A conversation about the business of wine was reputed to have taken place between Robert Mondavi and May-Elaine de Lencquesaing, the owner of Château Pichon-Longueville, during which Mondavi was lamenting the state of the industry. “Ah, Robert, but it is only difficult for the first 300 years”, came her priceless reply.
Of course, she was describing the situation in Bordeaux, where the cru classé are now selling their wines at huge prices on the basis of reputations build up over, well, three hundred years.
Jan van Riebeeck may have made ‘wine’ in the Cape more than three centuries ago, but South African wineries are still finding their feet in international markets. South Africa’s share of the UK market is around 10% (compared with around 20% for each of Australia and France), but in most countries its share hovers around 1%, which most marketers would regard as being virgin territory.
Sales people have been hard at work, trying to drum up demand for South African wines. At the same time their viticultural colleagues have been scouting the Western Cape for new vineyard sites. The result has been revelationary, with many seriously exciting wines seeing the light of day. It could be argued that these vinous treasures could do more to stimulate demand than the efforts of the marketing people (but don’t tell them).
It is interesting to come back, once more, to France, where wine producers unquestionably benefit from a great vinous tradition. However, they are hamstrung by unbelievably restrictive legislation that governs which grape varieties may be grown in which geographical areas. The Appellation Controlée have been delimited. These borders define where vines may be planted, and which varieties may be planted in which regions. Simply put, there is absolutely no room for creativity or exploration.
Consider then the example of Cape Point Vineyards, with its sauvignon blanc vines that were planted in Noordhoek, an outlying suburb of Cape Town, in 1996. These vineyards are not much more than a mile from the beach, on a breeze-cooled south-westerly slope. The estate markets two different sauvignons, both of which display a wonderful combination of intense fruitiness and zingy acidity. The quality of the wines is such that even the ‘second-tier’ Stonehaven is better than most estates’ premium release.
1997 saw the planting of vineyards in Elim, just 20 km inland from Cape Agulhas. Anyone who has visited this coast in summer can attest to the unceasing on-shore wind. Bruce Jack’s Flagstone was the first release from Elim, and Flagstone’s The Berrio remains (to my taste, anyway) the best sauvignon produced in the region. It delivers a blast of fruity flavour against a backdrop of refreshing crispness.
It seems hard to believe that Elgin is now taken for granted as a source of quality wines. Its only been 15 years since the establishment of vineyards at Oak Valley (however, the grapes were mostly sold off to producers in other regions). With the decline in income from apples many farms have been replanted to vines. One such example is Iona, where replanting started in 1997. These vineyards are situated 420m above sea level, and ripen a good two months later than sauvignon in other parts of the Cape. As one may expect from these cool conditions the wine has a wonderful purity in the mouth – crisp acidity combined with gorgeous fruit. Numerous Stellenbosch wineries have made investments in the region, so we can expect a raft of new releases from Elgin.
The Cape’s West Coast is no less exciting. Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc is produced from vines growing a mere 850m from the Atlantic ocean. The project was started as a hobby for Wynand Hamman and his in-laws, when they planted three hectares of vines near their holiday home in Strandfontein (close to the mouth of the Olifantsrivier). This wine’s fruitiness is so intense it is almost overwhelming, but on its small scale of production one is unlikely to have the opportunity of drinking it more than once a year!
Closer to Cape Town, and thankfully available in larger quantities, are the sauvignons produced in Darling. Grapes are not that new to the region, but with the conversion of Mamreweg Co-op to Darling Cellars, and the planting of vineyards at Groote Post, followed by large-scale plantings by other producers, Darling has taken on an entirely new character. The pioneering wine was Neil Ellis’ Groenekloof Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s also worth looking out for the sauvignon produced from David Tully’s Lanner Hill vineyard (marketed under the Kumkani brand).
None of this is meant to imply that there is anything deficient in the wines being produced by established big names in Stellenbosch, Paarl or Robertson, or even that these are the only interesting ones being made in the ‘new territories’. Curious geography aside, South African sauvignon blanc is at the cutting edge of the world’s most exciting wines.
They are the products of a committed and passionate group of vignerons and an environment that truly is “alive with possibility”.
This piece first appeared in South Africa magazine