines of South Africa, but what about the old wines? Not as numerous or as well-known as their European counterparts, but far more than just curiosities, for sure!

I have been extremely fortunate to taste a number of rare, old wines from South Africa in the last year, and no greater highlight than on my recent October trip to the Cape. Firstly, at a tasting of wines from the 50s, 60s and 70s hosted at the beautiful Winshaw Vineyards, and secondly at Overgaauw wine estate on the Stellenbosch Kloof Road. I am hugely grateful to both farms and their current custodians - to the Winshaw brothers and David Van Velden for these phenomenal and hugely generous cellar raids.

What a fascinating glimpse into South African history! Up until the 50s, there was as few as 10 bottled wines on the market from just handful of estates, with many of today’s most well-known historic producers like Kanonkop and Meerlust only emerging in the 70s. The names of the early estates may not be known to as many winos as their French counterparts and yet back in the 60s, the wines of Chateau Margaux and Libertas as featured in this tasting were of a similar price.

Winemaking was a very different game then, with sulphur being added to the grapes rather than the wine, routine additions of tartaric acid, and some of the reds not going through malolactic fermentation at all. Barrels were used for storage rather than maturation and flavour, and many of the final blends were unknown, with a good dollop of Cinsault being a common addition, in particular to Cabernets, without any indication on the label. Perhaps that explains their freshness still today? Similarly, although wines were labelled as vintage, it was common for as much as 40% of the wine to be from a number of different vintages. 

And the wines! The following four pairs were tasted thanks to the generosity of the Winshaw brothers, and their grandfather's formidable collection. A huge thank you.


Oud Libertas Cinsault 1972
Yeast extract, malt and complex savoury umami - kombu, coriander, brown sugar, kelp and woodsmoke. The palate is much brighter and more youthful and with a real pliant feel to it and good weight - sweet strawberry and cherries, with a cinnamon sprinkled finish and really impressive length.

Lanzerac Pinotage 1963
With the first commercial Pinotage being released just 4 years before, this is one of the early few. Quite developed, with liquorice all sorts, black treacle and cinder toffee. As master of wine and tasting co-host Greg Sherwood highlighted, an almost diesel rag like presence, with a bitter coffee and chicory, earthy finish. Perhaps the most developed of all the wines tasted, but still a fascinating wine to sample.

Next, we tasted two Cabernets from 1962: from Paarl estate Zonnebloem, and Lanzerac.
Both of these wines were in superb condition, with the Lanzerac just pipping it for me with its almost mature Pinot-esque characteristics: think truffle oil, orange rind and fine berries.

The third flight featured two more Cabernets both from Zonnebloem estate, from 1966 and 1969. 1965 and 1966 were heralded as the best vintages of the decade, and the '66 had the most wonderful youthfulness and very defined classic aromas - leafiness, mineral laced and with an incredibly fresh finish, whilst the 1969 was rather more mature - cocoa on the nose swirled with dark fruit, fine tannins and a squishy strawberry finish.

And the finale, the crème de le creme, and a wine I count my lucky stars to have tasted.

Two wines from the esteemed Chateau Libertas, from 1965 and 1957. It was the 1957 that was the first ever South African wine to be scored 100 points, as tasted at a similar tasting back in 2018. Interestingly, they were bottled in different bottles, with the '57 in a Bordeaux bottle, and the '65 in a Burgundy bottle. Turns out today's current glass shortages have been a similar problem back then in the Cape too!

Both of these wines likely consisted of blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Tinta Barocca. The 1966 was a beautiful thing - with an almost intoxicating perfume: coffee and walnuts, floral notes and celery salt with a well-balanced sweet fruit element to the palate that grew in the mouth. And the 1957? A truly astounding bottle that defied its 65 years. Such freshness, with remarkable fruit purity, mint crisp, cedar and taught frame, with fine grippy tannins.

Enjoyed reading about these wines? Do check out true wine professional and journalist Jamie Goode’s video from the event by clicking here

David Van Velden, Overgaauw

And to Overgauw!  Founded in 1905, but initially only producing bulk wine, they were one of the first to mature Cabernet Sauvignon in French oak barrels in 1970, and an early adopter of co-fermenting the traditional Port varieties together too. And one more feather in their cap, as the first SA producer to bottle a single varietal Merlot in 1982. 

Pulled from their cool cellars deep underneath the old house, and untouched for many years, I was treated to one of the oldest whites I've ever had, a 1975 Steen with plenty of life to it on first opening, a honeyed, sweet melon and toast palate followed by the maiden 1979 vintage of their Bordeaux blend, Triacorda. But the highlight of all for me? Their 1983 Merlot, a remarkable nuanced bacon fat and blueberry and plum fruited number, with crunchy autumn leaves and sensational acidity. 

Two truly pinch-me moments, that I am honoured to have attended and experienced. Baie dankie and thank you!

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