Wine has only recently become the beverage of choice for South Africa’s middle class. What was long considered a drink for the elite is now the first choice for 51% of females and 38% of males, irrespective of race or age. Nowhere is this transformation more obvious than at events like RMB WineX. When the show launched twenty years ago attendance was predominantly male, almost exclusively white, and with an average age of around 50. Nowadays its composition pretty much reflects the reality of middle-class Gauteng, with an audience age of between 35 and 40.
Most South African wine drinkers today are only familiar with modern Cape wines. The end of political isolation in the 1990s brought the pre-modern era to a close. The return to international markets disrupted the cosy and anachronistic wine scene. It is impossible for today’s wine enthusiasts even to imagine how things were in that long-forgotten time: what the wines of the 1980s and early 1990s tasted like, how they were marketed, the limited choice of varieties and styles.
When the Platter Guide was first published forty years ago, it was a very slight volume – at least compared to the 700 page “brick” that wine buyers get today. It was the first attempt to describe and rate the wines commercially available from the country’s 200 producers. At the time, half of all the cellars were cooperatives and they crushed roughly 90% of the crop. There were fewer estates and private (ie non-estate) cellars in the whole country than there are just in Stellenbosch today.
In 1980 the world of Cape wine comprised the 1250 examples reviewed by John Platter. Compare this with the current edition, which lists 6700 wines – out of a total universe of 8000 – from 900 producers. When Platter was writing this first guide Hamilton Russell had just built the first winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. There was only one cellar in Constantia, none in Elgin, nothing south or east of Hermanus, and no wineries between Malmesbury and Namaqua.
Back then the choice of varieties was strictly limited. Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling (true riesling, not crouchen blanc), merlot, cabernet franc and pinot noir were trickling into the market for the first time. Choice of clones was largely non-existent. In 1979 Welgemeend made the country’s first Bordeaux blend, a year before Meerlust’s Rubicon.
The first commercial Chardonnays appeared in about 1980, produced from the only legally available clone, which was infected with leaf-roll virus. Frustrated by the quality of the planting material, many of the industry’s key players took to smuggling vines into the country. The first pinots were all made from the Swiss BK5 clone, suitable for Cap Classique production but without the weight, colour or detail to yield a decent red. Peter Finlayson’s Hamilton Russell pinots, dating from the early 1980s, were something of a triumph, given this limitation. Incidentally, they could not legally be sold as Pinot Noir because the plantings hadn’t been sanctioned by the all-powerful KWV.
Most red wines were fermented in cement tanks. Thereafter they went into large old wooden foudre (there are some fine examples at Nederburg and KWV) or into stainless steel tanks for brief maturation prior to bottling. Barrel ageing was virtually unknown. Oak casks – which are today delivered by the container-load to our wineries – were something of a rarity.
Good wine was much cheaper then than it is today, even adjusting for inflation – though no one dreamed of closing fine wine with a screw-cap, despite a cork taint rate of around 15%. Nothing cost more than R10 per bottle. I have no doubt that the wines produced today are better than those made in the 1980s from young vines and by winemakers unfamiliar with the use of oak. These first modern era wines haven’t aged as well as those made in the 1960s. To be fair, not many of the wines produced today are likely to be available to be put to the test in 2060.