Can South African wine ever compete in the prestige stakes against
European labels? Claire Hu finds out which local wines are creating a
buzz in the country's biggest export market during a gluttonous visit to
I’m in London for what I shall call a detailed field research trip. In other words, I’m spending a lot of time eating and drinking out in what is arguably the most diverse culinary capital of the world. That it hasn’t stopped raining since I arrived hasn’t put me off, although I’ve had to buy a raincoat and a sturdy pair of walking shoes.
London is the centre of the international wine trade and I’m like a kid in a sweetie shop visiting the growing breed of exciting new independent shops. There’s a real buzz around South African wine at the moment, particularly at the boutique premium level. The credit crunch continues to bite, and the wines are increasingly seen as great value for the quality they offer when compared to their more famous European counterparts.
I popped into a Cape Wine launch tasting at the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square, organised by Wines of South Africa, in which the wines were divided regionally and the emphasis was on the tourism experience of visiting the country and farms rather than formal tasting notes.
I was really impressed to meet Deborah Hoggart, the young and passionate co-owner (with her husband) of Cape Klein, which sells only artisinal South African wines, mainly between £15 to £30, directly to private customers. I was curious why they had taken the risk of selling wines from a single country, especially one which is still overcoming a cheap and cheerful image in the UK.
“We’ve been to South Africa many times and found it really hard to get handcrafted wines from the smaller farms over here”, explains Deborah. “We understood that if we were going to get into the wine industry it had to be passion-led, as we weren’t going to get rich doing it.”
Despite this, since launching in October last year, the business has gone from strength to strength mainly because of Deborah’s passion and the quality of the wines. “We’ve been stunned at how well it’s been going”, she says. “When you tell people the story behind the wine and they taste it, you can see something light up in them. We only sell boutique wines we have handpicked, and customers can tell they are better quality than the mass-produced, over-priced European wines we get here.”
The key to their success has been to only sell small-volume, unusual wines with a winemaking personality behind them. Each bottle comes with a tasting note, food pairing suggestion and photograph of the winemaker. What’s really been exciting Deborah have been the innovative and complex red and white blends coming out of the Cape. Her current favourite winemakers include Rikus Neethling of Bizoe Wines, Schalk Opperman of Holden Manz, Donovan Rall and Ian Naudé of Adoro Wines, who blends grapes from across regions.
Stephen Finch of Vagabond Wines is another independent wine retailer whose passion for South African wines was ignited following a visit to the Cape. Around 100 wines are available for tasting in his London store, through the use of special vending machines, and he says Cape wines are increasingly seen as better value than more illustrious European labels.
“A lot of the wine that makes it over here is not the best South Africa has to offer”, he says. “I had a poor impression from the burnt earth and green pepper characters that you can taste in the bottom end.” Among the wines that particularly grabbed him were Eagles Nest shiraz and viognier, some of the more “luxurious” chenin blancs and Paul Cluver chardonnay, although he would be interested in stocking some more of the unusual varieties.
Fuss-free, good value dining is all the rage in London at the moment, and South African wines have a good opportunity to shine as drinkers demand more character for their buck. High Timber restaurant on the banks of the Thames, which is owned by Jordan wines, caters for high-spending City workers who wouldn’t blink twice at spending £100 on a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy. But co-owner Neleen Strauss says people are increasingly switching to SA alternatives, such as Bouchard Finlayson and Hamilton Russel pinot noir which sells for £15 a glass.