The future of SA wine

In the three years since I was termed a “two-bristle whippersnapper” on a communal blog, I’ve made it my mission to be immersed in the world of wine – with all the politics and beauty that accompanies it – and hopefully I’ve shown my detractors that my love for the subject isn’t fleeting. If my passion for wine isn’t enough, I now have the gilded papers to prove that I am at least somewhat experienced. Why am I raising this issue? Because, like it or not, the future of the local wine industry belongs to us young bunch: the future legends, the 20-somethings at wine shows (an ever-growing number) and the young journalists – the blogger, the tweeter, the one-sentence guru. The new generation of consumers who think wine is cool, who can engage with the subject without being boring about it. Welcome the rise of the new drinker who can’t afford a case of Haut-Brion – but who’ll chip in for a bottle. (And all hail to the young drinker who does buy that bottle of Yquem, regardless.)

But what does the future wine landscape hold for tomorrow’s wine judge?

More wines on tasting panels for one. Twenty years ago there were 300 wine farms; today there are over 800. If this growth continues, it will result in increased market competition among domestic wine farms, which, advises Fridjhon, should serve as a warning to producers: “Winemakers should have to make an increased effort in the marketing of their product… and apply a new rationale of where they market their product. Sales in the UK have been tough, Africa is an emerging (and underutilised) market.”

The future might be as close as Jozi – “the biggest market in the world for SA wine”, says Fridjhon. And we should not forget China, “where the image of South African wines hasn’t been compromised”.

With the reality of climate change increasingly felt worldwide, the local wine industry has finally woken up to the fact. A study by Deloire et al (2009) suggests that “climate change has already affected the wine industry”. At the time of going to press it had just been announced that vintners in the Loire, Burgundy and Bordeaux had to cut their August holidays short to rushback for what is one of the earliest harvests on record. Locally, it looks like Hermanus seasonals can also prepare for a shorter-than-normal Christmas holiday.

In Cape Town we’ve been enjoying an Indian summer – but budding vines in July indicate that the bright sun might herald a different future. This year, Jan Boland, with 48 vintages to his name, observed that the 2011 vintage was the earliest harvest he’d experienced – it wasn’t said without some warning. Warm days are getting warmer and the Western Cape, the heart of the domestic wine industry, is experiencing less rainfall. Will climatic changes result in a geographic shift of our winelands? I’ve travelled to Plettenberg Bay and KwaZulu-Natal where wine growers certainly feel this is the case… Might we see Wine of Origin Free State on labels? Probably not. But what we will see without a doubt is an increase in new exciting varietals – probably Mediterranean clones that can withstand the tougher, warmer climes ahead. World-renowned viticulturist Eben Archer revealed in an interview earlier this year that “a host of interesting varieties are undergoing testing at Nietvoorbij”. Might these be Vermintino and Xynisteri?

In his column, Tim Atkin referred to Swartland winemaker Eben Sadie’s views on the subject. “Eben Sadie believes that South Africa, like most of the New World, has spent too much time focusing on the same five internationally grown grapes.” Atkin’s suggestion? “More Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, Carignan, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, R oussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Vermintino, as well as a renewed focus on Chenin Blanc.” Of these, Cinsaut is already a rising fad and it is exciting that many of the ‘cool’ winemakers (for instance Howard Booysen) are realising the potential of single-varietal bottling.

Changing climatic factors will force an increased understanding of the term terroir. To refer to the study by Deloire et al: “Historically, the South African wine industry has been characterised by its diversity, but this diversity is threatened by climate change.”

Fortunately, winemakers are beginning to understand how important focused production is, both in terms of site and variety. While the variation of soils might enable farmers to produce a string of different wines, specialisation in terms of one or two varieties – similar to Europe – will hopefully become the norm. (It is an idea Tim Hamilton Russell of Hamilton Russell Vineyards has always campaigned for, and now, under the reins of Anthony, this farm might very well become the example of success in the future.)

Climate change will also be accompanied with more biodiversity initiatives, such as those already in place with the BWI. Farming practices that preserve endangered species will hopefully become a decree in the future, which will help stabilise an increasing fragile environment.

In terms of trends, legislation like the ban on alcohol advertising and the clampdown on drunk driving will result in an alcohol-aware society. Consumers will increasingly opt for lower-alcohol wines as a healthier and safer option, and wine drinking for the sake of drinking will become taboo. Instead, food-and wine matching will become de rigueur, and, as was noted by Danie de Wet from De Wetshof, the improvement in the quality of SA’s culinary offerings will continue to support the consumption of wine in the country – that’s if drinking in.shared spaces isn’t banned.

The ban on alcohol advertising will be passed in some or other form. Stringent criteria will be put in place that will severely limit the exposure of brands in the media for example. Similarly, the predicted loss in revenue, should a total ban on alcohol advertising be the end-result, might force the government to reassess its modus operandi. However, marketing managers would have to relook the way their product is being promoted. Seen the much-punted Mainstay ad where beautiful, bikini-clad girls and muscled men are having a fun time on a yacht? This ad forms part of a campaign by advertising agency TBWA South Africa (who won Distell’s Mainstay account last year). Entitled The Republic of Sunshine, this campaign uses ‘idyllic and exotic imagery’ to promote the locally produced Mainstay. If you haven’t seen it, tune in during prime-time television shows or go to Does that voice sound familiar? It is very Peter Stuyvesant in the ’90s, and its message similarly debauched – it places alcohol in an aspirational sphere, which makes drinking seem benign and yes, idyllic. Wrong (not to mention misleading) message. That is the kind of ad that will get your product pulled from the media in the not-too-distant future #justsaying.

Finally, as we progressively move into arena where borders become completely blurred, we will find that intercontinental competitions become a bit of a bore. Instead we start a back-to-roots movement, which celebrates authentic varieties. Pinotage becomes an iconic drink and a statue of Beyers Truter (note not Perold) is erected in Stellenbosch’s Dorp Street. Not really…

But the future does look, if not promising, damn exciting. I can’t wait to join it.

Haute Cabrière releases Unwooded Pinot Noir

Whether it is a first or not is debateable, less disputable is that Haute Cabrière has released a new, highly drinkable wine that will appeal to the generation of punters that loyally seek out the winery’s other offerings. It is marketed as an Unwooded Pinot Noir, but you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s a Rosé. Its luminous red hue and light-bodied structure (at 12% alcohol) definitely makes this a borderline red, but I doubt the fans of this Franschhoek cellar will object.

The wine was launched at the Test Kitchen in Woodstock, Cape Town, and, judging by the empties towards the end of the event, this wine appealed to even the harshest critics.

Takuan von Arnim, son of the indomitable proprietor Achim, described it in short: “length of flavour and beautiful acidity.” While Achim, wearing a pair of red shoes for the occasion, added his expected twist in what is considered accepted wine-speak: “This wine is showing some cleavage.”

Indeed this isn’t a shy wine – consumers looking for nothing more than gluggability will love the generous aromas of strawberries in the wine. “We won’t sell a wine you if you can’t drink a bucket of it,” as Takuan rightly puts it. They are the producers of the mass selling Haute Cabrière Pinot Noir-Chardonnay after all.

I’m no secret imbiber of frivolity, and I don’t think I’ll object to having this wine served (chilled) with my curry, but I doubt that I’ll pay the R79 introductory price for it. At that price point, it starts getting serious.

Anthony Hamilton Russell reconsidered

I was a junior journalist when I had my first official introduction to Hamilton Russell Vineyards. Out on assignment for that industry-dreaded Cellar Door Shoot-Out, my brief was to scrutinise tasting rooms in the winelands, and HRV was my first. I noted, in my ignorant bravado, that the tasting room was “as tight as Anthony’s pants” – it has now become a rather infamous line, and I had to eat my words on more than one occasion. Three years later I appreciate that there is much more to this prestigious winery than Anthony Hamilton Russell’s pants; in fact, I consider it as one of my top wineries – and Anthony and his beautiful wife, Olive, have become classy icons.

Last year, instead of releasing a reserve range, this Hemel-en-Aarde Valley winery released a collector’s case of five vintages of HRV Pinot Noir: 2005 to 2009. The wine’s back labels reflect Anthony’s love of art, each bottle bearing a print of a work from his collection.

Before I get to my impressions of the wines, it is important I note Anthony’s philosophy about wine, art and how ‘we’ scrutinise it. Hamilton Russell Vineyards produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir “that are uncannily close to Burgundy in character”, and although it is widely accepted that these are top-quality wines, they do not always receive top ratings in category tastings.

Anthony counteracts this observation with the following: “If artists like Matisse and Michelangelo were subjected to scrutiny by panels, would they have ever pushed the limits that enabled them to come up with something original?”

In the context of HRV wines this is a valid argument; panels award a certain style, which is often imitated by winemakers, and this results in polished, but, in my opinion, incredibly boring wines. To relate the argument back to art: Would you rather own a Matisse or a Portchie? Works from both are vibrant in colour, but the former has so much more depth…

HRV wines are pretty much the Matisse works of the wine world, but that doesn't mean these are faultless – vintage variation deems that certain years drink better than others, and I’d made a note of the Pinot Noir 2005 being past its prime – but, more often than not, wines from this estate are just orgasmic.

I recently enjoyed a Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2001 at a tasting club, where the wine scored an outright 5 Stars. Classic, Old-World finesse characterised this wine, with similar notes on the Pinot Noir 2007. It is damn close to faultless.

Current vintages don’t disappoint either, and although their poise has resulted in panels (on which I sat) overlooking their charm, the Hamilton Russell Chardonnay and Pinot Noir 2009 are, really, worth engaging with.

With new wineries adding their produce to an already saturated market, the consumer is increasingly faced with making difficult purchasing decisions. Staying on top of new wines, the latest scores and best drinking options can get downright confusing.

In these times, my advice is to align your purchasing decision with trusted brands that have built up a reputation for delivering wines worth talking about – and few have done it better than Hamilton Russell Vineyards.