South Africa: Brave New World (Part 1)

South Africa: Brave New World (Part 1)

Wednesday 10th April 2019
by Mark Dearing

Fresh from a tour of the Cape winelands I feel animated as never before about the wines of South Africa. Not only is this the most exciting wine producing country in the “New World” in my view, it is a country with a rich cultural history and heritage unlike any other.

Despite a winemaking legacy that originated in Constantia in the late 1600s, what we consider now as the beginning of the modern era began in 1994 at the end of apartheid and the country’s re-emergence at an international level. Well-established wine estates such as Kanonkop, Meerlust, Vergelegen, Rustenberg, Boschendal, Hamilton Russell, Klein Constantia, Rust en Vrede and others were reinvigorated and set the tone for the new, outward looking wine industry, building more established, consistent brands that became reasonably successful. Unfortunately, that did little to stem the tide of the newly tradeable, poor-quality bulk wine from virus-ridden vineyards that was still to mark South Africa’s card for at least the next decade. The political and economic freedoms in the new South Africa would not herald the rebirth of a truly great wine industry for a few years yet. For in the post-apartheid decade, it’s fair to say that priorities, naturally, laid more in building improved legal and political infrastructures, curbing entrenched racial and economic inequality, and refining the country’s reputation on the world stage; issues that endure to this day and that no other serious wine producing country needs to face up to in quite the same way.

Add to that a domestic population that prefers beer and hard spirits to wine, and a poor economic base worsened by endemic alcohol abuse, and it is hardly surprising that the reinvention of the South African fine wine scene has been a little bumpy. However, it does make the rise of what is now known as the “New Wave” movement over the past ten years all the more impressive. The momentum behind this relatively small group of producers, led first by Eben Sadie and later joined by Adi Badenhorst, David & Nadia, Mullineux, Alheit Vineyards, Duncan Savage, Restless River et al, is tantamount to a winemaking revolution more magnificent than anywhere else in the world. In their drive to elevate quality and put their country’s best wines on the map (with the UK at the heart of that success), the influence of this merry band has rippled far and wide, to such an extent that major South African brands, despite selling oceanic volumes of wine, have been through a period of introspection over the past five years, and to a certain extent, hung on the coat tails of the “New Wave” generation. The record number of attendees at Cape Wine 2018 for example - the principal South African wine expo held every three years - were not drawn, in my opinion, to fly across the world to taste the leading commercial brands or bulk wine, but instead to experience the conviviality and collegiate spirit of the young “New Wave” producers who, despite having tiny volumes at their disposal, are intentionally or otherwise pulling the entire South African wine industry up by the bootstraps.

My tastings over the past two years, and recent trip across South Africa, leave me feeling that if 1994 and the ensuing years were those that opened-up South Africa in real-world terms – the first phase - and, in wine trade circles, the past decade has been defined by a second New Wave wine movement, then 2019 surely sees the beginning of a post-New Wave South Africa; a third phase, whereby the huge brands have diminished influence and the goals of the “New Wave” movement have more or less been achieved. Difficult to measure of course, but it’s clear that the current cohort of top producers have garnered genuine admiration for the quality of their small-production wines, from both a critical and commercial standpoint, even if they represent only a fraction of the market as a whole. In doing so, they have put South Africa firmly on the map and re-buffed international perceptions. If the country is to take itself seriously though and really compete with the world’s best, as it has every potential to, the middle ground must improve. Bulk wine in particular, and the average bottle price, continues to be amongst the cheapest anywhere in the world. Understandably, encouraging grape farmers to persevere with small volumes of old vine fruit in favour of higher yielding, accessible varieties in a time of increasing production costs, on both a human and climatic level, is difficult. And although quality focused producers are willing to pay more for the grapes they source in order to safeguard the quality of fruit and vineyard itself, they are a footnote in the context of the wider wine industry. Greater investment is needed to find a balance between healthy volumes and good quality wine. What is for sure is that a bottle of wine should not cost less than a bottle of water. If the wine industry is to be a flagbearer for the country’s produce, then it’s clear that grape prices and bottle prices need to rise to enable proper investment in quality viticulture and vinification and support viable long-term growth. Consumer confidence is already improving but it needs the middle ground to make it a more sustainable, long term prospect.

For all that though, at the top end, where our interest really lies, real quality in “fine wine” terms appears stable and the wines reflect natural vintage variances with clarity and honesty, which makes for some very compelling wines. For these, the top 5-10% of small wine producers, it is now time to harness that original “New Wave” dynamic spirit and the current stream of press and consumer support and ensure that the foundations are laid down not just for the next decade but for the coming generations. My impression across the thirty or so wineries I visited is that amongst those there is a palpable sense of self-esteem building, and that we are living in a golden age when it comes to the development of South African “fine” wine.

But crucially, as conscientious producers are acutely aware, it is history, consistency and steady investment that makes a wine-region truly great. Globally, educated consumers have a broader range of excellent wine to choose from than ever before and in order to cement South Africa’s place as a serious contender in the minds of genuine wine lovers, producers must now seek to take the country’s immense terroir really seriously by drilling deeper in to and better communicating the specifics of region, sub-region and site with the confidence of their European (or Californian) counterparts. South Africans can be so proud of the Cape’s stock of incredible old vineyards, which produce some of the most thrilling and vibrant wines to be found anywhere. They are rightly fighting to protect it. It would be amazing to see some of these regions properly mapped from topography, soil and vine age perspectives, taking inspiration from the vineyard maps of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont and Germany’s leading wine regions.

Alongside access to beautiful old vineyards, a great opportunity at wine producers’ disposal is the freedom to plant entirely new and/or refocus on historic cultivars that might prove naturally better equipped to deal with near-assuredly challenging climatic conditions that prevail in South Africa. Developments on these fronts are especially interesting and have the potential to unlock so much latent potential when it comes to expressing a sense of place. I see little merit in chasing an international style that doesn’t speak to South Africa’s natural identity. Both the challenge and the thrill of the current era is being willing and/or able to explore and identify what that really means. It can be mightily helpful, but critical acclaim doesn’t assure continued commercial success. It has to first have a firm foundation in wines and styles that will stand the test of time. Trends come and go.

Happily, this process is well-underway in many places, and the plethora of delicious wines and great people I encountered during harvest 2019 constitute some of the most educational and enjoyable tastings I have been a part of. 

Some other posts you might be interested in