Growing Up ‘n Getting Wiser: South Africa in 2022


Makeba sings 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…

“Which country in South Africa are you from?” a distributor enquires.

“South Africa,” a winemaker replies.

“No, which country in South Africa.”

“Erm….South Africa?”

The 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.

One of countless panoramas. This was taken from Capensis. To the left is Stellenbosch; to the right is Franschhoek.

My coverage 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.

South 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.

It is 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.

It 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.

Freshened 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.

The Stellenbosch Revolution

The 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.

I thought it would be another decade before writing that “Stellenbosch is undergoing a revolution” but here it is…

Stellenbosch is undergoing a revolution!

Established 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 opportunity’.

There 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.  

Two winemakers 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.

Of 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.

“Stellenbosch 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

Stellenbosch 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.

Throughout 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 advantages?

“For 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.”

This is 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?”

“In South 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.”

Up on the Karibib

I 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.

Gavin Bruwer Slabbert and Bruwer Raats posing about midway up the Karibib vineyard. You can see False Bay in the distance.

The 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.

Swartland - Cruising at Altitude

Perhaps 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.

My 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.

Out in the vines with Eben Sadie in his fetching bobble hat. You can see the extensive cover crops to limit vine vigour.

By the 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.

The day 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.

Badenhorst 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.

Swartland’s winemakers assembled: Adi Badenhorst, Eben Sadie, Donovan Rall, David Sadie, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Callie Louw and others.

Heaven on Earth

I 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 Favourite).

Like 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 whole bunches.

Alone, but Never on Their Own

From 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 for Vinous 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?

Samantha O’Keefe on the terrace at her newly rebuilt home at Lismore.

The 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.

Lismore 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.”

Texture, 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.

Apart from 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, 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.

To this 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.

Varieties Are the Spice of Life

The 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 Swartland.

Gottfried Mocke, left, with Callie Louw, two very different characters and winemakers, each applying their skills at Boekenhoutskloof and Porseleinberg.

I wish 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.

The weak 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 summers.

The Scourge of Leafroll

Whatever 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 eradicate.

It can be done.

André Van-Rensberg, 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.”

Safeguarding Old Vines

South 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.  

Influential viticulturalist Rosa Kruger pictured in Stellenbosch.

Responsible 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 Wellington.

I meet 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?

Of 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 irretrievably lost.

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.

Wine for All

There 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.

The 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.

Final Thoughts

I penned 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.

Sitting 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.

The United 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.

Perversely, 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.

South 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 wines.

© 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.

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