Premium South Africa - are we there yet?
Like many other New World countries, South Africa has been seen purely as a value-for-money producer for far too long.
But this is changing. We’ve been beating the premium South Africa drum for a while now and happily the proof is in the stats. Although CGA reports an overall fall in South African wine sales, it’s the premium end that’s capturing the imagination – and spend – of UK wine drinkers, with sales of South African wine over £25 up a staggering 45%.
And why shouldn’t it be? This change in direction and attitude has as much to do with UK drinkers willing to explore beyond the classics, as it does with the producers themselves. With a focus on older vines, site-specific wines and elegant styles, producers are now creating truly unique expressions that are worth the higher price tags.
Paul Meihuizen, buyer for South Africa at Bibendum, explains, “South Africa has for many years had a stigma of being cheap, due mainly to the quality of wines that were initially put into the market. But more and more today we are finding exceptional examples of top quality wines that can rival the best of any other wine producing country. Premium South Africa is a very exciting arena and I foresee that this will only grow.”
So what's changed?
“Premium South African wine has improved in leaps and bounds over the past few years,” Paul says. “As winemakers and viticulturists better understand the micro-climates and soil types their diverse landscape has to offer, so they are tailoring how and what they put into the bottle.
“Coupled to this is the emergence of cooler-climate regions and a better understanding of the European consumer’s taste profile,” he says. “We are seeing more and more subtle and softer wines making their way onto the market, as opposed to a large number of premium wines in the past being very heavy and over-extracted with big tannins.”
Young gun winemaker and cellarmaster at Steenberg in Constantia, JD Pretorius, explains, “The South African wine industry has shifted through a couple of gears over the last few years, thanks to some clever winemakers putting incredible wines in the bottle – mainly younger, well-travelled winemakers sourcing from older, interesting vineyards from outlying sites. A few of these wines have ended up in the correct hands of the international wine media, which has created wonderful momentum for the industry as a whole."
Diversity and quality
At Foxlow, group wine manager Mark Quick believes that South African wine in the UK represents one of the most diverse regions out there. “I think that people are increasingly seeing South Africa as a premium wine producing country,” he says. “What is interesting is that people are willing to both see South African wine as a good entry level buy and a premium purchase at the same time.”
“I would like to think that premium South African wine will continue growing in the UK market. With such a diverse terroir and seriously passionate winemakers, they deserve it,” he says.
South African wineries to watch
This is one of the oldest registered farms in the oldest appellation in South Africa: Constantia. Their 60ha of vineyards are nestled below the Table Mountain National Park and benefit from cool Atlantic breezes, resulting in some of the coolest sites in the country. And ideal for producing distinctive Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot and Nebbiolo. Cellarmaster JD Pretorius is one of the country’s most exciting young guns and was awarded the prestigious Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year award in 2014. Hear JD talk more about this in our podcast interview.
For JD, a big part of their winemaking philosophy is about the land and the vineyards. “We have a special piece of earth here with some great vines, and we try to make wines that show the place they are grown.”
Classified under the newly launched Wine of Origin Cape Town district, JD believes that as a collective, this is extremely exciting. “All of the wards together can achieve so much more than what they can do on their own,” he says.
The philosophy of Spier cellarmaster Frans Smit is simple: to get the most out of each grape with as little interference as possible. As one of the oldest farms in South Africa, located in Stellenbosch, Spier is a well-respected ‘big boutique winery’. As custodians of this impressive heritage, caring for their land and the surrounding environment is at the very heart of everything they do.
According to Frans, “Top quality grapes from prime vineyards are the essential building blocks for premium wine, and expressing the very best from the South African terroir”.
Using natural yeast and minimal intervention, Springfield produces wines that are true varietal expressions. Set in the centre of the Robertson Valley and surrounded by imposing mountains, their terroir can be described as “hostile, rocky and unforgiving” – resulting in complex and distinctive wines.
Run by the Bruwer family for generations – and currently under the guardianship of sister-and-brother-team, Jeanette and Abrie Bruwer – their aim is to produce wine as naturally as possible. Abrie explains, “We believe that a good farmer is an observant one. At the end of the day you need to look at the vine, see if it is under stress, and act accordingly. At Springfield we would rather intervene in the vineyard than in the cellar. Good wine is grown, not made.”
Stellenrust’s terroir benefits from several natural advantages: cooling coastal breezes, altitude and diverse soils of the Helderberg golden triangle. This allows brothers Tertius (winemaker) and Kobus (viticulturist) to successfully produce a range of reds and whites, with a particular flair for Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.
One of the oldest family wineries in Stellenbosch, Stellenrust is Fairtrade accredited, with one of the largest and most successful BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) projects in the country. No stranger to taking home medals and silverware, their Stellenrust Old Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2015 won the Fairtrade Award at this year’s International Wine Challenge.
Producing only 3,500 cases of wine per year, De Trafford’s focus on detail is exquisite. Situated on the picturesque Mont Fleur farm, the vines are planted 380m above sea level between the Stellenbosch and Helderberg mountains.
An architect by trade, owner David Trafford is a self-taught winemaker – who naturally designed his own gravity-flow winery. “I never chose winemaking as a profession – it was thrust upon me. I chose architecture, but live on land with such great vineyard potential, it was impossible not to get involved in the wine business,” he says. “It’s about understanding and working with the vineyard to coax something magical from the land, after that it’s hold thumbs you don’t cock it up in the cellar.” Hear more from David in our podcast.
David’s architectural background can be seen in the blueprints that adorn the labels of his wines, while others are painted by his wife, fine art graduate and chef Rita Trafford.