Tim James: How well prepared for the future are SA wine’s progressives?

By , 9 August 2021

Neil and Warren Ellis of Neil Ellis Wines. Image: Wineland.co.za.

If I return to the Cape winelands as an inquisitive ghost in, say, 30 years time, I shall be most curious to see what has happened to the brilliant generation of winemakers who led the transformation of the industry in the early decades of this century. Will all that excitement, have been consolidated into a continuing achievement likely to continue down the ages (or at least one age), like those enduring estates and domains of old Europe? Right now, I’m guessing that at least a few of the names will only appear in someone’s collection of tattered old books – copies of Platter’s perhaps; and if the owners of the names chose not to appear in Platter’s, scattered to the ethereal winds and untender mercies of digital reality.

I imagine and hope that names like those of the older brands and properties – from Groot Constantia and Vergelegen to Nederburg and far beyond – will still survive and thrive (including a few taken over recently by the new-style likes of Reenen Borman at Boschkloof). What, though, of those newer names which are now so full of glory but not attached to established properties? It’s partly a question of sustainability. After all, the sharpest point of modern Cape wine has been constituted by largely money-less young winemakers able to afford excellent quality grapes farmed by others, and with nothing more than a handshake to guarantee the future availability of those grapes. The potential of collapse in such a situation has been pointed out a few times.

In fact, there has been a notable consolidation over the last decade amongst at least a good handful of the avant-garde (many of them not exactly young anymore), with an establishment of their own wineries and a growing accumulation of their own vineyards. Though even here there remains a heavy reliance on those handshakes and vague contracts for bought-in grapes. Take the Swartland, perhaps the epicentre of the revolution, where a range of different models has given the older generation of revolutionaries substantial bases for their operations. Adi Badenhorst scraped together enough to buy, in partnership with a family member, a derelict Paardeberg farm, and has re-established it marvellously and extended it quite dramatically with purchases of adjacent land. Eben Sadie bought a small farm, planted vines and built splendid infrastructure, and is continuing to move onwards from that. Andrea and Chris Mullineux chose to go into partnership with big money to build a solid foundation for their work. David and Nadia Sadie have a complex (well, to me it is) arrangement with the farmer on whose land they farm and whose winery they have developed. Craig and Carla Hawkins bought a cheap but promising farm in a remote part of the Swartland on which to slowly develop vineyards as they can afford to, and a few others have followed that route. Chris and Suzaan Alheit now also own a Swartland farm, and I’m confident they will have more own vineyards soon. As the next generation gains some capital, there is no doubt that they too will gain bases on which to, hopefully, build a secure future.

I’m thinking, however, that all that stuff is not necessarily enough to ensure survival of a brand. Just think of the names of those wine businesses, and realise at least part of the problem: Sadie/Alheit/Badenhorst/Mullineux & Leeu with their “Family Wines”; David & Nadia, Catherine Marshall, Miles Mossop and many others with the names of a current generation. I wonder at the extent to which they too project their businesses into the future bearing names and familiness – and  am even occasionally a touch aghast, though admiringly so, at the confidence about the future thus expressed.

Of course, we can see that the model can work extremely well, given the right, happy circumstances. Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection was born in the mid 1980s, as the Cape’s first négociant business attached to a single winemaker. Neil soon formed a partnership to acquire lands and capital and it became Neil Elis Wines in 1993. With he himself largely retired, it’s a firmly established family business, with a fine winery and some substantial vineyard holdings (as well as continuing to outsource grapes); there were children to take over the leadership roles, including the winemaking, and the transition was smoothly made with no diminution in reputation as Neil moved into the background.

That’s a process that’s still largely to happen with the splendid array of new wineries of the 21st century. In many (most? virtually all?) cases, if the winemaker, around whom the reputation has been built, were to disappear (Bacchus et al forbid!), could the brand survive? If the charismatic and gifted Eben Sadie were suddenly there no more, what would happen to Sadie Family Wines? Despite the fact that there is a winemaker firmly established and confident in the cellar, would it go the way of, say, briefly illustrious Veenwouden after the death of Deon van der Walt (who played a very different role there, and the circumstances were admittedly not propitious)? There are two young Sadie sons who are already growing as winemakers. If and when they are in a position to take over in a decade or so, and maintain the tradition of excellence, then Sadie Family Wines would be well set to become fully established as a family winery and a going concern.

But few of the new wave of winemakers are yet in anything like that position of comparative comfort. What happens if their children show no interest in continuing? How likely to survive are those family or personal names, so bravely attached to a brand? Though, of course, it’s not just wineries with such names that are vulnerable. Most of the great young brands are, at this early stage, still inextricably publicly and intrinsically linked to the personalities and skills of individuals and couples.

It takes a bit of time for it to become otherwise, I suspect. Bouchard Finlayson, following a different path of development from Neil Ellis’s, survived a change of ownership and the gradual withdrawal of Peter Finlayson – I daresay few serious winelovers now know who owns the winery and farm or who makes the wine. That’s, of course, as it should be in a mature industry: it’s the land that matters most, and the tradition of fine winemaking. But the Bouchard Finlayson terroir has never been in doubt. It’s not the same for the young winemakers reliant for their consistency on handshakes and personal relationships with scattered farmers.

No doubt I would be overly pessimistic in fearing that much of the work of the new-wave generation, as exemplified by the Swartland revolutionaries, is unlikely to survive. I’m confident that most of it will. But it’s worth being cautiously aware of the vulnerabilities.

  • 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

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