Every generation has its leaders and its innovators, and the Cape wine industry can look back over the past 50 years or so at several who have left an indelible mark. In the decades following World War 2 those who embraced the idea of cold fermentation – NC Krone at Twee Jongegezellen is the name most often associated with this approach to white wine-making – transformed an entire industry. Working from his experience the team at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery used the technology to create some of the biggest wine brands in the world.
Gunter Brozel at Nederburg was a comparable force in the field of quality red wine production and the single most important innovator in the field of noble late harvest dessert wines. In a career in which the period from the mid-1950s until the beginning of the 1980s was the most important, Brozel not only made some of the Cape’s most iconic and long-lived reds, he also created new blends, auction cuvees and accessible – yet not simple – popular ranges. Without his creativity it is unlikely that the wine market of today would have the reach and following that it enjoys.
The role played by John Platter is as important, as much for creating and self-publishing the guide which still bears his name, but in using the influence he had – not only domestically, but also in a broader international context – to force the industry to focus on the plight of vineyard workers. The initiative he launched with Tim Hamilton Russell and Rustenberg’s Simon Barlow disrupted the smug complacency of the winelands and isolated them from their neighbours and colleagues. However, beyond the moral force of the campaign, it was an essential step towards sensitising a reactionary and intransigent employer/producer-driven industry to the expectations of a post-isolationist world.
Platter also brought together the unlikely partnership of Cape Classics’s Jabulani Ntshangase, Fairview’s Charles Back and Thelema’s Gyles Webb into what became the Swartland’s first modern era winery, poetically named “Spice Route.” In time Back took over the project and, applying his restless and innovative intellect to the changing world of international wine, created several carefully positioned brands which represented the new world of Cape wine. From his cheekily named “Goats do Roam” (a play on the French Cotes du Rhone) and Goat Rotie (Roast Goat but also Cote Rotie) to his entry level La Capra wines, he was able to offer brands for the UK supermarkets, quality wines for the on-consumption trade, and some finely made super-premium bottlings.
I recently re-tasted most of his current range and was struck by the purity and integrity of the fruit handling, as well as the finely managed sense of what the wines are worth. It has to be said that Back is too smart to over-deliver on a massive scale, but by the same token he never under-delivers on value. The best of what is presently available includes the Fairview Caldera 2011, (perfumed grenache beefed up with mourvedre and shiraz), the Fairview Stellenbosch Merlot 2012 (not as herbal as most Cape examples), and the La Capra 2012 Cabernet. I also recently had a marvellous old bottle of the Oom Pagel Semillon – 14 years old and still fresh and rich.
Finally, the Spice Route cellar begat the Eben Sadie phenomenon. He was the property’s first winemaker, remaining there for a couple of years before setting up on his own to become the undisputed guru of the cult wine scene. His efforts catapulted the Swartland into prominence and created a rallying point for the next wave of talent – Adi Badenhorst, the Mullineuxs and Chris Alheit, to name but a few – who currently represent the cutting edge of Cape wine.