Finding Cool Sunshine: South Africa


Better Late Than Never

The pandemic banjaxes carefully laid plans, changing or canceling them without notice. Since the rise of COVID-19, a trip to South Africa has been untenable due to travel and quarantine restrictions, and as I write this on the anniversary of the UK lockdown, who knows when I can return? Hopefully soon, because I miss the achingly blue skies, the dramatic landscapes, the exotic flora and fauna, and not least the people, who despite hardships all seem to have smiles on their faces. For all the media headlines portraying South Africa as a cauldron of dangerous variants, from the perspective of winemakers in the Cape, life continues pretty much as normal given the circumstances. Without wishing to diminish the impact of the virus, the population of South Africa has always faced huge problems. Everything is relative; this is just another obstacle to overcome. The biggest impact has been the government’s vacillating imposition of domestic alcohol bans, blockages at the port and efforts to ensure that workers stay safe. 

My annual South Africa report had to outwit the hurdles placed in its way. Samples were sent to the UK for tasting last September, in limited numbers because of the short window before my schlep to Burgundy. When that trip had to be brought forward due to an unprecedented early harvest, the bottles waited patiently in London for my return. Alas, there was another lockdown, and in the end, I could only enter the capital safely in early March. Along with the February article, South Africa – A Delayed Primer, the notes herein would have appeared last October. That said, many are still the latest releases and deserve attention. I must emphasize that omissions do not imply that a producer’s wines did not deserve inclusion – far from it. It was simply a matter of limited time. The result is that I am already hatching plans for a follow-up report later this year with a larger number of producers.

Duncan Savage, in a selfie taken in his winery in Cape Town.

Growing Season Summaries

Here I provide basic summaries of three growing seasons, though readers should note that these are generalizations. There can be significant differences between Wines of Origin.

The 2018 vintage was challenging due to the worst drought conditions in a century. This led to water rationing and spells of frost damage. The general growing season was slightly cooler than usual. The final crop was picked late and down 15% on the previous year, exacerbated by uneven flowering and small berry size. On the plus side, much like Bordeaux and Burgundy, the dryness meant there was little rot or disease. Andrea Mullineux explained that the drought conditions seemed to encourage the yeast to “eat” the glucose sugar first, leaving unwanted residual fructose in the wines; hence they practiced more cold maceration to encourage the yeast to consume both sugars.

Two thousand-nineteen saw a further minor decrease in quantity of 1.4% from 2018. The previous year’s drought meant that vines were still recovering. Continued water rationing left some winemakers unable to irrigate their parched vines. Windy conditions during flowering led to poor fruit set. A cool and inclement March caused slow ripening; therefore, the harvest was again later than normal. That said, Duncan Savage told me that there was not the “crazy heat” of previous years. The season favored later-ripening varieties due to rain at the end of February, with some reds finding it a challenge to achieve phenolic ripeness. But the successful wines performed very well with slightly more refined tannins than 2018 (oddly, much like Burgundy).

The 2020 vintage brought with it an end of drought-ridden seasons and an increase in production of 8.2% over the 2019 harvest. The weather was more benevolent than in 2019, though yields were stymied by (again) windy conditions during fruit set and small berry size. Harvest was around a fortnight earlier than usual, though wineries had to contend with lockdown from March 26. A last-minute concession by the government permitted the harvest to proceed, which meant that the remaining 40,000 metric tons of hanging fruit was not left for the birds.

Eben Sadie, whose wines are certainly not going to the dogs.

The Wines

Despite what felt like an interminable delay, the wines were worth waiting for. Many of the producers covered in this report have spearheaded the Cape’s emergence as one of the world’s most dynamic wine regions. They made wines that were often sheer bliss in a bottle. As usual, I had to constantly verify retail prices, since coming off the back of 2019 Burgundy and 2018 Bordeaux, I had become accustomed to entry-level wines sometimes north of $50.00 per bottle, the same price as a dazzling South African wine batting at Bordeaux Second or Third Growth or Burgundy top Premier Cru level. That’s no hyperbole. This is where the best of the Cape now stands.  

This being the case, you can understand why debate rages about South African winemakers underselling themselves. It is difficult to argue against, though there is still some way to go to erode lingering prejudice and persuade conservative consumers of the true quality of the country’s finest wines. Only then can producers really start leveraging. It’s important not to deter wine lovers who are just getting used to the taste. And reasonable prices render South Africa attractive to sommeliers and the on-trade, many of whom will seek cost-effective bottles that turn around quickly once they begin reopening after lockdown. As the crème de la crème become established with long track records, the focus on branding and price positioning for producers and specific labels will increase. In other words, oenophiles want to drink Sadie, Crystallum or a Keermont, and country of origin becomes irrelevant to the buying decision, something supported by industry figures (see The Market).

The producers in this tranche lean toward what might be described as the artisan side of the South African wine scene, as these growers have made a big impression overseas, both in the UK and increasingly in the United States. So-called new-wave South African producers such as Chris Alheit, Peter-Allan Finlayson (Crystallum), John Seccombe (Thorne & Daughters), Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Duncan Savage, Alex Starey (Keermont) and, of course, their guru Eben Sadie, are all featured here.

Following our conversation, I asked Matt Day if he could go out and take a photo in one of his Sauvignon Blanc vineyards in Klein Constantia. I like the victorious pose – just after completing harvest. 

One of the keys to South Africa’s success and burgeoning young talent is the ethos of nurturing future winemakers. Apart from the highly respected University of Stellenbosch, there is the Cape Winemakers Guild (CWG), covered in my previous report. A strong sense of mentorship exists throughout the Cape, with established winemakers fostering new ventures – for example, Anthony Hamilton Russell helping Berene Sauls establish Tesselaarsdal. Many winemakers have a side-line label through purchasing fruit, allowing them to flex their creativity and establish their own credentials. That is how Sam Lambson started Minimalist Wines, likewise Bosman Winery’s Natasha Williams, to name but two. This praxis lends the Cape part of its dynamism and is mutually beneficial, as experience and accrued knowledge are transferred back to the winemakers’ regular jobs and implemented on a larger scale. The superstars of the future could be sweeping the winery floor right now.

Eben Sadie offered a counterpoint: the risk that this flourishing of new names makes it increasingly difficult for consumers to keep track of what’s happening. He correctly pointed out that journalists tend to hunt the next big thing. This can risk overlooking established estates. I hope that this report does strive to maintain balance with the inclusion of Klein Constantia, Kanonkop and Ken Forrester, but I will expand upon it in my next report. The industry needs the infrastructure of owned vineyards, brick-and-mortar wineries and estates with employees. Long-term sustainability cannot come solely from young hipster labels making tiny volumes of cult wines. Your average consumer must be able to go to the supermarket or local retailer and fetch a cracking, wallet-friendly South African wine, because this makes high-end cult labels possible – not the other way around.

In tandem, you could say that long-established wineries are becoming more broad-minded. Take Klein Constantia as one example. While their famous sweet Vin de Constance is the breadwinner, winemaker Matthew Day has free rein to explore his passion for Sauvignon Blanc via site-specific bottlings inspired by working a vintage with Pascal Jolivet in Sancerre. Day told me how he is allowed to really push the envelope with these cuvées to see what is possible, and perhaps even to create a Sauvignon Blanc worthy of his hero, Didier Dagueneau. The result is a series of fascinating expressions and contradistinctions of the variety through site location that bear much more kinship with the Loire than, say, Marlborough; wines that will appeal to those who love Sauvignon Blanc, albeit perhaps too extreme for those who do not (including Eben Sadie, who during our Zoom meeting could not disguise his indifference to the variety).

Johan Reyneke. FYI, he’s the one without horns.

Cool Sunshine – The Rise of Chenin

In terms of grape varieties, the strong performers remain the Rhône varieties, not least Syrah, which thrives in the Cape, often attaining Cornas-like aromas and flavors. In terms of white wine, I have proselytized the fantastic quality of Chardonnay in previous reports, and there is no downturn there. Chenin Blanc is also a very strong category and, compared to ubiquitous Chardonnay, is more synonymous with South Africa, where it often goes under its local name of Steen. Johan Reyneke revealed how ampelography studies have recently been undertaken by French and South African researchers in order to discover the clonal origins of old Chenin Blanc vines. They found various types of clones at Reyneke and Kirsten (used by Eben Sadie) that nurseries are propagating and selling back to producers to populate their vineyards. Sadie said, “We have KWV and the brandy industry to thank for these old Chenin vines. Whereas many were pulled up, vines used for brandy were kept in situ and now provide some of the country’s finest wines.”

My colleague Rebecca Gibb MW wrote in her recent Loire report: “Chenin is one of the most versatile grape varieties, making every shade of white, its personality oscillating pendulum-like depending on its site and its winemaker’s intention.” That is germane to South Africa, where Chenin is used for everything from sparkling wines to unctuous straw wines. In terms of dry Chenin Blanc, options range from rather insipid mass-produced plonk that clogs supermarket aisles to ancient bush vines located in marginal, sometimes punishing environments that push the variety to the edge (or over the edge if you are Chris Alheit). Ergo the hands-off winemaking approach (natural ferment, eschewal of enzymes, minimal SO2, use of seasoned wood and/or foudres and so forth) to articulate site and variety without interference. The result is a raft of complex, intellectual Chenin Blancs that appeal to discerning palates, wines that often possess fewer obvious aromas or flavors, but whose texture or umami is a key attribute of South African Chenin Blanc. 

Chenin Blanc in the Loire tends to grow on limestone soils that impart racy acidity offset by a little residual sugar. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc’s natural home is granite soils. Chris and Andrea Mullineux explained that this, plus the sunshine, is what gives South African Chenin its texture. Because acidity is lower, Chenin tends to be fermented down to complete dryness. Mullineux opined that Chenin on schist soils is a little more variable, but that when it goes right, it can “explode.” You might assume that alcohol levels are high, yet examining the analytical degrees, I found only one Chenin that exceeded 14.0°, the 2019 Reserve Chenin from DeMorgenzon. 

When I discussed the topic with Ken Forrester, he provided an interesting comparison between the Loire and South African Chenin Blanc. “Loire wines are crystalline and pure. They are pinpointed, not broad. The best Chenin Blanc requires ‘cool sunshine,’ even if that is an oxymoron. The Loire has the coolness and begs for sunshine, whereas here it is the opposite. We have bags of sunshine but seek the coolness that we get with ocean proximity or elevation. That gets the Swartland people jumping up and down because it is not a cool region. I’ve started making the Terre Noire from Swartland. I found that the fruit character of the wine tends to blow off because of the heat and it leaves the mineralité, much more of an essence of a linear wine. So, you don’t have those light esters or the fruit going on, but you get a broader Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc portrays different things in different places. In Paarl, where I have a couple of vineyards, I find texture, richness and power, in Stellenbosch I find fruit. It is a very good translator of its location.” 

The Market

South African wine has been making steady inroads in the United States over the last decade, driven by the upswing in quality, reputable importers getting behind the category, favor among sommeliers and the on-trade, attracted not only by price and therefore turnaround, but also by the ethos behind the new wave of winemakers, and writers who bang the drum, like yours truly. According to Wines of South Africa, wine production increased 12% in volume and 5% in value last year, which is more than every wine-producing country except Portugal. Here in the UK, a more mature market, South Africa’s sales increased by 23% in value and 7% in volume, evidence that interest is focusing more upon high-end labels and producers, where demand can often far outstrip supply. Overseas markets have clamored for more Chenin Blanc for whites and Pinotage for reds.

As I mentioned in my recent Cellar Favorite column, the secondary market intensifies year by year. As a writer, I am often entreated to come and taste the launch of a “new icon.” That’s just PR speak. You cannot manufacture an icon; icons are created organically by consumer demand, not manipulated supply. Though many of the wines are sometimes a fraction of the price commanded in Bordeaux, Burgundy or California, allocations are snapped up in the blink of an eye and the secondary market means that some of these bottlings can fetch multiples of their release price. Savvy consumers should tuck a few of them away, not only because of the wines’ longevity, but because I suspect they will ultimately be collector’s items, just as old vintages of Paul Sauer or Columella have already become. 

One other aspect of South African wine that I must commend is the effort that goes into presentation. As a wine critic, looks play no part in my assessment of a wine. But the truth is that the label is part of the package and adds something to consumers’ enjoyment. The artistry of many bottles, perhaps inspired by the heritage and landscape of the Cape, makes me want to taste the wines, whether it’s their own “White Album” (Porseleinberg), Duncan Savage’s black and white sketches or Chris Alheit’s beautiful, almost Van Gogh-like artwork.

Chris Alheit’s bottles are as beautiful on the outside as they are inside.

Final Thoughts

These 250-odd wines showcase the quality of South African wine, virtually unrecognizable from when I first began tasting it 20-odd years ago. I have professionally reviewed many wine regions of the world, and few can approach South Africa in terms of eclecticism of grape varieties and styles. “The top 30 wines in this country are really great,” opined Sadie in his sober overview. “But there is still resistance to South African wines. We need 100 unbelievable producers making high-end wines for a decade that will enable prices to lift, because they need to double. That would ripple through the industry right down to people working in the vineyard.”

When I reflected upon why South Africa has perhaps affected me more than any other southern hemisphere country I have covered in my career, one word sprang to mind: soul.

It is that intangible attribute that, irrespective of quality or prestige, some regions have and others lack. (Just go and ask why somebody loves Burgundy but will not touch Bordeaux with a barge pole!) That soul derives from the country of South Africa itself, beleaguered but never beaten, the alchemy between its geologically complex terroirs and gnarled old vines thankfully preserved with the help of Rosa Kruger and above all by its current winemakers. Away from the industrial side of the business, South Africa has an infectious Burgundian spirit. Winemakers around the world often come across as obsessed by their vines; it is a cliché that they plead that they are not driven by monetary gain before driving off in their top-of-the-line Mercedes. But in South Africa, I genuinely believe it is true, because this is not a place to make wine if you are not wholly committed, not born with an unquenchable desire to make wine. This spirit has seen South African winemakers through the turbulent last few months and will stand them in good stead for the future. 

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