When STEPHEN BROOK last visited South Africa, its wineries were overhauling their methods to target new export markets. That now achieved, a superior class of wines is starting to emerge.
When a worldwide export market opens up almost overnight, it takes time for a trade to tailor its product accordingly. South African wine exporters spent the best part of the last decade striving to undo the errors of the past.
Virused vineyards and unsuitable clones were eradicated. High-crop grapes gave way to quality varieties. Bridges were built with new trading partners. And an internationally acceptable style of wine was gradually fused into a competitively priced product. Righting wrongs is a task that South Africa has become used to over recent years. And by the mid-1990s, a handful of growers and outside investors were convinced that South Africa had the potential to make wines that could compete with the best from California or Australia. Traditional Stellenbosch estates kept on doing what they had always done, but began searching for new markets. Cooperatives and less fashionable properties employed international consultants to help them find an accessible style that would appeal to price-conscious European buyers. By the late 1990s, distributors could confidently set about establishing South African wine a reputation for quality, as well as quantity.
Visiting South Africa after an absence of four years, it is easy to see the progress made. For a start, it is no longer possible to assume that the only places up to producing good wine are Stellenbosch, Paarl and one or two small coastal areas. Robertson is showing itself capable of more than refreshing Chardonnay, with good reds on the increase. Malmesbury/ Swartland is now revealing a source of old-bush vines that give rise to wines of surprising profundity. Elsewhere, many old Chenin Blanc vines have been pulled out as part of a modernisation programme. And a bold new breed of winemakers is nurturing the remaining parcels in an effort to harness the diverse styles available from this difficult grape.
South Africa is also benefitting from growing internationalisation. Investors from France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere have moved in; leading European winemakers and oenologists are at work; and indigenous winemakers are flocking to Europe to gain experience and knowledge. There is an invigorating sense that anything is possible. That won’t be the case, of course, but the next decade is set to be one not just of ambition and experimentation – but of growing achievement.
What follows is a personal selection of some of the most exciting wineries of the moment.
De Toren, Stellenbosch
Having made his fortune in direct mail, Emil den Dulk invested in 20 hectares (ha), planted them with Bordeaux varieties and hired 27-year-old Albie Koch to do the rest.
The first vintage was 1999, and I tasted the 2000 at the exquisite, ultra-traditional Meerlust estate, alongside its Rubicon and Chardonnay. The Meerlust reds are as they have always been: rich, earthy, tannic and built to last. Koch then poured De Toren’s Fusion V, which is thoroughly modern in style: dense and chocolatey on the nose, lush though not jammy, with sweet tannins and sweet oak on the finish. I thought it was a gorgeous wine and so, to their credit, did the Meerlust team.
De Trafford, Stellenbosch
David Trafford, once an architect, also succumbed to the wine bug. A retiring man in every sense, he works from a remote property in the Stellenbosch hills. There he makes tiny quantities of wine from his own 5ha and purchased grapes. The Cabernet Sauvignon is a huge, rather extracted wine, the Merlot more plump and charming. But the wine that most grabbed my attention was that much scorned variety, Chenin Blanc. Trafford’s is cropped at low yields, pulped in a basket press, and fermented with natural yeasts. Hi-tech it is not. What it is is heavy and rich, the precise opposite of a racy South African Sauvignon, but with enough acidity to keep it fresh. Even more stunning is the rich, apricoty Chenin Straw Wine, dried on racks for three weeks before being fermented in new oak. Plumper in style than a Loire Vouvray or Bonnezeaux, it’s utterly delicious.
South African golfer Ernie Els has a Bordeaux blend on sale at a suitably silly price. It’s not bad, but is indistinguishable from any oaky, international-style Cabernet, and the Ruste en Vrede Estate, where it is made, has its own, far more interesting version at a fraction of the price. So fear not, Kanu isn’t the Arsenal footballer also cashing in on his name, but a winery founded in 1998 and made up of parcels that formerly belonged to Spier. Winemaker Teddy Hall is passionate about Chenin Blanc, and his corporate masters have allowed him to make it the principal variety. It’s definitely the best wine: fresh and appley, with firm acidity and a hint of balancing sweetness. (Hall also has his own label, Rudera, again featuring Chenin Blanc. The Noble Late Harvest is a beauty, though leaner in style than De Trafford’s.)
Martin Meinert was founding winemaker at the Vergelegen estate before pursuing a more independent existence. From his Devon Valley retreat he focuses on Bordeaux varieties, and is producing structured, oaky wines with remarkable depth of flavour. The Merlot is sumptuous and spicy, but surpassed – just – by the supple and highly concentrated Cabernet. Meinert also produces a Borbeaux blend – Synchronicity – featuring 20% Pinotage.
Piedmontese tycoon Giulio Bertrand came to Somerset West to plant olive groves. But where olives grow, so do vines, and in 1994 he planted 40ha. He wanted to make a South African St-Emilion, and hired Pierre Lurton – winemaker of Cheval Blanc – as his consultant. It took a while to get the formula spot on, but the 2000 vintage was deemed good enough to launch under the Morgenster brand. While I’m not convinced it would pass as a St-Emilion, it’s certainly very stylish: medium-bodied, sumptuously oaky, with a spicy finish.
Close to the well-known Thelema estate stands the smart, ultra-modern Tokara South African winery, with Tokara vineyards, wooden fermentation tanks and even a Tokara restaurant. But as yet, no Tokara wine. Winemaker Miles Mossop has thus far branded all releases Zondernaam (‘without name’). They’re good but not remarkable, leaving us wondering if the first Tokara wines can match expectations.
José Condé arrived from the States, married into a Stellenbosch wine family, and then decided to show them how to make wine. His 1998 Cabernet is good, but the 2000 is superb. Slightly herbaceous, without any overt greenness, but with ample flesh and oak, this is a true hedonist’s wine.
This winery is no newcomer, having achieved a fine reputation for its Sauvignon and Chardonnay soon after being planted in Somerset West in the late 1980s. Outspoken winemaker André van Rensburg is now producing world-class reds too: Merlot, Cabernet and an Estate blend, but not a drop of Pinotage. Van Rensburg’s reasoning: ‘Don’t steal, rape, murder – or ever make Pinotage.’
In a Stellenbosch valley is what looks like a large Tuscan farm. It’s not: it’s a winery, founded in 1998 by Jeremy Ord. He took in Kevin Arnold, formerly of Rust en Vrede, as winemaker and his Shiraz is splendid: a plum pudding nose, lashings of sweet, but not jammy fruit, and a fine, long finish.
Cape Point, Constantia
Cross the mountains behind Constantia and you end up on these gentle slopes facing the ocean. There were vines here two centuries ago, and now they are back, 36ha of them, planted by Sybrand van der Syuy, who bought the property in the late 1990s. The first vintage was 2000 and some vines won’t deliver a crop until 2004, but initial releases are exciting: ripe grapefruity Sauvignon, limey Chardonnay and brilliant late-harvest Semillon. Once the tendency to over-oak has been curbed, this should be an exciting property.
Sadie Family Vineyards, Swartland
For many years, Eben Sadie made the wines for Spice Route, and very good they were too. But this eccentric young man is too charismatic to tie down, and he burrowed far into Swartland’s remote Aprilskloof valley to set up the smallest winery I have ever seen. He buys grapes, mostly Syrah and Mourvedre, from a few vineyards, and makes wine by completely artisanal methods. He has no choice about this, but leaves nothing to chance. So much so that he works directly with his coopers to oversee every detail of the barrels. Eben only makes one wine: Columella. The entire production fits into 25 barrels, and it’s as deep and complex a South African wine as I have ever tasted. Sweet primary fruit dominates the youthful 2000, but there’s no jamminess; rather a wonderful freshness and brightness, promising a splendid evolution over time.
Up in Robertson, Abrie Bruwer sold his wine to bulk producers until 1995, when he set up Springfield with his sister Jeanette. Bruwer is a devotee of natural yeast fermentation, and in some years his best Chardonnay and Cabernet turns into vinegar, special wines which he terms Méthode Ancienne. If they ferment properly, the wines are aged in oak for up to two years, with no racking for a year. The red is 100% Cabernet, aged for two years in new oak, and for three more in bottle before release. The 1999 enthralled me. With its powerful cassis nose and sumptuous concentration, it could easily have been a fine Napa. The Tokaj was remarkably similar to an old-style Aszu with high acidity. It was made by spraying botrytis spores into the vines, then spraying water. ‘I got rampant botrytis on the Sauvignon, and rampant grey rot too,’ says Bruwer. ‘But somehow I got two decent barrels out of it.’ It’s not commercially available, of course, but this zest, whether from Bruwer, van Rensburg or Sadie, will ensure South African wine is full of surprises over the next decade. To those who worry that the New World’s regimented style is increasingly dull, the rainbow nation is a welcome corrective.