Random ramblings of a first time visitor to South Africa’s winelands
For a lover of fine wine, initial impressions of the Cape are highly promising. As soon as one sees the prices in a bar or restaurant, one is aware of the favourable exchange rate: and I was delighted to find that I could afford wines that I previously thought outside my budget. Scenically, the coastal vineyards and ubiquitous mountains of the Western Cape suggest fertile ground for the cooler vineyards so sought after by quality conscious producers throughout the southern hemisphere. And few wine regions in the world can rival Franschhoek for its dramatic setting, framed on three sides by magnificent (and sadly fire-scarred) mountains – can anywhere offer a more convincing argument for a possible correlation between vineyards’ natural beauty and wine quality?
I found that, in all price categories, South Africa looks well equipped to take on international competition. At the lower end, the wines are correct, well-made and flavoursome. They are highly attractive to export markets owing to the weak rand, although that advantage may be eroded by the low yields that seem to characterise the drought-affected 2016 vintage and which are likely to lead to price increases. Higher up the quality tree, I was struck by the purity of flavour, the diminishing influence of new oak and the growing refinement of the top wines. In particular, I noted the importance of blending, both of different grape varieties and of different regions – they are unquestionably ahead of other southern hemisphere producers in this aspect.
I was especially interested in this point because I was keen to find out for myself if I could taste the difference between wines from different regions. On the broader level, the answer is yes – not surprisingly, there are clear stylistic differences between the wines produced in the cooler areas of Walker Bay and Elgin and those produced in the warmer inland areas of Paarl or Swartland. It is also not surprising that, in practice, cooler climate grapes have been planted in the coastal vineyards, Cabernet still reigns on the ocean side of Stellenbosch, and Mediterranean varieties are finding increasing favour in Franschhoek and inland. So South Africa is well on its way to matching key grapes to specific regions and, in this sense, regional styles are already well established.
However, it is the blends that set me thinking – at lower price points, the blends (Cape Red, Cape White, etc) struck me overall as both more interesting and better balanced than the single varietals. Admittedly harder to sell, no doubt. At the top end, producers like Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof and Vergelegen have well established reputations for their varietal offerings, and many premium estates now offer single vineyard wines from classic varieties. This is in keeping with the current global mantra that the key to top quality is terroir, provenance or sense of place. And yet……
In Europe, where the notion of terroir has had longest to prove itself, the top wines often take a few years to hit their stride and to express their origin; and it is generally only with maturity that they become genuinely complex. The same is generally true of the most highly regarded wines in the new world too; relatively few have achieved an international reputation for their ability to age and, therefore, a claim to greatness, but those that have tend to follow the European paradigm. In due course, I have no doubt that South Africa’s finest will prove to international markets that they too can offer contenders for “great wine” status as a result of certain wines’ ability to improve with age. But this could take decades, possibly centuries.
The point I am eventually getting round to is that there is another route to complexity – and one that some producers in South Africa are already following. The Western Cape, owing to its mountains and coastline on two sides, offers a surprising range of climatic variations and exposures within a relatively short distance of its vinous heart, Stellenbosch. More than any other new world wine country/region I can think of, it is realistic for a winemaker to source grapes from widely different sites and be confident that they will arrive fresh and in good condition. They can also reasonably expect to stay close to the ripening of the grapes and therefore choose the ideal harvesting dates. By blending different origins and different grapes, a skilled winemaker can achieve a level of complexity in even a relatively young wine.
The single wine that directed my thinking along these lines was the La Motte Pierneef Syrah/Viognier 2013, a blend of grapes from Walker Bay, Elim and Franschhoek. It is genuinely complex even in its youth and, successfully in my view, finds that ideal balance midway between new world opulence and old world finesse. I wish now that I had paid more attention to this particular aspect earlier in my visits but my notes do show that similarly successful premium Cape Blends are made by Delaire Graff, Boekenhoutskloof and Beyerskloof amongst others. At a time when the rest of the world is relentlessly pursuing terroir, I wonder if the Cape Blend, both in red and white and at both entry level and premium price points, offers South African producers a genuine point of difference.
One well-touted point of difference already enjoyed by South Africa is Pinotage and the lowlight of my trip was learning that in 1976 a visiting group of MW’s pronounced Pinotage undrinkable, with the direct result that many old Pinotage vineyards were uprooted. My own experience was that Pinotage comes in many different forms and I am relieved that pioneers such as Kanonkop and Beyerskloof have persisted with the grape. The most exciting moment was tasting two older vintages at Grangehurst where the 1997 gloriously recalled the Pinot Noir ancestry of the grape whereas the 2001 was far more reminiscent of Cinsault and the South of France – both were lovely wines. I also learnt that Pinotage ripens significantly earlier than most other red grapes in the Cape, meaning that cellar space can be more efficiently used to process a greater weight of red grapes: a good economic reason for making the best of this much-maligned varietal.
One final observation resulting from my visit concerns the perennial issues of marketing and profitability. The Cape’s wines offer astonishing value for money in export markets at present owing to the weakness of the rand. However, I am sure most would agree that it would be foolish to take short-term advantage and establish South Africa as a low-cost producer in the bulk sector. Similarly, it seems short-sighted to me to use the currency advantage to try to position South Africa’s premium wines in a lower category than they merit. Far better surely to use the current situation to improve returns for both producers and sellers and build a larger fund to boost South Africa’s image as a premium wine producer.