In the most eventful tasting season of the year, there’s one country getting some serious airtime – South Africa, says Hamish Anderson
Autumn is the busiest time of year for wine tastings. Unless you are fully self-employed, it is impossible to get to all the events you’d like to go to. Even then, you are likely to have to turn down some paid work to fit them all in. A few are so compelling you’ll rearrange your days to attend.
It’s only in its fifth year, but I rate the recent New Wave South Africa tasting as one of them. I cannot think of another country-focused tasting on this scale that has such a high bar when it comes to quality. It’s no scoop to say that the country is producing thrilling, distinct wine at prices few can match – journalists and sommeliers have known this for some time. But what I find remarkable is how quickly it has happened and how assured the country’s new talent is.
South Africa has had a head start in some areas. The harnessing of old vineyards and neglected varieties in areas like Swartland gave a simple, easy-to-tell story that resonated. A less glamourous, but equally important part of the narrative is price. For a variety of reasons, from oversupply of grapes at the lower end, to market perception at the middle and top end, South African wine is cheap (unsustainably so, in many cases) compared to its international competitors.
This has been exaggerated by the exchange rate. While the pound is significantly weaker against most other wine-buying currencies, such as the euro or US dollar, than it was five years ago, it’s slightly up against the South African rand. As a result, there’s a plethora of complex wines with impressive stories that can fill the sweet spot on a wine list, priced between £35 and £65.
The producers have managed the transition in winemaking style brilliantly. If I think of the wines of Australia, which I also love, the change from big and bold to elegant was not always smooth. Whites were often picked too early and marked with too much reduction for my taste, while adding stems (or whole bunches) to red-wine fermentations was done with enthusiasm, but not always finesse. The South African new wave has, by and large, resisted the temptation to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Many new wines have a completeness and confidence that lead one to assume they’ve been made this way for many vintages.
It’s one thing to buy a wine for a wine list, and another to buy for yourself. I cannot love or afford every bottle we list at Tate, so it’s especially noticeable at trade gatherings – the ones where friends and acquaintances get together having all brought a bottle – how South African wine has been embraced. Almost all the recent ones I’ve been to featured some discovery from the Cape that an attendee wanted to share. This combination of quality and industry buy-in will, I hope, translate to the listings these bottles deserve.