Letter to the editor: What is the South African New Wave?

By , 3 July 2020

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The following received via email from Simon Shear, who is a writer, editor and “recovering entrepreneur” based in Johannesburg:

It could be fresher, lighter styles of classic blends or the use of underappreciated varieties; sometimes it is distinguished by low intervention methods, and sometimes pushing the boundaries of established methods. It might mean using concrete eggs or amphora or adding wood where no one would have thought to add it before, or removing it where it was previous de rigueur. The wines may be self-consciously unpolished, or sometimes a kind of grownup juice for millennials (I’m looking at you, Cinsaut). Often, New Wave wines are as refined and elegant as wine gets.

In many ways, the New Wave may be as much an attitude as a style, but there’s also a definite type, even if not reducible to any single characteristic, which maybe is defined in the negative: whatever a traditional Stellenbosch Cab is, it’s not that.

Some of the prime suspects. From left to right: Stompie Meyer, Marelise Niemann, Duncan Savage, Thinus Krüger, Peter-Alan Finlayson, Francois Haasbroek, Trizanne Barnard, Mick Craven and John Seccombe. Front: Chris and Suzann Alheit.

At the same time, the New Wave is also… a bunch of folks in rumpled t-shirts and jeans.

It’s no real surprise that people who spend their time in Stellenbosch and surrounding areas aren’t wearing cravats and monocles, but I can’t help do a double-take when I realise the new field blend described with such breathless enthusiasm in the FT was made by that sunburnt guy in cargo shorts with the scruffy beard.

That’s not a criticism. SA’s young winemakers seem unusually nice, and there’s a profound camaraderie where one might expect rivalry. They’re absolutely dedicated to their craft, without displaying any bombast and pompousness, passionate without being self-serious.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s a model of the good life. A community striving towards perfection, without being constrained by pompous formality, sharing knowledge and genuinely doing what they love.

Which is not to say it’s easy. Producing small batches of fine wine, even with the support of a community, takes real talent, plus blood, sweat, tears and risk, with the real possibility of catastrophic failure. And that was before lockdown.

It also takes – and this should not be controversial in a South African context – a degree of privilege. You need, among other things, access to capital and some degree of financial breathing room. It also helps to know the right people. In a country that is by some measures the most unequal on earth, it should go without saying that opportunities for participation in any sector, not least in a sector producing luxury goods for a niche target market, are relatively scarce. (Putting aside for the moment the uniquely fraught history of the agricultural sector.)

After all, pouring tastings of your R800 syrah in shorts and slops may be a uniform of outsider status, but it’s also a sign of the precise opposite: a group comfortably located in its milieu.

They’re mavericks, but they’re not here to upend our sense of the good and the beautiful; they’re here to extend and advance them: to broaden the ways in which wine can be fine, to realise the potential of new techniques and terroir, and to have fun doing it.

That’s especially impressive not just because of the relatively staid state of South African wine just a couple of decades ago, but also because the standards of fine wine are globally determined and it takes a lot for young pretenders to reconfigure.

Sommelier Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay make the point succinctly, and in no uncertain terms, in their book Secrets of the Sommeliers: “If you want to be a good taster, you must have reference points. You must know the Old World regions backwards and forward. Most great wine being made elsewhere in the world – from Napa to New Zealand – gets its style and identity from the wines that came before it. This is why we focus on regions – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Tuscany – whose wine styles are as consistent and relevant today as they were twenty or forty years ago or even longer.”

It’s not simply that to appreciate wine, one must have tasted ‘the greats’. More fundamentally, there is a classical canon, and the art of wine is understood in terms of how it fits in, or is adjacent, to that canon:  “To understand the essence of Pinot Noir, begin with Burgundy. If you want to know what Merlot should taste like, try wines from Pomerol.” 

Think also of the way we discuss and evaluate wine. If typicity necessarily means comparisons with Old World benchmarks, at least at the highest levels of the international wine trade, the ways we make those comparisons are also given to us. If the essence of Pinot is Burgundy, that essence is captured in metaphors that don’t always sound like metaphors (cherries, blackcurrant, truffle) and ones that do (forest floor).

To appreciate fine wine – or rather, to participate in the institutional appreciation of fine wine – you need to familiarise yourself with a body of descriptors that may or may not match your everyday experience. (Sommeliers in Luanda, Delhi, Manila or Pretoria may associate ‘red fruit’ with raspberries and strawberries or other sets of fruits altogether.)

Which is no bad thing. Expanding your powers of perception and descriptive categories is as compelling, as description of the role of culture as any. And if you want to understand how Pomerol winemakers think about their production process, which surely you do better to understand their wines, it helps to know what French plums taste like, and the cultural associations they provoke.

But that expansion overwhelmingly goes in one direction. Who gets to define what it means to perceive wine ‘properly’?

In the ‘New World’ (a term that denotes hierarchy almost as much as temporality), it is a select group of people with sufficient knowledge or at least a sense of cultural tranquillity.  (What does it mean to say a local white blend has hints of fynbos? I have no idea, but I don’t let it bother me.) Someone who didn’t grow up drinking fine wine, who may be much more familiar with entirely different culinary traditions, and whose home language employs different metaphorical nuances from the ways English and Afrikaans attempts to map onto French and Italian, should ideally be able to enrich the ways we think about and describe wine; realistically, they will be expected to suppress those influences and swap them for the orthodox ones.

It’s important to be clear about the kind of privilege we’re talking about. Very few of us will ever own a bottle of Petrus, and that’s just too bad. But that is very different from the invisible barriers that exist from introducing new types of cultural awareness into a dominant aesthetic framework.

Of course, cultural capital and the more literal kind of capital are intertwined. At the height of his influence, Robert Parker could probably have said Bordeaux should taste more like Pepsi and producers would have tried to work in some cola notes, but then he is an attorney with an extremely fine palate wielding massive influence over consumers in a dominant import market.

On the other hand, when the MD of Cristal lamented his product’s popularity in the hip hop world, his not so subliminal racism was shocking enough to make one forget that champagne as a luxury good is a pretty kitsch product itself, with it’s carefully tended branding, its commercialised consistency, the gold coiffe and hyperstylised advertising (it’s no coincidence that the LVMH brands form a coherent ‘lifestyle’ package.)

What is the right kind of kitsch? Silly hats at the Royal Ascot but not Miami Cuban link chains at the club?

(I type this with a view of the pathos drooping over my vintage bookshelf, carefully positioned for Instagrammability: an unintentional self-parody of millennial aesthetic sensibilities.)

Let us not pretend that parts of the winelands are not a kind of Disneyland for adult bourgeoisie – it’s part of the fun!  A designer wine estate where you can gawk at Tretchikoffs may be a pleasurable day out, but it’s hardly a highbrow application of critical faculties (and why should it be?)

Precisely the reaction against that kind of kitschy spectacle is part of what makes the New Wave so appealing, though doubtless as it becomes more brandable, the movement risks congealing into its own set of aesthetic tics. Which is cool; it’s how fashion works. But only a select few get to participate at Fashion Week.

Inclusivity is not diversity

There’s no need to demystify wine in some banal way.  Engagement with an arcane body of inscrutable terms is part of the fun of many enthusiasms. But nor should we be satisfied with merely making the culture ‘more inclusive’.

Consider the ways in which fine wine is like classical music: technique and taste developed through time.

Anyone wishing seriously to participate in the production or assessment of Western classical music would be expected to have attained a degree of technical mastery and deep familiarity with the canon. It’s hard to see how it could be, or ought to be, otherwise.

You don’t need to master its jargon or play by its rules to make music, but you will always operate outside the institutions of prestige if you do not. Which is not to say the only way in is to emulate old masters. On the contrary, you shouldn’t sound exactly like Bach to be considered an original talent, but you will need the vocabulary to defend, say, your theory of atonal composition. If you want to be taken seriously as a maverick, it helps to have graduated from Juilliard.

What if you want to make participation at the highest level more accessible? Not just because you think it’s the socially responsible thing to do, but because your love of the art form moves you to want as many people as possible to be able to participate. (Or simply because you want to expand the pool of interested consumers.)

You might invest in education, offer scholarships to previously excluded communities, organise outreach and institute a plan to hire a more diverse workforce. Looking inwards, you may engage in soul searching or sensitivity training to help create communities and institutions more welcoming to the previously excluded.

And that’s all great, as far as it goes, but it’s a limited sense of inclusivity that aims to make a greater number of ‘outsiders’ just like insiders, without necessarily expanding the range of what it means to operate on the inside.

For example, at least some institutions and communities dedicated to the performance and understanding of Western classical music have sought not merely to widen their community, but to decolonise their communities and forms of practice.

I imagine that term will raise the hackles of many readers, because of the crude way decolonisation, in this sense, is used in popular media. But – bear with me – the work of decolonising a field of endeavour, at least in the modest way I am using it here, is not to reject the received canon, but to recover suppressed influences, to pay close attention to how power is concentrated in terms of gatekeeping (cultural as much as financial) and to open the canon to multiple modes of influence, appreciating the historically contingent ways in which taste is made and enforced. And we’ve seen precisely those efforts, by institutions that theorise and practice Western classical music, which, far from compromising on excellence and rigour, enrich, enhance and foster creativity.

That’s a lot of big words to talk about making and drinking wine. But practically speaking, it just means that creating a more equitable society demands more rigorous reflection on what it means to be part of a community and taking commensurate action.  It also means that if we take wine seriously enough to think it culturally important, then we should want to enrich that culture, not retreat into stagnation.

But I must end with an important caveat. This conceptual sketch counts for little without detailed accounts of what it is actually like to work in the industry, in different roles and different levels, as a ‘previously marginalised’ person or ‘outsider’.

If nothing else, I hope to encourage those with the power to do so to seek out and elevate those voices, and to take them seriously.

That is not a radical programme. A truly radical programme of redistribution would render these considerations moot. But that is a conversation for another time.

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  • Liz4 July 2020

    This is such a good article, fascinating insight into what it takes to make a good wine. I also learned such a lot and not just about wine, old and ‚new wave‘., my respect for the Sommelier, always high, is even greater.

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