The Cape is currently one of the world’s fastest-changing wine regions. Tim Atkin MW embarks on a wine safari of the issues, the people and the places that everyone is talking about
5 big talking points
1 – The 2015 vintage
People sometimes assume that vintages in a warm, sunny Mediterranean climate like South Africa's are all pretty much alike. But you only have to compare 2010 with 2015 to be convinced otherwise. 2010 was a rain- and wind-affected stinker, whereas 2015 was one of those once-in-a-generation harvests that have winemakers and consumers purring with superlatives.
The last time a vintage came close to these heights of quality, across all styles, was in 2009, but 2015 was even better. The two vintages were both hot and dry. But what set 2015 apart was a cooler February, with significant diurnal temperature variation, which has helped the wines to retain acidity. You can taste this in the whites, many of which are already on the market, and also in the reds, the majority of which have still to be released. Structure, concentration and balance are the hallmarks of the vintage.
The big question is are hot, dry growing seasons a reflection of climate change – and will they become the norm?
2 – Location, location, location
South Africa is an old winemaking country, but it's also a modern one whose vineyards are still a work in progress. This wasn't always so. Before 1992, it was almost impossible to plant grapes in new regions because of a rigid, government-endorsed quota system that stifled innovation.
Since that was abolished, vineyards have been planted in previously unheralded areas such as Cederberg, Elim, the Hemel-en-Aarde, Malgaas and Piekenierskloof, giving South Africa a much greater range of micro-climates. The winelands are still expanding into new areas such as the Ceres Plateau, the Eastern Free State Highlands, Langeberg-Garcia and Oudtshoorn.
3 – Drought and climate change
Visiting the Cape in the middle of the 2016 harvest was dispiriting. Dams were empty and crops were way down, most notably in dry-farmed areas such as the Swartland, where some vineyards produced less than 40% of a normal harvest. South Africa was living through its worst drought since the early 1980s. KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State suffered most – they were declared disaster areas – but the Cape was badly affected too.
Yields didn't suffer in the irrigated, bulk wine regions, but they did in those that produce the majority of South Africa's best wines. The small crop has left 'a lot of people on the bones of their arses', in the words of one producer.
The winter that has followed the harvest has been wetter than 2015's, but rainfall is still down. The big question is are hot, dry growing seasons a reflection of climate change – and will they become the norm? Right now, the Cape needs more rain.
4 – Transformation
Also referred to as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), transformation is a key issue in the winelands. A fifth of what wine producers pay in industry levies goes into so-called 'transformation efforts', but 12 years after the first democratic elections in 1994, black winemakers are rare and black winery owners rarer still. Only 2.5% of the Cape’s vineyards are in black hands. The quality of some BEE brands has been shaky in the past – often bought cheaply on the bulk market – but now it's improving, with companies like Bosman Adama, Compagniesdrift, Enaleni, Solms-Delta and Thokozani leading the way from 'dependence to independence'.
Vineyard land is cheap in the Cape, reflecting the low price of grapes, which means a young winemaker can establish a brand relatively easily
More importantly, investment in education, housing, training and healthcare, as well as the work of Fairtrade – 66% of whose wines come from the Cape – are beginning to have a beneficial impact. And, not before time, the ANC has started to take an interest in the wine industry, funding black participation through its National Empowerment Fund.
5 – Low prices
South African wines offer some of the best value in the world, thanks to a combination of a weak currency, cheap labour and over-production. Roughly 60% of its exports are bulk-shipped, with a lowly average per litre price of £1.12. This may be good news for restaurants looking for a Chenin Blanc-based house white, but it’s unsustainable for South Africa.
Vineyard land is cheap in the Cape, reflecting the low price of grapes. On the plus side, it means a young winemaker can establish a brand relatively easily, but if growers don’t make a return, they are going to switch to other, more profitable crops or just sell up. People who turn their grapes into wine aren’t necessarily doing any better. According to industry body VinPro, only 15% of South Africa’s wine farms are profitable. You don’t need to be John Maynard Keynes to realise that that’s an alarming statistic.
Tim Atkin’s 2016 South Africa Special Report is available to download for £15 from timatkin.com
5 regions you should stock
The Cape's oldest fine wine region, well known thanks to the sweet wines produced here in the early 18th century by Simon van der Stel, Constantia is also the closest to Cape Town. Vines in this cool – by Cape standards – climate region have to compete with real estate and golf courses for space, and the number of producers is small. That said, quality is high.
Another significant factor is the young age of the winemakers, most of whom are still in their early thirties. Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes combined with Semillon, is the main grape – but impressive wines are also made from the red Bordeaux varieties, Syrah and even Nebbiolo in the warmer parts of the appellation. Most famous and expensive of all remains Klein Constantia’s sweet Vin de Constance.
Best producers: Beau Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Constantia Glen, Constantia Uitsig, Eagles’ Nest, Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Steenberg.
Historically, Elgin has been regarded as apple, rather than grape country. Even today, the orchards outnumber the vineyards, partly because they are five times as profitable. It was the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, in collaboration with Paul Cluver and Oak Valley, that saw the valley’s potential in the 1980s – and how right they were.
The subsequent development of Iona on a steep site cooled by Atlantic breezes, helped to cement the area’s reputation for crisp, pithy whites in particular. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir do very well here, but so do Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Gewürztraminer, Syrah and Merlot. There’s even a bit of Pinotage and Petit Verdot.
Best producers: Catherine Marshall, Iona, Kershaw, Oak Valley, Paul Cluver, Shannon, Spioenkop, Thelema Sutherland.
First developed as a wine region in the late 1970s by Tim Hamilton Russell, who resorted to subterfuge and illegal plantings to get round the quota system, the Hemel-en-Aarde has become one of the best regions in South Africa for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Only Elgin challenges its supremacy with the Burgundian grapes [see left].
Slightly confusingly, as well as controversially, this small region of 450 hectares and 15 growers has been divided since into the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. These three Hemel-en-Aarde appellations are based on differences in soil type and climate, and are just about valid. The Hemel-en-Aarde is also a good place to go whale watching.
Best producers: Ataraxia, Creation, Crystallum, Hamilton Russell, La Vierge, Newton Johnson, Restless River.
If South Africa has an equivalent of Bordeaux or the Napa Valley, where prestige, bling and wine quality combine, then it must be Stellenbosch. This staggeringly beautiful region, fringed by imposing mountains and False Bay, makes the highest percentage of the country's best wines. The Bordeaux grapes – particularly Cabernet Sauvignon – are the star turns here, but Stellenbosch can make almost anything, from Chardonnay to Chenin to Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage to Sangiovese to Syrah.
What it needs now are some clearly defined sub-regions. Stellenbosch is very varied, with many different aspects, altitudes and sites; proximity to the Atlantic is an important variable, too.
Best producers: Delaire Graff, DeMorgenzon, Kanonkop, Keermont, Raats, Reyneke, Stark-Condé, Tokara.
Thanks to the Swartland Revolution – a tasting-cum-party that started as an annual event in 2010 – what was once a rural backwater has become one of the hippest wine regions in the New World. The personalities of the Revolution's founders – Callie Louw, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst – are certainly engaging, but it’s the quality of their wines that’s more important.
The comparatively low grape price has brought lots of other winemakers to the region, all inspired by the low intervention styles of the pioneering quintet. Lack of water can be a problem, but this is the leading region for Rhône- and Mediterranean-style wines.
Best producers: AA Badenhorst, Avant Garde, David & Nadia, Mullineux & Leeu, Porseleinberg, Rall, Sadie Family, Spice Route.
5 producers to look out for
It's a measure of how quickly South Africa is changing, and how much buzz there is around the so-called young guns, that producers such as AA Badenhorst (maiden vintage 2006), Mullineux & Leeu (2008), Newton Johnson (1997) and Sadie Family (2000) are established names in the UK. Which are the wineries to look out for next?
Consistency of range is not Pieter Walser’s strong point – it's pretty rare for him to make a wine twice – but if it's quirky brilliance you’re after, few Cape producers come close. Who could resist something called Family Murder, The Life of a Black Valentine or AWOL? Not all of his ideas work, but the majority do, sourced from vineyards across the Cape with 'stories'. The labels are great, too, adding a homespun feel that complements the nuanced, low intervention wines.
Best buy: Orbitofrontal Cortex 2015, Western Cape (13.5%). A spicy, honeyed, orange zesty cuvée of six white grapes, made by Walser’s 'conscious mind'.
South Africa is not short of outrageously talented young oenologists, but Reenen Borman is remarkably gifted. The son of a winemaker, he has taken this small Stellenbosch operation to new levels of quality, most notably with Syrah. Borman is also involved with two smaller, up-and-coming projects: Patatsfontein and Sons of Sugarland. The slightly scary thing is that he’s only going to get better.
Best buy: Syrah 2014, Stellenbosch (14%). Stemmy spice, violets and dark, palate-coating fruit complemented by fine-grained tannins.
David & Nadia
Unrelated to Eben, David & Nadia Sadie are a husband-and-wife team who combine viticultural expertise (her) with know-how in the cellar (him). Now installed in their own Swartland premises, after a few years working for other people and crafting their own stuff on the side, they make a stunning range of red and white blends, as well as some of the Cape's best Chenins.
Best buy: Aristargos 2015, Swartland (13.5%). Classy, peach and pear-scented white blend based on Chenin with Roussanne, Clairette, Viognier and Semillon.
Duncan Savage is already famous as the winemaker who put Cape Point Vineyards on the map, but he's also been doing his own thing since 2011, and this is now his only focus. Like many of the best young producers, he prefers to buy grapes from all over the Cape to blend his four distinctive wines, with the focus on white Bordeaux and red Rhône varieties. Wonderfully subtle wines.
Best buy: Follow the Line 2015, Western Cape (13%). Deceptively light, graceful blend of Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah from Darling and Piekenierskloof.
Koen Roose is a Master Sommelier who used to make a living importing South African wine to Belgium, until he decided to emigrate and create his own brand. There are two lines here: 1900, made mostly with purchased grapes; and an estate range, which reflects precise soil differences. To date, the stand-out wine is the Riesling, but Chenin, Pinot Noir and Pinotage are impressive, too.
Best buy: Riesling 2015, Elgin (12%). A dry, minerally, concentrated Riesling that wouldn't look out of place in a line-up of Alsace Grands Crus.