The dust has pretty much settled on the results of the biannual poll of wine industry professionals to determine the top 20 South African wineries, the final outcome as follows:
1.Sadie Family Wines; 2. Kanonkop; 3. Alheit Vineyards; 4. Mullineux; 5. Boekenhoutskloof; 6. Newton Johnson; 7. David & Nadia; 8. Raats and Richard Kershaw (equal); 10. Crystallum; 11. Paul Cluver, Savage and Rall (equal); 14. AA Badenhorst, De Morgenzon, Reyneke and Tokara (equal); 18 Klein Constantia; 19. Delaire Graff and 20. Thorne & Daughters
This dipstick survey can hardly be considered definitive but it’s a revealing take on who’s hot and who’s not, even so.
I’m pretty much agreement with the final list (I had Raats ahead of Boekenhoutskloof in the top five and I preferred Lismore to Reyneke) but the wineries I put forward corresponded in every other respect. Tim Atkin MW, meanwhile, allowed himself 25 so-called First Growths in his South Africa Special Report 2018 excluding De Morgenzon and Savage but including Chamonix, Hamilton Russell, Hartenberg, Keermont, Porselienberg, Restless River and Stark-Condé.
What’s telling is not so much who made the list but who didn’t. It was asked of me via Twitter which criteria applied when it came to deciding on a top 20: “Those who market best? Those whose wines score most? Those whose winemakers are most prolific? Or those who journos talk about most and are therefore most publicly recognised?” To which, I replied: “Probably a combination of all of those factors”.
On a more serious note, issues that are important in determining a top 20 but perhaps weren’t given enough attention by any of those polled are 1) consistency of quality over an extended period and 2) permanence of land tenure.
Here, for the sake of argument, is a list of 20 wineries that have demonstrated world-class credentials over time (wines approaching icon status included were applicable):
- Bouchard Finlayson (Galpin Peak Pinot Noir)
- Buitenverwachting (Christine)
- Cape Point Vineyards (Isliedh)
- De Wetshof (Bateleur Chardonnay)
- Groot Constantia
- Hamilton Russell Vineyards
- Hartenberg (Eleanor Chardonnay, Gravel Hill Shiraz)
- Jordan (Cobblers Hill, Nine Yards Chardonnay)
- Le Riche (Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon)
- Meerlust (Rubicon)
- Neil Ellis Wines
- Rustenberg (Five Soldiers Chardonnay, Peter Barlow Cabernet Sauvignon)
- Rust en Vrede (Estate)
- Springfield (Life from Stone Sauvignon Blanc)
- Waterford (Cabernet Sauvignon)
Put that out as your top 20 list and I suspect that many, many punters would agree – the above wines featuring in home cellars long before the likes of relative new-comer and overtly hipster labels like Alheit, Crystallum, David & Nadia, Rall, Savage and Thorne & Daughters.
In addition, how to make room for boutique operations who, though not as high-profile as some, undoubtedly makes wines of real excellence such as Arendsig, De Trafford, Botanica, Lismore and Shannon?
How to accommodate the large-scale wineries who are compelled to operate at all levels of the market, and yet compete with the best when it comes to their ultra-premium offerings? Here I’m thinking of DGB’s Bellingham, Distell’s Nederburg, KWV’s The Mentors series, Spier’s 21 Gables series plus what Fairview, Graham Beck and Leeuwenkuil are doing.
What to do with those independently owned wineries that might don’t make much of a fuss but churn out very good wine year in and year out such as Creation, Oak Valley, Muratie, Nitida and Stellenrust?
What to do with labels which are stand-alone but closely affiliated with producers already in the “official” top 20 such as B Vintners and MR de Compostella (Raats) as well as Leeu Passant (Mullineux)?
There are, of course, also those operations like 4G, De Toren and Vilafonté, who craft wines first and foremost as luxury goods, and who have convinced many they automatically should be among SA’s top 20…
That might tome that is Platter’s 2019 has just come out and it’s interesting to see how the critic’s top 20 performed. Out of the top five, Mullineux was named Winery of the Year for the third time with four Five Star wines while Sadie Family Wines had three, Kanonkop two and Alheit and Boekenhoutskloof one each.
As for the rest, David & Nadia and Rall did very well with three each, followed by DeMorgenzon, Raats and Savage with two each while Crystallum, Klein Constantia, Newton Johnson, Paul Cluver, Reyneke and Thorne & Daughters all got one each. A.A. Badenhorst, Delaire Graff, Kershaw and Tokara, meanwhile, failed to get any Five Star rated wines [correction: the Badenhorst 2017s were not submitted for review]. Ultimately, there is no central control, no absolute ranking, no unalterable classification and why would we want it any other way?