It’s not a secret that South Africa’s white wines enjoy a better reputation abroad than our reds. Some of this international appeal no doubt lies in their restraint, a feature which offers a better “fit” in terms of old world styles. The fact that they achieve optimum ripeness at alcohol levels which are lower than their red wine counterparts no doubt contributes to their desirability.
Seen from an image perspective, the domestic market cares more for red wine than for white, and this is reflected in the pricing. The reason for this is largely historical: the premium wine market has always been dominated by reds – even when (or perhaps because) the only decent red variety available to producers was Cabernet. It didn’t matter that, from a volume point of view, we were a predominantly white wine producer: much of that yield went into brandy distillation, or cheap-and-cheerful off-dry whites. The abiding myth was that for wine to be worth considering, it had to be red. Since Cabernet was considered the “king” of grapes, and was in seemingly plentiful supply, great wine was expected to be red, Cabernet-based, and consumed for the status it imparted, rather than (like fruity white wine) as a beverage.
In that pre-sauvignon blanc/chardonnay era, the prestige white wine cultivar was crouchen blanc, ordinary at the best of times and imbued with false pretension through its local monicker of “Riesling”. Theuniskraal and Nederburg were the most sought-after examples: it’s no wonder the image of red wine flourished at the expense of whites. Since the importation of noble white wine varieties coincided with the arrival of the equally premium reds (pinot noir, syrah, merlot and cabernet franc in particular) the whites never really had a chance to power ahead. Even today, at the very top end of the market, the average rate of discount – white to red – is about 50%.
If however you look at what is available across the entire spectrum of premium whites, South Africans are spoilt for choice. Firstly, there are the seemingly limitless supplies of top end chenin blanc, whether from the well-known producers such as DeMorgenzon, Bellingham The Bernard and Ken Forrester (The FMC and Dirty Little Secret) through to the more geeky small batch selections such as Botanica, the Alheit’s Radio Lazarus and the Magnetic North Makstok, the Kaapzicht Kliprug and “1947”, Stellenrust’s 51 Barrel Selection, Sterhuis, Hoeksteen, David & Nadia, Cape of Good Hope, Sadie Family and Beaumont Hope Marguerite. Most of these still represent extraordinary value. Only a few – usually the players who use price as a marketing weapon – are pitched above the R250 mark (the point upwards of which is the heartland of premium red wine pricing).
Beyond the world of Cape Chenin there is an ever-increasing range of extraordinary chardonnay. Here cellars like Hamilton Russell Vineyards have proved themselves through the quality and consistency of what has been on offer. Almost all of the players in this market make wines which need at least three to five years after the vintage to begin to reveal their true potential. The Hamilton Russell 2016 is particularly impressive, as is the Storm (neither are cheap, both are worth hunting down), together with wines like the Chamonix Reserve, Paul Cluver, Kershaw, Jordan, DeMorgenzon and Thorne & Daughters. There are also fabulous old vine semillons in relative abundance (Cape of Good Hope, Boekenhoutskloof, Sadie Family, Landau du Val, Paper Kite) and a great number of white blends. Here the choice ranges from the classic Bordeaux sauvignon-semillon duo (Vergelegen GVB, Steenberg Magna Carta, GlenWood and Tokara) to some beautifully assembled future classics – such as Aristargos, Ashbourne, Hemelrand Vine Garden, Cartology, Vondeling Babiana and Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse.
Much excitement is developing around white Rhone varieties as vineyards acquire some age: there’s delicious Roussanne, lovely Grenache, and some increasingly complex white Rhone blends. In wine – as with so much else – we need to move away from the paradigm of the past.