There’s been a lot of talk about how and why South African wine has changed in the past 10 or 20 years. Some suggest that, in response to the demands of the international market, we’ve lost our sense of place. Along the way, they say, we’ve also abandoned several varieties that were key to the styles produced before exports dominated the way producers planned their offerings.
In the world of wine, very little happens quickly. It takes five to eight years to establish vineyards properly. On average, it takes two years for the grape crop to go through the winery and reach the consumer. Add to this a reasonable ageing period, and the soonest you can really expect to record palpable change is a decade down the line. For the industry as a whole, it takes a great deal longer: you don’t decide to establish new vineyards overnight. You also wait for the nurseries to have enough planting material, for hard evidence that this won’t just be another short-lived fashion. You also need to understand what is required in terms of vinification, and to apply this to your new-generation fruit.
The stylistic changes in Cape wine which first appeared in the early 2000s are only now becoming an integral part of the Cape wine scene. This much was evident at a recent Constantia tasting. For example, while Steenberg’s Sauvignon Blanc Reserve has always been a benchmark (classically styled yet plush and zesty), both Klein Constantia (the standard release as well as the Perdeblokke), and Buitenverwachting’s Husseys Vlei now express themselves with more fullness on the palate, though without compromising their purity of line. When it comes to the reds, there was a particularly good 2009 Merlot from Buitenverwachting, a delicious Gouverneurs Reserve Bordeaux blend from Groot Constantia and a visibly more concentrated Cabernet (2010) from Klein Constantia to support the hypothesis.
This sense of a transformed industry is not simply limited to the so-called premium appellations. Wellington, recently declared a separate area of origin from Paarl and previously thought of as a source of rather too sumptuous reds, has seen the benefits of a changed planting profile. Doolhof, for example, now offers a beautifully integrated Bordeaux blend called Theseus. Here the role of Cabernet Franc has been crucial, delivering a fresh, savoury note to the wine and concealing the impression of alcohol on the palate. It sits comfortably alongside the cellar’s Malbec, which has lovely fynbos and lavender notes, well managed tannins, and a long, remarkably spicy finish.
Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent’s new Swartland venture, called Porseleinberg, produces one of the finest and most elegant Syrahs in South Africa. The first release (2010) is already sold out - at R500 a bottle, so it’s clearly a special occasion wine for punters willing to wait for an allocation. However, towards Barrydale is a 9ha property called Star Hill. Its wines are vinified at Arendsig and its 2010 Shiraz is a real steal at R85 from the cellar door. Then there’s Creation wines in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The Chardonnay 2011 is restrained, unshowy and beautifully concentrated. Stylistically it has the same elements as the cellar’s Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Reserve - the latest (also 2011) being one of the best examples of the cultivar made in the Cape. Surprisingly, however, the same "fit" is evident in the current release Creation Syrah: none of the sweet "bigness" that is now tarnishing the variety’s reputation in the Cape, instead the finesse and intensity which are the hallmarks of many of the new generation Cape wines.
Perhaps, more than variety or even origin, the defining feature of the change is the restraint being shown by the producers themselves. By getting more from healthier fruit and better clonal material, they’re interfering less. If the objective is the expression of fruit purity, the hand of the winemaker must be invisible.