South African wine can be such an enigma.
Think of our success stories; chenin blanc, a variety once viewed as a cheap, easy-drinking white or base for brandy, has been reinvented and reinvigorated by imaginative winemakers; the buzz is palpable. The Old Vine Project is a success story on its own, but allied to chenin blanc, South Africa has stepped further into the limelight. Authentication via the Heritage seal bearing the year of planting on a bottle of Old Vines wine, whether chenin or any other variety, adds further credibility to the project and South Africa’s image. The latest OVP Academy, described on the website as: ‘an online platform aimed at educating the wine industry, trade, consumers, and media on the value of Certified Heritage Vineyards and the wines that they produce,’ strikes another first for South Africa. Like the Wine of Origin Scheme, the Wine & Biodiversity initiative and sustainability, South Africa continues to lead the world in many ways.
Diversity isn’t restricted to our flora. Colombar, palomino and cinsaut, all sidelined as the Big Five began to dominate (colombar covers the second greatest vineyard area after chenin but is mainly used for distilling and brandy), are now being given a new lease of life, alongside other trendy, niche wines like semillon gris (not an official variety due to lack of stability, so labelled semillon or red greengrape) and grenache gris. These Cinderella grapes (one colombar is even named Aspoestertjie, Afrikaans for Cinderella) gain further distinction from innovative winemaking methods: skin contact, flor and, with a greater emphasis on texture, the use of clay amphora or concrete eggs. At the other end of the winemaking journey, South African wine in cans is getting more than its fair share of good reviews for its excellent quality.
All this activity keeps winemakers, media and the more involved wine lovers interested and enthusiastic.
Why would someone as esteemed as Jancis Robinson claim South Africa deserves more respect for its innovation and quality? That’s the gist of what she told Jason Haas, proprietor of Tablas Creek in California’s Paso Robles region, on a recent Instagram live chat.
The first-visit enthusiasm of American reviewer, Alder Yarrow with a sizeable 30000+ followers on Twitter, is also noteworthy. Two quotes from his tweets on 6th October: ‘There is no more exciting wine region in the world right now than South Africa.’ ‘South Africa is the next Etna, the next Jura, the next region that everyone interested in drinking on the cutting edge of wine should be exploring.’
It’s easy to enthuse but sales need to result for both Jancis and Alder’s endorsements to prove their worth.
Innovation, even chenin blanc, draws more of a niche audience, but for South Africa as a wine producing country to be taken seriously, I believe a reputation for classic, fine wine is required; I’d suggest cabernet sauvignon is the most suitable variety.
The definition of fine wine is an ongoing project carried out under the auspices of Areni Global; the Third Edition of Define Fine Wine White Paper, written by Pauline Vicard.
Why is such a definition necessary? Vicard writes: ‘… a clear and transparent definition of Fine Wine is essential to its development, reach, future success and, to some extent, its survival.’
To summarise the definition as per this White Paper. Quality is the prerequisite for Fine Wine, which; it must have harmony and balance, engaging both the nose and palate with its complexity, these elements require the ability to evolve and improve with time, but remain interesting right through the wine’s life-cycle.
Interestingly, there is also the comment that Fine Wine is distinguished from mere ‘wine’ by the winemaker’s intent.
Tempting as it might be to think of Stellenbosch only as cabernet country, there are great cabernets from other areas: Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon, Franschhoek; Restless River Main Road & Dignity, Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley; Nederburg R163 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paarl are just three recognised examples.
The key element, as far as my proposition is concerned, is ‘the ability to evolve and improve with time’; ie, the wine has to be able to mature. Which variety is better recognised as improving with age than classic cabernet?
It was a recent taste of two older cabernets that prompted these thoughts. Thelema Cabernet 1995, probably the best vintage in a decade not renowned for great wines, but a perfect example of complexity with balance and trademark Thelema note of mint. Meerlust 1980 Cabernet was presented one evening during Cape Wine, as part of a multi-decade tasting of Seven Wineries. Its ethereal air belied the concentration of ripe fruit and still firm structure. Two memorable experiences
If South Africa today can produce cabernets that mature as well as that 27- or 42-year-old, surely they will establish our reputation as a serious, fine wine country, deserving of prices to match.