I enjoy and dread South African tastings in equal measures. They’re a bit like going to a Primal Scream gig (or the Sex Pistols, or The Fall, I imagine) – you’re not quite sure what version of the band will turn up. They could be at the top of their game, smashing it to all corners of the venue and taking the punter on a heady journey of euphoric brilliance, or they could be on the verge of a breakdown, arguing with themselves, the audience, the sound man – whoever, but leaving you with a sense of underachievement, despondency and wasted money.
Heading to South African a while back, I was sceptical – hopeful, but nervous at the same time – but isn’t that what’s exciting? I mean, you could spend hundreds of pounds going to a slick Coldplay stadium concert and come away mildly satisfied but much lighter in the pocket, or you could queue up outside The Dublin Castle in Camden on a rainy Tuesday night and take a chance that you’ll see the best thing you’ll see for months for the price of a glass of Pinot Grigio (and have change for a kebab on the way home).
On this occasion, I needn’t have worried – this was no mediocre lineup, this was Woodstock née Isle of White 1970, and I felt like I’d got in by jumping the fence rather than paying the extortionate ticket price plus booking fee. The line-up was stellar; Duncan Savage (Savage Wines), Alex Starey (Keermont), Craig Wessels (Restless River), Pieter Walser (BLANKBottle) and in spirit, Adi Badenhorst (his wines were there while he was still flying from Cape Town).
What strikes you immediately is the camaraderie that exists amongst these producers – no backstage tantrums or hogging the limelight, they’ve all got each other’s backs. So much so that not one of them was initially pouring their own wines but taking the opportunity to taste and extol the virtues of their fellow producers' offerings. And the smiles! In an industry that so often gets lambasted for being stuffy, here was a group of colleagues not only enjoying their jobs, but the company and wines of others. Their laughter and sense of fun were infectious.
But these are in no way a bunch of chancers thinking they can turn up at a tasting with a bag full of wines and an unwarranted sense of enthusiasm. These are ground-breaking, dynamic wineries setting the trends and benchmarks for others to follow.
Creativity and originality are often the results of struggle and misery (punk and rap in the 1970s, rock and roll in the late 1940s and early 1950s) and the South African wine industry as we know it today is the consequence of post-apartheid chaos. Before 1994 the pseudo-state-owned KWV had controlled the industry, constraining it both productively and politically. The years following saw the shackles released but with little knowledge of the advances in technology, the global market or the comfort blanket of the KWV, the newly independent industry was always going to face huge challenges – just imagine Mozart being dropped in the 21st century and being asked to immediately compose a top 40 hit! So after only 20 years of establishing themselves (a mere blink of the eye in wine-trade terms), it’s uplifting to see that these guys are as enthusiastic as a teenager with a new iPhone.
If this is the direction the wines of South Africa are going, then I’m definitely on board. The wines ranged from the sleek and classical Restless River (the 2013 Chardonnay is the Jaguar E-Type of wines, beautifully curvaceous, pristine and chic) to the leftfield bonkersness of Adi Badenhorst (be sure to check out John Strikes Again, a characterful flor-aged Sauvignon Blanc, fresh and edgy, while the Brak-Kuil Barbarossa is brilliantly spiky, crunchy and juicy at the same time – if Andy Warhol made wine …).
The most consumer-friendly wines come from Keermont Estate in Stellenbosch (next door to De Trafford), where Alex Starey crafts handsome beauties, particularly his Syrah, which is luscious and pretty like a fur coat, all Monroe-esque. Duncan Savage feels like the elder statesman (in experience rather than appearance). He’s the hand on the shoulder of the group, a winemaker who has not only mixed it with some of the most commercially viable projects of the Cape at Cape Point but also acted as the protagonist of Savage Wines. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the source of both the most interesting and refined fruit in South Africa culminates in just three wines – vividly simple. The red blend is totally on point, it’s Ali at the top, or Bowie in his pomp, almost untouchable. Like the Sagrada Familia, fine and complex in structure backed up with real soul and a long future ahead.
And then there’s Peter Wasler, both a marketer’s dream and nightmare at the same time. Rarely makes the same wine twice, no varieties stated on the label and mental artwork that is as aesthetically brilliant as it is confusing. He’s the cheeky, mischievous child of the group having ducked and dived his way through the industry until he had a clear view of what he wanted to produce: ‘an honest wine brand that had no limitations when it came to style, vintage, area or cultivars in order to break down any preconceived expectations'.
Each wine comes with a back story, be it about him being accused of murdering his son or about stumbling upon a 40-year-old Fernão Pires vineyard simply because it was on a shortcut to Cape Town and he was late. Most intriguing were the Orbitofrontal Cortex and the Limbic wines. This pair of whites were blended from the same selection of 21 different barrels, but one was blended using results from Peter’s subconscious (he was hooked up to neuroscience measuring equipment and blended the wine on the results of his brain’s reaction to each sample – this utilises the limbic part of your brain), while the other was blended in the usual, conscious way (using the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain).
The results are two very different wines, yet with a structure and backbone that runs through both (or maybe that’s my subconscious telling me that …). The Limbic is the funkier of the two, it’s got George Clinton up front, bold and brash with an edginess and salinity. Orbitofrontal Cortex is Prince, it’s polished and poised, it knows how good it is and it wants to show you! Very tidy blend of richness, spice and mouth-watering fruit.
There’s so much to admire about this ensemble of South African talent. Not just brilliant wines with personality and diversity but their attitude and vision is there to see. They know South Africa needs a strategy to define itself as a serious wine producer and not just a supplier of bulk, and to do this requires a collective effort. These wines are proof that a nation’s wine industry needn’t be defined by a single variety’s ability to adapt to a certain region but can succeed producing wines of quality AND individuality. And why not be different – certainly didn’t do Apple and Google any harm!