The Struggle Continues in The Shadow of The World Cup – South African Wines

The sight of Brazilian footballers playing North Korea was almost as intriguing as the fact that the Brazilians were wearing layer upon layer of clothing for their opening night time game of this year’s South African World Cup. They were freezing, the crowd was freezing and as a light rain began to fall, the atmosphere resembled a mid winter match in Dublin.

If we learn nothing else from South Africa’s World Cup, the general realisation that seems to have occurred to the fact that in the southern hemisphere our summer is their winter might be satisfactory.

Johannesburg the scene of the polo neck and black tight wearing clash between Brasil and North Korea is 1300km from Cape Town and the Cape Wine region.

To put that in context, Dublin is, as the crow with extra powerful wings flies, 1300km from the dusty heat of Chateauneuf Du Pape.

To say that South Africa is a large country is a wild understatement, however, the wine growing regions are not spread out through South Africa and although there is a perception that the South African wine industry is a large and almost industrial business this is absolutely not the case.

South Africa has around 110,000 hectares under vineyards, of that around 15000 hectares are growing the sultana grape for your fruit salad and for distillation. So perhaps around 90,000 hectares are devoted specifically to grape growing with wine varietals.

This may sound impressively large until you realise that Bordeaux covers around 140,000 hectares on its own in France. Add Burgundy, the Loire, the Rhone, two dozen smaller regions and the giant Languedoc wine country to Bordeaux and you can begin to see why South Africa accounts in the last statistics for around just about 4% of the world’s wine production.

So the wine industry in South Africa is small and it is quite regionally confined. The majority of the  wine producing regions are clustered around the south western tip of South Africa around the city of Cape Town and the adjacent Cape Provinces. Most of the wine  more famous regions are  just a day trip from Cape Town.

Stellenbosch South Africa’s wine capital and home to some of its finest wineries like the venerable Meerlust Estate, for example is about 35km from Cape Town, really just an afternoon’s jaunt, while Paarl, home of  adventurous wineries like Fairview Estate, home of Goats Do Roam is just 50km from Cape Town.

The South African wine producing area can be viewed as a semi-circle of about 250km in diameter centred on Cape Town.

There are good climatic reasons for this, but it hardly explains the absence of wine growing in many other reasonable sights across the entirety of South Africa. For that we need only look at history and more unfortunately politics.

Prisoners Of History

The white population of South Africa still accounts for about 9% of the population despite all the dire words of foreboding that circulated after the fall of the white south African requiem and the end of Apartheid 16 years ago.

The Rainbow Nation that Nelson Mandela wanted to see created has in many senses come to pass. That is not to say that South Africa has been transformed into a political paradise, far from it.

The wine industry is probably the most disappointing of all, but there are very obvious reasons for the lack of a breakthrough by the majority population into the world of wine production.

The first is simply the location of the wine regions at present.

Cape Town sits in the heart of what was the Afrikaans heartland, and before that, the English heartland and before that the Dutch heartland. The Cape as it is known was the first colony and the spiritual base for European settlers.

Wine only exists in South Africa because the East India Company needed a safe port to break the journey to India mid way and to replenish with supplies. Wine and spirits were the best kind of liquid for the long journeys with good potential to stay fresh and it was believed, as a good source of fruit to stave off scurvy in their sailors.

That wine had been sourced from vineyards in or near the first colonial station at what is now Constantia. An exact date is controversial, but most historians agree that the first South African vines were planted sometime shortly before 1652. As I have pointed out in several articles over the years this predates nearly all of the great Chateaux of the Medoc, a wine region created by Dutch Polder makers during the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century.

Happily they did not need polders to dry out the Cape vineyards. What the first Governor of the Cape Colony, Jan van Riebeeck found was a hot southern Mediterranean climate, heavily moderated by the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean.

For grapes it is a viticultural paradise. They get the warmth and sunshine they require to ripen in the summertime months, our Northern Hemisphere winter, but not the burning swelter that so often turns wine from overly hot regions into jam.

The unique heat and cooling wind is further added to by the rapid ascent in altitude of some of the next wine regions in from the coast all this favours cooler climate, savoury European style cabernet Sauvignon and Burgundian Chardonnay, while lastly there are some deeply cut valleys which run east west and drier more dusty regions to the north east of Cape Town which can produce increasingly excellent Shiraz.

The early settlers were encouraged to farm and they did so prodigiously creating a beautiful patina of Dutch Colonial farmsteads across the entire region.

It is very noticeable in interviewing South African winemakers that, nearly all of them, of Dutch heritage or not,  refer to the winery and the vineyards not as winery, estate or vineyards, but as, the farm.

In some way it is I often feel the true stamp of the lasting impact of the austere, slightly severe modesty of their colonial Dutch heritage. Of course in practice South Africa, wineries, are as commercial and marketing orientated as any in the world with inviting tasting rooms, shops, tours and many add on features like art galleries and even the odd hotel, but in private, it’s still a farm.

The huge advantage of farming is that it fits a family heritage structure very well, a well run farm can expend in familial time to meet the needs of each generation. The high capital cost of set up can be averaged down over generations.

Of course for many of the original homesteads in cape Province the capital cost of set up was zero. The land was simply expropriated from the native population by the colonial settlers.

Anyone wishing to get into wine over the last 16 years in post-Apartheid South Africa was not so lucky. Land prices in the main wine regions make Irish land seem almost reasonable. Returns are low in the first years of setting up a vineyard and coupled with the fact that anyone staring up now is going to be competing with increasingly well known brands from across South African wine never mind brands from Australian dn Chile and you can see why it could be suggested that these are the reasons that the wine industry in south Africa is dominated by the minority population.

There is more to it than that of course. If you look at where the majority population was pushed by the white south African government for generations you can clearly see that the vast majority of South Africa’s 49 million are on the east coast and in the industrial and mining region. The system of Apartheid was not just controlling behaviour and political access, it also impacted on population location.

That isn’t enough of an explanation either. There are hundreds of thousands of South Africans from the majority population who have been involved in wine and wine making for generations. Just not in any managerial or ownership positions.

These workers suffered badly under successive minority rule governments and under the stifling Afrikaans culture of the KWV the largest wine producer for most of the 20th century. It and most other wineries operated what was called the DOP system, this was a way of paying workers a pittance but then supplementing their employment with rations of the very worst of wines as part payment. This part payment in bad wine and camp style accommodation for workers could lead an outsider to see the workers as nearly slaves.

Even today I often feel uncomfortable as an earnest white winery owner tells me about their progressive program for accommodating their workers or providing schooling for the children of workers.

One man has gone further and seems to me to be the model of what should really be happening in South African wine, that is Paul Culver, the owner of Paul Cluver Winery and maker of one of the world’s great sweet wines, Paul Cluver Noble Riesling.

Instead of platitudes about crèches, Paul Cluver cut up part of his lands in the Elgin wine region to the east of Stellenbosch and created a joint venture with his former workers. Together they founded Thandi Estate. Thandi is one of the pioneering wineries that is partly funded by the current South African government’s agriculture Black Economic Empowerment project. Thandi is the pioneering Fairtrade Wine in South Africa and is also committed to a just and sustainable production process.

Over the 7 years that it has been in existence the workers have increased their shareholding each year, with the goal being 100% ownership. This has been a very slow process and Thandi is still one of just a handful of such wineries. I suppose it is a credit to the restraint of the post-Apartheid governments that some sort of compulsory purchase or transfer scheme was not set in place. The Paul Culver scheme is not Marxism, it brings a financial reward and in effect the land is being sold, but at terms which make the entry of the majority population into wine, one of  South Africa’s most prominent exports a possibility.

Things Can Only Get Better

As a wine producer of quality, South Africa is getting better at exponential rates. The days of dull shelves dominated just by rather modest big brands like Long Mountain are long gone, but so too has the early excitement.

In general Chilean wines are cheaper, Australian wines are better presented and European wines have the pizzazz.

But at the specific bottle by bottle level there is increasingly dazzling wine in that South Africa section.

Forget the World Cup branded wines and the Vuvuzela fracas, and venture to the better producers and you will find Chardonnay that outpaces many Burgundy wines, in fine wine terms and of course in price. Bordeaux blends that are subtle and savoury, that speak of the Medoc in ways that Australia can only dream of and again at a fraction of the price, then swing over top the coast to find Sauvignon Blanc of increasing quality at price points that are now part of New Zealand’s history.

South African wine is coming of age in its post-Apartheid rebirth, the vats of big brand soup are a distant memory, now becoming the heavy hitter on the fine wine stage it knows it can be is increasingly the goal of the best producers. However until, the big unspoken issue of majority ownership is addressed meaningfully there will always be a final hurdle to jump no matter how fine the wines are in South Africa.

Wines of South Africa

Southern Right, Pinotage 2007 (89) around €18

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

Simonsig Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa 2007 (88) around €8.95

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

Paul  Cluver Noble Riesling, South Africa (89) around €15.99

Quagga Ridge Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon, Paarl, South Africa 2008 (87) at around €8.49

Kanonkop Paul Sauer,  Simonsberg, Stellenbosch, South Africa  2003 (91) around €32
Vergelegen Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, Somerset, South Africa 2004 (90) around €26

Diemersfontein Carpe Diem Pinotage 2007 (90) around €24

Graham Beck, Railroad Red, Western Cape, 2007 (88) at €10.45

Kanonkop, Pinotage, 2007 (91) around €26.95

Meerlust, Pinot Noir, Stellenbosch, 2004  (93) around €34.95

Graham Beck Shiraz, South Africa 2004 (90) around €13.89

Wines are available at selected wine shops and off licences nationwide including Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2; Redmonds Of Ranelagh, Ranelagh, Dublin 6; Sweeney’s, 6 Finglas Road, Harts Corner, Glasnevin, Dublin 11; 64 Wines, 64 Glasthule Road,Sandycove, Co. Dublin; Donnybrook Fair, 89 Morehampton Road, Donnybrook  Dublin; Cellar Master Wines 18, Maple Avenue, Stillorgan Industrial Park, Dublin 18; Cases Wine Warehouse, Galway and O’Briens Wines nationwide and most good wine shops.