We’re delighted to have Gad Kaplan writing for us this week about the many growing strengths in the South African wine industry.
The South African wine industry seems to have gone through a series of conflicting views of itself both in the pre and post apartheid era. We either had a chip on our shoulder that our wines were inferior to other countries or the opposite attitude that our wines were some how better than other wine producing countries. Neither attitude was of much use or value to our growing South African wine industry.
The late Ross Gower, long time wine maker at Klein Constantia once said to me “The French make great French wine, the Italians make great Italian wine and the same applies to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.” What he was saying is that each country possesses a unique identity with the potential to produce fine wine.
What are some of the strengths at present in post isolation South Africa? The first is that South African wines possess a unique identity or taste and character that speak of “Africa.” This identity has sometimes been described as being half way between the Old World and the New. But in truth the identity is ineffable and has to be experienced to be understood and appreciated. The challenge to this identity is mass brands that flood both the local and export market that are generic in character, lacking any sense of place and individuality.
Whilst big brands are a natural consequence of any wine producing country those without character have to be criticized. They might play a necessary role from an economic point of view and satisfy the local consumer (those who simply want to drink without having a specific interest in wine) but the export wine brands frequently sporting pseudo African titles can only harm the oversees appreciation of the South African terrior. A past article in Decanter described how many consumers were beginning to tire of Australian budget wines blended from various regions that lacked a sense of place. Locally, a large producer such as Nederburg is to be commended for producing a vast range of wines across many spectrums whilst maintaining quality and individuality.
The second is that South African wine is able to boast equally good white and red wines. This is a strength not to be taken for granted. There is no point in arguing which is better. Perhaps our whites have begun to show greater consistency of quality. Like it or not South African Sauvignon Blanc has proved a great mass success with the wines particularly from cooler areas such as Constantia, Elgin and Elim providing greater elegance and longevity. Our Chenin Blancs have improved tremendously across various price spectrums and our premium Chardonnays continue to excite. Our reds frequently produce fine wines whether in blends or as single cultivars. The down side are high alcohol and extracted reds. Also the new wave of emerging cult SA reds that are hyped up without a track record boasting ridiculous prices that tend to push up the average price of our quality reds. This is a negative trend to be watched.
Consistency of quality without a loss of a sense of terrior or origin is a growing strength. Somehow we always seem to be comparing our wines to other countries. For example, the eternal mantra seems to be are our wines as good as the French? The truth is that the French make some of the most sublime wines in the world and some of the worst. South African wines can also (on occasion) reach sublime heights but our quality control is of a high order.
Considering that the South African wine industry is centered around primarily the Western Cape and not across an entire country such as is the case in France and Italy we have really begun to fully exploit our terrior. This involves continually discovering cooler areas where the ocean or elevation plays a role and quality wines coming from warm areas as well. However, whether our quality wines come from cool or warm areas these different conditions bring different characters to a wine. Both cool and warm areas bring diversity to the South African viticultural identity. Beyond the contrast of cool and warm regions we find the continual search for meso and micro climates. Small pockets where elevation, heat, the soil, an ocean breeze, all play a role in defining a wine. Whilst virus free material are more easily available in post sanctions South Africa there is also the use and search for old vines that bring concentration and character.
There is the on going experimentation with new grape varieties whether from the Rhone or Mediterranean varieties. Although not always successful we are slowly developing an understanding of the various new grape varieties that we are dealing with and there is always a producer or winemaker who has had success with a particular variety.
Finally, South African winemakers are becoming more and more enterprising. Some are leaving large producers or established estates to start making fine wines in small quantities. These niche wines can prove very expensive, however. Some are making individualistic wines. Sadie in Malmesbury being a good example. Others such as Thelema in Stellenbosch are starting ventures in cool Elgin with their beautiful and elegant Sutherland wines. South African wine producers are becoming increasingly flexible in their winemaking strategies. Charles Back and Neil Ellis are two examples of winemakers that helped discover different regions.
All these positives are not to state the obvious. South African wine is still very much a work in progress. But perhaps that is what makes it exciting? It is just that as much as I sometimes miss the more rustic wines of the old South African wine industry one cannot ignore the many exciting modern developments that have and are taking place in the South African wine industry.