Tim James: Top 20 SA wineries commentary
By Tim James, 28 November 2023
We’ve waited five years for another poll of competent wine professionals on what are the leading South African wine producers – the longest gap since the series of polls began more than two decades ago, as the South African fine wine revolution was just getting into its stride. The results for the top five positions were announced yesterday, and the complete Top 20 list went up earlier today.
The point of doing a regular poll like this is, of course, to observe changed perceptions about the producers constituting the top end of South African wine. And change there certainly has been since a number of professional commentators and critcs were first consulted on the matter back in 2001. That was in Grape magazine; the last one, in 2018, was done on this website. This year the editor, I’m glad to say, took over most of the work involved.
Change, but perhaps it’s slowing down. That’s what I at least would have expected, as I see the current phase of the Cape wine revolution as more one of consolidation and horizontal expansion of quality rather than of great innovation.
Between 2016 and 2018 there were four changes to the Top 20 list: entering in 2018 were Raats, Richard Kershaw, Rall, and Thorne & Daughters; they took the places of Chamonix, Cape Point, Vergelegen and Jordan. This year sees six newcomers. Three were just on the outside five years ago: Porseleinberg, Restless River, and Storm. Two other newcomers are the youngest wineries on the list: Van Loggerenberg and Damascene.The sixth is an advertisement for revival, as comparatively venerable Boschkloof makes its debut.
Six new arrivals, but there are only four departures, given that there are 22 wineries on the list, because of a rather annoying tie in the final place. So, a little more crucial change than last time, but after a gap of five years instead of just two. As before, the quartet leaving this year are rather starry names: Delaire Graff, DeMorgenzon, Paul Clüver, and Tokara – and it’s interesting to note that Clüver and Tokara were in the top five in the 2012 poll. Looking at those names prompts the question (one that could be generalised): why? It’s arguable that Tokara is now not quite what it was, and winemaker changes at DeMorgenzon also haven’t helped there, at least as far as perception goes. But I’m pretty sure that Clüver and Delaire Graff are at least as good as they were. Perhaps it is that the greatest buzz is generally going to be around newer producers. Or perhaps staying “as good” isn’t quite enough when the level around you is rising.
For 2023, just on the outside looking in are another three old faces with seven votes: Hamilton Russell, Jordan, and Le Riche. They are followed by Graham Beck, Leeu Passant, and Testalonga (six votes).
As one measure of change, it’s worth noting that Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof and Klein Constantia are the only producers that appeared on the maiden 2001 list as well as this one. The majority of those on today’s list were not in existence back then. And a few of the older ones have disappeared: one of the top five back then was Veenwouden, a name not likely to mean much to any winelover under 50, I reckon.
Interestingly, the top five have, for some years, been overall more stable than the Top 20 list. (The top five have been voted for separately and ranked in recent polls; the others achieve their place simply by counting the number of votes they receive.) In 2016 the order was Mullineux, Sadie, Kanonkop, Boekenhoutskloof, Alheit; they shuffled around for 2018: Sadie, Alheit, Kanonkop, Mullineux, Boekenhoutskloof. This year, Boekenhoutskloof was just squeezed out by Savage, itself quite far behind the undisputed top quartet), while Sadie has unprecedentedly soared far ahead of the others.
I wouldn’t begin to suggest, though, that this latest list is definitive, any more than previous ones were. The panel itself has changed pretty significantly (especially to reflect more international opinion). Further, it has become very much harder for most commentators to have a good overview of even the top end of the industry. And, of course, opinions differ greatly. I suspect no single voter list exactly matched the final one. Readers will also no doubt add their indignant comments, wondering at exclusions and inclusions.
I’ve just compared my own list with the published one. None of my selections were not in the Top 20 or the fairly-near-outsiders. There’s only one in the final Top 20 that I am a little discontented with, and I’m probably wrong to be so. My top five list had one difference, where I put Rall in the place of Savage – and I find the final outcome equally satisfactory. There are a lot of close calls. My guess is that many of the pollsters also had bits of anguish about their own inclusions and exclusions but also recognise the justice of competing claims.
Basically, however, apart from what seem to me the occasional severe eccentricity leading to (in my opinion) some pretty unlikely producers getting a vote, there’s a great deal of consensus among the pollsters. I rather doubt that any panel of voters with equivalent credentials would have come up with a final list that is substantially different from this one.
A huge raft of producers gained at least one vote, many more than in 2018. It’s a bit invidious to single out any of those, but it’s important to recognise that when producers of the calibre of, say, Sijnn, Miles Mossop and Neil Ellis get only one vote apiece we’re talking of a wine industry where there is actually notable depth of high quality. That is indeed by far the most important change to acknowledge compared with the polls of a decade and two decades past.
- 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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