More of the same

Wednesday, 15 January, 2014
Christian Eedes
Though a few brave producers are experimenting with alternative varieties, it seems the Big Five are set to dominate for the meantime.

The Newton Johnsons of the eponymous vineyards in the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley are currently experimenting with Albariño . This white grape variety is currently popular in hip international wine circles at the moment, making for some of the most expensive Spanish and Portuguese white wines and it likes a cooler climate and granitic soils, precisely the conditions found on their property.

0.5ha of Shiraz has been grafted over and an experimental eight-litre batch was made for the first time last year. “We might eventually have 5ha in production. I think the wine fits with a seafood culture and I’d like to see it selling for between R250 and R300 a bottle in restaurants,” says marketing manager Bevan Newton Johnson.

But if you’re hoping for more wines from exotic varieties in the near future, you’re probably going to be disappointed. In 2012, the Big Five (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) made up 46% of the national vineyard with Chenin Blanc and Pinotage together comprising a further 25%.

Ukrainian businessman Vitaliy Gayduk, who spent R85 million to acquire Quoin Rock in Stellenbosch (and a further R15 million for the related Agulhas property) apparently has a particular fondness for Italian wines but viticulturist Nico Walters (formerly of Rustenberg ) is not in too much of a rush to plant the likes of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. “The quality of clones [available locally] is frustrating. If you’re not really, really good [when it comes to wines from niche varieties], then you’re screwed.”

Estelle Lourens of Uitkyk offers an only slightly more upbeat perspective. “We’ve used unusual varieties such as Mourvèdre, Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese in our Flat Roof Manor range. They definitely create a buzz for a while but consumers usually go back to wines from more traditional varieties.”

Are there any signs of encouragement for those who think South Africa’s varietal inventory is too limited? Nico Grobler of Eikendal is indeed excited about Sangiovese. For one thing, he points out that the variety’s traditional home of Tuscany is like South Africa in that neither is the “coolest place on earth”. No particular concerns about commercial viability either, the variety featuring as a component in his red blend called Charisma along with Shiraz and Petit Verdot. “It’s a pretty weird wine on paper but it’s winning awards and sales are going really well.”

More generally, Grobler believes the wine industry is compelled to experiment, saying “It’s not about where we are today but where we’ll be in 50 years’ time.”

Under Grobler’s custodianship, Eikendal seems to be enjoying a renaissance but the reality for the industry as a whole is short-term survival rather than speculating about the long-term. This is born out by Andrew Barns, proprietor of Mischa Estate in Wellington, first and foremost the site of a successful vine nursery grafting in excess of two million vines a year for over 300 clients. “What’s the next big thing? There is no next big thing,” he says. “As an industry, we’re locked into the Big Five or Big Six if you count Pinotage. Consumers aren’t interested in moving past these.”

Barns is hardly a reactionary, noting that with climate change, South Africa is only going to become hotter and drier requiring varieties that are heat and drought resistant but there’s no getting past commercial realites. “I often think we are more like Rioja than Bordeaux and should be planting more Tempranillo but it’s Bordeaux which sells,” he says.

While there are a few producers at the top end of the market making innovative wines with unusual varieties, the industry is structured in such a way that the majority of grapes get crushed by the large-scale former co-ops. “If [UK supermarket] Tesco comes along and makes an agreement to take a million litres of Sangiovese for the next 10 years then we’ll all get in there and figure out how to supply that but no grower is going to experiment with a few hectares as the route to market is too difficult and it’s going to end up as stookwyn [distilling wine],” he says.