Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution

Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution

by Tim James

ISBN: 9780520260238

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Calendars/Cooking

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Sample Chapter



In 1994, in a hopeful time as a new democracy came to the land of apartheid, South African wine ventured out into the world—a world of which it was terribly ignorant, and which, in turn, had largely forgotten about it during years of boycott. Perhaps, though, an atavistic memory clung from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when wines from Constantia were welcomed among the world's greatest. Now, a figure shrunken from long years of isolation, South African wine blinked in the light, a little tentative but with more confidence than was justified—as was to be demonstrated, when the international wine market made it clear that it was going to demand more than just the reflected glow of Nelson Mandela in the background.

Marketers and makers of Cape wine saw and tasted what was selling in London, Amsterdam, and New York, and the alert among them might have realized a problem. But many were slow, reluctant, or complacently ignorant of any problems, while international wine-lovers, still curious and generous about the "new" South Africa, were being indulgent. One moment that can be seen as symbolic, as well as having had an actual salutary effect, came in 1995 when South Africa was trounced in a comprehensive wine competition against Australia, held in Cape Town with judges from both countries. Producers were shaken, many disbelieving: something was undoubtedly wrong, but surely not their wines!

Various industry bodies seem to have then put pressure on SAA, the national airline that had supported the competition, to abandon its three-year sponsorship. Another international competition that had been planned—against Argentina and Chile—never took place. Winemaker André van Rensburg (whose Stellenzicht Syrah had beaten the famous Grange in the match against Australia) reacted trenchantly to this sulky refusal to face reality: "If a winemaker is scared of competing against Chile, he should stop making wine and grow vegetables. The objections of the better-known estates are based on their unjust reputations earned from wine writers who have been too kind to them."

Fortunately for South African wine, the estates continued to farm grapes rather than turn to broccoli and carrots. Meanwhile, the most important competitions took place when the buyers for supermarkets, national monopolies, and wine shops around the world made their choices. Too many Cape wines were, for example, clearly made from stressed fruit off virused vineyards where the grapes struggled to ripen; too many were overacidified, in accordance with the abstract dictates of the local university enology department, which encouraged safety above all; oaking was not always carried out in a sophisticated manner—and there was some suspicion that the barrels themselves were not always of the highest quality. Furthermore, tastes had changed in the larger world of wine, in ways many in South Africa were only coming to realize.

The local wine industry seized upon the few years of indulgence it was granted; lessons were learned, and the pace of transformation was astonishing. Some changes could come quickly—in the cellar, especially, and some aspects of vineyard management. Other changes—such as finding the land best suited to particular varieties, improved viticultural practices, and working with better and cleaner plant material—would take longer. Those longer-term changes, whose effects would be observed only ten years later, were to constitute something like a second stage in the South African winemaking revolution. But all these effects were part of a more fundamental shift in quality, particularly at the most ambitious end of Cape winemaking.

Other than the swift adaptation to what the world demanded of a modern wine producer, something else was astonishing. In one way, it was precisely the opposite of adaptation, although it did not rest on complacency. Within the arrogant response of producers to their humiliation in the test match against Australia had been a few grains of truth that might become useful and valuable if properly understood and used. It was not certain that the ripe fruitiness that had made Australian wine the darling of the vital British market in particular was entirely something to aim for at all costs. More important was to recognize and assert an independent tradition and some older-fashioned virtues that should not be too hastily discarded. The Cape had nearly 350 years of winemaking behind it. In some of the urging to modernize in order to compete effectively on the international market a demand could also be heard to abandon tradition and the claims of a specific winegrowing landscape in favor of the blandness of internationalist winemaking competence and globalized fashion.

Even in the recent decades, when South Africa's isolation had undoubtedly led to provincialism, a (small) number of fine wines had not quite fitted what seemed to be demanded by those for whom the new-world standards were provided by Australia and California. Those were the days of Australian ascendancy in the United Kingdom, South Africa's largest market. Forward fruit and a touch of sweetness seemed to beguile everyone there, from the supermarket customer to the lofty critic. The makers of some apparently old-fashioned Cape wines had endured sniffs and sneers, but they resisted stylistic demands while striving to improve the quality of what they were creating. There was a vague but not unjustified idea abroad, which encouraged them, that South Africa's natural position in the world of wine was somewhere between the respective styles associated with the New World and the Old. But if ripeness was all for some enthusiasts of modern winemaking, the old-fashioned were not always right, either. There were winemakers for whom defense of tradition was associated with hard, overacidified reds kept too long in barrels of dubious quality, insipidly flabby or too-acidic whites, or ultrasweet fortified wines.

In the introduction to the 1995 edition of his annual South African Wine Guide, when the revolution in local wine was scarcely under way, John Platter described what was happening in tones different from those of his introduction of the previous year, when recession and poor-quality exports had edged his words with despair. He wrote percipiently in his necessarily enlarged Guide:

The stampede of new wines—nearly 400 this season alone—is neither a completely chaotic second-coming, nor a chase into the unknown. South Africa has had a foot in both the Old and New worlds of wine. In reclaiming the past—and past overseas markets—the re-launch of the Cape was always going to be steadied by its long traditions, its ease with wine. The old profile of Cape wine would be swiveled a bit on its plinth, to catch different beams of light, to offer new outlines. But the soils and climates and many of the ways of the Cape remain inimitable and impose a continuity too.

Platter might not even have apprehended the extent of the change that was just starting, but he was perceptive in his conclusion: "Often, the Cape's youngest wines are its best. And the finest have not yet been bottled."

In one of the most important developments of all, many in a remarkable younger generation of winemakers (sadly, only a few viticulturists as yet) traveled the wine lands of the world, not just to learn new-world cellaring techniques, but also to taste and marvel at and seek to understand the classic wines of Europe. They brought home reminders of the great fundamental that the finest wine is true to its origins, the soil and climate in which grapevines are nurtured. There was undoubtedly a qualitative leap in Cape wine in the late 1990s, but another, more profound change—precisely, the emergence of increasing numbers of authentic wines—seems to have happened in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In fact, that is why a number of the wineries profiled in this book are so young. John Platter's point in 1994 remains perhaps more clearly true now: a significant proportion of the best South African wines today were not being made in 2000, and many of what are now recognized as the finest wineries were not yet established.

It is worth stressing the point: the reentry of South Africa into the world since the early 1990s has meant a growth in international sophistication for its wine. At its best, that has meant not the imposition of a bland "international style," but the emergence of the local story, better told.

Here is an example that works as an argument for this claim, and for the previous one about the more recent deepening of transformation in South African wine, as well as for an illustration of the rich dialectic between local and international in that reinvigorated transformation. For many observers, the class of South African wine that today comes closest to excellence is that of blended whites. In fact, one should say two classes, for two distinct styles are emerging. In the cooler areas, many blends are based on the Bordeaux-blessed marriage of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, taking the classics of Graves as their model. This style was inaugurated here with a Vergelegen wine as recently as 2001, the second style a year later with Sadie Family Palladius. Their successors—and competitors—are now numerous. The second style emerged under the wide, warm skies of the Swartland and has at its core the old-vine Chenin Blanc of the region, with a diverse range of partners. (There's more Chenin in the Cape than in its Loire homeland, but it was long despised, or at best tolerated for its willing service.)

Of course, such wines are a tiny proportion of South African production and a tiny part of the rebirth of the country's wine industry, however appealing they may be as signs of achievement and possibility. For the larger picture, statistics of change can serve well (a synoptic table listing many of them appears in the appendix). The most remarkable index of international acceptance is the increase in wine exports over the period from 1993 to 2011, from nearly twenty-five million liters to well over four hundred million. In 2011, exports, having fallen a little over the previous few years in the adverse international financial climate, amounted to 43 percent of total wine production. (It was 6.2 percent in 1993!) That was perhaps just as well, considering that domestic percapita consumption of South African wine is low and declining, at just seven liters annually. Getting the domestic black population to drink wine at all levels is a challenge the wine industry wants to meet—although it is being a trifle lackadaisical about it. Beer, including traditional African beer, has more than 60 percent of the market share of alcoholic beverages based on alcohol content; wine has little more than 15 percent, somewhat less than spirits.

The most significant political context of the rebirth of South African wine has been the reentry into the world market. (Repercussions of socioeconomic relations within the industry are discussed later in this chapter.) But an important enabling feature has been the unshackling of Cape wine from certain restrictions, which coincided precisely with a situation in which the industry could benefit from greater freedom. Chapter 2 will discuss the effect, through much of the twentieth century, of the all-powerful KWV, which began its life as a national producer cooperative, the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging, but rapidly acquired substantial statutory powers in managing the industry. In the context of the continuing deregulation of other parts of agriculture, which had already taken place before 1994, and faced with further governmental policy changes, the KWV from the early 1990s started to reconstruct itself as a more conventionally commercial force without national administrative duties or powers. For an organization like this, which had been so cozily intertwined with the apartheid government, the prospect of an African National Congress government was not encouraging.

When the KWV applied for permission to convert its legal status from a cooperative to a company, the government opposed the court application until the KWV agreed to make available, in a trust set up for various wine industry purposes, some 477 million rand (the notional value of the benefits to the KWV of its statutory functions). By the time permission was granted, in 1997, the KWV's abandonment of two of the most important parts of its rule had started having a major effect on the industry: the "quota system," which, in the name of preventing overproduction, had disallowed expansion into promising new winegrowing areas; and the guaranteed minimum price for wine, which had been part of a system that effectively encouraged production for quantity rather than quality.

It must be said that the KWV left behind it a system that manages well the bureaucratic needs of the wine industry, where control is unquestionably in the public interest. The appellation system that was introduced in the early 1970s, and its associated certification process, work efficiently under the Wine and Spirit Board, the control function contracted since 1999 to SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information and Systems). Some of the funds wrested from the KWV went to research and generic promotion, and these are also generally well handled. And the industry flourished in the new regime of regulatory freedom, despite the lack of a continuing body to represent and strategically manage the industry. The South African Wine and Brandy Company was formed in 2002 to implement a strategic outline called Vision 2020. It lasted, without apparently achieving much, until 2006. Out of its "restructuring" emerged the South African Wine Industry Council, which was intended to deal with major wine-industry issues, from socioeconomic transformation to streamlining relations among the industry, government, and other relevant stakeholders. It, too, lasted only a few years before being abandoned. There is, at present, no pretense that any body is guiding, or even representing, the industry at the highest level.


There's a lot more South African wine about these days than there was in 1993—approximately half as much again. Total production (along with total vineyard area) has only increased by not much more than 20 percent, but now less of what the vineyards yield is doomed to distillation or diversion to unfermented grape juice. The 2011 vintage produced a record 831 million liters of wine, which was about 80 percent of the total wine-grape crop—the remainder going for brandy, distillation, or juice.

More important is the basic quality, and one useful indication of improvement here is the amount that is certified. In South Africa, no wine may carry any information on its label about vintage, origin, or grape variety unless it has undergone a rigorous process of certification. This involves a good deal of record-keeping and paperwork, as all stages of production are monitored to see that the basic sums add up: if so many tons of Cabernet grapes were produced on a particular farm in a particular year, producing so many liters, the authorities will get very anxious if a different volume is bottled. For a wine to be certified it must also meet a minimum level of quality, as adjudged by official tasting panels. In 1993, just 12 percent of wine was thus certified, but the proportion rose steadily each year to about 57 percent in 2011—showing a major increase in ambition.

Excerpted from "Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution" by Tim James. Copyright © 2013 by Tim James. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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