THE PAINSTAKING PROCESS TO PRODUCE IMMORTAL PORTS

Mar 15, 2024

It took decades for the vineyards of touriga nacional to deliver fruit with necessary depth and intensity.

Article by Michael Fridjhon posted by Business Day on 28 February 2024

In 2023, after 35 years of membership, Carel Nel, proprietor and cellarmaster of the Boplaas estate in Calitzdorp, tendered his resignation as a producing member pf the Cape Winemakers’ Guild.  He was making way for the next generation, conscious that change should not be retarded by the inertia of the past.

Nel is by no means the first of the 1980s cohort to pack away his pipette.  While most of the original members of the institution, which began life at the beginning of that decade, are still very much alive, several had already decided to call it a day.  But there are differences when it comes to Nel.

The first and most obvious one is that his wines and spirits are still very much part of the guild’s annual auction offering: it’s not as if he had tiptoed towards the exit because his auction selections no longer made the cut for the sale.  The maturation horizon for the wines he makes lies much further in the distance compared with those produced by most other guild members.  Nel has been the leading light in port-style production for most of the time he was part of the guild.  Since these fortifies are almost immortal (in human terms), wines that he’s made a decade or two ago are – if anything – worth more than current releases.

I’ve known Nel for 40 years.  When he came to Johannesburg to present his final selection in 2023 he brought a collection of ports – mainly the older ones – to share with me on a trip down memory lane.  It turned out to be equivalent of an archaeological dig into the distant vinous past.  In the line-up the young wines were already 15 years old.  At ground zero we brushed the dust off this 1986 – the wine that set him on his course to learn port-style winemaking from Portuguese producers, thus transforming the fortified wine industry in the Cape.

It’s worth delving a little into this era: so much that we take for granted today emerged from the troubled years of the 1980s.  This was the decade when international varieties first became widely available in SA.  Most growers were experimenting with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, with merlot and pinot noir.  For Nel there wasn’t much point in focusing on cultivars that would never flourish in the hot, dry Karoo.

Instead he looked at the fortified wine industry – already in decline – and decided to harness Portuguese port cultivars to the climate his part of the world shared in common with the Douro Valley.  It was a several-stage process: for a start, not all the key cultivars were available in SA.  Vineyards still has to be planted and the young vines needed time to establish themselves.  In the meantime, Nel travelled the Douro Valley and the port lodges of Oporto, learning from the likes of the Symingtons, whose brands (Graham’s, Warre’s and Dow’s – and, after 2006, Cockburn’s) confirmed their status as port royalty.

In the world of wine, nothing of importance is achieved overnight.  It took decades before the vineyards of touriga nacional delivered fruit whose depth and intensity promised great wine.  In the meantime, Nel had access to old vine tinta barocca.  His latest releases also include a little Souzao.  Nel has 45 vintages behind him; however, there are probably no more than 15 where the quality of the grapes together with the vintage conditions delivered the prospect of a wine worthy of the unconditional respect of his mentors.

His decision to stay on as a non-producing member is not a matter of egotism: his knowledge and experience will add enormous value to the next generation of producers – even to those who may never focus on the style Nel has made his specialty.  In the meantime, his daughter, Margaux, has taken up the succession.  With 18 vintages to her name, and a master’s degree in Calitzdorp touriga nacional, it’s hard to imagine a qualified successor.