Top of the pile

I say this every time colleague, Tim James, decides it’s time to pour on the agony by asking various industry members to complete a poll of South Africa’s top 20 wineries, but it really does get an ever more difficult task. A good thing, of course, as it would suggest there is greater depth of quality; a bad thing because it means there’s not sufficient room for all I’d like to squeeze into those 20 spots.

Chris & Andrea Mullineux, who have shot up the ranks of South Africa's top wineries
Chris & Andrea Mullineux, who have shot up the ranks of South Africa’s top wineries

Who should fill that miserly number? I try to keep quality and consistency front of mind but I don’t pretend mine is a totally objective list and I guess the same is true for my colleagues. That said, if each of my selected 20 didn’t match my demands throughout their range, they wouldn’t be there. That ‘throughout the range’ is important for me; there might be a star wine or two with the rest no more than good. At every price level the wine has to offer commensurate quality. For that reason, I’m sad wineries I voted for, such as Eagles’ Nest, Stark Condé and Waterford, didn’t make it. It’s difficult to pin down exactly why, as all enjoy a good reputation and surely even some of their wines are tasted by those polled. It’s also difficult to know why some have dropped off; Steenberg in particular surprised me. Is it an awareness or quality thing?
But what one can with assurance say is that the top five are producing local classics (as does Vergelegen, the only one of my top five not to feature in that line up).
Judging when a winery has graduated from the ranks of up-and-coming to be worthy of a top 20 listing is more personal. I included Fable, Alheit and Crystallum in my top 20, nominating DeMorgenzon, Spioenkop as up-and-coming with the third, Mulderbosch as a re-invented winery. As it happens, that initial trio filled the official future greats column.
Fable I can understand not making the top 20, as their wines are little known – and the winery itself one of the most remote but also in one of the most beautiful spots. I hope their local marketing will become more aggressive, as, echoing what a wine/restaurateur friend from the UK said about their wines, ‘they are world class’ and deserve better appreciation. Alheit and Crystallum receive much more publicity and it’s likely more winelovers have tasted their wines, at least once.
The meagre three winery limit on the way up is for me the most difficult selection; there are just so many valid choices but I would hope each to be included in the next poll’s top 20. Regrettably, for one reason or another, the only winery I have ever been able to promote to my 20 list is Fable. Some no longer exist, others haven’t realised that early promise. All the more credit then to those who remain in the top 20 thanks to quality and consistency.
It’s been pointed out that consumers (as if us pollsters aren’t consumers as well) would come up with very different lists. Leaving aside the people Tim James did invite to participate nominated a total of 84 wineries, so there was hardly consensus from 1 to 20, it’s highly likely there would be similar disparities within any group.
And that figure is likely to escalate in two years’ time (if that’s when the next poll happens).

Thorne & Daughters, Trizanne Barnard - tomorrow's stars?
Thorne & Daughters, Trizanne Barnard – tomorrow’s stars?

Casting my eye over the crystal ball, these are just a few who could well feature then (including some who should have already): Thorne & Daughters, Trizanne Barnard, Johan Meyer, Restless River, Storm, Kershaw, Sijnn, Botanica, David, Foundry, Testalonga, Lammershoek, Porseleinberg, Savage, Blackwater, Antipodean, Mount Abora, Hermit on the Hill – oh and yet more, known and yet to be formed.
Back then, in 1995, I was an associate judge on the SAA Shield, a contest Michael Fridjhon set up to illustrate just where South Africa sat in relation to Australia. We were, of course, trounced. Last year, South Africa all but won region of show on the Six Nations competition, against Chile, Argentina, the US, New Zealand and Australia which humiliated us a mere 19 years ago.
The development of South African wine producers and, let’s not forget it, viticulturists, over the past 20 years, more especially the last 10 to 15, has been a fast-forward of a flower blossoming. The really exciting news is that there’s so much more waiting to bud, blossom and bear fruit. In the next 10 years I wouldn’t be surprised if South Africa achieves as much as it has in the past 20.

For Tim’s own reports on Grape see here and here for Mail & Guardian.

South Africa’s top wineries 2014

Top Five

  • Sadie Family
  • Mullineux Family
  • Kanonkop
  • Boekenhoutskloof
  • Chamonix

Rest of the top 20

  • Paul Cluver
  • Newton Johnson
  • Cape Point
  • Hamilton Russell Vineyards
  • Vergelegen
  • Tokara
  • Thelema
  • Jordan
  • Cederberg
  • Delaire Graff
  • Badenhorst Family
  • Klein Constantia
  • Meerlust
  • Reyneke
  • DeTrafford
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