On paper the Cape wine industry is not an investible proposition. The majority of the growers are losing money, with little expectation of things improving. Those who are in the processing sector are slightly better off, but they have little choice. Whereas the banks are ready to provide funding where there’s some real estate available as security, they’re less enthusiastic when the assets are less tangible. If you’re buying grapes, and then making and selling wine, you can’t afford to be unprofitable for any length of time
The statistics speak for themselves: in the past fifteen or so years vineyard loss has averaged around twenty hectares per week. Growers are also disappearing – at a rate of over five every month. The decision to become a wine producer counts as a kind of litmus test for insanity.
Yet we see new arrivals in the business every year, many so small they glow only momentarily on the horizon before vanishing beyond the rim of the planet. But there are others, survivors from start-ups, who achieve enough traction to become known amongst the geeks. A few of these become brands, and even fewer household names.
Looking through the list of laureates of this year’s Old Mutual Trophv Wine Show I found more than a sprinkling of the usual suspects, producers so grounded in their craft that year in, year out, they capture the essence of their fruit in the wines they’re best known for. For example, if you were looking for a benchmark Stellenbosch Chardonnay you would almost certainly gravitate to Jordan – so it comes as no surprise to see the 2018 Barrel-fermented take the trophy. When it comes to sauvignon blanc, David Nieuwoudt of Cederberg and Ghost Corner dominates the cooler climate styles, so you would expect him to lead the running for the sauvignon trophy, likewise KWV for aged fortifieds, Cape Point for white Bordeaux blends, JC Le Roux Scintilla for benchmark Cap Classique, Nederburg for Noble Late Harvest. So far, so predictable.
However, you would also expect, given the churn, the wave upon wave of newcomers, that new talent, edgier, more attuned to the market, would scale the Everests of vinous achievement ahead of those constrained by history or convention. There must be a few of those, if wine judging is to have more value than a mere statement of the status quo.
The winner of the trophy for the competition’s best winery turned out to be one of those unexpected (but, in retrospect, not entirely surprisingly) producers. Jeremy Borg’s Painted Wolf wines have been around for a decade. In that time the cellar has won the occasional gold medal or trophy, plenty of silvers and bucket-loads of bronzes. Its solid track record is unsurprising: the wines are always thoughtfully made, mostly produced from a limited range of varieties utterly suited to the sites where they have been planted. What changed this year was that the outsiders came inside: the niche varieties with which Borg has consistently worked came of age.
With the first ever trophies for Roussanne and Mourvedre in the history of the show Borg took an unassailable lead. However, to get there he had to be ahead of the trend in the first place: he chose to focus on cultivars ideally suited to the new conditions of the Cape. It’s also no surprise to see the De Krans Trintonia blend (made up of Douro varieties) back among the trophies: the weather roller-coaster of the last few years has favoured those cultivars better able to perform in more arid places. Survivor Reserve Pinotage from the Swartland is another example of a wine made perfectly for the times, and from its own particular place.
For the full results go to trophywineshow.co.za
Michael Fridjhon was Show Chairman at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show