Sometimes it takes events like the Scottish Referendum to make you realise that however ancient and permanent the old order appears, the status quo could suddenly change. It’s no different in the world of wine: in fact, there’s one anomaly that I’ve been increasingly aware of recently. South Africa has always been considered part of the New World, but I think the tipping point has been reached. It’s time for us to move South Africa from New World to Old World.
Château Mouton-Rothschild could lobby the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux to move from Second Growth to First, but there’s no official body to petition in order to right this particular wrong. But if there were a referendum in the next few years, I’d be voting Yes to South Africa notionally joining the Old World, and I want you to join me.
South Africa has been described in the past as lying between the Old World and the New World, but the wine scene in South Africa has been changing of late – and changing fast. Catherine Marshall makes some of the best Pinot Noirs in the cool climate region of Elgin and she agrees “we have a foot in both”. But if she had to choose? “Old World for sure… classic, restrained, food friendly. I’m Old World trained, that’s what I want to make, that’s why I’m in Elgin.” Gunter Schultz at Kleinood in Stellenbosch adds “the drinkability of the wine is an important factor… most of us practice an Old World style.”
Classic, restrained, food friendly and drinkable are all typically Old World characteristics; to this perhaps we could add savoury, middle-weight and terroir-focussed. These are all terms that describe the more exciting stuff coming out of South Africa today. Ten years ago, much of the wine produced in South Africa was decidedly fruit-forward in character, but a new generation of well-travelled young winemakers are pulling in a different direction. John Seccombe trained at Plumpton College in the UK, then subsequently worked in France, California and Australia before returning to his native South Africa to set up his Thorne & Daughters label by renting space in his friend Chris Alheit’s cellar. He has just released his very promising first vintages and explains “all of us are talking to each other, all of us are helping each other out.”
His wines are a good example of the broader contemporary scene. Rather than pandering to visiting buyers’ assessments of what will sell, winemakers are increasingly searching out the best terroirs and working with the most appropriate varieties for the site to make the best wines possible. “I want to make wines with South African identity”, says Seccombe, “I don’t want to emulate another region.” As winemakers look to the relative permanence of terroir rather than the fleeting whims of the market, more uniquely South African wines are the result.
Even the vineyards are starting to look more French than Australian. Keermont in Stellenbosch grow Syrah on stakes in their steeper vineyards like in Côte-Rotie. Swartland, however, looks more like Châteauneuf-du-Pape; 70% of Lammershoek’s 70 hectare estate for example is dry-farmed bush vines. Even the Chardonnay. Irrigation is out, cooler site selection is in. They’ll be harvesting in bonnets and clogs next.
The trend in the cellar is very much back-to-basics, minimising sulphur, reducing use of new oak and eschewing additives. I’ve never heard so many winemakers preaching the benefits of wild yeasts. Some winemakers such as Adi Badenhorst are even successfully experimenting with determinedly Old World oddities such as vin jaune and vermouth. And instead of bottling that archetypically New World creature, the varietal wine, many of the most exciting reds and whites are blends. Of course there are still plenty of well-established estates pumping out Bordeaux blends and punchy Pinotage. If you’re a fan of polished, bright, fruit-forward varietal wines, there are still plenty to be found, but compared to the new school, they are beginning to look decidedly old-fashioned.
There is one side of the South African wine scene that is resolutely New World, and that is the feeling on the ground amongst the best producers. This pace of change, and the sense of excitement and experimentation feels more New World in energy, but the resulting wine styles are often more Old World in signature.
The funny thing about the Old World is that the countries it groups together have relatively little in common; each country has a strong identity of its own. And as time goes on, South Africa too is beginning to develop its own unique voice. For a country that has been making wine for over 350 years, this has been a long time coming. How much more practice does South Africa need before it can join its North African cousins that have always been considered Old World?
We’re not used to things moving this fast in wine, so when they do, we need to make a fundamental shift in our world wine view to accommodate it. So next time you’re in the wine shop looking for a middle-weight, food friendly, drinkable wine to go with dinner, don’t just stick to France and Italy – consider South Africa. And when the forms come in the post, join me and Vote Yes.
A selection of Old World style South African wines to try
Graham Beck Brut Blanc de Blanc 2009 (Robertson, 12%)
Gorgeous blanc de blanc nose, fresh green apple, lemon juice and blossom. Some weight on the palate, keen acidity, good length and some biscuity flavour coming through. Very convincing bottle fermented fizz of great finesse and balance. Don’t drink Prosecco, drink this. 94 points, good value.
Iona Chardonnay 2013 (Elgin, 13%)
Marks & Spencer, £14.99
Clear and defined melon, lemon and grapefruit alongside some marine/seashell aromas. Light, balanced and refreshing. Lovely mineral impression on the finish. A very drinkable, fresh, zesty chardonnay with subtle, seamlessly integrated oak. 92 points, fair value.
Mullineux White Blend 2013 (Swartland, 13.5%)
A blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Clairette. Subtle pear nose with some honeysuckle and jasmine florality. Full in body, but subtle in fruit. Very much about texture; long, mineral, crystalline. 93 points, fair value.
Constantia Uitsig White 2013 (Constantia, 14%)
The Good Wine Shop, £18.50 for the 2012
Two thirds Semillon, one third Sauvignon Blanc. Silver coloured. Fresh grassy nose. Medium-bodied, lovely finesse and fruit expression. Good balance, just enough acid and some soft, yielding ripe fruit flavours, but nothing too loud. Lovely siky texture. 93 points, fair value.
Klein Contantia Metis 2013 (Constantia, 14%)
A collaboration with Pascal Jolivet of Sancerre, so perhaps unsurprisingly this Sauvignon is a fairly mineral style, but backed up with concentrated, tangy lime and kiwi juice. Intense and long. 91 points, just about fair value.
Botanica Chenin Blanc 2013 (Devon Valley, Stellenbosch; 14%)
Harrogate Fine Wines, £19.99 for the 2012
Light, fresh, fruity and floral style of Chenin with pear, quince and apple. Top notes of honeysuckle. Lovely fresh impression with a touch of crème brulée richness on the finish. Has a natural, authentic feel to it. 94 points, good value.
Crystallum Clay Shales Chardonnay 2013 (Hemel en Aarde, Walker Bay; 13.5%)
Single vineyard in the Hemel en Aarde Valley, Chardonnay grown on clay and shale, 17% new oak. Rich nose with apricot and honeysuckle. Medium-bodied, with a rounded mouthfeel and sweet fruits, leading to a touch of honeycomb on the finish. All very well judged and balanced, with great length – it really sails on into the distance. 94 points, good value.
Sadie Family Palladius 2012 (Swartland, 14.5%)
AG Wines, £34.99
Mostly Chenin Blanc, with Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Viognier, Verdelho, Roussanne, Semillon Gris, Semillon Blanc and Palomino from 17 vineyards across Swartland. Pear, mirabelle plum and honeysuckle aromatics. This medium-bodied yet powerful white has a fine thread of bright acidity running through it, all ending with honeyed yet dry, lightly toasty finish. Perfectly balanced, long and satisfying, this is brilliant winemaking. 96 points, fair value.
Cathy Marshall Barrel Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 (Elgin; 14%)
Pale in colour, with pure, fragrant red berry aromatics. Silky mouthfeel, with fine, gentle tannins and a juicy finish. Long, elegant, with burgeoning complexity. 92 points, good value.
Keermont Syrah 2012 (Upper Blaauwklippen Valley, Stellenbosch; 14%)
95% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre. 5% new oak. Clean, relaxed, authentic blackberry aromatics, just-ripe fruit. Some bacon fat and a whiff of tar add complexity. Wonderfully smooth mouthfeel with exceptionally fine tannins, all backed up with balanced acids. Medium-bodied, with a natural feel and a long, mineral finish. Exceptional South African Syrah. 96 points, fair value.
Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2012 (Franschhoek, 14.5%)
Syrah grown on one block of southeast-facing granite. 20% stems included, 100% 2nd use oak. Beautiful dark berry fruits on the nose, fresh, slightly floral and faintly peppery. Mouth-coating tannins and extract, intense, bright and zingy. Integrated oak, long, very pure, with a wonderful texture. Has the brooding, deep, dark nature of Syrah grown on granite. Extremely good. 95 points, fair value.