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Tim James: The Top Five South African Wineries

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A poll of 27 selected wine professionals has put Sadie Family Wines way ahead as South Africa’s top winery. The last time a similar poll was taken, in 2016, Sadie was just beaten into second place by Mullineux, which reversed their positions in the 2014 vote. This time Mullineux was down to fourth place, behind Kanonkop and Alheit and ahead of Boekenhoutskloof, which was some way behind.

Sadie in Skerpioen vineyard
Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines in the Skerpioen vineyard.

Voters were asked to name their top five wineries and to rank them. With five points given to their No 1 choice, down to one point for No 5, the results were as follows:

  • Sadie Family Wines (102)
  • Kanonkop (70)
  • Alheit Vineyards (66)
  • Mullineux (55)
  • Boekenhoutskloof (18)

[Please note: When this article was originally published, Alheit Vineyards and Kanonkop got transposed by accident. The error is regretted.]

In fact these five wineries were also the top five in 2016, when the order was: Mullineux, Sadie, Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof, Alheit. In 2014 Chamonix was in the list in place of Alheit. Going back to 2012, the top five were Boekenhoutskloof, Sadie, Kanonkop, Paul Cluver, Tokara. In 2010 the top five were Boekenhoutskloof, Kanonkop and Sadie tied in second place, Cape Point, Vergelegen.

The poll has been conducted eight times since 2001 (with the largest gap between 2006 and 2010), when it appeared in the print Grape magazine. I have actually always looked for a Top 20, as I did in this latest one – the complete list will be announced shortly. Note, though, that only the leading five are ranked by the voters (a refinement brought in last time); after that, it is simply a question of which wineries get the most votes.

The panel of independent judges has changed substantially, of course, since 2001 and has grown, reflecting changes in the wine world here – with sommeliers joining the journalists, critics and retailers of the first one. Significantly, a number of foreigners have also been invited to vote in recent years – back in 2001 there was no-one outside South Africa with any breadth and depth of experience of Cape wine. The composition of the panel obviously affects the results – particularly where the scoring is as close as it is here between Kanonkop and Alheit. No claim is made for this result being in any way definitive, but the panel is a representative group of people who have a good overview of South African wine (something that is increasingly difficult to achieve) and I’m confident that the result is significant and plausible.

Looking back at that first poll in 2001 is a glimpse into a rather foreign wine country. The Top 5 back then were Kanonkop, Vergelegen, Veenwouden, Neil Ellis and Rustenberg – most of which have fallen off the Top 20 list entirely (and I don’t know if Veenwouden is even a producer now), while two of the current Top 5 didn’t even exist then; Sadie did, just, but hadn’t released any wines yet. Kanonkop is the great survivor, of course, showing great consistency – re-entering the Top 5 in second place in 2010 along with Sadie, where it’s been firmly lodged since then. This is Kanonkop’s best performance, though, since that year.

This year the only other winery vaguely seriously contending with Boekenhoutskloof for the last Top 5 place was Newton-Johnson, with 12 points. A total of 29 wineries did, in fact, get at least one vote, but of the other also-rans only Raats and David & Nadia had votes from at least three of the pollsters. However, as the complete Top 20 list shows, there are some other newish wineries gaining a good deal of prestige as the Cape wine revolution continues its progress – and a few of them are likely to  be knocking at the door of this Top 5 super-elite.

The full Top 20 list will be published on Monday here on winemag.

The voters:

Local sommeliers, restaurateurs: Neil Grant, Wikus Human, Higgo Jacobs, Greg Mutambe, Francois Rautenbach, Simon Widdison

Local retailers/distributors: Carrie Adams, Ingrid Motteux, Roland Peens, James Pietersen, Caroline Rillema

Locals critics, wine writers: Michael Crossley, Christian Eedes, Michael Fridjhon, Tim James, Pieter “Kwispedoor” de Klerk, Angela Lloyd, Cathy Marston, Cathy van Zyl

Foreign critics, retailers, sommeliers: Tim Atkin, Lars Daniels, Jamie Goode, Roger Jones, Arjen Pleij, Greg Sherwood, Job de Swart, Jo Wessels

  • 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.

31 COMMENTS

    • Hi Jeremy, Anybody with access to Nielsen market research will know but this is expensive and not widely shared. As I understand, Nederburg Edelrood has been the biggest selling red wine packaged under cork in recent times…

    • “The market” will tell you the best-sellers, not necessarily the best wines. The top 5 would likely be big brands with big volumes, big marketing budgets and mass appeal – wines from DGB, Distell etc. Nothing wrong with them, and many deliver quality at good price, but the question of the “top” wineries/winemakers is a different one.

  1. First of all what a list.

    My subjective top 5 will only differ with one . Disclaimer I don’t drink enough Boekenhoutskloof wine to have a specific reason to replace them but i personally would substitute them with Newton Johnson.

    In a top 10 i will add the following 4:

    Storm
    David & Nadia
    AA Badenhorst
    Rust & Vrede

    • I agree. I clearly need to experience more of Boekenhoutskloof because none of Porcupine Ridge, Wolftrap, Chocolate Block, as good as they are, would put them in my subjective top 5. Unless it was to rate them as a winery that really knows how to read and serve the market.

  2. Who is Pieter “Kwispedoor” de Klerk ?? A local wine writer ?? What has he written, seriously must be a joke – hahaha – and u rate our wineries with that

  3. John

    Pieter de Klerk is part of South Africa’s wine tasting championship and besides that. He is a consumer with a broad knowledge of fine wine.

    John i dare you to pick your top 5.

    • thats a good top 5 , personally might ad , cedarberg including the ghost corner.
      so at the championships they announce – AND HERE COMES THE WORLD FAMOUS SPITTOON DEKLERK ?? its a joke

      • John, you can’t add Cederberg to your top five without scrapping another one. It will be easy to make a list if one can just keep on adding producers. So you will have to say who you will drop in favour of Cederberg.

        You are right though, I am in exalted (i.t.o. wine) company and I’m extremely humbled and honoured to be included – I’m clearly the odd one out. I fail to see why you’re so up in arms, though. We have a big list of contributors here and any one person can’t screw up the list by himself/herself. And surely you can’t have an issue with any of the other contributors?

    • wow , aggression !!! u scare easily taljaard. u always want your 2 cent views included in everything. let me know waste any breath further .

  4. Tim James is tight with Boekenhoutskloof management and so they get enhanced coverage and bloated ratings from him. I suppose familiarity creates an automatic subliminal bias. He also admits to getting freebies from them quite openly. Momentary (editorial) lapse or reason.

      • John, please present us with a list of the ‘neutral journalists’ in South Africa? Be mindful not to include anyone that has received a free lunch or free bottle, etc. In fact, since international journalists are included here and since the list would be short (you should be able to count these people on your one hand – if you had no arms), why don’t you present a list of all the ‘neutral journalists’ on the planet?

  5. piet de klerk , yes i will drop boekenhoutskloof from even a top10 , yearly the wines decrease in quality they definitely dont belong there anymore.

  6. On this forum we may have had difference of opinion and discussed and debated certain aspects lively and even sometimes vigorously, however, I at least, have never experienced such debate to be personal or personalised or to be senseless, tasteless and contemptible.

    The contributors to this forum of which Kwispedoor, Jonathan and Hennie are active participants have always engaged in a meaningful and civilised manner.

    An expert has been described as ‘one who has made the subject upon which he speaks a matter of particular study, practice or observation: and he must have a particular and special knowledge of the subject’.

    The fundamental characteristic of an expert – Kwispedoor as part of the Nederburg Team SA 2018 competing at the World Blind Tasting Championship may very well lay claim to such nomenclature – is that they may express an opinion based on fact and evidence.

    Generally speaking, lay persons may only say what they observed and not give an opinion on what was observed. This is because an opinion expressed by a lay person is usually irrelevant.

    John’s opinion is thus simply irrelevant.

    • please share with us your field of expertise ? its actually a disgrace to have someone named spittoon deklerk in any form of national team.

      • John, I’m sure you will find it an enormous relief that the word ‘Kwispedoor’ was not even whispered at the World Champs. What at first seemed to me to be a harmless little pseudonym that originated kind of by chance the first time I commented on a wine blog, is not even known or relevant amongst the international competitors or organisers of the event. So you can go to bed tonight and sleep like a baby, with the comforting knowledge that our country’s good reputation has not been totally annihilated by this evil word. I think our beloved country dodged a real bullet there! Look, just first and second names:
        https://www.larvf.com/vin-degustation-championnat-du-monde-aveugle-classement-rvf-equipes-belge-belgique,4601799.asp

      • The meaning(s) of “john” in the Cambridge English Dictionary are the following:

        1. A toilet; 2. A man who is the customer of a sex worker.

        Clearly, any debate with “john” is senseless, tasteless, contemptible and irrelevant.

  7. Can we get the votes of each voter to determine how the top 5 came about. It will then be easy to see bias or manipulation by one or more tasters. If someone is shown to have voted #1 for an undeserving entry they will be exposed. courage any one?

  8. It’s a really interesting question, and shows the breadth and depth of local producers and the quality on offer at the price. On The question of “top” I reflect on the blind and expert opinions and consistency of performance, historical proven ability to age (where relevant). As a steady buyer of quality SA wine over 20 years etc. I can’t argue with the names on the top list as exciting and worthy quality bearers. That said.. I reflect on other players such as meerlust (mentioned proirly), Glenelly, and let’s take Thelema, who just go about their business.. but are not perhaps trendy?

    Humour me to make a closer inspection – Rabelais.. world class Bblend (all commentators agree, consistently), cab – wonderfully reliable ageworthy and excellent value, Merlot reserve .. and then think ok, so maybe the top 20 ranges are just better?
    But then I look at the recent blind reports… Sutherland Elgin Pinot 93 points (equal top score – and def the best value) and Sutherland Elgin Chardonnay (93 points) and again phenomenal value. I note the later does this year after year in international and domestic blind reviews. These scores match the top Kershaw’s – agreed excellent wines. But whilst not reduce the excellent of Kershaw, my comment is more to say I would still rate thelema higher overall – it has top flag bearers (the Rabelais) but also world class wine at amazing price points and also made in available quanties for buyers and sellers.. (ie not just a 5000 bottle run).
    So, my reflection is that we get excited by the new brands and new styles.. it’s human nature, there’s a lot of quality choices.. but it also seems we can’t help but get a bit swayed by press commentary and marketing.

  9. I would like to leave an observation as a lay person. Is it not time for South Africa to have an official wine classification system? However flawed the French one may be in certain aspects, it clearly helped them in their progress?

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