Home > Liquor Industry, Wine > The Bilton: over-oaked monster or intriguing concept wine?

The Bilton: over-oaked monster or intriguing concept wine?

The Bilton, the offending wine that has caused such a storm in a wineglass.

Flamboyant wine producer Mark Bilton seems to have created a minor storm in a wineglass with the release of the eponymous The Bilton last month.

Watching the toing and froing between the wine hacks who were invited, and those who were not, has been hilarious, quite frankly.

The Bilton is a 2006 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, which was subjected to a 500% oaking regime over four years. As if that isn’t enough to set the tongues of the wine writing cognoscenti wagging, the price tag of R3 000 a bottle most certainly is.

Accused of “aspirational pricing” in the most tawdry sense, grandstanding, and little short of being too big for his boots, Mark Bilton has it seems, refrained from weighing in on the increasingly acrimonious debate, and for this he is to be commended.

The most hilarious contribution around makes the pertinent point, that if one has not tasted the wine, one is hardly qualified to comment on it, despite the stature of ones palate or self-perceived place in the wine writing diaspora.

Since I was one of those fortunate enough to have been invited to the launch (it was actually Bilton Wine’s end of harvest festival, which included an al fresco dinner on the Thursday night, breakfast on Friday morning, a harvest experience in the vineyards, tasting of the full Bilton range, revealing of Bilton’s use of the ProofTag™ system,  and a sumptuous lunch, but that has all been overshadowed by the fuss over The Bilton), it may be useful to try to put The Bilton into some sort of perspective.

If you happen to be a fan of Top Gear, you may be familiar with one of the really amazing vehicles that jaded car hack Jeremy Clarkson and his sycophantic hangers-on drove in 2006. The Bugatti Veyron was produced as a concept car by Volkswagen AG in 1999, shortly after deciding to acquire and revive the Bugatti marque.

Sporting a host of technical superlatives, not least of which was a 16 cylinder engine, and a top speed of over 400km per hour, the Veyron generated so much interest, Volkswagen AG decided to put the car into limited production in 2001. The first Bugatti Veyron 16.4 rolled of the assembly line in the autumn (our spring) of 2004.

Production is limited to 80 cars per year, not surprising considering the price tag of US$2.6 million (about R18.2 million). By my reckoning, about 500 have rolled off the assembly line thus far.

The Bilton was made from grapes harvested from a 40 year old vineyard in 2006. The vines, although virus-free, yielded under a ton per hectare, hardly commercially viable, so they were subsequently uprooted. Simply put, The Bilton in its present form can never be made again, which in and of itself, makes it as much a concept wine, as the Bugatti Veyron was a concept car, when Volkswagen AG’s design team created it under guidance of Harmut Harkuss in 1998. There may well be other Bugatti Veyrons, but there will never be another The Bilton.

Four hundred bottles emerged from the four year long process, that saw it undergo malolactic fermentation in a 300 litre new French oak hogshead, after which it was racked into a new barrel for the rest of the first year, thereafter a new barrel annually for the remaining three years; each barrel from a different French cooperage.

The barrel was stored off-site in a climate controlled room, because, according to winemaker Rudi de Wet, the Bilton barrel cellar was a tad too cold, which might have resulted in precipitation of tartrate crystals.

But what is the wine like, and is it worth the money asked for? Well, it rated four stars in the 2011 Platter Wine Guide, which although it is panned periodically for being a “sighted” guide by those in the wine diaspora who misunderstand (and should know better) the logistical magnitude of tasting some 6000 wines blind every year, is nonetheless the most widely consulted wine guide in the country, so that says something. The wine was tasted and rated by Greg de Bruyn, a Cape Wine Master and a respected palate, who judges regularly on local panels including Veritas, Diners Club and the Nederburg Auction, so it is probably safe to assume he knows what he is talking about.

The Bilton is deep almost inky purple in colour. The nose is redolent of cassis, leather, tobacco and cigar box notes, with a distinct earthy undertone.

On the palate, you taste full-bodied cassis, allied with black cherries and the most delicate hint of black plums.

Despite the massive wood treatment (500% oak) the oak is surprisingly well integrated. The tannins are angular though less than I would have expected, but they are still prominent, powerful, probably requiring a good few years to soften ( or to be whipped) into a point of balance with the pleasing acidity, and opulent fruit. The mouth-feel is luxurious, and the angular tannins aside, the finish is long and sustained.

The wine isn’t big, it’s massive, but it has promise, and I’d love to taste it again in 10 years’ time to see how it has developed.

Is it worth R3 000 a bottle? Perhaps as much as the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 is worth R18.2 million. Would I buy it if I could afford it? Probably not, as much as I wouldn’t buy a Bugatti Veyron 16.4, even if I could afford it, with the single disclaimer that I reserve the right to change my mind if I ever get to drive one! But I doubt it, nonetheless.

The point that seems to evade those hell-bent on vilifying Mark Bilton for having the temerity to make The Bilton the way he (or Rudi) did and ask R3 000 for a bottle, is that he is actually pushing the edge of the winemaking envelope, and this is but one of the results.

Rudi will tell you, if you take some time out to chat to him about what is happening at Bilton that Mark encourages him to do something really different and edgy every year, in effect, to innovate.

The Bilton is one result, and according to Rudi, there are a good few more surprises waiting in the wings. I hope I’m fortunate enough to taste some of them in the future.

• The next most expensive wine in South Africa (at less than half the price of The Bilton), is Coenie Snyman’s Rust en Vrede 1694 Classification, a Shiraz/Cab blend at  R1200 a bottle, followed closely by Abrie Beeslaar’s Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage (the ’08 was launched on April 18) at R1150 a bottle.

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  1. April 21, 2011 at 9:38 am

    An interesting, well-rounded post on a wine I’d love to get a sip of!

    Tks, Norman

  2. April 21, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Nicely written as always Norman. I have to admit that I am still not sold on the idea of spending R3k on a South African wine without a track record, but the men involved in this needs to be applauded for changing the playing field a bit. I recall a certain Eben Sadie also being vilified and criticized around every corner for what he was doing, and look where he is now. One of the best known South African winemakers/wine marketers around. Maybe in a few years Mark Bilton and Rudi de Wet is going to be called the Baby Jesuses of SA wine.

    • April 21, 2011 at 10:58 am

      Thanks, Hennie. I personally also do not see my way clear to paying R3000 for a bottle of wine, but that’s a personal perspective. There is something about conspicuous consumption – and this undoubtedly qualifies as such – that I find deeply distasteful.

  3. WineBusProf
    April 22, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Brilliant move (and an enlightening post, I might add)!

    Frankly, it doesn’t matter what the ‘offended palates’ have to say, the move to create and release this wine from SA is to be commended.

    A very simplified synopsis of why this is such a good move is that if consumers are prepared to pay the price, then this move benefits the entire SA wine sector. As of the release of this wine, the price bracket for top-level SA wines was extended. With consumers equating wines’ values by price, you’ve now started them believing that SA wines can compete with top wines from other countries!

    Great work!

    Dr. Damien Wilson
    Director, MSc Wine Business
    Burgundy School of Business
    Twitter @WineBusProf

  4. April 22, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Hi Norman

    I like your analogy with the top sport car. Kudos for throwing more light on a pretty contentious wine-and-marketing issue. It was a such a good piece of exciting, credible and honest wine journalism. 20 points out of 20 🙂

    Kindly,
    Dusan

  5. Donald Paul
    April 22, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Great piece, Norman. Congrats.

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