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Wines that are Truly African: The Next Chapter of the South African Wine Industry

| Wine and liquor

The Du Toitskloof SA Wine Writer of the Year for 2015, held in association with Standard Bank, asked entrants to look into the future to predict what the South African wine industry of 2035 could look like.

The following entry was submitted by Cindi Page. 

I’ve never come across a great bottle of wine that is not in some way defined by a story. The same is true for South Africa’s wine industry as a whole. It too has a story; one that begins in a diary entry by Jan van Riebeek in 1659, when he noted the day that the first wine made from Cape grapes was drunk. I believe his opening words were ‘Praise be to God!’. Oenophiles around the world tend to still share that sentiment. But, in order to try and glimpse into the future of the South African wine industry twenty years from now, it’s important to take cognisance of how far the industry has come. I believe our country’s historic wine journey has brought it to the very cusp of a dramatic drive that will define the future of the wine industry: creating wines that are 100% African. 

The wine industry up until the mid-1990’s was heavily anchored by strict government regulations and co-operative dominance, which resulted in over-surplus and the emphasis placed on quantity over quality. The shift in government meant that KWV, who basically controlled every aspect of SA’s wine industry since 1918, relinquished its statutory powers and became a corporation and South Africa’s wine landscape underwent almost a complete overhaul. Gone were the days where quantity overruled quality and the push into free market practice meant that we lost almost 25% of our producers by 2011. Currently SA has just a handful of co-operatives, a growing list of boutique wineries and a few medium sized producers in between. 

Now that our wine platform is one based on free market principles, winemakers are free to craft, instead of merely produce, wine. Competition breeds ambition, and more and more wineries are striving to create wines that will stand out. 

If one reads between the lines in South African wine industry, it’s becoming apparent that there’s a distinct undercurrent that is driving winemakers to create wines that reflect their natural environments and by making wines that reflect Africa, but more specifically, South Africa. 

Now, whether or not winemaking belongs in Africa at all is a philosophical debate best left for a late night over numerous bottles of wine... but if winemakers are to produce wines that are genuinely and distinguishably African where will they start? I believe that three factors, which are already bubbly at the industry’s surface, will give rise to future wines being made in a way that will clearly have African written all over them. These factors are: the aggressive promotion of Pinotage, the question mark placed over barrel-fermentation by Eben Sadie and the incorporation of Rooibos in wines. 

The promotion of Pinotage 

It’s not a giant leap in reasoning to realise that in order to create a truly African, and I really mean South African, wine means incorporating elements that are unique to South Africa (and the African continent). In this context one word comes to mind: Pinotage. As South Africa’s unique grape cultivar it receives a decent amount of financial support, which means of the varietals grown in South Africa, we should expect the most innovation, experimentation and evolution happening with Pinotage. 

Pinotage came about in 1925 by crossing Pinot Noir with Hermitage (Cinsaut). It has proved to be hardy and relatively disease-free. Although the quality of Pinotage took a knock in the 1980’s and 1990’s, financial backing by one of SA’s largest banks (ABSA), has meant that Pinotage has enjoyed quite a bit of limelight in the last decade. Winemakers are motivated to experiment with Pinotage. This has resulted in a real boost for the promotion of the varietal as a whole, but it has also driven exciting changes in style. Pinotage has evolved and reinvented itself, and currently it’s available as blanc de noir (by Mellasat), MCC (L’Avenir and Laibach, both Stellenbosch) and rose. Not to mention all the chocolate and coffee flavours that are satisfying the palates of entry level wine drinkers. 

2015 has also been a special year for Pinotage. The inaugural Biltong and Pinotage festival was held at L’Avenir Wine Estate in Stellenbosch (incidentally the only wine estate to have a tasting space, it’s Pinotage Lounge, dedicated to the solely varietal) where the top producers showcased their interpretations of the cultivar. This year also marked the 20 year anniversary of the ABSA Top 10 Pinotage Competition, an annual event that draws more entrants every year, and lately not only from South Africa. 

Further initiatives to promote Pinotage are the Cape Blend competition (requires that a blend contains a minimum of 30% and a maximum of 70% of pinotage) and the date 10 October is International Pinotage Day. In an interview in April this year with Pinotage association representative Duimpie Bailey, it was alluded to that scientific progress in cloning the cultivar is being made at Stellenbosch University. 

With so much going on in the world of Pinotage, it is definitely the varietal everyone should be watching in the future. 

The question mark over barrel fermentation 

Eben Sadie (Sadie Family Wines), probably South Africa’s most famous (and eccentric) winemaker at present, said during a tasting, that he believes that when you plant your bottle of (an example) Italian wine in the middle of the table and open it to drink it, that spot has to become a small piece of Italy. He is of the very convincing opinion that wine should show a representation of the place it was made ­ in a bottle. From this point of view, he goes on to make the case for no longer contaminating SA wine with French Oak barrels, as the use of the imported oak would mean (albeit philosophically) putting a piece of France in an otherwise African wine. The usual alternatives to oak would be steel or cement tanks, but Eben Sadie, ever at the forefront of revolutionising wine, is looking into locally made clay pots. Only time will tell if he will succeed with his clay pots, but if history and his reputation is anything to go by, I’d say: watch this space. 

The incorporation of Rooibos 

Aspalathus linearis (commonly known as Rooibos) is unique to the Cape floral kingdom. It is a herb and has long been known for its health benefits. Recently, in 2014, Audacia, a red wine boutique winery in Stellenbosch, launched the first ever Rooibos wooded wine, a Merlot. Soon after it released a Shiraz and a Cabernet Sauvignon, made in the same way. 

The process of incorporating Rooibos in the wine involves adding Rooibos chips to the wine and exposing the juice to the Rooibos wood in this manner for some months. After which the wine is filtered and then fermented in the usual way. 

Audacia’s partnership with KWV, in a venture to patent its rooibos wooded technology, is sure to bring massive changes to the wine industry in South Africa. The incorporation of Rooibos means that the wines do not need added sulphur as a preservative. Considering how quickly we are all being educated about nutrition and health in this information age, the ‘no sulphur added’ combined with ‘Rooibos’, well known for its own set of health benefits, means that Audacia has just carved out a neat corner of the consumer market for itself. This year saw the maiden release of their first rooibos wooded white wine, a Chenin Blanc. 

My first thoughts when I heard about Audacia’s Rooibos wooded wines was: why haven’t they done a Pinotage in the same style? After all, what can be more uniquely South African than a rooibos wooded Pinotage? 

I found my answer on KWV’s website. Their partnership with Audacia has had the benefit of them launching the first Rooibos wooded Pinotage under their Earth’s Essence label. I’m sure that I am not the only wine-lover who is a little saddened that a wine that is so characteristically South African had to be made by a co­op. But then, without their financial assistance, Audacia would probably not have succeeded in developing the technology of incorporating the Rooibos at all ­ and this game changer in winemaking in South Africa would not yet have taken place. 

So what next for the wine industry in South Africa? I think that it’s about time that South African wine industry tried something different in order to make it a country to be reckoned with in the global scheme of things. We’ve proved that we can make wine. We’ve learnt everything we can from best wine producing countries in the world like France, Germany and Italy, and it’s time that we used that knowledge as a foundation, but invest in building something that is ours. Wouldn’t it be something is those very countries sent their winemakers to Stellenbosch and the Swartland to learn about rooibos in wine and maturation in African clay pots? 

No­one can be 100% certain of how South Africa’s wine industry story will play out over the next twenty years; there are sure to be many twists in the plot, but from where we stand, surrounded by innovation and complex lines of philosophy underpinning the winemaking process, one thing is certain: the next chapter will surely be synonymous with exciting times for wine in South Africa.


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