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Tim James: Who are the Cape’s best winemakers – and why?

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Alheit, Sadie, Mullineux, Kershaw, Mocke, Kent – who are the Cape’s best winemakers?

New World wine producers used to be lashed by lovers of the Old for being mere winemakers (there’s not even a French translation for that dreadful word, we were sneeringly informed). These soulless creatures believed that terroir, if it wasn’t just a French marketing ploy, came a long way behind scientific dexterity in churning out industrial dross. New World winemakers responded with their own contempt (though still hanging on to some cultural cringe), for dirt-ridden European wineries breeding brettanomyces, with old and inbred families relying more on dubious tradition than scientific understanding, and fearful of flavour.

Happily the world wine terrain is pretty much common ground these days, and it’s seldom useful to invoke those old antipathies. And while the younger wine-producing countries still tend to fetishise the winemaker as hero, the role is implicitly recognised everywhere. If you think, for example, that the skill of the individual winegrower is not recognised as vital in hallowed Burgundy, consider the radically different prices consistently received by the five producers making wine off their essentially identical strips of the famous Clos St Jacques in Gevrey-Chambertin. That’s not different terroir being paid for; it’s different winemaking, with some admixture of different viticulture and splashes of history and snobbery.

But while it would be easy to list the qualities that a competent winemaker should have, what makes a great one? And who are the best current South African examples? One thing that makes it difficult to answer the question (and even suggests that it is a misplaced one) is that the boundaries are not clear. It’s not hard to consider Eben Sadie as a candidate. But Eben has declared that most of his time is now spent in the vineyards, having done what he can in the cellar, where Paul Jordaan is now the main actor. So can he no longer be in the running?

And what about Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof? Can we consider him, though it’s many years since he was the person responsible for vinification there? But it’s Marc who developed Boekenhoutskloof’s aesthetic, whose vision has guided and built one of the most formidably successful of modern Cape wine businesses, and who still is crucially involved in blending the wines – none of which leaves without his signing it out. He’s not really a winemaker, that is – but can’t we include his whole achievement? Boekenhoutskloof’s current cellarmaster, Gottfried Mocke, is of course another plausible candidate for a top place in the ranks of Cape winemakers. Based on the decade-plus work he did at Chamonix, Gottfried gives excellent grounds for establishing one criterion: remarkable  improvement in a range of wines over a comparatively short period from OK to brilliant.

There are other at least complementary criteria, but both Mocke and Sadie (though not Kent) point to a genuinely important truth: that most of the Cape’s finest winemakers work, at the very least, in close and harmonious partnership with those who supply their grapes; sometimes they are the same person. The pairs behind, for example, Mullineux and David & Nadia wines – which are also at least partly vineyard-winery partnerships (Chris and Nadia skoffeling among the vines, Andrea and David in the cellar – add a new twist to the idea of marital “one flesh”. Meanwhile Kallie Louw of Porseleinberg I think of as a vineyard worker whose wine somehow magically emerges….

While Andrea Mullineux, for one, reminds me that technical excellence in the cellar – rigour and precision and scientific understanding of the highest order – are vital, if ultimately insufficient, ingredients of much top winemaking. I don’t wish to suggest that it’s at all lacking in any of the other names I’ve mentioned, but in some cases it is a particularly obvious part of the mix that goes into being a great winemaker – in Richard Kershaw, perhaps, and Rudiger Gretschel of Reyneke.

And what of sheer, instinctive talent? (Sadly, one can also see its direct opposite now and then.) Again, it’s in no short supply amongst the others, but I have never felt quite so convinced of it as with Chris Alheit. He demonstrates other vital criteria of great winemaking – hard work, awareness of the unity of vineyards and cellar, and infinite (and highly intelligent and well-informed) attention to detail. But somehow he has always seemed to me to have a magical touch, an unequalled flair and instinct.

I’ve no doubt been rambling here, even floundering, but what else to do when even the criteria are tough to decide on, let alone the candidates. What about the earliest of the modern cult winemakers of the Cape (post Beyers Truter, let’s say), André van Rensberg of Vergelegen – I nearly wrote André van der Merwe, but I was understandably also thinking of Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon. There are others, and other great teams (including teams of winemakers, amongst which I’d mention Adi Badenhorst and Jasper Wickens).  I’m pretty sure I shall awake sweating tonight wondering how I could possibly have forgotten to even mention, well – you supply the names, and I shall probably agree.

  • 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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting discussion point – do points and accolades mean they are good, or do you give the prize to the top selling wine brand? Or the most profitable? Or the best distribution globally? Or maybe you recognize the best sales and wine making combinations? Discuss – ……

  2. No surprises in this article given Tim’s favourites and bias/preferences.

    But, as Naas said: look at the scoreboard! Beeslaar, Abrie Beeslaar.
    On a decent wicket at Kanonkop, he has managed to elevate the brand, volumes, range.. and kept quality and track record consistent, if not better. SA’s only real 1st growth.

  3. Best winemaker is one who gets the most out of a site or varietal while leading the way stylistically.

    Other great winemakers (too many to mention) Miles Mossop, Gordon and Nadia Newton Johnson, David Nieuwoudt (especially Sauv Blanc), Kevin Grant (esp Chardonnay), José Conde (esp Cab), keep an eye on Arco Laarman & Johnnie Calitz, Nico vd Merwe, Duncan Savage, etc, etc, etc!

  4. John, I seriously thought of mentioning Abri, and he would be a valid contender. Kanonkop is certainly not outside the range of my “bias/preferences” (I wish you could have mentioned more that you think I excluded for that reason). Abri’s made a great new pinotage under his own label, but “keeping quality and track record consistent, if not better” is not quite enough in my opinion. The expansion of the Kadette range has indeed been impressive, but they are not great wines, which is what I decided had to be a criterion. Volume brings up Ross’s and Hennie’s points (and I think – I hope – that Hennie is being ironical). I thought about mentioning the team that makes Rupert & Rothschild: very large volumes of fine wine at a very high price point (though probably not as lucrative as Chocolate Block – which is a bit smaller, and pricier). The very biggest sellers are not made by a winemaker, however, but by more or less skillful machines working to recipes in support of marketing teams. And if you taste the biggest volume wines, you wonder just how skillful…

  5. i dont know much about winemaking – other than drinking much of it :-) nor do i of the Solms- Delta issue. R260 mil sounds like a ton of money , the sort that can make anything work. What went wrong ?

  6. The best winemakers are the ones that have respect for colleagues and peers. Is an ambassador for SA wine internationally and locally. Works at a viable, profitable and sustainable farm. Is in the limelight without being in the limelight. A person that makes wine to enhance the farms image not his ego. He makes wine for a specific customer in volume and quality. He or she have great knowledge of what his farm can produce for a specific customer. Honest wine making without engaging in chemical warfare. He or she that can adjust to their terroir and resources to produce consistent quality. Must have knowledge of the best terroir and wines internationally and must drink and enjoy wine like crazy.

  7. What Sadie and Mullineux have achieved sets the bar. Alheit is following their steps with wonderful finesse. When it comes to finding your own patch of ‘terroir’ and nuturing it to greatness through both vineyard and cellar I predict that Gordon Newton-Johnson and Kevin Grant will become the icons and benchmarks for old world/new world fusion. And Rudi G makes magic out of more modest beginnings.

  8. The “great wines” I love all have one thing in common (and perhaps ONLY ONE thing), they are made with passion. I think of winemakers like B Raats, Anne & Craig at Restless River, Samantha at Lismore and Alex at Keermont who are immersed in their vineyards and cellars. A little bit of their soul goes into every bottle. You can make good wine with science and/or tradition, but great wines are made with passion.

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