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Profile of South Africa. Part II

text and photographs ©2002 Tom Cannavan

 part 1 - part 2 - part 3

This is part 2 of a major feature on South Africa, following my trip there recently as guest of Wines of South Africa. It profiles a dozen estates. Part 1 offers an introduction to the Cape for visitors with an interest in wine and food. Part 3 presents 100 great South African wine recommendations.

Part 2 - the winemaking estates

Every wine producing nation faces its own mix of challenges and opportunities. France remains the world's reference point for fine wine, but it has watched its New World competitors steal consumers away whilst it remained somewhat hidebound by tradition. In California, domestic wine consumption is falling year by year, and the vineyards have been swept by the double whammy of the deadly glassy-winged sharpshooter and Phylloxera bugs. Corporate-dominated Australia has come up against the ABC club, who have turned their backs on formulaic Chardonnay; the search is on for complexity and diversity.

So does South Africa face more problems than most? Wherever I went and whoever I talked to, the watch-word on everyones' lips was "change". If South Africa does face special challenges, then for each one there is an upside: the potential and opportunity that is so obviously there.

South Africa is engaged in a struggle to establish its wines on a global scale. Southern Hemisphere rivals have enjoyed a big head-start whilst South Africa was embargoed by most of the world during the Apartheid era. South Africa's volume premium wines (the £5 Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots) might be very good indeed, but it is a tough market to break into when crowded by so many established players. Yet, in the crucial "branded wine" sector, familiar names like Kumala, Arniston Bay, Namaqua and Goiya are already helping to redress the balance. The UK off-trade market is growing at around 6% per annum overall, but South Africa's growth is close to 19% - and that is several points better than Chile for example.

A second challenge faces the industry at the top end. South African "trophy wines" do not exist as yet; there is no Château Latour, Grange, Screaming Eagle or Cloudy Bay. So far there are only a handful of wines from South Africa that can demand more than £10 or so in the export market. But again, we find winemakers who are firmly focused on this challenge. André van Rensburg at Vergelegen Estate is determined that his winery will model Bordeaux, with just a pair of super-premium wines, red and white blends. The Estate red is already one of South Africa's flagship wines. Over at Warwick Estate, director Mike Ratcliffe talks with passion about his "Trilogy", another fine Bordeaux blend (in Everywine; The Wine Society), whilst de Toren's "Fusion V" is one of the Cape's most prominent contenders for iconic status (Virginwines, Peatling, Noel Young, James Nicholson, Wine Society).

There is need for investment too. The vineyards are still plagued by "leaf-roll virus", a disease which reduces yields and causes vines not to ripen fully. Despite some attempts to play the problem down, it clearly must be eradicated. But the ultimate solution of re-planting on resistant rootstock does not come cheaply for a country whose currency is performing so badly. Still, several estates, like Hamilton-Russell for example, have gone for a wholesale replanting programme, whilst others concentrate on ecological means of controlling the bugs which spread the virus. Work goes on.

Perhaps the final struggle is what to do with Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. Despite a programme of grubbing-up, unfashionable Chenin Blanc still accounts for 31% of all white wine grapes. Whilst Chenin can still play its part in satisfying the demand for inexpensive, fruity wines, other producers are concentrating on old vines, restricting yields, and fermenting in barrel to produce altogether more serious Chenins.

The two Pinotage camps seem diametrically opposed: I won't repeat in polite company what André van Rensburg said about Pinotage, but others like Mike Ratcliffe argue that if producers can focus on improving and establishing Pinotage of high quality, South Africa will have a unique point of difference against the competition. Part of the secret lies in controlling fermentation. It is possible to harness the deep, fruity qualities of Pinotage, whilst avoiding those metallic, "acetone" aromas and flavours that have given Pinotage a bit of bad press in the past. To counterpoint his "Trilogy" flagship wine, Ratcliffe is equally proud of his structured, delicious "Three Cape Ladies", which includes around 30% Pinotage in a classic "Cape blend".

meeting the producers

Text books are all very well, telling you about a wine producing area's varying temperatures, altitudes, exposures and soils. But it is not until you visit and stand there for yourself, feeling the baking heat of mid-day Paarl, or the wind-swept chill of the clifftops at Walker Bay, that the theory is driven home by reality. In the course of one day I sweltered in Springfield Estate's "life from Stone" vineyard, in 35 degrees of Robertson sun, then stood atop a ridge with Anthony Hamilton-Russell, whilst he roared above the wind to make himself heard in the teeth of a 70-mph gale blowing straight from the Antarctic.

Stellenbosch, Paarl and Durbanville
Stellenbosch is a really pleasant University town, with plenty of life about it, and a good range of shops, bars and restaurants.

Charles back of Fairview Estate was kind enough to invite my little party of UK journalists to his home for a brai (barbecue) and to taste through an astonishing range of experimental wines and bottled product. These were all very impressive, from the widely available Goats do Roam and Goat Rotie, through to single varietal Zinfandel, Carignan and Mourvèdre, and lots of stuff that may or may not see the light of day. I didn't realise that the farm also produces cheese, and is SA's biggest producer of "exotic" cheeses (goat's, French soft rind styles, etc.). Exotica such as an excellent straw wine and fortified Shiraz showed terrific diversity, but two of my favourites were the Oom Pagel Semillon (Oddbins), lightly-oaked, luscious and full of citrus, and the honeyed, limpid Viognier (Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Oddbins), two unusual bottlings of superb quality.

  The Spiceroute winery has recently been added to Back's portfolio, and has immediately impressed with its super-premium range. Incidentally, I can reveal that Fairview's well-loved Goat's do Roam is not just a very decent wine and terrible pun, but also the truth: goats do indeed roam the winery, including this one, standing sentry as we left the estate at the end of the evening. Back and his team are fashioning some of the Cape's most interesting wines at present, and represent a new thinking, where experimentation and diversity is imbued with a strict focus on quality.

Fairview wines are widely available, including Majestic, Oddbins, Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Somerfield.

Vergelegen is a gorgeous old estate, with a very good restaurant, manor house, and beautiful parkland including a row of 500-year old Camphor trees.

The winery itself is architecturally stunning, carved deep into the hillside so that as you approach you see nothing but a small turret accessed via a walkway, which is the entrance to the circular cellar. André van Rensburg's reputation goes before him, as an outspoken iconoclast, but supreme winemaker. Vergelegen's wines have been high on my own "favourites" list for a long time, and this estate lays claim to being one of the Cape's "Grands Cru". Although their award-winning and delicious Chardonnay is enormously popular, van Rensburg sees a future in the model of a Bordeaux château, where a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based red, and a Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc-based white, will be the only estate wines.  

He has strong opinions on most things, but above all believes in ruthless attention to detail and concentration on only the noblest grapes in the perfect growing environment. He cites Chenin and Pinotage as "third rate", and argues forcefully that these will not persuade the world of South African quality, whilst admiring the wines of l'Avenir, Simonsig and Kanonkop amongst others. Vergelegen really is producing world class fine wine, and they can be found in Sainsbury's and Oddbins.

  Kathy and Gary Jordan of Jordan Vineyards are remarkably modest given that they have been described as "the President and First Lady of the Cape's wine meritocracy". Their wines have won enormous praise and a string of gold medals in international competition. At their homely farm near Stellenbosch we went out on a jeep safari around their impressive vineyards around a bowl-shaped valley, with fine views to the coast. Gary is philosophical about South African winemaking, and stresses that the industry is still in its youth "I'm pretty sure in 300 years time we'll know what to plant where" he jokes. A former geologist, he describes the work they have done on their soil, adding tonnes of lime to counteract acidity in the granite base. Fantastic quality control and detail is evident in this cellar, extending to the maturing barrels.

Each varietal is cellared in a separate room, where temperature can be adjusted. There is no sulphur used at this stage of the process, so rather than removing the bung to stir the lees, which could promote oxidisation, a hugely labour-intensive process of rolling all barrels regularly to stir the lees is employed. The entire range is terrifically impressive, including a fine, toasty Chenin Blanc (Unwins), superb, Burgundian Chardonnay (Waitrose) and complex, structured "Cobblers Hill" Cabernet blend (this, and various Jordan wines from and Laytons).

Wandering around on caged walkways many metres above acres of gleaming tanks and pristine, whitewashed walls of Durbanville Hills new winery is an impressive experience. This is one of South Africa's biggest and most high-tech wineries, with vast capacity for making wines in optimum conditions.

Winemaker Martin Moore is quick to point out that big and modern does not mean compromising on quality. His mission in designing the winery was to capture the essence of "garagiste" winemaking, and utilise technology to scale-up production to serious commercial levels. Durbanville Hills is part of the giant Distell corporation, and I was extremely impressed by Martin's enthusiasm and persuasive argument. The range, including single vineyard and limited "special edition" wines, testifies that big does not necessarily mean bland - and can indeed be beautiful.

  At the Paarl estate of Villiera Wines, self-guided tours are offered of both the regular and sparkling wine cellars. This family owned estate has quadrupled in size over recent years under the guidance of cousins Jeff and Simon Grier, and their watchword is once again detail. They stress picking date as one of the most crucial decisions of their work, checking pips and stems are ripe, and that sugars and acids are optimum. Interestingly, the "ward" stated on Villiera labels will change from Paarl to Stellenbosch from 2002 onward, thanks to the majority of new holdings being focused across the border.

Their sparkling wines include barrel-fermented styles and a rosé with a little Pinotage in the blend. Another point to note is that Villiera abandoned synthetic closures and returned to natural cork recently, after experience suggested the synthetics did not maintain their seal adequately. First Quench stores carry Villiera wines in the UK, including "Down to Earth", a delicious shiraz-based Cape blend at £6.99.

Part of the large Winecorp group, Spier Cellars is both working winery and hotel and leisure complex. Despite its tourism focus, winemaker Frans Smit is producing a very promising range, particularly the "Private Collection" label. I consumed a few bottles of the outstanding, pungent, oily 2001 Sauvignon Blanc in the course of a stay here. Asda is the UK retailer.

Morgenhof is another absolutely beautiful estate with delightful rose gardens and a fine restaurant where I attended a lovely dinner to celebrate the wines of Simonsberg. The association of Devon Valley winemakers also laid on a tasting, and took me on a helicopter trip to get a glimpse of this pastoral paradise, not far drom Stellenbosch. Finely, a grand dinner called "Imbizo" (the Soul of Africa) was held at Boschendal estate. Tasting notes from all of these will be included in part III, "100 great South African wines".

Walker Bay
There is a stunning coastal drive to Walker Bay from Cape Town, though it adds hours to the more mundane motorway alternative.

  Anthony Hamilton-Russell, took me on a dare-devilishly bumpy Land Rover ride to the very top of the ridge on his farm, where the theory of "cool climate winemaking" turns into stark reality, with gale force winds breaking on the cliff face of the ridge, then continuing as a cooling breeze down over the vineyards on the other side. He explains that if the world's latitudes were flipped from head to toe, Walker Bay would sit in the same position as California's Santa Barbara; so that cooling system is vital. If South African winemaking has a Champion of "terroirism", however, it is Hamilton-Russell.

He talks with fervour about his patch of vineyard land, and passion about understanding the earth in which his vines are planted. Echoing the train of thought from Gary Jordan, He believes that for all his efforts on soil and vine choice, they are still a generation away from real understanding. Already meticulous farming has now moved to an organic regime, and the tasting that day of Hamilton-Russell's elegant, complex Pinot Noir, and limpid Chardonnay, full of finesse, suggests a sure hand on the tiller. Available from Berry Bros. & Rudd, Oddbins, Averys, Villeneuve and Waitrose.

At Bouchard Finlayson, Peter Finlayson (whom I had met before) gave us a wonderful lunch in the cellars. The mussels for the white mussel soup had been gathered from the beach that morning. The small, welcoming estate can offer trail walks to see the native Fynbos (by arrangement) as well as tastings and sales. Finlayson is a contemplative character, and is very much a man of the soil. He is another powerful advocate for the very specific terroir in this little patch of the Cape. Winner of the International Wine Challenge Pinot Noir trophy in 2000, the Galpin's Peak was as outstanding as ever, with sweet, silk-textured fruit and lovely harmony. Bibendum and Waitrose are stockists.

All the producers of Walker Bay gathered their top wines for a tasting that afternoon - the first time they'd staged a "generic" Walker Bay tasting. A dozen estates were featured, and tasting notes will appear in part III. Star of the show was the ebullient 85-year-old winemaker, Arthur Pillman, whose Goedvertrouw Estate produces 800 cases a year, of decent Chardonnay and really excellent Pinot Noir. I suggested to Arthur that his Chardonnay could benefit from a little oak, but he explained "I can't afford the barrels". Arthur is planning to go organic, which at 85-years of age, shows a life-affirming spirit. From Raeburn Fine Wines.

I luxuriated in a 45 minute plane trip to Robertson from Stellenbosch, where the temperature was in the 30's and again emphasised climatic differences in the region. By road, expect a two-hour drive over dramatic mountain passes.

  It is such a cliché to describe Danie de Wet of de Wetshof Estate as a "gentle giant", but this towering, direct, but very welcoming man (with the biggest hands I've ever seen) fits the bill perfectly. An insect called a "mealy bug" is thought to be at least partly responsible for spreading the leaf-roll virus, and one of the novel solutions employed by Danie was to introduce a family of six hundred ducks to his vineyards during the season. The bug-munching killer ducks are a wonderful example of biological pest control - it would undoubtedly be easier to dump on a load of chemicals. With his early training in Germany, de Wet might have a natural empathy for white wines, but whilst he does make very good Riesling, it is for his Chardonnays that he has found worldwide renown. His inexpensive, unoaked Danie de Wet "sur lie" version has established itself as a fixture in high street multiples and supermarkets at £3.99,

But the range moves through several levels to elegantly-oaked, Burgundian styles. Though he is even experimenting with Pinot Noir at present, de Wet's heart remains with Chardonnay. Widely available, including Oddbins, Majestic, First Quench, Safeway, Asda, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer (under the Giyani label).

Another winery I was really looking forward to visiting based on wines I had tasted back home, was Springfield Estate. I had a brilliant visit here, with the vivacious Jeanette Bruwer, who along with her brother, Arbrie, runs the farm. We did a really nice thing, which was to visit the vineyards, where a little table had been set up with the wine from that vineyard to taste. The "Life from Stone" Sauvignon Blanc is a grown in a rocky, barren place that is perfectly apt, for example. These were immensely impressive wines across the range. The Bruwers are somewhat renegades, unafraid to take chances and bend the rules to suit their own vision. That is partly what makes this estate so exciting. Their 1999 "Méthode Anciènne" Chardonnay is an absolute must-buy if you see it (in Bibendum, Everywine, Harrods, La Reserve).  

Simply one of the best Chardonnay I've tasted for some time, it is allowed a totally "hands-off" fermentation with ambient yeasts and very low-tech winemaking. In some years it has turned into expensive vinegar, but the 1999 is brilliant. Coming on stream is a partner Méthode Anciènne Cabernet Sauvignon which, when it is released should also be sensational. I tasted 1997, 98 and 99, as they will spend two years in barrel then 4 in the cellar before release. Bibendum are UK agents and stockists for these wines, though the delightful "Life from Stone" Sauvignon Blanc is in Mark & Spencer and Booths.

  Graham Beck Wines is at the complete other end of the scale. Graham Beck is a multi billionaire American mining tycoon, who has two wineries: one in Franschoek making top-notch Shiraz, Pinotage and other table wines, and this sparkling winery in Robertson. A glass and steel temple to modernity, it is another must visit if you come here. Top-quality "cap classique" fizz includes a terrific Blanc de Blancs. The company represents something of the new outlook that is necessary for South Africa: they are totally market-driven, making the wines that people want to drink, rather than making wines then hoping people will like them.

I wondered if marketing data persuaded them to invent the Cape's first sparkling Pinotage, or whether there's still some vestigial pioneering spirit here?

It certainly shows that being market-driven does not stop invention and experimentation. First Quench, Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury carry various still wine bottlings, whilst the fizz can be found in Safeway and Sainsbury, and the sparkling Pinotage in Noel Young, Peckhams and Everywine.

Final thoughts

It is easy to think that the magic of the South African sun, and the warmth of the people I met, softened me up too much to be truly critical about these estates. But I can put hand on heart and say that the determined characters that I met were as deeply impressive as their wines.

South African winemaking may indeed face challenges, but there is committment, energy and talent, as well as great wine growing conditions here. My visit merely scratched the surface of the Cape, with no time to research the oldest fine wine region of Constantia, nor newer regions like Elim, Malmesbury and Swartland. I have much to discover about this ancient yet young country, with its remarkable past, and most promising future.

part 1 - visiting Cape Town and the Winelands
part 2 - profiles of the top estates
part 3 - 100 great South African wines