So, in the blink of an eye, we’re 10 years on from 2008, a vintage I doubt anyone thinks of as a classic in South Africa. Reading through a brief report I wrote, there was much disease pressure due to the cool, wet conditions and humidity. Viticulturists were kept on their toes and sorting tables never stopped shaking. Lower quantities is about all that resembles vintage 2018, a year, which I hazard with its unrelenting drought, will be more about winemakers than viticulturists. Nature is having the upper hand this year.
Winding back ten years, I had to search hard to find any 2008s in the cellar; I always have the urge to try a ten-year-old local wine early in the year. I could turn up only two wines, both white: Thelma Rhine Riesling and Vergelegen GVB.
It’s quite a coincidence that one should be riesling, as it was in a Call for Comments from the Wine & Spirit Board, dated 26th March 2008 that the long-debated issue of the naming of riesling finally reached a head. Producers of real riesling had long fought a battle against Cape riesling, which was no such thing but a lowlier grape from south west France, known as crouchen. The proposal recommended to the Minister of Agriculture, was from the 2010 vintage:
a) Cape Riesling may still be shown as Crouchen, but not as Riesling; and
b) Weisser Riesling/Rhine Riesling may be indicated as Riesling.
And so it came to pass. (SAWIS still refers to Weisser Riesling in their list of vines in the regions).
Platter 2009 listed just 16 rieslings; that number has doubled in the latest 2018 and more are on the way. Chris and Suzaan Alheit will be harvesting their first from Ceres this year. Some have taken the dry route, others pursued a sweeter, zesty but lower alcohol style; there are also a few botrytis-laced Noble Late Harvests. There is a much greater sense of purpose and style about today’s rieslings, which implies no disrespect to Gyles Webb, who’s always made a serious wine.
This screwcap bottle had remained bright and full of zest, though the first evening those evolved petrolly flavours were pronounced. Strangely and over the next few days, they disappeared, leaving fresher, more appealing lime tones, lingering on the dry tail. If not vastly complex, the back label told no lies.
Sadly, my only other 2008, Vergelegen GVB, was oxidised; as I had just one bottle, there’s no telling whether others are better. Sauvignon blanc/semillon blends found a natural home in the Cape’s cooler areas with André van Rensburg’s Vergelegen 2001 leading the pack (though Charles Back made a brief foray into the style first in the 1980s). The best mature into classics. Pity about that 2008. Undoubtedly, progress has been made in fine-tuning but little in broadening consumer appreciation for these and white blends generally.
A quick note about 2008 reds: I remember buying Eagles Nest Shiraz (a variety that did better than other reds) and the maiden Newton Johnson Domaine Pinot Noir; that was probably it. Both have long been opened and enjoyed, no doubt a good thing.
Needless to say, exports increased between 2008 and 2017 (by about 36 600 000 litres) but, more importantly, so did South African wine’s image. While we already had Sadie Family Wines and Lismore, with Adi Badenhorst just taking off solo, the explosion of international media coverage and enthusiasm for our wines began its momentum at Cape Wine 2012, reaching further heights at the following event in 2015 by which time the young guns – the Alheits, Peter-Allan Finlayson, David & Nadia Sadie, more joining each year – had taken off.
The old vine story was the next to excite attention. Maybe greater varietal diversity, varieties and viticulture better suited to a changing climate, will be the next thing.
Ah, diversity; would that there was more within the industry. It puzzles me that there are so few black senior winemakers across the South African winelands, yet there are many excellent sommeliers/wine waiters at top restaurants, both Zimbabwean and South African. South African, Ntsiki Biyela with her own Aslina label is nearly a lone, albeit top-class, black winemaker voice. Carmen Stevens too has her own label, but I would guess is probably better known in the UK as part of the Naked Wines team.
As I wrote the above, an email dropped into my inbox from José Conde, co-owner/Cellarmaster at Stark-Conde Wines. This advised Rudger van Wyk, Assistant Winemaker for past two years has been appointed winemaker. Van Wyk is both a Stellenbosch University graduate in Oenology and formerly part of the Cape Winemakers’ Guild Protégé Programme. Knowing the winery and the people involved with it, this is a meaningful appointment.
May we be celebrating many more across the board by 2028; that’ll be even better progress.