BD Two decades 11.04.2014

We’re going to have any number of “two decades of democracy” stories over the next few weeks. Between the anger over Nkandla, the outrage over e-tolling, the frustration over failed service delivery and fury about corruption, it’s easy to feel that the celebrations ought to be muted. On the other hand, the Cape wine industry should be on its knees in gratitude. Where it is today is so vastly better than where was in the early 1990s that it is almost impossible to imagine, or even remember, the bygone era.

Some of the story is told by figures alone: exports have increased twenty fold. There are four times the number of wineries. While the area under vine has remained fairly constant, the number of grape growers has declined by almost 30%. In the early 1990s wine production in South Africa was dominated by cooperatives and the wholesalers to whom they supplied their wines in bulk. Today there are virtually no true cooperatives left, and almost half of the country’s wineries crush less than 100 tons.

The composition of our vineyards has also changed dramatically. Twenty years ago almost two thirds of the country’s vines yielded white grapes, with chenin blanc, colombard and hanepoot comprising nearly half of the total plantings. Today the surface area for red varieties is almost the same as for whites and chenin and colombard represent a little less than 30% of the national vineyard. The so-called ‘noble varieties’ – cabernet, merlot, shiraz, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay – now account for over 50% of total plantings.

What is less easily quantified is the change in mindset that came with the end of isolation. Winemakers now in their 40s cannot imagine a time when they were not welcome abroad to talk about their wine, or to attend trade shows. Colleagues of the same age on the sales and management side of the business can hardly conceive of a market made up solely of domestic consumers. Today more than 50% of all wine production is exported. As recently as the late 1980s this portion would have been treated as surplus and would have been subject to minimum wine prices and surplus removal strategies.

What is even more striking is the number of new regions and appellations which have been opened up in this period. Quality wines are being made from fruit grown as far north (on the West Coast) as Koekenaap and Bamboesbaai; along a line from Elgin to Hemel-en-Aarde and then to Elim. Along the Cape South Coast inland in the Outeniqua Mountains and Prince Albert and in coastal sites around Plettenberg Bay; eastwards and northwards in KwaZulu Natal.

With this has come a complete change in the skills and competences of producers. In the early 1990s the country’s winemakers exuded the supreme self-confidence that comes from having no way to calibrate yourself against the competition. It was against this background that John Platter and I set up a wine ‘test match’ against Australia – mainly to shock the industry out of its complacency. Unsurprisingly producers were naïve enough to play along. The result – at 78-21 drubbing – shocked even the realists (and made the Cape a fairly hostile place for both of us for a while). It did however galvanise the younger winemakers in particular to fast-track a learning curve that would ordinarily have taken a generation. Within a few years South Africa exacted some revenge by winning the Cowra Chardonnay Challenge (beating Australia and New Zealand in a three-way tie).

More important than ‘test matches’ and challenges is the change in the mindset of our winemakers. Imbued with a new spirit of discovery, the post-1994 generation combines technical savvy with a passion to identify unique sites, and to make wines which fully express their origin. Herein lies the real change: in the past twenty years our winemakers have gone from being the Armish of the wine world to its new frontier.

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