The Cape comes of age

on 17 November, 2017

An enthusiastic wine drinker finding themselves a fly on the wall at a trade-only tasting would undoubtedly be surprised by how serious everyone looks. Within the trade, we regularly hear from customers how nice it must be to spend at least part of the working day tasting wine. Although it’s hard to put it on the same level as moving furniture or reconciling accounts, tasting is nonetheless work that requires stamina, discipline and concentration, hence the scribbling and frowns.

Like most of us, I approach tastings with a battle plan, often reluctantly fending off producers trying to engage me in favour of getting through my self-appointed itinerary. But the recent New Wave South Africa tasting at Village Underground in Shoreditch, east London, did something unexpected. It forced me up and out of my routine and into the same state of excitement and pleasure that one more commonly gets tasting at the vineyard.

This was a tasting with tangible momentum. The enormous wave painted outside Village Underground may have had some role to play in this metaphor, but there was a real feeling that, while the swell has been building over the past decade, in 2017 the wave reached its height. How long it can remain without breaking, however, is a matter for speculation.

The unsustainability of the current South African wine model, where old-vine fruit is chronically underpriced, has been pointed out thoughtfully by others. However, as a merchant, one tastes and buys, but – crucially – one also sells. The commercial reality is that, for merchants and wine drinkers alike, this is a unique opportunity to enjoy some of the wine world’s greatest bargains at prices unlikely to be bettered, while on other fronts we wrestle with poor exchange rates and ever-increasing prices for wines which are sometimes ambitiously priced to begin with.

South Africa, at the moment, is the most dynamic of the southern hemisphere’s wine-producing countries. The quality and consistency of its Chenin Blanc rivals the Loire – and, in my view, often beats it. Its coastal Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are as good as California’s and, while Bordeaux blends were conspicuous by their absence at this avant-garde tasting, they have been making huge leaps in quality as producers address virus problems in the vineyards. There are also many superb everyday wines that offer real flavour and retail at modest prices, often containing hefty portions of concentrated old-vine fruit. Add to that idiosyncratic white blends, an unexpected rehabilitation of Pinotage and magnificent sweet wines that have been known since the 1600s and you have a compelling trinity of quality, distinctiveness and value.

Samantha O’Keefe’s superb Lismore Reserve Chardonnay 2016 is better than increasingly workaday Meursault and less than half the price. Pieter Walser at Blankbottle shows an extraordinary ability to be a master of all trades, with wines such as his Haan 2016 equalling the Roussillon at Grenache Blanc. Sebastian Beaumont’s Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc is what I wish more Savennnieres tasted like. 

I have followed South Africa since I came across a new generation of producers in the late 2000s. Their project felt niche, ambitious and against the grain. But this October, it was clear the new wave of Cape wineries had succeeded in putting South African firmly and confidently back on the wine map.  

Jason Millar is retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at  jason@theatreofwine.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar.

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