From humble Tassies to the legendary GS Cabernet, South African reds from the 1950s and 1960s routinely astound critics with how well they have aged. At a recent tasting of old Zonnebloem Cabs, Duimpie Bayly shared some old tricks of the trade.
From Tassies Last year was an impressive one for Zonnebloem – and I’m not talking about 2011 vintage. It was Zonnebloem’s wines dating from as far back as the 1950s that made the headlines.
First in the news was a Cabernet Sauvignon 1959 tasted at a dinner welcoming the international judges to the annual Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, apparently knocking even the wine famously described as South Africa’s one true classic off its perch (the GS Cabernet 1966).
UK-based judge Neal Martin, who rates SA wines for influential American magazine The Wine Advocate, said that the Zonnebloem had given him a completely new perspective on South Africa. “If you had put that in a line-up of 1959s from Bordeaux, it would have knocked most of them out of the field,” he marvelled.
Then came the 2011 Nederburg Auction, where a case of six half-bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon 1961 went under the hammer for R5,500, equal to R2,444 per litre. A relatively youthful Cabernet Sauvignon 1971 fetched R10,000 for a case of six bottles of 750ml, the equivalent of R2,222 a litre.
So one way and another, I felt extremely privileged when Zonnebloem invited me to a tasting of some of its prized old Cabs, including the 1964, 1974 and 1982 vintages.
What made the occasion even more special is that it was presented by Cape Wine Master Duimpie Bayly, who was personally involved in making some of the oldest wines.
“This is the 50th year of my relationship with Zonnebloem,” he revealed. “I started at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery in 1962 as a lab assistant, a cellar rat, so my knowledge of Zonnebloem’s history is pretty good – and I can tell you that some of the wines have matured a lot better than I have!”
First fascinating snippet was that Zonnebloem was intended as a flagship in the SFW range. Where Tassenberg cost 22c a bottle circa 1960, Zonnebloem cost 60c. (Today the “standard” Zonnebloem reds retail for between R59 and R64 a bottle.)
Then Duimpie revealed a bit about making Cab in the early days. “There was no certification until 1973 so we worked on credibility. If we said it was Cab, it was Cab. But it was probably a lot of Cinsaut too,” he laughed, “plus any other red varieties available to us – often Port varieties because we didn’t have Cab Franc or Merlot then.”
Duimpie said the vines were “bosstokke” or bush vines. “They had a lot of leafroll virus so the sugars weren’t high, but the grapes were still ripe when we harvested them – not that we had a fancy method of measuring ripeness, just taste.”
The low sugar levels resulted in low alcohol – typically around 11%. “I’m often asked how it is possible that wines with alcohol below 12% have aged so well, and I think it’s partly to do with the high total sulphur content – around 190mg/l whereas our law now states a maximum limit of 150mg/l for reds (one of the lowest limits for total sulphur in the world).”
Sulphur dioxide is a powerful antioxidant, but Duimpie has a few other theories about the ageability of the early wines. “If you take the 1964, the acidity was 5.76g/l and the pH of 3.57 was low, very nice for a red wine. In my opinion this high acidity helped with preserving the wine and protecting against bacteria.”
Apparently the SFW winemakers followed a recipe: “We worked on one jam ‘blik’ (jar) of tartaric acid per leaguer (127 gallons).”
But in fact analysis showed that the 1964 even had some malic acid (i.e. the fairly punchy fruit acid that hasn’t undergone malolactic fermentation to soften into lactic acid). “We only started doing malo in later years because were worried the wines would otherwise referment in bottle, and today we do it because we believe it gives the wine more complex flavours. But I definitely think the malic acid also helped with longevity of the older wines.”
Residual sugar in the 1964 was 1.4g/l, with Duimpie revealing that sugar-free extract was 28.9g/l. “Sugar-free extract is a good indication of how long the juice has been left on the skins to extract tannins etc; a measure of how full-bodied the wine is. Today sugar-free extract is usually around 25.”
The wine was then placed into the big barrels at SFW’s Adam Tas cellar for 12 to 15 months. “We also placed a lot of emphasis on bottle maturation in those days, not to mention that sales were not great…”
The unsold stock, decades later, was good news for last year’s Nederburg Auction bidders, though the prices reached mean that there is now very little left – a fact that made me appreciate my taste of the 1964 all the more with its still-lively fruits as well as prunes, dried apricots, field mushrooms, fynbos and a slight medicinal portiness.
The 1974 was a softer wine, erring on the side of jammy – perhaps because winemakers were still adjusting to having better vine material planted on trellises. “We also picked riper, giving us higher sugar and higher alcohol levels,” recalls Duimpie.
ABV was 13% with a residual sugar of about 2g/l and sugar-free extract of 30g/l.
“We still followed more or less the same recipe, although our methods were a bit more scientific. For example, we worked in grams and litres rather than jam blikke!”
From 1973 winemakers also had to be more precise about labelling their wines correctly. “In those days could call the wine Cab as long as it contained at least 30% Cab, not 85% as is the case today.”
It was only in the early 1980s that small barrels were introduced, although Duimpie reveals that most of the Zonnebloem wines still went into large casks. Lighter-bodied and not as intense as the two older wines (perhaps because sugar-free extract was a mere 26g/l?), the Cabernet Sauvignon 1982 had dark cherry and fruitcake flavours as well as some porcini savouriness and Blue Gum notes, with an ABV of 11.6%, RS of 2.1g/l and pH of 3.54.
More recently – at least since the 2000 vintage with its 14.6% ABV – the “recipe” has called for ripe grapes from virus-free vines, the juice given skin contact for 10 to 12 days. “The parcels are all fermented separately, then selections are made and blended into a 50:50 combination of stainless steel tanks and new 300l barrels,” says Duimpie.
Current cellarmaster Deon Boshoff and his team are well aware of the brand’s proud heritage and reputation for longevity. “While taking Zonnebloem into a new era, we have to carry on the tradition, so there won’t be any radical changes. We want people to taste more fruit flavours, a modern freshness, but the wines must be balanced and elegant with endurance potential.”
He concludes: “At Zonnebloem we work to the principle that quality takes time but that excellence takes a little longer. Knowing that wines produced by our predecessors are held in such high esteem is an inspiration for today’s team.”