Tim James: Who makes SA’s best wines?

By , 12 June 2017



It’s widely – if not universally – agreed that the Cape’s white wines are on the whole superior to the reds. But I started getting a bit tangled up when I was wondering (prompted by a comment someone made to me recently) about which producers were the best makers of South African reds and which the best makers of South African whites.

It was clear, or so I thought, that it was easier to do this possibly silly game with whites than with reds. Simply because of that superiority of whites, I could easily name some great producers there, while I struggled a bit with reds. But then, of course, it gets complicated because the competition for top white places should be more intense, for the same overall reason of a higher standard. Anyway, it’s always fun (and only a bit agonising) to compile such lists, and sometimes fun to read them, I hope, while hugely irritating of course to see how wrong someone – like me – can get.

Eben Sadie

Eben Sadie. Top of the pile when it comes to both white and red wines.

The person who got me thinking on these lines (who’d better be nameless, as I didn’t get permission to quote) suggested firmly that Alheit Vineyards undoubtedly leads the white-wine pack. I’m happy to have Alheit there at the top, for all of the whites they make, but not alone: Alheit have to be joined by Sadie Family Wines, whose Ouwingerdreeks is surely the Cape’s most important new range in the last ten years (or 20 – or more!), in terms of innovation and quality, and contains a clutch of brilliant whites to complement the Sadie Palladius.

Actually, if I establish for myself a rule that to qualify for the competition a producer would have to demonstrate versatility and depth in the range of wine made, well I think I can leave whites there, with those two unchallenged and sufficiently on a par, even if Alheit doesn’t yet have quite the same track record. Which is not at all to say that there are not other producers with one or two white wines at the same level. There are – but I’m stipulating that some versatility and breadth should also be required for the title. And I can’t think of anyone that comes quite close enough to those two: David & Nadia? just perhaps (but we need more track-record for their single vintage chenins). Thorne & Daughters? Iona? Paul Cluver? Not quite, in my opinion.

With regard to the reds, the same rule excludes, say, a producer like Crystallum of only pinot noirs, or the maker of only one wine, such as Porseleinberg. But there seems to me not quite as clear a lead in this category, and I certainly couldn’t complacently leave it as just two jostling for the top spot.

Sadie would again have to be up there, and it would be plausible to have him as the winner, for his four reds. I was going to say that Mullineux should be at the top level too, but of course they specialise in syrah, and I’ve perhaps wrongly excluded such specialists from my little competition. If there could be a joint entry from Mullineux to include the Leeu wines they also make, well then … there they are.

And if composite entries are allowed, Kanonkop plus Abrie Beeslaar’s own Pinotage would have to be a very serious contender. Vergelegen perhaps? No, perhaps not. Boekenhoutskloof should make it into the competition – but I’d be more confident of that once the overall excellence of the (still unreleased) 2015s is repeated a few times (as I am confident it will be). And how about Newton Johnson, who are succeeding so well with the Rhône-variety wines that are inevitably overshadowed by their pinots? Badenhorst? Certainly a contender given the improvement in their endlessly fascinating range of reds in recent years.

One thing this little exercise does make me realise is how few local producers at the highest level specialise in white wines – Alheit is a rare example, and even they are starting to succumb to the market desire for breadth. There are more red-specialists, with Kanonkop only the finest of many, though they’re probably mostly confined to traditional Stellenbosch producers.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes 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.


9 comment(s)

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    Mark Johnson | 21 June 2017

    Izak, i’m afraid to say your website needs a lot of work, as an enthusaistic consumer what you put sounded interesting so I just headed over but was sadly dissapointingly confused! I found empty links, hard to find substance, lots of pages with words but not the content I wanted. As an example I found


    and none of these pages list any actual wines… its a bit confusing!

    Izak | 20 June 2017


    You are making startling statements as always and so very subjective, irrespective if you mean it tong in cheek. This simply confuses consumers instead of doing the opposite. The same counts for your so-called top 20 Producer List. Just go and look at the SAWi ‘Grand Wines Collection’ and you will find all your answers there where more than 8000+ wines are adjudicated on a multi-vintage basis as expressed in a white and red wine ranking list compiled from opinions of a multi-national audience. It appears that some of the commentators here are just as confused/biased. Not everyone will agree with the rankings list but their is nothing to counter such facts.

    Jacques Mbuyi | 15 June 2017

    I think deciding on who is making the cape best white and red on a compilation list based on personal opinion can be both fun and a difficult task at the same time. My personal opinion will be to subject this list to a blind tasting panel of qualified and experience judges to score this line up all the white together regardless of style and same for red i think this will give a clear indication of who is the best.

    Mike | 13 June 2017

    John, DeMorgenzon have certainly recorded some impressive achievements in recent times, but for them to be so brash as to boast that they are “South Africa’s most acclaimed and awarded white wine producer” with the “perfect location to grow the best grapes” sticks in the throat… Gone to their heads, methinks!

    Mike | 13 June 2017

    Kevin, your opinion and the opinions of Tim, Christian, Eben, Chris, David, Marc and other folk who are both knowledgeable and blessed with better-than-average palates must surely count more than ‘a public vote’.

      Kevin R | 14 June 2017

      Agreed Mike. What I was trying to get at is that there should be two analyses here. 1 Best overall 2. Best for a particular varietal or blend

      Some winemakers are focused on an individual varietal and are not attempting to be the best at everything due to the terroir that they have to work with.

    Greg | 13 June 2017

    Great analysis. Your Q is: Who Makes SA Best Wines? So, composite entries must not only be allowed, but must carry weight in a new world and diverse environment. Tough choice right now, but, for me, all the technical data points, the scoring trends, and the depth of quality across their range make Newton Johnson the real contender. Sadie the king for now, Mullineux exceptional but showing signs of being stretched too far.
    Newton Johnson, controllers of their own terroir, in climate change relatively ‘safe’ zone perfect for Burgundy and Rhone, with perfectionist cellar practices, is where my venture capital would go.

    Kevin R | 13 June 2017

    A public vote by varietal would also be interesting

    John D | 12 June 2017

    Demorgenzon have definitely shown a prowess with their white wines receiving international praise and accolades. The reds, less so.

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