Ten amazing years for Cape wine

It suddenly struck me, while writing a brief and chatty first-ten-years-of-the-millennium piece for a newspaper, just what a remarkable decade this has been for South African wine, particularly at the quality end. It was building on the great leap forward of the 1990s, true, but I think that how the building has been done is remarkable.

In the early 1990s there was the shock for many winemakers of discovering the great big world out there – of finding out, even, what the world’s wines tasted like. More importantly they discovered that customers in London and Amsterdam and Berlin were (once they’d got over the “Mandela factor”) not so keen on much of what the Cape was offering. So Cape producers responded to what was being urged on them – which, to put it crudely, was mostly to emulate Australia.

Many were dubious of this, to their great credit, and thought they should be making good South African wines rather than Australian ones. It’s the maturing of this attitude that has marked the developments of the past ten years. There’s still a lot of wine aiming to please the market by sweet, oaky ultra-ripeness (which is the essence of how Australia was interpreted, I’d say), or by the equally ripe but more massively structured example of California. But there’s much more than this, pushing those styles into the shade. More and more winemakers and producers now – fuelled, certainly, by the opening of their minds and tastes through international travel – are responding to South African conditions. They are exploring and deepening their experience of the different terroirs available.

Forgive me, purists who point out that the millennium change actually took place a year after nearly everyone decided that it did – and just consider what we didn’t have exactly ten years ago as we went into the brave new decade, century and millennium (Y2K as we called it, particularly when we were think of the computer mayhem we’d been promised – remember that?).

Surely one of the finest and most exciting achievements of contemporary South African wine is the establishment of the white blend – two basic types of white blend, in fact. The first is based on the whites of Bordeaux, and responds to an urge to make something perhaps more profound out of sauvignon blanc than then seemed likely to emerge from our vineyards and wineries – hence the tried and trusted blend with semillon. The second type, a more authentically original style, emerged from the Swartland with its wonderful old chenin blanc vines – chenin is often the basis of the blend, which takes in viognier, chardonnay, grenache blanc and whatever Rhône-ish varieties the viticulturist and winemaker can lay their hands on.

Well, neither of those were really “invented” yet, as viable models, as 1999 drew to a close. The two great inspirations, André van Rensburg’s Vergelegen White and Eben Sadie’s Palladius came out with the 2001 and 2002 vintages respectively. Now, at the end of the decade, those two great wines, internationally respected, are each being challenged by a large number of excellent competitors – and the example has filtered down to less grand and expensive wines too. The emergence of the white blend category might alone have been enough to mark the decade as probably the most exciting in the history of South African wine.

Talking of Eben Sadie and the Swartland: Sadie was winemaker at Spice Route, which Charles Back had founded (initially with a few partners) in what should be remembered as one of the important visionary achievements of this crucial man in our wine culture. Sadie was then still to set up on his own (Columella’s first vintage was, auspiciously, 2000), and still to achieve the international renown that has since come his way. The Swartland has never been the same since Back opened the way and Sadie followed – and then went so much further; and the area has emerged as one of the most exciting (sorry to use that word again) in the winelands, and is still developing, arousing the enthusiasm of more and more dynamic young wine-growers.

And it’s not just the Swartland that has been transfigured in the last decade. Leave aside the complexities of the big areas like Stellenbosch, where so many fine new wineries have emerged alongside those of early days, like Kanonkop (not all that’s good is new, of course, and the example of the best of the old Cape has been as vital as the example of the best elsewhere).

Tulbagh, apart from the sparkling wine of Twee Jongegezellen, had not yet been pulled out of its mediocrity by the dynamic new Rijk’s – whose first bottling was in 2000, since when the area has been on a roll.

Elgin had one winery represented in the Platter Guide 2000 – Paul Cluver; since then, growth in vineyard plantings and in reputation has been prodigious. The Hemel-en-Aarde area had only three wineries at the turn of the century – Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson and Newton Johnson (there must have been something about the area that appealed to double names). Ten years later there are as many wards there as that! And very many more wineries. And further along the coast, the first wineries in what was to become the cool and windy  Cape Agulhas ward were just getting ready to emerge in full sauvignon-driven force.

Even old Constantia, which by some miracle (vitally supported by state ownership of Groot Constantia) had avoided complete suburbanisation and undergone rebirth since 1980, even Constantia has grown since the huge fires of 2000 made way for vineyards where fruit-trees and pines had been before. And Cape wine is the richer for that. Not far away, Cape Point Vineyards, now indisputably one of the country’s top-ten producers, was ten years ago only experimenting with wine coming off its young vines. In fact, any list of South Africa’s top twenty wineries would be very different now from what it would have been then.

And these are only the most obvious changes we have seen. Just a little less obviously, in many places vineyards are abandoning their easy lives on valley floor and climbing the hillsides. Viticulture and its practitioners have made great advances. In the cellars, young winemakers (and many older ones with invaluable experience) have been experimenting, have been more determined to make better and better wines. The general standard has – surely – been improving greatly. Take what happened to our biggest producer, Distell, with the vital influence of Australian Linley Schultz: there are still dreary wines (is Graca any better than it was? and Zonnebloem and JC le Roux could both do with revolutions of their own), but new big-brand labels like the notoriously misleadingly named Two Ocean are delivering very well.

Distell’s Fleur du Cap was, in 2000, entering upon its transformation into a leading name, and introduced the Unfiltered Collection. Razvan Macici arrived at Nederburg in 2001, and the subsequent transformation there can serve as a great example of beneficial change. (Razvan, who doesn’t seem to think his achievement been sufficiently recognised in the Platter Guide should compare the Nederburg entry in the 2000 edition, where only five wines get four stars, to the entry ten years on, where there are about twenty matching or exceeding that rating.)

Many other examples could be adduced. In fact, it’s the sheer number of possible examples of improvements that is most amazing of all. Let’s not forget, however, that there’s a less cheerful side, too: that part of change which we could summarise as “social change” has not made the advances that it should have done. But there’s a huge amount to celebrate (and all winelovers should be doing so – even if they also suffer from the rising prices at the top end, which has been another feature of the years since the old millennium ended and the new one began.

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