“Big Skies” I mumbled, as a striking silhouette traced the skyline and the lacy, sweet, mint-like scent of fynbos hung for a fleeting moment in the air. In the final twilight minutes, immediately before darkness envelops the Swartland completely, when the deep fire-red glow of sunset wanes under the pressure of the heavy inky-black sky, the old wind-battered, scraggy arched trees that dot the mountain top morph into being, high above the Paardeberg vineyards below.
It is to observe a tower of giraffes on an arduous march – the strong winds lurching their long, muscular necks forward and backward, before they too are swallowed by darkness, only to be replaced by a million Southern stars. “Big Skies”, echoed Eben Sadie, as we climbed the steps to his office. “You have to come here to experience it. We have skies in this country that will change your life.”
South Africa is a country that has evidently had an impact on mine. Not only are the landscapes of the Western Cape unspeakably beautiful, dramatic, and wild – punishing even – at times, there is a sense of restlessness and ambition that exists on a higher plain here than almost anywhere else, when it comes to wine. In every good bottle is the taste of a place, of youth, and of friendship. The sheer diversity is remarkable.
The journey that South African wine producers have been on to get here has not been an easy one, nor is it ever likely to be. But, as we know, diamonds are created under pressure. And the vineyards are full of treasure. The prices simply do not reflect the quality. This is the challenge for producers that, for now, makes it a buyer’s market.
We have been assembling our South Africa portfolio for a number years, exploring every stunning pocket of the Western Cape in the process. For the first time, we are pleased to launch a fully-fledged report. Just as we did seven years ago, we kick off with David Sadie of David & Nadia, who describes 2022, the vintage in question, as “our most intense release to date.” In the Swartland, an overall cool growing season culminated in four consecutive heatwaves. Patience and selections were the keys to evenly ripe fruit. Decisions were made to drop overripe, underripe and sunburnt grapes – to the tune of around 25%. Chris Alheit agreed, explaining that a cull was essential to achieve wines of quality. Both have succeeded.
In Stellenbosch, Reenen Borman advised that he was less affected by the heatwaves. From his base in the cooler Polkadraai Hills, the main challenge was to sort grapes affected by coulure. Lukas Van Loggerenberg added that there was a split between producers who had thinned canopies too severely in the cool, humid spring season, and those who waited and banked on the tables to turn. His 2022s are a hit parade.
In the cool-climate, coastal Hemel-en-Aarde, Hannes and Nathalia Storm are happy with their 2022 Chardonnays. Here the harvest was warmer than average, but not noticeably, any warmth more than offset by the plentiful rains earlier in the season. They report a happy, even crop, yielding beautifully textural, focused wines. The best Pinot and Chardonnay producer in the country in our view, they release their 2021 reds this year.
Thanks to the strong collective spirit in South Africa, it is often tempting to talk of the country as if it were one region. Hopefully, this offer will prove that is very much not the case. There is so much more I’d like to write. But for now, it’s perhaps enough to say that there really is something here for everyone. I hope you enjoy exploring the wines as much as I have assembling them.
South Africa Buyer, Justerini & Brooks.