Dear South Africa....
One of the questions I often get asked is: Which wine region disappoints you the most. South Africa always comes to mind. Now before you go writing me an email, hear me out. There are some truly fantastic regions and producers which I will mention later, yet most of which is seen in the international distribution arena are very easy drinking wines that lack real personality and identity.
I visited South Africa 3 years ago, and had a great time tasting through the region. I found a lot of disappointments, however, I did find some outstanding world-class wines located mainly in Stellenbosch and Hamel-en-Aarde. These regions produce some fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chenin Blanc(more from the coast), Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If you dig even deeper, then other regions of Constantia, Paarl, and Walker Bay (Which is included in Hamel-en-Aarde) also have some very passionate producers. So where are the issues?
To me their main issue is with their 'signature' grape: Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir x Cinsault. I attended a South African trade fair last year and I tried a lot of Pinotage which just tasted flat and without adequate structure, depth, and balance. I am not really sure why there is so much hype around this grape, I understand the history, but really? Some producers make a phenomenal Chenin Blanc which rivals that of the great Loire. Their Chardonnays, Syrah Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are not too far behind either, however Pinotage, I think not.
Still don't believe me, ask your local wine shop when was the last time they drank a Pinotage? Guaranteed they will look at you with a blank face. Ask any wine friends their favorite wine region, no one will answer South Africa. Why? Well because 90% of the wine exported has no personality, identity, or is Pinotage. I rave about other new world regions of Chile, Argentina, Australia, California, Oregon etc. who produce better and better wines, yet the majority of wines from South Africa are struggling. The aim of this post is not to put down the whole of the South African wine industry, but awaken those who are focused on profit and not on quality. South Africa is known for its cheap wine, however with a small effort that can be changed and most consumers will have no issue paying $1-2 for a better quality product.
What do I suggest to the South African wine industry? Focus on your strengths in regard to your terroir. Varieties of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon are suited to the different regions, forget Pinotage, and stop blending. Don't be scared of increasing prices, lowering yields and careful use of Oak Management
I will not name producers who I feel are the cause of this non-identity. Instead, celebrate those producers who I feel are champions of South Africa:
Hamilton Russell - Produce fantastic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which would cost x2 - x3 the cost in Burgundy. Located close to the sea in Hamel-en-Aarde
Rust en Vrede - Their range of wines are fully estate grown and their focus is on Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Located in Stellenbosch. They have a restaurant which serves the best lunch I have ever had at a winery!
Lismore Wines - Very highly rated Chardonnay, Syrah, and Viognier. Just buy Samantha's wines, you won't be disappointed.
Sadie - Located in Swartland, produces some fantastic expressions of Chenin Blanc and Semillon.
Klein Constantia - Their sweet wine Vin de Constance is one of the most famous in the world, and rightly so.
Storm - Tiny producer in Hamel-en-Aarde with a sole focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Good luck to find their wines!
There are other heroes in this story, however, the above list is who I always recommend when talking fondly of South Africa. I am hoping the following years will see a change in South African winemaking and hopefully, a shift in the quality and identity that the consumer will see.
Who are your favorite South African producers?