David Clarke is an Australian sommelier now living in Cape Town. I thought it would be interesting and valuable to have his perceptions of wine-life here. And so it is – see below.
I arrived in South Africa from Australia to settle indefinitely at the end of January 2013 roughly nine months ago. My first visit was in 2006 visiting my Afrikaner wife-to-be. Although I have visited almost every year since, this has been my longest uninterrupted stay.
Three months ago Tim asked me if I could write a short piece about my impressions so far of the South African wine scene. After much procrastination and many a false-start, I have compiled a list of the biggest surprises for this Aussie since his arrival in mid-summer.
A couple of notes (caveats?) before I begin:
- While trying to be as honest as possible, these are generalisations and there are exceptions to every point (the chardonnays of Crystallum being one).
- This list probably reveals more about me and my expectations before moving to the Cape than it does about what I have found here.
1. The excellent quality and diversity of the Chenin Blanc wines (and Chenin-led blends). These wines represent what marketing people like to call USPs (unique selling points). In other words the wines offer something that is not replicated elsewhere in the wine world. This would be useless if the wines were no good, but some of these wines are truly world class and deserve to be viewed (and priced) as such. The much spoken about versatility of Chenin has, perhaps, kept the price low, as style can be difficult to ascertain from the label. In general I am SERIOUSLY excited about these wines.
2. The poor quality of the majority of Chardonnay and sparkling wines. The standard of the wines made from the 4th most planted white variety in the Cape—after Chenin, Colombar(d) and Sauvignon—is not in line with its global reputation as THE white wine variety. On the one hand there are too many wines by aspirational producers reeking of oak and tasting like syrup, and on the other too many austere, angular wines produced by those wanting to cash in on the commercial bonanza that is Sauvignon Blanc. For a country proud enough to have its own laws about quality sparkling wine production (MCC), it is disappointing to witness both winemakers and marketers obsessed with months spent on lees rather than where and how the fruit is grown.
3. There are some really good Pinotage wines. Pinotage has a reasonably ordinary reputation domestically. Which is far better than the one it possesses internationally. The discovery of something called “Coffee Pinotage” at Cape Wine 2012 made me recoil in horror and disbelief. My bar was low when I arrived. I have found where the viticulturist ensures the delivery of clean fruit with natural acidity and the winemaker doesn’t get too “trigger happy” with extraction and oak, the resulting wines can be pure-fruited, refreshing drinks.
4. Cinsaut. And the fact that it is overlooked by so many domestically. Probably the biggest “good” surprise has been Cinsaut. Seems to effortlessly produce perfumed, medium-bodied wine! With the top four of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinotage and Merlot making up 80% of the domestic vineyard area for red varieties–Ruby Cabernet is 5th with 5%–Cinsaut fills a much-needed gap for a “true” medium-bodied red wine that doesn’t get slathered in new oak. A beautiful luncheon wine; I have been buying 6-packs of the stuff and drinking them almost as quickly. Unfortunately for Cinsaut is has such a bad reputation within South Africa – but then again, it has kept the price down thus far!
5. The lack of international wine being drunk by those in the industry. Prior to moving I was aware of the existence of South Africa’s selective tax laws based on origin and the weakness of the currency, so I knew that international wine would not be as readily available as in Australia. But I was not fully prepared to see many people in the wine (and food) industry not seek these wines out and learn whatever they can from them (even if it is “what not to do”). If you are trying to produce or sell serious Chardonnay, surely you should at least be familiar with the wines of Chablis and the villages of the Côte de Beaune?
6. The need for third party validation on both quality and taste. Old Mutual Trophy, Veritas, Top 100, Platter’s, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Decanter, Jamie Goode, Tim Atkin et al: guides to wine all—gospel none. When selecting a wine, they can be informative and useful, especially when they are used in conjunction with each other and, if you are very familiar with them, can make adjustments for taste—theirs and yours. The surprising part of this to me is the omnipresent reliance on these guides (usually just the scores) in and by the South African wine industry. Don’t bother finding out where the fruit comes from, how it was grown, treated in the winery or the stylistic influences and aspirations of the winemaker/s—just memorise the score/s the wine received. Very few in the industry seem confident enough to stand behind the quality and style of their wines without mentioning (ramming it down throats) the “93 points it got from so-and-so”.
7. The relatively low cost of food and wine. Possibly the biggest surprise for the readers? This is, of course, compared with my homeland where to drink and eat well takes careful financial planning and sacrifice (mostly due to high cost of labour and tax). The Test Kitchen’s top menu, the Gourmand, excluding wine and tip, costs R1000 (US$102) – the corresponding menu at Vue de monde in Melbourne, again without wine or tip, costs A$250 (US$242). A bottle of Dom Perignon 2003 will set you back R1600 (US$164) from Wine Cellar in Observatory; this equates to approximate wholesale price in Australia where, in Melbourne, the same bottle retails at the Prince Wine Store for A$250 (US$242). I have used two high-end examples here, but the ratios stay within these ranges when looking at food and wine in general.
8. The distance in quality (and inversely, price) between the whites and the reds. I have already gone on record as saying that I drink two bottles of Cape white wine to every one of Cape red. This is not to say that I inherently prefer white wine; or that the food I eat, or the climate in which I live lead me unthinkingly in the white direction. I simply think that the whites here are twice as good at half the price. This quickly falls down when looking at individual wines, but during the passage of time, I will drink roughly twice as many Cape whites as I will red.
9. The small size of the food and wine industry in the Cape. Everyone knows everyone! Again, comparative to Australia, where the main wine production areas are spread over three time zones, the fact that I can drive for a couple of hours from Cape Town and reach 90+% of the quality wine producers in the country speaks volumes of the size of the wine industry. Perhaps this is the reason overseas journalists feel they can visit for 1-2 weeks per year and pronounce that they “know” South Africa? Sometimes it feels like a small town, with genuine friendliness and hospitality on the one hand—and vicious rumour-mongering and tall-poppy syndrome on the other.
10. Where are all the young wine writers? And finally, with reverence to my host and provocateur, I ask where are all the young wine writers/critics/judges? The industry is alive with the efforts of vibrant, young winemakers and viticulturists; but where are the members of the wine press born after 1980? Harry Haddon was there, but now he has disappeared. Looking at the panels for competitions and Platter’s, it appears that the wine drinker under 35 is not represented.
Well, there it is. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or tackle me directly via twitter: @davidwineclarke