What is preoccupying South Africa's liveliest wine producers? Above, left to right, Charles Back, Marelise Niemann, Peter-Allan Finlayson and John Seccombe in Dublin. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Stuck-record time: why don’t Americans drink more South African wine? This is a question I have been asking myself, and any American wine drinker who will listen, for some time.
The world’s biggest wine market was only the sixth biggest importer of bottled South African wine last year, taking less than a third as many bottles as the UK, and less than two-thirds as many as the relatively tiny Netherlands.
I’m such a fan of South African wine, I’d like everyone to appreciate it as much as me. And producers and growers there really do need every bit of financial encouragement to keep vines, many of them venerable, in the ground.
Peter-Allan Finlayson, who, with his brother Andrew, makes the stunning Crystallum wines, was in London recently and warned that, although grape prices have at last been going up, farmers have found it more financially appealing to grow citrus on the west-coast land that has been increasingly prospected by quality-conscious wine producers, and ‘even rooibos is more profitable than wine’.
Producing wine in a decidedly shaky economy, South African wine producers desperately need to export. One bright light recently has proved China, which seems to have filled some of the gap left by Australian wine, kept out by discriminatory tariffs, with imports from the Cape. And the great majority of South African wine shipped to China arrives in bottle rather than bulk – making it much more profitable for producers.
It seems as though some canny investors are seeing the potential of South Africa’s undervalued vineyard land, however. An early exponent of the now-fashionable Swartland region, Eben Sadie, also visited London recently, for the first time in five years. He reported that ‘lots of money is coming in to South African wine now, including from eastern Europe. Buyers can choose between one hectare of insignificant Pomerol or a huge estate in South Africa.’
He is taking a thoroughly proactive approach to these incomers, who, one assumes, have very much more cash than any native wine producer. ‘Not only in South Africa but across the world there was the era where the thought was that if you throw enough money at it, it will be great. But we all know that does not work! They’re appointing good consultants so they get the planting right – but is the winemaking philosophy right? If I think something is going wrong, I’ll actually pick up the phone and intercede because it’s in the interests of us all that they succeed.’
‘Us all’ is a very tight-knit community of wine producers, all trying to advance exports. Finlayson, for instance, was travelling round the UK in a group of four, who make a total of six brands of wine. Their common importer, Liberty Wines, had organised a different ‘round Britain tour’ for each of them but I had the pleasure of seeing them all at once, with a selection of their wines, in our apartment. What was most fascinating was that three of these producers – Finlayson, who makes Crystallum and Gabriëlskloof wines, John Seccombe of Thorne & Daughters and Marelise Niemann of Momento – are very much part of the new wave responsible for reigniting interest in South African wine in the UK, but the fourth member of the group, Charles Back, is much more experienced.
Back is a third-generation, 66-year-old wine producer based at Fairview estate in Paarl, which was first planted with vines in 1699. He has certainly moved with the times, being an early adopter of FairTrade, worker-participation, oenotourism, vinification in clay jars and, at his pioneer Swartland estate Spice Route, was Eben Sadie’s original employer. He’s the sort of guy to have been given a Lifetime Achievement Award (by the International Wine Challenge) at the age of 58.
But, as we sat around my table tasting the young guns’ wines, virtually all of them made from fruit farmed by someone else as is the standard new-wave model, he was most unwilling to leave to get his train to Scotland before the end of the tasting session. ‘I want to hear what these guys have to say’, he complained, nodding at his companions. When presenting his own wines he’d confessed, ‘after 44 years I’ve just realised that owning all your own vineyards is not the best idea. It limits your flexibility and cash flow. I have 550 hectares [1,360 acres] of vineyard now and I’ve tried to find unusual sites, but it hasn’t been easy.’
He confessed to all sorts of other mistakes, such as initially making the Viognier he pioneered in Cape vineyards in the 1990s just like Chardonnay, which resulted in ‘flabby’ wines, and what he did when he bought the Swartland farm that would become Spice Route. ‘I made a big mistake. I pulled out all the bush vines, including old Chenin! I just left the oldest block, planted in 1965, of Sauvignon Blanc. I replanted with Grenache based on my travels in the southern Rhône, and with the prediction of climate change in mind. Grenache is more drought-resistant because the bigger berries absorb more water.’
As we tasted his Fairview Sauvignon Blanc 2021 from Darling he explained a special technology he employs to analyse precisely the formation of the precursors to the flavours he seeks. It allows him to predict exactly which night the grapes should be picked. ‘Imagine that luxury’, sighed Marelise Niemann, who buys grapes from nine growers and 15 vineyards for her Momento label.
She is another huge fan of Grenache, not just red but white too. In fact her best 2021 white is her Grenache Blanc that’s so much zestier than a typical southern French example (but won’t be in the UK until September). ‘The grapes are so well suited to the South African climate’, she enthused, adding, ‘especially for the future’. She also produces a fine Grenache Gris, a variety that’s rare in South Africa.
All three of the younger producers in the group have made their wines in the same winery, Gabriëlskloof, owned by Finlayson’s father-in-law. Doesn’t that impose a certain uniformity, I wondered, only to be told that Niemann and Seccombe once made wines from exactly the same lot of juice from the press and they turned out completely differently.
Seccombe’s Thorne & Daughters wines have a particularly distinctive character. He is not especially interested in powerful aromas but goes for understated elegance and drive on the palate. He also has a grey (gris) speciality, Sémillon Gris, a variety that’s even rarer than Grenache Gris, though it is not recognised by the South African wine authorities so the wine has to be labelled simply Semillon.
It was interesting to hear about their concerns – sustainability in an era of climate change above all. They pointed out that, in the winery alone, it takes between six and eight litres of water to produce a litre of wine – without taking any irrigation into account (though Swartland vines tend to be dry-farmed). But the move away from obviously oaked wines has apparently resulted in a national shortage of used barrels.
Seccombe studied at Plumpton College in England with winemakers at the celebrated English wine estates Gusbourne and Hattingley so is very familiar with South African wine’s number-one market. Both he and Finlayson had recently been to try to sell their wine in the US. According to one of them, ‘the US sommeliers are now aware of South African wine’. Though the other added ruefully, ‘even if there are only about 700,000–800,000 cases of it in the whole country’.
Some favourite South African wines
Ataraxia Sauvignon Blanc 2021 Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge 13%
£18.49 Bancroft Wines
Baleia Sauvignon Blanc 2021 Cape South Coast 13.2%
£13.99 Bancroft Wines
Baleia Pinot Noir 2020 Cape South Coast 13.4%
£13.99 Bancroft Wines
Crystallum, The Agnes Chardonnay 2021 Western Cape 13%
£25–£30 from many independents, including The Good Wine Shop, Wine Republic, Cambridge Wine Merchants, The Wine Reserve and Handford Wines
David & Nadia, any Chenin Blanc 12–13%
From £26.68 Justerini & Brooks and Lay & Wheeler, £27.50 Huntsworth Wine Company
Gabriëlskloof, Landscape Series Cabernet Franc 2019 Walker Bay 14.5%
£33.99 NY Wines of Cambridge
Hartenberg Chardonnay 2018 Stellenbosch 13.6%
£15.49 Bancroft Wines
Lismore, Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2018 Cape South Coast 13%
£24.28 Lay & Wheeler
Momento Grenache Gris 2020 Western Cape 13.5%
Arriving next month. 2019 is £23.68 Lay & Wheeler, £25.95 Port2Port
Momento Grenache Noir 2019 Western Cape 13.5%
£27.88 Lay & Wheeler, £29.95 Frontier Fine Wines
Mullineux, any wine
From about £22
Rall, any wine
From about £22
Sadie Family, any wine
Plead with Berry Bros & Rudd
Savage, any wine
From about £17
Spice Route, Bushvine Grenache 2019 Swartland 13.5%
£16.69 Hay Wines, £17 Scarlet Wines but mainly in the on-trade
Thorne & Daughters 2021s – any white except perhaps Sémillon
2021s expected any minute. 2020s are quite widely stocked
Van Wyk Family Wines Syrah 2019 Elgin 13.5%
£23.99 Bancroft Wines