It is that one bottle. Not the best bottle. Not the greatest wine to have passed your lips. It is the 750-milliliter catalyst into wine, which swung open the door, threw open the curtains to reveal a hitherto hidden world of fermented wonderment. It demarcates your pre- and post-vinous life, navigates you towards unchartered sensory realms and perhaps triggers a quasi-religious or philosophical reaction no different to that of any art. It is the Trojan horse that snuck into your abstemious citadel and flooded it with wine.
What is the Bottle That Got You into Wine?
Some readers may remember that during my previous trips to South Africa, I conducted an impromptu consensus to all winemakers—a music-related question that prompted numerous amusing replies. This time, I steered the topic back to wine, inspired by a recently penned article whose preamble recounted my own epiphany, namely, the 1982 Château Montrose. With respect to South Africa, my epiphanies really coincided with my first trip to the Cape, probably the 1961 Pinotage from Lanzerac that would compete with any Bordeaux from that same vintage, possibly also the 2008 De Compostella from Mvemve Raats that really opened my eyes to what South Africa could achieve. I wondered what others might choose. To my pleasant surprise, responses varied from Old World classics to modern-day icons, Holy Grails down to cheap paint-stripper masquerading as wine guzzled through the rugby captain’s sock during a debauched student party (or such like).
Where would South Africa’s wine industry be had these bottles not met these winemakers? The answer is: A long way from where they are now. Without them, maybe few of these winemakers would be changing the wine scene. You could argue that these bottles played their part in changing South Africa, since wine is a conduit through which many are discovering this amazing country.
“It was a Chardonnay from Hartenberg when I was 19 or 20 years old. I never thought of wine as a kid. I learned from older siblings until this wine.”
Alex Starey - Keermont Wines “My epiphany was a Chardonnay from Talana Hill sometime in the mid-1980s. My dad used to deliver grapes there so it has a personal memory for me. Also, a 1999 Clos Erasmus from Priorat in Spain. I loved it so much that I ended up working there the following year for free.”
Jessica Saurwein - Saurwein
“A 1934 Rioja Castillo Ygay from Marqués de Murrietta.”
“For me it was a 2002 Vouvray Clos de Bourg Sec from Domaine Huet. It was so electric. It was the purity of it. And also the 1990 Musigny from Jacques Prieur." Neal says: Two fine choices. As a forthcoming Wine Advocate article attests, older vintages of Prieur’s Musigny are underrated.
“It was the first vintage of Glenelly. The Glenelly Hill 2003 that I drank in 2010...” And for a flickering moment, there is realization that the person who changed Jordan’s life was sitting opposite him: “Hey, I made that wine!,” exclaims Carl van der Merwe.
“It was definitely a 1961 Haut-Brion. It wasn't even Château-bottled, but bottled by the négoçiant Eschenauer. The wine's perfume pervaded the entire restaurant and so I told the waiter to hold the food.” Neal says: I have only tasted this once, but I just remember being totally blown away by it, much like Ken. Robert Parker gave it a perfect score. Never dismiss négoçiant bottlings.
Trizanne Barnard - Trizanne Signature Wines
“I was doing a vintage at Jean-Louis Chave in 2006—his father took me down to the cellar and opened an old white. [I can't remember the vintage.] But it was the amazing freshness that I remember. Also, I was at Moss Wood when I did my first harvest in 2003, tasting through their Cabernets. That was amazing.”
“It was a 1995 Château Margaux served by Paul Pontallier when I was at Distell. First I thought maybe I should make something else, as I’m never going to make a wine like that! Then I thought: Don't try to copy the best wines. Just do what you are doing.” Neal says: Probably a good thing that the late-Pontallier did not serve him the peerless 1996 Château Margaux. That might have put Thinus off for life.
“The bottle that gets you into wine is not like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. For me, it was the most obvious wine in the world [pauses for a while]...it was Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 1991 that I drank with Mark Kent. We were barbecuing at his dad’s house. The next day, everything was different.” Neal says: Love the honesty here from Eben. And why not Cloudy Bay? This was a game-changer at the time.
“I was in a grocery store—17 years old, mind you—when I decided that I wanted to be a winemaker. My stepbrother had a big collection of wine including old Inglenooks. The actual wine was a 1981 Bacchus from Joseph Phelps. I won it in a tasting competition and it was presented by Anne Noble.” Neal says: No surprise that California-born Andrea was influenced by one of her homeland wines; no surprise it is from a winemaker as revered as Joseph Phelps.
“For me, I was camping with dad when I was 19. A friend came with no clothes and a box of wine. Every night we would blind taste [the wines], but the one I remember was a Rustenberg Cabernet, which would have been made by Martin Moore—now at Durbanville Hills. I was so excited because I could tell the difference between the grapes.”
“I was on a weekend get-away with Bruwer Raats and he bought a 1996 Coulée de Serrant from Nicolas Joly. We opened it the first day and it was closed. We thought it was corked. We didn't have a decanter and so we poured it into a milk jug. The next day it blew my mind.”
“My father collected older South African wines. It was a 1983 Zonnenbloem Cabernet 1983, which would have been blended with Cinsault, even if back then it would not have been certified.” Neal says: I was surprised how few winemakers chose an old South African wine, so nice to see the new winemaker at Fable selecting one.
Dewaldt Heyns - Saronsberg/Dewaldt Heyns Family Wines
“It was Tassenberg. It was a student wine and it gave terrible hangovers."
“I remember tasting a Chinon from barrel in the Loire Valley in 1974 and making a judgment on it. Then two years later, I discovered that I had been completely wrong. It was not as good as I had originally thought. I was putting too much emphasis on primary characteristics and it taught me to change the way that I taste.”
“It was a 1975 Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese from Egon Müller; I drank it in 1995 when I was lecturing at a university. I was studying to become a winemaker and the wine was part of the lecture. Only then did I realize how great wine could be. My only regret was that I had to share it with 10 to 15 students.” Neal says: Classic vintage in Germany, the wines are still drinking well. You cannot go wrong with a bit of Egon.
“The bottle was a 1990 Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques from Armand Rousseau that I drank in 2001 when I just started working with Pinot Noir. That really tipped the scale for me.” Neal says: I have had most vintages of Clos Saint-Jacques from Rousseau, but not this one.
“I remember drinking many great Swiss wines. It would be a 1992 Pinot Noir from Gantenbein. Suddenly I saw a much more complex Pinot Noir.” Neal says: This is a wine that opened my eyes to Swiss wines, though I suspect later than Swiss-born JC.
“I remember my brother went overseas when I was about 18 years old and my father opened a bottle of 1985 Cheval Blanc. That really stuck with me. I didn’t have a full understanding [of wine] up until then." Neal says: Simply one of the most delicious Cheval Blanc wines of that decade.
“Mine would be a 1959 Corton Bressandes when I did my first harvest in Burgundy back in 1995. I cannot remember the grower. The color was like a darker hue of strawberry juice, the nose enchanting. It was unlike anything I had tasted before. It taught me to give wine a chance to develop and gain complexity.”
Marelise Niermann - Momento
“It was a Buçaco from the Dao in 2010. They make their own wines and they only sell it at this old palace, which is now a hotel. I stayed there after a vintage in the Douro. It was...soulful.” Neal says: Marelise spelled it for me—I assume this is the Portuguese spelling of the famous Bussaco Palace. I remember attending a tasting of these rare wines several years ago. They were brilliant. Mark Squires has consistently rated them very highly.
“I was working in the Barossa Valley, [Australia] in 2002 at Torbreck. I was 24. Two French friends from the Languedoc came to the house I was renting and we opened a young vintage of a Yalumba Grenache. It was a simple wine. I remember sitting under the gum trees and and looking at kangaroos, drinking that wine.”
“I come from the Overberg, just east of Cape Town. I realized I was not going to be a farmer, but I had to do something similar. My parents sent me to Germany in 1995. I remember drinking a 1990 Kesseler Spätburgunder Assmannshäuser Höllenberg—it was the first wine I tasted that made an impression. It was amazing. I picked up a slate-like minerality."
“I was on a trip to France, a walking holiday. We went to a small restaurant, asked the owner for a recommendation and he chose a 1986 Mouton-Rothschild. It was in magnum. That was a memorable wine. I made a mistake when I looked at the price, missed the extra zero. It was $56,000; Rand and I didn't have enough money. We had to leave the group as we didn’t have enough on the credit card. It was brilliant.”
“I just finished studying. It was my first overseas trip in Lisbon. We ordered the cheapest thing, a fish soup. Vino Verdhe, I can’t remember the brand. It was the food and the wine—it took me out of my zone. It was simple, but a complete wine.”
“I think it was the 1987 Klein Constantia Blanc de Blanc. My father was a wine collector and presented it to a wine group when I was at university in 1997. I drank it recently and it is still mind-blowing.” Neal says: I tasted this same wine on my first ever visit to Klein Constantia.
“I was at a charity auction in Sonoma and at the end there was a big thunderstorm and some of the display wine had been left. I came across a box the next day. It was a Gevrey-Chambertin, but I cannot remember the grower.”
“It was a Leroy d'Auvenay 1972 Bourgogne Rouge in 2015. I was lucky enough to be exposed to wines thanks to Bruwer when I was young. It was an Austrian importer who had a function at his home before a tasting. It was the way it had aged. It was the first time I had smelled and tasted oyster shells.” Neal says: For me, this was the most intriguing reply. Old d’Auvenay wines are rare as hens’ teeth and I have never seen one. Gavin showed me a photograph of the bottle and it was labeled exactly as Leroy d’Auvenay.
“I bought a bottle for my 40th [birthday] from Greg Sherwood in 2010. He said there was a sheik that had forgot to collect it. It was a DRC Echézeaux 2005. He gave me a good price. It had purity, power and balanced linearity; not too opulent. It had everything. I remember it so clearly. It was everything I wanted in a wine, everything I wanted to achieve in wine.” Neal says: Well, I am not sure if I am amazed about the wine or that Greg gave him a good deal [that’s a joke, Greg works at Handford Wines, one of the best independent wine shops in the country].
“I was in Amsterdam. It was Silex from Didier Dageneau. I couldn’t believe it was Sauvignon Blanc. My sister had moved to New Zealand and I had [drunk] some of them, but they were not like this. The other was when I was in Copenhagen. It was Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant. It wasn’t much at first, but as it opened it got better and better, so that by nighttime it made a big impression.”
“It was a basic wine—the 2007 Hartenberg Gravel Hill Shiraz when I was studying. Then when I was working at Nederberg as assistant winemaker, the 1997 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah. That was so good—amazing. I sent a text to Mark Kent, quit my job the following day, and went to work with him.” Neal says: I have never tasted the fabled 1997 Syrah, an epochal wine within the Cape. It is certainly a benchmark that altered perceptions of what the country’s wine industry could achieve.”
“It was Tassenberg. It was an everyday drinking wine... but it had a cork in it. The company that made it had an aura and every holiday job I worked there (Stellenbosch Farmers Winery). I didn’t want to go home; I just wanted to work there. The other was in London with Serena Sutcliffe; it was a1955 Cheval Blanc, which I drank some years later with Simon Berry.” Neal says: Hmm... given the choice, I would opt for the Saint-Émilion.
“That would be a 1995 Meerlust Rubicon. I was 17 years old and a family friend sent my brother and I into his cellar to choose a bottle. I had just decided to study winemaking. It was just different to the tutti-frutti wines that I drank.”
“I was at Elsenberg in 2012. I was told we were going to a Sauvignon Blanc tasting. At that point, I thought it was a grape with acidity and asparagus flavors. He had a bottle of 2010 Isliedh. I could not tell if it was Sauvignon Blanc or Sémillon. I made a note saying that everything had changed for me.”
To view my South Africa introduction, tasting notes and scores, please go to my recent South Africa report.