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Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 3

Hamilton Russell Daycare 2007
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards preschool kids, 2007 (Jacky Blisson)

It is no secret that South Africa has a decidedly chequered past when it comes to human rights. Driving through the vast shanty towns that surround major and even minor cities nation-wide, it is apparent that inequality is still rife today. And yet, as a Canadian descendent of European settlers, it would be hypocritical of me to point fingers. The racial segregation and abuses to which our own indigenous populations have long been subjected are equally disgraceful.

In 2011, Human Right’s Watch published a damning report on the conditions of South African farm workers, with particular emphasis on fruit and wine farms in the Western Cape. Unacceptable living conditions, illegal evictions, alcoholism, dangerous pesticide exposure and obstruction to joining unions were just some of the highlighted concerns. Further fuel was added to the fire last year, when an inflammatory Danish documentary surfaced depicting slavery-like situations on certain estates.

The national, promotional body: Wines of South Africa responded to the ensuing negative press with the following statement: ‘The South African wine industry has come a long way in recent years … to improve the sustainability of one of its biggest assets – the workers. Whilst we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done, there are numerous programmes that include social upliftment, housing, land reform, education, skills and medical care for farm workers and their families. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of bodies such as WIETA and Fairtrade, there are regular audits across the board… It will take time, but the reality is that change is taking place, even despite many wine farmers running their businesses on very tight margins.’

Chris Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines in the Swartland asserts ‘there is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of farmers are doing their best to uplift their workers lives and in many cases you can see they visibly are being improved’. And this, despite the many challenges the industry faces. He explains that the South African wine sector, unlike the majority of wine producing countries, does not receive any government subsidies, and is at the mercy of a volatile exchange rate and high rate of inflation. Roughly 50% of South African wine is sold in bulk at very low prices, with the wineries often operating at a loss.

‘There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of farmers are doing their best to uplift their workers lives…’

This cycle of unsustainably low purchase prices from major retailers is effectively slowing the pace of progress, according to US-based South African fine wine importer Pascal Schildt. ‘Quality has massively improved over the past decade, but prices have not risen apace. Consumers need to be encouraged to trade up a few dollars, thereby allowing retailers to adjust their buying habits’.

As in most industries, buying the cheapest quality available is (more often than not) tantamount to supporting labour exploitation. A marginal shift upwards can make a huge difference to a wine estate’s ability to adequately compensate workers, with the added bonus of providing significantly more pleasure in the glass.

Just as the conscience minded among us try to buy local and/ or sustainably produced goods, we as wine drinkers can initiate change by supporting South African wine producers that are making the necessary efforts to treat workers fairly. And, despite a murky track record and the obstacles outlined above, significant improvements are to be found on a vast number of wine farms.

Quality has massively improved over the past decade, but prices have not risen apace’.

One of the pioneers of this movement is highly respected Elgin estate Paul Cluver. Their Thandi brand of wines was the first agriculturally-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) project back in 1995. Thandi Wines went on to become the first Fair Trade certified wine brand in the world, funneling back profits to community upliftment projects like education, healthcare, housing improvements and so forth.

Top ranked Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay runs the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley pre-school on their property, accepting under priveledged children from through out the community, in the hopes that a strong early educational base will set them in good stead to succeed in their future schooling. Countless other such projects exist throughout the Cape winelands. See a list of great initiatives compiled by Wines of South Africa here.

Seeking out wines that hold the Fair Trade or WIETA (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association) accreditation is an increasingly sound way to ensure the purchase of equitably produced wines. South Africa is currently the largest producer of Fair Trade wine in the world, with over 76 certified farms employing over 3000 workers. Fair Trade products are labelled with a distinctive logo, making them easy to identify. WIETA is another standard bearer, working to ensure that fair wages and acceptable labour conditions are upheld in the South African wine trade. A large number of South African wineries are members (see full list here) and are regularly audited to ensure that they meet the required norms.

South Africa is currently the largest producer of Fair Trade wine in the world.

If there is one thing that struck me during my harvest work and travels through South Africa, it was the ardent desire of wineries to prove themselves on the world stage. On the whole, they are a passionate, enthusiastic community commited to throwing off the shackles of the past. While injustices are still rampant, significant efforts are being made by many wine farms to redress the situation. Our responsability as consumers is to champion the leaders of this movement.

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 2

Swartland vineyards
Photo Credit: Swartland vineyards, Wines of South Africa

In part 2 of my South Africa series, I look at some of the exciting Western Cape wine growing districts and wine producers cropping up on our liquor board shelfs. Click here for a map of the Cape winelands (courtesy of Wines of South Africa). 

The majority of South Africa’s vineyards are situated in the Western Cape, in proximity to the coast whose cooling influence tempers the otherwise baking hot growing season. This results in good acid retention and balanced wines.  Value priced offerings will often be labeled under this large, generic region or the sub-zone of the Coastal Region. These wines can be blended from across their delimited territories.

Smaller sub-divisions (named districts and wards) exist when we move up the ladder to mid-range and premium priced wines. Within these smaller vineyard areas, more specific styles emerge. The following are just a handful of the most exciting, high quality districts that we are starting to see in regular rotation here:

ELGIN: Attractively aromatic whites and vibrant light reds flourish here due to the combined cooling influence of southerly winds and moderate elevation (350 metres above sea level). Elgin lies in a basin of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, south-east of Stellenbosch.

Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc make up the bulk of white wine production, while Pinot Noir and Syrah account for much of the red wine. Paul Cluver is an excellent, mid-sized Elgin producer making consistently high quality, good value whites and reds.

STELLENBOSCH: Likely the best-known district of the Cape Winelands, wine production in Stellenbosch dates back to the 17th century. Less than one hour’s drive due east of Cape Town, the terrain here is mountainous with sufficient rainfall and well-drained soils. While a wide diversity of soil types and mesoclimates exist (owing to the varying exposition and altitude of plantings), many of the most prized vineyard sites lie on ancient decomposed granite or sandstone beds. The climate is generally hot and dry, with cooling afternoon breezes from the south-east.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king here, though Pinotage, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced in abundance. Over 170 wine producers call Stellenbosch home, and trade continues to flourish. Among the many excellent wineries, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Vergelegen produces good, mid-range to premium priced Bordeaux Blends, Waterkloof for fantastic, biodynamic Rhône style blends and Ken Forrester for clean, consistent, good value old vine Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

SWARTLAND: Traditionally a wheat-producing region, the Swartland (65km north of Cape Town) has been making waves on the international wine scene in recent years as the hot, new growing region of South Africa. Hot is indeed an apt descriptor, as well as dry, making hardy, drought resistant bush vines a common occurrence. The dominant soil type is shale, with pockets of granite and schist providing interesting alternative terroirs.

The Mediterranean climate makes for excellent Rhône style reds. Lovely Chenin Blanc is also grown here. The excitement generated by Swartland’s star producers is largely justified. Fantastic, affordable quality can be found from the Kloof Street (from the Mullineux Family Wines), A.A. Badenhorst and Leeuwenkuil (bright, juicy Cinsault). Exceptional, premium to luxury priced wines from: Mullineux Family Wines and The Sadie Family.

TULBAGH MOUNTAINS: A fairly secluded valley, inland from the Swartland, encircled by mountains to the west, north and east. Due to this unique topography, cool night time air becomes trapped in the vineyards making for chilly morning temperatures that gradually rise in the hot afternoons. Soils are quite varied making for a wide variety of styles. Only 13 wine producers reside here at present, but the acclaim of their wines speaks volumes.

Traditional method sparkling wines, called ‘Méthode Cap Classique’ are gaining traction here. Syrah and Rhône blend whites are also performing well. Krone produces easy drinking, competitively priced sparkling wines, while Fable Mountain Vineyards is garnering top accolades for their premium white and red Rhône blends.

WALKER BAY: This pretty district extends from the town of Hermanus on the south coast of the Western Cape, with the majority of top-rated vineyards lying in the aptly named Hemel-en-Aarde valley (meaning Heaven and Earth). The close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean brings cooling breezes that temper the otherwise hot climate. Clay-rich soils bring a firm structure to the wines. I spent many a happy month here, working harvest and sampling my way through the vibrant, juicy wines of the region.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the star grapes of the area, though Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinotage are also gaining in popularity. Hamilton-Russell Vineyards has a long-standing reputation for fine, premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard-Finlayson makes very precise, focused wines from ranging from attractively fruity mid-range whites to premium Pinot Noir. Crystallum Wines regularly impresses me with their beautifully creamy, complex wines.

 

Education

The Renaissance of South African Wine – Part 1

Hamilton Russell Estate
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards (by Jacky Blisson)

In Canada, we are often a little late to the party when it comes to new wine trends. So, if you still think South Africa is only good for inexpensive, nondescript white wines, you are forgiven. After all, that is pretty much all our liquor boards were stocking for years. Happily, all that is changing.

Read on for a three part series on the renaissance of the South African wine industry: why South Africa was typecast in a cheap ‘n cheerful role and how the industry has changed, what exciting regions to look for, and finally the people behind the wines.

South African wine producers often flinch when they see their wines lumped in to the ‘New World’ wine category. Indeed, the history of winemaking dates back to 1655, with the establishment of the country’s first vineyard by then governor Jan van Riebeeck. This may seem relatively recent when compared with the first Calabrian vines planted around 1500 B.C. And it may not appear to massively pre-date the Californian and Australian industries, which both originated in the late 1700s.

What makes South Africa stand apart from other New World regions in historical terms, is how quickly Cape wines rose to international prominence. While most other non-European wine producing nations saw little growth, and minimal export sales until the late 1900s, the sweet wines of Constantia were sought after by the European ruling class in the 1700s. According to the Oxford Wine Companion, Napoleon himself had the wine shipped in during his exile on St. Helena.

Despite this promising start, a series of misfortunes befell South African wine growers which slowly eroded the high quality image the famed Constantia wine or ‘Vin de Constance’ had brought. Pests in the form of voracious, grape eating birds meant that many estates picked too early resulting in thin, acidic wines. The Phylloxera epidemic followed, decimating over a quarter of the country’s plantings by 1890.

Partly in response to the variable wine quality and poor financial returns of so many wine farmers, a ‘super cooperative’ was formed in 1915 to bring unity and improve conditions. In short order, the KWV (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika) became a powerful, controlling force in the South African wine industry. They were responsible for setting grape and wine prices, as well as quotas for wine production. Growers were incentivized on quantity, leading to ever increasing yields.

The international sanctions imposed by the apartheid regime led to a period of isolation. South African producers were cut off from the latest innovations in viticultural and vinification techniques, and lost touch with changing international tastes and trends.

With Mandela’s liberation from prison in 1990 came a resurgence in international interest for South African wines. Sadly, by this point, most of the nation’s vineyards were in a poor state. Vineyard virus was rampant. The grape varieties planted were unfashionable; mainly Chenin Blanc, Sultana and Colombard. Wine quality was, on the whole, pretty dismal.

Given the often thin, reedy nature of the whites and astringency of the (under-ripe) reds, major market were only willing to buy in at very low rates, positioning the wines at rock bottom prices on shelf.  This set a precedent that has proved difficult for South Africa to shake off.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the situation is radically different. The number of individual estates has more than doubled, with a growing number of small, boutique wineries commanding widespread acclaim. Massive advancements have been made in eradicating vineyard virus, reducing yields, achieving optimal ripening conditions and planting grape varieties best suited to individual vineyard sites.

The European and American press have been effusive in their praise of the new wave of top quality South African wines. Neal Martin, of Robert Parker fame, has proclaimed South Africa ‘the most dynamic and exciting New World country’. Tim Atkin MW, echoes this view, calling the wines ‘world class’.

In 2007, I spent a few months working the harvest at the top-rated Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay, and touring the wineries of the Western Cape. I saw first hand the incredible strides in quality. Carefully managed vineyards and impeccably clean wineries gleaming with modern technology were the norm. The producers we met were literally bursting with enthusiasm as they eagerly detailed their winemaking techniques and proudly poured their wines. It was a far cry from the cool, superior attitude I had thus far encountered when dealing with French vignerons.

High quality South African wines now exists not only at the luxury end of the spectrum, but also in the every day, sub 15$ category. Chenin Blanc continues to dominate white wine plantings, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also enjoying high praise. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the two top seated reds, with increasing buzz generated by the bright, fruity old-vine Cinsault and elegant Pinot Noir. Gamey, smoky Pinotage (a South African created hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) provides a unique taste profile that further sets this exceptional wine region apart.

While I am loathe to place the wines of such a diverse, fast changing region into one mould, it is often true that South African wines seem to strike a stylistic balance between Old World and New. While bolder and fruitier than many European wines, they still tend to be more restrained, with greater intensity of savoury, earthy flavours than many of their American and Southern Hemisphere counterparts.