IT IS A curious feature of New World wine industries that there is less respect for those with an established track record than there is for fashionable newcomers. This may be a result of the number of new consumers finding their way into premium wine and seeking to make their own "finds". No-one wants to be a slave of the old when there’s so much more excitement around the unexpectedly new.
This spirit imbues the wine industry with its extraordinary dynamic: there’s a peculiar democracy at work when new producers begin each vintage more or less on an equal footing with the best and longest established wineries. In fact, the cellars that already enjoy something of a reputation go into the harvest at a disadvantage to the relative newcomers. Their triumphs are largely taken for granted, and so an unconscious discount is applied to their achievements (and, sometimes, their pricing). If they win a bundle of international awards, for example, the punters simply tick a box and look instead for the new names on the results sheet. Continued success for a big-name producer wins confirmatory approval while the parvenus garner the headlines.
In pursuit of the newly successful, it is easy to forget just how good some of the long-established top wines really are — and this disadvantage becomes even more evident when you consider that serious wine, made by producers who understand its evolutionary potential, is often particularly inaccessible in its youth. Consider for a moment a classic such as Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer. It hardly ever performs well at blind tastings before it is at least five or six years old, and it never really reveals itself until it has been in the bottle for at least a decade. It is unflashy, not overtly oaky, and significantly lower in alcohol than many of the new arrivals, which more easily grab the attention of critics and wine judges.
However, if you were to seek to lay down a case of wine as a 21st birthday present for your favourite godchild, you would be less likely to be buying bottled disappointment with the Paul Sauer than with many of the showier examples that will be served this festive season.
It does not necessarily follow that all long-established wineries deliver the same implicit guarantee. If, as Brutus says, there is a tide in the affairs of men, there is certainly an ebb and flow to the quality and performance of even the best producers. Not all the players that dominated the top producer lists on Grape’s biannual ballot five or 10 years ago occupy the same slots today. While some of these changed rankings are a function of the commentators falling victim to the modishness of the market, a fair percentage reflect the slippage of persistent underperformance.
A quick glance at the top-rated wineries in the 1989 John Platter Guide reveals both components of this trend. Kanonkop is there, as are Meerlust, Rust en Vrede, Rustenberg, Backsberg, Delheim, Klein Constantia and Nederburg (for its auction selection). Ten years later (using the by-then more generous allocation of five star awards as the criterion) Thelema leads a field that still includes Kanonkop, Klein Constantia and Rustenberg, but also includes Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson, Bredell, Le Riche and Vergelegen. With the 2009 Guide, Klein Constantia is still there, but the dominant name is Boekenhoutskloof, sharing the honours with Thelema, Meerlust, De Trafford, Ataraxia, Jordan, Cape Point, Ken Forrester and Nederburg.
Sometimes it makes sense to take a step back, ignore the noise and respect the significance of achievements that have stood the test of time. Some of our best wines today were being made from the same vineyards, and by the same wine makers, a decade or two ago.
Though it may not be evident from the hype around the new, even now, they are slowly being tweaked towards perfection.