12 February 2016

South Africa: The world’s most affordable fine wine?


In Roger Scruton’s thoughtful book ‘I Drink Therefore I Am,’ the philosopher expounds a theory on why wine has become so important to the Southern hemisphere. His premise is that countries like South Africa, New Zealand and Chile – which in the twentieth century have become exporters as well as thirsty domestic consumers of wine – did so because of cultural rather than economic change. Settlers to these lands saw themselves not as European exiles but as living in historic settlements with a right to the soil and the identity one derives from it. Thus the most important way of expressing this sentiment is by planting vines as a symbol of the divine right to be where you are and to enjoy God’s protection. It makes sense, the production of wine is entwined in the sacred whether it is the ancient vineyards of Burgundy and Champagne – planted by Cistercian monks – to the farm lands outside of Santiago where Christian missionaries introduced vines for the production of red wine for Catholic Mass.

Today, vines are planted for all sorts of reasons, mainly commercial, hardly ever religious and sometimes recreational but there are still moments when one hears a story and is drawn not necessarily to Scruton’s observations but to a sense of new beginnings. I was reminded of this chatting away and tasting through Samantha O’Keefe’s range of wines at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London recently. At the age of 29 Samantha left a promising career in television in Los Angeles and set up shop in Greyton, South Africa, a small corner of the Western Cape known for its farming land and production of apples and pears.

“I studied development at Berkeley (the University of California),” says O’Keefe “and ended up in T.V. feeling very lost. I left for Africa and hoped I would find my way.” So with a little bit of inheritance, she bought a small holding and planted 4 hectares of vines making at first Viognier and Chardonnay then Sauvignon Blanc and now Syrah. Tucked into the lower slopes of the Riviersonderend Mountains, the first vintage was in 2007 and since then the reputation of these wines has been slowly building.

“The idea was to buy a farm and create a business,” she says. “At the time the region wasn’t known for wine production, looking back there isn’t really a logical explanation as to why I did it. On the surface it seems impossible.” It does, it’s one thing planting vines in a recognised wine producing region such as Hermanus or Constantia but to do so in an area not known for its wines is brave.
“The business plan was to do a big, buttery wood aged Californian Chardonnay,” she says. “The idea was the Californian accent was going to help sell this Californian style wine. But in the very early years I had a complete mind shift and I wasn’t completely married to the idea. I was told ‘if you have beautiful fruit expression and that is your terroir leave it.”

The vines are planted at 300 metres altitude, this is important because it means the weather is much less hotter than in nearby Stellenbosch. I haven’t visited Samantha’s farm and knew nothing of her wines until I was introduced to the Syrah late last year. I liked it, curious to know more I contacted South African wine expert, Master of Wine Greg Sherwood who was coy, wanting to know what I thought about it before offering an opinion. This week I had the opportunity to taste through her entire range, the wines of which are very impressive. Delicate, floral, restrained these are wines which defy every preconception about South African wines. Tasting through, one was reminded of European wines with their gentle, understated aromas, fresh mouth feel and crisp, dry finish.

As Sherwood says: “The whites, and especially the Viognier, have been rated one of the most exciting whites out of South Africa. The new Syrah is just the cherry on the top of recent achievements. Besides putting Greyton on the map, Lismore is a beacon of quality for alternative grape growing regions. The untapped potential is amazing.”

It’s hard not to feel anything but immense excitement about South African wine these days. Two decades after the end of Apartheid the industry, not without its problems, has really hit its stride. The low Rand makes these wines some of the most affordable in the Southern hemisphere and great Bordeaux blends like Meerlust Rubicon, Kanonkop Paul Sauer and Vergelegen offer stand out examples of their type. Compared with their counterparts in Bordeaux and Napa I’m always astonished at just how well priced these wines are.

Sitting alongside this a new generation, led by Eben Sadie, are attracting a lot of attention with their Chenin Blancs, crisp Chardonnays and Mediterranean-style red blends. Producers to look out for include: Bouchard Finlayson, Chamonix, Paul Cluver, Hamilton Russell, Kaapzicht, Nederburg, Solms Delta, Vergelegen and Warwick.

This weekend the industry will gather at one of South Africa’s oldest farms Klein Constantia for the Cape Wine Auction. Sponsored by AfrAsia Bank all proceeds will go to charitable organisations such as The Anna Foundation, The Click Foundation and Community Keepers with a mandate to support education in the South African Wine Lands. The auction, which last year raised more than 10 million Rand comes on the back of similar charitable auctions in France such as the Hospice de Beaune and in Napa, Premiere Napa Valley. I wish them well.

Back in Greyton, last year Samantha O’Keefe decided to take a road trip to the northern Rhône where her Syrah was very well received by among others François Villard of Domaine Villard in Côte Rotie.

“You know it’s funny,” she says. “I had never been to the Rhône before, but when I arrived I saw they grew apples and pears.” Just like in Greyton.

Three to buy

2014 Sauvignon Blanc – Klein Constantia, Constantia, South Africa

Produced on one of the Western Cape’s oldest wine farms this sits in the glass with a pale, almost green appearance. Reserved and restrained this wine isn’t about its aromatics it is about an extraordinary mouth feel which is smooth and clean with just enough tropical fruit flavours to keep one guessing. A very good aperitif.

2010 Rubicon – Meerlust Estate, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Seriously impressive Bordeaux blend from one of South Africa’s most highly rated vineyards. Traditional and classic with notes of dark fruit and licorice with a soft, dry finish.

2011 – Lismore Syrah, Greyton, South Africa

Buy this before it gets too popular! Made from 100% Syrah this has a delicate, restrained feel with savoury notes of white pepper and tobacco and a dry, mineral tasting finish.

Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015.