‘n Getting Wiser: South Africa in 2022
BY NEAL MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 29, 2022
the joyful Pata Pata in my headphones as the plane banks right and Cape
Town swings into view below, suburbs draped around Table Top Mountain, False
Bay arcing towards the Helderberg Mountains that tumble into the ocean. This is
such an isolated wine region. Five-thousand miles directly north, European regions
huddle together for company. Chile and Argentina are South America bedfellows. Australia
can wave to New Zealand across the “ditch” (to borrow Angus Hughson’s term.)
South Africa sits alone at the tip of a vast mysterious continent. An oft-repeated
anecdote that attests its geographical vagueness goes something as follows…
country in South Africa are you from?” a distributor enquires.
Africa,” a winemaker replies.
which country in South Africa.”
distributor looks blank and is about to ask again whereupon the winemaker digs
out his Smartphone, opens a map to prove the existence of the 1.2 million km² country
that produced its first wine on 2 February 1652. It’s not an exchange one would
expect if the subject had been France or Italy.
of countless panoramas. This was taken from Capensis. To the left is
Stellenbosch; to the right is Franschhoek.
of South Africa continued during the pandemic; pallets of samples arriving from
beleaguered producers coping with draconian restrictions. The first COVID case
in South Africa was reported on 5 March 2020. Just 21 days later, the
government introduced a total ban on domestic sales and exports of alcohol, freezing
the entire industry mid-harvest, two further bans introduced during a
tumultuous period of government shilly-shallying. Thankfully, COVID is in the
rear-view mirror partly due to South Africa’s medics’ prompt identification of
Omicron, hence my return after four years away, because here, you need to get dirt
on your boots.
Africa is a visceral country. It gets under your skin. You don’t go to
South Africa, you experience it. It’s not for those seeking some kind of
Elysium. Heart-stopping beauty rubs up against perturbing grimness within
minutes of stepping outside the terminal. The trunk road from the airport to
Stellenbosch follows the boundary of a sprawling Township, higgledy-piggledy
shacks hammered together from plywood and corrugated panels, piled up by
poverty behind a concrete fence. No visitor can avoid seeing the extreme
inequality of two dichotomous cohabiting worlds. My driver notices my gaze out
of the window. “I know what you are thinking,” he tells me with palpable wisdom.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover. Those shacks might not look like much from
the outside, but you’d be amazed how clean and tidy they are inside.” Of
course. Self-pride is not commensurate to wealth or human value.
allegorical to how South Africa is misconceived. Negativity tends to cloud this
country, whether it derives from racial inequality (according to the World
Bank, 10% of South Africans own 80% of its financial assets), corruption (radio
airwaves commentating upon the trial of its former President) and crime (no
trains run between Cape Town and Stellenbosch because overhead cables were stripped
during lockdown. Andrea Mullineux told me that one night last year, 80% of
their oldest Cinsault was stripped of fruit on the eve of harvest and would
have happened again had armed security not been waiting). Less reported is the infectious
positivity of its people in the face of adversity, the spectacular landscape,
home to breath-taking flora and fauna, and the enormous strides it has made
over the last two decades, not forgetting the emergence of South Africa as a
serious player on the global wine scene and its constant reinvention.
takes around thirty minutes to reach Stellenbosch, the heart of the Cape’s wine
industry, a quaint, pretty town of lime-washed buildings teaming with students
that throng around innumerable bars and cafés. Many winemakers commence their
viticultural journey at Stellenbosch University or at Elsenberg, the Cape’s own
“Roseworthy”, either by design or accident. These academic institutions constitute
a wellspring of winemaking talent, as well as forming bonds that are the
bedrock of a community-driven wine industry, one I cannot help compare with some
Burgundy villages where neighbours barely acknowledge each other.
up and with no delay, I hit the ground running with the first of many visits,
though my itinerary is less packed than usual to accommodate face-to-face
conversations and tour vineyards, neither possible during lockdown. My focus on
what might be described as the cream of South African producers does not infer that
those excluded is by dint of inferiority, instead, the prosaic fact there’s
only 24 hours in a day.
With a set of outstanding wines under the Scions of Sinai label, winemaker Bernherd Bredell is an emblem of a revolution underway in Stellenbosch.
first few days are dedicated to Stellenbosch, commencing at Vilafonté before
journeying up the Blaauwklippen Valley for a joint-tasting at Keermont with
Kleinood and De Trafford. Visiting over a decade ago, Stellenbosch
was the country’s most eminent and well-known region, the bastion of generally
high-octane Bordeaux blends that shaped preconceptions of South African wine. But
it was getting a rude awakening from Swartland upstarts whose feted,
terroir-driven wines were talk of the town, game-changers expanding consumers’
horizons and rendering Stellenbosch a bit passé. Glimmers of optimism could be
found in single-minded winemakers such as Bruwer Raats showcasing the potential
of Cabernet Franc and Alex Starey at Keermont, highlighting Stellenbosch’s then
untapped subregional nuances.
thought it would be another decade before writing that “Stellenbosch is
undergoing a revolution” but here it is…
is undergoing a revolution!
names have not vanished, but tectonic plates are definitely shifting and like
everything here, shifting fast. Firstly, the huge wine producer, Distell,
announced a withdrawal of entry-level brands as well as selling off estates
like Alto. Winemaker Miles Mossop believes this is a big deal as it is allowing
winemakers to pick up these relinquished parcels, in his case, the Cabernet
Franc used in his Max label. Farmers can potentially obtain higher
returns from competing multiple buyers instead of selling to one large
corporation. Mike Ratcliffe of Vilafonté is more cautious about its impact
since a large amount of fruit continues to be purchased by large generic
producers. He sees increasing demand for grapes from Stellenbosch ultimately
making them unaffordable for generic blends, something that he describes as a ‘considerable
is concurrent refinement of practices by an influx of winemakers that
understand power is not the sole metric to measure quality. Graduates pour out
of those aforementioned universities with different tenets and practices than
previous generations, sometimes shaped by apprenticeships abroad. There’s a
buzz around Stellenbosch, a feeling that winemakers are finally tapping into its
unrealised potential. Take a look at Reenen Boorman’s work at Boschkloof,
Mike Craven at Craven Wines or Jean Smit’s work at the recently incepted
Damascene project. You’ll find information in respective producer profiles.
epitomize the sea-change in Stellenbosch more than any other. Firstly, Bernherd
Bredell at Scions of Sinai. Bredell flew under my radar until winemakers
kept namedropping him, so what else am I going to do but invite him over on my
final day? You can read details on how Bredell is reclaiming Sinai Hill to
exploit its granite soils in the producer profile. He has all the tropes of the
country’s young winemakers: rugged build, down-to-earth, uninterested in the glitz,
happiest toiling away in his vines and above all creating wine that sends tingles
down my spine. Another last-minute, but welcome, addition is Danie Steytler Jnr
from Kaapzicht. A chance meeting at Eike restaurant gave me the opportunity
to request samples on my final day. (I almost had to taste them in the airport
departure lounge.) Kaapzicht had always come across as an archetypal, old-school
producer; their wines were a bit laboured and unexciting. Steytler took control
from the prior generation, rolled up his sleeves and set about reinventing their
portfolio to fit the contemporary winemaking scene, one example of blurring the
once clearcut black-and-white/old-versus-new categorisation of winemakers, a
division that would not benefit South Africa in the long run. Recent releases
from Kaapzicht bare little relationship with previous vintages, and overnight,
the name is on everyone’s lips. Steytler exploits parcels of old vines
including Chenin Blanc planted in 1947. Now these wizened vines are under the
guardianship of a forward-thinking winemaker redefining an established brand. It’s
a story being repeated across the Cape, a subject I will return to later.
course, change is only good when it is necessary. If you are a producer like Kanonkop,
who under winemaker André Beeslaar has blithely set about creating icons like
the coveted Paul Sauer and the recently-documented Black
Label, then why change a winning formula? Walking through his winery, proprietor
Johan Krige pays homage to his trusty old concrete vats in a winery that appears
little-changed from the day the cement set. You can imagine his forebears
milling about between the vessels decades ago. Continuity can be as vital as (r)evolution.
got organised and Stellenbosch got focused,” Mike Ratcliffe tells me, who,
apart from Vilafonté, is chairman of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes. “Membership
of Stellenbosch Wine Routes has increased to more than 110 properties with
only one or two notable exceptions. The grouping has been promoting unity over
individualism and this is bearing dividends. Adoption of Stellenbosch Cabernet
as a quality regional calling card has accelerated traction to the point where
it becomes, to an extent, self-fulfilling. Collective tastings, and information
sharing is now common, and there is even a touch of Cabernet patriotism
developing. Most importantly, Stellenbosch has done a pretty good job of
shaking off the conservative shackles of perception via a powerful combination
of innovation, youth, focus and collectivism.”
The Case for Biodynamism
is currently home to the Cape’s only certified biodynamic producer, Reyneke
Wines. Johann Reyneke is a long-term proponent and practitioner, exuding
the same passion as any winemaker in biodynamic cradles like the Côte d’Or or
Loire. He has a charming hippy-like persona with a habit of finishing sentences
with sixties’ countercultural “man”. Before we taste, he explains the rich
biodiversity of fynbos, the natural shrubland that composes 9,000 plant species
that comprises a vital part of Reyneke. As if to showcase the diversity of
wildlife, a tawny owl twit-a-woos in the rafters above my head throughout my
tasting, doubtless offering his own commentary on his impressive, soulful wines.
Johann Reyneke with winemaker Barbara Melck. Alas, the tawny owl is out of shot, though I did take a photo of the chap.
this trip, I notice how more and more winemakers pursue ecologically-sound
practices, for example, many use mulch as fertilizer in lieu of chemical
products. (As an aside, Gavin Bruwer Raats rued how guinea fowl, whose
population exploded since hunting the predatory caracal was banned, leave
carefully placed mulch or straw strewn across the vineyard so that is has to be
constantly replaced under the vine.) Reyneke is anomalous insofar that he is
one of the Cape’s only certified biodynamic producers. I ask him, what are its
us, it leads to greater humus levels in the soil. This increases the farm’s
water retention ability and also reduces run off when it rains. The vines also
don’t grow as vigorously as their conventional counterparts and smaller
canopies require less water for optimum transpiration rates.”
an unexpected but crucial point, bearing in mind that the Cape suffered three
successive drought vintages between 2016 and 2019. It begs the question: why
are there not more certified producers in this region?”
Africa, farmers are already struggling financially and face a host of business
and natural risks,” he explains. “To ask them to try something different, which
they don’t really understand, is a hard sell at this point in time. In addition,
there still exists a perception, at least in South Africa, that organic and
biodynamic wines are of lesser quality, and that this type of farming isn’t
profitable. Fortunately, this is changing slowly but surely. Certification
costs are prohibitive. South Africa doesn’t have organic or biodynamic
standards that are internationally recognized. We therefore have to pay in
euros and dollars for EU and NOP organic certification from abroad. On the
upside, our industry body Vinpro has invited me for a group discussion in September
to help address the ‘current interest and demand for organic and biodynamic
viticulture’ in South Africa.”
mentioned earlier that one of my intentions on this trip was to inspect
vineyards and one often mentioned was Karibib in the Polkadraai Hills. Karibib
is to Stellenbosch what To-Kalon is to Napa.
Bruwer Slabbert and Bruwer Raats posing about midway up the Karibib vineyard.
You can see False Bay in the distance.
Cape operates like California insofar that it is common for landowners to sell
fruit from esteemed vineyards to various winemakers. Winemakers are open about
the source of their fruit and sometimes it makes fascinating comparisons, similar
to comparing growers’ wines from identical Burgundy climats. Karibib is currently
hot property. Bruwer Raats and Gavin Bruwer Slabbert drove me to the farm
inherited by Jozua Joubert in 2010. It’s easy to see why Karibib’s fruit is
coveted. As the sun sets behind the silhouetted Table Mountain, I appreciate its
advantageous elevation at this midway point across to False Bay, the prevailing
ocean breeze funnelling up from the ocean and moderating temperatures, its
steepness and underneath my feet, its granite terroir. Winemakers sourcing from
this ‘dirt’ include Jean Smit (Damascene), Ian Naudé, Duncan Savage (his patch at
the top of the slope, so steep that he has to keep moving earth back to the
top), Reenen Borman (Sons of Sugarland), Lukas van Loggerenberg and Bruwer Raats.
Whilst some parcels are well-established, others are being re-planted, boosting
Stellenbosch’s potential for the future. Certainly, I expect more and more
producers will mention this on their labels.
- Cruising at Altitude
it was impudent purloining the moniker used by Swartland winemakers when I
mentioned the “Stellenbosch Revolution”. The extraordinary momentum of growers such
as Adi Badenhorst, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Donovan Rall, David Sadie,
Callie Louw (Porseleinberg) and of course, their spiritual leader Eben Sadie,
was surely impossible to maintain, notwithstanding that such a hectic pace can be
disorientating for consumers. So Swartland has seen a kind of “bedding down” of
its reputed hegemony, building brand recognition and loyalty amongst legions
for whom Swartland was their conduit into South Africa and a totem of modern
viticulture. Ostensibly, it’s a region that has grown up. Such is the energy and
dynamism of its winemakers that it creates preconceptions of an equally
dramatic landscape. In fact, Swartland consists of featureless wide-open spaces
punctured by mountainous crests such as Porseleinberg and Perdeberg. The
landscape has an almost somnolent, unblemished beauty.
first visit is to the Roundstone farm to see Chris and Andrea Mullineux.
Perhaps acknowledging the ceiling of what can be achieved in Swartland, they
branched out into Franschhoek and expanded their portfolio. Andrea offers me a
neat summary of recent vintages, including the impact of lockdown. “In 2021,
there was not a single heat spike,” she explains. “It was cool, and to achieve true
phenolic ripeness, you needed that elusive long hang-time. In 2020, during
pandemic, we hired tasting room staff in Franschhoek to work in the winery, sorting,
offloading fruit and cleaning. All the interns had to go home during shutdown,
but the government allowed us to finish the fermentation. That was a positive
thing.” Next is Donavan Rall and David Sadie. Both ex-rugby
players tower over me, which isn’t difficult, though their stature is contrary
to the delicacy and finesse of their wines. Whilst Stellenbosch boasts gilded
wineries replete with chichi restaurants and hypnotic panoramas, Rall and Sadie
prove that exceptional wine can manifest from rudimentary facilities. Indeed,
whilst Swartland’s reputation has ascended, it remains a bucolic region, one whose
finest exponents are farmers unmotivated by the attendant lifestyle or glamour,
just dedicated to working the land and turning grapes into wine.
in the vines with Eben Sadie in his fetching bobble hat. You can see the
extensive cover crops to limit vine vigour.
time I visit Eben Sadie, the weather’s becoming cold and clammy, though
a couple of hours in his company, and you soon forget the wintry climes.
Sadie’s deification amongst winemakers is ever-greater. He was the touchpaper
for South Africa’s revolution, a lodestar to many that followed. In person, he
remains a thoughtful, articulate and self-deprecating winemaker who casually
mentions how he plans to withdraw from the everyday running, though I take that
with a pinch of salt. Unless his surfing obsession takes over completely, the lure
of the vine will remain, more than ever thanks to a significant joint acquisition
of a conjoining farm with Adi Badenhorst. I suspect many aficionados of his Old
Vine Series of cuvées do not realise that the fruit comes from leased parcels
that Sadie manages. Their success notwithstanding, there is always a deep desire
to farm your own vines, and in Sadie’s case, expand the modest holdings
surrounding his farm.
finishes with Adi Badenhorst, just a 10 minute drive from Eben Sadie’s
HQ. If Sadie is the shamanic oracle for Swartland’s winemakers, then Badenhorst
represents its rebellious side, its court-jester and joie-de-vivre. His
homestead is surrounded by menageries, animals either caged or roaming around.
Sighting him walking down the driveway, I strike up conversation and chat
blithely away before realising that I’m talking to Charles, either his brother
or cousin…further enquiries are inconclusive. I eventually find the winemaker at
his home-cum-winery, a mishmash of adjoining rooms and terraces, nooks and
crannies filled with accrued paraphernalia, a taxidermist’s playground, the
newest addition a peacock gifted by Callie Louw of Porseleinberg.
himself is a winemaker you never forget in a hurry. With his bushy beard, his
looks like a cross between Father Christmas and Bacchus, outspoken and with a
carefree personality that belies a gifted vigneron with business acumen. Like
the Mullineux’s Kloof Street brand, Badenhorst was savvy enough to realise that
whilst Swartland’s wines could appeal to the niche of serious wine lovers. Economic
sustainability often depends on a higher-volume, affordable, entry-level brands
like his hugely-successful Secateurs range. I also feel his winemaking has
become better behaved, maybe a bit less gung-ho than when he started out.
winemakers assembled: Adi Badenhorst, Eben Sadie, Donovan Rall, David Sadie,
Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Callie Louw and others.
travel east to the coastal town of Hermanus, then hang a left up Hemel-en-Aarde,
which aptly translates as “heaven on earth”. Just as the Côte d’Or follows the
RN74 artery, so the 20 and counting estates in Hemel-en-Aarde thread along the
RN320. This spectacular yet spartan valley lies against the backdrop of a mountainous
ridge that ascends towards Babylon Peak, prevailing breezes from the South
Atlantic providing a cooler microclimate, average February mean temperatures
20.3° Celsius. As alluded to, it is the Cape’s answer to Burgundy, home of
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, except for the recalcitrant Craig Wessels whose
centrepiece at Restless River is Cabernet Sauvignon. Split into three
wards as you drive up from the South Atlantic, you pass through Hemel-en-Aarde
Valley, Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and then Upper Hemel-en-Aarde, the latter two
slightly later in terms of ripening. The soils here are incredibly old, some
330-million-year-old Malmesbury and Bokkeveld shales above granite. Winemaking
has only taken place over the last five decades, the valley virtually empty
until the Tim Hamilton Russell family bought 170 hectares in 1975 (see my Cellar
Swartland, Hemel-en-Aarde is consolidating its leading players. There is room
for expansion with swathes of fallow land ideal for viticulture waiting for
their moment, especially further up the valley towards Babylon Peak. Otherwise,
Hemel-en-Aarde continues to strive forward both in terms of its wines and as a
thriving tourist destination, both Creation and Newton-Johnson
boasting outstanding restaurants. If asked to organise a blind tasting designed
to showcase Burgundy-influenced Pinot Noir outside the Côte d’Or, then I would
come to Hemel-en-Aarde. For example, tasting Hannes Storm’s wonderful
Pinots, I couldn’t help but speculate how they would show against a decent
Premier Cru. Part of that reason not only lies in the high-grade viticulture
evident through the valley, but also in the winery, not least assiduous use of
but Never on Their Own
Hemel-en-Aarde, I drive towards the small town of Greyton and detour down a
dirt track for several bumpy kilometres to reach Lismore. Approaching
the winery, I pass charred tree stumps, victims of wildfire that destroyed not
only Lismore’s winery, but proprietor Samantha O’Keefe’s home and parts of her
vineyard. Readers can hear her speak about the fire first-hand in my interview
Live! a couple of years ago. The sentence that stuck with me is how the
fire spread so voraciously that she had no time to rescue her dogs. The timing
could not have been worse. She had built everything from scratch alone. Once is
hard, but twice?
O’Keefe on the terrace at her newly rebuilt home at Lismore.
manner in which winemakers rallied around is testament to those bonds mentioned
earlier. Disaster brings out the best in people. O’Keefe was immediately inundated
not just with words of sympathy, but offers of fruit and most importantly,
something that money cannot buy…used barrels. Sitting in the spacious living
room of her rebuilt abode, it’s almost as if nothing happened. Her portfolio is
presently a mixture of estate and purchased fruit and naturally, as her
replanted vines mature, the former will comprise a majority of bottlings. That
quality barely missed a beat and is testament to her grit and determination,
also a wine industry that looks out for each other.
and O’Keefe are back on their feet, and the calibre of the Lismore’s wines
shine through. The sense of relief having pulled through such trauma is
palpable, though isn’t she on tenterhooks? As seen recently in France, embers
easily reignite. “We have created firebreaks,” she later explains. “But more
importantly, there were two massive forests of alien trees, black waddle, with
50+ years of undergrowth and dead wood. Those forests exploded in the
hurricane force winds. We have almost finished clearing all of the dead trees
and have a full-time team preventing the regrowth. There is only so much
one can do in a devastating wind storm like that… but if it is only indigenous
scrub rather than forests, it certainly would mitigate the damage.”
Not Just Taste
I wind my
way back west to Gabriëlskloof in the Bot River. Like Danie Steytler
Jnr’s revamp of Kaapzicht, so Peter-Allen Finlayson redefined Gabriëlskloof. It
has become customary to meet the three “musketeers” together: Finlayson, John
Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters and Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards.
From the left: Chris “Butch” Alheit, Peter-Allen Finlayson and John Seccombe.
once co-sharing a winery, they abide by similar tenets and like the Swartland
gang, the bottom line is they are great mates. Alheit has become the poster boy
of what some term the “New South Africa”. “Butch”, as most people call the
stocky winemaker, often reminds me of Eben Sadie apropos personality,
occasionally quite introspective, very principled, a man that hungers for the
vineyard. His exploitation of aged dry bush vines, low intervention techniques
including minimal use of sulphur in order to create wines as much about texture
as flavour are exemplars. Arguably, they are not for everyone, appealing mostly
to those attracted by the intellectual aspect of fermented grape juice, a style
far removed from the stereotypical brawny Cabernets of yore. It has found
favour amongst new devotees to South Africa, among sommeliers and a younger
cadre of drinkers. These wines do not set a template of what South African wine
should be, but given its industry diversity, another string to its arrow.
Rain, (Do Not) Go Away
It is the
midpoint of my trip. Tasting at Cape Point Vineyard on the Cape
Peninsula, the distant horizon on the Atlantic ominously darkens, forewarning
an incoming depression. Within an hour, clear skies disappear, and by the time
I pull up at Klein Constantia, rain lashes down. Every winter, the Cape
receives a period of particularly heavy precipitation lasting several days that
is crucial in terms of replenishing reservoirs. When I was here four years ago,
everyone was on tenterhooks as Cape Town counted down to the day it would
effectively run out of running water. Many wineries have their own reservoirs
in order to irrigate vines, though they must still be prudent towards the
amount they use. This winter, many reservoirs are 50% below where they ought to
be, though more important than rain is snow, since it acts like a slow-release
system feeding water over a longer period. There are reports of a dusting on
the highest peaks but more is needed to avoid the nightmare scenarios of those
fraught years of drought.
end, some wineries aim to become fully-sustainable, carbon-neutral or even one
day, carbon-positive. Both Tokara and Ken Forrester are two that
have recently installed solar panels and more are likely to follow, even though
the government in their ‘wisdom’ occasionally threaten to tax solar energy. “I
wouldn’t put it past them,” mutters one winemaker.
Are the Spice of Life
following day, I head to Franschhoek whose vines lie in the shadow where the
Franschhoek and Klein Drakenstein Mountains converge. Its namesake town is
quaint and geared towards tourism, which inevitably took a massive hit during
the pandemic. That aside, in my experience, I have mostly been unmoved by its wines.
That too often cater for the less discerning palates aboard coach parties than
striving for greatness. In such a constantly evolving wine landscape,
Franschhoek has consequently been left behind the likes of Stellenbosch or
Mocke, left, with Callie Louw, two very different characters and winemakers,
each applying their skills at Boekenhoutskloof and Porseleinberg.
more would take a leaf out of Boekenhoutskloof’s book. Not only do they
set the pace, but leave the Franschhoek peloton far begin. They go from
strength-to-strength under talented winemaker Gottfried Mocke, Callie Louw helming
their Porseleinberg label over in Swartland. Mocke doesn’t need to tell me that
they receive more rainfall in their site, the eastern extremity towards
Overberg, as I get a drenching walking between car and tasting room. Both here
and next at Rickety Bridge, I am impressed by their Semillons. The
variety is making a name for itself in South Africa, partly due to parcels of
old vine now being farmed by skilled artisans instead of being blended into
supermarket brands. A couple of older vintages with Mocke prove its longevity,
and it’s a shame so many consume Semillon before it’s had a chance to reach its
peak. The variety has to fight for attention since the Cape produces a plethora
of stunning Chardonnays. Contemplating Semillon’s position amongst the range of
white varieties, I question whether South Africa should pursue an emblem grape
variety, either white or red. Pinotage? This Pinot/Cinsault crossing can excel
when treated respectfully, but those exponents are in the minority,
notwithstanding that it represents small percentage under vine. I used to think
that South Africa would benefit from rationing its grape varieties and styles,
but I have changed my opinion, partly because nowadays there are far more
talented winemakers, skilled towards particular grapes, not to mention the
increasing trend to match terroir with optimal variety. So bring on Semillon
Blanc or Gris, your Palomino or Assyrtiko…as long as the wine tastes good.
spot remains Merlot. The Cape is not blessed with an optimal growing season for
this early-ripening variety, so that even some of my favourite growers fumble
here. I also consider Bordeaux blends to be less consistent than Rhône blends,
though the new cadre of winemakers have more nous and better ideas how to fashion a
great Bordeaux blend, understanding that it is made in the vineyard and not
necessarily just by plonking it in 100% new wood. Naturally, in the light of
global warming, many are speculating what might thrive with such dry and hot
Scourge of Leafroll
is planted into the South African soil, there is one cardinal rule: check if the
plant material is virus-free. Leafroll virus, spread by mealybugs, has been a
thorn in South Africa’s side since the 1930s, one infected vine enough to spark
the downfall of an entire vineyard. Quality wine is not unfeasible with virus-ed
vines, so long as the growing season gives you sufficient sunlight and warmth
to compensate the shortfall in photosynthesis. However, this virus is a scourge
that, as we now all know post-COVID, is fiendishly difficult to completely
due to finish his tenure at Vergelegen after 25 vintages, might consider
his greatest accomplishment the elimination of leafroll virus. During a
valedictory tasting he mentions the herculean effort with Professor Gerhard
Pietersen of the Agricultural Research Council that saw the introduction of virus-free
vineyards. Another estate that has pro-actively sought to eradicate leafroll is
Creation in Hemel-en-Aarde, who works in conjunction with Vititec. “Their scientists
check our vineyards around four times a year and use our cuttings to propagate
clean material for the South African Vine nurseries,” co-owner Carolyn Martin
explains via e-mail. “This is very important for the sustainability of our
industry. We need to plant to grow old. It makes no economic sense to pull
out vineyards at 15 to 20 years old and establish them again [a
prospect that Chamonix in Franschhoek was facing]. There is a great awareness
around the world and South African scientists and producers are leading on many
fronts with their projects on climate change and epidemiology.”
Africa now appreciates its stock of old vine material. When the industry was
under state control of the KWV, these parcels were ignored by all, except for a
handful and their fruit was blended away with all and sundry. I suspect that
the KWV would have uprooted the vines once they became unproductive and indeed,
many were. The silver lining is that those overlooked parcels that hid away and
survived until the present day, constitute a goldmine that money cannot buy.
viticulturalist Rosa Kruger pictured in Stellenbosch.
for unleashing the potential of these gnarly old vines and resetting the wine
industry on a different course is Rosa Kruger. She toured European vineyards as
vineyard manager for L’Ormarins and upon returning, pondered where South
Africa’s “vieilles vignes” might lie? Her search commenced in 2002, and she stumbled
upon old forgotten blocks like Skurfberg and Skerpioen. Since planting
information was confidential, Kruger and her team had to physically visit sites
to ascertain their age, finding them through sheer perseverance or word-of-mouth.
Kruger essentially became a matchmaker between forgotten parcels of old vine and
skilled winemakers who happily pay a premium for the privilege. The first to
sign up was (who else) Eben Sadie, who launched his Old Vine Series with the
2009 vintage. I remember tasting them for the first time on release in
Riebeek-Kasteel, immediately recognising that this was South Africa entering
new territory. Soon, the Mullineux’s and Duncan Savage joined and the number
snowballed. The Old Vine Project became official in 2017, after which
Kruger was joined by André Morgenthal to launch the Certified Heritage
Vineyards seal that via the latest technology guarantees that the wine comes
from 35-year-old vines or older. At present, 4,004 hectares have been
classified with vines of requisite age, mostly in Stellenbosch and Swartland,
with around half Chenin Blanc, the oldest, a 0.25-hectare plot of Cinsault in
Morgenthal and Kruger back in Stellenbosch for my final tasting of selected OVP
wines before a quick lunch. Both are headstrong characters and quite hilarious
together, intermittently bickering amiably like a married couple. Whereas
Kruger gives the project its principles, its heart and soul, Morgenthal gives
it a financial footing and promotion since Kruger herself is not particularly
enamoured by fame or the limelight. The uptake in seals has accelerated in
recent months. Everyone wins. Kruger’s parcels of old vine are now
theoretically safe, no longer vanished into generic blends or worse, bulldozed
for urban development or quarrying. Revenues from the seals are reinvested into
research, such as old vine genetics and their properties vis-à-vis younger vine.
Producers have a new angle to market their wines. Consumers are able to select
OVP wines if so desired. It changes the perception towards South Africa and
distinguishes it from other countries. Imagine if a similar certification was
launched in Australia or Spain, even Burgundy?
course, the seal simply vouchsafes the age of vine, not the final quality,
though any vineyard roped off for special attention is likely to receive a
commensurate amount of attention from the winemaker since the wine can be sold
at a premium. Also, it bares remembering that you can make superb wine from
young vines, or more accurately, a mixture of various ages. But at least it is
focusing minds on what South Africa has got, and what it might have
At the winery with Duncan Savage. Some of the vines he works with are located in the Karibib estate and some are part of the Old Vine Project.
is one subject I hesitated about addressing because of its complexity, but race
underlies many issues both in the country and within its wine industry. Wine
has historically been a privilege for its minority white population, which means
that the industry faces constant headwinds from the strong anti-alcohol lobby
within its government. Yet, wineries function as a collaboration between people
irrespective of skin colour.
Ken Forrester with winemaker Shawn Mathyse.
problem is the division of labour and lack of Black people in senior roles.
People like Shawn Mathyse (Ken Forrester), Rüdger van Wyk (Stark-Condé) and Berene
Sauls (Tesselaarsdal Wines) who I met on my trip are all enjoying successful
careers. Banele Vakele, assistant winemaker at Savage Wines and with his own
Tembela label comes from the Khayelitsha township. These winemakers are breaking
down barriers, inspiring others and eroding the stigma that wine is supposedly
made for one sector of society and not another. The Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé
Programme, incepted in 2006, has enabled 18 young, aspiring winemakers from
Black communities to attain senior roles as well as arming countless others with
skills. These are signs of change. Jobs save lives. It was pleasing to learn of
more young Black men and women frequenting tasting rooms, often attracted by
the social media aspect, a trend for selfies with friends and a glass of wine. Great!
Explore your passion. Hopefully in the future, more Black winemakers will
foster enjoyment of wine and greater numbers will achieve prominent positions.
Only then will the government not view wine through an ethnic lens.
Berene Sauls of Tesselaarsdal.
an article that goes beyond the vinous sphere because South Africa’s wine
industry is inextricably bound up in its history, culture, demographics and
politics. Tasting notes and producer profiles will give readers the lowdown on
what to expect when you pour the wine; however, on this occasion, I have sought
to broach wider issues and hopefully give a feel for this part of the world.
in the airport departure lounge, Miriam Makeba dancing in my ears again, I ponder
where South Africa stands in 2022 in terms of presence and sales. There is a
difference depending on which side of the Atlantic you call home. Europe, particularly
the UK and Holland, have embraced South Africa and against expectations,
including my own, it has become a hip source of fermented grape juice. One
distributor mentioned how, almost by stealth, it slipped into a vacant space,
perhaps one provisionally earmarked for Spain or Italy, for low intervention,
textural, site-specific, edgy style of wine crafted by winemakers devoid of ego
and pretentiousness, winemakers that a younger generation, disenfranchised by
unaffordable wine regions, can relate to. Moreover, many labels are works of
art, which may sound irrelevant, yet plays a vital part in the overall package.
Just look at labels by Alheit, Savage or Loggerenberg or the eye catching Kara
Tara that nods towards winemaker Rüdger Van Wyk’s heritage. Apart from
Argentina, South Africa was the only country to report increased value of sales
between 2021 and 2022 in the UK.
The vineyard team at Mullineux out pruning. You can see the straw placed under the vines as fertilizer.
States poses a different set of challenges. In a market where winemaker
presence is crucial, relatively few make the trip since it is both difficult
and expensive to obtain visas, creating a chicken and egg situation. Linking
with a US importer that not only believes in South African wine, but has a
distribution network, makes a big difference. Volume sales in the U.S. are lower
than other New World countries, but they are catching up, a 64% increase in
2022, larger than any other wine producing country. South Africa has the wind in
its sales (sic). Where it will end up remains to be seen.
whilst South Africa offers a refreshingly affordable alternative to many
regions, its wine is deemed too cheap by consumers equating price with quality.
We all know the fallacy of that. How often do I find myself staring in disbelief
at retail prices that are the same as Bordeaux or Burgundy but with the decimal
point in a more wallet-friendly position, despite quality equivalent or even superior.
Talk about finding diamonds in a rummage sale. To claim South Africa is currently
a “bargain” is an understatement and irrespective of your view, numerical scores
are a useful tool, if only to ram home the point that they rank amongst the top
tier. Would increasing ex-cellar prices jeopardize a fickle and competitive
market? Possibly. At the moment, consumers have everything to gain. Opinions will
inevitably change as more wine-lovers become acquainted and gauge standards themselves.
Palates don’t lie. Already, a cluster of cult producers’ allocations sell out
in the blink of an eye, and it is not beyond reason that one day, we’ll look
back and wish we had loaded up on the likes of Sadie, Alheit, Savage et al.
Sunset over Table Mountain looking out from Bruwer Raats’ terrace in Stellenbosch.
Africa’s wine industry is growing up and getting wiser. It’s becoming realistic
about its challenges and opportunities. The so-called “New Wave” producers now
have a decade’s worth of wines under their belt. Established names are
reinventing themselves. Sit still, you’ll get left behind. Today’s frontrunners
can be caught up tomorrow. Young Turks, the ink barely dry on their exam papers,
are doing their own thing. Winemakers have become more focused upon vineyard
site and viticulture knowhow, instead of winery techniques and branding. It’s
not necessarily going to be an easy ride - something I hope is clear in my
report. But the next chapter will certainly be overflowing with world-class
© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.