Reds, Whites and more

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.

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