I was recently in South Africa, tasting, visiting wineries, as well as drinking a fair bit of wine, after not having been back for a decade. I was fortunate to have spent the better part of my year in 2000, living in South Africa and working for Wines of South Africa (WOSA) in Stellenbosch but had not been back since.
As a result of my time in South Africa, as well as several previous visits, I have always had a strong, inexplicably visceral attachment to all things South African. Even though I’ve been working with the Canadian wine industry since my return to Canada, through judging, reviewing and teaching, I have closely followed the wines and industry progress over the past decade.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to provide an update on several facets of the South African wine scene: New Wineries and New Investment, New Grapes and New Wines, New Regions, New Initiatives for a New Industry, and The Shift from Grape Farming to Wine Growing.
An Overview of the Progress
South Africa’s winelands are widely acknowledged as the most stunning in the world, surrounded by two oceans, crisscrossed by dramatic mountain ranges and valleys and dotted with picturesque, centuries-old wine farms. I was working in the country ten years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and able to have an insider’s look at the players and an industry that had been undergoing profound and rapid changes. This allowed me to become very familiar with many of the great wines and producers that never did, and still never do, make their way to Canada. (Some of those that do are linked to WineAlign reviews below.)
It was fascinating to see how much had changed since I left in late December 2000, from the structure and growth of the industry, to the changes in pricing, style and quality of wines produced. As well, I was able to meet new producers and catch up with familiar faces from the past. Just before I arrived in 2000, wine exporters had transitioned from a voluntary, membership-based industry association to an inclusive model, which represents all exporters and is funded through a statutory levy on table and sparkling wines exports. Though not without challenges and detractors, this model has been a positive change for the industry and South African wine exports in general, making it possible for all exporters, under the helm of Su Birch, the dynamic CEO of WOSA, to work collaboratively on innovative international initiatives to advance exports in a few key markets over the past decade.
With the end of Apartheid and the international boycott on South African wines in the 1990s, winemakers and the industry were anxious to re-connect with the international arena and catch up after a period of economic isolation. South African wine exports represented 26% of total wine production in 2000 and almost doubled to 48.5% in 2010. Along with the move back into traditional export markets of the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, the new millennium saw the expansion to markets in Japan, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada. More recently, South African wines are being sold in new and emerging markets such as Russia, Asia, in particular China, and in other countries within the African continent.
South African wine exports to Canada have increased five-fold since 2000 (1.5 million liters in 2000 compared to 7.5 in 2011), however the selection seems to come in waves, going from periods dominated by high-volume, value-priced wines to times dotted with more listings of lesser-known, higher quality wines from smaller, quality-driven producers.
New Wineries, New Investment
There were just under 400 wine farms in 2000 and this number has grown to 573 in 2010. Then as now, the industry has a significant concentration of big wineries, brand owners and cooperatives, which has altered somewhat through a series of mergers, acquisitions and consolidation. The KWV (Cathedral Cellars, Café Culture Pinotage and Roodeberg), the former cooperative that once regulated production quotas and pricing for the industry), no longer holds the power and prominence it once had. However, along with Distell (Obikwa, Drostdy-Hof, Two Oceans, Stellenzicht, Durbanville Hills, Fleur du Cap) and Douglas Green Bellingham (Boschendal, The Beachhouse and others), these companies make up between a quarter and third of all South African wine exports. Smaller producers (60,000 cases or less) remain an important force in the industry and account for approximately 46% of the country’s production.
Looking back at some of the wineries I visited recently, Tokara had just finished construction in late 2000 but had yet to produce any wine, Waterkloof did not even exist and Delaire Graff was simply Delaire, producing some good wine under Bruwer Ratts (who now produces under his own label) in a spectacular location.
Following a forty million pound renovation by English diamond magnet Laurence Graff, Delaire Graff is a must see and stay destination for wine tourists who crave luxury and pampering. The Estate has two top restaurants, a clothing boutique and Graff diamond shop on the premises, as well as well-appointed guest cottages and a spa, which were listed by Conde Nast Traveller and Travel and Leisure Magazine as among the best new hotels in the world. The focus is on Bordeaux varieties with winemaker Morne Very making a powerful yet elegant Bordeaux Blend with Shiraz called Botmaskop (the nearby mountain peak which he has climbed), as well as rich Chardonnay, minerally Sauvignon Blanc and a layered, complex Cape Vintage fortified wine from traditional Portuguese grape varieties.
Tokara Estate is the neighbor to well-known Thelema and located on the crest of the dramatic Helshoogte pass between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. A state of the art wine making facility, olive farm and restaurant, winemaking is overseen by Miles Mossop, who was just starting out in 2000 and one of South Africa’s new generation of winemakers. Although the wine production facility was completed at the end of the 2000, the premium range Tokara labels were not released until 2006. The fruit is sourced from vineyards on the estate, as well as properties owned in cooler Hemel-en-Arde and Elgin.
The Tokara Director’s Reserve White is among the Cape’s finest white blends, the 2010 being an exquisite blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc (unoaked) and 30% Sémillon (aged in French oak) that is stylistically similar to a fine white Bordeaux. There is also an impressive Director’s Reserve Red that blends ripe, New World fruit with Old World structure and elegance. I also tasted the 2009 Shiraz, containing 12% Mourvedre and well put together, which could benefit from a few years in the cellar. See here for notes on the 2007 Zondernamm Shiraz and Tokara 2007 White.
One of the newest wineries to open in the Cape is Waterkloof Wines, situated in the Helderberg sub-region of the Stellenbosch District. The winery and vineyards are mere kilometers from False Bay, which is one of South Africa’s cooler growing areas. UK wine importer Paul Boutinot is the owner, or custodian as he calls himself, who has invested in South Africa with a commitment to produce sustainable, fine wines. Werner Engelbrecht is the accomplished viticulturalist and winemaker, who practices sustainable and biodynamic farming practices. The winery building is modern and simple, perched high atop Schapenberg Hill, with spectacular views of False Bay from the tasting room and restaurant.
Waterkloof is represented by Family Wine Merchants in Ontario and the winery produces several tiers of wine. The False Bay series contains very good value and well-made red, white and rose while the Waterkloof range includes the Circle of Life 2010 White, a complex, textured blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 35% Chenin Blanc and 5% Semillon to be released in July 2012. Other outstanding wines include the racy and concentrated Waterkloof 2009 Sauvignon Blanc as well as the Circle of Life 2009 Red, a full-bodied, refined blend of Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Like well-made South African red blends, it combines purity and richness of fruit, fine-grained tannins and real finesse.
Other South African wineries that were barely in existence in 2000, but worth seeking out, include Sadie Family Wines, Ataraxia, Mullineux and Badenhorst, some of whose wines we see in Canada.
New Grapes, New Wines
Over the past decade, the industry has latched on to fads and gone through phases, similar to all New World regions in search of renovation or reinvention. South Africa wineries have experimented with critter labels, focused on Sauvignon Blanc for whites, and most recently, with Pinotage (a native South African crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) as “coffee” wine, which seems to have captured the imagination of Canadians, and those in other export markets, in a way that Pinotage alone was never able to.
The fascination with single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines was starting to wind down a decade ago, while the interest for all things Shiraz/ Syrah was heating up. Very good producers include Boekenhoutskloof, Mullineux and Spice Route. Plantings of Shiraz/Syrah have increased from 6% to 10% of total vineyard area in the last ten years, although Cabernet Sauvignon also increased from to 9% to 12%. Both are currently the top red grapes and while you still see a fair amount of single varietal wines, there has been the shift to blends – Rhone blends, more Bordeaux blends, Syrah blended with Cabernet, or into Cape Blends, South Africa’s red blend containing a significant proportion of Pinotage. Some budget-priced red blends worth trying are Thelema Mountain Red, Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap Red, and Post House Blueish Black.
While the share of white grape production had dropped from 64% to 56% by 2010, the whites I tasted were extremely impressive, perhaps overall better than the reds. Chenin Blanc and Columbar (used mainly for bulk or boxed wines) are the main grapes for white wines, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Recommended whites include: Ataraxia Chardonnay, Iona Chardonnay and Boekenhoutskloof Wolftrap White.
Chenin Blanc, known as Steen in South Africa, is believed to be one of the original grape varieties brought to the Cape colony in 1655 and is incredibly versatile for dry, sweet and sparkling wines and ages very well. Producers like Ken Forrester FMC and Petit Chenin have shown that South African Chenin is capable of producing luscious, crisp and concentrated wines that can rival the best of the Loire any day. Sadly, and despite the efforts of groups like the Chenin Blanc Association to increase the profile and instances of quality South African Chenin Blanc, plantings of Chenin have gone down the past decade, the slack being taken over by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Just as Shiraz was beginning to make a name for itself a decade ago, the Swartland district was just starting to generate the buzz that is much louder today. This region reportedly clocks in some of the country’s hottest day time temperatures and is among South Africa’s driest growing area, with cool evenings and cooling breezes from the frigid Atlantic Ocean, making for ideal growing conditions. Historically home to Chenin Blanc and other commercially unfashionable grape varieties (i.e. not a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc here), the “Swartland Revolution” was a movement afoot over the past decade, led by Eden Sadie, among others, who “rediscovered” the region while making wine at Spice Route Wines in Malmesbury.
The exodus of winemakers like Sadie and Adi Badenhorst from Stellenbosch to Swartland was accompanied by an influx of newcomers like Mullineux and Lammershoek who share a commitment to winemaking and viticultural practices that respect and celebrate low yields, old bush vine vineyards, dry land farming, manipulation free wine making and a lighter use of oak. The Swartland Revolution, part manifesto and part marketing, is also an annual celebration that has taken place over the past two years, with the next event set for November 9-10, 2012. For more information of the event, the Revolution and winemakers check out The Swartland Revolution.
The search for cooler growing areas has also resulted in the creation of new regions and districts under the Wine of Origin (appellation) scheme. Elgin had started to be recognized as a cool growing area (literally and figuratively) and is home to Sauvignon Blanc producer Oak Bay. Other new areas that came into existence that we see from time to time on bottles include Bot River, Elin and Cape Point, home to the highly rated white blend (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon) Islied from Cape Point Vineyards.
New Initiatives for a New Industry:
Wine has been made in South Africa for centuries (the first harvest dates back to 1659) and it is surely the world’s oldest New World wine region. The South African wine industry has also been inextricably linked to colonialism and apartheid, as well as the resulting socio-political conditions and their impact on some of the people who have worked in the industry. Although much of the abuse and poor working conditions historically existed on grape farms as opposed to wine estates, the aftermath on the rural communities of the Cape has been far reaching and long lasting on South Africa’s black workers.
While no other wine industry has had to account for its labour practices or living conditions of its workers, not to mention the distribution of land-ownership, wealth or power within their wine industries, the South African wine industry has acknowledged the history and risen to the challenge to redress past wrongs by investing in a series of comprehensive initiatives for black workers.
Stemming from a government country-wide initiative called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), designed to promote economic growth, develop skills and create greater equality and opportunities for disadvantaged communities, the wine industry adopted a Wine Industry Transformation Charter in 2007. This plan, complete with scorecard and broad-based measures, recognizes the need for and implements increased training and education opportunities, ethical trading practices, preferential procurement, and the transition to ownership and management control, among others.
Still a work in progress with challenges ahead, the past fifteen years have resulted in noticeable changes in the number of black winemakers, black-owned wine ventures, a myriad of joint ventures, along with so named Black-owned Brands. Tukulu is an early venture between Distell, a group of black entrepreneurs and a community trust whose workers work and live on the farm. Many of these wines often find their way to export markets since it is easy to find shelf space and funding for export activities.
Other initiatives which came into existence over the past decade include programs and measures focused biodiversity and sustainability (mandated for all products exported). Sustainability measures had already been underway when I arrived in 2000, with independent sustainability certification for producers who minimize chemical use, protect biodiversity, clean up waste water and ensure people, as well as environmentally friendly practices. By 2011, 85% of wine labels will sport the Sustainability seal. Similarly, the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative is partnership between the wine industry and conservation sector to protect threatened wildlife habitat and contribute to sustainable wine production, so as to preserve the floral splendor of the Cape winelands.
The Shift from Grape Farming to Wine Growing
Overall, I would say that one of the biggest changes I saw was the improvement in the quality of the wines. The upgrading of vineyards, improvements in viticulture techniques, investment and retooling of wineries and the education of a new generation of winemakers, who travel and work outside the country, has begun to pay off in spades. Plant diseases, like leaf roll virus, which some say are responsible for off, burnt flavours in red wines, are now kept in check through elimination of water stress on the vines and earlier picking, as Boschendel winemaker Lizelle Gerber explained. Todays red wines are cleaner, more balanced and have less oak treatment than in the past.
The most notable change in quality was in the white wines, with Chenin Blanc from Beaumont, the aromatic white blends from producers like Mullineux and Sauvignon Blanc from Waterkloof standing out, with fresh acidity and pure flavours and concentration, as more as more producers seek out cooler growing areas, higher elevation vineyards and learning more about optimal picking times. In essence, what has really been happening in South Africa over the past decade or two has been the shift from grape farming to wine growing, which has had a tremendous impact on quality and bodes well for the future.
We still don’t see many of the really interesting South African wines in Canada, with current offerings not reflective of the breadth and quality of wines produced in South Africa today. This is partly because producers have focused their efforts on the UK, a challenging market which nonetheless accounts for 30% of total exports, or on markets like the US, the Holy Grail for many South African producers. I recall hearing from a South African producer who had travelled to Canada in the fall of 2000 and remarked that there was “greater demand and interest in South African wines than the industry realized and a distinct level of boredom in the wines that were available and offered to buyers”. To some extent, this might explain what is still at work today and why South African wines have yet reach their potential in our market.