Discovering South African wine

One of the world’s most powerful wine critics recently published a judgement that will have surprised many. “I am occasionally asked,” he wrote, “what is the most exciting New World country on the scene at the moment.” After considering a few likely candidates (New Zealand, Argentina, Chile) he concluded that “if I have to give a single answer then I would reply: ‘South Africa’.”

nealmartinThe name of the perceptive critic is Neal Martin, a Brit responsible for judging Cape wines (amongst other regions) for the influential Wine Advocate. This is the US-based newsletter and website founded by the great (perhaps not – but anyway hugely significant) Robert Parker. If that name means nothing to you, just multiply Platter by a million and spin it round the world.

I met Neal Martin a year or two back – and chauffered him around the Swartland –  when he was out here to write his first lengthy report on South African wine for the Advocate. (The person previously charged with responsibility for South Africa hadn’t bothered to even set foot in the country in his five-odd years of tenure.)

A great start it was – perhaps the Wine Advocate was going to take this country seriously, at last. The report Neal wrote was substantial, serious and thoughtful and he found much to like. I didn’t agree with all his judgements, but so what? Then, lo and behold, within a year or so he turned up again, tasting hard at the Cape Wine extravaganza in October. I was impressed by this evidence of a due sense of responsibility – and a due sense of the exciting developments that are still taking place here.

In his latest report, Neal takes his stance against the backdrop of what he calls “the entrenched apathy/prejudice against South African wines”, not to mention the “unavoidable truth” about the socio-political stuation here, including “the lingering stench of apartheid and economic malaise”.

But he understands, as few international (and even local) critics do, the profundity of the continuing wine revolution here, and sees the potential of disseminating the spirit of the Swartland through a new generation of young, talented and fiercely ambitious winemakers  “spreading the gospel to regions such as Hemel-en-Aarde, Elgin and that most traditional, conservative of wine regions, Stellenbosch”.

cartologyOne category that Neal seems particularly impressed by is ambitious chenin blanc made as naturally as possible (organic viticulture, no additions during winemaking – including no new oak). Emblematic of this style for him is the “stunning debut” from Alheit Vineyards, the wine called Cartology – which got five Platter stars on its first outing and many other plaudits. Says Neal: “Everything from the philosophical, terroir-driven winemaker to the vines to the profound wine and even the packaging, attests to the pinnacles that can be reached.”

It can only do the South African wine revolution good to have another friend out there who is not only powerful in his influence, but possessed of such insight.


Recommendation of the week: South African produces some fine, serious, long-lived chardonnays. But there are less demanding, more immediately delicious versions too. Like the Glen Carlou Unwooded 2012, from an estate whose chardonnays are always the best of their range. This new incarnation is interesting, fresh, limey and clean-cut, with some weight and depth. Not cheap at R78 but a notch above most unoaked chards.
First published in the Mail & Guardian, 11-17 January 2013

– You can read Neal Martin’s report reproduced here by Wosa, with all its typos etc (you’d think that the lucrative Wine Advocate could afford a decent proof-reader!) 

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