Wine

BEST OF THE BEST

WITH THE PASSAGE OF TIME COMES PERSPECTIVE. CHEERS EDITOR FIONA MCDONALD HAS HAD TIME DURING COVID-19 LOCKDOWN TO REFLECT ON THE STRIDES MADE BY THE SOUTH AFRICAN WINE INDUSTRY OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS.

An international critic once described South African wine writers as “fans with typewriters”. The implication was that local wine writers were groupies, in thrall to local winemakers and thus incapable of making truly critical assessments of wines tasted.

That ruffled a few feathers at the time – it was around two decades ago – but I find it quite amusing that the same UK-based critic now makes an annual pilgrimage to the Cape, writes a yearly report on the state of the South African wine industry, including his own classification or ranking of the various producers, labels and estates and has also been at the forefront of praise singing about South African wine! (Can anyone even say “imbongi” with a British accent?!) * imbongi – praise singer or poet.

Is there an argument to be made about local critics and writers being too close to the producers? Well, quite frankly, it’s damn difficult NOT to be. Wine writers are thrust into close proximity to winemakers on a weekly basis at tastings, lunches and launches, not something our English colleagues get to do all that often. They have the advantage of being able to assess French, Spanish, Italian, German, Australian and South American wines at arm’s length. They don’t have to see Vergelegen’s Andre van Rensburg up-close-and-personal when there’s something he wants to get off his chest … often with a finger poke to your chest too!

From 2000 until 2008 I edited WINE magazine and was the person who had to deal with a lot of the hurt and anger every month when the ratings were published. Hence, knowing that Van Rensburg didn’t take kindly to his wines receiving two or three stars when rated blind. He took action – straight and direct, hence the face 5 cm from mine and the finger prodded in my chest as he stated his case using colourful language!

But those days seem almost nostalgic because it was a time when the wine writers indeed knew almost all the wine farms, the winemakers and the wines. Fast forward 20 years and new labels, wines and producers pop up almost overnight like mushrooms. The profusion – and quality – is
startling.

What has happened over the past 20 years has been nothing short of revolutionary – and is one of the reasons that international critics from not just the United Kingdom but America, France and elsewhere are beating a path to South Africa’s wineries to taste, engage and try to learn what makes the wines special.

Because the wines ARE special! Take Stellenbosch estate Kanonkop for example. At the 50th anniversary of the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC) held in London in November 2019 Kanonkop received a special award – the Outstanding Wine Producer Trophy.

No other wine producer – and this is a competition which attracts thousands of entries from 50 different countries – has ever won the Winemaker of the Year trophy four times! (It went to Beyers Truter in 1991 and current cellar chief Abrie Beeslaar has held the trophy high in 2008, 2015 and 2017.)

The prize is awarded to the producer with the best overall results of all entries. And in 2019 Kanonkop was also awarded the Warren Winiarski trophy for the best Cabernet Sauvignon at the IWSC. “In recognition of the 50 years of the IWSC, this year we are awarding this prestigious trophy to a producer who has not only achieved it this year, but consistently throughout the competition’s history,” said IWSC head of tastings Pip Mortimer.

Co-owner of Kanonkop Johann Krige pointed out that when the IWSC started in 1969 the Stellenbosch operation had not even bottled a single estate wine! “This award for Outstanding Producer is recognition for those whose vision saw the bottling of Kanonkop’s first estate wine in 1973, namely my grandfather and Kanonkop founder Paul Sauer, my father Jannie Krige and Jan Boland Coetzee, the winemaker who oversaw those first Kanonkop bottlings.”

In his acceptance speech Krige said it was a massive honour to accept the award on behalf of the South African wine industry.

“Despite a wine industry with a history that stretches back to 1659 and the undisputed quality of our country’s wines, South Africa struggles to develop an image of premium quality in the
international marketplace,” Krige said.

“Therefore accolades such as this from the International Wine and Spirit Competition are particularly significant, as it shows the world that as far as quality and identity go, our country’s wines can compete with – and trump – the best from France, Spain, Italy, Australia and the US.”

Is it any wonder that South Africans feel a bit scrappy when international critics and pundits either don’t take us or our wines seriously? Twenty years ago the country was just a few years into a new democracy, trying to turn around the behemoth that was Brand South Africa but now it justifies its spot on the international stage.

And Kanonkop is not alone in garnering international acclaim for its winemakers and wines. In the past three or four years two South African winemakers and a viticulturist have been recognised as being the best in the world.

In 2017 Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines and one of the pioneers of the Swartland Revolution (CHEERS issue 47) was recognised as the Institute of Masters of Wine and Drinks Business Winemakers Winemaker of the Year, a title bestowed upon international luminaries such as Peter Sisseck of Spain, Anne-Claude Leflaive of Burgundy, Peter Gago of Australia and Egon Muller of Germany previously.

She might be American by birth but Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux Wines is firmly rooted in South African soil having married fellow winemaker Chris more than a decade ago. In 2016 this dynamic thirtysomething was named Wine Enthusiast’s International Winemaker of the Year. (Wine Enthusiast is one of the two pre-eminent wine magazines in the United States with a readership of around 800 000 … It’s a big deal!)

 

And then there’s Rosa Kruger, a viticulturist who would far rather be tromping through a gnarled old vineyard in the Piekenierskloof than having to put on make-up and don her glad rags to go and fetch an award. But that’s what she had to do in 2018 when she was chosen as the International Wine Challenge’s Personality of the Year. The remarkable thing is that Kruger has no formal training as a viticulturist; she started out life as a lawyer and a journalist! She learned the intricacies of farming with vines, the soil, clones, growing cycles by spending time in the vineyard. Kruger is the prime mover behind the appreciation of old vines, having documented many neglected ancient vineyards in unfashionable parts of the winelands. But these areas are now producing some of the country’s most thrilling and fashionable wines!

All three of these personalities have contributed to the burgeoning respect afforded South African wines on the world stage. They have done it not by seeking out the limelight – all three, particularly Sadie and Kruger, actively shun it! – but by being true to their mission of making the best wine possible from their particular patches of soil. They are authentic, they think long and hard about what they want the wines to say, they respect nature and all are at the forefront of a less interventionist school of winemaking. Kruger is renowned for finding a little parcel of vineyard and then hand selecting a winemaker who she knows will respect its heritage and be able to coax greatness out of it. All lead by example and are meticulous about sharing their knowledge and philosophy. Mullineux is currently serving as the chairperson of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild.

Their generosity is so typically South African. Where winemakers from other countries jealously guard their secrets to success, locals throw open the cellar doors. If there’s a problem, they’ll help. Got a stuck ferment? “Put a six-pack of beers in the fridge buddy, I’m on my way! We’ll sort it out …”

That’s the spirit of the South African winery. There’s an appreciation of the land and what it delivers through the grapevine, there’s respect for nature, there’s a desire to compete with the best wines in the world – and a strong belief and conviction that South Africa is capable of beating them!

So, yeah, I’m a fan! I was 20 years ago and I’m even more so now.