South African promise



South African wines are having a moment in the sun, says New World Buyer Catriona Felstead MW. Here she explains why the country is so exciting right now (and why our Wine Club members should be especially keen to open this month’s delivery).

There is a buzz around South Africa at the moment. It feels like this country is finally on the cusp of realising its potential, as if the planets are suddenly aligning and all the elements are now in place for it to be one of the great players in the world of wine. So, what is happening and why now?

Considering the Western Cape’s position, perched on the tip of baking Africa, it is incredible that wine grapes can be successfully grown here at all. South Africa’s climate is, however, moderated by cooling currents, coming from both the Antarctic (Benguela current) and Indian Ocean (Agulhas current), giving it a Mediterranean feel. The grapes are further cooled (and fungal disease kept at bay) by two strong winds that rush through the vineyards: the South Easter (or Cape Doctor, as it is sometimes called) and the warmer Karoo Desert wind. Then, there are the ancient and varied soils of the Western Cape (there are 50 different soils in Stellenbosch alone), which add to the complexity of fine wines produced there. Finally, it is worth remembering that South Africa stands alone among its New World counterparts by having a winemaking tradition comparable to that of Europe; wine has been made here since the French Huguenots arrived in the mid-17th century.

This unique combination of factors has resulted in the Western Cape being capable of making a very high quality wine. However, the dominance of the state controlled KWV cooperative until 1998, combined with South African exports being shunned by the world during years of apartheid, put the winemaking potential of this country on hold. It is only since 1998 that viticulturalists and winemakers have been able to set up on their own and put quality-driven practices at the forefront of their work. Given that it takes time to plant and grow vines capable of producing quality grapes, it has only been in the last 10 years or so that South Africa has re-emerged onto the world wine scene. High quality estates were established in this time, focusing primarily on Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends.

So, what is so exciting about now? It’s the human element that is causing the current buzz in South Africa; a new generation is springing on to the scene. Having completed their studies and filled with a desire to ‘do their own thing’, these young viticulturalists and winemakers are establishing new projects all over the Western Cape, and are focusing on the grapes that they think are best suited to South Africa, most notably Chenin Blanc and Syrah blends. They no longer wish to copy the formulae of Bordeaux and Burgundy; they feel strongly that South Africa needs to create its own identity.

At the forefront of this wave are Chris and Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, whose Kloof Street Chenin Blanc white and Syrah-based red wines are in September’s Bourne Wine Club cases. Chris and Andrea believe (like many of the new generation) in sustainable farming practices and natural, minimalist winemaking. They wish to craft the ultimate expression of their terroir, not force it into a pale imitation of a French wine. Their two Kloof Street wines are made with the same attention to detail as the more premium wines in the range, the difference being that are made without oak and from fruit that has been specially selected for its vibrancy and fresh appeal. They are excellent examples of what the new generation in the Cape can achieve, even at very reasonable price points.

As New World Buyer, I am incredibly enthusiastic about the potential in South Africa at the moment. I hope to be able to bring more exciting wines to Berry Bros. & Rudd and the Wine Club over the next year. Keep an eye out for these young growers and producers who bring so much promise to the wines of the Western Cape.

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