In popular music, there is group named the “27 Club”. This isn’t a vicious gang from the Cape Flats nor a new-and-improved version of S-Club 7, but it sort of involves elements of both. It is macabre selective of particular stars throughout history that burnt out; a membership that can only be awarded posthumously; think Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the recent Amy Winehouse. All dead at 27, all with resounding legacy.
From the most complimentary, optimistic perspective, South African white wine seems to have it’s own 27 (Wine) Club membership. The general consensus is that it’s damn good, but doesn’t last long. One might say, the candle that burns twice as bright, lasts half as long.
What’s the problem? Is the soil pH too low? Is the wine pH too high? Well, South Africa does have low pH soils, and high pH white wines, but the answer to both of these questions is no. Many white wines across the country have the potential to age for more than 10 years, and are aged, and taste great. It’s just you and I don’t get to taste them. To deny their existence is a bit like saying the dinosaurs didn’t exist because you can’t see them. Thankfully, I cannot see a real dinosaur right now. The trick lies in the cellaring.
But, why do they even need to be aged?
Having read a great article by Tim James tackling this question my opinion has changed. It seems these days wine can be made to such a high standard, post production, that aging isn’t necessary – from a sensory-chemical point of view. Our understanding of oxygen-tannin binding allows for any red wine to be crafted to a soft drinkability a couple years after harvest; long, hot summers (in South Africa) give winemakers a choice of any picking date, allowing dissolution of enamel-stripping acids. James points out that perhaps in the cooler and very much romanticised, bleak past, summers in Europe were far shorter and perhaps meant grapes needed to be picked far less ripe than is possible today. Thus, that tart and harshness of younger vintages, and hence the need to age.
Of course half the appeal of buying a bottle of wine is the aging. Putting them in their little cellar cubby hole, knowing they are sitting there safe, and just checking on them when you need them. Even beer drinkers know that the older a wine, the better it is; right? Well, regardless, for the more wine literate of us, we know it’s a bit more selective than that, but it is a satisfying feeling, knowing everyday that wine we put down is improving.
But, is it improving?
Unequivocally yes, in many cases, but, also no. Yes, there are uncompromising red examples out there that undoubtedly reveal their complexity, and become softer in time; there are plenty white wines that caramelise into toffee and truffle flavours in time. However, in my experience, often age on wine – quality wine – simply is a change, and not necessarily an improvement. Do you want fresh, ester flavours on your merlot or tomato, savoury top notes? Probably neither, because it is merlot, but essentially the point can be reapplied to most cultivars. In aging, we look for softening in the mouth and complexity – this is frequently supplied in premium quality in wines only 1 or 2 years post vintage across South Africa. The flavour profile is apt to develop, moving from primary fruity flavours to the earthy tertiary. Question is, what do you feel like?