Three decades of change

When my friend and colleague, UK wine writer, Anthony Rose urged me to reflect on the most important changes during my 30 years’ professional involvement with wine, he referred to this period as ‘a generation in Cape wine’.  Just one generation? I think not; with South Africa’s special circumstances, the past 30 years covers not one but three generations. I’ll explain.

All changes originate in the most significant one for South Africa as a whole, rather than merely its wine heritage: the arrival of democracy in 1994. It was then South Africa and South African wine was welcomed into the wider international wine community. The signal had been given a year earlier, when Nelson Mandela had drunk a toast in CapeWine on receiving the Nobel Peace prize. (there’s a photo in Platter 1995). And even earlier, in 1991, after Mandela’s release, South Africa held its first showcase in London. Re-reading my report of that event in Wynboer, it’s (now) amusing to see how naive producers were, whether in selecting agents, marketing or in some of the wines on offer. Rose subsequently wrote in The Independent: ‘ .. a handful of complex, barrel-fermented Chardonnays and claret-like oak-matured Cabernet Sauvignons showed promise. But a degree of old-fashioned winemaking and only tiny available quantities suggest that isolation from the mainstream have been a giant obstacle to progress.’ As this was well before our first democratic elections, Rose (and Tim Atkin) rightly pointed out there were still plenty who refused to drink South African wine on principle. Something that ‘is currently no great sacrifice,’ Rose claimed.

So, 22 years on, there’s a good deal more professionalism in both exporting and marketing (and, I’m glad to say both Rose and Atkin now loudly champion South African wine!)

The old wine tasting is now an established event prior to the Trophy Wine Show. Reds have to be a minimum of 25 years old.
The old wine tasting is now an established event prior to the Trophy Wine Show. Reds have to be a minimum of 25 years old.

So we come to wine and the people making it. The potential for quality has never been in doubt, as the many wines I’ve tasted from the 1940s through to the 1970s have revealed.

In the early 1980s, problems lay primarily in the vineyards, where leafroll virus was all too prevalent; it hindered ripening and shortened the vine’s life. In the cellar, there was too much of a recipe approach; the ubiquitous acid addition to reds in particular and, from that time, the introduction of new small oak barrels, which rarely contained wine of a structure and concentration to realise their benefit.

Today, much more attention is paid to viticulture; leafroll virus remains a problem but its effects are being better dealt with. On the other side of the coin, the introduction of new, virus-free material plus the desire for fully ripe fruit, has seen alcohol levels soar; the challenge today is to achieve ripeness at lower sugar levels. If viticulture no longer holds Cinderella status, her prince is undoubtedly the old vine story. I can’t remember hearing discussions around old vines thirty years ago; now they are prized for the characterful wine produced from their low yielding, concentrated fruit.

If viticultural expertise has shown the biggest change outside the cellar, inside increased winemaking skills and understanding have seen a ‘less is more’ approach;  the need for adjustments to the juice or wine has reduced, but when they are made, they are carried out with more care and better timing. Allied to this is a more thoughtful approach to oak maturation (of course, in part driven by cost of these imported containers!). Larger formats and less new oak is the order of the day. Some are even eschewing oak in preference for the increasingly popular cement egg to ferment and age their wines. Already showing wines of more interesting texture and subtle complexities, the egg is a trend that will continue to grow.

Now to the nub – the people behind these changes, people from all sectors of the wine business, but focusing on the winemakers, as is so often the case, though viticulturists are getting slightly more of a look in these days.

Thirty years ago the producer/wholesalers dominated with the Co-operatives their minions. The quota system was in place, quantity mattered more than quality, the KWV would mop up any member’s excess wine, it also set the rules and, of course there was an iron curtain barring exports. None encouraged an explorative mindset. On a smaller but important scale, there were visionaries, others pushing for quality as well as the established ‘First Growths’. Of those winemakers still working, just a few have made the transition, adapted to the more competitive circumstances post 1994 and broadened their vision. But it was many of this era who found it difficult to believe that South Africa didn’t make great wine when we were soundly rapped by the Aussies in the 1995 SAA Shield.

Those who were embarking on their winemaking careers in the early 1980s – I’m thinking of men such as Jeff Grier at Villiera and Charles Back at Fairview, there were others – who arrived with a sense of adventure, travelled and worked internationally, so were prepared for the changes to come, even though they had to operate within the old system for a few more years. How they’ve handled the new South Africa, given their prior status, has depended again on how they adapted and mental attitude.

Eben Sadie's first vintage of his Old Vineyards range, with the Kentridge labels
Eben Sadie’s first vintage of his Old Vineyards range, with the Kentridge labels

Finally, the latest generation, the youngsters and outside investors who have never know the old industry regime, they come with no baggage. Travelling and tasting widely is second nature; their crammed experiences have given them a head start on their predecessors – they are already household names, here and internationally.  With the old rule book thrown out, the competition (worldwide) hot, quality is their only focus; their wines get better every year. What they are proving is that real change comes from the heart, rather than the rule book. This is why I’m saddened that there are groups – featuring many top producers – which feel the need to hark to the past by writing new, restrictive rules, which look to hamper rather than help the cause of South African wine.

I’ve made a lot more notes, but they’ll have to wait for next time.

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