For most of the twentieth century the Cape wine industry ticked along as a producer of largely generic bulk wine which found its way to market in many guises – of which premium wine was a tiny percentage. The industry was structured accordingly: 4500 growers, but fewer than 300 wineries – many of which were cooperatives whose sole function was to transform grapes into liquid form.
Some of this juice remained exactly that – grape juice or juice concentrate for sale to the non-alcoholic beverage industry. Some was fermented into wine and immediately distilled to make brandy, the most important (by volume) spirit in the domestic market. A portion went to make port, sherry and other fortified wines like muscadel and jerepigo, at the time a vastly more important segment of the trade than table wine. The rest became unfortified wine, from jug wine and bag-in-box to several well known brands marketed by the wholesale merchants. As recently as 1993, of the 900m litres of juice extracted from the national crop, only 30m litres finished up in cork-closed bottles (with three brands alone accounting for a third of this volume).
The end of isolation changed both the structure of the industry, and the way that the country’s wine enthusiasts engaged with wine. In 1990, 70 cooperatives processed 84% of the crop. Today there are virtually no cooperatives still in business while premium wine accounts for more than half the crop.
Of course the industry looks completely different: some 40 wineries produce 300000 cases or more while at the other end of the scale 250 wineries, mostly new and accounting for half of all the country’s production sites, produce 5000 cases or less. This is a volume so small it’s nearly impossible for them to develop critical mass. Survival depends on good connections, a decent mail order list, and passion (rather than profit motive) as the key driver.
Many make fabulous (but not necessarily sought-after) wines: how would anyone know about them? How can they grow when supply is so constrained, when route-to-market typically costs more than the wine, the bottles and the packaging? It’s a mystery they’re still in business – and this is not even taking into account the issues facing the much reduced number of grape growers (down now to about 3000) half of whom are under-recovering on their running costs.
Many of these boutique wineries share in common a connection with a new generation of wine enthusiasts who seek a point of difference. At a recent lunch someone generously contributed Ginny Povall’s 2017 Mary Delany Botanica chenin blanc. Like seven of its ten previous vintages, this wine had deservedly bagged a Platter Five Star award. It has wonderful fruit intensity, a purity and linearity which many of the showier chenins fail to achieve, and real persistence on the palate. (Incidentally, if you’re shopping for Ginny’s wines, the semillon and the pinot noir are also worth tracking down.)
Martin Smith’s Paserene Chardonnay is another such example: the 2015 also brought home a five star award. The current release has a textural earthiness to it, restrained rather than showy: it exudes precision and authenticity. It’s impossible not to sense the detail and dedication with which owner-winemakers imbue their creations when they need the vintage to sell out simply in order to survive. Incidentally, as with Botanica, it’s worth looking at the other wines in the range, especially the Marathon, a thoughtfully composed cabernet-dominated Bordeaux blend.
Finally, another small producer label worth keeping on your “buy” list is Marras – produced by Martin Lamprecht using Swartland or Piekeneirskloof fruit. I’m impressed by both chenins, the Swartland Shiraz-Cinsaut blend and the Piekenierskloof Grenache. They are all ridiculously good value – to spend more than R100 per bottle you would need to order it in a restaurant.
All three of these producers represent the craft side of Cape wine. They, and many like them, need – and deserve – support if we want a dynamic and innovative industry.