South Africa has undergone a revolution in winemaking and philosophy in the last 10 years. Only the prices, it seems, haven’t changed…
I am in the midst of a week in South Africa, the third time I have visited the country. The first was in 2000 when I blended some wines for the opening of Tate Modern. I left with an amazing value house wine and the impression that the potential to make more noteworthy bottles was largely being unfulfilled.
Another tour, eight years later, and my view of the country had not changed. I am now on day four of an eight-day trip and one of my travelling companions half-seriously asked when we were going to taste the crap wine. The standard has been almost laughably high.
It helps that we are here with one of the UK’s leading champions of new generation South Africa: Swig. But on any trip you usually get one or two estates that fail to excite the party, and we have had none yet.
The changes going on in the country have not completely passed me by. I criminally missed the last New Wave South Africa tasting, but I could not miss the universal praise it received. Equally, our importers have been bringing – and we have been listing – bottles that have thrilled for some time. It is, though, easier to get a complete overview and fill in the gaps, in-situ.
Trends generally take hold slowly and gradually shape wine styles. In South Africa it feels very different: the speed of change is akin to going from first gear to fourth without troubling the two in-between.
The wines I have most enjoyed are precise with freshness (which is not necessarily driven by high acidity) and character. They are far removed from what the more traditional producers are doing and although their number and production is small, they are getting a lot of attention, which does not always sit comfortably with the rest of the industry.
The wines’ character comes from the vineyards, of which there are a huge diversity, in age and geography. But that is not to say that all wines are vineyard specific. Blending – of both sites and varieties – is key, and producers are not afraid to market their wines as such.
And though everyone wants to talk about the vineyards, the change in philosophy in the winery – stripped back winemaking with a healthy distaste for oak influence – is just as key. My favourite quote of the week is from Eben Sadie, that “oak is a world that is ending for me”.
Lastly, and I am loath to write it in case too many producers read this, but the best wines are insanely good value. You can buy wines that are distinct, and have a story that are in most cases better value than the international opposition.
This has been helped by the rand being one the few currencies faring worse than the pound, but with the ludicrously low yields in the older sites and pressure on them from other more lucrative crops, the country’s challenge over the coming years will be to charge the price that many of the wines deserve.
A portion of the South African industry has re-invented itself with the aim of forging wines that are true to their vineyards. The movement’s results are one of the most exciting things I have tasted in two decades of wine-buying.