The longer I spend in the wine trade, the more I realise that the greatest quality you can have if you are to succeed as a wine drinker, seller, buyer or winemaker is confidence. I’ve spoken before on the disservice the industry does to itself when it makes wine seem complicated, intimidating and scary to consumers and how important it is that people become confident enough to ask questions and try new wines, but I was struck the other day with a great wave of clarity about just how vitally important it is for a winemaker to be confident as well.
John Faure of Vergenoegd has had a hand in forty vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon on his Helderberg farm and to celebrate that fact, he invited a small, select group of journalists to join him at the manor house for a vertical tasting the likes of which none of us had ever come close to tasting at any one sitting before. We started in 1972 when John’s father was still officially the winemaker and he gave permission for John to skip church one Sunday in order to help out in the winery. Clearly the Almighty took this as a personal affront because John proceeded to slice the top of his finger off whilst operating the pump, adding extra body – literally – and colour to the wine! His father retired in the mid-80’s leaving John in sole charge of all decisions, one of the first of these being to switch to small oak barrels giving the wines more definition and backbone.
For a 40-year old wine, the 1972 was still in pretty good nick, showing the protective acidity which comes from a cooler-climate Cab. Some of the wines alternated between ‘good’ and ‘very good’ from year to year, but there were always exceptions and by the time we reached the 90’s there was a clear, coherent thread of quality beginning to run through all the wines regardless of vintage. The 2005 (R120 from the farm) which is the current release exudes class and elegance with ripe tannins surrounding generous (but not jammy) black fruit and a lengthy vanilla-tweaked finish. We then tasted the six wines not yet released – John believes that Cabernet isn’t a ‘made today, sold tomorrow’ wine and needs time to show at its best. Which is great news for the consumer, but frustrating for an impatient bank manager eager to get stock on shelves and pay off the overdraft.
Fending off the bank manager is just one of the pressures on winemakers today – bills to pay, awards to win, restaurant listings to secure – and it seems to me that all this is made trickier by winemakers changing jobs on an alarmingly regular basis. A new job means new vineyards to get to know, a new desire to ‘make your mark’ and new expectations from the boss, all of which can combine to overly-ambitious wines with not enough fruit, too much new oak and which don’t merit their price tag .
Staying in one place, on the other hand, affords you the time to understand the vineyards, the vintage variations and the wines you are able to make. As we tasted through forty years of Vergenoegd Cabernet is was clear that some years were not so great and others had everything going for them, but each wine truly reflected the conditions that were there in that vintage. When you own your vineyards, you have to work with what you have – it’s not always possible to just go out and buy more grapes if you have a bad harvest in a particular year. The skill and confidence of John as a winemaker can be seen in the fact that, despite these vintage differences, there were no great spikes or troughs, rather a consistent elegance throughout the line-up. This kind of confident winemaking is rarer than you’d think and to have the chance to taste it over four decades was a privilege indeed.