South Africa’s top 20 wine producers

mullineuxredMullineux has just eclipsed Sadie Family as South Africa’s top wine producer, according to a panel of local and international wine professionals. Other highlights of the vote – in which the pollsters were asked to name their Top 20 wineries in South Africa – include:

  • Five new entrants to the top 20 list: Alheit, Crystallum, David & Nadia, DeMorgenzon, Savage
  • Alheit, one of the 2014 poll’s just-outsiders (Crystallum was another) not only enters the 2016 list, but leaps immediately into the Top 5
  • Kanonkop retains its status as one of only four wineries to have been on the list since it was first compiled in 2001 – and the only one to have been in the Top 5 every single time [see note at end]

Here’s the complete list, in ranking order:

  1. Mullineux
  2. Sadie Family
  3. Kanonkop
  4. Boekenhoutskloof
  5. Alheit
  6. Newton Johnson
  7. Chamonix
  8. Paul Cluver
  9. Cape Point Vineyards
  10. David & Nadia
  11. Reyneke
  12. AA Badenhorst
  13. Crystallum
  14. Klein Constantia
  15. Vergelegen
  16. Tokara
  17. Delaire Graff
  18. DeMorgenzon
  19. Jordan
  20. Savage

Fifteen years ago, in 2001, as the Cape wine revolution moved to a new level, I conducted a poll for Grape magazine of local wine people to establish a top 20 list of producers. As the revolution proceeded, with exciting new wineries emerging, it was clearly worth frequent repetitions of the exercise – in 2003, 2006, 2010, 2012, 2014, and again now. The polls have fascinatingly and sensitively charted the changes that have marked

This list must inevitably be controversial and, In the nature of things, no-one could claim it as a definitive hierarchy, even for the moment. To make it as plausible as possible, I invited a few dozen people each time to cast their votes, people who are (to the extent possible) reasonably up top date with what is happening here. The panel has changed too, over the years, with eminent foreigners making up an increasingly significant proportion, and a whole new category (sommeliers) added to the critics, judges and retailers. A different panel of well-informed people might well have given a somewhat different result – but only, I suspect, with regard to the precise rankings in some cases, and excluding or including a few wineries just inside or just outside the list. Although no two voters shared exactly the same list, and no one’s list (I think) completely chimed with the final one, there was a great deal of consensus, especially at the upper reaches.

No criteria or directions were given to the voters, and the extremely difficult task of weighing up competing claims was left to them. They had to decide, for example, whether the producer of a single excellent wine made in small quantities outweighs the producer of half a dozen fine, but not as excellent, wines made in larger volumes. Few people found compiling this sort of challenge easy to resolve. “It’s excruciating!” one voter emailed me in the course of his struggle. And it’s testament to the depth of quality at the top end of Cape wine that so many undoubtedly first-rate producers do not appear on the final list.

The Top 5
To gain some nuance, I’ve always asked the voters to separately name their Top 5 separately from the next 15; this year, for the first time I asked them to rank those Top 5 (but not the next 15, whose final order depended entirely on the number of votes cast). In fact, the Top 5 ranking made no difference, and simply summing the number of votes would have given the same results.

Last year’s top winery, Sadie, was this year overtaken by Mullineux – and in fact these two Swartland producers were pretty far ahead of the next-placed winery, Kanonkop, which in turn well outpaced the next two. Kanonkop has, it should be noted, the great distinction of having been in the Top 5 every poll since 2001 (when it was actually in first place, followed by Vergelegen, Veenwouden, Neil Ellis and Rustenberg – three of which have fallen off the Top 20 list entirely, while three of the current Top 5 had not released any wines in 2001!). Boekenhoutskloof is in the same position as it was last time, while newcomer Alheit Vineyards replaces Chamonix.

The only other winery that scored a significant number of Top 5 votes was Newton Johnson. Another dozen or so wineries received one or two votes.

The next 15
With Crystallum, David & Nadia, DeMorgenzon and Savage joining Alheit as newcomers to the list (and how could they not?), five had to go. Those exiting include three excellent wineries that in fact had been there since as far back as 2001: Hamilton Russell, Thelema and De Trafford. The other two to go were Cederberg (which joined the list only in 2014) and Meerlust. De Trafford and Meerlust were this year only just outside the Top 20, along with newcomer Keermont. It will seem absurd to many that these (and some other) producers don’t find a place – but if they did, which should they replace?

These losses mean that, remarkably, only four wines remain in the Top 20 list that were there in the 2001 list: Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof, Jordan (though its position has declined), and Klein Constantia. Change in reputation is an inevitable part of the process we have seen in the past few decades in South African wine. [See note at end]

It’s worth noting that nearly 100 wineries featured among the voting – but very many of these received only one or two votes.

Pollsters:

  • Sommeliers: Gareth Ferreira; Neil Grant; Higgo Jacobs; Pearl Oliver; Francois Rautenbach
  • Retailers: Carrie Adams; Roland Peens; James Pietersen
  • Local writers and critics: Hennie Coetzee; Michael Crossley; Pieter “Kwispedoor” de Klerk; Christian Eedes; Michael Fridjhon; Edo Heyns; Tim James; Angela Lloyd; Cathy Marston; Ingrid Motteux; Christine Rudman; Cathy van Zyl
  • Foreign writers and critics: Tim Atkin; Tom Cannavan; Jamie Goode; Matthew Jukes; Neal Martin; Greg Sherwood; Chris Waters

Auditor
John Smelcer, a Director of law firm Webber Wentzel, but acting in his private (wineloving) capacity, kindly agreed to audit the process pro bono, and was supplied with the original email communications from all the voters as well as the spreadsheets on which I recorded the votes. He confirms: “I have completed my review of a random sampling of a substantial number of voting scorecards. There were no material errors from my review.”

Correction (27/03/2016): I miscounted, and there were in fact FIVE, not four, of these wineries who appeared in the original list. I omitted Boekenhoutskloof.

13 thoughts on “South Africa’s top 20 wine producers

  1. Great list, on which I see many names whose presence I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m commenting as an American mostly to point out with some amusement that by “Foreign Writers” you mean six Brits and a Canuk.

  2. Hi Alder – yes, it’s embarrasingly limited. Unfortunately it’s mostly the Brits (SA’s largest market) who are properly up to date with South African wine. I have asked James Molesworth in the past, but apparently Wine Spectator people are not allowed to participate in anything run by other publications. Steven Tanzer this year felt he was not quite enough up to date. Sommelier James Tidwell seemed keen to participate, but then didn’t. Neal Martin is, I decided, an honorary American for wine purposes! I asked WOSA for more names, but it wasn’t easy. As to continental Europe or anywhere else in the world, I’m not sure of qualified people. But this might be my ignorance. May I check with you in 2018?

    • Tim,

      I’m far from the most up to date on South African wines, but I’m always happy to offer an opinion. What I really need to do is get back there for some serious tasting, it’s been too many years.

      I’m also happy to point you towards folks that might also have well-informed opinions.

      Alder

    • What about Holland, Belgium and Germany? Soo much of the better stuff sold there and soo much knowledge.
      If WOSA can’t name experts from those country’s I wonder about who is in charge of this at WOSA…

    • SA’s largest importer; best informed critics; most interested consumers. What is unfortunate?! Thanks for the fantastic article. And your blog more generally.

      Ed Roman
      British Consul-General, Cape Town

  3. I am sorry I don’t agree with the list.Hamilton Russell and Bouchard finlayson are the best Pinot noirs in SA and some of the best in the new world.Waterford Cabernets are amazing and Meerlust,Thelema .It’s a good list but the ones I mentioned could never be left out because they are so consistent.

    • Valid point, Roland. But I guess that happens when a variety of pollsters are involved: nobody will fully agree with the final list.

      Regarding Pinot, others – like the Platter’s tasters and a recent Decanter panel – seem to prefer the Newton Johnson Pinots. Wine Cellar again, in an e-mail sent out near the end of February, spoke glowingly about the Storm Pinots (For instance: “These were once again the standout wines at January’s 2016 Pinot Noir Celebration,..” and “If you have not tried these, you are missing out on South Africa’s benchmark Pinot Noirs!” and “It was the top wine at our ‘SA’s Best vs Burgundy’ tasting in Cape Town last week.”)For all we know, BF and HRV were only just outside of this list.

      The good performance of Kanonkop (and others) on this list is testament to the fact that most pollsters do consider track record as an important consideration. On that note, many old stalwarts of the industry have built long track records for reds that mature well over fairly extended periods. But at generally somewhere between an actual 14% and 15% ABV and a world apart i.t.o. vineyard and cellar practices, will today’s reds not ultimately prove to nullify those historical maturation track records?

      Perhaps what’s at play here, is that certain pollsters attach different weights to different producer attributes, not to mention the issue of taste preferences. I’ve always really loved it whenever this list was published – we all want to see where we agree and disagree with it.

  4. If it’s a fault, Udo, it’s mine. I asked WOSA about USA. Next time I’ll get some ideas from you about continentals who are both independent and well-informed – not always an easy combination, as it rules out, eg importers and agents. It’s to be remembered that some of those Brits come out virtually every year and taste through a very wide range.

  5. A very good and valid point, Charles. Time will be the true test. Of course the majority of these producers have already shown 10 or more years’ consistency of excellence (and more than half were founded at or before the turn of the century). Personally I have little doubt that 10-year verticals of the best wines of all these producers, now, or when they become available, will be pretty impressive and demonstrate that in 2016 we weren’t being hoodwinked.

    • Hi Tim, I have no doubt about you not being hoodwinked … the simple fact is that in the international arena of GREAT wines (if there is such a thing) the greatest will be determined by a consistency of excellence, and that takes time !

      You might know the story of the inquisitive American tourist who was asking the groundsman at Lords how he managed to prepare such a magnificent pitch .
      The answer was “it is quite easy actually – select the best stock of grass,plant it in the best prepared soil and water very carefully. To which the American responded – “that does not sound to difficult for us to replicate, is there anything else ?”
      To which the groundsman replied “No, nothing really, but to make sure that you roll it daily for 100 years ”

      Just as it is critical for WOSA and the likes to show the new and the innovative … never forget the consistency and the credibility that the likes of Meerlust, Kanonkop, and Le Riche (in Rustenberg or Le Riche), HRV and many more have provided, and continue to do so.

  6. Pingback: PIWOSA – Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa » Three PIWOSA wineries make the cut!

  7. Living in NZ, we received a range of SA wines via a new immigrant to the country recently. Included in the list of wines we got were some of the best from Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof, Mullineux, Jordan, DeMorgenzon, Meerlust(not on your list also) & Vergelegen, but our general opinion has been that the standout wines have been from Saronsberg, so interesting to note it was not on your list.

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