Following on from yesterday's Stellenbosch fights back we look at current issues in South African wine. A version of this article is published by the Financal Times. Above, Warwick Estate.
Leopards on the lawn. Living with constant electricity blackouts and bedside security alarms. Sales prohibited completely for substantial periods by a COVID-spooked government. Wine production in South Africa has its challenges, which makes it all the more extraordinary that there is such optimism and energy among the Cape’s producers.
Perhaps it was less surprising to see the gleeful, co-operative spirit that erupted in the new wave of younger wine producers evident throughout the last decade. They waved the flag for a rediscovered region, Swartland in the hot, dry interior of the Cape, newly recognised as a potential source of exciting wine from old vines. The Swartland Revolution, a festival that combined these new, often low-intervention, wines with music, great typography and sheer exuberance, was held every November from 2010 to 2015 until it was felt that producers such as Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst, two of the most admired, were no longer revolutionaries but truly part of the South African wine mainstream. (The Sadie Family’s top wines sell out immediately in the UK – hence the US stockist details below.)
Like all commentators, we fickle wine writers tended to fixate on the new, and those in the old guard of South African wine must have felt rather abandoned. But Stellenbosch, South Africa’s most important wine region and most distinctive name, has been fighting back. The Stellenbosch Wine Routes are a clear invitation to tourists to visit the 130 wine estates in the stunning countryside round this attractive, leafy university town. And the good news is that, although historically the visitors to the Cape Winelands were typically British or German escapees from the northern-hemisphere winter, last year the biggest national group were Americans. There are now direct flights from New York to Cape Town, gateway to wine country.
South Africa’s better wine producers desperately need to export to encourage higher grape prices that will keep vines in the ground when so many farmers are turning to other, more profitable crops. As Thomas Webb, son of the highly respected Stellenbosch wine producers Gyles and Barbara Webb at Thelema Mountain Vineyards, put it to me in an email, ‘the domestic market can’t really bear much of a price increase’, but he, unlike some of his peers, is wary of raising prices by too much. ‘I just personally would feel like a bit of a crook trying to charge someone 50 quid retail for a bottle of Thelema Cab when I think 30 quid is a fairer price for the wine.’
One market that seems to positively value high-priced wine is the US but, until now, South African wine, old or new, has had only modest impact on the biggest wine market in the world – a source of personal frustration to me, a fan of the best Cape wines for decades. I hope that those American visitors will fuel increased interest in finding the wines they enjoyed on holiday back home.
Even though no fewer than 17 South African wine producers are US-owned, American confidence and investment in South African wine production doesn’t seem to have done the trick. Celebrated California viticulturist/winemaker duo Phil Freese and Zelma Long planted the innovative vineyard for their Vilafonté project on the slopes of the Simonsberg mountain just north of Stellenbosch as long ago as 1998 (and, as planned, have just sold their share to their long-standing partner Mike Ratcliffe). Jackson Family Wines, the fine-wine company that sprang out of the best-selling Kendall Jackson California Chardonnay, have been producing their fine Capensis Chardonnay from a particularly high vineyard in Stellenbosch’s Banghoek district since in 2013. But these wines still seem more celebrated in South Africa, rather than spearheading an export push across the Atlantic.
The great attraction of South African wine for many northern European consumers is the value it offers. I couldn’t believe, for example, how sophisticated Warwick’s The First Lady 2020 Chardonnay is for £8 a bottle at Tesco (the 2019 is pretty good too). But it is notable that, although Warwick (once owned by Ratcliffe, who sold to investors from San Francisco) is based in Stellenbosch, the appellation of this wine is the much less specific Western Cape, which encompasses such a massive swathe of Cape Winelands. Much of the blend comes apparently from Bonnievale in Breede River Valley way inland.
Webb also pointed out that, ‘Stellenbosch producers were in general infamous for their lack of effort in marketing their brand (and their region) and relying on reputation to sell and market their wines’. Associations celebrating the Cape’s dominant (and best?) grape variety Chenin Blanc and its unique red wine grape Pinotage already existed but finally in 2017 the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective was formed. Its stated objective is ‘to see the region’s Cabernets performing on a global platform’. Kathy Jordan of Jordan Wine Estate explained that Cabernet Sauvignon is seen as Stellenbosch’s speciality and that to be a member you have to be on the Stellenbosch Wine Routes and make decent Cabernet.
There are now 29 members, six of whom hosted an online presentation to British wine media back in November. It was delayed slightly when founder member Christo Le Riche of Le Riche Wines had to drive to another zone to get online because his electricity had fallen victim to the Cape’s load-shedding schedule. But when settled down again he explained that housing pressure is encroaching on Stellenbosch vineyards and why, referring to the heavily irrigated inland wine regions, it’s impossible to find a Stellenbosch wine at less than £15 a bottle. ‘Our yields are just six tonnes a hectare when they can be 24 elsewhere.’
I asked several old Stellenbosch hands how they felt about the new-wave producers who had hung their hat on Swartland. Almost all of them feel that the new-wavers had created much-needed interest in South African wine in general, although one or two pointed out that not all the wines were that well made, and one of them observed tartly, ‘you can’t stay young forever; they’re all getting grey now’.
Youthful old timer Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch’s champion of Chenin Blanc, took the long view: ‘For a while we had a sure focus on Stellenbosch and then along came the Swartland lads and lasses, and then came Bot River … it’s truly dynamic and ever-changing and if there’s a new wave coming we’re looking and ready for it. But right now it’s the Ian Naudés of Wellington, Sam of Lismore in the south coast, Adrian Vanderspuy of [Oldenburg in] Banghoek and Stellenrust of Stellenbosch catching some of the glow.’
There really is dynamism in Cape cellars and vineyards and everyone is agreed on the headline trends in South African wine (which tend to be universal trends): much more specialisation in what’s suitable for the site, rather than trying to produce everything; more single-vineyard wines and greater emphasis on the different characters of subdistricts, such as those of Stellenbosch; old vines highlighted by the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal on bottlenecks; fresher wines; and, one that may not please members of the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective, an increasing regard for Syrah.
As Thomas Webb points out, ‘It is harder to start a renaissance than a revolution!’
Some current South African recommendations
The cheaper wines tend to be a little less glorious than the expensive ones but are still great value.
Warwick, The First Lady Chardonnay 2020 Western Cape 13.5%
Ken Forrester, Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2020 Stellenbosch 14%
£16.65 The Great Wine Co
A A Badenhorst, Secateurs Riviera 2020 Swartland 13%
£16.90 The Sourcing Table (pale orange wine)
Thelema Mountain Vineyards Chardonnay 2018 Stellenbosch 13%
£19.95 The Great Wine Co
Iona Chardonnay 2019 Elgin 13%
£17 The Drink Shop, SA Wines
Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Ed’s Reserve Chardonnay 2017 Stellenbosch 13%
£22.00 The Great Wine Co (arriving March 2022)
David & Nadia Chenin Blanc 2020 Swartland 12.5%
£26.68 Justerini & Brooks
Klein Constantia, Block 382 Sauvignon Blanc 2020 Constantia 13.5%
£45.88 Lay & Wheeler
Sadie Family, Palladius 2019 Swartland 12.5%
$129.99 Sunfish Cellars, St Paul, MN
Ken Forrester, Misfits Cinsault 2020 Piekenierskloof 14%
£9 Tesco (arriving 28 March 2022)
Momento Grenache 2018 Swartland 13.5%
£27.88 Lay & Wheeler
Le Riche, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Stellenbosch 14.5%
£37.99 All About Wine
Mullineux, Granite Syrah 2018 Swartland 13.5%
£73.95 AG Wines
Sadie Family, Columella 2019 Swartland 14%
$142.99 Sunfish Cellars, St Paul, MN
Tasting notes on Purple Pages. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.