Confidence and collaboration is driving South African wines to the top

It is arguably a little early to sum up the mood of a country or a wine sector after only a little more than 48 hours from stepping off a plane from London. But this feels like a very different South Africa than the one I visited for the last Cape Wine event in 2012. 

The fixtures and fittings might be the same, some of the beards might be a bit thicker - and more widespread across the exhibition hall - and the rain and heavy clouds have still not gone away.

But there is definitely a new sense of optimism, and confidence in the air. 

Conversation after conversation is not about how South African wines compare with another New World country, or how it is looking to make wines for a certain price point. 

Instead you quickly get the impression that this a country that is very much on the front foot, keen and eager to talk about what it can do differently. What it can do for the world that no-one else can. What makes its wines proud to be from South Africa. 

You also don’t need to have copious amounts of facial hair, make bonkers, funky wine and look like Shaggy from Scooby Do to get people’s attention. 

 Michael Jordan sees innovation as the "tipping point" for South African wine sector 

Michael Jordan sees innovation as the "tipping point" for South African wine sector 

 

Innovation, as Michael Jordaan, chairman of Wines of South Africa, so eloquently put it in the exhibition’s opening seminar, is what is driving the industry to what he sees as a “tipping point” in its history. But innovation from a wine industry that is, in effect, only 21 years old against a backdrop of 350 years of winemaking tradition. 

Jordaan went on to claim South Africa has been through the biggest “transformation” of any other wine producing country in the world. It is hard to disagree with him. 

Siobahn Thompson, WOSA’s chief executive, summed up the mood of the sector as been made up of “pragmatists and dreamers”. People capable of “imagining the possibilities” and then finding a way to make it happen. 

Striking difference

It is striking how much change there has been just in the eight years since I first came to South Africa. Then the conversation was very much about how South Africa could play its part in the grown up, mainstream wine sector. How it had wines suitable for entry level right through to premium. 

It wanted to be part of the bulk wine scene and making mass market own label brands for the major supermarkets. It wanted the big international producers like Accolade to make their mark in South Africa.  

All those factors are still a key part of today’s South African wine sector and been crucially important in not just getting its wines in front of consumers in key markets like the UK, but educating them that there is more to the Cape than amazing scenery, tourism and annoyingly good rugby and cricket teams.

A fact born out in the 422.7 million litres of wine it exported in 2014, half its total production - compared to just 22 million litres in 1972. 

But they are not the main topics on the table here at Cape Wine 2015. 

Both the new generation of winemakers and respected figures that came before them are much more eager to talk to you about what is new, different, unique and exciting about their vineyards. 

“We want to make wines that are true to our terroir. That really express the characteristics of every individual vintage. That is why we keep our farm as indigenous as possible,” is how Gunter Shultz, winemaker at the super cool Kleinood estate in the Upper Blaauwklippen Road Valley, which it shares with the equally minded Vintners, Keermont and de Trafford wineries.  

“We make wines with the minimum intervention. We want to play down any outside influences on our wines. Like wood,” explained Shultz. 

Yes, he is working with Rhone varietals to create Rhone-style blends, but they are wines that are 100% born, bred, and inspired by the land on which they are grown. 

Gerald de Villiers, owner of the Kleinood estate, said each of the three wineries were similar in that they were small, independent and family owned, but each made very different wines “true to the sense of place” where they are in the valley. 

But they also encapsulate the natural camaraderie that appears to exist between South African winemakers from all regions, and across all ages.

It is arguably that collaborative way of working which has seen so many different groups of winemakers come together, from PIWOSA (Premium Independent Winemakers of South Africa) to the Zoo Biscuit fraternity of edgy producers, that helps learnings and trends to spread across the entire South African wine map faster than many other wine producing areas of such a size. 

 Alex Starey at Keermont believes collaboration is what makes South African winemakers different

Alex Starey at Keermont believes collaboration is what makes South African winemakers different

 

Alex Starey, the highly talented and respected winemaker at Keermont, says he is able to ring up a winemaker of a wine he likes from another region and they will tell him exactly how it is made down to the number of the clone that the vines came from. “I love the fact we can do that in our industry,” he said.

Starey and Shultz are part of the winemaking surfing community in South Africa where collaboration, team work and just chilling out together are very much part of their daily lives. 

Jeremy Walker, winemaker (and surfer) at Grangehurst, said that level of camaraderie is what sets South Africa apart. "It is really important to South Africa. In the surfing world it goes from the surf to the wine," he explained.  

John Reyneke of the Reyneke Winery, speaking at the vinters who also surf seminar at Cape Wine, said winemakers are genuinely pleased to see their peers doing well at competitions and events as it is all good news for South African wine.  "That is what we are all about," he stressed. 

Show what we can do

Jacques de Klerk, founder and winemaker of the Reverie winery in Swartland that produces a 11.5% Chenin Blanc, says it is also important for the younger generation of winemaker to show that they can also make wines that are refined, elegant and refreshing and not all just “funky and weird for the sake of being funky and weird”.

It is also why so many buyers, merchants, retailers, sommeliers, and, yes, journalists have made the trip to Cape Town to see what the fuss is all about for ourselves. 

It is the “sex appeal” of South Africa’s wines that has made John Chapman of Oxford Wine Merchants in the UK make it down to Cape Town for the first time. He said he was on the look out for wines with that little extra edge and excitement that help to stand out on shelf in the £12 to £30 bracket. 

Well there is plenty to choose from at Cape Wine 2015.