It’s tempting to think that all wine-makers who work outside the industry mainstream are some kind of lunatic fringe but this view would imply that there was no middle ground between conventional big winery styles and the super-edgy. Clearly this is improbable: consider the producer who was innovative 30 years ago, and whose business has grown. He would have to operate now like a big player, but this doesn’t means that his wines are any less hand-crafted, or any less thoughtfully produced.
But this does raise the question of where are next generation’s Gyles Webb – the man who developed Thelema in the late 1980s, and who still makes wines in the same precise and elegant style which brought him to prominence 25 years ago. There’s no shortage of creative energy amongst the current 25 – 40 year olds, but the task requires patience, stamina and access to funding. For every Marc Kent, Eben Sadie, Chris Alheit or Chris and Andrea Mullineux there’s a mountain of broken dreams, lost savings and quiet despair. As with marriage, in the wine business it’s the first 50 years which are the hardest.
You can tell quite soon who is likely to survive: visibility, even amongst the hyper-geeky, takes a year or two after which the business model has to kick in. Are the first vintages passing through the pipeline? What does the trade think? Are the sommeliers talking about it (so your wines can power past the anodyne junk there by virtue of the listing fees dished out by the better-heeled but less talented producers)? Does the distribution plan work well enough to service the Gauteng trade. Johannesburg is still the largest market in the world for premium Cape wine: if you can’t do business “inland” as the Cape euphemistically describes the place still frequently referred to as the Transvaal, you can’t call yourself a real player.
By the time these edgy, smaller players have connected with a Gauteng distributor, they have to be indisputably “serious” if not yet mainstream. This elite group includes Richard Kershaw MW whose Elgin-based winery is home to some of the Cape’s very best chardonnays. I’ve been an admirer of his Lake District Bokkeveld Shale CY95 for some time, and the latest release (2017) may be the best to date. His Lower Duivenhoks River Chardonnay 2017 sampled alongside the Lake District offers a different but equally satisfying Chardonnay experience. It’s a little leaner, a little less flash, a little more stony – the Cape’s answer to Premier Cru Chablis.
Martin Smith’s Pasarene Chardonnay also remains one of my firm favourites, with his 2017 a step up on recent vintages. It is textural and intense, a layering of tropical notes, grilled hazelnut whiffs and fresh grapefruit pith. Incidentally, in what may indeed be an entirely original approach to wine marketing, Smith is writing a crime novel, the chapters of which are used to wrap bottles of his entry level brand (called simply “Shine.”) Inspired by the Victorian “penny horribles” but also by Dickens, this approach ensures that if you’ve been left on tenterhooks “for the next exciting episode,” you have to buy the next release of Shine.
Other wines from the same tasting which are worth whatever effort it takes to track them down include David Trafford’s Sjinn Saignée Rose, a fuller, yet very compressed style – more of a light red than a Rose. There was also a line-up from Bruwer Raats, including his fabulous (and remarkably affordable) Original Chenin Blanc 2018, the Old Vine Chenin 2017, and the surprisingly accessible (and completely delicious) Raats Family Cabernet Franc 2016. Miles Mossop – formerly of Tokara – was also there, his Saskia white blend 2017 as well as the Max 2015 (Bordeaux-style red) being the two wines from his cellar I would happily have taken to dinner. Like his colleagues in the group, Mossop has done his time in the trenches. This kind of quality is not a matter of chance – it comes with experience.