Having recently flown half-way around the world – literally – it was astounding to see the presence of one specific South African wine label at every stop. From Cape Town International, the frenetic bazaar-like space of Dubai Airport all the way to Auckland, New Zealand a bottle bearing a white label with the words The Chocolate Block was encountered in nearly every wine store.
It has been a derogatory term bandied about for some time now. I am referring, of course, to “wine wanker”, two words referring to the type of person inhabiting the wine world who has a penchant for being snobbish, opinionated, sensitive, obsessive, manic and hysterical, as well as general holding a higher-than-thou’ attitude on the subject of wine. There is even a website – www.winewankers.com – to assist in communicating the attributes and contributions of such a type of wine-orientated individual.
During a recent road-trip through the majestic open spaces of the South African Karoo, I was once again exposed to the fact that as a nation we have an alcohol problem that needs dealing with. It was Friday afternoon, and from the town of Laingsburg through Beaufort-West and onto the quaint historical hamlet of Richmond in the Karoo’s icy heart, a fair amount of drinking was being done – or had been committed – by the time I hit town.
In their song “Here at the Western World”, the greatest rock band ever – Steely Dan – are welcomed “with sausage and beer”. But in the real west wine world, chances are you’ll be greeted with chouriço and Portuguese Colares wine.
Colares is the most westerly wine region in Europe. Just ocean-side of Lisbon, this is the kind of place that makes you wonder what the early wine pioneers were snorting when deciding to lay-down vines in this here godforsaken patch of earth.
Anybody asking “where Douglas Green” will be pleased to know that he is alive and well, and living in a retirement village in Somerset West. Douglas Green Jnr, son of the man who in 1942 founded one of South Africa’s most famous wine brands, is himself one of the true living legends of the industry.
“I’ll always see it being an industry of relationships, good people, deals done with a hand-shake, that sort of thing,” says Mr Green sitting on the veranda of his home over-looking an expanse of well-kept gardens. He turns 90 in December this year, and has been around for most of the modern South African wine industry where he has seen it all.
As in all art, nothing can ever be perfect in the wine world. But Alto Estate does come impossibly close.
Location, yes. Alto lies on the slopes of Stellenbosch’s Helderberg, one of the patches of God’s earth that manages to combine spine-tinglingly magnificent scenery with geography and geology that is ideal for the growing of grapevines. It is mountain granite from the Cape’s Fold belt that has been ground down over the past 1,5 million years, iron-rich and red and rocky, and lovely soil for wine vines to get stuck in.
A startling statistic was stashed away in the recent Vinpro State of the Industry report for 2018. With regards to the South African wine market, 85% of all wine sold in the country – retail – was flogged at price-tags of below R48 a litre. Sure, here in the ivory tower of wine writing, competitions, shows, twitter-missives and reams of informed opining there are howls of collective laughter at any wine daring to command below R45 a bottle. Showing just how out of touch industry commentators are with what is actually happening in the market.
For it gets worse.
Just in time for the revived focus on Stellenbosch’s deserved reputation as one of the world’s great addresses for Cabernet Sauvignon, that formidable piece of wineland real estate Vergelegen comes-up with two wines underscoring the region’s status as Cabernet Kingdom in the industry’s Game of Thrones. And vying for the ultimate throne, along with Abrie “Jon Snow” Beeslaar from Kanonkop and Neil “Jaime Lannister” Ellis, must surely be the Night King, also known as André van Rensburg of Vergelegen. He’s just released a new range of single vineyard wines, led by two Cabernet Sauvignons, and they are truly worth taming dragons, tossing dwarfs and beheading neighbours for.
Burgundy breaks you, and I am broken. Slowly, though, just beginning to pick-up the pieces after a head-on collision with the power and the beauty, totally seduced by the devilish-angelic allure of one of the greatest producers from the world’s most revered wine region.
Nothing seems quite the same anymore.
The Cape Winelands’ Indian summer has been heated-up by some frenetic political activity, this being an election year and all. We have had Black First Land First (BLF) folk attempting to occupy Durbanville wine farms, apparently wishing to contribute to the thiol compounds in the Sauvignon Blanc. Those charming ladies from Women on Farms (WOF) marched outside Paarl to object to the eviction of a former cellar worker who had been legally booted-out from an abode that was not his.
This was followed by the WOFs staging a sort of protest at the Stellenbosch Wine Festival which was held at the Waterfront, although this demonstration could more than likely have been fuelled by the nearby KFC having run-out of Chutney Crunch Rounders.
And then this week President Cyril Ramaphosa rolled into Stellenbosch to schmooze a selected array of local farmers, winemakers, businessmen and retired golfers. He had obviously been watching reruns of the Ridley Scott epic move Gladiator where Maximus was told to get the crowd on his side to prevent things going awry, thus the Pres turned on the kind of charm one normally finds pasted on PR consultants wishing to be #hashtagged during wine events.
No land-grabs. Yes, the ANC recognises the importance of the wine industry as a part of South African agriculture ensuring food-security (kudos, Sir) and I, Cyril, personally know the bureaucratic frustrations you guys go through, because I am, too, a farmer. Cape buffalo and long-horned cattle, that is.
The audience clapped, smiled, cheered and beat on empty spittoons.
Neither myself nor my editorial staff were present, but if so the President would have been asked to address the following wine industry related issues:
· Bring Your Own wine to restaurants should be classified a Basic Human Right. This will not only democratise the wine-selection process by ending dictatorial down-speak to customers, but will reinvigorate the vinous retail sector. This is shrinking as in 15% annually. And by not having to fork out another 350% on the inflated wine-list price, restaurant diners will have more to spend on culinary sustenance, leading to an all-round improvement on nutrition and health, which is also a basic human right.
· Make Pinotage the national plant of South Africa. Look, we all like the sight of a protea growing in the wild. But due to the fact that taking a walk among the Cape Winelands’ floral kingdom is these-days about as safe as going to buy a Gatsby in Lentegeur after midnight, most of us can no longer relate to a protea or any other flower growing in the wild. Everyone knows Pinotage, it is a plant created by a proud South Africa in Izak Perold and its multi-edged leaf and tight grape-bunch is aesthetically pleasing. Also, our national cricket team can seamlessly be converted from Proteas to The Red Leafs, while the lady hockey players could be called The Bushvines. The time is now, Mister President.
· Make it mandatory for a national minister of agriculture to learn where the Cape Winelands are, what a grape looks like and that wine is a product of soil, tenure and human endeavour deserving of understanding and support. It provides employment to 300 000 people and is of even more economic benefit to the Western Cape than the Botox, spray-tan and Italian motor-car industries – combined. The superior quality of this thing called wine has endeared South Africa to the international world (outside of Lesotho and Swaziland, even) and wine is a fine thing with which to promote the image of a country and its people. Upon learning this and other valuable insights, a minister of agriculture could at least recognise this part of the South African sector over which he, currently, presides.
· Go wild in promoting a Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon campaign in the United Kingdom, as in now. Fly all relevant winemakers out on your government jet, transport them from the Hebrides to Cornwall to introduce the UK to the brilliance of our Cabernets. This indoctrination will ensure that, come October and Brexit happens, the Brits will be less traumatised, not having to pay 30% more for Bordeaux than they are currently doing. The knowledge that Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon has the depth, complexity and personality to compete with the Left Bank’s best – at 20% of the price – will lead to a stratospheric demand for South African wine, as well as calming the folk from Blighty after the hysteria of Brexit they have been exposed to.
· State Capture is all the buzz, but you are now requested to deploy some Cellar Capture. Former president Jacob Zuma has, apparently, installed an enviable wine cellar in his Nkandla compound, just above the vault used to hide Gaddafi’s cash and to the left of Big Dadda’s Underground Love Room. With the help of those Indian bon vivants The Guptas, this cellar has been well-stocked with thousands of bottles including old Constantia sweet wines, an array of vintages from Meerlust, Kanonkop, Thelema and Le Riche, as well as a mint case of GS Cabernet 1968 and a few bottles of KWV Muscadel 1953. It is vital to relieve Nkandla of these treasures, and bring them back to where they belong, namely the Parliament Wine Cellar.
And then, Mister President, through regular visits to this Parliament Cellar you will realise of what you are sitting in the South African wine industry, and that is a national treasure.
That realisation is all we can wish for.