South African winemakers freed from "baggage" of past to create their own wines

Here is my latest account from my travels in South Africa. It is an edited account of an article that was published by Imbibe on September 18.


South Africa has this week demonstrated arguably more than ever before that it has some of the most diverse, quality wines to satisfy the most demanding restaurant wine list. 

Buyers from all over the world have been able to experience first hand the dynamic wine scene taking place right across South Africa at the three-day Cape Wine trade exhibition in Cape Town. 

It is not just the maverick, bearded winemakers of the Swartland that are attracting the headlines and the attention. South Africa’s new found confidence can be seen across the board, from the newest to its most traditional estates, driven by a young generation of winemakers that have travelled the world and are adapting lessons learnt from its past to make South Africa’s attention grabbing wines.

Instead of in past years looking to compare or copy the wine styles of French classic regions like the Rhone or Bordeaux, South African winemakers are now proud to present and talk about wines that are unique to the Cape, explained acclaimed South African sommelier, Higgo Jacobs. “These are wines that can be made without anycontrols of an appellation. They are showing what South Africa can do, just with its imagination,” he added. 

“We now are now making wines with a strong identity of their own,” said Chris Alheit, winemaker at Albeit Family Vineyards. “We are not looking at anywhere else in the world."

Adam Mason, winemaker at Mulderbosch and Yardstick, believes the change lies with “young winemakers who have no baggage” of the country’s past. Who have grown up post the release of Nelson Mandela and “feel they have earned the right to play”. “I get goose bumps just talking about what is happening in South Africa,” he claimed. 

Marelise Jansen van Rensburg, winemaker at Momento, said it is more a case of “listening and learning from our older winemakers and then moving forward by redirecting the wines in a different way”.

Learning how to deal with diversity of soils and grapes

Bruce Jack of Flagstone Wines, far left with fellow new generation of winemakers at Cape Wine

Bruce Jack of Flagstone Wines, far left with fellow new generation of winemakers at Cape Wine

Bruce Jack, head winemaker at Accolade Wines and his own property, Flagstone Wine, said South Africa has learnt how best to utilise the diversity of its land and soils, that had been its “achilles heel” in the past, to create wines that are genuinely unique to their terroir. “Every pocket, every part of a vineyard will be different and give different characteristics to the wine,” he explained. “Here you have to test the soil every 10 metres as they are so different. You just don’t have those issues in France.”

It is why, he believes, South Africa has some of the world’s most talented winemakers because they are having to work and blend such a complex mix of varietals. “Even a single varietal wine will be a blend as it will be a combination of grapes grown in different conditions,” added Jack. 

The real skill in South African winemaking arguably lies in the understanding that these are wines that work best when there is minimum intervention by the winemaker.

Gunter Shultz winemaker at Kleinood explained: “We want to make wines that are true to our terroir. That really express the characteristics of every individual vintage. That is why we make wines with the minimum intervention. We want to play down any outside influences on our wines. Like wood.” 

New and old working together

It is also not just a case of a new generation of winemakers taking all the light away from the old guard, stressed Jack. But more a slow process of having the confidence to know how the industry needs to move forward. 

“We have a great respect from where we have come from and the work that has gone on before. We would be stupid not to listen to that 350 years of winemaking history. But that self confidence has had to be learnt the hard way. No other wine industry has had to look at itself and find a way of overcoming our years of apartheid and slavery.”

Michael Jordaan, chairman of Wines of South Africa, told Cape Wine that he could not think of another wine industry that has had to “transform itself” as much as South Africa with all its political and socio-economic issues. But he felt the country was now at a “tipping point” where all the innovation and work behind the scenes in the wineries would come to the fore.  

A fact borne out by its latest exports statistics that showed South Africa exported 422.7 million litres of wine in 2014 compared to only 22 million litres back in 1992. 

The enormous changes that have taken place in South Affrica, politically and culturally over the last 21 years is also arguably why its winemakers are so collaborative and have a real sense of being in a battle together. 

Alex Starey, winemaker at Keermont, said the fact he can call up any other winemaker of a wine he has seen and liked and they will tell him exactly how it was made, down to the clone of the vine, makes South Africa such a dynamic place to make wine. “It is a great industry to be in,” he added.  

Starey is also one of the large number of winemakers who also surf, where they are able to come together and share their passion for the sea and surf as well as their wines.  

Fellow surfer and winemaker Duncan Savage, of Savage Wines, believes the two passions are intertwined. “We have a passion for our wine and a passion for the surf. You also have to work hard at both to be successful. But being around people who are so full of energy and ideas. That is what makes living and making wines here so exciting.”