The demand for small producer wines means that there are now distributors whose entire product ranges come from an assortment (perhaps a better collective noun would be “crush”) of boutique winemakers. It is now possible to go to a trade tasting and sample only wines made in accordance with the largely implicit guidelines of artisanal production. If they have a common style, its key elements should emerge in that environment. I’ve attended a few such events. It ought to be easy to see what should be different from a line-up of wines made in more commercial (but still relatively low volume) cellars, but the evidence remains elusive. Leaving aside what could only be described as hippy production methods, the visible wine qualities remain largely the same.
If you buy a pair of hand-made Ferragamo shoes, the finish is guaranteed to be immaculate. In some ways the artfulness is that you do not see the craft which went into their production. Except for the choice of the actual raw materials, and a host of almost invisible nuances, they will look similar to a pair of shoes sold in a decent high street store. The fit might feel different, and they’re likely to look better for longer. The difference between them (and even the pair of high street shoes) compared with handmade footwear offered for sale in a hippy market would be obvious to everyone.
For purposes of this discussion, the hippy alternatives are out. There is obviously a place and a demand for them. I am more concerned with whether and in what way the craft and artfulness of the most nuanced high-end production is immediately discernible in a line-up of young wines.
Ten years ago you might have been able to make this call without even tasting the wines. The choice of varieties and appellations would have been a dead give-away. Cinsaut, chenin, palamino, clairette blanche and grenache mostly from sites in the Swartland and Piketberg pretty much defined the movement. Forty years ago the opposite would have been true: these varieties and these appellations carried the message “co-op wine” writ large. Nowadays there are commercial cellars hand-crafting chenin, grenache and cinsaut. Their winemakers have learnt a great deal from the craft producers who brought these varieties back from the dead, often applying the same fermentation and maturation strategies.
So the evidence, to the extent that it’s there, is less obviously discernible: in the terms of the Ferragamo shoe analogy, it is in the selection of the raw materials and in the almost invisible craft which optimises what is extracted from them. This struck me most forcefully tasting the David and Nadia single site chenins. David Sadie is – I think rightly – obsessed with the nuances which he believes arise from the different soils in which his best vineyards are sited. The Skaliekop and Plat’Bos cuvées (which are on granitic soils) are palpably different (and in my view more interesting) than Hoë Steen and the cellar’s regular Chenin Blanc. The same detail and precision can be found in the Mullineux single site reds, most notably the Roundstone Schist Syrah and Iron Syrah. It’s equally evident in Eben Sadie’s Ouwingerdreeks wines, most notably Soldaat, Pofadder and Skurfberg.
It was also instantly discernible sampling the pinot noirs from Newton Johnson. The property’s standard (Family Vineyards) pinot noir is consistently one of the Cape’s best: the product of great fruit and thoughtful winemaking. For me the test lay in the the single site examples – Windandsea and Seadragon – where the craft of the winemaker involves coaxing from the grapes the purest expression of place. The Windandsea is a high altitude – and therefore more overtly maritime – vineyard in harder, stonier soils. The wine is unsurprisingly structured rather than angular, making up with perfume what it has been denied in flesh. The Seadragon on the other hand, is more seductive. Same winemaker, same cellar, no great distance between the two vineyards. Go figure, as the Americans would say.