The Re-Birth Of South African Wine – Again

03 Feb

The South African Goal / The Re-Birth Of South African Wine

The South African wine industry has had perhaps the most varied history of all the world’s wine regions.

South Africa’s wine industry was founded before many of the most famous and ancient Chateaux in the Old World were even built or their vineyards planted. Many of the world’s most famous classed growth Chateaux, located in Bordeaux’s Medoc were in fact built on reclaimed marshland and riverbeds that were only drained in the late 17th and early 18th century.

Ironically, the draining and creation of the Medoc is attributable to the Dutch and their engineering and polder building skills. These were the same Dutch pioneers who were busy carving up much of the Indian sub-continent and opening up the so called spice routes to India and the Far East, through the world’s first reliable global transport network.

This network was in effect the shipping fleet of the Dutch East India Company, who sailed down the west side of Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope and onwards towards the Indian Ocean and the riches of the Pacific rim that European nations plundered for the next 400 years.

The Cape of Good Hope provided a natural, half way point in the journey to India, spiritually if not in nautical miles. It was blessed with a deep and reasonably safe natural harbour and an extensive and fertile hinterland. The Dutch idea was to establish a port colony at this harbour to re-supply its vessels with food and crucially for our interest wine.

Wine was rightly regarded as a way of giving the benefits of fruit to the crews of the fleet, helping to ward off scurvy. The colonial governors oversaw the establishment of farming homesteads across the Cape region and personally developed the vineyards. The first being planted sometime before 1652. There is considerable academic argument over when the first vines were planted and even more over exactly when the first wine was produced.

What we do know is that Jan van Riebeeck, who was the de facto first governor of the city he founded, Cape Town, made wine in around 1660, but that the man who is more important in the story of South African wine is Simon van Der Stel, the next governor of the Cape Colony and as you might have guessed, founder of the city of Stellenbosch, a name he suggested himself.

Stellenbosch today is the home of South African wine.

However, Stellenbosch was not a wine region in van Der Stel’s day, he is famous for having planted and founded the Constantia Winery, birthplace of South African and to many, essentially the idea of New World wine.

Almost 100 years after it was planted , the Vin de Constance, as it was known, became a huge commercial and cultural success, fans included Napoleon and Queen Victoria as well as the Tsars of Russia and most of the wealthiest dynasties across Europe. It was a sweet wine, that was regarded in the same league as Sauternes and Tokai. It was an un-fortified botrytis driven wine sweet wine.

Across the Cape Province by the beginning of the 19th century high quality red and white dry wines, made from European grapes were being produced in quantity and some of these wines were exported to England and Europe. The English had by the 1850s invaded and occupied most of what is today South Africa on several occasions and so began importing wine from the Cape Province simply it seems, to annoy the French, the old enemy.

A series of treaties with the French however eventually made French wine cheap enough to damage South African imports to Europe. Coupled with Phylloxera, the Boer War, political unrest and WW I, and South African wine’s fate was sealed.

The calamity for South African fine wine was such that wine lovers in the 1990s were almost incredulous when South African wine arrived back on shelves that there had been a time in the long distant past when South African wine was regarded as the fourth European wine nation.

The Calamity of the South African 20th Century

The story of the calamity of South Africa in the 20th century is too well known to rehash here in any detail, but from a wine perspective, it ran as follows. The Afrikaans dominated KWV became the effective state wine body and main grower. It had a reputation for brutality and stupidity in equal measure.

It allowed poor quality vines to dominate, emphasising quantify over quality, even though South Africa was overproducing unwanted wines. It oversaw laws, which prevented large parts of the majority population from being able to buy or drink wine. It, at the very least, was a complicit organisation in the system of Apartheid.

Fortunately in amongst the wine making community in South Africa there were many winery owners and wine companies that behaved well towards their non white employees and staff.

To the outside world of course nothing less than total rejection and abolition of Apartheid was rightly regarded sufficient for South Africa to take its place amongst the nations of the world.

South African wine was almost universally banned from international sale.

The First Comeback

With the fall of the Apartheid regime in 1994, slowly at first and then in an Amazonian rush, South African wines arrived on shelves across the world, and mostly the world was distinctly un-impressed.

Years of selling to a captive market, produced in no particular order of awfulness, vile, fruitless Chenin with oddly high alcohol levels, stalky, green Cabernet Sauvignon, odd oily Merlot and the most reviled of all, a wine that smelled like hospital-standard, moist, burn-bandages, nail polish or cold teabags, called Pinotage.

It was however all very cheap and re-branded into a post-apartheid product, it sold well.

It took another three or four years for things to really change, for the great wineries to invest in new healthy vines and clonal vinestock. On a political level, wineries run by members of the majority population began to emerge and amongst the re-igniting older wineries widespread efforts were made to develop fair-trade, community ownership and community outreach schemes.

This is unique to South Africa, even though the exploitation of native peoples and the appropriation of their lands took place as surely in Australia, Chile or Argentina.

South African wine after an initial storm of success went into a slight commercial decline.

Interestingly the number of wine producers in South Africa fell by almost a 1000 in the 15 years since the end of Apartheid. However the number of wine cellars, that is wineries where wine is actually made has risen by 400%. In other words, less people are involved in growing but now, all those who are, are making their own wine rather than selling it on to large co-operatives or big brand produces.

There has been an explosion in the opening of smaller, quality and terroir focused wineries in South Africa,

The Second Comeback

Two examples of the second coming of South African wine are to be found in thoughtful wine loving families, like the Hamilton Russell family, who re-ignited wine making in the tumultuous period following the collapse of the De Klerk government and the effective ending of the Apartheid regime.

This is the Hamilton Russell Winery located some fifty miles south of Cape Town, on the coast and the Jordan Winery, another 20 miles beyond that.

Anthony Hamilton Russell returned to South Africa and in 1994 set about purchasing land his father had been farming and growing grapes on. He acquired land that was poor in quality, low yielding and he set about establishing a winery that grew just two grapes, neither of them Chenin or Pinotage.

He opted for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, having a background and love of Burgundy wines. Hamilton Russell went further than almost any of his contemporaries in adopting stringent modern, very expensive, best practice in his cellar. He also insisted on using all new, vastly expensive oak from the best Burgundy barrel makers.

The wines he made were at first merely cool and austere, but with each passing year he adjusted the clone selection of his vines to suit the minute analysis he was doing of the terroir, the plots he had. So by 2000, his wines were of vastly improved quality and by 2003, his Pinot Noir, made in a gorgeous, restrained Burgundy style in the cool oceanic climate won the International Best Pinot Noir in The World prize at the International Wine Challenge in London.

Parker points soon followed and praise for his Chardonnay as matching the ambitions of a Meursault by Wine Spectator sealed Hamilton Russell’s reputation.

Over the last 6 years, he has expanded his interests into Sauvignon Blanc and the dreaded Pinotage, by acquiring land beside his Hamilton Russell winery and founding a second bijoux winery called Southern Right Winery. In this way, each winery can stay true to his original vision of simplicity, no reserve wines, no second labels, no top cuvees. Four wines, two wineries, a red and white wine in each.

In Southern Right Winery the Sauvignon Blanc is a deliberately subdued, crisp, Sancerre like wine with only a hint of the tined tropical fruit and pineapple of old fashioned New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The best contemporary New Zealand Blanc is now very much more balanced and Loire like.

The real revelation is the Pinotage where Hamilton Russell has become, along with Graham Beck of Fairview wines an evangelist for the grape as the future of Fine Wine in South Africa. Talita Engelbrecht, Marketing Manager at Southern Right Winery is filled with zeal

“What we are seeing is that Pinotage has been planted on the wrong soils, for the wrong reasons and has been treated incorrectly. If you treat it like a top quality vine and look for indicators that you find in top quality fruit, then you can, we can produce a Pinotage that will shock you.” Says Engelbrecht, in Dublin last week.

“While the rest of the wine world has other concerns, like water, which is not a problem for us or what I feel is often a marketing lead interest in organics, we are primarily concerned about making the right choice of vine for the best soils.” Says Engelbrecht. “Pinotage is going to benefit from this approach.”

“This is what they have done many years even centuries ago in France. So while we are indeed an old, New World country, the goals of the finest wine from the best plots and rightly matched clones is ongoing every day for us.” Says Engelbrecht.

The proof of course is in the wines and in the two Hamilton Russell wines, Anthony Hamilton Russell has produced wines of world class league, while the newer Pinotage and Sauvignon Blanc wines from Southern Right are exciting offerings, of real potential.

“We are certainly hoping that Ireland will qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals in South Africa next year and you can all come and see the great work that we, indeed all of South African wine is now doing.” Says Talita Engelbrecht with a completely unbiased football hat on.

Happily for Irish wine lovers, win or loose in the knockout stage next month, the wines of South Africa will travel north to our shelves, regardless.

Selected Hamilton Russell Highlights

Hamilton Russell Winery, Pinot Noir 2008 (88) around €35

Hamilton Russell Winery, Chardonnay 2007 (88) around €27

Southern Right, Pinotage 2007 (89) around €18

Southern Right, Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (89) around €16

Klein Constantia Estate, Vin De Constance 2005 (92) around €50

Wines are widely available. Nationwide O’Brien’s Wines; Tesco supermarkets and O’Donovan’s Off Licence Chain in Cork City and County, offer very extensive ranges including Penfolds Grange. Also available in most independent Off Licences including The Vintry, 102 Rathgar Road Dublin 6; 64, Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co Dublin and online at; McCabes, Mount Merrion Avenue, Blackrock Co Dublin; The Vintry, Rathgar Road, Dublin 6 and Redmonds of Ranelagh.

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