South African wine has taken off at breakneck speed in Britain - we now drink more of it than French wine. Fiona Sims visits some of the region's most exciting producers to find which wines are of ‘must list' status.
If you have been following the wine press you will have already heard that the British now drink more South African wine than French. South Africa has swept the board with sales up 23% by volume over the last year, pipping the French to the post by some 4,000 cases. And we haven't even got to the World Cup yet.
A lot of this is down to cheaper high street brands - such as First Cape, which saw an increase of 73% by value and almost 80% by volume last year; and Kumala, Arniston Bay, Two Oceans and KWV - but mid to higher end brands are making their mark, too. South Africa is working its way into our shopping baskets - and increasingly onto our restaurant lists, achieving "must list" status.
Marketing body Wines of South Africa couldn't be happier. Its Cape Town head of communications, Andre Morgenthal, says: "The wines are better quality, yes; but it's also down to the individual producers' efforts to maintain a foothold in a recession that has seen people ‘downtrading' to South Africa from France, tapping into the failure of its competitors."
Ouch. The French won't like that. Just 20 years ago 95% of the wine we drank was European - and look at us now, waxing lyrical about Robertson, and in raptures over Swartland. These are South African wine regions, of course, which have been busy setting out their stall - Chardonnay for Robertson, and Syrah for Swartland - but also still frantically working out what works best where.
There's an energy and passion in South Africa that is infectious. It is mirrored in the restaurant industry, whose top chefs, like the top winemakers, have stopped aping its established counterparts elsewhere around the globe, and created their own distinct style.
And it's happening at breakneck speed. Remember that South Africa has only really been exporting wine for 16 years, since the fall of apartheid heralded the lifting of sanctions. The country is now the world's seventh largest wine producer, with more than 585 wineries, and a new generation of wine estates.
The new breed of winemakers have familiarised themselves with the rest of the vinous world and are more open to criticism, producing some revolutionary wines with a true South African identity. They are showing how fast they can absorb and adapt new techniques and fashions in wine styles, while focusing on improving quality, from ripping up diseased under-producing vines to understanding better which clones are best suited to local conditions.
Wine has actually been made in South Africa since the mid 17th century - a much longer history of winemaking than Australia or California, so it's not so New World after all. From their modest beginnings in the Dutch East India Company's gardens below Table Mountain, South Africa's vineyards now spread over 112,000 hectares, and there are more than 60 wine wards, with new wineries going up all the time - many backed by foreign investors.
A VISIT TO THE VINEYARDS
We toured South Africa in February to visit some of the region's most exciting producers, and to find out how their style of wine has evolved. White wines still dominate here, with Chenin Blanc ruling the roost, followed by Colombard, then Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Cabernet Sauvignon leads the way for South Africa's reds, followed by Shiraz, Merlot and homegrown grape Pinotage.
Our first stop was Franschhoek (meaning French quarter, a hangover from the Huguenot settlers). Technically a sub-region of Paarl, it has established a reputation in its own right thanks to a handful of top producers, from Marc Kent at Boekenhoutskloofto Gottfried Mocke at Cape Chamonix.
Mocke reckons too much copying of other countries' wine styles has held South Africa back in the past.
"It's not gone exactly in the right direction - though that is changing. Winemakers are creating their own styles now," he says.
"South Africa is 3,000 years older than Europe - there are so many different soils in just one small area and so many different microclimates. We need to experiment a lot more - do more exciting stuff," he urges.
Mocke is doing some exciting stuff. His Chardonnay is something else - dry-farmed and barrel-fermented, it gives Puligny a run for its money. Mocke's quite happy with the fruit he's got, from the estate's own vineyards, which are the highest in the area.
"In fact, I think everybody should be concentrating their efforts on growing grapes in higher altitude areas," he declares. "That's if the baboons don't get there first!"
Organic grape growing is another key to South Africa's unfolding success, reckons Kent, who has just snapped up an organic vineyard in Swartland, a region creating a stir.
"The transition from organic to biodynamic has been slow here because it's easier to farm conventionally. But I think in 10 years, if you are not an organic player, then you are not in the game - not just here in South Africa, but globally," predicts Kent, who buys in the majority of his grapes - some biodynamically produced - for his flagship wine, a Syrah blend called the Chocolate Block.
He's particularly excited about Swartland. "I was already buying grapes there, so I ended up buying the farm. The Syrah from there is the best we've worked with," he enthuses.
Swartland certainly lives up to the hype. We tasted through a line-up of wines and the majority had a purity of fruit with no sign of over-ripeness, and a sought-after minerality.
Isolated in winemaking terms until fairly recently, yet only an hour or so from Cape Town, moderating sea breezes roll in over Swartland every day around 3pm, helping to keep diseases at bay.
There is lots of sustainable viticulture going on here, gradually nudging out the wheat fields, which still dominate the region. The reds whiff of the fynbos (the local flora and fauna), while whites, particularly Chenin Blanc, come from old vineyards with plenty of power, and Rhône styles rule - making for some exciting blends.
Ten years ago there were only four wineries here; now there are 23, from small outfits such as Mullineux Family Wines, to larger operators such as the Swartland Winery.
"We used to live in Tulbagh and buy a lot of grapes from Swartland so we knew its potential," says Chris Mullineux, who with his wife Andrea is making some of the region's - and South Africa's - most talked about wines. "We knew there were these exciting old vineyards, and that we could lease them and make some exciting wine from year one."
And that's what they did - with their 2008 blend of Chenin Blanc, Clairette Blanc and Viognier.
"Chenin is the backbone of the blend, then we use Viognier for aroma and Clairette to keep the alcohol levels in check - we believe by blending we can make a complete, more balanced wine," Mullineux explains, crediting fellow Swartland winemakers Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst for leading the way here.
Sadie is South Africa's most talked about producer. Still only 36, he has notched up experience in the world's top vineyards to hone his skills, before bringing them back to Swartland, excited by its numerous soil types. He has made his name with Syrah and Mourvèdre (in Columella) and with Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Clairette and Chardonnay (yes, in one blend) in his celebrated white, Palladius.
Though it's not all about blends in Swartland. We also enjoyed Kloovenburg Vineyards' single varietals, made by Pieter du Toit, particularly the Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and Shiraz.
THE HUB OF WINEMAKING
So from off the beaten track and back to the hub - Stellenbosch is the capital of winemaking in South Africa, and packed to the rafters with pioneers. Top of that list must be Bruwer Raats, celebrating his 10th anniversary this year.
"There are so many producers in South Africa who are trying to be everything to everybody. They can make some nice wines, but never exceptional wines, so I decided that I would focus," explains Raats, with typical directness.
"Every man and his dog has planted Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but nobody had put their hands up to say ‘I want to make the best Chenin Blanc'. It was treated as a workhorse grape - but if you treat it like that it will never make a thoroughbred," he argues, doing just that. After a painstaking search for the right soils and conditions, Raats now produces sensational Chenin Blanc, and has thrown himself into notoriously fickle Cabernet Franc, managing to extract something equally special.
Though it's not just the young guns that are shaking things up. Even a stalwart such as Klein Constantia in Constantia, the oldest wine region in South Africa, is rethinking its approach to winemaking. It is converting all its vineyards to sustainable viticulture - something South Africa is getting rather good at.
"People say we can't do it because of our long history - I hate that. It's about challenging the conventional methods of farming," explains winemaker Adam Mason.
This includes introducing cover crops, such as oats and lupins, to fix nitrogen levels in the soil so that they don't have to add chemical fertilizers. "And we've looked at each block independently - I think the results will be positive," explains Mason. "We believe this approach is the way forward - how can you raise the levels of your wine if you are farming by numbers? There's no turning back for us."
Exciting stuff, and the best is yet to come. "I don't think South Africa is producing its best wines yet," ventures another name to watch, Duncan Savage, at Cape Point Vineyards, who made our favourite Sauvignon Blanc of the trip, barrel fermented, from its Isliedh vineyard. "But we are one of the few countries with explosive potential once we discover our identity. There's a wealth of viticultural resources that we've only just discovered."
Raats agrees. "France doesn't own terroirs - we have terroirs, too. I think we've only just started to discover our true potential, and it's time to show it off - and the World Cup should give us that platform," he adds, with a grin.
Wine has been made in South Africa since the 17th century - a much longer history of winemaking than Australia or California, so it's not so New World after all
WHERE TO FIND THE FINEST SOUTH AFRICA HAS TO OFFER
Selected producers in the Franschhoek region
Richards Walford & Co for Gottfried Mocke at Bon Cap and Eben Sadie at Swartland
Berry Bros & Rudd for the Mullineux Chenin Blanc, Clairette Blanc and Viognier
Bibendum for Kloovenburg Vineyards' single varietals
Alliance Wine for Bruwer Raats Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc
Mentzendorff for Klein Constantia's sustainable viticultures
To find out more about South African wine go to