This article also appeared in the Financial Times. See my detailed tasting notes in South Africa's exciting new wave.
I'm not a great fan of the word 'icon' when attached to wine. It seems to me that wines ought to earn any iconic status from their admirers rather than have it thrust upon them by marketeers keen to segment their product range.
So it was with a certain amount of scepticism that I attended a wine tasting last month billed as collection of South African Icons. The wines had been selected by Greg Sherwood, a South African Master of Wine who works for London wine merchant Handford Wines set up 25 years ago by Master of Wine James Handford. Sherwood has been championing the concept of fine South African wine in the UK for a dozen years now and it hasn't always been easy. The British supermarkets have conditioned their customers to associate Cape wine with some of the cheapest bottles on their shelves, typically bottled in the UK. Nearly two-thirds of all the wine exported last year to the UK, South Africa's most important market, left Cape Town in bulk rather than bottle.
Floating above this good-value but generally uninspiring quality level has long been a cohort of established South African wine producers, mainly making Cape versions of the established international wine styles, plus a few examples of the Cape's own crossing of Pinot Noir with Cinsault, Pinotage. But in my general tastings in Britain I had been becoming increasingly aware of a whole new wave of young South Africans making a quite different style of wine. So, despite the name, I was particularly keen to taste these 'icons'.
I was not disappointed. In fact the most exciting wines were in general from the least established names, typically blends of unusual grape varieties such as Sémillon, Clairette, Verdelho, Grenache Blanc, Palomino, Cinsault, Grenache Noir and, of course, South Africa's most-planted variety Chenin Blanc. These were often from old vines, many of them growing in the up-and-coming Swartland region. They were intriguing, well balanced, appetising wines that promised interesting drinking in the future as well as the present, several of them from relatively unknown names. Most tastings I go to merely confirm what I already knew and give me a chance to identify the plums in any representation of a region, producer or new vintage. This collection of wines really did confirm the existence of a whole new era in a country's wine history.
The next day Sherwood explained his selection process to me: 'I wanted to include the classics that are still at the top of their game (Meerlust, Warwick, Hamilton Russell, etc) as well as young guns making waves and who I believe are not one-hit wonders. I will argue with anyone that Donovan Rall, Chris Alheit [see this wine of the week], Peter Allan Finlayson (Crystallum), Duncan Savage, Craig Hawkins (Testalonga), etc are as worthy of a spot as any.' The Savage White 2012, for example, is the very first offering from this new producer, so has no track record at all, but then in his day job at Cape Point winery, Duncan Savage has notched up more five-star ratings from the influential Platter's South African Wine Guide than anyone.
One man and one woman must take some credit for this new wave. Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines pioneered the model of a small, independent wine producer using their hands-on experience at a larger outfit to put into practice their own ideas, seeking out old vineyards in Swartland and, as he maintains proudly, never owing a penny to anyone. 'I have no ambitions to be rich or famous', he told me on his last visit to London in April, 'I just want to make wines I can see developing well in the future.'
He couldn't wait to point out the dramatic philosophical shift in his peer group of South African wine producers and how they were now all looking for freshness in their wines rather than over-ripeness and high scores in the US. 'Over 14% alcohol is too much', he maintains. The great majority of the new wave icon wines I tasted had alcohol levels below 14% and two of them were below 12%.
The woman so closely involved in this Cape wine revolution is Rosa Kruger, the self-styled 'vineyard manager' about whom I wrote in Rosa Kruger - old-vine champion. She has done more than anyone to identify the old vineyards of interest to these ambitious new producers, many of whom, according to Sherwood, 'spend every last penny they have buying famous foreign wines to educate their palates further'. It has to be pointed out, however, that many of them are secretive about the exact source of their fruit, fearful of bigger, better-funded companies outbidding them. This can result in their using the vague appellations Western Cape or Coastal Region rather than anything more specific.
Since the 'icon' tasting I have gone out of my way to taste as many new-wave South African wines as possible. Handford Wines still have stocks of most of the wines shown at their tasting, but there are other sources of great South African wine in the UK. London online retailer Swig and Harrogate Fine Wines have long worked hard at South Africa, like Stone, Vine & Sun. South African Wines Online (www.sawinesonline.co.uk) offer a particularly wide range but you have to buy at least six bottles. Two importers, Vincisive of Lechlade and Hong Kong and Indigo Wines of London, have gone in search of some of the most exciting new-wave producers, and the restaurant High Timber practically under London's Millennium Bridge has one of the country's best selections of South African wines.
Last year the US was only the fourth biggest market for bottled South African wine (beaten by the UK, Germany and Holland) but even the hard-nosed drinks industry commentator Shanken News Daily admitted recently, 'South African wines are gaining traction in the US'. The substantial investments in South African wine made by Charles Banks, once responsible for Screaming Eagle, the most expensive Napa Valley wine of all, and prominent California oenologist Zelma Long with Vilafonté, are surely likely to raise the profile of South African wine with their fellow Americans.
The Oxford English Dictionary has an icon as 'something regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration'. You win, Sherwood.
These are the South African wines I have tasted recently that I gave at least 17.5 out of 20. There were many more at 17.
A A Badehorst 2010 Coastal Region
Alheit Cartology 2012 Western Cape
Mullineux 2012 Swartland
Rall 2012 Swartland
Sadie Family, Old Vine Series Skerpioen 2012 Swartland
Sadie Family, Old Vine Series Palladius 2012 Swartland
Crystallum, Cuvée Cinema Pinot Noir 2012 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge
Rall 2012 Swartland
Sadie Family, Columella 2010 Swartland
See my full tasting notes published earlier this week in South Africa's exciting new wave.
The photo above, taken by Suzaan Alheit, shows Hemelrand Farm in Hemel en Aarde, with the Alheit cellar on the right.