A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also South African sizzle for tasting notes and this guide to our recent coverage of South African wine. Thelema's winery is pictured above against the slopes of the Simonsberg.
Even before COVID-19, the South African economy was in trouble. Now, with unemployment at about 34%, it needs every boost it can get. Yet since March the wine industry – the second biggest contributor to agricultural exports after citrus and employer of 290,000 people – has been seriously hamstrung.
The industry has long been caught up in the government’s attempts to curb the country’s endemic problem of alcohol abuse. In the southern hemisphere, the imposition of restrictions driven by the pandemic coincided with the end of the grape harvest. Cue visions of just-picked grapes and tanks of half-fermented wine left untended. On March 26, however, the South African wine industry managed to get a last-minute dispensation to complete basic vintage operations. Yet it was ordered to cease selling wine completely – both on the export markets, which usually take 45% of all South African wine, and at home. These measures were applied to all alcoholic drinks, not just wine.
The official reason given for the bans was that they would free-up hospital beds that would otherwise be occupied by alcohol-related admissions. The wine industry argued that banning exports was surely unnecessary.
Exports were banned for five weeks, domestic sales for nine. On June 1, sales of wine within South Africa were permitted with severe restrictions, until, on July 12, they were banned again for five weeks. Since mid August wine sales within the country have been allowed, but only Monday to Thursday between nine and five (Friday sales between those hours have been permitted since September 21).
Weekend wine tourism is normally massive in South Africa, accounting for up to half of all sales for many wine producers. Wineries were closed to visitors for nearly five months but have been allowed to open their cellar doors since mid August. There is a major snag though. Orders taken from weekend visitors may be fulfilled only during those restricted weekday daytime hours – and those who want a home delivery have to order a minimum of 12 bottles.
Up to 2019 about 10 million tourists visited South Africa each year, with a concentration between December and March when Cape winelands would be thronged with northern-hemisphere visitors escaping winter back home. In peak season, Cape Town’s top restaurants were booked months in advance. Tourism used to account for more than 40% of the turnover of South Africa’s boutique wineries.
Hopes can hardly be high for the coming holiday season, however.
The industry body Wines of South Africa puts losses so far as a result of the restrictions since March at seven billion rand (£300 million). The country’s 2,778 grape growers and their 40,000 direct employees are experiencing real hardship. Producers have been forced to turn surplus grapes into juice, grape concentrate, brandy and even hand sanitiser.
So, what’s the good news about South African wine? The sheer beauty of it, that’s what. It must be almost unimaginably frustrating for the producers of these gorgeous, often underpriced liquids not to be able to sell them unfettered.
The UK and the Netherlands have been keen importers of South African wine ever since the end of apartheid. Now there are signs that the important American market is waking up to it. It is probably the new-wave producers with their old-vine Chenin Blancs, Cinsaults and Grenaches that will garner the most attention in the US. The unirrigated inland vineyards on the mixed farms of Swartland, north-east of Cape Town, have tended to provide South Africa’s ambitious younger winemakers with affordable, characterful fruit.
The old guard in Stellenbosch is making some stellar Chardonnay and Cabernet, but California is already awash with examples of these popular varietals. The Cape examples tend to be much better value, but value does not seem to be as prized by American wine consumers as by their European counterparts.
I’ve been tasting a wide range of South African wines recently and have been struck by the great strides that have been taken in red-wine quality. For decades Cape winemakers have shown themselves adept at producing truly satisfying whites: Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs that managed to straddle the border between refreshment and interest. Those cooling Antarctic currents seem to make their presence felt in bottle after bottle. And the average age of the country’s dominant grape variety, Chenin Blanc, is sufficient to imbue many of them with real complexity – more so than many a Chenin from its homeland in the Loire Valley.
Reds were a different story for many years. An endemic vine virus meant that far too many red-wine grapes struggled to ripen properly and many tasters found South African reds deeply unsatisfying. But, to judge from my recent tastings, it seems as though all the research and replanting has really paid off. Most of the reds I encountered were really delicious – with fine examples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz as well as wines made from the Grenache and Cinsault vines that can be found in some of the Cape’s older vineyards. The red-wine grape that traditionally came in for most criticism was Pinotage, a specifically South African crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault that tastes nothing like either of its parents. But even Pinotage now seems to have been widely tamed.
Until recently fine South African examples of the red burgundy grape Pinot Noir were extremely rare but the cool south coast of the country is now yielding more and more serious Pinots – and the country’s traditional-method Cap Classique wines include a few really serious sparkling wines.
Now that South African wine producers are free to export, I don’t think you would regret supporting them with your custom.
Some recommended South African wines
These just happen to be the wines I have tasted recently. There are hundreds more.
Aslina, Umsasane 2018 Stellenbosch
$29.95 Amaro, Brooklyn, NY
David & Nadia – virtually anything
£110–245 per case of 6 ib Justerini & Brooks. Skurnik is US distributor
House of Dreams Grenache Noir 2019 Swartland
£9 Marks & Spencer
Journey’s End, V5 Cabernet Franc 2017 Stellenbosch
£15.20 Tanners Wine Merchants
Leeu Passant, Old Vines Lötter Cinsault 2018 Franschhoek
£48.40 Q Wines
Rall – virtually anything
£95–250 per case of 6 ib Justerini & Brooks
Sadie Family – anything, but the wines are too famous to be inexpensive
£235–£415 per case of 6 ib Berry Bros & Rudd
Stark-Condé Syrah 2017 Stellenbosch
£19.99 Museum Wines
Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Thelema Chardonnay 2017 Stellenbosch
£16.10 VINVM and others
UK specialist retailers of South African wine include Frontier Fine Wines, Handford Wines, Harrogate Fine Wines, Lay & Wheeler, Museum Wines, Swig, Red Squirrel, Vino SA and Slurp.