I am not sure

Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is, year in year out, one of the most sought-after Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignons. This 2019 was Platter’s (the well-regarded South African wine magazine) 2023 wine of the year, has got crazy points from critics left, right and centre, and has been described as ‘The Latour of South Africa’.

Shall we see how it measures up?

Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Le Riche

I decanted this wine just over an hour ago and I am on my first glass. I am highly conflicted about it. Part of me thinks it is a brilliant wine that people should make serious efforts to obtain. Another part of me is less sure this is really the kind of thing you want to buy and drink. Perhaps as I taste it and write this I can work out which it is.

We will start with something that is wonderful, the fruit – it is undoubtedly delicious. It is not just a boring, international Cabernet Crème de Cassis fruit character, it is joyously South African. There is a big whack of fresh, bulgingly ripe blackcurrants, but there is also a lot of fleshy black cherry fruit going on here.

These flavours exist on the nose and palate, and they are both highly attractive and involute in nature. On the palate one gets a distinct feeling of the fruit skin being present, adding that shade of fruity-astringency to the structure.

The oak use on Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 is one of the most sophisticated applications of oak to a Cabernet Sauvignon I have ever experienced.

You see, you get aromas of cedarwood on the nose, but they are quite restrained and low key. Superficially, it does not seem like it has had much oak influence at all – indeed this was The Editor’s second comment about it until we analysed further. This is not a boring, boring, boring oaky international Cabernet.

Yet the wine has been aged in 92% new French oak barrels for 24 months! Should you sniff and slurp sensitively, it is certainly there, just totally integrated with the rest of the wine. Vanillin lifts and seasons the delicious fruit, propels and turbo-charges an impressive mineral streak and transmutes part of the fruit spectrum into a ravishingly stylish floral character.

On the palate the oak tannins enhance the complexity of texture, coating the mouth in a joyous way that is different from the fruit tannins texture. They accentuate the minerality and the energetic, vivacious, asterine acidity, adding to the impression that Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 is a refreshing, frisky drink.

Then there are the fruit tannins and the structure of the palate. Here we must digress.

I have had some great, and some not-so-great, vintages of Latour from every decade from the 40s to the 90s (thank you to the Oxford Colleges and many friends who have made this possible). I have not had any since the noughties and that delights me. You see, Latour is one of the most joyless, miserable, tough wines it is possible to spend thousands of pounds on.

No bottle of Latour I have had, not even the oldest vintage (1945), could be described as mellow and mature. They have all been hard, sometimes harsh, with massive Stalinist building-like tannins desiccating your mouth, denaturing every protein they encounter and punishing your palate for having the temerity to expect to be pleasured by a vastly expensive wine.

Latour, as you might have guessed, is my least favourite of the First Growth Clarets. It is totally devoid of fun, love and sexiness. It is made for people who fetishise the idea of the ‘intellectual elegance’ of Claret and are too uptight to allow themselves to enjoy the deeply sensual delight that is drinking almost all wine other than Latour.

As I stated at the beginning of this article, Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon has had the epithet ‘The Latour of South Africa’ cruelly branded on its fruity cheeks. When I feel the tannic structure of this wine beating every amino acid in my mouth with a meat tenderiser, I can sort of see why. At the very least, the structure of Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 should be described as ‘severe’.

So, you see why I am conflicted about Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, it is both brilliantly lovely and distinctly severe at the same time. The big question here is the balance of the Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019.

Some people taste relentlessly tannic wines and say all they need is time in the cellar to show themselves as marvels. Nonsense. Latour 1945 and every single bottle of Chateau Cissac demonstrate this amply. For a wine to age it needs to be balanced. The components have to be in harmony with each other otherwise when it sits in the cellar it will just become more unbalanced; super tannic wines dry out to misery juice.

Really fine wines have supreme balance, but there can be a bit of wildness to the balance, a shade of excitement, some terror (see The Editor’s description of the nature of the balance in a Schäfer-Frölich Goldkapsel Spatlese for an example). Here, I think, we see a solution to my quandary.

All the loveliness in this wine is not understated, and the hardness is pretty strict, but all the component elements of the wine could be, and it strikes me that they probably are, in the wild, edgy, crazy balance of a really, really fine wine. The more I lean on my experience of how tannic red wines I have followed have aged, the more I am convinced by this, but I will just run this idea past my last glass and check…

Yes! Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 is not the Latour of South Africa, it is better than Latour because it has the balance to age properly and come around. You might not be able to enjoy this for 10+ years but, one happy day, the wine will resolve into a mature beauty of impeccable balance and real delight.

I am glad I thought about Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019. It is potentially a great Cabernet Sauvignon!

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