South African Fine Wine Comes of Age

Let’s collectively banish the term ‘good value,’ that ubiquitous epithet used to describe huge swathes of wine. It’s both misleading and deeply unhelpful.

The apportionment of value is hopelessly subjective; the collector sees irresistible value in a bottle of Lafite reduced from £800 to £650. Others baulk at the idea of spending more than £40 on a decent bottle of plonk. There is no consensus on what constitutes bang-for-your buck – especially today. The parsimonious among you would begrudge tuppence on a bottle of pig swill.

How best, then, to describe South Africa’s vinous offering in 2021?

Sunshine in a bottle? No, that would be disingenuous as well. The best South African wines boast a finesse and tantalising structure which leaves most New World wines for dust. Are they easy to drink and immediately approachable? Sometimes. But the top examples will age gracefully for over a decade. Are they readily available? Indeed – most of the UK’s leading merchants carry a healthy selection of Cape wines.

Unfortunately, the Western Cape (home of the vast majority of South Africa’s premium wine) is currently fighting tooth and nail to survive. The pandemic has led to widespread job losses and hardship in the hospitality sector; South Africa’s government has imposed several bans on the domestic sale of alcohol, hurting already struggling businesses. Exports have continued, although the domestic market remains a vital cash cow for a critical mass of producers. More than ever, South Africa’s winemakers need us to drink up.

South African Fine Wine Comes of Age
Stormy skies in Stellenbosch

Yet this proud nation is hardly reliant on pity to sell its wines. Over the past decade, South Africa’s passionate growers have been refining their knowledge of the local dirt and which varieties thrive on specific soils. There is no more basic indication of a country determined to rise to the first division.

In Swartland, the most exciting of the emerging regions, the terroir (local growing conditions such as soil and aspect) is wonderfully varied. Take a stroll over granite, slate, chalk, clay and alluvium. Is this of interest to non-wine geeks? Course not. It just means that winemakers can produce an eclectic palate of wine styles on such a generous diversity of soils. The Western Cape caters to fussy drinkers – there’s sparkling, red, white and rosé in abundance. The offer is anything but limited.

Meanwhile, winegrowers in the cooler region of Hemel-en-Aarde are beating the Burgundians at their own game. Wine critics often champion New Zealand as the New World’s most reliable source of exceptional pinot noir, but Kiwi’s should be worried – the South Africans are quickly catching up.

Due to a combination of interconnected factors, South Africa is able to deliver spectacular flavours at sensible prices. Land and labour costs are far lower than Europe, and this is reflected in the pricing. Such pleasure would cost well over £150, if you were hunting around the cellars of Bordeaux, Burgundy, or the Rhone. There are some who would grimace at the thought of paying over £7 for a bottle of wine. We’ll leave that firmament to their amorphous inebriator. The rest of us realise that life is too short to marginalise the best stuff. As long as South Africa’s prices don’t go silly, the nation is arguably the most cast-iron purveyor of affordable fine wine on the planet. The following wines make the argument better than I ever could. It’s time for me to shut up, and get drinking.

Holden Manz Reserve Chenin 2019
South African Fine Wine Holden Manz

They said it wouldn’t sell. They said that a public addicted to Kiwi sauvignon blanc couldn’t enjoy the fatter, more opulent expression of oak-fermented chenin blanc. They were talking merde. Chenin blanc, the leading white variety of the Cape, produces a singular expression only replicated in France’s Loire Valley.

You start with apple and quince, but you quickly encounter butter, lanolin and pineapple. It’s wine for drinkers who like their whites open, full-bodied and expressive. “Scrummy,” to quote my sister-in-law. And it’s yours for under £40.

What: Holden Manz Chenin Blanc Reserve 2019
How much: £40
Where: Museum Wines

Demorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2017
South African Fine Wine Demorgenzon

Is this South Africa’s best chenin blanc? At the very least, the critics are unanimous in their unwavering praise of the wine’s finesse, structure and unadulterated drinkability. Head winemaker Carl van der Merwe is one of the country’s leading talents, producing a consistently excellent range of wines in Demorgenzon’s mountain vineyards.

The Reserve Chenin is one of their flagship labels, offering pungent aromas of lemon curd – yes, curd – honeysuckle, quince, pineapple and apricot. But even if that were not so, the wine’s textural quality – think silk on the bottom – is enough to keep you beguiled.

What: Demorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2017
How much: £35
Where: Harvey Nichols

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2020

Owner Anthony Hamilton Russell is one of the Cape’s greatest bon viveurs. His passions include art, lovemaking, cigars, drinking, skiing, and most of all – winemaking. His chardonnay is consistently rated as one of the most refined examples of the genre made in South Africa today. It is the antithesis of the ‘uber creamy, oaky’ cliche.

Taut and citric in its youth, it opens up after a few years to glorious complexity. Lazy writers always reach for comparisons in Burgundy. And I’m not going to stop this fine tradition – it’s Puligny Montrachet, minus the price tag.

What: Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2020
How much: £27
Where: ND John Wine Merchants

Anwilka 2016
South African Fine Wine Anwilka

What happens when you mix French le talent with South African dirt? Great things. Anwilka is a joint venture involving Bordeaux winemakers Bruno Prats, Hubert de Bouard and Lowell Jooste, who owns the legendary estate Klein Constantia.

They planted some syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot on a patch of land in Stellenbosch, added in their considerable expertise and waited for the praise to pour in. American critic Robert Parker was impressed, pronouncing it to be “the finest red wine I have ever had from South Africa.” His proselytising is spot on; Anwilka is smooth, complex and utterly delicious. Powerful and concentrated to the core, it loves a few hours of aeration before quaffing.

What: Anwilka 2016
How much: £25
Where: Berry Bros & Rudd

Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards D.W. Syrah 2017

Ten years ago, expensive South African wine (by their standards) was a hard sell. It was generally met with suspicion – can it be worth it? Fortunately, thanks to the relentless work of aficionados like Tim Atkin MW and Daniel Grigg, this is changing. “If you’d told me five years ago that today I’d be selling cases of £50 chardonnay from Stellenbosch, converting red trousered men in ageing Land Rover Defenders to drinking Swartland cinsault rather than Beaune, I’d have wanted to know what you were smoking and where you got it,” says Grigg.

“Yet all of those things have happened in the last two years.” One of the poster-children for fine South African wine is Uva Mira’s magnificent syrah. Deep and concentrated with a fine mineral undercurrent, this is arguably superior to the vast majority of even top-flight wines made in the Rhone. It delivers pleasure – endless, untamed, hedonistic pleasure.

What: Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards The D.W. Syrah 2017
How much: £60
Where: Museum Wines

Stark-Conde Three Pines Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

According to Museum Wines owner Daniel Grigg, wine critic Tim Atkin rates Stark-Conde as a South African ‘First Growth’, an unofficial title that borrows from the Bordeaux system of classifying wine. I can’t speak for Atkin’s classification of South Africa’s finest estates, but I can say that Three Pines is a brilliant wine.

Predominantly based on cabernet sauvignon with a bit of malbec chucked in, it is among the very best of its kind in the Cape. Opulent, concentrated and marked by cedar and ripe dark fruits, with a elegance and finesse that is rare even among the Cape’s premium output.

What: Stark-Conde Three Pines Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
How much: £35
Where: Museum Wines

Moreson FYM Chardonnay 2017

Where do you stand on rich, velvety chardonnay? It has been claimed that the market for buttery chardonnay is moribund, yet retail sales suggest otherwise. There are loads of us who appreciate the inherent richness and satisfaction of a really good bottle.

This is one of my favourite examples from the Cape – all butterscotch, vanilla and stone fruit. Try it with roast chicken. It’s divine.

What: Moreson FYM Chardonnay 2017
How much: £40
Where: Museum Wines

Constantia Glen Five 2016

Alexander Waibel’s family knew they were onto a good thing, when they purchased this beautiful farm in the Cape’s much-lauded Constantia region. The family cultivate approximately 30 hectares of white and red grapes, producing some of the finest bordeaux blends available in South Africa today. Five refers to the number of key bordeaux varieties – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec – used in the blend.

It’s a heady concoction, perfect for those who love full-bodied, generous wine. Massive in structure and yet fresh and accessible, Five strikes that difficult balancing act between force and finesse. I can’t enough of the stuff. Which is bloody annoying, as they make relatively little.

What: Constantia Glen Five 2016
How much: £28 (minimum six bottles £168)
Where: Simply Wines Direct

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2019 (2020 vintage to be marketed in April)

Something very special happens in South Africa’s Walker Bay. Many world regions attempt to replicate the innate finesse and ethereal magic of red Burgundy, and fail spectacularly. But not Hamilton Russell Vineyards. Current owner Anthony Hamilton Russell is constantly pushing the boundaries for excellence and has experimented with alternative vessels for the wine’s maturation, including stoneware and terracotta amphoras. This passion, combined with the cool-climate terroir, works wonders in the cellar.

The 2019 is another standout example, albeit its true charms will take a few years to emerge. In the meantime, there’s enough red fruit, vibrant acidity and structure to keep any burgundy nut happy.

What: Hamilton Russell Vineyards Walker Bay Pinot Noir 2019
How much: £43
Where: Harvey Nichols