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South African overview 2003

6 Jul 2003 by JR

Tokara, named not for some Zulu incantation but after the owner's children Tomas and Kara, might just be the most beautiful winery I have ever seen. Banker G T Ferreira has created a building, his wife an olive grove, chef Etienne Bonthuys a restaurant, all in aesthetic terms beyond the wildest dreams of even the most munificent Napa Valley billionaire-vigneron - thanks partly, it must be said, to its breaktaking view from the slopes of the Simonsberg.

There is only one problem. Tokara, built three years ago, has yet to produce any wine. The stunning spiral cellar encased in burnished steel that runs like a spine through the winery is designed to act a reference library of all Tokara releases but contains not a single bottle.

The problem is that Tokara's cellarmaster Gyles Webb, who also runs his own much-lauded winery Thelema next door, does not reckon anything produced so far is quite good enough for the Tokara label. (Though he has allowed the odd white to seep out under the second label Zondernaam, 'unnamed'.)

Although Tokara is much more indulgently funded than most South African wine operations, this fastidiousness is typical of the ambition that now burns through the country's younger generation of winemakers, perhaps the best-travelled in the world.

When the rainbow nation emerged from the shadows of isolationism in 1994 its wine industry was still dominated by a generation of wine farmers who knew very little other than the state-protected cocoon in which they had operated until then. Some good wines were made, as a 1993 Thelema Riesling, a 1974 Fairview Shiraz and a 1979 Backsberg Cabernet which I mistook for a classed growth claret all reminded me on a recent visit.

But what has changed is the energy level and breadth of cultural influences that are now driving one of the most determined upward curves of quality in the wine world. The speed of the transformation of South African reds over the last few vintages from hard, tart, baked assaults on the palate to voluptuous essences is reminiscent of what Argentina achieved a year or two previously. Except that South Africa can field many more seriously fine wine candidates than South America's dominant wine producer.

South African white wines, still by far the majority in volume terms of what is produced, have since the mid 1990s yielded some extremely good-value New World Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the best of them respectively fine alternatives to white burgundy and a sort of halfway house between New Zealand's pungency and France's more restrained Sauvignons. (Thanks to strong ocean influence, some of it straight from the Antarctic, South Africa can claim to be a New World wine producer with distinctly Old World crispness.)

During the week I spent there last month however, tasting about 500 of the country's best wines in both blind and open conditions, I felt that all the hard work and fine tuning - picking later, more careful acid additions, better tannin management, exacting oak treatments - had gone in to improving the red wines while white wine quality had rather stood still.

In fact the first class of still wines I judged in the Fairbairn Capital Trophy Wine Show, the reason for my visit [purple pagers can read the often surprising results in full, including one trophy for a wine currently selling at Oddbins for £5.99], comprised 63 Sauvignon Blancs and we four judges could not muster the enthusiasm for a single gold medal. You could argue that May is far from an ideal time to judge southern hemisphere Sauvignons. Many of the best 2002s were presumably sold out while too many of the 2003s tasted of fermentation-plus-fining.

But even the 108-strong Chardonnay class, waded through by my fellow international judge James Halliday of Australia among others, yielded only two gold medals. And in the Chenin Blanc class (much smaller even though, or perhaps because, this is South Africa's most planted grape variety) only the tiny Post House's old vines scraped a gold, for their 2002.

That said, the point of this particular wine show is to stand out from the rest, as organiser wine writer Michael Fridjhon put it, as 'one of the toughest wine competitions in the world'. By no means was every one a winner.

The best categories I judged, and some of the best wines I tasted with the 40-odd wine producers I met afterwards, were without a doubt the Bordeaux blends, various combinations of Cabernets, Merlot and a surprisingly frequent seasoning of Petit Verdot and/or Malbec.

The grape most often called Shiraz but sometimes here Syrah is currently the most fashionable within South Africa, perhaps largely because it is relatively new. Because of this, vines are still young, and winemakers are still establishing exactly where on the spectrum between blockbuster Barossa and perfumed Côte Rôtie they wish to place their offerings. Some exciting Shiraz/Syrahs are emerging but South Africa's best Cabernets and Bordeaux blends are still generally much greater, more confident wines.

I did not judge the varietal Merlot class personally, but James Halliday declared himself, with distinctly un-Australian lyricism, 'positively enchanted' by them. It was significant that there were more entries in this relatively new class than in the class devoted to South Africa's very own red grape Pinotage which, after a bit of a rally in the 1990s during which winemakers managed to rid it of its estery stink, is currently out of favour. 'No varietal character: plus 10 points', I heard one wine judge say of one example of this widely planted vine.

Perhaps the most exciting development in South African wine today - apart from the obvious and much-needed efforts to upgrade working conditions and share profits more fairly through education and empowerment schemes - is the continuing discovery of newer, usually cooler, wine regions. Walker Bay/Hermanus proved South Africa can grow Pinot Noir and surprisingly burgundian Chardonnay some time ago. Nearby, competition from South American apples and pears has hastened the makeover of Elgin's orchards to vineyards, and now there is Elim further east along the Indian Ocean coast producing some extremely fine Sauvignon Blanc such as The Berrio, Land's End and Quoin Rock - many of them adding a mineral note to the more usual vegetal spectrum of flavours.

Then there are all manner of developments on the west coast, with the cool Benguela current helping to preserve excitement in fruit coming from Swartland, Malmesbury, Darling and higher parts of Citrusdal.

It is rare to come across an operation that is 100 per cent South African. Investment has been pouring in from Europe and virtually everyone with any influence has travelled widely - even the young de Waal couple entirely and enthusiastically responsible for the Scali label, with their babies. Winemakers from New Zealand are in particularly influential positions. Pierre Lurton of Château Cheval Blanc consults at Morgenster. When conglomerate Distell needed to brush up their wine styles they recruited Linley Schultz from Southcorp in Australia.

I could go on, but there is one blot on the landscape for us wine enthusiasts: the recent strength of the rand. Wines that seemed laughably cheap a year ago are starting to look rather less so. However, it is probably true that in most cases the quality has risen as fast as the rand. South African wine is a serious force to be reckoned with now.

I have included UK stockists in brackets where known, though there are UK and US importers for many of these producers given in my much-extended review of South Africa on purple pages.

Some favourites

Chenin Blanc

  • Forrester Meinert 2001 (£14.99 Waitrose)
  • Raats Family 2002 (£9.99 some Oddbins)

Sauvignon Blanc

  • Bouchard Finlayson 2003 (Seckford Wine Agencies)
  • Cape Point Vineyards 2002
  • Flagstone The Berrio 2002 (£9.99 some Oddbins)
  • Land's End 2003 (£7.99 Tesco)
  • Quoin Rock 2002
  • Vergelegen 2001 (a blend including 22 per cent Semillon),
  • Zondernaam 2002 (£6.99 Majestic)

Chardonnay

  • Asara 2001
  • Count Agusta 2001
  • Paul Cluver 2002
  • Hamilton Russell 2001
  • Radford Dale 2001 (£8.99 Oddbins)

Pinot Noir

  • Bouchard Finlayson Tête de Cuvée 2001 (Seckford Wine Agencies)
  • Flagstone The Poetry Collection 2000
  • Thandi 2001 (£6.99 Tesco)

Merlot

  • Groote Post 2001
    Chiltern Cellars, High Wycombe, Bucks (tel 01494 526 212)
    Hailsham Cellars, East Sussex (tel 01323 441 212)
    Vicki's Stores, Surrey (tel 01276 858 374)
    General Wine Co, Liphook, Hants (tel 01428 722201)
    Wimbledon Wine Cellars (tel 020 8540 9979)
    Charles Hennings, West Sussex (tel 01798 872 485)
  • Linton Park River Garden 2001

Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Conde 2001 (H & H Bancroft)
  • De Trafford 2001 (Bibendum)
  • Le Riche Reserve 2001
  • Morgenhof 2000
  • Pinehurst 2000
  • Thelema 2001

Cabernet Franc

  • Raats Family 2001 (£13.99 some Oddbins)
  • Warwick Estate 2001

Bordeaux blends

Shiraz

  • BWC 2001 (Seckford Wine Agencies)
  • Boekenhoutskloof 2000
  • Columella 2000 (£25.99 Oddbins Fine Wine)
  • Delheim Vera Cruz 2000
  • The Foundry 2001
  • Thornhill 2001
  • Vergelegen 2001

Shiraz blends

  • Fairview SMV 2001
  • Guardian Peak SMG 2001

Pinotage

  • Diemersfontein Carpe Diem 2002
  • Scali 2001 (£11.99 Oddbins Fine Wine)
  • Warwick Estate 2001

Sweet white

  • Paul Cluver Noble Late Harvest Riesling 2001

For more details see www.trophywineshow.co.za

Some favourites

Chenin Blanc

  • Forrester Meinert 2001 (£14.99 Waitrose)
  • Raats Family 2002 (£9.99 some Oddbins)

Sauvignon Blanc

  • Bouchard Finlayson 2003 (Seckford Wine Agencies)
  • Cape Point Vineyards 2002
  • Flagstone The Berrio 2002 (£9.99 some Oddbins)
  • Land's End 2003 (£7.99 Tesco)
  • Quoin Rock 2002
  • Vergelegen 2001 (a blend including 22 per cent Semillon),
  • Zondernaam 2002 (£6.99 Majestic)

Chardonnay

  • Asara 2001
  • Count Agusta 2001
  • Paul Cluver 2002
  • Hamilton Russell 2001
  • Radford Dale 2001 (£8.99 Oddbins)

Pinot Noir

  • Bouchard Finlayson Tête de Cuvée 2001 (Seckford Wine Agencies)
  • Flagstone The Poetry Collection 2000
  • Thandi 2001 (£6.99 Tesco)

Merlot

  • Groote Post 2001
    Chiltern Cellars, High Wycombe, Bucks (tel 01494 526 212)
    Hailsham Cellars, East Sussex (tel 01323 441 212)
    Vicki's Stores, Surrey (tel 01276 858 374)
    General Wine Co, Liphook, Hants (tel 01428 722201)
    Wimbledon Wine Cellars (tel 020 8540 9979)
    Charles Hennings, West Sussex (tel 01798 872 485)
  • Linton Park River Garden 2001

Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Conde 2001 (H & H Bancroft)
  • De Trafford 2001 (Bibendum)
  • Le Riche Reserve 2001
  • Morgenhof 2000
  • Pinehurst 2000
  • Thelema 2001

Cabernet Franc

  • Raats Family 2001 (£13.99 some Oddbins)
  • Warwick Estate 2001

Bordeaux blends

Shiraz

  • BWC 2001 (Seckford Wine Agencies)
  • Boekenhoutskloof 2000
  • Columella 2000 (£25.99 Oddbins Fine Wine)
  • Delheim Vera Cruz 2000
  • The Foundry 2001
  • Thornhill 2001
  • Vergelegen 2001

Shiraz blends

  • Fairview SMV 2001
  • Guardian Peak SMG 2001

Pinotage

  • Diemersfontein Carpe Diem 2002
  • Scali 2001 (£11.99 Oddbins Fine Wine)
  • Warwick Estate 2001

Sweet white

  • Paul Cluver Noble Late Harvest Riesling 2001

For more details see www.trophywineshow.co.za

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