20 years in the wine industry

While it is fashionable to describe hindsight as an exact science, looking back (as Mrs Lot discovered) is not without its perils. For a start, as countless courtrooms have witnessed in the cross-examination of witnesses to an accident, not everyone sees the same events in the same way. Memory is also imperfect: people interpret the past through the eyes of the present and vice versa. What seem like factual certainties are contaminated by an emotional astigmatism.

It’s really quite difficult to remember the Cape wine industry as it was in the pre-1994 era: an entire generation of winemakers has grown up without the regulations of the old KWV Act (designed to minimise surpluses) constraining innovation or creativity. Winemakers now in their 40s have no knowledge of a time of economic and political isolation when they could not travel abroad to talk about their wine or to attend trade shows. Their colleagues of the same age in sales and management probably cannot imagine a market made up solely of domestic consumers, with most other production treated as surplus and subject to mandatory minimum wine prices.

Two decades ago the Cape wine industry was just beginning to emerge from the constraints of quasi-state control. Nominally independent, and representative of the 4 500 mainly white farmers who were its members, the KWV enjoyed wide powers to control every aspect of the industry, from receipt and dissemination of planting material to floor prices for wine and wine products. Although it had begun to dismantle some of the claustrophobic control structures (planting permits, known as ‘quotas’, had been allowed to lapse a few years before) it was still the industry’s cradle-to-grave caregiver and caretaker. In the sanctions era, it was pretty much the sole exporter, moving vast quantities of bulk wine into world markets by conveniently ‘amending’ the paper work to reflect more acceptable areas of origin.

As a result, most producers had no real sense of what was happening in international markets and therefore no clear idea of the expectations of international consumers. While there were some superb, if somewhat rustic, wines made in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, by the 1980s wine qualities reflected something of this isolationist mindset. Fruit was generally harvested before it was phenolically ripe: sugar levels in the grapes, rather than other indicators, were used to determine harvest dates. The berry selection for this process was left to untrained vineyard workers, so that even the sugar readings were not a fair reflection of the average of a block. Acid additions were standard, except at the most carefully managed and most technically competent cellars. The fashion for new (mainly French) wood was rampant but the quality of the barrels being supplied was often doubtful. To go with the astringent tannins of underripe fruit came sappy oak notes, harsh acidities and herbal lean textures. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that international supermarket buyers set low average price points for Cape wine – a burden which obviously afflicts producers even today.

Vineyards were planted mainly to bulk white varieties and were farmed accordingly. Yields took precedence over quality. At the same time it was clear that demand was strongest for more premium red cultivars and plantings had begun switching in this direction well ahead of 1994. This in turn meant that a significant percentage of the bulk reds came from young vines – often from the inferior clonal material that the statutory Vine Improvement Board fed into the distribution channels.

Winemaking was often pedestrian – unsurprising in an industry which had long been dominated by cooperatives servicing the demand of a small but powerful group of wholesalers. Fruit selection – especially at the crush – was the exception not the rule; cellar hygiene cursory at best. Faults and defects abounded – brettanomyces, for example, was largely unrecognised and winemakers often celebrated the ‘complexity’ it brought to their young wines.

It should come as no surprise that when John Platter and I hatched a plot to set up a wine ‘test match’ with Australia – mainly to shock the industry out of its complacency – producers were generally naïve enough to play along. The result – a 78-21 drubbing – shocked even the realists (and made the Cape a fairly hostile place for both of us for a while). On the other hand, it did jumpstart a dramatic learning experience, one that was embraced particularly by the younger winemakers. Within a few years South Africa had won the Cowra Chardonnay Challenge (beating Australia and New Zealand in a three-way tie) and for the past few years has distinguished itself in an annual New World competition hosted in Sydney. (The event began as the Tri-Nations Challenge and became the Six Nations Challenge in 2013 when entries from the United States were included with those from Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa.)

In many other ways the industry has transformed. The large wholesalers have all upped their game. Distell (formed from the merger of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Distillers/The Bergkelder) has been making increasingly fine wines, the KWV (now simply a mid-size producer) offers a striking premium selection and DGB delivers competitive quality at every price point. The long-established estates and private cellars have maintained their market share by keeping pace with the progress which has been a defining feature of the post-1994 Cape wine industry.

A very visible change has come from the massive increase in the number of producing cellars – from fewer than 200 in the early 1990s to around 600 today. High-profile foreign owners with an established reputation developed in mainly northern hemisphere vineyard areas are part of this group. (Glenelly in Stellenbosch is owned by May de Lencquesaing, formerly proprietor of Chateau Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, Mulderbosch and Fable Mountain Vineyards by a syndicate led by Charles Bank of Screaming Eagle in California fame, Klein Constantia by a group which includes Chateau Angelus’ Hubert du Bouard.)

Others have emerged from the community of grape farmers who have elected to build their own production facilities and develop their own labels. Still others have come from a pioneer band who, free of the restrictions of the quota system, are opening up wholly new areas of origin. Both have been joined by an increasingly important boutique grouping (almost half of the country’s wineries produce less than 7 000 cases). Some have identified parcels of old vines, the fruit of which used to go to the co-ops, others make a few barrels from experimental sites often hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of kilometres away from the epicentre of the industry.

In many ways, South Africa is one of the new frontiers in the world of wine. Despite the antiquity of the industry, a heritage which stretches back over 350 years, despite sites, estates and appellations which have been in continuous production for almost four centuries, it has come to embody a spirit of discovery. With a regulatory environment which demands transparency and authenticity but which is responsive to the innovations of the ever-changing landscape, producers can combine the precision of origin with craft production techniques. It should come as no surprise to discover that the two regions which presently dominate the quality end of the spectrum are Stellenbosch and the Swartland. The former has been home to many of the great estates established in the 17th century while the latter was only recently re-discovered by the new-generation winemakers of the post-Apartheid era.

In the past 20 years the South African wine industry has gone from the most hidebound in the world to quite possibly the most dynamic; it has passed from over-confident to self-doubting before becoming centred. It is aware of its strengths, conscious of its limitations, ready to confront its challenges. Inspired by its prospects, it is making peace with its past. In short, it has come of age.

  – Michael Fridjhon

Deel.

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