Tim James: The last half century of Cape fine wine – and where it is now

By , 10 January 2022

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Chris Alheit on his Perdeberg property Broom Ridge.

The beginning of another year (here’s wishing you all the best!) and, what’s more, a year that’s the 50th anniversary of a crucial event in the history of South African wine’s growth into the light: the birth of the Wine of Origin system. So, a good time to briefly reflect again on those 50 years – and especially the last 30, which have seen such a steady process of improvement (at the top end, at least) that it undoubtedly amounts to a revolution. A chance also to ponder on where we are now in this fine-wine revolution.

The 1970s were, I suppose, the last decade in which the merchants were the most noted (virtually the only) producers of what we now understand to be fine wine. We don’t, on the whole, see the names of Nederburg, Zonnebloem and Chateau Libertas glowing in the rather murky, sanctions-defined decade of the 1980s as they had in the previous decades – though a few of the Bergkelder brands gleam faintly. Rather, the estates (catered to in the WO system, and encouraged by it) had started to come into prominence: Kanonkop, Delheim, Welgemeend, Meerlust, Overgaauw, Warwick, Hamilton Russell the ones that stand out for me now, and a few others as the 80s progressed. Constantia was being reborn (it’s hard to now imagine the decay into which it had sunk – apart from the white protestant settler monument of Groot Constantia). And Le Bonheur, but it’s emblematic that when this fine, passionately run estate was sucked by unattractive means into corporate ownership it immediately started to decline.

The rule of the almighty KWV, essentially the wine wing of the National Party government, persisted into the 1990s, to crumble with the apartheid state. Its dominant strategy had been to encourage quantity rather than quality, with guaranteed minimum wine prices and the infamous quota system amongst the means to encourage heavy cropping for grapefarmers to supply the co-ops that had boomed during the KWV decades, and to ensure difficulty for the ambitious.

And then came the political upheaval of the 1990s and the return of South Africa to the world market. As John Platter put it back then: “the piquancy of how the new black government saved the white-owed wine farming industry from growing insolvency is exquisite.” The task of the 1990s was to build basic quality at all levels of winemaking (though viticulture was less affected as yet) – with some forces pushing for Australianisation of wine (ultra-ripe, powerful and showy), but many serious winemakers, fortunately, resisting this in favour of a tempered European classicism that suited Cape traditions better. Winemaker travels abroad, greater exposure to world wines, these were a major boost to ambition.

And with the demise of KWV quotas, new areas were being opened up, notably on the cooler Cape south coast: following Paul Cluver, Iona’s maiden vintage in 2001 presaged the growth of Elgin, for example, while there were increasing numbers of producers in the Hemel-en-Aarde. And some older areas were being rediscovered and reinvented by the turn of the century, like Tulbagh – though that never really went very far, and the Swartland – which went very far indeed, to become the inspirational centre of the slowly developing Cape wine revolution.

New styles of wine emerged as producers sought to reflect the nature of these new areas and of established ones: white bordeaux blends, for example (with Vergelegen the pioneer), and the wholly original “Swartland/Cape white blend” based on chenin blanc, as a partner for its syrah-based blends. Not to mention the leaps forward with chenin blanc itself – no longer trying to be a caricature of woody, sweetly rich chardonnay (a style also declining by now), but a genuine expression of what Cape conditions give.

This second stage of the revolution – new areas, new responses to climate and landscape – marked a significant shift towards a development in fine wine here. The third stage emerged from this, with a growing focus on terroir, on vineyard-level expression, and a growing focus on viticultural practice, as well as less obviously interventionist winemaking, that would deliver that expression. Happily, the WO system cooperated, and the absurdity of not allowing any mention of single vineyards (to protect the moribund “estate” system) was abandoned, and the category was properly regulated.

Another, associated development that we now (things have happened so quickly!) accept as obvious is the growing pride in and concern for the best elements of local tradition (having been so bludgeoned by the worst that it took a bit of effort to find the best). This being true for simpler winemaking, a rediscovery of the great local wines of the mid-20th century, and for older vineyards. The emblematic moment for all of this must be the release in 2010 of the Sadie Family Old Vine Series: mostly single vineyards, some of them old; the wines made in the fresher, more hands-off style that was becoming internationally significant too; and above all, aiming at finesse.

So there we were: becoming increasingly confident in the capacity of the Cape winelands to produce excellence; and becoming increasingly recognised internationally for just that. And where are we now? Not long ago, I wrote a rather provocative piece about a lack of excitement, asking: “When last was there something thrilling and new in the Cape – a wine, or a style, or an area?” And while I agreed that there were any number of really good new wines, and some were getting better, I probably didn’t accord that the importance it deserves.

For this current phase we’re in is surely the time of consolidating the revolution, of expanding it and settling it into a norm. No longer is there just a small handful of groundbreaking winemakers (and winegrowers), and a limited number of brilliant bottles. There are very many, and enough to be making a significant impact on the world market, building a solid reputation for Cape wine. And not unimportantly at all, doing the same thing for what was a rich, snooty layer of local winelovers who’ve shed the cultural cringe component of their habits. And while some of the auction activity of the past few years has been somewhat absurd, the secondary market seems to be at least tentatively established.

While there are many more stellar producers, even more important in this less exciting but vital phase of the revolution is the settling into something approaching institutionalisation of now middle-aged pioneers. Many have acquired land and wineries of their own, and some are building up the next generation. Older, established producers and areas are fitting in more smoothly to developments – I predicted that the 2020s would be the great come-back period for Stellenbosch, and that is indeed slowly happening.

So, on the top end at least, all is well. Here’s wishing you good drinking – if you can afford it as prices seem set to continue their inexorable rise.

  • 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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  • Magatho Mello15 January 2022

    A great perspective for someone that has not always the chronological perspective of the wine industry.

  • Angela Lloyd10 January 2022

    For someone like myself who has been involved with wine over the past 50 years & professionally since 1983, Tim’s reflections brought back many memories,
    Where he writes, ‘And then came the political upheaval of the 1990s and the return of South Africa to the world market’ reminded me of attending the first tasting of South African wines in London in June 1991, an eye-opener for both our winemakers & the British wine trade & media. If anyone has a copy of Wynboer August 1991, there’s the article I wrote about it, ‘London in Retrospect’.
    As they say, ‘we’ve come on a bit since then’!

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