David Williams explores some of the qualities that he believes are setting South Africa apart from its peer group
Amazing sub-£10 quality
We would all love it if the great British wine-drinking public would consistently up their average spend on wine. It would, on the whole, be better for them and us, whether we’re merchants, agents, producers or, in my case, a writer hoping not to spend all his time recommending budget bottles. But until that utopia comes to pass (and this year’s events may well have set the timetable back), there’s always going to be a demand for high-quality wines that provide pleasure and interest at under a tenner.
Enter South Africa. Is there a wine country that is more adept at providing sub-£10 bang for buck? Certainly, there are very few brands that do it as stylishly and consistently as Kleine Zalze, False Bay, Percheron, Bosman Family Vineyards, Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap, The Liberator Francophile, Swartland Winery’s Founders series … this could be a very long list, but you get the idea.
Pinotage: time to stop apologising
It wasn’t the most scientific of surveys, perhaps, but it was at the very least instructive. Before giving a brief talk over Zoom to a group of wine-curious IT professionals recently, I asked the attendees to name the grape varieties they most associated with the country. The clear winner? Pinotage.
Of course “best known” isn’t the same as “favourite”. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest Pinotage is more notorious than famous. The variety has had a rough time at the hands of its many sceptics over the years, and there’s a certain embarrassment in the trade about admitting to liking and listing it.
Indeed, going through a few wine merchants’ South African ranges as I prepared to write this piece, it was intriguing to see how often Pinotage is sold almost apologetically. There’s almost always a nod and a wink, a more or less subtle suggestion that, “no, we don’t normally like it either, but please believe us when we say this one’s different”.
Thing is, the best South African winemakers have long since proved that any problems with Pinotage wines in the past had more to do with winemaking and winegrowing than they did with the grape itself. The stereotypical bubblegum-in-an-ashtray flavours are certainly not a feature of wines that recall the variety’s Pinot Noir part-parentage. Wines such as Scions of Sinai Féniks, David & Nadia Topography Pinotage and Beeslaar Pinotage are, rather, some of the country’s most elegant, ethereal red wines.
Cinsault: A quintessentially South African red
The credit for inspiring the re-invention of Pinotage shouldn’t all be laid at the feet of Pinot Noir. As another recent trend in South African wine has shown, Pinotage’s other parent is enjoying a much-deserved reassessment, too.
Indeed, you could argue that Cinsault, particularly old bush-vine Cinsault, has a better claim to be South Africa’s signature red grape than Pinotage.
It’s certainly a key variety for members of the new-wave set who have done so much to push South African wine forward in the past decade. Duncan Savage, Donovan Rall, Chris Alheit, Adi Badenhorst and Blank Bottle’s Pieter Walser have all made stunning examples of Cinsault that show that red-fruited elegance and fleet-footedness very much runs in the family.
But it’s not just the top end, with Leaping Hound, Percheron, Waterkloof Seriously Cool and Radford Dale Thirst all suggesting Cinsault is the Cape’s answer to the affordable vins de soif of Beaujolais.
The white blend without a name: a 21st-century classic
Of all the great wine styles that have emerged from the New World in the past half-century or so, could a style with its roots in a wine made by the Cape wine industry’s spiritual leader, Eben Sadie, as recently as 2002 be both the most distinctive and the one with the most staying power?
I have a feeling that the wine historians of the future might look at things that way. As the modern South African wine industry’s leading chronicler, Tim James, has said on many occasions, Sadie’s 2002 Palladius set the tone for a style that is still in search of a name: in James’s definition, “mostly but by no means all from the Swartland, mostly but not all based on Chenin and including just about anything else from Semillon to Chardonnay to Viognier (but seldom Sauvignon Blanc)”.
Can we call them Cape white blends? Well that’s not specific enough, since it also covers the many superb Bordeaux-esque white blends made in cooler parts of South Africa from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (such as Vergelegen’s The White or Cape Point Isliedh).
Others have suggested “Mediterranean” or “Rhône white blend” (but that underplays the significance of the Chenin component) and “Swartland white blend” (but then, the trend has moved beyond there).
Whatever we’re calling them, the various blends from the likes of Sadie, Mullineux, Thorne & Daughters, Blank Bottle and so many more are already unquestionably among the world’s finest wines of any kind.
Genuine regional diversity
One of the pleasures of the rapid development of South African wine in the 21st century has been the emergence of regional identities. We may not yet be at the point where retailers want to take the step of having different sections of the shelves devoted to specific Cape regions. But we are surely ready to at least begin talking about the differences between those regions when customers express an interest in South Africa.
As an outsider, I’m fascinated by the parallel rise of two very different regions. Swartland is the one that gets most attention, and that’s not surprising. There’s a glamour to all those tales of adventurous, bohemian, surfer dudes packing up their camper vans to make natural wines from three rows of Hárslevelű. Plus the wines – the red, Rhône-ish blends as much as the whites – are so arrestingly, deliciously different.
The maturation of cool-climate Hemel-en-Aarde has been no less interesting. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines from Newton Johnson, Bouchard Finlayson, Hamilton Russell, Crystallum and Ataraxia may owe an obvious debt of influence to Burgundy. But the growing quality and confidence in the region has been fascinating to watch.
Once you factor in the classicism of Constantia, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, the cool of Elgin, and the warm heartlands of Paarl and Robertson, to name just the most obvious, you have a wine country that can no longer be summed up in a couple of neat soundbites, and which is making wines as diverse as anywhere in the New World.