Impressions on South Africa’s Wines

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-27-2011

La Motte

La Motte’s Hein Koegelenberg can move seamlessly from talking about the global debt crisis to China’s version of Facebook to Robert Mondavi’s business acumen.

As one might guess, it was that last topic that the two of us – together with Anthony Barne MW and La Motte’s cellarmaster, Edmund Terblanche – spent the better part of two hours discussing.

Mondavi was so successful, in Koegelenberg’s opinion, because he was able to build such a strong brand. And for South Africa to expand its footprint in the global marketplace, Koegelenberg believes that wineries must find their niche and then promote their brands.

Koegelenberg is banking on being right.

Under his guidance, the La Motte estate has opened a world-class restaurant, a museum, and a farm shop. Koegelenberg wants the estate to be a tourism destination, as he recognizes that in order for La Motte to succeed as a global brand, he must sell a lifestyle – not just expensive wines.

At the same time, Koegelenberg is building an affordable wine brand called Leopard’s Leap, a mass-market producer that’s seeking to “enable consumers to experience wines where quality and affordability are not mutually exclusive.” Right now, Leopard’s Leap is selling about 600,000 cases annually, but Koegelenberg would like its size to increase.

I think Koegelenberg’s strategy is spot-on.

Other wineries are surely paying attention to his efforts, as South Africa is still finding its footing in the global market. It wasn’t until 1993 that the Western world lifted South African trade sanctions. And even today, South Africa is struggling to gain more traction in the American market. Although the United States consumes more wine than any other nation on earth, it’s only South Africa’s seventh-largest export market.

A chameleon spotted at Jordan Wine Estate.

I was in South Africa to speak at the 37th Annual Nederburg Rare South African Wine Auction, and while there, I tasted hundreds of wines. (Notes on the wines I tasted formally are available here.)

Many were delicious. I had stunning examples of just about every varietal. So even though many New World wine regions are known for one specific grape (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; Argentinian Malbec; Australian Shiraz), South Africa shouldn’t pursue such a path.

For starters, Pinotage is never going to catch on.

I tasted more than a dozen, and only two — one from Nederburg that was meaty, smoky and fruity; and one from journalist Neil Pendock that tasted like a rustic, old vine Grenache — were enjoyable. The rest, to varying degrees, smelled of “sweaty horse,” likely due to the specific strain of Brettanomyces that Pinotage is particularly vulnerable to.

Even if this issue is fully resolved, too many consumers have had bad experiences with Pinotage to give the varietal a fair shake. (Interestingly, Pinotage is quite polarizing in South Africa. While some winemakers promote the grape with patriotic fervor, others wish it had never been invented.)

And as much as it pains me to write this, it won’t be Chenin Blanc, either. The varietal’s versatility is both a blessing and a curse.

Hanging out at Cape Point Vineyards.

A huge number of the Chenin Blancs I tasted were delightful – but the style was all over the map. Some were bone dry and others were lusciously sweet. Many were fermented in stainless steel; others fermented and aged in oak.

Just as “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” is successful because it means something specific, the only way “South African Chenin Blanc” can make huge inroads to the global market would be with a predictable profile. And this would be a mistake.

Brands are also the way forward for South Africa because the predictable problems one encounters with the nation’s subpar wines would turn off many drinkers.

While half the wines I had were somewhere between “really good” and “wow, this is excellent,” the other half were marked by greenness. Too many Cabernet Sauvignons (and Bordeaux-style blends) were under-ripe and over-oaked. Too many of the Sauvignon Blancs were excessively green – chock-full of over-the-hill asparagus and green peppers rather than grass, gooseberries, and passionfruit.

These flavor profiles can probably be attributed to (and blamed on) the local palate. Just as many Americans love over-ripe, syrupy Zinfandel and Chardonnay that tastes like excessively buttered movie theater popcorn, many South Africans appear to like wines that are too herbaceous.

Posing with Razvan Macici, the cellarmaster at Nederburg.

The top wineries, though, are producing wines that are second-to-none.

At the aforementioned La Motte, the Shiraz and Rhone-style blends were delicious – delicate and juicy, yet concentrated and ripe. They were absolutely stunning.

At Glen Carlou, I tasted a number of good wines – but it was the Chardonnays that really stood out. The winery’s Quartz Stone bottlings could easily compete in any global lineup of expensive Chardonnays. The Chardonnays at Jordan Wine Estate (called Jardin in the United States) were also pretty incredible.

At Cape Point Vineyards, I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc that was out of this world. All the Chenin Blancs at Kleine Zalze Estate were excellent. The Cabernet Sauvignons from Le Riche and Tokara were lovely. Across the board, the wines from Le Bonheur were great.

And if you like Sauternes, Tokaji, and late-harvest Chenin Blanc from Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, you should stock your cellar with Nederburg’s sweet wines. They were heavenly.

These are the brands that I’ll be seeking out, and I’m sure there are many others — as my experience was just a snapshot. There are countless more South African wines to taste. Until next time!

Comments (4)

  1. HI David,

    Some interesting points and many I agree with! Was lovely to meet you and thanks for your excellent talk at the Auction. Hopefully SA will welcome you back soon to experience more great wines – last weekend I discovered the beautiful Creation Sauvignon Blanc from the cool Hemel en Aarde region which is chock full of passion fruit.

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  3. I enjoyed reading your post on your impressions on the wines you tasted, and enjoyed meeting you at the auction. I tend to agree with you on Pinotage and have never been a big fan. I think we cling to it because its unique and the variety we can call our own.

  4. [...] met Sebastian on my recent trip to South Africa, and then caught up with him again just a couple weeks later at Cape Wine Europe. All of [...]