Much has been written lately about South Africa’s New Wave winemakers, with a couple of articles on Jancis Robinson’s website in the past week alone (and literally hundreds of thoughtfully assembled tasting notes available to purple pages subscribers). Many of the wines are produced in minuscule quantities, often from sites identified by The Old Vine Project inspired by viticulturist Rosa Kruger and underwritten by Johann Rupert (a gesture of considerable generosity which deserves greater recognition than it has hitherto received).
There is no really easy definition of what constitutes this “new wave.” Judging from the group which made such a huge impact in London recently, it’s a spread which runs from the one barrel wonders to the more established producers who make everything from small parcels to high volume commercial wine. If there is a common thread it is the sense of craft which unites the various submissions. Your day job may oblige you to put together large volumes of well-priced drinking wines whose production demands the kind of compromises which most people make in their everyday lives, but at least you have one wine into which you can pour your creative heart.
Many of the group have been around for a bit: a few, mainly those who inspired the movement and who – explicitly and implicitly – determined its guidelines are now comfortably past the first flush of youth. Their names have become synonymous with the Cape’s break from it past: Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, David Trafford. But many are just setting out, short on capital, dependent on others for cellar space to make and store their few barrels, often buying their fruit from growers whose venerable vines lie interspersed among other more mundane vineyards and alongside the detritus of thankless and profitless mixed agriculture: rusty tractors and scrap farming implements.
Given that in the context of this group wine is more art than craft, combining them all under one roof is a little like curating an exhibition of student art works by presenting them alongside the pieces of those who mentored and inspired them. A glimpse of the UK pricing makes this analogy more than just a comment on style or artistic confidence. There are wines which can be bought in the UK – with duties of over R20 per bottle, and VAT at more than 20% – for little more than R200, and others at almost R2000.
What is clear is that the protagonists of this New Wave are primarily dedicated to the idea of authenticity, of what Frances Percival has called “narrative luxury” – where origin and the story behind what finally emerges from the bottle is at least as important as the taste. Many come from single sites – so there’s a tale about the grower, as well as a story of the vineyard, how the variety came to be planted there, and why the winemaker has produced the wine in its particular style. Unsurprisingly many have been made from varieties which some time back ceased to be fashionable (and which, in part, is what has made them fashionable again). Generally there is little evidence of oak in the finished product (because it is important for the site to be expressed, rather than the quality of the cooperage). The wines are mostly lower in alcohol than the showy “statement wines” which were once the sole occupants of the apex of the pricing pyramid. To predict which will become the future classics will require the same tools literary critics use to recover the integrity of authorial meaning or the clarity of the artistic intention.
What is certain is that for the first time in the history of the South African wine industry there is a sense of real creative impulse. Suddenly the role of the winemaker is not simply that of a chef at a diner, transforming raw materials into a decent meal. Instead there’s a movement, the sense of a message, the prospect of aesthetic engagement.