What I learnt about South African wine

View from Cavalli restaurant, Stellenbosch

The 2023 Trophy Wine Show provided a window on the current state of South African wine. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Above, the view from a lunch at Cavalli restaurant in Stellenbosch, a rare escape from the windowless tasting rooms.

Wine competitions proliferate but they have a problem. The producers acknowledged as the very best don’t enter as they have nothing to gain and all to lose. So gold and silver medals awarded on the basis of giant blind tastings by experienced tasters can serve at best to identify up-and-coming producers or the established ones that are doing a better job than their peers.

Despite this, I enjoyed my recent stint at the annual Trophy Wine Show organised by the country’s leading wine writer Michael Fridjhon and team. It is not South Africa’s only wine competition but it is certainly admirably rigorous. An auditor sits in the corner of the rooms in which anonymised wines are judged blind. Wine-show finances are part-based on entry fees and this one is focused on an industry suffering more than most from increased costs and economic uncertainty, so it’s hardly surprising that there has been a decline in the number of entries. The peak was 1,082 in 2015 but the total this year was 688, fewer than the 787 in 2002, the first year of the competition. This was a slight increase, however, on the number in the pandemic-affected years of 2021 and 2022. From 2022 Fridjhon has secured sponsorship from the wine-loving executive team of Investec, whose roots are South African.

I’d been one of the overseas judges of the competition in 2003 (when I went with my mother-in-law) and 2007 (when I went without a sense of smell, which was interesting). This year I was persuaded to return in order to get a grasp of what’s happening in more mainstream South African wine than the regular presentations in the UK, their most important market, by the new-wave producers who have been shaking up the Cape wine scene over the last 10 years or so. Names such as Sadie, Mullineux, Rall and Savage were conspicuous by their absence from the list of competitors in this year’s Trophy Wine Show. 

Fridjhon was especially keen that I should judge the 70 entries in the Shiraz/Syrah class so that I could see the progress. Back in 2007, he argued, it was the worst class because the vines tended to be inconveniently young and winemakers ‘clueless’ about how to handle their produce, resulting in a high degree of spoilage by Brettanomyces infection. ‘Brett’ is a yeast that can infect a barrel or even a whole winery and imbues wine with aromas ranging from Band-Aid/Elastoplast to something more animal than vegetable along the smoky-meaty spectrum. We all vary in our susceptibility to it, and in our views on it.

Certain Australian wine-show judges are known as ‘the brett police’ and will disqualify any wine with the merest hint of it. Some older British wine drinkers, on the other hand, are blithely ignorant of its existence and probably view it as a flavour component. It has after all been common in even some quite famous wines, especially those based on Rhône grapes such as Syrah/Shiraz, though brett has had to be eliminated from some Bordeaux cellars too. At lower levels, you need to have been told it’s a fault before you identify it as such (which poses an interesting philosophical question …). At the Trophy Wine Show, as usual elsewhere, the younger the taster, the more intolerant of brett they were.

I can’t say that I remember every one of the South African Shirazes I tasted in 2007 but this was a decent enough class in 2023 – even if the vast majority of them seemed to be modelled more on full-bodied Australian Shiraz than on the arguably more fashionable fragrant style associated with the northern Rhône, where the grape is known as Syrah. Many Cape wine regions may be too warm to produce fresh Syrahs – though I’d come across several the day before I started judging when I toured Cape Agulhas wine country on the southernmost tip of Africa. One of my favourite Syrahs in the show was from there, Strandveld’s 2020, to which our panel of four tasters gave only a silver medal, perhaps judging it too light. I hope a definitively South African style of Shiraz/Syrah will emerge, but I’m not sure I saw one when judging last month.

All of the four gold medals in this class (and three of the nine silvers) went to wines labelled Syrah as opposed to Shiraz, with two of them made in relatively cool regions. Villiersdorp winery is in the relatively new wine appellation Theewater, in the hills of the cool Cape South Coast region, where the local dam ensures a regular water supply. Its 2020 Syrah was notably gentle on the palate rather than oak-dominated as some of them were. And Bloemendal’s Tyger Syrah from a single vineyard in maritime Durbanville was outstanding, but then it was a 2016 and one of the oldest wines in the blind tasting. The other two were Old Road’s 12 Mile Syrah 2021, from Swartland, and Oldenburg’s Stone Axe Syrah 2021, from their Rondekop (round hill) in the Banghoek Valley outside Stellenbosch, that rather successfully incorporated 15% of another Rhône grape, Grenache.

My other two judging days were devoted respectively to Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays with a few Pinot Noirs. South Africa has long been a source of great-value Chardonnay, cooled by ocean influence. This was the most successful white-wine class in the whole competition, being awarded five golds (all 2022s) and six silvers – even more than South Africa’s signature Chenin Blanc grape, which managed only three golds and six silvers. 

Another Banghoek wine shone, the diamond-funded winery Delaire Graff’s Reserve Chardonnay. One popular choice was Bon Courage’s Unwooded Chardonnay from limestone-blessed Robertson that had seen no oak at all, and sells for under €8 in Germany and the Netherlands. Benguela Cove Lagoon Wine Estate, with a branch in West Sussex, is almost on the coast just west of Hermanus and the sea breezes seem to have produced a wine with real drive. Hartenberg’s Reserve Collection 2022 Chardonnay sold exclusively through retailers Woolworth’s (whose reputation is rather higher in South Africa than it was in the UK) carried the annoyingly vague appellation Coastal Region.

The most intriguing appellation of all was Tradouw, in the Klein Karoo region, on Survivor winery’s delicious Cellar Master Series 2022 Chardonnay. The wine had slightly more residual sugar than most (3.7 g/l) but that was well compensated for by the persistence and potential of this very well-made wine. The fruit apparently comes from 15-year-old vines on the Tradouw-Joubert farm on the south-western edge of the Klein Karoo, a hot, dry region long associated with fortified wines but these vines are at 700 m (2,300 ft) and benefit from relatively good rainfall.

South African Pinot Noir is still very much work in progress and we awarded no gold and just one silver medal, to Paul Cluver’s Estate Pinot Noir 2021 from cool Elgin.

As for the Cabernets tasted on the last day, we seem to have gone mad with the silverware, awarding 15 silver medals as well as four golds. South African vines have long suffered from leafroll virus, which can hinder full ripening, but the best wines showed no sign of this. Indeed, one of our gold medals, Spier’s 2018 Cabernet, another ‘Coastal Region’ wine made for Woolworth’s Private Collection, notched up 15% alcohol, but carried it well and had enough tannin to promise future development even if it was riper in style than Neil Ellis’s 2019 Cabernet-dominated bordeaux blend from Stellenbosch, my favourite wine of all, which also had a good tannic undertow but was definitely dry rather than remotely sweet.

The other two gold medallist Cabs were also from Stellenbosch, Louisvale’s Five Barrels 2020, which seemed fairly mature already, and Eikendal’s glamorous 2013, which had evolved beautifully yet still had something to give.

Lessons learned were that Stellenbosch really does produce excellent Cabernet, that South African Chardonnay is a very safe bet, that South African wine in general is a steal, and that, while I miss my late mother-in-law, life really is better with a sense of smell.

See the complete results of the Trophy Wine Show.

South African wines to head for

2023 gold medallists tracked down in the UK

MAN Family Wine, Free-Run Steen Chenin Blanc 2022 Cape Coast 13.5%
£13.36 Great Wines Direct

Laborie, Blanc de Blancs Cap Classique 2017 Western Cape 12.5%
£15.95 The Dorset Wine Co (traditional-method sparkling)

Benguela Cove Chardonnay 2022 Walker Bay 13.6%
£16 Benguela Cove (UK), £17.95 Alteus Wines

Neil Ellis Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 Stellenbosch 14.4%
£22.95 South Downs Cellars

Vergelegen, GVB White Blend 2021 Stellenbosch 13.4%
£24.28 Lay & Wheeler (blend of Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc)

Bouchard Finlayson, Hannibal 2020 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley 14%
£25.85 VINVM (blend of Italian and French varieties:
47% Sangiovese, 15% Nebbiolo, 14% Pinot Noir, 11% Shiraz, 7% Mourvèdre and 6% Barbera)

See my tasting articles on Syrah/Shiraz, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon judged at the 2023 Trophy Wine Show. For international stockists see Wine-Searcher.com.