Bordeaux is back

Oenologist Pierre Lurton and Morgenster cellarmaster Henry Kotzé with the line-up of six wines at a recent Bordeaux tasting at the Somerset West estate.

What is it about Bordeaux blends that makes them less than popular with the wine drinking public? Drop that question into the conversation with a bunch wine-hacks, and you‘re likely to have an interesting – and sometimes brusque – debate.

It is this very question that popped up last Friday morning, at Morgenster Wine and Olive Estate in Somerset West, during a tasting led by legendary oenologist Pierre Lurton of Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem fame, in which two recent vintages of Morgenster’s flagship Reserve Bordeaux-style red blend – 2010 and 2011 – were tasted alongside four wines from Bordeaux: Château de Pez 2011 (Saint-Estéphe), Château Langoa Barton 2010 (Saint-Julien), Château Haute Batailley 2010 (Paulliac), and Château Giscours 2010 (Margaux).

Admittedly, the question did arise only after a lengthy and detailed discussion about the six wines in the line-up, but that is the whole point: the 2010 and 2011 Morgenster Reserve, cellar master Henry Kotzé’s first two full vintages at the estate, stood up remarkably well against the competition.

There are distinctions of course, between Old World and New World wines that are inescapable, and as much as New World winemakers might strive to emulate what comes out of France, for example, it seldom happens. Granted, there have been occasions when a locally made wine has fooled even experienced palates into believing that it hails from France – Meerlust cellar master Chris Williams’ The Foundry Shiraz in a blind tasting line-up alongside a number of Northern Rhone Syrah’s a few years back – it begs the question: is that what local winemakers ought to be striving to achieve?

Without wanting to nail my colours to the mast I will say, that in my view, winemaking is very much the art of the possible.

South African winemakers face nowhere near the number of rules and regulations that do their Bordeaux counterparts.

The Bordelais are constrained in what they can and cannot plant, how they manage it viticulturally, how they harvest and vinify it, and what may go into the bottle from where.

South African winemakers, on the other hand, can plant pretty much whatever they want to wherever they want to, and they can include in a blend, anything they choose to, from wherever it is grown, as long as it is disclosed in accordance with the wine of origin system.

But adherence to the notion of site and terroir expression dictates that local producers who choose to emulate the best of what comes out of Bordeaux – and Morgenster is one such – will limit themselves to similarly strict criteria for what goes into the bottle.

Owner Guilio Bertrand, with the guidance and advice of Pierre Lurton from day one, has relentlessly pursued a single objective – to produce the best Bordeaux-style red blend in the country. Whether or not he has yet succeeded, may be a matter of conjecture, but his dedication to task is absolute.

By his own admission, he would rather have a piece of land lie fallow in the vineyard, if it cannot produce grapes which meet the rigorous quality stands for inclusion in either the flagship Morgenster Reserve, the Lourens River Valley, or any of its other premium quality wines.

This pursuit of excellence is dependent upon a willingness to constantly review what each block of vines is delivering, and to make the needed adjustments over time, be that changes in viticultural practices, or the uprooting of vines and replanting with different clones. It is, in effect, a perpetual work in progress.

But is that enough to retain the interest of the wine drinking public in what amounts to premium quality and therefore expensive Bordeaux-style wines?

Well, for the aficionado who has followed Morgenster with interest over the years, and has the wherewithal to buy and drink its premium quality wines, the answer must be yes.

The pursuit of excellence in the production of Bordeaux-style red blends has endured among the premium local producers, as it has in Bordeaux in France.

Stylistic shifts have happened over the years, but they have been incremental rather than fundamental.

It is difficult to maintain prominence in an increasingly crowded market space, which often favours the trendy and populist, over the traditional. There is nothing wrong with Cinsaut or Grenache or Syrah for that matter, but like the classic Bordeaux-style red blend, they each have their respective places in the wine-drinking milieu.

And much like Chardonnay has made a comeback – who can forget the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) days? – with advocacy and willing palates, Bordeaux-style red blends will rise to prominence once more. All that is needed, is the support of the wine drinking community. But only in moderation, of course.