South Africa: the winds of change

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A re-visit reveals a maturing wine industry It was nine years since I had visited South Africa's winelands, and I had to own up to a twinge or two...

A re-visit reveals a maturing wine industry

It was nine years since I had visited South Africa's winelands, and I had to own up to a twinge or two as I landed there in early last month. The previous visit came two years after the country finally abandoned apartheid with democratic elections in April 1994. The "rainbow nation" was born, and as a consquence, British consumers were eagerly buying its wine, which they had shunned until then.

I was keen, back in 1996, to find out how quickly things were changing ­ and the answer, in the conservative Western Cape (the only part of South Africa still dominated by the National Party) was "not very". Radio interviews which I recorded then for Radio 4's Food Programme with the frank and courageous John and Erica Platter, South Africa's leading wine journalists, led to them being pilloried locally as traitors ­ so much so that they were forced to leave the Cape. This was an unforeseen consequence for which I felt some responsibility.

We met subsequently; they wrote a fine book about winemaking called Africa Uncorked; and the magnificent annual John Platter South African Wine Guide guide has continued to go from strength to strength under publisher Andrew McDowell and editor Philip van Zyl. Everyone, in other words, moved on.

Rise of new talent

And now? When I spoke earlier this month to Mohammed Karaan, a lecturer in Agricultural Economics at Stellenbosch University and chair of the National Agricultural Monitoring Council, he told me that there was still a lot of "embedded paternalism" in the wine industry, and that change had been much slower.

For example, the industry had only 36 black ownership schemes in operation, and half of those, he felt, were liable to fail. Yet despite that, he said, there was "an upbeat feel" in the winelands, and a sense of opening opportunities.

One quarter of the shareholding in South Africa's giant KWV had recently been acquired by a black empowerment consortium including KWV workers, leading black wineland individuals and even the shebeen owners' group, and Government incentives via a black empowerment "scorecard" system were beginning to have results elsewhere, too. At least one major wine estate, Boschendal, is now partly black-owned. And the National Party was no more.

At a practical level, I'd travelled to South Africa to judge at the Fairbairn Capital Wine Show, and two of the black winemakers I met during that week, Mzo Mvemve and Carmen Stevens, had the confidence that was hard to find among any wine-industry non-whites nine years ago. They were there by merit, not tokenism; wine was their business, their future.

Give it 30 years, I felt, and South Africa should indeed be able to offer the world its first rainbow wine industry.

Taming of wild reds

The wines of South Africa, too, have moved on. Nine years ago the more ambitious reds, in particular, were often brutal and violent in flavour, while the whites were often good value though rather simple and short.

This time the best reds were much softer, while the best white wines were fuller and more poised. More diverse, too: fragrant, crisp Sauvignon Blanc has now joined orchard-fruit Chenin Blanc and softly lemony Chardonnay as a major South African variety, and Semillon is producing some really well-balanced, creamy whites there, too.

Many South Africans remain sceptical about the country's own Pinotage red grape variety, but in my experience, British drinkers tend to enjoy the exuberant, uncompromising, pungent character of this Pinot Noir-Cinsaut cross.

Cabernet-Merlot blends work well in the Cape, with a naturally fresh and lively balance which eludes the warmer parts of the Southern Hemisphere, but as so often nowadays it's Shiraz or Syrah that is providing the most excitement. I'm not sure whether this is due to the naturally vivacious character of the variety, or to the fact that much of the Western Cape has the kind of decomposed granite soils which Syrah loves, but whatever the truth, this is the grape that is providing many of the newest cult wines down at the continent's tip.

Keep your eye on South Africa, especially as the all-important 2010 World Cup begins to pull into view next year.

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