Why Age Matters

Stellenrust Chen

The silver seal on the bottle says that the wine is ‘from 53 year old vines’ – that’s quite old for a vine. But does that fact tell me anything about the likely quality of wine in the bottle or is it simply a meaningless marketing tool? I’d suggest the former.

As vines get older, their root system becomes more and more extensive. This means that they can draw up greater quantities of water and other nutrients from the soil enabling the vine to thrive. At the same time, older vines (like some older people!) become less vigorous, producing fewer bunches of grapes. So, all this extra goodness goes to feed fewer grapes; the likely result: a better wine with more intensity and richness of flavour.

And that is certainly true with Stellenrust’s delicious barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa (Majestic Wine, £14.99). Distinctly oaky at first on the nose, but the wood is far better integrated on the palate alongside lovely tropical fruit flavours and a hint of toffee and vanilla. With its 14% alcohol, this is clearly a robust, full-bodied white, but there is no heat on the finish and the alcohol simply contributes an attractive richness and food-friendliness: try with poultry or white meat in a creamy sauce.

While this bottle is specific about the age of the vines, more common is a general reference on the label to ‘Old Vines’ or the equivalent in the local language. So, how old does a vine have to be before it is designated ‘Old’? Sadly, there is no legal definition, although most commentators say about 35 years should be the minimum age to qualify. With fewer grapes per vine, you should expect to pay a little extra for old vines wine but be rewarded with noticeable extra quality.

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What’s in a Name?

Naming is vital. Get it right, and your product is on everyone’s lips; on the other hand, failing to check what your wonderful name means in other languages can be disastrous. Take the car company Vauxhall, for example. They named a car ‘Nova’; that’s great in English but, in a number of European languages, No va means ‘it doesn’t go’ – hardly the basis for a good marketing strategy!

In wine, too, names have been used to good effect: to my mind, one of the best is the South African producer who mocked Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages perfectly with Goats do Roam and Goats do Roam in Villages, although I also like the style of an American grower, annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to use the name ‘port’ for his fortified port-style wine, called it Starboard!

And then there are the attempts to attract buyers with particular interests: some friends of ours, knowing that I love cricket, shared a bottle called ‘Men in White Coats’ with us recently.

white coats

(For non cricket-lovers among you, I should explain that cricket umpires traditionally wear white coats and the raised finger gesture on the label is the umpire’s signal that the batsman is out and his innings is over). The wine itself – a clean, crisp, easy-drinking Viognier from South Africa – was, however, less of a talking point during the evening than the name, which, to all of us, had another, less flattering, meaning.

Back in our youth, when someone was behaving strangely, it was often said that the men in white coats would soon be coming to get that person – the men in question being the nursing staff at a local facility for the mentally ill.

So, did our friends’ bottle really refer to the cricket or were they thinking of the current state of the country here in England?

 

Labels can Deceive

Bonfire Hill

Wine labels can sometimes tell you a lot about what is in the bottle: where the wine comes from, what grapes are involved and, perhaps, even whether the wine has been fermented in barrel or tank. And, of course, they are a useful marketing tool. Which of us has not picked up a bottle with an interesting label and then gone on to buy it?

But marketing can also go wrong. I saw the label above in Grape and Grind, one of our excellent local wine merchants and my first thought was ‘No!’ Bold, ‘in your face’ and gimmicky is just not my scene – and that was what this label said to me. And I was just about to move on when I saw the words in much smaller type: ‘a wine by Bruce Jack’.

Bruce is a South African who has been involved in a number of interesting projects, both in his home country – Flagstone and Fish Hoek spring to mind – and elsewhere: his collaboration with Ed Adams to produce the ‘La Bascula’ range in Spain is a favourite of mine.

So, I sank my prejudices against the label and bought a bottle of Bonfire Hill (£11.50). As I might expect from Bruce Jack, the wine was an unusual blend of grape varieties – Shiraz and Grenache native to the Rhône, Malbec with its origins in Bordeaux and south-west France (although these days more likely associated with Argentina) and Portugal’s Touriga Nacional – and from different vineyards across South Africa: the Swartland, Overberg and Paarl regions are all mentioned on the label.

And the taste? Not at all what I expected from my first look at the label; attractive stewed and dried fruits with hints of coffee. Quite a chunky mouthful with, at the moment, plenty of tannin but very drinkable after an hour or so in a decanter and pairing with a robust dish.

So, next time you see a label you absolutely hate, do check a little further as it might just conceal something attractive.

 

A Wine Worth Keeping

How long should you keep a bottle of wine before drinking it?  That’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions!  Of course, it depends on the wine – most whites are probably best within a year of purchase, most reds within 2 years – but also on your personal taste.  A friend of ours thinks we drink our wine too young, whereas I think that many of the bottles he opens are passed their peak.  We’ll never agree, but that’s the beauty of wine.

And, although I said that most wines are best within a year or two, there are definitely some – mainly reds, but also quite a few whites – that will only improve for keeping.  Which ones?  Try looking at the back label which may recommend drinking dates.  Otherwise ask a reliable wine merchant or you may be able to check on-line (but always bear in mind what I said above about personal preferences).

I’ve had a bottle of Meerlust Red 2011 from Stellenbosch in South Africa sitting quietly in a wine rack under the stairs for at least a couple of years and, as the label recommended drinking within 8 years of the vintage, I decided recently that now was the time to uncork it – especially as we were having some good friends to dinner who I knew would appreciate it (another important consideration when thinking when to open a bottle!)meerlust-red

This lovely, rich and flavoursome blend of 4 of the Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) was, most definitely, drinking well now.  Even so, I took the precaution of decanting a couple of hours in advance to let a little air finish the process.  The ripe, red fruit flavours were beautifully vibrant and, despite the warmth of Stellenbosch being reflected in 14% alcohol, there was no burn to the wine, all was nicely in balance.

My one regret: it’s the only bottle of this wine I bought and I can see it still drinking well five or more years from now – for my taste, that target of 2019 shown on the back label looks a bit conservative.