spotlight on south africa
Over the course of the last few weeks, I've been trying wines from South African producers both familiar and unfamiliar to me. In the US, the focus for many producers has been to get a foothold in the important East Coast market before reaching California. It's therefore exciting to see that more and more South African producers are available here in the Golden State, and the quality of the wines is beginning to make an impression on industry insiders and consumers alike.
producers old and new
"The Swartland Revolution" was a late-2000s movement to pioneer and promote quality wines in Swartland, a warm, until-then neglected region in South Africa north of Cape Town. Original pioneers included Eben Sadie and AA Badenhorst lead the way in the quality of their wines and, just as importantly, in selling them. Their success has been followed by leading producer, Mullineux, a British-California couple who makes exceptional Syrah and Chenin Blanc. All of these three are based in Swartland, an incredibly exciting region where some of the best wine in South Africa is coming from. The quality of their wines at all price points helped introduce a new generation of drinkers to South Africa, which until recently was mostly associated with inexpensive, simple wine.
David & Nadia
They've been joined in California by another of my favorite producers whom I visited a few years ago, David & Nadia. They're another husband-wife team who have quietly established themselves over the last ten years, focusing on South Africa's heritage while ensuring a contemporary approach to grape-growing and winemaking. The wines are finally receiving proper distribution in California, and tI can wait to include them in future wine club shipments. They make wines from Chenin Blanc, Sémillon, Grenache, and Pinotage, and there is a real precision to them which gives them great ageing potential. Their Pinotage will absolutely make any drinker reassess their perception of that infamous variety, while the Grenache indicates that there should be much more of that great Mediterranean variety planted in Swartland and elsewhere.
Last week, I tried wines from a producer I wasn't familiar with, Craven. Mick and Jeanine Craven are an Australian-South African couple who met in Sonoma, before settling on Stellenbosch as the area for them to make quality wine. The Chenin Blanc I tried from Karib Vineyard in Stellenbosch was outstanding - lean and mineral - while the Cinsault, from just 2019, was so pretty and delicate. These two varieties are planted all over South Africa, but were generally used for just brandy and low-quality wine production. Now, there are plenty of old vines that survived a difficult twentieth century for South Africa which now produce intense, concentrated wines that are reshaping consumers' perceptions of the country.
the challenges of Covid-19
These are difficult times for South Africa, probably the wine country worst affected by Covid-19. Producers were fortunate to be able to farm the excellent 2020 harvest in March as Covid hit, but sales of alcohol across the country were prohibited from the end of March onwards. To make matters worse, exports were also banned for a time - to add to the confusion, the ban was lifted, before being reinstated, then removed once more. A ban on domestic sales of alcohol was once again imposed in July, only lifted last week.
These different regulations make it very difficult for the wine industry, not only to sell wine but to react to the laws which keep changing. Given that South Africa is not a rich country and is still in many ways recovering from apartheid, Covid-19 and the government's mixed response has caused yet another challenge the industry did not need.
support South Africa
Ever since I first visited South Africa a few years ago, I've been determined to support the wine industry whenever I can. It's not always easy, as there are still preconceptions about the quality and style of the wines. And just as the wines have been gaining some traction in the States, Covid-19 hit the industry hard.
But the producers mentioned above and many others have raised the quality of South African wine to a level it's never been at before. So next time you get a bottle of South African wine in your shipment, raise a glass to those hard-working winemakers, growers, and sales teams who have made it possible for you to enjoy such fine wine.