Thursday, May 15, 2014

South Africa Top 20 Wineries 2014

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Winemaker Jean Smit at Boekenhoutskloof
A panel of 29 sommeliers, retailers and wine writers selected its 2014 top 20 winemakers from South Africa. You find the list below, following some introductory remarks about the wine producer South Africa.

Wine Producer South Africa

South Africa is a New World wine country, with a long wine history. With about 100.000 hectares of land under vine, it accounts for 1.5% of the world's grape vineyards. Yearly production is around 10 million hectoliters, which puts the country among the top ten wine producing countries in the world.

I have traveled in South Africa many times in the past 3 decades, in particular during the period 1989 to 1992, when I used to live in Madagascar.

When traveling in South Africa today, it quickly becomes evident that apartheid is resting in the dustbin of history. South Africa’s current President is the Zulu Jakob Zuma, who is mired in personal and political controversy. The Txosa Nelson Mandela, who had spent more than 25 years in prison during apartheid, was President in the 1990s and is now a revered elder called "Madiba" ("Papa"). South Africa successfully hosted the Soccer World Cup. The Soccer World Cup was hoped to provide a boost to the tourism industry; but indications are that the expected boost did not materialize, at least not fully. The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to be wide, but is narrowing and a black middle class is emerging. This, however, is not so much evident in the wine region, which continues to be dominated by the whites; Cape Town even has a white mayor. 99% of the vineyard area is in the hands of whites. The AIDS pandemic is taking a huge toll with the HIV infection rate at about 20 percent.

Over the course of the years, I have detected an increasing openness, pride and camaraderie among all the South Africans – white, colored or black, Boers or Brits; Indians, Jews, Zulus, Txosas or Vendas, I met. Nevertheless, this rainbow society with a share of 75% of blacks, has huge challenges to cope with.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Sales and Marketing Manager (from 2009 to 2012) Thys Lombard at Tokara

Wine History

It all began in 1655, with wine seedlings from Europe, ordered by the commander of the newly formed station of the Dutch East India Company - the largest company in the world at the time - at the Cape, the Dutch surgeon Jan van Riebeeck. He knew that for the long ship journey from Europe to India around the Cape of Good Hope, wine was better than water as the latter often got rotted in the barrels, causing the dangerous scurvey for sailers. Four years later, in 1659, Jan van Riebeeck made his first wine in South Africa.

Before the arrival of the European settlers, African tribes had settled in the area. Today, the most influential African tribes are the Xhosas (the most famous Xhosa is former President Mandela) and the Zulus (the most famous Zulu is current President Zuma).

Among the white settlers were former sailors, adventurers and people who left Europe for religious reasons. The latter included the Huguenots who had fled to Holland to escape religious persecution. Many of them settled in Franschhoek and brought wine-making know how to the Cape region.

Another mile stone in the wine history of South Africa is the pioneering work of the Boer Governor Simon van der Stel. He founded the famous Constantia Estate that is viewed as the nucleus of the South African wine industry.

As the 18th century drew to a close, the Dutch power began to fade worldwide, and the Cape region fell under British rule. When the Brits arrived, 25000 white mainly Boer colonists lived in the region; they were pushed up to the north as the Brits took over the region. As a result of the British rule, the South African wine industry blossomed as it benefitted from preferential treatment in the British market. By 1859 more than 4 million liters of South African wine were exported to Britain. This changed dramatically when as the result of the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty in 1861 the preferential tariffs were abolished helping French wine exports to regain the British market. By 1865, exports had dried up to a mere 0.5 million liter.

The turn of the century saw a large overproduction of wine in South Africa. To cope with the surplus, the South African winemakers formed a wine cooperative in 1918, the Kooperatieve Wijnbouw Vereniging van Zuid Afrika (KWV). Initially started as a cooperative, the KWV soon grew in power and prominence to where it would to set policies and prices for the entire wine industry. At the same time, in the second half of the 1900s, the trade barrier of anti-apartheid sanctions ensured that South Africa’s wine exports fell to virtually zero and that the tiny domestic market became the industry’s only consumer.

It was not until the end of apartheid in 1993/94 that the wine industry started to see a brighter future again, and the renaissance of the South African wine industry began. This renaissance was fueled by a rapid increase of foreign demand for South African wine and substantial investments, financed by foreigners as well as locals. Most of the wineries I visited in October 2010 had come into existence only after the collapse of the apartheid regime. Today, South Africa is a New World wine country, with a long wine history and tradition of winemaking.

Wine Industry

Unlike other New World wine regions, the South African wine industry is strongly influenced by several large wine-cooperatives, including Distel and KWV; in total, there about 60 co-operatives. In addition, there are about 25 trading companies, or negociants, which often operate wineries, but seldom own their own vineyards. Among these are SAVISA, Winecorp, Stellenbosch Vineyards and Graham Beck; Western Wines is among the trading companies that are foreign based and owned; their brand Kumala is by far South Africa’s biggest brand. Over 80% of the total crop is delivered to these large wineries by about 4000 wine growers. However, private wineries have increasingly emerged and seen an impressive growth; there are now about 600 winemakers with their own cellars, most of them in the premium wine segment.

More than half of the total production is exported. The previous Cape powers, the UK and Netherlands, are traditionally the main destinations for wines shipments; but other markets are coming up, including Sweden, Denmark, the USA, Germany and Angola.

The wine industry is firmly in the hands of the whites, both white South Africans and foreign investors. But I had the pleasure to meet Ntsiki Biyela, a female black winemaker, who is producing outstanding wines at Stellekaya in Stellenbosch. Also, the Diemersfontein wine portfolio included a line of wines that was produced in the framework of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program (to promote the black community's involvement in the South African wine industry-including ownership opportunities for vineyards and wineries).

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller and Anthony Hamilton Russell

Grape Varieties

Although there has been a significant shift in favor of red wine varieties, reflecting increasing demand for the international varieties Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, white wine is still in the lead, accounting for a bit more than half of the total. Pinotage, which is a native grape of South Africa, also shows an upward trend. Among the white wines, Chenin Blanc is the front runner, followed by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Cabernet Sauvignon has become the most widely planted red grape variety, accounting for 25 percent of the red wines. Shiraz seems to like the climate of the Cape very much and produces very intense full-bodied wines. In recent years, Shiraz has been planted in particular in the warmer growing areas. Although Pinot Noir is rarely grown in South Africa, it can be found in the cooler regions Walker Bay and Elgin, producing exceptionally good wines there. Merlot has traditionally been used for cuvees with Cabernet Sauvignon; but winemakers have started to produce 100% Merlot wines.

Pinotage is the signature grape of South Africa. In 1925, a South African researcher at the University of Stellenbosch crossed the Pinot Noir with the Hermitage (Cinsaut): This was the birth of Pinotage. It now accounts for more than 20 percent of South Africa’s red wine. It is made in a broad range of styles, from easy-drinking quaffing wine and rosé to barrel-aged wine intended for cellaring. It is also used for port-style wine and red sparkling wine.

In recent years, many new Chardonnay vineyards have moved into the production phase. Whether fermented in barrels or in steel tanks, the Chardonnay from the Cape region is always elegant in style, combined with refreshing fruit flavors on the palate. Viognier shows its full potential in South Africa and plantings are increasing. Two hundred years ago, Semillon was the dominant grape variety in the Cape region; today it is rather the exception. South African Sauvignon Blancs enjoy an increasing popularity; the plantings are concentrated in the cooler altitudes of Constantia, Paarl and Stellenbosch. Although on a downward trend, some South African wine makers are pushing the Chenin Blanc grape, trying to improve the quality and diversifying into different styles. Other white varieties include Colombard, Gewurztraminer, Muscat of Alexandria and Pinot Gris.

Finally, Cape Riesling is widely grown in the Cape, but is actually not a Riesling, the great grape from Germany, but a Crouchon Blanc, originating in Southern France, but seldomly grown there. By contrast, the noble Riesling is a niche wine, which, until this year, had to be labeled as Weisser Riesling or Rhine Riesling. Only from this year on, Riesling can be labeled as Riesling, without the pre-fixes Weisser or Rhine.

Picture: Entrance of Klein Constantia

Wine Growing Regions

Under the "Wine of Origins" (WO) system, wine zones fall under one of four categories. The largest are Geographical Units (such as the Western Cape region), which includes the smaller, but still largely defined Regions (such as Overberg), followed by districts (like Walker Bay) and finally wards (such as Elgin). WO wines must be made 100% from grapes from the designated area.

Constantia ward: Located south of Cape Town on the Cape Peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic ocean, it is the cradle of the South African wine industry and was through the 18th and 19th centuries regarded as South Africa’s grand cru territory.

Stellenbosch district: the second oldest wine zone, accounting for around 14% of the country's wine production. The seven wards of Stellenbosch-Banghoek, Bottelary, Devon Valley, Jonkershoek Valley, Papegaaiberg, Polkadraai Hills and Simonsberg-Stellenbosch are well known for their red wines.

Paarl: For most of the 20th century, Paarl was for all practical purposes the heart of the South African wine industry, as it was the home of the KWV. The importance of Paarl has declined with the emergence of a strong private sector.

The Franschhoek Valley, a ward, was founded by Huguenot settlers who brought with them their winemaking know-how.

The Breede River Valley, located east of the Drakenstein Mountains, is a warm climate region; the river itself provides easy access to irrigation which makes bulk wine production of high yield varieties commonplace. The Robertson district is located closest to the river along alluvial soils. The Worcester district is responsible for more wine than any other wine region in the country with almost one quarter of the total coming from this area.

The cool climate Overberg region received very little attention until the late 20th century, but its wines are becoming increasingly sought after, notably the wines of Walker Bay with the various Hemel-en-Arde wards and of the cool, higher elevation vineyards of Elgin located east of Cape Town.

The Atlantic influenced West Coast region includes the areas of Durbanville, Olifants River, Piketberg and Swartland. Historically known for its bulk wine production, in recent years, in particular in Swartland, innovative producers making excellent premium wines have emerged.

The Top 20 Producers

Here is the list, published in the Mail and Guardian on April 23, 2014, with the comments of the Mail and Guardian.

1. Sadie Family Wines. Eben Sadie, an emblematic figure of the Cape's wine revolution, has been making his red Columella and white Palladius blends since the early years of the century. Local and international acclaim brought fame to the whole Swartland area, initiating its great renaissance. Then came Sadie's widely-inspiring Old Vineyard Series, confirming his vision, insight and energy.

2. Mullineux Family Wines. Young Chris Mullineux and his American wife Andrea are based in the little town of Riebeek-Kasteel, buying grapes, especially Shiraz and Chenin Blanc, from Swartland vineyards. They soared onto the Top 20 list in 2012 at number 10, and this year made another record leap: they are just squeezed out of the top spot by their good friend and near-neighbour.

3. Kanonkop, in Stellenbosch, is the longest-established winery in the Top 5 - and the only winery to have been there every time since the first poll in 2001. No other producer in the list has such an impressive track record of great wines ?– especially the Paul Sauer blend, made since 1981, but also Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon.

4. Boekenhoutskloof was in the 2001 Top 20 category, but has grown in size and is renown under the continued direction of cellar master Marc Kent. Based at the organic home-farm in Franschhoek, it also draws grapes from far and near.

5. Chamonix started revealing the vinous potential of its Franschhoek mountainside soils after Gottfried Mocke arrived in 2001 to look after vineyards and cellars with his flair and insight. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have always done well here; now a handful of reds, especially Pinot Noir, join them amongst the country's best – and there's not a dud in sight.

6. Paul Cluver Estate makes mostly white wines off the extensive, pioneering Elgin domaine, but the Pinot Noir is equally fine.

7. Newton Johnson is one of this year's big climbers. This quintessential family farm in the Hemel-en-Aarde near Hermanus is most famous for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

8. Cape Point Vineyards, lashed by cool sea-winds near Noordhoek on the Peninsula, has seen winemaker Duncan Savage establish an enviable reputation for its white wines.

9. Hamilton Russell Vineyards, pioneer of winemaking in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, is still famous for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – the latter widely regarded as the country's finest.

10. Vergelegen is one of Stellenbosch's great historic and contemporary showplaces, with André van
Rensburg continuing to produce a range of red and white wines to match.

11. Tokara, high on the Helshoogte Pass just outside Stellenbosch, makes superb, elegant wines from there (as well as Agulhas and Elgin) under Miles Mossop's deft direction.

12. Thelema is Tokara's neighbour but longer established (since 1983), with cellar master Gyles Webb amongst the pioneers of modern winemaking in the Cape.

13. Jordan has a large range of wines (modest to grand) from its sizeable Stellenbosch estate, run in masterly style by husband-and-wife winemaking team Gary and Kathy Jordan.

14. Cederberg is the highest new entry, as its mountainous vineyards are among the Cape's loftiest, though David Nieuwoudt also makes a fine range from vineyards near Cape Agulhas.

15. Delaire Graff – third and oldest of the Helshoogte wineries in the region – arrives to trumpet its reinvigoration since its purchase a decade back by British diamantaire Laurence Graff.

16. AA Badenhorst Family becomes the third Swartland winery in the Top 20, marking the great success of Adi Badenhorst's mighty labours on the run-down farm the family acquired in 2006.

17. Klein Constantia represents the Constantia Valley here, as well as the prestige particularly (though not solely) of its famous, historically relevant sweet wine, Vin de Constance.

18. Meerlust is one of Stellenbosch's great old estates, owned by the Myburghs since 1757, it's fine winemaking tradition re-energised for the past decade by winemaker Chris Williams.

19. Reyneke, one of few biodynamic wineries in the Cape, has its organic Stellenbosch vineyards cared for by "vine-hugger" Johan Reyneke, and its elegant wines crafted by the brilliant Rudiger Gretschel.

20. De Trafford returns after a brief absence, with David Trafford's big, ripe but well-balanced Stellenbosch wines as commanding as ever.

Judging Panel

Sommeliers: Hansi Joakim Blackadder, Gareth Ferreira, Neil Grant, Higgo Jacobs, James Pietersen, Joerg Pfuetzner, Francois Rautenbach.
Retailers: Carrie Adams, Carolyn Barton, Mark Norrish, Roland Peens, Caroline Rillema.
Local writers and critics: Michael Crossley, Christian Eedes, Michael Fridjhon, Edo Heyns, Tim James, Angela Lloyd, Melvyn Minnaar, Cathy Marston, Maggie Mostert, Ingrid Motteux, Christine Rudman, Cathy van Zyl.
International writers and critics: Tim Atkin, Tom Cannavan, Jamie Goode, Neal Martin, Anthony Rose.

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