South Africa: A World of Wine

by Jared
 * This article first appeared here in Made In South Africa (Sunday Times Supplement)

With an impressive 3 – 4 million bottles of South African wine drunk every day and a staggering 300 000 direct and indirect jobs, South Africa is indeed a serious player in the global wine industry – the eighth largest producer worldwide.

This is a meritorious feat considering the country’s history. Although South Africa is the oldest wine-producing region in the New World, as a result of the sanctions imposed during the Apartheid, it was only able to compete in the global wine arena post-1994. Achieving the level of recognition it has, in such a small amount of time, is surely justified.

How then has South Africa so significantly made its mark? Through many of my industry conversations, a collective voice has affirmed that innovation, determination, variety, and creativity that abound in the South African context are to thank.

As the MC at one of the 2019 Wines of South Africa Sommelier Cup events, I recall speaking with one of the finalists. Seeing a dazzled look on his face, I asked what he was pondering. I  have not forgotten his response, “You don’t know how lucky you are. You really have the world of wine – and all within two hour’s drive from Cape Town. You simply don’t find this elsewhere.”

Niel Groenewald is the Managing Director of Nederburg – one of the country’s most established wineries that falls under the umbrella company Distell. Reflecting on the South African context, he says “We have the oldest viticultural soils in the world. We have been making wine for over 350 years, winemakers and viticulturist working closely to bring out the best from the soil and understand the soil to grow multiple varieties successfully.”

There can be no celebration of varietals, without a relentless dedication and some innovation. Niel Groenewald, like so many of the country’s producers, speaks with much pride of what they have achieved: “We have the integrity and sustainability seal on our bottles and some of the strictest control systems in the world, ensuring full traceability and audit trail for social responsibility and sustainability. The diverse climate and regions bring interesting offerings to the global arena that can’t be copied and our price-quality equation on all quality levels are among the best in the world.”

The hallmark of innovation also plays a central role. The Constantia Wine Route gives a clear example of how  the elements of heritage and innovation needn’t be at odds for a New World producer. Although Constantia is both the country and Southern Hemisphere’s first wine-producing area, this proud heritage is complemented with a forward-thinking and constantly innovative approach to telling the story.

This month the region launches a South African first – a wine route completely dedicated to a single varietal. Since Sauvignon Blanc is where the valley hangs its hat, guests will be able to taste their way through eight experiences dedicated to the varietal, including current and older vintages. “It’s our terroir that makes our wines so distinctive,” commented the marketing manager of the wine route, Carryn Wiltshire. “Our winemakers work with the natural elements that make up the uniqueness of the Constantia wine region, producing world-class Sauvignon Blancs that have depth and character as they age.” And Constantia is only one of the many South African regions that are celebrating their unique terroir and finding creative ways to express the narrative of their vineyards.

Of course, part of South Africa’s uniqueness is its incomparable tourism offering. The Winelands is the country’s most visited tourism hotspot second only to the Cape Town Waterfront. An estimated 29% of all foreign visitor spending takes place in the Western Cape – a salutary effect for industry and introducing guests to our wine.

Speaking on South Africa, Tim Atkins, Master of Wine and leading commentator on New World Wines, penned in a recent report, “It remains a forward-looking place whose best days are ahead of it.” We’ll certainly raise a glass to that Tim.

Meet Salome Buys-Vermeulen

Salome Buys-Vermeulen is the winemaker at Lozarn Wines in the small village of Bonnievale, outside Robertson. She was quick to share why she considers South Africa to be such a key player in the global industry:

“South Africa was one of the very first New World winemaking countries and we certainly don’t have to stand back for the older more established countries. Through leading technology and research facilities within our own countries, we have certainly been able to establish our own niches and develop great styles. Very much true to our South African spirit, we don’t easily give up and I think even in the wine industry we have seen how boundaries have been tested and how new regions have formed because people believed it could work.”

I asked Salome, if as an emerging winemaker, she felt that in South Africa she had the benefit of being able to express her creativity and innovation?

“I think in a way yes – we don’t have the history and the stigma such as Old World winemaking countries where you have to adhere to strict rules and regulations in terms of what cultivars you are allowed in what region and how you make them, but of course that all happens within the rules and structure of the Wine & Spirit Board – Wines of South Africa.”

Salome also commented on the startling variety of cultivars in South Africa

“The fact that we can test all cultivars in different regions and even in smaller districts,helps that we don’t become narrow-minded and it also proves that Terroir is of the essence if we are willing to find that perfect spot. Carménère was that drawing card for us at Lozärn Wines.  By trying something new in our district, we have learned so much more from this cultivar – more than any book or source would have been willing to share, I think.”

Meet Berene Sauls

Berene Sauls is the owner and Winemaker of Tesselaarsdal Wines, not far from the Overberg’s Hemel-en-Aarde region. Her story is one firmly rooted in the history of the region, and already her maiden 2015 vintage has left its mark with wine writers and drinkers in South Africa and abroad. As a winemaker whose wines are exported and enjoyed internationally, I asked Berene what her thoughts were on South African wines on the global stand?

“South Africa produces some of the best wines in the world expressive of site, climate and origin.  Hemel-en-Aarde is known for cool maritime climate and clay-rich soils which are perfect for Burgundian Varieties Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and is often referenced to wines produced in Burgundy France.”

The Master of Wine, Greg Sherwood, referred to Berene’s Red Burgundy as the “next SA Pinot noir icon” and on the local scene, was rated 5 Stars in the John Platter Wine Guide. I asked her what her dreams were for the South African Wine Industry:

“To keep the standard of quality, producing the best wines suitable to its region and also as an owner of my own property in Tesselaarsdal Overberg, soon to be planted with vines, I would love to see more generational family-owned vineyards. Each with its unique history, adding to the already prestigious list of estates.”


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