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Southern Star

For some reason South African winemakers have the largest hands in the world and the poorest wines appear to be made by  those with the largest moustaches

IT WAS my fourth trip to South Africa, but the first time where wine took a back seat.  This time was about whisky and, as it transpired, cigars.  How things have changed. You wouldn’t have caught me drawing in a leisurely fashion on a fine Havana on my first trip to the country – nor would I have been looking out over the skyscrapers of Cape Town discussing property deals and constitutional law.

I’d have been sweltering in Paarl, ready for the obligatory meeting with the KWV, getting ready to hear the party line of how they were protecting the industry, helping farmers, looking out for quality and weren’t aware of any virus affecting the vines.

That inaugural visit took place soon after Mandela was released, when the South African psyche was suffering from jet-lag – wide awake but not quite comprehending what was going on.

The second time things had improved insofar as there were some new wineries, better wines were being made, but the virus was still widespread, the wrong varieties were, by and large, in the wrong place and the big players were still in total control.

It was typified by a visit to Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW) [as was] to taste its estate range.  We hacks were in one room, the winemakers in another.  There would be a knock at the door and in one would walk, a bottle dwarfed in his huge hand (for some reason, South African winemakers have the largest hands in the world) which he’d plonk down.

Then he’d sit, scowl, and await our comments.  Now, there are times when you simply have nothing to say other than thank you, especially when faced with overcropped, hotclimate Chenin Blanc.

After comments featuring extensive use of the word "interesting" he’d leave.  Then there would be another knock and the same scenario would be repeated until we’d tasted all the Chenins.  Individually.  Then we started on all the Sauvignons, then the Chardonnays, etc. It took all day.

We also realised that the poorest wines appeared to be made by the winemakers with the largest moustaches. It became a shorthand.  Three years later and a sea change had taken place.

A new generation of (cleanshaven) winemakers had arrived, along with new plantings, varieties and clones.  It wasn’t just the nuts and bolts of the winemaking process which excited me, it was these guys, all of them bursting with new ideas.

 At last you could notice a momentum, optimism and some hope for the future – which was nice.  This time, then, there was only room for a one-day trip with my old mucker Dave Johnson (of Newton- Johnson), first of all to catch up with Adi Badenhorst at Rustenberg where he showed me what he claims is South Africa’s first Roussanne, as well as barrel samples of Peter Barlow, JXM and a fantastic Rhônelike Shiraz.

We then decanted (literally) to Thelema and Tokara to hook up with Gyles Webb, tasting his (always exemplary) wines and a cross-selection of others: Dave’s own impressive range, Steenberg Sauvignon Blanc, a massive Chenin from Jean Daneel and many, many more.

Over a lunch of ostrich carpaccio and springbok, and countless bottles, I enthuse over the wines.  "This must be the most exciting wine-making country in the world at the moment!" I rave. The two old hands smile ruefully.

"Not yet," says Gyles whose training as an accountant has always steered him away from the world of hyperbole.  "We’re not there yet."  He and Dave outline how the money is coming in and the intention is there, but country-wide there is still a lack of consistency, the issue of adulteration and a continuing lack of good plant material.

Case in point: the wine board has permitted Adi to make wine from Roussanne, but at the same time says he’s not allowed to plant it because it isn’t a permitted variety.  Go figure.

They talk of the need for brands and I begin to twitch slightly.  Not about brands per se, but about the way a slavish adherence to this strategy has hobbled the Australian industry.  Look at Oz these days: overdominant giants, a disproportionately small number of medium-sized firms and a small, highquality boutique section.

This (relative) lack of vigorous, mid-sized firms has hampered innovation, choice … and quality.  I’m not disputing the need for branded wines which appeal to the mass-market in taste and price, but not if they restrict choice and range.

Striking this balance is something which the South African industry needs to be aware of.  If it fails to do so the danger is it slips back into its old model.  The next trip should be an interesting one.

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