Ellerman House, high on the slopes of Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, is one of Cape Town’s most discreet and elegant guest houses. It’s hard to know what to focus on: the jaw-droppingly stunning vistas of Bantry Bay and beyond or the original Irma Stern’s, Pierneef, Claerhout and John Meyer artworks that grace its walls.
Yet it was merely the backdrop for a lunch hosted by Luke Bailes and Francois Rautenbach of the equally elegant and discreet Singita. As Rautenbach explained, the intention was to demonstrate Singita’s wine philosophy of showing wines at their peak, after optimum cellaring and maturation. From the outset, the intention at Singita was to never serve a red wine of less than five years old to guests.
Owner Bailes said Singita’s wine list had initially contained a raft of international choices but that guests naturally wanted to sample South African wines to enhance their whole African experience. “It’s all very well telling people that a wine will age for five or 10 years but they need to taste it to fully appreciate how the wine is capable of developing. We’re in a position to do that,” Rautenbach said. Naturally, that stimulated much debate and discussion but the takeout was essentially that we in South Africa do not realise or fully appreciate the true potential of our wines.
The synchronicity of this lunch could not have been better, coming as it did two days after the annual Nederburg auction held in Paarl on 16 and 17 September. The auction was begun 36 years ago to showcase aged South African wines – and some of the prices realised at the 37th staging showed that buyers certainly appreciate mature wine. A record R68 000 was paid for six bottles of Monis Collectors Port 1948 by Nigerian wine importer and businessman Obi Josephat Ndibe. That translates to R11 333 a bottle… Three bottles of 1961 Chateau Libertas sold for R20 000 while a single bottle of 1930 KWV Red Muscadel Jerepigo was knocked down for R6 500.
Auction organisers were delighted that in spite of the volume of wine being down on 2010 the overall sale tally was up: R6 133 840 vs. R5.7 million. International buyers also accounted for 46% of all sales, up from last year’s 30%.
“What we try to achieve on the food and wine side is to be as memorable an experience as that of the game and hospitality side. If a guest left Singita and said that the wines were ‘nice’ I’d have failed in my job. I want people to say that they have left really impressed – by the diversity, the quality or saying they didn’t know South African wines were capable of such complexity.”
Illustrating his point were the wines: a 2007 Waterford SBS (an experimental Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend), 2007 Cederberg V Generations Chenin Blanc and 2007 De Trafford Chenin Blanc and two red blends, the 2003 Sequillo and 1999 Vergelegen Vergelegen. While different in style, the point was made that SA whites are capable of maturing beautifully. The Cederberg Chenin in particular had a marked freshness to it while the other two whites displayed more tertiary development. Both the Sequillo and Vergelegen were smooth and rounded, packed with flavour and a delicious savoury element.
Singita goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure sufficient stocks to enable them to provide their guests with this singular vinous experience. There are 60 tons of wine in a dedicated, temperature controlled storage facility in Stellenbosch. When transported to either the bulk stores or one of the four Singita lodges in Kruger, Zimbabwe and Tanzania the temperature never fluctuates between 12 and 16 degrees.
Perhaps the anecdote of the day was when Vergelegen cellarmaster Andre van Rensburg visited Singita to host a wine dinner. While being shown around the cellar by Rautenbach he discovered a bottle of 1999 Vergelegen Semillon. “We don’t even have any more of this in the winery!” he said. Rautenbach then recounted that Van Rensburg dipped into Singita’s stock to enable the winery to enter – and win! – the museum class at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show with the same wine!
Ultimately it was a genuine pleasure to be able to drink and enjoy aged white and red wines from South Africa, to appreciate that perhaps we do drink our wines too young. It’s a tragedy that due to cash flow or storage constraints so few local producers are able to hold back significant quantities of wine to mature them fully. After all, Neal Martin, the writer who handles the South African portfolio for Robert Parker’s influential Wine Advocate, stated that some of his most impressive wines tasted on his visit earlier this year were the older ones – like the 1969 Lanzerac Pinotage that blew him away.