Tim James: Which are better – Cape reds or whites?
By Tim James, 17 August 2020
The question used to come up amongst wine’s chattering circles – though I haven’t heard or seen it mentioned recently: Are the Cape’s white wines, on the whole, superior to the reds? The answer was usually in the affirmative, but that was always felt to be a controversial position, even slightly aggressively so, as the common wisdom – what was in the Cape air, as it were – suggested otherwise. And certainly, wine prices would not have supported the proposition that whites were finer.
Prices would suggest the same now, though I reckon that the gap, at the top end particularly, has narrowed, even if there are many reds well over R1000 now and just a few dessert wines among the whites alongside them.
I remember, though, regularly comparing white and red wine gold medals and Platter five-star rankings. I’ve just tried doing the same, retrospectively. In fact, in the 2005, 2010 and 2015 editions of Platter, there was not a lot of difference (with whites including desserts and bubblies, reds including ports) – white five star awards only minusculely ahead (but can you believe that in 2005 there were only 17 five-star winners in total!). Trophy Wine Show results seem to have been more emphatically skewed to white gold medallists: whites winning 15 to 11 in 2015, and 20 to 13 in 2010.
Interestingly this pattern for both Platter and the TWS continues to the latest iterations, which would suggest that nothing much has changed. And yet I believe it has. If I were asked now whether South Africa’s white wines are better than the reds, I would not answer as I did ten or fifteen years ago. In fact, I’m not sure, even as I ask myself now, what my answer would be. But I know that either way, it wouldn’t be delivered with confidence.
The Cape’s top whites are undoubtedly spectacular – particularly but not exclusively the chains and the blends (Chenin-based and others); Sauvignon Blancs are excellent; and the long-impressive Cape chardonnay category has improved, especially in terms of breadth, and much the same can be said for sparkling wines. Niche categories like Semillon and grenache blanc too are very impressive in their admittedly small way.
But I would suggest that improvements in red wine over the past decade are even more impressive. In fact, surely no wine category, red or white, has shown such spectacular growth in quality as syrah. Before 2010 there was a small handful of fine examples. In fact, I confess myself surprised to see that four of them got five stars in the 2010 Platter: Dunstone, Haskell, Rustenberg and Saxenburg; and even more surprised that three of those are from Stellenbosch, which is the area from which so many of the most brilliant new syrahs come, eclipsing (forgive me) that trio.
The other red category that is now greatly improved – in terms of number as well as general quality – is pinot noir. Compare pinot and chardonnay over the years, for example, to highlight the difference: both are better categories now, but pinot is more hugely developed from its past.
It’s, in fact, the general lightening of reds, the shift from the Parkerised style of blockbuster, ultra-ripe, heavily oaked wines, that has led the way to the dramatic improvement in red wines in the last decade – led by Syrah and other southern European varieties as first grown and vinified here in the Swartland. Just think of all the cinsaults and what they’ve taught us about charm and drinkability and compatibility with food.
A new generation of Stellenbosch winegrowers has started following suit – vitally so, given that this remains South Africa’s most significant wine region. Because of a shift happening there, the next ten years will see even more splendid things happening to Cape reds, especially cabernet and its blends (and, let’s dare hope, pinotage).
Really importantly, however, it’s not only at the top level that we see the salutary effects of lightening up on red wines. There is now much better drinking at less exalted prices than there used to be. Again, think of cinsaults and the lighter syrahs and Grenaches. This change has meant for me, for example, that I no longer buy foreign reds like modest Côtes-du-Rhônes, because I can more than match that style with local, cheaper wines that are full of character and charm.
At a lower level than that, though, I think that I’d always go for a co-op Chenin than a co-op cabernet or pinotage or syrah. Whites still win that level pretty emphatically, I’d say, in my experience (admittedly limited experience at the middle and lower levels, but, thanks to my Platter tasting, less limited than that of many critics, both local and foreign).
Whites or reds best? I’m really pleased that I no longer have a convinced opinion.
- 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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