South Africa: changing tides

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A view across the Banghoek Valley in Stellenbosch. Photograph: Jason Lowe

The Cape’s “New Wave” movement has been gaining pace, attracting the praise of critics and consumers around the world. Sophie Thorpe traces the country’s evolution and talks to some of the producers at the forefront of South Africa’s wine scene

“If a vineyard’s got a good view, it’s probably going to make good wine,” winemaker Alex Starey says, looking out across the Blaauwklippen Valley – a rolling patchwork of sites that he uses to magnificent effect in his Keermont wines. Fortunately, there are few corners of the Cape that don’t offer extraordinary panoramas, and South Africa’s New Wave winemakers are wasting no time in exploiting these sites’ vinous potential. The route thus far has, however, been a little like the ramshackle roads leading to the region’s wineries – winding, putted, but well worth the bumpy ride.

Like so much of the area rather condescendingly dubbed “the New World”, South Africa is anything but “new” – even to British drinkers. Jan van Ribeeck wrote on 6th April, 1652 (46 years before our founder the Widow Bourne had even stepped foot in St James’s): “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from Cape grapes.” Over the next century, South Africa developed a reputation for the sweet wines of Constantia, which worked their way into western society, becoming some of the most highly valued bottles of their day. Napoleon placed orders for Constantia from exile on St Helena, and in Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Jennings suggests a drop for “its healing powers on a disappointed heart”.

The late 19th century brought with it Gladstone and an end to the preferential taxation for colonial exports (1861), phylloxera’s destruction (1886) and, in the deadly vine pest’s wake, a massive glut of low-quality wine. It was the wine lake of the early 20th century that prompted the creation of the KWV (Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Suid-Afrika), the national co-operative. While intended to offer salvation to South Africa’s struggling industry, its far-reaching power was damaging. Until 1992, the KWV set production quotas, fixed prices and decided where wine could be made – in short, it encouraged quantity over quality, hampering producers’ experimentation, innovation and progression.

But, heralding the country’s first democratic elections, 1994 was pivotal – for the nation as a whole, and its wine industry. Long isolated due to its politics, South Africa’s wine industry suddenly saw an export boom. At home, wine started to become the choice of the middle classes, and – with popularity in both domestic and foreign markets – the industry finally had the impetus to focus on quality wine production.

Today, South Africa is a country coming of vinous age, as the New Wave movement sweeps the nation onto the fine wine map. A generation of worldly-wise producers is seeking out cooler sites, pushing viticulture to its limits with an eye on sustainability, experimenting with different varieties, and forgoing high yields for old vines and better fruit.

There is one man who seems to embody the new South Africa: Eben Sadie. A man described by fellow Swartland pioneer Adi Badenhorst as “baby Jesus”, this prophetic figure has been at the forefront of South Africa’s revolution. The Sadie Family Wines’ iconic Columella made waves when it was first released, 16 years ago – one of the wines that sealed the Swartland’s place in the Cape’s repertoire. This remote, arid region had cheap land and an extraordinary wealth of old vines – mainly Chenin Blanc and red Rhône varietals. A spirited group of growers (formalised as the Swartland Independent Producers) rapidly made a name for themselves, surprising the world with elegant styles produced in an area known for its heat.

Vineyard workers at Constantia Glen. Photograph: Jason Lowe

Chris and Andrea Mullineux had been working at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (now known as Fable Mountain), where the vines were too young to produce fruit – so they bought grapes in from growers around the Cape. “Year after year the wines that we made from Swartland fruit were the most exciting for us and we started to focus on the region,” Chris says. They made the move to set up on their own in 2007, the same year that Adi Badenhorst arrived. “We love the raw primal power of the landscape. It is a tough place to live and farm, and doesn’t allow for airs and graces, so the people are special. Likewise with the vines too. Grape varieties that can take the dry tough conditions express themselves in a beautiful and unique way.” Chris feels the region has a signature purity and textural intensity, which – in the right hands – can be combined with remarkable freshness.

The endearingly nerdy Richard Kershaw MW ended up in Elgin for a similar reason. The Englishman had been working at Mulderbosch (where Andrea Mullineux also worked) and Kanu in Stellenbosch, but, “The grapes coming into the cellar that intrigued me most were those from the Elgin Valley,” Richard tells me. “I vowed then to move to Elgin to start my own brand.” He made the move in 2012, focusing on Chardonnay and Syrah.

While the Swartland provides blistering heat, Elgin is better known for its apples – which fetch more than four times the price of its grapes, making it challenging for winemakers like Richard to source fruit. Richard feels, however, that “as the coolest wine region in the Western Cape, it affords the opportunity for the grapes to really show a sense of place.” The landscape is dramatically different – in lieu of grand stretches of straw-shaded slopes, Elgin offers a quilt of lush greenery and orchards that could pass for Kent.

Richard is passionate about driving the concept of regionality – as South African wine is still broadly focused, and sold, on style over soil. Last year he launched his “Deconstructed” range, offering a taste of a specific clone of one variety, grown on one site. Produced in tiny quantities, these incredible bottlings are for serious and geeky wine lovers – as would be appropriate in the hands of “Rickipedia”, as Kershaw is known.

The revolution has now spread beyond the Swartland and Elgin outposts, rippling into more famous regions. Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are the traditional home of quality dry wines in South Africa, housing many of the country’s leading wine estates and producing its most historically renowned bottles – Meerlust, Rustenberg and the legendary Pinotage producer Kanonkop, to name just a few. But today, the energy that has pioneered viticulture in the Swartland and Elgin is invigorating Stellenbosch.

Mick and Jeanine Craven – the Australian-South African team behind the eponymous brand – are just one couple shaking things up. “Stellenbosch was a no-brainer. Jeanine – having grown up here, watching her dad farm grapes, it made her passionate about the region,” Mick tells me. They were drawn not only by the region’s beauty but its diversity. “On one side you have coastal vineyards in sand and granite. Then, not more than 30km away, you can be on a mountain slope in dark, red clay soils. It makes it very exciting to look around for different areas, not only for grapes that are planted, but for new potential sites to be planted and explored.” Their fresh, natural bottlings of Clairette Blanche, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Syrah are a far cry from the bolder reds that made the region’s name.

And they’re not alone. Mullineux has installed its new winery in Franschhoek. “We were very fortunate to be a part of the Swartland Revolution, but, the last few years, there is a much larger revolution happening in the Cape,” Chris Mullineux says. While the majority of their wines continue to use exclusively Swartland fruit, they have introduced the Leeu Passant range – “an opportunity for us to produce wines from very special vineyards all over the Cape, some really old, and some in very special sites,” Chris explains.

The verdant landscape in Walker Bay, a region 30 miles southeast of Elgin. Photograph: Jason Lowe

No matter where you look, there’s an “amazing energy in the industry at the moment,” Mick Craven opines. This contagious dynamism is tangible in the wines being produced. This, combined with – as Mick describes it – an “old-vine treasure chest” makes for an exciting future, with almost endless possibilities for the no-longer nascent industry.

There are, however, threats to its success. Low-yielding old vines risk being pulled out as growers seek higher prices and larger crops. Disease is all too rife in vineyards; leafroll, fanleaf and corky bark virus all present problems for the nation’s winemakers. Global warming looms on the horizon, dauntingly apparent as the country experiences its worst drought in over a century. “We are already in the third year, with dam levels at all-time lows, and many farms depending on irrigation,” Constantia Glen’s Alexander Waibel explains.

“We also have big social issues, where there is still a lot of poverty, unemployment and poor education in the country,” Chris Mullineux states. Apartheid remains recent history and its effects are still felt. The Cape Winemakers’ Guild is just one association nurturing equality, encouraging black talent into wineries via its apprenticeship scheme.

The New Wave is also aware they won’t be “new” for long. “We cannot rest,” says Mick Craven on the challenge to stay relevant. The potential has been exposed, though, and the industry’s unique camaraderie – an openness to share and collaborate – promises great things. “We are working together to forge a path for South African wine. We are also discovering and learning to be proud of our own terroir, and more are striving to make authentically South African wines.”

This drive to produce wines that are true to the Cape is a common thread. “I have a responsibility to make – in my lifetime – a wine that resonates this place, and not a watered-down ideology of French wine,” Eben tells me, but what’s next? “I want to get better, and not better by the judgement of Decanter or Wine Spectator or the Platter Guide, or the whoever. By our definition: better for the people that work with us, better for our employees, better for the soils, better for the plants, better for the socio-economics. It’s not just vineyards: it’s this whole community.”

Eben remains a charismatic leader for the region, now ably supported by a veritable tsunami of talent. While there may be challenges ahead, this host of extraordinary winemakers, with endless enthusiasm and unlimited ability, isn’t going away any time soon. The determination, passion and talent makes South Africa’s New Wave seem unstoppable.

Six South African wines to try

2014 Klein Constantia, Vin de ConstanceA recreation of the sweet wine that made Constantia’s name, Vin de Constance is made with Muscat Frontignan (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). The 2014 vintage was excellent in Constantia, producing a luscious, concentrated wine with aromas of citrus, ginger and nutmeg. The palate is elegant with plenty of acidity to counter the 166 grams of residual sugar, and a long, pure finish. (Available in bond only, £198.00 for 6 x 50cl)

2016 Constantia Glen, TwoToday Constantia is producing a range of dry wines, such as this Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend made by Constantia Glen. Peach, apricot kernel, green herbs and cut grass entice on the nose, with layers of passion fruit, peach, papaya and nettle emerging on the palate. The Sémillon brings richness, depth and texture to the blend, flawlessly complementing the vibrancy, and racy acidity of the Sauvignon. (£20.95)

2015 Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, Kloof Street Chenin BlancMullineux’s Kloof Street range offers a taste of Chris and Andrea’s premium talent, at very accessible prices. The fruit for the Chenin is sourced from the Kasteelberg Mountain in the Swartland. The wine is approachable, full of lively fruit with yellow peach and citrus notes, but there are also subtle layers of savoury complexity underpinned by ripe, energetic acidity. (£15.25)

2015 Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, SyrahBramble and red berry fruit are woven with spice and violet notes on the nose and palate of this finely proportioned Swartland Syrah. The tannins are smooth and support the elegant fruit profile. Smoky, granitic notes linger on the finish suggesting this wine will reward those who can give it a few more years in bottle. (£27.25)

2015 Richard Kershaw, Clonal Selection ChardonnayRichard is a Burgundy nut, and the influence is clear in his wines that nonetheless speak of their cool-climate home in Elgin. Spice and flint are layered with citrus pith and lemon-cream. The palate is elegantly scented, with a hint of grip, but the oak is completely integrated – contributing to a texturally very fine wine. It is fresh and very, very long. (£42.95)

2016 Craven, Faure SyrahThis is not your typical Stellenbosch Syrah – elegance and restraint are evident in this classically proportioned wine. Briar fruit dominates the nose and palate, underpinned by fine tannins and fresh, saline acidity. The mid-palate is tightly packed and, though delicious now, with benefit from a little longer in bottle. (£21.50)

Shop our spotlight on South Africa on bbr.com

Category: New World

Out of place: the new rules in Rioja

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Finca Allende. Photograph: Jason Lowe

Following changes to the laws surrounding Rioja in recent months, Felipe Carvallo reports on the new rules, and what they mean for producers determined to focus on the region’s terroir

This summer saw a landmark shift in Rioja’s labelling regulations, which are controlled by its regional body the Consejo Regulador. Until now, the system has left little room for producers to communicate the idea of vineyard or village-specific wines. Introduced in 1932, the focus was on maturation as the greater indicator of quality, with categories of Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva all indicating an incremental ageing, and so the logic went, quality.

For traditionally styled Riojan wines – whose attraction arguably lies in the savoury, spicy, earthy flavours acquired from a slow maturation process – this system has been a huge success. It has offered a clear indicator of style that few other wine regions around the world have matched. It has even formed the basis of the classification system found in numerous other Spanish wine regions. Where this system falls short, however, is in its ability to recognise the role of place over process, and communicate the individuality of Rioja’s top single vineyards.

The new changes to the classification will begin by allowing individual vineyards to be recognised on the wine’s label and incorporated into the existing classifications of Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva (ie feature alongside these familiar terms). To feature the site on their labels, producers will now have to argue their case for the “natural limits” of the vineyard and harvest all fruit by hand, observing yields that are 20 percent lower than previously required. The Consejo Regulador has also signalled that it may soon go further to address the question of villages and sub-regions.

This shift to recognise terroir has been the result of mounting criticism from some of the region’s most respected producers, many of whom have become increasingly disillusioned and disenfranchised with Rioja’s status quo. Some, such as Artadi, have formally left the system, while Finca Allende prefers not to use the region’s labelling terms, even for its top wines. Leading the fight is vinous visionary Telmo Rodríguez, who – having helped put some of the country’s lesser known wine regions on the map – has grown increasingly frustrated with the seemingly out-of-touch rules applied to his home ground of Rioja. Telmo’s view – set out in a manifesto supported by over 150 leading producers, importers and wine writers – is that if Rioja is to be taken seriously as one of the leading wine regions of the world, home to some of its most extraordinary vineyards, it must take adequate steps to promote and defend them.

Photograph: Jason Lowe

A key question that remains is how far the Consejo Regulador should intervene on the question of terroir, and what final form this classification should take. A broader Bordeaux-style classification of communes may seem like the natural choice given the similarity in size, as well as the historic and stylistic connections traditionally found between the two regions. This would help communicate the notion of terroir to an extent, while preserving the status of many of the traditional names, who – like the Bordelais – have built up the reputations of their estates over many generations. For many of Rioja’s more modern producers however, looking to promote and sell their wines on the merits of the vineyard, it may be a more Burgundian approach that is sought, creating a hierarchical system of classified villages and vineyards.

Ultimately the Consejo Regulador will need to offer a framework that remains relevant to the greatest cross-section of producers, and most crucially, drinkers. The coming years will be a balancing act that will need to keep the region’s big names and premium producers on-side, for this helps raise the region’s status for all involved.

Should too much of the region’s talent choose to cut itself loose, Rioja may find itself in the embarrassing position where many of its best wines are not formally recognised, thereby undermining the whole system. This said, however, it is easy (particularly from within the wine trade) to fetishize the notion of terroir to a point that is utterly bewildering to the average wine-drinker, no matter how unique a region may be. The crucial task now will be to retain Rioja’s accessibility and broad appeal, while also gently raising awareness of its diversity.

In brief: the new rules
  • The sub-region can now be used on the label instead of the village, eg “Rioja Alta” instead of “Logroño”
  • Rioja Baja can now legally be referred to as Rioja Oriental (avoiding connotations of lower quality, something Álvaro Palacios has been fighting for)
  • “Viñedos Singulares” can now be put on the label of single-vineyard wines (although there is no maximum size of the vineyard)
  • Reserva wines must now be aged in bottle at the winery where it was made for a minimum of six months (to cut down on the trade of Reserva wine in bulk)

Gran Reserva wines must still be aged for five years, but with a new minimum of two years in cask and two in bottle – the extra year can be spent in vat, bottle or wood (it was previously a minimum two years in barrel and three in bottle)

This month we’re celebrating Spain on bbr.com; browse a range of the country’s best-value bottles here.

Category: Spanish Wine

Between the lines: Peter Liem’s Champagne

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Peter Liem

The regional blend has long been king in Champagne – but today the rise of artisan Growers, a focus on vintage expression and site-specific cuvées is changing the region’s reputation. Here, Champagne Specialist Edwin Dublin reviews Peter Liem’s new book, painting a thoroughly modern portrait of the region

The beautiful presentation (boxed with some reprints of 1944 Champagne regional maps in a separate drawer) of Peter Liem’s Champagne suggests yet another coffee table book. Don’t be misled: this is a serious but approachable book from a Champagne expert and long-time Champagne resident. The raison d’être of Peter Liem’s new book is captured in his description of how the first great Champagne he tasted (Salon 1979) transformed his thoughts on Champagne – that its style/taste could be dictated by where in Champagne it came from, ie terroir-driven. In his own informative and personal style, he covers Champagne’s history and development, production methods and regions – but, unique amongst such tomes, all through the prism of terroir.

We hear of the 17th century epicurist seigneur de Saint-Evremond fussing that only the best villages would do for his Champagne wines (which were still, at this point in time, pale red, not sparkling). Elsewhere, he tells us that prime villages, many now Grand Crus, attracted higher grape and land prices, long before terroir or Grand Cru was defined as we know it today. And lieux dits, such as the one just behind where Peter lived in Dizy, were being classified in the early 1800s. Style changes, quality does not: that is the message here.

Concepts such as why two Grand Crus for Pinot Noir (Bouzy and Verzanay) should produce distinctive styles are clearly explained for novice and expert alike. And Peter gently points out that there is more to Champagne than just chalk – this and other subjects are expanded in text boxes. Regions and their villages get an exploration of their terroir, enlivened by key producer comments on how their Champagnes express their particular place of origin. These themes are expanded on later, in the producer section, where Peter highlights Growers (and some Houses) and relevant cuvées for readers to explore.

This is an immensely readable, uncommon approach to Champagne which – with those vintage maps (discovered after long years of trawling through markets and bookshops) evocative of times past – allows us to see the future of Champagne as it re-discovers itself.

Champagne by Peter Liem was published by Mitchell Beazley today (£60, www.octopusboosk.co.uk). Find out more about Champagne on bbr.com.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine

Style in St James’s

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The MR PORTER x Kingsman pop-up shop at No.4 St James’s Street

With the arrival of the MR PORTER x Kingsman pop-up shop at No.4 St James’s Street, Alexis Self sat down with MR PORTER’s Managing Director Toby Bateman to talk cinema, style and the new era of product placement

Westfield and St James’s Street represent a retail version of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities – one full of loud music and shoes with wheels; the other bowtie-clad staff who wouldn’t look out of place in the famous novel. Yet it is to the former I have come to discuss a retail concept in the latter. I’m ascending this commercial Everest in my Sunday best in order to meet MR PORTER’s Managing Director Toby Bateman and talk to him about its new pop-up shop at No.4 St James’s Street. To coincide with the release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, MR PORTER has launched its second co-branded clothing line. Alongside this fine drapery, Berry Bros. & Rudd (and the back of our Creative Director’s head) also plays a starring role in the film – the second instalment in Matthew Vaughn’s satirical spy franchise.

MR PORTER’s serene light-filled office feels far removed from the hubbub below. Its positioning is symbolic of its place in the market – a “pure-play e-tailer”, the influential website, with its same-day delivery and personal e-shoppers, would seem to represent the future of retail. It has also never had a physical shop – until now, that is.

Next to Toby’s polished Oxfords and wool tie, my Sunday best looks decidedly average – I can’t help but think that my inelegance is reminiscent of someone walking into a Savile Row tailor in a yellow shell-suit… As Toby explains, MR PORTER’s involvement was largely down to the role that clothes play in the story: “Style is such an important part of the spy movie genre and Matthew Vaughn wondered if there was a merchandising opportunity there. We are constantly referencing cinema in order to talk about men’s style so, having a film full of great clothes, all of which you can buy, seemed like a dream come true.”

However, the resulting clothing line isn’t your typical merch – working with Arianne Phillips, the film’s costume designer, MR PORTER brought in some of its favourite brands, “Arianne and I both agreed that the style should be very Savile Row: Turnbull & Asser made the shirts; Cutler and Gross made the glasses; George Cleverley made the shoes; and Drake’s made the ties.” This decision to focus on the Mayfair mecca of men’s tailoring reflects the traditional garb of the gentleman spy but also the film’s script – the headquarters of the Kingsman in the first film is hidden behind the changing rooms of Huntsman, a Savile Row institution. When (spoiler alert) these headquarters are blown up, the secret agents must meet elsewhere and it is this that brought Kingsman, and MR PORTER, to St James’s Street.

Toby Bateman, MR PORTER Managing Director

The new MR PORTER x Kingsman pop-up shop is located at No.4, where our reception used to be. In terms of appearance, it has all the hallmarks of a traditional West End tailor – wood-panelling, well-dressed mannequins and an exclusive postcode. But doesn’t a physical shop go against MR PORTER’s whole raison d’être? “We did a one-day pop-up on Savile Row for the first movie and had a lot of fun. We’re also a content-driven retail business and knew this would make a brilliant story.” And what better setting for a story than historic St James’s? Its oldest commercial tenants – Berry Bros. & Rudd – may seem the wizened embodiment of traditional retail but, in fact, in 1994, when MR PORTER was still a twinkle in its mother’s eye, we became the first wine merchant to launch its own website. Twenty-three years later, bbr.com continues to educate and inform, helping to lessen the sometimes intimidating process of buying good wine.

This too was a motivating factor behind MR PORTER’s founding, as Toby puts it, “the intimidation factor you get in a Bond Street boutique can be so off-putting.” I wonder, then, if this denizen of digital retail – which many say is ruining the traditional high street – believes that old bricks-and-mortar establishments still have a future. “Yes, most definitely,” he insists, “what online retail has done is to make traditional retail rethink things in terms of experience and service. Of course, customers are more digitally savvy now and can easily compare prices, so it’s important to tell a story around the product. People are always going to want a nice bottle of wine or a well-made shirt, but you have to explain the benefits of spending that extra money and why it’s going to enrich people’s lives. Apart from in St James’s, you don’t really get that specialist information or personal touch in shops anymore, whereas online there’s a consistency of service and information.”

This particular pop-up shop represents a new era of product placement, it doesn’t sell replicas of the film’s clothes but the real thing, often cut from the same fabric – from Eggsy’s orange velvet tuxedo to Harry Hart’s gold-plated cufflinks. But Toby insists the term “product placement” isn’t entirely accurate: “If you’re just a regular cinema-goer, there is no way you’d be aware that you could buy the clothes you’re watching, it’s much more nuanced than that, a complete immersion.” In fact, it might take a trained eye to spot Colin Firth rustling up a Martini with our No.3 Gin.

The last scene of the movie shows Channing Tatum in full Kingsman regalia entering the agency’s new headquarters at No.4. The enduring appeal of this most traditional of locations proves that there is still some life in the old shopping street yet.

Find out more about Kingsman in St James’s at bbr.com/kingsman

Category: Miscellaneous