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South Africa’s Rising Tide

Posted on  | May 26, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Wine producers—new and old—ignite a quality revolution.

When Charles Banks, venture capitalist and former owner of Napa’s Screaming Eagle, looked outside California to invest five years ago, he could have bought vineyards anywhere. Many considered his first purchase—the unknown, isolated Fable Mountain Vineyards on the edge of the Witzenberg Mountain Range in South Africa—unlikely.

Just one year later, in 2011, Banks purchased Stellenbosch’s iconic Mulderbosch. More recently, California’s Jackson Family Wines announced their 20-acre purchase of Stellenbosch vines, where they will soon be producing Chardonnay under the Capensis label—for $80 a bottle. Simply put, Banks and Jackson Family are betting on something many more in the industry are just now taking note of: South Africa is having a moment.

Stuck around 1 million bottles to the U.S. for half a dozen years, that needle is finally moving; slow and steady growth over the last year has accelerated to around 10% in recent months. Most exciting is that this growth is happening in the $15-$20 tiers, with significant increases in the over-$20 as well.

“The leap in quality is incredible; South Africa has come farther than any other region I can think of,” says James Tidwell, Beverage Manager at Four Seasons Resort in Dallas. “What has happened since apartheid ended 20 years ago is truly radical. South African wines today bridge the gap between Old World and New World, offering the perfect balance between fruit and structure. Sommeliers are increasingly recognizing this, and now have confidence putting them on wine lists.”

The Long Road Back

It’s hard to underestimate the damage wrought by the isolation and economic sanctions over decades of apartheid (1948-1994). The wine industry was further crippled by the regulatory powers given by the government to KWV wine cooperative, stifling quality production by prioritizing volume, controlling access to plant material and declaring many regions off limits for winegrowing. 

Since democracy took hold, winemaker Ken Forrester believes South Africa has moved through several distinct phases: “The first years, we continued to make unsophisticated wines for the local market; a lot of cheap bulk wine made its way to the U.S. and gave the country a poor reputation,” he recalls. The second phase was a “golden period” with better, internationally-minded wines being made, and South African specialist importers like Cape Classics creating route to market, yet there was still as much “trial as error,” he says. The last five years has been a revolution yet again, with “lots of smart winemakers crafting outstanding wines in a movement away from the cheap stuff. We all know today that cheap wine is a race to the bottom because no one can make any money.”

Young Guns

“There has never been a more exciting time in South Africa and the energy is focused on this generation; young producers who came of age post-’94,” says Adam Mason, himself a young gun, newly at the helm at Mulderbosch. “We were in the dark ages, and today we have young people who have traveled and have set new benchmarks upon their return. Social media has exploded, there is more cross-pollination than ever.”

A leading luminary, Eben Sadie worked in vineyards all over the world before returning to South Africa in the late ’90s. Sadie looked outside established, pricier regions like Stellenbosch, and ended up in the Swartland. “Eben got his hands on a map at the town clerk that he wasn’t supposed to have, and just started driving around knocking on doors,” explains Catherine Miles, Broadbent Selections, Sadie Family Wines importer. “He found all these amazing old vine sites that were being used to make moonshine.” Swartland today is the industry’s hotbed of innovation. With ridiculously low yields, Sadie’s 3,500 cases a year are among the country’s most coveted.

Adi Badenhorst, Sadie’s friend and neighbor, founded his Swartland winery in 2007 on a derelict farm out of commission since the 1930s. From unirrigated bush vines of enviable age—40-year-old Chenin, 45-year-old Cinsault and 58-year-old Grenache—Badenhorst makes elegant, unusual blends that chart a distinct course for South Africa, rather than simply mimicking a European model.

Others have flocked to windy, cool climate regions, such as Cape Point Vineyards—the only estate on the narrow, sea-sprayed Cape Point Peninsula—where Duncan Savage focuses on Sauvignon Blancs of rare complexity. Husband-and-wife team Chris and Suzaan Alheit also globe-trotted before settling in the Hemelrand mountains in Walker Bay on the Cape South Coast where they have some of the oldest vines in the region, and take a minimalist approach in the cellar—whole bunch pressing, no foreign yeast, extended lees contact, no filtration—for their cool-climate whites from Chardonnay, Marsanne and Viognier. “Smaller producers and micro-estates are leading the ‘come to balance’ realization in South Africa,” says John Mitchell, Head Sommelier at New Orleans’ Windsor Court Hotel. “These trailblazers have very quickly have started making world class wines. Take Chris and Andrea Mullineux in the Swartland—their single vineyard Syrahs are some of the finest made anywhere, and they have been produced for a split second.”

The Next Chapter

“The first chapter of South Africa’s winemaking history was all about Stellenbosch,” says Paul Nicholls, winemaker, along with his wife, Rebecca Tanner, at Fable Mountain Vineyards. “Now we are looking to regions farther afield, and grapes beyond Cabernet.” When Nicholls returned to South Africa, he headed to the untamed wilderness of the Tulbagh region where “the rocky shale soil is great for vines, and that’s about it,” he says (though the resident baboons, snakes and leopards might beg to differ).

His first move was to pull out Cabernet Sauvignon in favor of Rhône grapes. Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre now grow on ultra-steep, 2,000-ft. slopes, and in their state-of-the-art winery, the Fable duo turn out wines that walk the fine line between grace and concentration. They, too, chart their own path, with unusual blends like Jackal Bird white (Chenin, Chardonnay, Roussanne and Viognier).

Replanting projects like theirs—better matching grape to place—are just now showing results, which is a big reason for the nationwide spike in quality, says Jim Clarke, U.S. Marketing Manager for Wines of South Africa. “A lot of vines are reaching that 15-20 year sweet spot in maturity, and so are just starting to unleash their potential in regions like Elgin, Swartland, Walker Bay and Robertson.”

Old Dogs, New Tricks

The country’s renaissance isn’t confined to the new guard, however. Many traditional producers are rethinking their approach, progressing through “an identity crisis,” says Molly Choi, Executive VP, Sales & Marketing, Cape Classics, founded in 1992. “Producers started asking: ‘Who are we as a region?’” Choi believes winemakers are now more open-minded, and global in outlook. “Historically there has been a slightly unripe character to many South African wines, which is fine for the U.K. market, but not for Americans,” notes Choi. “Producers went home and cleaned their cellars, reexamined their vineyards’ sun exposure and canopy management, rethought their approach to new oak, and started asking questions.”

The recent overhaul at Mulderbosch is a case in point. Charles Banks updated the winery and hired Adam Mason, previously of Klein Constantia, to shake up the program and bring out the best in the estate’s old bush vines. “Charles was impressed by the quality of Chenin Blanc coming out of South Africa, and he recognized that this brand needed new injection of enthusiasm,” says Mason. The winery developed a trio of single-vineyard Chenin Blancs sourced from three different Stellenbosch sites at $33 a bottle SRP. “They offer a lot more depth and concentration,” he explains. “It’s a very fun thing to share with wine geeks—I’ve been amazed by the reaction we are getting.”

Chenin Soars

Ken Forrester (aka “Mr. Chenin”) was an early proponent of the grape, since his first release in 1994. “Chenin is about 40% of what I do. It’s growing as part of a global trend towards aromatic whites that are fresher than Chardonnay and more complex than Pinot Grigio,” Forrester says. Everyone told him to pull out the old Chenin vines and plant Cabernet when he bought his vineyard decades ago. Now those vines are 50 years old and yielding his most ethereal, complex wines. Leading the Chenin revival, Ken Forrester is easily one of South Africa’s fastest growing brands, set to grow 30% this year. 

With 60% of the world’s Chenin Blanc vines—twice the plantings in France—South Africa is poised to claim Chenin as its own. Yet versatility is a double-edged sword, says Clarke: “Chenin Blanc can be light and crisp or full-bodied and opulent, so while consumers are ready to embrace it, these wines can be hard to characterize because they are so different.”

One thing South African Chenin Blanc always delivers is ripeness: “You won’t get one of those green acid jobs like you get out of the Loire; in cool years those wines can tear a strip down your back,” says Forrester. “France can only make great Chenin in warm years. We have 300 days of sunshine, so all we have to work on is restraint and minerality which we achieve by planting at high elevation or close to the ocean.”

Pinotage Hangover Ends

It’s ironic that poor quality Pinotage cast such a long and ominous shadow over South Africa’s reputation, given that the grape only represents 4% of the country’s plantings. “It’s as singular as Zinfandel is to California, yet it gets all the attention. Pinotage has never been a core varietal,” complains Forrester.

“I compare bad Pinotage to Daytona: all burnt rubber, band-aids and heartbreak,” says Choi. That is history, she says, as the country’s top vintners know how to tame the notorious grape (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault) and Cape Classics sells one of the most famous: Kanonkop. Cape Blends—where Pinotage is rounded out with Bordeaux varieties—offer an accessible entrée to the grape; Kanonkop’s “Kadette” Cape Blend is one of the most popular wines in her portfolio (“it’s a little wild and wooly, a Cowboy Bordeaux,” says Choi).

While many in the industry still prefer to keep Pinotage out of the conversation altogether, there is good evidence that today’s consumer holds no ill will. “Some of us might remember drinking bad Pinotage, but there are generations of wine drinkers who don’t have that experience,” Tidwell finds. “There really is no longer a stigma.”

John Mitchell as well has no problem selling Pinotage at the Windsor Court: “I describe it to customers as very similar to Syrah with spicy, meaty, gamey flavors. When picked at the right time with good acid levels, Pinotage can be beautiful.”

Gaining Shelf and Wine List Traction

At The Four Seasons in Dallas, Tidwell has 30 South African selections of his 450-wines list, yet because they are sprinkled in across the spectrum according to grape variety, they don’t even require a hand-sell. “I put South Africa Pinots in the same category as world-class Pinots from France or California. From inexpensive Chenin up to $100-and-over reds, we see no resistance from diners.”

John Mitchell goes the opposite route  in New Orleans, singling South Africa out with full-blown producer pages and a map of Swartland. “While these are definitely sommelier hand-sells, if someone wants a Burgundy-style wine, we will suggest a South African Chenin, for so much less,” he says.

Few are as dedicated to South African wines as Ruen Ellis, Creative & Wine Director for Mandiba restaurants in Harlem and Brooklyn. Named for the alias of Nelson Mandela, Mandiba strives to bring people together, and “thrives in neighborhoods undergoing transition and change—just like the wine industry in South Africa,” Ellis notes. South African-born Ellis offers only South African wines on his list—60 in all, 80% by-the-glass—and each wine comes with a thoughtful description. “We are on the front lines of marrying food with wine, which creates new interest in the entire category,” says Ellis, who works with neighborhood retailers to carry the wines he offers, and is considering incorporating retailers into his wine list so people can find them. “We are at a watershed moment and South Africa is truly the next great wine region, so we need to help people get their hands on these wines.”

The Hard Road Ahead

The pervading optimism shouldn’t obscure the real challenges ahead for South Africa’s wine industry. For starters, there remains the image issue: Over 50 years of bad press, many Americans associate South Africa with apartheid, riots, Mandela and animals. Clarke regretfully had to cancel several South African wine events in the U.S. because of erroneous consumer fears about the Ebola virus (though not a single case in South Africa) and he frequently speaks with consumers who believe South Africa is a southern region of the African continent—not its own country.

The country remains one of the most inequitable on the planet, with unemployment—around 40%—and on the rise. Yet machine harvesting is at 50% and rising in all types of agriculture—including vineyards. (“Can we really afford to be moving away from hand-harvesting that creates jobs? We will all suffer the consequences,” says Forrester.) And in spite of all the enthusiasm for low-yielding old vines, many of these vineyards remain less profitable than other crops, and are being torn out. Winemakers who rely on these sites—particularly less affluent, younger producers in Swartland and Elgin without estate vineyards—are at risk of losing their fruit sources.

Past the Tipping Point

Getting more people to know about—and pay more for—South African wines would go a long way toward solving many of these problems, and fortunately the interest is there: “We know that consumers who taste South African wines love them and want to find them; there is extreme receptiveness and curiosity, yet they are unable to find them,” says Thompson. “We are trying to address this bottleneck with the trade—we need to catch up on the distribution side.”

There are signs that may be starting to happen. A few years ago, Ross Toombs and his wife founded their South African import company, Meridian Prime—named for the line of longitude which must be passed with crossing between North America and Africa. Toombs says, “I often use a surfing analogy: We are behind the break and see the wave early. The growth we see hasn’t necessarily revealed itself yet; the wave still looks small from the shore.”


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