If you think you’re having a bad lockdown, spare a thought for the poor South Africans who have had to do it without a reliable supply of booze. Strict controls on the sale of alcohol have been in place on and off since 27 March 2020. At one point the ban included goods for export. Madness.
Controls were relaxed again last month but the damage has been done. To see just how hard it has hit the country’s wine producers, I’d recommend reading this article by winemaker Bruce Jack on trade website The Buyer. In it he paints a picture of a country already paralysed by endemic ANC corruption and unable to cope with the arrival of a pandemic. The alcohol ban was a desperate attempt to free up capacity in the overloaded hospitals.
As usual with South Africa, there’s a racial element. Jack writes that the country’s chronic alcohol problem is seen by the government as “a direct legacy of apartheid and colonialism” and the alcohol industry being scapegoated for ANC failings.
You can spend £9-20 and get something unusually good, or go upmarket and get something exceptional
I’ve heard that some producers are struggling to find space for the 2021 harvest which is coming in now because the 2020 wines are still sitting there unable to be shipped. The Cape also depends heavily on tourism and there hasn’t been much of that going on. Jack writes: “The long-term socio-economic devastation it will cause in the wine industry will far outweigh the damage Covid-19 will cause to the same area.” This is currently hitting those at the bottom hardest so Jack has set up a charity to provide relief for rural workers.
It was all so different at the Wines of South Africa tasting I attended a couple of years ago. There was loud music blaring and everyone seemed to be wearing those James May-style paisley shirts which are so bafflingly popular in the wine world. There was an air of palpable excitement that the country’s moment was now.
I have to admit, I was something of a Saffer sceptic. There were some excellent wines, no doubt, especially Bordeaux blends from the old school producers like Meerlust, but always the danger you’d get something with that South African stink. A smoky taste probably caused by virus-infected vines. Then there was the country’s calling card: Pinotage, a cross between Cinsault and Pinot Noir, that can taste of burnt rubber and acetone.
Now I can’t get enough of the country’s wines. So, what’s changed? Damon Quinlan from wine merchant Swig explained: “South Africa has a wealth of incredible old vine material on very special soils that’s only really been recognised and fully appreciated in the last 15 or 20 years. In that relatively short time, led by a handful of brilliant pioneering winemakers, a procession of dynamic, energetic young guns have burst onto the scene.” Those were the young dudes in paisley shirts.
Do your bit to help: drink South African
The new wave wines include southern French varieties like Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah, but made in a fresh crunchy style that’s unique to the Swartland region. But for me the greatest wines are the white blends usually based on Chenin Blanc with Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay, or whatever they’ve got thrown in. They come across like Southern Rhone whites but with a sharp tingle of acidity from the Chenin. The best thing is that from a producer like AA Badenhorst you can spend £9-20 and get something unusually good, or go upmarket and get something quite exceptional.
On top of that, there are great sweet wines. The Bordeaux-style blends are better than ever and I’ve even had some good Pinotage recently. So, do your bit to help: drink South African.
Badenhorst Curator White 2019 (Swig £9.95)
A classic Chenin-led Cape Blend with Chardonnay and Viognier. The fruit is delicious with lemons, apples and bitter pink grapefruit, but it’s the creamy texture and piercing acidity that makes this wine so special. I’ve never had a wine from this producer that wasn’t superb.
Springfontein Pinotage Terroir 2017 (Private Cellar £16.96)
Hugely distinctive wine with candied cherries, violets, vanilla and — yes — a smoky edge, but no banana, sourness, burnt rubber, or any of the other weird things you get in some Pinotage. Gorgeous tannins too. One to give to the Pinotage doubter in your life.
Savage Salt River Sauvignon Blanc 2020 (Swig £17.50)
This is made by one of the country’s most lauded producers, Duncan Savage, and it’s a world away from the big brash flavours of New Zealand. The fruit is citrus-led with peaches and a preserved lemon tang to it. I drank this with some cod cooked with chorizo and it was delicious.
Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2013 (Harrogate Wines £18.99)
A mature Cabernet from one of the country’s best estates for under £20. Where else could you get that? This is all about fresh blackcurrants mingling with aromatic flavours of camphor, tobacco and mint. It shows that South Africa’s old school producers haven’t been resting on their laurels.
Blankbottle Retirement @65 2019 (Swig £27.50)
This Cinsault-dominated blend from the Darling region is one of the most gorgeous wines I’ve had this year. There’s a heady floral spicy smell that just wafts out of the glass. In its sheer fragrance it’s not unlike Chambolle-Musigny. Not long after opening it my wife asked if there was any more of that delicious wine; but it was all gone!
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe