When my old school mate Warren Wilensky asked me to have a look at his late father’s cellar he was very upset. His brothers had written it off saying that it was too old and the wines were past it. A quick appraisal showed me that there were still many gems and treasures in the cellar. Just because wines are very old does not imply that they are past it and have nothing to offer. These were fine wines of rare and sometimes eclectic providence and the fact that they were very mature gave them, in my opinion, the opportunity to display all the complexities that come from mature wines. Warren’s father Avron Wilensky had been an important figure in the SA wine industry and I was sure that he knew what he was doing when he purchased his wines.
Warren is a fine cook and we started off sampling the cellar with a few wines paired with delicious food. Looking at the vast cellar I decided for the first meal to select a bottle of Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 1996. Warren was surprised at my choice but I explained that many SA Sauvignon Blanc’s (contrary to popular opinion) age very well. Especially those from cool climates. Klein Constantia made a string of fine Sauvignon’s under the late Ross Gower and the 1996 had been one of my favourites.
The wine was in perfect condition pale gold. On the nose very perfumed with typical asparagus and tinned peas. Warren commented that it was just “like a spring day.” Mature on the palate. Good follow on. Acids, nice and soft. Just perfect. At its mature peak and amazingly fresh for a 12 year old Sauvignon Blanc. It went perfectly with the salmon steaks.
The second wine was a Chateaux Musar Red 1987. The year Warren and I matriculated! This famous Lebanese wine was a legend and was once awarded Decanter’s wine of the year award. Pale red to brick. Lovely tar, cloves and black cherries on the nose. Intense, wild, concentrated. Very unusual. A cross between Bordeaux and Rhone in style. Excellent. An extraordinary wine. Wild, powerful, almost gamey. Served with tuna steaks.
Another evening I decided to select a 1979 Lynch- Bages. This super performing 5th growth was still superb. Pale ruby with brown tinges. Incredibly fragrant with old cigar on the nose, cassis and typical Cabernet Sauvignon black currents. With a good follow on, light on the palate from the bottle age but intense flavours. Classic Bordeaux.
This wine proved the tremendous longevity of fine Bordeaux. It is always interesting to drink older Bordeaux’s as not only do they age extremely well but they also possess an identity different from the more modern examples that tend to be more fruit driven, riper but perhaps sometimes lacking the firm tannins and Old World feel of the Bordeaux’s made in the past. I possess mixed feelings regarding Robert Parker’s influence on Bordeaux with his Californian bias. Perhaps the Bordeaux wines are riper now with softer tannins making them more accessible when young but perhaps some of the soul of Bordeaux has been lost? However, I must admit that it is a complex debate both within Bordeaux and without. Some feel the wines are better, others don’t. But it is true that Bordeaux does continue to produce many outstanding wines.
After Warren’s family home was sold he asked me to store part of his finest late father’s collection in my cellar. One evening we decided to have a tasting of several of what I thought would be the finest selection from his cellar. It turned out to be a remarkable tasting.
We kicked off first with an Alsace Boekel Gewürztraminer Grand Cru 1989. Burnished gold. Litchis. Rose petals on the nose. Palate rich smooth, cloying and intense. The acidity holding it all together with a beautiful finish. Roger Voss notes that their wines should be drunk, on the whole, fairly young. But obviously the Grand Cru status would give it greater longevity. Warren’s father had been an importer of Boekel and Warren and I enjoyed liberating it from his cellar from a young age!
Rust en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon 1989. This top red Stellenbosch producer turned out quite a number of fine Cabs in 1980’s and 1989 was a particularly fine year for SA in general. Deep garnet. Nose ineffable. Ripe fruits, cherries, liquorish, and spice on the nose. Palate smooth, rich, and intense with beautiful length and intensity of flavour.
Buitenverwachting Christine 1989. This Bordeaux blend was original winey on the nose but became lovely and delicious on the palate. An important ConstantiaValley producer they continue to turn out some fine wines.
Rustenburg John x Merriman 2001. This fine Bordeaux blend second only perhaps to their premium Peter Barlow Cab in the pecking order and sometimes just as fine. Deep garnet. Nose cedar. Palate rich, round and full with a sweet finish. A more modern style of red from one of South Africa’s First Growths based in Stellenbosch. Manages to combine easy accessibility and aromatics with a good body and balance together with an excellent aging potential.
And now onto the jewel in the crown of the tasting. Chateaux Cheval Blanc 1950. Famous St- Emilion and considered one of the greats of Bordeaux. Mainly Cabernet Franc. 63 years old when opened. Would the wine last? Opened the wine. The high quality long and tight claret cork still in perfect condition. Colour still dark, intense. Nose redolent of banana and cinnamon. Palate velvety and smooth with coffee and liquor. The wine of the evening proving the great longevity of top Bordeaux’s.
Jokes aside I must mention that when I went to Warren’s late father house to assess the cellar we found high up on one of the racks a bottle of the great Chateaux Latour. A First Growth that Hugh Johnson states “considered the grandest statement of the Medoc.” We held the prized bottle up with great excitement only to find that the seal had gone, the cork perforated and there was no wine in the bottle! It had simply evaporated.
The final wine was a Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 1989. The cork crumbled as we tried to open it and we had to pour the wine through the shards of cork and fish them out! The colour dark brown, the nose brooding, Currents and dates on the palate. Made from unbotrytised Muscat de Frontigan. Klein Constantia’s maiden vintage was in 1986 and their Vin de Constance soon established a world wide cult reputation. No doubt it can be superb both on the nose and the palate. It has a wonderful bouquet with a seductive fat richness. But I do not believe that it ages quite as long as the top Sauternes.
What did I learn from the experience of tasting some magnificent and interesting wines from Warren Wilensky’s late father Avron’s cellar? Firstly, that it is easy to right off an old cellar. But Avron Wilensky was an informed and highly knowledgeable collector both of local and international wines. He was the owner of Douglas Green, an importer of wines and whiskies and helped start the Wine of the month Club. He knew what wines to purchase both local and foreign. He knew what vintages to buy.
Secondly, that mature wines can offer qualities that young wines cannot. Complexity and bottle maturation are the benefits of cellaring wines into their maturity. Today the trend is more and more to drink wines young. This means that they are generally fresh but certain wines benefit and need long term maturation to show off their best qualities. I was lucky in my drinking choices re Avron Wilensky’s cellar. Every wine was a success. I know from Warren that apparently countless wines were duds. The key is to have a good look at the condition of each bottle. Is the seal in good condition? Is the label pealing off or not? One can also look through the glass to see whether the wine is oxidized or not or in the case of reds turned to vinegar. Jancis Robinson once wrote that it is becoming increasingly difficult to purchase mature wines.
Finally, wine producing countries such as SA tend to drink their own wines. But it is very important to taste wine from as many countries as possible. Only then will one be able to enjoy the great gift of the wines of the world.