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Tim James: The top 20 South African wineries

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A compilation like this must inevitably be controversial. But it helped make the 27 panellists think hard (and even with some light anguish, by all accounts), and if it stimulates others to do likewise, it will have been useful. It’s not an easy task to make such a list, and is arguably an absurd one, especially when you have to set your own criteria (how to weigh the producer of a single brilliant wine against a really solid producer of a dozen or two fine wines, with a range of excellent value cheapies too?). The first ten are easy, perhaps the first 15 – but then you have to start wondering who to leave out as well as who to include. The international panel of experienced sommeliers, wine writers, critics, retailers who agreed to take part are listed in last week’s article announcing the Top 5.

Newton Johnson Vineyards
Newton Johnson Vineyards.

Here, with its inevitably surprises of omission and exclusion, is the list of 20 wineries that they named South Africa’s finest at present. As I explained in the previous article, the Top 5 were ranked in order by each taster as a way of determining their final position. The other 15 were not ranked, and their place in the list is determined by the number of votes they received in total. These numbers are given for wines 6–20 in the first pair of brackets after the name – from 23 for Newton Johnson (the same as for many of the Top 5, incidentally) down to 10 votes for Thorne & Daughters. Note that there are quite a few tied votes. The other set of brackets indicates the status relative to the last, 2016, poll.

1 – Sadie Family Wines (up from 2)

2 – Kanonkop (up from 3)

3 – Alheit (up from 5)

4 – Mullineux (down from 1)

5 – Boekenhoutskloof (down from 4)

6 – Newton Johnson (23 votes) (same position)

7 – David & Nadia (21) (up from 10)

8 – Raats (18) (new)

8 – Richard Kershaw (18) (new)

10 – Crystallum (15) (up from 13)

11 – Paul Cluver (14) (down from 8)

11 – Savage (14) (up from 20)

11 – Rall (14) (new)

14 – AA Badenhorst (13) (up from 12)

14 – De Morgenzon (13) (up from 18)

14 – Reyneke (13) (down from 11)

14 – Tokara (13) (up from 16)

18 – Klein Constantia (12) (down from 14)

19 – Delaire Graff (11) (down from 17)

20 – Thorne & Daughters (10) (new)

Just on the outside were: Hamilton Russell Vineyards (9 votes), Porseleinberg (8), Jordan (7) Keermont (7), Restless River (7), Storm (6).

So who lost their places in the list to make way for Raats, Richard Kershaw, Rall, and Thorne & Daughters? An impressive quartet, in fact: Chamonix, Cape Point Vineyards, Vergelegen and Jordan. I would draw a few tentative conclusions from that set of substitutions in the light of the whole exercise. Firstly, there is a clear tendency for the voters to go for new, exciting producers (and why not, except that it leaves Vergelegen, Jordan et al in the cold!). These are the wineries that tend to get in the news, We could note that the wineries that were booted off the list in 2016 were Cederberg, De Trafford, Meerlust, Thelema, and Hamilton Russell. And we could wonder if a producer like Meerlust, for example, with its huge reputation amongst “ordinary” winelovers, is not going to merely smile wrily at this list….

Secondly, it is worth noting that Chamonix and Cape Point Vineyards (which were actually in the Top 10 last time, by no means hovering around the exit door) both lost their superstar winemakers, Gottfried Mocke and Duncan Savage, since the last poll. Has there been time for a significant drop in wine quality at those producers to have taken place and be noted? Or were some of us on the panel precipitately reacting to the hype that there undoubtedly is around winemakers/winegrowers (as opposed to terroir, for example)? Were those producers foolish in not realising this would happen and not trying to do some effective PR around the moves?

So many questions surround a poll like this. We must keep it in perspective – though I’m not in the least trying to suggest that these 20 are not totally plausible winners. I do wonder, however, if it wouldn’t be a good idea to rather have an alphabetically listed Top 30, or Top 40, rather. Or as well?

But this is what we’ve got, and it’s a chance to honour these great producers.

There were 85 wineries nominated to be in the Top 20 – 25 of them by only one voter (I don’t think any voter’s own list came very close to being identical with the final composite one). Another statistic is worth noting, one that reveals just how much the top level in the South African wine industry has changed this century: This poll was first taken in 2001 (it was actually a Top 21 because of a tied position at 20). Only three wineries from that list appear in the 2018 list: Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof, Klein Constantia. About half of the 2018 wineries were not even in existence back then. May the South African wine revolution keep gathering momentum – and may those wineries on today’s list beware….

On which note, I did also ask the pollsters to nominate five wineries that are new(ish) and stand a good chance of being in a future Top 20. I’ll report on that shortly.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Yeah 7 of my Top 10 is in the ultimate top 10.
    And my top 6 is the same top 6.

    Pity Storm & Rust and Vrede lost out but there is none on the top 20 which i could really criticize as i purchase their wines and admire all of them.

    Thank you Tim for compiling this though provoking topic once again.

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