Sustaining South Africa for the future

At the Cape Winemakers Guild pre-auction tasting, Adi Badenhorst (left), David Nieuwoudt from Cederberg and David Trafford.

The trip to South Africa was a real eye-opener for me. I had written off the country as a producer of mainly overripe, overextracted, ”created” bulk wines. How unprofessional of me to cast such a judgement before visiting! The South African wine industry is moving by leaps and bounds, and there are bottled wines in the somewhat higher price categories (between 10-30 USD is the most interesting range in my opinion) that converted me completely.

Wines from the grouping called The Swartland Independents were my favorite new finds, along with Elgin producers such as Shannon, Oak Valley and nearby Ataraxia, as well as the chenin blanc from Alheit under the name of Cartology. Fablé is a producer I’d like to take a closer look at. (For more description of favorites, look here.)

In my view, the future for South Africa lies in re-branding themselves, just like Australia has done, and washing off the image of being only a cheap bulk-wine producer. To be really interesting as a quality wine nation, the growers need to make more money for focusing on quality instead of quantity, which is currently not the case. It might take time but things seem to be moving in the right direction.

Miles Mossop of Tokara and Niels Verburg of Luddite. Mini-rockstars, the lot. Miles is even autographing his bottle!

So, how can SA effectuate this change? Here is my humble (eh…) opinion: One is taking advantage of the few old vines left to get a more interesting depth and concentration in the wines without overripening the grapes. The age of the vine really impacts the complexity of the final wine – the older the better. Fewer grapes are produced, however, which reduces yield and thus profitability. South Africa is plagued by too quick a turnover of vines – most are replanted shy of 20 years!  Maybe because of leafroll virus, maybe because of demands on yield, maybe both. But the old-vine wines are exceptional, and people like viticultural ”legend” Rosa Kruger are doing their best to discover and preserve them. Hats off to her!

I would like to see more focus on the grapes that are express themselves exceptionally here and thus make their own mark rather than just trying to copy other (French) regions. Rather than just bordeaux blends (merlot, cabernet sauvignon etc), sauvignon blanc and pinotage, I’d like to see more of the chenin blanc and syrah in particular (a couple of chardonnays make the top list as well in all honesty, and very few pinotage, farmed just right).

I’d like to see a stronger move in the direction of hands-off winemaking and more sustainable work with the vineyards (less spraying, more focus on the soil health). Of the best wines of the show, few had any added acidity or sugar, though this is common in South Africa. To those who say you can’t farm organic (or in that direction) in SA, or who say that you can’t make wine without added acidity or added yeast or added whatever – I throw the gauntlet. The best wines I found, tasted without knowing the producer, were pretty much right up the good-soil-minimal spraying-hands-off-winemaking alley. They were also the most talked-about wines of the Cape Wine show, even by the writers who are generally traditionalists.

Su Birch, director of WOSA (Wines of South Africa) who is doing one helluva job with communicating the virtues of SA wines.

Communication might be the big challenge – South Africa needs to not only show the ability to make really interesting quality wines but also get this message all the way to the consumers. The US is probably a challenge, but even the UK and Sweden. Any good importer who reads this and wants my take on which wineries to look at, let me know. For my part, I will do my best to transfer my new-found excitement for South African wines to my readers, followers and through tastings (or tours – you need to see this country first hand!). South African winemakers – you deserve every bit of the recognition which is hopefully coming your way!

PS Also see my post on the IPW sustainability seal from South Africa on Vinbanken here.

The River Runs Through It. Shannon vineyards in Elgin.

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