The A to Z of South Africa 


A is for Alphabet – The landscape of South African wine is such a tangle of ever-changing interrelated issues that communicating this “spaghetti bowl” of information coherently is not easy. So, with this in mind, instead of a customary single essay, I divided up various topics and ordered them alphabetically. You can read the entire introduction from A-to-Z or dip in and out at your leisure.

B is for Bordeaux blends – In previous reports, I contentiously argued that South Africa’s Bordeaux blends, poster boys in the wake of post-Apartheid’s dissolution, were de facto, the wine industry’s Achilles’ heel. South Africa’s most famous ward, Stellenbosch, might be synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, its climate and, in particular, its heat spikes precludes sufficiently long hang time and risks bifurcating fruit and phenolic ripeness levels. It results in superficially ripe wines with vegetal elements from unwanted pyrazines.

Reader, I am changing my tune.

Shalk-Willem Joubert, the man behind Taaibosch, which has rocketed to one of Stellenbosch’s most sought-after wines after just a couple of vintages.

Climate change means drought and heat spikes are not going away, and if anything, might be increasing. But winemakers are successfully adapting their viticulture and winery practices to furnish Cabernet lovers with fresher and more nuanced wines. The great beneficiary is Stellenbosch, where there is considerable emphasis on specific sites advantaged by orientation, altitude and soil type, Polkadraai Hills or Karibib, highlighted in last year’s report. The next generation of winemakers is now firmly in the saddle with the mandate to make differences where necessary. This is concurrent with a welcome re-evaluation of Cabernet Franc, spearheaded by the likes of Bruwer Raats and now Shalk-Willem Joubert at Taaibosch, mirroring the trend found in Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. For sure, I can wax lyrical about Rhône blends ‘til the cows come home. Yet winemakers inform me that neither Syrah nor Grenache possess the pulling power of Cabernet in consumers’ eyes. Therefore, the melioration in South African Bordeaux blends is a critical part of its evolution.

C is for Chenin Blanc – Chenin Blanc is going from strength to strength in South Africa, challenging Chardonnay for top dog. The great attribute of Chenin Blanc is its dazzling array of styles. It’s the David Bowie of grape varieties, able to adopt any look it chooses, whether bone dry or sweet. It also blends seamlessly with its partner-in-crime, Sémillon, and across-the-board winemakers are taking these to new heights. Duncan Savage told me how he uses larger vessels such as foudres while maintaining lower temperatures to keep Chenin Blanc “tight”.

I asked Chris Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu) what makes Chenin Blanc special. “It's a combination of factors that have all just come together,” he answers. “Chenin is naturally a higher acid grape, which is great when you’re aiming for wines with vibrancy, energy and length. Where we are farming in the Swartland, we have a dry, sunny climate, old vines and ancient nutrient-poor soils. This restricts growth and yields, making for wines with a lot of intensity, texture and personality. So, when you combine Chenin’s yin with Swartland’s yang, you get wines of balance, complexity and beauty. What makes it exciting, though, is this generation of winemakers in the Swartland and Cape are well-traveled and have the confidence to let this be, to let Chenin express versions of itself here that are unique to our soils and climate. We're not following or imitating other regions or styles, making them unique and something people can identify and resonate with. Our approach hasn’t really changed a lot in the past 17 years. We’re trying to make wines with finesse and an expression of site. In the vineyards and winery, Andrea [Mullineux] is trying to fine-tune the seemingly small but very important details. Things like farming more naturally to promote life and carbon in the soils as this helps the vines ripen more slowly and retain better acidities. And being super precise at bottling to minimize oxygen uptake. Steps like these help the wines better express site and vintage and also age even better.”

So, with that, here are ten Cape Chenins in a range of styles to look out for:

2022 Damascene Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc

2022 David & Nadia Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc

2022 Kaapzicht The 1947 Chenin Blanc

2022 Ken Forrester The FMC

2022 Mullineux & Leeu Straw Wine

2021 Naudé Family Wines Old Vine Chenin Blanc

2022 Rall Wines White Blend

2022 Sadie Family Wines Skurfberg (Old Vine Series)

2022 Savage Wines Not Tonight Josephine

2022 Van Loggerenberg Wines Kameraderie

I visited in August as vines were being hastily pruned back before being reactivated for the next season, though the ongoing taxi strike meant that some vineyard workers could not reach their place of work. This goblet vine is up on Karibib in Stellenbosch. Notice the mulch on the ground to enhance organic matter.

D is for Density – Generally, the Cape has a lower density of vine planting compared to Europe, where the mantra is higher densities enhance stress that equates to more complex fruit. This concept reaches its zenith with Burgundy winemakers such as Olivier Lamy’s Haut-Densité cuvées. Viticulturist Rosa Kruger explains that the underlying bedrock is mostly, but not entirely, impenetrable. Ergo, roots tend to stay closer to the surface instead of tunneling down in search of moisture. Gottfried Mocke, winemaker at Boekenhoutskloof, expanded on this subject and opined that planting density is not as important as the root system, an ideal figure of around 3,800 vines per hectare, while Chris Mullineux suggested around 4,500 and points out that the dry climate and absence of irrigation precludes higher densities. Therefore, soil type has a comparatively more considerable influence vis-à-vis other regions since the spatial root system that absorbs moisture and minerals is located at a shallower level (See S is for Soil). Of course, the Cape boasts swathes of standalone bush vines, particularly Rhône varieties, and I am spotting more échalas-trained vines, planted on their own stakes within steep and/or wind-exposed sites such as Karibib or used by Callie Louw at Porseleinberg.

E is for Elévage – In the immediate post-apartheid era, winemaking was hidebound to traditional practices, including barrel maturation. Wines were deemed superior if raised longer in new French barriques. After all, if it works in Bordeaux, it can work in South Africa, right? Well, no. The last decade has seen a complete revision of the best manner to mature wines, exemplified by Eben Sadie, whose initial vintages of Columella were raised in new barriques, something that he now rues. These were shifted out and replaced by popular oval foudres installed in wineries such as Savage, Mullineux and Boekenhoutskloof. Others like Keermont intermix 225-liter barrels with larger 500-liter puncheons. Winemaker Donovan Rall utilizes concrete vats for aging. Taaibosch uses both 9,000-liter foudres and new barriques for his much-feted Crescendo. Like Bordeaux, the percentage of new wood is less than before and more reductive maturation with minimal use of SO2 is increasingly popular among winemakers. Ian Naudé is now aging his wines as long as possible on the lees. Generally, there is a trend towards shorter aging durations, and there’s no stigma against bottling just before the next harvest. Concrete eggs are beginning to “hatch” across the Cape, for example, at Natasha Williams, and clay amphorae are cropping up at Jordan.

Refreshingly, South African winemakers don’t take themselves too seriously! John Seccombe (Thorne & Daughters), Peter-Allen Finlayson (Crystallum) and Chris Alheit. The three friends all make what could be described as sought-after wines by dint of their quality above anything else.

F is for Food – Every wine region is married to local cuisine. With so much produce and ingredients on its doorstep, the Cape’s dining scene is vibrant and diverse. Wineries such as Jordan, Tokara, Glenelly and Rust en Vrede have become top dining destinations with spectacular views. Oeno-tourism plays an important role in attracting tourists and, in terms of direct sales, encouraging them to the country. Thanks to the low cost of living and weakness of the South African Rand, visitors pay a fraction compared to Europe or the United States. If you visit the Cape, you’ll eat well.

G is for Growing Seasons – Two thousand twenty-one is generally cooler than recent seasons. “The year blessed fruit with a longer hang time than usual,” winemaker Craig Wessels told me when I visited Restless River. “The wines tend to have higher acidities and lower alcohol, imparting more mineralité in the Chardonnays.” Callie Louw at Porseleinberg described 2021 as an “ideal growing season” that saw a dry October, with more rain in November and December. It was drier in January with clean growing conditions, so there was little incidence of rot. He told me that there were just five days of heat spikes, which is less than in 2022, and that the cool February benefitted later ripening red varieties. Picking was generally a fortnight later than usual, and volumes were higher than the previous two vintages. With regard to the 2022 vintage, Duncan Savage told me: “Two thousand twenty-two was a warm vintage, the fruit picked at similar maturity levels as normal, though it demanded more selection. Acidity was slightly lower than usual.” Eben Sadie informed that much of the rain in 2022 fell south of Swartland, and the ensuing drought meant that flowering was uneven, losing as much as half his potential crop. However, he brought in his fruit at under 13.5% alcohol, prompting him to consider if they can achieve lower levels under different growing seasons. Fellow Swartland resident Chris Mullineux said that 2022 had a few heat spikes, just one or two days around 40° Celsius, but were relieved by cool evenings that together lend wines a bit more power. Gavin Bruwer Slabbert at Raats Family Wines describes 2022 as “a game of two halves”, the cool night benefitting the white varieties towards harvest with little rain, whereas the reds he found more challenging.

H is for Husbandry – Top estates constantly fine-tune vineyard techniques. There is a greater emphasis on pruning cleanly and at the right time (see Kruger), with far more organic viticulture, using mulch and cover crops to enhance biological activity that can increase the efficiency of the roots’ mineral absorption. Gottfried Mocke at Boekenhoutskloof told me: “Soils tend to be high in nitrogen but low in other minerals such as magnesium, calcium and potassium. If you do add nitrogen, you need to add it in an organic form such as mulch and cultivating cover crops such as fava beans.” Biodynamics is rare, except for Reyneke, the only certified estate. The unpredictability of the growing season, size and costs can make it prohibitive even if there is a desire to apply Steiner’s tenets. South Africa has a large labor force on its doorstep, at least when the taxis are running (see “Unrest” and “Zimbabwe”), which means there are hands available throughout the season to conduct so-called “little steps in the vineyard.” With more training (see “Kruger”), we will surely continue to see more healthy and organically managed vineyards.

Bernhard Bredell and Lukas van Loggerenberg. Both winemakers have quite eclectic portfolios that offer a range of styles, white and red, without compromising quality.

I is for Icon – South Africa is gradually developing a roster of “iconic wines”. There are two types. Those pre-engineered to attain status following a logical recipe: no budget restraints at any part of the winemaking process, lavish new oak, deluxe packaging and slick marketing to enhance exclusivity. Just add that all-important price tag so that it’s reassuringly expensive. You might include Tokara’s Telos as an example – a wine that tastes reassuringly luxurious. More effective in terms of raising the kudos of South African wine are iconic wines that occur naturally, even accidentally, with no premeditation. Eben Sadie’s Old Vine Series, Chris Alheit’s single vineyards, Porseleinberg, Kanonkop’s “Paul Sauer” or Mvemve Raats “Compostella” inter alia. Their status is pulled by consumers’ appreciation instead of pushed by winemaker desire, and collectively, they enhance South Africa’s reputation on the global stage. There are more each year: wines whose demand outstrips supply, resulting in a vibrant secondary market. Pleasingly, there are few emperors’ new clothes. To wit, they are the real deal when it comes to the most important aspect – the quality of the wine glass.

J is for Juggling – When someone says: “South African wine”, what comes into your head? In my first forays into the Cape, I opined that it needed to evolve some kind of identity and become synonymous with a limited number of grapes and styles for consumers to latch on to, such as Bordeaux and Cabernet, Burgundy and Pinot Noir. Perhaps it should latch onto its one indigenous variety, Pinotage?

I’ve turned 180 on that (cf. Bordeaux blends).  

As the Cape has evolved, it has successfully juggled many styles: sparkling and dry, white or red, Pinot or Cabernet, bone-dry Chenin Blanc, to unctuous straw wines. Diversity is its strength, not weakness. It is host to such variegated and unique soil types and terroir profiles, each suitable to particular grape varieties and/or winemaking techniques, that monoculture would be shooting yourself in the foot. It might preclude consumers’ ability to associate South Africa with a definitive style; however, they soon become au fait with the best producers within each category. That’s the way forward.

K is for Kruger – I have discussed Rosa Kruger and the pivotal role she has played as a peripatetic viticulturist in past reports, essentially acting as a matchmaker between parcels of often abandoned/unloved old vines and talented winemakers. On this trip, we met at Kloovenberg Winery. “I don’t know why anyone would want to see me,” she tells me. Kruger has never hankered the limelight. Apart from the Old Vine Project (see “Old Vines”), we discuss her school that teaches field workers about pruning and viticulture. “We have 27 people in the school total,” she tells me before we join a small group of attentive “pupils” out in the vines. “We teach them how to prune old vines to increase production and make vineyards more sustainable. They are various in age, sometimes with older ones educating the younger. But it’s a hard job working in the vines. Eight people died in the vineyard from the heat last year.”

I’m no professional photographer. I just take what I see. But this is one of the best photographs that I have taken during my career: viticulturist Rosa Kruger teaching mainly immigrant workers how to goblet prune.

L is for Leaf roll – Survey the vineyards towards the end of the growing season, and you will see many ablaze with pretty yellow and red hues. However, you are probably witnessing the effects of the leaf roll virus that one winemaker estimated affects 80% of vineyards. The virus is endemic, making leaves turn color prematurely and stymying photosynthesis/grape maturity. It particularly impacts later-ripening varieties, not least Cabernet Sauvignon (see “Bordeaux blends”). Leaf roll is extremely difficult to eradicate. Infected vines must be uprooted immediately if spotted, and the only viable long-term solution is to replant entire vineyards that must lie fallow for several years, which only wealthy estates such as Vergelegen can exercise. For many, such a radical procedure is financially unworkable, and so top estates are becoming more vigilant and proactive in their vineyard.

M is for Markets – The UK has long been a strong market for South Africa, particularly amongst the on-trade. Sommeliers adore the wines because they fit both quality and value. The latter is increasingly important as some regions price themselves off lists. Europe has also seen growth, including France, while the Far East continues to tick upward, especially in Japan and China. The United States is growing…but it’s tough. Especially after COVID. One winemaker confessed that they have to ostensibly rebuild all the work they put in over the previous decade. Others were upbeat, though they made the point that producers have to work the market and visit, something not possible for many busy winemakers. One factor making a difference is the introduction of direct flights from the USA. This has already resulted in more tourists, and South Africa is a visceral country that sticks with visitors. There is little doubt that those returning will have a newfound appreciation for South African wine and the country itself.

N is for New Frontiers – The Cape is amidst incremental expansion of its vineyard frontier. Rewind to the Nineties, and arguably, only Stellenbosch and Constantia were known to the casual wine-lover. Other regions subsequently gained recognition, not least Swartland in the 2000s, whose groundbreaking Rhône blends and terroir-driven wines revolutionized the South African landscape and, against all predictions, made South Africa hip. These days, there are so many wine regions that it is impossible to visit them all. I did notice more venturing eastwards along the coast and met a band of young winemakers known as “Cape South Coaster”. Exploiting the windswept, sandstone soils, the collective farms a diverse range of grape varieties, united by an ethos of sustainable/organic viticulture and low intervention winemaking, though they pointedly eschew the word “natural”. It left an impression of a country venturing further away from its Stellenbosch epicenter. While I would not claim that every wine hit the jackpot, it reinforced the idea that there is still a great deal of untapped potential in terms of vineyard land. Of course, these independent wineries exploiting the “fringe” must be financially viable, but the winemakers explained how they are making inroads in overseas markets in Scandinavia and the United States.

The Cape South Coaster collective.

O is for Old Vines – South Africa’s renaissance has been fuelled, in part, by its exploitation of parcels of old vines. The fact that these parcels were lost within thousands of acres contracted to the KWV during apartheid was a blessing in disguise. Though the quality of their fruit was almost completely ignored and blended out of existence, ipso facto, vines were left alone. While some succumbed to the bulldozer (see my recent Cellar Favorite for the 1997 Syrah from Boekenhoutskloof), a vast majority survived until they could be purchased or matched with skillful winemakers like Eben Sadie and his ilk. Fortunately, there is an organization, SALVIS, that since 1900 records all vineyard plantings, so a catalog exists of vine age and location that enabled these to be found.

In my previous report, I detailed the formation of the Old Vine Project, which certifies vines over 35 years old, signified by a label seal for consumers to recognize. Co-founder Rosa Kruger told me that she was pleased that the OVP has been embraced not only by smaller, what you might call “cult” winemakers but also by larger-volume, more commercial wineries. She explained that after an initial boom in new applications, these have leveled off in recent months as expected, though she believes there are still undiscovered plots of old vine out there. Of course, wine made from older vines is moot if you make errors in any other part of the winemaking process. Still, Kruger replied that recognizing old vines and what they can give is sufficient encouragement for winemakers to ensure they don’t waste the opportunity to reap the rewards. I also asked if there is any difference between old and young vines, and she explained that while they do not necessarily have deeper roots (see “Density”) as you would. That includes invasive pests that cause havoc even in the most manicured vineyard. I met assume elsewhere, their root system is denser in the topsoil zone and more stable, which means that acidity does not drop so severely.

P is for Pests – Everything seems that little bit harder in South Africaseveral winemakers, such as Craig Wessels, who lost gloriously ripe fruit on the cusp of harvest thanks to flocks of birds. The real menace? Baboons! They look cute. But seeing one up close as he clambered across the roof at Klein Constantia, one could appreciate their size. Wild boars munch through vineyards in Burgundy, but imagine if they had a much higher IQ and humanlike dexterity. Baboons tend to hunt in packs, nimbly working their way through vineyards and yanking off bunches, nibbling a few berries and throwing away when they spot another. Alex Starey at Keermont Winery remarked how baboons enjoy messing up neatly spread mulch underneath vines like packs of naughty children. On Table Mountain, home to Constantia’s estates, they are a protected species, so essentially, you’re not allowed to protect your vineyard. The problem worsens each year.

An unwanted visitor in the vines at Klein Constantia.

Q is for Quality – I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: South Africa is currently producing some of the greatest wines in the world. I state that as someone who has been fortunate to drink more than my fair share of legendary bottles. Before flying to the Cape, out of curiosity, I leafed through the chapter on South Africa that I composed for Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide in 2009. Apart from being completely out-of-date, perusing my ranking of the country’s finest producers, there were only a couple that I would consider today. During those intervening years, South Africa’s wine scene has burgeoned with a dazzling array of new winemakers excelling at their craft. Underpinning quality is the vastly improved vineyard practices. There’s just more viticultural TLC coupled with less invasive winemaking practices, allowing the Cape’s diverse terroirs to “speak”.

Moderating a South Africa Cabernet versus Bordeaux dinner that included bottles from each served blind to an audience including several notable winemakers, I asked where they thought each wine originated. I was struck by how many got them wrong. That’s no slur against their palate, more because I don’t think they expected their own wines to perform so well against the heavyweights like Léoville Las-Cases and Château Margaux. A few people departed that night with revised estimations of what the Cape is capable of.

They don’t get much better than this: the latest releases from Eben Sadie’s Old Vine Series, which, again, demonstrates the diversity that the Cape can easily embrace.

R is for Race – As I wrote in my last report, the issue of race cannot be ignored. It affects everything from the way estates operate and how wines are made to consumers’ socio-ethnicity. I opined that any change must come from the will of the Black majority rather than instigated by the white minority, however well-intentioned. With that in mind, on this trip, I made time to visit and taste with Carmen Stevens, South Africa’s first qualified Black winemaker, who explained the obstacles she faced.

“It hasn’t been easy. It’s a case of navigating your way through. Now, there are a lot more qualified Black winemakers, and I hope they get similar opportunities. The industry has not evolved in terms of Black people getting top positions and making impactful decisions because it’s only then can you make change. There are around 30 Black winemakers now. The numbers within the Black population that appreciate wine is growing, and it’s partly to do with status. They have the disposable income to buy wine, more Black professionals in jobs where they have disposable income to spend on a bottle of wine. There will come a time when there will be more Black participation and maybe money to invest in vineyards, yet still less than 1% of Black people are stakeholders in the wine industry.”

Also, thanks to my delayed return flight, I organized a meeting with viticultural expert Dr. Erna Blancquaert and Brookdale’s head winemaker, Kiara Scott, both Black women enjoying much-deserved successful careers. Despite Blancquaert’s doctorate, she admits that there are occasions when she intuitively feels not being taken seriously due to gender and skin color. I found it inspiring meeting people like Dr. Blancquaert, Stevens and Scott, not to mention Berene Sauls, who made a fantastic Pinot at Tesselaarsdalle and Shawn Mathyse’s containing work at Ken Forrester. Let’s not kid ourselves; there’s an enormous way to go before South Africa’s wine industry is populated by non-white men and women in positions of influence. However, their presence indicates that change is afoot, and their career progression will surely attract others.

S is for Soil – Soil plays a vital role in determining viticulture and style of wine. For reasons I explain under “D is for Density”, you could argue that topsoil is more important in the Cape compared to other regions. South Africa has the oldest soils in the world.

“Soils are much more acidic in South Africa than in Europe,” Rosa Kruger explains during our meeting. “Between pH levels of 5.5 to 6.5 is good [for vine growing], but in South Africa, the pH can be 4.5 [very acidic]. Sometimes, you have to lime the soils, and it means that cover crops are crucial. The soils here can compact very easily.” We also discussed the problem of soil erosion. Kruger is designing new vineyards at Reyneke and pulls out a map that shows how she is orientating rows according to contours to avoid topsoil being washed away in heavy downpours and enhance sustainability. “Working with contours is not easy,” she continues. “We try to plant along the contours so that water flows to the dam.” There are other factors to consider, for example, creating corridors of fynbos to maintain ecosystems and, therefore, reduce spraying, allowing nature itself to protect vines.

“Soils are the strongest factor in the terroir of the Swartland,” Chris Mullineux tells me and dissects the soils of Swartland. “There are very few places that are not dry, sunny and breezy here, but the soils of the Paardeberg, Kasteelberg and Malmesbury Hills are relatively uniform on each mountain, and yet they are super different from each other, the main difference being the depth and water-holding capacity. This profoundly affects how the vines grown in these soils physically differ from each other. Granite soils of the Paardeberg are much deeper, for example, allowing the vines to build a deep root system. The Granite soils also have a decent reservoir of water in them at lower depths, and these two factors promote more length, tightness and vibrancy in wines from vines grown in them. The Schist soils of Kasteelberg are the opposite - much more rocky and shallow, and this results in smaller vines with more open canopies, and this in turn leads to wines with more texture and grip.”

Kiara Scott of Brookdale.

T is for Tannins – Perhaps the biggest stylistic change in recent years, one mirroring other countries, is a revised approach to tannin management, creating wines with finer structures, less obtrusive and rendering them more approachable. Take one of South Africa’s most well-known Cabernet/Syrah blends like Anwilka. Now under the aegis of Matthew Day, who has done a sterling job at stablemate Klein Constantia over the last decade, he set about harvesting earlier, tweaked the percentage of whole bunch fermentation, crucially enacted lighter extraction and reduced the duration in new oak from 20 to 12 months, as well as eschewing Petit Verdot and Malbec. This results in a remodeled wine with the same weight and fruit intensity, framed by what you might call a “lighter chassis” aka tannin. It is a trend one can see across the region.

U is for Unrest – People often ask whether South Africa is dangerous. It is as dangerous as you make it. Wander into the wrong part of the safest town, and you’ll find trouble. Frankly, I’ve never felt unsafe in the Cape, though on this trip, tension was palpable in the air as soon as I landed because of a lightning taxi strike. Without entering into detail, without proper infrastructure, the strike affected a vast majority of workers. This is germane to the wine industry as it meant many wineries were without their labor force at a critical moment. At the same time, protests in Swellendam sparked when the council turned off the electricity mains because people were constantly and illegally hooked up to the grid. This almost nixed one tasting as the winemaker was traveling from that area to show me her wines. Trips to the Cape are never as straightforward as the Beaujolais or Pomerol…but that’s just part of the experience. There will always be unrest in South Africa simmering below the surface, exploding from time to time.

V is for Vanity – Headlines tend to dwell upon Africa’s poverty and military coups, presenting a one-sided image of the continent with a growing middle-class population, some of whom are getting a taste for wine. If you think it’s a splash in the ocean, ask a sales rep for LVMH how much Dom Pérignon is sold in the continent. You’ll be amazed. Wine as a status symbol of wealth drives part of that. In South Africa, you don’t even have to buy a bottle in a restaurant if you want to make an impression. You can rent bottles. For a small fee, the waiter will strategically place an empty aspirational bottle of champagne or claret on your table. Even if you can’t afford it, you can still look as if you could. Vanity? Maybe. But don’t we all make sure that special bottle is visible when we visit a restaurant?

Johan Reyneke with winemaker Barbara Melck. The 2017 Cornerstone showed so brilliantly at a blind tasting that many were duped into thinking it must be a Grand Cru Classé from Bordeaux.

W is for Water – As the undercarriage whirred and the airplane’s wheels readied to land, peering out of the window, I set eyes upon the jumble of makeshift homes in the sprawling township below, always a jolt of reality before you’ve even set foot. I noticed some houses lying underwater. First notice that the Cape was deluged by unprecedented torrential rainfall in early 2023. Alistair Rimmer at DeMorgenzon told me that they saw an inch of rain every ten days in spring, while Gottfried Mocke in Franschhoek, one of the wettest locales in the Cape, saw a remarkable 700mm in the space of just three weeks.

Just a few years ago, I remember hearing radio announcements ominously counting down to “Day Zero” when the taps would run dry. That’s no euphemism. People were literally about to run out of running water since successive drought-like conditions between 2016 and 2019 had left reservoirs dry. Discussing the subject of water with Callie Louw at the isolated winery of Porseleinberg in Swartland brought home how vital it is to secure an independent water supply. He explains how their schistous soils allow any rain to drain away quickly. They are fortunate to have the right to drill their own water, albeit at considerable cost. Still, as you can imagine, shortages mean authorities are reluctant to grant permits that allow wineries to pump water when urban areas teeter on the brink of their main supply being turned off.

Thanks to La Niña, the switch had been turned the other way. A series of low depressions have deluged the Cape so that those same reservoirs, like the one I saw at Tokara, are full to the brim. Unfortunately, for winemakers, this disrupted the picking. Some claimed to have completed most of the harvest before the heavens broke. Others, particularly those with a majority of later-ripening red varieties like Rustenberg as just one example, candidly told me that picking essentially became a salvage operation, and in 2023, they will not be producing any of their top cuvées. The other problem is that heavy rainfall creates a lot of soil erosion, which, as discussed elsewhere, is crucial for viticulture. These are minor quibbles compared to those in townships, built on flat flood plains, that are inundated with flood water, causing more homelessness.

Of course, before moving on from the subject, one has to consider the long-term impact of global warming on water availability. “Climate change will alter things radically,” Kruger tells me. “We will be three degrees [celsius] warmer by 2050 and up to 25% drier. Some vineyards will not be able to survive. They only have 350mm of rain [per annum] anyway, which cannot support vines. A lot of the Swartland is dry farmed.” At Vilafonté, they have just installed a new irrigation system that virtually injects water in the exact spot where needed, reducing their required water by 70% and finding that their vines tend to react quicker.

[Post-script: In September 2023, just a month after I left, the Western Cape suffered widespread flooding that caused severe damage to vineyards and, more seriously, infrastructure damage and at least 11 fatalities.]

Andrea Mullineux peeking out from behind a large canvas depicting her terroir.

X is for Xylophone – During my trip to South Africa, I never played the xylophone. Had I known that I was going to write my report alphabetically, I would have.

Y is for Young Guns – The Cape is constantly nurturing “young guns”, winemakers whose umbilical cords have barely been cut from Stellenbosch of Elsenberg College making noteworthy wines. It has almost reached a point where it needs to slow down, lest consumers are unable to keep up with what is happening. But who should you look out for? Here’s ten with youngsters at the controls for your shopping list:


Charla Haasbrook Wines


La Brune

Minimalist Wines



Sakkie Mouton Family Wines


Van Niekerk Vintners

Tokara’s reservoir filled to the top after rains earlier this year. These are crucial during periods of drought. Who knows what the next months will bring.

Z is for Zimbabwe (and other countries) – While regions on my beat, such as Chablis and even Bordeaux, struggle to recruit harvesters, to the point where some revert back to machine harvesting, the Cape has a plentiful supply of labor on its doorstep, willing to work the vines all year round, grateful not just for a wage but often additional benefits, on-site education and health facilities for example. Many are migrants from neighboring countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique, sadly escaping poverty to face hardships in South Africa. So, wineries can be a lifeline for many, providing them with skills that can change people’s lives. The memory that really struck me during my trip was not the best wine or most charismatic winemaker. It was the ten minutes on a nippy winter’s morning when I was invited to join a small group of Namibian migrants, men and women, wrapped in several layers of clothes. They stood around a goblet vine as Rosa Kruger, together with an old hand named Winston, skin hardened by a lifetime spent in vineyards, together transferring their knowledge to their “pupils”. Snipping away branches with their secateurs, that oft-quoted maxim, how great wine is made in the vineyard, ran through my mind. The next time I drink a high-quality South African wine, I’ll remember how quality stems from vineyard practices and the innumerable, unknown men and women for whom their skill is a lifeline.

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