Five talking points from Cape Wine

ArticlesRegional & Country Focuses
1. South Africa needs fairer prices for its wines

At the previous Cape Wine, in 2018, Wines of South Africa reported that about a quarter of the country’s grape growers had left the industry in the past decade, mainly because their businesses were unprofitable. Covid restrictions have created acute difficulties for Cape wine producers in recent years, but there’s a structural problem that predates the pandemic.

South Africa entered the international market as a supplier of bargain-priced wine and since then its farmers have struggled to achieve fair, and in some cases even break-even, prices for their fruit, even as the reputation of Cape wines has soared.

Erik Laan of The Vineking in Surrey says: “The quality of their wines is simply getting increasingly better. And dry goods costs are rising significantly.

“The South African wine industry feels its wines are being sold too cheaply – something they have argued for some time. Prices will have to go up over the coming years.”

Nik Darlington of Graft Wine Co already sees movement. “Prices have certainly risen since my last visit in 2019, finally, and they needed to for the sake of winemakers and sustainability of grape growing alike,” he says.

2. Chenin Blanc just gets better and better

It’s possible to taste your way through several dozen Cape Chenins and not find any two that are alike. Not only is Chenin South Africa’s most planted white variety, but the country has more Chenin planted than the rest of the world put together. Long gone are the days when the wines invited comparisons with rivals from the Loire. In fact, some winemakers think there’s a good case for a more enthusiastic reclaiming of the old local name, Steen, to accentuate the individuality, and confidence, of the South African style.

But how to define that style? Broadly, the flavour spectrum ranges from zesty to fruity to buttery but there are thousands of nuances in between. For white wine lovers, especially those on a budget, Cape Chenin always offers something that fits the bill.

3. Producers are having fun with their wines

There’s a tangible restless energy in South Africa’s wine scene. Producers could be excused for taking a bit of a breather and allowing export markets to catch up with the fruits of their recent labours. Instead, the Cape industry is brimming with new ideas and experimentation.

Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants was delighted to encounter variations on “skin contact, whole bunch and carbonic maceration, amphora, concrete egg and qvevri ageing, more foudres and old wood, reductive and oxidative fermentation and ageing, and the use of SO2 during and after ageing”.

He adds: “That’s a big change from oenology-degree orthodoxy, and probably not embraced to the same extent anywhere else in the world. There are different outcomes, for sure, but not the divisions among winemakers and commentators that I am accustomed to seeing.”

4. More local expression

“A big theme of recent years has been growing interest in regional flavours,” says Nik Darlington of Graft, “whether at larger Wine of Origin level or drilling down to the smaller wards and, in rare instances, single vineyards.

“For example, I managed to spend quite a bit of time with winemakers from Breedekloof and Hemel-en-Aarde. They’re poles apart in almost every respect, the latter steadfastly terroir-driven and premium-focused from its inception, the former grounded in larger co-operatives and bulk wine – but, like many other regions, taking the bold but necessary steps down the road of premiumisation.”

Darlington adds: “The best winemakers have been banging the terroir drum for years, of course, but I can see this feeding through to all levels because it is something South Africa, with its rich geological and microclimatic diversity, can do so well.”

5. New superstar winemakers

Nobody thinks that South Africa’s winemaking royalty is about to be dethroned anytime soon. David & Nadia, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, Chris Alheit … these names, and many more, are clearly at the top of their game and continue to innovate and surprise. But new names are joining them. The unassuming Jean Smit of Damascene, hailed by Jamie Goode as South Africa’s most exciting winemaker, is crafting world-class wines from some of the Cape’s most exceptional sites. Syrah maestro Duncan Savage, Tim Atkin’s Cape winemaker of the year, is really hitting his stride. Sakkie Mouton, whose first vintage was in 2018, is developing a devoted fan base with his maritime-influenced varietals from barren vineyards overlooking the Atlantic. If jealousies and rivalries are creeping in, these certainly didn’t show at Cape Wine. Indeed, the togetherness and bonhomie among South Africa’s winemakers is one of the industry’s most enduring, and attractive, characteristics.

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