Many people still see South Africa as the new kid on the block in the New World. This in some ways is true, but the reality is that wine has been made in the Cape for centuries. The first wines were produced in the Cape in 1659 and the country has some of the oldest wine estates in the world. However there has been a qualitative revolution in the last 20 years, which seems to gather pace every year. The wines have been elevated from the old school and mundane to world-beating and cutting-edge. I have been lucky enough to have witnessed the transformation of the wine industry and country since my first trip, during South Africa’s winter of 1994.
It was a few months after the country emerged from the shackles of Apartheid, and the wine industry was stuck in a time warp – it was like revisiting the 1970s. There was a palpable feeling of uncertainty, and in some people, fear. No one quite knew what was going to happen.
The weather was dull, wet and windy, and the wines on the whole were way off the mark, especially compared to Australia, New Zealand and the then emerging Chile. However there were something going on and a few shining exceptions showed the promise of the country. There was also an acceptance of this, and a willingness to learn and to achieve. I was struck by the spirit and commitment of the people I met, and a bloody mindedness to make something happen. South Africans are entrepreneurs -they have to be.
Years have passed and with every year I have visited as a wine tourist I have seen improvements. Improvements in the wines, wineries, food and tourist infrastructure. I know there are still many injustices and inequalities in the society but I am not qualified to comment on them or to go into them here. I am talking purely about the wine industry and the industries that support it.
So, why everyone should be buying South African wine?
Well the first and foremost is the extraordinary value for money that the wines offer! South Africa is producing wines at every price level and all at a high quality. I am happy to go out on a limb and say that entry-level Chenin Blanc from South Africa is offering some of the best value for money on the planet, and every restaurant should consider it for its house wine or one level up.
Chenin is a real trump card. South Africa has lots of Chenin planted in almost all the growing regions, in amazingly varied terroir. They have some venerable old vines that should make the Loire jealous. Chenin loves South Africa, and the young and young-at-heart winemakers have embraced it and coaxed the grape into some of the most exciting wines on the planet. For me, top Chenin has layers of tropical fruit, can take or leave oak, really expresses the terroir and most importantly retains great acidity. In the right hands it can achieve greatness that can stand shoulder to shoulder with top white Burgundy.
Talking of white Burgundy, there are drastic shortages of the Burgundian classics this year. Very little Chablis, Puligny, Meursault and Mâcon and all at very high prices. South Africa makes great Chardonnay. From fresh unoaked Macon and Chablis lookalikes to full-on oaked Chardonnays which sit somewhere in style between classic Burgundy and California, and at amazing prices for the quality. This year we are going to see shortages of white wine in Europe and price increases across the board, and we also have a critical shortage of that restaurant must have New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. South Africa can fill some of the gaps. I believe South African Sauvignon is more than a match for Marlborough or Sancerre. Stylistically it is cross between the two styles but leaning more to the minerality of Sancerre. It offers exceptional value in comparison to both. So be bold and offer your customers a better option!
Recently there has been great interest in Rhône varieties grown in South Africa led by the pioneering winemakers of the Swartland. Once again South Africa is able to take on France with some amazing wines made from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc.
I have tasted amazing wines that take on classics such as Côte Rôtie, Cornas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and at a fraction of the price. Even Pinot Noir, the most fussy of all grapes, is showing excellent results in the cool regions to the South. Some amazing examples are produced – and again at very attractive prices.
South Africa is really delivering on quality and value. If you need to look for other reasons to buy South Africa look to recent events in the country.
The country has had years of drought making vine growing very tricky indeed and some growers are on the point of giving up. The drought has also led to an increase in wild fires and a number of properties have had extensive damage. Our very dear friend, Sam O’Keefe, had her beloved Lismore Estate destroyed. Luckily she is up and running again, fighting to make world class wines.
We have all suffered from the pandemic, but South Africa has been hit very hard and the wine industry has been hit harder than most. In South Africa there has been shut downs and the banning of sales of alcohol (including wine) both domestically, and for export. This has meant no income at all for the wine farms for many months. The Cape before COVID was welcoming 10 million tourists and this income stream has also dried up. So the Cape is in the middle of a perfect storm.
The one thing that has struck me is that not one of our Cape producers has complained or moaned about this. They just get on with it and try to make the most of the situation. They don’t want our charity, but what I would say is buy their wines, give them a helping hand in the process help yourselves to some amazing wines, from amazing people in a beautiful country.