After just a few days in South Africa I’m hardly in a position to start drawing definitive conclusions about the wine industry there but several things really marked my recent visit: the pride the people have in their country, their industry and their wines, their desire to establish South African wine on its own quality merits, not as a ‘cheaper new world option’ and the dynamism and attention to detail that seem to link it all together.

We frequently heard: ‘I don’t know why people insist on calling us a new world wine region, we’ve being doing this for over 350 years’. South African wine was reintroduced to the world wine stage in 1994 after decades of isolation from international markets. Abandoning quotas has opened up new land; especially higher, cooler land. That, along with a new generation (not always young!) of highly educated winemakers whose international experience shines through in the quality of the wines.

The other theme that came through was a frustration at being considered a source of cheap wines; they have long been relegated into an ‘affordable’ category. If what I tasted was anything to go by, now is the time to sit up and take notice of these wines that hit well above their price point.

South Africa offers a fabulous range of wines and although the national vineyard is just smaller than Bordeaux, at almost 100 000 ha, the diversity of wines on offer from the different terroirs, topography and varietals is impressive. Everywhere you look there are wonderful views of mountains, the altitude that gives a freshness and elegance to wines. You can find red, white, sweet, dry, sparkling, and their own versions of the great fortified wines of Port and Sherry, as well as brandy – you name it they make it, unharnessed by European legislation. There is an almost 50:50 split between red and white varietals; Chenin Blanc dominates white planting and the “like it or loath it” Pinotage still just about dominates the reds.

Delaire Graff Tasting room

The tasting room at Delaire Graff

 Perhaps the most spectacular visit was to Delaire Graff, the brainchild of London diamantaire Laurence Graff. His link to South Africa and its diamonds, will come as no surprise but he has taken this one step further by buying the Delaire winery in Stellenbosch; 20 ha of red and white grapes producing a range of wines for all purses including South Africa’s most expensive Cabernet, the Delaire Laurence Graff Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon retailing at around R 2000 (approx. €US 140) per bottle. This is wine tourism at its most luxurious; a spectacular tasting room, 2 top restaurants, a handful of private villas for rent amongst the vines and a world class African art collection. Unsurprisingly, Delaire Graff was voted global winner for Art & Culture in this year’s Best of Wine tourism awards.

Even if you are not that familiar with South African wine you may have heard of Stellenbosch and neighbouring Franschhoek. Franschhoek means French Quarter, which takes its name from some of the first French immigrants. (The Dutch were the first to import vines in the 1650s).

The French influence still continues today, The Glenelly Estate was purchased by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing 13 years ago. The old fruit farm is now a vineyard of 60 ha producing mainly Bordeaux blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot) inspired by the wines of Chateau Pichon Comtesse in Pauillac. The ultra modern cellar juts out from the mountainside and gives winemakers Luke O’Cuinneagain and Jerome Likwa the perfect conditions to aim for the Bordeaux elegance that Mme de Lencquesaing is accustomed to. They do a great job from such young vines (an average of 9 years old), the Bordeaux blends are complimented by lovely fresh Syrah. There is also a small (10%) production of elegant Chardonnay. According to assistant winemaker Jerome, 2015 is their 1st perfect year so things look great for the future.

Glenelly line upThe tasting line up at Glenelly

Their wine sales are export driven, which seems to be the theme for the whole of the South Africa as sales to export are increasing year on year and now account for about 60%. 

Women are not strangers to the South African wine scene. If you can manage to tie her down, Rianie Strydom is a successful example. Jancis Robinson recently named Rianie as one of the worlds leading women wine makers. She has been making wines at Haskell since 2005 after American Preston Haskell invested there. Before that, she was already an award winning wine maker at Morgenhof, winning Decanter Best New World Red with her 2001 vintage.

Wine making experience in Burgundy and Bordeaux has given her an elegant focus, which clearly shows in the wines. Previously known as Dombeya, the 23ha property now produces wines under both labels.

On the diverse Helderberg slopes the names of the wines are evocative of their origins, showing the importance Rianie pays to the soils. The plots (blocks) are small, a clear recogntion of the complexity of the terroir and the opportunity it gives for micro expression and diversity of the wines.

The beautiful Haskell Anvil Chardonnay takes its name from the shape of the plot it comes from, ageing in 2nd year old barrels keeping its fresh European style – very much a signature of all her wines. The Dombeya range is more varietal led with the Sauvignon Blanc coming from cooler terroir, alongside the Chardonnay, Merlot, Shiraz and the Fenix blend.

Haskell Wines

Rianie is one of only two ladies in the 46 members Cape Winemakers Guild, quite an honour. It’s an invitation only association, where top Cape winemakers, are asked to create a unique cuvee for sale by auction, the proceeds going to educational development in the wine lands.

For the Strydoms wine is a family affair; Rianie’s husband Louis is the winemaker & MD for the Ernie Els winery just around the corner. This is altogether a bigger affair.  Ernie is a famous name for golfers and the 75 ha estate has 45ha planted under vine but the range is large, complimented with grapes and wine bought in to add to the diverse offer. It’s an interesting contrast from Rianie’s small Haskell winery to Ernie Els’ slick operation; the wines have quite a different focus too.

Strydom wines

The husband and wife team also produce wine between them; The Strydom family vineyards but I get the feeling that Rianie is very much in the driving seat as far as wine making is concerned; the same elegance in these wines echoes that of the Haskell wines. The Strydom wines on are on Simonsberg and they clearly express where they come from. Soil variation is enormous and is expressed not just in style but again their names give them away; Rock Star, Hades and Rex. She has as much fun with the names as she does with the wine making. As if all that didn’t keep her busy enough she also consults and makes wine for a few friends – told you it was difficult to tie her down.

At Warwick a woman has also played a major role. Passionate Canadian, Norma Radcliffe, put this family winery on the map as the 1st woman to make wine in South Africa.The feminine theme continues with the lady range (Pink Lady, White Lady, First Lady), the labels designed around an old marriage cup.

Warwick tastingRemnants of a tasting at Warwick

Her son Mike is now at the reins, bringing the property into the 21st century with his marketing expertise putting these wines on the world wine map. This is a great example of blending the new and the old. The estate was started in the 1700s and Mike is the 3rd Ratcliffe generation at the helm. He is very much at the forefront of putting SA wines on social media with accounts for Warwick, himself and their other property Vilafonte, that he owns with iconic US wine maker Zelma Long. At Warwick we tasted our best South African rosé; Pink Lady 100% Pintotage. It’s the best use for Pinotage according to Mike.

The Whites from Warwick are simply spectacular, we loved The White Lady Chardonnay, from a high-density single vineyard. This is Simonsberg, the smallest and oldest appellation and the emphasis is on the freshness. They protect the whites from oxidation, preferring to roll the wines aging in barrels on the lees rather than stirring.

When we say Bordeaux Blend we invariable think about Cab:Merlot but here they make a white Bordeaux Blend; a delicious Sauvignon Semillon blend called Professor Black. Cabernet Franc seems to be gaining in popularity in the region, it’s freshness taking the ‘edge’ off Bordeaux blends of Cab Sauvignon and Merlot, Warwick was the 1st vineyard to grow Cabernet Franc in 70s and it produced the 1st single vineyard Cab Franc in 1986. I loved it. Mike feels it is very vintage sensitive, this was one of the rare times that vintage variation was readily discussed.

Stellenbosch is not the oldest wine making area in South Africa. Constantia or the ‘Vin de Constance’ has this claim to fame. It has a long history dating back to the 1680’s and has enjoyed historical popularity in Europe. Once a single vineyard it has now been divided into two: Groot and Klein Constantia divided between 2 brothers Groot (large) went to the oldest and Klein to the youngest son.

Klein Constantia is currently undergoing a transformation thanks to recent investment by majority shareholder Zdenek Bakala and his partners including two Bordelais; Hubert de Bouard of Chateau Angelus in Saint Emilion and Bruno Prats, previous owner of Cos d’Estournel in Saint Estèphe.

For 100 years the estate produced no wine, it started again in 1986 under the then new owner Doogie Jooste. Sold to the current owners in 2011 current investment continues in the cellars and in the 19th century Cape Dutch manor house. Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ is a sweet wine, that traditionally was made from a blend including Semillon and often botrytised. Now it is 100% Muscat de Frontignan grown as bush vines for sun exposure to maximise the drying and there is no botrytis. Dried on the vine they are hand picked one by one, 1-5kgs per person in up to 25 batches.

We tasted the 2014, harvested from end January until the end of April to keep the acidity as well as the sweetness. (165g sugar per litre, 14° alcohol, 6.8-7g acid). Fermentation in 60% new French oak with light toast stops naturally, then it ages for up to 4 years. Lightness and delicacy define the wines and they are easily recognisable thanks to their unique bottles.

Wine maker, Mathew Day, seems even more passionate about the Sauvignon Blanc plantations on the highest slopes.  In 2005, a unique Sauvignon Blanc vineyard block called ‘The Perdeblok’ was released; it has great length and a saline minerality, influenced by the coastal breezes perhaps? Matt’s descriptor of this SB was G&Tish – perfect!

Matt’s international wine making experience includes time in Sancerre, the home of Sauvignon Blanc, with Pascal Jolivet. They have collaborated here at Klein Constantia making Metis; a selected block of SB, natural ferment, aged on the lees, again, no racking, no stirring in barrels, just rolling with thicker and wider staves – it’s all about reducing oxidation and keeping that fresh salinity he loves so much. If you need any more encouragement to try these wines Matt was named as one of the top 30 wine makers under 40 to watch by the Drinks Business in 2014.

 KC MCCTasting the MCC from Klein Constantia with the view towards false bay as a backdrop

These whites are not to be confused with their KC range made from grapes from further afield producing charming wines, less complex in style but benefiting from the same wine making expertise. They also make a MCC that we sipped high up in the vineyard next to the dam across the reservoir, admiring the view across the vineyards to False Bay. We were not the only ones enjoying the idyllic spot; a Sea Eagle was circling overhead, waiting for us to leave so he could fish in the reservoir for trout.

A perfect end to a wonderful Cape Wine lands experience.

Follow the guide

If you want to know more, Platter’s Wine Guide is the South African wine bible. A jury judges every year on what is great and good. The 2016 edition was released when we were there to much fanfare. Browse through it and you will see that several of the wineries I mention above reached the coveted 5 star status for their wines in this latest edition: Delaire Graff, Ernie Els, Haskell, Klein Constantia and the White Lady Chardonnay 2014 from Warwick that also won white wine of the year. Just saying.

My conclusionsMy brief visit just scratched the surface of the South African wine scene and I was blown away by the freshness and elegance of the whites in particular, and the fresh fruit driven expression of the Syrah with the lightness of touch it brings to the red blends, they are Bordeaux blends with a twist, a very distinctive South African twist.

The vineyard perhaps suffers from the complexity of the varietals and blends on offer, making it difficult to manage consumer expectations. The trend seems to be towards a more precise and intimate knowledge of their extremely varied terroir, making plot-by-plot precision viticulture commonplace, with plots getting smaller and more adventurous. This is leading to clearer regional identities expressed through precise varietal choices, a philosophy championed by producers such as Mike Ratcliffe and Rianie Strydom. It was explained to me that if you see Syrah on the bottle the winery is aiming at an elegant ‘old world expression‘ whereas if you see Shiraz on the label expect a bolder (Australian?) expression of the variety. But what is the South African expression? It is in the hands of these dynamic, enthusiastic and welcoming wine makers. Winemakers the world over have unbounded enthusiasm, but here there is also a pride in their country, not something you always find in the more blasé ‘old world’.

Every region has a cross to bear in terms of consumer (and sadly often trade) perceptions. Here it is a historical expectation that South African wines should be cheap – there is a price ceiling that even the most expensive fail to shatter. This is great value for the consumer, these terrific wines are still so very affordable, but disheartening for the producers.

I wish them higher prices to reward their investment in capital, education and passion. The good news is that, just like Bordeaux, the 2015 vintage is a great one, so keep an eye open for it on the shelves near you very soon.

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