South Africa at a crossroads

Monday, 30 October, 2017
Jancis Robinson |
The South African wine industry is at a very strange, possibly critical, point in its evolution.

This month's tasting in London of New Wave South African wines may well have been the most exciting I have ever attended in a capital spoilt for professional wine tastings. There was a rare energy and enthusiasm in the high-ceilinged renovated warehouse – not just because of the carefully chosen playlist (a distinct rarity at wine tastings) and not just because we were in the hipster republic of Shoreditch, but because of the consistent quality and novelty of the wines.

Just five Cabernet Sauvignons were listed among the hundreds of wines in the tasting list, for example. Cinsault, Clairette Blanche, field blends based on Palomino – this was the sort of fare served up to a crowd of more than 400 thoroughly appreciative wine professionals. I heard many an excited comment. And there seemed to be a rare sense of harmony among the South African visitors.

More than any other wine-producing country except perhaps France, South Africa can boast a serious cohort of radical and cohesive young winemakers forging a new wine identity for their country. Of the 55 producers attending, 15 were names I had never heard of – not because they are of no interest but because they are so fledgling.

Yes, among the producers there was a preponderance of facial hair, and the usual shortage of women. But these were accomplished oenologists by any measure, relying largely on grapes bought from long-standing Afrikaans farmers, many of them with mixed farms and living lives far from the exalted world of wine. The supply agreements are largely based on nothing more concrete than a handshake, which worries this hardened city dweller.

And the vines themselves are typically much more senior than the global, and certainly European, average (see South Africa's old-vine marvels). This is another concern since vines are not immortal, and yields shrink as vine trunks expand with age, but it is certainly something of which the South African wine industry can be proud.

Thanks to seed funding from Richemont chairman (and vintner) Johann Rupert, South Africa has its very own Old Vines Project, designed to safeguard vines more than 20 years old, and to celebrate and catalogue those more than 35 years old, of which there are about 2,500 hectares, or more than 6,000 acres, in Cape vineyards. According to Andre Morgenthal of The Old Vine Project, a total of 38 different vine varieties are involved and about a third of these senior vines are suitable for wine production.

To read more online, click here.

Thomas Davidson

Thomas joined in May 2019 after graduating from Stellenbosch University with a BA in History & Ancient Cultures and completing a certificate in Business Management and Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School in Stellenbosch. He moonlights as a radio presenter at MFM - and has an incredible passion for wine. 
We are delighted to have him on the team.