Why our viticultural strengths far outweigh our weaknesses

There seems to be a continuous debate in our wine industry as to how good our wines are. This debate is not doing us as any good as we are simply shooting our selves in the foot. At the same time it is also doing us some good as we need to find out where our strengths and weaknesses lie so that we can realize our true potential.

The late great Ross Gower (once head winemaker at Klein Constantia) once taught me a great lesson about wine. He said “Look here, I learnt about winemaking Maori style in New Zealand. And my 1986 Klein Constantia sauv blanc was made in that vein, full throttle. But the thing is that the French make great French wine, the Italians make great Italian wine, and the Australians make great Australian wine and the South Africans make great South African wine.”

He went on to point out that no-one is in competition with each other. We all make great wine in our own way. The sad reality, however, is that we are in a very competitive wine world. So are what are our viticultural strengths and weaknesses? Our first great threat was phyloxerra. But that affected almost everyone except for Chile. It was really economic sanctions that nearly destroyed our wine industry. We did make great wine before 1994 that was authentic for its time but times have changed and our wine industry is growing positively and moving forwards rather than backwards.

The great mass debate continues in our wine industry as to whether our whites are better than our reds? I say that they are equally good in their own way. Yes, it is true that our whites are often more consistent in quality than our reds but that is at lower price levels. When it comes to our top end reds they still represent superior investment potential. This is simply because our reds possess a far more reliable aging pattern than our dry whites. Our top sauvignon blanc (particularly from cool areas like Elgin) can age ten years plus together with our top wooded chardonnays but with our reds we are looking at 25 years plus.

However, the flip side of the coin is that is really our entry level sauvignon blanc and chenin that are helping the wine farmers to pay their bills. We can also make soft easy drinking reds but they tend to be manipulated in the cellar and are not a true expression of our true terrior. We are a country of tannins and not acids. However, we need cash flow wines in both the red and white department. This is not cheating but simply following the natural life patterns and needs of the wine consumer and producer. We cannot only wait for Kanonkop Cabernet and Châteaux Latour. We also need Kanonkop Kadette and Beaujolais. The miracle of South African Sauvignon Blanc is that it is relatively inexpensive to produce, it drinks well both young and old and expresses the South African terrior at both the entry level and top end of the market.

As I have stated before we must not take the fact that we are adept at making great wine in both the red and white department for granted. Countries such as Germany and Canada struggle with their reds and New Zealand’s saving grace are her fine pinot noirs. On the sweet end of the bargain it is not our fault that sweet wines and particularly Sherries and ports seem to have gone out of fashion. But our desert wines appear to be on the verge of a renaissance. Our desert wines are garnering more and more 5 star ratings in John Platter. This is no accident but rather a natural expression of our terrior. I feel sad that our fortified muscadels do not receive the local and international attention that they deserve but I feel that the times are a changing. Nuy in Robertson must be very annoyed that their muscadel masterpieces sell for nothing but in their heart they know that they are making great wine.

This is not only a South African marketing challenge but an international one. The Aussies used to make their reputation from “stickies” or fortified sweet wines. Oz Clarke in his classic “New Classic Wines” explains how Yalumba had to reinvent themselves from Smith & Sons (a company that made everything under the sun) to a company that made wine for a wine consumer that saw sweet wines as inferior to dry ones.

One of South Africa’s great viticultural strengths is that even though we produce great cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc with ease there is always someone making other varieties with which we struggle at a high level. See Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson re pinot noir and Klein Constantia, Hartenberg and Thelema re Rhine Riesling. Angelo Lloyd in a recent article for Grape pointed out that perhaps Alsace varieties such as pinot gris and gewürztraminer remain unexplored potential in the SA terrior. And perhaps she has a point…

In the South African wine making world there is always someone making great wine somewhere. Pinotage will turn out to be our Nelson Mandela. The trick is for us to hold our heads up high and keep our pride. At the same time we have to maintain our humility. If we don’t believe in ourselves no-one else will.

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