There is something distinctly rewarding about being able to follow the evolution of a particular wine over a period spanning 14 years.
Last Tuesday marked the annual vintage launch at Morgenster Wine and Olive Estate in Somerset West, one of the more anticipated events on the crowded wine industry calendar, and it afforded me the opportunity to taste the Morgenster Reserve 2013, the 11th vintage of the estate’s flagship Bordeaux-style red blend – it was not bottled in 2002 and 2007 – first bottled in 2000.
Tuesday was about a lot more than the release of the latest vintage of a single wine – the reveal include the Morgenster Single Varietal Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Single Varietal Sangiovese 2017, Carusso 2017, White Reserve 2015, Tosca 2014, Nabucco 2014 and the Lourens River Valley 2013, as well as a guided tour of the new state-of-the art olive oil processing line – but the tasting colluded with what for me was the piece de resistance, the 2013 Morgenster Reserve, with its distinctive blue capsule, and a subtle revised label.
This marks the fourth vintage release of Morgenster wines under the steady, guiding hand of cellar master Henry Kotzé.
I tasted the Reserve for the first time in April 2008, at the launch of the 2004 vintage, and thankfully, on that occasion, the line-up include the 2000, 2001 and 2003 vintages, affording the rare privilege of discerning how, vintage differences aside, the wine had evolved over time.
My tasting notes for the 2004 vintage way back then read as follows: clear and deep purple in colour, cassis is prominent on the nose with pleasing blackberry fruitiness due no doubt, to the dominance of merlot (69%) in the blend.
Cassis and blackberry follow onto the palate, counterpointed by a fresh spiciness. The fruit is balanced by the finely woven tannins which are almost silken in texture.
Nine years and eight vintages on, my tasting notes for the 2013 Reserve read: inky garnet in colour. Bright cassis, plum, and black cherry aromas, underpinned by tobacco notes, pencil shavings, and a hint of almond toffee.
The palate is plush, with fine, slightly dry tannins on fresh acidity balanced by characteristic minerality.
Vintage differences aside, the two wines were made by different winemakers – the 2004 by Marius Lategan, the cellar master from inception to 2009, and the 2013 by current cellar master Henry, and although the style trajectory of the Morgenster Reserve has remained consistent, the wines do differ in detail.
Marius’s wine tended to be more austere, Henry’s tended to be plusher.
The constant in both wines, is the influence of Bordeaux oenologist Pierre Lurton, consultant to the estate from day one, and estate owner Guilio Bertrand’s indefatigable pursuit of a singular goal: making the finest Bordeaux-style red blend outside of France.
To quote Pierre from a 2008 interview on wine style: “Wine must be edgy, fresh and interesting. It must have potential to age well, but also to be drinkable fairly early in its life.”
At the 2004 tasting, the hot point of the debate among the assembled wine cognoscenti, was the surprisingly large proportion of merlot in the blend, 69%, with 17% cabernet franc, and 14% cabernet sauvignon making up the rest. Pierre’s comment at the time:
“It is okay to change the proportions of the varietals in a blend, as long as you do not change the character of the wine.”
And change the proportions do, every single year. In 2005 for example, the blend was 86% merlot and 14% cabernet sauvignon – no cabernet franc. In 2006, the blend was cabaret sauvignon led at 35%, with 33% cabernet franc and 32% merlot making up the rest.
The 2007 vintage saw no Reserve bottling because the fruit simply wasn’t good enough, so it found its way into the ever-popular alternative label, Lourens River Valley.
In 2008, petit verdot was introduced to the blend for the first time, and it has featured ever since, albeit in small quantities – it brings inky garnet colour and brisk tannins to the blend.
The changing proportions of the Reserve blend since 2000, more often cabernet sauvignon led in the early years, to solid merlot led from 2010 onwards – Henry’s first full vintage at Morgenster – tells a story which was clearly apparent in 2004: the desire to not be bound by a formula. Rather, it is a case of producing the best wine possible in a given vintage.
And as surprising as it is that merlot has played such a prominent role at Morgenster, it has done so for good reason: “It is pleasing to have such freshness in a merlot in the Stellenbosch valley. It is difficult to grow a good merlot here,” Pierre said in April 2008 at the launch of the 2004 Morgenster Reserve.
“Proximity to the sea makes a great difference (Morgenster is on the slopes of the Schapenberg, just over the hill from False Bay).
“It is cooler, and you have a longer ripening process. Long, slow ripening periods make for complex wines of great quality.”
And on Tuesday last week, cellar master Henry affirmed the longstanding philosophy that has prevailed since the first release of Morgenster Reserve, when he revealed his 2013 vintage: ”We know precisely what it is we’re trying to do, and in each vintage, the quality and character of each varietal will determine whether or not it finds its way into the blend, and in what proportion.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.