Tabernacle Treasures Unearthed

The recently revamped Tabernacle in Stellenbosch is a hallowed place amongst the wine fraternity and the other lucky few who have been admitted. An underground wine library built in 1979, it archives some of South Africa’s greatest vinous treasures. It has come to serve as a most precious historical, winemaking, and cultural resource.

Today thousands of bottles are stored here under ideal ageing conditions. The collection includes two half-bottles of Constantia wines dating back to 1821,various wines from the 1920s as well as all the other decades of the 20th century. More recently, other age-worthy reds from the 21st century have been finding their way into the Tabernacle.

When doyenne of wine critics Jancis Robinson tasted this wine in 2015, she pronounced it perfect, giving it a score of 20/20, something she seldom does. She found it: “…absolutely stunning – such a beautiful combination of maturity and delicacy … Lightly minty, fragrant and it spread right across the palate with satin texture. Gorgeous.”

Such rare praise has elicited enormous international interest in the wine. Adding to its allure has been the mystery of its provenance, according to Michael van Deventer, curator of the Tabernacle.

“The initials GS are said to be those of dancer extraordinaire, horseman and self-taught winemaker, George Spies, who sourced the grapes from Durbanville. He was rumoured to have made the wine without the approval of his bosses at Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW), which is why he didn’t lend it his actual name. We don’t know for sure. Not even his daughter has confirmed his relationship to the wine. What everyone agrees on, though, is that it is an exemplar of red wine excellence and longevity.

“There is also talk that Spies, if he did indeed make the wine, did it the way a white wine is normally vinified, with a very short stint on the skins, and that for the first 20 years it was totally undrinkable. Whatever the case, time has transformed it into a wine of remarkable freshness and character.”

Spies was the one-time boss at SFW of Duimpie Bayly, another South African winemaking legend. Bayly was a great champion of Chateau Libertas, the famous claret-style red conceived in 1932 as a table wine to aid the digestion, by founder of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, Dr William Charles Winshaw. A single bottle of the 1959 vintage will come under the hammer. The reserve price has also been set at R25 000.

When wine trader Roland Peens tasted it in 2015 ahead of the Nederburg Auction that year, he spoke of its “lovely red fruit” and palate of “purity and poise, leaving your senses intrigued and delighted”.

All the wines have been checked for quality and recorked.