Best of five

It’s easy enough to claim (and many do) that South Africa’s top wines are underrated internationally.

But confidence and ambition were needed to take five of those wines and have four or five vintages of each tasted alongside some of the undisputedly great wines of France.

The whole amazing affair—46 bottles, tasted at the One&Only Hotel in Cape Town over a day, to avoid fatigue and allow good discussion by the 21 participants — was the conception of Jörg Pfützner.
Pfützner’s arrival here half a decade ago (he was born in East Germany), initially as a sommelier, was perhaps the best thing that has happened for Cape Town’s wine culture since the coming of Van Riebeek 350 years earlier. The ‘Big Five” was only one of many events he has organised around fine wine. He is a big, handsome, smiling man with a wide knowledge and deep understanding of wine.

(His taste for subtlety and restraint in wine is complemented by a basic belief that nothing succeeds like excess—especially in drinking the stuff, eating and partying.)

He came up with two pairings of white wines and three of red (the latter locals being Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Raats Cabernet Franc and Sadie Columella, the progress of which I shall report on later).

First on stage was the Sauvignon Blanc of Cape Point Vineyards, facing up to Didier Dageneau Pouilly-Fumé, a renowned sauvignon from the Loire Valley. We tasted them in vintage couples, not knowing the order within each pair. In fact it was not too difficult here, and generally throughout the tasting, to ­distinguish the origins.

With the younger vintages (2008, 2007, 2006), choice was more a matter of stylistic preference than quality. Cape Point’s climate is cool, and winegrower Duncan Savage is working hard to achieve full ripeness and combat the characteristic ‘green” notes. The young Dageneaus I found more complex, with their floral, blackcurrant echoes, and their acid structures perhaps finer.

But Savage’s unusually ripe, vibrant 2005 was especially lovely, showing what we can expect from this fine producer, now returning to a riper orientation through careful vineyard work. It also showed the madness of drinking the best Cape sauvignons too young—they wonderfully reward five or more years of patience. The 2004 was also in fine shape. By unfortunate and surprising contrast, both older Dageneaus showed premature development and were rather oxidised, especially the 2005.

Up to a point, this pattern was repeated when Vergelegen White was compared with another semillon-sauvignon blend, Château Laville Haut Brion, a grand Bordeaux white (costing about 10 times as much as Vergelegen’s R300). An oxidative quality seems consistently part of the strategy with the Laville (Tokara’s Miles Mossop noted artichoke as a recurrent character), although most of the tasters experienced some vintages as coming close to faulty. They also seemed often to have less substance than Vergelegen.

But the great linearity and grippy power of Laville 2002, for example, helped it reach a commanding, subtle glory for which I, at least, forgave the browning-apple aromas.

However, Vergelegen was more consistent through the four vintages (2002 to 2006) and the 2003 and 2005 were notably magnificent — a tribute to Vergelegen’s vineyards and the skills of cellarmaster André van Rensburg. It is unquestionably one of the Cape’s very finest wines.

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