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South African update, part I

Text and Photographs © Tom Cannavan, 08/05

South Africa 2005 part II - South Africa report from 2002

In 2002 I first visited South Africa and published a major three part-feature covering the land, the wine estates, and my personal top 100 South African wines. Almost exactly three year's later, in Spring 2005, I returned to South Africa, to spend eight days visiting 20 estates, meeting scores more winemakers, and travelling to areas I had never visited before, like the cool Elgin valley. This then, is my South African update.

go to part II - six more producers, plus pick of other wines tasted

The Cape 2005

Most people who visit the Cape will return with a love of the land, the people and the wines burning bright in their hearts. But no one comes home from South Africa without being acutely aware of the social and economic problems faced by this re-born country, still little more than a decade after it emerged from the shadow of Apartheid.

On my return visit in Spring 2005, the ugly townships still sprawl for mile after mile alongside major roads and motorways, signalling that poverty, and it spectral bedfellows of crime, disease and lack of education, are still acute problems for huge numbers of mostly black and coloured South Africans. Whole cities of corrugated iron shacks and basic government-provided shelters peter out within a few hundred yards of the five-star hotels and multi-million pound wine estates.

South Africa's social, political and economic future remains uncertain, yet the wine producers are a remarkably gregarious, positive and enthusiastic lot. They too face their share of problems, not least a rampant currency that has bounced back from the lows of 2002, when one pound bought 20 Rand. Today, one pound buys just 11 Rand, and the South African currency has seen a similar strengthening against the US dollar and the Euro.

This makes buying French oak barrels and state of the art Italian machinery less expensive, but it also means that those producers who accepted long-term contracts to supply UK supermarkets with a certain quality of wine at, say, £3 per bottle, now need to deliver that quality for 33 Rand instead of 60 Rand. Some are selling wine below cost price to honour contracts and retain listings with major retailers. Add to this a downward trend in domestic wine consumption and a global over-production of wine, and the business of growing, making and selling wine in South Africa is about as tough as anywhere in the world.

But the flip side to all this doom and gloom is this majestic wine land, its proud and ambitious people, and the wine itself. The Cape has been making huge
strides in all of these areas: understanding its terroir better and the science of matching vine to soil; new young winemakers bursting through with much more exposure to global influences; wine quality improving rapidly with certain grape varieties and styles emerging as key players. All of these factors must help ensure the growth and development of South Africa as a major wine force.

Some estates, like Meerlust, Boschendal and Rustenberg, are literally centuries old, having been found in the 1600s; others, like Kanonkop and Simonsig, are younger, but still have 50 or 100 years of top-quality reputation behind them.


But there is also a new, post-Apartheid breed of estates and winemakers who have hit the scene, like Bruce Jack at Flagstone, Chris Williams at the Foundry and American José Condé at Stark Condé. Their youthful zest and boundary-busting vision for the wines they want to make has had a real impact.

One of the truly uplifting things about the South African scene is the mutual respect and admiration shown by the established figures and the new breed of younger winemakers. Over several meetings, lunches and dinners, I witnessed a real enthusiasm to taste, discuss and learn about each other's wines, but also a genuine interest in each other's opinions and winemaking philosophies.

The effort to redistribute wine wealth and responsibility to the black community through Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) projects is ongoing. Many BEEs now exist, like the recent takeover of the important B oschendal Estate, where a 30% stake has gone to BEE consortium. A wine industry charter is being developed, that should map a way forward.

Young black winemakers are starting to make their mark too, mostly graduates of the Stellenbosch University oenology course. Nontsike Biyela (top right right) at the boutique Stellekaya Cellars manages a double whammy by being both black and female in the sometimes rather macho world of South African wine production.

Mzokona Mvemve (bottom right) was one of the first black graduates of the Stellenbosch school, and this charming and unassuming young man is now in charge of one of South Africa's big brand wines, Indaba, a Zulu word meaning 'meeting place'.

Hopefully these two young winemakers will be more than 'poster children' for the empowerment movement. Along with the corporate initiatives and government-sponsored projects, they could herald a real broadening of the wine industry, and a breaking down of traditional roles and barriers.

Of the 44 million people who inhabit South Africa, less than 10 per cent is white. That huge majority of black and coloured South Africans need to have an economic stake in the production of wine. If today's beer-drinking black youth develop an emotional attachment to their country's wine industry, it could just hold a vital key to future strength and stability of that industry.

the wines

   I visited over 20 wine estates and some common themes emerged. First was the profusion of sorting tables: three years ago these essential pieces of equipment for quality wine were few and far between. Now, vibrating conveyer belts that allow careful fruit selection and minimise the amount of MOG (Matter Other than Grapes) going into the crusher, were rumbling along in every winery I visited, large and small.

This was just one obvious sign of improved attention to detail and investment in quality that has permeated the Winelands. Left: sorting tables in operation at Kanonkop.

Another theme is a growing appreciation of the importance of matching grape variety to specific site. The influence of the 'Cape Doctor', the south-easterly wind that cools the vineyards, is well understood, but a deeper understanding of climate, terroir and the science of matching vines to particular soils and sites is evident.

Sauvignon Blanc has emerged as a trump card from the rather dark episode in 2004 when a few winemakers were found guilty of adulterating their Sauvignons with flavourants to give them aromatic pungency on the cheap. Viognier is another big story, being planted widely to make varietal white wines and for fermenting with Shiraz to make a Côte-Rôtie-style blend.

Here follows a run-down on some of the most interesting Cape producers and their wines. Tasting notes on their wines, plus a dozen other favourites from my visit, will appear in part II of this feature, published tomorrow.

Kaapzicht Estate, Stellenbosch

Co-owner and winemaker Danie Steytler picked up the IWSC Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Trophy for Best Blended Red Wine in 2004 for 'Vision', his masterful 2001 blend of Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Perhaps inspired by that success, there is gentle revolution going on at this estate, with new red wine fermenters, small state-of-the art presses and lots of buzz and excitement - not least amongst the farm dogs: a friendly Doberman and a huge standard Poodle, who lead the way boldly around the winery with fearless enthusiasm.

146 hectares of the 174-hectare farm is planted to vines, which stretch over predominantly north facing slopes (this is the southern hemisphere, so that means maximum sun exposure) on fertile granite soils. Pinotage is also strong here, but there is bold, rich Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc, and some rather good grappa and potstill brandy too.

Kaapzicht Estate Red 2003
This blend of 65 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon with 35 per cent Shiraz takes no prisoners with its deep, inky black fruit richness and dusty, blue/black quality of fruit on the palate. £6.99

Kaapzicht "Vision" 2001
There is a fantastic opulence on the nose here, with complex tarry, violet and exotic spice notes layered over deep, rich cassis. On the palate it is fine, ripe and beautifully dense with an ever-lasting finish. The trophy winning 2001 may now be in short supply, but fear not: the 2002 is also excellent. £17.99
UK Agent: Seckford Agencies Ltd, Tel: 0120 6231188

Kanonkop Wine Estate, Stellenbosch

Johann Krige (right) has little left to prove at Kanonkop, where he and winemaker Beyers Truter - now acting in a consultancy role after 20 years in charge - have carved out a reputation for excellence to which few could even aspire.

Krige remains full of opinion and fire however, and defends or attacks robustly when required. He gives the current New World obsession with releasing 'single-vineyard' wines short-shrift: "It's butchering the consumer", he says, believing that fruit selection is the key to quality, and that much of the hullabaloo over 'single vineyards' is marketing spin.

In particular Kanonkop is renowned as a Pinotage estate, though its Bordeaux-blend 'Paul Sauer' is a true South African flagship wine. Kanonkop Pinotage comes from ancient bush vines, which are not irrigated. New French oak barriques are used to mature the wine for about 16 months, in a no-expense-spared operation. Refurbished cellars and the appointment of a new full-time viticulturist show that Krige is not content to rest on his laurels.
  Johann Krige

Kanonkop Pinotage 2001
There's a wonderfully spicy, deep and briary character here, wrapped around a rich, berry-fruited core, with intriguing notes of violets and kirsch. On the palate a chocolaty richness and sweet blackberry fruit extend into a long, harmonious finish. £14.99
UK Agent: Raisin Social Ltd, Tel: 01883 731 173

Neethlingshof Estate, Stellenbosch

Though the estate was founded in 1692, there has been significant recent change at Neethlingshof, not least the appointment of young winemaker De Wet Viljoen, who returned from a two-and-a-half year stint in Wellington to take over the reins here. I hitched a lift in Viljoen's 'Backie' (pick-up truck) to their highest vineyard in the Bottelary hills, where he pointed out the nine different terroirs that he has on the farm, and dramatically cooling effect of the 'Cape Doctor' at this elevation. Here he grows Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and the Riesling for perhaps the estate's most renowned wine, the Noble Late Harvest. Neethlingshof is also one of the best producers of Pinotage, and the excellent 2001 Lord Neethling Pinotage looks set to follow the IWSC gold medal success of the 2000.

Neethlingshof Noble Late Harvest 2003
This Botrytis-affected, late-harvest Weisser Riesling is a gorgeous wine, laden with honey, fig and caramel on the nose before an unctuously sweet palate of orange and apricot is balanced by a rapier-like apple and citrus acidity. £15.99
UK Agent: Hayman Barwell Jones, Tel: 01473 232322

Neil Ellis, Stellenbosch

Neil Ellis, one of the major figures in Cape winemaking, is a giant of a man with a shy personality, who gives the impression he's happier in the cellar than being the public face of his company. He revolutionised the Cape scene by eschewing the traditions of a wine-growing estate to instead set up as a négociant; buying fruit of the quality he required from other farmers, and concentrating his efforts in the cellars.

Ellis is now producing single-vineyard wines and 'vineyard selections', where he will bottle a number of different wines from one block of vineyards, having mapped and understood every inch of the terroir.

Neil Ellis Groenkloof Sauvignon Blanc 2004
Punchy, ripe, even slightly minty intensity of fruit on the nose, with a freshening hint of green bean and new-mown grass. On the palate this wine oozes finesse, with a crystalline purity and a lingering, lime-streaked finish. £8.99
  neil ellis

Neil Ellis Shiraz Vineyard Selection 2003
A dramatically structured wine, laden with espresso coffee, and a dense, ripe black cherry fruit with a twist of white pepper. There's a very fine, pastille fruit quality on the palate with polished tannins and very good length. Not currently on sale.
UK Agent: Raisin Social Ltd, Tel: 01883 731 173

Rustenberg Wines, Stellenbosch

Another of the great and venerable names of South Africa, Rustenberg was founded in 1682 and has been bottling its own wines since 1892. Owner Simon Barlow greeted me in his perfectly circular office, on the top floor of a converted grain silo, which offers glorious views over the ancient oak trees, manor house and vineyards. He has constantly innovated at this estate, including the creation of Brampton, a large-volume second label of impeccable quality, and bottled in screwcap, showing that Rustenberg is one grande dame that is happy to embrace the modern consumer.

Nico Walters, Viticulturist at Rustenberg says, "It's all about canopy management at this stage of the game". Managing the growth of leaves throughout the season to ensure the optimum density and position to control the effect of sun and wind on the vines is just one of the many details that are scrupulously observed in this estate. A stunning Roussanne wine was one of the stars of a terrific tasting, but for now the authorities will not certify these vines, so the wine cannot be sold commercially.

Brampton Sauvignon Blanc 2004
A perennial favourite, the 2004 Brampton Sauvignon once again over-delivers, with a flood of passionfruit and guava fruit on the nose and a mouth-watering palate of crunchy fruit and lime-zest verve. £6.99

Rustenberg Peter Barlow 2002
This range-topping Cabernet Sauvignon spends 20 months in French oak, 70 per cent of which is new. It is very concentrated and creamy on the nose, with beautifully glossy black fruit filling the palate, and a background of fine, supple tannins. £22.95
UK Agent: Seckford Agencies Ltd, Tel: 0120 6231188

Simonsig Estate, Stellenbosch

Johan Malan is the hugely talented winemaker at Simonsig, along with brothers Pieter (in charge of the business side) and Francois (in charge of farming). 211 hectares of vines are planted on the foothills of the Simonsberg mountain, making this one of the biggest privately-owned wine estates in South Africa.

Malan makes excellent sparkling wines by the 'Cap Classique' method (as in Champagne) and has been accumulating a mass of awards for his Pinotage, and more recently, Shiraz wines. Many see Syrah/Shiraz as one of the brightest potential stars in South Africa's winemaking future, and Simonsig's Merindol Syrah has led the way. Sites were chosen to plant Syrah where optimum quality could be achieved: the Merindol vineyard is composed of decomposed granite, which facilitates deep root systems that can extract minerals and nutrients.
  johan malan

Simonsig "Kaapse Vonkel" Cap Classique 2003
A herbal, nettly quality on the nose. Really distinctive, quality apple and pear fruit pushes through on the palate, with a nice persistent mousse and an overall bright, aperitif style. £9.99

Simonsig Merindol Syrah 2001
Very deep, inviting plummy fruit, with woodsmoke, chocolate and a little leathery, animal edge. Big, serious palate with grippy tannins and rough, plumskin bite. Complex and savoury with a long, lip-smacking finish and full texture. £18.99
UK Agent: Chalie Richards & Co, Tel: 01798 817 235

go to part II - six more producers, plus pick of other wines tasted