The Top 20 South African wineries

There’s a good mix of new blood and continuity in the results of the poll just conducted among 26 wine professionals, aiming to reach a plausible list of the best wineries and the best wines in South Africa. But only one of the top five wineries was producing wine before the great revolution in South African winemaking in the 1990s. And two of the top five had not even released a wine by the turn of this century.

Boekenhoutskloof is the winery that got the most nominations to be in the top five (this category was separately voted for), closely followed by two with a tied vote: Kanonkop and Sadie Family Wines and then Cape Point Vineyards; Vergelegen was just behind. No other winery came anywhere near close to these closely-spaced five.

I then asked the voters to name another fifteen wines, to make up a top 20, giving us the following list, in order of votes received:

  • Boekenhoutskloof
  • Kanonkop
    Sadie Family Wines (these two tied)
  • Cape Point Vineyards
  • Vergelegen
  • Hamilton-Russell Vineyards
  • Paul Cluver
  • Rustenberg
  • De Trafford
    Thelema (these 3 tied)
  • Bouchard-Finlayson
    Tokara (these 3 tied)
  • Hartenberg
  • Le Riche
    Neil Ellis
    Steenberg (these three tied)
  • Chamonix
    Morgenster (these two tied)

Grape had previously done three such polls – in 2001, 2003 and 2006 – though the voting panel was a bit different on each occasion. The top five last time were: Vergelegen, Boekenhoutskloof, Hamilton Russell, Rustenberg and Thelema.

Ten of the wineries in the 2010 Top 20 did not feature in 2001 (including Sadie and Cape Point, of course), testimony to the strength of the newcomers to the industry in this dynamic decade – but the list also shows the continuing and sometimes strengthened commitment to quality of some of the older producers (Meerlust, for example, didn’t feature in the first two polls).

Four wineries are complete newcomers this year: Tokara, Le Riche, Chamonix and Morgenster. It should be mentioned that I insisted on wineries voted for having a record of at least three vintages of marketed wines – a separate vote was taken on promising newcomers, which I’ll report on later.

The 25 people who voted (I’d invited more, but half a dozen either declined or didn’t offer anything) were mostly wine-writers, sommeliers and retailers (listed below); all but one were local. The panel obviously could have been somewhat different, but I’m confident that this was a good one. As I have remarked before, it would be virtually impossible to expect any individual to have a good, continuing knowledge of what is happening at all the leading wineries – and these “experts” are, like everyone else, subject to some extent to the influence of reputation, and of clever marketing, and the like. To an extent, then, this list is an account of image and reputation as much as of a convinced view of quality. But who discounts the significance of image?

And it’s not easy – as almost all of the voters remarked with varying degrees of frustration – making a choice. Just for example, how does one reckon the claims of a winery like Morgenster, for example, which is really known for just one superb wine, against somewhere like Jordan with a large and varied range? It’s much easier to have a high average standard when you have few wines! I myself voted for Nederburg in my top 20 – almost as an afterthought, as it is very easy to forget that Nederburg now makes a couple of wines in the top league, and its overall image is probably held down by the fact that it also makes large ranges of more ordinary wines. (This poll was specifically rewarding high quality, not a brilliant range of mid-quality of mass-production wines – that’s another story entirely.) In fact, Nederburg, which had in previous polls come nowhere close, finished only just outside the Top 20, tied with Waterford and Ataraxia (but Ataraxia also did remarkably well in the up-and-coming vote). Then came Graham Beck, then Raats, then Rust en Vrede (a winery that has done better in the past). A number of wineries received between one and five votes.

There were some omissions that might raise some eyebrows. Where is De Toren? Where is Rijks? Klein Constantia and some others have not been there since the first poll. One could continue with analysing and questioning these results ad nauseam, but I’ll now leave that up to others.

The voters were as follows (some categories are vague, and overlap, of course):

Wine writers: Tim Atkin, Christian Eedes, Michael Fridjhon, Joanne Gibson, Edo Heyns, Tim James, Angela Lloyd, Melvyn Minnaar, Fiona McDonald, Christine Rudman, Cathy van Zyl, Philip van Zyl
Retailers: Carrie Adams, Carolyn Barton, Ingrid Motteux, Roland Peens, James Pietersen, Caroline Rillema
Sommeliers and others: Miguel Chan, Neil Grant, Higgo Jacobs, Cathy Marston, Andre Morgenthal, Joerg Pfuetzner, Kent Scheermeyer, Jonathan Steyn

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