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South African wine - making a global impact

23 Jun 2007 by FT but this is a longer version
Everything looked so bright for the South African wine industry in 1994 when the country was welcomed back into the international fold. Since the first wave of sympathy buying of the inexpensive white wine the country then produced in such quantity, things have been far from plain sailing.
The quality of the wines themselves, never laughable, has risen steadily since then as today’s generation of winemakers, in marked contrast to their predecessors, have roamed the world in search of inspiration and technique.  Or, as Boekenhoutskloof’s winemaker Rudiger Gretschel puts it, “stealing ideas with our eyes”. However South African wine producers still look longingly at the sales figures of Australia and the column inches devoted to New Zealand and South America. The prevailing sentiment in Cape winelands is that their own wines have yet to make their mark internationally. They have not been helped by seesawing exchange rates and the fact that the only big South African wine producer, Distell, leans so heavily on spirits and on domestic sales. The multi-national wine companies have been slow to invest in Cape wine – although the American giant Gallo has been sniffing around for some time and is set to launch their Sebeka range in conjunction with one of South Africa’s still important wine co-ops, in this case Swartland, although it is unlikely that the name of this rediscovered and increasingly fashionable region will feature heavily on the label.
Another factor is South Africa’s shortage of solid brands to do the footwork of, say, Yellow Tail for Australia and Montana for New Zealand. Kumala is the biggest South African brand in the biggest export market, the UK, but has the double disadvantage for South Africa of not being South African. Indeed Kumala is quite difficult to find in the country for which it was designed as a spearhead. It was conceived in Shropshire and now, after being British-owned, has fallen almost accidentally into American hands through a series of takeovers. Presumably as a result of all this uncertainty, Kumala’s sales have tumbled, and with them South Africa’s share of the all-important UK wine market – although there has been a slight improvement so far this year. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Cape wine producers are suffering a crisis of confidence.
Long dependent on a workforce that is slowly being more properly rewarded, educated and housed, the South African wine industry may be the world’s eighth biggest but it cannot compete with the low cost base of Australia’s heavily mechanised vineyards. After calling in a range of consultants,  the generic body Wines of South Africa has decided to emphasize the country’s natural distinctions, not just the age of its soils but the biodioversity of the Cape floral kingdom, home, we are told, to more plant species than are found in the entire northern hemisphere. Neither of these attributes is easy to translate directly into a wine glass – as not a few disgruntled wine producers have pointed out – but connections are beginning to be made. Under the auspices of a Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI), 50,000 hectares (equivalent to half of the total area under vine in the Cape) have been set aside for conservation. BWI’s 86 wine estate members have committed themselves to removing such alien plants as eucalyptus, black wattle and pine trees to re-establish the Cape’s own ecosystems, notably fynbos, which use so much less water. Slopes denuded of their pine forests can already be seen above the wine town of Franschhoek for example. The long-term aim is to encourage sustainable farming on all South African wine farms.
As a wine lover, if I had the job of selling South African wine to the world, I would stress the unique qualities of the wines themselves. Wine producers look enviously at the high scores meted out by the two dominant American wine publications Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Marvin Shankin’s Wine Spectator to big red wines from other non-European regions and seem dead set on copying them as closely as possible. South Africa has gone from being a white wine producer with a few reds to apparently channelling all its winemaking energy into making the sort of red wines with which export markets are already flooded. Shiraz, as it is tellingly known there, is the variety on which most hopes ride.
In this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, one of the most important of several yardsticks applied annually to the South African wine industry, the largest class by far was the Shiraz class in which there were 151 entries (there are roughly 400 different producers in the whole of South Africa). Eight years ago Shiraz/Syrah represented just 0.7 per cent of all grapes crushed in South Africa so most of these wines are based on relatively young vines whose fruit has yet to acquire real depth and expression. As a judge, I felt the best deserved full marks for effort but my fellow South African judges and I struggled to find gold medal winners.
It was so much easier with the white wines. After all, South Africa has a much longer history of growing varieties such as Semillon, Chenin Blanc, and from the 1980s, making very competent Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Not only do white wine vines tend to be more mature and therefore prone to produce more complex fruit, but the leafroll virus that continues to plague Cape vineyards by applying a serious brake to grape ripening affects white wines much less than reds.
I find a most attractive natural freshness in South Africa’s white wines, which, in the case of the top Chardonnays particularly, offer arguably the world’s best value alternative to white burgundy with notably longer active lives than most other non European Chardonnays. The likes of Chamonix, Glen Carlou, Hamilton Russell, Hartenberg Reserve, Jordan, Rustenberg, Thelema and Vergelegen Chardonnays age beautifully. Thanks to its consistency and value, Rustenberg Chardonnay is the only wine I have ever chosen twice (2003 and 2005 vintages) as wine of the week here.
Cape Sauvignon Blancs tend to be aromatic but drier, less strident and more substantial than most non-European examples: a sort of cross between Sancerre and Marlborough. South Africans should be proud of their white wine expertise.
* denotes especially good value; more details to come in the list below
Backsberg, Babylons Toren 2003 Paarl
(14%) £12.99* of London SW19
Bouchard Finlayson, Missionvale 2005 Walker Bay
(13.5%) £11.99 SAWines, £12.99 Virgin Wines
Brampton Unoaked 2006 Coastal Region
(13.5%) £6.95* Tanners of Shrewsbury, £6.75 (2005, 13%) Stone Vine & Sun
Cape Point 2004 Cape Point
(14%) £18.99 Wines of the World of London SW18
Chamonix Reserve 2005 Franschhoek
(13.5%) £12 WoodWinters Wines and Whiskies of Bridge of Allan
Danie de Wet, Earth & Sky 2006 Robertson
(14.5%) £6.99* Waitrose
Doolhof, Signature Unwooded 2006
(13%) £7.49 Premier Cru Fine Wines of Guiseley near Leeds, £7.99, £8.95 Harrods
Glen Carlou, Quartz Stone Reserve 2005 Paarl
(13.5%) £12.99, £13.99 larger Oddbins
Rustenberg 2005 Stellenbosch
(14%) £9.99* Waitrose, and many other stockists
Thelema 2005 Stellenbosch
(14%) £14.50 Swig of London W4
Ataraxia 2006 Western Cape
(13%) £12.95* Jeroboams, £13.99 Wines of the World of London SW18 (see wines of the week)
Buitenverwachtung, Hussey’s Vlei 2006 Constantia
(14%) £9.50 Swig of London W14
Constantia Glen 2005 Constantia
(13.5%) £17.99 Cape Wine & Food of Staines
Darracott (from Steenberg) 2006 Constantia
(13%) £8.99* M&S
Fryers Cove 2006 Bamboes Bay
(13%) £9.95 Stone Vine & Sun of Twyford, £12.99 Cape Wine & Food of Staines, £132 per doz Rankine Fine Wines of London SW15
Iona 2006 Elgin
(13%) £10 Villeneuve Wines of Peebles, £11.50 Swig of London W4
La Petite Ferme 2006 Franschhoek
(13%) £8.50 Tanners of Shrewsbury
Springfield, Special Cuvée 2006 Robertson
(12.5%) £9.49 Majestic, £8.54 Waitrose Wine
Tesco Finest Darling Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Darling
(12%) £6.99* Tesco
Waterford 2006 Stellenbosch
(14%) £11 Berry Bros
Zondernaam 2006 Stellenbosch
(13%) £7.99* Majestic
Barton 2006 Walker Bay
Basson 2006 Swartland
Bellingham, The Maverick 2006 Coastal Region
(14.5%) £8.49 Majestic, £8.54 Waitrose Wine (the 2004 recommend here is on special offer at £5.99 via this Northern Irish merchant, who ships to the UK mainland)
Cederberg, V Generations 2005 Cederberg
(?%) £? H & H Bancroft, £? Stone Vine & Sun
Ken Forrester, FMC 2006 Stellenbosch
(14.5%) £16.99 Waitrose

Jordan 2005 Stellenbosch
(14%) £6.80

Perdeberg, Reserve 2006 Paarl
Post House 2006 Stellenbosch
Raats, Original 2006 Coastal Region
(13.5%) £7.49* of London SW18
Rijk’s 2005 Tulbagh

Saam Mountain 2006 Paarl

(13.5%) £5.99* Bibendum

Amajaro, Vondeling, Babiana Noctiflora Chenin/Viognier 2005 Voor Paardeberg
(14%) £10.50 Cape Wine & Food of Staines
Black Rock Chardonnay/Viognier 2995 Swartland
(13.5%) £11.99 Virgin Wines
Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2002/4 Franschhoek
(13%-14% depending on vintage) £14.46 SAWinesOnline, £12.82 Waitrose Wine
Cape Point Semillon – any vintage
See wines of the week
De Grendel, Winifred (Semillon/Chardonnay/Viognier) 2006 Tijgerberg
(13.5%) £8.99* larger Oddbins
The Foundry Viognier 2005 Coastal Region
(14.5%) £13.50 Cape Wine & Food of Staines
Joostenberg, Fairhead Chenin/Viognier 2006 Paarl
(13.5%) £10.17 Berry Bros
Miles Mossop, Saskia Chenin/Viognier 2005 Coastal Region
£16.99 down to £14.44 Andrew Chapman Fine Wines
Porcupine Collection 2004 Western Cape
£9.95 Swig (Viognier/Grenache Blanc/Clairette)
Saam Mountain Chenin Blanc 2006 Paarl
(13.5%) £5.99 Bibendum
Sadie Family, Palladius 2005 Swartland
(14.5%) £24.70 Waitrose Wine
TMV White 2006 Coastal Region
(13%) £11.75 down to £9.99 Andrew Chapman Fine Wines

Vergelegen White 2005/6 Stellenbosch
(14%) £19.99 SAWinesOnline, £17.70 Four Walls Wine Company have the widest selection in the UK. Find more and international stockists at
Tags:  South Africa
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